Earlier today, I received a private message from a good friend of mine regarding my posting of Ezra Bessaroth's role in facilitating the first step in helping those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law.
First, I want to praise my friend on his choice to message me privately and not engage in a back-and-forth debate on Facebook over this issue; he felt that this would unnecessarily expose me to public criticism. Here’s what he wrote:
“Hi Rabbi. I didn't want to write this on your wall because I didn't want to even imply a public criticism of you, but I have to say I'm surprised given what I know about your attitude toward Eretz Yisrael to see you encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain. Do you need see nothing problematic about that? Isn't Spain the wrong country for Jews who want to add a second citizenship? Has Ezzy Bezzy made a similar promotional push (maybe you have) for its members becoming citizens of Israel (i.e. aliyah)?”
The point is well-taken.
Some background: When my good friends, Joe and Doreen Alhadeff, approached me with news of their involvement in promoting the new law – and having Ezra Bessaroth approved to attest to a person’s Sephardic ancestry – I asked myself whether I wanted at all to be party to encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain.
Over and above the issue of promoting this path (instead of encouraging Aliyah to Israel) there’s the question of whether we should align ourselves with a campaign that tries to redress the wrongs of the past – specifically, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and all that this tragedy entailed. In June of 2014, Rabbi Marc Angel, himself a native of Seattle and a student of Sephardic history posted a critical piece on his blog. In part, it read,
“How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors? Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?....It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages. Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.”
Why promote Spain at all without full teshuva?
Shouldn’t we first prioritize assisting Jews to become citizens of Israel?
My personal response to both questions: I, too, am troubled by the failure of nations – many of them European – to learn the lessons of the past. I too, feel that Spain should show its concern for Sephardim by supporting the State of Israel. For whatever it’s worth, though, I do feel that the public declaration of responsibility for the expulsion from Spain is of significance. Though it falls short of what we would like to see – in my view, it does have some incremental value. It may at least qualify as “Hirhurei Teshuva”….if not complete teshuva!
To my friend’s point: Last time I checked, there is strong basis for saying that we fulfill a Torah mitzvah by living in Eretz Yisrael…and not in Spain. As someone whose offspring and offspring’s offspring presently live in the Land of Israel, and who himself hopes one day to return even if the Mashiach has not yet arrived by that time….I personally spare no efforts in making it a priority to financially support pro-Israel causes as well as assist those who have been victims of Arab terror. I am also a proud trustee of the Samis Foundation, whose meaningful philanthropy works to address some of the core social issues in Israeli society. Our congregation stands at the forefront of the Seattle community in its Israel programming, even in the face of expressed disdain by so-called “progressive” elements in our community who would prefer to see us make room for organizations which overtly and covertly undermine the IDF and the Jewish state……
Our involvement in helping establish Sephardic identity for those interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship should not be seen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of what I’ve written above. The messages delivered in our local Orthodox Jewish day schools, in synagogue shiurim, from the pulpit, in yearly programming - including scholars-in-residence throughout our community – are unequivocal. Anyone wishing to make Aliyah knows exactly where to go and would not only be fully supported - but publicly applauded for making the commitment! (One of my mechutanim is even a Nefesh B’Nefesh counsellor….I have her phone number and email!)
But alas, we live in a very complex age. With all the good work of our Jewish schools, only 5% of Seattle’s Jewish children are enrolled in day-school Jewish education. Intermarriage rates across the country are soaring, and the Sephardim of Seattle and elsewhere are not immune.
I reflect on my own decision, 35 years ago, to become more Jewishly connected. It started with a bowl of chicken soup at the Shabbat table of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pritzker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It continued with Herman Wouk’s “This is My G-d” and Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions.” It could have stopped there, with the soup and the interesting reading…..
For the Sephardim of Seattle and around the world, Sephardic culture plays a huge role in the formation and maintenance of identity. Do I believe that bourekas and bulemas are the essence of Sephardic Jewish identity? Of course not! But do these foods play some role in maintaining even a tenuous link to tradition …. that could eventually blossom into a deeper connection?
Faced with the reality of the Spanish citizenship option for Sephardim, I think that the question for a community rabbi becomes: Is facilitating the Spanish citizenship process a potential portal of entry for less affiliated Jews to open their eyes to the past, to look at themselves anew as a link in the chain of Jewish history? Perhaps the applicants had not grappled with the devotion of those ancestors who resisted the Inquisitor’s threat of death and the commitment to living a Jewish life implicit in this sacrifice. How many unaffiliated Jews have truly meditated upon the evidence of a Divine hand guiding Jewish history both before and after the expulsion?
And so, I feel that the necessary research involved in uncovering the details of one’s Sephardic Jewish roots may well be an eye-opening experience that paves the way for some more profound introspection.
I'm comfortable being a partner in this process.
The situation in Eretz Yisrael over the past several weeks has become nothing short of intolerable. Anyone up-to-date on the news, and certainly those with friends and loved ones in Israel, understands how serious things are. The dilemma of what we, as Jews living in the Diaspora can and should do, seems to resurface on a yearly basis.
A friend of mine emailed me a couple of days ago with a very out-of-the box plan of action. In the course of a few exchanges, I hope I made it clear to him that, though his heart is in the right place, his ideas were unwise at best and counterproductive, even damaging, at worst.
Back in 2005, hundreds of individuals situated themselves at major intersections throughout Israel, handing out orange wrist bands. Why? An effort to prevent the disengagement from Gush Katif. Now, I too, was of the opinion that the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif would lead to Gaza becoming an even more entrenched terror base, but I did not hand out wrist bands in support of the Jewish Gaza residents.
Unable to articulate why I did not demonstrate, I sought the counsel of a good friend of mine. He made the following observation: The Knesset had already much earlier decided to dismantle the Jewish communities; it was a done deal - and all the demonstrators were doing was participating in something that made them feel significant. In fact, he maintained, such demonstrations actually served the interests of the Sharon government at the time, helping distract citizens from potentially meaningful responses to the disengagement, once it happened: planning for the lack of housing for the displaced people, setting up the psychological and social service framework that the residents would have to draw on after the trauma of losing their homes and communities....
I am concerned that with the recent vicious, murderous stabbing war launched by the Palestinians over the past two weeks, we Diaspora Jews are, so to speak, putting ourselves at the proverbial intersections, handing out orange wrist bands.
What do I mean?
I have overheard many a conversation of "armchair' security experts who believe that they know how, once and for all, to solve Israel's security woes. If only Netanyahu would give each of us a seat on his security cabinet.....(!)
Friends, none of us have any real sense of the intricacy and scope of the security issues Israel faces! As in matters of medicine, Halacha mandates us to defer to the experts in the area, and to their evaluation of appropriate strategies given their indepth knowledge of both their professions and the context within which they find themselves.
If we take a "know-it-all" approach, we also risk mimicking (with the best interests of Israel in mind!) the strategy of groups like J-Street and the New Israel Fund, which work tirelessly - from the Diaspora - alongside radical left wing U.S. power brokers to force Israel's hand to make wildly irresponsible concessions in a region gone mad.
So it cuts both ways: Let's let Prime Minister Netanyahu and his team handle the security of the country that they lead!
Instead, let us focus on unequivocal support of Israel in the local and national media. Let us invest our efforts in garnering the unconditional support of Israel by our American political leaders, be they Democrat or Repubican. This part of the war against terrorism and hatred IS our responsibility! One example of a worthwhile cause is to call out the New York Times on its insidious piece this past week questioning the historicity of the two Batei Mikdash (Temples) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The article was clearly timed to support the falsehoods uttered by the Palestinian establishment; these falsehoods in turn provide the moral basis for stabbing 70 year-old Jewish women at Jerusalem's Central Bus Station! As a result of the pressure by historians and readers throughout the Jewish world, the Times was forced to amend its article so that it could somewhat resemble an objective piece of journalism.
Secondly, as I suggested in a sermon two weeks ago, the way to combat Midat Hadin/strict judgment on a spiritual level - is to increase the presence of Hesed - kindness - in our personal lives. As Jews, we firmly believe that "Hashem Tzilcha Al Yad Yeminecha" - "Hashem is your shadow at your right hand." God relates to us as we relate to others. Since all Jews' fate is intertwined from a spiritual and historical perspective, when Jews in Seattle increase their level and intensity of Gemilut Hasadim, God responds by relating to us in a more compassionate way. This is the secret of stirring up the thirteen attributes of Mercy that are repeated over and over again during the High Holidays: Our sages tell us that God enwrapped Himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur - like a Hazzan - and demonstrated to Moshe Rabeinu how to recite these thirteen attributes of Mercy. Rabbi Nebenzhal explains that it is not the mere recital of these attributes, but the incorporation of them into our daily lives, that ultimately matters.
May the coming days, weeks and months see the eradication of evil, and may we merit to play even a small role in the transformation of our broken world.
The discussion around Spanish passports for Sephardic Jews is heating up. For Rabbi Marc Angel's blogpost on the topic click here:
This coming week's Perasha, Shelach deals with the theme of leadership, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It's June, 2015 and I find myself in a position of religious leadership in the Seattle Jewish community. As Jews, the fate of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel is always at the forefront of our minds. Yet, like the Children of Israel in Perashat Shelach, we, too, can be negatively swayed by our often well-intentioned leaders: rabbis, professors, intellectuals to sign on to ideas, philosophies and organizations that can easily mislead, misinform and demoralize us.
As someone concerned about the direction of our community, I've decided… to break my silence!
Last week, a number of members of the Jewish community were sent an invitation to "a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders, and clergy with Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence and Ben Murane of New Israel Fund". It was to be held at Herzl Ner-Tamid.
Strangely, this event has now been rescheduled: Instead of being a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders and clergy, it has morphed into a community-wide event. Instead of being hosted by Herzl Ner-Tamid, it's now at Temple Beth Am.
Others may be better-versed in the details, but suffice to say that there was a strong response within the rank-and-file and lay leadership of Herzl that insisted that the congregation cancel the event.
Those who brought their pressure to bear identified with the conclusions of Matti Friedman, who spoke eloquently at last week's Thursday night talk at Temple de Hirsch.
During his presentation, Friedman, who identifies as politically liberal, articulated why "Breaking the Silence's" mission and method falls outside the parameters of accepted "pro-Israel" activism.
His talk summarized the approach he's taken in the press; referring to BTS's "report" on last summer's Gaza War, Friedman writes: "Professional journalists looking at this report, and at similar reports, should be asking (but aren't, of course): Compared to what? IDF open-fire regulations are lax – compared to what? Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province? ... If Israel is being compared to other countries in similar situations, we need to know what the comparison is. Otherwise, beyond the details of individual instances the broad criticism is meaningless."
Particularly compelling is Friedman's observation that despite the fact that BTS describes itself as an organization of Israeli veterans trying to expose Israelis to the nature of service in the territories, so that it can have a political impact on Israeli society, ".. it's a group funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave. They are not speaking to Israelis, but are rather exploiting Israelis' uniquely talkative and transparent nature in order to defame them….. Any group genuinely fighting for the character of Israeli society should do so in Hebrew, which is the language that Israelis speak -- and only in Hebrew. If you're expending a great deal of energy and money translating your materials into English and speaking to foreign reporters, as we’re seeing Breaking the Silence do right now, I think it's fair to ask what, exactly, you're up to."
Introducing NGO Monitor
NGO Monitor is a Jerusalem-based organization that has as its mission "to generate and distribute critical analysis and reports on the output of the international NGO community for the benefit of government policy makers, journalists, philanthropic organizations and the general public." The express goal of NGO Monitor is "to end the practice used by certain self-declared 'humanitarian NGOs' of exploiting the label 'universal human rights values' to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas."
NGO Monitor's International Advisory Board includes, among others: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Col. Richard Kemp, Prof. Elie Wiesel, Dr. Einat Wilf, Prof. Ruth Wisse and R. James Woolsey.
NGO Monitor's Assessment of The New Israel Fund
This week's BTS-Temple Beth Am event is sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF). What does NGO Monitor have to say about the New Israel Fund?
"Founded in 1979, the Mission Statement of the New Israel Fund is to help 'Israel live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel'
"NIF's funding guidelines declare that it will not fund organizations that '[p]articipate in partisan political activity'; 'advocate human rights selectively for one group over another'; '[e]mploy racist or derogatory language or designations about any group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation'; or '[w]ork to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel.'"
Despite the above assertions, the NGO monitor has found that NIF "continues to fund political advocacy NGOs that are active in international and divisive campaigns that contribute to BDS and the demonization and delegitamization of Israel." (Italics mine)
As an example, notes the NGO Monitor, "a number of NIF-funded NGOs have been active in repeating unsupported allegations of 'deliberate, systematic, and widespread targeting of Palestinian civilians'; 'war crimes and crimes against humanity'; 'grave violations of international humanitarian law,' and similar claims regarding the 2014 Gaza war, as well as claiming that internal Israeli investigations fail to meet international standards. Such allegations are central in efforts to justify international intervention, including ICC prosecutions and unprofessional UN reports."
In light of this week's BTS event, it is relevant to cite the NGO Monitor observation "that NIF grantee 'Breaking the Silence'makes repeated allegations of 'war crimes' and 'violations of international law.' Despite claiming to address Israeli society, BtS’ lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including appearances in Europe and the United States. (Italics mine)
NGO monitor goes on to report that NIF funded NGOs were featured centrally in the discredited Goldstone report, which focused on alleged Israeli “war crimes” in the 2009 Gaza war. The report referenced B’Tselem more than 56 times; Adalah, 38 times; and Breaking the Silence, 27 times.
The advertisement for this week's event asserts:
Regardless of one's own perspectives on the Occupation, we are bound by Jewish values to hear these courageous young soldiers. And we must ask what we're doing to ourselves when we resist painful topics and respectful discourse.
There is of course a distinction between education and informed discourse, on the one hand - and propaganda on the other.
Matti Friedman writes:
"The activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. It’s propaganda. That’s fine if you understand what you’re reading, but I suspect most people don’t."
The EB Discretionary Fund has been making an impact both within our community and on Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. Recently, we had the opportunity to offer a modest donation to the
Comunidad Hebrea "Adath Israel" de Cuba. Today I received this email:
Dear Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers :
We are very grateful for the help that we received from you. The economic situation in Cuba is everyday worse and we try to give everyday breakfast, lunch and snack free for all the people. The best food that they get is what they eat here. Every thing that you can bring is important and we know that we are not alone in the world we have our brother in the entire world.
We are very grateful and we hope to see you in Cuba.
Yacob Berezniak H.
Dear Members and Friends of EB,
By now, you have surely heard about the terrible tragedy that struck a Jewish family in New York this past Shabbat. The Sassoon family of Brooklyn, who had just moved to the United States from Israel a year ago, lost seven of their eight children in a horrible fire that began in their kitchen with a Shabbat hotplate. The tragedy is unfathomable and it personally took me two days to begin to digest what has befallen the family. I was so numbed by the tragedy, I could not even begin writing this letter.
Aside from grieving alongside the parents and remaining daughter - identifying with the trauma of the family, it is incumbent upon us to learn some lessons from the incident and apply those lessons in our own lives. It is in that spirit that I write you today.
As we approach Passover, the issue of how to both run our kitchens in keeping with halacha and custom - and ensuring the safety of our families - demands our attention.
Let me restate the obvious: Pikuah Nefesh - the saving of a life - pushes aside the restrictions of both Yom Tov and Shabbat! Even a possible danger to life - "safek pikuah nefesh" - overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat and Yom Tov. Anything that must be done to save a person from danger is not only permissible to do, but is an unequivocal mitzvah to do!
That said, not every situation is considered a danger that pushes off Shabbat and Yom Tov; for less urgent situations, like a sprained ankle, or an upset stomach, there are different guidelines. Feel free to contact me for advice in such situations. Those who end up traveling on Shabbat or a Yom Tov to a hospital or clinic should also be aware of proper procedure once the urgent situation has been dealt with; I am also available to discuss these situations at your convenience.
A colleague of mine sent a list of recommendations out to his congregation. I have reprinted his recommendations following this letter.
Wishing you a Pesah Alegre and a Happy and Kosher Passover!
A partial list of recommendations by Rabbi Akiva Males
1) Each floor of our homes should have at least one smoke detector
2) Each home should have at least one carbon monoxide (CO) detector near the sleeping areas (please ensure all smoke / CO detectors are in working condition)
3) The batteries in those detectors should be tested / replaced whenever the clock is changed
4) Every home should have a simple-to-use and highly accessible fire extinguisher on each floor
5) Create and familiarize your family with a fire emergency plan
6) Shabbat / Yom Tov candles should be lit in a safe place (i.e. on a sturdy and non-flammable surface, away from curtains, out of reach of children / pets, etc.)
7) If gas stoves / ovens are left on, a kitchen window needs to be left open a few inches to provide ventilation (thereby avoiding potential CO poisoning)
8) Electrical appliances (i.e. hot water heaters, crock pots, hot plates, etc.) should be UL listed
9) Extension cords should not be used for kitchen appliances
10) Only 'heavy-duty' electrical timers should be used with kitchen appliances
11) In all emergencies, do not hesitate to call 911
RCA Announces Committee To Review Conversion Process
Committee Reflects Cross Section of Community, Including Women and Men, Converts, Mental Health Professionals, Rabbis and Other Professionals
Oct 29, 2014 -- The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) today announced the members of a committee that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses. The RCA committed to forming this committee following the recent arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, DC, which brought to light the need for a thorough review of GPS to identify changes that will ensure a more effective and appropriate conversion process.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky, President of the RCA, named the following individuals to the committee:
Mrs. Evelyn Fruchter, a convert to Judaism and an attorney specializing in litigation;
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin (chair), Honorary President of the RCA and Rabbi of Ahavath Torah, Englewood, NJ;
Mrs. Abby Lerner, educator and teacher of family purity laws;
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, New York, NY;
Mrs. Bethany Mandel, a convert to Judaism, former staff member at Commentary Magazine, and freelance writer who recently authored a column entitled, “A Convert’s Bill of Rights”;
Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din, Chicago Rabbinical Council; Dayan, Beth Din of America; and Chairman, GPS;
Mrs. Bracha Rutner, Yoetzet Halacha (advisor in Jewish law) for the Riverdale, NY and Washington, DC communities;
Mrs. Shana Yocheved Schacter, CSW, a psychotherapist in private practice;
Rabbi Yaakov Shulman, Rabbi of Congregation Talmud Torah, Brooklyn, NY who is an experienced member of a rabbinic tribunal for conversions;
Rabbi Adam Starr, Rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, GA;
Rabbi Kalman Topp, Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.
“Our hearts continue to go out to those victimized by the unconscionable actions of a Rabbi they trusted in the conversion process,” said Rabbi Matanky “The RCA recognizes the inherent sensitivities and vulnerabilities involved in the conversion process and will do all it can to ensure that such victimization will never be repeated. We believe the formation of this committee, reflecting a cross section of our community, is an important first step in this regard.”
Rabbi Goldin commented on the committee’s mandate, “The RCA continues to believe that a national network of conversion courts remains in the best interests of the Jewish community in general and potential converts in particular. It is clear, however, that the current structure of GPS requires a thorough review and enhancements to avoid future abuses. Our committee will look carefully at a wide range of matters including: the standardization of conversion procedures, the intake system, safe processes for potential converts to voice complaints and discomfort with their experiences, communications of Bet Dins’ expectations of potential converts and oversight of Bet Din operations, among others. We are determined to be clear of vision and bold in action in order to properly serve the important community of converts.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, added, “The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the convert. Individuals who choose to join the Jewish community are to be admired and treated with the utmost respect. The RCA will not rest until we fulfill that commandment to its fullest extent.”
The committee will begin its deliberations immediately, will report its findings to the RCA Executive Committee by January 31, 2015, and will make its recommendations public thereafter.
By now, many of you have read the reports of a prominent Orthodox rabbi on the east coast who has just been arrested on voyeurism charges. Although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, these accusations are very grave, and our hearts and thoughts are with victims of such activity and with the rabbi's family and community.The Hilul Hashem/desecration of G-d's name brought about by the charges themselves is also very severe. All of us, as committed Jews, should feel the pain.
Despite the somber turn of events, I would like to wish the EB and entire Seattle Jewish community - Mo'adim Lesimha. Let us rejoice in Sukkot as it draws to a close and welcome in Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah!
In memoriam of Rabbi Avraham Shalem z”l, spiritual leader of Ezra Bessaroth 1959-1962. The following is a translation of an article published in the Iyar 5723  edition of the Sephardic Torah journal Kol Sinai. At the time, Rabbi Shalem had visited Eretz Yisrael to place his son in Yeshiva, and expressed his desire to return to the Holy Land during that visit. In an effort to help him find a new position, the editors of Kol Sinai decided to write-up and publish a short summary of his accomplishments up to that point.
[Avraham Shalem] was born in Jerusalem in the year 5688 (1928) to his father Rabbi David Shalem (may G-d protect him and grant him life), a beloved figure in Jerusalem who served as a soldier in the first Judean battalion in WWI, and who took an active part in the defense of Jerusalem during the riots of 5685. He was known as an active public advocate to promote Torah and its students. He was very active for Yeshivat Shaare Zion, which was founded by Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory. The Shalem family was well known for generations as a family of famous rabbis and lay leaders in the great Jewish community of Salonika, Greece.
After young Avram completed his studies in the Mizrahi (Zionist) Talmud Torah, his teachers recommended that he continue his studies at the “Seminar leMorim Mizrahi” (Zionist Teacher’s Seminary). But his father opposed this and brought him to Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory, and told him that his wish was that his son should continue in the rabbinic tradition of his family and fill the dwindling ranks of Sephardic rabbis.
The Chief Rabbi happily accepted the child and admitted him into Yeshivat Shaare Zion, at whose helm stood Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem.
With sacrifice and dedication he devoted himself to his studies, and was conferred rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Waldenberg, the chief rabbinate and Rabbi Uziel, and Rabbis Hizqiyah Shabbetai, Shalom Azulai and Yaakov Ades. After a year of exams and service at the Sephardic high court of Jerusalem, he was conferred as a judge by the Chief Rabbi. At that time he was also ordained at the institute of supplement for yeshiva graduates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization headed by Rabbi I. Berman. At the same time, he served as a teacher of Talmud and professional religious service at the Talmud Torah Or Hahayim in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the field corps and helped defend the Holy City [of Jerusalem].
The Sephardic congregations of Peru turned to the chief rabbinate and the Jewish agencies to send them a rabbi that would lead these congregations that stood at the verge of acculturation and assimilation. Chief Rabbi Uziel selected the young, dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem for this position and rescue mission. In those days, the Sephardic lay leaders in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv arose to choose a Sephardic rabbi for the emerging community of Ramat Gan. This choice fell upon Rabbi Avram Shalem, and a struggle ensued between Peru and Ramat Gan as to which would claim Rabbi Shalem. The primary advocate to bring Rabbi Shalem [to Ramat Gan] was Mr. Avraham Recanti, an MK of the first Kenesset and a leader of the Sephardic community. However, Chief Rabbi Uziel stressed the importance of mission work in the Diaspora and combatting assimilation over that of being a rabbi in Ramat Gan, and also that a Hillul Hashem should not be caused in the eyes of the community leaders in Peru, who chose the venerable Rabbi Avram Shalem.
And so the Chief Rabbi told him as follows, “You should embark on this mission for the sake of the Jews who cry out to be saved from acculturation. And when your contract ends in five years, you can return to Israel and choose any number of positions”.
At the end of the year 5710 , Rabbi Avram Shalem left to administer as the rabbi of the Sephardic community of Peru. In the capital city of Lima he accepted the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of all communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic. After some months, a unified community was organized for all matters of shehita, mikva’ot, burials, etc. The Rabbi [Shalem] was in constant contact with Chief Rabbis Herzog, Uziel and Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank to inquire about some of the more pressing questions that arose. As well, the Rabbi took the entire responsibility of Jewish education in the community schools, and his success was great, as many of his students were accepted to yeshivot, and many were sent to the large yeshivot in New York, among them Yeshivat Torah Vodaath, Yeshiva University, and others. He also brought back many families to Judaism and prevented intermarriage and assimilation and did much for the sake of Torah and Israel. For a number of years he served as an associate director of the World Zionist Organization, and traveled to the outer suburbs on behalf of the UJA. In those days, before there was an Israeli embassy in Lima but rather just an honorary consulate, the Rabbi contributed to diplomatic efforts and was in correspondence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
When he came to Lima, an epidemic of intermarriage plagued the community and it was in danger of acculturation and assimilation. The Rabbi succeeded in saving dozens of families from acculturation and brought them back to leading faithful lived of Torah and mitzvot. He led a forceful campaign for Torah education, mikva’ot and family purity and kashrut. There were a number of parnassim of the community who were angry about this. But the Rabbi, with his personality and skillful direction, succeeded in his efforts, and after seven years of work, he left the community on a solid and robust Jewish footing and he left his position to a graduate of Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Rabbi David Dayan, who continued with force and dedication to strengthen Torah and mitzvot in Peru.
In response to an offer from the great Sephardic synagogue “Yehuda Halevi” in Mexico, he left to lead that congregation. But because of differences of opinions involving fundamental Torah issues, as he saw that this congregation had strayed completely from Jewish law and tradition and was unwilling to correct its crooked ways, he resolved to leave them and went to Congreagtion Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle, WA in the US. There he joined the work of the rabbis of that place, and at his initiative, a Bet Din comprising the four Orthodox congregations was founded, a va’ad of kashrut, a special va’ad of education and others. In the year 1961, when a crisis [concerning the legality] of ritual slaughter arose throughout the US and it was in danger of being harmed, it was the State of Washington that scuttled this effort, thanks to the organized efforts of the rabbinate there, under the diligence of the dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem, who succeeded in influencing important politicians, chief of whom was the governor of Washington who granted Rabbi Shalem the privilege of presenting before the Senate an argument for the defense of Jewish law. This achievement also encouraged other communities and states to continue to fight this, and the proposal was abolished. Messages of encouragement came in from all rabbinic organizations, as well as from Rabbi Soloveitchik and others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the grand rabbi of all Chabad chassidim throughout the world, endeared him and one of his meetings with him lasted a number of hours. A rare thing that demonstrated the appreciation that the great leader of Chabad had for Rabbi Shalem was the fact that he continued his correspondence with him and advised him in congregational matters.
The Sephardic Jewry in Mexico previously was led by Rabbi Mordekhai Atiyah as head rabbi of the community, and he did much toward its Jewish education, but he returned to Israel after some years in the rabbinate. These communities were thus left without a spiritual pastor, so they searched for a prominent spiritual guide and they sought out Rabbi Shalem.
Some time passed and a request came from the prominent “Congregacion Monte Sinai” of Mexico to become their head rabbi. A pointed and difficult struggle erupted between Seattle, WA and Monte Sinai, Mexico. In this pitched battle, the Mexicans won the upper hand and they gained the privilege of Rabbi Shalem, and in the month of Shevat, 5722  he became the head rabbi of the Monte Sinai Sephardic congregation in Mexico. In short time, he worked in cooperation with the Ashkenazic community of the place and formed a central rabbinate in Latin America, under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Hershberg, and Rabbi Shalem was chosen as its Vice President. This organization joined and coordinated the services of the communities of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico. This center oversaw the rabbinic and educational efforts throughout Central America and Caribbean, and in the past year, they sent certified shohetim to Guatemala and Venezuela. In Mexico itself, the center took care of issues with kashrut and established a unified bet din for the three congregations that judged on matters of kashrut and marriage.
The school of the Monte Sinai congregation counts almost 600 students, and here too the rabbi assumed responsibility for educational matters, and he raised its Torah and educational grounding to a very high level. In addition to this, there is a Talmud Torah and Yeshiva in the evening where close to 30 students learn under the guidance of Rabbi Shalem.
Throughout the years of his rabbinic service in the Diaspora, he did much to aid the Torah and charitable institutions in Israel. Chief among them is our great Yeshiva, Midrash Porat Yosef, Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Chinuch Atzmai, Torah U’mlacha Shel Hamizrachi, orphanages, the educational network Chanoch Lena’ar, Torah Vodaath and tens of other institutions and yeshivot. In the past year, he became the president of Israel Bonds in Mexico, the rabbi’s house being the address for all emissaries.
The rabbi is proud that after years of hard work and toil, he merited helping his esteemed congregations to be free of intermarriage, to love Torah and its students, and whose generous hands are extended to strengthening and supporting the bastions of Torah in Israel. These are the congregations of Monte Sinai and Zedek Umarpe, where prominent men stand at their helm and greatly help in outreach efforts in their congregation, to teach them about Torah, their faith, and mitzvot.
Many stories abound of the deeds and efforts of this young and dynamic rabbi, and it has been 13 years that he has wandered throughout the streets of the Diaspora to save Jews from apostasy and assimilation. The time has come for the young rabbis of Eretz Yisrael to take the place of this great rabbi so that he could return to his home, his family and the land to which his soul is drawn, where last month he came to Israel to enroll his eldest son in yeshiva; at which time he strengthened his resolve to return to his heart’s desire – to the sacred air of our Holy Land. Is it not fitting that the Chief Rabbinate and Office of Religious Affairs and mayors of Israel, whose Sephardic congregations are vacant without a spiritual leader, should choose this dynamic and active rabbi that he should return to lead as a chief rabbi of one of the cities of Israel? Indeed it is proper that those who have power to decide should give precedence for these positions to those rabbis who fulfilled their service and missions in the Diaspora. By doing so, it would encourage and strengthen the will of our young rabbis to leave to the Diaspora and save our scattered, acculturated and assimilated [brethren].
There is not enough space to contain all the details of the deeds and qualities Rabbi Avram Shalem, who is an erudite speaker, whose audiences include speakers of a number of languages including, English, Spanish, Castilian [Ladino] and others. He is a man of learning and deed, of pleasant manner; a man of the people who knows how to chastise them and raise them upon the pedestal of faith Torah and mitzvot. Most of all, “his fear [of Heaven] precedes his wisdom”.
It is our hope for Rabbi Avream Shalem, that G-d should grant him health and long life to continue his wonderful work in the Diaspora, and soon he should return to Israel to assume the leadership as a rabbi of one of the cities in Israel. Well done!
I received the following email from our good friend Eugene Normand after the publication of my article in the Va'ad newsletter (the previous post) Reprinted with Eugene's permission:
I just read your Dvar Torah on the Vaad page, “A Rededication is in Order” and want to complement you on it. I like the way you wove in some of the underlying ideas of the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform Jewish movement in the US with parshat Hukat. I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, but didn’t know about the amended version of it that came out more than 110 years later.
At SBH I have made it a practice on the jahrzeit of one of my parents to give a biographical sketch of a prominent Jewish personality, one who most people may not know too much about. My father’s meldado is two days after Shavuot and this year, just a few weeks ago, I spoke on Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes, minister of Shearith Israel in New York from about 1878-1918.
Rev. Mendes was very much aware of the Pittsburgh Platform and the challenge it represented, which was one of the reasons that led him to found two important Jewish institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU). The JTS was established in 1888, and it opened up as an institution for training Orthodox rabbis, its first graduate was Rabbi Joseph Hertz. However, within ten years it veered off (especially after Solomon Schechter arrived) and so Rev. Mendes dropped his support of it. You might say the Yeshiva Universality was a more successful follow-on institution to JTS that got it right and kept to its original principles.
In about 1898 Rev. Mendes, along with his cousin, Rev. de Sola, the rabbi in Montreal, was instrumental in founding the OU and Rev. Mendes was the President of the OU for its first 10-15 years. Although born in the UK, he viewed the Pittsburgh Platform as a great threat to the continuity of Orthodox Judaism in the US, and so he sought ways of strengthening traditional Judaism through new but necessary institutions.
What this shows is that at least one rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue in the US, living through the era of the Pittsburgh Platform, recognized its dangers and did something about it. You use the philosophical side of the Platform to show how to avoid its rejection of traditional values and at the same time strengthen those traditional values.
In the past, we've spoken about the issue of yeshiva students and the IDF draft. At the time, we noted the changes that are coming about as a result of the socioeconomic situation of the Haredim, political changes (ie "Yesh Atid) etc. I firmly believe that if we publicize developments like the one in this video (that I have shared on Facebook) - see my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ravronami.meyers...we will go a long way in integrating our "ultra Orthodox" (don't love that term) brothers into the IDF and thereby into Israeli society as a whole. What a Kiddush Hashem!
My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Hassan, recently posted a piece about the Seahawks game and the laws of Shabbat. You can see it here: It’s going to be very challenging for the community of devout Jews to wait until after Shabbat, but I am certain we will rise to the challenge! Kol Hakavod to Rabbi Hassan for clarifying proper Shabbat behavior.
Which brings me to the broader issue of being a fan. I may have told several people, perhaps even announced publicly, a couple of years ago, that I was planning to discontinue my role as a spectator of professional football. At the time, it seemed obvious to me that NFL football is the modern equivalent of the ancient gladiators.
Add to that the recent findings in the PBS documentary: “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”. Football is a dangerous sport!
To see the full film, click here
Everyone is going to have to answer to his/her actions (hopefully, after 120 years!), and I guess I am going to have to justify my continued interest in football, expressed in my decision to watch healthy portions of NFL games and highlights; I will have to explain to the Creator the additional snacks, be they popcorn or pretzel-based, consumed by yours truly at the two-minute warning.
I will have to somehow reconcile the fact that my own children’s safety (“Put your helmet on when you go bike riding!”) weighs heavily on me, while I exhibit supreme indifference to the 10,000 mini-concussive events experienced by the average lineman in the course of his NFL career…
Being a fan of any professional sport simply does not make much sense. It’s essentially a vicarious experience. When our team wins, we win. For significant streteches of time (how long is the football season, five months?) we experience emotional ups and downs along with our team.
A head coaching job is a major promotion for an offensive or defensive coordinator, both professionally and financially. Head coaches earn between 2.5 and 7.5 million dollars a year. The pride that a fan feels for a team and its coaches is rooted in one’s pride for his city, since the players and coaching staff represent the city. And yet minutes after a Super Bowl, the devotion to the team may well make way for a lucrative offer from a rival city…..
I recently heard on the radio that the current offensive and defensive coordinators of the Seahawks are on the verge of interviewing for positions with other NFL teams.
In a recent article, University of Akron psychology Professor Ronald Levant explained that rooting for sports teams and athletes provides a sense of belonging for fans — known as sports identification. And sports offer an escape from the daily grind of work and life. Rooting for a team also bolsters self-esteem and creates a sense of pride. Even if it is basking in the glow of a single victory. “Identifying with your sports teams is one of the ways you can vicariously experience success, and in real life, success is hard,” said Levant, who specializes in the psychology of men and masculinity. “We have ups and downs, a lot of things don’t always go our way ... especially in this economy.”
In a surprisingly frank comment, Levant said, “I would experience kind of the July thrill and the August depression,” referring to his team’s late-season slumps. “Just because I’m a psychologist doesn’t mean I’m any saner than any of the other people.”
Prof. Allen McConnell of Miami University notes that some who are not sports fans sometimes “pooh-pooh sports fans as boorish (and) people who just live for tailgating or ... for the playoffs. Everyone has those needs, so the person who may pooh-pooh the football fan or the basketball fan may be a vehement supporter of local opera or ballet.”
I’m not sure I completely understand McConnell’s comparison; after all, a supporter of the arts values that art form per se. Sure, football is entertaining; but it’s an entertainment rooted in stirring up an often intoxicated fan base obsessed with hard hits, intense competition and fierce rivalries. Take the noise level at Century Link Field. With all due respect to Prof. McConnell, I don’t remember the last time the Seattle Opera’s audience applause registered as a seismological event.
Here’s wishing the entire community a meaningful and restful Shabbat.
Oh, and yes…GO HAWKS!
Some weeks ago, Daniel Gordis wrote “Requiem for a Movement”, in which he chronicled the decline of the Conservative movement in the North American Jewish community. The full article can be found here: http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/566/requiem-for-a-movement/ Responses from the Conservative establishment came fast and furious. Typical is Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe’s “Not Dead Yet” – published in Ha’aretz. You can read that here: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.559173 (Recall that Wolpe is famous for arguing that the Exodus from Egypt never actually happened as the Torah describes. For more on that, see my blog post from the early fall, “Wondering about Wolpe”, here: http://www.ezrabessaroth.net/leadership/rabbi-s-blog/entry/wondering-about-wolpe)
This past weekend, David Goldman published a superb response to the Gordis article entitled, “Was the Conservative Decline Inevitable?” I encourage you to read it here: http://torahmusings.com/2013/12/was-the-conservative-decline-inevitable-a-baal-teshuvas-perspective/
Tomorrow night, I trek back to Seattle after a brief one-week trip to Eretz Yisrael.
I had the great merit of walking around Yerushalayim yesterday in the area of Sarei Yisrael, the Central Bus Station, Givat Shaul, Bet Hakerem etc.
I had lunch with our daughters who recently returned to Israel to learn at Machon Tal and Machon Da’at in Givat Shaul. Tuition is 10% of a comparable program at an American college.
Before meeting them, I stopped by the local Café Aroma for a drink. Like many restaurants in the Jerusalem area, the standards of kashrut have risen dramatically over the past couple of decades; this has been in response to the increasing percentages of the local population living by these higher standards. That said, the crowd there was a real cross-section of Israeli society, and it was a pure pleasure to just sit in the cafe, amongst my people, sipping on what was unquestionably the best ice coffee on earth.
Although Israelis complained about it for years, the Jerusalem light rail seems to have solved quite a few traffic problems in the city. It’s clean, efficient, reasonably priced, and safe. The bus service from the capital to our children’s town outside of Jerusalem has greatly improved: the condition of the buses, the number of buses and routes, the smoothness of the ride....
One of my rebbes in yeshiva used to tell great [albeit exaggerated] jokes about the cumbersome Israeli bureaucracy. As an Israeli citizen (we lived here for 17 years), when I visit, I usually have some business to take care of during the visit. This time around, I settled matters through logging on to a website or two, a phone call, a fax…no long lines and days wasted being told to come back again with the document I’d forgotten…
We Jews spent 40 years in the desert for uttering disparaging words about the Land of Israel; we must not repeat that transgression. Let these brief words be a "tikkun"/rectification of that sin:
For me, Israel is....intense Torah study, warm people, a spoonful of sweet yogurt, a crisp cucumber..
The Talmud in Tractate Ketubot reports:
When Rabbi Zeira went up to the Land of Israel and could not find a ferry to cross a certain river, he grasped a rope bridge and crossed. Thereupon a certain Sadducee sneered at him: 'Hasty people, that put your mouths before your ears, you are still, as ever, clinging to your hastiness'. Rabbi Zeira replied. 'The spot which Moses and Aaron were not worthy of entering, who could assure me that I should be worthy of entering?'
Rabbi Abba used to kiss the cliffs of Akko.
Rabbi Hanina used to repair its roads.
Below is a letter that we wrote to the local Philipine community last week, in the wake of the devastation of the typhoon. Those wishing to donate to the EB effort, the funds of which are headed to the American Jewish World Service efforts, should log on to the EB site and donate through the rabbi's discretionary fund. Under "Select Campaign" choose "Rabbi's Discretionary Fund" and write a note that the donation is for Typhoon Relief. Thank you!
I"ve spoken on numerous occasions about my distaste for the denomination concept within Jewish life. The latest in a long list is "Open Orthodoxy" which had its origins in the work of Rabbi Avi Weiss in the late 1990's. I wrote earlier this summer about the comments of Zev Farber, who is an alumnus of Weiss' YCT, and his embracing of Biblical criticism. In conversations with representatives of this camp, I expressed my surprise and dismay at their ongoing trek outside of classical Torah Judaism as I understand it.
Well, the story doesn't stop there. Asher Lopatin, who replaced Avi Weiss as head of YCT, recently wrote a piece in Ha'aretz lamenting the Modern Orthodox reaction to "Open Orthodoxy" and its policies. To read the Lopatin piece, you have to purchase the article as part of Ha'aretz premium, so I can't reprint it here.
RCA colleague Rabbi Arie Folger has just written an article pointing out that the Modern Orthodox concerns are not part of a "witch hunt", but rather a genuine response to the developments in the Open Orthodox camp.
You can read Rabbi Folger's article here: http://5tjt.com/its-not-a-witch-hunt-but-the-expression-of-genuine-concerns/