Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Setting the Record Straight About Camp Ramah….

                                       Setting the Record Straight About Camp Ramah….

I have seen news articles and received inquiries from a number of congregants about a meeting between Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the national director of Ramah and 15 alumni of Ramah affiliated with a small fringe organization IfNotNow, a group whose agenda is extremely critical of Israel. 

After learning about the meeting I wrote to Rabbi Cohen the following:

“I am very concerned, as are a number of my members about the articles I have read about the ability of a small group of 15 individuals who belong to a radical organization with an anti-Zionist agenda to subvert the decades long mission of Ramah.  It is hard to tell from the articles what will actually happen, and if things will change… (but) one of the hallmarks of the conservative movement is that since its inception it has been a pro-Zionist movement, and its educational programs reflect this approach.  I hope this is not about to change because of the coordinated efforts of a very small group of people in a fringe group.  One thing I do agree with of the members of “IfNotNow” is that we do need to teach our children about the occupation.  We need to teach them so that they are prepared to refute smearing of Israel; so that they are armed with facts and will not succumb to anti-Israel propaganda.” 

Less than ten minutes later I heard back from Rabbi Cohen.  He wrote, “Our camps have no connection to IfNotNow and will not support any anti-Zionist education. While our older teens and staff members represent a wide range of opinions, some more liberal than others, we do not allow anti-Zionist educational messages. One of Ramah's highest goals is instilling in our campers and staff a deep and enduring love for Israel, and that will not change.”  The articles do not accurately portray the situation. 

In a public statement issued to clarify the position of the Ramah movement, Rabbi Cohen unequivocally asserted that Ramah camps have not and will not engage in any way with IfNotNow.  The statement made it clear that they will not allow their (or any) anti-Israel, anti-Zionist education at Ramah.  Contrary to some reports, they are not partnering with them or with any organization that is not unequivocally pro-Israel.  He affirmed that Zionism is and always will be one of the core principles of Ramah.

I am satisfied with Rabbi Cohen’s public and private assurances that Ramah is not changing course.  I know him, and know that he is a gifted educator who loves Israel and who sees his mission as Director of Ramah Camps to instill that same love in the students who attend Ramah camps.
Should there be any doubt as to the extent of the repudiation and affirmations, one need only look at how terribly disappointed IfNotNow is by the total rejection of their effort to infiltrate Camp Ramah. 

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Congregation B’nai Tzedek,
Potomac, MD
June 13, 2018

Friday, April 7, 2017

Remember: My Sermon of the AIPAC Policy Conference

Sermon at the AIPAC Shabbaton

I was honored to give the sermon at the at the AIPAC shabbaton last week and share with you my remarks, which are especially appropriate prior to Pesah.

I am sure that by now most of you have heard about the biggest deal ever in Israel’s booming hi-tech industry.  A few years ago the popular GPS program developed in Israel - Waze was bought by Google for $1.3 billion.  Just two weeks ago in an even larger deal, Intel bought an Israeli company, Mobileye, a global leader in the development of computer mapping for advanced driver assistance and autonomous driving for $15 billion. Intel hopes its purchase will position it as a leader in the field of autonomous vehicles. With all the hoopla and excitement over this deal and self-driving vehicles many people do not realize that it really is not all that new or that big a deal.

What most people do not know is that Israel had already developed a self-driving car a number of years ago.  The car was able to understand and respond to verbal commands.  If you wanted the car to go to the right, all you had to do was say “Yemina”, and it would turn right.  To go to the left, you merely said, “smola”. 

Since some of the engineers who worked on the car were religious Jews, they programmed it so that in order to activate the car you said, “Baruch HaShem” which of course means, “thank God.”  And it would go forward.  And to stop it, you said, the same thing, only in Yiddish, “Gottza Danken.” 

Everything was going pretty well on the initial test run until the driver got to a treacherous cliff.  As the car was going downhill it began to speed out of control and the driver panicked.  He could not remember the Yiddish command to get the car to stop.  He yelled out every Yiddish word he knew, and even a few curse words in Yiddish.  Nothing worked.

Finally, as the car was about to veer over a cliff, he remembered what to say, and just in the nick of time, shouted, “Gotza Danken.”  Sure enough, the car stopped right at the edge of the cliff.  Feeling thankful and relieved, he sat back and prayerfully said, “Baruch HaShem.”

And that was the last we ever heard of self-driving Israeli vehicle technology -- until now. 

I assume you probably felt proud, when you heard about the deal, as we all should and do whenever something like this comes out of Israel showcasing the contribution Israel and our people are making to technology and safer cars.  Because at the end of the day, it really is about Tikun Olam:  the role Israel and the Jewish people play in making the world a better place.  The pride we feel extends beyond the advances in the realms of science, technology, medicine, the arts, humanitarian aid and other fields where Israel is the leader.  It even extends now to the world of sports, and more specifically, of all things, to baseball. 

Although ranked in 41st  place in the World Baseball classic, (I think it was out of 42 teams, or maybe it was out of 40), Israel’s baseball team beat the Netherlands, 3rd ranked South Korea, 4th ranked Taiwan and perennial powerhouse Cuba. 

Following the surprising, unpredictable and unanticipated success of Israel’s baseball team in the World Baseball Classic some people commented that the last time Israel beat that many countries in less than a week was in the Six Day War in 1967. 

You’ve gotta love a team who shleps their mascot, the “Mentsch on a Bench”, with them wherever they go; who paused to read the megillah in the dugout on Purim; and whose players removed their blue and white baseball caps with their emblem: a Star of David with an “I” in the middle for Israel, and wore blue yarmulkes whenever HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem was played.  The team cheer was “Give me an O – O. Give me a Y – Y.  What does it spell?  Oy!”

The odds against Israel winning the tournament were not very good.  Bookmakers placed them as a 200 – 1 longshot.  No wonder.  Unlike the teams they were competing against, not a single member of Team Israel was currently on a major league roster. The team consisted of career minor leaguers and retired former major league ball players.  All Americans, each had just enough Jewish heritage and connection to qualify to play for Team Israel.

What was it about an Israeli team of non-Israelis that was so endearing and inspiring that it, like the Mobileye deal evoked such a strong reaction and generated such an outpouring of Jewish pride among Jews in America?

Elie Klein, an associate partner at a pr and marketing firm in Israel summed it up.  “While baseball fans around the globe have taken notice of Team Israel due to their surprising athletic prowess, Jews around the world — many of whom have never watched a single inning of baseball are drawn to Team Israel out of deep Jewish pride.  Not because they are Israelis, but because they aren’t.  They are largely American Jews who have decided to wear uniforms emblazoned with the Jewish star and don kippot during Hatikvah, to identify as Jews in a public way.”  Klein said, “Israel’s participation in the World Baseball Classic is about so much more than baseball.”
As a result of their experience, these guys, only two of whom actually hold Israeli passports, most of whom until a trip in January had never been to Israel, and the majority of whom had not even been practicing Jews -- now have not just an affinity for Israel, but have rediscovered, or in many cases discovered their pride in being Jewish, and in the process have evoked pride among us as well.  Israel can have that affect on Jews. 
To qualify to play for a team one did not need to be a citizen of the country one was playing for, but was required to be able to qualify for citizenship in the country they were playing for.  Since they all had some connection through a Jewish parent, they were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the right of return, and therefore qualified to play for Israel’s team.   

In many respects, the rules of the World Baseball Classic reminded us of Herzl’s dream and affirmed the Zionist vision of Israel as a center of the Jewish people, which is why Klein is right.  The phenomena is about much more than baseball.  The fact that these guys were eligible to play for the Jewish homeland, and then were cheered on by Jews in America shows it’s about Israel and about its relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora, and what it means to be a Jew. 

This motley crew took on some of the powerhouses and best teams in baseball and somehow against all odds, beat some tough teams.  It is a paradigm of Jewish history – a story of perseverance, of optimism and determination, a story of David against Goliath, of the Maccabees against the Greeks.  It is the story of the Jewish people.  It is our story. 

Just three weeks ago we celebrated the holiday of Purim, and in two weeks, we will celebrate the holiday of Passover.   (Another great thing about being Jewish by the way – you are never too far away from a Jewish holiday.) 

On Purim, we celebrate the defeat of the archetype arch anti-Semite, Haman who wanted to annihilate the Jews of Persia.  The holiday is especially joyous and festive because the outcome was the exact opposite of what the wicked Haman wanted to accomplish.  The holiday celebrates the irony that he was the one hung on the very gallows he built to exterminate the Jews.  We do not merely celebrate our being saved, but are commanded to remember what it is that he, as well as the Amalekites of that time, and throughout history wanted to do to us.  The Shabbat that precedes Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, when we are implored to remember that the world can be a cruel place. 

The mood of the holiday a week away is very different.  On Passover we are also commanded to remember – to remember that we were once slaves.  The holiday is called zman herutenu, the time of our freedom.  We seek to reenact the experience of slavery and our being liberated by reliving our ordeal, which is why we have such stringent rules about what is permitted and what is forbidden. 

A story is told about a king who reversed his father’s order forcing the Jews to convert.  The town’s rabbi was excited and told his wife.  “Bracheleh,” he exclaimed, “I have great news.  The new king has said we don’t have to be Christian anymore.  We can go back to being Jews.”  His wife let out a sigh, expressing disappointment.  The husband was surprised and puzzled, and asked her what was wrong.  “This was the moment we have been dreaming of and waiting for,” he told his wife.  She said, “I know.  I know.  I can’t be happier, but couldn’t he at least have waited a few more days, until after Pesah to allow us to be Jews again?!”

We are commanded to rigorously observe the rituals of Pesah so we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.  We recall our humble origins so we will have compassion and empathy towards others who experience oppression and alienation.

On both holidays the command is the same.   Zachor: Remember.  On one we remember what the Amalekites did to us, and on one we remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt.  An article Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a few years ago pointed out the contrast and tension caused by the two different types of remembering.

The message of the command to remember on Passover is a universalistic one, reminding us of our history so we will have compassion and not be brutal towards others.  The message of the command to remember on Purim, however is to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert.  The essence of the Zachor of Purim is - do not be na├»ve, for there are those who are out to annihilate you.

In other words, on Purim we are commanded to remember what others have done to us, whereas on Passover we are commanded to remember what we should do for others.  Which imperative, which zachor, command to remember speaks to you? 

In reality, both of these conflicting notions are essential parts of who and what we are, and of how we should respond to the world around us.  It reflects the challenge facing us and our brothers and sisters in Israel: the challenge of living in a hostile environment and the need to be ever vigilant against threats which are real, while striving to maintain humanity, decency, morality and compassion, even towards those who are enemies. 

We need both holidays and the symbolism captured by both kinds of remembrance.  Jewish history demands that we heed both of these voices, conflicting as they may be – reflecting the universalistic and the particularistic message of Judaism.  It is when we recall both aspects of our history that we have a sense of our identity and purpose, and of what we should aspire to be.  So let us back on our past and remember our history and tribulations, and be inspired by the beauty of the nobility of our heritage and its message to learn from our experience our obligation to have compassion towards others. 

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
March 25, 2017
Potomac, MD

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Recent Threats and Scares

The immortal words, “the envelope please”… along with, “and the winner is…” or “And the Oscar goes to…” have captured everyone’s attention and taken on new meaning after the fiasco at the Academy Awards presentation earlier this week.  In one of the biggest mix-ups of all time, an incorrect announcement was made for the Best Picture award. 

Unfortunately for the two people from the accounting firm responsible for the calculations and presenting the envelopes, when La La Land was mistakenly announced, they did not know what to do.  Apparently, once they stopped tweeting and playing with their phones and realized something had gone terribly wrong, they simply froze.  Although there was a protocol in place of what to do should something like this happen, calling upon them to go on stage immediately, and which they had told people about in several interviews when asked what they would do should the very scenario that occurred take place, they stood there and did nothing. 
The real hero of the night was Jordan Horowitz, (an “MOT”, by the way), the producer of La La Land who assertively had the presence of mind to come forward to the microphone and calmly and firmly announce, “There’s been a mistake.  You guys won best picture.  This is not a joke.  Come up here,” he said motioning to the Moonlight team to come up and receive their award as he grabbed the correct envelope and held it up for all to see. 
He was a model of class and graciousness, as well as of assertive action.  Because he acted decisively, he will be remembered positively, whereas the two who stood by and said and did nothing are out of a job.  The truth is, in the grand scheme of things the Academy Awards are really relatively trivial and insignificant.  But I think there is a lesson to be learned from the contrast in the way the two acted. 
And I thought about what happened, believe it or not, in light of the reports about the hate crimes and anti-Semitism that we are reading and hearing about of late.
Since the beginning of this year alone, there have been over 120 bomb threats in 36 states against Jewish institutions.  Almost 100 Jewish institutions, 12 Jewish Day Schools, and 2 ADL offices have received threatening calls.  At least three Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, with twice as many anti-Semitic hate crimes reported by the New York Hate Crime Task Force than the same period last year.  All of this has led Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish organizations to call upon world leaders to take forceful action because as he pointed out, the threat is global and must not be left unchecked.    
Anti-Semitism is not a new phenomenon, which is why it is correctly called, “the world’s oldest hatred.” 
Some suspect that the current political climate and extremist rhetoric moving to the mainstream is the cause and reason for the current spate of anti-Semitic acts.  Others have pointed out that there might not be a rise in anti-Semitism, but just that it is being perceived that way because it is being reported more.  An interesting article I read pointed out that The New York Times ignored and did not report on Jewish cemetery desecrations in years past and questions if the new-found interest in reporting is politically based. 
There was an undisputable and disturbing rise of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel activity especially on college campuses in the previous eight years, with Jewish students confronted and accosted on their way to class and in their dorm rooms.  The anti-Zionist hostility was often accompanied by its fraternal, if not identical twin, anti-Semitism.  Too many were silent and excused the inexcusable, ignored, or offered feeble rationalizations or justification of unjustifiable acts. 
Just because it was wrong to be silent then does not, however, mean that the current acts should be minimized or excused.  Anti-Semitism in all forms is wrong and should be universally condemned regardless of its source or origin, by those on all sides of the political spectrum. 
The heightened awareness of what is happening today offers a unique opportunity for us as a people and as a nation to reflect on what it all means, how to respond, and to evaluate our values. 
On Friday I attended an extraordinary outpouring of support at the JCC in Rockville.  Those who participated included both of our United States Senators, three members of Congress, our County Executive, 7 of the 9 members of the County Council and other public officials.  They were all there to send one common message.  A message first stated by George Washington in a letter he sent in 1790 to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in which he assured the Jewish citizens that America would not tolerate anti-Semitism, writing the famous words, “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
But most impressive about yesterday’s gathering was the outpouring of support and display of unity by over 100 clergy of all faiths and denominations who came in a massive show of support and solidarity with the Jewish community at a time when we are being singled out and threatened. 
As I stood on the stage next to Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Muslim imams, representatives of the Sikh and Hindu faith, and others, I felt deep appreciation for the embrace. 
While the purpose of terrorism or threats is to frighten and intimidate, this was a welcome antidote and sign of unity and affirmation that hatred is not the dominant voice in our community.  The source of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice and hatred stems from stereotypes and preconceived notions of the other.  It occurs when we generalize and do not see the humanity or individualism of those who are different than us. 
And I realized that just as I was so glad to see that we Jews were not alone and that others joined in this expression of support, I thought about how important it is for us as Jews to stand with others who experience similar forms of hatred.  Based on our values and experience we must lead the way and be in the forefront of efforts to oppose those who make similar prejudicial judgments and who intimidate or terrorize members of other faith groups. 
How else should we respond?
As JCRC Director Ron Halber said yesterday, “The purpose of these phone calls is to sow fear and anxiety in the Jewish community, to make us think twice about going to synagogue to pray, to send our children to school, or to use our community centers to access all the extraordinary programs and services they have to offer.”  And the best response is to not let whoever is making the calls succeed.  We do that when we continue to celebrate our faith, when we attend Jewish celebrations and when we reinforce and recommit ourselves to practice our tradition. 
Today’s Torah reading, where we are commanded to build a mishkan, a place of holiness so that God’s presence would rest on earth is especially relevant.  The rabbis pointed out that God told Moses that he would dwell among the people and that His presence would become felt and manifest on earth as a result of our building a sanctuary.   
A debate among the rabbis is recorded in the Talmud and midrash over whether the commandment to build the Tabernacle came before or after the people built a Golden Calf.  I would like to suggest a novel interpretation this morning.   The command to build the Tabernacle, which became the paradigm for the Temple and the model for the synagogue was issued after the battle with the Amalekites, after the struggle with the archetype anti-Semites, who sought to prey upon the weak and to destroy the Jewish people.  The response then, as now, was to build a House of God!  That is why the command to the Children of Israel to build the Tabernacle was issued when it was. 
Let us therefore follow in the steps of those who came before us and like them resolve to build and strengthen the very places those who hate us want to destroy.  Now more than ever, we need to assert the centrality and importance of the synagogue.  Let us come and fill our places of worship, as well as our day schools and Jewish community centers. 
So on this week before the holiday of Purim, a holiday when another villain sought to terrorize and to annihilate our people, let us resolve not to let hatred win and to do what we can to turn back the forces that continue today, as they have throughout history to intimidate us.  Let us stand against hatred and intolerance in all forms and against bigotry towards all minorities and all who are different than us. 
We can either act forcefully and decisively, or we can be like the two who stood on the side of the stage and did nothing.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Congregation B’nai Tzedek

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

“Will You Still Love Me When I’m 64?”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
December 10, 2016

Today I get to ask the question posed by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, and which I first heard when I was the tender age of 14.  Today I ask, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four?”

That’s because today I turn 64. 

When columnist John Start celebrated his 64th birthday he wrote, “As every boomer knows, this is a milestone birthday — as important as turning 21, 40 or 65… Who of our generation doesn’t know the words by heart? ... It’s in our DNA.”

The song was written by Paul McCartney when he was 15 or 16 years old, and polished up many years later when Paul’s father turned 64.  The vaudevillian style song opens with the somewhat frivolous and irreverent,

“When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?”

It may be hard to believe, but when McCartney wrote it the average life expectancy was 63.  As Start wrote, “In 1967 people who were 64 seemed ancient and very square, like Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk.”

On the surface it portrays an idyllic vision of old age: of someone who still wants to party and stay out late, while at the same time being a faithful home-bound couple where one mends a fuse, as his loved one sits by the fireside knitting a sweater.  Working together in the garden, renting a summer cottage, with grandchildren named Chuck, Vera and Dave, they go out for Sunday morning rides in the country.   

“Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?”

The perspective of the teenager from Liverpool who wrote the song is of a young man anxiously and hopefully looking towards old age.  It reflects our mixed feelings and anxiety about growing old.  Like many of us, he wants to have it all.  He wants to party hard and also be a home body. 
Released in the summer of 1967 on the revolutionary and ground-breaking Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, at a time when 64 seemed distant to our self-absorbed generation and we were told not to trust anyone over 30, the lyricist looks wistfully into the distant future.  But beneath the up-beat, happy go-lucky tune and frivolous lyrics lie profound questions which we all confront.  We, like the person in the song want to know if love can be everlasting, if it will endure the test of time.  When he asks, “will you still feed me”, he is asking will I still be cared for when I can no longer care for myself.  The other question of the chorus, “will you still need me when I’m 64” asks if in a youth obsessed society will we still matter as we age? 

We boomers thought we would never get old. And in truth, not everyone who grows old does so gracefully.  The teenager who wrote it asks questions we all think about.  He is really asking if it is possible to find fulfillment, meaning, dignity, respect, love and purpose when one is no longer young?    

Incidentally, I assumed there was no connection to the topic of my sermon and this week’s parasha Vayeitzei until I came across a comment by Rabbi Yaakov Kamentsky that says that Yaakov spent the first 63 years of his life studying Torah with his father before setting out for Haran.  In other words, according to this commentator, Yaakov was 64 when he left Israel for Haran as described in our reading this morning! 

Consciously or not, McCartney may have been channeling the poet King David.  3,000 years ago the king who composed poetry and songs wrote in the Book of Psalms the famous words, al tashleecheni b’et zikna:   “Do not cast me off in old age.  When my strength fails, do not forsake me.”  (Ps. 71:9)  And the verse in Psalms 71:18, really sounds like something McCartney could have written, “even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to the next generation, Your power to all who are to come.”

Those words, “until I declare Your strength to the next generation” may be the key to understanding what our tradition tells us about what keeps us going.  We all want to live a long life, but we do not want to be old.  The psalmist recognizes that we want to remain active and independent, to continue to contribute to society and to pass on our wisdom, knowledge and the benefit of our experience to our loved ones and the next generation.

There may be something innate about the fear of growing old.  I read that in ancient times tribes used to either put the elderly on a raft or throw them off a mountain.  (I think I would take the raft.)  Judaism’s attitude stands in stark contrast to this approach, for it has always valued our elders and seen growing older as a blessing, as something to celebrate and embrace.   

DaVinci, Bellini, Michelangelo, as well as Moses and so many others produced their greatest works and made their most important contributions to society when they were advanced in years.

Rabbi Saul Teplitz wrote, “A person cannot help being old, but can resist being aged.  Age is determined by a person’s perspective.  When a person feels that he has climbed his last hill, reached his last goal, or dreamed his last dream (is when) old age sets in.”  Speaking personally, I feel that I still have hills to climb and dreams to dream, for as the prophet Joel said in words that have always inspired and motivated me, “Your young shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams.” 
Others have echoed Rabbi Teplitz’ sentiment.  General Douglas MacArthur captured the essence of how important attitude is when he said, “You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hopes, as old as your despair.”  This is what Benjamin Disraeli meant when he declared that age is a state of mind more than anything else.  Or as someone once said, “It’s not how old you are that is important, but how you are old.” 

The Book of Psalms tells us, “They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green”, (ibid, 92:14) which I take to mean that there is still much living left, even for those who are blessed to reach the age of 64 and beyond.   

After all, at a time when there is so much that divides us, and when our nation and our people seem to be so torn and divided, one thing we all have in common is that we are older today than we were yesterday.  With the passing of each year the setting of the sun is more familiar, and therefore that much less frightening and uncertain.   

Like Jacob about whom we read today, life involves ascending and transcending the ladder of life, with achievements and disappointments along the way.  The poet Alvin Fine writes about the stages of life that, “Life is a journey, going and growing from stage to stage.  From childhood to maturity and youth to age, from innocence to awareness and knowing; from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to strength,…
From health to sickness, and back, we pray, to health again.

From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding-
From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat-
Until, looking backward or ahead
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, … a sacred pilgrimage…” 

So today when I ask, if you will still need me, and will you still feed me when I’m 64, I hope the answer is yes, and that we all may continue to grow older together on the sacred pilgrimage known as the journey of life. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Speech at First Baptist Church of GlenArden

I still recall the time many years ago when I told my children, now grown and with children of their own, about the story of one of the Jewish holidays.  It might have been Passover, or it could have been Chanukah or Purim, or some other holiday.  I explained to them that there were bad people who tried to kill the Jewish people, but that fortunately they did not succeed.

One of them asked me a simple question.  My child, sitting in my lap, looked up at me and asked with those big innocent eyes all children seem to have, and said just one word, “why?” meaning, “Why did they want to kill us?”

I was at a loss for words.  I didn’t know what to say.  My voice choked and I had tears in my eyes, because I did not have an answer to her question. 

I thought about the history of the Jewish people, about what we had done to make the world a better place, of all the Jews who had made so many important contributions in so many fields and helped improve society in whatever country they lived – and of how the world had treated us in return.  We never asked for anything other than to be able to live in peace, to be able to practice our religion and preserve and pass on our traditions.

I thought about what it was that I was passing on to my children, what they were inheriting, about the glory of our accomplishments, but also about how the history of those who had tried to hurt and destroy our people, how much cruelty we had endured, how much suffering we have known, and how senseless this hatred is. 

Just as there is no justification for racism, bigotry or prejudice, there is no way to explain why anti-Semitism exists. 

While I was not able to explain why this was our fate and destiny, I want you to know – It is precisely because of that experience, an experience that has followed us and persisted throughout history that I stand here today. 

It is because of that experience, of knowing what it is like to be an outsider that I am here today.

It is because of that experience, of persecution that I identify with the persecuted, with those who are singled out and discriminated against. 

It is why Jews have always been in the vanguard of the effort to ensure that all people deserve to be treated equally and why we have historically been allies marching together for civil rights. 

Our Bible and our sages teach us that every single person is created “B’tzelem Elohim: in the image of God.”  The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that whoever saves a single life saves an entire world – or to put it in terms we can understand today – It teaches us that lives matter, that all lives matter, and yes, that black lives, especially black lives matter.

I come here today on a Jewish holiday, Tisha B’Av.  Last night we sat on the floor in our synagogue in a darkened chapel illuminated just by candlelight and read from Scriptures about the tragedies that have befallen us on this day.  It is the saddest day of the year because we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and the loss of our independence in the land of Israel.  From that time in the year 70 until 1948, 2,000 years later, we were in exile and the land of Israel was ruled by outsiders who invaded and conquered the country until we returned and regained our independence.     

And still every day, the tiny state of Israel, a country of only 8 million people, the size of the state of New Jersey must fight for its existence. 

Like many of you I have watched the Olympics and shared in the pride of the victories of our athletes.  One of the most inspiring aspects of the Olympics is to see the intense rigor of competition coupled with respect for one’s opponents.

But when the Israeli Judo player Ori Sasson defeated Islam el Shababy from Egypt, in violation of the rules of conduct and of the sport, the Egyptian refused to shake the extended hand of the Israeli.  And that is a country that is supposed to have relations with Israel, because the two countries signed a peace treaty!

Or Joud Fahmy of Saudi Arabia preferred to forfeit her judo match and give up her dream of competing in the Olympics so she wouldn’t have to face an Israeli athlete in the following round. 

This is typical of the treatment Israelis must deal with each and every day.

Worst of all was the Lebanese team who refused to ride together with the Israeli team on the bus to the opening ceremony.  The Lebanese actually blocked the Israeli team from getting on the bus and said they wouldn’t ride with them.    

So I am here to tell you, that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus!

And just as we have ridden together on the freedom rides throughout the south, just as we have fought together against forces of discrimination, let us ride together and stand up together against bigotry, against prejudice, against racism, against anti-Semitism and against those who single out and discriminate against you and me, against the people of Israel and against people of color.
We will stand together today and forever, for we are all God’s children, created in the image of God.