Monday, July 15, 2013

The Zombie Apocalypse Has Arrived

As a rule, I don’t watch horror movies.  I haven’t seen World War Z, Warm Bodies or the Walking Dead.  I confess that I saw Zombieland – but as a comedy that didn't really count.
As I understand it, zombies are created by some virus or other epidemic that affects the minds of innocent people, transforming them into destructive creatures, that while imprisoned in their own bodies act as destructive parasites that feed on brains, infecting the rest of society and ultimately bringing humanity as we know it to a crashing halt.

While the parallels aren't perfect, today we face our own zombie apocalypse.  Across the world, millions of people are afflicted with a vicious and unstoppable disease that is robbing of them of their humanity and tearing out the hearts and souls of those who love them.

Of course I speak of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.  In my family, two formerly robust and thoughtful people have been progressively robbed of their faculties.  They drift away from us slowly, at first forgetting little things and ultimately becoming disconnected from their ability to think, communicate and attend to their basic functions.  With some people, their bodies continue to age normally – while their minds wither away and their very humanity, it seems, slips away.

Today we have no answer for this plague.  We don’t know what causes it, can’t adequately predict or prevent it and certainly can’t stop it.  There is no Brad Pitt in sight to save the day.  Doctors and researchers work tirelessly to fight the good fight – but for so many the battle is being lost.

I have no pithy conclusion for this short missive.  It could evolve into a fundraising pitch for the Alzheimer’s Association.  But I will leave it at this…

Thursday, July 14, 2011

No Israel Trip This Summer

Since it is now public that I am not going to be the next executive director at JCRC, I thought I might check in and share a few choice thoughts.

I won't be going to Israel this summer.  It makes me sad, but it made no sense to go when my employment status at JCRC is so unclear.  I've made no decisions and closed no doors, but it seemed imprudent to have me invest in new long term relationships.

So what am I thinking about these days?  Well, on the Israel front it is the new anti-boycott law and other measures that, in my humble opinion (remember, not necessarily the positions of my employers) hurt Israel's ability to make the case that it is the bastion of democracy in the middle east.  On the home front, I am looking forward to our trip to California this summer, albeit to take G-Dubbs to his new adventure at Pitzer college.  We will miss him terribly but I am very excited to see what this next chapter of his life will bring.  Pretty banal stuff, I admit.  But family is really the only important thing -- as I have learned far too well in the last month and a half.  

So what does the future hold for me?  Doors are opening and new possibilities await.  JCRC will be in good hands whether I am there or not.  The Jewish people will continue to survive and thrive even if I am not there professionally.  No one is irreplaceable but only a small few are irrepressible.  I am the latter.

So, at 44, it's time to turn a page.  Should I go the easy way out and stick around, or find something in my "wheelhouse"?  Or should I explore the great unknown?  Maybe I can find a way to do both... 

I will be writing more, that's for sure.  I'm going to try to get a few articles published... so you can look for those.  Something will be coming out soon... Just waiting for my co-author to come back from vacation.

Stay tuned... it's going to be a hell of a ride and as Lady Macbeth said "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail."

And, by the way, I'd love suggestions and any good advice you have.

So here I go.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On the Elimination of Bin Laden

We all have our 9/11 stories.  For me, they revolve around two visiting Israeli anti-terrorism experts who were sharing breakfast with me and a journalist friend the morning the attacks took place.  It was one of the only times that I had left my cell phone in the car.  As we left breakfast, I noticed that I had more than 5 messages from my office.  Normally, since 2001 was a year in which the 2nd intifada was raging, I would've thought that something horrible happened in Israel.  On the 6th try, my boss finally reached me and told me about the attacks.  When I first heard her, I thought that a small plane had crashed into the towers.

Obviously, none of us anticipated what happened that day.  And it is an understatement and a cliché to say that it changed our lives forever.

I spent the rest of the day shuttling these Israeli experts TV stations to newspapers so that they could share their expertise with our local community.  Over and over again, they said that the media's response to this was counterproductive.  That showing the pictures of the towers being hit by the planes and the Pentagon burning would further traumatize the population – especially children.  In Israel, they explained that the media coverage focuses on ways that people could find out about the disposition of their family and friends that they could not locate.

Finally, at the end of the day, I spoke with my boss and realized that we had not heard anything from civic or religious leaders about a service or gathering.  We reached out to the Cardinal and the mayor and within 24 hours organized the interfaith service that took place at City Hall Plaza.  25,000 people showed up that day including pilots and flight attendants and employees of American and United Airlines who marched into the ceremony, unannounced, in full uniform.  No one in attendance will ever forget that poignant moment.

Several months later I met someone who had a friend who was killed at the World Trade Center.  Their grief was as raw in March as it had been in September.  I'll never forget those days, oscillating between rage and sadness.

Which brings me to the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

This is an important moment in American history.  While the demise of bin Laden will not eliminate Al Qaeda or end the threat of global Jihad, it sends a message to everyone about the ability of the United States, despite a complex world situation, to act decisively and pursue justice thoughtfully when necessary.

But I must confess that I am disturbed by the reaction of many well-meaning people in our country that took to the streets and celebrated with cheers and music.  I am not one who is predisposed to being circumspect during a victory.  However, in this case, it seems to me that the memory of all those people who've been killed by Al Qaeda over the years required acknowledgment that their lives were the reason that we pursued bin Laden in the first place.  This was an opportunity to mourn and reflect and pray for their families to receive comfort.  It just seems to me that the time for chanting and celebrating is more appropriate at a ballgame then it is for the killing of a terrorist.

It would also been an opportunity to contrast our values with those of the radical Islamists who support bin Laden and his cause.  Often you'll find them in the streets, handing out candy when innocent people are killed.  Hamas today mourned Osama bin Laden and seeks to use him as a martyr in its campaign of jihad against the West.  I'm not drawing any moral equivalence between well-meaning Americans expressing their joy over the elimination of a vicious terrorist but I am hopeful that the next few days will be a time of reflection and memory without the need to resort to slogans.

That was one of the hallmarks of the American response to 9/11 in the 1st place we are angry and were anguished.  So, with our joy today we need to remember just what we were fighting for and the victims that suffered so much at the hands of Al Qaeda.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I know it is satire, but still….

Since taking a look at this video yesterday, I can’t stop thinking about it. Not only because it is hysterical (The Norwegians killed the Salmon), but because it is so sad.  It comes from "Eretz Nehederet," an Israeli political satire program and has spread across the internet among those of us who care deeply about Israel.

As we struggle with making the case for Israel, too often our dialogue and approach resembles that of the kindergarteners in this video.

Fixated on our echo chamber (there it is again), we delude ourselves into thinking that a binary view of the world will suffice in communicating Israel’s message to anyone outside of the bubble. We struggle with the incredibly difficult position in which Israel finds itself and the seemingly endless pressure it deals with. Without “skin in the game”, we have been told for decades, our role is to support and defend. However, we are faced with an interesting dilemma.

On one hand, we experience many of those in the “Peter Beinart” generation who not only do not have “skin in the game” but aren’t connected at all – despite what the “studies” tell us. Despite the miracle of Taglit-Birthright, many of our institutions do not confront the dilemmas of supporting Israel in a complex world. And, certainly do not approach the question of when it is appropriate to question the decisions of one government or another.

I recall one Tisha B’av, at a rally to support victims of terror, I exhorted the crowd to pressure the Israeli government to act decisively on behalf of the people of Sderot region. (I admit that I asked the Israeli Consul, who was in attendance that day, if it would be ok. She graciously agreed). So there I was, in front of hundreds of people, activists and community leaders, urging the crowd to do something I had never asked before – to put pressure on the democratically elected government of Israel to take action on a matter of peace and security. After the speech a well-known community activist and gadfly in his own right approached me and said – “How about that from Ronkin! I toned down my remarks and you came out and finally said it!”

And, do we not have “skin in the game?” No, we don’t fight in the army or pay taxes (however, many Israelis don’t either – but that’s a topic for another time), but we put ourselves out there every day – organizationally and personally – on behalf of Israel, and by extension, the Jewish people. Increasingly, the Jewish people are being held accountable for Israel’s behavior. This is true in Seattle where a wonderful Jewish professional was murdered at the beginning of the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and in numerous incidents across Europe. While I firmly believe that not all critique of Israel is anti-Semitism, I think that we are all susceptible when anti-Zionism leads to extremist rhetoric or worse.

So, where are we today?

Honestly, I am not sure.

Many of us, myself included, have strong opinions about which policy alternative makes most sense. Some of us speak out. Some of us speak privately to those whom we think we can influence. And others keep their mouths shut.
So, what’s a committed Zionist (or Zionist organization) to do? How do we stay relevant and create a space for the discussion. And, more importantly, how do we make a real difference, because ultimately, talk is cheap if it has no impact.
Let’s discuss!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Body Versus Soul

Last week, I returned from Israel and have some thoughts about what I saw and the direction in which the country is going.  It was a trip of great contrasts.  I traveled with 17 ministers and rabbis on a JCRC study tour.  (If you want to learn more about the trip you can read its blog at We toured the Christian holy sites, examine the political and historical aspects of the country and talked a lot about the competing narratives that impede the development of the state of Israel.  Not that it's not developing but imagine what state would be like if it were able to achieve peace with its neighbors.

This post is dedicated to my friend Ari Alexenberg who left JCRC on Friday.  Ari worked since 2008 as the director of the Israel Action Center.  We often discussed trends in the Jewish community as well as Israel.  Last week as he was wrapping up our time together we talked about the root causes of the internal conflict within the Jewish community between our right and left wings.  He described this as a conflict between body and soul – the right being so concerned with our physical security, "the body", that it is willing to sacrifice the ethics of the "soul".  On other hand, the left is so concerned about ethical dilemmas that it overlooks the fact that one cannot have an ethical state when security is constantly at risk.  This of course, is a simplistic view of this complex internal conflict.  If you talk with people on our right or on our left they would argue that one must emphasize one of these concerns or otherwise you wind up with nothing.
While in Israel 2 weeks ago, I had a lot of opportunity to think about this.  We talked with people who represent these 2 approaches – albeit not from the extreme sides of the equation.  What I heard, for the most part, was a basic understanding of the trade-offs that are being made.

I believe that Israel will never have peace until it solves this very important existential conflict within its own community.  That having been said, I believe that there always will be – and should be – tension between these viewpoints.  Without it, I believe the intellectual and moral dilemmas that are being faced will not be adequately addressed.

However something else is of great concern these days.  Throughout the trip, one of our rabbis continually raised the issue of the recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel.  While, in my view, it probably wasn't the best time to raise this issue – given that we were on a trip with non-Jewish clergy – it was on my mind as well as we listened to Israelis, read the press and absorbed what was going around us.  In the time period close to when we were there a woman was arrested at the Western Wall for carrying a Torah.  In addition, I heard several stories about people who are having difficulty marrying in Israel because of issues of personal status including being questioned about their parents and grandparents wedding ceremonies.  Some were even asked for the marriage contract of their parents and grandparents and were told that without them they would not be permitted to be married by Israel's chief rabbinate. 

However last night really took the cake.  I had a wonderful dinner with some close friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary.  Around the Shabbat table we sang a great deal.  And for those of you who know me personally, you know that this is one of my great joys in life – singing the Shabbat songs on a Friday night on a Saturday afternoon.  I believe that it is one of the reasons that I've stay connected to Jewish life for all of these years.  Clearly, I have many questions about ritual and adherence to Jewish law.  However my connection to the music and the ancient songs touches me in a way that I can't really describe.  I guess it is about as close as I get to a spiritual experience – as hard as it is for me to admit that.

During dinner I discovered that the twentysomething son of my friends' guests attended the same yeshiva in.  Israel that I did.  Even though he attended 20 years later than I did, I felt a kinship with the young man. As alumni of the same institution we knew many of the same songs and I listened to him saying and in some ways heard my own voice.  After dinner we had a chance to talk and I found out that his experience in the school was not as good as mine had been.  While I've heard that it moved significantly to the right after I left, I never imagined that I would hear what I heard.  Apparently, during the time that he was there some of the students found a box of prayer books from the conservative movement at the Western Wall.  They took them and asked their Rabbi if it was permissible to dispose of the books since they included the name of God.  To my horror he told them that it would be permissible to burn the books, and they did.

Something in me died at that moment.  Having just visited Yad Vashem and seeing the video of Nazis burning Jewish books I couldn't help but be disgusted and shocked and deeply saddened.  The Rabbi that made this ruling was someone that I had almost a transcendent respect for – even all these years later.  In my view he was a pious man.  During my 2 years at the school I spent many hours sitting in the front row absorbing his teaching, hours at his table in extracurricular study and was even invited to his Passover Seder.  Ironically, I chose not to attend that Seder because at that time, unbeknownst to my teachers, I was dating a conservative girl and chose to go to the Seder with her and a number of her friends.

I was very happy to hear that this young man left the school a short time after this incident happened.  Having been raised correctly – in my humble view – he could not abide being in a place where people so brazenly used their religion in an immoral way, devoid of open-mindedness, and appreciation for what's right and, even if they felt that it was somehow justifiable to act in this way, willing the ignore our tragic history.

To me, this embodies the ultimate desecration of the soul for the body. Or, as my Christian friends might say, the substitution of the letter of the law for the spirit of the law.  These people apparently believe that adherence to ideological purity is so important that it justifies the denigration of others and the most horrific of actions.  To me, burning a book is pretty much tantamount to burning a person.  I believe that there is some aphorism or quote from a famous person that says something to that effect.

Sometimes when I'm in Israel I struggle about whether or not to wear my kippah.  I don't want to be lumped in with these folks.  I don't want people to think of me as intolerant, or boorish, or extremist.  But yet, this is where I come from.

I'm not sure where to go with this at this point. But as I approach the high holidays with my own sense of introspection I can't help but hope that some of these people – particularly the Rabbi – thought about their actions in advance of the holidays that year and knew somewhere in their hearts that what they had done was terribly wrong - a desecration of God's name.

Because of stories like this, the arrest of the woman at the wall, the refusal of Israel's rabbinic establishment to recognize liberal branches of Judaism, and this terrifying anecdote about horrible and amoral actions, I return to my search for the sensible center. 

On Tisha b'Av – the Jewish day of national mourning – we read a poem that begins: "for these things I cry out" – these are the things I cry out about.  I hope someone is listening.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Heading off to the Holy Land

This morning I will begin my journey as the staff lead on JCRC's annual Summer Study tour of Israel.  This year we are bringing Christian clergy - 14 ministers and priests with three local rabbis and myself.  Though I have led many trips before -- back when we called them missions -- I haven't done a clergy trip and I haven't worked with rabbis as my chairs.

This will be a fun and interesting experience and I invite you to join me as I process it...

More later as we head off!

Wish me luck!


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rethinking Germany

Let me state for the record that I'm not a soccer fan.  However, as the parent of a soon-to-be 17-year-old.  I've drawn into watching the World Cup.  Recently, during the England versus Germany soccer game.  I was asked who I was rooting my surprise, my answer was Germany.

Now, I've been responsible for Holocaust education and advocacy for many years during my professional career.I am proud of the advocacy that I have done for Holocaust survivors to receive their claims from German government, as well as the relationships that I have built with them.

So what am I doing rooting for Germany?

Recently, I had the opportunity to have lunch with the German ambassador to Israel.  It was a small group, only 6 of us in total.  We began talking about Europe and its deteriorating relationship with Israel.  This lunch took place during the time of the Gaza flotilla incident.  For many of us at the Jewish community, we were very concerned about how the media and how European countries were piling on Israel.  While all of us were upset about the loss of life, it seemed that Europe had turned a deaf ear to Israel's security concerns and its need to keep weapons and other materials out of the hands of Hamas.

I asked the ambassador why he thought the Europeans were so eager to jump on Israel at this very delicate time.  He noted that this incident was particularly problematic from the European mindset. It highlighted the role of Turkey -- a country that the EU is not anxious to admit to its ranks.  

He noted that Germany continues to play an important role behind the scenes as Israel's only supporter among the of the European countries.  While I have some skepticism about the degree to which this is true, he waxed eloquently about debates in the European Parliament with Germany taking Israel's side.  Whatever the level of support, I believe that he was describing an important phenomenon.

It seems to me that in Europe, only Germany understands the need for a Jewish state.  In contrast to the rest of Europe, (and many people in the United States) Germans regard Jews as a people.  The Holocaust was carried out against a people, not a religious group.  Ironically, Hitler's appeal to race taught the Germans an important lesson.  They have committed to remembering that what their country did under the Nazi regime in some ways, made a Jewish state necessary.  That the Jews are a people apart, no different than the Japanese, Italians or Germans themselves.  A people with national as well as individual rights.

I reject the idea that the Holocaust was responsible for the creation of the State of Israel.  I have pointed out to friends and others that the Zionist movement existed before the Holocaust and there was significant Jewish immigration to mandatory Palestine before the Second World War.  I also point out that Israel is the Jewish people's ancestral homeland and that the Jewish people have yearned to return to Zion for 3000 years.

But, my argument seems to fall flat with many people.  They have a very hard time understanding why there should be a "Jewish state" when there are no longer any Christian states.   I am not sure that that's really true -- but people really do see it that way.  And pointing out that there are 23 Muslim states seems not to move anyone either.

So, my German friend pointed out something critical about the future of Israel and the Jewish people in general.  In Europe, the idea of a Jewish state has not taken root.  Israel as a Jewish state is something still foreign to the enlightened peoples of Europe.

This is a very important matter as Europe approaches a multilateral foreign policy approach.  At this time, Germany is able to have its own foreign policy as is France and the other European Union partners.  At some point, however, the EU will establish a one foreign-policy system and at that point Israel may be in very serious trouble.

It's ironic that Germany, of all the nations of the world, recognizes the basic rights of the Jewish people to live in its ancestral home.

And, while I'm not running to buy a Volkswagen or BMW anytime soon, I'm rooting for Germany in the World Cup.

You have to stick up for your friends, after all.

About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...