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Opinion: Editorial
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Slowing down

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Sometimes we all just have to take a breath. Inhale. Pause. Exhale.

It’s that time now.

We have all come out of a long winter together. Color is just returning to the world. We have just finished telling the story of the Exodus but we have not yet packed up our dishes again; we’re now getting by on matzah crumbs. We’re counting the Omer already, heading toward Shavuot, already less than a full seven weeks away.

As soon as Pesach is over, we hurtle toward Yom HaShoah, rushing straight from our liberation to the unspeakable horror that is still in living memory. And then, the week afterward, to Yom HaZikron, remembering more sadness, and then the complicated joy of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. And then, of course, full-blown spring, with the threat of a hot summer, and graduations, and endings and new beginnings.

But now, during chol ha-moed Pesach, with the newspaper thinner than usual (even as many of us feel a great deal heavier), many kids on school vacation, local attractions beckoning, and the pace, for once, slowing just a bit, it is time to stop, to look around, and to notice the beauty around us. To glory in it, and to look forward to whatever is bound to come next.



Bring Alan Gross home

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We’re looking at the last days of Passover.

The seder plates and the cups — Elijah’s and Miriam’s — have been put away, and so have the haggadahs.

Yet with the echo of the word “Dayenu” still as fresh as the memories of the charoset we ate, we still must confront the important issue of freedom.

While freedom is the underlying theme of Passover, Alan Gross hasn’t experienced a day of freedom since he was incarcerated in Cuba in 2009.

Mr. Gross, an American, was setting up Internet services for Havana’s small Jewish community on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was arrested at the Havana airport.

The Cuban government said he was illegally aiding dissidents and inciting subversion. In an August 2012 ruling, Cuba’s highest court upheld the 15-year jail sentence that was imposed on him.

Over the years he’s lost more than 100 pounds, and he is suffering from debilitating arthritis. The Obama administration has asked the Castro government to release him, but the response has been negative.

Cuba asks that five Cuban nationals the United States is holding on espionage charges be released in exchange for Mr. Gross.

Meanwhile Jewish community relations councils have joined elected officials calling for his release. Mr. Gross recently ended a hunger strike started on April 3 to bring his plight to the attention of both the American and the Cuban governments.

We know that many Jews from all over this nation visit Cuba as part of Joint Distribution Committee-sponsored trips to meet the 2,000-strong Havana Jewish community. While the Castro government in general has acted favorably toward its Jewish community, we wish it would work in cooperation with the Obama administration to figure out a deal for Gross’s release, even if that release involves a prisoner exchange.

Jonathan Pollard has been behind bars in this country for way too many years. Let’s try to get this right with Gross. He’s 64 years old, in ill health, and he’s paid an already high price as nothing more than a victim of friction between two nations. He cannot be forgotten.

Bring him home.

As we said earlier in the week at our seder tables, “Dayenu.”




Passover is here

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Finally, after all these weeks of preparation, of buying and cleaning and cooking and worrying and planning and throwing out and panting and wailing and despairing — after all the slavery — the holiday of liberation is just a few days away.

It’s ironic, isn’t it — the work at times seems so overwhelming that by the time night falls and the first seder begins, it’s hard to remember its promise.

But we should.

And then the seder begins — and we do.

Last fall’s Pew Study, Bad News for Jews, documented terrible fall-offs in religious observance across most of the Jewish spectrum, but even so, it said, seven in 10 Jews go to a seder. Most of us remember the seders of our childhoods and we mark each year’s passage as familiar faces age and gray and then disappear, and other, younger ones babble and then giggle and then learn to read. There is something about the smell of a seder, its particular spices and richness and nuttiness (in every possible sense); something about the familiar wine and gravy stains in the Haggadahs, that link us to the selves we used to be last year. Each seder is different, of course, and each family has its own traditions; its own songs and soups and flash points.

And that is one of its main beauties. We are all doing the same things; we are each doing them ever so subtly in our own way. We are many people; we are all one people.

May we all have a sweet and liberating Pesach.



Seeking the promise of Passover’s freedom for agunot

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In these last hours before the night of the first seder, there are going to be those families who desperately seek out every last crumb of chameitz they can find. Yet many will go on tolerating the “chameitz” that through apathy and ignorance we inflict on Jewish women worldwide.

Because no matter how many Haggadahs recount the story of our freedom from slavery, as long as agunot (women who haven’t received gets, Jewish writs of divorce, from their ex-husbands) are stifled from living their lives, then we aren’t really entirely free.

We see people at car wash vacuum cleaners pumping quarter after quarter into the machines to get rid of that horrid extra Cheerio from the baby seat. Yet the dirty deal that doesn’t draw life-changing action from traditional Jewish society turns an agunah’s wish to marry and to experience intimacy again into its own sort of chameitz.

Some of these former husbands will fight you over the observance of the most remote Talmudic stricture — but they knowingly sabotage the lives of their ex-wives.

We wish for everyone a beautiful, meaningful seder, no matter how you and your family choose to celebrate.

But as long women in our Jewish world are kept in a state of agunot, then they are not really free. If they’re not free, than we didn’t leave Egypt as a totally liberated people.

There is an 11th plague, although it’s not something you dip your finger in wine to commemorate. It is apathy. It is not having the courage to take this “Mitzrayim” out of the Jewish way of life. We believe Orthodox Jewish leaders could do something if they had the courage.

For as long as there is one agunah, then matzah is really the bread of affliction.

Because as long as women are not given gets, then we let oppression happen right before eyes.

And for many agunot, this night simply is no different than all other nights.

- PJ


Call it what you want — it’s still an occupation

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So Governor Chris Christie made the national news again.

This time it wasn’t for Bridgegate.

Instead, his use of the word “occupation” apparently troubled Republican Jewish Coalition members who heard him speak last Saturday.

Talking about his family’s 2012 Israel trip, Mr. Christie said, “I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt personally how extraordinary that was to understand, the military risk that Israel faces every day.”

The O word resulted in the governor being called on Sheldon Adelson’s carpet to apologize for the gaffe. Mr. Adelson owns the casino hosting the RJC meeting. He is also a major contributor to Republican political candidates and to right-leaning organizations that support Israel.

Indeed, it was variously reported that the crowd broke into a “murmur” or a “gasp” at hearing Mr. Christie use the words “occupied territories.”

Why did the governor have to apologize? After all, it’s no secret that Israel has occupied west bank territories since the 1967 Six-Day War.

It’s also no secret that Israel not only has occupied those territories but also has constructed settlements, and that issue alone has made it difficult for the United States to broker any peace agreement toward a two-state solution. Some have said that the continuing occupation will lead to Israel’s eventual demise. Others feel just as strongly that Israel has to hold and even grow its West Bank position for security purposes.

But wherever someone stands when it comes to the triggering words “West Bank,” that doesn’t change the mere fact that it is an occupation.

Whether we support the occupation or loathe it, it exists.

Political hopefuls should not have to be so cautious about this issue. Perhaps if the occupation would come to a fair resolution for both sides, then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about using that word.

Truth is, it can’t be the unsaid occupation or the veiled occupation. We can’t tiptoe around it.

How can Israel ever have an honest dialogue with the Palestinians about a lasting peace if its supporters can’t have an honest conversation among themselves?

Mr. Christie did not have to apologize this time. Just because someone calls Israel’s West Bank position an “occupation” does not mean he or she doesn’t support the Jewish state.

- PJ



In it together

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Is there anything more Jewish than helping Jews overseas?

It’s refreshing to see that sentiment alive and well in Israel, where Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman recently proposed that Israel spend a million dollars a day — $365 million a year — on behalf of Jewish education in the diaspora.

That is less than one half of one percent of Israel’s $110 billion annual government budget (and comparable to the approximately one percent of the federal budget the U.S. spends on foreign aid).

“It is just a matter of prioritizing Jewish education above all other issues,” he told visiting leaders of American Jewish organizations.

It’s good to see Jewish education placed at the top of Jewish communal priorities. That isn’t always the case when it comes to Jewish charitable contributions. As the Forward reported, less than 20 percent of traceable Jewish philanthropy (a category that excludes donations to synagogues and seminaries and some yeshivot, which as religious institutions do not have to file financial information with the IRS) goes to Jewish education; the vast majority, nearly 40 percent, goes to fund Israel institutions.

If Israelis shared American priorities, they would no doubt prioritize using their tax dollars to support universities, symphonies, parks, and recreational facilities for citizens at home, rather than helping Jews overseas.

If American Jews shared Mr. Lieberman’s priorities, local day schools would have much broader and deeper philanthropic support — but perhaps at a price of the connection between Israel and the diaspora generated by international philanthropy.

How effective a Jewish education program headquartered in Jerusalem actually can be is an open question. Birthright, with its mixture of Israeli and diaspora funding and its pluralistic implementation through competing contractors, provides one model of partnership that works. The Israeli emissaries sent through the World Zionist Organization provide another example, though there the dollars that pay the teachers’ salaries are, appropriately, American.

And this is not to say that Mr. Lieberman might not benefit from some American-style Jewish education of his own. His notion of an ethnically pure Jewish state could stand to be tempered by our experience living as a minority in an ethnically diverse country; the values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence demand no less.

But all those are details — details not to be sneered at, but whose hashing out will itself prove a profitable meeting of Israeli and diaspora minds. In the meantime, for sparking a discussion about priorities and partnership, Mr. Lieberman has earned our praise.




Visiting the elderly

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The interview with George Hantgan that was the foundation of last week’s cover story got us thinking.

Mr. Hantgan has had 98 intensely lived years. Most people have never met even one president in the White House, let alone three, and probably the number of people who have killed a cockroach in a dining room there is even smaller. Most people have not been in on the creation of two agencies that arguably did more than any other to shape the local Jewish community in which we glory now.

But even if you are not George Hantgan — and by definition, with just one exception, absolutely you are not — you cannot reach even the near shores of old age without having a repository of stories.

It is an undeniable if sad truth that many old people are lonely. They frighten younger people, who see in them a reminder of their own mortality, and they seem alienatingly different. Sometimes they do not hear too clearly, and sometimes their references are so dated as to seem foreign.

But the elderly are exactly as human as the rest of us. Like us, they relish friendship, companionship, and an available ear — and for that matter, they can listen as well as they can talk, and they can provide hard-earned advice. They can give perspective. In order to reach their ages, by definition they have lived.

The elderly, like everybody of any age, can both give and receive love.

The Jewish Home at Rockleigh, where Mr. Hantgan lives, welcomes visitors. Many residents yearn for company, particularly the ones whose children live far away and cannot visit often, and the ones who do not have children. Visitors are always welcome to the home’s large, light-filled public rooms, and on nice days, like the ones that we take on faith will shine on us eventually, they can wheel residents out to the lake and bask companionably in the sun.

If you are interested in visiting Rockleigh, call the director of volunteers, Charlene Vannucci, at (201) 750-4237. Last week, Mr. Hantgan invited visitors to spend an after-dinner hour with him. And if you’re interested in visiting anyplace else — perhaps closer to home — just call. You’ll be welcome.

Not only will the person you visit benefit from it — so will you.



What did we expect?

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So now we hear yet another story about a Tweet from Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei questioning the existence of the Holocaust.

Then we get an almost instant reply from the ADL’s Abraham Foxman and from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations condemning Iran’s Supreme Leader.

That brings to mind a bit of wisdom from Mel Brooks’ 1974 film, “Blazing Saddles.”

When Cleavon Little’s character, Sheriff Bart, who is black, is discouraged by the cold reception with which the white people of Rockridge have greeted him, he leans on Gene Wilder’s shoulder. Wilder — playing the Waco Kid — says, “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter?’

“You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West.

“You know…morons.”

We know that Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, drew much attention last year for acknowledging the Holocaust, though Rouhani since has toned down his recognition.

But did we honestly expect that Rouhani would give up his revisionist twisting of historical facts? Did we expect him to invite Jews to his house for a mock seder? Or did we expect him to host a Yom HaShoah commemoration?

Did we expect that just because Rouhani started out by blowing kisses to the West, he’s still not part of a regime that wants to destroy Israel?

Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warning to the Obama administration is true. Maybe it right that all these gestures of faux friendship are a way to buy time for Iran to further enrich its military grade uranium.

So, to borrow the question from “Blazing Saddles,” what did we expect? These are people who want Israel to disappear. These are people who held American diplomats as prisoners for 444 days. This is a government trying to ship weapons to arm Gazans and terrorize Israeli communities. And it is a government working to prop up Syria’s war criminal Bashar Al-Assad.

The common clay. You know…


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