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Opinion: Op-Ed
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The trauma of privilege

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I have been in the center of the swirl of awareness about the unintended consequences of affluence and privilege on our children.

I meet these youngsters and their families when crisis penetrates their denial system and they arrive at Beit T’Shuvah, the recovery community I founded in Los Angeles 30 years ago. I have listened to their baffled, bewildered parents, who “gave them everything” only to have it thrown in their faces. I coined the family dynamic: “I hate you; send money.” At Beit T’Shuvah, we have been essentially “re-parenting” these children of all ages, allowing them to experience “all the disadvantages of success,” in the words of Larry Ellison.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds a direct correlation between parents who overvalue their children and children who are narcissistic. Researchers found that while parental warmth was associated with high self-esteem in kids, that parental over-evaluation was not. Or, as Madeline Levine put it: “Praise is not warmth pumped in; self-esteem is not self-efficacy.” I have heard from many recovering addicts that when they feel undeserving, praise exacerbates their self-loathing and sense of fraudulence.



What we have to pay for

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Toilet paper . . .

This scroll endowed by . . .

With 2+ decades spent working in the Jewish world, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. Ideas that were considered the epitome of best practice come into vogue, run their course, and become passé.

Agencies and innovative think tanks slip away due to failure to create, implement, and execute strategic sustainability plans. Iconic thought leaders tire and fail to notice that the landscape is changing and passing them by. Then what? Now what?



The lion and the compass

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Untangling medieval science from modern halacha

Maimonides and Nahmanides had their differences.

Maimonides (d. 1204) tolerated no idea that failed the test of reason. An ancient and robust tradition of superstition among the Jews did not deter him. Maimonides either ignored or rationalized scores of Talmudic halachot based on astrology, demonology, and magic.

Maimonides denounced astrology passionately, despite its popularity, calling the belief “stupidity” and its practitioners “fools.” His argument bears emphasis: Maimonides opposed astrology primarily on scientific rather than religious grounds. The Torah prohibits divination from the sky, he ruled, not because it displays a lack of faith in God, but simply because it is false.



Israel running like a river through it

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A mother’s thoughts on her daughter’s imminent return from the gap year

My daughter says she’s all packed.

Her duffle bags are a couple of kilos overweight, and she’s fretting about what she may have to leave behind. Tomorrow night, she departs for Ben Gurion, and from there she gets on an El Al flight bound for Newark. I haven’t seen her since last August. I’m counting down the hours.

Time flies. Despite all my fears, despite fountains of words and gushers of anxiety over sending her to Israel during the war in Gaza last summer, she had an incredible year, and now she is making her way back.

She spent the last ten months living in Jerusalem. O, Jerusalem, center of the world, Holy of Holies. In Jerusalem, everything you do matters, from the mundane to the insane. Every time you kick a pebble in Jerusalem, it rolls up against a site of historical importance; turn down any street, and you will find better kosher food than we have anywhere in America; day and night, and all year long, there are unique and mind-expanding activities right outside your door.

The clothes you wear take on significance. Skirt or pants? Cover your hair or not? Fascinating people, of all colors and races, from a kaleidoscope of distant countries—and these people are Jewish! —strike up conversations with you, on the street, in the market, on the bus. Spend a few minutes chatting with the baker, the man who fixes your shoes, the police officer, your barber, your waiter, and it’s likely you’ll find that you are no more than six degrees away from being related to them. Even mental illness is different in Jerusalem; only within her ancient borders can you come down with Jerusalem Syndrome, where tourists suddenly believe they are biblical prophets, or former kings of Israel.

I tick through the list of things I have to do before she gets home. Spread sheets and blankets and pillowcases on her bare bed. Find a place to park the computer and printer that we moved into her room while she was away. Transfer the piles of books and manuscripts back to my desk. Dust the furniture. Wash the curtains. Vacuum her carpet. At Pathmark, I browse through the gluten-free aisle, considering what to make for her welcome-home dinner. I imagine us going for mani-pedis, or having our eyebrows done. And movies! My other children are boys. I haven’t seen a chic flick all year.

And because I was once a teenage girl who came home from Israel, I try to imagine what it will be like for her. She’s been independent for ten months now, operating with her own bank card, responsible for doing her own laundry, cooking for herself, keeping her kitchen clean, budgeting her money, shopping for groceries, negotiating with roommates, being on time for classes and events.

Friends who have been through this scenario before tell me that the dynamic changes when a child who has been away comes home. What will that mean, other than the inevitable fight over who gets the car? What if she’s wearing skirts down to her ankles and shirtsleeves that reach past her elbows? What do we do then? Will she roll her eyes at our rules? At our guidance? Will she be happy to return to us here in the diaspora, to be our baby again? Or will she count the days until she can leave?

I can clearly remember how it felt, coming back to Chicago after my year in Israel, where even collecting eggs for the kibbutz felt significant. In my absence so many things had changed. Disco took over the radio. “Three’s Company” and “The Love Boat” were the biggest hits on television. People cared about designer names on the labels sewed into their clothes. Friends who had started college instead of going to Israel had moved on with their lives. Some weren’t religious anymore. Some were getting married. Some were completely absorbed in boyfriends, or new acquaintances. My parents couldn’t understand why I was so moody. I spent a lot of time in my room playing guitar and singing sad songs. I felt deeply, utterly lost.

The week I moved back to the United States was the week before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn for the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, signaling the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. Exile was a perfect metaphor for the way I felt. The culture I had submerged myself in Israel, of being part of something larger and more important than my own needs and desires, had vanished. Everywhere I looked, the Western culture I traveled through seemed false, trivial, and materialistic.

But then college started. All those cool courses to choose from! All the new skills to learn, paths to navigate, books to read, papers to write, knowledge to be gained! What should I do? Who should I be? All those intense late-night conversations that started with questions like, “If you commit an altruistic deed that benefits somebody else, but the deed benefits you as well, is it still considered altruistic?”

My despair lifted as I began to understand: What I had cherished most about my year in Israel — living a life of service and meaning, a feeling of being rooted in my religion, a strong sense of my place in Jewish history — hadn’t disappeared. Now I carried it inside of me. It was my duty to share it. And it would be up to me keep the little flame stoked and burning.

Because while it is difficult to leave Jerusalem behind, it is also far too easy to slip back into old habits, to lose the intent to lead a meaningful life in a summer’s worth of binge-watching “Vikings” and “The Bachelorette.”

So as I look for a new home for the printer and dust off her stuffed animals and throw her curtains into the washing machine, I’m also hoping this: that she finds happiness in her new life, and that what she takes from Israel runs like a river through it.


One people, one heart

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Conservative, Reform rabbis join others to ask for smart Iran deal

This week marks the one-year anniversary — the first yahrzeit — of the kidnapping and gruesome murders of three young boys in Israel.

Rabbi Kirshner: I attended the funeral for the boys, who were buried side by side on a small hill in the town of Modi’in, the geographic center between their three homes.

In the sweltering heat, 12,000 people gathered to pay respects to boys whom most never had met. Perhaps a handful of the 12,000 assembled mourners had known the boys’ name’ 18 days earlier. We were religious and secular, Jews and Gentiles, politicians and taxi drivers, men and women, gathered in a rare moment of unity and grief.

The head of the school two of the boys had attended eulogized his students. His remarks still inspire me: “Two Jews. Three opinions. One heart.”

When the going gets tough, indeed we are one heart. One people.

Rabbi Cohen: A few weeks later, along with 19 other rabbis from across the various religious movements within American life, I headed to Israel as part of a mission sponsored by AIPAC’s education arm, AIEF. We landed the first day of the war, and encountered many Red Alerts. Our third day saw us meeting in a government building in Jerusalem, only to have Iron Dome intercept a missile directly over us. We were not Reform or Conservative or Orthodox rabbis then. Instead, we were friends and colleagues, bound and united by our Zionism. All that normally divides us disappeared as we experienced life under fire together.

We were American rabbis… and Jews… getting a small taste of what our brothers and sisters in Israel live with, day in and day out.

Both rabbis add:

Sadly these kinds of Jewish unity are all too rare — or so the media would have us believe. They are, however, more common than you might think. An even more recent and pressing example drives this point home.

This week Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis came together in their shared determination to halt Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Close to 100 Jewish clergy leaders from New Jersey signed a letter, based on talking points from AIPAC, encouraging our local representatives to seek five critical ingredients to a deal with Iran. The letter, which we co-wrote and cosponsored — and remember, one of us a Conservative rabbi and the other one Reform — makes clear that the alternative to a deal is not war but more negotiations.

Some politicians already have picked up the letter’s talking points; Jersey City’s Mayor Steve Fulop has been making similar suggestions, including in this space last week.

The letter makes clear that a good deal, as promised by the administration since the beginning of these negotiations, must include the following:

1. Inspections and verification

Inspectors must be permitted unimpeded access to suspect sites. “Anytime, anywhere” inspections — including of all military facilities — are necessary in order to verify Iranian compliance. Iran’s decades-long history of cheating on international obligations suggests it will attempt to continue its nuclear weapons program in secrecy. Iran cannot be permitted any safe havens where it could pursue this ambition.

2. Possible military dimensions

Iran must explain all its earlier weaponization efforts, and do so in details. A good deal must require Iran to come clean on all its nuclear work, such as developing triggers for a nuclear weapon. That already is required by six United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The entire scope of Iran’s nuclear activities must be known, in order to establish a baseline against which to measure future actions. Iran also must be made to comply with earlier commitments.

3. Sanctions

Sanctions relief must begin only after Iran complies with its commitments, and should specify clear and immediate consequences for Iranian violations. The international community must retain significant leverage while Iran demonstrates compliance; it must not provide immediate sanctions relief or unfreeze a significant portion of Tehran’s assets. Iran must not be able to take the money and run.

4. Duration

Iran’s nuclear weapons quest must be blocked for decades.

A good deal must prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. The announced framework would lift nuclear restrictions in 10 to 15 years and grant Iran virtually instant breakout time after 12 or 13 years. A deal must restrict Iran’s nuclear capabilities until it demonstrates conclusively that it no longer seeks a nuclear weapons capability.

5. Dismantlement

Iran must dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. It must have no path to a nuclear weapon.

A good deal must require Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and relinquish its uranium stockpile. It must have neither a uranium nor a plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons.

These five key ingredients would not only hold Iran’s feet to the fire, but are key to achieving the diplomatic solution that most can support. These five ingredients will prevent war, and do much to keep the United States, Israel, and our European allies safe.

After all, Iran is the leading exporter of non-state radical activity. The terror it supports is contagious. It must be stopped.

Giving even an inch on any of these stipulations is like telling a pyromaniac he can only have half a book of matches.

We are taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of sinat chinam — groundless hatred. During that period, Jews who disagreed about ritual observance and the interpretation of religious text vilified one another. It has been said that a house divided cannot stand, and in the year 70 it did not.

In 2015/5775 we are often divided as a community. But sometimes we are not divided. And when it comes to securing the safety of the world, when it comes to blocking Iranian nuclear aspirations, and when it comes to standing strong for a safe and secure America and Israel, we rabbis are able to speak with one voice.

This week we did just that, and we will continue to do so.

We are a people with many opinions and passions. However, when it comes to stopping the evil of Iran, regardless of background and denomination we are many people with one heart. Republican or Democrat, Labor or Likud, we are all united and in lockstep in our indefatigable labors to stop a bad deal from happening and do our part to encourage our elected officials to be a part of a good deal.

David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Closter and president of the New York Board of Rabbis. He is Conservative.



Freedom in Jersey City, extreme caution toward Iran

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The great American scholar and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Judaism revolves around three sacred entities: God, Torah, Israel. The Jew never stands alone before God; the Torah and Israel are always with him.” He continues, “It is not only a certain quality in the souls of the individuals that is Jewish but it is primarily involvement and participation in the covenant and community of Israel.”

So we rely upon my Jewish experience and belief in our involvement and participation in the civic life of American society. When we do what is right, what is just, what is merciful, when we abide by the tenets we have learned by living in the Jewish community, then we begin to experience the good and the holy. As Rabbi Heschel instructed, what we do as individuals may be trivial; what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.



A view from the pew

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The present as a gift

The May 28 Jewish Standard news report on the Rockland County Federation survey of the non-Orthodox Jewish community (“Why do they leave?”) serves as a proof text for the growing disconnect between Jews and the institutions of our Jewish community.

Yet the study also found that the percentage of unaffiliated Jews who positively identify as Jews remains high. While we have focused upon synagogue affiliation rates, I have no doubt that if we looked at the numbers of contributors to federation campaigns, we would see a similar drop, and a similar trend in federation donors as the Rockland survey shows about synagogue members. An immediate response to this survey, and to the overall trend of declining rates of affiliation and participation among American Jews, is to scream oy gevalt.



The Zionist Congress elections as an index on American Jewry

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The results of the elections for the American delegation to the 37th World Zionist Congress are worth reflecting on.  While the election plays a key role in influencing the policies of the World Zionist movement and in mapping the Israel-Diaspora relationship, the data are also important as an insightful index into the nature of the American Jewish community.

The big headline is the success of ARZA, representing the Reform movement, coming out on top. It won 56 of the 145 seats allocated to the American delegation; the Congress has 500 seats overall. What strikes me is that the 39 percent the Reform movement won here matches with almost scientific precision the Reform movement’s share of religiously identified American Jews in the 2013 Pew report. The Pew report found that 40 percent of religiously identified American Jews (as opposed to Jews-by-ethnicity-only) call themselves Reform.


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