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A compass and a four-legged chair

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Reflecting on three years as the an emissary

It seems like only yesterday that my family began our three years of shlichut, of emissaries, in northern New Jersey for the Jewish Agency for Israel. By the time you read this, we will be back home.

During the past three years, I have been privileged to meet and collaborate with many wonderful people, work with the best professionals in the Jewish world, and make many good friends.

So what can I say about the last three years for our Jewish country, Israel, and for me? Let me start by relating a short story by Amir Gotfroind, a famous Israeli author. The story is called “The Compass.”

His uncle, he wrote, once brought him a small compass as a gift and taught him how to find north. Wherever he went, Gotfroind’s compass pointed north. One day, his uncle asked, “And if you are standing exactly at the North Pole, where will the needle point?”

The answer, said the uncle, was that “at the North Pole, the needle will go crazy. It will point up, down, to the side, everywhere. The compass is good for showing where the north is from anywhere on earth, except at the North Pole.”

That’s the beauty of Israel – it’s all mixed up and right over here and there all at the same time. That’s the message, the connection of Israel I’ve tried to strengthen, enhance, deepen, and engage with the Jewish community of northern New Jersey. As a shaliach, I’ve tried to bring and present an authentic and clear Israeli-Jewish voice — to always convey the Israeli spirit, the music, the films and culture, the humor, the “tachles” (content), the brotherhood and, yes, a little chutzpah as well.

And a lot has happened in Israel in these past three years. The War in Gaza; Knesset elections; the formation of a new government (sometimes when you come in second you turn out to be the winner); “Start-up Nation” and the expanding Israeli economy; the Gaza flotilla; the ongoing imprisonment of Gilad Shalit and the other Israeli soldiers still MIA; two further Academy Award Best Foreign Picture nominations (three in a row); and now Israel’s own “Arab Spring,” unfolding the Jewish way and triggered not by political repression but by economic factors — beginning with the “Cottage Cheese Revolt” and now presenting as the “Tents Protest.”

It has been a privilege to work and interact with the northern New Jersey community, one that is so committed to strengthening its Jewish identity and character, as well as its relationship with Israel.

I’ve often been asked and wondered how northern New Jersey’s Jewish community relates to Israel. “It’s like a four-legged chair,” I would reply. “You need at least three legs, preferably four, for the chair to stand, for the relationship to thrive.” Leg one is the nostalgic, even romantic relationship with Israel; the second leg is based on advocating for Israel; thirdly, that Israel is viewed as a center for Jewish religion, initiative, and culture; and fourthly, the community’s philanthropic relationship with Israel.

During my shlichut I’ve always tried to blend these views together and engage in a conversation about Israel. It’s that “mixed up and right over there” thing again. Engaging and deepening your relationship with Israel leads to a better understanding of the complexities of the Jewish state.

On a recent Shabbat, we finished the last chapter of the book of B’midbar, the Book of Numbers. Entire congregations stood up and said out loud: “Chazak, chazak v’nit’chazek” — we recognize the strength and the power that we, as a people, gained from past experiences and take with us in order to be even stronger in our future endeavors. This is the great lesson for every transition, when we are finishing one chapter and are about to open a new one.

I have learned and experienced so much that gives me strength for my next chapter. But, at a national level, I am sure we all wish our homeland, Israel, to come out wiser and stronger from its past challenges.

My family and I say “todah” to all the wonderful people we’ve met during our three years here. As the New Year 5772 approaches, we wish you all much health and happiness.

And to such a strong and committed Jewish community, we raise our voices in appreciation for the way you all keep doing amazing things for this community, for Israel, and for the entire Jewish world.

Finally, we wish good luck (b’hatzlachah) to the new community shaliach, Avinoam Segal-Elad, and his family.


Stuart Levy
Until last week, Stuart Levy was the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Center for Israel Engagement.
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The trauma of privilege

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

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

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.


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