Politics and Nuance in Israel 

“Politics and Nuance in Israel”

American and Israeli students are learning how to refrain from jumping to quick conclusions and to appreciate the political leaders of the past and present.
By Rick Brody 
On Monday, we visited the Ehad Ha’am School in Petach Tikvah, where our students interacted with Israeli peers. I had the chance to sit in on some of the classroom activities they engaged in and witnessed a subtle exchange that the students probably didn’t notice. In one exercise, each student needed to choose from a pile of pictures and symbols to identify something (or someone) that captures their sense of identity, someone with whom they feel a connection, and someone (or something) that makes them uncomfortable or that bothers them. A picture of David Ben Gurion was a common choice, but one time for a very uncommon designation. An Israeli girl said that Ben Gurion is someone who bothers her because he established the Israeli left wing and she considers herself right-wing. The immediate reaction of the teacher (who, I learned later, is a history teacher) was fascinating.

As one might imagine, Ben Gurion remains sacrosanct for many Israelis. For some, criticizing him might engender anger or defensiveness. On the other hand, if Israel is to be the robust democracy and free society that it aspires to be—and that surely Ben Gurion desired—perhaps current Israeli educators would want to encourage students to look critically at the country’s “sacred cows” and speak freely about them in ways that go beyond superficial hagiography. Coming from Barrack, where we emphasize our pluralism not only in religious belief and practice but also in intellectual and ideological interpretation of history and politics, I was very curious about how the teacher would respond. 

The teacher’s firm yet nuanced reply was neither a celebration of the student’s choice nor a complete silencing. Rather, she told the student that at her age, she is not yet ready to make such a broad-sweeping dismissal of such an important historical figure. She told the student that it is very important to continue to read, learn, and talk about Ben Gurion, his policies, and his legacy, and that only after much more exploration would she be in a position to decide if she agrees with his political legacy or not. And that in the meantime, all Israelis have a responsibility to recognize the incomparable impact that Ben Gurion had on the entire State of Israel and its history, regardless of politics. The honoring of Ben Gurion is not a matter of right or left, she said, but simply part of being a grateful Israeli citizen and appreciating his fundamental role in founding the state. The student appeared to tacitly accept this constructive criticism, offering no response. At that point, I shared with the students that Americans take the same approach towards George Washington. He is the father of our country and we honor that, regardless of his specific policies. The teacher and students appeared to appreciate that comparison. I spoke afterwards with the school principal who was present for the incident, and she told me she felt the teacher handled it perfectly. 

The students had another opportunity to encounter questions of politics on Tuesday, when—thanks to a close personal friendship with Rabbi Marc Israel and Abby Frank, parents of 8th-grader Elianna Israel—the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, met with our group. Ambassador Shapiro talked about his career, the specific roles he plays in his job, and taught the students about some important aspects of the US-Israel relationship, including some  controversial current issues such as negotiations with Iran and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Ambassador Shapiro assured the students that President Obama, a close friend of his, is absolutely committed to a strong US-Israel relationship and a strong and secure Jewish State—and that differences between the Obama administration and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu are matters of policy, not of goals. This was another example of educating young people about the importance of recognizing the complexity of politics, refraining from drawing quick conclusions based on small bits of information, and honoring the official positions of leadership within our government regardless of particular policy disagreements with a given administration. More specifically, it was a chance for the students to learn about the deep connections between the governments of these two nations and appreciate what it means to be an ambassador. They all recognized the great honor that it was to have this special visit. 

Electronic Shackles: Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach 

Electronic Shackles:
Redemption on Shabbat and Pesach

by Rabbi Rick Brody

This cartoon showed up in my Facebook feed today:

2015-04-07 13.44.03











Not only is it hilarious, but it’s also very timely at this moment in the rhythm of the Jewish seasons. It reminds us of the ways we remain enslaved to technology and in need of the annual festival of liberation that comes each spring as well as a weekly reprieve from the distracting, overstimulating workweek.

The cartoon captures the value of having a regular day to unplug. The Rabbis described Shabbat (a day that has always been an opportunity to step out of our workday routines and away from our reliance on the engines of industry–and in more recent history for abstaining specifically from using electronic devices) as me’ein olam haba, a “taste of the world to come.”

While I don’t subscribe to a belief in the image portrayed in this cartoon for whatever might “come next” and am much more interested in promoting the idea of “olam haba” as a shift in consciousness, relationships, and civil order attainable in our lifetime, the idea still stands: If our experiences of eternity involve only those parts of reality that truly matter; and the various vessels of our own creation—which might both help and hinder our journey towards that encounter with eternity—are ultimately not actually part of that ultimate reality, then ought we not train ourselves to function happily and freely without them right now?

The Jewish approach to answering that question is a “six-7ths” compromise: We will engage these devices, tools, and vessels during the 6 days of creation but will abstain from them once a week as a taste of a different way of living. And—since Shabbat is not only a memory of the completion of Creation but also of the Exodus from Egypt—we will also find this abstaining to be liberating. How enslaved the poor folks in the cartoon have been—and will remain eternally–because of their inability to function without their electronic shackles.

Right now are the intermediate days of Pesach, chol hamo’ed, non-holy days sandwiched within sacred time. They are like sweet charoset (and a little bit of maror, a reminder of the bitterness of oppression) between two pieces of matzah, the humble, flat bread of our liberation that defines and bookends this holy time. As we enjoy their sweetness—ideally intimately connected to springtime!—may we find a good balance between using personal devices for redemptive purposes and seeing the larger prize of liberation that involves more than those instruments of communication, entertainment, and data acquisition. May we communicate directly with those in our midst; may we soak up the warming rays of sunshine; may we engage more than our thumbs to walk, run, and play in outdoor leisure; and may we move from being atomized, silent acquirers of information to interactive, conversant knowers of and participants in the real-time goodness of physical companionship and quality time with those we love.

I composed most of this reflection on a personal “handheld” electronic device, using my thumbs—as well as my eyes and cognitive faculties. I completed it on a “laptop” device, using a few other fingers. But now I’m going to live it by walking away from these external instruments and focusing on the most important device of all—my body as a whole, with its multiple faculties of emotional, cognitive, kinesthetic, and other ways of knowing and experiencing the blessed reality it inhabits—which will interact fully with my children and my environment, unshackled by electronic tools. Moadim l’simchah—may these be special seasonal days for joy!

Sweet Innocence, Passion, and Redemption: Hidden Meanings of Charoset

Sweet Innocence, Passion, and Redemption: Hidden Meanings of Charoset

by Rabbi Rick Brody

While the haggadah makes no actual mention of charoset, we learn about it in Mishnah, Pesachim 10:3 and the Rabbis offer a short elaboration in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a:

:רבי אלעזר בר’ צדוק אומר מצוה וכו’: מאי מצוה רבי לוי א זכ לתפוח ור’ יוחנן אומר זכר לטיט

“Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Tzadok says [charoset] is an obligation…” What is the reason that it is an obligation? Rabbi Levi says, “It’s a memory of the apple tree” and Rabbi Yonaton says, “It’s a memory of the mortar.

What apple tree?! The Gemara explains elsewhere:

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b

 רב עוירא בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים בשעה שהולכות לשאוב מים…  ומוליכות אצל בעליהן לשדה ומרחיצות אותן וסכות אותן ומאכילות אותן ומשקות אותן ונזקקות להן וכיון שמתעברות באות לבתיהם וכיון שמגיע זמן מולדיהן הולכות ויולדות בשדה תחת התפוח שנאמר (שיר השירים)  תחת התפוח עוררתיך

Rav Avira explained: In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt. They would go to their husbands who were slaving in the field.  And they would wash them and anoint them and feed them and give them to drink and lie with them, and they became pregnant; and when the time came to give birth, they would go and give birth in the field under the apple tree [so that the Egyptians would not find them. (Rashi)] As it says, ‘Under the apple tree I have awakened you (Song of Songs 8:5).’


Down among the reeds and rushes
A baby boy was found
His eyes as clear as centuries
His silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

Me and my buddies we are traveling people
We like to go down to restaurant row
Spend those euro-dollars
All the way from Washington to Tokyo
I see them in the airport lounge
Upon their mother’s breast
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guest

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

There’s too many people on the bus from the airport
Too many holes in the crust of the earth
The planet groans
Every time it registers another birth
But down among the reeds and rushes
A baby girl was found
Her eyes as clear as centuries
Her silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time

  • Rava’s questions: Talmud Bavli, Mas. Shabbat 31a

:אמר רבא:בשעה שמכניסין אדם לדין אומרים לו:

?נשאת ונתת באמונה”

?קבעת עתים לתורה

?עסקת בפו”ר

?צפית לישועה

?פלפלת בחכמה

“?הבנת דבר מתוך דבר

.ואפ”ה אי יראת ה’ היא אוצרו אין אי לא לא

Rava said: When they take a person to judgment, they ask him:

“Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?

Did you set aside time to study Torah?

Did you involve yourself in procreation?

Did you look forward to salvation?

Did you debate wisely?

Were you able to infer one thing from another?”

And even so, if “the fear of God was his treasure” – yes, if not – no.

o   Asakta b’piryah v’rivyah (“did you engage in procreation?”) … tzipita lishuah (“did you anticipate redemption?”)

  • What is the relationship between these two questions?
  • Why are they next to each other?
  • How do they relate to the story of Israelite mothers in Egypt?
  • How do these teachings, the story of Egypt, and Paul Simon’s lyrics all relate to each other?
  • What does Paul Simon seem to be saying about the connection between babies born in Egpyt and babies being born in our world today?
  • What connections do you see between the ancient story and our world?
  • How can the eating of charoset bring all these ideas together?

Questions for Thanksgiving

Many might have sat down already to their meals on this holiday, but whether you choose to ponder or engage these questions as part of the experience at your Thanksgiving table or at a later time, here are some questions. Some are particular to American Jews and some are relevant to everyone in this great country of ours. These questions were developed by my seniors at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, the members of the Jewish Leadership Initiative. Our hope is that these questions lead to some stimulating discussion and can go beyond the simple “What are you thankful for?” query. Happy Thanksgiving.

1. Think back to the Pilgrims—who they were, why they came. As Jews living in America in the modern era, what do we have in common with the Pilgrims? Is America still the same haven for those seeking refuge from religious persecution and how do we look at it 240 years after the USA was founded?

2. There’s no Israeli holiday that recognizes the process of Aliyah (immigration to Israel). Why? Did the early Olim (immigrants) go through the same sort of journey as the American Pilgrims? How about modern day Olim from either the U.S. or Europe? How does their journey compare to that of the Pilgrims or of earlier Olim?

3. How did you get here? At some point, your ancestors (or you) lived in Europe, Israel, Africa, or somewhere else. Share their (your) story with the group. How does it impact you and how are you thankful this year for the lives and journeys of your family members?

4. Are you pilgrim? What journeys have you made—real or metaphorical—over the past year that have shaped who you are as a person? Have you completed the journey? Are you proud of what you have accomplished as a result of completing the journey? What’s next?

Remembering the Four who were Murdered in Jerusalem

Remembering the Four* who were Murdered in Jerusalem

by Rabbi Rick Brody

“…that senseless violence cease and that

we never again witness such inhumanity.”

This morning, we interrupted class at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy for the following announcement:

Please excuse the interruption. This is Rabbi Rick. We are in shock and in grief. We awoke this morning to terrible news from Jerusalem. In a terrorist attack during shaharit at a synagogue in the neighborhood of Har Nof, two Palestinian intruders brutally murdered four Jewish men and wounded eight others, four seriously. Police killed the assailants.  

One victim was Moshe Twersky, who was the cousin of two Akiba-Barrack alumni. The other victims were Aryeh Kupinsky,  Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Kalman Zeev Levine. They are now martyrs, whose memory we will uphold as a blessing in the hopes and prayers that senseless violence cease and that we never again witness such inhumanity. We pray for their families who mourn, for the recovery of those who were injured, and for the peace and security of our brothers and sister in Israel and throughout the world.

Please rise for the El Malei Rachamim prayer, recited in memory of these four men. After the prayer, please proceed solemnly to your next period.

* It was only later in the day that we learned that Druze Israeli Police officer Zidan Sayif, 27, died of his wounds sustained during his valiant protection of the synagogue. We pray that his memory, too, be a blessing.

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וטְהוֹרִים כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיע מַזְהִירִים אֶת נִשְׁמות כָּל הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ הַיּוֹם בְּעִיר קָדְשֵׁנוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם, בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתָם. אַנָא בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵם בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם, ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתָם, וְיָנוּחוּ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכְּבוֹתֵיהֶם, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings–within the range of the holy and the pure, whose shining resemble the sky’s–the souls of all the holy and pure ones who were murdered, today in our holy city for the Sanctification of the Name, may the Garden of Eden be their place of repose. Please, may the Master of Mercy shelter them forever, in the shelter of Divine wings, and bind their souls in the bond of eternal life. The Everlasting is their heritage and they shall rest peacefully upon their resting place, and let us say: Amen

A Creative Birkat HaGomel: A Community Responds with Gratitude to Escaping Danger

A Creative Birkat HaGomel: A Community Responds with Gratitude to Escaping Danger

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Yesterday, the community of students, staff, faculty, and families at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy needed to engage in safety protocols after a potential danger was discovered in the school. Everyone is safe and life at Barrack is back to normal today. But before we made that transition back to normalcy, we needed to engage Jewish ritual to collectively express our gratitude and breathe a shared sigh of relief. The gomel prayer, usually recited after an aliyah to the Torah, is the traditional liturgy for one who has just escaped any kind of danger. This morning, separate assemblies for the full middle school and upper school– in which students were commended for the cooperation yesterday and reassured about their safety–concluded with the communal recitation of this interpretive version of the prayer, composed for this purpose. Those students who attend traditional minyanim then had the opportunity to participate in the formal ritual, but all members of the Barrack community were a part of creative reading. Here is the text (click here for separate page):

An Interpretive Birkat HaGomel

 You are blessed, Eternal One, and we pray that your blessings continue to grace us.

 We began our day yesterday like any other day, grateful for what we have and hoping for freedom from danger or worry. We ended the day surprised and even frightened. We have returned here this morning, beginning with gratitude for the release from that fear. This gratitude may surprise us. We have learned once again about how easy it is to take our safety for granted. This gratitude itself is a blessing. Thank you, Source of Blessing, for opening our hearts to new gratitude, which we express together:

 To the sovereign source of protection:

(Together) We are grateful.

To the administration, staff, and faculty of our school, who responded swiftly and with care:

      We are grateful.

To our brave law-enforcement officers who came to us rapidly to ensure our safety:

      We are grateful.

To all our students, who followed instructions and cooperated to remain safe:

      We are grateful.

To our parents and loved ones, who offered us support and comfort in a time of uncertainty:

      We are grateful.

We are all chayavim–obligated, indebted.

      We are obligated.

We have placed our trust in so many beyond ourselves who work tirelessly to keep us safe.

We are indebted.

We are all chayavim.

We are all responsible.

We look out for one another and make sure our community is safe. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh bazeh.

      All Israel is responsible for one another.

We have been the recipients of blessings.

            We are blessed with safety.

We have been the recipients of goodness.

Let our school continue to be a force for good.

May we continue to be blessed in these ways and more.

May we know only good fortune and safety as we find ways to praise you and our world.


Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech haolam, hagomel lachayavim tovot she’g’malani kol tov.

Amen. Mi she’g’malcha kol tov, hu yigmolcha kol tov, selah.