Why Israel Is So Special

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

As Israel celebrates its 66th year of independence, my mind replays a scene that could easily happen again today.
It was November 1975. The United Nations had just passed a horrific resolution condemning Zionism–-the very idea that there should be a Jewish State–as racism. Shocked, I knocked on the doors of one Christian pastor in our city after another asking for support.
Some were sympathetic, but I shall never forget one pastor’s response. “Steve,” he said, “you’ve taught me a lot about Judaism, and I consider you a friend. But I have neither interest in nor sympathy for Zionism.”
Today, on the land that made up the Turkish Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, twenty-two Arab/Islamic peoples have realized their hopes for independent nationhood. Jews also lived in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire. Why does the world begrudge one tiny sliver of land for Jewish national aspirations when…

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At Dachau

On the infamous “Night of Broken Glass” November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed a savage against the Jews of Germany. Leo Fuchs, my father was one of the 30,000 Jewish men arrested in Germany that night and among the 500 arrested in his home city of Leipzig.

Historians called that night, Kristallnacht, or in Germany Reichspogromnacht, the clear boundary in time after which no one could any longer doubt Hitler’s ultimate plan for Europe’s Jews.

That ultimate plan condemned one-third of all the Jews in the world to death. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews and three-fourths of Europe’s Rabbis Cantors, Jewish educators and communal leaders perished.

Out of the 18,000 Jews who lived in Leipzig in 1935, Hitler killed 14,000, seven out of every nine.

Upon their arrest on Kristallnacht, Leipzig’s captives had to stand in the stream that flows through the city zoo. There Nazi soldiers commanded citizens to spit on them, curse at them and throw mud on them.

Then they took my father to Dachau where they shaved his head and beat him.

But my father was one of the very fortunate ones. He had an older brother and an uncle already established in the United States. They petitioned Governor Herbert Lehman of New York, a Jew with German roots, and on December 3, 1938, my father was able to sail for New York City.

There he met and married my mother, and my sister Rochelle and I were born. I am very grateful.

I have never visited Dachau, but Dachau visits me often. My father’s two older brothers lived into their 80’s; my father died at 57.

Yes, I blame Dachau.

If someday I physically go there, these are the words I shall say:


Sometimes silence is the only appropriate response.

When we confront the depths of depravity to which humans can descend,

And the depths of despair that humans can inflict on others, Slack-jawed silence is the only response that is not flawed.

Entering Dachau is such a time.

The questions, “Why? And “How?” are all we can utter.

But there are no answers.

But if we believe,

In spite of what this place represents,

That there is a God, or a force within us that bids us to do what is

       just and right,

Then we must act—

     as God’s eyes that see the pain around us,

     as God’s ears, that hear the anguished cries,

     as God’s hands that reach out to comfort

           those who suffer

     and as God’s feet that run to those

     Whom life has wounded—

To walk with them

Away from the shattered past

       Of yesterday

Toward tomorrow

       And the promise of hope!


A Long Deferred Visit: AUSCHWITZ

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

arbeit-macht-freiTo commemorate Yom Ha Shoah, I share the following reflection of my visit to Auschwitz.

It should always be cold, it seems to me, at Auschwitz, and the sky should always be a dreary gray.

Unless it is a very hot day, I am always cold. It has been that way it, it seems to me, since the frigid night in February when my Hamilton College Hockey team played MIT in Boston outdoors.

I was not one of the team’s better players (an understatement), and I spent much of the game on the bench. Since then, I have been cold.

And so, as much as any of the horrible sufferings people endured or succumbed to at Auschwitz, I think of the cold.

The thin pieces of rag that inmates wore, and their often bare feet provided no shield at all against the brutal Polish winter.

It was not cold by…

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Six Women Made Passover Possible

We cannot really appreciate the meaning and message of Passover without recognizing the importance of these six women!

Passover will soon be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. Without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

Shipphrah and Puah

Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb. The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.


Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off!


Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life.

Pharaoh’s Daughter

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses.   For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).


The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)








Is It Time?

Guest blogger: Jeff Smith

Many thanks to Jeff Smith, a multi-talented, multi-media expert for this post. I only hope the talk I give on April 30 is worthy of the blurb Jeff wrote . I welcome suggestions as to how to approach this topic.

Whether attributable to the election of Donald Trump or not, there can be little doubt that the Bomb threats, desecrated Jewish cemeteries, and in the case of one Indiana Synagogue, a bullet fired through a Hebrew School classroom window, indicate an uptick in anti-Semitic activities in the past few months. Many people compare these hateful acts to those perpetrated on the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. If they could, many now would ask those German Jews, “Why did you wait so long to get out?”

Should American Jews be fearful that this is the leading edge of a new wave of anti-Semitism that could lead to a similar horrific result? Is it time to weigh our exit options? Where would we go if we did want to leave?
On Sunday April 30th at 9:00 AM, the Brotherhood welcomes Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, Beth Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus who will address these difficult questions and other pressing issues of the Jewish community. A suggested $6.00 contribution includes breakfast. All are invited.



Rabbi Harold Stanley Silver

It was my privilege to share these thoughts at the funeral of Rabbi Harold Silver:

With so many family members speaking this morning in addition to Rabbi Pincus, there is no need for me to review Rabbi Silver’s exemplary pulpit career in Pittsburgh and here at Beth Israel, or the remarkable things he accomplished after he retired. I only want to briefly express why I personally have such great love and respect for him.

High among my many blessings since Vickie and I came to Congregation Beth Israel nearly twenty years ago was having Rabbi Harold Silver as Rabbi Emeritus.

Among the congregations, where I have been invited to speak in the coming weeks, there is one served by rabbis who left their previous community precisely because the Rabbi Emeritus there meddled in congregational matters to the point where their lives became miserable.

I tell you this only to have you understand that having an Emeritus who knew when to let go—but who was always available for helpful advice—is not something a rabbi can take for granted.

Harold Silver was a prince … a prince of a man, a prince of a husband, father, grandfather, rabbi and—most precious to me—a prince of a Rabbi Emeritus.

I actually knew that before I came here and before I met Harold. Shortly after Rabbi Silver retired from Beth Israel in 1993 he wrote an article for the Central Conference of American rabbis Journal, which I rank as the most valuable article in that journal that I have read in my 43 years as a rabbi.

It spoke to a real problem of rabbis who do not know how to retire gracefully and presented a model for the Emeritus to gracefully and graciously step away. What an enormous contribution that article made to Reform Jewish life!

Rabbi Silver was always there for me, whenever I asked his advice, and I asked it often. He was a wonderful sounding board.

Yet in 14 years, showing remarkable restraint, he only criticized me twice. The first time was when the first Yom Kippur services I conducted ran far longer than the normal Beth Israel custom. Even on that occasion he was gentle, tactful, and gracious.

The second time was when I announced my retirement from the pulpit. He could not understand it. He thought I was too young and still had many good years left. I hope he was right.

Eventually he accepted my explanation that I always wanted to leave the pulpit before not after people began to ask, “When is he going to retire already.”

As Rabbi Emeritus of this congregation, I hope I am worthy of Rabbi Silver’s example. Rabbi Pincus, Rabbi Fliegl and Cantor Phillips, I want to be available to help you in any way I can, but I hope never to foist myself–or my opinions–on any of you. If I succeed in that lofty goal, I hope that each of you realize that you have Rabbi Harold Silver to thank for the example I try to follow.

His memory is a blessing to all of us.

The memoir Rabbi Silver wrote after he retired is titled, I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me, based on the words Jacob said to the Eternal One (Genesis 32:27) in his epic struggle with all that he was and all he hoped to be.

Rabbi Silver,although we must let you go, we still seek your blessing on our lives, thoughts and deeds.




The Watchmaker

When I came to Israel last week, I brought a broken watch that had sat in my drawer for two years. The watch repair departments of prominent jewelry stores in West Hartford, Connecticut and Bad Segeberg, Germany both examined it but told me there was nothing they could do with it. I had all but given up hope of ever wearing my special watch again.

Along Allenby Street in Tel Aviv there are at least two dozen jewelry/watch repair stores within a half-mile of the Mediterranean Sea. I decided I would try one.

I did not use Trip Advisor or Yelp reviews to choose. I was looking to pick up a vibe. As I passed one small shop, I paid attention to the gentle manner in which the proprietor dealt with a particular female customer.

My gut told me, “This is the place.”

When I handed the distinguished looking man my watch, he cradled it in his hands as though it were his infant grandchild.

He carefully examined and exclaimed that he might be able to fix it. “Come back in half an hour.” Something in his manner told me I had no need to ask for a receipt.

An hour later, I returned. The man looked at me with a proud twinkle in his eye and handed me the watch. He told me it was very complicated, and that were it not a gold watch, he would not have worked on it at all. He then gave me a gentle lecture about how I had to be careful with this watch and not wear it every day.

“No,” I promised, “only for Shabbat, holidays and special occasions.” He charged me 120 Israeli shekels, about $32, which was more than fair.

A few days later I went back.

While I was in Israel my former camp counselor and now friend, Doug Barnert, sent me a Facebook message. He wanted to support Israel by asking me to buy something worth about $100 for him.

So after my experience with my watch, I went back to the store at 60 Allenby Street. It is called Shalman Brothers, and I recommend it to everyone.

This time Ya’akov Shalman and his brother and business partner, Daniel, were both there. I told them: “I have a friend in the USA for whom I need a present. It has to be small enough to easily fit into my suitcase. So please give me the best watch that you have that costs as close as you can come to $100.” He showed me a beauty, and I bought it for Doug.

I am no expert in watches, but I think they gave me a deal.

By this time we were friends. The older brother shared that he is 82 years old and was born in Israel.His father and grandfather were born in Israel. This shop has been in their family since 1921.

And still some persist in saying that the Jews are interlopers in this land.

When I asked him about this he said, “All you have to do is look in the Bible to see how long we have lived here. How can any one say this is not our land?”

I could not agree more!

A Letter from Israel

sunset-over-the-mediterraneanThe beauty of the huge sun sinking quickly into the Mediterranean makes the ten thousand miles I flew to get here worthwhile. I have seen few sights as beautiful.

I am not here often, but each time I am, I am at home.

My people have laid claim to this land for 4000 years, so let no one tell us we have no right to be here. After one third of all the Jews in the world—and two-thirds of the Jews of Europe—perished in the Shoah, let no one say we have no right to be here.

Had there been an Israel in 1935, millions of Jews who died would have lived!

When, after World War One, more than 20 Arab Islamic states—in many of which a Jew cannot legally set foot—sprung up, so let no one say that we Jews, who also lived under Ottoman rule, have no right to one–tinier than almost all of them–Jewish state as well.

And when we discuss, as we should, Palestinian refugees displaced by the creation of Israel, let us also discuss the roughly equal number of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands where once Jews felt welcome and at home.

Now I often find myself critical of policies of Israel’s current government.

I often find myself wishing and hoping that they would do more than they do now to bring about peace with our Arab neighbors, but so many of Israel’s unyielding critics ignore the reality under which this tiny country labors.

When, from the time they are old enough to think, the enemy teaches its children to hate Israel, to hate Jews and to consider martyrdom in killing Jews in Israel a glorious death, what is Israel to do?

There is much to criticize in Israel, just as there is much to criticize in the United States.

Yet for 4000 uninterrupted years our people has lived on or longed to live on this land and prayed for peace with its neighbors.

The huge fiery sun sets quickly to the west over the ancient city of Jaffa and sinks quickly into the Mediterranean! And just as the poet of Genesis’ creation story wrote, a much smaller but exquisitely beautiful crescent moon takes its place to stand sentry over the night. Just east of the sea the modern city of Tel Aviv bustles about its business. The contrast between the ancient and modern tableaus that exist side by side in Israel stretches the definition of stark!

Contemporary Israel is by no means an idyllic Bible land. But it is the home of my people. Let no one say we have no right to be here!

But let Israel—by forging ancient values with modern technology—find a way to live in peace with the enemies who continually reiterate their vow to destroy us.

Israel’s history is filled with many acts of military heroism, but our Sages taught (Avot de Rabbi Natan, 23:1): “Who is the hero of heroes? One who turns an enemy into a friend!”

For the sake of our children, grandchildren and generations to come may Israel and its neighbors soon produce those types of heroes!

Embarrassing Moment; Priceless Lesson

It was the most embarrassing moment of my life, but the mimeographed letter made clear what I had to do:

Since you have missed the Honor Roll for the second time this year, you are no longer a member of the National Honor Society. Please bring your pin and membership certificate to Miss De Luke in room 202 at your earliest convenience.

My fall from academic grace was swift and hurtful. I had hit my stride as a student at the beginning of my junior year. I remember vividly how I beamed when at the end of the first marking period, our guidance counselor, Miss Jane Perry, came into our English class to announce that I stood first in the class for that six weeks.

At that time Miss DeLuke called me to her classroom and asked me to consider becoming Honor Society President the next year.

Six months later I was walking to her classroom to return my pin. I was mortified.

For some weeks previous I had felt unusually tired. A medical exam revealed that my Protein Bound Iodine (PBI) count was quite low. “This,” my doctor exclaimed, “could account for your diminished academic performance.” He then wrote a letter to the school explaining the condition in some detail.

Clutching the letter, I made a beeline for Miss Perry’s office. This will get me back in the honor society, I thought to myself. “After all, I have the gold standard Gordian Knot cutter for any school-related problem, a bona fide doctor’s excuse!”

“That’s too bad,” Miss Perry said, after reading the letter. “I’m glad you are being treated.”

“So, I asked, “Can I get back into the Honor Society if I get my grades back up?

Miss Perry’s unequivocal, “No,” slapped me across the face.

“I am sorry it happened,” she continued, “but the rules are the rules. You will not get back in the Honor Society.”

As I left her office the oft-repeated words of my hockey coach, Gil Adams, reverberated in my head: “When you play a game, no one cares that you had a cold, a sprained ankle or a stiff neck. All they will ask is, ‘who won, and what was the score.’”

At graduation, those in the Honor Society wore a gold tassel and a gold sash. I think I was the only one listed in the program as a High Honors (top five per cent) graduate without those adornments, and I felt humiliated.  More than five per cent of the class walked that day with National Honor Society recognition.

Fifty plus years later, of course, it matters little. But the lesson the experience taught is with me every day:

Just do the best that you can, and don’t make excuses! Nobody cares about them anyway.