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The “I” In AIPAC: Reflections on the 2017 Conference

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

I just returned from one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’m speaking of the three days I spent in Washington, D.C., participating in the AIPAC Policy Conference 2017.

Even without considering the content of the Conference—which was all at once edifying, heartening, moving, and inspiring; even without all that, what really reinforced in me the essential need to be there was the crowd that gathered across the street from the Washington Conference Center. There was a small group of sweet, fresh-faced, naïve, Jewish young men and women—they looked college age—singing sweet Jewish songs and simulating waves with long blue plastic sheets they held.

And the other group that they were standing right next to, which unfurled a huge banner that read: “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.”

“From the river to the sea.” Forget “The Settlements;” forget the 1967 or the 1948 armistice lines. Forget any of it. Not even the thinnest sliver of the Land of Israel could be a Jewish state.

I was surprised not by the anger but rather by the pity that arose in me for those naïve, young Jewish demonstrators. For in the book of the pro-Palestinian group, their fate was already sealed. Pray God they would never have to face the consequences of their naiveté.

As for me, a Second Generation Survivor of one of the greatest evils human beings ever perpetrated, I am not willing to give any of them half a chance. And that’s why I was there.

Inside the Convention Center, one of the first presenters to take the stage was a ten-year-old Arab boy from Gaza, born with a heart defect and who would have died if it weren’t for the Israeli surgeons who operated on him as a newborn infant at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Speaking about Yousef as well as of hundreds of other men, women and children injured in the war in Syria, the commanding officer of the IDF Medical Corps, whose work today includes running emergency field hospitals for these victims, reminded all of us that the Arabs “think of Israel as their enemy, when we are not the enemies. We are their surgeons, doctors, nurses and social workers.”

Taking the stage one after another were political leaders from around the world, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (by live video), former Prime Ministers Toni Blair of Great Britain and Stephen Harper from Canada, as well as the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.

African American presenters spoke about the shifting landscape in Israel-African American relations, inspiring heartfelt and meaningful dialogue that must and will continue. Representatives of the Hispanic American community likewise spoke of strong bonds with Israel, bonds that go both ways.

Needless to say, there was no shortage of American leaders, both Democrat and Republican. There were quite a few entertainers, among them Alan Dershowitz—OK, strictly not an entertainer, but certainly one of the most entertaining and brilliant lawyers in America or anywhere else around the world for that matter; and Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, co-producers, writers and stars of the Fauda, the highly acclaimed Israeli political thriller TV series (now available on Netflix).

The list goes on and on (You can see the full list of speakers here).

But the speaker who brought the house down, receiving the longest and loudest standing ovation in AIPAC history, was the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley. She spoke to the heart of all of us, addressing our deepest frustration: The shameful, incredibly biased bashing of Israel in the United Nations.

Among the chief topics of discussion that speakers and panels addressed were: Iran’s threat to the Middle East and the world; the campaign to delegitimize Israel; the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement that employs bullying and harassment tactics mostly on college campuses; and the need for ongoing military aid to Israel—America’s best and most reliable ally in the world today.

But it was the personal stories and testimonies that touched us most.

One of these was the story of Amnon Weinstein, a violinmaker from Israel who has been restoring the Violins of Hope—instruments used by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, whose sweet melodies were silenced when their owners were murdered. On the stage, virtuoso Hagai Shaham, playing one of those violins, improvised a soul-moving interlude that slowly transitioned into Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope). Silently, 18,000 spectators rose to their feet and one by one joined in singing the anthem. I am not exaggerating when I say that there was not a dry eye in the entire convention center.

To see this video, among others from this incredible conference, click here.

On the final day of the conference, many of us took to Capital Hill to lobby our House and Senate representatives. I had the great honor of voicing my concerns before New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan. The Senator’s empathy and understanding were matched by her brilliant and warm Senior National Security Advisor, Harlan Geer.

Some forty-five minutes later, as I left Senator Hassan’s office, I was thinking what an incredible privilege this was. Here I was, walking down a long hallway lined with the offices of U.S. Senators, playing a part—a minute part indeed, yet a part nonetheless—in the political machinery of the most powerful nation on earth. I had the amazing privilege of representing not only Israel, but also my congregants in Temple B’nai Israel of Laconia, NH. I spoke for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I spoke for my grandparents—both those who didn’t survive the Holocaust, and those who did. I spoke for the children who were denied life; and for my children in America, and for my brother’s children in Israel.

I spoke for Arab children who deserve to live in peace, a basic human right, but who—terrorized, miserable and hungry—live instead in war-torn countries and soulless cities and who seek shelter from constant—and intentional—bombardment carried out by their own leaders.

I spoke for them all because so many around the world would rather blame Israel for anything bad that happens, rather than reach a hand in peace and together build a better, safer and saner world.

By myself, my voice doesn’t carry very far. But get together 18,000 others who feel and think as I do, and your voice resonates powerfully. That’s what AIPAC really is all about. AIPAC isn’t only about Israel; AIPAC is about progress and humanity. AIPAC is a coalition of voices, parties and opinions, all gathered for the cause of sanity, dignity and peace.

That’s why I went, and why—with God’s help—I will go again next year. I have already registered, and I encourage each and every one of you to join me. PC 2018 will be held March 4-6; IF YOU REGISTER NOW YOU WILL SAVE $200 OFF THE PRICE OF REGISTRATION. Click here to register.

You will be grateful, as I am, that you did.

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Lessons In Leadership: Vayak’hel-Pekudei

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

When it came time for me to decide on a topic for my rabbinic dissertation, the choice was easy. I recognized it early on, when I was yet a first year student at Hebrew Union College. It would be about chapters from the Midrash—the rabbinic teachings of the first millennium—dealing with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In retrospect, I understand now why that choice was so clear. My experience as a second generation Holocaust survivor had prepared me. As a child growing up in Israel, just about every adult I knew was a Holocaust survivor. Everyone I knew was trying to rebuild his or her life, starting from scratch.

Later, as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t only true for the people I knew personally. It was true for the whole Jewish People—in fact, for the entire world population, Jewish and Gentile like. World War II and its horrors changed us forever. We had witnessed the most terrifying cruelty, the most evil acts ever perpetrated by humanity, and we were no longer the innocent human race we were before.

Reconstructing humanity, rebuilding civilization from the ashes, is no simple matter.

In the Midrash, the Rabbis viewed similarly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem was the heart of world Jewry. Though Jewish communities existed elsewhere, the Kingdom of Judea was the epicenter of Jewish sovereignty. With that gone, spiritual renewal became crucial if Judaism and the Jewish People were to survive.

Perhaps the wise rabbis, authors of the Midrash, looked to the Exodus from Egypt as their model. The second book of the Torah, Exodus, actually contains two parts: First comes the story of the redemption from Egyptian slavery. But the entire second half of the book takes place afterwards, in the Sinai wilderness. Now its focus is not on the Hebrews as slaves, but rather as free builders of the Tent of Meeting—the Tabernacle—the temporary temple that the Israelites carried with them during their wanderings in the Wilderness. Instructions and blueprints for the Tabernacle are given and repeated in minute detail. In this week’s double portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei (Ex. 35:1—20:38), the story comes to its conclusion with the assembly and completion of the Tabernacle, replete with the magnificent gold menorah, the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and the splendid tapestries woven with expensive and colorful thread and material.

As slaves, the Israelites were not able to build or structure their own lives. The orders came from Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Everything was dictated: So many bricks per day, so many buildings and storehouses every week, month and year. The kingdom of Egypt was built by slaves, many of whom did not live to see the end of the day in the harsh desert sun. Added to this was the genocide we suffered at Pharaoh’s decree: With every newborn male that was thrown into the Nile, we saw our future swept away by waves of hatred, misery and oppression.

Rebuilding the nation was not going to be easy, but Moses had the wisdom that this project required.

First, Moses gave us hope. Moses reassured us that God had not forgotten us; that the time was coming when God would fulfill the pledge made long ago, to lead us out of slavery and take us—on eagles’ wings—to the Promised Land. With hope rekindled, we found new spirit within us to face the future, no matter how bleak life was at the moment.

Next, Moses gave us faith.

An invisible God is not easy to believe in. All around, people were worshipping idols. Egyptian mythology is filled with fantasy creatures that people actually believed in, half-animal, half-human creatures that led their own lives, detached from humanity, all involved in their own problems and mysteries. These were images of gods and goddesses who required sacrifice—often enough human lives—to appease their insatiable lust for power and pleasure. In fact, Pharaoh himself was a god, which permitted him to do anything he wanted to: he could decree war or peace; he could issue laws and appoint judges to benefit himself or anyone else he wished to favor. He was provider of food and water, shaper of global history. Why, he could even command life and death!

Moses taught the Israelites a different faith. He taught us to believe in a supreme God characterized by justice, compassion and fairness; a God before whom all human beings are equal, and who judges all beings by set rules of what is holy and what is evil. The God that Moses taught us about is not fickle, like those worshipped by the Egyptians, but rather a God of consequences: to each according to his or her own deeds.

Thirdly, along with hope and faith, Moses gave us something to do, presenting us with a project that each individual, big or small, young or old, could participate in. He gave us instructions for a Tabernacle to be built with materials and goods we supplied of our own free will, with everyone contributing of his or her talent, ability and means. Response to this was overwhelming—so much so, the Torah tells us, that the offerings brought forth far exceeded the actual need.

Similarly, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the rabbis of the first millennium gave us hope again. They taught that the Messiah would restore Jerusalem to its former glory and reassemble our exiled people from all corners of the world. The rabbis reinforced our belief in a God who was supreme to any earthbound ruler, albeit a God whose vision lay far beyond our mortal grasp and understanding.

Like Moses, the rabbis, too, then presented us with a building project. They instructed us to build not one temple, but many tabernacles and temples. They showed us how to construct houses of worship and study that would accompany us along our journeys and which would be our spiritual homes during throughout our wanderings in the Diaspora. They taught us about tikkun olam, encouraging us never to give up hope, never to stop believing, to continue offering our free-will donations and to persist in our endeavors to turn the entire world into a holy dwelling place for God.

Post-Holocaust, today we find ourselves in a similar quandary. With our own eyes we have seen the collapse of mighty empires, with new nations rising and once-oppressed peoples re-asserting their lost identity. In the wake of destruction, hope for a new world order, for world peace, returned.

For the Jews, there is no greater miracle or proof of God’s power than Israel restored, with its heart still beating in our ancient—now-rebuilt—capital, Jerusalem.

But problems persist and abound. Waves of anti-Semitism have been cresting both globally and locally. Israel is again—or perhaps still—under physical, legal and moral attack by its enemies.

Tensions all over the world are rising. Global alliances are falling apart. More countries than ever now possess nuclear power and are intent on developing the means and technology to use it against others. Our fragile environment continues to be eroded by greedy corporations. Affected by climate change, entire regions of the world are reeling from the effects of massive storms, drought and famine, while new plagues and diseases ravage whole populations. And yet people still worship false, corrupt gods of money, lust and power, denying responsibility, believing themselves to be beyond reach, unaccountable for their words or behavior.

Facing enormous problems, it would behoove world leaders today to review the lessons taught by Moses and the ancient Rabbis. Tweeting insults in the middle of the night; denying health benefits to the most vulnerable among us; turning against the stranger, the refugee, the impoverished; returning to past norms of prejudice and persecution—these are not the markers of the path to the Promised Land, but rather back to the dank and miserable past we had left behind.

Moses taught us to have faith in a just and loving God. From the rabbis we learned about tikkun olam. Throughout the ages, we have not lost our hope to see and live in a better world.

These lessons are important to remember especially today, in an age of uncertainty and change, an age when ethics and morality are challenged daily by unbridled greed and corruption. The most important lesson our leaders can internalize today is that a great leader is not recognized by the gold and ivory with which he surrounds himself, but rather by the hope he inspires, and by the unity and purpose he brings to his people. These are the signs of true leadership. These are the signs of a great civilization. May we all benefit from these eternal lessons, so that our nation will truly once again shine as a beacon of hope for the whole world and all its inhabitants.

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A Quantum of Holiness

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1—20:23), more than any other passage in the Torah, contains the most transformative and eternal moment in the entire history of the People in Israel. It is in this portion that the People of Israel receive the Ten Commandments.

Yitro, after whom the portion is named, is Moses’s father-in-law. Years earlier, after killing an abusive Egyptian slave master and arousing Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses fled to the wilderness. There he meets Jethro and marries one of his daughters, Zipporah. Years later, no longer a fugitive but rather now leader of the redeemed People of Israel, Moses returns to the wilderness. Jethro comes out to meet him, and the two greet one another warmly.

Yitro observes Moses as he struggles from early in the morning and deep into the night, trying to bring law and justice to the Israelites. A wise leader in his own right, Yitro offers Moses sound advice on how to organize, regroup, govern and judge the unruly mass that the Israelites are at this point in their journey.

Had our development stopped right there, I doubt we would still be here today, more than 3000 years later. Many civilizations had developed law codes, established courts, judges and a magistrate system. Precious little remains of them today. But Israel was destined to do something greater than that, and if for that reason alone, it is still here.

Israel is to be a unique people in all history, a people that stands alone and apart from all other nations, and moreover, a people that exists in a unique and special relationship with God.

In its relationships with other nations, Israel will find itself navigating uncharted waters. On one shore, the one we left behind, is Egypt. On the other side lies the Promised Land. On its journey from the one shore to the other, Israel will encounter many nations and peoples. Some will want to see us cursed or destroyed; others on the other hand, will be of help, sustenance and support. Moses understands that for the sake of physical survival, Israel needs to be organized along well-defined lines. Existential dangers lie along the way, including a people called Amalek, a people who will come to symbolize all that is evil and dangerous in the world.

But if, in addition to simple survival, Israel is to accomplish the high spiritual goals that God has envisioned for us, there has to be more. And so, with due courtesy and affection, Moses sends his father-in-law, Yitro, back home, while he and the People of Israel turn eastward and take their first steps toward their promised home.

Almost immediately, however, they arrive at, and encamp, before a mountain the Torah calls the Mountain of God. It is here that they enter into the Covenant with God, the Covenant that will ensure not only Israel’s physical survival, but also its spiritual legacy, its special charge of being a Holy People, a “light unto the nations.”

Certainly there are many reasons to climb mountains. When Sir Edmund Hillary returned from his famous ascent to the peak of Mt. Everest, he was asked why he climbed the dangerous mountain. His often-quoted reply was, “Because it was there.” Without a doubt, mountains present physical as well as spiritual challenges. Mysterious but beautiful, ever since the dawn of humanity mountains were seen as the dwelling place of the gods.

It was at this very mountain, the Mountain of God in the Sinai Wilderness, where Moses first encountered a vision of God, appearing in the burning bush. Now it was Israel’s turn.

Unlike other religions, whose founders were alone when their god appeared to them, the Revelation at Sinai was for the entire People of Israel to behold. Forewarned not to touch the sacred mountain, the people felt nevertheless drawn closer and closer to it, as though through some powerful force that they could not understand. This force was God’s presence, appearing in fire and smoke, accompanied by a loud blast of a shofar, a sound that—according to the ancient rabbis—reverberated from one end of the world to the other. God’s voice rose louder and louder, calling out, singling the People of Israel out from all other nations, inviting us—challenging us—to be God’s Chosen People.

Frightened, the people ask Moses to intercede, for him to speak God’s words with his voice, a voice that they could understand and absorb. And so the Ten Commandments come to be our legacy, a moment that transcends history and time. At that moment, Israel ceased being a nation like all other nations, and became a force acting with God, in partnership with God, a people whose survival would be warranted not only by physical strength, but also by spiritual power.

But along with the more famous and often quoted (and misquoted) Ten Commandments, there is actually another, an eleventh commandment that we Jews have taken to heart. Whereas the Ten Commandments embody what is good and holy, the 11th commandment addresses evil.

Among the many people and tribes that the Israelites meet along their journey in the wilderness, one tribe stands out for its viciousness and cruelty: Amalek. Amalek is actually the first tribe that engages the Israelites in battle, immediately after the Exodus. It is a hard battle, and not immediately won. During the forty years that Israel wanders in the Sinai Wilderness, the Amalekites will attack again and again, earning a curse from God, who swears to eradicate not only the people but also its very name and memory. Following one of those battles with the Amalekites, Moses issues a commandment: “Zachor,” he says, “Remember that which Amalek has done to you when you came out of Egypt.”

To some of us, this Zachor, this commandment to remember the people who tried to kill us, who concentrated all their evil on the weak and defenseless among our nation, has become the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt never again allow your enemies to slaughter you unprotected.”

The Midrash relates that “When God gave the Law, no bird sang or flew, no ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the Seraphim ceased from saying ‘Holy, holy,’ the sea was calm, no creature spoke; the world was silent and still, and the Divine voice said, ‘I am Adonai your God’” [Ex. Rabba, Yitro, XXIX, 9]. We have been hearing those words ever since then; they are still reverberating within our hearts and souls today.

Israel’s survival through the ages has depended on these Commandments. The Revelation at Sinai proved a force that has kept us unified despite the vicissitudes of our existence, despite our long history of exile, destruction and rebuilding. In days of glory and peace, our Covenant with God has enabled us to enjoy life with all its pleasures and gifts. During the long and dark nights of oppression and persecution, it gave us light, comfort, sustenance and hope.

But most of all, what these Ten Utterances—‘aseret ha-dib’rot—have done was to instill into our hearts a quantum of holiness. With the light we perceived then, we can still find meaning and purpose for our existence now. Listening, hearing, discussing and obeying the Commandments, we find new strength to continue; the fire within us rekindles, and we can make new progress along our journey of 3600 years, bringing light and hope to all corners of the world and the universe around us.

Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, may have contributed rules and regulations to the nascent nation of Israel; but what Moses and God did was to give us eternal life. It’s the gift of holiness.

May the light of holiness, the light we saw at the moment of the Revelation at Sinai, continue to shine within us on this Shabbat and throughout the days and nights of our lives.