Enough Senseless Tragedies Like Sandy Hook

A movie theater. A Sikh house of worship. An elementary school.

How long until we say enough gun violence in our nation? These tragic events get the media coverage because they are the result of gun violence on a large scale, but there are horrific murders and suicides in our nation all the time which are the result of guns and bullets.

Earlier today I took part in a conference call for rabbis about the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Rabbi David Lerner, founder of Clergy Against Bullets, and Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, a chaplain and Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut (ten miles from Newtown), both spoke to the more than 100 rabbis on the call. There were Jewish texts that were cited, but ultimately the discussion turned to the need for comprehensive gun reform in our nation.

This evening I represented the local Jewish community at a candlelight vigil for the victims. The following are the words I spoke in an attempt to put the tragedy into perspective, bring healing and also encourage people that we must work to put an end to gun violence.

I have been asked to speak here this evening as a rabbi and as a representative of our Jewish community, however, I would not be fully honest if I didn’t tell you that I also stand here in my most important capacity – a Dad. As a father of two 1st graders I couldn’t help but look at the adorable faces of those children and think about my own children. This violent act was senseless, immoral, brutal and truly vicious. But it was not unspeakable. We, as God’s children, MUST speak about it.

In the portion of the Torah which Jewish people will read in synagogue this coming Shabbat, we hear the voice of Joseph asking if his father is still alive. After revealing himself to his shocked brothers, the first words out of his mouth concern his loved one and whether he is alive or dead. Last Friday, it was the other way around. It was parents asking if their child was still alive. With concern in their voice, they asked the question that no parent should ever have to ask.

In Judaism, we have a mitzvah, a commandment, from Leviticus 19:16 that says lo ta’amod al dam re’echa  — You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. And I know this is a core ethical precept in all of our faith traditions. Just as we all share the value of Tikkun Olam, that we must all serve as God’s partners in making the world a better place, so too we must hold up the banner that we cannot stand by as our fellow humans, indeed our nation’s children, are being shot dead in school.

We are so much better than that. We have a responsibility to protect each other. To ensure that violence always loses out to peace. That life trumps death. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school. We owe it to fellow parents and grandparents.
I don’t have an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school on that fateful day in Connecticut. None of us does. But we do have a mission in front of us. Let us work together so that tragedies such as this are relegated to the history books and our future will be so much brighter.

As a tribute to the victims of this tragedy and to all who mourn, I offer this prayer written by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy:

Our hearts are breaking, God,
As our nation buries innocent children and brave teachers.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God, to grieving parents,
To siblings, family and friends in this time of shock and mourning.
Shield them from despair.
Send healing to the schoolchildren who are lost and frightened
Whose eyes witnessed unfathomable horrors.
Ease their pain, God,
Let their fears give way to hope.
Let their cries give way once more to laughter.

Bless us, God,
Work through us.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
With a renewed faith in the goodness of our society.
Shield us from indifference
And from our tendency to forget.
Open our hearts, open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us to act.
Remind us that we must commit ourselves to prevent further bloodshed
With all our hearts and souls.
Teach us perseverance and dedication.
Let us rise up as one in a time of soul-searching and repair
So that all children can go to school in peace, God,
Let them be safe.

God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Amen.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

iStockPhoto

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Delmon Young and Mel Gibson

I couldn’t resist making this movie spoof poster with Mel Gibson and Delmon Young:

Delmon Young and Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson’s name was brought up repeatedly after the news broke about the Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Delmon Young getting arrested in Manhattan for second-degree aggravated harassment and uttering an anti-Semitic slur while he was intoxicated. Young has been given a 7-game suspension by Major League Baseball and also placed indefinitely on baseball’s restricted list.

More details have been released concerning the altercation. According to the NY Daily News, Delmon Young was arrested for “assaulting Jason Shank following his drunken anti-Semitic rant. According to police sources, Young began screaming the offensive remarks after a panhandler wearing a Star of David and a yarmulke approached him. Shank and three friends gave the man $20 outside the hotel, which ignited Young’s racist rhetoric.”

According to reports Shank, 32, and three of his friends were visiting Manhattan from Schaumberg, a Chicago suburb, for a weekend bachelor party. Delmon Young screamed “You bunch of f—— Jews!” and then got into a fight with Jason Shank on the sidewalk outside the hotel. Young was released from jail after posting $5,000 bail after his arraignment for an aggravated harassment charge that was classified as a hate crime. According to his LinkedIn page, Shank is an international consultant for Trident Worldwide in Missouri and a regional manager for Taggart International, a company with offices in Wood Dale and Missouri. Both companies specialize in importing and exporting. Neither Shank or his bachelor party friends are Jewish.

In 2006, Delmon Young was suspended for 50 games without pay while playing for a minor league team after he threw his baseball bat at an umpire who called him out after three strikes.

Ironically, Delmon Young’s agent is Arn Tellem of the Wasserman Media Group. Tellem, a 1979 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School is Jewish. I’m not sure if Daniel J. Ollen, Young’s criminal attorney in New York, is Jewish but that would be ironic as well.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be talking about the Delmon Young situation live on the Mojo in the Morning radio show on Channel 95.5 here in Detroit. The show will be broadcast live from a kosher pizza parlor and bagel shop in Oak Park, a suburb just outside of Detroit.

UPDATE:
Here’s the radio podcast from the Mojo in the Morning show:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Israeli Bandage and Gabby Giffords

The highlight of the AIPAC Policy Conference so far has been the exhibit on Israeli technological innovation in the AIPAC Village. The bottom floor of the Washington Convention Center, called AIPAC Village, is where D.C.’s annual auto show is held so it is the perfect location to display the America-Israel Racing’s NASCAR race car, an electric car from Shai Agassi’s Better Place, and an Israeli tank. However, the best thing that I saw in that exhibit was the first meeting between two men.

I happened to witness the first encounter between Bernard Bar-Natan and Daniel Hernandez. Both of these men contributed to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh — saving a life. Bar-Natan is responsible for developing the “Israeli Bandage” that was used to save Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life after the assassination attempt that almost killed her. Daniel Hernandez had only been Rep. Giffords’ intern for five days on the day of the tragic incident. Hernandez had the good sense to wrap Giffords’ wounds with makeshift bandages until the paramedics arrived on the scene.

With Daniel Hernandez and Bernard Bar-Natan, CEO of FirstCare

When Bernard Bar-Natan was training to become a military medic in the mid-80’s he noticed that some of the bandages they were using in the Israeli Army to stop bleeding were manufactured during World War II or even before. He began working on new bandages that would have a pressure bar built into the bandage itself. In the early 90’s Bar-Natan was part of a technology incubator program in Jerusalem with a government grant allowing him to develop the bandage. Today, Bar-Natan’s startup company, First Care Products in Lod, Israel, produces over 2 million bandages a year.

The Israeli Bandage helps stem blood loss, prevents infection and allows non-medically trained soldiers to stabilize a wound. American emergency management and law enforcement teams also use the Israeli Bandage. After the Israeli Bandage was used to stop Gabby Giffords’ bleeding, Dr. Katherine Hiller, an emergency physician at the University of Arizona Medical Center remarked, “Without this care, it would have definitely been a different situation.”

This bandage is just one example of how Israeli innovation is saving lives. While I haven’t had the honor to ever meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in person, I felt truly privileged yesterday to meet two of the men responsible for her still being alive today. Watching them meet each other was a remarkable moment and one that I won’t soon forget.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Must a Rabbi Report Confidential Confessions?

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from Niraj Warikoo, the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. He told me that he was assisting another reporter on a local news story and had a few questions for me. Niraj described the case to me.

In 2009, a young girl reported to police that two years earlier when she was 9-years-old she was raped by a 15-year-old male cousin at a sleepover at her home. The boy’s pastor was informed of the allegation and he summoned the boy and his mother to the Metro Baptist Church in Belleville, Michigan to be questioned about the incident. The boy confessed to his pastor about the rape and then they prayed. The pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan, went to the authorities and has since testified about the confession. Is that legal? Is that ethical?

It’s a horrible situation, but it also presents a host of interesting legal and ethical questions about what is known as pastor-penitent privilege. This privilege varies from state to state, but in Michigan it is protected in the same way as attorney-client privilege. In the Detroit Free Press article I explained that I honor the confidentiality of people who confess to me, but “if information that is confided in me would lead to serious harm of another human being, I would feel compelled to tell the authorities. That would include situations of abuse.”

It is important that people have a safe space to speak in confidence with their religious leader in addition to their attorney. Judaism does not place the same emphasis on confession as the Catholic faith does, but we do want people to feel comfortable speaking with their rabbi while they’re in the process of repentance.

Last night I appeared on Detroit’s Fox News affiliate to discuss this topic along with Ray Cassar, the defense attorney for the boy accused of rape. It was a very interesting discussion in which I fully agreed that in this case the pastor’s testimony about the accused’s confession should not be admissible in court. It is very important to protect the confidential discussions between clergy and congregant (or pastor and parishioner in this case). However, if I ever felt that confidential information I was given by a congregant could prevent a tragic act from taking place, I would feel compelled to break that confidentiality. In that case, the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) would dictate my decision.

Here is the video of last night’s episode of “Let It Rip” on Fox2 Detroit:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Prayer in Sports – Part 2

Last week I blogged about the role of public prayer in sports. What prompted me to blog about the subject was a Detroit Free Press article in which I was quoted that dealt with the trend of major league baseball players praying and performing various religious-related activities on the sports field like drawing crosses in the dirt and blowing kisses to heaven after a home run.

Professional and collegiate players giving thanks to God in the locker room after a game is nothing new and neither is a player crossing himself after a touchdown. Lately however, this has gone to a new level and that is probably thanks in large measure to Tim Tebow, the NFL player who started the “Tebowing” craze. The Denver Broncos quarterback, who stencils biblical verses into his eye black, drops to one knee in silent devotion in the middle of his games. This act of public prayer has led to people everywhere to start “Tebowing.”

As a rabbi, I don’t have a problem with the Tebowing craze but I think it’s funny that it has restarted the debate over public prayer. If a player simply closes his eyes and gives thanks to God no one will notice, but as soon as he drops to one knee it becomes a national obsession.

Today’s college game between Penn State and Nebraska will only add fuel to this debate. Before the game in Beaver Stadium, the crowd watched as both teams joined together in the middle of the field for group prayer. This prayer service was preceded by a moment of silence for the entire stadium asking for healing for those affected by child molestation. The Penn State campus was already emotionally charged following the forced resignation of its long time coach Joe Paterno for not doing more to stop the child molestation that took place at a youth football camp held on campus several years earlier. No doubt, people will be weighing in on whether it was appropriate for both teams to join in public prayer before the game. After all, this is something that is usually done in the privacy of the locker room.

For those who criticize Tim Tebow for praying on the football field for such trivial things as a touchdown pass, perhaps the Penn State-Nebraska prayer service will raise the question of whether its appropriate to pray for serious things on the football field (victims of child molestation, our troops oversees, those battling cancer, etc.). Most likely, athletes are going to continue to publicly pray on the sports field and demonstrate their religious beliefs. And the debate over whether its appropriate or not will continue as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Iran Hiker Josh Fattal vs. Gilad Shalit

At the end of September following the release of the American hikers who were being held by Iran, reports came out that one of the hikers was Jewish. While the whole world knew that Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were taken prisoner in Iran and accused of espionage, what most people didn’t know was that Josh Fattal’s father is Jewish and that he identifies as a Jew.

Fattal’s father, Jacob, emigrated from Iraq to Israel in 1951, and after serving in the Israeli army moved to the United States. Jacob Fattal’s siblings still live in Israel. The media did a great job of keeping Fattal’s Jewish connection a secret during the two years of his imprisonment in Iran. Only after his release from prison and return to American soil has Fattal’s Jewish story been told. The Jewish Exponent revealed that Josh Fattal became a Bar Mitzvah at Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom’s suburban campus and that he has traveled to Israel several times where he still has relatives.

I was thinking about the reaction to Josh Fattal’s release from prison and safe return home to the U.S. as I read a report this morning about an Israeli Knesset member’s outrage that Gilad Shalit traveled to a beach on his first Shabbat of freedom rather than to synagogue.

Photo Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

ynetNews.com reports that “Shas Minister Meshulam Nahari slammed the formerly captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat after his return instead of going to the synagogue for prayer. Nahari claimed that Shalit and his father should have utilized the first Saturday after he was freed from Hamas captivity to say the [Gomel] benediction of deliverance – a Jewish prayer of thanks traditionally said by those who survived an adversity or were released from prison.”

Apparently this ultra-religious member of Israeli Parliament is taking his orders from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas political party who has charged him with the task of bringing Shalit closer to Judaism. While it would have been great had Josh Fattal gone to a synagogue on the first Shabbat following his release from Iranian captivity, it was his prerogative not to. And so too with Gilad Shalit.

This is the problem with Israel’s political system. Nahari is a member of the Israeli government and is speaking out against a citizen’s decision to go to the beach with his father rather than to synagogue. Yes, I think it would have been great had Gilad given thanks to God with the traditional Gomel blessing in a synagogue close to his home in Mitzpe Hila, but he is a free man in a democratic nation and can be thankful anyway he chooses. No rabbi and certainly no politician here in America slammed Josh Fattal for not going to a synagogue or temple to praise God for his freedom on the first Shabbat after arriving home.

Perhaps the most important message of both Josh Fattal’s freedom from Iran and Gilad Shalit’s freedom from Hamas is that they returned to their respective free and democratic home countries where they each had the freedom of choice to decide how they would spend their first Saturday of freedom. Synagogue or not, they were grateful to be home.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Gilad Shalit’s First Ten Days of Freedom

I’ve been paying close attention to Gilad Shalit’s first days of freedom from captivity. The debate of whether the prisoner swap was the right choice rages on throughout Israel and beyond, but I’ve become more interested in how he adapts to freedom and how he responds to his new status as a celebrity.

Perhaps what is most notable has been how the Israeli media has treated Gilad and the Shalit family since his release last Tuesday. In general, the news media has respected a 10-day moratorium on intrusion in the town where the Shalit family lives. With the exception of a few photos that were released with the family’s permission of Gilad riding a bicycle and swimming at the beach, there have been no reports of paparazzi-like intrusion into his life during the past ten days. I don’t believe this could have ever happened here in the United States. The American media and paparazzi would have staked out his home 24-7 to get the best photograph of Gilad re-adjusting to freedom in the privacy of his home. Kudos to the Israeli media for being so respectful of this 10-day period.

This video of Gilad Shalit riding his bicycle by his home in Mitzpe Hila was released with permission of the Shalit family:

GILAD’S UGLY SHIRT
I instinctively knew that it wouldn’t take long until humor became part of the Gilad Shalit story. The first real example of this is the now famous “Ugly Hamas Shirt” that Gilad wore when he was released. ynet News first reported that “The Shalit Shirt” has quickly become a fashion trend in Gaza. “The first image of Gilad Shalit out of Gaza has captured the attention of many in Israel and around the world. Shalit was led by Hamas men wearing civilian clothing including a plaid shirt. But while most focused on his gaunt frame, it appears many Palestinians were more interested in his outfit, which became an immediate trend in Gaza.” Stores in the Gaza Strip are selling “The Shalit Shirt” in a wide range of colors for 60 Shekels or about $16.50. There are already several Gaza-based Facebook groups about Gilad’s ugly shirt.

BIBI’S FOREST GUMP MOMENT
It’s unusual for a prime minister to crave the spotlight and sneak into photos because, well, they’re already the leader of the nation and always in the spotlight. However, it really seemed like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing just that during the reunion of Gilad Shalit and his father. It didn’t take long for the Israeli news media and bloggers worldwide to recognize that Bibi was trying to get his face into the iconic photos during Gilad’s release.

This act of hubris was immediately labeled “Bibi Forest Gump” after the Tom Hanks movie in which Forest Gump was seen in every iconic photo of American history. And then the Bibi Bombs began. People began Photoshopping Bibi’s face into iconic photos like the Begin-Sadat peace handshake, the signing of Israeli independence, Moshe Dayan walking in reunified Jerusalem in 1967, and Saddam Hussein’s hanging. Some even added Bibi to classic movie scenes from such films as Pulp Fiction and Cassablanca.

At least Netanyahu had fun with it when, yesterday, he uploaded his own “Bibi Bomb” to his Facebook page. It’s a photo of him addressing the U.N. with a superimposed photo of his face and a speech bubble from his smiling mouth with the text, “Doogri, you made me laugh.” An explanation of Bibi’s photo on Jewlicious says, “The word ‘Doogri’ means ‘honestly’, or ‘straightforward’… Not only did Netanyahu’s own version of the ‘Bibi Bomb’ play on the images circulating online, but it also expressed self-humor at his use of the word ‘doogri’ in his UN speech [when he addressed PA Leader Mahmoud Abbas saying] ‘Let’s talk ‘doogri’. That means straightforward, I’ll tell you my needs and concerns.”

DESTINY OR COINCIDENCE?
There are several notable coincidences with the Shalit release. The haftorah (selection from the Prophets) that was read this past Shabbat morning (Shabbat Bereshit) from the Book of Isaiah includes such lines as: “I have called you to be righteous. I took you by the hand and kept you. I made you into a covenant for the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of prison” (Isaiah 42:6-7) and “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life” (Isaiah 43:4).

Samuel Freedman, writing in the NY Times, referenced the story of Sodom (in next week’s Torah portion) in his beautiful op-ed about pidyon shvuyim (redeeming the captives). He wrote, “The timing of this Torah reading is an absolute coincidence, an unplanned synchronicity between the religious calendar and breaking news. Yet the passage also offers an essential explanation, one almost entirely ignored in coverage of the Shalit deal, for Israel’s anguished decision to pay a ransom in the form of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on civilians. The story of Abraham saving Lot represents the earliest of a series of examples of the concept of ‘pidyon shvuyim’ — redeeming the captives, invariably at a cost — in Jewish Scripture, rabbinic commentaries and legal codes. That concept, absorbed into the secular culture of the Israeli state and the Zionist movement, helped validate the steep, indeed controversial, price of Sergeant Shalit’s liberation.”


SHALIT FAMILY’S TENT REMOVED
One of the most emotional moments for Israelis living in Jerusalem was seeing the empty space outside the Prime Minister’s residence where the Shalit family’s protest tent stood for several years. The tent had served as a sign of Shalit’s captivity and a place where tourist groups would visit with the family. The tent was taken down and carted away earlier this week as Israeli President Shimon Peres visited with Gilad at the Shalit family home in the northern Israeli town of Mitzpe Hila.

Debate will continue about whether this was good or bad for Israel. Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, has now spoken out against the prisoner swap that brought Shalit home, saying it has weakened Israel and strengthened Hamas. Every time there’s an attempted terror strike or bombing, critics will point to the release of the prisoners. However, even the release of one Hamas terrorist in exchange for Gilad Shalit could lead to a future incident.

It’s hard to put a price on Gilad’s freedom. However, watching him ride his bike outside his home and knowing he has visited the beach with his family and played ping pong make it feel worthwhile. Hopefully, Israel’s security fence will do its job in keeping the released prisoners and other potential terrorists outside of Israel. It might be unrealistic, but I’d like to believe that the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency) didn’t release all those prisoners without first injecting some sort of tracking mechanism into their bodies. I jokingly posted on Facebook that Israeli news reported that the Shin Bet provided each of the released Palestinian prisoners with their own complimentary GPS-enabled smart phone so they could always be located.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Twittering of Gilad Shalit

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Ynet News is reporting that the Israeli prime minister’s emissary to the negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas to return the captive Gilad Shalit said “it’s not over yet. The deal reached is pretty complicated, but the most difficult part is behind us.” The former Mossad agent turned Gilad Shalit negotiator, David Meidan, added that he plans to travel to Egypt soon, together with the negotiation team, to plan Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel.

While the deal to free Shalit was orchestrated by high-level Israeli politicians, negotiators like Meidan, and world leaders, there was also an impressive social media campaign spanning the past few years to spread word of Shalit’s captivity through the micro-blogging site Twitter. The hashtag #FreeGilad has long been used on Twitter following any statement or link relating to the cause of freeing Gilad Shalit. As Adam Dickter blogged about yesterday, Gilad Shalit was trending on Twitter moments after news about the deal began to spread.

Dickter wrote at NewsFactorNews: “News of Shalit’s release and the controversial agreement spread quickly around the world, creating a stream of tweets. The hashtag #GiladShalit moved along computer screens almost as quickly today as #SteveJobs did last week, following the death of the Apple co-founder and former CEO. A few days before that, #iPhone5 topped Twitter, when Apple released a new phone that turned out to be the iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5, as expected.”

In the NewsFactorNews post, Dickter quoted me about the early use of Twitter to promote the Free Gilad Movement:

Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes extensively about the intersection of Jewish themes and technology, said he learned about the deal Tuesday from a New York Times Breaking News alert, and quickly Tweeted it to his 2,357 followers. It was, in a way, coming full circle, as social media have been used extensively to raise awareness of Shalit’s plight. “The hashtag #FreeGilad is one that I have been using for at least three years now,” said Miller. “In fact, it was one of the first hashtags I ever used on Twitter. I’ve also been asked by leaders of the ‘Free Gilad’ movement if I would tweet certain statements at certain times of the year, on the anniversary of his captivity.” “It’s not just news for Israelis or Jewish people, but an international story.”

Dickter also noted that Facebook also offered an opportunity for people around the world to share their thoughts. The Free Gilad Shalit group, which has 107,112 members.

No doubt that the moment Gilad Shalit is back home safe and sound, he’ll be trending in the Twittersphere once again.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

NY Times’ Misguided News Alerts

Last week, the Zionist Organization of America issued a press release expressing its shock that President Barack Obama omitted Israel in his list of countries suffering from terrorist attacks. ZOA was appalled by the omission.

The Obama Administration released the President’s talking points for the forthcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11 and while the speech included eight cities were terrorism has occurred, he didn’t include an Israeli city. This is the statement the ZOA took issue with: “As we commemorate the citizens of over 90 countries who perished in the 9/11 attacks, we honor all victims of terrorism, in every nation around the world … We honor and celebrate the resilience of individuals, families, and communities on every continent, whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.”

The ZOA press release also referenced a 2008 speech Obama delivered as a candidate when he mentioned six cities plagued by terrorism but failed to include an Israeli city. I thought the ZOA’s statement was unnecessary. It is clear that President Obama was using alliteration in his speech and sought to provide some examples of where terrorism has occurred. Perhaps if terrorism were more prevalent in a major world city like Johannesburg, he could have included “Jerusalem or Johannesburg” in his speech. The President wasn’t giving priority to these world cities over any other location where terrorism has occurred, he was merely stating that we should honor and celebrate the resilience of people everywhere. Just as Chicago would be included if we say “in New York or LA,” so too Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are included when the President says “Lahore or London”.

So, I didn’t think the ZOA’s rant was necessary. I do, however, raise my eyebrows at the NY Times’ decision to not issue an email news alert about yesterday’s storming of Israel’s Egyptian Embassy by thousands of protesters in Cairo and the necessary evacuation of its diplomats by Israeli military jets.

I’ve been receiving email news alerts from the NY Times for many years. Most of the time they are legitimately “breaking news” stories. Sometimes the news alerts refer to breaking political news and sometimes they let you know if a major sports milestone occurred. Oftentimes they alert us if a notable person has died.

I was surprised last night after Shabbat when the only news alert I saw in my email inbox from the NY Times let me know that actor Cliff Robertson had died. Who was Cliff Robertson? Exactly!

Even though over 80 personnel and family members of Israel’s embassy in Cairo had to be saved in an emergency rescue operation after violent riots erupted there, the NY Times felt that the only “breaking news” that had to conveyed to its news alert subscribers was that a little known actor had died. In the alert, the Times even described Robertson as an actor who “never quite reached the top echelon of movie stardom.”

I don’t think President Obama deserves to be attacked for neglecting to include an Israeli city in his brief listing of world cities where terrorism occurs (everyone knows Israel has had her share of terrorist attacks), I do think it is curious that the NY Times is so misguided when deciding what news actually deserves an email news alert.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller