As a criminal lawyer, I regularly open my jury addresses with a heartfelt request to jurors to avoid the dangers of prejudging the evidence — wait until you hear the whole story before you make your ruling. Apparently, I underestimated the necessity of delivering such a caveat to my congregation on Kol Nidrei night.
Yesterday, I learned of Rachel Lefkowitz’s sharp-tongued complaint (published here in the Times of Israel) with an Israel Bonds appeal delivered at “one of North America’s largest Orthodox synagogues” on Yom Kippur by a congregational speaker. Allow me to ‘out’ myself: although not named, that speaker was me.
Lefkowitz protests that the mere mention of the worldwide refugee crisis drove her to walk out on my Bonds speech. Thankfully for me professionally, jurors don’t have the luxury of excusing themselves from my cases mid-trial, but indulge me for a moment as I demonstrate why walking out on a speaker at the commencement of their address poorly qualifies you to critique, moralize and comment on that address.
In the few moments that Lefkowitz remained in synagogue to hear my introduction, she was driven to ask, “Do we have no tragedies of our own to speak about? Did nothing occur to Jews in 2015? Are our own problems and dangers so minimal or non-existent, that we now have the luxury of focusing on those whom the world proclaims as most needy?” The thesis of Lefkowitz’s argument appears to be that, by acknowledging the global suffering of someone other than the Jewish people, I have somehow diminished or downplayed the very real and current dangers facing Jews and the State of Israel today.
Tikkun Olam, an ethical obligation to repair the world leaving it in a better state than how we found it, lies at the core of our Jewish tradition. Our religious imperative to be an or lagoyim — a light unto the nations — mandates that Jews, even Jews in dire circumstances, think not only of themselves, but of the ‘stranger in our midst’. But leaving side any moral Jewish imperative to come to the aid of others, I think Lefkowitz would have been quite the fan of the last five minutes and thirty seconds of my six minute speech had she been considerate enough to stick around and hear it.
After citing the heart-wrenching image of a dead child, drowned on a Turkish beach, I chose to make a comparison between today’s horrific refugee crisis and the myriad times we Jews have been forced to flee our homes as refugees commencing with our biblical exodus from Egypt to the ingathering of Jews in Israel after the Shoah. I then turned to a discussion of the more recent existential challenges facing world Jewry — the very challenges Lefkowitz in her piece implies that I ignored. I extolled Israel’s humane and steadfast response to a host of threats against the Jewish people, including Soviet anti-Semitism, Arab pogroms, and the miraculous Ethiopian rescue of Operation Solomon. I highlighted Israel’s role in protecting Jews from modern terrorism both at home and abroad. Ms. Lefkowitz crudely asks of me, “was he sleeping when four Jews were killed in the terrorist attack in France,” yet she absconded before hearing me cry out against vicious acts of hatred against those very same French Jews in their schools and synagogues. Lefkowitz took me to task for joining the chorus in a world that “has decided BDS and Iran are good,” yet she neglected to tune in when I bemoaned the deeply disturbing rise of BDS as mainstream political ideology in the UK.
Had Lefkowitz been able to tolerate my simple cry on behalf of global human decency for just a few moments longer, she would have heard a heartfelt, committed Zionist urge his congregation to invest in Israel for the very reasons she hastily assumed I omitted from my plea. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The full text of my speech is available below. Read it for yourself. And, as I tell jurors at the commencement of all my trials, I ask that you refrain from judging the case until you have heard the totality of the evidence. On the night of Yom Kippur, our entire people gather together as one nation across the planet to cry together to the Almighty in the hopes that He hear our prayers over the next twenty-five hours. A commitment to hearing out the cry of your fellow Jew for a mere five minutes makes us all better Jews…and better bloggers.
There are a lot of tough jobs in this Shul around Yom Kippur.
Our esteemed rabbis pour over ancient texts in an effort to find new and creative ways to motivate and inspire us to do better in the coming year.
Our chazanim strain their throats standing for hours at a time even as they endure a lengthy fast using their musical talents to melodiously bring our message of repentance before G-d.
Our president and board members slave over just the right language to entreat a congregation already saddled by the myriad financial responsibilities that weigh down the average Jewish family, hoping they can encourage us to be generous yet again in opening our wallets to ensure the sustained growth and continued success of this shul, our BAYT.
Then there’s my job — the Bonds speech guy. Quite clearly the easiest job any self-respecting Zionist could ever draw on Yom Kippur. Invest in Israel. Good night.
That’s probably all I need to do with this crowd in 2015/5776.
For the past two years — but so much more acutely these past two weeks — we have watched the civil collapse of an entire region. Millions of people displaced by senseless war and unbridled terrorism have turned into hundreds of thousands of refugees willing to take unspeakable risks to escape Syria through Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan using Greece, Hungary and other nations as a gateway to a better life in Europe and even here in Canada. As Jews, the image of three-year old Alan Kurdi, face down in the sand, the ocean lapping at his lifeless body, was a searing reminder that no one knows better than our people what it feels like to have your home, your life, your family, uprooted by evil. In the coming weeks you will hear the efforts of Rabbi Korobkin and our kehilla as we try to play a tiny role in supporting families fleeing such devastation.
But it is instructive to remember — as an entire nation of refugees from yetziat Mitzraim to the horrors of the Shoah — how our history as refugees irrevocably changed in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel. When Arab nations violently chased out their Jews, Israel was there. When communism trapped so many Jews, Israel was there to lift the Iron Curtain. In 1991, when political strife in Ethiopia threatened Jews, Israel didn’t wait for Jews to trudge across the African desert as refugees — Israel’s planes came to them, airlifting over 14,000 people in 36 hours — while today our leaders debate whether Canada can manage 10,000, 15,000, or 20,000 in a YEAR).
Today, when stores, synagogues, and schools are vandalized in France, when advocates of racist BDS rise to power in mainstream UK political parties, Israel is there. The refugee story of the Jewish people has changed after 3,000 years. We no longer cling to rafts on vast oceans, or bribe our way onto cattle cars, to escape persecution. We board planes in the thousands bearing the blue and white Magen David of the State of Israel. We don’t send tattered documents to uncaring international bureaucrats waiting for the answer that may never come — we proudly declare ourselves Jewish and receive our teudat zehut, our Israeli citizenship, in weeks.
And so, as we work to protect the refugees whose plight we Jews know so well, there has rarely been a more blatantly obvious case for a strengthened, financially secure State of Israel, than there is today. And I have never been more proud to stand before the Jewish People on behalf of the Jewish People.
Secure your bond with the world’s most morally upstanding army.
Secure your bond with the world’s only Middle Eastern liberal democracy.
Secure your bond with a country where black, white and rainbows march side-by-side under the shared banner of a Magen David.
Secure your bond with a country where young men and women devote themselves day in and day out to the study of Torah within blocks of the world’s most advanced technology companies.
My job is easy because I’m asking nothing of you. Securing your bond doesn’t require the pain of fasting, the dedication of prayer, nor — contrary to popular belief — the self-sacrifice of charity. Buying a bond is about normalizing and integrating Israel into the very fabric of our daily lives the same way we as Modern Orthodox Jews normalize and integrate halacha into our daily secular interactions. Hitting the grocery store? Choose Kosher. Grabbing a snack at work? Make a bracha. Saving for retirement in your RRSP — choose an Israeli Bond. Putting aside money in your TFSA for that new car or home renovation? Israeli bonds are 100% TFSA eligible.
Believe me, I understand that many of us — between day-school tuition, mortgage payments, and so many other financial demands, don’t have the luxury of RRSPs and TFSAs. We’re working for our next meal, not our next dream vacation. But we’re all thank G-d blessed with simchas. Does a month go by when you aren’t celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah, the birth of a child, or dancing at a wedding? At a bris or baby-naming, welcome the new baby into the Covenant of the Jewish people with a gift that hearkens to our Covenant with the State of Israel. At a bar/bat mitzvah, give a gift that says ‘Israel is not just a place to learn about or visit on occasion — it is your birthright, your heritage, your bond’. Under the chuppa, we bless a new couple with the prayer that they merit the building of a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael — that they build a faithful home as part of the Jewish people. Your gift to the couple of an Israel Bond lays the first brick in the foundation of their bayit ne’eman. Make a pledge today and draw on that pledge throughout the year as the Circle of Simcha comes around.
Now, just a few moments ago I told you that buying a bond isn’t about charity. I lied. Perhaps not the wisest move on Kol Nidre night but hey — it’s Yom Kippur…you all pretty much HAVE to forgive me and I’ve still got 23 hours until Ne’ila.
The Rambam speaks of a hierarchy of tzedeka ranking different forms of charity based on whether the donor or recipient know who is giving or receiving the gift and whether the gift is given wholeheartedly or reluctantly. But the pinnacle of charitable giving according to Rambam is when the donor makes the recipient a partner in his/her business.
Now you will see that in fact I didn’t lie to you earlier. We are not giving tzedeka when we buy a bond. But the State of Israel is engaged in an act of utmost charity to us. By offering bonds for sale, Israel invites every Jew, no matter where they live around the world, to become a partner in the business of building our Jewish homeland — and Israel pays us interest to do it. What an incredible act of tzedeka and chesed by the State of Israel to its people! All we have to do is say ‘yes’ — we will be your partner.
I know each and every person in this minyan is eager to say ‘yes’ to the State of Israel’s tzedaka. Collect your card. Make your pledge. Secure your Bond.
And now, as the guy with the easiest job in the room, I turn things back to the rabbis, the chazannim, the board members. G’mar chatima tova.