Monday, September 30, 2013

Now for the good news

Life expectancy for all Israelis has been increasingly steadily over the years. Non-Jewish Israelis have a higher life expectancy than populations in neighboring Arab and Muslim countries, and have surpassed the US too.

According to JDC’s macroeconomic research institute, the Taub Center, the life expectancy of Jewish Israelis continues to be higher than that of most developed countries.

Now, if we can just figure out the whole religion-state, Arab-Jew, left-right, Green-Line-Territories, Rich-Poor, secular-religious, Ashkenazi-Mizrachi thing ... we'll do great. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I had a lovely lunch with a colleague from a large Jewish federation the other day and the topic turned, inevitably, to what I think has become one of the major topics of federation conversations in the last few years: silos.

For the uninitiated, the silo effect is what happens when all you do is look up from your silo and see the sky above, but nothing around you,with no horizontal interaction. It’s been a common complaint in non-profits in general, and the more I travel around Jewish federations, the more I hear it too. Campaign doesn’t talk to Planning, CRC doesn’t talk to Campaign, Israel & Overseas have completely different messages from local agencies. Everyone’s working from a different playbook, and everyone’s playing a different game.

Silos really hurt our annual campaigns. They make us look inefficient, unwieldy, irrelevant. They make donors uneasy because they think (rightly) that we’re not coordinated and we don’t know what we’re talking about. And silos damage the core concept of what Jewish federations stand for – that only with a strong, coordinated, community-based response can we meet the challenges we face.

So what can we do about it? 
I have a couple of thoughts, which I’m happy to share below (and have raised in discussions with various colleagues). But I’d love to hear what you think too. Message me, tweet me, or, you know, pick up the phone and call me. Always a good thing.

We can overcome silos by:
*  Teaching Planning and Allocations teams to present donor-friendly presentations and tag along to Campaign solicitations as “content.”

*  Embedding Campaign solicitors in Allocations meetings.

Creating long-term rotation tracks for leadership and professionals that include different aspects of skill-set acquisition. 

*  Encouraging every Jewish communal professional to read a daily newspaper, the JTA feed, the Forward, and more, so we can have conversations on the basis of knowledge.

*  Building training and seminar days into the annual campaign structure on the Jewish world, Jewish values, thematics of our work. 

* Building mentorship programs across federation teams.

Most importantly (in my opinion, at least) … we need to continually think of ways to shake people out of their silos by reminding them of the passion, the commitment and the dedication that brought them in to this game. We build community. We save lives. We connect. 
There’s a reason we do what we do. 
And it’s worth reminding ourselves of this from time to time.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

The Challenge Ahead

Israel’s had a high birth rate for many years … so as an overall, the relative percentage of the elderly (65+) is low. But this is changing, and rapidly.

The ratio of elderly to working-age adults has been pretty stable for the last twenty years (about 160 to 1000), according to JDC’s macroeconomic research institute, the Taub Center. But in the next twenty years, the ratio is going to increase by forty percent (!), reaching 230 elderly for every 1000 working-age citizens.

What does this mean? A massive strain on funding elderly-care, increasing poverty, a need for elderly-employment, and more.

And we need to start thinking about this now.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Haredim, Employment and the Future

There's a lot of misinformation about the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) sector in Israel. My colleagues at Myers-JDC-Brookdale have done some fascinating research on the sector and its impact in Israeli society.

There are about 830,000 Haredim in Israel, representing 11% of the total population.

 The percentage of Haredim in the overall population will increase to 18% by 2030.
 The percentage of Haredim in the working-age population (25-64) will increase from 7% to 12% by 2030.

Here's what surprises many people: employment rates among Haredi men and women have been increasing steadily over the past decade. 
 For men, rates have increased from 36% in 2003 to 46% in 2011, but remain far below the rates for all
Jewish men (78%).
 For women, rates have increased from 50% in 2003 to 61% in 2011, and are approaching the rates of all
Jewish women (66%).

Several studies have examined the experiences of Haredim on the job. They find that:

 There is low turnover.
 Job satisfaction is higher than that of the general population.
 The vast majority feel that they receive equal treatment from their employers.
 Very few men believe that their community status has been negatively affected by the fact that they work.
 Studies of employers show that they consider Haredi workers to be equal to and often even better than, non-Haredi workers in terms of performance and productivity.

If you want more information and sources on these findings, message me, or contact my colleagues at Myers-JDC-Brookdale. If you want to receive this blog on a regular basis by email (about twice a week, depending on what else I'm up to), sign up in the top-right box where it says "follow" ...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jewish Rebirth in Estonia

Lovely piece by my colleague Asher Ostrin in "EJewish Philanthropy" on Jewish Estonia

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Children at a JDC-supported Jewish kindergarten program in Estonia.
Children at a JDC-supported Jewish kindergarten program in Estonia.
by Asher Ostrin
A few days ago I held in my hand a copy of a legal document that will someday find its way into JDC’s contemporary history. It’s a testament to our years of investment in people and resources to achieve a first in Jewish history: the creation of Jewish community where none existed for generations.
Many reading this account would not be able to read the document in the original, but it’s not dissimilar to others of its type around the world. It is, after all, a bland, legal contract with no particular import. But for those who do understand the historical context, it is a gem, and has extraordinary value far beyond the sums of money mentioned in it.
The document is a mortgage and to understand its significance, we’ll need to go back over two decades.
Tallinn, Estonia. September, 1990. The Soviet Union is in its death throes but few, anywhere in the world, recognize that. Two senior JDC staff members are in Tallinn as part of a first time trip to several cities in the USSR with significant Jewish populations to begin to explore what will be JDC’s involvement in the USSR. We are there by invitation of the Kremlin as part of its efforts to “open up” Soviet society to the West. As one of several trips by several teams of JDC staff to scout out the territory, we’re there to formulate a policy for JDC’s re-entry into the USSR. This part of the world was a mystery and we knew little about the general environment, and even less about the Jews there. And so the first mission was fact finding:
Who are the Jews there, and how are they organized? How can JDC make an impact in this newly opened region? What are the potential obstacles? What are the resources available in each city? And so on.
This is the very beginning – the building blocks of program that we now associate today with JDC in the FSU and the Baltics. There was no welfare program. “Jewish Renewal” was not part of our lexicon. JCCs and leadership development were pipe dreams, if they were discussed at all. And to even talk about “Jewish Community” after the Nazi onslaught and the Soviets’ decades-long efforts to obliterate Jewish life, was too fantastic even to be contemplated.
But Tallinn was especially memorable because the Jews in this city were more organized than almost anywhere else. True, the odds were stacked against them: a small Jewish population of about 4,500, they were Russian speakers in a state beginning to emphasize its Estonian roots. They were members of a small religious minority whose calendar was suppressed, whose education system was nonexistent, and who lacked functioning synagogues or any Jewish property at all.
But there was a small welfare society, run by a few retired Jews (mostly women) who visited the needy elderly and provided some food and donated clothing (primarily from those who were emigrating). There was a newly established Jewish cultural organization that had just run a two-week camp. Its leaders told us of their plans to open a Jewish school in several weeks, but what impressed us most about that “dream” was its implausibility. They had no textbooks. No facility. No curriculum. And this was still, after all, the USSR.
In sum, some well-meaning people who wanted to revive Jewish life believed that they could make it happen and create community. We were inspired by their passion, but our enthusiasm was tempered by the reality we were familiar with from our visits to other cities. We promised to send in a library of some 900 volumes of Jewish interest translated into Russian. Perhaps the library would be a place for Jews to learn, to meet one another, and to begin rudimentary Jewish programming. That was Tallinn in 1990.
Last week I visited Tallinn again and was curious about the community I left behind so many years before. JDC’s work in Tallinn, as in the rest of the Baltics, is carried out by its Europe team, and not by the FSU department, and what I witnessed is wholly to their credit.
Today one can speak of something inconceivable during my visit 23 years ago: There is a Jewish community in Tallinn. A vibrant, pulsating Jewish community. A Jewish community that has a flagship campus that hosts a JCC, a synagogue, and yes, a Jewish school with classes from first grade through high school.
There is a Hesed, a welfare society, run by young Tallinn Jewish professionals, graduates of JDC’s leadership development program. Volunteers of all ages are the lifeblood of the program. Most of the young people were out of the city – in summer camps for which they pay tuition, begun by JDC.
And the library that JDC sent in more than two decades ago still functions, with pride of place in the JCC.
Is it real? Will it last?
During the last year the community reached a conclusion that the absence of a Jewish preschool was a problem for several reasons: the Jewish elementary school lacked a “natural feeder;” preschools serve as magnets to engage young families just beginning their Jewish odyssey; they are a tool for strengthening community cohesion. To address this lacunae, the community needed to have a stand-alone facility fashioned to meet the requirements of the European Union for an educational setting for that age.
In another time, and certainly in many other places, JDC would be the first address to which communities turn for funding. But in Tallinn the community put together a business plan that included demographic projections, projected income from tuition, local fundraising scenarios in a community committed to this project, a symbolic grant from JDC, and so on. And for the missing amount, they went to a local bank and took out a 25-year mortgage.
A mortgage means that they had to supply collateral, that they had to have faith in their community’s ability to sustain itself, that they had to present a plan that not only satisfies their members, but an external system that looks at these plans with a critical, professional eye. It requires vision, leadership, and commitment. And it is evidence that out of the ember we found in Tallinn in 1990, a community was born.

Asher Ostrin is a senior executive at JDC and the former director of their FSU department.
- See more at:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Israelis work more hours than in West

fascinating research from my colleagues in JDC's Taub Center for Social Policy Studies ...

Taub Center study reveals new findings on primary factors underlying Israel's low labor productivity, including longer working day, low capital investments, cumbersome bureaucracy
Published: 09.10.13, 07:14 / Israel Business

Israel's labor productivity is among the lowest among developed countries, as shown in the soon to be published 2013 State of the Nation report by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. In addition, a labor productivity gap has been growing between the leading Western countries and Israel – with the G7 steadily pulling away from Israel since the 1970s.

Wages are highly dependent on the amount produced per hour – or what is commonly referred to as labor productivity.

In the study, Taub Center Executive Director Prof. Dan Ben-David looks at a host of key factors surrounding and underlying Israel’s problematic productivity. For example, the number of annual hours worked per person in Israel and in the G7 fell until the mid-1970s.

"While fewer Israelis participate in the labor force than is common in the leading Western countries, those who do work many more hours each year,” says Prof. Ben-David.

"In fact, employed Israelis work have worked more hours than employed workers in the G7 countries since the mid-1970s, and the gaps in work hours have only grown: The number of hours worked in the G7 has fallen steadily for four straight decades while the number of annual hours worked by the average Israeli in 2012 – which fluctuated broadly in recent decades and has been falling since the late 1990s – roughly equaled the number of hours worked over three decades earlier.

"Though Israelis who do participate in the labor force work more hours than workers in the leading western countries, their productivity per hour worked is considerably less, and falling further and further behind (in relative terms) the G7 labor productivity.”

While there are undoubtedly important factors that are idiosyncratic to different business sectors, there are also a number of related economy-wide determinants. Capital plays a key role in spurring productivity – and here, as Ben-David finds, Israel has major problem.

In addition to the problematic level of the country’s human capital infrastructure and to the multi-decade neglect of its transportation infrastructure, Israel’s capital formation is at the low end of the OECD.

Increasing national burden

Capital and labor are considered substitute factors of production. An increase in the capital stock improves labor productivity, which is why it is not a coincidence that there exists such a strong positive relationship between capital formation, in general, and labor productivity.

So, as Ben-David notes, "it should come as no surprise that a country with relatively low national levels of physical and human capital is exhibiting problematic productivity growth at the national level."

In addition to all of the above factors that hinder Israel’s productivity growth, there is also the country’s cumbersome governmental bureaucracy, requiring the diversion of even more resources away from actual production of goods and services, lowering productivity even further.

For example, the number of days needed to start a business in Israel (34 days) is the second highest in the Organization for European Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – two and a half times the OECD average of 13 days.

The high bureaucratic costs imposed on both Israeli and foreign firms interested in doing business in Israel reduce the competition so essential for creating the pressure to invest, innovate, and produce better goods and services at lower cost. Though the regulation has been somewhat reduced, it is still substantial and it continues to extracts a high price in terms of productivity.

"The country’s small domestic market is concentrated in the hands of too few individuals and it suffers from insufficient competition – a crucial factor in spurring physical and human capital investments necessary for productivity growth," says Prof. Dan Ben-David. "All of these factors combine to yield higher domestic prices that reduce the economic viability and attractiveness of Israel’s economic environment even more.

"The problems associated with relatively low rates of employment, the high number of hours worked and the labor productivity that is lagging ever further behind the leading developed countries combine together to create an increasing national burden on the shoulders of those who bear it. This is a significant issue that is worsening over time and requires systemic long term attention and treatment by Israel’s policy makers.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Szarvas 2013

Awesome video from Szarvas, the pioneering international Jewish summer camp operated in rural Hungary by JDC and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Szarvas is an amazing chance to connect to Judaism and meet friends from around the world. 

It's a second home for participants. And it's a dynamic and vital part of the global Jewish revival.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teach First Israel

For the past few years it's been a privilege and pleasure to work with the Naomi Foundation and their incredible generous support of the Teach First Israel / Chotam Initiative.

70 graduates this year become Chotam Ambassadors ... and they finish and receive their Chotam-Naomi Graduation Certificates today in Bat-Yam.

Mazal tov to all the new teachers, to the Naomi Foundation, and to our hope for a stronger, caring and uplifted Israeli society.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Growth and Spending

A really interesting chart from my colleagues at JDC’s macroeconomic research institute, the Taub Center: Israel’s GDP per capita grew in the last 15 years by more than a quarter. Private consumption grew by more than a third.

Great, right?

But spending on social services like education and health grew by only 6%.

So … when the share of spending on these services declines so significantly, the consequences are more poverty, more need, and more vulnerable populations.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What we can learn from Jewish Cuba

Lovely blogpost from my friend Rabbi Benjamin Sharff ....

What we can learn from Jewish Cuba (My Erev RH Sermon 5774)

            It was a rare Sunday afternoon.  There I was, on the couch, feeding the baby.  When I do this, I like to have some form of background noise, so I had the television on.  Usually I like to watch HGTV at moments like these because it really doesn’t require much concentration. But they were showing something I was not a particular fan of, so I switched to my second channel of choice, the Travel Channel. 

At that particular moment, No Reservations happened to be on. The star and host of No Reservations is Anthony (Tony) Bourdain.  Tony was a chef and is an author of numerous books including the one that really built his career: Kitchen Confidential.  Kitchen Confidential is really an expose of the working life of chefs.  This life has become increasingly exposed and some might say exploited by shows like Kitchen Impossible and Hell’s Kitchen. 

            In his book, Mr. Bourdain wrote a very unflattering depiction of his brief time working in Baltimore during the 1980’s.  Thankfully his perspective has evolved about our city since he has come back and had the chance to visit to sample a variety of foods and culinary styles.  In an interview not too long ago Bourdain admits that he “loves Baltimore. He doesn’t love it for the reasons we may want him to love Baltimore. He happens to love Baltimore because David Simon taught him to love Baltimore."[1] As an aside, for those of you not familiar, David Simon was the creator of one of the most well regarded shows on television: The Wire.  Now I am not sure if Bourdain’s quote is a compliment or a backhanded compliment, but what I can say for him is,it is, at least a step in the right direction.

What I enjoy about Mr. Bourdain’s former show in parciular is: the places he visits he really tries to stay off the beaten path, in order to understand the food and the culture of a city, a state, a country, and of course, a people.

            So I was excited when, on that particular lazy Sunday afternoon, when I was feeding Alex, Bourdain was visiting, of all places, Cuba.  I later found out that this episode aired about six months before our congregational trip to Cuba.  So I was curious to see if he had similar impressions of the country.  As another aside, Mr. Bourdain never visited Israel for an episode of No Reservations.  Thankfully, it appears that he will be visiting Israel for an upcoming episode of his new CNN series: Parts Unknown.[2]

            But back to Cuba.  For starters, Bourdain stayed at the Hotel Nacional, the very same hotel we stayed in during our time in Havana. This famous Cuban Hotel was opened on December 30, 1930.  According to descriptions, The hotel exhibits an eclectic architectural style, reflecting Art Deco, Arabic references, features of Hispano-Moorish architecture, and both neo-classical and neo-colonial elements. There are even details from the centuries-old Californian style. The resulting unique example of so many schools of architecture is the most unusual and interesting hotel in the Caribbean region”[3]

            Guests of this landmark hotel have included, Sir Winston Churchill, Johnny Weismuller (who played Tarzan), Edward VIII (prince of Wales), Jack Dempsey … Buster Keaton… Errol Flynn … Nelson Rockefeller, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gadner … Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando… John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Walt Disney,” Cantor Gerber, and the list goes on and on.  Though perhaps most importantly for Cuba’s history guests of the Nacional also included the mobsters Santos Traficante and Meyer Lansky,”[4] who was there to work with Batista on bringing gambling to Cuba for the mafia.

               So needless to say, there was and is a lot of history in the walls of the hotel where we stayed.  Now of course, like Bourdain, we were there to sample Cuban cuisine.  We both tried the local beer: Crystal and Bucanero, which were actually surprisingly pretty decent.  And the food, for the most part, was better than what we were expecting.  

            But our culinary exposure to Cuban cuisine, like Mr. Bourdain’s, was not necessarily the genuinely authentic experience as writer Achy Obejas explains, “But here’s the honest to God truth: Most food in Cuba is awful.  Oh, sure, you can get a decent meal in a hotel. And in a casa particular – a private home that rents room – you might luck out with an especially talented owner who can whip up a yummy breakfast.

And, yes, there are paladares – private, family-run restaurants – that run the gamut from terrible to exquisite (and crazy expensive, and cash only), but to quote Frommer’s: You don’t come to Cuba for fine dining.

Generally speaking the food is starch-heavy, greasy, and not particularly flavorful. Service is all over the map...

Yes, part of the problem is that there are scarcities. Even the most upscale Cuban supermarkets (no, not all markets are created equal in Cuba), the variety is stunted. And at the markets that are accessible to the average Cuban, there’s rarely any variety at all and not much more than the basics.

But there is, in fact, a bigger problem. For more than half a century, Cubans have depended on the ration book, which provides a weekly distribution of foods that guarantees a basic level of nutrition to every Cuban. Unfortunately, the ration book is stuck in nutritional ideas from the 60s, with nary a green vegetable anywhere on its pages. Dairy products are also absent from the ration book, except for milk for kids under 7. And perhaps more importantly in a discussion about flavor, there are no spices on the ration book.

What this means is that most Cubans have been playing with the same handful of ingredients in their extremely limited kitchens for about 50 years. Kitchens which usually include only a couple of burners. It’s the rare Cuban with a working oven. Anyone with a microwave is pretty privileged. So the culinary imagination on the island is less epicurean than survivalist.”[5]

We experienced little of what Obejas described because we mostly ate at paladares, which were surprisingly good.  Though there was the occasional state run restaurant experience which was either excellent or terrible, with little in the way of middle ground.  The rum was terrific, as were the mojitos, but we knew, like Bourdain, that for the most part, this was not a genuine Cuban experience.  It was a tourist experience that very few Cubans will ever get to have.

As Jews, our culinary exposure was of tantamount importance.  But even more significant to us were the opportunities we would have interacting with our fellow Jews living on the island.  Our primary mission, the singular purpose of our trip, was to provide monetary support and supplies to the Cuban Jewish community.  What we did not expect was just how much we would learn from them about their lives and about our own.

The first recorded Jew to set foot on Cuba was Luis de Torres.  Luis converted to avoid the Spanish Expulsion in 1492.  He was then hired by Christopher Columbus to serve as an interpreter during what would become his famous discovery of the Americas.

De Torres was chosen by Columbus because he was adept at Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Portuguese. Columbus hoped that the interpreter's skills would be useful in Asia because they would enable him to communicate with local Jewish traders.  There are some who speculate that Columbus hoped to find the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. As Dr. Alan Taylor wrote in his book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, “Columbus believed the natives he discovered in North America were, in fact, of Jewish origins. Columbus even suggested that Spain could, "recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem.”[6]

After arriving at Cuba, which he supposed to be the Asian coast, Columbus sent de Torres and the sailor Rodrigo de Jerez on an expedition of the Island on November 2, 1492. Not only were the two men received with great honors, but they also returned with a report of the natives drying leaves, inserting them in cane pipes, burning them and inhaling the smoke. De Torres was one of the first two Europeans to ever experience tobacco. 

When Columbus set off for Spain on January 4, 1493, Luis de Torres was among the 39 men who stayed behind at the settlement of La Navidad on Hispaniola.  Sadly, the whole colony was wiped out and de Torres was among those who died.  Thereby bringing an end to the first un-official Jewish presence in Cuba. 

A more permanent Jewish presence would have to wait another 340 years when, in1834, a handful of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews settled in Cuba.

Though the real growth in the Cuban Jewish population (or Juban as many refer to themselves), began in the early 20th century with many Jews fleeing Eastern Europe.  Unable to find their way into the United States due to immigration quotas, many fled to Latin America.

During the 1920s and 30s, these Jews founded a number of synagogues and communities throughout Cuba.  At its peak there were over 15,000 Jews living in Cuba.  However this all changed with Castro's conquest of Cuba in 1958.  The vast majority of Cuba's Jews fled the island, with many of them, like their compatriots, settling in South Florida.

Today there are an estimated 1500 Jews remaining in Cuba, though we heard numbers as low as 1258.  The majority of these Cuban Jews live in Havana, though there are still small pockets of Jews living in outlying communities as well.  With this in mind, we spent time with members of the Sephardic Center, the Patronado, and with Jews living in Cienfuegos.

We learned a few interesting tidbits along the way.  First off, Cuba has never been a strongly religious country.  Though it was under Catholic rule for centuries, the Inquisition never really followed the Jews living in Cuba.  This was in part because the Cubans were not really all that passionate about being Catholic.  As a result there have been almost no instances of Anti-Semitism on the Island.  Of course it doesn't hurt that almost no Cubans have an idea of what a Jew is, but that is another story.

Jews also have a special status in Cuban society.  What this means is that until the recent immigration reform in Cuba just a few months ago, Jews were among the only people who could immigrate off the island by making Aliyah to Israel.  The problem for the Cuban Jewish community is that this means many of their young people are leaving the island seeking out better economic opportunities.

During our Shabbat dinner at the Patranado, we had the pleasure to meet Ruth Behar. Ruth was born in Havana.  But following the 1959 Revolution, she was part of the mass exodus that fled to the United States.  Ruth was raised in New York, and is now a scholar in Michigan who periodically goes back to visit and document the lives of her fellow Jews and their struggles in Cuba.  Ruth has written a book called: An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.  I highly recommend it. 

During the communist period, Communism was the official religion of Cuba.  As Ruth Behar wrote, "Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, all mention of God, spirits, and saints disappeared from everyday speech.  But in 1991, the Cuban Communist Party decided to reverse its adherence to the Marxist dogma that religion was the opiate of the people .... By 1992, it was written into the Cuban constitution that the state was now secular rather than atheist.”[7]

Behar goes on to explain, “The most photographed kosher butcher shop in the world has to be the kosher butcher shop around the corner from the Adath Israel synagogue on Calle Cuba between Acosta and Jesus Maria.  Foreign observers are continually amazed to learn the shop is open for business in Catro’s Cuba.

Perhaps the one of the best examples of the significance of the Jewish community is not a family or a synagogue, but a little shop not to far off the beaten path.  As Behar writes, “Rationed kosher beef has been provided in the shop to registered members of the Jewish community since the earliest years of the Revolution.  Such generosity toward the Jews is based on a curious cultural interpretation.  In Cuba, the most common form of meat is pork, and since Jews are forbidden by their religion to eat pork, this deprivation needs to be compensated by allowing them a ration of beef.  And that ration of beef makes the Jews uniquely privileged.  While the Revolution brought health and education to the masses, it turned beef into a luxury food.  Beef has been in short supply for decades, which is why Cubans who can remember the old days will often fantasize about eating a big plate of pounded palomilla steak and onions (always a favorite at Miami Cuban restaurants).  Cattle are so tightly controlled that it is a federal crime to slaughter a cow without official permission.  You hear Cubans joking frequently about how killing a cow will land you in jail for a longer sentence than killing your mother.”[8]

Lest we forget, they kept this butcher shop going when religion, all religions were, for all intents and purposes, outlawed for over forty years.  And they did this in so many other ways as well even if they needed special permission, special exceptions made for them by the government.

It is through these exceptions.  It is through a sense of historical memory and pride.  It is through the support of the worldwide Jewish community, that these Cuban Jews are able to cling so fiercely to their, to our heritage.  And in some ways, they have something we have lost, a sense of appreciation for their, for our tradition.

Here we can find kosher food in abundance.  Here we have no problem purchasing prayer books or tallitot.  Whether we choose to celebrate Shabbat or not at our synagogue, we know there is always the possibility of an excellent Shabbat dinner.  And whether one or two of us leave the fold, will not have the significant statistical impact on our lives as Jews.

What we did learn is that there is a sense of urgency for the Jews of Cuba that we are lacking.  There is also an impatience party because of the embargo, and it is partly because of the government.  And it is partly because they know if they do not act now, there may truly not be any more Jews left in Cuba.

I for one am glad we do not have these problems. But I will admit, I am a bit jealous of their sense of urgency.  Here we have the resources.  Here we have the freedoms.  Here we have the opportunities our brethren just off the coast of Miami are not afforded.  But all too often we do not take advantage of those opportunities afforded to us.  By living in a land of plenty and of plenty of Jewish experiences, we rarely see and appreciate just how fortunate we are. 

But back to Cuba, when we went to the Patronado for Shabbat Evening services, we were regaled by the musical styling of three young people.  They were enthusiastic and the melodies were almost familiar.  But here’s the catch, the entire service was either in Spanish or in Hebrew.  So for those of us familiar with the Hebrew, we were able to follow along pretty well.  And those of us familiar with Spanish, were also able to follow the drash, which was, of course, all in Spanish.  Now I knew it was a drash because the darshan kept referring to Sinai.  This was because the Torah portion that week was Yitro, where we find Matan Torah, the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses at Har Sinai.

But for those not familiar with Spanish or with Hebrew, it was a confusing and confounding experience.  This just reinforced the notion of why it is so important to teach the technical skills of Hebrew to our students.  Hebrew is the language we share with all Jews, across all boundaries, in all countries.  It is a foundation for a common dialogue together and together with God.

And we were also reminded of the central Jewish tenant, Kol Yisrael averim zeh v’zeh, meaning, all of Israel is responsible for one another.  In Cuba, the Jewish communities work to support their fellow Jews first and foremost.  And when they have helped each other, they then reach out to help the greater Cuban community.

So too, we went there to help out our fellow Jews.  What we did not expect was how much we would be moved by the aid we offered.  As we learn from the Mishneh in Pirkei Avot,[9] "Ben Azzai said, run to perform [even] a minor mitzvah (commandment) and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the 'reward' of a sin is a sin."

            Simply put, the reward for performing this mitzvah was the increased desire to keep performing the mitzvah of tzedakah.  We could see the very people we were helping and we could, just as equally, see the benefits afforded them from the world’s Jewish community who have not forgotten nor forsaken them.  For example, every year, Canadian Jews send down an entire cargo container of supplies for Passover.  There is enough matzah for everyone, which I am not sure is a good thing, but that too is another story.

            Following our trip, we had the chance to hear from Dov Ben-Shimon, a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee, the JDC.  The JDC goes into places like Cuba, the Former Soviet Union, South America, and the like, and they are funded in part by us.  The goal of the JDC is to make these Jewish communities self-sustaining, while at the same time, working vigorously to care for the most vulnerable in those same communities.  As one mitzvah leads to another, so too, we were inspired to keep helping in any way that we can.

In Cuba, the Jubans see something profound and beautiful about being Cuban and about being Jewish.  In a place where everyone is theoretically an equal among equals, they have made the choice to stand out.  So perhaps we can use the choices they have made to inspire our own choices about our Jewish lives.  And if we can return to clinging to it so passionately in the ways they do, we will continue to grow and prosper in ways unimaginable on that island not so far away.  Or as we learned from Diana Nyad, Cuba is only a 53-hour swim away from Key West.

But barring any plans to traverse the Florida Straits by self-locomotion, in the meantime, I am tentatively planning a return perhaps in the winter of 2015.  Let me know if you are interested.  It is a fascinating place to visit.  And who knows, maybe we will be able to share a mojito with Anthony Bourdain and discuss his bias against Baltimore in order to set the record straight.  We can also continue to grow in our understanding about how we Jews of Baltimore have so much to share and learn from our brethren whose cuisine may be different, but whose Jewish souls share the same spark and the same vibrancy we can recapture in our own lives in ways that would make a Juban proud.

L’shana Tova

[6] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, 33
[7] Behar, Ruth, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2007, pg. 20.
[8] Behar, Ruth pg. 73
[9] Pirkei Avot 4:2

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Shana Tova

A peaceful, happy and healthy New Year in twenty-five languages from JDC-Israel's staff ...

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Restitution and Renewal

My drash at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, NJ, this Shabbat ...

Shabbat shalom.

So, there I was, about a year ago, in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania.
And I was standing with a small group in a communal building courtyard.
Around us were several huge apartment buildings, several hundred apartments in all. Nearly all owned before the war by Jews. Now all owned by Lithuanians.

We had a Lithuanian-Jewish tour guide who, uniquely for most Lithuanian Jews actually spoke Lithuanian as his mother-tongue and not Russian.
And it was particularly useful to have a Lithuanian-speaker with us, to translate those interesting moments that otherwise we may have missed.

For example, standing in that courtyard, we noticed two fourth-floor windows opening on each end of the courtyard. Two neighbors shouting hello to each other, some forty feet above us.
And looking down on this small group of American Jews, they waved to us.
And what did they say to each other?
Our guide translated: “Look,” said one to the other. “The Jews are here, coming to take back your apartment.”

It took me a few minutes to realize the history behind that comment.
The Jews are here. Coming to take back your apartment.

So that was Lithuania.

And a couple of weeks ago, I visited the Hungarian Jewish community. I’ve been there before. I seem to find myself at least six or seven times a year in currently communist or former communist dictatorships.
And in Hungary I found an interesting continuation of that Lithuanian story.

In 2010 the opposition center-right party – Fidesz - received 53% of the vote. But because of the electoral system they got 2/3 of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament.

Here’s where it got interesting: the Constitution allowed for a 2/3 majority in parliament to make changes – but no one ever thought that one party would receive that kind of a majority.
And they have made good use – or bad use – of that majority. They have changed the courts, the constitution, the election system. All of this in ways that smack of corruption, nepotism and one-party dictatorship.

What frightened everyone at the time wasn’t the massive 2/3 Fidesz victory – even though it should have. Instead, what frightened people was the surprising rise of the far-right Jobbik party, which succeeded on a xenophobic and racist platform in gaining 17 per cent of the vote.

And on the surface, being afraid of the far-right party seemed like a legitimate conclusion.
Jobbik excelled in making scapegoats out of Jews and Roma – what we used to call Gypsies.

One of the reasons that the far-right in Hungary is so much more viciously anti-Semitic than its counterparts in other European countries is that there’s no real Moslem presence in Hungary.
But there are some 120,000 Jews and maybe 700,000 Roma.
So Jews and Roma are basically the only visible and identifiable minorities in Hungary.

And if you live in a country like Hungary, with high unemployment, almost zero economic growth, and a traditional tendency to blame your troubles on others … then the Jews and the Roma are perfect for your needs.

There was a famous case last winter where one of the heads of the Jobbik party, Marton Gyongyosy, stood up in Parliament and said ‘now is the time to make a list of all those Hungarian Jews who are too loyal to Israel and not loyal enough to Hungary.’

It’s important to note that the issue of lists for the Hungarian Jewish community is particularly sensitive.
The Shoah, the Holocaust, in Hungary only lasted six weeks.

From May to July 1944, the Nazis rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz.
A Hungarian Jew living in the countryside in 1944 had less than a ten percent chance of surviving the following 12 months.

And how did they succeed in killing so many, so fast?
They took the lists of Jews from the Jewish community. Which is why the issue of lists is so sensitive.

So the problem last year wasn’t so much the noise of a few far-right fascists in Partliament who called for a list of Jews.
The problem was that the 2/3 majority government party said nothing.

And the reason for that is, in some ways, the real challenge ahead of us.

For Hungarian Jews, the Soviets were liberators in 1944.
When the Soviet Red Army overthrew the Nazi regime, Hungarian Jews were quite literally saved by the Soviet Union.
Without question.

But for most Hungarians, who weren’t affected by the Shoah or by Nazi repression, the opposite was the case: the Soviets were evil foreign invaders, and clearly unwelcome.

So … in a case like this, when the issue of reparations – the restitution of stolen property from the Jewish community comes up, there are two layers to the conversation.

Because: in many cases the government is working to restitute property that was stolen from Hungarians by the Soviets.
This was property that was “nationalized” and stolen from Hungarians.
But … some of these same Hungarian “victims” were themselves the beneficiaries of the same property that was “aryanized” maybe ten or twenty years earlier when it was stolen from Jews.

And sometimes they themselves were the ones who stole it from those Jews!

So …let’s review:
A significant number of Hungarians supported the Nazis. They saw the Soviet occupation as unwelcome. The Jews, on the other hand, saw the Soviets as liberators and life-savers.
So … there's an actual debate in Hungarian society on whether fascist rule and communist rule were essentially “the same” in terms of their moral depravity.

I was walking through a museum in Budapest and looking at some really shocking attempts to make a direct equivalence between German Nazi rule and Russian Communist rule. Particularly striking was a rotating set of two bodies, in fascist and Communist uniforms, meant to show how similar they were.
It was particularly graphic.
And completely unjustified.

It’s perfectly ok to insist that there were atrocities committed by the Communists, and to say that the lack of respect for human life in Communist times was appallingly low.
There were atrocities, and there wasn’t enough respect for human life.
But to jump from there to say that, essentially, there was no difference between the Fascists and the Communists, is too far.
To jump even further, and claim that Hungary was the victim of foreign occupation is also morally unacceptable. It ignores the dedication and enthusiasm of so many Hungarians from the right and left to turn to evil.
And it helps you understand, I think, why there is a tendency in some of these countries to feel that they have no personal or national responsibility for what happened.
Why, for example, they aren’t standing up against a small fascist growth in Parliament to stand up for minority rights.
And this is happening far too much around Europe today.

Because what you have here is a sleight of hand.
First you equate Fascism with Communism, and then you say that both are foreign intrusions.
Hungary has no responsibility.
Lithuania had nothing to do with it.
Austria was innocent.

This is the challenge that the organized Jewish community faces today.
If the Holocaust Death Camp is “the same as” the Communist Gulag  - then there’s not only a moral failure here, there’s also never going to be a genuine move to full reparation of stolen Jewish property and a decent reckoning with their past and responsibility.

And why is this still so important today?
Because there’s a very clear and – when you think about it – a very obvious – reason for why so many Jewish communities are so weak and so under-developed.
It’s because they had everything stolen from them.
By the Nazis and by the Communists.

And once you start restituting that property, bringing it back to the community – then you can start to see the beginnings of revitalization.
Because you can renovate restituted property, and turn it, for example, into rental apartments or gyms or retail stores.

And with the monthly income you can start to build community centers, and leadership programs, and send kids to summer camp and Sunday school.

But only if you get that first step started.
So, therefore ... two conclusions:

First, sometimes the enemy of democracy isn’t always what it appears to be.
Sometimes it can be much stealthier and quieter than what you’d expect.
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.

And second, the weight of history can be so burdensome, so awful, that it will take us a very long time to recover, and correct the evils of the past.

But we know how to get there.

Thank you.
Shabbat shalom.

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