Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 198

February 16, 2024 - 7 Adar-1 5784

Parashat Terumah - SHAME ON YOU! שלא עשני גוי

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health. We look forward to seeing you this Saturday morning for our in-person services, which will take place at 10:00 am in our beautiful sanctuary and be followed by a festive Kiddush.

While we are still recovering (in an amazing way) from the excitement created by last Shabbat’s appearance of Neshama Carlebach & Sons, we are thrilled to announce the next installment of Young Voices: Today’s Topics, which we are calling Melodies & Menschlecheit and will take place on Saturday, February 24th.

On that Shabbat, we will be joined by musical artist Josh Sauer, a member of the nationally acclaimed Jewish a cappella group 613. We will also hear from Leor Wasser (a not too distant relative) regarding her work to combat and treat issues of domestic abuse in the greater Jewish community.

Every Shabbat is great at CBIOTP, but some are a little better, so please be sure to join us for yet another amazing morning service on February 24th!

My teacher Saul Morganstein, of blessed memory, used to tell us of the story of a non-Jew coming to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s child. At the beginning of the service, and obviously unfamiliar with the Hebrew text, the non-Jew asked a gentleman sitting next to him, “What are these blessings about?” The congregant, unaware of the guest’s lineage, elatedly yelled out, “It says, thank God I’m not a Goy.” Embarrassed, the guest quietly excused himself from the Simcha.

Tosefta Berakhot 6:18 teaches in the name of Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai (mid-2nd c. CE), that every Jewish man is obligated to recite three blessings, every day, to express gratitude for one’s station in life through negative statements: I thank God that I am not a gentile; I thank God that I am not a woman; and I thank God that I am not a slave.

The Talmud (Menachot 43b) quotes Rabbi Meir, who taught “A man is obligated to recite three blessings every day praising God for His kindnesses, and these blessings are: Who did not make me a gentile; Who did not make me a woman; and Who did not make me an ignoramus.

These three blessings became known in scholarship as Blessings of Identity, but they really don’t sound so nice, do they?

Fortunately, backing up one thousand years ago, Jews of the late-first millennium in Eretz Yisrael, and then medieval Italian Jews, edited these texts and instead recited, "Who has made me an Israelite?” instead of the more derogatory, “Who has not made me a gentile?”

In contemporary times, liberal prayer books have retrieved this positive formulation, not because the intent of Jewish religious pride/identity is unimportant, but because the redeveloped positive statements of identity clearly do not cast aspersions on others. We now bless God for: Creating us as Jews; Creating us in His image; and Creating us as free people.

Unfortunately, this week I found the original words of the text echoing in my mind. Reluctantly, I heard the quote of the Jewish man’s exuberance,

Bless Hashem, who has not made me a Goy!

For those of you who were in Shul a couple of months ago, you will recall that I shared details regarding an antisemitic attack against the Leffell School’s girls’ basketball team at the hands of a school in Yonkers. The incident was reported on the back page of the New York Post on January 4, 2024 and in other media. After physical and verbal abuse (the kids from Yonkers played rough and throughout the contest they yelled “Free Palestine” and other anti-Jewish statements), the Leffell girls’ team forfeited the game (!) and then were actively escorted to their bus by armed security guards.

While the Leffell School has chosen not to publicly comment on the incident, I was enraged that teenagers from the public school in Yonkers would openly display and direct such hatred to a group of peer student athletes. From where are they learning to spew such hate?!?

Parenthetically, there was a previous such incident last year, prior to October 7th, directed against the boys’ basketball team, which never made the papers.

To conclude the trifecta of inappropriate non-Jewish behavior, I will share with you yet another incident that occurred this past week.

The Kipp New Jersey Lab School is located in the Central Ward near NJIT and Rutgers-Newark, and claims to offer a progressive, college-preparatory educational experience, with a focus on project-based learning and design. The school’s website includes descriptors such as integrity, truth, pride, justice, and life.

Joezer Antoine, is the basketball coach at KIPP Newark Lab High School. In addition, he is a grade leader of the English Language Acquisition program and his students reportedly have some of the highest ELA results in the school!

Mazal Tov – Must be a great guy and a great school!!!!!

As you may know, since the 10/7 massacre, the watermelon has been appropriated to symbolize the "Palestinian struggle." Tamara Taha, a Palestinian American activist in Washington, D.C., shared with NPR that beyond representing the flag's colors, the watermelon has long symbolized Palestinian resistance to occupation. People worldwide are using watermelon images to support a cease-fire in Gaza and encourage “the resistance.”

The watermelon is no longer simply a sumptuous summer fruit to be celebrated.

This past week, Joezer consciously chose to wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with a watermelon in a basketball game against Golda Och Academy, a private Jewish high school located in West Orange, N.J., where two of my daughters attended.

Despite making Jewish families uncomfortable, he refused to remove it.

He chose rather: to incite and intimidate young students; to model for his students hate and not peace; and to actively embrace current African American Antisemitism, all in an effort to further the pro-Palestinian propaganda of hate, misrepresentation, mistruths, and aggression.

More so than ever, we have a complicated relationship with the non-Jewish world. Personally, I would prefer not to use past liturgy that can be perceived in a negative light. I would prefer not to offer generalizations of antisemitism. I would prefer not to witness ongoing acts of hate directed towards our youth. I would prefer that a game would just be a game and a neighbor would just be a neighbor. Wouldn’t you?

May the week ahead bring us mutual understanding, compassion, and love. Unlike the example set by these others, I pray that we can use the time of Shabbat for wise reflection and the pursuit of harmony on all the playing fields and neighborhoods we encounter in life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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