Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rashi Questions for Tzav

According to Rashi...
1. In what instances does the Torah have to give special urging to do a mitzvah?  (6:2)
2. What analogy does Rashi use to explain why the Kohein must change when he removes the ashes from the mizbeach? (6:7)
3. The Torah says that the korban shlamim can be eaten until morning.  Why then did the Sages say it can only be eaten until midnight? (7:15)
4. According to the Torah, which types of blood are we allowed to eat? (7:26)
5. What was miraculous about gathering the assembly at the entrance of the Mishkan?  Where else in the Torah did a similar miracle occur? (8:3)
6. How does the Torah praise Aharon and his sons? (8:36)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Warren Buffett's Latest Acquisition - The Whole Story

"There are Jews in Nebraska??"

That is the first question that every Jew from Omaha is asked when they travel outside of Omaha.
The second question is always, "Do you know Warren Buffett?"

It never fails. As the chief Rabbi of the state of Nebraska people also asked me things like, "does he come to shul?" and of course, "Can you get him to give money to the shul?"

I have to admit, it got to me. I started to think that there was something wrong with me in that I had not established a solid friendship with one of the richest and most sought after people in the world. After all, he does live in the same city as me. And why isn't he one of my donors? He has plenty of cash, surely he could spare a few bucks for Beth Israel Synagogue!

Then I had an idea.  (Full disclosure, it was my uncle Mark Honigsfeld's idea. Thanks Uncle Mark!)

I sat down and wrote Warren Buffett a letter. "Dear Mr. Buffett, I have a business deal that you may be interested in."

I explained that there was an ancient ban on Jews owning leaven products - chametz - over the holiday of Passover. So before the holiday we are desperate to sell - the price is low.

After eight days without cake, cookies, pizza, pasta, etc. Jews are craving chametz pretty bad - the price is high.

The idea is simple. Buy low, sell high. A great short term investment. I figured Warren Buffett should be able to relate to that.

I did not really expect that two days later I would get an e-mail from his secretary. Apparently Mr. Buffett read the letter and he was intrigued and wanted to know if the sale could be done at his office and she gave me a choice of three afternoons when Warren Buffett was available to see me.

I freaked out!! On the one hand, I was excited to finally be able to meet the richest man in the world and to actually do business with him. On the other hand, the sale of chametz is done the day before Pesach in the morning.
Should I say, "Thanks Mr. Buffett but those times don't really work for me. Can we do it at my convenience?"
Also, she had mentioned that only the afternoon worked for him.
What if I picked a date in the future and then Warren Buffett had to run off to China for business that day?
After much thought, I decided that the best thing to do was to accept the earliest date possible - bird in the hand - and figure out how to make a sale of chametz six weeks early.

I called up Rabbi Senderovic of Milwaukee who is the renowned posek who I address most halachic questions to. Rabbi Senderovic is creative and I thought maybe he could help me with this problem. After some discussion it became clear that it was not worth trying to figure out how to do the actual sale of chametz with Warren Buffett.
Selling chametz early is problematic because even if the sale could be arrange so that he took procession of the chametz six weeks later, the sale could not include any chametz acquired by Jews from the time of the sale until Pesach. Selling chametz is a serious thing and I did not want to play around with it, even for Warren Buffett.

So I had a different idea. What if I just sold him some chametz? Every year I tell my shul that they should only sell valuable things like scotch or large quantities of food. The rest I encourage them to give to the local food bank.
In my office I already had three large containers of food that had been collected that was waiting to go to the food bank. I decided that I would sell that to him, with some other chametz, and then ask him if he would kindly donate the chametz that he just acquired to the food bank.

So that is what I did.

A few days later I was off to see the wizard.

Rabbi Kripke is the Rabbi of the urban legend about the Rabbi who secretly invested with Warren Buffett very early on. He knew Buffett because his wife and Buffett's wife played bridge together. Rabbi Kripke is a great Tzadik. As his shares in Berkshire Hathaway soared he remained humble and sagely as he always was. Years after he retired from the Rabbinate he began giving away millions of dollars to various charities. Warren Buffett is very fond of Rabbi Kripke and I knew he would be happy to see him.
I also took along my former executive director, Beth Cohen. She recently took a job at the Federation as head of the center for Jewish education (and I am very happy for her although we miss her greatly) and as a going away gift I asked her to join me. I also took Rabbi Kripke’s son in law Yossi who was visiting, and my friend and proud member of Beth Israel Gary Javitch to take pictures.

In preparation for the meeting I purchased some chametz that I would give him as part of the sale. I got a challah from the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. Rose Blumkin was a Jewish immigrant who started a business in her garage that became the largest furniture store in the world - here in Omaha. She eventually sold to Warren Buffett, so I thought he would appreciate that.
I also bought him a nice bottle of single malt scotch as an example of some expensive chametz, but also as a token of appreciation.
I also wanted to give him something personal that he would enjoy. I called up my friend Shami who used to work for Warren Buffett. Shami is the urban legend of the frum guy who wrote a letter to Warren and ended up working for Berkshire Hathaway for 6 years. He recently left, on good terms, to start his own fund. Shami told me that Warren Buffet's favorite chametz snack is Cheetos. Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.
I also put aside a small box marked "Warren" in my home and filled it with some canned chametz goods.

So together our group went to visit Warren Buffett.
When you walk into his office there is a sign above the secretary’s window with a quote from the wizard of Oz, "Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody. Not no how."

When he came out I told him that there is a brachah that Jews say when we encounter someone of incredible genius from the nations of the world. So I said the brachah "she'natan mechachmato libasar vidam."

He gave us a quick tour of his office. He showed us some of his memorabilia including an autographed sneaker from Shaquille O' Neil.
I had prepared a script that I memorized that quickly outlined the idea behind the sale and what we were doing. I financed the deal by giving him a few coins with which he would make the purchase. (Warren Buffett owes me two bucks!)

I told him that he would make a kinyan, which means he would take procession of a small object, in this case the keys to the synagogue and to my home, with the understanding that when he took procession of the keys along with them he would also take procession of the challah, scotch, and Cheetos, as well as the chametz located in the containers in the synagogue and a small box of chametz in my home.

When we sell chametz it is important that the buyer has access to the chametz. I told him that the chametz in the shul was on the left as soon as you walked in, and if he comes to my house to collect his chametz he can just ask me or my wife and we will show him where it is.
He gave me the coins and I gave him the keys. I asked Rabbi Kripke to declare the sale valid. He said, "Hakol Shrir vikayam."

I then successfully solicited Warren Buffett for a donation to the food bank.

After the sale, Warren Buffett said that he wanted to show me something. He went back into his office and came out with a contract. He explained that it was the very contract with which he acquired the Nebraska Furniture Mart from Rose Blumkin. He said that he trusted her so much he did not require any audit. He just asked her if she owned the buildings and if she owed any money. She said yes and no and Warren Buffett signed the contract with no questions asked. He paid only $1,800 in lawyers’ fees for the whole deal.

That was it.

It was great to finally meet Warren Buffett. Most importantly, I hope that the publicity helps the Food Bank of the Heartland in Omaha.
But for me, I can't wait for the next person to ask me, "Do you know Warren Buffett?"
I sure do. I sold him our chametz!!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Teaching Meir Kahane at Hebrew School?

This trimester at the Hebrew High in Omaha I am teaching a class called "Extremist Right Wing Israeli Politics."
I wanted to teach a class on Israeli politics and I was tired of the old "balanced" approach.  It is common sense that people who are partial and have a strong opinion on a subject will be more interested and have a better grasp on the situation than people who are decidedly undecided. 

If the kids don't like right wing extremism then they can choose left wing extremism.  My goal is not to indoctrinate, rather I want to make these kids active participants in the conversation about the Jewish State.  Right now the kids in Omaha don't have a strong connection to what is happening in Israel and this is my experimental new approach.

So I am going to, as they say, teach what I know.  And anyone who knows me knows that I know extremist right wing Israeli politics.  I am seriously holding in everything that Rabbi Meir Kahane ever wrote.  And that is exactly what we are going to be learning together in class. 

Here is the basic outline.  Rabbi Kahane wrote a book titled, "Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews."  There are six units in the trimester so each unit we will explore a different uncomfortable questions.  My hope is that each class will bring to life  a basic difference between the left and right wing in Israel and the kids can read what Kahane had to say and decide if they agree or disagree. 

Here are the six questions:

1. Do the Arabs in Israel have the right to quietly peacefully and democratically become the majority in Israel?  (Is Israel first a Jewish or a Democratic State?)

2. In the 19th century did Jews come to Israel or did Jews come back to Israel?  (Through what narrative do we view Israeli history?)

3. Should Israel give land for peace?  (Were Oslo, expulsion from Gaza, and prisoner exchanges good choices?)

4. Must they go?  (Is it possible to coexist with the Arabs?)

5. Revolution or Referendum?  (Should Kahane have the right to speak?)

6. A Jewish State or a Hebrew speaking Portugal?  (Should Israel impose Torah law?)

That is my class.  I really hope the kids enjoy it.  I plan to blog the discussions along the way and if anyone out there has any suggestions, I am completely open.  I am trying something new and I hope it works, but all ideas are welcome and appreciated.

Rashi Questions for Vayikra

According to Rashi...
1. How did Moshe's prophecy differ from Bilaam's prophecy?  (1:1)
2. How many times did Hashem speak to Moshe during the 38 years in the desert? (1:1)
3. Why is the word 'Adam' mentioned in connection to korbanot? (1:2)
4. What is an example of doing part of a sin that is actually a complete sin?  (4:2)
5. What kal vachomer does Rashi bring from the presidential sin offering?  (4:22)
6. Why does the Torah say that lying to a friend is a sin against Hashem? (5:20)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Travel blog #3 - Teens 4 Israel advocacy mission to NYC

For our Teens 4 Israel advocacy mission, I chose Teaneck for Shabbat.  The Teens were amazed at the Jewish activity that goes on their for Shabbat.  Even our Israeli Shelicha was impressed as she had never experienced a community with so many active Jewish people outside of Israel.Friday night we davened at congregation Keter Torah.  Physically, Keter Torah may be the most beautiful shul in North America anywhere outside of Omaha. 

Friday night dinner and the following program were incredible.  We had dinner at the home of Rabbi Steven Weil.  Rabbi Weil is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.  under his leadership, the Orthodox Union brought almost 1,000 people to the last AIPAC convention, and it was OU synagogues and Rabbis that brought the largest synagogue delegations in the country.  I am proud to say that Beth Israel, the OU synagogue in Nebraska, along with its dynamic young Rabbi, this past year lead the largest ever delegation of Nebraska Jews to the AIPAC policy conference.  I hope that next year we are even bigger.

After dinner, Rabbi Weil's home filled up with about 50 Teens from the neighborhood.  They were introduced to our Omaha Teens 4 Israel group.  We heard from a local Teaneck resident named Mort Fridman.  Mort has been an active AIPAC lobbyist for almost 15 years and has developed strong relationships with Congressman and Senators all over the country.  In fact, Senator Ben Nelson was brought to Teaneck, NJ by Mort Fridman and had a parlor meeting about the US / Israel relationship in Rabbi Weil's dining room.

Mort first spoke about what AIPAC does to strengthen the US ? Israel relationship.  He asked the kids a few questions about what they know and I was very proud that Teens 4 Israel founder and president Kevin Adler's hand went up to answer every question. 

Mort told us some of his own experiences.  He says that he divides Congressmen and Senators into two groups, friends of Israel and potential friends of Israel.  Recently, he told us, in preparation for an upcoming vote on Iran sanctions he arranged a parlor meeting in Teaneck for a Congressman from Indiana, Dick Lugar, who was likely to vote against the sanctions.  Mort picked him up from the airport and had him as a captive audience in his car for the hour drive to Rabbi Weil's home.  Mort asked the congressman about how his family came form the country, knowing that the congressman had an interesting family history.  Then the Congressman asked Mort the same.  Mort told him how his father's family was wiped out in Europe during the Shoah.  He segued into a conversation about Iran and how the Jewish people have learned that when someone threatens to wipe out the Jews - we take them seriously.  The parlor meeting was a success and Rep Lugar ended up voting for the sanctions and bringing along 3 or 4 other votes as well.  The vote passed 100 - 0.  Without those rep Lugar the sanctions would probably have passed 96 - 4, but because the Senate voted unanimously, something very uncommon, the sanctions made front page news and brought more awareness to the need to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

Rabbi Weil then spoke about some other incredible AIPAC stories.  He spoke about a trip to Israel for Congressmen that included Senator Ben "Night Horse" Campbell from Colorado.  In addition to being a native American Chief, Sen. Campbell got the name "night Horse" because of his passion for riding Harley Davidson motorcycles. 
AIPAC made some preparations before his arrival, and when he stepped off the plane in tel Aviv he was greeted by the Israel Harley Davidson society, a group of American ex pats who brought their leather jackets and Harley Davidsons with them on Aliya.  At 4:00 am they took Sen Night Horse for the most spiritual ride of his life around the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Weil then focused on the power of an individual.  He told a number of stories about how one person was able to make a difference, and ended with the story of Eddie Jacobson, the Jewish business man who had the connection with Harry Truman that may have influenced his decision to vote in favor of the Jewish state.  Rabbi Weil was passionate and engaging and all the kids, and the few adults, present came away inspired. 

After the event our teens got to stay out late socializing with the teens from Teaneck.

The next day we davened at the Keter Torah Teen Minyan - a minyan run completely by teens.  They do all the davening, all the leining, they give the sermon, they even organize the kiddush and other details necessary to run a shul.  Omaha's own Aaron Kurtzman was asked to lead Shacharit.  And our own Kevin Adler gave a short dvar Torah, thanked the Teaneck teens for hosting them, and invited all the Teaneck teens to come to Omaha to experience a real Beth Israel Shabbaton.  I think I may have been the proudest Rabbi ever.

We were invited to lunch at the home of Rabbi Baum, the Rabbi of Keter Torah.  In conjunction with some other Rabbis in Teaneck he lead one of the largest synagogue delegations of any place in the US to the AIPAC policy conference.  I think it was interesting for the kids to see the differences and similarities of being a Rabbi in Teaneck verses being a Rabbi in Omaha.

Seudat Shlishit was an amazing event!!!  We ate at the home of Rabbi Steve Burg, international director of NCSY and managing director of the Orthodox Union. 
Our guest speaker was Dr. Sharon Goldman, AIPAC's Northeast Region Political Director.
Dr. Goldman further educated the teens on the impact they can have through involvement with AIPAC. 
She told us an amazing story.  After the last election there were 89 new republic congressman, most if not all were in some way associated with the Tea Party movement.  Leading up to the freshman caucus, AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, got a phone call from republican party leader John Boehner.  Boehner said that he feared that the freshman congressmen were going to draft a proposal to make major budget cuts, including cutting foreign aid to Israel. 
AIPAC's response was two fold.  First, Howard Kohr made it clear that the pro Israel community expected that the republican leadership would stand up to the freshman congressman and let them know that the republic leadership stands united in its commitment to foreign aid to Israel and demands that the freshmen do the same.  On a different front, it was Sharon Goldman job, along with the 7 other regional political coordinators around the country, to work on the freshmen. 
AIPAC begins building relationships with up and coming politicians long before they are elected to congress.  By the time a congressman is elected there is at least one AIPAC supporter who has been there for that congressman earlier in his career, whether it was helping to raise money, arrange parlor meetings, or just to help make connections and give good advice.  Often the relationships are so strong that these AIPAC supporters can call at any time of day and they will get the congressman on their personal phone.  And that is exactly what they did. 
The next morning at the breakfast served before the caucus, unofficially every congressman was talking about, "that phone call" that they got the night before from their friend in the pro Israel community.  When they put forth their proposal to the republicans, they had recommended cuts across the board - except on foreign aid to Israel. 

After Dr. Goldman we got to hear from Rabbi Steven Burg.  We happened to be joined by the teen who was elected the national leader of international NCSY.  He is from Cherry Hill NJ and was spending Shabbat with Rabbi Burg.  They spoke to us about different initiatives taht are being done in different NCSY chapters and our teens got some great ideas to implement in Omaha, and made some great contacts to partner with for future ideas and events.

After Shabbat we had an inspiring Havdalah and went bowling with some of the teens that we met over shabbat.  (I bowled a 157 - personal high!)

The next day we had a great surprise.  I had originally planned for us to see an exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum.  Unfortunately, because the problems with parking a van did not allow for enough time to do it. 
Instead, we went to the discovery Museum at Times square -right near the bus station - and we got to see the famous Dead Sea Scrolls!!!

The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 in a cave near the dead sea.  They are over 2000 years old.  Text usually disintegrate, but the climate and conditions of the cave preserved these ancient scrolls and have taught us a great deal about how ancient Jews lived in the land of Israel thousands of years ago.  

I arranged for my close friend Sjimon Den Hollander to meet us.  Sjimon is a scholar and somewhat of an expert on the history of the region and of ancient texts.  He was a great tour guide and the teens really got the most our of this monumental exhibit.

It was the perfect way to end the trip.  These teens will never let someone get away with saying that the Jews just came to Israel in the 19th century.  With their own eyes they saw very real proof that Jews have been there from time immemorial. 

Over all the trip was a great success.  In the airport before we boarded our plane to Omaha I asked the the teens what their thoughts were now after the trip. 
One participant told me that before the trip she did not consider Israel advocacy something that was "her thing" but increasingly over the course of the trip she saw its importance and now she knows it is something that she wants to get involved in.
Many thanks to all of the generous donors who made this possible and to all the people who help make this a great experience.
I hope we have a chance to do something like this again, and I can't wait to see what great things these teens bring back to Omaha and to their college campuses in the future.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Travel Blog #2 - Teens 4 Israel New York Trip

I just got back form our unforgettable Teens 4 Israel Advocacy trip to New York city.  The Omaha Teens did so much in such a short time, the biggest challenge was taking it all in.
On Friday morning after breakfast we met in an office on Wall Street for our program with The Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).  But the teens were not informed as to who we were meeting with.

We sat down in a conference room and I told the teens that i had arranged for an interview with a journalist.  A young woman entered the room and introduced herself as a journalist for the New England Middle East Journal.  She started out by asking the kids where they were from and the purpose of their trip.  after a short time she started challenging them on how they could support Israel despite all of the terrible things that Israel does?  The kids were at first confused, but as the questions became more accusatory the teens began to engage her in a heated discussion that soon escalated into an argument.  After a time that was probably no longer than 15 minutes the woman said, "I think I have enough for my article." and abruptly left the room.  A minute later she returned and introduced herself as Judith Rachel, intern for CAMERA.

I had seen programs like this before, once regarding Christian missionaries, where someone pretends to be the opposition.  But Judith's portrayal of the anti Israel journalist was so convincing that even though I was in on the secret I was ready to punch her in the face.  She through ever bit of classic anti Israel rhetoric at the teens, she brought in her emotions, and she even intimidated them with subtle insults and aggressive body language.  The program was maybe 15 minutes but it felt like 2 hours to me, and several times I had to hold myself back from ending the program in the middle because I thought it was too intense for the teens to handle.

While the Omaha teens were drawn into the clever tricks that Judith wanted to demonstrate, I was incredibly proud of them.  Some kids were drawing from their own arsenal of facts about the conflict that we learned together at Teens 4 Israel programs to debate with her, while others tried to turn the tables on Judith by challenging her premise that Israel's enemies were strictly the victims in the conflict. 

What Judith demonstrated was that 1.) facts don't always work in an argument because the "journalist" countered with made up "facts" of her own that she was able to put forth with enough confidence that the teens took for granted that they were real.  And 2.) it was impossible to turn the tables on Judith.  Whereas she created an atmosphere where the Jewish teens felt that they had to answer for any policy of the Israeli government as if it were their fault, while she was simply an unbiased third party in the conflict just reporting on the situation.

The program had some other aspects that Judith pointed out in the discussion that ensued.  When we finished, Judith spoke about how she got involved in Israel advocacy.  She was at Brooklyn college, a school with thousands of Jews, but since it was a commuter school there was no pro Israel presence.  She had never been involved in Israel advocacy before, but when an anti Israel group formed on campus she felt that she had to do something and she formed her own pro Israel group.  She is now in graduate school, continuing her Israel advocacy work on campus and interning for CAMERA.

We also met with CAMERA's head curriculum coordinator.  She introduced us to some of the programs that CAMERA does for teens and college students.  We looked at articles that were recently in publications like the New York Times about Israel.  She showed us how headlines, pictures, captions, and even the structure of an article can be deceptive.  Naama, our community Shelicha and the other chaperon on the trip, was so impressed with the program she took samples back and she is going to start running these programs for kids in Omaha.

Then we met with the head of CAMERA's letter writing department.  She gave us an inspirational speech about how we can get involved in Israel advocacy and practical things that the teens could start doing immediately. 

I am so grateful to CAMERA for setting this up for us.  They are an amazing organization and our time with them was the highlight of the trip for many of the teens.

From CAMERA we went to Teaneck, NJ where we were going to spend Shabbat. 

(editors note: we had two speakers on Friday that we had to cut out because of technical difficulties.  I mention them here only so that others who want to replicate this program learn from a logistical error on my part.  I rented a van that was to be our transportation and had budgeted money for parking in the city.  Unfortunately I learned the hard way that parking garages will NOT accept anything larger than a mini van.  Because of this we had to take subways and buses which took large unscheduled chunks out of our days.  Many thanks to Yeshiva University for storing our van during the trip for no charge.)

I was very excited about Shabbat in Teaneck.  For one, Teaneck is an incredibly pro Israel community.  There are over 20 shuls in the area and every week representatives of all types of institutions in Israel come to spend Shabbat at the different shuls to raise money for Israel.  Millions of dollars are raised every year from Teaneck for the Jewish state.  Also, in Teaneck there are so many incredible pro Israel professionals and lay people, many of whom wanted to share their experiences and wisdom with our Teens 4 Israel group.  And finally, I grew up in Teaneck and I was very proud to introduce my Omaha teens to the place where I lived as a teen and to the people and institutions that inspired me to be a proud advocate of Israel and a proud Jew.

Home hospitality was arranged for us by the local NCSY youth group professional.  I have to tell an incident that occurred just to give you an idea of what kind of community Teaneck is. 
An hour before Shabbat, the busiest time of the week, we arrived at what I thought was the home of the family that agreed to host four of our girls.  The girls and I showed up at the house with all their bags and I knocked on the front door.  A Jewish lady answered and I asked, "is this 34 elm street?"  "No."  She replied.  "This is 28."  She looked at the girls and their luggage and then immediately added, "But do you need extra beds?"
The girls and I were absolutely floored.  Here she did not know who we were or why we were here.  She saw some Jews before shabbat with luggage and without hesitation offered us a place to stay if we needed it.  That spirit of welcoming in guests was what I grew up with in my own home and it makes me proud to come from a community that takes that Jewish value so seriously.

Eventually, I got all the teens to the right homes with plenty of time to get ready for a great shabbat.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Travel blog Teens4Israel trip

I am in New York with a group of high school on an Israel advocacy trip.

A few months ago, one of the teens in my shul spoke to me about his concerns about going to college unprepared to confront anti Israel sentiments on campus.  I thought he had a good point and suggested to him that he start an Israel advocacy group for teens.  He took my advice and started Teens 4 Israel. He assembled a group of kids, connected with AIPAC, lobbied congressmen, and now, thanks to a group of generous donors who also felt there was a need for the program, we have our first Israel advocacy mission.

At first we were going to attend the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, but our regional AIPAC director told us that AIPAC no longer allowed teens to come (I was there last week and I saw throngs of teenagers.  I have to figure out how to sign my kids up for next year).  So using some of my own connections, I helped to organize a trip that would be an unforgettable experience for the Omaha teens.

Our first stop today from the airport was my Alma mater Yeshiva University.  YU has the largest and strongest Israel advocacy group of any college in America.  When we arrived at YU we had arranged to have lunch with YUPAC.  The students who run this group are truly remarkable.  They spoke about how YU is unique in that they don't deal with issues that other colleges deal with; for instance combat ting Israel apartheid week.  Therefore they have the advantage of being completely proactive.  They recently had a  lobbying mission to Washington DC with over 200 students.  They brought a diverse group of YU students who originate from all over the US.  Each student was sent to lobby his own congressman.  Even Nebraska was represented by our own Adam Goldberg who is a sophomore at YU.  

The YUPAC representatives explained the importance of Israel advocacy.  They mentioned how they all have their own opinion on specific Israeli issues, but when it comes to advocacy they are unified in their goal of strengthening the US - Israel relationship.  They gave our students advice on how they can find or if necessary start up their own pro Israel groups on whatever college campus they end up going to.  

After meeting YUPAC we were joined by the president of the University, Richard Joel.  The president is a very busy man and only had a few minutes, but he spoke with us about how Yeshiva is proud to be the strongest college campus in the world in its support of Israel and why he feels that as Jews we have an obligation to support Jews where ever they are in the world.  

After our lunch meeting we got a tour of the campus.  The girls went downtown to see Stern college for women and the boys stayed up town to see Yeshiva college for men.  It was very exciting for me to take my teens from Omaha around YU.  I am very proud to have attended Yeshiva.  The years that I spent there were among the most formative years of my life.  Much of my passion for Judaism and for working for the Jewish community was developed there and I feel like showing the kids around YU was a way of showing them the core of my own personal Jewish experience.  

We went to the YU beit midrash and I introduced them to Rabbi Hershel Schacter - one of the preeminent Torah scholars in the world today.  Rav Schacter was deep in study, but when he was told that a group of boys from Omaha was visiting he stood up to greet us and welcomed us warmly.  I hope that one day they have an opportunity to hear him lecture and truly understand what makes Rav Schacter great.

After our respective tours we met up at the Jewish Museum on the upper East Side of Manhattan.  The Museum was hosting an exhibit called The World Stage: Israel - by an artist named Khilnde Wiley.  Wiley is a non-Jewish black artist who has traveled the world doing portraits of random people in what he thinks are interesting places.  His most recent was Israel.  He did a number of giant sized (9 foot) portraits of Ethiopian Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, and Israeli Arabs.  To try and describe these magnificent works of art could not do them justice.  Looking at each inspired piece was in itself an experience worth coming for.  After we toured the exhibit we stayed for a conversation with the artist.  He spoke a bit about Israel and how visiting Israel completely changed the perceptions that he had about the country from the American media - in a good way.  He truly admired the diversity that exists there and he thinks that it is this diversity that makes the world obsessed with Israel.
Mostly he spoke about his art.  In the Q and A after his speech he touched on his personal history.  He grew up in a large poor family in South central LA.  His single mother made sure that he and his siblings became cultured and she sought out free learning opportunities for her children.  She enrolled him in a painting class that was offered free because of a Jewish philanthropy and that is how he began his very impressive career in art.  It sounded like he was very grateful to the Jewish people for that.

After the lecture we browsed the museum gift shop and then had dinner at a terrific kosher restaurant on the East Side called 18.  After dinner we headed back to YU.  YU has graciously put us up in the dorms for the evening.  

Tomorrow we have another big day of Israel programming.  I am so grateful to the donors for making this trip possible.  The kids are learning a lot and my hope is that they will bring what they learn back to their peers in Omaha.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Inspiring the Nebraska Cornhuskers

A while ago I received a call from someone close with Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini.
Every Friday Coach Pelini publishes a newsletter that he distributes to his players and includes an inspiring story to psyche them up for the big game on Shabbat.  

He thought that a Rabbi may have some inspiring stories to share. 
Now, you have to understand, to help out the CornHuskers would almost be considered a great community service - dare I say, even a mitzvah - to many people here.  I had to do what I could.

The problem is, I am not really a story guy.  So I called up my good friend Dovid Bashevkin from NCSY and he told me to give him the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge Story.  

Right away I remembered that story from when I was an NCSYer in 6th grade. 
In the late 1880s there was a bridge and a big train accident.  There was a big law suit that followed the accident and the whole case hinged on whether or not some guy had waved a lantern signalling to the conductor whether the bridge was up or down. 
The lantern guy was called to the stand and he was asked, "are you the lantern guy?"
"Yes" he said.
"Did you wave the lantern like you were supposed to?"
This is where the suspense built up.  After a long dramatic pause the guys answers, "Yes!  I waived the lantern."
The crowd goes crazy!  The railroad company wins the case.
After the court room empties the lawyer sees that the lantern guy is looking really sad. 
"What's wrong?  Didn't you tell the truth?"
"Yes.  I told the truth.  I waived the lantern.  But..." pause for dramatic punch line delivery - "there was no fire in the lantern!"

What a story.  Moral - sometimes you can do your job perfectly, but if there is no fire burning in you - it is like you never did it at all!

I did not like that story as a kid.  I couldn't help but think about all the poor victims of the train accident and how the railroad company would get off Scot free. 

And, if the story is so famous, why didn't the court find out about it and declare a mistrial?  Or try the guy for perjury or something?

That is why I don't like these stories. 

But Bo Pelini does.  So what can I do but get him some. 
Any ideas anyone?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Great Pesach Custom

30 days before Pesach we are supposed to start preparing for the holiday.
For some that means cleaning.  For a Rabbi it means studying the Haggadah.

I have heard that there are more commentaries on the Passover Haggadah than on any other book ever written in history, including the Bible.  I believe it.  Every year new Haggadahs hit the market before Passover.

I used to have a friend, Rabbi Eliyahu Milder z"l, who had a custom to purchase at least one new Haggadah every year before Pesach.  He did this from the time he learned in Yeshiva and by the time of his death he had close to 100 different commentaries of the Haggadah in his library.

Since he died I have taken on this custom.  I am currently shopping for a new Haggadah, so if anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

Some nice haggadah suggestions that I have:

The Chief Rabbi's Haggadah - Not to be confused with the Chief Rabbi of Nebraska's Haggadah (available soon where ever books are sold) this Haggadah by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs is a collection of essays about the Haggadah.  It is best used as preparation material.  Don't try to read the commentary at the seder - your seder will go on forever!  Read the essays in advance and impress your family and friends with historical facts and practical insights.

The Gurs Haggadah:  Passover in Perdition - In 1941 in the Gurs Detention Camp in Southwestern France the Jewish prisoners held a passover seder with a Haggadah that they wrote from memory.  The Haggadah comes with photographs and features a facsimile of the actual Haggadah that they wrote.  Bring it to the seder and truly appreciate what it means to be free on Passover.

The Ben Ish Chai Haggadah - I found this treasure buried in a sheimos pile in a shul many years ago.  I cannot believe that someone actually through this away!  It has amazing commentary, each with profound parables explaining a moral lesson found in each section of the Haggadah.  You can either read this in preparation and bring to the seder the stories you liked best, or you can bring this to the seder cold and choose sections at random to read out loud.  Each one is a gem.

Happy Haggadah hunting everyone!!

quiz questions for Vayakhel Pikudei

According to Rashi...
1. On what date did Moshe assemble the people to build the Mishkan?  (35:1)
2. Why were the Nesi'im the last to contribute to the Mishkan?  (35:27)
3. How was Hur related to Moshe? (35:30)
4. What controversy was there over whether or not to accept mirrors for the Mishkan?  (38:38)
5. What were the mirrors used for?  (38:38)
6. What was the Mishkan a testimony of?  (38:21)
7. What song did Moshe sing when he blessed the Mishkan?  (39:43)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Rashi Questrion for Ki Tisa

According to Rashi...
1. How did Hashem illustrate the shekel for Moshe? (30:13)
2. How much anointing oil did Moshe make?  What hint does Rashi find for this? (30:31)
3. What three words of wisdom does the Torah use and how do they differ from each other? (31:3)
4. What does the word 'Shabbaton' imply? (31:15)
5. What does the word 'litzachek' imply?  (32:6)
6. When Moshe asked to see Hashem's glory, what did Hsahem show him?  (33:18)
7. Why is the prohibition about cooking meat in milk mentioned three times in the Torah? (34:26)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rationalizing the Megillah Nuremberg Prophecy

When I was in 5th grade I was introduced to something found in Megillat Esther that i thought was the absolute coolest thing in the entire world.

The megillah lists the ten sons of Haman who were killed.  If you look at a standard written megillah you will see that of the 100+ letters that make up the text of the 10 sons of Haman, 3 of those letters are always written in small print.

From time immemorial, every scribe who wrote a megillah was instructed that when writing a megillah make sure that these specific three letters are written in small print:
1. the letter tav in ParshandaTa
2. the letter Shin in ParhaSHta
3. the letter zayin in vayiZata

and for over 2000 years that is just the way it was.  I am sure that people gave reasons why they thought these letters had to be small, but for the most part people just went with it and attributed these letters to the few other times in Tanach that there are small and sometimes large letters.

But these 3 letters gained significance about 65 years ago of all places at the Nuremberg trials after the Holocaust.

In October of 1946, 23 Nazi war criminals were charged - 10 were sentenced to hanging.  The last man hung was Julius Streicher, a prominent Nazi prior to War II.  According to eye witness accounts, when he ascended the gallows, right before he died he suddenly cried out, "Purim Fest 1946!" and with that he was executed.

It would suffice as an interesting parallel in its own right that at the hanging of 10 men who sought to destroy the Jews in modern times he referenced the holiday when we celebrate the hanging of 10 men in ancient times who sought to do the same thing.  But the coincidence is much greater.

The Hebrew year in October of 1946 was 5707 - in Hebrew notated with the three letters tav, shin, zayin.

In fifth grade it was absolutely clear to me that the Mordechai and Esther, the authors of the megillah, with some sort of prophetic wisdom embedded a hint that at some time in the future once again the enemies of the Jews would pay for their wickedness in a similar manner.

Now that I am a bit older, I am also a bit more skeptical.  I don't really believe in things like the Torah codes and I can usually find a good rational explanation for a good gematria.

But this one still stumps me.  This is too much of coincidence.  10 hangings.  3 letters.  The dramatic cry before the hanging.  How could it be anything but divine?

Could it be that the letters were only made small post 1946?  I have never seen a pre-1946 megillah but I suspect that the letters were small then also.

Could it be that the story of Streicher is a myth?

I am looking for an answer to this.  Any ideas?  Or could it be that Biblical prophecy exists?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Travel Blog - AIPAC policy conference

On Sunday morning I left Omaha to attend the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.

There are no Saturday night flights that I could take out of Omaha so since I leave Sunday morning I showed up alte at the conference.  Consequently, I had to miss the first two addresses, one by Israeli president Shimon Peres and the other by US president Barack Obama.

As I got off the plane I could hear the morning news on a nearby television.  CNN was reporting on the AIPAC convention and president Obama's address.

I arrived at the conference in the early afternoon.  This is my fourth time attending policy conference and every year it is bigger and bigger.  This year is the largest conference ever with over 13,000 people in attendance.

The conference is incredibly well organized.  It is held in the massive Washington convention center in the heart of DC.  All programs take place inside.  At any given time there are at least 30 or 40 breakout sessions going on, each with from 150 to 500 people.
For the last month AIPAC has been sending e-mails to the participants that allowed us to sign up for the sessions we want to go to before the conference.

Thus year we have the largest group ever from Omaha.  There are at least a dozen of us here.

Choosing breakout sessions is by far the hardest part of the conference.  Each one is given by leading experts in whatever topic is being discussed.  Many of the panels have notable congressmen or senators or Israeli government officials.

I chose to go to sessions that I thought would be useful to bring back to Omaha.  I chose one called "Israel on Campus: Creating Tomorrow's leaders."  It was a panel discussion with a number of leading Israel activists on dfferent college capuses including UC Berkley and UPenn.  There seems to be strong anti Israel sentiments on at Berkley and UPenn has a contingency of faculty and students that have made some serious anti Israel statements in the past.  These students stressed the importance of being knowledgeable about the situation in Israel and how AIPAC was a resource for them in organizing pro Israel groups on campus.

Some of the other sessions that went on at that time were about the arab states, the status of different terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, human rights activism going on in the Arab world that will be good for Israel, Inside the Iranian republic, understanding Palestinian public opinion, How Israel is helping the world in need, how the US and Israel join to fight global terror, Egypt's growing Islamic movement, China's middle East strategy, and the list goes on and on.

My second session was a special session just for Rabbis.  There were over 250 Rabbis in the standing room only crowd.  The Rabbis are from all denominations from all over the country.  We did a text study on Israel and also discussed the roles that Rabbis play in educating about Israel.  One point made was that much of the discussion about Israel is focused on the many crises that face Israel.  But there are all kinds of other aspects to Israel that people should be aware of.  Synagogue Rabbis are positioned to keep American Jews focused on the discussions beyond the crises regarding the importance of maintaining a Jewish state.  There was also discussion about the unique quality that Jews have always had to disagree and yet respect dissenting opinions.

A point that I especially liked was that all Israel advocacy does not have to be about responding to crises. Much Israel advocacy is about being character witnesses to Israel. If we conduct ourselves with dignity then Israel is by association portrayed in a better light.

After the Rabbis meeting I davened mincha.  This year they actually have a set area for davening.  There is a room for traditional services as well as a room for egalitarian services.  There are davening times throughout the day.

There is also an area with tables an kosher food for sale for participants to meet between sessions.  Between sessions I have been networking like crazy.  I am astounded not only by the number of incredible Jewish professionals are here, but also by the quality of the people who are working for the Jewish people!  I am seeing many old friends and making some new ones, and from everyone I am learning about exciting and innovative programming that they are doing in so many different areas, from education, to pulpit, to advocacy, to organizational work.  For me it would be worthwhile to come just for the networking.

Today we are going to hear from Joe Lieberman in the morning, I have a number of great break out sessions in the afternoon and then tonight is the gala event.

I hope to have time to keep everybody posted about this amazing conference and I hope next year we get even more people from omaha to attend.