Category Archives: Personalities

“Mr.” to Us

Something recently reminded me of one of the many lessons I was privileged to be taught by Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, (pictured here with me at my wedding) who served as Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.

As an 18-year-old studying in the   Yeshivah in 1972, I watched him at first from afar, then learned from him up-close. The depth of his knowledge, his eloquent, brilliant analyses of Shas sugyos, and of history and science, made a deep impression on me.

His intellect and erudition, though, were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to Torah, to emes, and to his talmidim – indeed, to all Klal Yisrael.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rav Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about halachah or machshavah, or for an eitzah, I am struck by something I gave little thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I came to discover, not only to me. So many others – among them accomplished talmidei chachamim, rabbanim, and askanim – had also enjoyed a talmidRebbi relationship with Rav Weinberg. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my Rebbi alone.

Nor did his ongoing interactions with his talmidim prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

In the early 1980s, Rav Weinberg was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small   Yeshivah in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. He agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim Rosh Yeshivah.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the   Yeshivah and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to be meshamesh Rav Weinberg, and to witness much I will always remember.

Like the time the yeshivah placed Rav Weinberg in a rented house, along with the yeshivah’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be cool, and the house’s heating system wasn’t working. The yeshivah administrator made sure that extra blankets were in the house, and an electric heater was procured for Rav Weinberg. (The cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a colder clime).

After a week or two of chilly, rainy weather, it was evident that the Rosh Yeshivah had caught a bad cold. Someone went to his room to check the heater. It wasn’t there.

It was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rav Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. He “thought they might be cold” he explained.

We bought another heater. And learned a lesson.

But the particular memory that was recently jogged in my mind was of the yeshivah’s janitor. A young black man, his surname was Barnett. And that’s how we referred to him. “Hey, Barnett, how’s it going?” “Yo, Barnett, can you take care of this mess?” “Barnett, you working tomorrow?”

Once, Rav Weinberg heard one of us call out to the worker. Fixing his eyes on us, the Rosh   Yeshivah said, quietly but firmly, “Mr. Barnett,” pointedly articulating the “Mr.

What reminded me of that incident was a report about a commencement speech Supreme Court Justice John Roberts made at his son’s ninth-grade graduation from a prestigious New Hampshire school. He had much of worth to share with the boys, warning them, for instance, that their privileged lives will not insulate them from adversity, and suggesting that they take ten minutes a week to update and thank one of their former teachers with a written note (“Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope”).

He also told them that, when they get to their new school, each of them should “walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.”

And so I was naturally reminded by that advice of Rav Weinberg’s “Barnett lesson” – that kvod haadam extends to every rung of the social ladder (and all the more so within Klal Yisrael’s social order!).

Then, suddenly, I realized that Rav Weinberg’ yahrtzeit, Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, was mere days away.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© Hamodia 2017

A Tale of Two Testimonies

“Gentlemen! Start your engines!”

Or, maybe better, “In this corner, heavyweight champion…!”

Neither phrase was actually blasted from a loudspeaker on either June 8, when ex-FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, or last Wednesday, the 13th, when it was Attorney General Jeff Session’s turn to answer questions. But, predictably, the reactions to the two men’s sworn responses to committee members’ questions came flying as fast and furious as any race car or boxer’s hook.

Mr. Comey, who served in the Department of Justice before being appointed to head the FBI in 2013, has the distinction of having drawn harsh criticism over the past year from both sides of the political aisle.

Last summer, Republicans condemned him when he told the media that he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state.

Democrats, for their part, castigated him for his pointed criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s actions. Then, when Mr. Comey announced mere weeks before the election that the FBI was reopening the investigation of Mrs. Clinton, her supporters were further outraged.

Being blasted by both sides in a dispute is often a sign that one is doing things right. Mr. Comey is clearly not beholden to any party, only to what he sees as his duty as a public servant.

That image was only enhanced, at least for me, by his Senate testimony, much of which focused on his impression that, in a private meeting with Mr. Trump on February 14, the president had subtly tried to pressure him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s erstwhile national security advisor.

Having subsequently been fired by the president, Mr. Comey was asked by Senator John Cornyn, “If you’re trying to make an investigation go away, is firing an FBI director a good way to make that happen?”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Comey replied, “but I’m hopelessly biased given that I was the one fired.” That admission, to me, reflects a self-awareness all too rare in government today.

The partisan pugilists, though, took it as an admission that undermined Mr. Comey’s entire testimony. They also focused on Mr. Comey’s having shared with the media a memo to himself about his uncomfortable meeting with the president, written right afterward and intended to preserve his immediate impressions.

Fast-forward five days. Mr. Sessions acquitted himself well, too, convincingly condemning accusations that he had had conversations with Russian officials about the presidential election as an “appalling and detestable lie.”

The attorney general, too, was seized upon by the partisan pack, mainly for what it characterized as “stonewalling” – his declining to respond to questions about private conversations he had with the president. But, as Mr. Sessions explained, since Mr. Trump is protected by executive privilege, he, Mr. Sessions, did not feel he could relate information that the president might not wish to become public. Many of us might relish the thought of hearing about those conversations, but the attorney general’s point is entirely defensible.

The only conflict between Mr. Comey’s and Mr. Sessions’ testimonies lay in their description of what transpired on February 14, when Mr. Comey emerged from his private meeting with the president and expressed to the attorney general that he, Mr. Comey, felt that such a one-on-one meeting was improper.

Mr. Comey said: “I don’t remember real clearly. I have a recollection of him [Mr. Sessions] just kind of looking at me – and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory – but I kind of got… his body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Mr. Sessions, for his part, testified that he did in fact respond to Mr. Comey’s expressed discomfort, and that he agreed with him on the importance of maintaining proper protocol.

As explosive contradictions of testimony go, this was more a fizzled-out sparkler than a bombshell. The discrepancy between the “body language” of Mr. Comey’s recollection (especially qualified by his admission that his memory of the moment is unclear) and the short response of Mr. Session’s remembrance is hardly the stuff of perjury.

And so, what the two testimonies leave me with is a favorable impression of two upstanding public servants responding as best as they feel they can to Congressional questions.

Pundits are expected to take sides here, to find some fault in Mr. Comey or Mr. Sessions. But I don’t see any glaring ones. I’m left only with a positive impression of two honorable men.

Is that allowed?

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia

An Impossible Pretzel

Some people, it seems, like some dogs with teeth planted firmly in mailmen’s legs, just can’t let go.

Take Peter Beinart.

I have no problem with the columnist and former The New Republic editor’s expressing liberal Zionist views, much as I may disagree with some of them. There is room in this world for different perspectives.

Nor am I particularly vexed by his longtime opposition to President Trump; the president has certainly left himself open to criticism on many occasions. Mr. Beinart’s past insinuation that the president harbors tolerance for anti-Semitism was a silly and unfounded charge, but there are always plenty of those to go around.

What’s more troublesome is the columnist’s refusal to give Mr. Trump credit when it is due, like after the president’s speech last week at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the museum, and belying once and for all accusations of his insensitivity toward the Jewish people, the president spoke of how “the Nazis massacred six million Jews,” how “two out of every three Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide.”

Addressing survivors present, he said, “You witnessed evil, and what you saw is beyond… any description,” and asserted that, through their testimony, they “fulfill the righteous duty to… engrave into the world’s memory the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people.”

He also spoke of Israel as “an eternal monument to the undying strength of the Jewish people.” And he deemed Holocaust denial “one of many forms of dangerous anti-Semitism that continues all around the world,” concluding with the words: “So today we mourn. We remember. We pray. And we pledge: Never again.”

Enter Peter Beinart. Well, not into the museum, but into the pages of the Forward, where he cited Mr. Trump’s recounting of the story of Gerda Weissman, who, in 1945, as an emaciated 21-year-old veteran of Nazi work camps and a death march, was liberated, and elated to see a car sporting not a swastika but an American star. Her liberator turned out to be a Jewish American lieutenant, Kurt Klein, and they eventually became husband and wife.

Mr. Beinart reflects on “how [Mr. Trump’s] views might have affected people like Gerda Klein had he been president back then.” The original “America Firsters,” war-era isolationists, he contends, “shared a mentality” with the president – to protect the United States’ “shores and its people” and to “not squander money and might safeguarding foreigners in distant lands.”

“It is this mentality,” he asserts, “that earlier this year led Trump to propose a budget that cuts U.S. funding for the United Nations in half,” which could bring about “the breakdown of the international humanitarian system as we know it.”

The postwar Displaced Persons Camps, Mr. Beinart goes on to remind us, were administered by a U.N. commission, and paid for largely by the U.S. President Trump, he confidently states, “would likely have seen it as a prime example of other countries ripping America off,” and would “surely have disapproved,” in 1946, when anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland “sent tens of thousands of Jews streaming across the border into U.S.-administered DP camps in Germany,” of allowing any of them onto our shores.

Because Mr. Trump is president, Mr. Beinart concludes, “the Gerda Kleins of today are unlikely to see America’s symbols the way she did.”

One needn’t be a proponent of a Mexican wall to recognize that there is no comparison between, on the one hand, caring for people who narrowly escaped a multi-national genocidal effort only to face murderous pogroms, and, on the other, welcoming every foreigner seeking to improve his economic welfare.

Nor need one like Mr. Trump’s immigration ban to understand that, justified or not, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is somewhat more plausible today than it was regarding Jews in 1946.

Mr. Beinart, though, insists on twisting Mr. Trump’s sentiments into an impossible pretzel, into something cynical and hypocritical.

“He praises Holocaust survivors today,” the columnist writes about the president, “because it’s politically expedient. But his actions desecrate their memory. Had he more shame, he would not have spoken at the Holocaust Memorial Museum at all.”

But Mr. Trump, Mr. Beinart surely knows, isn’t currently running for office. And if there’s one thing most everyone agrees about, it’s that he expresses things bluntly, as he believes them to be. Had Peter Beinart more shame, he would not have written his article at all.

© 2017 Hamodia

Callousness or Conscientiousness?

The most incriminatory and unarguable allegation leveled by some Senate Judiciary Committee panelists against Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch was, apparently, that he isn’t Merrick Garland. Guilty as charged.

Mr. Garland, of course, for anyone blessedly short of political memory, was former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016. Republican senators refused to schedule a hearing for that nominee since, they argued, a new president would be inaugurated a mere ten months later.

In this observer’s mind, and entirely unrelated to either my feelings about Mr. Obama or the fact that Judge Garland is Jewish, that refusal was a failure of congressional conscience. No matter how lame a presidential duck may be (and ten months is a substantial amount of time for a waterfowl to limp about), a sitting president has a right to nominate a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat; and the legislative branch, a responsibility to fairly consider him.

But the fact that something unconscionable was done cannot change reality. Bad things happen (or are wrought), but life must go on. Mr. Garland’s mistreatment does not implicate Mr. Gorsuch in any way. And the latter, as per his reputation and his thoughtful responses during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, is an individual eminently qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Less incriminatory, and entirely arguable, were two other charges brought against the nominee: that he once made remarks disparaging to expectant mothers, and that he showed callous misjudgment in a fraught legal case, ruling for an employer against an employee.

In the first case, a former law student of Judge Gorsuch alleged that, in a course at the University of Colorado Law School last year, he told his class that employers, specifically law firms, should ask women seeking jobs about their plans for establishing a family, and implied that women routinely manipulate companies when they are interviewed, in order to extract maternity benefits.

Asked if the charge was true, Mr. Gorsuch replied, “No.”

“I would have never have said [such a thing],” he continued, “I’d be delighted to actually clear this up.”

In a letter to the committee, another student in the class disputed the account. And a former law clerk for Mr. Gorsuch, Janie Nitze, said that when she heard the allegations, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” She and 10 other female former clerks also sent a letter to the committee in support of the candidate. In it, the 11 women asserted that “The judge has spoken of the struggles of working attorneys to juggle family with work obligations; not once have we heard him intimate that those struggles are, or should be, shouldered by one gender alone.”

The second attempt to portray Mr. Gorsuch as an ogre involved the case of a truck driver who was fired for abandoning his cargo trailer when its brakes froze in sub-zero temperatures. The unfortunate man, after repeatedly being told by the company to stay put since help was on the way, decided – entirely understandably, considering the temperature and the malfunctioning of the heater in the truck cab – to detach the trailer from the cab and drive away.

The legal question in the case was whether a “whistleblower” provision that protects a driver when he “refuses to operate a vehicle” because of safety concerns covered the trucker who chose instead to operate his vehicle.

It may have been heartless for the employer to fire the trucker, in other words, but did it violate the letter of the statute? Judge Gorsuch, in a dissent to a 2016 ruling by his two colleagues on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, contended that it did not.

For that stance, the nominee was painted as heartless himself, unconcerned with the “little guy.” But an American judge, of course, no less than, l’havdil, a posek in a monetary issue, must render his dispassionate judgment, devoid of sympathy or antipathy toward either litigant, “big company” or “little guy.” The Torah enjoins us to not “favor the face of the poor one” in court (Vayikra, 19:15).

In 97 percent of 2,700 cases, Mr. Gorsuch noted, his judgments were part of unanimous decisions; and he was in the majority 99 percent of the time.

No, he’s not Merrick Garland, it must be conceded. He is Neil Gorsuch.

And eminently qualified for a seat on the republic’s highest court.

© 2017 Hamodia

Unfair Play

In the current polarized political atmosphere, where “team” mentality – “our guys are great, yours are bums” – seems to be the default state of mind, and where objective, thoughtful fairness is the rarest of birds, it must be particularly hard to be a black conservative Republican.

Like Justice Clarence Thomas, Stanley Crouch and Thomas Sowell before him, Dr. Ben Carson, the once-presidential candidate and now Housing and Urban Development Secretary, was recently reminded of the perils of that identity, when an entirely innocent comment he made was blown out of all proportion by a horde of players from Team Black and Team Democrat.

As he began his first full week leading HUD, which provides housing assistance to low-income people and development block grants to communities, and enforces fair housing, Dr. Carson spoke to a standing-room-only audience of the agency’s employees.

He praised them for their dedication to HUD’s mission of “helping the downtrodden, helping the people in our society to… climb the ladder.” And then he extolled the United States as a land of opportunity, saying: “That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The positively lupine reaction to that eloquent paean to America was to pounce on Dr. Carson’s pointedly loose use of the word “immigrant” with reference to African slaves brought to these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the overheated comments that suffused the media, one would have thought that the doctor had extolled slavery rather than the aspirations of slaves, that he had made a direct comparison rather than a clear contrast.

Pundits and academics across the land rent their garments at the desecration, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota railed that Dr. Carson had shown a “stunning misunderstanding of history… a very scary thing,” and declared that the doctor’s perspective makes him unqualified to lead HUD.

I don’t know what sort of president Dr. Carson would have made, had he prevailed in the Republican primary. He certainly showed misjudgment by imagining that civility is something appreciated by the American electorate.

But I find it easy to envision that he might be just what an agency like HUD needs: someone who recognizes that, however dismal one’s past was or one’s present is, the healthy attitude is fortitude, seeing opportunity in the future and recognizing the role one can play in his own destiny.

Dr. Carson’s personal story exemplifies that well. A poor student in Detroit with, by his own recounting, an anger management problem, he “ask[ed] G-d to help me find a way to deal with this temper” and studied Mishlei. The passuk, he says, that spoke to him most powerfully was “Tov erech apayim migibor…” – “Better a patient man than a mighty one, [better] a man who controls his temper than one who overtakes a city” (16:32). He set himself to the task of self-improvement and earned a full scholarship to Yale, working summers as, variously, a clerk in a payroll office, a supervisor of a crew picking up trash along the highway and on an assembly line. At Yale, he worked part-time as a campus student police aide.

In 1984, when he was 33, Dr. Carson became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, the youngest doctor in America at the time to hold such a position. And he went on to distinguish himself, pioneering groundbreaking surgeries and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., in 2008.

Interestingly, an American president, during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives, made a similar point to the one that earned Dr. Carson such opprobrium.

He said that “Life in America was not always easy. It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves… But… they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

That was Barack Obama, in 2015.

Dr. Carson, in his speech, pledged to lead the agency with an “emphasis on fairness for everybody… complete fairness for everybody.”

How shameful that fairness seems to utterly elude the “team players.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Reading Between the Hardlines

Mere days after senior Hamas operative Muhammad Hemada Walid al-Quqa blew himself up preparing a bomb, The New York Times noted, in a recent front page story about the Muslim Brotherhood, that “some of [its] offshoots – most notably Hamas – have been tied to attacks.”

“Tied to”?

That phrase would seem to imply some tenuousness or doubt. In reality (which, despite “alternate facts,” still exists), Hamas has been openly attacking and murdering Israeli civilians and soldiers since 1987, demonically celebrating its every “success.”

A study published in 2007 by the Journal of Economic Perspectives, an apolitical academic publication, found that, of the scores of Palestinian suicide bombings that took place from September 2000 through August 2005, 39.9 percent were carried out by Hamas. (The repugnant runner-up was Fatah, at 25.7 percent.) And then there are the rockets that have rained down on Israel from Gaza in more recent years.

As to the Muslim Brotherhood, which, as the paper of record records, hatched Hamas, while it has been trying to present a more pleasant face of late, one of its mottos is more telling: “Jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish!”

Several days after The Times referred to the Brotherhood’s spawn as merely “tied to” attacks on Jews, Hamas chose a new leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar.

Mr. Sinwar was sentenced decades ago in Israel to four life terms for the murder of Palestinians he suspected of collaboration with Israel. According to Israeli security experts, he also played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of attacks against Israeli soldiers.

The new Hamas leader was also one of the founders of Al Majd (“Glory”), a precursor of Hamas’s military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

After serving more than 20 years in jail, Sinwar was released in 2011, one of the 1,000 Arab prisoners exchanged for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Times, along with many media (the BBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Guardian and ABC News, among others) referred to Sinwar as “hardline” or a “hardliner.” While that description isn’t inaccurate (“hardliner” meaning “a person who adheres rigidly to a dogma, theory, or plan”), some other adjective might have been more informative, something, perhaps, like “convicted murderer.”

Interestingly, as it happened, another “hardliner” was in the news, too, last week: David Friedman, President Trump’s designate for ambassador to Israel. That was the word used by many of the very same media noted above to describe Mr. Friedman.

Mr. Friedman has not, to anyone’s knowledge, ordered the murder of anyone, or founded a terrorist group. His hardliner-ness consists of his past skepticism about a two-state solution to the Israel-Arab conflict and various intemperate statements he made about Jews and others who he feels have advocated for Palestinians to the detriment of Israel.

Last Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the nominee. In light of some of Mr. Friedman’s earlier statements, I was prepared to be uninspired. But the give-and-take between Mr. Friedman and his Senatorial inquisitors left me, instead, impressed. Deeply so.

Mr. Friedman was composed (even when pro-Palestinian activists obnoxiously interrupted the hearing, shouting slogans – one, righteously blowing a shofar – before being escorted out of the room by security personnel), eloquent, thoughtful, fair-minded and – most impressively – willing, under oath, to publicly and without reservations, renounce the extreme things he had said or written as a private citizen.

“While I maintain profound differences of opinion with some of my critics,” he said, “I regret the use of [harshly insulting] language.”

Asked by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker if he believes, as he had once seemed to say, that former president Obama is in fact an anti-Semite, Mr. Friedman, without hesitation, replied: “Not at all. I don’t believe that for a second.” (Halevai other erstwhile Obama-defamers would own up to their own excesses.)

Pressed repeatedly (and disturbingly – just how many apologies were required?) by various senators to address the issue of his past statements, Mr. Friedman didn’t get upset. Nor did he offer the typical politician’s “non-apology apology.” He stated clearly and forthrightly: “There is no excuse. If you want me to rationalize or justify [the words I used], I cannot. I regret [them].”

Mr. Friedman proudly and convincingly expressed his desire to fortify the American-Israel relationship, and demonstrated that he has no animus for Arabs and wants to see peace between Israel and the Arabs in her midst.

Of course, and unfortunately, many obstacles stand in the way of that goal. Prime among them, his “fellow” hardliner in Gaza and the all-too-many others like him.

© 2017 Hamodia

Perceiving the Good

More than 40 years ago, at just about this time of year, the rebbi insisted I leave class. I readily obliged.

The details of what prompted my banishment, while amusing, aren’t important. All you need to know is that someone had called out something while the rebbi’s eyes were in his sefer, and that it hadn’t been I. (Admittedly, on a number of occasions during my schooling I would have rightfully been accused of various violations of rules or decorum. That particular time, however, I happened to be innocent.).

Irate at the unfairness of it all, I marched to the office of the principal, Rabbi Joel Feldman, shlita, announced with righteous indignation that my punishment had been unjust, and declared that I had no intention of ever returning to that shiur. I was convinced, I declared, that the rebbi, while a fine man, had it in for me.

I was surprised by the principal’s reaction. He didn’t ask me to identify the criminal (and, honoring the high school omertà code, I would never have told him anyway), but simply said, “Well, I can’t send you to the lower shiur; you’d be bored. So I guess I’ll send you to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shiur.”

Rav Yosef Rottenberg, shlita (may he have a refuah shleimah), was Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim’s “high shiurrebbi at the time and its eventual Rosh Yeshivah. I was taken aback but readily accepted the offer.

That marked a turning point in my life. Although the shiur was somewhat over my head, I made some effort (for a change), and actually did some learning. Rabbi Rottenberg, a brilliant Torah-scholar and talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, truly became my rebbi. His broad knowledge of both Torah and worldly matters, not to mention his well-honed sense of humor, were inspiring. When I graduated, he recommended me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, where I learned before returning to Baltimore and continuing my studies in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.

I owe any hatzlachah I had thereafter to Rabbi Feldman, Rabbi Rottenberg… and Rebbi X (not his real initial), the one who ordered me out of shiur.

I don’t write those words facetiously. Hakaras hatov is due for any tov, intended as such or not. Why else, the baalei mussar ask, could Moshe Rabbeinu be “indebted” to the water or to the earth to the point where Aharon had to strike them to bring about the makkos of dam, tzefardeia and kinim? Inanimate objects can’t be objects of what we call “gratitude.” They can, though, be objects of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which is for our own benefit, not that of the objects.

And that requirement to recognize good exists even when the good is sourced in something negative. In last week’s parashah, Moshe is described by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish mitzri,” an “Egyptian man.” Midrash Tanchuma has it that the reference is to the “ish mitzri” Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, whose death was the cause of his flight to Midyan. Moshe, in other words, in a sense, owed much to that Mitzri.

Many years after being kicked out of shiur, I myself, ironically, served as a rebbi and principal of a yeshivah, in an ‘out-of-town’ community. And one day, I found myself forced to leave – not just the classroom but the institution. A new overseer, working with a board of directors with a very different vision than I had of what the yeshivah should be, told me that he couldn’t guarantee my position for the following school year.

I was heartbroken to leave my beloved yeshivah and community. And more, to be forced to entertain something I had often said I would never do: move to New York. But Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, had asked me to join Agudath Israel’s staff. Tearfully, my wife and I and our young family left our home of 11 years.

Fast-forward a few more years, after we had acclimated to our new location, and I to my new job, which I grew to deeply appreciate. One Shabbos in shul, I saw Rabbi Y. (not his real initial either), the overseer who was the cause of our exile. He was related to someone in the community and had come to visit.

First reaction: Oh, no! Not him!

But then, a deeper, more profound thought dawned: I owe this guy my new life. And I said to myself, as all feelings of hakaras hatov should ultimately impel us to say, “Baruch Hashem.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, zt”l: A Sheloshim Reflection on His Life

I only knew my father, hareini kapparas mishkavo, for 30-odd years.

I’m much older than that, and knew and loved him my entire life. But I only really knew him – his full life story – for three decades.

How, for instance, at the age of 14, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz had insisted that his parents let him go to study in yeshivah – even though what would come to be known as World War II had begun mere weeks earlier, and the family was fleeing the Nazis.

How SS men who had caught up with his family and other refugees from their Polish town, Ruzhan, had killed his uncle in front of him and packed my father and hundreds of Jews into a shul, and set fire to neighboring homes. Preparing to die, the Jews were rescued by a regular German Army official who had passed by and ordered the Jews out. Eliyahu Hanavi, they suspected, in unprecedented disguise.

How the boy’s parents reluctantly gave him their brachah, and said goodbye to him for, it turned out, the last time.

That was the beginning of a journey that would take “Simcha Ruzhaner” to Siberia, and then America, where, as Rabbi Simcha Shafran, he would become a revered, beloved Rav.

He and his remarkable, beloved eishes chayil Puah had three children, my sister Rochel (Zoberman), brother Noach and me. Our dear father was niftar on 20 Kislev.

In the fall of 1939, the boy who would become our father, holding his tefillin and some apples his mother had given him, set out for the Novardoker yeshivah in Bialystok.

En route, he discovered that the Polish yeshivos had relocated to Vilna. In Bialystok, he heeded a voice in his head crying “Simcha! Get on the train!” to Vilna, and managed to pull himself onto the platform between two cars.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt”l, famously organized the relocation of yeshivos in Vilna; Novardok settled in the “Gesher Hayarok” shul, and, at the end of 1939, relocated to Birzh, where the yeshivah functioned until the Soviets took over in 1941, and demanded that all refugees become Soviet citizens.

Refusing the offer, which the talmidim did, made them foreign nationals. Those without visas to other countries were put on cattle trains and, weeks later, arrived at a Siberian work camp, where they were ordered to fell trees, chop wood, and harvest and grind grain.

My father was the youngest of the chaburah that spent the rest of the war in the frozen taiga, along with their rebbi, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz.

When working, the bachurim would review Gemara or recite Tehillim. When not, they studied the few sefarim they had with them – with a chessboard, mid-game, in front of them, in case their anti-religious overseer should stop by.

The exiles used an assortment of tricks to avoid working on Shabbos, and tried to observe Yamim Tovim, clandestinely baking matzos and using a kosher sukkah in the middle of the night.

In 1944, the group was transferred westward, and eventually smuggled into Berlin’s American zone. My father had a bullet wound scar on his arm from when a bribed guard betrayed them.

The refugees organized a yeshivah in Salzheim, near Frankfurt, and resumed their Torah studies. In June, 1947, after establishing contact with a relative in the U.S. willing to sponsor him, my father arrived at Ellis Island and joined other refugees in the reestablished Novardoker yeshivah, Beis Yosef, in Brooklyn.

With the $75 given him by a Jewish social service organization he bought a new pair of tefillin, his old ones having been weathered by Siberia. (He later discovered that his new parshios had been written by his second cousin and namesake, Simcha Bunim Szafranowicz, the Gerrer Rebbe’s personal sofer.)

Another immigrant, Rabbi Yaakov Krett, suggested a shidduch for my father, the daughter of Rav Noach Kahn, a respected Rav in Baltimore, a musmach of Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz. The young couple had Yiddish in common, and my father, impoverished but resolute, courted my mother by taking walks with her and singing Novardoker niggunim; soon they married.

The couple moved to Baltimore and my father taught at Yeshivahs Chofetz Chaim (“Talmudical Academy”) before becoming the rov of a small shul, Adath Yeshurun – Shadover Shul.

He delivered drashos in Yiddish until more non-Yiddish-speakers joined the shul, and my mother helped him translate his speeches into English. She was a full partner in both his life and the shul, cooking for kiddushim, conducting groups for children on Shabbos afternoons, and much more.

Kiruv’ wasn’t a catchword back then, but that was what my parents were doing, and they raised the commitment to Yiddishkeit of untold numbers of people then and for the rest of their lives.

The shul paid little and somehow, even with the counseling, chasunos and hospital visits, my father found the time to attend night school to study accounting. In addition to his rabbinic responsibilities, he became an auditor for the city of Baltimore. He took his obligations seriously and his co-workers were impressed by his integrity. They said they could set their watches by when he left for lunch break (when he would take walks to keep in good health) and when he returned to his desk.

In the 1970s, a minyan near his office in downtown Baltimore wouldn’t hew to my father’s polite request of a mechitza to accommodate a woman who attended davening, so he started a second minyan. Someone who was there at the time recounts that my father was “the rav, the gabbai, the posek, and often the shliach tzibur” as well as “a role model for how a frum person should conduct himself… [and] interact with all of one’s diverse co-workers, creating a true kiddush HaShem. [He] foster[ed] respect towards Jewish people from everyone he encountered.” Days after his petirah, the minyan, which continues to this day, was formally named “The Rabbi Simcha Shafran Downtown Mincha Minyan.”

Throughout his more than 60 years as a Rav, my father made deep impressions on young and old, seekers and scoffers, intellectual and spiritual sorts alike. There wasn’t any trick. With his radiant smile, he just presented himself, and Torah, honestly, without pretensions. Someone once remarked that he had always assumed that, to be a successful Rav in America, a man had to be tall and sophisticated, speak the Queen’s English and hold himself aloof – until he met my father.

When, after more than 40 years of marriage, my mother was nifteres, in 1989, my father was devastated. But the inner strength that saw him through so much emerged with time and he resumed his life with vigor, even marrying again. His second wife, the former Ethel Bagry (Mendlowitz), was beloved to my wife and me, and everything a Bubby could be to our children. My father and “Bobby Ethel” exulted in each other’s families’ simchos for 20 years, and my father cared for her, as he did for my mother, during her final illness.

The neighborhood where my father’s shul existed for many years changed and so, in his 80s, he moved to the Greenspring area of Baltimore County. He built a beis medrash in his new home’s basement, and established a Shabbos minyan. A dedicated group of mispallelim considered it their shul; and my father, their life guide.

He learned and taught Torah, and served as the mazkir of the Baltimore Bais Din. His “vacations” were trips to celebrate the simchos of his children, grandchildren and step-progeny.

He would also yearly address a Ner Yisroel high school Holocaust Studies class (taught by my brother, a rebbi), sharing his wartime experiences with that, and other, rapt audiences.

He walked three miles daily, well into his upper 80s. Only a brain tumor slowed him down. When it became necessary for him to have 24-hour care, he moved in with my brother and his eishes chayil Shalvah, both of whom were deeply dedicated to him. Two days before his petirah, my father was able, with Baltimore Hatzalah’s help, to attend the chasunah of one of their daughters. He gave and received brachos from many of the hundreds in attendance, gave the kallah a special brachah before the chuppah, and one to the new couple afterward.

The morning of his petirah, he made a final request. It wasn’t clear what he sought but his daughter-in-law thought she heard him say “tefillin.” When she asked him if that was what he wanted, he nodded yes, and my brother put tefillin on him. Shortly thereafter, Hakodosh Baruch Hu welcomed my father to his eternal reward.

The final day of shivah, a baby boy was born to my and my wife’s son Mordechai and his eishes chayil Leah Gittel. At the bris, a new Simcha Bunim Shafran was introduced to the world.

Zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh. May he prove a worthy bearer of his name.

(Rabbi Simcha Shafran’s memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air: A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshivah, Siberia, America,” is available from Amazon.)

 © Hamodia 2017

Hypocritic Oath

A nineteen-year-old Israeli citizen of Arab ethnicity was among the 39 people killed in the recent attack of an Istanbul club, for which the terrorist group Islamic State claimed pride of ownership.

Lian Zaher Nasser was from the Israeli Arab city of Tira, and, since she had no travel insurance, her family asked the local municipality for help in bringing her remains home. The municipality turned to the Israeli government, and the Interior Ministry immediately agreed to fund the return of the body and made the necessary arrangements. ZAKA coordinated the logistics and transportation.

The young woman’s funeral took place in her home town. Among the speakers was Israeli-Arab Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi (Joint Arab List). In his eulogy, he said that the Islamic State terror group “is not Islam, and most of the victims of its crimes are Muslims…” The entire Arab public, he added, “is shocked and feels great sadness and anger” over the attack, which he rightly called “loathsome.”

Dr. Tibi, a doctor who trained at Hebrew University, is often described as “witty” and “charming.” A vocal Palestinian nationalist, he opposes Islamism and, as per his funeral comments, the terrorism it embraces.

He is also a hypocrite.

At a Palestinian Authority event on September 1, 2011, which was broadcast by Palestinian Authority television, Mr. Tibi, who served for several years as a political advisor to Yasser Arafat and wearing an Arafat-style keffiyeh slung over his neck, told his audience: “Nothing is more exalted than those whom Israel dubs Terrorists-Shahids.”

Shahid” is usually translated by media as “martyr.” The English word, however, bespeaks a passive death, and its wide use by both “Palestinian nationalists” and Islamists like Islamic State alike includes people who are dispatched in the process of trying to kill others in the name of either ideology. In the Arab world, suicide bombings are popularly called amaliyat istishadiah, or “acts through which one became a shahid.”

Mr. Tibi, at that same event, explained that “The shahid is the trailblazer, drawing with his blood the path to freedom and liberation.” And he offered his blessings “to the thousands of shahids in the homeland and abroad, and… to our shahids and yours, inside the green line, those the occupier wants to dub terrorists, while we say there is nothing more exalted than those who died for the homeland.” Deaths, that is, resultant from the act of murder. After all, despite all the Arab propaganda, Palestinians are not killed for passive resistance. And, as was seen in recent days, in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who illegally dispatched a terrorist whose absence from the world left it a better place, when an Israeli soldier, in a rare occurrence, uses lethal force where it wasn’t necessary, he is put on trial and convicted.

This past July, Mr. Tibi paid a visit to the Hadarim prison, to pay his respects to Marwan Barghouti, the terrorist responsible for a number of terrorists attacks in 2002, including one at a gas station in Givat Ze’ev, in which 45-year-old woman was murdered, one in Ma’aleh Adumim and another one at the Seafood Market restaurant. He was acquitted for 33 other murders of which he was accused; there was insufficient evidence of his direct involvement.

Currently serving several consecutive life sentences, he continues to regularly incite violence against Israel from his prison cell.

Ahmed Tibi’s visiting a convicted and unrepentant terrorist dovetails (if any word with “dove” in it might be appropriate here) well with his words at the 2011 gathering. He is a wolf in doctor’s white coat (or Knesset attire). He likely has some high-minded response to the question of how he can loudly and harshly condemn the killing of civilians by Islamic State but celebrate the killing of civilians by Palestinian “trailblazers.”

Maybe he would try to make some distinction between religiously-fueled murder and politically-fueled murder.

Maybe he would describe Palestinians’ aching for a homeland (other than Jordan, Syria and Gaza) as something that justifies wanton mayhem.

But, were he an honest man, not just a charming one, he might just admit that the key to his distinction lies not in such philosophical assertions but rather in the very words he used during his eulogy for Miss Nasser – his reference to the fact that “most of the victims” of Islamic State’s “crimes are Muslims” and the fact that most of the victims, and all of the targets, of Palestinian “freedom fighters” are Jews.

© 2017 Hamodia