Friday, November 24, 2017

Rabbi Refuses to Give Menorah to Trump White House for Hanukkah Party

It was big news when NBA superstar Steph Curry chose to not go to the White House with his Golden State Warriors team to meet President Donald Trump after winning the 2017 NBA Championship. But he's just one player. After voicing his decision, President Trump uninvited the entire Warriors team. Next to opt out of a White House visit was the entire Women's Basketball team from South Carolina. The team, which won its first NCAA championship in April, was invited to attend a reception at the White House, but declined the invitation.

It's not only athletes who are refusing invitations to the White House. It will be very interesting to see how many Jewish leaders opt out of attending the annual Hanukkah reception at the White House next month. Invitations have already gone out and presumably only rabbis and other Jewish leaders the Trump Administration thinks would accept have been extended an invitation. However, there are likely to be many invitees, even ardent Trump supporters, who will cave to pressure and choose to not attend the Hanukkah party at the White House this year based on actions and public statements by the President himself.

What's interesting to note is that, while there hasn't been any news yet about people refusing to attend the Hanukkah party, there has already been talk of a Reform rabbi who has turned down the White House's request to borrow a menorah from the synagogue to be kindled at the reception.

President Obama lights a menorah in the White House. President Trump is having trouble getting a menorah loaned to the White House.
President Obama lights a menorah in the White House. President Trump is having trouble getting a menorah loaned to the White House as one rabbi has already refused on ethical grounds. (Obama White House Archives)

The rabbi, who is at a Reform congregation and wished to remain anonymous, shared the account after nixing the White House representative's appeal to borrow a menorah to be used at the Hanukkah party. I learned about it from another rabbinic colleague, who posted the story on Facebook:

"I received this from a rabbinic colleague I deeply respect, and was deeply moved by their integrity and bold resistance:
Just got off the phone with someone in Washington, D.C., who is helping to plan the White House’s Hanukkah Banquet this year. It seems the White House was interested in borrowing a special hanukkiah to use in this year’s celebration.
I told her we are honored to be asked.
I told her I wish I could say yes.
I told her that Hanukkah’s celebration of religious freedom, spreading light in the face of darkness, cultivating hope instead of fear, is antithetical to everything this White House has embraced.
I told her we would have to say no.
Then I received a second phone call, that this conversation should be kept confidential. I asked why. Because it wouldn’t be appropriate, I was told. Because this is how things are done in Washington, D.C., I was told.
I told her I would take that into consideration.
I did.
And then I wrote this post."

I'm sure this wasn't an easy decision for the rabbi to make because there's a certain amount of clout in having your menorah be the one used in the White House. After all, most menorahs that are borrowed by the White House to light at the annual White House Hanukkah party are already famous or have some meaning as to why they were used.

So, already an NBA star, a women's college basketball team and a menorah have opted to dis the President and stay away from Trump's White House. It will be interesting to see who else does.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

When You’re Unfriended in Real Life

The schools of the great sages of the Jewish people, Hillel and Shammai, were known to debate each other on just about every topic. The students of these two schools rarely agreed on anything; each strongly and passionately arguing the opposite position of the other, albeit always with respect for the other’s opinion.

In Judaism, we believe that each human is created in the divine image and, thus, we have the responsibility to treat one another with respect. However, many of us humans don’t act with godliness when participating in Facebook discussions involving political viewpoints.

The 2012 election was bad when it came to a lack of civility on Facebook, but the 2016 election a year ago was many times worse. I’m scared to think of what 2020 will bring us. Many close friends unfriended each other on the social network, relatives blocked relatives and, even worse, long-term relationships in real life were severed because of hurt feelings during political arguments. While the election might have been over on November 8, 2016, the heated arguments on Facebook have continued. In the past year, with a President known to send out many divisive tweets before most people have had their first cup of coffee, the Facebook battlefield has only intensified.

Many friendships have been damaged permanently because of politics on Facebook

If you have a Facebook account, you likely witnessed at least one unfortunate interaction in the past couple of years. It has been impossible to post anything about either presidential candidate without a couple of trolls coming in to paste the latest talking points from the most extremist online blogs they could find to bolster their position or refute everyone else’s opinion.

This has been true on both sides, from the extreme left and the extreme right. On social networks, especially Facebook, people have learned to hide behind their screens when they say these hateful things, but it affects all their relationships and not only their virtual relationships. In the run-up to the 2016 election, most political opinions on either candidate would be met with attacks in the comment section of that post. Many of the comments were not fact checked and some were outright myths that had already been debunked by, the fact-checking web site. In the past year, tempers have flared even more with friends attacking friends on Facebook over everything from the NFL's national anthem controversy and the Second Amendment to the Russian interference in the election and Trump's policies. No topic is off limits when it comes to firing shots in the comment section of Facebook and real friendships become the collateral damage.

I was recently tutoring a young woman for her bat mitzvah and we were studying the Tower of Babel story within her Torah portion. I explained that God was so angered that humans would try to build a tower to the sky that God punished them by confounding their languages so they couldn’t communicate with one another. Immediately, this wise 13-year-old girl said, “In my bat mitzvah speech, I want to talk about how we communicate with each other.” And she immediately hit the nail on the head by explaining the negative effects that occur from the way teens talk to each other in the 21st century. Rather than speaking face-to-face, today’s teens send coded text messages, Snapchat messages that disappear after several seconds, and comments under the photos they post on Instagram. The language they use is different from what any prior generation would recognize as English. One misinterpreted emoji or abbreviation can mean the end of a friendship.

On Facebook, it’s not only the teens who resort to insults and abusive language when someone offends them with their strongly held opinion. Earlier generations wouldn’t understand how your crazy liberal uncle can get into a heated debate with some girl you went to summer camp with a few decades ago.

When adults begin threatening to “unfollow” or “unfriend,” we quickly find ourselves feeling trapped and annoyed in a fourth-grade-esque insult circus. Cutting off contact with someone with opposing ideology will never further discussion, debate and democracy. Sadly, a lot of people on Facebook are close-minded, unwilling to listen to opposing opinions.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

What a Year for Jews in Baseball!

For any baseball fan who pays special attention to the few (very few) good Jewish baseball players in Major League Baseball, 2017 was a very exciting year. And the excitement started even before the MLB season kicked off. In a Times of Israel article, I wrote about the memorable seven days of March that were magical for the ragtag Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. Nate Freiman of Team Israel referred to his squad as "The Mensches of March" and they were known for their iconic "Mensch on the Bench" doll and for donning yarmulkes during the playing of Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) before games. Team Israel became the pride of every Jewish kid around the world who had been waiting for their big Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg-esque excitement.

With the bar mitzvah boy before the Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia

The next big moment in Jewish baseball (at least for me) came in late July. I flew to Philadelphia to officiate the bar mitzvah of a special needs boy before the Philadelphia Phillies game. About 100 of us gathered in a party room at the ballpark to watch this young man be called to the Torah (yes, I brought a small Torah into Citizens Bank Park!) along with his therapy dog (it was a bark mitzvah too!). Officiating a bar mitzvah before a Major League Baseball game inside the stadium was pretty cool and I couldn't imagine what could top it on that special night. And then the game went into extra innings. In the bottom of the 11th inning, pinch hitter Ty Kelly, a nice Jewish kid from Dallas, hit the walk off RBI to win the game for the Phillies. The bar mitzvah boy was ecstatic (along with the other Philly fans in the packed ballpark). The 29-year-old Kelly, who proudly wears a Jewish star necklace, has a Jewish mother and played for Team Israel this past year.

The excitement of the 2017 MLB season for fans of Jewish baseball players continued right up to the very end with two elite Jewish sluggers squaring off against each other in the World Series. Both Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros had memorable postseason performances. Pederson had 3 homers in the postseason and Bregman had 4 homers and 10 RBI in the postseason. Had the Dodgers emerged victorious, Pederson was surely a candidate for World Series MVP.

Alex Bregman, of the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros, is one of the top Jewish MLB players today

The 2017 World Series had a couple notable moments for Jewish baseball fans. Pederson had all 3 of his postseason home runs in the World Series, giving him the record for most home runs by a Jewish player in one World Series, moving him past Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. Bregman also makes the Jewish baseball record books becoming the first Jewish player to win a World Series game with a walk-off hit (in game 5 of the World Series). Both Bregman and Pederson homered in Saturday night's game 4, making them the first Jewish baseball players on opposing teams to homer in the World Series in the same game. Wow, that's a lot of records for one World Series.