Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



This week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on the recent ruling of the Law Committee of the Rabbinic Assembly of Conservative Judaism that kitniyot—which include rice, corn and beans—are kosher for Passover. It has caused quite a stir in the Jewish world. The Torah itself specifically bans chametz on Pesach, which it defines as one of the 5 grains—wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt—that has come in contact with water for more than 18 minutes. Eating kitniyot would certainly make Pesach easier to digest—pardon the pun.

By now you know that I’m all for making Passover—and all of Jewish life—easier for Jews to observe. This custom of not eating kitniyot—food that can have properties of grain but are not grains—seems to have taken hold around the 11th to 13th centuries in Europe. Jewish authorities were concerned that kitniyot might in some way become confused with true chametz. Why? 1st, cooked porridge and other cooked dishes made from grain and kitniyot appear similar. 2nd, kitniyot are often grown in fields adjacent to those in which chametz is grown, and these grains tend to mix together. And 3rd, kitniyot are often ground into a type of flour that can easily be confused with chametz. For these 3 reasons, the rabbis suggested that by avoiding kitniyot people would be better able to avoid chametz.

The contention by the Conservative movement is that these reasons no longer apply today where creatively prepared foods that are kosher for Passover can look and taste like real chametz foods even without Kitniyot, and the way kitniyot is processed today leaves little room for the confusion of the last 2 reasons.

Many of you have asked me what I think. I would agree that if I lived in Israel one might make a good case for the eating of kitniyot because this custom is a minhag hamakom, a local custom for European Jewry—and by extension America—because of the conditions there. The communities in Israel never adopted the custom of not eating kitniyot. However, in Europe and America, how does one break with almost a thousand years of tradition? The truth is one can live a week without sushi. And that, in short is where I stand on the matter. Although kitniyot are not forbidden by the Torah, we should not break with such long lasting traditions.

Besides, Passover is easier to observe now than ever before. You can find most anything and everything kosher l’Pesach. There’s a recipe for Passover bagels. You can buy kosher l’Pesach pizza … which I guess is eaten on Pesach to commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Sicily.

But while the variety of Passover products is expanding, in the orthodox world, more and more rabbinic prohibitions have been made—making it harder and harder to properly observe Pesach. There are now charts that show you how to measure out how much matzah and maror to eat … according to the amount that some of the charts demand, if you eat as much horseradish as they suggest, believe me, you’ll never need a colonoscopy!

There are whole books that are renewed every year that tell you which medicine and cosmetics you can use, and which you can’t use. What you might not know is that if someone is dangerously ill, he can eat outright chametz right at the Seder table—that’s Jewish law! And if one is just ill, then most every medicine is okay if it’s in capsule form because it’s not considered “food fit for a dog” nor is it eaten in the “normal manner of eating,” both of which make it permissible. Yes, there are some authorities who are strict on this, but many others are not! Of course, if you can get something comparable without chametz, it’s even better! But I must tell you, as a great Halachik authority put it: “If you’re choices are medicine made by Pfizer or Rokeach … I think you have a better chance of surviving Pfizer’s quality control.”

Cough syrups—because they are made with alcohol and corn syrup—do create a problem, but not toothpaste. Toothpaste is only a problem if you intend to purposely swallow it. Why you would, I don’t know. There are newly published lists every year that tell us which deodorants and shampoos we can use. Let me tell you my bottom line—you can use them all! And you can use any soap, even one that might have some chametz in it because it’s not considered food—although I try to avoid that one.

I have seen “Kosher for Passover” rabbinic certification on everything from fabric softeners to paper towels and napkins, to room air fresheners and baby wipes … and it’s all ridiculous! My Rebbi, Rabbi Michel Katz, z”l, used to certify coffee as kosher l’Pesach. He thought it was rather silly because the unflavored coffee never had any opportunity to come in contact with chametz throughout the process of production to packaging. I have seen Pesach certification for aluminum foil. My Rebbe described the process of how aluminum foil is made. He pointed out that the raw product is pushed through flaming hot rollers. He told us the rollers are so hot that if you put a pig through them it would come out kosher l’Pesach

Don’t get me wrong … it’s right and proper to be stricter with our Pesach food than during the year—and that’s why most observant Jews don’t eat kitniyot. Jewish law says the slightest, slightest piece of chametz ruins everything. That’s why some people won’t eat in anyone else’s house but their own on Pesach. Because there are so many different customs on how to prepare foods on Pesach, they’re uncomfortable eating food prepared by others. I admire these people, I really do! They’re being exacting—but only on themselves. They’re not looking down on others, trying to impose their way.

In the Shulchan Aruch, The Code of Jewish Law, we are told: Chayev adam l’hiyot sameyach v’tov leyv b’moeyd (A man is obligated to be happy and feel good on the festival). The Mishneh Berura in his commentary adds the words, V’hu mitzvat asey min haTorahgam b’nashim, (This is a positive commandment from the Torah, even for women). Talk about equality! Even women are obligated to be happy and to enjoy Passover. Passover was never meant to be a drudgery—a holiday to be dreaded. But that’s what it has become for too many.

The late Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi wrote: The pressure of pre-Pesach cleaning has reached unnecessary and overwhelming levels. The housewife often becomes totally nervous, unable to enjoy the simcah of Yomtov and unable to perform the mitzvot of the Seder night. We can understand the person dreading Tisha B’av, but Pesach is to be looked forward to and anticipated with joy. And this rabbi goes on to list some of the things women are doing that are unnecessary, such as cleaning out clothes closets, dressers and chests and even basements where there is little, if any, possibility that chametz was used there during the year. Let me remind you, dust is not chametz!

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is the Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Kohanim and the rabbi of Beit El in Israel, goes even further when he writes in his book, Moadim Lesimcha: It shouldn’t take more than a day to clean the entire house, including the kitchen. Anything more than that is a stringency. If we take on an extra workload which we are not capable of dealing with, we deplete our energy and take out our exhaustion on our families.

Let me teach you 4 Yiddish words that formed part of the philosophy of one of the greatest 20th century ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who when asked about how stringent one should be in Jewish practice would reply: Men darf zein normahl. “One has to be normal.” What does it mean to be “normal?”

Someone had this experience recently, which she reported on Facebook: I sat next to a Hasidic man on a flight. An earlier flight was delayed so a lot of people switched to our flight at the last minute including a woman who was separated from her small child. So she timidly asked the Hasidic man to switch seats, saying it may be against your religious beliefs to sit next to a woman. The man responded, “It’s against my religion to keep you apart from your child on a flight. Sitting next to a woman is fine!” He then proceeded to help her put her huge bag in the overhead compartment. 

My friends, Pesach is coming. Let’s be careful to keep our sacred traditions like kitniyot; but let’s be “normal.” Let’s do it the right way. Men, if you’re having a Seder at home with more than a few people, hire someone to help your wife serve and clean up so your wife will enjoy the Seder as well. Let your Seder be anticipated with joy. If we do so we will see the fulfillment of our holiday prayers: V’hasi-eynu Hashem Elokeynu et birkat mo-adecha l’chayim u’lshalom l’simcha u’l’sason, (May Gd will bestow upon us the blessing of His appointed festivals for life and peace, gladness and rejoicing). Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis




It’s good to be back with you this Shabbos. I’m feeling better, but still very weak. Thank you for all your prayers and good wishes. It meant a lot to me. We’re not like the old story of the shule president who visited the rabbi in the hospital telling him the good wishes of the board. They voted 15 to 10 that he should get better. No we’re not like that at all—Baruch Hashem!

I don’t know if you noticed, but I rarely become ill. My wife Cheryl asked me last Shabbos—as I lay in my hospital bed—when was the last time I missed a Shabbos with my congregation because of illness? You may not believe this, but in the 21 plus years that I have been in Atlanta, I have never before missed a Shabbos that was not planned.

So you can understand how shocked I was when, after visiting my physician for abdominal pains, he put me in a wheelchair and had his nurse wheel me to St. Joseph’s Hospital Emergency Room that is connected to the doctor’s building by an underground tunnel. Not ever having used the Emergency Room for myself before I thought, “It’s ok, they’ll find out what’s wrong with me in a couple of hours and I’ll get to shule on time for services at 7:00pm.”

As I was waiting between tests, I got on my cell phone to make calls to insure the minyan. I was pretty successful because it seems who could say no to their rabbi calling from the emergency room of a hospital? I made a serious mistake, I later realized. I should have asked for money!

When they wheeled me in for a CT scan, the technician asked me, “Do you hurt on the left side of the abdomen or the right?” It reminded me of Jackie Mason’s line when a traffic judge asked him, “Guilty or not guilty?” Mason said to himself, “He doesn’t know; why should I tell him?” 10 hours later I was admitted to the hospital. It seems that I had a severe diverticulitis attack and stayed in the hospital till Monday afternoon.   

As I look back, I look upon the hospital as an adventure—although somewhat painful. It brought up all sorts of new questions of Jewish law that I never thought of before—like how to gently ask the nurse how can you sleep in the room on Shabbos with the lights on because you can’t turn them off yourself? Or how do you wind your tefillin in the morning over the IV on the back of you left hand? And as I was winding the tefillin I couldn’t help but think of the old story of the man who was putting on his tefillin in the hospital when one nurse ask the other. “What do you think he’s doing?

The other nurse replied, “You know these Jews. They’re so careful. I bet he’s taking his own blood pressure!” 

The comforting thing was that my wife Cheryl was constantly by my side—I don’t know what I would do without her—and the good wishes and prayers that I knew were coming from Shaarei Shamayim.

The hospital staff was friendly and helpful, except when it came to kashrut. Now understand that I was on a liquid diet. That sounds simple enough. But even though I requested kosher meals, I soon realized that most of what they put on my plate probably wasn’t kosher—even though the menu accompanying the food said “liquid kosher diet!” When I complained I was told, “Here kosher means—no pork! If you really want kosher you have to say, “strictly kosher.” They meant well, I’m sure. Besides, I didn’t really feel like eating the whole time.

What I did feel was terribly humble. When you’re well you think you can accomplish anything. It never occurs to you that in a minute it all can change and you can find yourself hardly able to move—lying on a gurney wearing a hospital gown open at the back. What a scary experience it is to be in a hospital. They don’t mean to but they treat you like a child. They put you in a bed that has sides, like a crib. They determine when you go to sleep and when you wake up and when you eat and what you eat.

And you lie there, flat on your back, looking up at them, these men and women in white coats, who have the power to decide your fate, in whose hands is your well-being, who talk about you, as if you were a case, not a person. They use big words, technical words, to describe your condition that you don’t always understand.

Don’t take this as criticism of our hospitals. Believe me I’m thrilled that there are hospitals around when we need them and most of them like St. Joe’s are really wonderful. But it’s a scary, dehumanizing and humbling experience to be a patient. Your soul and your emotions are in turmoil, not just your body.

Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that this happened to me a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah. I know it has opened a whole lot of soul searching within me. And as I reflect, it has taught me a couple of things.

As I wrote in my Rabbi’s Hebrew word of the week column, the 1st word of the Torah portion is Key. Key is understood in our Torah portion as, “when,” but can also mean, “because,” “if,” “since” or “only.” The word key, therefore, points to many of life’s questions: “When will things turn around;” or “This only happened because of something else. It wasn’t my fault;” or “if only…” You fill in the blanks. The Torah portion this week uses it again and again to describe the circumstances of life: “When you go to war…when you have marital problems…when you have problems with your child…” The meaning is clearly “when” and not “if,” as if to say that you will face problems in life, and when you do, keep Gd and Torah as your guide and you will be alright. When this happened to me, even in the moments that I was alone being wheeled around for tests, I knew I wasn’t alone—that Gd was right next to me. I looked around at the other patients being wheeled in. Believe me; this kind of faith makes a great difference.   

And this leads me to a 2nd thing I learned. I need to up my sense of gratitude—to be like the rabbi in the famous Chassidic story that had his own unique way of calming himself. When he would become really stressed out, he would walk into the town hospital and ask the receptionist, “Is Reb Yankel registered here?” You see, his name was Reb Yankel. The nurse would look through the list of names and reply, “No, Reb Yankel is not a patient here.” He would then say, Baruch Hashem, “Thank Gd!” and walk out a more contented and grateful man than when he walked in. I know I can and I hope all of us today can say, Baruch Hashem that we are here and not there. Amen!

 Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis





EKEV 5770

EKEV 5770

I found something shocking in Today’s Torah portion. Do you realize that the Torah permits—no not only permits but commands us—to worship other gods and to bow down to them? And it does this, not in some obscure passage in the Torah, but right in the middle of the Shema?

Don’t believe me? Let me show it to you. Let’s turn to page 416 in our ArtScroll prayer books read from the 3rd line: V’sartem, v’avadtem elohim acheyrim,v’hishtachavitem lahem, “You shall turn and worship other gods and bow down to them.” Doesn’t it clearly read that it is a mitzvah to bow down to other gods and to worship them? Right?

Wrong! What is wrong with the verse, as I read it? You can see what I did—I read it out of context. I left out the 1st half of the verse which says: Beware lest your heart be seduced and you are tempted.” It makes all the difference in the world whether you include those words or not. Without them it is a command, “you are supposed to,” with them, it is a warning, “don’t.”

Rabbi Jack Reimer—who really showed me this nuance—points out that Maimonides then says: “From this we learn how important it is to be careful and never to judge any text or any person out of context.”

I share this with you because of a similar thing that’s happened in the news recently and because there is only a little more than 5 weeks till Rosh Hashanah and we need to begin to get ready. 

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website released a heavily edited video of USDA Georgia State Director of Rural Development Shirley Sherrod speaking to the NAACP. That video appeared to show Sherrod talking about how she had, in the past, discriminated against a white farmer seeking help to save his land.

In a matter of hours Sherrod was attacked by politicians, denounced by pundits, criticized by that same NAACP, and told to resign her post immediately by the Obama administration.

But the clip was clearly taken out of context. It was part of a story in which she said that at 1st the farmer was rude and she didn’t want to help him. But then she did anyway and helped him save his land. She later said that working with the white farmer, “made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic.”

Now Shirley Sherrod is no saint, but she certainly didn’t deserve the treatment she got from the media and from the administration. Sherrod has now been offered a new position by the Obama administration and, hopefully, we all have learned a valuable lesson—not to judge so fast and not to take things out of context.

Yes, it’s only a little more than 5 weeks till Rosh Hashanah. The easy part of getting ready is to take care of the external arrangements, to pay up our financial obligations to the shule from the past year, choose an outfit, draw up a list who to invite for meals and make a menu. The hard part of getting ready is to look inside and see where we now stand spiritually, what have we done with our days since last Rosh Hashanah and what needs correcting before this one comes.

One of the sins in the Yom Kippur confessional is: Al Cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha biflilut, “for the sin that we have committed against You by false judgments.” It’s a sin that all of us are guilty of. We judge each other and we often do it—as in the Shirley Sherrod case—carelessly, casually and callously. Our tradition understands this, and so, at least once a year it makes us face up to it and atone.

Let me share with you a poem from the book, Prayers for Pagans, by Roger Bush, a minister from Australia. It’s a great commentary on this sin:

In The Street

            She was pretty and she smiled at the men approaching. I could see her in profile. A sweet thing and cheeky, too. Embarrassed males turned away. Quickened their pace; Looked guilty, some blushed. But undaunted, she met with an expectant smile the next, Only again to be refused.

            Soliciting, I thought; a prostitute; in broad daylight; until she turned. And I saw she was selling buttons for a charity.


            He staggered down the steps and fell, Lrd, A crumpled mass on the footpath. His bottle broke and liquid spilled across the walk. 

            He’s drunk, I thought. Disgust. Disdain. Until¼2 girls rushed from a nearby car and cried; “It’s Daddy. Please help. He’s ill.”


            He caught my gaze. This greedy-eyed young man. He too had seen the open handbag on the aged arm. With a few dollars exposed to view. 

            He stalked his prey, and the old woman just window-shopped. He’ll grab and run, I thought. 

            But no. Quietly he tapped her shoulder, pointed to the bag, exchanged smiles. They went their way. 

            O Lrd, Forgive me, Forgive me. Why do I always think the worst of Your children?

Does that poem speak to you as directly as it does to me? We Jews should be so sensitive to judging others because we are so often judged out of context. When Israel boarded the Mavi Marmara as it tried to break the Gaza blockade a couple of months ago, the whole world was quick to condemn her—even before the facts of what happened were known. And, as the videos later clearly showed, Israeli soldiers were mercilessly attacked by armed thugs—not peaceful protesters as the media called them. During the war in Gaza last year, the media focused on close-ups of babies without limbs, civilian homes destroyed. We wince every time we see these pictures because it hurts us to see any carnage, any rubble, any human pain. And we wince because we know the pictures aren’t fair—that they only tell part of the story, and not the whole story. They show a truth out of context.

There’s an old saying that the devil can quote scripture. It’s true; all he needs to do is what I did today and quote ½ a verse and leave out the context. I know how risky it is to speak, how open to quick judgment one can be. Rabbi Reimer said: “For every sermon I give there are 4 versions: what I say, what I should have said, what they say I said, and what I meant to say.” I hope no one goes home today and says that I said that the Torah commands that we worship other gods. Instead, let us all learn from this verse that I misquoted to judge each other carefully. Or better yet, not to judge at all—for who knows the whole context of anything anyone does? And to this will you all please say with me: Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis




This is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbos before the great fast of Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av. As I have often said, this is such a sad day for the Jewish people because every major tragedy that ever happened to us either occurred on this day or had its roots in something that occurred on this day. You’ve all seen the partial list that I have distributed of these tragedies—it’s staggering! And so, Monday night we will begin to fast and recite the Book of Eycha, Lamentations, and Kinot memorial prayers to remember and to mourn. This kind of national mourning is essential for the Jewish soul for we can’t really understand who we are unless we remember and acknowledge the pain and scars that helped shape us.

A colleague from NY tells the story about a man whose wife was working in the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Fortunately she was on the 1st floor when the planes stuck and she was able to escape. Her husband said, “You know, I don’t think my wife ever got over that day. But I don’t think she wants to get over it, either. There’s something important about remembering, and about living with those difficult memories.”

That is what Tisha B’Av is all about: “There’s something important about remembering, and about living with difficult memories.” Have you heard people say sometimes when the Holocaust makes the news, “Get over it already; it was more than 65 years ago!?” Like the husband said, we “don’t want to get over it.” As discomforting as it may be to remember, there is something powerful about holding on to the terror and sorrow of moments like the Holocaust long after it has taken place. Such events shape who we are.

The 1st and 2nd major catastrophes we commemorate on Tisha B’Av are the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. Most of the liturgy for Tisha B’Av refers to them. What does it mean to remember the destruction of the Temples? Why bother today observing days that emphasize our powerlessness when we finally have a land of our own, and after 2,000 years have the ability to defend ourselves? Each year I find myself asking the same question: why do we need Tisha B’Av?

Even more difficult are the theological implications of Tisha B’Av. Even if the Jewish people were not saints, did they deserve to have their Temples destroyed and to suffer such horrific trials throughout history? The 1st Temple, the sages of the Talmud taught, was destroyed because the Jewish people were guilty of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality—the 3 cardinal sins. But the people of the 2nd Temple were deeply committed to Gd and the observance of Torah. Why was their Temple destroyed? In the end the sages explained the destruction of the 2nd Temple as a result of Sinat Chinam, “causeless hatred.” But even then they seemed to sense that somehow the punishment outweighed the infraction.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, what does Tisha B’Av mean? No one in their right mind is willing to explain or rationalize why the Holocaust took place, or why Gd seemed to turn His face away from His people. It would seem that either Gd is cruel and uncaring, or cruelty happens and Gd is powerless to stop it. Both explanations are unacceptable.

Let me suggest that the purpose of Tisha B’Av is not to explain our suffering but to allow us to relive it, to re-experience it and to take it in each year so that the pain remains an immediate and powerful force in our lives. Like the woman from 9/11, we sense that we must not let go of the events we commemorate on Tisha B’Av—as painful as they are.

The key word of Tisha B’Av is not “why,” but “how.” It’s no accident that this is the opening word of the Book of Lamentations we read on Tisha B’Av. The Book begins: Eycha yashva vadad, usually translated, “Alas, lonely sits the city once great with people—she has become like a widow.” But the word eycha can also be translated as “how.” It’s both an exclamation and a question. 

Faced with incompressible tragedy and sorrow our ancestors’ 1st reaction was to cry out: Eycha, “Alas!” “How can this be?” “What I have I done to deserve such suffering?” “Why?” But there are no easy answers to these questions, and I’m not certain that they were even asked as true questions. In the face of human suffering our questions are often a cry for help. When we ask “Why me?” we are not necessarily looking for an answer, but for a shoulder to lean on and a caring heart to turn to. 

This 1st word teaches us that the question we must ask is not Lamah, “why,” but  Eycha, “how?” There are no easy answers to the “why” questions in the face of tragedy. We can only ask Eycha: “How? How should I respond? How do I go on living in the face of such pain and suffering?”

In today’s Torah portion Moses asks: Eycha, “How can I alone bear the trouble of the burdens and the bickering?” Here Moses gives expression to his frustration of dealing with a willful and stiff-necked people. We chanted this verse in the melody of Lamentations as a reminder of our sorrow.

And in the Haftorah which is also chanted in the mournful melody of Lamentations, the prophet Isaiah says: Eycha, “Alas—how has the faithful city become a harlot—a city that was filled with justice, but is now filled with murders?” Isaiah wonders how it is possible that a city for which there was such a vision of hope and goodness could become so corrupt and degraded.

As Jews, we do not ask lama, “why, but eycha, “how.” There are no explanations that will assuage our sorrow but there are paths that can lead us to light and wholeness. The response to sorrow and the response to tragedy is activism. We must search for new paths and new ways to deal with our pain and to heal the world of its sorrow. 

For me this is what Tisha B’Av is all about. 1st it’s to remember and cry out Eycha! ALAS! And 2nd, it is to ask ourselves Eycha? “How?” How do we go on living in the face of such sorrow? What must I do in the face of tragedy?

And so, in the face of the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the rabbis became the architects of a whole new way of living Jewishly that focused on the home and the synagogue and house of study rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. In response to the Spanish Inquisition and exile, the Kabbalists developed a new concept of mysticism which challenged the Jewish people to see themselves as active participants in bringing redemption to the world. To each national tragedy the Jewish people have asked the question, “How now?”

Tisha B’Av, then, is a crucial day in the Jewish calendar. You don’t have to be religious to observe it. You just have to care about Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a family he knew growing up in Brooklyn that was ardently secular and anti-religious. This was the kind of family that went out of its way to eat on Yom Kippur. They made a point, however, of fasting on Tisha B’Av. When Kushner asked why, they explained that they while they thought that ideas like sin and repentance were mumbo jumbo, they fully understood how important it is to remember the suffering and to grieve for the losses the Jewish people experienced.

There is a Chasidic saying that makes a similar point: “On Yom Kippur who wants to eat, and on Tisha B’Av who can eat?” When we think about the suffering of our people throughout history, beginning with the destruction of both Temples and continuing into our own times, how can one sit down and eat a meal on the anniversary of our catastrophes? You don’t have to be a believer to observe Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is not a matter of faith or belief, but of taking in the hard and cold facts of history.

Today we need Tisha B’Av more than ever. We need to remember our past but also to develop a sense of hope that we are not merely victims. We can and do make choices. Tradition teaches that Mashiach, the Messiah, will be born on Tisha B’Av. It’s a day that begins with grief. It then leads to reflection and remorse. But it ends with resolve and hope. May our fast this Monday night and Tuesday lift us from the depths of our frustrations with the course of our lives and help us to be inspired by those who came before us, who—in the face of tragedy—asked Eycha, “How?” and found the strength to live and to love and to create. Amen!

                                                             Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis     




It’s good to be back home with you this Shabbos, although the last 3 Shabbosim for me and Cheryl were truly unique and amazing. 3 weeks ago, on Friday night, we went to the Shira Chaddasha synagogue in the German Colony in Jerusalem. What is unique for me about this shule—besides being an orthodox mechitza minyan that encourages women’s participation in a way similar to our shule—is that everyone who comes sings loud and clear with great spirit. 200 voices in harmony—it’s inspiring! On Shabbos morning we went to the Great Synagogue to hear the great new 25-year-old chazzan phenomenon, Chaim Dovid Berson. Amazing! 

The following Shabbos we were at the Western Wall on Friday night, and despite a heat wave the day before, it was very cold—but the spirit of the thousands there davening in hundred different minyanim was certainly warming. On Shabbos morning we went to Yakar, a very unique shule in the Old Katamon section of Jerusalem. They have a spirited davening and brake for kiddush before Torah reading, followed by a choice of classes on the parsha. It certainly helped prepare me for the Torah reading. It’s a great concept, but I’m afraid if we tried to have our kiddush before the Torah reading, we might have too much food left over. By the way, Israeli shules begin Shabbos morning at 8:00am and conclude by 10:30am. I wonder what would happen if we tried that?

Our last Shabbos we spent visiting a yishuv (settlement) called, Mitzpe Netofa in the Galilee. The 200 or so modern orthodox families there live a Zionistic religious life with a great sense of community. There is only one shule and everyone comes both Friday night and Shabbos morning. And the views from almost everywhere of the Galilean hilltops with its lush vegetation are spectacular. Eating and singing at shalashudos on the patio of a friend with her large family as the sun was setting over the mountains was something I’ll never forget.

So yes, it’s good to be back, but I miss Shabbos in Israel as well. What else did we see in Israel? I can’t take the time to review everywhere we went. We went as far south as the Dead Sea—where we swam—and as far north as the border of Lebanon on the coast at Rosh Hanikra, with we explored it’s grotto caves; to the east at Kiryat Shemona, where the Arabs used to hurl rockets so often a whole generation of children have grown up sleeping in bomb shelters; and then further east on the Golan Heights—all the way up to the Syrian city of Kunetra. But what struck me this time—and it was so striking because of the contrast with America—is that Israel is really prosperous!

I’ve been to Israel probably at least 12 times. Every other time I felt almost a depression from the people over how hard it was just to get by financially. Not this time! While I’m sure many are struggling, so many are not. The amount of building everywhere is staggering. In the Galilee, which was mostly populated by Arabs, there is a phenomenal buildup of infrastructure, with several new highways crisscrossing Israel and new housing everywhere, encouraging thousands of Israeli families to move to the Galilee.

The expensive restaurants and resorts are not only visited by tourists today, they’re filled with Israelis! The combination of the high-tech boom and sound fiscal policy has spared Israel from the awful economy the rest of the world is currently suffering from.

What’s the political mood of the country? While Jews love to debate politics, I didn’t hear much criticism of its current government. The last week I was there, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu went to Washington and this time, Obama made nice to him. They had an “excellent” discussion, Netanyahu’s statement was, “wonderful,” and the U.S.-Israel relationship continues to be, “extraordinary.” Whether or not this is just posturing for the upcoming November elections or not, it’s encouraging.

More encouraging news that was missed by the media because it was reported during the Flotilla incident last month that hogged the spotlight was the discovery of a gigantic deposit of natural gas called the “Leviathan,” in Israel’s territorial waters. This discovery may provide Israel with the security of its own energy supply and even turn it into an important natural gas exporter with a supply of gas equal to 1/5 of the US natural gas reserves. 

More encouraging news that was missed by the media because it was reported during the Flotilla incident last month that hogged the spotlight was the discovery of a gigantic deposit of natural gas called the “Leviathan,” in Israel’s territorial waters. This discovery may provide Israel with the security of its own energy supply and even turn it into an important natural gas exporter with a supply of gas equal to 1/5 of the US natural gas reserves. 

But most encouraging for me about Israel was an article I read the day after I returned—on Thursday—in the Opinion page of the Wall Street Journal by 10 internationally powerful figures who have created what they call, “The Friends of Israel Initiative.” And they are: Jose Maria Aznar, former prime minister of Spain; David Trimble, former 1st minister of Northern Ireland; John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.; Alejandro Toledo, former president of Peru; Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian Senate; Andrew Roberts, British historian; Fiamma Nirenstein, vice-president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Italian Chamber of Deputies; George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center; Robert Agostinelli, managing director of the Rhône Group; Carlos Bustelo, former minister of industry in Spain.

The article is called, “Israel: A Normal Country.” Let me conclude by reading it to you:

Israel is a Western democracy and a normal country. Nonetheless, Israel has faced abnormal circumstances since its inception. In fact, Israel is the only Western democracy whose existence has been questioned by force, and whose legitimacy is still being questioned independently of its actions.

The recent flotilla crisis in the Mediterranean provided yet another occasion for Israel's detractors to renew their frenzied campaign. It was so even before the facts of that tragic incident had come to light. Eyes were blind to the reasons why Israel had to respond to the Gaza flotilla's clear provocation.

Because we believe Israel is subjected to unfair treatment, and are convinced that defending Israel means defending the values that made and sustain our Western civilization, we have decided to launch the Friends of Israel Initiative. Our goal is to bring reason and decency back to the discussion about Israel. We are an eclectic group, coming from different countries and holding different opinions on a range of issues. It goes without saying that we do not speak for the State of Israel and we do not defend every course of action that it decides upon. We are united, however, by the following beliefs, principles and aims:

First, Israel is a normal, Western democracy and should be treated as such. Its parliamentary system, legal traditions, education and scientific research facilities, and cultural achievements are as fundamental to it as to any other Western society. Indeed, in some of these areas, Israel is a world leader.

Second, attempts to question Israel's basic legitimacy as a Jewish state in the Middle East are unacceptable to people who support liberal democratic values. The State of Israel was founded in the wake of United Nations Resolution 181, passed in 1947. It also arose out of an unbroken Jewish connection to the land that stretches back thousands of years. Israel does not derive its legitimacy, as some claim, from sympathy over the Holocaust. Instead, it derives legitimacy from international law and from the same right to self-determination claimed by all nations.

Third, as a fully legitimate member of the international community, Israel's basic right to self-defense should not be questioned. Nor should it be forgotten that Israel faces unique security threats—from terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and from an Iran seeking nuclear weapons.

United Nations condemnations of Israel arising from last year's Goldstone Report on the recent war in Gaza, for example, ignore the security challenges that Israel faces. All democracies should oppose such campaigns, which ultimately undermine the legitimacy not merely of Israel but of the U.N. itself.

Fourth, we must never forget that Israel is on our side in the battle against Islamism and terror. Israel stands on the front line of that fight as a bulwark of Judeo-Christian values. The belief that the democratic world can sacrifice Israel in order to placate Islamism is profoundly wrong and dangerous. Appeasement failed in the 1930s and it will fail today.

Fifth, attempts by people of good faith to facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians are always to be supported. But outsiders should beware of attempting to impose their own solutions. Israelis and Palestinians should know how to build a viable peace on their own. We can help them, but we cannot force them.

Sixth, we must be alive to the dangers that the campaign against Israel poses in reawakening anti-Semitism. Hostility to the Jews has been a stain on the Western world's honor for centuries. It is a matter of basic self-respect that we actively confront and oppose new manifestations of an old and ugly problem.

The Friends of Israel Initiative has come together to encourage men and women of goodwill to reconsider their attitudes toward the Jewish state, and to relocate those attitudes inside the best of Western traditions rather than the worst. We urge them to recognize that it is in our own best interests that an increasingly jaded relationship between Israel and many of the world's other liberal democracies is rescued and reinvigorated before it is too late for us all.

At the end of this week’s Torah reading Gd tells us what the borders of Israel are. The borders are recorded in the Bible, held sacred by most of the world. The land was given to us by Gd thousands of years ago. It’s our land, and no one has a right to call into question its legitimacy. It’s about time the rest of the world recognizes that, and the Friends of Israel Initiative is an inspiring start. Amen!

                                                            Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis  


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