The Power of Ones

In honor of the upcoming event, ‘Breakthrough Leadership – the Life of Baruch Tegegne z”l’ at the Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People, I would like to share some personal thought.

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Machane Yehuda Shuk Jerusalem

In the early 90’s I was a teenager sitting in synagogue Saturday morning when a black mother and daughter entered the women’s gallery while and a few moments later a black father and twin boys entered the men’s section. I watched my mother quickly go over to say hello and signaled me to do the same to the father. This chance meeting led to an ongoing relationship between the Ethiopian Jewish community and our family. My mother invited them for lunch and we quickly discovered that there were hundreds of Jewish Ethiopian families brought by the JIAS to live in Montreal, Canada and money was earmarked for their integration into the Jewish community. As I sat and listened to my mother discuss with many of the families we discovered that the Jewish community as a whole did very little to welcome them in. My mom used whatever free time she had available to help ameliorate the situation. In time the community made effort to open up. As time progressed we came to know many of the families and in many ways they became like family.

One of the people that I came to know was Baruch. He was a quiet, somewhat mysterious and well dressed. When he talked about the past, there was always mention of well known leaders, heads of state, his personal trek from Ethiopia to Israel by foot and social protests. As I continue to study the history of Nelson Mandela and apartheid, black civil rights movement and the American Civil War I am slowly beginning to understand the unique role that Baruch played in helping Ethiopian Jewry achieve recognition in modern Israel.

baruch tegene protestIn the 1990’s blacks had rights and the Ethiopian community integrated fully into the broader Montreal community which is known as “Canada’s Cultural Capital”. But Baruch’s story is a bit different.  In the 70’s Baruch was a lone voice in Jerusalem advocating black rights at a time of apartheid in South Africa and social unrest in America. Baruch’s early years in Israel was at a time when there were no more than a few hundred Ethiopian people in all of Israel. Yet Baruch’s kind demeanor and sweet voice found the ear of a few individuals who saw a moral responsibility to fulfill our nations Law of Return granting every Jew in the world the right to settle in Israel. It was the lone decision of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi who ruled following the Radbaz, that the Beta Israel were from the Tribe of Dan and confirmed the Jewish identity of the community. The Israeli government knew of the Ethiopian desire to immigrate since the early 1960’s but little was done. Again it was individuals like Dr. Graenum Berger who founded the American Association for Ethiopian Jews in the early 1970’s who kept the issue alive and relevant. Although Baruch, Dr. Berger, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and my mom witnessed the great miracles during Operation Moses and Solomon, the struggle continues today for social equality. May we merit in our days to respect and elevate the individual as John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.’ יהי זכרו ברוך

A Circle To Close..A Center To Build – A brief look at Baruch’s activities in Israel in the last years of his life.

Last Day In The Army

I wanted to take the opportunity to share a few thoughts about my army experience in the I.D.F over the last 13 years and what I have gained.

It’s 3:00 AM and most of us just want to crawl up into a corner and sleep. A minute later a flash on the screen indicating another attack in the heart of Jerusalem causes everyone to shake off the sleep and swing into action. An attack usually means some type of missile landing in a populated area. This has been the routine over the last four days of the Home Front Command’s main office in Jerusalem. We are currently responsible for 1.5 million citizens in times of emergency. Our main focus is to provide recommendations to the heads of the army and city hall so they can make effective decisions in any type of crisis regarding civilian population.

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My first week in boot camp 2002

Today will be the last time I participate in a city wide exercise designed to test the readiness of the Home Front Command in Jerusalem. It’s been a long four days with no sleep, egg and tuna sandwiches and dealing with army bureaucracy. I wanted to write a few words about my experience in the I.D.F as my military adventure comes to an end.
During my thirteen years I learned a bit of car mechanics, did guard duty in the Shomron, Galilee and Hebron area and finished my time as a logistics specialist in the Home Front Command coordinating evacuations in times of emergency. Although I joined the I.D.F at the age of 26 doing three months of basic training I still did about a month a year of reserve duty. It’s fair to say that I was more of a tourist than a soldier, an observer more than hands on. I feel as well as my superiors that I was able to contribute in ensuring a stronger I.D.F.

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Final words at the end of my army service 2017

But my final comments are more of what I think of the army as a whole and the people I leave behind. Like most armies, the average age is 21 years old but the level of maturity and concern reflects the age of 55. Everyone cares and make great effort to be the best. There are no saints, only people who make mistakes and try to do better the next time around. We all come from different backgrounds yet we become a very effective team to solve very complex problems. Respect for human life, morality and sensitivity were the hallmarks of those around me. Each soldier knew the value of life and understood the fine balance that when necessary we also need to fight and kill. I had the opportunity to see and learn about our fragile security situation especially in the North on the Golan Heights. I had a rare chance to learn about the DARPA laser-guided correction system designed to help scouts become better sharp shooters.

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Training exercise; new immigrants from Canada, Mexico, Russia, France, Belgium, Cuba and Poland

I participated in a form between the I.D.F and AM General, the designers of the famous Humvee. The army also gave me the chance to break away from the routine of family and work and travel a bit around Israel. Most importantly, I used the time to dialogue with soldiers about current events, Judaism and every other issue imaginable. For most of them, it was the first time they talked with someone wearing a kippah. I was able to slightly break down the walks built by the media. One example was the chance to take the regional director of the Shinui Party to a Friday night meal to the home of an ultra-orthodox family that was originally from Chomedy.

I have tremendous admiration for the soldiers who fulfill their compulsory service and the complicated challenges they face. God bless their safe return!

 

Not Obama’s Problem

There are two stories that have sparked my attention in recent weeks. But my decision to write a new post was a result of the overall condemnation of  the Obama administration for absenting from a U.N vote that would demand Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the ‘occupied’ Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem” and said the establishment of settlements by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”
The first  story which received almost no attention in Israel is the Levy Report that addresses the legal status of the communities in Judea and Samaria that was ironically initiated by Binyamin Netanyahu and shelved days before the U.N vote. The second and more urgent story is a community called Amona.

The Levy Report was designed to address what policy the government of Israel should adopt regarding communities in Judea and Samaria. The report concludes briefly, “that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not an occupation and that the Isrun-general-assemblyaeli settlements are legal under international law. It recommends the legalization of unauthorized Jewish settlement outposts by the state and provides proposals for new guidelines for settlement construction”(Wikipedia). Currently the Israeli citizens that live in those communities are required to pay tax, work and serve in the army. But these communities have done much more. They are model citizens, proactive, who believe in good for all. They contribute to the benefit of the whole nation in every aspect and Amona is one such community. As an off shoot of Ofra, it was built with the help of the Israeli government. Amona is made up of families that wanted a less urban feel. What bothers me is that Israeli citizens who live in Judea and Samaria are treated like second class citizens. They don’t get the same benefits from Bituach Leumi, get second rate service by Bezeq, Israel electric, Egged and the list goes on. When someone buys a fridge in Netanya, the charge to delivered in 180 NIS. If it needs to be delivered to Avnei Chefetz which is the same distance but over the green line, 500 NIS. Soldiers who are injured do not receive any benefits as seen in the story of Yehuda Yitzhak HaYisraeli. Amona is another tragic story where the government led by Netanyahu and the Supreme Court of Israel vote daily to destroy Amona at all cost.

But all of sudden the Israeli government and Jewish loby groups are up in arms because the U.S. absented from a vote in the United Nations. Every major Jewish lobby group in the world is all of a sudden finding purpose and self worth. The Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu votes every day against (not absenting) its Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria and shall we not forget Gush Katif.
I like Obama because he gave health care to millions of American citizen who would otherwise die or suffer bankruptcy without coverage. And he fought to remove guns from the streets of America. That’s called doing good work for Americans. Maybe its time that the Israeli government start by taking care of its own and stop blaming others for absenting.

MY MY, HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED

ramle2I little more than ten years ago I spent my first Shabbat in Ramle at my in-laws. It was also my first visit to Ramle. I knew very little about Ramle besides the regular stereotypical comments people like to make. Even today when I tell people that I was in Ramle people comment, WHAT WERE YOU DOING THERE?@?! But in truth, it’s a quiet little city, with a mixed population including Arabs and Jews, a quaint outdoor market, and a population who wears flip flops and tank tops all year round to survive the brutal heat. About a year after we were married I prayed one Shabbat next door at a synagogue (shul) called Kodshe Hashoah. It was simply an old shul with a dying membership of Holocaust survivors. Every time I went back to pray at Kodshe Hashoah there were fewer people in shul.

It’s commonly known that young orthodox couples are somewhat limited where they can live. The connivance of living in big cities means better religious structure. The problem is that big cities are becoming extremely expensive and young couples can no longer afford to live in cities like Jerusalem without parental support. At the same time, cities like Beer Sheva, Ramle, Lod, Hod Hasharon, Yaffo, and many more were seeing the end of religious life. When I went to Yaffo ten years ago there was only one active shul out of 15, with 9 slated for demolition. This reality forced young religious couples to address this growing paradox.

ramle1A number of religious families came to the conclusion that even in the era of high tech, the word pioneer still carries great meaning. A group of religious Zionistic families decided to move together to Ramle and revive and invigorate the Jewish community. Eventually Kodshe Hashoah became a center of their activities. Members of the shul were only too happy to give over the keys to these pioneers.  Slowly more families moved and benefited from lower housing prices and closer proximity to major centers of commerce. Today there are 50 families and 120 children that have moved and began to change the very fabric of the city culture life. Many of them have taken positions in the community schools, day cares, army bases in the area and religious council. What’s nice about this is that it gave a new spirit to the city. Religious Zionists aren’t saints but they are guide by lofty ideals. Over the last few years, the city of Ramle has seen a cultural and societal change. Safety has improved, city schools have improved, traditional Jewish life has improved and better coexistence among the various ethnic groups. And this story isn’t limited to Ramle. The same thing is taking place in Yaffo, Lod, Bat Yam, Hod Hasharon and more. Citizens from these communities have been only too happy to welcome these pioneers. Synagogues that were once closed and slated for demolition are reopening and slowly filling up. It’s not the mere prayer service that’s making the change but the combination of seeing idealistic families who want to revitalize cities that lost their spiritual calling and perhaps something else.

Organizations like Rosh Yehudi and Shaalei Torah are leading the people towards a spiritual revolution, better economic prosperity and higher standards of education. These success stories have also been recognized by their respective municipalities as well as the government of Israel. The absorption minister has so far ear marked 50 million shekels to use these groups to help integrate new olim into Israeli society. And municipalities like Ramle are receiving more funding to improve infrastructure now that they boast better schooling and lower crime rates.

Special thanks:
Rabbi Oriah Shachor – Rav Beit Knesset Kodshe Hashoa
Naama Zarbiv – Head of the Garin in Ramle
Galit Cohen – assistant to the Mayor of Ramle.

Greatest Up Close

I hope I will have the strength to write a series of posts about a family that continues to inspire so many people like myself.

It was Friday night, Shabbat Teshuvah, 1995 that myself and four other friends decided to go to the Machlis family for dinner. We all heard a lot about the Machlis experience, and Harav Machlis himself was our afternoon teacher at B.M.T. had been asking since the beginning of the semester to come for Shabbat.

Everything we were told about the Machlis experience was true. People from around the world, Jewish, non-Jewish, religious, secular, all ages, the poor, the destitute, spectators and curious and more all came together under one roof to experience Shabbat. We found a place to sit facing the kitchen. It looked the most comfortable and thought we would have a good view as the evening unfolded. But we ended up moving several times since we had to add more tables and chairs to accommodate the constant flow of people arriving. During this time, Henny was preparing food, welcoming guests and attending to her children. But we didn’t get the impression that her pregnancy was on her mind. But we were in shock. Henny was past due, expecting any moment and didn’t show any signs that she was going to slow down. It was Shabbat like usual. Henny went back and forth between the kitchen and the Shabbat table ensuring that everyone was eating and enjoying themselves. She shared words of inspiration, talked with the countless guests, all with a smile and calmness. Henny gave birth two days later.

machlishomeFor the next two years I made myself a regular at the Machlis home. Not just on Shabbat, but during the week as well.

It was in their home that I learned about myself, Shabbat, the value of people, the purpose of money, family, smiling, acts of kindness and much more. In there home, thousands of people like myself learned about life from Henny, Harav Machlis and their kids.

One night during the week Harav Machlis saw me standing at the bus stop. He stopped to ask what direction I was going. I answered that the food being served at school was not to my liking and that I was going to town to get a bite to eat. He told me to get in the car and that he was also going out for dinner. He knew a restaurant in town, the chef; the best in town. Sure enough, Henny was cooking for her kids plus one. But never did I get the feeling that I was out of line or disturbing their family life. The only real signal that I received was that they cared and enjoyed my company.

That was the first lesson I learned from Henny and Harav Machlis. It all starts with people. The highest value in life is treating people well, with respect and loving kindness.

Holocaust Memorial Day

bds or the bibleThis years opening remarks at Yad Vashem by Reuven Rivlin, president of the State of Israel carries great importance. He mentioned several times in his speech the idea how humanity was created in the image of God; how our relationship between people should be marked with sensitivity that when we look at each other we are in fact looking at God. It seems that God hoped for a society where we would raise people up on a pedestal and cherish life. Somehow this ideal has been lost. In university I was taught over and over again the value of science and that religion was the opium of society. But where does science tell us how one should interact with other people that is so lofty as mentioned in the Bible? And with all the achievements that universities have realized, why are people mistreated and denies the most basic values as life itself?

Hitler explained that he was motivated to obliterate the Jewish people “because they cursed civilization with a conscience.” But in truth God gave us the Five Books of Moses to be a model of this ideal of sensitivity and respect between people and serve as messenger for others.

Israel today is one of the most dynamic societies in the world. Far from perfect, constantly threatened by hate and war, plagues with problems like all other countries, we still manage to thrive. So what’s the secret? Perhaps its our growing ability to work with others and respect difference. If you live in Israel, you can’t avoid Russians, Yemenites, French, Ethiopians, religious, secular and more. We have learned to respect and cherish life together.

It seems to me that the B.D.S. movement is not so much about boycotting the Jewish nation, peace, human rights or the Palestinian cause but rather the boycott, divestment and sanctions against the ideals God hoped for civilization.

May the memory of those murdered by the German Nazis find eternal rest in the Garden of Eden. Amen.

Click on the picture or this link to see this outstanding video.

 

 

Standing Up For Our Soldiers

I remember many years ago on Memorial Day a radio host asked the following question to its listeners, “Who are the real heroes? The soldiers of today or the soldiers who fought in previous wars?” There seemed to be an agreement that the soldiers of today were the real heroes. The rational was simple. Back in the day, it was clear to all who the enemy was. He had a country, flag and uniform. You didn’t have to think. Israel was on one side and the enemy on the other. But in the early 1980’s things changed. The enemy didn’t have a uniform, country or flag. Governments like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria trained militant groups to fight their cause. It was cheaper and more effective. Targets moved from military to civilian. Israel also set a precedent by signing the Oslo agreement with a terrorist organization; namely by turning the PLO into a potential partner for peace. In a single moment terrorists became politicians with a legitimate cause. The PLO began inviting NGO’s and film crews to bring the plight of Palestines to the attention of the world. In turn, our soldiers required a new type of advanced training to deal with groups of militants who fought with cameras.

Three weeks ago our soldiers were faced with a far greater threat. Our Prime Minister and Defense Minister called into question the integrity of our soldiers after a video appeared on YOUTUBE by an organization whose activities are under investigation by police showing a soldier shooting a terrorist lying on the ground. Even before an investigation was launched, our Prime Minister was already Facebooking his friends about the video.

My concern is that our soldiers are being tried similar to terrorists. Because our legislation has not evolved, terrorists are even using Israeli law to their advantage by suing soldiers who cause them bodily harm. The danger is obvious and undermines the armies’ ability to fulfill its mandate. Our 18 year old high school graduates are required to act in accordance with standard military rules of engagement. Unfortunately because commanders are under political influence, rules of engagement have become blurred. New inductees now meet regularly with lawyers and advocacy groups that try to encourage soldiers to keep their heads high and that even if the government and army turns on them for carrying out their duties, lawyers will do their best to keep them out of prison. Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Yaalon sweeping support of B’tselem accusations have many soldiers terrified. Maybe B’tselem will finally get a real donation from Hassan Rouhani and not his usual monthly donation of 36 dollars.