Archive for the ‘Bronx’ category

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

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Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 1

October 21, 2010






Over the past several months, as my congregation has explored the possibility of merger with the other local synagogue – the Tri City Jewish Center – a congregation which used to be affiliated with the Conservative movement but now is not affiliated with any movement, one of the issues which has been discussed, and over which there will yet be a good deal more discussion, has been that of whether or not the resulting congregation should affiliate with a national/international umbrella organization, and if so, which one.  As part of the merger exploration process, the task force in charge of moving the process forward submitted to the two rabbis a series of questions, the rabbinic responses to which would be published, distributed, and discussed.  One of their questions sought our opinions on the issue of whether or not the new congregation should affiliate with any particular movement, and if so, which one and why.  In my response I stated that I favor belonging to the Union for Reform Judaism; the North American organization of Reform synagogues.  In support of that position, I offered all sorts of organizational reasons as to why we should belong to the Reform movement.  However, now I would like to take the opportunity to share my personal reasons for being a Reform Jew and wishing to remain one.

In order to better understand from whence I speak, I need to wax a bit biographical.  Many in my congregation and in the Quad Cities Jewish community assume that I was born and raised a Reform Jew.  Well, that was not the case.  When my mother was a child, her family belonged to a Reform congregation, but her parents were not very involved.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew.  In fact, whenever I conduct our congregation’s B’nei Mitzvah Family Program I tell the participants about my father’s traditional Bar Mitzvah, which took place during a weekday morning minyan, on either a Monday or a Thursday, when Torah is read.  He went to services with his father, was called to bless the Torah, and after services enjoyed a light oneg of sponge cake and schnapps – his first taste of alcohol, other than Shabbat and Passover wine of course – and then went off to school.  As an adult, he had no love of Orthodox Judaism, and wanted no part of it.  This is somewhat surprising considering the fact that in Europe his grandfather was a very important Orthodox educator.  While in my youth I did not understand the source of his anger, today, as an adult, I have to wonder whether or not his animosity toward Orthodox Judaism had something to do with the fact that his beloved Uncle Jack – the son of this renown Orthodox teacher and the man who took primary responsibility for my father and his sisters after their parents died – married outside of the faith, and therefore was rejected by the very same Orthodox Jews who honored the memory of Uncle Jack’s father.  Whatever my father’s reasons, as a result my parents were among the many New York Jews who were unaffiliated.  For them, being Jewish was simply a title, not a life style.  In fact, for a while our family even celebrated Christmas.  We had lights on our house and a tree in our living room, with presents under it on Christmas morning.  If you do not believe me, ask my wife, for she has stored away a photo of young Henry Karp sitting on the lap of a department store Santa and has threatened to reveal it to the world, should I ever become too arrogant or self-righteous about my Jewish identity.

There is a certain irony that it was my mother – this woman who was raised as a minimalist Reform Jew – who was the one who came to feel that there needed to be more to our Jewish life.  So when my sister (who was 6 years older than me) came of religious school age, my mother insisted that we join a synagogue and send her to religious school.  My father acquiesced, but made it clear that he would have nothing to do with it, other than pay the bills.  So my mother enrolled us in the closest synagogue; an Orthodox one.  My mother, who was one of those lovers of organizational involvement, dove into membership in the Sisterhood and support of the school.  But my father, true to his word, never entered the building until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah.  While I had entered the building on several occasions with my mother, I never attended a worship service until that Bat Mitzvah.

Now that Bat Mitzvah was not like the ones we contemporary liberal Jews are used to.  It was a group event, somewhat like our Confirmation services.  It took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time which did not conflict with traditionally scheduled services.  The girls all wore identical dresses.  There was no Torah blessing or reading.  In fact the bulk of the service was in English.  And after it was over, so was our affiliation with that synagogue, my father insisting that I would never be sent to that synagogue for my Jewish education.

It was but a short time later that my parents were approached by some neighbors – Alan & Muriel Billig – who were out recruiting for members for a newly established Reform congregation; Judea Reform Temple (later to be renamed Temple Judea).  With great enthusiasm, the Billigs described how their form of Judaism differed from Orthodoxy.  They must have been successful, for my parents agreed to give it a shot.  The congregation was small.  It met in a loft; a set of rented rooms, on the second floor, over a stationary store, a Chinese restaurant, and a kosher butcher shop, on a busy Bronx commercial street.  Right outside the windows, the elevated subway trains rumbled by constantly.  I remember clearly the first time I entered this synagogue.  Right inside the glass entry door there was a long set of stairs.  No sooner was I through the doors and starting to climb the stairs then I took of my hat – as I had been taught that was the polite thing do when entering a building.  But my father stopped me, saying, “Henry, in a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.”  Soon both he and I would learn differently.  Thus began my life as a Reform Jew.

The members of that synagogue quickly became like family to us.  Both of my parents got deeply involved in its activities while I quickly made friends in the religious school, some of whom I still keep in contact with today.  It seemed like everyone came to Shabbat services.  Of course in those days, all Reform congregations were what we today call classical Reform.  Services were conducted primarily in English, using the old Union Prayer Book.  To listen to the adults speak about our services, it was clear that they loved the fact that they could understand the prayers they were offering and were far more able to participate in reading along.  They also loved the fact that men and women sat together.  As for us children, we sat together too, usually close to the first row, with parents sitting behind us, ever ready to whack us on the back of our heads should we become too talkative.

While at the time, I fully appreciated the warm and wonderful life we had at that synagogue, it would not be until I was older and more comprehending that I came to realize that what made the life of that congregation so wonderful was its spirit of inclusiveness, as well as its refusal to be Judaically judgmental of its members.  It was not only in that particular synagogue, but it was and is inherent in Reform Judaism itself.  All are welcomed, Jews and non-Jewish spouses alike.  Members aren’t judged by how closely they adhere to the particulars of Jewish tradition but rather, they are encouraged to discover for themselves those aspects of the tradition which are particularly meaningful to them, and then they are valued for their efforts in that search, whatever its outcome.  For in Judea Reform Temple in those days, and in Reform Judaism itself, both then and now, there was and is plenty of space for the diversity of individuality when it comes to the practice of Judaism.  So when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, I wanted to wear both a kipah (yarmulke) and a talit, both of which were never seen in our synagogue.  My father wanted me to wear neither.  Ultimately we compromised, and I wore the talit without the kipah.  And to top it off, my father was allowed to audio tape the service on Shabbat.  Where else but in a Reform synagogue would such choices be allowed?  This was the Reform Judaism of my youth.

In Part 2, I will share with you how the emotional bonds to the Reform Judaism of my youth were only to be strengthened and deepened as I grew to intellectually appreciate the values and principles of the movement.