Category Archives: Adventures of a Chief Rabbi

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Seder 5776 Recap

 April 28, 2016

Seder 5776 Recap

Seder KearaGabriel and I were nervous until everyone was seated. The hotel was being very strict as to the number of participants we could have.

We had worked for weeks on the program, getting speakers, layout of the hall, placements and more. I had already consulted the previous year as to what is the minimum of the Hagadah that must be performed according to Jewish law. As people filled the hall there was a palpable energy in the air. For many years, the Seder had been exclusively for needy families and individuals, who all participated at no cost to them, many of them coming mainly for the meal. This year, we reserved many spots for those willing to pay (a subsidized fee). The mix gave it a much greater community feel.

Finally, most of the guests had arrived and we were ready to start. It is no simple thing to have your voice heard by 280 people sitting at their tables, and with no microphone. But we pulled it off. There were a few key principles:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it moving
  • Keep it interesting
  • Keep changing
  • Sing whenever possible.

We sang the Shalom Aleichem for Friday night (each verse only once). Kiddush, check. However, the wine glasses were particularly big, and as per Jewish law I drank at least half of it. On an empty stomach I immediately felt it. We had ten washing stations in the hallway, which most of the guests used. Dipped the potato in the salt water, check. Broke the Matza, check. Sang Ha Lachma, check. Then our first speaker took the floor, young Mica Kreiner. She enthralled the audience with her succinct and powerful speech. I immediately noticed that more people paid attention when our guests spoke than when I spoke – guests speakers – good.

Ma Nishtana was sung with great gusto by children and adults alike. Sang Avadim Hayinu. Spoke briefly about the 4 sons, then talk from our next speaker, Marcos Israel, an eloquent and seasoned community leader. Sang Vehi Sheamda, performed the Makot in simultaneous Spanish translation and then the final guest speaker, community veteran Simon Lamstein with a moving tale of how an Annus (converso) family kept Pesach. At the point where we mention how in every generation an enemy rises to destroy the Jewish people, we remembered David Fremd z”l, who had been murdered in Paysandu, and sang his favorite song, Hine Ma Tov, emotionally.

Boisterous singing of Dayenu. Loud proclamation of Halleluyah. Massive declaration of “Pesach, Matza, uMarror.” 2nd large cup of wine. Now it really hit me and I’m starting to see double. I think I conducted the rest of the Seder half drunk, which might have contributed to its great success.

Everyone returned to the hallway to wash their hands, including a special guest, my friend Cardinal Daniel Sturla, the Archbishop of Montevideo, who sat next to me. I instructed the participants not to speak between washing hands and eating the Matza. Someone approached him after he washed hands to engage him in conversation and he signaled that he couldn’t speak. At least one person knew how to follow instructions well. He thoroughly enjoyed the Seder, participated fully and came with his own bright red kippah, which is used only by Cardinals.

People seemed to actually take the commandment of eating Matza seriously, as they did the Marror and Hillel’s sandwich. Then came the main event most people were waiting for: dinner.

The catering by Burcatovsky was superb. After the first course of gefilte fish, delicious chrein and a selection of salads, I had everyone stand up and exit the hall. In the hallway, the large crowd was blocked by a wall of blue (tablecloths). With suitable introduction the wall parted, allowing the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians and make it back to their tables in time for a hot and tasty matza ball soup, as we sang Siman Tov Umazal Tov in celebration.

The main course was outstanding, of stuffed chicken, potato kugel and tzimes, with one participant claiming it was “the best chicken he had eaten in years.” This was followed by a delightful fruit salad concoction.

We ate the Matza of the Afikoman. Sang the beginning of Birkat Hamazon, had the 3rd cup (at this point I switched to a mixture of grape juice as I had trouble keeping my balance), sang Echad Mi Yodea fully, 4th cup (also a mix), sang Leshana Haba and released everyone to go home.

The responses of gratitude and appreciation were immediate. Many, many people approached me and thanked me for the best Seder they had experienced in many years. They were pleasantly surprised by what they expected would be a worse experience than what they might have had at home. The place was great, the food was fantastic and they liked the conduction and the program very much.

Though there are already plans to build on the success of this Seder and have an even better one next year, a part of me also prays as we do in the Hagadah: Beshana Haba’a Beyerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem.


Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: David Fremd’s Last Challah

 March 14, 2016

David Fremd’s Last Challah

There was a Jewish man in a small town that remembered fondly the days of a thriving Jewish community and an active synagogue. He always sought to bring back those glory days. But the community had shrunk. The synagogue was decrepit and barely used. Yet he never gave up hope. With great effort the synagogue was rededicated. Someone donated some badly needed tables. And then in a fit of enthusiasm, the man decided that Friday night services needed to commence again. He convened the community for the Kaballat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service and ordered Challah (the special bread eaten on the Sabbath) for after the services.

But it was a Thursday. The response was lukewarm. There was not a quorum ready to commit to attend. The service didn’t happen. The man’s family ate the Challahs. One remained and was placed in the freezer.

Undeterred, the man decided he will try again the following week.

On Monday he pushed again, only to receive another lukewarm response. Ever optimistic, he stated: “No worries. It’s still early in the week. A lot can happen between now and the Sabbath. But we WILL have Kaballat Shabbat. And we will use that Challah.”

He was stabbed to death the following day for being Jewish. His name was David Fremd.

The murder itself was shocking, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.

Amidst all of the grief, shock, anger and resolve, the family decided that a correct response would be to open the synagogue and conduct Shabbat services. And that is what we did.

Friday night, after a moving service with close to one hundred participants, more than had prayed there in decades, we served David’s Challah after the services. Everyone made sure to eat a piece. David had been right after all. We did have Kaballat Shabbat. His family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances had come from near and far, including many from Montevideo, 400km away and from as far north as Artigas on the border with Brazil.

For those unfamiliar with the story or context of David’s murder, below is some more background.

The tranquil town of Paysandu, all of Uruguay, and the entire Jewish community was rocked last week with the brutal murder of David Fremd for the singular fact of being a Jew. David was on his way to open his store, when a local man brandishing a knife, attacked him from behind, stabbing him repeatedly. The local man, who a number of years previously had converted to Islam, and claiming inspiration from Allah, left his home with the singular purpose of killing a Jew. He succeeded.

The national media has reported extensively on the murder, the circumstances, the background of the murderer, the effect on the family, the community and the Jewish population, the aftereffects, the alacrity of the political response, the tremendous show of support and solidarity, including an unheard of march in Paysandu of thousands of people. However, there was almost no mention in the international media and some in the Israeli and Jewish media.

I have had the responsibility of accompanying the family since I found out about the attack and rushed to the hospital, where David had already died by the time I arrived. This has been the first free moment I’ve had since the murder.

Just to give my readers some background: Paysandu is a small town. Its center consists basically of a square of four city blocks punctuated by an old but stately church and a reasonably maintained plaza with some patches of green. Beyond the small city center there are barely any buildings taller than two stories. Most have not seen a coat of paint since their original construction which must go back many decades.

While the roads are bumpy and cracked, there are no major potholes. There is a relaxed quality to driving, walking or anything anyone does in Paysandu. It is on the shore of the river Uruguay, whose banks have a tendency to overflow, and has done so quite recently forcing people we know from their homes.

Nonetheless, the people of Paysandu are generally proud of the little spot on earth they call their own. It is one of the older cities in Uruguay, with its own respected history and heritage, once being a major trading hub, but that was decades ago.

The Jewish community of Paysandu has likewise seen stronger days. At its height, it counted over 200 families amongst its membership with an active synagogue, Hebrew school and Zionist youth movements. However, the majority of those families have since move out, either making Aliyah (emigrating) to Israel, moving to Montevideo, or other locales, or simply assimilating so completely into the surrounding culture as to have no identification whatsoever with the Jewish community.

Today Paysandu claims less than 10 Jewish families in its membership. The extent of the synagogue use is only for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, where they struggle to have a minyan (the quorum of ten men required to conduct communal prayer).

Last year, I had the privilege of participating in the rededication of the synagogue of Paysandu where I met David Fremd, much of his extended family, and other members of the community. The reason for the rededication is that after a legal battle lasting several years, the community finally managed to evict a squatter that had taken over control of the synagogue.

To give the story some biblical overtones, it turns out the squatter was a prostitute and saw her customers on the synagogue grounds. It immediately brought to mind the tale of how Titus, the destroyer of the Temple in Jerusalem, went into the very Holy of Holies, and on a Torah scroll had relations with a prostitute. I told the community members that evicting the prostitute and rededicating the synagogue, in a way, is also a correction of that horrible defilement that occurred in our Temple. David in particular had liked that connection.

The day of David’s funeral was unusually cold, windy and rainy. As we arrived at the cemetery there was an army’s worth of policemen guarding the perimeter including a SWAT team. All the TV stations had set up cameras outside the cemetery as they were not allowed inside. Despite the inclement weather, there were more people than I had ever seen in the cemetery, including notable political figures.

The mourning family showed tremendous strength and force of character, especially the sons who spoke so powerfully, with no rancor or hate. The mourners with a busload of family and friends returned to Paysandu.

Paysandu is almost 400 kilometers away from Montevideo, on roads that alternate between somewhat reasonable highways, to barely paved country roads.

As all understood, the attack against one member of the Jewish community for being Jewish, was an attack against all of us. We needed to respond. I had suggested to some of the family that an appropriate response would be to open the synagogue this Sabbath. They responded enthusiastically. We then decided to extend the opening for the entire week of mourning and the Rabbis of the community have taken turns in accompanying them.

I arrived for Kaballat Shabbat, the Friday night service, and was surprised to see more than 100 people participate in the services. The majority was from Montevideo, but even the only Jewish family from Artigas, all the way on the northern border of Uruguay, had made the long journey.

There was singing, and joy and a sense of peace and comfort. David’s sister mentioned to me that his favorite song had been the classic “Heni ma tov uma naim shevet achim gam yachad” (How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to sit together). We sang it emotionally, with family members in tears as they embraced and swayed to the melody. Then the family got up and formed a large circle where we all embraced, swayed and sang it again.

However, of all the moving moments, memories and events that have taken place, the one that has struck me the hardest is the story of David’s last Challah.



Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Synchronous Elderly Couple BMI and “Kosher Style”

Feb 16, 2016

Synchronous Elderly Couple BMI and “Kosher Style”

The scent of fish and marijuana was strong on the warm ocean breeze. The half-moon and the brighter stars shone through the humid night sky. To complete the sensory input, my evening was akin to a movie, with a soundtrack through my earphones keeping me blissfully unaware of most other auditory inputs. I was out for a night stroll on the Montevideo Rambla. It was emptier than I was accustomed to, which I attribute to the Rolling Stones concert tonight, promoted with extreme fanfare.

Helmetless riders sped by on their bicycles. Teenagers on roller blades tried vainly to catch up with them. The rare skate boarder floated by reminding me of bygone ages. Then you had the runners. You can tell they were training seriously, as their shirts (when they wore them – most of the men carried them wrapped around their right fist) often proclaimed what race they had been in previously. The joggers wore or held less identifiable t-shirts. Then you had the walkers. They come in all shapes, ages, sizes and attires. Some times it is singles, often it is couples and finally you’ll have entire families or groups of friends walking in a pack. Last but not least are the sitters. Many take advantage of the plentiful public benches or seat-high Rambla walls. Many others bring their own beach chairs. All are armed with the ubiquitous Matte drink accessories, which my readers will recall consists of a hot water thermos and the Matte cup with the leaves and the special metal straw.

I noticed one elderly couple on a bench. The man proudly displayed his bronzed beer belly as he slouched on the bench. What caught my attention, however, was that the woman seated next to him, who I presume could be none other than his wife, appeared to have the exact proportion of body mass as her husband and sat with the exact same slouch and posture on the bench. They appeared to be male and female versions of the same person. How curious, I thought.

A few meters later, I passed by a thinner elderly couple and again I was struck by the eerily similar body parallels. They both had a small tires’ worth of fat around the middle, while the rest of their body’s were thin. But again, they sat at an angle that was identical, with the same curvature of the spine, the same tilting of the head. I’m starting to sense a trend.

Half a dozen elderly couples later, with more and more matching couples, I come to the conclusion that over the decades there is a mirroring that occurs between couples that have lived so long together. I don’t know if it’s due to diet, lifestyle, furniture choices or other localized environmental factors, but it became obvious that at some point over time there is an equalizing force that synchronizes a couple’s Body Mass Index as well as a host of physiological traits. Who affects who, I wondered. Which is the dominant partner in this biological progression? Does a spouse’s good posture and habits persevere in the face of the lazier spouse, or does the unhealthy spouse bring down the resistance of the healthier one?

One spry-looking couple gave me hope. They looked to be well into their seventies and were jogging at a respectable pace. They both appeared slim and healthy though slightly stooped by age. Their synchronicity was that they jogged with the exact same gait.

The walks, besides being great for people-watching, give me time to review my day. One notable consultation was on the theme of “Kosher Style”. It seems more and more non-Kosher (and Kosher) caterers are offering “Kosher Style”. The organizer of an upcoming Jewish event had been given instructions to order “Kosher Style”. She came to me inquiring as to what are the guidelines as to “Kosher Style” as she was unfamiliar – and who better to ask about it than her local Chief Rabbi?

I gently explained that “Kosher Style” from my perspective is a nonsensical oxymoron. It is like saying a woman is half-pregnant, or talking of a meat-eating vegetarian. From the perspective of Jewish law either it’s Kosher or it’s not.

I suspected that the “Kosher Style” request came from political motivations, on one hand, wanting to show some respect to Jewish tradition and sensibilities, but on the other hand, Heaven forbid that they should actually eat Kosher food and be seen to be obeying our birthright.

However, I was dealing with practical people who wanted my input on what they should or shouldn’t order, within their budget and constraints.

I explained what I had heard about “Kosher Style”: They don’t serve meat and dairy together and they keep away from ham and shellfish. When I started discussing meat, they stated that they won’t be serving meat at all, which simplifies matters. I told them what fish, milk and cheeses they can use. There’s a chance that at the end it may even be a Kosher event.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Most Heartbreaking Day

December 27, 2015

The Most Heartbreaking Day

She was only eight years old. She was healthy. She was happy. She had loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. She was biking with her parents and younger sister by the beautiful boardwalk of Punta del Este. It was the beginning of the summer break. The season hadn’t started in full. There were barely any cars on the road.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Somehow her bike got caught on something. She fell off the bike and tumbled into the street. The driver didn’t see her. Didn’t stop in time. Melanie did not survive the impact.

In my two and a half years on the job, I have buried many people. Young, old, wealthy, poor, sick, healthy. People without a friend to accompany them and people accompanied by hundreds of friends and family. People who died suddenly and people who were in death’s clutches for months and even years.

This was by far the saddest day in my job.

In Uruguay, the Jewish community typically has what’s called a “Velorio”, a time before setting off for the cemetery where people can console the family. For most burials it becomes a semi-social scene. Melanie’s family did not announce a Velorio, but rather informed the public to meet directly at the cemetery. At the place of the Velorio, the immediate family and intimate friends gathered.

However, I was the first one at the site. I had stayed over from another Velorio event. I was there when the small casket was brought in. I was there when close friends came in and broke down in tears. And I was there when Melanie’s parents came in. I cannot recall a more heart-wrenching experience in my life. The parents and grandparents threw themselves over the casket, bawling loudly, screaming, shrieking. One of the grandmothers almost fainted. They cried and cried and cried. Finally the time to leave for the cemetery came. The mother refused to leave the casket. She had to be pried loose from the small wooden box. Finally we started the short procession from the hall to the hearse. I started chanting the traditional Psalm over the wailing of the family. We finally made it to the hearse. I asked the father to say Kaddish. The mother insisted on saying it as well. I read it together with them as we slowly made our way through the text broken by sobs and short breaths. Tears were flowing freely down my face and the face of every person present.

A procession followed the hearse a few meters into the street as I chanted Psalm 91 again, the sobbing and wailing momentarily muted.

We met again at the cemetery. I have never seen so many people at the cemetery. It was a hot, hot Sunday afternoon. It was a bit eerie to see a wall of people in the cemetery lined up perfectly under the shade of the roof.

Rav Mijael was there and as he had a close relationship with the family, he took the lead on the procession. We brought the coffin directly into the crowd under the large roof over the entrance to the cemetery. Rav Mijael wisely opted not to enter into the hall. It would have been a disaster. We needed to do this quickly. The parents did Kria and ripped their garments with such anguish and ferocity that I was reminded forcefully of the wisdom of our traditions. We then went immediately to the burial site. The coffin looked painfully small in the standard sized grave. We started covering the coffin and that’s when the family lost it. If they were wailing and sobbing before, now they were screaming. Primal screams of a such a deep loss, of such a sharp pain that I’m crying again just writing it. Relatives kept pouring water over the parents’ heads as there was a real fear they would pass out. Someone wisely had an ambulance on hand, for the heat and the grief were enough to seriously incapacitate someone.

The mother fell to her knees, grabbed the loose earth and threw it into the grave as it quickly filled up, screaming, almost incoherently, at God. The entire time the parents and grandparents were physically held up (or back) by their loving relatives. They clutched them tightly as in their grief-induced madness they could barely control their own bodies, alternatively fighting to break free or slumping to the ground. When the grave was completely covered, the screaming didn’t end.

Rav Mijael had me chant the next Psalm over the sound of the wailing. Then he got the father to say the Kaddish at the gravesite. I was so choked up, I could barely answer. Rav Mijael then ended with the El Male Rachamim, the prayer for the elevation of the soul. At the request of the family, they asked not to be hugged and kissed afterwards as is typical. They just wanted to go home. The large crowd obliged.

Usually, after a typical burial, non-family members catch up, shmooze. Here it was quiet. Hundreds of people and nobody wanting to talk. Just whispers, just small consolations.

And then people started to come up to me. How can this happen? How can God allow this? How can I believe in God if He can do this?

Still choked up, to some people I simply could not answer, could not find my voice, open my mouth. I shook my head as another tear came loose. When I did find my voice, it was to say that there are no answers. We certainly don’t have the answers and now is certainly not the time to theorize about why or to try to understand God. We just need to stick together, to support the family and be there for them. Some people took the small comfort I offered.

I debated whether I should write such personal details of such a painful burial. But this is a tragedy that has affected the entire community. And so I write this first of all for the community, in our shared grief. And second of all, in sharing our grief to also share in the consolation. We cry together with Melanie’s family. And we are together. Each in our own way. And that is the strength of our community. And it is not to be taken lightly or for granted.

May God console Melanie’s family and our whole community amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: A Jewish Navy

May 5, 2015

A Jewish Navy

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company. -Samuel Johnson

There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen; and the gentlemen were not seamen. -Babington Macaulay

rudderless-shipMy son is a sailor. But he is a sailor in a Jewish navy. He entered the navy after two years of Yeshiva study. He wears a kippah on his head and tzitzit under his uniform. He prays three times a day, puts on Tfilin daily and is careful to eat Kosher food. He serves on a small ship with a big gun. They are twelve guys living in small quarters that go out to sea for three to four days at a time.

After years of patrol duty, his ship is now being dismantled by the crew as part of the maintenance cycle. They tear the ship apart on dry-dock, take apart the engine, the guns, the floor, the bulkhead and any other component that can be unscrewed, unbolted or ripped out. Then the crew puts it all back together again.

One of their active sister ships was down a crew member and my son was drawn as a replacement where he manned the critical radar system of which he’s become an expert. At the end of their 3-day patrol, at the mission debriefing, one of the sailors pointed out that the usual ship’s decoration of posters of unclad women had been taken down and put away out of respect for their guest, my son. This has not been an issue on my son’s home ship, due to the composition of its crew and history. However, the new ship is not atypical of the coarseness of sailors the world over. However, without my son having said a word, without even his knowledge, members of the crew understood that a person who would not be appreciative of the crude objectification of women was coming on board.

Now many sailors, no different than wide swaths of manhood around the planet, are comfortable with, happy with, and will actively surround themselves with images of women in various states of undress. For these particular sailors to have the sensitivity, awareness and willingness to demonstrate some respect on this issue is noteworthy.

I don’t know what a holy sailor would look like, but I think we’re getting some inklings…


Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Weapon of Mass Education

April 24, 2015

Weapon of Mass Education

camaraTestigoIt started without ceremony. A phone call. A member of my community. She had been contacted by connections from a popular Uruguayan TV program. They wanted to make a program about Judaism in Uruguay – who should be their key person? She wanted to know if I was willing. I protested. Certainly there are people with both more knowledge and better Spanish than me. She insisted. You’re the man. Fine.

The producer came to my office and to this day still refers to me as “Ingeniero” (Engineer) – a title to which he seems to give greater respect than to “Rabino” (which I’m not sure is not valid…). He explains to me what they want to do. I write out a guide and an outline as to what should be included and what we should cover.

That was about a year ago. We didn’t cover everything we hoped, but there is the distinct possibility that we will do more given the great success of the program.

The day the bomb fell was this past Monday, April 20. There was an advance warning. A commercial was posted online. Thanks to the magic of WhatsApp the commercial went viral within the Uruguayan community and in a space of minutes most or all of the Jews of Uruguay knew there would be a program that related to them.

At 10:30pm the bomb fell and changed the community in a way we are just beginning to see.

The host, Kairo Herrera, interviews me and we talk about the history of the Jews in Uruguay, the Holocaust, Shabbat and Brit Milah. There are interviews with the President of the Comite Central, the umbrella Jewish organization of the community. The Shemtov family, the Chabad emissaries in Uruguay for 30 years played a central role in demonstrating and explaining much of Jewish law and rituals.

I was surprised by the number of people who watched it. I was pleased by the number of people in the Jewish community who saw it and congratulated me on a good performance. I was shocked that every other person I met this week saw it and commented on it. The pool people, the garage people, the gardener, the cleaning staff, the security staff. The bank teller starts getting into a discussion with me about the fear of circumcision and other people on the line joined in on the discussion. A Christian woman in the crowd extolled her love of Jews and how her friends from the Church are right now in Jerusalem, our Holy City.

We received a call from an important non-Jewish Kosher food provider that now wants to meet with me.

People are talking about it. Arguing about it. Debating if it’s good for the Jews or bad. Griping whether it was a good representation of Jews or not. To me those issues are secondary. We have a discussion going. People are hearing about Shabbat, about prayer, about Brit Mila, about Jewish history, Jewish faith and Jewish identity. A person in my office with little Jewish interest starts to ask me about spiritual matters.

I receive heartfelt thanks from members of the community. I’m told this is a major building-block for increasing Jewish awareness and practice in a very secularized country.

That was the first wave of the bomb. For the first time in Uruguayan history I’m told, there was a full-length nationally-aired locally produced TV program about Judaism. It helped that it was hosted by one of the more popular personalities, and presented Judaism in a warm and respectful yet approachable fashion.

For the host to explain to the Uruguayan public the laws of the Sabbath, for me was incredible. For him to discover and reconnect with his Jewish origins was clearly emotional and resonated with many. Long-time watchers of Kairo have told me they have never seen him so moved in one of his programs.

That was the direct impact. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who are hearing details of their culture – many for the first time in their lives.

However, the fallout is even more interesting. A large swath of the Uruguayan population also watched the show. Gentiles start to talk with Jews about their religion. And what I sensed from many, and what brings me to tears of joy, is that these Jews respond with pride. Yes, these are our customs. Yes, these are our traditions. This is where we come from. That is our Rabbi.

All of a sudden, people who I’ve met briefly once in my life, or who have merely been in the same room with me for a few minutes, are saying – that’s my Rabbi.

They are telling their coworkers, neighbors, friends how they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, how their parents were Holocaust survivors, how their uncle, or cousin, or child lives in Israel, how they have a weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner that brings the family together and that they eat some of the exact same foods that they saw on TV. That yes, they and their father before them and their grandfather and all their ancestors going back 4,000 years to our Patriarch Abraham had a Brit Mila, a circumcision that demonstrates our eternal bond between our people and God. They said all of this and more. That was the second wave.

The third wave is a respect that is crystallizing. The gentiles in this very secular country are verbalizing a respect for its Jewish citizens, who they always admired, but saw as hidden behind a veil of secrecy and mysterious and unknown customs. But now they’ve been invited into our homes, to our dinner table and our kitchen. To our ceremonies, histories and beliefs. And the overall reaction to these customs is not aversion, but respect, admiration and perhaps some envy. They sense the antiquity of our roots. They understand the centrality of our family life. They see the strength of our faith.

All of these waves have affected and will affect the Jewish community. To see themselves in the eyes of the Gentile, to stand in front of them with pride and to see respect reflected in their eyes validates their tradition more than a thousand sermons.

Whoever wants to help me with continued Weapons of Mass Education, please be in touch.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Trunko, the Super-Dog

April 21, 2015

Trunko, the Super-Dog

trunko superdog

In my office, together with the soldiers and Trunko (dark brown dog, barely visible between the two soldiers).

As chance would have it, I visited my colleagues in the communications department on the third floor to review our Shavuot programming and the recent TV program. We heard loud sirens approaching. The department has windows with a good view of the street. Two armored vehicles rush up our street – against traffic – and skid to a halt in front of our building. A small army of camouflaged soldiers with black berets, bullet-proof vests and thigh-holsters jump out of their vehicle and spread out along the street. One of their cars moves ahead and blocks traffic. They form a perimeter around an uncommonly large mini-bus with tinted windows. Dogs fan out and sniff where their sensitive noses take them. After a few minutes of craning our necks and gawking, we realized that was the extent of the excitement and resumed our work.

A couple of hours later, at my desk, soldiers march into my office with their dog. Unfazed, I smile and greet them. This is the routine inspection of the building before major community events. The dog sniffs around my office, but finds nothing interesting except for a bread roll on my desk. I warn him off and he politely backs away from my lunch. They tell their dog “sit” in English and he does so obediently. I learn that the dog is bilingual and that some commands are given in English and others in Spanish.

His name is Trunko and he was the one responsible for finding the “device” outside the Israeli embassy a number of months ago. I call him a hero, give him a “yasher koach” (a sort of “well done” in Hebrew) and a friendly rub of his head and neck.

To my surprise, I find blood on my hand. I inform and show the soldiers who are equally surprised, and do indeed find that he is bleeding from his jaw. It seems that just before, in the line of duty, Trunko was injured, though he never complained nor said a word. He continued his work, determined and unflinching. He was promptly taken for medical attention. I was glad to have played a small part in bringing his plight to his commanding officer’s attention.

This canine hero, who does so much for the Jewish community here, has taken a hit for us.

Thank you Trunko and your colleagues for everything you do for us, remaining vigilant and protecting us.   

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Uruguayan Kippah

April 15, 2015

Uruguayan Kippah

Apropos Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) I recall a chilling story of a young Jewish boy forced to walk through a corridorkippah of baton-wielding soldiers who hit him as he passed. As he gets to the end of the line, battered, bloody and bruised, he realizes that his Kippah (skullcap) fell. Instead of walking to safety and freedom from the ordeal, he goes back into the human tunnel of death to retrieve his fallen Kippah. The soldiers mercilessly continue to hit him as he walks back. As he touches the fallen Kippah a final blow hits him and he falls to the ground, dead.

As we recall the recent effort to exterminate the Jewish people, it also gives the opportunity to reflect upon its future. While there is the growing nuclear threat from Iran, I am more concerned about assimilation.

There are times when I truly despair for the future of the Jewish community. There are days when I can’t imagine continuity. The levels of intermarriage, assimilation and general indifference to Judaism is frightening and I believe below sustainable levels. The number of Jews who have elected to remove themselves from the Jewish people is staggering and every day it seems like more will follow.

There are two movements within modern Judaism that I am both highly supportive of, but at the same time wary of the exclusive embrace that some people give it. I am talking specifically about support of the State of Israel and remembrance of the Holocaust. These are two important components of modern Judaism with which I have deep connections, identification and investment.

However, I have always been concerned with the exclusive embrace of either of these movements as the sole aspect of Jewish identity. We were Jews before the State of Israel and the Holocaust. While these are important and historic milestones in our long history, what I have noted is that often in families that exclusively make either or both of these movements central to their identity – the following generations are less likely to stay within the fold of Judaism.

When I say exclusive, I don’t only mean that they do not observe the Sabbath or Kosher food laws. I mean that they don’t come to the synagogue even on Yom Kippur. I mean that they don’t have a Pesach Seder. I mean that they don’t perform a Brit Mila (circumcision) for their sons. However, they may be highly committed to remembering the Holocaust. They are ardent supporters of the State of Israel. I am friends with some of these people. They are sterling human beings and I love them dearly. My concern is what happens next?

There is a fundamental problem with the very concept of Jewish “identity”. Judaism contains multiple elements, but a key one throughout millennia has been one of practice. Of actively doing, following, performing, living Jewish life as was handed down from father to son through millennia. Somewhere along the line we lost that connection and have replaced it with “feeling” Jewish, with “identifying” with Jewish causes – and the key experiential component of Judaism went out the window.

“Feeling” and “Identity” is not nearly enough to take us further. Judaism and whatever it means is becoming so watered down, so amorphous, that soon the term “Jewish” will have little meaning – and then we’ll really have problems – but that’s an article for another day.

On the flip side, “feeling” and “identity” can be a powerful start on the road back to authentic Jewish life. I witnessed a glimmer of that tonight. Tonight the Uruguayan Jewish community commemorated Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day). It was an event that the organizers have been preparing for months. The community attended in force, filling the synagogue to standing-room only capacity, easily over one thousand people. The Vice-President of Uruguay was present along with distinguished guests from the government and diplomatic corps.

The evening was extremely moving. Professional videos including old footage, interviews with local survivors and the youth movements, on a backdrop of stone-block walls evocative of the Holocaust memorial on the beach of Montevideo, were the main feature. Candle lightings by survivors with a descendant and community leaders and special guests. A moving introduction by the new Israeli Ambassador named for a great-aunt who perished in the Holocaust. Heart-breaking songs by a young and talented singer. I was called upon to read Yizkor, El Male Rachamim and Kaddish, and it was hard to keep the emotion out of my voice.

The finale was members of the youth movements coming to the front. Then a recording was played from 1945. It was of Jewish survivors who upon liberation from the death camp started singing Hatikva, which was to become the anthem of the State of Israel. The audience, without instruction, stood up and joined in a tearful rendition of Hatikva. This was all extremely moving, and I at least was crying.

However, the point that gives me hope upon the despair of a shrinking community, the little detail that makes me think that all is not lost, that embers can be saved from a community that is not threatened with violent extinction, but rather by quiet yet rampant assimilation, was the fact that a number of the boys wore a Kippah.

Clearly they did so out of respect for the place and the occasion. For some of these boys, besides for their involvement with a secular Zionist youth organization, there may be little else of Jewish substance or connection in their lives. Yet they put a Kippah on their heads. You may think it’s not a big deal. But they didn’t have to do so. There were plenty of other boys and most of the men without a Kippah on their head in the synagogue.

For these boys to have the sensitivity, the respect for this simple religious act gives me hope. It gives me hope that from “feelings” and “identity”, that from Zionism and Holocaust remembrance, as secularized as they may be, there is a path back to Jewish practice. That there is a road that leads back to Jewish life, Jewish practice, Jewish tradition and Jewish continuity.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Well-traveled Pesach Food

April 13, 2015

Well-traveled Pesach Food


Short version: Luggage Found

Long version below:

For those who read my Casablanca post, you will know that my luggage was lost en-route. The bulk of that particular bag contained Kosher for Passover food for me to enjoy during the holiday. While not of terrible urgency, it is certainly a time-sensitive product, becoming highly desired for Pesach, but much less attractive immediately afterwards.

As fate would have it, on the last day before the final day of Pesach, I received a call that my long-lost bag had been located, but would only land that evening (when it would already be the holiday and I could not travel to retrieve it). Yesterday, Sunday, I finally retrieved my possessions from the airport, just a few hours after the completion of Pesach.

Everything was there, though no longer in pristine condition. It seems it had quite a journey. To recount: After departing from Tel-Aviv my bag landed in Istanbul where it waited several hours for its next flight. Unannounced, the bag was forced to stop in Casablanca, where who knows how it may have been manhandled. From there it crossed the Atlantic to arrive in Sao Paulo. However, traumatized from accompanying me, it decided to escape from my presence, removed its identifying tag and grabbed a flight to Santiago de Chile. There it enjoyed its view of the Pacific Ocean and the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the city. However, eventually, despite its best efforts at escape and subterfuge the authorities tracked the bag and forcibly put it back on a flight to Sao Paulo. It just couldn’t blend in as a Chilean bag. Resigned, the bag cooperated and deemed it time to be reunited in Montevideo.

The bag had enjoyed a two week vacation from me, and the results were readily noticed. Crumpled, wrinkled, smushed – it obviously did not travel well, despite its globe-trotting escapade. The prized Kosher for Passover food just didn’t have the same allure after Pesach.

One of the many unforeseen blessings of not having my bag (I’m sure there are many, though I have trouble enumerating them) is that I was transported to the Pesachs of my youth, where the food selection was minimal. I remembered palatatively, viscerally, Pesach. It is curious that one needs to travel to Uruguay to feel Pesach.

In Israel, in New York, in the many beautiful hotels and resorts around the world that cater to Kosher-eating Jews, the menus are so rich, so varied, the baked goods so bread-like that there is little to remind one of Pesach besides the barely eaten Matza at the table. There is something unrecognizable about our modern-day Pesach. I ponder this as I munch on stale coconut macaroons.