This Shabbat: Shabbat Sukkot

Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a festival for which we build and spend time inside temporary huts to remember the travels of the Children of Israel through the desert. Each year, much is written about the significance of leaving our solid and strong homes and “dwelling” in fragile and temporary huts for a week. Often, people focus their message on the importance of remembering the fragility of life so we remember to live our lives to their fullest potential and to have faith in God, the ultimate protector. This year, that idea has been turned upside down a bit. Rather than feeling vulnerable as we sit in our outdoor huts, we may actually feel safer as the outdoors offers some protection from coronavirus. And yet, we know that our ability to enjoy the safety of the outdoors is also temporary as the weather in much of the United States becomes colder and winter sets in. Perhaps there is also another message that stands side by side with the fragility and temporary nature of the Sukkah. Many of us who build Sukkot for the holiday spend time beautifully decorating them with wall hangings, fairy lights, paper chains, posters welcoming the Ushpizin, the traditional Sukkah guests, and all sorts of other decorations. Why spend so much time beautifying such a temporary structure? Perhaps the famous words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel can help us here. Heschel once said, “Know that every deed counts, that every word is power...Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.” Although our lives are temporary and fragile, it is still of the utmost importance to, as Heschel taught, live our time on this earth with dedication to the values that make life beautiful. As we think about the fragility of life on the holiday of Sukkot, let us also remember that we have the power to make our time on this earth beautiful. 

This Week in Jewish History

October 5, 1981 - Raoul Wallenberg becomes an honorary U.S. citizen

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Wallenberg was born in 1912 into a prominent family of industrialists, politicians, and diplomats in Sweden. His grandfather sent him to study architecture at the University of Michigan in 1935, and shortly after his return to Sweden, he became business partners with a Jewish man named Kalman Lauer. The two had extensive business dealings in Budapest, and as Hungary adopted Nazi-influenced policies and laws against Jews, it became unsafe for Lauer to travel to Budapest. Wallenberg increasingly took over that responsibility. In doing so, he learned Hungarian and became familiar with Hungarian culture. Near the end of the war, Germany occupied Hungary and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz with terrifying speed. Wallenberg was recruited by both the Swedish and American governments to rescue Jews from the claws of the Nazis. Taking up residence in Budapest as a Swedish diplomat, Wallenberg fabricated false papers for Jews that identified them as Swedish, thus saving them from deportation. He also established safe houses under the Swedish flag where Jews could take refuge. All together, Wallenberg saved the lives of thousands of Jews. At the end of the war, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviets who claimed he was engaging in espionage. His death is shrouded in mystery; while the Soviets claimed that he died in prison in 1945, they never released his body or clarified the circumstances of his death. Many historians believe he may have been alive until as late as 1952. On this date in 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill passed by Congress proclaiming Wallenberg to be an honorary citizen of the United States. (You can read Reagan’s remarks at the signing here.) The main sponsor of the bill was U.S. Representative Tom Lantos of California, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, who had been saved from the Nazis by Wallenberg.

October 7, 1948 - Brandeis University is officially inaugurated 

Brandeis University is the first - and to date only - non-sectarian university founded under Jewish auspices in the Diaspora. In the early twentieth century, many prestigious universities in America had stated or unstated quotas that restricted the number of Jews they would admit. In the mid-1940s, a committee of Jews headed by rabbi and Zionist leader Dr. Israel Goldstein met to discuss the possibility of founding a Jewish-sponsored secular university that would offer the finest of higher educations and would not restrict entry based on applicants’ religious, race, or national origin. They found a perfect site for their project when Middlesex University, a failing medical school near Boston, sought to transfer its campus and charter to another institution of higher education. In order to help draw national attention to the project, Goldstein recruited renowned Jewish scientist Albert Einstein to be involved in the founding of the new university. Initially, the trustees thought to name the university for Einstein, but Einstein turned down the offer. Ultimately, the trustees decided to name the university after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and a leader of the American Zionist movement. On this date in 1948, Brandeis University’s inaugural ceremonies took place. The first president, Abram L. Sachar, previously the chairman of the National Hillel Commission, spoke of emulating Louis Brandeis’ commitment to academic excellence and community service and he promised that Brandeis University would never select applicants based on quotas, something that he saw as positively un-American. A week later, the university would welcome its first freshman class made up of 107 students from 28 states and 6 foreign countries. Today, Brandeis is a top tier university with a diverse student population including many Jews. Its Jewish studies departments in particular are world-renowned. It has remained loyal to its original vision, honoring the legacy of the man for him it was named.

A Treasure from the AJC Archives - A Radio Broadcast from the Synagogue of Rome (1944)

In this Jewish month of Tishrei, a month filled with Jewish holidays, we are so grateful to live in a nation in which we can practice our religion freely. This week’s treasure from the AJC archives is an incredible transcript of an NBC radio broadcast that was executed in cooperation with AJC. The broadcast, which took place on July 23, 1944, was the first Jewish broadcast from territory liberated by the Allies from the Nazis. It took place in the Synagogue of Rome and featured prayers and words of Torah and uplift offered by a rabbi and a Jewish army chaplain. Reading the transcript with twenty-first century eyes, it is clear that the full horrors of the Holocaust were not yet known. You can see the transcript by clicking here.

For Shabbat Table Discussion: Who are our bedfellows?

We are all familiar with the aphorism that a person is judged by the company s/he keeps. This idea is found in Jewish tradition in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:9 which states: “Which is the right way to which a man should cleave? ... Rabbi Joshua said, a good companion; and … which is the evil way which a man should shun? ...Rabbi Joshua said, an evil companion. Those with whom we associate not only impact how others see us, but they also impact how we develop as people. This week, two different American politicians drew fire from the American Jewish community for statements that shed light on who their bedfellows were - and who they were not. 

On Sunday, U.S. Representative (D-NY) Alexandria Ocasio Cortez withdrew from an Americans for Peace Now event in memory of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist for his efforts to bring peace with the Palestinians. AOC, as she is popularly known, withdrew from attending the event after facing criticism from some Palestinian groups who labeled Rabin a terrorist who embraced violent policies against Palestinians during his life. Many Jews across the political spectrum were upset by AOC’s decision. Rabin had become a man devoted to making peace and renouncing war with the Palestinians when he was killed, and her decision seemed to indicate that she cared more about the approval of her followers on Twitter than about the actual ethics of the situation. As AJC tweeted, “Yitzhak Rabin devoted his life to the defense of his country. When he saw the chance for peace he became, as he said in his address to Congress in 1994, ‘a soldier in the army of peace.’ He died for peace. Any member of Congress should be honored to be associated with his memory.” 

During Tuesday’s presidential debate, President Trump refused to disavow white supremacist groups, instead saying that one such group, the Proud Boys, should “stand down and stand by,” intimating that their time would soon come. Like AOC, Trump seemed to be playing to his base with his comment, rather than doing what was right. Tagging the president in a tweet on Wednesday, AJC wrote, “Bigots, racists, and antisemites are rejoicing at your refusal to condemn white supremacy. There can be no ambiguity on this issue. White supremacists should not just be told to “stand by” – they need to be renounced completely.” 

Arguably, the decisions that both AOC and Trump made this week were influenced by a desire to satisfy their supporters. In AOC’s case, while Rabin’s legacy is not uncomplicated, her decision to disavow him by withdrawing from the event sent a message that she does not believe in the ability of people to change toward the good. This seems a depressing stance for an American leader to take. Shouldn’t we embrace those who renounced war and devoted their lives to peace? And, in President Trump’s case, there is simply no excuse for failing to unambiguously condemn white supremacists. Failing to emphatically denounce them sent a message that President Trump actually supports them.

Questions for discussion at your table:

  • How does the company we keep/refuse to keep impact who we are as individuals? 
  • Are political leaders’ decisions about the company they keep different than our individual decisions? How and why? 
  • Does verbal disavowal or disassociation from a particular person or group really matter, or is it just paying lip service? How do we tell the difference? 

Here are some resources for talking to your children about AOC and Trump’s actions this week:

  • Listen to this People of the Pod conversation with Israeli filmmaker Yaron Zilberman about his recent movie, Incitement, which tells the story of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
  • Watch this Advocacy Anywhere interview with Mark Mellman, President and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, as he assesses political trends and tensions within both the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.
  • Read this article on AJC’s website about what Jews need to know about white supremacy and watch this in-depth program on analyzing and combating white supremacy from AJC’s 2019 Global Forum.


Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!

שבת שלום וחג שמח!