De-Camping

At this point, no one knows if sleep-away or day camps, including Jewish ones, will be functioning this summer. And, if they will be, whether all children who want to attend them will be able to do so.

There are children, of course, who, because of home circumstances or other reasons, truly need a summer camp option, but here is a secret: Most kids don’t.

My intention is not, chalila, to dissuade any parents from sending their children to camp. Rather, it is to reassure those whose kids may not have camp options this summer that summer school-free weeks aren’t an obstacle but an opportunity.

It’s been a while – a very long one – since I was a child, and the world was very different in the 1960s from what it is today. But I never attended summer camp – by choice. I cherished my freedom and balked at regimentation, even of fun activities.

And yet, despite my spending childhood summers at home, they were wonderful times.

I studied Torah each day, both a little on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe – a development I like to imagine was born of the considerable resources he was forced to summon to hold my attention.

But each day’s many hours also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unstructured and not always in a group setting, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or, at times, solitude.

One summer, on a lark, I taught myself (from a book) how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my writing career). Yes, practice was tedious, but the daily progress was its own reward.

Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy in the end – I don’t think I’ve ever been asked as an adult to fashion a paper swan or rabbit – but fun all the same. I collected and observed bees, and fired off model rockets I built from balsa-wood kits and painted. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more. Some kids like science; some, history; some fiction. But all kids like something, and there are books on everything.

And unlike in my youth, today there is a wealth of reading material that meets every religious standard.

Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn’t visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived those deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and, I think, grown a little as a person.

Although several of our children attended overnight summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids’ best interest. That we generally couldn’t afford anything but, at most, neighborhood day camps made it easier to not feel a need to “keep up with the Katzenellenbogens.” We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important ones, and they accepted that truth – baruch Hashem, perpetuating it in their own families.

Not all parents can take the time in the summer to go on day trips with their children. But those who can should not discount how enjoyable and memorable even trips to local parks or scenic view spots can be. Nor do children lack for creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (or literal ones). There are musical instruments to be mastered, artwork to be created, bugs to be unearthed, recipes to be tried (and created), clothing patterns to be cut and sewn, model cars and airplanes kits to be assembled and painted.

The complaint “I have nothing to do!” lovingly ignored, can yield all sorts of creative ideas, inventions mothered by necessity, on the part of the tragically bored. And, of course, chaburos, chavrusos and shiurim can, with a bit of effort, be arranged.

Yes, I know, today’s world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults with their own families, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not be recommended for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is no longer the generally healthy environment it once seemed to be.

And I know, too, that many ex-campers positively glow when reminiscing about their summer experiences. So the benefits of well-run camps can’t be overstated.

Still and all, and particularly if summer camp, for whatever reason, isn’t a viable option, we do ourselves and our young a favor by recognizing that camps are among the many once-luxuries that have somehow come to be seen as necessities.

For all their benefits, though, they aren’t. Summer, even without the “c” word following it, can be a time of wonder, fun and growth for a child.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Real Story Behind the Vaccine Story

One of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied has yielded encouraging results. That good news should yield us something too: a sense of awe at the accomplishment.

Earlier this week, the biotech company Moderna, which partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop the vaccine, announced that results of a Phase 1 clinical trial showed that eight study participants developed antibodies for the virus like those who have experienced and survived the disease. And lab experiments with mice showed that the vaccine prevented the virus from infecting cells.

The study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and Phase 2 trials, which will involve several hundred subjects, are yet to come. But even the achievement to date is impressive.

If our wonderment, however, is only at the amazing progress toward, hopefully, a successful vaccine, we will have missed the truly awe-inspiring story behind the story.

A vaccine, you likely know, works by stimulating immune cells called lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized protein molecules that counter the targeted antigen, or toxic invader, and thus prevent the disease it could cause from taking hold.

Vaccines are made of dead or weakened antigens that can’t cause an infection but nevertheless stimulate the immune system to produce the necessary antibodies. Although with time, the produced antibodies will break down, special “memory cells” remain in the body and, when the antigen is encountered again, even years later, the memory cells can produce new antibodies to fight it.

This happens within our bodies constantly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy individual can produce millions of antibodies a day, fighting infections so efficiently that people never even know they were exposed to an antigen.

Last year, a team of scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego published results of their antibody research in the respected journal Nature. Based on their findings, they estimated that the human body has the potential to make a quintillion — that’s one million trillion — unique antibodies.

Imagine for a moment if the workings of our immune systems were suddenly made visible to us.

We would be struck dumb.

“If the stars should appear,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, only “one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Our immune systems, like the stars, are usually and easily taken for granted; their very ubiquity makes it hard to fully appreciate them. But appreciating them is the privilege, indeed the duty, of every thinking, sensitive person.

Returning to this week’s happy news. Is what really amazes us the technological breakthrough that could lead to an effective vaccine? Or is the true object of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly focused-upon workings of our biological processes?

Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful people, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

Back in 1996, a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned, the first such triumph. I recall the admiration, wonder and dread that the accomplishment evoked around the world.

What exactly had scientists done? They had managed to transfer a cell from the mammary gland of an adult sheep into another sheep’s unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus had been removed; and the egg cell was then stimulated to develop, and eventually implanted in the womb of yet a third sheep, which bore Dolly.

I recall thinking at the time that, impressive as the experiment was, all that had essentially been achieved was the coaxing of already existent genetic material to do precisely what it does, well, all the time. The achievement of producing Dolly bas Dolly was, to be sure, a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job.

But, still and all, other than the unusual means of bringing it about, what was witnessed was a natural process that takes place millions of times in millions of species each and every day without capturing anyone’s attention. A natural process that was, like all natural processes in the end, a miracle — no less one for its ubiquity.

Likewise, with all due recognition of the great and praiseworthy efforts to create an effective vaccine for Covid-19, may they be successful, what happened this week was, in the end, a cajoling of immune systems to do… what immune systems do billions of times daily.

So our proper appreciation of the scientific knowledge we have today, and our gratitude to the scientists that used that knowledge to advance the drive for an effective vaccine should be joined by — indeed, overwhelmed by — our ultimate awe for the immune systems with which our Creator endowed us.

Whether it’s manipulating the creation of a sheep fetus or of an immune response, the true marvel lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated, in the myriad miracles Hashem implanted in the world He created.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Why Me? Because Me

Amid the much physical, economic and psychological suffering being borne by so many during the current health crisis, some have, no doubt, thought — perhaps even given voice to — the age-old expression of protest of the cruel hand of fate: “Why me?”

There’s a Jewish answer to that question. It lies, I think, in an incident we encountered in last week’s Torah portion, in the story of the mekallel, the blasphemer.

In that account, a man — who, according to the mesorah, had been born to a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man during the subjugation of our ancestors in Egypt — wanted to join the tribe of his mother’s Jewish husband. Denied membership, he railed against G-d in an appalling way and, eventually, on orders from Above, was executed.

The narrative, though, begins with the words “A man left….”

It is a strange and superfluous phrase, for which the Midrash offers several explanations. The first one cited by Rashi is an enigma: “He left his world.”

What could leaving one’s world possibly mean?

A number of years ago, a young man took counsel of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore. The seeker explained that, due to what he felt was an unchangeable psychological limitation, he would never be able to marry. But he was fully committed to Judaism, which makes marriage a high priority. What should he do?

Rabbi Feldman told him that if, indeed, he was certain that he was unmarriable, he should stop and recognize the unusual opportunity thereby afforded him. 

As a single man, the rabbi explained, the young man would be able to live in communities where there are Jews but no Jewish educational and other facilities that an observant family would need. Rabbi Feldman recounted the true story of another man in similar circumstances who had inspired the Jews of such a city for more than forty years. 

There are other important roles, Rabbi Feldman continued, for which an unmarried person is particularly well-suited — like fundraising for vital Jewish institutions, which requires much travel.

The young man, Rabbi Feldman explained, should regard the Jewish people qua people as his “wife and children.”

I don’t know what happened to the then-young man, but like to imagine that he became a unique force for good in Klal Yisrael. Whether or not that transpired, though, the advice he was given was gold.

Because each of us has his or her own “world” — a specific role to play in the larger world that includes all other people’s individual worlds. The blasphemer had a truly unique part to play in life — as the sole member of the Jewish people without a tribe. What special opportunity that gave him is unknown. But it surely existed. And, instead of embracing his reality, his world, along with all its inherent challenges but potential, too, he chose to rail against Hashem.

He “left his world” — abandoned his world, the unique world that was his destiny.

I have to wonder about the proximity of the mekallel account and the laws delineated earlier in that same Torah portion, about how cohanim with certain physical blemishes may not serve in the normative cohein role of processing sacrifices on behalf of supplicants. Might the nexus of those pesukim and the story of the mekallel be self-evident?

Whatever the reason for the various disqualifications of cohanim regarding sacrifice-service — and it is certainly nothing obvious — the disqualified cohein might easily be expected to be saddened by, if not curse at, his lot in life.

But his lot it is. “His world,” is simply not the world of Temple service. And if he is wise and embracing of that fact, he will find the special role he, as a cohein unbound from the Temple service, is intended to assume.

As small children, many of us want to be many things at once when we’re grown. But we eventually realize that we can only be either a fireman or a policeman or a ballerina or a scholar or a business tycoon or a writer or a professional baseball or football player – not all of our dreams together. We come to realize, too, that if we, say, lack the requisite physical strength and coordination, baseball and football (and ballerina and fireman) are out, and we must make other choices about what will be “our world.”

We do ourselves the greatest favor by embracing no less willingly — in fact, enthusiastically — the personal world assigned to us by Heaven, no matter how limiting it might seem to us to be. 

One of the most important works in Jewish literature is the Mesillas Yesharim, the most accessible book of the brilliant mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707–1746).

He begins that work with the words, “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is for a person to clarify and come to realize as truth his obligation in his world.”


Not “in the world.”

“In his world.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Best Response to Mayor de Blasio

A minor miracle occurred last week: Officials and pundits from across the political and social spectra came together in a show of unified determination. No, not to encourage social distancing or to discourage early re-opening of businesses. To condemn Bill de Blasio.

That would be New York’s mayor, of course, whose tweet calling out “the Jewish community” for violating social distancing guidelines after the funeral of a Chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Mertz, the Tola’as Yakov Rebbe, drew a reported 2000-plus onto the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“My message to the Jewish community,” the mayor wrote, “and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed.”

Those who piled on ranged from conservative thinker John Podhoretz, shock jock Glenn Beck, Donald Trump Jr. and ex-ambassador Nikki Haley to the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and a number of people associated with the Reform movement. An assortment of New York Assemblymen joined in the tackle.

Some of the critics stood up for the bereaved chassidim who attended the funeral, some decried the insinuation that such crowding was more prevalent in the chassidic community, and some seemed outraged that the acts of some chassidim were being blamed on all Jews, even non-observant ones like themselves.

Grounds for criticism there were. As a statement from Agudath Israel noted, “The Jewish community as a whole, and the Orthodox Jewish community in particular, are heeding social distancing rules, including at funerals.” And the funeral had been coordinated with the New York Police Department. Apparently, the crowd turned out to be larger than expected.

But while the mayor’s choice of words was misguided and regrettable, they didn’t, as some rashly claimed, evidence any animus for Jews. Not only has Mr. de Blasio been a stalwart supporter of Israel and condemner of the BDS movement, he has enjoyed a warm relationship with New York’s Orthodox Jewish community.

His ill-considered focus on the “Jewish community” was simply the gut reaction, emotion-driven response to a scene of many hundreds of identifiably Jewish Jews crowded together, in violation of state regulations, at a time when a contagious disease was spreading and killing people.

Yes, other groups were also guilty of not heeding spacing requirements, as some of de Blasio’s critics were quick to point out online, including in their postings photos of well-populated beaches and groups of people watching an air show. But those violators were not members of any specific, identifiable group. How were they to be called out?

“My message to the beach-going community and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed”?

Doesn’t quite work, no?

And there had been other crowded funerals attended by crowds of identifiably Orthodox Jews too, something that no one who saw photos of them, presumably including the mayor, can’t unremember.

The truly justified grievance against the mayor’s tweet is what Agudath Israel’s statement went on to say: “No matter how well-intentioned the Mayor might be, words that could be seized upon by bigots and anti-Semites must be avoided at all costs.”

Mr. de Blasio seems in fact to have recognized that fact, since he eventually apologized for his misbegotten tweeting on a conference call with Orthodox Jewish media outlets.

The apology, though, that I found truly compelling, not only in the fact of its existence but because of its tone and eloquence, was from Jacob Mertz, the secretary of Tola’as Yakov, the congregation whose leader’s funeral had sparked the brouhaha.

“Our Rabbi was revered by thousands as a holy, humble and caring person,” a letter he signed read in part, “and they wanted to participate in the funeral.

“We came up with a plan to have many streets closed, so that people participate and walk the coffin while following the social distancing rules and wearing masks… Unfortunately, this didn’t pan out, and NYPD had to disperse the crowds…

“We understand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s frustration and his speaking out against the gathering. As said, we thought that the procession will be in accordance with the rules, and we apologize that it turned out otherwise. It also hurts that this led to singling out the Jewish community, and for that we apologize to all Jewish people. We know that the mayor’s reaction came from his concern to the health of safety of our community and the entire city, and it wasn’t ill-intentioned. We share that concern. Health and live[s] take precedence to anything else, and we shall all follow those rules.”

In the tumultuous world in which we Americans live today, where invective has largely replaced dialogue and grievances are settled at best with insults and at worst with guns, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that, even in a free country and protected as we are by a Bill of Rights, we are still in galus. It may not look like the galus of ancient Babylonia or Czarist Russia, but it is still galus.

And, while an acknowledgement like Tola’as Yakov’s might strike some, including some Jews, as overly modest and deferential, it was not.

It was the perfectly Jewish response.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Adam and the Eco-Fascists

Yes, it would be a great name for a punk rock group. But the Adam in the title refers to the original one, the first man. And the eco-fascists are contemporary environmentalists gone wild.

Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, famously, “to work it and to guard it” (Beraishis, 2:15). The latter phrase is regularly held aloft by some who are deeply concerned with humanity’s effects on nature. Preserving the state of flora, fauna and the landscape, they say, is nothing less than a Biblical mandate.

The Torah does in fact enjoin us elsewhere to not waste useful things, and that prohibition can certainly be applied to wanton destruction of any sort, including of animals and the environment. And we are charged, too, with preserving our health, so efforts to minimize harmful pollution are proper as well from a Jewish perspective.

But the Jewish religious tradition’s take on the words “to guard it” is radically different from conservationists who seek to draft it to support their cause. According to Midrash Rabbah, the “work it” refers to using six days of the week to earn our livings, and the “guard it” refers to ceasing work on Shabbos. The Zohar sees the “work it” as a charge to heed the Torah’s positive commandments, and the “guard it” as a warning to not violate its prohibitions. No true Jewish source interprets the verse as an ecological mandate.

Again, wantonly destroying nature is against the Torah’s guidance. But using nature, even destroying parts of it, for the benefit of humans is, well, precisely what nature is for. Man is no mere part of nature; he, as the creation with free will, is its lord.

Rejecting that reality underlies the ideology of the eco-fascist movement, which considers the supreme political model to be a world in which an authoritarian government requires individuals to sacrifice their own interests to the higher ideal of nature. Man, according to that conviction, is a mere fragment of nature, not its apogee.

Last week, Earth Day, the annual demonstration of support for environmental protection, was commemorated around the world.

Most who mark that day are simple conservationists, promoters of recycling and advocates for legislation to help ensure clean air and water. Some, though, are eco-fascists.

And this year, they celebrated the coronavirus.

As one particularly popular social media posting put it: “Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife is returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”

Another giddily gushed: “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening.”

Others called attention to the wonderful “unexpected side effects” of the virus, like swans and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice.

Leaving aside the fact that swans regularly appear in some of Venice’s canals and that an accompanying photo of “Venetian” dolphins was in fact taken at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away, the thought of celebrating a deadly germ is mad. No, actually, it’s evil.

Most people don’t realize it, but contemporary radical environmentalism has its roots in an earlier fascism.

The Third Reich’s “Blood and Soil” propaganda campaign explicitly linked “non-Aryan” people on German soil with degradation of the environment. Hitler and his minister Hermann Göring were avid supporters of animal rights and conservation. Germans who violated Nazi animal welfare laws were sent to concentration camps.

Of late, white supremacists have adopted the Nazi “Blood and Soil” slogan, and it was chanted at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by torch-carrying racists.

The gunman who murdered 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand last year disclosed that he was an eco-fascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration. “They are the same issue,” he wrote. “The environment is being destroyed by overpopulation… Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”

The shooter who later killed 23 people in the El Paso massacre was connected to a manifesto that lamented the fact that “The environment is getting worse by the year,” and, addressing the public, continued: “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”

Returning to last century’s eco-fascists, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, in his private diaries, described Hitler as someone whose hatred of the Jewish and Christian religions in large part stemmed from the ethical distinction these faiths drew between the value of humans and the value of other animals.

Well, the führer was on to something there. The eco-definition of “to work it and to guard it” stands in stark contrast to the phrases’ true meanings.

Humans are qualitatively different from animals. Imagining otherwise might seem like a harmless conceit. In reality,  it is a very dangerous one.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Locusts, the Holocaust and Today

The 17-year locusts, as many call them, won’t be singing their deafening song this spring on the East Coast. The particular brood (there are several) that we easterners are familiar with, though, is expected to emerge again en

The fearsome-looking insects cause no harm, despite their large size, big red eyes and total disregard of anybody’s personal space. Nor are they locusts. They are cicadas, an entirely different species of bug.

What, though, is a locust, the insect that swarmed by the billions in East Africa earlier this year, devastating large swaths of the countryside? Glad you asked. The answer is very interesting.

Locusts, under normal climatic circumstances, are virtually indistinguishable from garden variety grasshoppers. In fact, they technically are grasshoppers, members of the family Acrididae.

But, when subjected to stress like drought, especially after a rainy season, and crowded together, they morph amazingly into what seem to be very different creatures.

The timid green or brownish bugs living solitary lives become boldly colored, with black markings on a bright yellow background; they become shorter-bodied and stronger. And they swarm in massive numbers. Voracious, they descend in huge dark clouds on fields of vegetation, leaving them bare.

The radical change from an insect version of Dr. Jekyll to one of Mr. Hyde is mediated by a phenomenon that has attracted scientific attention in recent decades: epigenetics.

The term is used to describe characteristics of organisms that come about through the “switching on” of certain genes that do not otherwise express themselves.

While most of us are familiar with the idea that genes are inherited and pass traits from one generation to the next, epigenetics describes how certain genes, due to experiences an organism has undergone, can be chemically marked in a way that activates them.

In 2015, researcher Rachel Yehuda tried to extend the idea to the realm of human psychology, publishing results of a study of a group of Holocaust survivors and making the claim that manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were evident not only in the survivors themselves but in their offspring, ostensibly, she contended, through epigenetic expression.

Others disagree strongly, and assert that any stress disorders that may seem disproportionate in children of survivors are likely the effects of the inadvertent “sharing” of survivors’ own stress, either by exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or repeated recounting of their traumas with their young.

That certainly has occurred. Several speakers at this past February’s Project Witness fourth annual Holocaust Educators’ Conference recounted how their survivor parents pushed them in extreme ways to excel in school, and subjected them to other stressors, sometimes explicitly invoking the Holocaust as the reason for their insistence.

Such parents, of course, can’t be blamed for the effects on them of the indescribable evils they endured, or for any resultant distress caused to their children. But such distress, it seems, has not been uncommon.

Several Shabbosos ago, my wife and I sponsored a Kiddush in a small shul (remember shuls?) in memory of my mother, a”h, whose yahrtzeit fell that week. The custom in that shul is for the Kiddush sponsor to say a few words. There are many, many words I could summon to describe my mother, who was legend in Baltimore for her empathy and kindness, who was an indispensable part of the life of my father, a”h, and of the shul they built together, and who was a kiruv professional decades before the phrase came into existence.

But I chose instead to just share how happy a childhood I had, and why.

My father spent the years of World War II fleeing the Nazis and then sent by the Soviets to Siberia to labor in the taiga, where the temperature in winter would fall to 40 degrees below zero. My mother came to Baltimore from Poland as a young girl before the war but soon suffered the death of her grandmother, the only grandparent who had been part of her life, and then, mere weeks later, her 20-year old brother, who had been studying in yeshivah in New York. Two years later, her father, a respected Rav, passed away at 48. She thought for a while that sitting shivah was just part of the Jewish year-cycle.

Growing up, I knew none of that. Neither of my parents spoke of, or showed any overt signs of, the traumas of their youth years. I only heard about my father’s wartime experiences when I was already married and a father myself, when a tape of a speech he delivered to a group on Yom HaShoah was sent to me by a member of the audience. My mother’s early life losses, likewise, were only revealed to me as an adult.

Some survivors of the Holocaust or other adversities, I know, speak freely of them. Others, like my parents, choose to compartmentalize them, at least up to a point, often as a conscious act, to spare their children the burden of knowing what their parents endured.

As I mentioned, my childhood was entirely happy. And I think I owe that fact, at least partly, to my parents’ reticence and wisdom.

Many parents today, with their children watching, are facing adversities of their own. While expressing deep feelings of pain or frustration openly may afford some immediate release, it’s important to keep in mind always that, whether or not stresses can be bequeathed epigenetically to children not yet born, giving vent to them can certainly have an effect on the young already here.

And all parents want their children to have happy childhoods.

© 2020 Hamodia

[This article didn’t appear in Hamodia, due to lack of space this week.]