Category Archives: News

The Two Faces of BLM

Dear Subscriber,


“Black Lives Matter” is a phrase that can describe any of a number of groups or an amorphous social movement.  Is anti-Semitism pervasive in any of the groups or the movement itself?  Are there signs of a healthy response from black public personalities toward Jew-hatred in general?  My thoughts on the matter are here.

A Qonspiracy Grows

The United States has long provided fertile ground for all manner of cults and conspiracy theories.  QAnon is but the latest and, thanks to the internet and to the respectability bestowed on it by a number of candidates for public office, it has become alarmingly popular.

That popularity is a broad danger in itself.  But it should concern Jews in particular, as I note in my Ami Magazine column of last week, which you can read here.

Sensitivity Gone Wild

Being sensitive is a good thing.  Well, to a point.  When sensitivity goes too far, though, it can enter silly or even slander territory.  Some examples are in my Ami column of last week, which you can read at:

https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/26/sensitivity-gone-wild/  

I was the guest on a Tablet Magazine podcast last week, concerning the open letter that I and others issued a few weeks ago about Jews, political rhetoric and partisanship.  You can listen to it at: https://www.tabletmag.com/podcasts/take-one/eruvin-17

And finally, the organization for which I have proudly worked for more than a quarter century, Agudath Israel of America, is currently conducting a fundraising campaign.  I have been amazed at how hard and effectively my Agudah colleagues have worked over the past challenging months — as they have over the years.  

Please consider making a donation toward keeping the Agudah going.  Just click on “donate” at the bottom of the page at the website below. And if you include a short note in the designated “message or dedication” box about how you heard about the campaign, I will be most honored:
https://www.charidy.com/agudahnational  

Thank you and have a wonderful week!

Blood and Soil

Some recent reading led me to wonder if there might be something about German soil that somehow resonates, in susceptible people, with cruelty and murder? Might the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden!”—“Blood and Soil!”—hold deeper meaning than mere nationalist dedication to the land?

To read my thoughts on the matter, please visit:
https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/12/blood-and-soil/

Open Letter to the Torah Community: Sinai, Not Washington

The unhealthy confusion of Torah values with politics brings disrepute to Torah and harm to Torah Jews.

No party platform can substitute for our mesorah.

As a community, we ought to clearly and proudly stand up for the Torah’s stance on societal issues, embracing a worldview that identifies with no party or political orientation. Our interests may dovetail with a particular party or politician in one or another situation, but our values must remain those of Sinai, not Washington.

Moral degradation infects a broad swath of the American political spectrum. In the camps of both liberals and conservatives, many political players are on a hyper-partisan quest for victory at all costs.

Good character and benevolent governance are devalued, contrition is seen as weakness and humility is confused with humiliation. Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories. None of this is good for America, and certainly not for us Jews.

Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country are, in the end, no less morally corrosive than the embrace of abortion-on-demand or the normalization of same-gender relationships. The integrity and impact of what we convey to our children and students about kedusha, tzni’us, emes, kavod habriyos and middos tovos are rendered hollow when contradicted by our admiration for, or even absence of revulsion at, politicians and media figures whose words and deeds stand opposed to what we Jews are called upon to embrace and exemplify.

These are not new problems. But the challenge seems to grow worse with time. If we don’t stop to seriously consider the negative impact of our community’s unhealthy relationship with the current political style, we risk further erosion of our ability to live lives dedicated to truly Jewish ideals.

We Jews are charged to be an example for all Americans.

Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse. Whether we realize it or not, many of us have come to be guided in such matters, at least in part, by politicians and media figures with whom we share neither values nor worldview.

We are a people charged with modeling and teaching ethical behavior and morality to others. It should be inconceivable for us to be, and be seen as, willing disciples of deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable. We should be ashamed when Torah leaders seem to have been replaced as our ethical guides by people of low character and alien values.

As Orthodox Jews, we live in a benevolent host society to which we have rightly given our loyalty. It is thus important that we not be regarded by the American public as turning a blind eye to the degradation of our moral climate in exchange for political support for parochial interests.

We must not allow ourselves to be co-opted by any party.

There are issues of great importance to us, like education funding, anti-discrimination laws and the affordability and safety of our neighborhoods, and we rightly advocate for our positions.

But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction. Our practical focus should be on recruiting allies and building alliances, and we ought to shun partisan posturing that only alienates us from those who govern us.

We must ensure that Israel is not used as a political weapon.

We must oppose efforts to turn support for Israel from a broad consensus into a wedge issue. Although we may rightly be concerned about trends regarding Israel in some corners, indicting an entire party as anti-Israel is not only inaccurate but has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor should any party’s strong support for Israel become a justification to blindly support its politicians in every other matter. We should advocate for Israel’s security and other needs without painting ourselves into a partisan corner.

We should vote as Jews, not partisans.

Nothing stated above is intended to address anyone’s voting choices. We write simply to caution against the reflexive identification of Orthodox communal interests with any particular party or political philosophy.

To that end, let us commit to being guided only by Torah perspectives and strive to insulate ourselves, our families, students and congregants from being influenced by the objectionable speech and conduct that have come to infect many parts of the political spectrum.

When we vote, let us do so as Torah Jews, with deliberation and seriousness, not as part of any partisan bandwagon. We are not inherently Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. We are Jews – in the voting booth no less than in our homes – who are committed, in the end, only to Torah.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Jeff Jacoby

Eytan Kobre

Yosef Rapaport

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dr. Aviva Weisbord

Polishing the Badge

Like most everything these polarized-perspectives days, talking about the police seems to demand the taking of sides — either with ‘em or agin ‘em.

But, of course, that’s nonsense. One can, and should, fully acknowledge the importance of law enforcement, the debt of gratitude we owe officers who put their lives on the line and the fact that the majority of them are public servants in the very best sense of the phrase — while simultaneously acknowledging that a systemic problem, at least in some areas, seems to exist in policing today.

The list of police shootings and unnecessarily violent restraints of unarmed people needn’t be reviewed here. In many cases there may have been reason to fear an attack by a suspect, but in many there was not. And the infamous cases of misconduct we’ve witnessed with our eyes over recent years are the product of bystanders’ phone cameras. There were likely many similar unrecorded ones.

And so “police reform,” even for those of us who deeply respect police, should not be an offensive phrase. There are reasonable measures to be considered.

Currently, for instance, military veterans are given preference in police hiring. An assortment of state and federal laws — some dating back to the late 19th century — require law enforcement agencies to choose veterans over candidates with no military backgrounds. One in five police officers is, quite literally, a warrior, returned from Afghanistan, Iraq or some other assignment.

While the intent of front-listing veterans is a laudable one, the mindset of a soldier is not the one that will necessarily produce the best results in an officer of the peace. A reassessment of law enforcement recruiters’ favoring of ex-soldiers, people who are used to dealing with enemies, not citizens, may be in order.

Then there is training. In most countries, joining a police force is no simple affair. In Germany, for example, police recruits are required to spend two and a half to four years in basic training to become an officer. Basic training in the U.S. can take as little as 21 weeks and rarely runs longer than the six months required in New York City.

And the first emphasis in police training in the U.S., understandably, is on procedures and self-defense. Expanded training time would allow for more focus on things like crisis intervention and de-escalation. 

An even greater potential reform would be transparency in negotiations between police unions and municipalities. More than 85% of union-bargained police contracts in major cities around the country include language limiting oversight or discipline of officers. 

As a result, officers have been rehired even after being fired for fatal shootings. In 2011, an Oakland, California officer won his job back in union-negotiated arbitration after being fired for fatally shooting two unarmed men — one, in the back — in two different incidents mere months apart. In 2014, a similar union-demanded arbitration reinstated a Miami detective who killed an unarmed man in a shooting that a review board called “unjustified.” 

And those are the known cases. Disciplinary records of officers are often kept secret. To its credit, New York City recently announced that its log of cases of officers who have been disciplined would be made public. That should be standard practice in all police departments.

Another good idea would be the hiring of more women officers. Just about 13% of officers nationally are women; in New York City, the figure is just shy of 15%. Women (apologies to anyone who imagines that women are no different from men) are less likely to use force or escalate a tense situation.

And, finally, a good amount of police reform would happen on its own if police were simply paid better than they currently are. Some states compensate their police fairly well and offer many benefits. But others don’t, and few occupations entail the degree of danger that policing does. Treating police as the true professionals we expect them to be would make a police career more enticing to more people, and increase the pool of those wanting “to protect and to serve,” who wish to demonstrate, in the words of the New York City Police Department motto, “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Should “Black Lives Matter” Matter?

[photo credit: Rathkopf Photography]

If there were a contest for the most tasteless use of a slogan this summer, it would be hard to pick one out of several recent candidates reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disallowal of  overnight camps in the state this year. 

Two of the slogans are featured on signs being held by chassidic children in a photo that appeared online and in at least one respectable Jewish print publication. One sign reads “Kids’ Live Matter” [sic] and the other, “No camps, no justice.” 

The third was part of a caricature in a Jewish magazine intended for young people.  It portrayed Mr. Cuomo dressed as a police officer with his knee holding down a child wearing a summer camp t-shirt and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

What were the creative minds who thought those lines clever thinking? Did they not realize that equating the cruel snuffing out of lives with depriving children of a summer camp experience is obscene?

Please don’t misunderstand. Overnight camps are a very important part of many Jewish children’s lives and educations.  Such camps provide some 41,000 young Jews with opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and religiously.  Camps are particularly needed this summer, after months of children attending classes remotely and being denied the camaraderie and human interaction so vital for human development.

I fully realize that.  And also that Mr. Cuomo’s edict was woefully wrongheaded. 

He ignored a 17-page safety plan provided to him by a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps, signed by no less than nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. It explained how precautions could be taken at overnight camps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of Covid-19 infections.  The experts contended that children in camp environments would actually be safer in the protective bubble of isolated camps than they will now be if the edict stands.

But the cogent case for overnight camps doesn’t deserve to be sullied by outrageous, offensive comparisons.

Did the sloganeers consider for a moment how a black citizen, anguished by the seemingly endless parade of killings of unarmed black men and women by police, would perceive the “borrowing” of chants used to protest such carnage in the cause of demanding that… summer camps be opened?

Leave aside how a black American would feel.  How should any thoughtful person feel?

And if it’s really necessary to bring the issue closer to home, how would any of us Jews feel if “Never Again!” was co-opted to describe some summer vacation resort’s pledge to not ever repeat the same entertainment experience? No need to even imagine. Just recall the howls of Jewish outrage last summer when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (not even inaccurately) to detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

More disturbing than the tone deafness of the offensive borrowings is the lack of empathy it reveals.

The Torah teaches us to treat our fellow Jews in special ways.  We are family, after all, and family comes first.

But is the concept of tzelem Elokim limited to Jews?  Does the word brios in mechabed es habrios (Avos, 4:1) not, on its face, mean all people?  Did Dovid HaMelech not mean to include all human beings when he sang (Tehillim, 65:3) “You, Who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come”? Were korbanos not accepted from non-Jews in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is “darkei shalom,” for some reason, a lesser halachic ideal than others? Is not the goal of history, as our nevi’im prophesied, to bring all the earth’s inhabitants to recognize Hashem? Do we not then have to be concerned about them?

Back in 1964, Dr. Marvin Schick, a”h, writing in The Jewish Observer, asserted:

“It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society.”

Yes, there has been hatred for Jews among some blacks. I can testify to that from personal experience. Many experiences, in fact.

But I have also had enough interactions with black citizens of good will to know that the haters aren’t the norm. And all of us have witnessed more than enough in current events to know that being black in America remains a difficult, even dangerous, thing.

“Black Lives Matter” is a name that has been adopted by scores of organizations, some larger, most smaller. But Black Lives Matter is also an idea — essentially a reiteration of what was once known as the “civil rights movement.”  That movement qua movement, as Dr. Schick wrote more than 50 years ago, is one that should resonate with us.


The concept of darkei shalom, if nothing else, should compel us to show black Americans, and all people, that Jews committed to living Torah-faithful lives are fully committed to the safety and equal treatment by society of all human beings, no matter the color of their skins.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran