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Changing Lives, Saving Lives

L’chaim! To life! In Jewish culture, we give small gifts in multiples of the number 18. This may seem arbitrary but in Gematria (an ancient and esoteric method of interpretation in which the numerical value of words can be found in their constituent letter values), “chai” – meaning “life” – is equal to the number 18. In an act that is part gratitude and part mindfulness, we give multiples of the Jewish ‘lucky number’ 18. We take a conscious moment to recognize how fortunate we are for this life we have been given and the blessings in it. While Gematria is a game of sorts, a type of Jewish numerical poetry that has become embedded in the culture, there is no doubt that we as Jews we take life very seriously. We believe that small, symbolic acts like this are habit-forming and ultimately create a life of great character. For Jews, the goal is to live as a Mensch.

Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) is celebrating a special chai benchmark – the 18th bone marrow transplant found and facilitated by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry from a member of the FJC Gift of Life donor circle. Through our partnership to grow the donor registry, one quick and painless act – swabbing your cheek to enter a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry – can result in a match and a transplant for a child or adult suffering from a life-threatening illness, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers and genetic diseases. For Jewish camp counselors that sign up with Gift of Life, this is one small act of many, is part of a pattern of kindness and caring for others.

Throughout the summer at camp, the youngest campers are taught to share responsibility with and for their bunkmates by caring for one another and working to keep their communal space clean. They learn kindness and service are Jewish values. Approaching the age of 13 (bnei mitzvah and beyond), even more trust and training is instilled in the camper, who takes on responsibility for leading Jewish traditions at camp and helping younger campers. As counselors at the age of 18, they are trained to nurture the safety, well-being, happiness and Jewish identity of their campers. At this young age they are charged with caring for a bunk of campers, to teach and model these small acts that make Mensches. It is also at 18 that counselors becoming eligible to test – swab – to join the public bone marrow registry to save a life.

Since the founding of FJC’s partnership with Gift of Life in 2010, 4,298 people have swabbed at FJC network camps, providing 120 matches, and recently the 18th transplant. These are extremely high rates of matching and transplants, due in-part to the uniqueness of Jewish DNA, which – like all minorities – is currently underrepresented in the national bank. A non-Jewish Caucasian person has a 98% chance of finding a match in the national bone marrow registry. In 1991 when the Gift of Life was founded, there was only a 5% chance for an Ashkenazi Jew to find a match. With each drive for the registry at Jewish camp, we increase the likelihood that a Jew will find a life-saving match. Thanks to Gift of Life, Ashkenazi Jewish people now have a 85% chance of matching.

We still have much more work to do to ensure that everyone in our family – regardless of ethnic or biological origins – can find a DNA match if they need it. Jewish family extends far beyond the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews, to include Sephardic Jews, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews who join their families by adoption and others. Family is not simply an identity, or DNA – it is an act, a behavior, and practice in giving and gratitude. No matter what our genetic makeup, we care for each other and show up to help. Jewish camp is a family.

A DNA match is necessary – but not sufficient to facilitate a transplant. What must really be celebrated as the true success of this program, is the consistency with which former and current Jewish camp counselors answer the call to care for others, help someone in need, and donate. In order to match, facilitate a transplant and share that gift of life you need to first be willing to act. At Jewish camp, we are training one generation to look after the next.

We all know how much Jewish camp changes people’s lives; we do not always think about how it could actually save someone’s life. With this 18th transplant, we celebrate Jewish camp for all of the small, symbolic actions that make up this kind, giving, life-saving family.

Contact Lindsay Katz at lkatz@giftoflife.org to schedule a bone marrow registry drive for your staff.

Reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

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The Depths of Tisha B’Av

On Saturday night we will start the observation of Tisha B’Av, commemorating many other calamities that have befallen our people throughout history including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. For thousands of years prior to 1948 the Temples represented the seat of the autonomous Jewish state. The Sages famously asked why were the Temples destroyed? The logical answer would have been that it met the needs of our oppressors subduing and conquering our ancestors, but our Rabbis went in another direction. In the Talmud we learn:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, sinat chinam, baseless hatred, prevailed. This is to teach you that baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b)

While the rites of the Temple and what it signified for our people seem very distant and irrelevant to modern life, strangely the issues of baseless hatred discussed in Tisha B’Av seem rather prescient to our current social and political environment.

Given our long history of struggling with issues of  baseless hatred, what might Jewish thought offer us today? To this I share the oft quoted teaching of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He wrote:

The depth of the evil and its greatness of its roots are found in the depth of the good, we find there that the depth of the hatred is commensurate to the depths of love. If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love.(Orot HaKodesh vol. 3, p. 324)

Our society in embroiled in a very dark chapter of baseless hatred, what does it mean that we need to face this with the depths of baseless love? Like many millions of people around the world I could not stop reading and watching the emergent story of rescue of the Thai soccer team and their coach.  They were literally stuck a mile underground and three miles through a flooded cave. People from around the world rushed to put themselves at risk in order to save these people who they never met. I think that the truth of Rav Kook’s comments comes from the literal meaning of his figurative flourish of the word “depth”. The measure of the communities we build are how we create environments where people regularly dig in deep, give of themselves, and share their baseless love with people the do not even know. We clearly have a lot of work to do. On this Tisha B’Av we need to reflect on how we need to invest in building  less walls and more communities.

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How do you say Treason?

How do you say treason  in Russian? Evidently the answer is “измена- IZMENA.” In Hebrew the word is ” בגידה- BEGIDAH.” It has the same root at BEGED- meaning clothing. So in many ways the act of treason is figuratively the act of being a turncoat, changing closes to move your agenda forward. 

I was thinking about all of this in wake of a comment made by John O. Brennan the  former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 to January 2017.  Recently he tweeted:

Brennan seems to know a lot about national security. I would trust that he knows the definition of treason. 
So the better question is not how you say treason in Russian or Hebrew, but how do you say treason in Republican? Our republic depends on their patriotism.  We can only hope that they act on in before it is too late.

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The Trump Holy Bible: Lessons from the Red Heffer

At the start of Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moshe and Aaron to instruct the Israelites regarding the ritual law of the Red Heifer (פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה‬) used to create the water of lustration. The cow was to be without blemish, have no defect, and not have borne a  yoke. Eleazar the priest was to take it outside the camp, observe its slaughter, and take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the Tabernacle. The cow was to be burned in its entirety along with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The priest and the one who burned the cow were both to wash their garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. The ashes of the cow were to be used to create the water for purification from having had contact with death.

It is noteworthy that all other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the Red Cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the Red Cow to come and atone for the incident of the Golden Calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8)

To me this parable is relevant in at least four ways to the horrid events from this last week when the Trump administration took to separating children of immigrants from their parents. On the most basic level, this Midrash suggests the sense of connection between a mother and her child. Just as the Red Cow has to clean up for the Golden Calf, children cannot be separated from their parents. On a second level it points to the fact that it will take a miracle for this administration to cleanse themselves  of their sins. Ain’t no magic burnt dust going to help them at this point. Thirdly we need to have more female leadership to clean up Washington. I am having trouble believing that a female commander-in-chief would have suggested this idea.I might be wrong about the gendered assumption, but we do need to clean up our government.  Finally this use of this Midrash comes to point that you could take almost any proof texts from almost any where to prove almost anything you want. AG Sessions will be damned by any God he believes in.  Immorality is immorality, it has no place to hide behind religion or scripture.

 

Emil Fackenheim Day

It was recently brought to my attention that yesterday was being 6/13 was a Mitzvah Day of sorts in our Gregorian Calendar. I will take any excuse to reflect on our collective accountability to keeping these 613 commandments.  If that is the case, that would make today 6/14 Emil Fackenheim Day.

Fackenheim was a professor of philosophy who researched the relationship of the Jews with God, believing that the Holocaust must be understood as an imperative requiring Jews to carry on Jewish existence and the survival of the State of Israel. He was always saying that continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th commandment.

I consider remembering Emil Fackenheim today a win.

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The Other Foot: Shimshon and #metoo

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrated” or “separated” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair on one’s head. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members.

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

Delilah’s betrayal of Shimshon is an interesting foil for us today. As a nation we are reflecting on bringing sexual misconduct to light. The #metoo movement has surfaced the many situations in which men have used their power to take the hidden strength from women. For their pleasure men have compromised women and as a society we have been complicit in not making room for their voice. How do we all understand the power we have and the power we might take? As a man I read the Haftarah this week with an eye to asking myself to put the this shoe on the other foot.

 

Tent of God

These days Yadid is a big 14-year-old who likes his alone time, but a few years ago he used to smother his sister Emunah with love.  I remember distinctly one time he asked me if I would let her sit with him on the ground. He proceeded to spread a blanket on top of her. Not having any of it Emunah pulled the blanket off of her head. But Yadid was not deterred so he asked his sister to join him in the  “Tent of God”.

I was thinking about this tender image when reading BaMidbar, this week’s Torah portion. In Torah portion we read about the census of the Israelites, the priests’ duties, and their configurations of tribes as they broke down camp to move.  The Tent of God was at the center of their world. We learn with a lot of detail how they encamped and traveled around the Tent.

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Even if they might smother each other at points, it is thrilling to imagine my children’s relationships evolve over the years. I would like to think that at the center of that will be an abiding love and desire to be close to each other throughout life’s journeys.


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