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Mysterious Letter: Abram Orlow’s Yahrzeit

Tomorrow is the 72th Yahrzeit of Abram Orlow z’l. He is important to me, but alas I know very little about him. My paternal grandfather passed away when my father was younger than Yishama. It always seemed a little mysterious to be the namesake for something with whom I have no connection.

This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, Ukraine, a region of the world that has been top of mind. I had the fortune of visiting there during my stay in the FSU. His family emigrated from northern Ukraine to Philadelphia when he was young. His first language was Yiddish, but he seemed to do fine in English. He went to University of Pennsylvania where he later was a political science professor. The story goes that he was the first Jewish professor at Wharton.

Image result for abram orlow

Abram and my grandmother Lena had two sons. My father James Joseph and his younger brother David. Abram, Lena, and my father were all immigration lawyers. In fact in 1948 Abram was the Second President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Interestingly Lena went on to be the president of AILA in 1954 and twenty years later my father was president of that organization the year I, Avram Orlow, was born. 

A few month ago I got a mysterious Facebook message from on Laurence Tauber. He was reaching out after having gone through their father’s papers. There he found an amazing letter from Abram. When he looked him up online he found about about Abram Laurence found a post that I published in 2018. I republished a poem that Abram wrote  January 11, 2018. Here is the letter:

Rabbi Kirschenzweig was a survivor of Buchenwald. Abram was working to get him sanctuary here in this country.  

There are still many mysteries here. But now I know a little bit more. Abram Orlow was a mensch. May your memory be for a blessing. Thank you Laurence Tauber.

Yom HaAtzma’ut: Sharing the Cookies

What is your oldest memory? One of mine is from when I was in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. When I reflect back on my personal and professional life since that time I realize that this experience really defines me . The work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years has been about doing for others as these landsmen of my Oma did for me so many years ago, help me feel that I belonged.

As few years ago my mother handed me this picture:

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue overalls, white turtleneck,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. It turns out that my earlies memory is of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having the State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia, fearing what might be coming for us or having to live as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs.

I wanted to share this story and this image today on Yom HaAtzma’ut. We should take a moment to appreciate that Israel was founded to help our people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them. To be a Jew is never really about independence, but rather it is about interdepedence. We should all take joy in sharing the cookies. Have a memorable Yom HaAtzma’ut.

Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

Needing as a Blessing: Connecting,Covid-19, and Metzorah

In the beginning of Genesis, we read of the curses that God meted out to Adam, Eve, and the snake upon their violating the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam needs to work the land to get food. Eve will have pain in childbirth. The snake received the different punishment. There we read, “and the dust of the earth you shall eat all the days of your life.”( Genesis 3:14 ) The Hassidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa asked why this punishment at all. Now the snake, by virtue of this curse, would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake would never have to work to obtain sustenance, as dirt is everywhere! This seems like more of a reward than a punishment.

Juxtaposed the snake, when a person is having difficulty sustaining themselves and will turn to God for help. While people have to endure hardship in order to achieve certain goals, they can turn to God to ask for assistance. Rav Simcha Bunim argues that God wants us to ask for help when we need it. The process of asking for help itself helps us to develop a bond between us and God. One should feel that he or she is asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. God wants a close bond to exist between us. In this way prayer is a way of creating and strengthening this bond.

Ironically, the snake is fortunate in that it has all of his needs provided for. It has nothing to ask of God and nothing for which to request God’s assistance. The curse for the snake is no reason to develop a relationship with God.

Woman finds giant snake - YouTube

I was thinking about this when reading Metzorah, this week’s Torah reading. Here we learn about a ton of maladies. Fear of COVID-19 has sparked a vigilance for various symptoms. Before this we have never been so attuned to all of the ailments, impurities, fevers and rashes in our lives. Spending so much time stuck at home has made us much more aware of what is and not coming into the house. Strangely Metzorah is more relevant then ever. There we read:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:35)

There is an interesting way in which we need to go to a priest to explore how to make meaning of the plague. There is an assumption that there must be meaning behind the plague and we cannot claim to  know what it is. Therefore we say that there is “something like a plague has shown itself to me”, without certainty (see Rashi there). We must seek connection with another person to make meaning out of this event.

We see that this plague mandates that people reach out to make a connection with a priest. In the spirit of the Rav Simcha Bunim’s lesson on the curse of the snake being its disconnection from God, the blessing of Metzorah is the connection to people. Needing is a good thing. It is the foundation for growth and connection.

Covid-19 and all of its variants has been horrible. We recently passed 6 million deaths due to this disease. But in light of this Torah portion, we see that another curse of Covid-19 is the compliancy and comfort we have developed for social isolation. Like Rav Simcha Bunim, Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The question for us as we emerge from Covid-19 is if we will allow ourselves to express need, be vulnerable, and reach out to make human connections. That will surely be a blessing.

GOMO: Being Grateful for Missing Out

When I was younger I would always be overrun with FOMO, but living through Covid I see the wisdom of JOMO, the joy of missing out. Just because others are having an experience, it does not mean we should want that experience. We should bask in being present where ever we are.

You might think that the most obvious case of JOMO, is Pesach, or more accurately Passover. The english name of this holiday is taken from the plague of the death of the first born. There we read:

And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13

The nadir of the plagues for the Egyptians was the miracle of the death of the first born. The Jews put blood on the lintels to their doors and the Angel of death passed over their homes sparing their first born children.

But maybe that is a little bit of an oversell. Is the experince of Passover joy? We do say hallel, which is a good metric. But it does seem wierd that we would take joy in missing out on the death of our first born, maybe we should just be expressing gratitude. So in that case Passover is a holiday in which we celebrate GOMO, being grateful for missing out. I can deeply relate to this sense of gratitude. This makes the Charlton Heston line sound even better, “Let my People GOMO!”

Glasnost: A Word for Passover

As it was reported in the Guardian and Foreign Policy, on March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza. This scene of a winnowing free press in Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet control of the media.

While there is nothing as bad as the horrors of war, this is scary. Without a free press, there is little hope for the future. Without any public accountability, how will Russians know the truth? They might not even know that they need to push their government to end this war.

Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy ushered in a new era of cooperation between media and government in the early 1990s. This policy opened the door to muckraking in the name of reform—after all, if problems cannot be named and openly discussed, how can they be solved? The last years before the Soviet collapse saw the rise of a new media that sought to critique, investigate, and, above all, tell the truth. Sadly with Putin and his way on Ukraine this has come to a stop.

What does the word glasnost means? In the Russian language, the word гласность means “openness and transparency”. It come from the word глас – the voice, or гла́сный -public, open” and‎ -ость -ness. This was a policy of opening up the voice of the Soviet Union.

This idea of glasnost finds a parallel to a playful Ukrainian Torah of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev . He explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices. But before we can experience liberation we need to be able to articulate our suffering and give voice to pain.  Before we can become free we need to speak our truth.

This year as we prepare for Passover we need to speak the truth about the terror being perpetuated against Ukrainians. We cannot have a pehsach without glasnost. Liberation means having a voice. We need a free press.

Sheryl Grossman z”l: Opening the Doors

This past Sunday Sheryl Grossman z”l passed away. BD”E. Even though she was only 4-foot-3, in my eyes she was a giant. She was a force of nature advocating for people with disabilities in Jewish community and in the larger world. I was honored to meet and become friends with her in St Louis during my years as the Hillel Rabbi at WashU. Like so many other people who connected with Sheryl, I have many cherished memories of our debates. Something I have been carrying with me all of these years is Sheryl’s story how the Jewish camp that she went to stopped accommodating her needs. Despite or because of everything and everyone pushing her aside, Sheryl was a model of faith and action. She belonged in the community and represented us so well to the larger world. Her belief opened the community for others. She made us better. In her absence we all have more work to do.

In pondering her memory I am reminded about the story of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel. After he was kicked out they removed the guard. There we learn:

A Tanna taught: On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the students to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation [saying] “No student whose inside is not as his outside may enter the Bet ha-Midrash”. On that day many benches were added. Rabbi Yohanan said: There is a difference of opinion on this matter between Abba Yosef ben Dosetai and the Rabbis. One says that four hundred benches were added, and the other says seven hundred. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed and said: Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel!  

Berakhot 28a

One could have a whole conversation how the guard during Rabban Gamaliel’s time might be able to discern which potential student’s inside were not as his outside, but I will leave that for another time. For now I want to understand Rabban Gamaliel’s sentiment at the end. Why was he depressed? What did it mean that he withheld Torah from Israel?

The simple meaning would be that Rabban Gamaliel saw with the removal of the doorkeeper there were more people in the Bet Midrash. There might have been a disagreement as for the number of benches needed, but Rabban Gamaliel was saddened to see the number of people who could have been learning from him. But alas, they did no come in due to the barrier he set up. He was depressed that more people did not learn from him when he was in charge. Another way to read this is not about quantity, but rather of quality. The guard’s job was to judge people on their outsides. When they removed that barrier more people had access to Torah. This fundamentally changed the nature of the Torah that was being learned in the Bet Midrash. A Torah that does not speak with and for the full diversity of learners is itself an incomplete Torah. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed because this accessible and universally relevant Torah was withheld from Israel!  

Sheryl Grossman z”l was a inspired and inspiring person of faith and action. She spent her life removing the doorkeepers, bringing in more benches, building ramps and elevators, bringing sign language interpreters, making sure the text was available in large font, etc. She worked tirelessly to make sure that the richness of an assessible Torah would not be withheld from Israel and the world!

May her memory be for a blessing and inspire us all to realized her vision. If you would be interested in learning Mishna in her memory please join in here.

– Links to related post on JDAIM,

Like a Reed: We Need Agility for Creativity

It is hard to be be creative when your world is falling a part. But in so many ways this is the story of Passover. In many ways when we think about creative breakthroughs we focus on the paradigm shifting moments like the splitting of the Red Sea, but for me I find a lot more inspiration from a different, more subtle, image by the water. I am very moved by the image of Miriam standing in the bulrushes. There we read:

When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”

Exodus 2: 3-7

It is noteworthy that it is Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and not Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who is waiting in the bulrushes. Miriam has an idea as to what might happen. She put that idea into the world. When she saw Batya come forward she jumped in and improvised and got her mother in to care for her brother.

People often talk about necessity being the mother of invention, but I believe it is the ability to take a risk and be creative that is actually the sister of invention. Miriam had an idea and then she shifted on the fly to meet the changing needs. If she were too committed to her plan it would have broken like a cedar. Indeed Miriam is not just standing among the reeds, but as a reed.

To be creative we do not need to split the Red Sea, we just need to put ideas out there with confidence without knowing how our offering will be received. We need to let go of our rigidity. If we are too close to ideas we will not be agile enough to allow the idea to morph and flex. To be creative we need to be flexible like a reed. As we learn in the Talmud, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a-b)

Antiquated Honor: The Mishna and a Slap

I do not watch TV and I certainly do not watch the Oscars. But even me, living under my rock, has heard about what happened this year. While presenting at the Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. Evidently she has Alopecia. A few seconds later her husband, actor Will Smith enters the screen walking straight toward Rock who is laughing nervously. As Smith reaches Rock, he slaps him fully across the face and walks away.

There is so much going on here with so many people adding in their commentary. Why does his wife need Will Smith’s defending? What is going on with toxic and fragile masculinity? Is there any bounds for humor? What is the role of the audience, producers, and larger society? I do not think that I have much to add here that has not been said. The only thing I wanted to offer is a Mishna.

In the Mishnah in Bava Kama, collected by the 2nd Century quoting scholars from the 1st Century, we learn:

If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If with the back of his hand, he must pay him 400 zuz. If he tore at his ear, plucked out his hair, spat at him and his spit touched him, or pulled his cloak from off him, or loosed a woman’s hair in the street, he must pay 400 zuz. This is the general rule: all is in accordance with the person’s honor…

It once happened that a man unloosed a woman’s hair in the street and she came before Rabbi Akiva and he condemned him to pay her 400 zuz. He said, “Rabbi, give me time”. And he gave him time. He caught her standing at the entrance to her courtyard, and he broke a jug of one issar’s worth of oil in front of her. She unloosed her hair and scooped up the oil in her hand and laid her hand on her head. He had set up witnesses up against her and he came before Rabbi Akiva and said to him, “Rabbi, should I give one such as this 400 zuz?” He answered, “You have said nothing.” If a man injures himself, even though he has no right to do so, is not liable. But others who injure him are liable.

Bava Kama 8:6

At first I am drawn into the Mishna’s distinction between a regular slap and a back of the hand slap. It is amazing to realize that this idea of how you slap someone itself would carry a certain meaning. Is the aim to hurt or to dishonor? Injury is evaluated at 200 zuz, but embarrassment and denigration is evaluated at 400 zuz. Wow, who knew the bitch slap existed in antiquity?

But the Mishna goes on and in a surprising way. The Mishna as a genre is not known for its narratives. There we tell a story about a man who embarrasses a woman in public by uncovering her head. As the story goes on the perpetrator defends his activity by demonstrating that she did the same to herself. Rabbi Akiva disputes his claim. Just because someone can do something bad to themselves does not give anyone license to embarrass them in public. Jewish law takes publicly embarrassing another person very seriously and penalizes such a person with a stiff financial penalty. Indeed according to Jewish tradition one who publicly embarrasses another is akin to a murderer.

There are many pertinent lessons from this Mishna. Violence is violence and it is not excused. The court has a unique role in punishing the perpetrator. There is an assumption that there are universal baseline of respect and honor due to everyone, regardless of what they do. Just because some does not press charges, it does not excuse the behavior.

This is interesting in that is surfaces our strange relationship to celebrity. We assume that people who choose to put themselves in the public eye allow us to treat them differently. The game of fame seems to come with some shame. We can only hope that this event gives us a chance to reflect and that that this moment might be a cultural inflexion point. Yes as some point we all need to be more open to humor AND we can never forget every “person’s honor”. This Mishna presents a certain idea of civil society and tort law in antiquity, but the idea of honor is far from antiquated.

Beyond Imposter Syndrome : A New Model of Leadership

What is Imposter Syndrome?

First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Though the impostor phenomenon isn’t an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, psychologists and others acknowledge that it is a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt. Impostor feelings are generally accompanied by anxiety and, often, depression. By definition, most people with impostor feelings suffer in silence, says Imes, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Georgia. “Most people don’t talk about it. Part of the experience is that they’re afraid they’re going to be found out,” she says. Yet the experience is not uncommon, she adds. With effort, you can stop feeling like a fraud and learn to enjoy your accomplishments.

I was thinking about imposter syndrome when reading Shmini, this week’s Torah portion. On the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim (priests); a fire issues forth from God to consume the offerings on the altar, and the divine presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. Who were Aaron and his sons to be offering sacrifices? Did they feel like imposters? And if they did not feel that way before when it worked, how would anyone not fear of being discovered as imposters after the death of Nadav and Avihu, when their “strange fire” does not work. The juxtoposition of their inauguration and the death of these “imposters” makes you think that this hesitation was hardwired into the role of the kohanim.

I was thinking about this when reading Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome in the Harvard Business Review. It turns out that “Imposter syndrome,” or doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work, is a diagnosis often given to women. But the fact that it’s considered a diagnosis at all is problematic. The concept, whose development in the ‘70s excluded the effects of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases, took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women. The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.

What of the implications of this for our understanding of Jewish communal leadership? The creation of Yavneh represented the shift away from the Kohen model of leadership to the Rabbinic enterprise. One cannot help but think that we are in a similar moment of shifting away from the Rabbinic model of leadership. What will be next? Surely, we need to support individuals who stand up to lead our community to get over their Imposter Syndrome. But for this shift to happen, fixing the individuals is not the answer. We need to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and lift up the diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities. We need to expand our notions of holy leadership for everyone to share their authentic offerings without getting burned.

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