From left, seated: The Rebbe, Robert F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. and Averell Harriman. (Photo: JEM/The Living Archive)
On Sept. 3, 1964, shortly after announcing his intention to run for a U.S. Senate seat from New York, Robert. F. Kennedy resigned as Attorney General of the United States. Later that month, Kennedy headed to 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., to meet with the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Kennedy's entourage included, among others Democratic Party notables, former U.S. Rep. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. and former governor of New York Averell Harriman.
Far from being a mere photo op for Kennedy's campaign, a substantive conversation was held, with the Rebbe advocating for the educational needs of the Jewish community and the youth of the country at large. The Rebbe highlighted a recent uptick of urban crime and the alarming delinquency of American youth, particularly the spike in drug abuse, and spoke of the need for a deeper, values-based education to stem the tide.
Noting the financial burden placed upon Jews and others who chose to send their children to religious schools, the Rebbe pressed Kennedy about the government providing financial aid to alleviate the burden on families sending their kids to private and parochial schools.
Jewish life is filled with so many joyous moments. Here are 10 instances that I relish: time when Jewish tradition and ritual help transform an ordinary instant into something truly special and memorable.
1. Lighting Shabbat Candles
If there's such a thing as magic, sometimes I feel that the moment each Friday evening when I light Shabbat candles. I love how as soon as I light my candles, close my eyes and say the blessing ushering in Shabbat, I seem to emerge into another world—one without distractions and work or the thousand mundane tasks that ordinarily fill my week.
As I open my eyes after saying the blessings over lighting the Shabbat candles, I gaze for a moment at my candlesticks and think of all the generations of Jewish women who have come before me, ushering in Shabbat for themselves and their families. It's a powerful moment and feels imbued with holiness. Week after week, the first thing I do after lighting the candles is utter a prayer, asking G‑d to bless my family and praying for people who are sick in our community. I love how lighting the Shabbat candles seems to transform my entire home, from the mundane to the holy, from a place of hectic activity to one of peace and prayer.
A friend recently told me she goes to synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays, and finds synagogue to be somber, even depressing. I wish I could show her the synagogue on some other days of the year, when it's fun and joyous! One of my very favorite Jewish holidays is Purim, when the Megillah is read: the book of Esther from a special, hand-written scroll. The atmosphere in the synagogue is merry, and the service is unlike anything else all year long.
Each year, my kids and I spend weeks planning our Purim costumes. In the past, they have gone to synagogue dressed as police officers, characters from favorite books and cartoons, cowboys and princess, and people in the Purim story. We then listen to the incredible account of Esther, who was Princess of Persia during the fourth century BCE, and who saved the Jewish people from a decree of death. Each time we hear the name of Haman, the arch-enemy of the Jews, we all shake noisemakers and shout "Boo!"
When the Megillah is completed, we recite blessings then sing a joyous song. It feels so good to know that the other customs of Purim await us all, too—donating money to charity, giving gifts of delicious food to friends and enjoying a festive Purim meal. At that moment, the words of the popular Purim song feel so true: Mishenichnas Adar, marbin besimcha, when Adar begins (the month that Purim falls), we increase in joy.
Too often, mornings find me groggy and tired, reaching blearily for my alarm clock as it blares in my ear, waking me after what feels like a too-short sleep. One short Jewish prayer, though, manages to change my mood and improves my whole day.
The moment I open my eyes in the morning, I say the timeless Jewish prayer thanking G‑d for allowing us to awaken: I gratefully thank you, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion— abundant is Your faithfulness! This brief prayer contains a lot of heavy thoughts, but it helps focus me on what a great miracle it is that I am waking up at all. It's a way of focusing on the fact that our very existence is a miracle, and that we have been given another day of life, the most precious gift of all.
Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this before? That's what I thought the first time I sat in a sukkah, enjoying the feel of a soft breeze, sheltered from the sun by a roof of fragrant green tree boughs. Each autumn, when much of the world begins to think about heading indoors, we Jews move in the opposite direction, erecting temporary structures outside and dwelling in them—eating our meals, spending time relaxing, talking to others—in makeshift huts called sukkahs. Spending eight days in sukkahs (in Israel, the holiday lasts seven days) reminds us of how dependent we are on the Divine. Outside, each passing cloud, every gust of air and beam of sun, reminds us acutely how much we live in nature: It's a message that's easy to forget indoors, where we're not so attuned to the outdoor world.
My favorite moment is sitting at the lunch table inside our sukkah. Somehow, when we are there, everyone seems in less of a rush than usual; we linger over meals and enjoy sitting, feeling the fresh air. Even when the weather is cold, the briskness in the air is a welcome change from the rest of the year. Sukkot is referred to as zman simchateinu, or "the time of our joy." For those few days each autumn when I sit in our sukkah with family and friends, in the early autumn sunshine, enjoying the beauty of our sukkah, I think just how true those words feel anew.
Each night when my kids were small, we'd cuddle at bedtime, enjoying a hug and chatting about their days. When it was time to go to sleep, we'd both cover our eyes and say the timeless Jewish proclamation: Shema Yisrael . . . "Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, G‑d is One." I loved that feeling of closeness and the knowledge that we were links in a chain going back thousands of years, uniting us with countless generations before us who all proclaimed G‑d's oneness, and I loved the timeless message I was sending to my children: that G‑d is immediate in their lives, longing for a connection with them.
The words of the Shema permeate deep into our very souls. Throughout the generations Jewish mothers and fathers recited these words with their offspring, realizing that those precious moments had transformed them, reinforcing the knowledge that they are part of the Jewish people, connected with the Divine above.
Yes, really. While cleaning house is a lot of work, somehow when I'm cleaning for Passover I mind it less, even enjoying the process. I love knowing that all over the world, other Jews are also giving their homes a thorough scrubbing, eliminating chametz, as well as the dirt and grime built up over the past year. The weeks before Passover are the one time I can commiserate with my friends about cleaning house and also the time when my kids are most motivated to help, knowing how important the process is.
While I try to keep an orderly home, Passover is the one time all year I come closest to achieving it. The feeling of having a well-scrubbed, chametz-free house on Passover, as I gaze around my gleaming, orderly surroundings, is priceless.
Most mornings find me waking at dawn, with a long list of tasks ahead of me. I turn on my phone, check my emails, flip on the radio to listen to the news—and then I do those things over and over again, all day long. Except on one day each week: Shabbat. I know that on Saturday morning, there will be no alarms, no phones, no errands, computers, no news, no radio, newspaper or texts that require my response. And the feeling is so liberating.
I'm usually up in my family first, but instead of using those extra minutes to get more done, on Shabbat I make my way quietly to the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee and drink it while listening to the stillness all around me, revelling in the knowledge that for one day, I have no appointments, no electronics, no deadlines to distract me. In those peaceful hours, I sometimes feel like I'm finally getting to know myself again, while all the hectic noise of the week is quelled at last.
We've all heard them . . . a speech that's usually too rushed, blurted out too quickly and too quietly to a crowded room. Bar and bat mitzvah speeches aren't usually known for their eloquence, but there's nothing I'd rather hear. "Today, I am a bar mitzvah" or "Now that I'm a bat mitzvah" are some of the sweetest words I know, and they always bring a smile to my face. I love the eagerness and earnestness of kids as they announce that they will take being a Jewish adult seriously. I'm moved by the way words of Torah and Jewish wisdom feel so fresh to these young adults. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
OK, in a way this is my least favorite experience, too. It's certainly difficult to go without food or drink for an entire 25 hours. But somehow, fasting on Yom Kippur reminds me of the reason we go without on the holiest day of year; it's one day when we try to transcend our physical lives and become like holy angels, who need neither food nor drink. It's one day when we try to reach beyond ourselves, relating to G‑d in a whole new way. Somehow, at the end of Yom Kippur, I feel full of energy—proud of myself for making it through the day and joyful that, for one day at least, I've tried to shed my usual limitations and focus entirely on what is spiritual.
Like all weddings, Jewish nuptials feature a moving marriage ceremony, guests, plenty of delicious food and dancing. But there is something special about Jewish weddings, which often feature energetic dancing and entertaining exploits performed by guests, all meant to entertain the bride and groom, who are likened to a king and queen on their wedding day.
Through the years, I've been at amazing Jewish weddings where guests danced for hours, where some guests juggled or performed acrobatic tricks. I've been to wonderful Jewish weddings where the bride and groom were lifted up on chairs as we guests danced and sang around them. I've been to joyous Jewish weddings where some guests dressed up in funny costumes, or brought props like hula hoops, stilts or a unicycle, and to one memorable Jewish wedding in which friends of the bride performed an elaborate skit. Dancing with other women at Jewish weddings is exhilarating, as we all celebrate the bride and groom, and the beautiful home they hope to build long after the festivities end.
Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening urged Diaspora Jews to visit the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, though he made plain that his government will continue to suspend a 2016 decision to guarantee non-Orthodox Jews permanent access for pluralistic prayer at the wall.
"Before anything else, Israel is the home of all Jews. Every Jew should feel at home in Israel. This is our goal. This is our policy," he said at the opening session of the AJC Global Forum, which is taking place in Jerusalem this week.
"That's why I hope you'll visit the pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall. You should visit it. We're enlarging it. We're making it accessible, so anybody can pray at the Western Wall," he said to considerable applause from hundreds of conference-goers, hailing from Diaspora communities across the globe, in the capital's International Convention Center.
As part of a January 2016 agreement, which the cabinet approved after four years of negotiations, the government committed to renovating the so-called "Ezrat Yisrael" prayer platform physically. However, the deal also included building a common entrance to the Western Wall for three prayer areas — the Orthodox men's and women's section and the "Ezrat Yisrael" plaza, where men and women can worship together — and for representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to share in the joint oversight of the pluralistic prayer area.
New construction of a permanent pluralistic prayer platform in the Davidson Archaeological Park at the Western Wall, February 5, 2018. (The Masorti Movement in Israel)
In June of that year, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend it, backing away from what was perceived to be a degree of recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
The government's freezing of the deal led to a bitter crisis in Israel-Diaspora ties, with many representatives of world Jewry saying they felt " betrayed" by the Jewish state.
But on Sunday evening, Netanyahu was eager to convince the AJC delegates that there was no need for them to be angry at his government.
"The unity of our people is something that is important and transcends daily politics. It's not always amenable to daily politics, but it's in our hearts. It's in my heart. I know that we're one people. I know that we share a common path and a common destiny," he said.
He reiterated that point several times during his speech. "Anyone here is welcome. Welcome. Feel free to come here. Feel free to pray," he said. "When you touch the Wall, know this truth: this is your home. And this will always be the home of every Jew."
Comparing Iran and North Korea
During his 23-minute-long address, Netanyahu also addressed the Iranian nuclear threat, drawing a parallel between the pact, which six world powers struck with Tehran in 2015, and the upcoming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
"We know that in two days, President Trump will meet Kim Jong Un. I think the entire world, as we do, prays for the success of this effort," he said. "Now imagine that President Trump would come back with some deal, and Britain, France and Germany would applaud it, and South Korea and Japan would say that it endangers their existence. You'd think he'd listen to us, right?"
The same thing happened with the Iran deal, Netanyahu argued.
"This deal was applauded by many in the international community who are not in the missile range of Iran. But Israel and Saudi Arabia and others said: This deal will ultimately give Iran a nuclear arsenal and they will use it first against us, and then with the long-range missiles that they're building, and that the deal doesn't prevent them from building, against everyone else," he said.
"I think, as I told my friends in Europe this week, when Israelis and Arabs agree on something — pay attention! They must know something!
Jerusalem is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons and to rolling back Iran's aggression in the region, Netanyahu vowed.
"We will not let Iran entrench militarily in Syria to threaten Israel, as they openly say they will," he said. "We're acting in self-defense but in so doing we're also protecting the entire world from Iran's aggression, and we will continue to do so."
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