Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I have just finished buying electronics at Best Buy at the Garden State Mall in New Jersey. I have our three young children with me, ages 12, 7 and 5. It is about 9:10 p.m. I have brought the kids with me because, due to the statewide elections the following day, they have no school.
My wife and 15-year-old daughter are in the mall proper. Since it closes at 9:30 p.m., I call Debbie and tell her I will walk the kids into the mall’s main building and meet her.
Best Buy is detached from the mall. We walk across the parking lot and into the entrance. There is a carousel in front of us, and I decide I should put the kids on it until the mall closes.
Suddenly, people start running toward us screaming, “There’s a shooter. SHOOTER. Run. Get out.” There is no need to think. I am not in shock, but clear-headed. There have been so many shootings lately in America that I know exactly what this is. A crazy person is on a shooting rampage in a mall, and this time we are not watching it on TV, we are not reading about it on the Internet. We are at the center of it.
I take the three kids by the hands and make an immediate about-face. We begin to run. The kids are in utter panic, absorbing what is happening. They are not crying. Yet. We make it to the parking lot and start running toward our car. I stop outside the car. I dial my wife, whom I had spoken to just five minutes earlier. The call goes straight to voicemail. I call my daughter. Straight to voicemail. I am gripped by fear and terror that I have rarely felt in my entire life. I call again, both numbers. Straight to voicemail. I am shaking. Why won’t they answer? My God, my God, why won’t they answer? I pray to my Creator and beg Him for mercy. “This is my wife. This is my child. Please protect them.” Why won’t they answer?
I put the kids in the car. I am outside on the phone. I call again. Mercy of mercies, my wife answers. She is trembling as she speaks. “There’s a shooter, Shmuley, right outside a store we’re in. The salesperson saw him. He was carrying an AK-47, holding it in the air. We heard about six shots. We’re terrified. Where are you? Get out. Get out of the mall. Are the kids OK?”
I assure her that we’re safe, in the parking lot. I push her to address where she is. Is she safe? She says, “We’re hiding, locked in a stockroom with about 10 other people. But the door is made of glass.”
I tell her that whatever she does she must not come out. Answer your phone. She explains that the reason the phones went to voicemail was that they were both calling 911. I tell her, “No matter whom you’re speaking to, answer if I call.”
I get off the phone and call 911. I tell them there is a shooter in the Garden State Mall. I tell them there is no police. How can there be no police? It’s been minutes and no response. They tell me to tell my wife to hide and not come out.
I call the owners of the Westfield Mall Corp., the Lowy family, whom I know from my time as a rabbinical student in Sydney, Australia, and with whom I have stayed in touch. Answering machine. I call a mutual friend in L.A. He ultimately and miraculously gets the head of mall security on the line. I tell him where my wife and daughter are hiding. He assures me someone will come to get them. He is comforting and assuring. Your wife and daughter will be OK.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, my close friend, whose swearing-in my wife and I attended just last week in D.C., pops instantly into my mind. He has battled assault weapons in New Jersey for years. He has shared with me countless stories of tragic shootings in our state. Having been mayor of Newark, right nearby, he will know the local police. He will expedite the police presence and get them to rescue the people inside. He will be able to tell them where my wife and daughter are so they can be rescued. Cory is very close to my wife and children. I text him in bold letters. “CORY THERE IS A SHOOTER IN THE GARDEN STATE MALL!!” I text his senior adviser, a close friend, who calls me right back and assures me he is on the phone with the police. He is informing them of the many people trapped inside and my wife’s whereabouts.
His adviser proceeds to call me every few minutes and calls my wife as well. He is an angel from heaven. Debbie is calmer now because the sounds of the gunshots have subsided.
Suddenly, the people in the parking lot are running as well. “Gunshots, gunshots,” they scream. I can swear I hear loud pops. I get into the car. I am driving in circles in the parking lot. I want to be safe with the kids, but I don’t want to leave the mall because my wife and daughter are inside.
I am calling my wife every minute, getting her to assure me she is OK and that her cell phone is not going to die. “Don’t leave me with no way to contact you, and don’t leave where you are. And tell the people with you to speak softly.”
The children in the back of the car are crying. I am trying to assure them that their mother and sister are going to be fine. God is going to protect them. I tell them we have to pray. We recite Psalm 20 in Hebrew. We repeat it. I call my wife again. She is telling me she is OK and that there is no sound of gunfire. They continue to hide in the storeroom.
On Twitter I spread the word of the shooting. I ask everyone to pray for the people inside without saying that my wife and daughter are there. I ask over and over again to pray generally that the people within should emerge safely.
I am calling my wife every few minutes. I am thinking to myself that America has gone crazy. This past week, for Shabbat dinner, the main point of conversation of our guests was the terrible shooting in Los Angeles at LAX and the other shootings that week at schools. Now, we’re at the center of it. Could this really be happening?
My wife finally tells me that she thinks they are beginning to evacuate people. They can see scores of police outside the store. I tell her not to move until they come for her.
I get the kids back into the car and we drive to a parking lot overlooking the Garden State Mall, where we can see SWAT teams moving into the building and a growing police presence. There are helicopters overhead.
Sen. Booker calls in terrible anxiety to ask if my wife is OK. At that moment, as if by a miracle, she calls on the other line and tells me that the SWAT teams have come to move them out. I connect the calls on my phone. Cory, ever the gentleman, tells my wife not to panic and he is so happy to hear she is OK. His warmth and caring comfort us both.
A few moments later, my wife calls me to tell me she is safely out. SWAT members screamed to them to move out with their hands in the air. A military scene was all around her as they made them run out of the building. SWAT members, she says, fill the entire mall. The gunman is still at large and they are briskly moving people out, with bulletproof shields protecting them.
With heartfelt thanks, I begin reciting Psalm 91. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to the Most High.” I also think to myself how incredible and brave the police are.
My wife and daughter are safe. It’s a miracle. Thank you, Oh Lord, for your kindness to me and my family, I say to myself. I will try and be a better person, a better servant of yours, Oh Lord. Thank you, Lord, for Your protection and goodness.
An employee who was hiding with my wife and daughter drive them to a nearby supermarket, where we are reunited. Seeing them safe fills me with gratitude and gladness. The smaller children are thrilled to see their mother. Their tears end, but, traumatized, they are not smiling.
We hear on the news that no one has been injured. We go back to the parking lot — police all around us — to retrieve my wife’s car, and we return home in safety.
But how long will it be until the next shooting, and what will we finally do as a nation to prevent it?
As a boy of about 9, I watched a police officer murdered right in front of me in Miami Beach, Fla. It was April 1, April Fool’s Day, which ever since has been a day of trauma for me. I even took my wife and children to the spot where he died. I shall never forget the sound of the gunshot that echoed so loudly that it nearly broke my eardrums.
And now, again, I am traumatized by a shooting.
How many more will die before America finally wakes up?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is married with nine children. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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October 10, 2013 | 2:20 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I have met Steve Lonegan. He is a fellow Republican and there are obvious areas of policy agreement. But many things trump party loyalty, with friendship being foremost among them.
I have known and loved Cory Booker for 21 years. Ever since he walked into our Jewish student facility in Oxford's ancient city center almost accidentally more than two decades ago on the Jewish festival of Simchas Torah, we have been soul friends. I was Rabbi to the students and he was an African-American Rhodes scholar. Within days we were studying Torah together several times a week and hosting other students at our "Kosher Soul Food" dinners that Cory made with my wife, Debbie, at our home. Within a year Cory was so popular among our thousands of student members that he became the first ever non-Jewish president of a major Jewish student organization, The L'Chaim Society at Oxford, which I had founded in 1989.
Inasmuch as I have written many articles about Cory and his relationship, as a Christian, with Judaism, there is no need to recount so many of the tales here that demonstrate what a special person he is. Suffice it so say that the attacks I am reading against him run utterly contrary to the truth.
What has always distinguished Cory, as I have always told him, is not his charisma, remarkable oratorical skills, or leadership qualities, impressive as they may be. Rather, it is his love for all of God's children. Cory was born with a unique sensitivity to the suffering of others. He has always placed himself among the underprivileged and those struggling to make ends meet. Even as a Rhodes scholar he would leave the ivory tower of Oxford academia and travel to Blackbird Leys, an economical depressed British housing estate, to organize programs for the youth. There were no press cameras on him and no votes to be had. Only his close friends knew of his work there.
The attacks on him about not caring enough about Newark are malicious and ignorant. Aside from all the positive information known to the public of how he has taken his city forward, there have been so many occasions that I have visited him privately in his office in Newark where he has been in the midst of conversations with underprivileged youth of the city whom he is mentoring. Criticism by his political adversaries about crime in Newark ignore the city's history prior to his taking office and the personal sacrifices he has made to keep all the residents of his city safe. A regular at Shabbat Friday night dinners at our home, there were endless occasions when he had to leave early with the Newark police so he could personally go out on patrols late at night to reduce crime, amid considerable risk to himself. How many other mayors can claim the same?
He has also been the most loving friend. When my daughter Mushki was getting married two years ago Cory called me and said, "Shmuley, I feel like your kids are my own. Please make the wedding on a night that I don't have city responsibilities. It's inconceivable that I would not be there." On the night of the wedding he was the first guest to arrive and danced up a storm.
The same was true for the celebrations of the birth of our three sons when a Jewish father is obligated to stay up the whole night studying Torah for spiritual protection before the circumcision-bris. Cory, a non-Jew facing his biggest exams as an Oxford student, stayed up with me the entire night and then repeated the exercise twice, first as a Newark councilman and then as a Mayoral candidate.
And, as a friend, he has so often agreed to participate in our organization's public events - obviously not earning a penny (indeed he's a financial supporter of our work to promote universal values, like having regular family dinners, in American society and culture). If he met wealthy donors at these events, he was always speaking to them about projects they could fund in Newark for the benefit of residents. Impressed as they were with his unbridled passion for his city, a great many got involved.
And how many times were we in his Suburban, driving through the city, when he would jump out of the car to personally meet residents who were just walking by, offering them his warm smile and hearing their concerns.
Those who now falsely attack Cory as more interested in his celebrity than people don't know the Oxford student who, at his graduation, was lovingly greeted by the middle-aged, mature students of Oxford whom the younger students ignored but Cory always befriended.
I am close with many leaders of the Republican party and I ran for Congress as a Republican. I believe in the party's message of dignity through self reliance, even as I have challenged the fixation on some of its social values. But in this age of hyper-partisanship it is incumbent upon us all to put principles before party, values before divisiveness, and truth over fiction.
Cory Booker is a special and unique man, a true friend, a devoted public servant, an inspiration to millions nationally, and someone who has taught me to be more caring of others. He will make the most incredible Senator for the residents of the state of New Jersey.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," has been named by The Washington Post and Newsweek as "the most famous Rabbi in America'' and was the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year competition at the millennium. A recipient of The American Jewish Press Association's Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary, he has just published 'The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
October 3, 2013 | 3:24 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
By now you’ve heard about the Pew Research poll, published this week, that concludes that American Jewry is on its way to oblivion. No need to wait for Hassan Rouhani of Iran to drop a bomb on us. We’re doing an incredibly fine job of destroying ourselves, thank you very much.
What all this shows is that what my friend mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and I have been saying for years is unfortunately correct. Despite the untold billions that have been sunk into Jewish communal outreach for the last half century, it has barely made a dent in the rate of assimilation.
Here are three ways to give mouth-to-mouth to our dying community.
1. Stop creating a divide between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.
Today’s model of outreach is fatally flawed seeing as it necessarily forces a choice on non-affiliated Jews to choose between the Jewish and mainstream worlds. So, a student at University who hangs out with his non-Jewish friends is encouraged to stop going only to mainstream University events and come instead to Hillel or Chabad. I’m not knocking that. We need Jewish organizations that invite Jews in to classes, religious services, lectures, social events, and debates. But far more effective is not forcing the choice on them in the first place. Bring Judaism instead to where they are at. On campus, do colossal events that bring Jewish values, teachings, and wisdom to all students so that young men and women are not forced to choose.
Last week, in collaboration with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of Hillel at NYU, our organization, This World: The Values Network, staged a huge event of over 1000 Jewish and non-Jewish students that had me moderating a discussion on genocide between Elie Wiesel and Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.
In a similar manner, bring Judaism to the culture via TV shows, plays, and music that are mainstream and intended for all audiences. Some examples include the new Shlomo Carlebach-based musical ‘Soul Doctor,’ produced by Jeremy Chess, that is currently running on Broadway, the music of Matisyahu, and the TV show I hosted on TLC called ‘Shalom in the Home.’ Like the Kabbalah movement, bring Judaism and Jewish values to everybody instead of just focusing on the Jews. We are not a proselytizing faith, but that is no excuse not to make the Jewish people a light to all nations.
2. Fix the broken and boring Synagogue service.
The overwhelming number of Jews who still step into a Synagogue do so for three days of every year and then swear they will never come back. Sometimes I think we should ban secular Jews from High Holy Day services and shift their attendance instead to Simchas Torah and Purim. But since that’s not going to happen, let’s take the focus off of cantorial recital yodeling, which makes congregants into spectators, shift the teachings away from dry sermons, and focus instead on having services engage the heart and mind. Carlebach-style services that make people sing real spiritual melodies rather than listening to opera is the way to go. Rabbis putting out moral questions between each of the seven readings of the Torah on Saturday mornings is a means by which to influence congregants to apply the lessons of the Torah to their everyday lives, making Judaism relevant rather than aloof. And don’t forget a fantastic Kiddush with fine single malt whisky. Can’t afford it? Build less elaborate buildings and have a more elaborate cholent and sushi.
3. Make the Rabbinical and Jewish day school teaching professions fashionable again.
You basically become a Jewish day school teacher or a Rabbi after your fifth rejection from Harvard Business School. There is no social clout in it and you get paid in cholent beans. How do we change all this? By having AIPAC, Federation, Birthright, and other prestigious Jewish organizations respect Rabbis at their major conventions rather than having them say the blessing on the bread. How do we ensure they can make more money? Take the ten smartest Jewish hedge fund managers and have them create a fund open only to Jewish activists where there money will be managed by the smartest people in the world so that a teacher in cheder will have enough money to marry off his children without having to moonlight as a bar bouncer. The more money Rabbis and teachers make, without putting strains on the communal purse, and the more clout these professions enjoy, the more talent we will attract to those professions that are supposed to be inspiring our youth.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award and the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
September 3, 2013 | 12:30 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
As a past critic of President Obama’s passivity in the face of Syrian slaughter, I was immensely impressed with the President’s forcefulness in holding Bashar Assad accountable for the use of sarin gas. On the contrary, it was Republican opposition to President Obama’s plans to punish Syria for gassing children that was so sorely disappointing, to say the least. Is there any greater justification for attacking a country’s military than when it engages in mass murder of children?
And yes, I know the objections. It might not be productive in stopping Assad’s regime. The strategic objectives need to be more clearly defined. Presidents can’t be cowboys and attack without Congressional approval and United Nations support. Afghanistan is still a mess, do we really need further Middle Eastern entanglements? And, of course, America is near broke.
But towering above all these considerations was the bodies of hundreds of dead kids. How do you signal to Syria and all those who would follow her example, especially Iran, that using nerve agents against innocent people will never be tolerated.
I was therefore shocked to hear the President reverse course and say that time was not pressing to punish Syria, that he would seek Congressional approval and wider support for his strike.
Let’s be clear. If the gassing of children is not an urgent matter than nothing is. Timing is everything. When the Jewish lobby in World War II asked President Roosevelt to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz, people were being gassed at a rate of 15,000 per day. Waiting a week would cost the lives of another 100,000 people.
In Syria the numbers are smaller though still horrific. Already 100,000 dead. But would we tolerate even another 400 kids being gassed? And if you are going to insist on Congressional approval — which neither Reagan, when he attacked Libya, nor Clinton when he attacked Afghanistan and Sudan, sought — then at least call Congress back from recess.
In the Jewish community we often speak of how during the holocaust not many people gave a damn as six million Jews were rapidly exterminated. So how can we as a community afford not to speak out when Arab children are gassed? Where is the outrage?
I’m not for putting boots on the ground in Syria. I’m just as weary as other Americans at Iraq and Afghanistan — and especially the ingratitude shown by so many Muslim countries that we liberated — to see American men and women die to create Islamist countries that are not fully committed to liberal democracy. I also know that America right now can’t afford much. Our national debt is a crisis of its own.
But we sure as heck can afford a few dozen cruise missiles and we sure as heck can bring the war straight to Assad’s doorstep by destroying his Presidential palaces so he’s forced to live like the animal he is in subterranean shelters. Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal suggested in an editorial on Friday that we can use our missiles not just for President Obama’s declared ‘shot across the bow,’ which suggests that we won’t hit any substantive targets, but instead strike the six airfields being most used by Syria’s Air Force and effectively ground their war planes from doing further harm.
One thing we cannot do is play politics where people’s lives are concerned. This is not a time to be doing the all-American blood sport of Republican versus Democrat. I don’t give a damn why President Obama wants to strike Syria, whether it’s to salvage his credibility on his self-declared ‘red lines,’ to show Iran that he’s serious, or to protect his legacy as someone who did not sit back while children were murdered. His intention is immaterial. All that matters is the Biblical imperative: ‘Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.’ We must stop the butcher in Damascus from killing more innocent Arabs. On this President Obama is absolutely right and I’m mystified why any Republican would oppose him.
One of the principal reasons I ran for Congress as a Republican was disappointment in my liberal friends (and coming from the worlds of academic and media most of my friends are staunchly anti-Republican) in not being fully committed to fighting evil.
Palestinians, they told me, should of course not be blowing up Israeli buses. But you need to see it from their perspective. They’re humiliated with check points and road blocks. To which I always respond, there is no justification whatsoever for targeting children, excuses be damned.
Is it any different when the children who are being targeted are Kurdish, or Syrian, or Arab? They are equally God’s children. And Republicans have been great at making that point strongly, especially in the case of Saddam Hussein. Yes, we’re all Iraq-weary. But I supported the overthrow of Saddam and thought it a great moment in American history because he had murdered tens of thousands of children with mustard gas at Halabjah in April, 1988. So where are the Republican voices of outrage now, when Assad is doing the same thing?
In America we play politics with roads, and subsidies, and unemployment – all important issues. But when it comes to ‘Never Again,’ we have to speak with one voice. ‘Never again’ means just that. Never, ever, ever again. That the world will never again tolerate the mass slaughter of civilians by monsters like Assad. That civilization will never sit passively while brute thugs assail and slaughter the innocent en mass. If you use poison gas you are going to be hit by a Mack truck.
For goodness sake, let’s all get on the same page about this. President Obama has, of late, been exemplary in taking the lead on punishing Syria for atrocities. John Kerry even more so. Please, don’t falter now. Get your backbone back. “Do not murder” means just that. The Ten Commandments are not Democratic or Republican or American or Islamic. They are universal, accepted by all nations at all times.
It’s the 21st century, people. It’s time we finally get serious about stopping mass murder or our passivity will make us complicit.
Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network, which promotes universal Jewish values in the culture. He has just published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
August 20, 2013 | 11:34 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This column was dictated by Rabbi Shmuley from the basecamp of Mount Kilimanjaro, hours prior to his attempt to summit the mountain.
I came to Mount Kilimanjaro, the fabled roof of Africa, because I wanted to experience the glory of God as manifest in the beauty of nature. My wife and I were in Africa to see the Rwandan genocide sites we had no visited last year, and to attend our son Mendy’s Rabbinical ordination in Pretoria, South Africa. Squeezed between two extremes of horror and celebration, we wanted to push ourselves to the limit of our own endurance in order to be uplifted by a wonder of the world that can only be seen from its summit of 19,341 feet. I also wanted to bring my Judaism with me to one of the portals of the world, to prove that Jewish observance can be maintained at every time and at every place. Finally, in the 25th year of our marriage, I wanted my wife and me to share an experience of unique solitude and togetherness, to accomplish something jointly that pulled us away from the noise of modern life and threw us into the serenity of an alternate universe atop the world.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is a kin to immersion in a weeklong Sabbath. There is no electricity. Your phones, for the most part, do not work. When they do, you feel a small sense of disappointment, but it’s a concession you make because you of course have to check up on the kids. “Okay, I confess. I called the office as well.” Bathing is out, although for your own comfort, and especially that of the people around you, you wash daily in a small basin of water.
Kilimanjaro has provided me with many firsts. It is the first time in my life that I ever heard the sound of silence. It turns out that the sound is not an invention of Simon and Garfunkel. Moving away from our camp, yesterday, at 12,500 feet, I walked to find an inspiring place to recite the afternoon prayer of Mincha. I ambled over a ridge, faced north towards Jerusalem, and looked down at the ocean of cloud that was thousands of feet below me and engulfed the Earth. Suddenly, the utter stillness and total silence began to chime in my ears. And I heard it. The ringing sound of nothingness. I began my prayer, pouring my heart to a creator who was responsible for such resplendent beauty and solitude. Since then, we climbed this morning another 3,000 feet. For us, it was a slow, hard, sludge. But the rule of the climb is single file, and I walked right behind my wife. Her determination and resilience is like an invisible rope that is pulling me up the mountain. The air gets thinner and thinner as you ascend, but the scenery becomes evermore magical and surreal. You pass thru four zones before the summit: Cultivated, Heather, Moorland, and Alpine Desert, the most interesting and dreamlike of all. Nothing grows here, and it’s closest resemblance, although I have no plan to hike there, is the surface of the moon.
Finally, we have reached the base camp to the summit, the final step before we reach the highest point of the world’s most mysterious continent. The air around us is tinny. Breathing, while thank God not difficult, is definitely a strain from our sea level home in New Jersey. We have, thankfully, thus far avoided altitude sickness due to the expert guidance of Onest Mtuy our head guide, and the deliberate but slow pace of James Utanga, our assistant guide. I have had some mild headaches, but they have disappeared once I gulped some water. Still, one of the telltale signs of altitude sickness is disorientation and hallucinations, and it is therefore for you the reader to decide the extent of my exposure from the rationality of this prose.
“Earlier today, my guides thought I had lost it completely when I demonstrated signs of a Napoleon complex until my wife assured them that I had suffered from it all my life.”
We are fortunate to be with the world leader in Kilimanjaro climbs, Thomson Safaris, whose mastery of logistical detail is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their detailed accommodation of our Kosher requirements – using only brand new utensils and granting us supervision over an all vegan diet – was the icing on the cake.
It takes a team of twelve to fifteen to bring you up the mountain. At first, as a white Westerner, you experience a sense of guilt. This little army just for us? We are not that important. But then you start hiking and you hear the stories of the porters, all of whom are strong, friendly, with fascinating personal tales of the tribes whence they stem. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, the porters rely on a salary that is considerably more to feed their families. Most are married with children. The Kilimanjaro climbs, they tell me, are an absolute essential part of the regions economy, employing, ultimately, tens of thousands of people.
It’s now approaching the time for us to suit up and get ready for temperatures at the top of the mountain that hover, on average, at ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit. If you are reading this column, you are bearing witness to two miracles. The first is the miracle of technology that actually allowed me to dictate this column from more than 15,000 feet. The second is the glorious miracle from God that I am still alive to tell the tale.
Pray for me that in about seven hours, when we arrive at midnight, I will make it to the top, at which time I will attempt to take off three or four layers of clothing and put on my talis (prayer shall) and tefillin (scriptures in leather boxes donned for prayer) to offer thanks to God from one of the highest points in the world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the International best-selling author of 29 books and an award-winning columnist. The Founder and Executive Director of This World: The Values Network, an organization devoted to promoting universal Jewish values globally. He will shortly publish his newest book, “Kosher Lust”. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Thomson Safaris can be found at www.ThomsonSafaris.com.
August 7, 2013 | 9:22 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Rwanda might not be everyone’s idea of a family trip, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world and, after visiting last year to highlight the 1994 genocide and promote anti-genocide legislation during my run for Congress, I wanted my children and some notable Jewish personalities to experience it with me. Much has happened in that year, including Rwanda occupying the Africa seat on the United Nations Security Council and announcing that they will be opening an embassy in Israel imminently. I now try and come every year to Rwanda, especially in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and this year the billionaire Jewish philanthropists, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, made the trip possible to promote the brotherhood of the Jewish and Rwandan people, both of whom have been subjected to unspeakable horrors but are committed to healing and hope.
The visit was sufficiently important to me that I came with my family despite the State Department shutting down the American Embassy in Kigali – along with 20 others around the world – due to security alerts.
Why am I here? Because no country on earth today reminds us moderns of the responsibility of man to his fellow man and no country has bounced back from a genocide with such determination, forgiveness, and resilience. And I wanted my kids – as I visited more of the atrocity sites and met with government officials – to experience the country with me.
In the Jewish community the word survivor evokes men and women in their eighties whose families were wiped out by the Germans. In Rwanda, those same survivors are in their twenties and thirties, like our guide today, Gaspard, whose ten siblings were macheted to death and his father shot before his very eyes when he was a boy of nine.
The first thing you notice as you drive through the streets of Kigali, the capitol, from the airport, is the cleanliness. It is no exaggeration to say that Rwanda is probably the cleanest country on earth and any visitor would notice the same. At the airport you have to throw away any plastic bags you’ve brought. What’s referred to as the ‘flower of Africa’ are not allowed into the country. I actually took a picture of a cup strewn on the side of a highway because I had rarely seen even one litter Kigali before.
Next, the rolling curves of a landscape known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ immediately makes its mark. The closest thing we Americans have similar to Rwanda’s topography is West Virginia, and Rwanda has an excellent road system that takes you up and down the hills to where you need to go.
The gentility of the people is evident everywhere. English is abundant and it’s spoken with a softness and delicacy that makes it pleasant to hear.
The country is as green as anything I have ever seen in Africa and agriculture surrounds you from every stop. Women and men are heaving hoes, planting and harvesting wherever you look. It’s an incredible site.
But it’s tragic history is ever-present. Memorials are strewn throughout the country as well as mass graves housing the nearly one million who were hacked to death in a racial genocide of Hutu on Tutsi that was the fastest in the history of the world, claiming the lives of 300 people every hour for the three months of April to June 1994.
The last time I was here I visited a Church outside the capitol where, not being ready for the gruesome skeletal remains of five thousand innocent people who were butchered, I gagged, threw up, and could not breathe.
Today it was much worse. We traveled south for two hours to the Murambe Genocide Memorial where on April 21st, 1994, more than fifty thousand people were shot, bludgeoned, and hacked to death in the middle of the night in just a matter of hours. One thousand of their lime-covered bodies are displayed on wooden tables in a scene so macabre that it constitutes the single most disturbing site I have ever witnessed in my life. Rwanda, like the Jewish people before them, faces a cottage industry of genocide deniers and they are intent on displaying the full gore of the tragedy so that it can never be denied. While we Jews contend with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who deny the holocaust so as delegitimize Israel and its security needs, the Rwandans face a similar onslaught by those seeking to cripple its government.
There was an incongruence in the air as our older children, who joined us in the memorial, gasped for breath as they saw the bodies while a few hundred yards away our young children played in a park, laughing and frolicking. The surrounding hills were as silent and serene as the dead, and I was reminded of the quiet and stillness of Auschwitz where all is mute as you walk through the gas chamber ruins.
I first became interested in visiting Rwanda through Michael Jackson’s children’s nanny, a woman named Grace, who would return every summer to her native country to see her family. I finally made the decision to visit after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, met General Charles Kayonga, Rwanda’s chief of staff, who invited me. I have since become a firm admirer of this stalwart people and especially its president, Paul Kagame, who ended the genocide in 1994. That Kagame could bring the world’s most failed state back to a position of progress and prosperity less than two decades after the fastest genocide in world history is a miracle. That he is a staunch friend and admirer of the Jewish people and the State of Israel is of great consequence, especially on the African continent.
Kagame himself faces significant criticism today over allegations of foreign involvement in Eastern Congo and for not allowing sufficient democratic freedoms in his country. Experts greater than me are currently debating the veracity of such claims. Some believe the allegations have merit while others are more understanding of a leader who has sworn to protect his people from genocidal forces – the children and ideological heirs of the original Hutu butchers – that still amass on his border. But one cannot help but admire a man who witnessed his people being exterminated while the world watched in silence, rustled up his troops to stop the killing, conquered the entire country with great alacrity, and when he took power did not retaliate against the Hutu majority who had turned Rwanda into an ocean of blood.
Others might even argue that Rwanda has been too forgiving of some of the killers. While driving through the countryside I inquired as to the identity of the many middle-aged men in orange jumpsuits who were working the fields. I was told they were inmates in prisons. “What is their crime,” I asked our guide. “Genocide,” he said. “These are the men who did the killing. Their punishment is to work the fields and grow produce.”
Grow produce. A punishment somewhat different to what was meted out at Nuremberg.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. He has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow his live Twitter feed of his visit to Rwanda @RabbiShmuley.
July 29, 2013 | 11:51 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I’m sitting on the plane to Israel with Dr. Mehmet Oz, his wife Lisa, his kids, my wife Debbie, and three of our nine children. It’s Mehmet’s first ever visit to the Jewish State and we’ve been talking for almost 8 hours straight. We’ve discussed the Middle East, Israel, Turkey, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, evolution, sexuality, jealousy, and especially my new book on lust, Kosher Lust. I decide to interview him.
Shmuley Boteach: Are you excited about your first visit to the Holy Land?
Mehmet Oz: I love exploring places I’ve never been before, but this takes it to a whole new level, the honor of visiting the holy land. It’s difficult to understand the challenges and opportunities we face in the world without understanding the Middle East. I’ve been to the surrounding countries, including my parents’ homeland of Turkey, and Jordan, Egypt, and Cyprus. But it’s fun to come to the very center of it all.
SB: And what’s the essential reason, aside from my driving you crazy about it for years, that you’re coming to visit Israel?
MO: My family and I are visiting Israel, the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, in an effort to better understand the source of the universal Jewish values that have so positively impacted on the world and the place from which they stem.
SB: Given that Israel is a controversial country, and you are a mainstream American TV host with a worldwide audience, were you concerned about being pulled into political controversy?
MO: As a healer I would love to contribute whatever I can to ease suffering of those caught in the current conflicts. So I don’t mind the risks entailed in this trip. Nevertheless, my primary purpose is to examine our shared values which holds huge potential to helping people make sense of what is going on in the Middle East.
SB: When you say ‘our’ shared values, whom do you mean?
MO: Jews, Muslims, Christians, all of us. The values that all of us pray will be held by our children as they build a better future.
SB: You are arguably, given the global reach of your TV show, the world’s most famous non head-of-State Muslim personality. What does that mean for you in terms of your close friendship with the Jewish community and your first visit to the Jewish state?
MO: My close bond to my Jewish friends offers a huge opportunity to tell the story of how we can all thrive through the wisdom of others. My father, who is a surgeon, was trained by the top Jewish physicians in the world who had fled Europe during the Second World War. They passed their wisdom to him and he shared this knowledge to later generations of surgeons of every belief, including myself. Those of us blessed to be part of a heritage this rich have an obligation to serve as the ballast of the ship of society which is currently traveling into troubled waters.
SB: Speaking of ships in troubled waters, you are also one of the Turkey’s most famous celebrities even though you are an American who lives in New Jersey. Can you address some of the recent tensions between two peoples who have heretofore been close strategic allies?
MO: The symmetry of Israelis and Turks dwarfs any differences. I speak for many in Turkey who treasure our long friendship with Israel and remain optimistic that there is a path for reconciliation based on our shared values.
SB: What similarities, if any, do you see between Judaism and Islam?
MO: Very similar traditions, theologies, and rituals. Of all our shared values, the most important to me, as a healer, is that “If you don’t nurture yourself, you cannot share your health with others.” We need to love ourselves so we can love our fellow human beings.
SB: What are your thoughts on the Arab-Israeli conflict?
MO: I often think we’re arguing about crumbs rather than focusing on building the bigger pie. There’s so much opportunity that I see throughout my travels in the Middle East and the biggest resource by far are the people. Not the oil, or the land, but the people.
SB: You recently met Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson when you were all honored by our organization This World: The Values Network, for promoting universal Jewish values. After I interviewed you and Lisa on stage and you said you had not visited Israel, they immediately offered to make the trip possible. What is your impression of them?
MO: I appreciate their passion in getting friends of the Jewish people to visit Israel, myself included. I am incredibly impressed by their intellect, generosity, and wisdom. I spoke to Dr. Adelson at length about her vision for changing how we help troubled youth around the world. She wants to invest in kids because they are our future and always will be. I look forward to visiting her addiction clinic in Tel Aviv where she helps people who have fallen prey to addictive behavior as they try and cope with the challenges of life. I applaud Mr. Adelson for being wise enough to marry such a wise woman and brilliant physician. And by the way, Sheldon’s not so bad himself.
SB: Why have you and I spent most of the plane trip talking about my upcoming book on lust?
MO: As I watched your wife Debbie fall asleep as she read the final draft of your newest book, I could not help myself but to ask why you, Shmuley, think that love is the death of marriage, and has to be replaced by lust? I’m intrigued to learn about how so many of us have lost the true sense of eroticism in healthy, sustained, monogamous relationships. And I speak as someone with 28 years of a track record in that area.
SB: Debbie still hasn’t awoken from the book-induced coma. She follows your advice that it’s best to use natural remedies for sleep. But if you want to find out more about the book, Mehmet, you’re going to have to buy it. It’s not included in the price of the flight.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, “America’s Doctor,” and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” will be appearing live Monday night, 28 July, at the Jerusalem Press Club, alongside humanitarian Natan Sharasnky, to discuss the values needed for a Middle East renaissance. “Kosher Lust” is published in November. Follow Rabbi Shmuley on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
May 14, 2013 | 9:44 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Has Stephen Hawking really left the company of Albert Einstein, an avowed Zionist who worked to create the State of Israel, and replaced him with the august company of Elvis Costello and other Israel boycotters?
I hosted Hawking for a lecture at Oxford in 1998 where I introduced him to 1000 Oxford students. He could not have been more humble and approachable. Aside from his lecture, delivered through his voice synthesizer, on string theory – little of which I understood but which my students assured me was ‘brilliant’ – I remember his love of babies and practical jokes. Our daughter Rochel Leah had just been born and Hawking and his wife asked us if he could hold her. I can still picture in my mind how his wife took the baby, placed her on his lap, and then wrapped his enfeebled arms around the baby, which he stared at with a huge grin for minutes. He was enraptured.
After the lecture was over and as we walked Hawking to his car, he suddenly raced off in his wheelchair to Haagen-Dazs where we consumed in ice cream. His wife chuckled that he loved giving his hosts the slip as he indulged his childlike spirit.
All who heard and met him were deeply impressed with his humility and accessibility.
And now this, digging a knife publicly into Israel’s back.
Why would one of the world’s leading academic minds condemn the only democracy in the Middle East? Why would he attack a country, situated in a region of such deep misogyny, that celebrates women succeeding in every area of academic, professional, and political life? Why would Hawking pounce on a nation who, with neighbors like Hamas that routinely murder gays on false accusations of collaboration, grants homosexuals every equal right? And why would he condemn a country whose Arab citizens are the freest and least afraid in the entire Middle East?
Could it be because Israel has still not settled the status of the West Bank?
But if that is the case, surely Hawking knows that Israel has seen thousands of its citizens slaughtered in gruesome terror attacks ever since it granted autonomy to the Palestinian authority to control 97% of the Palestinian population?
Could it be because Israel has yet to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state?
But then Hawking is a highly educated man and he knows that after Israel withdrew fully from Gaza – dismantling its communities and forcibly removing its settlers – that it lead to tens of thousands of rockets being fired at Israeli hospitals and schools. And besides, Israel has practically begged the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table without any pre-conditions to discuss just that, the creation of a two-state solution, but the Palestinians have refused.
Perhaps its because Hawking believes the demonstrably false lie that Israel is an apartheid state. But then a scientist like Hawking would check facts before he would embrace such fraudulence and could easily discover that Arabs serve in the Israel Knesset – where they freely and regularly disagree with Israel – as well as the Israeli Supreme Court, the civil service, and every other area of Israeli life.
No, one must conclude that for all his academic brilliance Hawking might just be lacking in simple common sense.
In his statement embracing the boycott of the Jewish state, Hawking said, “I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this I must withdraw from the conference.”
One would think that Hawking’s response to these academics might be a call to, say, Hamas to start using the billions channeled to the Palestinians as the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid into building universities rather than buying bombs, or educating women rather than tacitly allowing the honor killings of young Palestinian women whose only crime is to have a boyfriend. No, Hawking decided instead to condemn the country whose scholars have won ten Nobel prizes, from a population of six million, while the entire Arab world, numbering in the hundreds of millions, have won two, outside the peace prize (another four).
Clearly, a knowledge of physics is no guarantor of a knowledge of foreign affairs.
Since Hawking is so often called the Einstein of his generation, it is worth reminding him that Einstein was a committed Zionist who traveled around the United States with Chain Weizmann to raise money for the creation of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an institution that Hawking now refuses to even visit. In a 1921 letter to his friend Friedrich Zangger, Einstein wrote, “On Saturday I'm off to America - not to speak at universities (though there will probably be that, too, on the side) but rather to help in the founding of the Jewish University in Jerusalem. I feel an intense need to do something for this cause.”
Separately, in a letter to Maurice Solovine Einstein wrote, “I am not at all eager to go to America but am doing it only in the interests of the Zionists, who must beg for dollars to build educational institutions in Jerusalem and for whom I act as high priest and decoy... I do what I can to help those in my tribe who are treated so badly everywhere.”
And when in 1948 President Harry Truman recognized the new Jewish State of Israel, Einstein declared it "the fulfillment of our dream.”
How unfortunate that a man as visionary as Stephen Hawking can peer so deeply into the Universe but it is so myopic as to fail to see the righteousness of Israel’s cause even as it stares him right in the face.
Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ served as Rabbi to the students of Oxford University for 11 years where he created the Oxford L’Chaim Society,which hosted world leaders lecturing on values-based leadership. He has just published The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.