Tag Archives: Matthew Eisenfeld

#TaylorForce died too young, but his spirit will live

21 Mar

The murder of Taylor Force‬ in Israel earlier this month reminded me of the murder of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker 20 years ago. Here’s a reflection in HuffPost.

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When the plumbers stop society’s moral leaks

7 Feb
Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

There’s an old joke about a plumber who was called to a doctor’s home to fix leaking faucet that had kept the surgeon awake late at night. After a two-minute job the plumber demanded $150. The surgeon exclaimed, ‘I don’t charge this amount even though I am a surgeon.” The plumber replied, “I agree, you are right. I too, didn’t either, when I was a surgeon. That’s why I switched to plumbing!”

We can joke about how sometimes we’re at the mercy of a plumber when something goes wrong in our house. However, think about how indispensable they are. Their technical know-how helps preserve the hygiene of entire communities. This week I developed a new appreciation of plumbers. In fact, a lot of them have become my heroes.

I’m sure many of us have been shocked and appalled by the environmental disaster in Flint, MI, Government officials at all levels, but particularly at the state level forced Flint to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to a local river that was full of toxic pollutants, including lead. Thousands of children are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning from which they will never recover. Flint is a depressed working-class town consisting mostly of minority populations. I can’t help but wonder if Flint were an affluent mostly white community. It’s doubtful they would have been forced to switch to an inferior water supply to begin with, but if it were, there’s no way it would be systematically ignored and even mocked by public officials. I hope that there a criminal investigation and that high-ranking government officials go to jail over the poisoning of Flint.

To a large extent, the damage has been done. However, in the midst of this man-made disaster there is also a glimmer of hope. According to a report last week, 300 plumbers from unions across the country descended on Flint to install new faucets and water filters for free.

Many Flint residents needed new faucets because their existing faucets were so old they could not accommodate water filters provided by the state.

The effort was coordinated by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, known as the United Association. The fixtures were donated by the Plumbing Manufacturers International.

For some in Flint, however, even new faucets with modern water filters won’t be enough to fully abate the lead contamination. New tests released recently revealed that, in some Flint homes, the levels of lead “exceed the ability of filtration systems handed.” The filters can safely remove up to 150 parts per billion of lead. Some Flint homes were found to have lead levels of more than 4,000 parts per billion. Residents of Flint, however, are still encouraged to use the filters. For most homes, they will work.

The plumbers saw the basic humanity in the people of Flint when officials in power refused to do so. Their example is precisely the approach that our Torah portion calls upon us to take. The text in Parashat Mishpatim reads:  כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן “You shall not harm any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat one, and if he cries out to me, then I will surely hear his cry. And My anger will blaze forth, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children will be orphans” (22: 21-23). God is certainly talking tough here with the measure for measure message. Looking at the big picture, God is described as the defender of widows and orphans, which is a euphemism for the most downtrodden members of society.

My late friend Matthew Eisenfeld studied this passage in depth for a research paper “God As Defender of Widows and Orphans” that he presented to Prof. Moshe Greenberg (1928-2010) shortly before Matt’s untimely

death twenty years ago. (This essay is excerpted from a collection that I recently published: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.) As Matt notes various commentators point out that note that the verse (22: 21) employs three grammatical peculiarities that serve as strengthening devices, including the word kol, the precedence of subject to verb and the final nun of the word te`anun. The first word of the verse, kol, seems superfluous, as the law could have been taught without its usage. It’s there for emphasis. The subject-verb order also is a point of emphasis. The nun at the end of te’anun is a poetic flourish. From a literary point of view the text instructs us: make no mistake—it’s God’s way to protect the weak and vulnerable.

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, where societal justice is concerned, God is at stake. In Heschel’s words, “People act as they please, doing what they will, abusing the weak, not realizing that they are fighting God, affronting the divine, or that oppression of man is a humiliation of God.” On the other hand, a society that functions well reinforces faith in God. Furthermore, God takes special interest in the weak not only because they are the measure of whether or not the justice system really works but because their welfare reflects God’s own power and effectiveness.

Our Torah portion anticipates the statements of the Rabbis in the Midrash and Talmud: Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too should be gracious and compassionate (Difre Deut. Ekev); As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. As God visits the sick, you should visit the sick. As God comforts the bereaved, you should comfort the bereaved. (Sotah 14a).

If our society today thinks it’s ok to pump toxic water into poor cities, then we have a serious leak of the most basic values of decency. Thank God for the plumbers who remind us not only how to fix pipes but also how to stop up the leak of values. The plumbers in Flint got the message that God expects us to defend widows and orphans and other vulnerable members of society. Wouldn’t it be wise of us to follow their lead?

Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

24 Jul
Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

As Tisha B’Av approaches, my late friends, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, will be very much on my minds. Twenty years ago this fall, Matt and I began our second year of JTS Rabbinical School at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Sara came to Israel for the year to work in a biology lab at Hebrew University and to be near Matt as their loving courtship was continuing to blossom. They died on February 25, 1996, in a brutal suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. Matt and Sara’s lives, their tragic death and their family’s quest for justice are profiled with great care in Mike Kelly’s acclaimed book, The Bus on Jaffa Road. In 1997, one year after their death, the Jewish Theological Seminary dedicated a Beit Midrash in Matt and Sara’s memory. In conjunction with that ceremony, I compiled a scrapbook of many of Matt and Sara’s writings that their parents shared with me. The selections include handwritten journal entries, essays, sermons and scholarly papers, in which they each express passion for Jewish life and Israel. Since 1997, the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash Memorial Volume has been on display and available for perusal at the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

As the twentieth anniversary of Matt and Sara’s death approaches, I’ve undertaken to transcribe, edit and publish the Memorial Volume so that the general public may read Matt and Sara’s writings and experience the depth of their souls. They might not be with us physically, but their spirit lives on. This collection is scheduled to be published in early 2016 under the title: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

 

Tisha B’Av is a time when the Jewish community reflects on Israel’s physical and spiritual security. Like so many times previously, both seem precarious now. And yet, we continue to persevere with great hope that the future will be better. Matt and Sara each recognized the challenges faced by Israel and the Jewish people, both external threats and threats from within resulting from Jewish infighting. From their collected writings, here are two selections that seem appropriate for this season of reflection on the state of our people. May Matt and Sara’s memories be for a blessing, and may their enduring spirit inspire us all to create the better, more peaceful world that they sought.

 

Israel and Our Ongoing Spiritual Revolution, by Sara Duker
Winner, Israel Aliyah Center Essay Contest, 1995

“Israel put the kippah back on our heads,” declared our Ramah director during the summer of 1991, in an effort to demonstrate the impact the founding of the Jewish State had upon young American Jews of his generation. Jews, once reluctant to acknowledge their Jewish identity began to come out of the woodwork in response to astonishing underdog military victories, pressing national needs and the realization of two-thousand-year-old hopes. Today, on Jewishly active college campuses, similar ideals are invoked in order to bolster Zionist pride and activism. Zionism is considered one among many outlets for Jewish expression, a source of national and cultural heritage, including among those who do not consider themselves ritually religious. However, changes in the State–both the development expected of a modern country and problems unique to Israel and its society–have uncovered an erosion of Jews’ automatic support for Israel and our ability to use Zionism as a quick ticket to Jewish pride. Thirty years ago, [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel foresaw the potential crisis in Jewish national building and personal identity in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, in which he emphasizes the need for continued Jewish vision, “realizing that,” even in 1995, with advanced technology, a booming economy and prospects for peace, “the economic, political, and spiritual development is still in a stage of beginning.”

Is Israel unique? Does it set an international standard of care for its citizens and hold a moral banner even higher than most democracies? Are those Jews who founded and live in the State stronger and more Jewish? The answers seem easy to a Jewishly active college student, until she is confronted with “ISRAEL: THE HIJACK STATE” emblazoned on a pamphlet being distributed in the student center by a socialist group. A young man with great visions of social justice claims that Israel is nothing more than a capitalist, imperialist arm of the most corrupt elements of the western world. It has greedily expropriated the land of the natives, and continues to exploit the laboring class, he says. Other students find their assumptions about the sacredness of their nation challenged by mainstream political correctness–the best liberals have taken up the cause of Palestinian rights, and Zionism is dismissed as a glorified racism. Even students who tend to be removed from the campus political arena (with the hyperbole it often engenders), can’t help but be aware of the newspapers, which tell us that Israel is far from perfect. Political parties experience corruption there, too. Extremism characterizes political debate, with deep [divisions] between the religious and secular Jews. And, no matter what our national and religious beliefs are regarding the West Bank and Gaza, there are few Jews who do not experience at least some discomfort with Israeli politics toward the Palestinian Arabs. The temptation arises to distance oneself from such a contentious state–to deny one’s Jewish connections (or apologize for them), or to claim an American Jewish ideology separate from Israeli dilemmas. It often seems tempting for us Americans to pursue Judaism as we think best, and to leave difficult ideological decisions of defending the Jewish State to Israelis.

How are our Israeli peers faring? A young Israeli man in New York, recently released from his three-year tour of duty in the [Israeli] army, used to tell anyone who asked him that he did not believe in God. He believed in his people and the horrors that have happened to them. He went to the army, he said, so that a Holocaust, which decimated his parents’ generation, would not do the same to his.  An American olah [immigrant to Israel], a tour guide in Yad Vashem, related incidents during her presentation of the required tour to Israeli soldiers being inducted to the army. She says that she hears frequent grumbles from her mostly secular groups when they are addressed with the Holocaust. “This doesn’t affect us,” they say. “When are we going to get over it and move on?” If this group–at the forefront of Israel’s material progress and  already uninterested in the religious nature of its country–finds that even national tragedies are losing their power to motivate and unify, what then will inspire the next generation of Israeli Jews to continue to fulfill the heavy demands of their people?

Until now, we have taken for granted that Israel would “put the kippah on our heads,” that Israel would do much of the work of shaping Jewish identity. As Israel continually struggles with its own identity, it is important to be reminded of the essence of Heschel’s statement: “The State of Israel is a spiritual revolution, not a one-time event, but an ongoing revolution.” The key ideas are “spiritual” and “ongoing.” A spiritual revolution goes beyond the national security and material support Israel was built to provide to Jews, to look at a larger raison d’être. We pour forth catch phrases about history, martyrdom, God’s land and community, but how often do we think carefully about what each of these really means? Why is Jewish community so important in our time? Is our history unique? Do we believe that we are God’s chosen people and Israel is a chosen land? What implications does this have for our behavior–not just on a large political scale, but for the everyday life of a Jew? How does this inform our treatment of one another? If we do not believe in God as a presence in Jewish history, then what other ideologies do we have to guide us? What is the role of Diaspora Jewry? What can we contribute beyond our yearly checks to UJA? This is not to suggest that we can automatically provide deep and meaningful answers. Each reconsideration of old questions constitutes a revolution, by recreating and renewing our visions of Israel.

This process, of course, must be ongoing. We face a startling sense of inadequacy when our notions, unchallenged, become irrelevant in the face of new situations. The effort of building a physical home and the cooperation it required was a communal, spiritual process for the pioneers, but we lacking that same urgent sense of need, soon find that the tangible construction is not enough to answer the spiritual questions of this generation. We have not come into full national self-awareness. And, as with any other process of development, disuse of spiritual sense causes it to erode. In the end, Israel will not guarantee our Judaism until we give the labor of our hands as well as our hearts and minds to guaranteeing Israel’s Judaism.

 

Reflections on the Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by Matthew Eisenfeld in His Journal.
[Monday, November 6, 1995]

The night before last, יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin] was killed by a Jewish assassin who believed himself to be serving the Jewish people. Rabin had been a general who had fought in Israel’s wars and died as a man who worked tirelessly for peace. His accomplishments among others are a peace treaty with Jordan and a formation of an autonomous Palestinian state in which Yasser Arafat, a former enemy, became an ally. I admired Yitzhak Rabin and had confidence in the Israeli government because of him. I feel like the country is in disarray at this point because nobody can really fill his shoes.
What sickens me even more is that a lot of Israelis don’t seem to understand the significance of what has happened. People say things like, “another victim in the peace process. It hurts that we’ve lost a Jew to a Jew, but really is he any more significant than any other terror victim? One shouldn’t mourn too much.”
Or worse: “Rabin should not be allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery because he was a traitor.” They just don’t understand–the Prime Minister has been killed. Will this country ever be the same again?
In the בית מדרש [Beit Midrash] yesterday, the school tried to conduct classes as usual, but we students voted otherwise with our feet. We said תהילים [Tehillim/Psalms], sang dirges, cried and listened to a הספד [Hesped, eulogy]. I am subdued, sleepy and feel lousy. My nose keeps running and I’ve got a canker sore at the place where my tongue connects to the bottom of my mouth. I’m bothered by cigarette smoke and the fumes from the candles which are lit in the crowds that gather to walk quietly and cry. Today I will try to walk in the לוויה [levayah/funeral procession] and watch the funeral speakers on TV. I want to hear the nations of the world speak and pay tribute to יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin]. I want Israelis to understand whom they’ve lost.

יצחק רבין יהי זכרו ברוך
[Yitzhak Rabin, yehi zikhro varukh, may his memory be for a blessing.]