In Praise of Longevity

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In my sport of choice, boxing, longevity is measured in very small numbers. Most fighters have careers that last only a few years. Some are successful for only a few months, and for virtually all except a select group, their career is completely over when they reach their mid-twenties. In addition, if one can manage to retire in good health, with minimal effects of repeated blows, and financially secure, it is a small miracle and one that few in this difficult sport ever achieve.

While the rabbinate is hardly akin to the fast-paced and physically brutal sport of boxing, it is undeniably taxing physically, mentally and spiritually, and its effects take a toll on the rabbi (and too often the rabbi’s family). Which is why I was so moved last week  when we gathered for the annual Hebrew Union College breakfast at the CCAR Convention.

For those that have not yet attended this event, the highlight of the HUC breakfast is the “roll-call” of classes, beginning with the most recently ordained.  To watch the progression of classes from those ordained in recent years, progressing back through the decades is both joyful and celebratory. But as we approach the moment to recognize colleagues ordained for forty and fifty and even fifty plus years, joy and celebration turns to awe and admiration.

As I have made my way through the congregational rabbinate, I have learned along the way that longevity in this profession is a combination of careful planning, deliberate self-care, wise choices, strong familial support, and yes, plain damn luck.   Rather than fearing and dreading the end of our active rabbinate and retirement, we should embrace retirement as a necessary and vital stage in a rabbinic career, as much a part of the life arc of a rabbi as ordination and pulpit or organizational transitions. To know colleagues who have entered retirement whole in spirit, mind, body, and economic security is to know role models worthy of emulation, admiration, and inspiration. Sadly I have known too many colleagues who retire broken in spirit, continually bitter in mind and emotion, damaged in physical health, and even struggling financially. My heart aches in pain at every story of such a colleague. To bear witness this Tuesday morning to those rabbis who have achieved the end of their full time rabbinate healthy in mind, unbroken in spirit and hope, and even with myriad physical ailments greeting each new day with strength and determination is a joy and a privilege.  It is a testament to the ability of each one of us, given enough wisdom, guidance, support and some plain old luck, to make it there as well.   To my older colleagues, graduates of rabbinic classes of decades earlier who have achieved so much and have embraced their retirement with the same skill and wisdom that they served the Jewish people, you are all “champions” in my book.

He always makes money for his partners

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I read today that my former governor, John Rowland of Connecticut, is going to prison for a second time.  Once again, he has been caught enriching himself at the public trough, violating the rules of his probation.  So this leads me to a question-Rowland goes to jail, the ex-governor of Virginia goes to jail, but the governor of New Jersey, despite mounting evidence of questionable behavior, time and again avoids any significant inquiry.  The answer is that Governor Christie follows carefully the dictum articulated by Johnny Ola when describing Jewish mobster Hyman Roth in Godfather Part II:  “He always makes money for his partners”.  Gov Christie is exceedingly careful to make sure that his friends and others of influence enrich themselves by his schemes as much or even more than he enriches himself.  The money never flows only to him and his family, as it did in Connecticut and Virginia.   As a result, the powerful and influential in New Jersey protect him, and the law will never touch him.   Our state is sinking in a morass of collapsing infrastructure, corruption, disappearing public transportation, crushing poverty and economic burdens, and gaping inequality, but one must have a certain admiration for a man who knows how to make money for his partners.

The Boxing Rabbi Takes a Punch

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It may dismay readers of this blog to know that the Boxing Rabbi occasionally gets hit, and hard.  There is an adage in boxing that “the punch that puts you down is the one you don’t see” and I have found that to be true.  The few times that I have been hurt while sparring it was from a punch that I never saw coming.

I was one of the few who publicly said that I considered Mr Netanyahu’s effort to undermine Mr Obama’s foreign policy by speaking to Congress bad form, not done, “past nisht” as they say in Yiddish, even maybe harmful to the American-Israel partnership.    I said this even though in many ways I consider Israel to be my true “home”, and the defense of Israel the most important community project of the Jewish people in our time.    I say this even though my wife comes from a prominent Zionist family, founders of the State.  What I never saw coming was the advance reframing of the speech by Mr Netanyahu’s people, working alongside American counterparts.  In this reframing, it is 1938, Obama is Neville Chamberlain, and Netanyahu is Churchill.   Everywhere I went yesterday, and in almost every essay I read, people spoke of Mr Netanyahu as Churchill reborn, and expressed deep admiration for his courage and plain spoken willingness to defend the Jewish people from all harm.  From that perspective, Mr Netanyahu’s speech was a stunning success.  Those Jews who opposed the speech, were at best naive and foolish, at worst; well, one of my friends who opposed the speech was labeled a member of the “Judenrat”-Jews who collaborated with Nazis.

So be it.  I’ve taken worse punches, and always managed to get up again, sometimes with a really bad headache.   But before the American political class seeks to turn Congress into the Knesset, remember that the Knesset is a messy place, often filled with shouting, name-calling, and  occasional fisticuffs.  Just the other day an Arab member of the Knesset, a woman, was assaulted by a supporter of a right wing political party, just for showing up to a panel discussion.  Israeli politics is even more complicated than American politics, and that is saying a lot.   In lionizing Mr Netanyahu and in embracing his view as the true path we are taking an enormous chance-choosing, as it were, to follow the lead of an Israeli political party leader facing a close re-election at home.  I pray, I truly and sincerely pray, for the sake of Israel and for the sake of the Jewish people, that it is the right choice.

Yes, Governor, You can Keep the Menorah

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There is an old Jewish joke about the Lower East Side petty thief Jacob Katz, who in 1911 was accused of stealing a valuable menorah, the candelabra used by Jews to celebrate Hannukah.  Fortunately for Mr Katz, he had a cousin who was a skilled attorney, and during the trial, his cousin was able to demonstrate that despite the testimony of several eye-witnesses, Mr Katz could not have possibly been the thief, because he was in Coney Island that day.

As the Judge moved to dismiss the charges, he asked Mr Katz if he had anything to say.

“Yes your honor”, said the trembling Mr Katz, “Does this mean I get to keep the menorah?”

News is breaking of another explosive scandal in the Christie Administration.  For ten years, Exxon-Mobil has been in litigation with the State of New Jersey regarding their poisoning of the land and environment in Union and Hudson counties.  A judge was about to make a final ruling, and it was assumed that Exxon would be fined approximately 8 billion dollars to effect a clean-up of the ruined land.  Dramatically, the Christie Administration announced this week that they had reached a settlement with Exxon, for reportedly 250 million dollars, (about half of what Exxon contributed not long ago to the Republican Governors’ Association when Christie was its head).  In our corrupted state of NJ,  I am beyond believing that justice will be served, nor will there be any repercussions for our Governor.  Yes, Mr Christie, you can keep the menorah.

Well Done, Media! But Why Stop Now?

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Well done, media-you brought the career of Brian Williams to a screeching halt.  He lied about an incident that occurred during a stint in Iraq, and you, intrepid media, ferreted out the truth.  You carefully examined his statements over the years, noting inconsistencies, and you even found the servicemen who were aboard those helicopters!  Wow!  Of course, you gave this wall-to-wall-coverage over several days, updating us every few minutes with the latest breathless developments.  Thanks to your diligent search for the truth, this newscaster is now off the air.  Kol Hakavod, as we Jews say!

But why stop now?  After all, Williams lied, but nobody died or was injured as a result of his lying.  There are quite literally dozens of women and men who lied about Iraq, and their lies led to the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of Americans, not to mention Iraqis.  Why not continue your diligent reporting and unearth the evidence against them?

No?  Let me make it easy.  They are in plain sight.  Dick Cheney is even in New Jersey this week, attending a fundraiser-maybe you can talk to him-I’ll let you know what exit on the Turnpike.  If you are nervous cause Cheney is kind of a tough guy, I’ll even walk in with you.  George Bush sits at home, painting.  Condi Rice and John Yoo are prominent academics.  They probably have office hours.  Colin Powell is on the lecture circuit.  Donald Rumsfeld is living in one of his many luxury homes.  All you gotta do is make that appointment and ask a couple of questions, and maybe do a few interviews.

Still no?  Oh well, back to intensive coverage of Madonna’s outfit at the Grammys.

King Abdullah, the Jane Addams of Saudi Arabia

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By now, you have read and heard the the official American media “take” on the late King Abdullah was that he was a “moderate reformer” who sought to “open up” the Saudi Kingdom to Western values and practices.  Kind of like the famed Chicago Reformer Jane Addams he sought to improve the social conditions of his people  but alas, circumstances did not give this benevolent monarch the necessary time to fully develop his progressive views.

King Abdullah was a vicious despot who brutalized, murdered, and imprisoned all who dissented from his absolute rule.   Like the rest of the “House of Saud” he appropriated  the wealth of the nation for himself and his extended family while treating the non-Saudi population in his country like dogs.  Women were (and are) second class citizens and non-Saudi women who have the misfortune to live in that nation are treated even worse.

The New York Times published today the famous photo of Abdullah walking hand in hand with Bush, while “Prince” Bandar speaks to Condi Rice.  Anyone who knows anything about the real Saudia Arabia knows that in that country, a woman of African descent who dared to speak to a Saudi Prince would be in danger of having her tongue removed.

The Saudis were, and continue to be financial backers of terror all around the world.  They do this for the same reason that candy store owners pay the Mob-to keep the vandals away from them.  One day, historians will wonder why, when the majority of 9\11 attackers were Saudi, we attacked the enemy of the Saudis, the Iraqis.  To this day, if you recall, the report that discusses the Saudi role in 9\11 is classified.  Saudi members of the “Royal” family were allowed to fly home after 9\11, while all Americans were grounded.

If I sound bitter, it is because I am.  The failure of the media and of others to explore the reality of the Saudi family, their support of terror and brutality, and their complex ties with the highest levels of the political elite in our country  is a true moral failing.    I will not miss “King” Abdullah, neither him, nor his noxious, repressive reign.