The Challenge to Preserve and Protect

Some years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the Summit Daily News to report severe and saddening damage to a mountain’s grassy terrain that my wife and I had come upon, the result of some selfish and uncaring ATVers whose vehicles had left a scar across the face of that terrain that wouldn’t heal for many years to come.  This kind of wanton destruction, the taggings and the blatant disregard for the natural formations and beauty that comprise our national parks threatens the future of these resources for us all.

Given the cut backs in personnel and resources, there is no way that the National Park Service personnel can keep up with the torrent of visitors, some of whom are hell bent on leaving some mark on what they see, ruining the experience for those who would follow them.  Carving names on trees, etching into rock formations, creating destructive and erosive run offs by bush whacking, even chucking paper wrappers and plastic bags, with or without their dog’s feces, all lead the ultimate devastation of our parks and forests.  The money isn’t available to educate the public to “leave no trace, to make no mark, and to try to leave things better than we found them.”  We need to self educate and practice some common sense.  No one ever needs to know that we were there except ourselves through our photos and memories.

This isn’t difficult legislation we need to pass.  It doesn’t involve our spending more than our attention.  It isn’t some unachievable goal.  It is, however, proverbially, up to each of us to behave responsibly toward nature and to insure that others do so as well.  This may take some admonishing of others on our parts.  Yes, we may need to stick our necks out and say something when we see others acting out destructively.

God bless and keep the many, many volunteers who help to build our trails and engage in other projects.  It is through them and the harried Park and Forestry Service personnel that we have a fighting chance of having our national park system intact for the generations to come.  But it will take a concerted effort by all of us to make this happen.  It is a joke to say that the professionals must now do more with less.  The time has come when that trite phrase becomes witness to break down and weary capitulation.  If we are to preserve and protect, we need to be involved and vigilant.  There is some hope that we may succeed.

 

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WAIT, WHAT?

I love to debate Conservatives.  That is, when they aren’t running away from the results of their (failed) policies and from the wars they’ve either gotten us into or expanded once they’ve gotten into power.  It’s been the neo-Cons which have recently sent so many into battle with ill conceived goals and no plan for how hostilities will end.  I think that we Americans would all be happier, wealthier and safer were more thought put into the armed conflicts into which we pour our children’s blood and our treasure than simply in drawing up battle plans and yelling Geranimo!

I am always amazed how, when they run for office, Conservatives all talk about shrinking government, as if a shrunken, central government can walk away from Social Security or our Vets, of which I am one.  Yes, the Federal government could leave things like food safety and the interstate highway system, the national electricity grid and defense up to each individual state.  But, that would leave smaller states in the lurch and would bankrupt most large states.  Aside from the economics involved, it would create chaos.  More than this, it would be impractical. There are certain services that simply are better handled through a central, federal system.  Point is that there is a limit to which our federal government can be shrunk without cracks of devastating proportions beginning to appear.  Add to this one other phenomenon.  Conservatives talk about those “tax and spend Liberals, but look who has ballooned national debt each time they come to power.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can cut taxes, especially on the richest segment in America, and you can repeatedly tell the gullible that “Trickle Down Economics” work and that, by growing the labor force and the economy, they’ll grow tax revenues which will make up for the losses.  However, aside from enriching the already rich, there, inevitably, are no upsides to these cuts except that the national debt swells, and the poor get drier.

I love to talk about the Social Weal with Conservatives, especially the ones who claim to be compassionate.  Recognizing that there certainly are limits to the benefits of any “welfare program,”  still, let’s not make cuts to Meals on Wheels, and school lunch programs.  Let’s build more schools and fewer jails, because the obverse of this is true: fewer, poorer schools usually lead to bigger, better jails…uh, which cost the public a fortune to maintain and the nation critical human potential.

I love to talk with Conservatives, but so often all they’re interested in is hearing themselves talk.  There is little if any room for dialogue and “compromise” is a word their vocabularies seem to lack.  Mostly, when I engage with the Conservatives I know, I can’t hear them because they’re shouting so loudly.

 

 

 

 

 

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Forgive?

On one level, I do not understand victims who forgive their assailants, attackers and other kinds of victimizers.  I get the fact that holding in anger against someone else is counterproductive and can lead to physical distress and ailments.  I understand that letting go of the rage might allow other energies to come to the fore in a person.  All this makes some sense.  But, to forgive and forget isn’t a Jewish thing.  It is a concept and practice which, for me, is attached to and emerges from the Christian world.  It is something that Jesus reportedly did when he was on the cross.  He forgave his persecutors and that somehow made things better…not necessarily for him, but for those who would follow him.  Still and all, when I hear of people whose loved ones have been murdered forgiving the criminal, I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Recently, I have seen people on the news who almost minutes after some horrendous thing has happened to themselves or to their loved ones have issued some statement of forgiveness.  It confuses and befuddles me.  There has been barely enough time to process and already there is this statement.

While I am quite certain that forgiving someone doesn’t exonerate them, it also doesn’t stop recrimination from creeping into the heart of the issuer.  This has got to involve some heavy duty denial.  It is to say: although I feel rage and outrage that such a thing occurred, I must not acknowledge these emotions because I have already forgiven the perpetrator.

The Jewish people collectively have never forgiven the Nazis.  Nor should we.  What they did to our people is unspeakable, and yet we have tried to speak about it for decades on now.  It is well, on this Yom Hashoa, that we give thought to and once again uncover our pain.  We can try to hold the world to a “Never Again” slogan or two…not that it has or ever will listen; but, for ourselves, the unwashed, gaping wound remains.  It is permanent.  It festers with every new mention of anti-Semitism.  It roils at the sight of a swastika.  It boils over ever anew, like some never ending fountain with grief and unbridled angst.

Christians can set aside their own senses of having been violated.  Perhaps, it does do them some good.  While I am not living on the knife edge of hatred, nor am I consumed with constant bitterness, never far from my consciousness is the memory of the Holocaust and the utter devastation it wrought on my people and my sense of general well being.  I am less trusting of the world than others.  I am less ebullient and jovial.  I respond to the world with greater intensity and passion than most others. These are born of a sense of betrayal and of our plight having been ignored.  I resonate with those who might take revenge.  It isn’t logical.  It isn’t “nice.”  And it is as far from forgiveness as I might ever want to be.  So be it.

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One Bizarre Trip

Chaplain George came to the office of the hospital chaplaincy.  He poked his head through the door and stated his request: “I need an unmarked car to help me bring one of the hostage’s mothers to the hospital.”

I immediately volunteered my V.W. van.  It was lunch time.  Neither of us had eaten.  We got in the van and headed out of Wiesbaden to the Army housing of Mainz Gunzenheim.

Chaplain George had worked with some of the Iranian hostage returnee families during their 444 day ordeal.  he had bolstered them spiritually and had counseled them to have hope and faith.  He was a Lutheran minister and a chaplain, colonel in the United States Marines.

We had to stop and ask directions a number of times.  Being from the Kaiserslautern area and, specifically, from Ramstein Air Base, I was unfamiliar with the territory.  What should have taken us no more than a half an hour wound up being a hour’s drive.  But the trip gave me an opportunity to talk with Chaplain George about the hostages and our roles as chaplains on the ward.  The time went very quickly, and our conversation probably was the primary reason that the journey took so long.  We were so engrossed in analyzing what was taking place on the ward that we did not pay close attention to where we were going.  I also especially wanted somehow to convey to my co-traveler that the returnees’ psychological conditions were delicate and that he and the USAFE Command Chaplain needed to tone down their directing and ordering these souls what they should be doing.  I compared their status to that our rape victims whose recovery depended largely on their being able to make their own decisions in order to reestablish their senses of self and of confidence in themselves and their abilities to operate in the world once again as free people.

When we came to the housing area, we had a great deal of difficulty locating the building.  as I learned, the Army tends to number its buildings as they construct them.  The one we were looking for was in a corner of the housing area, set off from buildings with similar numbers.  We finally found it. I dropped Chaplain George off because I could not park close to the stair well.  As late as we were, it was better for him to walk the short distance to the front door.  I had to drive all the way around the block to get to the driveway of this apartment complex.  It was about a half mile drive.

When I parked the van, I went into the stairwell.  The apartment, A-6, was three flights up the stairs.  I remember thinking that I hoped that I had heard my colleague correctly and that I had the right apartment number.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of the woman we were to transport back to the Wiesbaden United States Air Force hospital.

The door opened and I entered the apartment.  I thought I had come to the wrong place.  There seemed to be no furniture in the place.  Camera equipment was strewn everywhere.  At first glance, I thought I had entered an armory.  The gray-silver film and camera casings looked like ammunition containers.  Several people were seated in the living room on hardback chairs.

I asked if, indeed, I had come to the right apartment.  I was told that I had.  I was quickly introduced, but I immediately asked where the bathroom was.  I stepped into the WC and closed the door.  I was thinking to myself that I hadn’t expected this trip to be a media event.  Evidently, I had stepped into a nest of TV coverage people who had accompanied the hostage’s mother and were tracking and recording her every move.  In no way was I comfortable with this situation.  As both Chaplain George and I were officers in the United States military, neither of us was authorized or cleared to speak for the respective branches of service to which we belonged.  Furthermore, we could not speak either for the hospital or for the State Department which had come to honcho the 52 hostages’ reentry into the free world.  So, as I stepped out of the bathroom, I felt antsy about my position and anxious to carry out my role of helping this hostage mother get to her son.  I decided that I would have as little to do with the T.V. people as I could.  But, in my determination, I was very nervous and jittery.

I came out into the foyer to find that Chaplain George and his charge had already started down the stairs.  I realized that there was nothing else to do but quickly start down the stairs myself in pursuit.  I had left the sliding door to the van open, so I knew that my passengers would have no difficulty in boarding.  But, as I was making my exit from the apartment, a woman caught me.  She introduced herself.  I recognized her name from having watched national news back in the States.  She was a top level Washington correspondent.  I instantly grew more defensive not wanting to encourage any dialogue with her.  What did she want with me, anyway?  Having avoided the media people successfully for the first three days of my five at Wiesbaden, I had resolved that my mission was an example of this resolution.  I wasn’t seeking any limelight…and now, here I was being confronted by the very aspect of this assignment I had least wanted to engage with.

“Rabbi,” she started formally with a note of officiousness in her voice, “we’d like to know what kind of vehicle you’re driving.”

What a silly question, I thought.  “All you have to do is to look outside when we get downstairs,” I replied trying to get away as quickly as possible.

“No, Rabbi, we really would like to know,” she demanded again.

“Why?” I asked

“We have a camera crew at the gate of the hospital waiting to film your arrival.  Tell me, now, what kind of car are you driving?”

I turned around with a belligerent smile and looked her right in the eye. “Look, Liz,”  I said, “beware of rabbis in Germany who drive Volks Wagon vans!”

Liz smiled back at me and continued her interrogation…this time with a touch of subterfuge.  “Look, Rabbi, we’re in on this thing.  You can talk to us.  Now, which entrance did you say you were going to be using when you get back to the hospital?”

“I didn’t say,” I rejoined. “I really don’t know.  I’m not from this area and I really have no idea which entrance I’ll use.”  As I answered this time, I had reached the second floor.  It struck me that I was being questioned just to stall me so that the camera crew could get more footage of the hostage’s mother as she and Chaplain George were stepping into the van.

“Rabbi!” Liz continued, “We really need to know!”

Suddenly, I swung around on the stairs.  I faced Liz Trotta coming down behind me.  I looked up at her setting my jaw. “Liz,” I said angrily, my lower lip beginning to quiver, “I am a rabbi in the United States Air Force and I am going to do my job!”

I turned and went down the rest of the way, and climbed into the driver’s seat of the van.  I knew I was being filmed and I tried to control and neutralize my facial expression, but I was raging.  As I began to back out of the parking space, I saw in my rear view mirror that a camera man was recording us from the rear of the van.  I felt ambivalent about his safety as I backed around.  I he should get in the way, I might hit him.  All I can say now is thank God he didn’t remain where he was.

I pulled out into the main street and turned in the opposite direction from which we had come.  I had not the slightest idea where we were headed.  As Chaplain George talked to our passenger, I threaded my way into downtown Mainz Gunzenheim.  I decided to follow the autobahn  signs which read “Frankfurt.”  I was sure that we weren’t being followed.  If the signs say “Frankfurt,” I reasoned, then they must also go the opposite direction to Wiesbaden.  The last thing I wanted to tell this excited woman in the back seat was that I hadn’t any idea of how we were going to get back to the hospital.  And the thought crept into my head that the worst confrontation with the press might yet to be coming…at the hospital gate.  Then and there, as we rolled through the town’s central circle, I decided that even if I had to run the photographers down, I was going to enter via the front gate and go directly for the main entrance of the hospital.

It took another hour or so to get back to Wiesbaden. As we entered the city, I missed the one turn off from the autobahn that would have taken us by familiar roads to the hospital.  I wandered around, sometimes listening in on the conversation that was going on behind me, sometimes losing the talk in the whine of the engine.

Amazingly enough, I suddenly realized that I knew where I was.  We were now not far from the road I wanted that led to the front gate of the medical facility.  As we came up the thoroughfare, I asked Chaplain George to switch places with our guest, putting himself next to the window and her next to the aisle way.  They changed quickly, sensing the reason.  I now began explaining to her that she might be delayed in seeing her son.  All of the former hostages were undergoing extensive medical examinations and debriefings.  I didn’t want her to be so excited that a wait might cause her anymore undue anxiety.  She said that she understood. After all, it had been fourteen months since she had last had contact with him.  Another few minutes or hours wouldn’t make that much of a difference.  She really seemed to mean it.

As we rounded the corner that would bring us to the road on which the hospital was located, my heart began to pump faster.  I reached in my coat for my official State Department ward pass.  I wanted it ready and in hand.  There had been times when as many as what seemed a hundred of the press corps had clogged the area around the hospital’s main gate.  I didn’t want them to spot us and then converge on the van.

My colleague began to suggest that I stop before the gate and let them out.  They could walk along the side of the hospital and “sneak in” that way.  Having already made up my mind about how we were going to smash through, I ignored the suggestion.  Besides, I thought to myself, with the camera crew having advanced word and with the number of media people I saw swarming around the gate, somebody would spot the van and put two and two together.  On foot, they’d never get to the hospital’s entrance without being deluged.

Before us, in the curb lane, sat two old Air Force buses.  “Blue Birds,” we jokingly called them.  They are positioned just right, I thought.  I pulled slowly up behind them, checking my rear view mirror for traffic in the inner lane.  Seeing none there, I felt a sense of relief.  My plan was going to work.

I used the Blue Birds to block the view of my approach to the gaggle of people gathered at the gate.  Just as I began to pull around them, I shouted forcefully, deliberately and determinedly, “Chaplain!  Press your I.D. pass up against the window!”

I gunned the van and pulled around the buses and instantly shot into the hospital drive way and up to gate guard who was standing on the left side of the road way.  He spotted the passes and waved us through without hesitation.  I mouthed a firm, “Thank you” to him and proceeded to turn into the front circle, traveling the wrong way on this One Way entrance way.  It didn’t matter.  The way was clear.  The three of us were now laughing and joking.  “You did it with style, Rabbi.” “Yea,” I quipped, “they didn’t even know we had arrived!”

When we got out of the van, I gave my relieved passenger a warm hug and wished her well.  As she and Chaplain George went through the front door and up the stairs, I got back into the van to go and park it.  I never saw the woman again.

I do not know to this date if any of the footage from this experience was broadcast back in the States.  I haven’t heard any mention of it; so, I assume that this vignette went un-telecasted.

And well that it should not have been, in my opinion.  Recognizing that the news media people have jobs to do, and recognizing that they had played an enormous role in keeping the hostages’ ordeal and fate continuously before the American people, I wonder that this particular episode wasn’t a breach of good sense and an intrusion on a family which had suffered enough. Realizing that this hostage mother had had her way paid by the media in exchange for the story, I can’t but raise the question, given the State Department’s discouragement of these ventures, of the propriety both for the woman herself and for all the waiting families and friends who had sweated out the weeks and months of doubt and fear.

Perhaps, in all of this, I over-reacted.  Certainly, as I think back over this odyssey, I know that I was demonstrating some of the emotional strain that I, as a deeply involved, military rabbi thrust into the eye of a media storm , was feeling as I went about trying to minister to the needs of my fellow, returning Americans.  Theirs was a struggle too long endured.  Theirs was an ordeal of victimization and torture.  Theirs was a message of unity and gratitude to their homeland which never lost faith in the hope of their safe return.

Postscript:

Now they are home and safe.  Hopefully, their message will not be forgotten.  Hopefully, what they brought to each American will not be set aside now that the media has long since forgotten about them.  And, hopefully, we who worked so hard at the Wiesbaden hospital to help them reenter their lives of free will and decision making will not be disappointed in our efforts.  We each struggled with ourselves to keep our focus at a time of great stress and distraction.  We each learned about ourselves anew; for, we were under tremendous strain, with enormous commitment to duty and with humble pride in our beloved countrymen and women.

It was an experience we shall never forget.

 

 

 

 

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Looking Back After 36 Years

Time has a way both of cementing the past in one’s memory and of warping it at the same time.  What I remember of the Iranian hostage release and the days I spent on the ward of the Wiesbaden hospital is clouded to some degree by the passage of time. Nonetheless, by the end of the five days the returnees spent there, I wasn’t cslled the 53rd hostage for nothing.  I tried to accommodate my three Jewish returnees in every way I could.  I do not believe that I was able to answer satisfactorily the theological questions that were put to me at the time.  I have come to realize, however, that these demanding, painful questions were more a function of a psychological response to the torture that the former hostages endured than actual questions of or about God.  The question, “why me?” was one that was interwoven throughout the entire experience.  It is the same one that Job asked and it represented the agony of having endured grave injustice and threats to life and limb.

At the very end of the five days, just as the 52 were to be going to fly back Ft Stewart in the United States, I felt the need to have some closure with the group, the State Department and hospital personnel.  I took it upon myself to have everyone on the ward form a large circle and then, acknowledging the closure of this brief decompression the returnees had been afforded, offered prayers for their safe return to the U.S.. Thereafter, we all traveled to Rhein-Main Air Base, from which the group would depart.

When I returned to Ramstein, I continued to raise an issue with the command chaplain until I nearly got myself into trouble.  I had watched as the USAFE Command Chaplain had literally walked over the hospital chaplain, Father Lewis, and had taken over the reception of the former hostages.  It may have been his right to do so, but I felt that he had overstepped himself, making decisions that ought to have been left to the hospital chaplain.  In one such instance, as I have written about elsewhere, he and Chaplain George Evans so overstepped themselves, they caused the State Department to blocked the chaplains from working with the returnees.  By not coordinating, by exercising more authority though less understanding than they actually had, they truly screwed things up for the chaplain team for more than a few hours.

Initially I had thought that the last things that these former hostages needed was more time from their loved than  they had already endured.  In fact, I have come to understand that they might well have benefited from spending more time in semi-isolation from them and the rest of the world.  I doubt that they were ready for the onslaught of media attention they were to receive upon their returns home.  I know that many of their marriages broke up in the months and years that followed.  This is not uncommon after such ordeals.  However, I do not know the extent that they and their families were given access to counseling and support.  On the heels of such stress for both themselves and their loved one and after so much time had elapsed, there were bound to be adjustment issues.  And there were.

Upon my return to Ramstein, I had to pack up again immediately and head for a TDY to Spangdahlem AB, to luncheon to which I would be late in arriving.  Neither my wife nor the folks at the Air Base know the intensity of the experience I had just had, and while I didn’t have time until later to explain it to my wife, I did give a short account to the Jews of Spangdahlem who had come to the lunch gathering.

Lastly, I would comment about the press response to the hostage return.  It was chaotic and extremely demanding.  For certain, the American public was eager for any information about the returnees.  It was the kind of frenzy that made going to the Wiesbaden hospital and getting by the gaggle a chore.  Elsewhere I have written about my encounter with Liz Trotta.  She was exceptionally pushy and quite insensitive in her effort to get “the story.”  Perhaps it was this encounter with her that has framed my impression of the media, although it is hardly fair of me to extrapolate this way.  Still, my encounter with her made me angry and defensive.  It also frightened and threatened me because, as an Air Force member, I had had no clearance to speak to the press.  That she continued to pressure me when I clearly had attempted to ward her off, only served to make me more hostile to her purposes.  That experience has remained with me in my wary dealings with the media to this day.

 

 

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Letter to Miss Tillie Ginsburg of the Jewish Chautauqua Society, 5 Feb, 1981

On the 20th of January, the American hostages, held in Iran for 444 days, were released. As events would have it, the Army rabbi, stationed in Frankfurt, was in the States on leaves.  After checking, I returned the call of Rabbi Joseph Messing of the National Jewish Welfare Board, the ecclesiastical endorser for military rabbis, and was told him that I would drive up to Wiesbaden, to the USAF hospital, and be with the returning 52 Americans.

On the morning of the 21st, Father (Lt Colonel) Leo Lewis, Chaplain (Captain) Danny Thompson and I, along with the personnel from the State Department and the hospital, were on the third floor ward to greet the ex-hostages as they arrived.

Barry Rosen and Jerry Plotkin I recognized immediately from their pictures which had been published in the Stars and Stripes newspaper the day before.  As I greeted each man, we embraced and said, “shalom,” to one another.  Somehow, in the exhilaration of the moment, I also met Malcolm Kalp who said that he, too, was a landsman. I was not entirely sure. The tattoo on his right arm threw me and I wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t joking.  When I asking him directly, he told me that he was Jewish, but that he had never revealed this to his captors.  It wasn’t any of their business and would have probably caused him even more grief.  As it was, Malcolm spent 374 days in solitary confinement and, because of his escape attempts, was repeatedly beaten and manhandled.

For the first hours, my Jewish brethren were very busy.  They received their room assignments, were weighed, measured and checked for blood pressure and temperature.  They then set off for the telephone banks. From that room, they could call anywhere in the world they wanted.  Everyone was very excited.

My first “real” talk was in concert with the Chief of Internal Medicine and Malcolm Kalp. Malcolm was literally shedding his shackles, verbally, as fast as the words could spill out of him.  He was very angry with his Iranian captors and he made humorous cracks about his escapades.  he tried repeatedly to escape.  At one point, having been discovered outside the place where he was being held, he quipped to his finder, “I only stepped out to make a phone call!”  They threw him back into solitary shortly thereafter.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to the ward carrying the Jewish Welfare Board prayer books, Bibles, necklaces with Magen Davids, and the Tablets and Star insignia of the Jewish military chaplaincy.  I was caught in the bind of not wanting to force these items on my fellow Jews.  After all, they had been incarcerated and dependent on their captors for 444 days.  The success of their return for themselves, personally, would depend upon their making their own decisions now.  I did not want to impose upon that freedom in any way. Nevertheless, I reasoned, if I do not present them these Jewish symbols, how will they know if they want them or not?

For men who had not seen anything Jewish for fourteen long months, these items became like priceless art.  Barry Rosen pinned the Tablets and Star to his bathrobe. Each donned the Stars of David.  The prayer books were put away in special places…as well as the Ramstein newsletter, the January-February issue, which I had brought along with me.  It was full of Tu Bishevat information and chapel doings.

The following days were ones of frustration for me.  One the one hand, I wanted to be available. On the other hand, I did not want to appear like a hovering mother hen.  In reality, the ex-hostages were so busy with debriefings, medical examinations and meetings, they simply did not have the time to talk with anyone else.

Thursday evening (22 January), we held an interfaith service in the hospital theater.  Chaplains Lewis and Thompson and I were joined by the USAFE Command Chaplain, (Colonel) Stuart E. Barstad, and a Marine chaplain (Colonel) George Evans.  Along with three of the former hostage presenters, we gave thanks and praise to God for the lives of our people.  It was a beautiful, candlelight service.

What has begun as an ecumenical service, quickly became interfaith following the opening hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  No one had noticed that the second stanza included some particularistic theology.  Since I was the first speaker following the hymn and having seen the pained look on the face of Barry Rosen (not to mention my own discomfort), I began by saying: “There are many paths to the truth, and there are many religions represented here tonight.  It is in this light that I read the following prayer from the Jewish siddur.”  I then proceeded with the Sim Shalom-Grant Us Peace, changing the word, “Israel,” to “us.”  Barry and I both reentered the service at this point, and no one was aware of any problem.  I must also add that my clerical colleagues were most helpful and supportive both throughout the planning of the service and its delivery.  Father Lewis, the head of the hospital chaplaincy, displayed his menschlichite in his opening, mood setting remarks.  His is a friendship I shall long treasure and a ministry worthy of the highest esteem.  He is, indeed, a true pastor and priest.

My account of the Kabbalat-Tu Bishevat service may be found elsewhere.  Suffice it to say that the service was, for the Jews of the Ramstein area who drove up and for Barry Rosen and Malcom Kalp, a most moving experience.  Imagine what the folks who traveled to Wiesbaden felt like following the service as they chatted with Barry and Malcolm about their Iranian ordeal.

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to speak in depth with my three landsmen. Because of privileged communications, I will not divulge the personal nature of our conversations, but I shall make some general observations.

I must admit that I was not comfortable with a role in which the rabbi was the authority.  The last thing Jerry, Barry and Malcolm needed was my telling them  how to rejoin their families and reenter their lives back in the United States.  They all expressed concern over their treatment by the press and other media.  They and the other hostages did not have the feeling that they were heroes.  If they say themselves in a role, it was the role of victim.  If they had a mission, it was to unite America in their love of country and sense of morality and decency.  To accept the label, hero, was to raise the guilt of having suffered for some future glory.  And to have to sell their stories was to put a monetary value on the days, weeks and month of agony they endured.

Each of the men was searching for his values.  Each needed and wanted to feel close to his Judaism.  Each expressed deep concern over his family and the changes that might have taken place in those he most loved and cherished.  But, through it all, each knew that his family was the one he could count on and each said what now has become will known to all:  that the families were the real heroes of the ordeal.

I spent but five days at Wiesbaden.  During my stay there I felt tested.  I wanted to give to each of the 52 former hostages the best that I as a rabbi and human being had acquired to date.  Though I would not have said so as I was driving up on the night of the 20th of January, I say now that I am glad that I was the one who went.  I am a better human human being for having met and befriended so many caring others.  I am richer for the lessons I both taught and learned.  I am the prouder of my heritage and my country for the souls who shared with me the first hours of their freedom.

 

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Who’s Next?

 

There is an elephant in the room and he is afraid of a mouse.  Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that the elephant is being told to be afraid of the mouse.  The elephant is the American population which, as of 2017, is somewhere close to 325 million souls.  The mouse is the illegal immigrant population whose greatest estimated number is somewhere close to twelve or thirteen million…but, for the sake of this argument, let’s say that it’s as large as fifteen million.

Someone has told the American people that many if not all the undocumented immigrants currently residing in these United States are murderers and rapists. Just why he has said this and why he has threatened to unleash the United States military to round up all these criminals and deport them has a lot to do with the word, “scapegoat.”

Now, as a Jew and a rabbi, I know something about that word, scapegoat.  Originally, at the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would select a goat upon which, symbolically, all the sins of the people were placed.  That goat was then set free into the desert where, presumably, it would die, taking the sins of all Israel with him. Overtime, we Jews, as well as other minorities, came to perform that function for the rest of society.  When the majority became overburdened with what seemed insolvable problems, worries and woes, someone, usually a practiced and adept demagogue, would point to the defenseless among the masses and cast the blame of that society’s ills on them.  Instead of the leader and/or his entourage being the focus of the crowds’ outrage, those selected as scapegoats became the target.  They, in fact, served and today serve a very useful purpose.  However, their safety, the safety of their families and their other vital interests now are at risk.

Given President Trump’s record, he has certainly pointed to our (call them what you will) illegals or undocumented, maligning the group as a whole; and marginalizing and frightening the entire community worse than ever before.  Trump gave the American people an internal enemy at whom to throw proverbial barbs and real threats of deportation.  No doubt that among the fifteen million there are some truly bad apples and we’d all be better off if they lived somewhere else.  But to call the whole group vicious names is to slander these people so many of whom came, over time, through our very porous borders to seek a better life.

President Trump has invited some very bad and extremely hurtful behavior on the part of those in our country who are frustrated, passed over, and angry.  He has identified a sub group in America to blame, castigate and attack.  That posse commitas forbids the use of American forces here on United States’ soil was a fact that our xenophobic president quickly learned.  What he is also coming up to speed on is just what kinds of devils he has released through his inflammatory and provocative pronouncements.

As a Jew and a rabbi, I have read a good deal of my people’s history.  I recognize that, in each era, there are those who scapegoat and incite others to violence.  To date, the antisemitism and acts of hate my people are currently experiencing have claimed property and frightened lives; but I would remind the reader of the shooting that claimed the life of an innocent man from India, and the houses of worship that have been shot at and burned.

One who scapegoats plays with fire that can quickly leap up and turn deadly.  I used to think that, as opposed to the Klansmen, the White Supremacists and neo- Nazi members, Americans, at heart and over all, were a generous and compassionate people.  I haven’t always thought that Congress has displayed those attributes.  Had they, we would have long since had a solution to the immigration picture.  But by playing on people’s fears and by involving themselves in castigating those our country had invited in and ignored for decades, they have only served to exacerbate a situation that any group of intelligent eighth graders could untangle and solve.

This country is best when it treats all the people within its borders with the decency and fair-handedness that they themselves would desire.  I’ll not here engage in a defense of the millions of immigrants who work hard and pay taxes.  I’ll not try to convince the bigots among us who have closed their ears and who salivate at the thought of sending the people who are here illegally packing.  I have only one closing thought.  After Trump and his minions have rounded up and deported all those they have targeted, who will they come for next?  As a Jew and a rabbi, familiar with the history of my people and other minorities, I shudder to attempt an answer to that question.

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