Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Take Aways From Limmud NY 2011

Although it's now been a little over 36 hours since I returned from Limmud NY, I think mentally I am still very much at the conference. The experience definitely has given me pause to think about some issues of critical Jewish importance to me and I'd like to share them to give an idea of the impact Limmud can have on people.

One thing I have been focusing is the role of Halachah and halakhic texts in my life. I definitely partook, at least as an observer, in things this past weekend that I don't think actually who is interested in keeping halachah would consider halachically permissible. This includes attend the pseudo-Reform service with instruments played by the Kosher Gospel on Friday night, and the Jewish Renewal service Shabbat morning with drums and a siddur that feminized tefillot such as brachot and the Shema and included prayers to Asherah (essentially a foreign god). My rationale for attending these things was that as long as I did not actively participate in them, that since the instruments and such were going to be played whether or not I was there, I wasn't actively engaging in any sort of chilul Shabbat.

This, of course, assumes that the very playing of instruments on Shabbat is forbidden. But where does that idea come from? A scanning of Google results for "musical instruments Shabbat" indicates that the main concern is that an instruments could break and a person thus be tempted to fix it. This idea occurs in Beitzah 36b and somewhere around Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 338 or so, as well as a few other places. Now, one could dismiss this and say that this is only an issue if an instrument actually breaks (and even then I wouldn't be doing the fixing) so therefore it's OK to go ahead and play. But for me this speaks to a more fundamental issue of my relationship to halacha and halachik texts. What is the role of the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and other such texts to my life and halakhic observance? When do I choose to follow them, and when do I choose to ignore them, and why? Do I value the overall life enjoyment I get out of these things over their halachic value? I have also been mulling over that question in regards to other behaviors that are traditionally seen as banned by halacha, including the quintessential dilemmas of egalitarian tefillah and mixed dancing, both I which I participated in abundance at Limmud and thoroughly enjoyed. In terms of egalitarianism-well, that's a thoroughly complex issue I won't cover here. In terms of mixed dancing, my Googling shows me that in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 21:1, mixed dancing is assur becuase it leads to touching, promiscuous thoughts, and more. There is, I believe, some truth to that statement, but I also feel that my life is lacking something if I don't take part in these sort of things. The Sunday night dance party at Limmud was alot of fun, even if I haven't the slightest idea how to dance. Yet my much frummer roommate stayed in the room and watched Sportscenter, and seeing him do so made me feel like he was choosing a much more inhibited way of living. But does this make me someone who picks and chooses my halakhic observance? Am I abandoning part of some concrete package? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

An experience yesterday gave me even more food for thought on the question of what value observing halachah has for me, of how important it should be for me. Yesterday morning, I went to the most beautiful davening I think I have ever been to, at Kehilat Romemu. Romemu is New York's Renewal congregation. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, given the rather trippy experience I had the previous Shabbat at the Renewal service at Limmud NY. But 5 minutes in, I felt I was experiencing something truly beautiful-a word I neither use lightly nor often. It's hard to describe, but it felt so incredibly different from any minyan I had ever been to before. People felt so happy to be there, weren't in a rush to finish or go anywhere-it felt FUN! I've never been to any tefillah before that really felt FUN. I don't even know how I can go back to a regular minyan after something like this.

Now, my wonderful experience at Romemu again raises the specter of how much I should care about halachah. Romemu clearly violates normative halachah-instruments and electricity are used. But the end result is something so beautiful that it's hard to imagine denying it to myself. And yet I feel so torn-something so celebratory of Shabbat, that comes out of something violating Shabbat. Then there is the fact I am benefiting from what I consider other Jews violating Shabbat, though I myself am not doing so.

There are other things that I've been contemplating, though not as much, in terms of halachik observance coming out of Limmud NY 2011. Among them are egalitarianism and mixed dancing. These are complicated issues that I feel that I have essentially solved by deciding how I feel about them rather than what various halakhic sources have to say. But it comes back to the same issue-how much do I care about what those sources have to say? Why can't I just live as I please? After all, it is very clear in the 21st century that one can live a far from halakhic life and still be deeply connected to Jewish life in a variety of ways. That is, in a sense, what Limmud is all about-connecting Jews of all types to Jewish life and community, and trying to turn that into a permanent community that exists outside the purview of one 4-day conference per year. It's about celebrating the diversity of Jewish life that exists.

Looks like I'll be struggling with this tension for awhile, maybe even the rest of my life. More to come on this later on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Limmud NY 2011!

Got back last night from the annual Limmud NY conference in upstate New York, specifically at the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa in Kerhonkson, NY. For the uninitiated, Limmud is essentially a giant Jewish learning conference which in recent years has become a global phenomena. It began in the UK 30 years ago, allegedly as something for Jews there to do between Christmas and New Year's, but actually as a conference of British Jewish educators. Limmud UK is now the largest and most extensive conference, running for a full week on a college campus somewhere outside London and attracting 3,000 people annually. More can be found out about the Limmud phenomena on Wikipedia or at New York version was started in 2005 and there are about 700 attendees. A volunteer ethos is something that is prevalent at all Limmuds-the conferences, which now exist in some 50+ locations across 6 continents, are almost entirely volunteer-run, often having no paid staff: Limmud NY has, I believe, 1 or 2 paid staff, aside from those who staff Camp Limmud (see below). Everything else, from the marketing, to the fundraising, to organizing every aspect of the conference, to presenting and teaching, is done on a volunteer basis.

My experiences at the 2 Limmuds I have been to-2010 was my first conference-were quite different, but this has more to do with my involvement with the conference than the actual conference itself. In 2010, I was employed to be a counselor in Camp Limmud, the program run to give children of attendees something to do while there parents are at conference sessions. I also spearheaded the tzedakah campaign and did some other volunteer work. Basically, I spent the Sunday and Monday of last year's Limmud running around like a maniac and didn't get to really experience Limmud-I went to something like 2 or 3 sessions in all.

So, this year, I decided to do the total opposite and do very little in terms in volunteering and allow myself freedom in terms of being able to do whatever I want at Limmud. The result was that I had a great time and brought back alot with me to process. I'll give some examples of the things I experienced and the sort of things Limmud has me thinking about:

-For tefillah on Friday night, I went to a service run by a traveling group called "Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers." Admittedly, it was not what I would consider the most halakhic of tefillot-they used selections from a Reform siddur and played instruments on Shabbat. So I brought along my trusts Koren siddur and davened to myself, joining in when I could. But how often do you get to see 4 African-American Jews performing traditional songs in the style of Motown and Gospel music? Limmud is, after all, about expanding your boundaries and experiencing something new, and this was certainly out of the ordinary-and fun!

-Shabbat morning, I went to the Jewish Renewal tefillah. Renewal is a music-based type of davening that was started by Rabbi Zalmon Shachter-Shalomi in the 60s (I think). In Manhattan, there is a congregation called Romemu which is a Renewal congregation. In 2010 I went to the Romemu davening on Friday night and really enjoyed it; it's musical, intergrates meditation and some other outside-the-box stuff, and is, again, something different from your usual Friday night tefillah. The Rabbi of Romemu is this really awesome and fascinating guy, Rabbi David Ingber. Rabbi Ingber has been all over the map in terms of Jewish observance, from Modern Orthodox, to Haredi, to not being Jewish, and is now a Renewal rabbi. I want to pick his brain more about his thoughts on why be observant, theology, and other issues of Jewish life that interest me/drive me intellectually nuts. Anyways, returning to 2011, I decided to check out the Shabbat morning Renewal service because it was, like the Kosher Gospel, something different. And different it was indeed. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I am glad I tried it and I think Renewal congregations can vary widely in the way they do things, so this particular service may not necesarilly be indicative of other Renewal services. In this particular case, the service was run by Rabbi Jill Hammer and a drummer named Shoshana Jedwab. It was cool to have a drummer, but certainly things didn't really click with me, such as the ultra-feminist Siddur that rewrote the Shema into feminine language and other such things. Still, it was worth trying out and I was glad to have had expanded my borders as such.

-Shabbat afternoon I attended what may have been my favorite session, an open forum on theological issues, faciliated by Rabbi Marc Wolf (CEO of JTS and a member of my hometown shul). It was essentially a place to people to just things that they struggled with theologically, and, this being Limmud, drew a wide range of people and ideas, from those with strong faith, to the Jewish educator who is an atheist, and plenty of confused folk like me in between. While nothing was answered, alot of interesting questions were provoked, and all of us agreed that these kind of conversations on theology need to happen more in Jewish circles.

-The communal Havadallah was truly great. A few hundred people gathered in one room, people of all ages holding Havadallah candles, singing an especially poignant rendering of Debbie Friedman (z''l)'s beautiful Havdallah melody in light of her passing just 6 days before-a very touching moment. And then tons of people made their way to the front of the room and starting dancing while Jewish musicians played traditional songs and niggunim-tons of fun just dancing in circles with people, many of them total strangers but in a way united in a common purpose of building an open Jewish community.

-Motzaei Shabbat was a very moving tribute session to Debbie Friedman. Individuals who had known her personally spoke not only of the impact of her music but of the woman herself. Myself, I had never realized quite the impact she had on Jewish music and liturgy. I was familar with her Mi Shebeirach and her Havdallah tune, both of which are widely used. But I never knew that she had really changed the world of Jewish music in a transformative way, and that her music touched the lives of untold numbers of Jews. It was very moving to see the impact she had on people, based on the comments made at the tribute.

-Limmud NY had alot of singing and dancing. Following the Variety Show/Closing Event on Sunday night was more dancing, and then a dance party w/ DJ playing techno music that went until 2 in the morning. OK, so I have no idea to dance, but who cares-neither did most of the other people there (who, after all, are Jews). I felt totally fine moving around like a fool until I was too sore to continue. Now, I do find myself questioning somewhat the halakhic legitimacy of some of these things, but I really can't imagine reneging on something such as mixed dancing; I feel that to do so would make life far too boring and doctrinairre and make me feel like a prisoner of halachah. After all, these were some of my favorite moments of the conference; why would I take them away from myself? Simply because the Shulchan Aruch, written in a far less egalitarian society than our own, says so?

-Finally, yesterday I attended not one, not two, but three presentations of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is among other things the founding Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side (and next to Yeshivat Hadar); Chief Rabbi of the West Bank community of Efrat; and founder of Yeshivat HaMivtar, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and a whole bunch of other Torah-study institutions. He spoke on 3 different things-the possibility of Israeli/Palestinian co-existence; theology after Auschwitz; and where Israel has gone wrong and what can be to fix it. For the first one, he told some very beautiful stories of local cooperation between the people of Efrat and the neighboring Arab villages and said that there is hope but that Palestinian leadership-which he described as "evil incarnate" (he used the same phrase for Hitler, which I thing is bizarre to equate the two). For the second, he veered somewhat off topic and told some more stories, which was fine because he's an incredible storyteller. For the final session, he says that Israel as a society has veered away from the Tanakh and it's moral message, which I thought was rather simplistic, though I suspect there is more and he just didn't have time to flesh it out. I will say that I was impressed with Rabbi Riskin-he is a great storyteller and has an amazing ability to hold an audience practically in a trance. I have to research more into his positions on Israeli-Palestinian things but he seems to genuinely believe in the importance and possibility of co-existence.

Well, I hope this gives a sense of the diversity and fun that goes on at Limmud NY and if anyone has questions about Limmud feel free to contact me. I will be posting later on about some of the issues the conference has me thinking about in its aftermath but for now I just wanted to give a sense of what Limmud is like and why I enjoyed it so much. I totally encourage everyone to go, if only just to experience it and see what it is like to be part of such a vibrant and pluralistic community, even if only for a few days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

War(s) of Necessity, War(s) of Choice

One of the benefits of no longer having homework is the freedom to read what I wish to read, and not what is on some course syllabus. Of late I've done alot of reading related to politics, including Scott McClellan's (former spokesman for Pres. George W. Bush) "What Happened" and "All The President's Men," the story of Watergate. My latest read has been particularly influential in my thinking. That book is "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," by Richard N. Haass, who worked for both Bush administrations and is now President on the Council of Foreign Relations, a very influential think tank in New York. The book has greatly changed how I perceive the first Iraq War; basically confirms my opinion of the Second Iraq War; and has me thinking about foreign policy in general.

Haass feels that the first Gulf War was a classic war of necessity, one which needed to be fought and was very successfully done so by the U.S. and its allies in 1990-91. While I had not thought much about the first Gulf War, the perception I had of it was one fought mainly to keep oil out of the hands of Saddam Hussein, and which was undertaken in order to bolster confidence in U.S. Armed Forces in the post-Vietnam era by giving them a relatively easy victory over Iraqi forces. Haass makes a strong case for this being a war of necessity for a variety of reasons. Among them are: the dangerous amount of economic and political power Hussein would have accrued had he held onto Kuwait; the human rights violations being committed by Iraqi forces in Kuwait which could only be stopped by greater force; the possibility that the instability caused by the Iraqi invasion would lead to expanded conflict in the Middle East and an all-out regional war; that the world standing by as Iraq occupied Kuwait would empower Hussein and convinced he could undertake further invasions...the list goes on. The Gulf War was also seen as a turning point in the new post-Cold-War-world, an unprecedented chance for international cooperation. Unfortunately, it seems that level of cooperation among world actors was not something that was sustained by the Bush or Clinton administrations , or the other Bush administration. Perhaps the Obama administration can make multilateralism as important a component of foreign policy as it was back at the start of the 1990s.

As successful as the first Gulf War was, in Haass' opinion, the second Iraq War, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, was just as unsuccessful, and possibly an even greater defeat on many fronts. Aside from failing to make in Iraq into a stable state, Haass reiterates the claims and narratives of many others that the Bush administration was determined to go war as early as mid-2002, and really went in having no sense of how difficult it would be to stabilize things. He also makes a similar observation about Afghanistan, that the Bush administration had no real concept of how to successfully go in and remake an entire country and society into a democracy where the Taliban had no power. In the case of Afghanistan this comes as no surprise, since there was less than a month between 9/11 and the start of Operation Enduring Freedom on 10/7/01. Given that no war plans existed for Afghanistan before 9/11, one can make the case that the U.S. overreacted before going into Afghanistan and should have taken more time to think through its strategy there. Even more shameful, it seems, is the lack of post-war planning made for Iraq. Although the U.S. had much more time to plan for its operations there, based on Haass' account, there was a tragically shortsighted view of how difficult stabilizing the country would be. That Pres. George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations, and declared "Mission Accomplished" on May 1 , 2003-yet more than 6.5(!) years later, there are still more than 100,000 US troops there-is indicative of how poorly planned the entire Iraqi Freedom operation was.

What I find even more morally troubling than such an abysmally conceived war is the very idea of a war of choice. This notion, that something involving putting the lives of soldiers as well as civilians at stake, and utilizing these and other resoures, for something less than absolutely necesarry for security, is something I find deeply disturbing. As someone who is not a proponent of military force in general (although I have been thinking recently about the role of the military in American society, a role I believe is much larger than most people realize), it especially irks me that such costly action could be undertaken out of choice, not necessity. This is also highly relevant in the wake of the 30,000 troops that will soon be deployed in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of this troop surge depends in large part on the legitimacy of Operation Enduring Freedom as a whole. The question which always must be asked is-"Is the military operation being conducted abroad directly enhancing the security interests at home?", or perhaps differently, "If this operation is not undertaken, how much of a greater risk does it pose for the homeland?" One can make a fairly plausible case that, had Operation Enduring Freedom never occured, there may very well have been an increase in terrorist activity against US interests. On the other hand, it could also be argued that all of the money, manpower, and other resoures spent in Afghanistan could have obtained greater protection for Americans via increased security on transit systems and other possible targets, or to minimize the street crime that causes injury to a far greater number of Americans on a daily basis than any Al-Qaeda activity.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Street Tzedakah

Since the start of the Hadar Year Program, I've begun to give alot more to the (presumably) homeless people I see on the streets of Manhattan. This has happened for a variety of reasons, having to do with my socioeconomic arrangements, my perception of those out on the street, and what I have been learning at Yeshivat Hadar.

Although we at the Yeshiva are making only a very modest amount of money, because I am living back in Edgemont with my parents, I am able to pocket the stipdend. This means I not only am not forced to attempt to live in Manhattan on a very tight budget-as many of the other Fellows are squeezed into doing; I am able to add to my savings and spend freely. Being a person of relatively little material desire-a.k.a. having no burning desire to buy anything-I have felt much freer to give of my money to a variety of causes, among them, the homeless individuals of New York, as well as charity: water; Americares; and a variety of other worthwhile endeavors. This has made me even further realize how much need is out there in the world for all manner of things, and sometimes my donations seem so miniscule against the larger global backdrop. However, I have also gotten a very rewarding feeling to know that I can give so much, and that knowledge is highly empowering in a positive way.

One reason I have begun to be more generous for those on the street is the realization, simple as it may seem, that the dollar I give to the person on the street holds much more importance, emotionally as well as financially, than it does for me. The other night, I walked from the yeshiva up to the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, a distance of nearly 50 blocks, and in the process gave away nearly $10 to people on the street-after I had just deposited a much larger check in the bank. Most of them said "thank you," a few barely acknowledged what I did. One person, though, a man named David on W. 103rd Street just off of Broadway, reminded me of how much a small favor can mean for anyone, especially an impoverished person. As I walked over to him and handed him the dollar, he was in shock to realize I was simply handing it to him, no strings attached. Slowly, a smile broke across his face and he gave me a hug. This incident furthered my resolve that, despite all the seeming annoyances and frustrations that giving to people on the street entail, that in the end, the good accomplished far outweights the cost to me in terms of time and money that I can well afford.

After all, what else would I have done with those $10? Spent it on snack food, most likely. After all, I have been making money while at Yeshivat Hadar-there is nothing which I want that I am short $10 of being able to afford. In other words, that dollar takes on much greater financial significance-is far more financially empowering-in the hand of the less fortunate than me, the yeshiva student pocketing my stipend and not paying rent. No, a dollar isn't a lot-but it can help toward affording a snack, or coffee, or something from a dollar menu at McDonald's, and go toward buying something more expensive.

I think there is also a great emotional benefit that goes with giving someone money on the street. Imagine a person who sits on Broadway. At all hours of the day, and some of the night, many people pass by that person, almost noone acknowledging that person's intrinsic human dignity with a smile or a "Hello," let alone a donation. I can tell by many of the reactions I get when engaging in this bit of חסד that it does mean something important to those who receive it, that the knowledge that at least someone cares about them for the sole reason that they are also human beings, and acknowledges the difficulty that they live with constantly. In this, like much of my recent behavior and thinking, I have been influenced by what I have learned at ישיבת הדר. Specifically, I have been Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and his teaching of giving tzedakah, and the teachings of Rabbi Shai Held, particularly the idea that "What if we actually lived up to the idea of treating all people as they are made, בצלם אלוקים?"

How far I extend this behavior will remain to be seen, but I hope going forward to resist the instinct to be cheap and continue to extend my generosity, even in a limited way, to those on the streets of Manhattan.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What To Do About Afghanistan?

So as the 8-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan (known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom) comes upon us tomorrow, we are also coming upon what is being touted as one of the biggest tests so far of the Obama administration-how to respond to the report from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of US & NATO forces in Afghanistan, which requests 40,000 additional troops and claims that failure to deliver on that request will ultimately spell defeat. The stakes are indeed high, with every option on the table carrying risks, and none of them in any way coming close to guaranteeting a positive outcome. Whatever decision is made carries with it the potential to dramatically affect the morale and security of the United States, the Afghani people, the Taliban, and worldwide radical Islamic movements and terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Let's examine some of the possibilites on the table and their pros, cons, and possible outcomes:

1) Obama accedes to Gen. McChrystal and orders 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan
-Pros: Shows the U.S. means business in stopping the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping the re-grouping of Al-Qaeda. Hopefully, this would also increase the actual success of US & NATO forces and help train Afghani security forces and (re)build civilian infrastructure, paving the way for a landscape such that in time Western forces can leave with a secure belief that the Taliban will not take over again and that Afghanistan will no longer be a terrorist haven. The support for this strategy comes largely from the troop surge that was sent to Iraq in Jan. 2007, where 21,000 additional soldiers were sent in. After about 6 months, there was a marked decrease in sectarian violence, though of course things still remained unstable and do to this day. However, it marked a dramatic decrease from the daily bloodshed in 2003-06. It should be noted that Obama made good on a campaign promise earlier this year and sent in 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; however, little positive seems to have come out of that move. If this move is successful, then the question becomes-do we send in even more troops?
-Cons: Sending 40,000 troops in no way guarantees any advancement on the part of the US & NATO. Sending an Afghanistan "surge" means spending even more money, and (much more importantly) putting even more troops in harm's way. At that point the only thing that is certain is that greater troop numbers means greater American casualty numbers. And if this increase in troops does not lead to greater stability or greater progress in the American war effort, the questions being asked now, about whether too much is being invested in a losing effort, and at what point the line is drawn between build-up and withdrawal, will be asked with greater force. Getting such a large influx of war resources may also take some difficult wrangling from Congress, which has seen so much go into Aghanistan-and so little positive outcome-over the past 8 years.

2) Obama accepts the McChrystal report in part but orders a moderate increase, say 10-20,000 troops
-Pros: This could have a chance at success in cutting down the Taliban, bringing stability, damaging Al-Qaeda, and contributing to the American/NATO war effort. At the least it certainly wouldn't hinder the American effort to have more troops around. It would also cost less and put fewer troops in harm's way, and likely be much easier in domestic political terms to obtain from Congress.
-Cons: It does not seem likely that a relatively small upsurge in military presence will be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan. Theoretically, were it that easy, that would have been requested by Gen. McChrystal or would have already been done or raised by this point. Sending more troops in a situation with such a low probability of success begs the question of why commit soldiers to an operation when it is thought from the outset to be unlikely to change anything.

3) Obama rejects the McChrystal report in its entirety and maintains the status quo
-Pros: No additional throwing of money or people into something that will not seem to improve by sheer increase in amount of resources. Also means no political battles with Congress.
-Cons: Obviously, if the current levels of resources were being successful, then there would be no need to be having discussion about this topic and no need to ask for 40,000 more troops. Obama would also look as if he didn't actually take any action as Commander-in-Chief and lose much public and military support.

4) Obama sees the entire Afghanistan effort as a failure and begins a withdrawal process
-Pros: No more dumping people and money on a drawn-out military effort that is increasinly losing public support. Obama and the U.S gain the ability to focus on other domestic and foreign issues-such as the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan. The troops come home.
-Cons: Oh, so many drawbacks. Radical Islamic terror groups worldwide see the U.S. as weak in the face of terror and feel they can act with relative impunity. The Taliban re-takes Afghanistan and is perhaps even more brutal than before. It also gains strength in Pakistan and threatens stability in that nation and the Indian sub-continent. All socioeconomic advancements the U.S. and others helped create in Afghanistan are wiped out. Ultimately, this would cause the U.S. to look back at 8 years and have nothing successful to show for its' efforts and those of its allies.

In examining this impromput foreign policy diatribe, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with option #1, to send a surge to Afghanistan. While I understand that it puts greater numbers of troops in harm's way, that is indeed what the military exists for-to be used when needed. And to secure Afghanistan and repel the Taliban and Al-Qaeda certainly is a cause worthy of American military use.

But what if a troop surge fails, or accomplishes little? Then I think we have to consider the possibility of essentially withdrawing from the country. That would, as noted above, be disastrous on so many fronts, and Al-Qaeda and its allies would claim victory. Were this unfortunate scenario be the case, I would hope/envision that at least the U.S. would maintain an air patrol over the country. This would be similar to Operation Northern Watch, which ran in Iraq from Jan. 1997-Mar. 2003. During this time, the US & European allies flew constant missions over northern Iraq to protect its Kurdish population which had often been targeted by Saddam Hussein, including coming under chemical in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. I could see a similar operation in Afghanistan, with the Air Force targeting Al-Qaeda installations but little to no ground presence.

Part of the problem of Afghanistan is that too much was expected too quickly, and war goals in recent years have not been clear. It was thought that in Oct. 2001 that the Taliban would be toppled, a Western democracy installed, and support for terrorism over. But while toppling the Taliban was initally easy, they have come back much stronger than thought. Meanwhile, the transition to democracy has been exponentially more difficult than was assumed-societies do not transition so quickly, especially when many have a lot to lose if that transition is successful, such as the poppy farmers. Many Afghanis see the U.S. as no less imperalist than the Soviets or British before them and want to maintain their way of life.

Pres. Obama has a difficult and historic choice before him. Let us hope he makes the right one and that U.S. avoids the fate of the Russians and British in leaving with nothing but shame and failure.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fun Times at the United Nations & Freedom in Iran

[OK, so I meant to post this about a week ago, but Yom Kippur and my nomadic lifestyle got in the way of doing so.]

During Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi (Gordon) Tucker, in speaking about Jewish particularism at the expense of universalism (not an issue that I think is of any concern to the TIC community, but more on that another time), urged those at shul to attend the "Stand For Freedom in Iran" rally which was held yesterday at the UN. I had seen flyers for the rally but had Yeshivat Hadar so figured I wouldn't bother; however, given that I can take 1.5 days per month and it was the last day of Elul Zman before break, I figured, why not go?

And so yesterday afternoon, after chevruta, I headed down over to the East Side. I knew that East Midtown and the UN area would be in a high-security zone and was intrigued by what that might look like. I was also hoping to finally catch a glimpse of the Obama presidential motorcade. Sure enough, exiting Grand Central and walking east on 42nd Street, half the street lanes were closed as NYPD vehicles and mysterious black cars with sirens encircled the area.

As I came to the corner of 2nd Ave & E. 42nd Street-at that point, 2nd Ave to the north is called "Yitzhak Rabin Way" and on the south is "Nelson R. Mandela Corner"-I hit a point where only those with UN access were allowed to continue. I asked a UN Security Guard where "civilians" should go and he told me I could come down 43rd St. I followed his instructions and headed up 2nd Ave, then down 43rd St. As I came toward where I thought 1st Ave was going to be, I realize that there was a small street in between called Tudor City Place. I then walked down a staircase and came upon a lovely new discovery, the Isaiah Wall and Ralph Bunche Park which are on the other side of 1st Ave from the UN headquarters. There I witnessed a total shutdown of 1st Ave except to NYPD and other vehicles, and occasional small groups of cars pulling in to the UN HQ. I walked over to a bunch of cops and asked if they knew if the Obama motorcade would be appearing (in retrospect, a silly question, since I later learned they never answer the question honestly). I was told I had missed it by 10 minutes and let out a groan, then turned around and headed toward 47th and 2nd where the rally was to be held.

The rally was essentially what I expected, basically, a giant Jew party, though there were some other non-Jewish groups mixed in. Freedom in Iran is certainly an important cause, both in terms of the human rights of the Iranian people, and for the security of the US/Israel/Western Europe/everyone else. But I'm not really sure what the effect of a few thousand people gathered at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza will have in terms of this issue. Clearly the Obama administration would like greater freedom in Iran, but not exactly that can be done at this moment-no occupying and nation-building in Iran at this point, or for a long time.

I think the most positive effect will be for those courageous Iranians who stand up to the despotic regime they live under; knowing that there are Americans far away who stand with them could definitely be a confidence boost in face of the enormously powerful government forces against them.

As I commented to a few people at the rally, I wonder how long the topic of Iranian freedom will remain on political agendas. Iran has never been a free country in the way that we Americans/Westerners define freedom, not under the regime of the Islamic Republic (1979-present), not under the Pahlavi dynasty, and not before then. And while there has been (legitimate) worry about an Iranian nuclear program for a few years, there hasn't been popular talk of the oppression under which Iranians live until this past summer, with the riots that followed the rigged election of June 12 that were brutally put down by the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces. So, if the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by diplomacy and/or force, will anyone still be calling for freedom in Iran? It would be imperative not to, lest the popular furor aroused this summer against Ahmadenijad and the Guardian Council fade into memory. Allowing the Islamic Republic regime to escape unscathed with what it perpetrated last summer also strengthens it and makes it harder to delay its nuclear weapons program.

Lastly, I had a brief but interesting conversation with a guy from the State Dept. named Teddy, just after the rally finished. He started off by asking me if I was Israeli, and when I answered "No, just a Jew," he responded with, "Well then I'm just a guinea." It became clear that he was not much of an Obama fan, apparently because he thought that the President should focus on domestic issues and not get tangled up in foreign policy. I told him that while I didn't always like the way Obama has approached Israel, I think his tackling of issues home and abroad-simulatneously attempting health care reform and chairing the U.N. security council, for example-is a refreshing change from a Bush administration that was consumed by foreign policy. I then asked him how he found it working under an administration he clearly disagreed with. Teddy said he just had to learn to seperate the personal and the political. A fascinating convo I would have enjoyed continuing.

Teddy also explained that when you ask security officials whether the Presidential motorcade has passed by, the answer is always "10 minutes ago," which is what I had been told. I should have realized I would not get a real answer to the question. However, as I came back down 1st Ave, the same police officer who has previously told me that said, without my even asking, that I had "just missed" the Obamacade. That would have meant it rolled by at about 1:30, however says Obama did not leave New York until 2:20 PM. Guess I'll never know who told the truth-it seems likely that noone did.

Finally, on the walk back toward Grand Central, I saw a small motorcade ferrying some individual up Park Avenue. 3 black cars with men inside wearing suits and dark sunglasses and leaning out windows sped by me, though they kept getting stuck in traffic. Reminded once more that this was no ordinary day, I headed back to Hadar, my head swimming in thoughts about politics and foreign policy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Times They Are-A-Changin

3 weeks into my post-college life, and I'm still getting used to the idea that I am in a new chapter in life. I know that technically I've been in post-college mode since late May, but I decided to not count the summer since obviously summer has always found me in a different lifestyle than during the school year. And the weird feeling of not being back at List wouldn't hit me until the fall anyways. I think it breaks down into 4 major changes that I'm dealing with:

1) No longer being in college
2) Being in a different configuration of Yeshivat Hadar as opposed to the Summer Program
3) Living back home in Edgemont with my parents

Becoming adjusted to the changes in the Hadar Year Program has been surprisingly difficult. While I certainly like the people in the current program, by the end of the 8 weeks of the Summer Program I had really become attached to the people in it and felt we had constructed a real community with a true sense of attachment. I have no doubt that, in due time, I will feel a similar sense of connection with the Year Program cohort. Still, it seems that for a while a part of me will still long for the Summer 09 group.

Living at home has not been as bad as I had feared. The fact that my parents finally installed wireless internet (which I am currently taking advantage of) over the summer has definitely contributed to making things more comfortable. The downside is that I tend to be online for an absurd percentage of the time that I am home, and has also discouraged me from one of the positives of being back at home, which is the opportunity to forge stronger relationships with each of my parents. Hopefully in time I will feel more comfortable with the setting and re-adjust to living here for an extended period of time since the summer of 2008.

About not being in college, period, I'll say more later, but it definitley has been an up-and-down experience emotionally. At times I long for having all of my friends within a few blocks, having a built in Jewish and social life, and central places such as the Kraft Center to gather. I fear at times that in some ways, I will never have a better, or more convenient, social life. At other instances, though, I am glad to be moving forward from something that seems appropriate for another time in my life, to be able to do other things in the world, to not be bogged down in homework for classes I often didn't really care about. Being in the superb educational environment that is Yeshivat Hadar has convinced me that, when done right, yeshiva is a much more inspring and effective educational model than university is.