Monthly Archives: March 2022

An Open Letter of Frustration and Sadness

If you are a parent or guardian of a child who attends Newton South High School, you received this email from that school’s principal, Tamii Stras, on Wednesday afternoon, March 23rd.

This afternoon, a student reported an antisemitic slur written on a bathroom wall. We have contacted the Newton Police Department and are conducting a full investigation. In addition, we have also reported this incident to the Anti-Defamation League. We take this incident very seriously and are following our established protocols and procedures.

 Antisemitism has no place at South. I am horrified that this happened in our school community and that we are continuing to struggle with incidents of hate, harassment, and discrimination.

 We will be offering spaces for students and adults to process this incident this week and next. Our South Human Rights Council, in conjunction with our Jewish Staff Affinity Group and our Jewish Student Union, will be taking the lead in facilitating this work. We will share more specific information about these opportunities with students and staff.

 I want to assure you that we as a school and district are deeply committed to addressing issues of hate and discrimination. I am confident our South community will come together during this difficult time and hold steadfast in our values of listening first, showing respect, taking responsibility, and most of all, choosing kindness.

This is the fifth reported antisemitic incident in the Newton Public Schools in just the past few weeks. I am perplexed and angry, speechless. I am, as the idiom expresses, at my wit’s end.

As a commissioner on the Newton Human Rights Commission, I am deeply concerned about this persistent expression of hate and what it says about our city. It’s like an infection that slowly poisons the system. Who are the perpetrators? What are they thinking? What factors motivate an adolescent to act out by scrawling a swastika on a bathroom wall or scratching it on a desk? Why do these noxious acts continue?

I know these antisemitic incidents vex the leadership of our city. I know they care deeply and want to take whatever the necessary next steps might be. But… what are the next steps? What are the policy guidelines to prevent hateful acts of antisemitic vandalism in our schools? What aren’t we doing?

As a rabbi, I am intensely angry. When some student chooses to smear a swastika in a local school, they are making a terrible threat and causing deep pain and fear. Any antisemitic act touches a wound centuries old that has still not healed. That Jewish families anywhere ever experience this kind of aggressive display is unforgivable. And when it cuts so close, it becomes almost unbearable.

As a rabbi, as a Jew, I am appalled. I want this to end. I can’t tolerate this mean-spirited, persistent ugliness. I want to find answers and justice and comfort for my people.

And I know this is not the first time I’ve written about this and my ongoing search for the next steps. There is a part of me that feels so discouraged. I wonder if I should just accept that the Newton schools will be plagued with this obscenity every week or so, and I need to get used to it. Someone will see some antisemitic graffiti, report it to the principal, who will report it to the police, who will report it to the Mayor’s office. The principal will inform the school community and, hopefully, like Tamii Stras, make it clear that this behavior is offensive to Jewish students and indeed to all students who care about fairness and inclusivity. Tamii Stras is to be commended for stepping up as she has done and going deep on this plague.

The hard part is not to get numb. The desire to just throw up my hands and walk away, chalking it up to ignorance and divisiveness, is strong. But I must resist. We must all resist. We need to work on a different response that shows that Jews and their allies are united against this ongoing crisis in an active way.

It’s about getting the right people in the room. It’s time to look for new answers and develop new strategies for confronting hate. This is not easy work.

I am resigned to the likelihood that the letter I included in this essay will not be the last announcement I receive about a swastika in a school. But I am committed to the proposition that we can actually do something about it, something that is clear and cogent. In times so filled with vitriol and bitterness, as exhausting as it may be, it is up to us to turn the tide.

“We’ll Be Okay”

This current moment is filled with particular dread and anxiety. There’s a war going on right now. Innocent people are being killed. Theaters, subway stations, maternity hospitals, schools have all been hit by artillery shells and, missiles and tanks. Putin and his henchmen cruelly calculate the murder of civilians. They want to terrify the population, wear them down with cold-hearted brutality.

We watch it on tv. We see it on social media. The suffering is jagged and so unrelenting. Why? We wonder. We seek some logic, some twisted reasoning that may expose what Putin wants. Alas, I doubt there is a reason. It’s all about hatred, all about a pathological need to destroy. There is nothing rational in Moscow.

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, “Authoritarians stand out from other kinds of politicians by appealing to negative experiences and emotions. They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves their nation’s saviors. Picking up on powerful resentments, hopes, and fears, they present themselves as the vehicle for obtaining that which is most wanted, whether it is territory, safety from racial others, securing male authority, or payback for exploitation by internal or external enemies.”

This was not written as a description of Putin, but it certainly fits. If one rereads it a few times, other names come to mind, men who have taken this well-worn path of wanton destruction in the name of “the people .”And how does it end?

Sometimes the authoritarian is taken down by the people he’s tried to bend to his will. Sometimes the people rise and vote the self-defined savior out of office and often send him to jail. And sometimes, there is war, and other nations must destroy the offensive conflict creator.

What happens in Ukraine, what happens in Russia, is anybody’s guess. As it turns out, no one knows. For most of us, who number in the hundreds of millions, there’s not much we can do about Putin. We cannot do much for Ukraine or their fabulous president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We send money, stay informed, support our leaders who vote for aid to Ukraine, and eschew the handful of Congressional Putin supporters and their ragtag media sycophants.

We are primarily powerless at this moment. Some want to acknowledge the suffering of Ukraine by being circumspect. Innocent Ukrainian deaths signal that we must somehow alter our lives, that our safety is a kind of shondeh [Yiddish for something shameful], that we shouldn’t be having too good a time.

I understand this deep desire to empathize. But it misses a larger truth. If we are to mourn Ukrainians actively, what about outrage at the loss of life in the civil war in Yemen? What about American losses to Oxycontin and Fentanyl? I am not saying compassion is wrong. I am saying that to focus on one nation, one war, one authoritarian, and then use it as a reason to sit shiva misses the point.

The point? There is so much suffering in the world. There are so many innocent people whose lives are broken every day. In my worldview, God weeps 24/7/365. God cannot prevent cruelty or subversion. God cannot blot out the deeds of psychopaths or narcissistic, strutting fools, which means that it is up to us to keep on keeping on.

In the beautiful movie, Drive My Car [please see it on HBO Max], the protagonist, Yusuke, who has suffered a terrible loss, says to the equally broken Misaki, “We must keep on living. We’ll be OK.” We realize that the only solution is through the pain and the loss. That life itself is a gift, an ever-unfolding mystery that may take us to a moment of calm wholeness. Suffering is a given. Joy must be created every day.


My mom was not a gourmet. She hated onions and garlic and never used them in any dish she prepared. We had a mid-20th century dinner served up at the kitchen table. Spaghetti, meatloaf, lamb chops, roast chicken, breaded fish, canned vegetables… baby boomers will probably recognize this menu. As the years went by my mom extended her repertoire to include lasagna, green salads with bacobits and croutons from a can, and that was about it.
  I’m not complaining. She cooked with love in her heart and enjoyed feeding us. My mom grew up in the Depression and saw hungry, frightened people. She understood the blessing of abundance. My father experienced hunger and privation. He knew food insecurity. So there was no fooling around or whining about what we didn’t want to eat. There was no empathy for different tastes. There was no such thing as a picky eater.  
My mom did not bake; there were no fancy desserts. But one day at the end of meal she served up a coffee crumble cake from a white and blue box. It was my first experience of Entenmann’s baked goods. And it was good – I mean, really delicious!   Entenmann’s became a standard go-to in my home. Chocolate covered donuts, powdered sugar donuts (I always aspirated the sugar…), chocolate chip cookies, butter pound cake, cheese twist danish; these were a few of my favorite things.  
Entenmann’s went kosher sometime in the 80s and became a staple at Shabbat oneg tables from Brooklyn to San Jose. The boxes of goodies became a symbol of comfort and simple pleasure. Like my mom’s cooking, it wasn’t fussy or fancy. But it hit the spot.  
I always assumed that Entenmann’s was a Jewish family business that grew from a shop in New York City in the late 1800s to an industrial kitchen on Long Island. It seemed like such a Jewish story: immigrants work hard and make a fortune feeding people. Even the name sounded Jewish.
  Charles Edward Entenmann, the family patriarch who helped make the company a national brand, died a few weeks ago at the age of 92. He was the grandson of the man who launched the bakery in Brooklyn in 1898. I was shocked to learn from the obituary that, in fact, the Entenmann family was not Jewish – ever!   I was actually more than shocked: I was sad that the Entenmann family wasn’t Jewish. More than the family name or the blue and white box or the OU kosher symbol, it was the specific brand of comfort an Entenmann’s cake or cookie would evoke. I don’t know why.  
We loved Sara Lee cakes in my family, but it just wasn’t the same. It may have been a bit more expensive and so it felt like a ‘special occasion’ dessert. But the blue and white box was home.   Entenmann’s is owned by a multinational corporation now. It’s far from Brooklyn. Yet the nostalgia remains: for a seemingly less complicated world. These days I’d do anything to nestle up to a quiet news day with a piece of crumble coffee cake. 
Shabbat Shalom,

Learning Lessons

I really like Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. What an amazing man. How did a Jewish comedian who won the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars, and who performed the Ukrainian voiceover for the animated feature, Paddington, become a renowned leader? No one really knows. Was it simply being in the right place at the right time? Was it providential?

People all over the world are praising Zelensky. More importantly, the people of Ukraine are praising their president, a man who, just a few months ago, they were calling a lackluster, ineffective leader. What accounts for this metamorphosis? At the very least, one can say that he has risen to the occasion.

I didn’t know much about Zelensky prior to Putin loosing the dogs of war on Ukraine. I knew a lot more about Putin, always seen on camera alone in a dark suit, looking grey and grim. Putin, making solitary summary decisions to destroy a sovereign nation. Putin, using the doublespeak of lies and misinformation to obfuscate his obsession with wreaking havoc on those who would dare to choose democracy over his fascistic version of control.

Zelensky is a hero now and may one day be considered a great man. Because he decided to step up and lead. He did not form a government in exile. He is not issuing condemnations from Paris. Zelensky is couch surfing all over Ukraine to avoid capture. He is with various members of his cabinet, making decisions about how to respond to a monster without conscience or empathy.

It may be that Zelensky and his people are arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fighting against the Russian army, preventing the brutal crushing of Ukraine may all be futile. But Zelensky does not flee.

Zelensky delivers simple messages to his people and to all of us. He says, over and over, that democracy is precious. He inspires us with his unequivocal reading of the equation, that it is preferable to fight for freedom than to capitulate.

I’ve been around, so I know that today’s hero can quickly become tomorrow’s discredited bum. The press is always eager to take down an iconic leader. Zelensky may become a scapegoat for whatever emerges as this terrible war rages. So, for now anyway, I think of Zelensky as a mensch, a man who looks into the maw of destruction and does not blink. He knows he may be murdered or tortured, but he will not back down.

We observe this brave man and his extraordinary ability to inspire. Many Americans find Zelensky’s passionate advocacy for freedom and democracy to be thrilling. It’s a reminder that some Americans have lost a passion for freedom and democracy as others have arisen to fill that anxious void with fascism and hate. Zelensky is teaching a lesson right now to all of us. We would be wise to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom