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Connecting Purim to Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Moshiach

Next week, Jews all around the world will be celebrating the festive holiday of Purim. On the surface, Purim appears to be a day of fun providing children with an excuse to dress in costumes and adults with an excuse to imbibe. However, in keeping with the theme of the Purim, there are many deep ideas beneath the mask of the joyous festivities.

Purim shares a connection to the holidays of Shavuot and Yom Kippur. It also is the holiday most associated with the era of Moshiach, the final redemption in which the world actualizes its potential for holiness and peace and unity reign. Let’s examine each connection individually.

Shavuot: This holiday celebrates the most momentous occasion in Jewish history and the event that made the Jewish people a nation – the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, the Talmud informs us that nearly one thousand years were to pass before our covenant with G?d was sealed.[1] The Torah teaches that prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai the Jewish people stood underneath the mountain (Shemot 19:17).

Why does the Torah say we stood underneath the mountain? The Talmud explains that G-d had to coerce the Jewish people to accept the Torah by literally holding the mountain over their heads and telling them that if they accept the Torah all will be well, but if they do not, the mountain will be dropped on them and they will all perish.

According to Jewish law, a contract is invalid if one of the parties agreed to it under duress. However, Megillat Esther (the book of Esther) tells us that “the Jews fulfilled and accepted upon themselves…to observe these days of Purim” (Esther 9:27). The Talmud in Shabbat 88a reads the verse as follows: they ‘fulfilled and accepted’- they fulfilled (on Purim) that which they had already accepted back then (at Sinai).[2] The events of the Purim story demonstrated that the Jewish people had willingly accepted upon themselves the Torah law without Divine coercion and thus proved the validity of the covenant.

Yom Kippur: A mystical play on the words, Yom Kippur can be read as saying: ‘A day like Purim.’ This implies that in some way Purim is in fact greater in holiness than Yom Kippur. What does this mean? We observe Yom Kippur through fasting, praying, and repenting. This sort of repentance, or teshuva is likened by our Sages to doing teshuva out of fear. Purim is celebrated in totally different manner – through feasting, drinking, and merrymaking.[3] This is representative of doing teshuva out of love. While the first mode of teshuva i.e. repenting out of fear and awe of G-d rectifies all our past misdeeds, the second approach to teshuva, repenting out of love for G-d is actually a higher form of repentance that has the power to not only cleanse us of our sins, but to transform them into mitzvot![4]

Moshiach: As stated above, Purim is celebrated by feasting, drinking, and merriment in contrast to the fasting and refraining from physical pleasures that constitute the observance of Yom Kippur. In this way Purim celebrates human involvement in the physical world. The highest actualization of G-d’s will is to be involved in the physical world and to spiritually elevate it.

There may be times when we have to withdraw from physicality in order to reorient ourselves toward more spiritual goals, but when we reveal G-dliness within physicality we fulfill G-d’s ultimate purpose in creating a physical universe. Purim is connected to the idea of Moshiach because, in the times of Moshiach, G-d and holiness will be openly revealed in our physical world. What was hidden for so long will again be revealed. Chasidic philosophy teaches that our job as Jews is to reveal the sparks of holiness within Creation in order that the inherent unity of G-d and His universe be revealed and G-dliness permeate every level of our existence. On Purim we enjoy physical things, but rather than get caught up in the façade that the universe operates independently of G-d, we remain cognizant that everything is in fact constantly being animated, recreated, and overseen by G-d.

Keeping these insights in mind should enable us to get more meaning out of Purim and to celebrate the day more joyfully. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that the word, yismach (they will rejoice) shares the same Hebrew root as the word, Moshiach. On this he teaches that we will only be redeemed through serving G-d with joy. Have a freilechen (joyous) Purim and may the veil of Divine concealment of G-dliness be lifted now!



[1] “The Thousand Year Difference” Chabad.org

[2] Ibid.

[3] Living With Moshiach. “Purim” Rabbi J. Immanuel Shochet

[4] “The Holiest Day” Rabbi Lazer Brody, Breslev.co.il

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GTJ president a hit at Adas Latke-Hamantash Debate

Yesterday, some of DC’s young Jewish professionals — including GTJ Director of Technology Mike Weinberg and last year’s Jewish Guy of the Year contender Steve Davis — met up at Adas Israel to listen to the 2012 Latke-Hamantash debate.

This debate, now in its 21st year in DC, actually dates back to 1946, when Jewish professors at the University of Chicago met for a mock academic debate about Jewish ethnic food.

Last night, four speakers from various professional corners of the DC Jewish (although not necessarily young) community came to discuss the relative merits of latkes and Hamantaschen. The event was sponsored by DC’s Jewish Study Center and MCed by local documentary filmmaker, Aviva Kempner.

Carmel Chiswick of George Washington University, speaking as both an economic historian and a Jewish mother, asked general questions about the historical development of both the latke and the hamantash.

Joel Cohen, a math professor from the University of Maryland, as well as the president of Tifereth Israel, was more pro-hamantash. He explained how the Purim dessert’s “orbifold” shape (i.e. three points, three sides) made it structurally superior to the latke.

Joshua Ford, Associate Executive Director of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, tried, like Chiswick, to avoid taking sides. Instead, he suggested “moving beyond the Latke-Hamantash conflict” and pointed out that latkes and hamantashen are so different that arguing about them was like “comparing the Boston Red Sox and the Grateful Dead.”

Finally, our very own Stephen Richer, president and co-founder of Gather the Jews, brought the house down with a hilarious presentation using GTJ’s business model to evaluate the two foods. Using the parameters of quantity, diversity, and streamlined organizational structure, he argued that hamantashen were superior in all respects.

Following the debate, the good folks at Adas provided copious amounts of both latkes and hamantaschen, allowing event participants to conduct their own research and draw their own conclusions about the two Jewish foods. All in all, a fun and tasty evening.

Stay tuned for video of this event!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And the winner of the second Jewish a cappella contest is…

The repeat champions, Tizmoret, of Queens College

Tizmoret!

For the second year in a row, the group “Tizmoret” of Queens College won the Annual Kol HaOlam National Jewish A Cappella Contest at Adas Israel.

“Kol Sasson” of University of Maryland also matched its previous year’s performance by placing second.  “Jewop” of University of Wisconsin grabbed third.  Ten Jewish a cappella groups in total competed.

The rankings were, in my humble opinion, spot on.  My two apartment-mates and I all agreed that Tizmoret was clearly the best group this year.  I also gave second place to Kol Sasson.

Wisconsin Party Rocking

But while Tizmoret and Kol Sasson wowed me for the second year in a row, I’m not sure the groups — in total — lived up to last year’s performances (see all of last year’s performances here).  Kol Sasson’s (UMaryland) first song from last year is still my all-time favorite from Kol HaOlam, and I think the best pop-song parody still belongs to Brandeis for last year’s “Today I am a Man” (Although I did greatly appreciate Wisconsin’s Jewish rendition of LMFAO’s “Party Rock” and Mezumenet’s Jewish parody of NSync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye”).

Elie Greenberg, head of Adas YP, rocking the Kol HaOlam t-shirt

 

 

The audience and costumes, however, met and surpassed last year’s performance.  Approximately 1,200 poured into Adas Israel’s main auditorium on Saturday night.  Elie Greenberg and the rest of the staff managed the crowd with seeming ease.  And I must also give a shoutout to volunteer ushers Steve Davis and Yang Ku for the part they played.  As for the costumes, groups seem to have gotten the memo from last year that black shirts with matching blue or red ties and/or suspenders can look pretty awesome, especially during coordinated movement sequences.

The Adas staff also made sure we were duly entertained while waiting for the judge’s results.  Jewish musician “Orthobox” treated me to the best beatboxing I’ve seen in my life (and I’ve live in New Orleans, Chicago … and Utah! … so I’ve seen some good beatboxing!)  And we were also treated to a beatbox performance from one member of University of Rochester’s much-celebrated “Yellowjackets” a cappella group.

Orthobox

I’m afraid I didn’t tape all of the performances as I did last year.  My iPhone had very little battery left, and because GTJ co-sponsored the event, we had such close seats that I wouldn’t have been able to capture the full stage as last year.  I have, however, tracked down some videos that others have posted, and I will continue to look for more.  Additionally, Adas Israel is going to release a more professional tape from the evening, and I will see about getting it up  here.  Please let me know if you know of other videos.  (stephen@gatherthejews.com)

All in all, a really excellent night.  Definitely made me put karaoke on my calendar.  Who’s in?!

  • Tizmoret, Queens College (song)
  • Tizmoret, Queens College (song 2)
  • Hooshir, Indiana University (song)
  • Kol Sasson, Maryland (first song)
  • Kol Sasson, Maryland (song)
  • Staam, Washington University in St. Louis (song)

All the groups together at the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ask Idan Raichel a Question…

As we wrote last week, Israeli music sensation Idan Raichel will be playing at Sixth & I next Wednesday. In possibly even more exciting news, GTJ Staff Writer Daniela Enriquez has managed to secure an interview with him!

Have a question you’ve always wished you could ask him about his music? Well now you can. Let us know (email noa at gatherthejews.com) by March 5 and Daniela will pass it along.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Conversation with the Next Generation

Ricki Meyer is a ConnectGens fellow.

……..

It is striking how often similar conversations arise among Jews.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that Jews talk – a lot – and can’t remember what they’ve said to whom.  Or maybe as a Jewish young professional, my generation and I are starting to realize our responsibility in defining the future of Judaism.  How do we find meaningful involvement in our community? How do we grapple with the ever-present social and political issues while maintaining our love for and commitment to sustaining the Jewish state of Israel?  These questions pose a fundamental shift from those asked by our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, a shift from how do we form a Jewish state to how do we keep it flourishing as a democratic society within the confines of the Jewish religion (this could take a blog post of its own).

Politics aside, I want to delve into this concept of identity and how it continues to reappear in my own life.  If you scroll back up to my third sentence, you’ll see that I defined myself as a Jewish young professional.  The order of these three words is intentional.  In the second NeXus seminar, we explored with Dr. Erica Brown how we each define our identity.  As the Jewish people – based on a relatively homogeneous sample of 40 young professionals in DC, so not your ideal test group – we tend to attribute our identities to two things: parents and religion.  What is it about these two significant factors – albeit one more obvious than the other – that influence our upbringing and the ways we continue to self-identify once we enter the ‘real world’?

For me, all directions point to the notion of tikkun olam.  My parents have led by example, ultimately inspiring me to find my own path of repairing the world at each stage of my life thus far.  My sister and I have chosen professional paths that on the surface level seem quite different, though we ultimately each identified a population for which we want to dedicate our lives and efforts to impact in a positive way.  See, it really does come back to tikkun olam as it passes along the generations.

As a fellow in the ConnectGens Fellowship Program powered by PresenTense, I am privileged to meet with like-minded individuals who are driven to create change.  Each fellow has been accepted to the program in order to develop a venture into a reality, utilizing assets of the community – and most of all each other – to work through the challenges involved with social entrepreneurship.  The ventures range from activities to spur thought-provoking conversations in DC to providing an innovative lens through which the world can view the story of Israel today, capturing stories of anyone who is willing to share (keep reading for a personal plug below…). Though we don’t have all the answers, we are taking the opportunity to collaborate with one another and more importantly to challenge each other to think in different ways and ask difficult questions.

Though fellows and ventures vary across age, geographic location, and target audience, they all stem from the same foundation of closing a gap that exists in the broad Jewish community, in turn repairing the world in our own way.  Would it be fair to say that the desire to create positive change is part of our identities, of who we are as social entrepreneur fellows and as Jews, and from where we come? I am confident to say yes, as some of this year’s fellows have their own children and are rightfully setting the example of creating the change they long to see in the communities around them.

So yes, Jews talk – but we also listen. We listen to the needs of our community and the actions of those who came before us, and make the conscious decision to act in a way that will help others.  It is my hope that this is the example my generation continues to follow, and that we continue to talk – as we are already leading the path for others.

As promised, a few words about my venture. I am working with two friends – both participants of the 2011 Alumni Leadership Mission – to create the infrastructure to have agencies and organizations send packages to Lone Soldiers who serve in the Israeli army.  About 2,800 Lone Soldiers leave their homes and families all over the world to serve in the Israeli army each year.  Some of them have relatives on the ground in Israel, but most do not.  Our venture also includes a community building aspect to foster relationships between local Jewish communities and the Lone Soldiers in Israel. Please contact thelonesoldierproject@gmail.com or @lonesoldierproj if you are interested in learning more about the project!

 

 

 

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Take Your Time… and Proofread! GTJ Dating Series with Erika E. (week 29)

When you’re putting yourself out there in the vast online dating pool, it’s important to take the time to read and re-read your profile to make sure that “your” not messing up easy words and hurting your chance to find the perfect match.  Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the authors of the book “Nudge” (which has nothing to do with my business), point out that it’s often the important decisions – the 401(k) and the health care plan – that get the shaft, while we spend more time and energy doing the much smaller tasks.  As they observe, “… 58 percent [of those in a survey] spent less than one hour determining both their contribution rate and investment decisions [for their 401(k)].  Most people spend more time than that picking a new tennis racket or television set.”  They also note that once the investment decision is made, the choices are rarely, if ever, looked at again.

The same is true for online dating.  Most people think that writing an online dating profile is a one-time affair, and they rarely change it based on its success (or lack thereof).  They also try to write it as quickly as humanly possible.  But this is one thing that you really should spend your time on.  You’re putting yourself out there for the world to see, so you might as well put your best foot forward.  When was the last time you even read what you wrote in your profile that fateful day when you signed up for JDate?  If you can’t remember, or if you have to look back at your profile when someone sends an e-mail referencing something in it, it’s been too long.

When you’re finally done writing your profile – having spent the appropriate amount of time on it, of course – I can’t stress enough the importance of getting yourself an “unpaid intern” (a.k.a. a friend, brother, mother, etc.) to read through it just in case you missed anything.  Oftentimes, the language of online dating gets mangled.  It’s like we have a new vocabulary, one that wouldn’t make our high school English teachers proud.  I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t go out with a reformed “cereal dater” (I prefer oatmeal), someone who rides the “stationery” bike (to write notes?), or someone who wants an “intellagent” partner (hmm…).

A final word: As I said earlier, no one is perfect.  Maybe your new beau or babe will be a terrible speller but great at storytelling, identifying different kinds of butterflies based on their wingspan, or doing calculus.  Everyone is smart in a different way, so it’s important to decide if some initial “flaw” is really a deal-breaker for you.  Either way, give your profile the final once-over just in case, because no one wants to go out with someone who is “humerus” – arms just aren’t that funny.

Erika Ettin is the Founder of A Little Nudge, where she offers services from online dating profile-writing to e-mailing potential matches to planning dates. An archive of all of Erika’s columns is also available. Want to connect with Erika? Join her newsletter for updates and tips.

This article was also posted in JMag, the online magazine for JDate.com.

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GTJ’s favorite time to Gather the Jews

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Why Giving Truly is Receiving

An old Christian proverb proclaims that it is “better to give than to receive.” By contrast, in Judaism, we believe that to give is to receive! This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, inspires us with this timeless and important message.

Parshat Terumah begins with G-d instructing Moshe (Moses) to tell the Israelites to contribute something to the construction of the Tabernacle where the tablets of the Ten Commandments will be kept and G-d’s presence will dwell. G-d’s word-choice in saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take Me a donation” is curious. Our rabbis ask why the verse says to take for me a donation. Why not simply instruct the Jewish people to give a donation? Sforno comments that this command was directed to the tribal leaders, who were expected to take or collect voluntary donations rather than levy a tax on the populace.[1]

However, there is another interpretation that demonstrates how this verse is meant to illustrate the Torah’s view of giving. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 34) teaches that: “More than the benefactor benefits the pauper, the pauper benefits the benefactor.”[2] Expanding on this idea, MeAm Lo’ez explains that “when one gives a poor person a gift, he is not really giving, but taking. What the donor gives the beggar is limited and temporary, and it eventually vanishes. The reward for giving the charity, however, is infinite and unlimited. It is something spiritual that endures forever in the world-to-come.”[3]

This concept fundamentally shapes how we view charitable giving. In Judaism giving charity or tzedaka is a mitzvah (Torah commandment). G-d created a world in which there are enough resources for everyone, but their distribution is in the hands of humanity. The Talmud (Baba Basra 10a) relates that the wicked Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, “If your God loves the poor so much, why then doesn’t He provide for them?” Rabbi Akiva responded that G-d could easily provide personally for the poor, but He chose to give us the merit of giving tzedaka (charity) to save us from Gehinnom (netherworld).[4] With this understanding we can see why charity is in fact, an inaccurate translation of the word, tzedaka.

Tzedaka actually means justice. Charity denotes giving when one is feeling inspired, generous, or ‘in the mood’ to give. Tzedeka, on the other hand, is an opportunity and an obligation to assist G-d in repairing a world fractured by economic disparity and strife. While a poor person and a worthy cause or institution certainly benefits from the generosity of the giver, the giver is actually gaining infinitely more by connecting with G-d through performing the mitzvah of tzedaka and thereby making the world a more G-dly place.

That’s not all. A recent study discussed in the journal, Science has shown that people are actually happier when spending money on gifts for others and/or making charitable contributions than they are when they are spending money on themselves! Unfortunately, many spend a disproportionately small amount of their income on things that benefit others.[5] By using the word take rather than give, the Torah is teaching us that giving is the gift that keeps on giving. The merit we earn for helping others will continue to accumulate interest for eternity so go on and be selfish…Give more!

[1] The Stone Edition Chumash, Artscroll, 445

[2] “Do You Get Charity?” Naftali Silberberg, Chabad.org

[3] The Torah Anthology. Me’Am Lo’ez “The Tabernacle” Exodus VI vol. 9, page 9

[4] “Supporting the Supporter” Aish.com

[5] “Do You Get Charity” Naftali Silberberg, Chabad.org

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2012 Purim Events

Hamentashen > Latkes

We think we’ve got all of ‘em, but if you know of something that’s not on here, let Stephen know (stephen@gatherthejews.com)

The Fast of Esther is observed on Wednesday, 3/7.  The fast begins at 5:19 a.m. and ends at 6:47 p.m.

Have an amazing Purim and make sure to wear costumes!

 

 

 

 

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Kosher Onion Soup

Classic onion soup is made with beef broth and topped with melted cheese.  That combo is obviously a no-go for kosher eaters.  Since the cheese is the best part, I decided to sacrifice the beef broth.  Between the options of vegetable stock and vegetarian beef-flavored stock (several brands make boullion), the latter has more oomph, so I went with that option.  The recipe below is based on one by Giada diLaurentis, with a few changes.

Total time: 40 min.

Yield: 4 servings

Level: Easy

Recipe

© Courtney Weiner.  All Rights Reserved.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large Vidalia onions, halved and sliced
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons cooking sherry or dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 4 cups vegetarian beef-flavored broth
  • 4 slices baguette, toasted
  • 4 ounces (or more) grated gruyere cheese

Directions

In a medium, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the sherry or wine, and cook briefly, loosening any bits that have stuck to the pot.  Add the thyme and broth. Simmer, uncovered, until the onions are soft, about 15 minutes.

Divide the soup between the 4 ovenproof ramekins. Place one slice of bread on top of each ramekin. Top each with cheese. Place under the broiler, until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

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Israeli Sensation Idan Raichel coming to Sixth & I!

Middle Eastern music, African sounds and Hebrew words! These are just some of the ingredients that make Idan Raichel’s music unique and fascinating and which, on March 7th, will transform the Historic Synagogue at Sixth & I into a temple of music. The 34-year-old Israeli artist is famous across the globe thanks to his international group, The Idan Raichel Project, which first became known on the Israeli musical scene in 2002 and, within the space of very few years, turned into an international sensation.

About 60 musicians total, from different parts of the world, contribute to producing music that, although it can be defined as international, always has a Middle Eastern “flavor” in every song. Different songs and rhythms are woven together on stage and, while most of the songs are in Hebrew, your ears should be prepared for Arabic, Spanish, English, Yemenite, Hindi and even Amharic (Ethiopian.)

Raichel’s songs touch on the main problems of modern society. To quote The Jewish Journal, the singer “has both a gift for creating beautiful music and the courage to spread a message. He preaches universalism, the power of shunning labels and celebrating humanity.”  He sings about world peace and friendship, human relationships and their problems and — of course – love, love, love! The topics is his songs range from the difficulties of expressing feelings (“Chalomot shel ‘acherim” or “Milim yafot me ‘elle”) to common couples’ misunderstandings (“Medaberrim be sheket” or “Im telech”). However, for each problem there is a solution because, as Idan himself sings in one of his most famous songs, “Hakol over” – everything shall pass.

His musical education, humanitarian activism, work as a producer, and love for Israel all contribute to creating his beautiful pieces. The first four albums starting with his eponymous album “The Idan Raichel Project,” offered in both a Hebrew and an English version and have all received international acclaim. Recently, the group produced a new album called “Traveling Home.” This three-CD album is the group’s first live recording and contains both old hits and new tracks.

For tickets, click here.  And stay tuned for further GTJ coverage of this amazing event!

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The Science of Love – GTJ Dating Series with Erika E. (week 28)

Do science and love mix?  Many online dating sites provide users with daily or weekly suggested “matches,” or simply pick your matches for you, claiming to have the magic scientific formula for success.  eHarmony, for example, requires you to fill out a long (I’m talking at least an hour) “personality profile.”  Chemistry.com has you take a personality test, similar to Myers-Briggs, that “reveal[s] your personality type [to] see what makes you tick.”  For both of these sites, the premise is that similar people attract each other.  Taking a slightly different approach, OkCupid provides you with a “match percentage,” based on how your answers to certain questions compare to someone else’s.  The questions range from the more serious, “Do you like to discuss politics?” to the absurd, “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”  OkCupid designed the site so that you can use the match percentage if you want, but they leave it up to you.  OkCupid’s founder Sam Yagan agrees that similar people make the best matches, recently saying, “We [at OkCupid] say that opposites attract… and then attack.”

Earlier this month, a group of psychology professors (one of whom happened to be in my a cappella group at Cornell – small world, right?) released a report questioning these algorithms’ accuracy.  The authors found that, while they might be a good way to reduce the sheer number of potential partners on an online dating site, they are no better at creating success stories than two people put together at random.  The authors don’t say that online dating is bad.  In fact, they conclude that the best part of online dating is that the sites bring people together who wouldn’t have met otherwise.  It’s the “science” behind the websites’ claims, or their matching processes, that the authors refute.  Eli Finkel, the lead researcher, said, “Eighty years of relationship science has reliably shown you can’t predict whether a relationship succeeds based on information about people who are unaware of each other… The assumption is that the algorithms work.  We reviewed the literature and feel safe to conclude they do not.”

Sites like JDate and Match.com have come to a good balance.  In addition to providing you with “matches,” the sites simply let you browse the database to find people on your own.  This allows, say, a man in Chicago to communicate with a woman in DC because he’s planning to move here in three months.  On a site like eHarmony, however, this guy will never even be shown profiles outside of his own location.

In the end, take the sites’ suggested matches with a grain of salt.  Maybe someone in there will strike your fancy.  Maybe not.  No one is better able to predict whether you like someone than you, and it will still always take an in-person meeting to know if you have the right connection.

Now, I’ll put the question to you out there… Do you think that online services add value to the dating game with their supposed algorithms, or should just they leave it to us to decide who might be the best fit?  (Feel free to use the comments section for your responses.)

Erika Ettin is the Founder of A Little Nudge, where she helps people stand out from the online dating crowd and have a rewarding experience. An archive of all of Erika’s columns is also available.  Want to connect with Erika?  Join her newsletter for updates and tips.

Got burning questions you want answered in a future post?  Email date411@alittlenudge.com

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DC Jews: Disenfranchised or Just Complaining?

Stephen Richer is President of Gather the Jews.  Do not blame GTJ as an organization for this article’s shortcomings or Stephen’s personal shortcomings.

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Given the large number of lawyers in the young Jewish adult community, this story is too good to pass up… Even though I’m a little late to the punch.

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Rabbi Herzfeld. Picture from the Jewish Outreach Institute

On January 6, 2012, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of DC’s Ohev Sholom synagogue (and friend of this site) finalized a settlement with DC Mayor Vincent Gray and the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics (“The Board”).

The settlement resolves a case that launched on April 13, 2011, when Rabbi Herzfled filed a complaint against The Board for holding a special election on April 26, 2011 – the last day of Passover.  As Herzfeld noted, and as most readers of this website can probably tell you, Orthodox Jews are religiously proscribed from writing on the final day of Passover – a ban that would keep them from voting.

When Herzfeld originally brought the issue to the attention of The Board, the election officials said that “their hands were tied” by the DC law that requires a special election to be held on the first Tuesday that is at least 114 days after the vacancy is certified.

Herzfeld requested that if The Board couldn’t change the date, it should extend poll closing time by two hours, from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm, thereby allowing observant Jews to run to polls immediately after sundown.  The Board responded that the logistics of this would be impossible; they could not, at late notice, arrange for all 142 polling places to stay open two extra hours.

But The Board did not ignore the potential hardship caused by the date of election.  In light of the scheduling conflict, The Board arranged for absentee ballots, early voting ballots, and it even setup absentee ballot applications at several synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Steven Lieberman. Picture from Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, P.C.

Still, Herzfeld felt that this was not good enough, and he filed a suit alleging that The Board had violated the First (Freedom of Religion) and Fifth (Due Process) Amendment rights of DC’s observant Jews.  Herzfeld’s long-time friend and legal counselor Steven Lieberman (Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, P.C.) served as Herzfeld’s lawyer.

According to Lieberman, Herzfeld proceeded with the suit because “he saw that he would be unable to go to the polls and vote in this special election.  He considered it an important civic duty.”  Lieberman proceeded to say that the early voting measures taken by The Board “were inadequate” and that many in the Orthodox Jewish community would be effectively disenfranchised.

Not everyone in the Jewish community took this line, however, and some even rejected the ideas behind Herzfeld’s suit.  Rabbi Barry Freundel – the dynamo of Georgetown’s Kesher Israel Synagogue – filed a statement with the court on April 15, 2011 stating that,

“It is my view that, while it is unfortunate that by operation of law the election falls on the last day of Passover, and I am, therefore, unable to vote at a polling station on that day because of my religious beliefs, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics has made a fair and reasonable accommodation for me and my similarly situated congregants by having an early voting process and by being willing, if requested, to deliver absentee ballots for eligible voters to the synagogues on a Sunday before the election.”

Rabbi Freundel. Picture from Kesher Congregant

Over the phone, Freundel  remarked that there could be some potential backlash to the Herzfeld suit.  “[The Board] was remarkably, remarkably flexible.  [Herzfeld] potentially made enemies with a lot of people who were working to accommodate the Jewish community.”

Lieberman responded – on a separate phone call – to Freundel’s actions with some vitriol, “Rabbi Freundel was just wrong.  For whatever reason, Rabbi Freundel decided that he wanted to pander to the District of Columbia.  He made a statement that was not in the interests of the Jewish community or his congregants.  I thought it was shocking that an Orthodox rabbi would take that position.”

Undeterred by Freundel’s signed statement, Herzfeld and Lieberman pushed on.  By this point they couldn’t get change things to their liking for the special election day, but they could win a battle for the future.

Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, Herzfeld and Lieberman argued that surely The Board wouldn’t have remained as inflexible had the special election day landed on Christmas.  The Board countered that it, in fact, would have.  Judge Sullivan expressed skepticism and hoped that all necessary steps would be taken in the future to avoid such a conflict.

The ramifications of the constitutional assertion – that The Board violated the First and Fifth Amendments of observant DC Jews – extends beyond this DC election.   The much-watched and much-discussed South Carolina GOP primary took place on January 21, 2012 – a Saturday.  The polls opened at 7:00 AM and closed at 7:00 PM (2012 Election Central).  Orthodox Jews are also not allowed to write on Saturday, and Havdallah (Shabbat closing prayers) took place at 5:58 PM on the 21st, hardly enough time to finish prayers and get to the polls.  Would Herzfeld and Lieberman argue that the South Carolina GOP also violated the First and Fifth Amendments?

Must government constitutionally avoid conflict with religions?  Is it enough that the government doesn’t actively prohibit or suppress the practice of a religion?  Or must the government draft its laws and set its dates with religions in mind?

If it must, then what about a hypothetical situation in which new religions emerge and every day of the week is filled with a day of rest (Jews Saturday, Christians Sunday, Group A Monday, etc.)?  Would governments be unable to schedule elections because it would inevitably conflict with the holy day of one religion?  Certainly the government couldn’t say the size of the religion dictates whether or not the religion has constitutional protection – it would be a true First Amendment violation to elevate one religion over another.

It certainly would be nice if elections avoided conflict with religions (much the same way you wouldn’t want to schedule a vote on the day of the Super Bowl), but does the Constitution mandate this?  Must government accommodate religion?  Or just allow for its free practice?

Ilya Shapiro. Picture from the Cato Institute

When asked the question, Ilya Shapiro – Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute –  stated,  “Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the District of Columbia has the better of the argument here.  The Constitution doesn’t even demand that D.C. accommodate those unable to vote on election day (for religious reasons or otherwise), though absentee ballots are good public policy.”

But for better or for worse, this issue will not be resolved through Herzfeld’s recent suit.   As noted at the beginning of this article, Herzfeld and Lieberman came to an agreement with The Board and Mayor Gray on January 6, 2012 that new legislative measures would be introduced to accommodate for future religious conflicts.

This seems an eminently practical solution.  But it does not answer the Constitutional question.  Perhaps I’ll bring a few experts (Nat and Alyza Lewin are you out there?) to shed further light on this topic.

Apologies for the long post, but this is really interesting subject with a great local spin!

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Since writing this article, The New York Times has posted this article on the Saturday caucus going in Nevada.

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NeXus: Exploring the Jewish Journey. Class 1

Jodi Tirengel is on the GTJ leadership team and is head of Jewish Guy/Girl of the Week and co-director of GTJ events.

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“You haven’t taken NeXus yet?” This was the most popular question I heard when I told friends I had enrolled in the course. Offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, NeXus is a six-part series designed to teach young professionals about the Federation’s role in our community and how we fit into it.

The looks of shock and awe I witnessed when I discussed my plans to take NeXus may be a result of the fact that I am not particularly new to the local Jewish community. In 2010, I embarked on a journey to learn about the Federation’s role overseas by participating in D.C.’s first Birthright Alumni Leadership Mission. On this trip, we visited partner agencies to witness the impact firsthand. In only one week, we saw a broad range of organizations that the Federation supports. From a recreational facility for the disabled to an Ethiopian absorption center and everything in between, it was amazing to see the organization’s reach.

When I returned from the leadership mission, I had the opportunity to become a Vice Chair of Engagement on the Federation’s Young Leadership board. NeXus felt like the neXt (forgive me) best step for me to take to learn more about the broader Jewish community and how I could continue my involvement. Admittedly, I did not know what the experience would be like. I stepped into my first class unsure of what to expect.

I entered a room filled with 31 other young professionals. We began the night with an icebreaker, sharing stories about ourselves in order to find someone with whom we had something in common. It was interesting to see how many overlaps there were: favorite sports teams, hometowns, and career fields were all bonding points for those in our group. We then had the opportunity to discuss our Jewish journeys. We were encouraged to draw outlines of our paths through Judaism and how they helped us arrive to the place we currently are. Once again, there was a great deal of overlap: Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Jewish camp, Birthright. It was interesting to see how much we had in common that had brought us all to this room.

After we concluded this activity, Shelly Kupfer, National Young Leadership Co-Chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, spoke about her own Jewish journey. A local small business owner, Shelly told us about her involvement with the National Young Leadership Cabinet. The Cabinet is composed of 200 young professionals from all over the country who meet at annual retreats and conferences to build stronger Jewish communities locally and abroad. Shelly chose to get involved after learning about the integral role that donations from the Federation played in helping a family of Russian immigrants build better lives for themselves in the United States. The story brought her to tears.

I heard a similar story while attending Tribefest, the Federation’s national conference for young professionals, last year. Alina Gerlovin Spaulding memorably spoke about how, without the work of the Federation, she would not have had the opportunity to lead the life she does today. Her father, an Olympic hopeful, nearly died after an injury. As Jews in the former Soviet Union, her family was persecuted. Refugees for months, they were relocated when Gerlovin Spaulding was just five years old. Donations helped save her father when he received medical care in the US. During a visit in which she returned to her hometown, Gerlovin Spaulding adopted a girl whose parents told her that she would not be able to accomplish her dreams if she stayed in Ukraine. Like Shelly, hearing this story brought me to tears. Reflecting on these experiences caused me to leave my first class thinking about the global impact of the Jewish Federation. The leadership opportunities that I have had locally have given me a new perspective on how the work being done here in D.C. has the ability to change the lives of Jews abroad. Through NeXus, I look forward to hearing their stories.

 

 

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Run for a Founding Father and Support a Jewish Initiative

Headstone and grave of the matriarch of the Levy family, Rachel Levy. The plot is located on Monticello, but not in Jefferson family official burial plot.

Moses Goldwater is a community contributor to GTJ. The opinions in this piece are his own and do not represent a GTJ institutional stance.

On May 5, 2012, there is a 5K race on the Saunders-Monticello trail with all proceeds going to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF).  But where is the Saunders-Monticello trail you ask?  It is just outside of Charlottesville, VA (a three hour drive from DC) and runs up to the estate of Thomas Jefferson (if you have ever seen a nickel, you have seen a “picture” of Monticello before).

So what’s the Jewish connection?

There would be no Monticello today if it were not for the Jews, in particular US Navy Commodore Uriah P. Levy and his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy.

Thomas Jefferson, like many of the founding fathers, lived beyond his means and died in debt.   To appease creditors, his heirs sold off the estate and much of its contents.  The subsequent owner did little to preserve the estate so, eight years after Thomas Jefferson died, the Levy family purchased the estate. Over the next 89 years, they did their best to refurbish it and recover Jefferson’s treasures.   (Monticello is now a National Historic Landmark and owned by the TJF.)

Whether you admire, question, or even know much of about the life of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello is a must-see.   Besides being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Jefferson was, among other things, a self-taught architect, an inventor, a historian, and an avid book collector (in one corner of Monticello, you can see Jefferson’s multiple copies of Don Quixote in different languages).

The tour of Monticello pulls no punches; it acknowledges the children Jefferson fathered out of wedlock with his slaves, but it is only recently that the Levy family’s contribution was recognized.  So whether you are runner, a patriot, or just looking for an excuse to explore some of the vineyards in Central Virginia, a tour of Monticello is an excellent weekend trip made possible, in part, by the Levy family.

To sign up for the 5K, click here.

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