Friday, February 25, 2022

Support the Jewish Communities of the Ukraine in their Time of Need

 I have been asked many questions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, about the Jewish community there, and how we can help.


First,  the Masorti Olami movement (Conservative Judaism in the world) has 4 synagogue communities in the Ukraine which are in immediate need of support.  Families from the east 3 communities are being moved in every way possible to the quieter fourth community in the western half of the country, near Moldova.  There we are supporting them, and preparing for a possible emergency aliyah.  You can support and learn more about this effort here.  Please choose “specific community” and write in Ukraine, if you wish.  This will support specific families in need immediately.

Second, our Greater MetroWest Jewish Community Federation is deeply involved in the Ukraine already.  Many of us have attended missions and programs that have taken us to Odessa, Kiev, and our summer youth camps in Cherkasy.  The Federation has immediate channels open to engage financially, socially, educationally and politically to support the broad community infrastructure of JCC’s, food and elderly support systems, schools and more.  This is a major basic reason why we give to the UJA campaign here, and by doing so you will strengthen our ability to support the Jewish community there in Ukraine through this crisis.


Prior to World War II, and the Shoah, it is estimated that 1.5 million Jews lived in the Ukraine.  From enlightenment, secular yiddish, religious and zionist communities in Odessa to widespread chasidic and traditional agrarian communities throughout the countryside, Ukraine had a long history as a major Jewish regional center.  Names like Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav come from this region. It is understood that 1 million of those were murdered in the Shoah, and today there are approximately 400,000 “culturally Jewish” people and about 40,000 “affiliated” Jews in the Ukraine.  They are centered in a half dozen cities and a several dozen synagogues and community centers which have flourished in partnership with the American Jewish community and Israel.

A more complete description of the Ukrainian Jewish community can be found in this article from The Forward, based on AJC demographics.


This week, Russia invaded the Ukraine.  Sadly, this is not new in European history, nor is it new in our lifetimes. From the Tsars to the Soviets this is an old legacy.  Putin’s invasion by land, sea and air seems aimed at immediate command and control of air superiority, including air infrastructure on the ground in the Ukraine, and controlling strategic corridors throughout the central and eastern regions of the country. This is the logical first phase of a complete conquest strategy.  The goal, as stated, is to disarm Ukraine completely, and - evidently - to topple the fairly elected government and install one favorable to Russian ethnic groups in the country and Russian ambitions in the region.

Ukraine is a deeply divided country ethnically and politically, with Russian and Ukrainian cultural regions roughly splitting the country between the east and west sides of the Dniper River. You can see how the river system divides the country in this google map.   The two major political parties split roughly along these ethnic divides as “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian.”  National elections since the fall of the Soviet Union have never shown a majority support for either major political camp’s party, but neither side has ever received less than 40% of the vote either.  A helpful wikipedia article, with colored graphic maps demonstrates this here.

In 2014 there was massive upheaval as a pro-Russian prime minister was elected, but not accepted by the West or the opposition due to accusations of voter fraud.  Protests forced him to resign, and flee to Russia and a pro-western government was then able to ascend by legal means.  The far eastern provinces experienced a pro-Russian rejection of this “Orange Revolution,” naming it a coup. Russia agreed with that assessment, but the west did not.  Russia subsequently supported the rebels in creating an autonomous enclave in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.  Russia then outright annexed the Crimean Peninsula - which was relatively popular in Crimea but not in the rest of the world.

There were two rounds of diplomacy between 2014 and 2017, named Minsk 1 and Minsk 2, which created an imperfect cease fire between Ukrainian and these various separatist forces in the east, which held until recent months.  For reasons not entirely clear, Russia has chosen this time to reassert its objections over the pro-western Ukrainian government and has decided to use its overwhelming military force to invade and eliminate the democratic government in the capital of Kiev (Ukranian: Kiv).  At that time I gave a sermon/analysis of the conflict and predicted that Russia would continue to agitate, until it had control of the eastern half of the country up to Dniper and everything south to the Black Sea. People thought I was pessimistic.  It seams I underestimated Putin's avarice.

Which brings us up to date.


As a final note, while the “pro-Western” political parties did wish to join NATO and the European Union, neither goal was ever achieved.  The United States, NATO and the EU have NO FORMAL ALLEGIANCE to Ukraine, and no obligation of any kind to defend it.  That is why US policy at this point has been to fortify NATO countries that border the conflict, and to otherwise stand back physically while sanctioning Russia politically and economically for its behavior.  For its part, eliminating a Ukrainian Army that might have become NATO allied is a major strategic benefit for Putin. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Time to end the "no knock warrant"

In parshat mishpatim, two weeks ago, it is clear that if someone is breaking into your home in the night, you are to assume that they opposed a mortal threat to you and you can use deadly force to repel them with no fear of consequence.  

If the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is bloodguilt in that case. (Exodus 22:1-2)

The rabbinic tradition affirms this in Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:6:

[A thief] who tunnels his way in is judged on account of its [probable] outcome: If he broke through and broke a jug, should there be bloodguilt for him, he must pay [for the jug he broke], but if there is no bloodguilt for him, he is not liable.

Amir Locke, a 22 year old man, was murdered by the Minneapolis police policy of no knock warrants on February 2, 2022.

The entire scenario was a set up, where police and citizens alike were predictably placed into a life threatening conflict.  In a series of terrible facts, Amir was not the subject of the warrant when he was killed.  He was in his own home.  He legally owned his gun.  The police moved in, waking him - dark figures coming at him with guns drawn.  He reached for his gun, and now what are the police supposed to do?  They shot and killed him, sensing that he was  - correctly - going to use his gun against them.  The entire thing should never have happened.  But Amir Locke did nothing wrong, and he is now dead.  The policy, the judge and the officers all pulled the trigger.

Fact: citizens sleeping in their homes have a constitutional right to have loaded weapons easily at hand to protect themselves from violent home intrusions.

Fact: no-knock warrants - by design and intent - look just like an armed intruder when they enter the home.

If I were in bed with a legal gun in my home and someone broke through the door without announcing themselves, I would shoot.  It is the exact reason why anyone would have a gun in their home. What other possible outcome can you expect?

The tremendous stupidity of no-knock warrants is justified by the argument that armed bad guys named in the warrant need to be surprised and taken when they are vulnerable.  Perhaps they could destroy evidence if given the warning.  Not good enough.  And here are some examples to prove it:

December 2013, in Texas, Henry Magee shot and killed a police officer during a pre-down, no-knock drug raid on his home.  In February 2014, a grand jury declined to indict him, supporting his reasonable assumption of self-defense.  What did they find in the home?  A few home-grown marijuana plants.

In May, 2015, also in Texas, Marvin Guy did the same thing in the same circumstance.  The grand jury in that case did indict him with murder of a law officer.  7 years later he is still in jail without a trail, where he will eventually face the death penalty.  What did they find in the home?  Nothing.

Two dead cops for warrants on non-violent drug crimes in completely avoidable circumstances.  In the same state, two completely different outcomes.  What of equal protection?  The whole scenario is capricious and deadly.

But cops aren't the only victims, of course.  Innocent civilians victimized by the practice include a severely burned 19 month old in GA (2014) from a flash grenade, a killed 7 year old girl in Detroit (2010), and of course we now should all be aware of the killing of Breanna Taylor in Louiseville in 2020.

According to Time magazine, from 2010 through 2016, at least 81 civilians and 13 officers died during SWAT raids, including 31 civilians and eight officers during execution of no-knock warrants.

In 2006 already, the CATO institute published a scathing report about the over-militarization of police raids and their consequences.

The no-knock warrant's benefit is not worth the risk.

Monday, February 7, 2022

The Ever Changing Mask Standards

The numbers are getting better again.  Shouldn't that mean something?

In the height of the Omicron surge, my synagogue imposed a 100% indoor mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status and cancelled all indoor eating and drinking.  I completely agreed with that.

During the conversation, however, it was suggested that "in retrospect" perhaps the fact that in May 2020 we were shut down, in July 2020 we were masked, in summer 2021 we were unmasked but now we are fully masked again.... that this shows "we were too hasty in lightening up on our mandates before." I disagree with that assessment.  Here is why:

Being vigilant means being very attentive to the scientific progression of the virus in our community.  It means surveillance, because facts matter.  At times, such as the Delta surge, a deadly variant was increasing in our region.  High transmission rates resulted in high infection rates, ultimately showing higher hospitalizations and increased deaths.  Our vigilant monitoring of those facts indicated early that we should take on stricter modes of prevention before the numbers got out of hand, which we did in combination with the High Holy Days last fall.  As the numbers decreased in November, it looked like we could lighten up a bit, but Omicron came raging in and we actually had to become more strict.  

An attentive, responsible person following the science can change their protocols forward and backwards appropriately depending on the conditions on the ground. Like driving on dry, wet, snowy and then icy pavement, a good driver can make different decisions, back and forth, as the physics of the situation develop.  Only a fool does not change their driving based on conditions.  Masks and mandates are the same.

It is foolish to approach COVID as an absolute - in either direction.  The mask denier, who ignores the facts that masks mitigate spread - simply because masks don't stop the spread - is engaged in a willful self-deception.  Masks help.  They don't cure.  They are a weak prophylactic, but they are not completely worthless.  In a time of surging contagion, it is reasonable to increase - even mandate - masks.

On the other hand, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds, no?  Forcing masks regardless of the measurement of COVID in the community is indefensible.  There must come a time when the surveillance of COVID in the field tells us that the risks are low enough to remove our masks. Sure, we might debate the number that triggers that, but the number is a real number greater than zero.  There does come a time.  I believe that time is rapidly approaching.  This morning Governor Murphy announced that masking mandates in NJ schools will be lifted in mid-March.

The only moral hesitation would be to protect the innocent.  Last summer, due to high numbers of unvaccinated people - innocent or deliberate - any spread was a significant threat to a significant number of people.  Now, with the unvaccinated being only infants and people who have chosen that risk, I would argue that the moral mandate to protect the vulnerable is rapidly coming to a close. 

Here are the numbers today in Essex County NJ, where I live. 

Infection Rate:  0.39    (Excellent, and trending even lower)

Daily New Cases/100k   :    23.1 (Very good, and trending lower rapidly)

Hospital and Death: Very low and getting lower.

Vaccination:    (86.6% and increasing)

So - My own personal conclusion is that we are nearly back to the numbers from last summer, and have hit the equivalent of driving on dry pavement - albeit in winter.  I am ready to go 55 again but I will be vigilant in my surveillance of the facts on the ground, as always.  In large and public indoor places I am likely to wear my mask for a while.  If I am standing alone in a large room to give a talk or a sermon, distant from people, I might take my mask off to be better understood.  In smaller environments, I am comfortable without masks.  In quick trips in and out of a corner store, f I don't have my mask I am okay with that.  

And - of course - I will always respectfully follow the rules of any establishment or home, public or private.  But honestly, shouldn't we do that any ways?!

Changing protocols only mean that we are paying attention.  Onwards.

Scan the QR code for the most up to date statistics in Essex County.