Tu B’Shevat: Harbinger of Spring and More

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month Shevat) is not well-known or widely celebrated. That is a shame, since the holiday has a festive tone and imparts important contemporary lessons. It helps us mark time, it honors our earth and our partnership with its Creator, and it connects us to our biblical Israeli roots.

This Jewish holiday is not one that is mentioned in the Torah. Work is not prohibited and there are no special Tu B’Shevat prayers (in fact, some regular prayers are specifically omitted). The Rabbis, in the Mishnah (oral law), teach that Tu B’Shevat is the Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, for trees. As environmentally sensitive as celebrating trees’ birthdays may sound today, the historical and practical reason was to know when to begin the harvest and when to tithe the fruits for the Temple.

The Jewish people have a long tradition of appreciating trees. There are laws about when to eat fruit and when to let trees rest. There are laws prohibiting the cutting down of fruit trees when a city is besieged. There is a tradition to plant a cedar tree for a baby boy and a cypress tree for a baby girl, the idea being that the children would care for the trees and use them as poles for their chuppahs on their wedding days.

Today, with our changing environment, Tu B’Shevat offers the chance to perform the mitzvah of tikkun olam (repair the world). When we plant trees in Israel (a long-standing holiday tradition), we literally and physically recognize our responsibility to repair the damage we have inflicted on the earth. We also repair the spiritual damage we have done to ourselves and to our environment by taking both for granted. The day encourages us to appreciate the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

Tu B’Shevat also connects Diaspora Jews to the land of Israel. It is a holiday deeply rooted in Israeli soil. While our trees are bare-branched and our soil is frozen at this time of year, in Israel the appearance of the first buds signal the beginning of spring. It is customary to eat fruits and grains identified in the Torah. These seven foods or “seven species” (wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes) are indigenous to Israel (See recipes, page 21).

Finally, Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to come together as a Jewish community. Thanks to the 16th century Kabbalists, who developed a Tu B’Shevat seder loosely modeled after the Passover seder, we have a ritual that imbues eating the seven species with spirituality and reverence. We gather in celebration, to praise God as we honor the fruit of Eretz Yisrael.

Tu B’Shevat is a day to praise and connect to Israel and the strength and holiness of its soil. It is a day to come together as a community and celebrate and revere the gift of our physical and spiritual environments. It is a day when being called a “tree-hugger” takes on religious meaning.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on January 29, 2015.

A Crusader for Truth and Justice: An Interview with Daniel Mael

When Brandeis University classrooms reopened on January 13, senior Daniel Mael was free to move around campus without restriction. That is because on January 9 university officials rescinded a No Contact Order on the student journalist, Dean’s List student, pro-Israel activist and athlete. The order forbade Mael from being in the same physical location as another student who had petitioned the university administration to “hold Mael accountable” for comments Mael had posted on the website Truth Revolt.org.

It all started after the death of the two New York City police officers who were ambushed and murdered in seeming revenge for the unrelated killings of two black men by policemen. When Brandeis junior Khadijah Lynch, an African and Afro-American Studies major who served as an adviser to other undergraduate students, tweeted on December 20, “I have no sympathy for the NYPD officers who were murdered today,” and, I hate this racist f******g country,” Mael wrote an article at TruthRevolt.org, a conservative website he regularly contributes to, republishing these and other Lynch tweets.

Previous Lynch tweets referenced the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri in August, stating, “the fact that black people have not burned this country down is beyond me,” “amerikka needs an intifada,” and “I am in riot mode.”

The text of Mael’s article is located at truthrevolt.org/news/studentleader- no-sympathy-executed-nypd-officers.

“She was a student leader,” Mael said from Jerusalem, where he was vacationing over winter break, explaining why he wrote the article. “I think students on campus deserve to know if there are members of the community who make calls for violence and intifadas in America.

“I write for TruthRevolt because I believe there are important messages to get out. As a journalist, I believe I spread those messages successfully,” he said.

His article, shared widely on social media, had over 500,000 hits and scores of comments maligning Lynch. Lynch’s supporters rallied to her defense. Lynch threatened to sue Mael for slander.

On December 22, Michael Piccione, a Brandeis senior and member of the 2014-15 student conduct board, sent a mass email to Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence, administrators, faculty and students.

The subject line read, “VERY IMPORTANT: Holding Daniel Mael accountable, and other threats to student safety!”

“Hello to all,” it began. “… The safety of one member of the Brandeis community, Khadijah Lynch, has been compromised by another Brandeis student, Daniel Mael.” The email stated that Mael’s TruthRevolt article “has exposed Khadijah to the largely white supremacist following of the website on which he posts, which has led to harassment, death threats, rape threats and excessive hate speech directed to her personal Twitter.”

Piccione continued, “The most pressing concern ought to be the safety of our students” and ended by calling for Mael to be held accountable for his actions. He claimed that Mael had potentially violated multiple parts of Brandeis’ Rights and Responsibilities, including one prohibiting stalking.

Mael had never met Piccione.

Not one Brandeis faculty member or student leader publicly defended Mael. “I was very saddened, but I think it speaks volumes for the current state of affairs at a modern university where there are certain dissenting views that are oftentimes discouraged. People feel intimidated about speaking freely,” Mael said.

Mael did not think he violated Brandeis’ Code of Conduct when he republished Lynch’s tweets. Neither did Alan Dershowitz, the American lawyer, jurist, author, political commentator and outspoken pro-Israel advocate. He published an article on December 27 for newsmax.com titled, “Brandeis Student Shows No Sympathy for Ambushed Cops and Her Critic Is Attacked.”

“Mael had the right — and was right — to expose Lynch’s public words for assessment and criticism,” Dershowitz wrote. “Imagine how different the reaction of these same radical students would be if a white supporter of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) had written comparably incendiary tweets.”

During winter break, Brandeis responded to Piccione’s complaint by slapping a No Contact Order on Mael, forbidding him from being in the same physical location on campus as Piccione. Mael received a phone call and follow-up email from Jamele Adams, Dean of Students, on December 23.

“You are to have no contact with Michael Piccione in any way, shape or form. Please be aware that the same applies to Michael…These measures will remain in place until further notice,” the email stated.

The punishment was imposed without any due process, according to Mael. “My movement on campus was restricted because I wrote an article,” he said.

While the No Contact Order was in effect, President Lawrence wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he stated, “Our university has an unyielding commitment to free speech and expression of ideas. No student would ever be sanctioned for holding a specific point of view. In the spirit of our namesake, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, we will staunchly defend every student’s right to advocate for causes they hold dear.”

Kenneth L. Marcus is president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law, an organization he founded in 2011 to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in American higher education.

“This is outrageous in so many ways,” he said when he learned about the No Contact Order. “When civil rights principles are abused in this way, the victims are not only the Daniel Maels of the world, but also those people who truly are harassed and whose claims will be taken less seriously as a result of the distortion of legal principles.

“But I do think that Daniel will emerge from this stronger than ever, and that it will increase his national exposure in ways that I hope will be useful to him down the road,” Marcus added.

Mael has been interviewed by over 25 publications, including The Times of Israel and on television by Fox News’ Fox & Friends about the Lynch episode and its aftermath.

He was advised by local and campus police to take precautions and not walk alone. “I know the facts,” he said. “We’re in a perilous time. There is racial tension in this country. There are extremists who call for violence and support cop-killing.”

In a meeting with Brandeis public safety officials to discuss threats made against him, he was advised to consider changing his dorm room and that it was a reasonable expectation that his car would be vandalized. It was also recommended he purchase mace.

“My last semester will be sharply changed,” the May 2015 graduate said. “I’m going to take everything on that basis to make sure I’m safe and able to function as a student.”

On January 9, four days before spring semester classes would start, Mael received another email from Dean of Students Adams. This one rescinded the order. The time of the email was a few hours after The Washington Free Beacon broke the story about the restrictive order on freebeacon.com.

“Thank you for respecting the No Contact Order between you and Michael. As there have been no reported incidents from either side of attempting to contact one another, I do not see justification for continuing the (NCO) into the spring semester,” Adams wrote.

Mael transferred to Brandeis as a junior in 2013 from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, after a 2012 Birthright-Israel trip made him realize he wanted access to more Orthodox infrastructure. He said that “never in my wildest dreams” did he imagine these kinds of events happening to him.

Still, he has no regrets, either about transferring or about writing the article for TruthRevolt. org.

“I’d like to believe from the overflowing level of attention that I’ve been successful in being able to connect or at least give a voice to certain people who would otherwise remain voiceless,” he said, pausing.

“I’m just very thankful for the encouragement and support from the community, especially my mother who has been tested in a trying situation and has done her best to be there for me. I am appreciative and thankful,” he said.

The World Needs Another Dreamer

“ I 
have a dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared in a speech on August 28, 1963, in which he called for an end to racism in the United States. That dreamer, who spoke of freedom, equality, dignity and respect for all Americans, united more than 250,000 people of all colors and national origins that day.

Last Sunday, on the streets of Paris, 1.5 million Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims and people of many other fauths stood side by side and marched in a show of global solidarity for freedom, equality, dignity and respect, in response to terrorist strikes that killed 17 people.

Leading the march was French President Franois Hollande, arm in arm with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a host of European and African leaders.

Although the march did not have any speakers, these leaders spoke volumes by their presence.

Nonetheless, the time is ripe for another dreamer like Dr. King; this time it needs to be a global dreamer with the ability to capitalize on this rare moment when the world is united in its outrage against the recent assault on the very fabric of all that Western civilization represents.

The Charlie Hebdo attack raised awareness that Islamist extremism does not target only Jews or Muslim infidels, but that it aims to destroy everyone and everything that is not in its image. World leaders need to show that they will stand together; communication, cooperation and collaboration are key.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Let’s hope someone, somewhere is ready to continue his legacy. The world as we know it may depend on it.

This appeared in the Jewish Journal on January 15, 2015.

A “Second” New Year

The start of a new year is a time to review, assess and plan. We review resolutions we made a year ago, reflect on how well we accomplished our goals and then wipe the slate clean, planning our list for the year to come. For Jews, the secular New Year is the perfect opportunity to do a first-quarter checkup on how well we are doing with the promises we made to ourselves on Yom Kippur.

Like financial plans, intentions to better ourselves are not meant to be static documents; rather, we should periodically assess, question and revise them. Were the goals we set for ourselves three months ago realistic? Have we or loved ones experienced unforeseen life events that need to be taken into account? Have we somehow gotten off track?

Maybe our goals and priorities have shifted. Maybe a relationship has taken on more meaning or a task more importance. Maybe our physical or mental health demands we change our habits. Maybe a new job requires us to adapt and retool.

Maybe the war in Israel and the rise of global anti-Semitism in 2014 have awakened in us a need to incorporate more Judaism and spirituality into our lives by studying Torah more often, committing to Shabbat observance or experimenting with Jewish cooking. Perhaps we are newly motivated to take steps to strengthen Israel by taking part in pro-Israel activities. Maybe we resolve to take an active role in tikkun olam by making a commitment to social justice.

Or maybe we conclude that we are on the right track and that our progress is on course.

Whichever conclusion we draw or steps we take, we are indeed lucky to have this “second” New Year, this three-month checkup.

This appeared in the Jewish Journal on January 1, 2015.