Wednesday, August 24, 2016

At Touro Synagogue, August 21-22, 2016 A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

At Touro Synagogue, August 21-22, 2016  
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
by Aaron Ginsburg

On Shabbat shul was so crowded that Saul Schweber was unable to sit in his usual seat. Now that is unusual. Also unusual was the temperate weather.

It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort.  The haftarah (Isaiah 40, 1-26) is the first of seven haftarahs of consolation that follow the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.

At my desk is the Hertz Chumash I received at my Bar Mitzvah at Touro Synagogue a few years ago from the Sisterhood of Temple Shalom, Louise Ehrlich, president. My favorite phrase is in verse  21, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Don’t you get it…?” In plain English, the Ubershter is saying, “Get with the program!” 

The haftarah begins, “Comfort ye, comfort Ye my people, Saith your G-d). J. Hertz explains that this command to comfort Israel is directed to the prophets and all those who comfort Israel. Rabbi Marc Mandel observed that the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel provided comfort to the Touro community during the recent challenging time.

The tented Kiddish was sponsored by Amy and Bob Book and Jeanie and Jay Schottenstein. Jay thanked Rabbi Mandel for increasing the ruach of the Newport Jewish community, and thanked the law firm for its help and dedication to Touro. Jay turned to  his friend Bob Book for the name of a law firm. The firm did at least one million dollars of pro bono work for Touro Synagogue. That's not bupkis! The Yiddish word bupkis has nothing to do with pastry. It may be derived from a Polish word meaning animal droppings.

Jay also said that all Jewish communities should visit Israel, and hoped that Touro Synagogue would soon visit.

In the afternoon, attorney Floyd Abrams spoke about the First Amendment to the constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 

Floyd started with the fact that Washington discussed religious freedom 236 years ago.  He mentioned that at the Constitutional Convention, a Bill of rights was voted down. James Madison, the prime mover behind the Constitution, was among those opposed, believing that the Constitution did not threaten basic rights. He changed his mind at the end of the Convention, realizing that many would oppose the Constitution without a Bill of Rights, ran for Congress on that basis, and started pushing for passage  of the Bill of Rights immediately after Washington was inaugurated.

Bob Book thanked the law firm, and attorney Gary Naftalis accepted a Ben Shahn print that was a gift from the Congregation to the firm for the dedication and hard work. Now I would say that picture is worth a thousand thousand words! 
Park Service Brochure illustrated by Ben Shahn

According to the New York Times, Gary  Naftalis is known as Columbo with a law degree. He favors rumpled, not high-priced, suits. His ironic, fact-seeking approach wins.  Gary often keeps his clients out of court by pointing to out when cases are illogical or unfairly singled out his client. If the case does go to court, rather than dazzle with tactics, maneuvers, and histrionics, he makes his point with facts that disarm witnesses to the chagrin of the prosecuting attorney.

Gary is part of a team that included fellow attorneys Jonathan Wagner and Tobias Jacoby. When I spoke to Jonathan he reiterated that, “We agreed to represent Touro Synagogue and Congregation Jeshuat Israel because we believed that the cause was a worthy and just one—one worth fighting for, the preservation of a vibrant congregation and synagogue that is the cradle of religious liberty in the United States.  We were proud and honored to have represented Congregation Jeshuat Israel in a once-in-a-lifetime trial and on behalf of one of the crown jewels of the state of Rhode Island and  one of the American Jewish community’s  great treasures.”

On a personal note Jonathan added, “I am saying Kaddish for my father, and standing  on the amud and reciting the Haftarah was a wonderful experience in such a  historic synagogue, and among the many highlights of the weekend for me.”
Rabbi Dr. Marc Mandel, Rabbi of Touro Synagogue speaks at GW Letter Reading

On Sunday, after Rabbi Marc Mandel offered the benediction, and, along with Touro leaders, offered words of greeting,  the Moses Seixas  letter to George Washington  was read by Fall River, Massachusetts State Senator Michael Rodrigues.  Michael and others in both Fall River and the Azores have worked for years to restore the Sahar Hawamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue in Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal which was build in 1820. Read part of this moving story in a Fall River Herald article

Wes Fastiff, brother of Selma Klein, spoke after Gary Naftalis read the George Washington letter. As most speakers do, Wes wondered what insight he could bring following the long line of learned speakers including Supreme Court Justices. Wes read George Washington’s letter carefully, and focused on,…”May the father of all mercies scatter light,and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here , and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

Wes’s professional career for 57 years has been in the field of labor and employment law. Here was George Washington emphasizing equal opportunity in employment for everyone 250 years ago! How different this was for Jews who for years had been restricted from many occupations by guilds and governments. 

Many Jews, depending on their prosperity level, were forced to   choose money lending, which was considered unChristian, and a few other tolerated occupations, such as tax farming, managing the estates of landowners,  peddling, and petty trading. This often put them in an adversarial role to the peasants, a resentment that was in addition to religious based anti-Jewish attitudes.  

In Wes’s words, “Washington’s reference to occupational freedom for everyone in our new Nation held out a concept of exceptional importance.…For our new Nation to truly offer a society where all, including Jews, could be “in our several vocations useful here,” the New World had to reject the Old World’s occupational prejudice and bigotry.”

With the exception of Ulysses S Grant’s General Order No 11, which expelled Jews from the area he controlled, and prohibited Jews from getting licenses to do business with the army, The United States federal government has never restricted the occupations of Jews. 

The order was quickly countermanded by President Lincoln as being unconstitutional.  As he also demonstrated in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was very much in tune with the intentions of our forefathers, especially those who signed the Declaration of Independence and who crafted the Constitution.

When Wes’s father Jacob, came to Fall River in 1920, he started as a fruit peddler. Jacob and Wes’s mother Ida, who arrived in 1921, became shopkeepers. No legal impediment stopped their son Wesley from becoming an attorney.

Wes continued, “Beginning with the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964-enacted five years after I began my career, followed by other federal legislation such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Pay Act…

We now have laws on both the federal and state level that seek to ensure equal employment opportunity — which is simply a modern name for occupational liberty-not only on the basis of religion, but also race, Sex, age, color, national origin, ancestry, marital status, physical or mental disabilities, medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic Information, military and veteran status, and still others.”

Concluded Wes, “George Washington’s vision of two-hundred and twenty-five years ago is still a reality today.”

Among the attendees were Shirley Saunders and her sister Beverly Bavly of Massachusetts. Beverly’s granddaughter Ariel Bavly sang “America” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  As Shirley Saunders succinctly put it,  “It was a beautiful day and a beautiful event.”

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