For years, Israel was looked upon as American Jewry's "poor sister," a backwater community in the turbulent Middle East, with a poor economy and tenuous connection to the modern world.
Now, with the American economy slumping and the Israeli economy growing steady, things have taken a dramatic about-face. Suddenly, young American Jews are moving to Israel for – believe it or not – economic opportunity. With an unemployment rate of just 6%, Israel is a sanctuary where engineers, medical professionals, writers and managers are all finding success in the fields of hi-tech, academia and business.
For those not bold enough to make the move independently, many are taking advantage of the Masa program, which offers career training along with free housing and Hebrew classes.
There's another reason young American Jews are coming to Israel: to join the Israeli army. This summer, 350 adventure seekers are "making aliyah," hoping to join one of the elite IDF air force, paratrooper or intelligence units.
The idea of Jews from around the world serving in the IDF is not a new one. The Machal volunteers of 1948, many of them World War II veterans, supplied much-needed combat expertise to the fledgling army. Mickey Marcus was a U.S. Army Colonel who stepped in to help Israel in 1947 and became its first "General"; the story was immortalized in the Kirk Douglas film, "Cast a Giant Shadow."
The notion of young men coming to serve is gaining traction. Over 3,000 "lone soldiers" (i.e. immigrants without family in Israel) currently serve in the IDF.
In terms of long-term stays in Israel, perhaps the biggest group of all are those American Jews who come to Israel each year for a year-long "post-high school" yeshiva experience. Thousands of young men and women come to study, tour and bond with the land. A large percentage stay afterwards, get married and settle permanently in Israel.
Aish Jerusalem offers a wide range of study-and-touring programs, for everyone from beginner to advanced.
This is the new Israel, where the stereotype of picking oranges on a kibbutz has given way to new options: sharpening one's hi-tech skills in Tel Aviv, pouring over the Talmud in Jerusalem, or toting an M-16 in the West Bank. The opportunities are varied and waiting to welcome you.
We hear a lot of talk these days about "Jewish unity" – the lack of it, and the need for more.
Jewish unity was on glorious display last night at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, New Jersey. The place (more commonly used as home to the NFL Giants and Jets) was hosting the "Siyum HaShas," a celebration of the completion of studying the entire Babylonian Talmud, the compendium of Jewish wisdom and law that was written down in the fifth century.
In addition to the 90,000 men, women and children packed into MetLife Stadium, live feeds went out to more than 100 communities around the world, who held their own similar events. In all, it was the largest celebration of Jewish learning in the past 2,000 years.
At 2,711 pages, the Talmud is a grueling yet invigorating exercise in deciphering the terse Aramaic and Hebrew text with no vowels or punctuation. At a schedule of one page per day ("Daf Yomi"), the Talmud takes seven and a half years to complete.
Various learning tools have been developed to make the Talmud more accessible. One popular system, called Gemara Markings, uses geometric lines and shapes to visually highlight what is unfolding on the page, and to break down the flow of the Talmud into precise points. (Using this system enabled me to complete the Talmud cycle.)
Last night, I attended a Siyum HaShas near my home in Israel. The celebrant was a 20-year-old young man who was completing the cycle (yes, he began even before his bar mitzvah). His father and his grandfather studied with him at various points along the way. In today's world, with the "generation gap" so pronounced (it is said that due to technology, every two years is a "new generation"), the sight of three generations inspired and invigorated by the same material – more of a "generation flow" – was a true anomaly.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried of the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA) makes an interesting observation about how the Siyum concurs with the Olympic Games:
There's one more aspect of the Siyum HaShas that really impressed me: Immediately after reading the last page to complete the cycle, the participants immediately began again from the beginning. Judaism says that attaining life wisdom is not an endpoint destination, but rather an ongoing, lifelong process of refining one's sensitivity to the world around us and to the spiritual realms.
Why not give it a try?
Read one Aish rabbi's fascinating first-person account of his journey through the Talmud.
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I read a very moving story about residents of an upscale apartment building in Berlin who began to ask themselves the question: Did Jews used to live in this building? And what ever became of them?
They took the question seriously and conducted a mammoth worldwide hunt to find out the fate of those who inhabited their apartments – some of the 160,000 Jews who lived in Berlin prior to Hitler's rise to power.
The impetus for this project occurred when Peter Schulz, a resident of the building was viewing an exhibition on Jews before World War II. Suddenly he found himself standing in front of a photograph of two children standing on a balcony – Schulz's very own balcony.
He became obsessed with finding out the identity of those two children. After much research, he discovered that one of them, Werner Vohs, died aged 17 at Auschwitz. The girl in the photo, his sister Margot, was the only survivor among her immediate family. She lives today in Peru.
Schulz called a meeting of the other tenants and enlisted them in his project. It took three years of painstaking research to track down the former tenants, with hundreds of hours spent combing through city archives, and sending letters all over the world to gather information.
In all, they discovered that 28 residents of their building had been driven out by the Nazis. Most were murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt or Treblinka.
One of the former residents, Kurt Landsberger, was 18 when he was forced to leave the building. Landsberger is now 90 years old and lives in New Jersey.
When he was located by the current residents, they invited Landsberger to come visit his old apartment. Landsberger flew to Berlin, where he received an emotional tour of the place where he grew up.
As a culmination of the project, the residents have hung a permanent plaque at the entrance of the building, listing each of the 28 names of the former Jewish residents.
Says resident Gabrielle Pfaff: "I was born in 1949 and I often asked my parents what they did under the Nazis. My parents' generation closed its eyes. I want to make sure that such a crime never happens again."
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Nicky Larkin is an Irish filmmaker who always identified as pro-Palestinian – wearing the fashionable PLO keffiyeh scarf... viewing Israel as the ogre… the whole nine yards.
Last year, Larkin received a grant to travel to Israel to make a film about the Palestinians. "My peers expected me to come back with an attack on Israel," he says.
Yet when he began to investigate, he realized that the facts didn't square with what he believed. He concluded: He'd been brainwashed by the media (and pro-Palestinian activists) to hate Israel.
"Any artist worth his or her salt should be ready to change their mind on receipt of fresh information," Larkin says. "I would urge all those artists who pledged to boycott Israel to spend some time there."
See this interview where the Irish filmmaker says how he "hated" Israel – until he actually bothered to investigate.
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We're now in the period of the Jewish calendar called the "Nine Days" leading up to Tisha B'Av, commemorating the repeated attempts to obliterate Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
How apt, therefore, that this week the BBC – the world's largest broadcaster – has taken aim at this very same idea.
In its high-profile Olympic Games website, BBC left out any reference to the Israeli capital – while listing "East Jerusalem" as the capital of "Palestine." (Following complaints, BBC amended the site, coldly listing Jerusalem as the "Seat of Government.")
We wrote previously in this blog about the media's proclivity for denying the fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – an honor it has held continuously for over 3,000 years.
Although clear historical facts cannot be erased in one fell swoop, the media has an incremental effect by planting seeds of doubt. London's Daily Telegraph ("Middle East Peace Process 'in Danger of Collapse,'" October 25, 2009) referred to "the Temple Mount, where the two Jewish temples of antiquity are believed to have been built," and Time magazine identified the "Dome of the Rock, where Jews believe Solomon and Herod built the First and Second Temples." Not an indisputable fact of history; just something that "Jews believe."
Jerusalem is mentioned 500 times in the Bible, though not once in the Muslim Koran. And yet, the media downplays the Jewish connection by promoting the Arabic names of holy sites. In referring to the Temple Mount, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, et al, typically cite the Muslim-Arabic name – "Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary." But did you ever see the Temple Mount referred to by its Hebrew name, "Har Habayit"? A Lexis-Nexis search of tens of thousands of mainstream news articles relating to Jerusalem revealed – aside from direct quotes – just one single reference to "Har Habayit."
Over the millennia, many wars have been fought over Jerusalem. All told, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt no less than nine times – with each conqueror further attempting to obscure the glorious Jewish past. But the Jewish people have never abandoned Jerusalem – praying in its direction thrice daily, invoking Jerusalem at every wedding ceremony, and concluding both the Passover Seder and Yom Kippur services with the yearning cry, "Next year in Jerusalem!"
And now, in an outrage of Olympic proportions, thousands of years of uncontested history are being brazenly erased on news sites everywhere.
What's a good response? Perhaps we should all stop referring to London as the capital of England, calling it instead "the seat of track and field."
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The attack against Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria – six killed and 36 injured – was the worst suicide bomb attack in the European Union since the London transport bombings of July 2005.
Commentator Tom Gross notes the weak coverage of the tragedy by the Western media.
• AFP, the leading French news agency, downplayed the terrorists' intention by scare-quoting the word "attack" in its headline: "Three Dead in 'Attack' on Israelis at Bulgaria Airport."
• BBC News described the bombing as an "awful accident" (long after it was clear to all that this was a bomb attack, not an accident).
• Never to be outdone, the New York Times reported how "bellicose adversaries, Israel and Iran, have a long history of accusing each other of terrorist attacks." Apparently the Times regards the deliberate murder of Israelis on vacation, with the elimination of an Iranian scientist working to produce a nuclear bomb for an Iranian regime that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
Journalists have long tried to minimize Arab terror by taking the focus off the Israeli victims. Associated Press noted that "357 bystanders have been killed" by Palestinian suicide bombings (Jason Keyser, "Suicide Bombing on Jerusalem Bus, Seven Killed"), and the New York Times wrote that "a barrage of four Palestinian attacks killed nine bystanders" (James Bennet, "Israel Pulls Back From Peace Plan After 4 Attacks"). In common usage, a "bystander" is peripheral to the central event – e.g. a bystander injured in a bank robbery. By describing Israeli terror victims as "bystanders," the media obscures the basic fact that Israeli civilians are the intentional target of these bombers.
Meanwhile, Israel endures another round of funerals, mourning and rehabilitation.
Here in Israel, I’m getting ready to send off my sons to summer camp -- filled with swimming, baseball and rousing sing-a-longs beside the campfire.
In Gaza, summer camps organized by the ruling party Hamas are giving tens of thousands of children an experience that includes walking on nails and on knife blades, and a mock Israeli prison that reenacts the experience of “Palestinian prisoners."
In recent years, Palestinian summer camps have more resembled paramilitary training grounds -- giving children the chance to dress up as masked Palestinian commandos and stage a mock attack on Israelis, plus weapons training with real Kalashnikov rifles.
More "moderate" summer camp experiences have been difficult to implement. In 2010, a United Nations-run summer camp in Gaza was burned to the ground by militants for "teaching schoolgirls fitness, dancing and immorality."
Meanwhile, the “moderate” Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has named a summer camp after Dalal Mughrabi, who led the most lethal terror attack in Israel's history -- the 1978 Coastal Road massacre which resulted in the death of 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children. This week, the Palestinian governor of the Jericho district told campers that Mughrabi "should be a beacon for us in our activities." (Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, July 16, 2012)
Advocates of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have long decried the atmosphere of hate that permeates Palestinian society, school textbooks and the media. Genuine peace demands moderation, coexistence and tolerance to be taught and practiced as core values.
If Palestinian summer camps had a little less weapons training and a little more singing around the campfire, that would go a long way toward forging a ripe environment. As John F. Kennedy said, “Peace does not rest in charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of people.”
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My dear friend Harve Linder in Atlanta has done it again: found a deep Torah message in the headline news. The definitive Penn State investigation report was released just as we were reading the Torah portion of Pinchas, creating an amazing juxtaposition.
Recall the scene: A young graduate student walks in and sees an unspeakable incident taking place. What action does he take? Does he shout at the aggressor to stop it? Does he run out seeking help? Does he call either campus or local law enforcement officials? The answer to all these questions is "no."
Instead, he seeks out his leader, the head coach. But the coach himself doesn't know what to do. So nothing comes of it, and no one involved does the right thing for the victim, for future victims, for the university. The end result is that the abuse continues, people lose their jobs, others will go to prison, the university is harmed, and an extraordinary legacy forfeited.
Let's compare this to events in the Torah. An audacious sex crime has taken place, and a young man, Pinchas, witnesses the incident. He is incensed and knows the appropriate response. Yet before acting, he goes to the leader Moses for guidance. But Moses himself does not know what to do. And here our tales substantially diverge: Pinchas does not wait around for an investigation. He does not allow a conspiracy of silence to blanket the incident. No, he acts swiftly, precisely, and in accordance with the law. He stops the act, sends a clear public message, and ensures there are no future victims.
This is not to suggest that the Penn State graduate student should have become a vigilante, circumventing the courts. But he did lack Pinchas' passion and total commitment to doing the right thing. A bit of righteous indignation would have been well-placed, propelling him to cut through the layers of bureaucracy and malaise.
The Torah instructs us to act whenever danger is present: "Do not stand idly by your brother's blood" (Leviticus 19:16). We cannot wait for political posturing, for committee debates, or approval from public opinion. We cannot allow cover-ups and conspiracies of silence to develop. We must consistently do the right thing. Sometimes the proper action is not obvious. Even Moses occasionally forgot. But we have to learn the parameters, consult with our leaders, and act with confidence and determination. Only then will we fulfill our role of tikkun olam, and ensure there are no future victims.
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United With Israel is an enormous pro-Israel network with nearly 1.2 million Facebook subscribers.
Over 12,000 Kassam rockets have been fired into southern Israel in recent years, deliberately targeting Israeli civilians, causing chaos, destruction and death. Nearly one million Israeli citizens are within striking range of Gaza. An entire generation of children has been traumatized by the terror of ongoing rocket attacks.
These state-of-the-art, free-standing shelters provide safety for Israeli citizens as they go about their daily lives. They are built to prevent the penetration of bullets, shrapnel and missile fragments and can withstand direct hits. While building underground shelters can take months, these prefab units take only a few weeks to build and can be delivered and deployed immediately.
Imagine hearing a frightening siren and having 15 seconds to run for cover. Although these shelters cannot provide Israeli communities with peace, they provide both safety and peace of mind.
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One of my favorite themes is the unique Jewish character of the State of Israel. We should take pride in the fact that most public transportation takes a break on Shabbat, that the Army keeps kosher, and that all government offices have a mezuzah on the doorpost.
On the other hand, I wish there were more individual displays of classical Jewish (as opposed to "Israeli") pride by the country's political leaders.
So imagine my thrill at the news that Israeli President Shimon Peres will be skipping the festive opening ceremonies of the London Olympics – because they extend past sundown on Friday night (July 27).
Peres had sought to avoid the conflict by sleeping overnight in the Olympic Village. Yet despite numerous appeals to the Olympic Committee, his request was rejected on the grounds that only "athletes" are allowed to overnight in the village.
I guess organizers consider the 88-year-old too big a security risk.
Though Peres is not personally observant, he does not travel publicly on Shabbat out of respect for millennia-old Jewish tradition and in deference to his role as representative of the Jewish State.
It appears to me that Peres' decision to forgo the opening ceremonies will have a far more positive impact on the Israel public than anything he could have gained by attending them.
Interesting to note a historical precedent: When the original Greek Olympics were featuring athletes running and jumping stark naked, the Jews were teaching the importance of looking past physical externalities and into the deeper spiritual values.
In this instance, Shimon Peres has sent that same message again. Kudos!
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I love soda.
Not the sweet, syrupy, caffeinated kind. But plain old bubbly water – known to many as “seltzer.”
My family jokes that I "drink like a camel" – a least a gallon (4 liters) per day. But it's hard getting all that water down, and I find that CO2 gives a quenching "bite" to the H2O.
Drinking all that soda, however, might have one major drawback: producing endless piles of empty bottles.
So in our house we have a nifty contraption that uses gas cartridges to inject CO2 into a reusable bottle and – presto! – instant homemade soda water.
SodaStream, the maker of these machines – an Israeli company, natch – is promoting its message of eco-consciousness in the form of a large metal cage. Packed with 10,657 empty bottles and cans, it represents the average consumption of one family over five years. Next to the cage is a sign that reads: "One bottle can replace this."
SodaStream displayed the cage prominently in New York's Time Square and 30 other countries.
So what did SodaStream get from all this? For starters, a stock (SODA) that is up 30 percent this year.
But when SodaStream displayed the cage in Olympic Park, opposite Coca-Cola's headquarters in Atlanta, they got slapped with a legal claim that these empty bottles and cans infringes on Coca-Cola's rights to its brand.
In response, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum shot back: "You sold the product, and the sale terminates these rights. Besides, we collected the bottles from the garbage. If the cans in the garbage are yours, go and collect them from all over the world. That's a billion bottles a day being thrown out… We find it incredulous (sic) that Coke is claiming ownership of its garbage."
For me, I'll stay out of this fight. I'm content having my soda machine, and chugging 4 liters a day.
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The world suffered a huge loss this week with the passing of Shoshana Chaya Shachar, a young mother of four from Moshav Matityahu.
Shoshana Chaya was the wife of Rafi Shachar, a graphic artist who designed some of the earliest iterations of the Aish website, and who has been creative director for some of Aish.com's most successful viral films.
Shoshana Chaya's life was not easy. She lost her father at an early age, and battled many years from the illness that would eventually claim her life. Yet her optimism and cheer never waned.
At the funeral, Rabbi Zev Leff, the spiritual leader of Moshav Matityahu, spoke of King Solomon's immortal words from Proverbs chapter 31 – "Aishes Chayil" (Woman of Valor) – that we sing at the Shabbat dinner in tribute to Jewish women. Why, asked Rabbi Leff, does the verse compare this accompished woman's value to "far beyond pearls"? Why not gold or some other valuable commodity?
Rabbi Leff explained that the process of becoming a pearl occurs when a microscopic intruder enters a mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, being irritated by the intruder, secretes a chemical which ultimately produces a pearl.
In other words, the pearl's greatness is achieved only through having endured trials. In that regard, Shoshana Chaya Shachar was a master.
Rabbi Leff then wondered about a seeming contradiction: One verse describes the rarity of such a pearl: Aishes Chayil mi yimtzah – "a woman of valor, who can find?", but then testifies that "rabos banos asu chayil" – "You, God, have made many women of valor." So is such a woman rare, or common?
Rabbi Leff answered: A careful reading of the verses shows that a woman of valor is rare to "find" – in other words, attaining this level doesn't come automatically. Only those who the Almighty has challenged with irritants – of those, God has "made" many.
Also at the funeral, Shoshana Chaya's teenage son Yaakov spoke eloquently of his gratitude for lessons learned from his mother:
"I learned from you that whatever happens is good. And though we might not understand what God is trying to tell us, it's always for a good reason. You taught me to see the good in every hard situation. I learned so many lessons and I'm lucky I got to learn them at such a young age – so that I get to use them my whole life. I learned how to appreciate what I have now and not look at what I don't have. I learned how to appreciate my family. And I learned that life is good."
Shoshana Chaya was known to have absolute dedication to her family and friends. What struck me when I visited the shiva house was the care and concern that Rafi and the four children show for each other. They offer genuine support and encouragement, and are committed to sticking together to help each other. It is this unity that will enable them to pass this tragic time, and it is this legacy of love that Shoshana Chaya leaves behind. May her memory be for a blessing.
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Today is the Bar Mitzvah of my son Yaakov. This past Shabbat he read beautifully from the Torah and the prophets, followed by the requisite Bar Mitzvah speech. He asked the question:
If a Bar Mitzvah marks the obligation to observe the Torah's precepts, why is that cause for such a celebration? After all, isn't it greater to do things – such as keeping Shabbat, giving charity and praying – voluntarily, out of an inner emotional drive? Isn't it greater to do from the heart than from an imposed obligation?
He proceeded to describe how in two respects, there's a big advantage to giving out of obligation.
First, let's imagine a kid needing to wake up for school in the morning. If he would get up only when motivated, most kids would probably miss many days of school. So the obligation to go to school actually works to his advantage: Since he knows (or at least, his parents know) that going to school is what's best for him, the obligation creates a built-in motivation to ensure that he fulfills this important activity.
The lesson of all this? "Doing" is more important than "feeling." This is a great lesson for today's world which celebrates feelings. More than "How do you feel about it?", the Jewish question is: "What are you doing about it?" This is a core principle of the Torah's mitzvot: They guide and direct us in ways which refine our character through repetition and practice.
That's advantage number one to being obligated in good deeds. Here's number two:
Imagine a person who doesn't require that external motivation, for example a child so perfect (does one exist?) that he'd voluntarily go to school every morning. Judaism says that even for that person, acting out of obligation is regarded as a greater level. The point is subtle but deeply true:
Whenever we have an obligation, it increases the difficulty in getting the job done. That's because there's a natural resistance to "doing what we're told." That factor alone adds an additional challenge to doing the deed; hence an additional degree of achievement, satisfaction and reward.
My son expressed these ideas in his Bar Mitzvah speech, adding the relevant citations from the Talmud and commentaries. It was a great event and we're extremely proud of him.
Addendum: My son Yaakov was named after the great scholar, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who was the older brother and the spiritual mentor of Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah. Our son was born a few days prior to Rav Yaakov Weinberg's passing, but the bris was a few days after. Our son thus became the very first of many children subsequently named after this great rabbi.
May our Yaakov merit to achieve such heights as his namesake.
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Back what seems like a lifetime ago, I was making the transition from working in the field of entertainment to working for Jewish causes. The first job I got was as an American liaison for Yitzhak Shamir during his tenure as Israeli Prime Minister (the two of us, pictured here).
Shamir had moved to Israel in 1935, leaving behind his family who were all murdered in the Holocaust. His father had succeeded in escaping from a German death train, only to return to his Polish village where he was promptly beaten to death by childhood friends.
These events greatly informed Shamir's political views, and in the 1940s he became a leader of the Stern Gang whose goal was to drive the British colonialists out of Israel, thus paving the way for Jewish independence.
Yet while Shamir was a firm ideologue, his greatness lay in his ability to be a pragmatist at the same time. Though he was committed to Jewish settlement throughout the Land of Israel, he attended the 1991 Madrid Conference becoming the first Israeli Prime Minister to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.
On one hand, Shamir was very forthright in Israel's right to defend itself, while on the other hand during the 1991 Gulf War he took the difficult strategic measure of not striking back when Saddam Hussein was hurling scud missiles onto Tel Aviv.
It is these two sides – tough yet compromising – that enabled him to serve so ably.
When he first came to Israel, he changed his family name to Shamir, which is, according to Talmudic lore (Gittin 68b), the name of a worm which can cut through stone. It was used to produce the blocks of the Holy Temple, since metal cutting implements were not appropriate in a place devoted to peace.
To me this sums up Yitzhak Shamir: Firmly devoted to peace, yet stronger than iron and not afraid to use it when necessary.
Yitzhak Shamir has died at age 96, and is being buried today in Jerusalem. He was not a politician who sought glory, fame or riches; he served with modesty and unswerving devotion. May his memory be for a blessing.
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Brit Milah has been the hallmark of Jewish identification for millennia. This issue was particularly relevant in Nazi Germany when men were often made to strip down to determine their Jewish identity.
The point was made quite powerfully in a movie called "Europa Europa," the true story about a young Jewish boy trying to escape detection by the Nazis. The boy resembles an Aryan and speaks German fluently, so he poses as a non-Jew and is eventually recruited into an elite training program for the next generation of SS officers. Only his circumcision, which he couldn't hide, kept him Jewish. The man survived the war, and made a new life for himself in Israel. Instead, he may have ended up becoming a Nazi officer. It all depended on the Bris.
That's why so many are shocked at the ruling this week by a German court that renders religious circumcisions performed by Jews and Muslims a crime. Germany is home to an estimated 4 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews.
According to a report in Germany's Financial Times, the Cologne District Court declared circumcision is a "serious and irreversible interference in the integrity of the human body." The court also ruled that freedom of religion and the rights of parents cannot justify the practice.