Yizkor for Khojaly: Sharing Sorrow and Hope

On February 21-22, Pico Shul, our newly established spiritual community in Los Angeles, organized a “Solidarity and Commemoration Weekend” with local Azerbaijanis and the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan. These are some of my reflections.

On the world stage, Jews and Muslims are viewed as mortal enemies. This weekend in our synagogue we demonstrated that not only do Jews and Muslims have the capacity to be at peace — they can even be friends.

For millennia, Jews have enjoyed unparalleled security, peace and friendship with the people of Azerbaijani. Jews who were persecuted in other areas found refuge and safety within this predominantly Muslim nation. With Azerbaijan’s rebirth as an independent nation after the fall of Soviet Union, that friendship remains, and in many ways has even grown.

But we did not gather to discuss geopolitics, or the latest advances in trade and relations between Israel and Azerbaijan. We gathered because, in the words of my friend Nasimi Aghayev, the Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, friends are there for one another when things are going well and when things are down.

Twenty-three years ago, in February 1992, Armenian militants and soldiers in the town of Khojaly murdered six hundred and thirteen innocent Azerbaijani men, women, and children during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and injured hundreds more. Thousands of residents of the town were made homeless. Supporters of Armenia dispute the number of dead, the identity of the perpetrators, and many issues surrounding the event. However, the Memorial Human Rights Center, Human Rights Watch and other international observers back the Azerbaijan account.

We listened to Anar Usubov as he told his painful story of survival. He lost 27 members of his immediate and extended family in the massacre. When he showed a Google map aerial view of his old home – now in ruins – we all felt his deep, permanent sense of loss.

But when we watched the video testimony of Durdane Aghayeva, who gave a detailed account of the massacre, her torture and captivity — that is when we cried. Durdane was a 20 year old girl when she was caught by militants fleeing the massacre. She was assaulted and tortured over eight days. She was placed naked in a tub of ice-water for hours at a time. She was tied to a chair, and had cigarettes extinguished on her knees because she refused to speak. They beat her so often and so mercilessly that she couldn’t walk.

But through sharing those stories, bearing witness to tragedy, and mourning together – we are planting seeds of hope. For here, in this Jewish house of worship, we had Muslims and Jews demonstrating solidarity, not strife.

When I recited Yizkor, the most solemn Jewish prayer of remembrance, I did not feel we were two antagonistic groups. Rather, we all felt a powerful unity of faith and humility as all children of the same God.

Jews are grateful for the friendship of the people of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Azerbaijan, both with the State of Israel and Jewish communities across the world. I pray that our friendship continues to grow and deepen, bringing peace and prosperity to our peoples.

May God comfort the mourners of Khojaly, may we see peace soon in Nagorno-Karabakh, and let Muslims, Christians, and Jews search for pathways of reconciliation to overcome darkness with light.

Shalom, Sülh.


Operation Chazak – Powering-Up Israeli Soldier’s Cell Phones

Today we launched a new campaign to support Israel at this critical time. Operation Chazak will get instant cell phone chargers to soldiers so they can stay in touch with their families and loved ones — they can’t plug in anyplace in Gaza.

Yesterday’s campaign raised $3k to send care packages of toiletries to 1000 soldiers. Let’s see how many soldiers we can support with this new campaign.

Please donate one charger if you can for $25 or multiple chargers if you can. Please promote this campaign through email and Facebook.

Contact me if you have any questions.


What Happened at LA Rally in Support of Israel?

Yesterday’s large rally in support of Israel at the Federal Building has been tainted by the violence that erupted while rally was ending. I recited prayers and psalms at the start of the rally, and the crowd was peaceful, positive, and non-confrontational with the counter protestors who I estimate numbered no more than 50-75.

Conflicting accounts on several news stations about how many arrested, who arrested, how many people at rally. CBS claims 2000+, LA Jewish Journal 1200, and LA Times at 500.

Since the accounts are so different I am now hesitant to say what exactly happened. An off-duty sheriff’s officer said four men with Palestinian flags attacked Jews with sticks. LA Times is reporting that Palestinians supporters were retrieving a flag taken and vandalized by pro-Israel supporters when the fight broke out.

The most remarkable part of the story is that a gunshot was fired by an officer with Federal Protective Services. The Federal Protective Service (FPS) is a federal law enforcement agency that provides integrated security and law enforcement services to federally owned and leased buildings, facilities, properties and other assets. Some say he shot in the air, but nothing is clear.

We will have to wait until we know more about what happened. What is certain is that people were arrested, although even that number is debated by news sources. Most reports are that four men were detained on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.

(Photo Jewish Journal)

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A Family Vacation, A Kidnapped Nation

From the moment that we arrived in Israel on Thursday night the 12th of June, the fate of three teenage boys, kidnapped on their way home, was one everyone’s mind. While the weather is picturesque, and the sky bright blue, the country was gripped by a gnawing pain about the fate of these three boys.

Now as we depart Israel, the tragic news of their murder has been announced.

Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, went missing near Hebron on June 12 and were all yeshiva students. Beloved by their families and their classmates, they were on their way home for Shabbat, but never made it. Instead, they were abducted by Palestinians in a van as they hitchhiked home. One managed to get a cell phone call to the Police, but the police thought initially it was a prank call.

News spread Friday morning the 13th of what happened. Then the nation prayed.

From the most secular to the most observant, Israelis prayed for the last 18 days for the return of “our boys.” At synagogues across the country, prayers for their return were said three times daily. Massive prayer rallies were held bringing together people from all walks of life. The country was glued to the TV waiting for any updates, reports, or information. Signs went up on bus shelters and public buses. Every day the story was front-page news.

This painful and tragic event brought a palpable sense of unity to a country that has many divides. Today the country is united in anger and sorrow, and wants revenge against the cold-blooded murderers.

We had to postpone our visit to Hebron for that Sunday. I wanted our trip to begin with a visit to the resting place of our ancestors, where the whole story of the Jewish people began. It was to be our first stop on our first family trip to Israel, and already we had to change our itinerary for security reasons.

After some time, even with the continuing search operation nearby, Hebron opened up again and we planned a visit for our last day in Israel. We would return with my close friend who now organizes weekly peace and reconciliation tours to Hebron. Twenty years ago, as college students, he and I had visited Hebron together for the first time.

My family spent most of Monday in Hebron, visiting the 2000 year-old structure built around the most ancient Jewish holy site, the Maarat Ha Machpela, or Tomb of the Patriarchs. My kids sat quietly as our friend explained the history of this Holy site and the caves which are below.

Soldiers seemed on edge, but it did not about seem like the city was about to explode in violence.

Hours after we left Hebron, the city was in turmoil, as clashes broke out when the IDF went one more time to the houses of the suspects. Hundreds hurled rocks and stones at the soldiers who responded with tear gas. Soon the entire city was on lockdown and all entrances to the city blocked.

My children have been concerned about the fate of these three boys for the entire trip. They felt that it could also happen to them. While we reassured them that was not the case, we knew in our hearts that this story was not going to end well as the days turned to weeks.

When I tell my children today about the tragic fate of these teenagers, I am not sure how they will respond. This horrible turn of events will certainly color their view of all Palestinians and Arabs. They may distrust all Arabs for the foreseeable future and their anger and sorrow may quickly turn to hate.

The international press can continue to call these boys settlers, but to my kids, they were fellow Jewish kids. And now they are dead because they were Jewish.

And we leave back for California this afternoon.

Here is what I will tell my kids:

“I am sorry kids. I didn’t want this to be the take-away lesson from your trip to Israel. I didn’t want this to be how you remembered what it is to be a Jew living in your homeland. I didn’t was this to be how the story ended. “

“Please remember all the love that we have experienced here from our friends and family. Please remember all our wonderful experiences as we drove 1,500 kilometers around this small country. Please remember that Jewish life thrives in Israel, and not a place where bad things are always happening to innocent people.”

“This is your homeland. And though we live very far away, it should always be in your hearts and minds as a wonderful place full of life, beauty, and wonderment.”