Almost one week ago, we learned the tragic news of seven siblings who died in a fire in New York. The tragedy was caused by a faulty hot plate left on to keep food warm over Shabbat, and the absence of smoke detectors on the first and second floors to alert the family in time.

During Shabbat and major holidays, traditionally observant Jews, in accordance with the prohibition against turning on an oven or electrical device, will keep food warm using a “blech,” a metal sheet that covers a low burning stove burner, or appliances such as crockpots and hot plates that are kept on low throughout the holiday or switched on by a pre-set timer.

The fire served as a wake-up call for people to take more precautions and to purchase/check fire alarms. I encourage all of us to make sure we take preventative measures and to protect our families and homes as best we can. Click here for a simple guide from the American Red Cross.

Wishing the mother and one child who survived the fire a complete and speedy recovery from their injuries and condolences to the entire extended family at this unspeakable loss.

Earlier this week I was surprised to read my name and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland in an article in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. The provocatively titled article was a report from the recent J Street Conference in Washington, DC and mainly focused on student activism and the International Director of Hillel’s decision not to speak at the conference, a decision he now apparently regrets.

The article also included, "J Street U’s Northwest representative, Gabriel Erbs, who studies at Oregon’s Portland State University, told the crowd about his hometown precedent that will hopefully guide the group’s campaign against big Jewish money in the future…Erbs recounted the students’ contacts with the President of the local Jewish Federation, Marc Blattner, in which they sought clarifications about transfer of Federation contributions beyond the Green Line. They did not make do with Blattner’s oral pledge that the funds were only going to beneficiaries in pre-1967 Israel and challenged him to make a formal declaration to that effect, which he did the following day, on the Federation’s website.”

I fondly recall my conversation with these passionate student advocates one month ago. They articulated their viewpoints, raised many questions, and we had what I believe was a very candid dialogue. The writer of the article, however, makes it sound as if the Jewish Federation was hiding something that the students unearthed. In fact, we quickly responded to their question and posted the overseas funding policy of the United Israel Appeal, the conduit of (all American) Jewish Federation funds to Israel. This policy is based on a longstanding existing agreement with the United States Government. There was no policy shift, nor any change in how Federation funds initiatives in Israel. If anything, this created another opportunity for us to make sure we are transparent to our donors and community. The students asked an appropriate question (the same question multiple donors ask every year) and they deserved a response.

For whatever reason, the article created quite a stir, mainly outside of Portland. To be frank, it was disappointing to be accused of causing rifts within the Jewish community for simply presenting “what is.” It was also upsetting to read statements on social media of Federation being used as an argument to bolster one side or another. I did not expect my interaction with the students and the posting of the policy -- in late February -- to become a prime example of a new national effort by J Street to confront Jewish groups.

Our purpose in sharing the policy was to be transparent in our work -- plain and simple.

In a release drafted by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, they addressed the issue of J Street’s plan (never mentioning the organization by name) to press Jewish groups to clarify whether their funds are expended in the West Bank. “What our community needs is more cooperation and unity in working together strengthening the US-Israel partnership, not creating divisions by seeking to attack fellow Jewish organizations or create new points of conflict.” 

As Jews we have plenty to worry about – the current US-Israel tensions, Ukrainian Jews and their needs, anti-Semitism on campuses and around the globe, Iran, ISIL, opposing BDS, Israel-Palestinian issue, the basic challenges of Jewish identity, and the list goes on and on.

In the end, I did not feel pressured. I found the dialogue with these impressive students constructive and important. It made me proud of the openness and transparency we exhibit here at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. We value our donors with trust as a top priority. Moreover, we want to foster an environment of dialogue where we listen to various points of view, while at the same time, have the ability to articulate our own.

For the vast majority of you, this story never crossed your tablet or made your Facebook page. I, however, felt it was important to share my perspective on this issue with our community. I believe that good people, intelligent people can reach different conclusions about many of the most contentious issues. Therefore, these types of experiences teach you – how valuable an open and candid dialogue can be…the willingness to listen to others matters (whether in agreement or not)…and that being present enables you to share your views (which people can accept or not). I know I am available to talk at any time.

Shabbat shalom.



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