Yes on Proposition 62 – Abolish the death penalty in California

In arguing against the death penalty, I must represent our Jewish teachings honestly.

The Torah does not categorically oppose capital punishment.  After the flood, God instructs the children of Noah, “He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  Human beings must build societies governed by fairly-enforced laws.  This includes legal execution for the most heinous crimes.image003

At the same time, Jewish tradition has been so concerned with fairness and equity in administering the death penalty, that it developed extremely stringent standards.

For a guilty verdict, two valid witnesses must first warn a person that he is liable to be executed if he carries out the act.  He must next verbally acknowledge his understanding and then carry out the crime regardless!  With these requirements, it is nearly impossible to get a capital conviction.

The Torah recognizes that humans are by nature imperfect, and that we are influenced by deeply-held biases.  The Book of Leviticus warns us:

לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט

לֹא־תִשָּׂא פְנֵי־דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ:

You shall not render an unfair decision:

do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich;

judge your kinsman fairly.  (Leviticus 19:15)

To exercise the death penalty, we Californians have an obligation to ensure that it is done with justice and equity: without discriminating based on the location of the crime, the skin color of the victim, or the income of the accused.  Unless we can rise to this responsibility, it is a punishment method that we should forego.

Two of our greatest Sages, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, worried so much that they might accidentally execute an innocent person that they famously declared: “if we had been members of the [court], no person would ever have been put to death.”  (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)

We have had decades to figure this out in California, without success.  The time has come to acknowledge the eternal imperfection of human justice.  The best way to pursue righteousness and equity is by banning the death penalty.

image005On behalf of the Cantors and Rabbis of Greater San Jose, I urge us to approve Proposition 62 and reject Proposition 66.

May we have the wisdom to always see the Divine in each other.  Amen.

Eulogy for my Grandfather: David Sydney Schaner (April 21, 1930 – October 3, 2014)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADavid Sydney Schaner, my grandfather, was born on April 21, 1930 in Long Beach, California. My grandfather was named after his maternal grandfather, but so were two of his cousins. Together, the trio were known collectively as “The Three Daves.”

David Schaner’s parents were Frieda Scharlin and Morris Schaner. Morris was a car mechanic who owned a garage in downtown Long Beach. Frieda was a bookkeeper for a wholesale produce business owned by an older sibling. Dave’s older sister, my Great Aunt Gertie, was born in 1924.

The son of two working parents, Dave was a “latchkey” kid. He was independent from a young age, giving him the freedom to develop many hobbies. He ran track in high school and college, and played volleyball. He was a Boy Scout. He always loved automobiles, and was able to help out at his dad’s garage by parking cars – as early as age 11.

He attended Burnett Elementary School, followed by Polytechnic High School, and then Long Beach City College for two years.

Migration patterns were different in those days, and it was typical for multiple generations to live in close proximity. Because his parents were not around to take care of him much of the time, my grandfather spent a lot of time at his Grandmother Lena’s, in her duplex on Myrtle Avenue. The entire family would gather there for her home-cooked meals.

Dave had many lifelong interests that he devoted himself to with a passion. He was interested in military history, especially the naval history of World War Two. He could tell you everything you could imagine (and a few things you couldn’t) about battleships, aircraft carriers, and the day to day progress of the War in the Pacific. He made scale models of World War Two ships, planes, and jeeps out of balsa wood.

Perhaps surpassing even his passion for military history was his love of music. Dave loved to dance, and he took swing lessons as a boy with his older sister Gertie.

As a teenager in the 1940’s, he began collecting records by artists like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Billie Holiday. He would sometimes go into Los Angeles in search for rarities. While he like the big bands, he really loved smaller ensembles.

During his senior year in high school, a friend of my grandfather’s, Mimi Aron – who happened to work in a record store – decided that he would be a good match for this cute Jewish girl who was moving from San Pedro to Long Beach with her family. My grandfather, who apparently was not shy, jumped the gun. After Friday night services at a synagogue in Long Beach, he went up to a young woman who was there with her parents to introduce himself.   It turned out this was the girl he was to be set up with. “I have a friend who wants to set me up with a new girl in town,” he told her. “That must be you.” Both were seniors in high school. Their first date was a double date to a track meet in Los Angeles with my grandfather’s cousin, Dave Scharlin. My grandpa gave my grandma a gold track charm, which she wore around her neck. Dave and Bea have been a pair ever since.

They were married on August 7, 1949. For their first year of married life, the struggling young couple lived in the Dave’s parents’ home. My mother, Leanne, was born in 1950. To support his wife and baby daughter, Dave had to quit school and start working. They moved into an apartment, and then rented a house on Gale Avenue. The young couple bought their first house – two bedroom, one bathroom – by borrowing money from Dave’s Aunt Jeanette. They paid every cent back. My uncle Ron was born in 1953. My mom and Uncle Ron got to share the larger bedroom.

Grandpa was always handy, a real Mr. Fix-It. He even built some furniture. After upgrading to another home in Long Beach, my grandparents moved to Irvine in 1969. That’s the home I remember visiting during my childhood.

In Irvine, Dave and Bea had a close circle of friends, drawn together by their shared love for tennis.

For nearly his entire career, from 1950 to 1984, Dave worked for Martin Decker – 34 1/2 years! It was an instrumentation and oil drilling company. He worked as a mechanical engineer.  He was involved in projects all over the world. Locally, he was involved in building the Palm Springs tram project.

After a brief stint in Murietta, my grandparents came here to Sun City in 1993. They were among the first couples to move into the entire development.

Dave and Bea always liked to travel. When they were younger, they would take family vacations to Palm Springs, as well as visit Las Vegas, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, and the Bay Area.

As empty nesters, they took advantage of business opportunities to do some international travel, visiting the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, and England. They also visited Israel.

They took road trips to New Mexico and Colorado, and were fortunate to go on many cruises together in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, and even through the Panama Canal. Several summers were spent in Mexico.

While, Bea shared Dave’s love of music, they did have something of a mixed marriage. He loved Benny Goodman, and she loved Artie Shaw. They went to concert, dances, and bars all over Southern California to hear live music. They had a chance to meet many musicians and develop relationships with them. They saw the jazz greats.

My grandparents had a very rich and active retirement here in Palm Desert. They helped to start the tennis club here in Sun City, and Dave served as a President. They were involved with the theater group, for which he managed the house, designed the seating, and kept things running.

Dave volunteered as a docent for eight years in the Navy hangar at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Together, they served as volunteer ushers at the McCallum Theater, the Tennis Gardens, the La Quinta Art Festival, and the Palm Springs Film Festival.

He taught driving classes to seniors to help them continue to drive safely in older age.

But of all his activities in retirement, Dave made his greatest mark by sharing his love of jazz.

He gave his first lecture at the Old Library in Rancho Mirage in 2000. Forty people came to hear him deliver a lecture on Billie Holiday. He got the bug. After that rookie presentation, Dave went on to present unique, one-of-a-kind lectures at Elderhostels, Princess Cruises, Cal State San Bernadino, in addition to a regular series at the Rancho Mirage Library for fourteen years. His reputation as a passionate and knowledgeable fan of jazz spread, and his programs ballooned in attendance to several hundred. For each topic, he would present videos, music, and anecdotes. Topics were organized along particular themes, whether an artist, an instrument, or a particular style. The annual Sinatra show was especially popular.

People often assumed that my grandfather played an instrument. When asked, he would respond. “I am not a musician… I play the phonograph.”

My grandfather was a man of many passions. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the things that he cared about, from history, to music, to his lifelong love Bea. He was someone who understood that inherently that we get out of life what we put into it, and to get the most out of life, one has to put the most in. He surely did this.

Grandpa would affectionately call his grandkids “kiddo.” I sometimes catch myself using the same endearing term with my own kids, and I think of him whenever I do.

I remember Grandpa Dave’s sense of humor. He liked a good joke, especially if it was a bit off-color. I remember once being in a practical joke store on Broadway in Seattle with Grandma and Grandpa. They found some dirty greeting card, I don’t remember what it said. But I remember the joy that they shared as they passed it around, including to me, their teenage grandson. That is how I will remember Grandpa Dave, devoted to my Grandma, focused on the things that interested him, and eager to share those interests with the people around him.

David Sydney Schaner, David Shlomo ben Moshe haLevi v’Frieda, is remembered by his lifelong wife and partner, Bea, his daughter Leanne with her husband Carl, his son Ron with his wife Tami, and his grandchildren myself, Michael, and Danny.

Yehi Zikhro Barukh.  May his memory be a blessing

Staying Strong in Israel’s War against Hamas

This is a speech that I delivered at the Silicon Valley Solidarity Gathering for Israel on July 22, 2014.

The Jewish State of Israel distinguishes itself among the family of nations to the extent that it is governed by middot, the positive attributes of our Jewish tradition.  When we make decisions, as individuals and as a nation, that embody the values of our ancient faith, we bring light into the world.  Unfortunately, the world is not always ready to be enlightened.

In Pirkei Avot, we read Eizehu gibbor?  Hakovesh its yitzro.  Who is strong?  One who conquers one’s inclinations.  Usually, we use this teaching to emphasize that true strength is not about physical might, but rather the ability to control our passions.  While Israel has indeed demonstrated its physical prowess in the present war, we are strong in the fullest sense when we remain focused on our goals while maintaining our values.

When we see how our brave soldiers have comported themselves these last three weeks, we can only be proud of their strength, both in their success on the battlefield, and in maintaing their humanity while pursuing the military goals.

What are those goals?  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated it clearly in an interview this past Saturday night: “…restoring quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period while inflicting a significant blow on the infrastructures of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,”

Specifically, that means eliminating the thousands of rockets and other weapons and destroying the network of tunnels that Hamas uses to transport arms and personnel.

But there is an ethical principle at play as well: to minimize civilian casualties – on both sides of the border.

While voices around the world shout about the massacre of innocent civilians, pointing to the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian deaths like a scorecard at a sports game, the truth is quite the opposite.  In every war, sadly, civilians are killed.  Did you know that, because of the IDF’s preoccupation with protecting innocents for decades, the ratio of civilians to militants killed has been lower by far than in any other conflict around the world.

How does Israel protect civilians?  On the Israeli side of the border: by building reinforced bomb shelters, by operating an incredibly sophisticated early warning system so that Israelis have time to find cover before the rockets fall, and by developing, with the United States, the Iron Dome, which has prevented most rockets from landing in populated areas with a remarkable 90% success rate.

Because every life is treasured as an olam kattan, a small world, we are committed to doing absolutely everything to keeping our people safe.  We see this in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion and loss whenever there is a death or injury.

But what is truly remarkable is the way that Israel has gone out of its way, at the expense of military success, to protect the people of Gaza.  The IDF calls cell phones and drops leaflets to warn civilians in advance before destroying a target.  Then it launches a small projectile to “knock” the roof of a building as a warning to get out before the real missile is launched.  Did you know that Israel has been providing Gaza with humanitarian supplies while the fighting is taking place, and that the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border to care for wounded Palestinians?

These life-saving acts are unique to the IDF.  No military force in history has gone to such measures to protect the civilians of its military opponent.

Let us not be so condescending as to expect the other side to be grateful.  After all, there have been more than 600 Palestinian deaths in the last few weeks, many of whom are innocent civilians.  I would expect them to blame Israel.  How could they not?

But who is really responsible for the suffering in Gaza?

Hamas deliberately places its rocket launchers and weapons in locations like schools, hospitals, private homes, mosques, and even UN facilities.  When Israel tells civilians to flee so they will not be harmed, Hamas orders them to stay, to serve as human shields.

So far in this war, there have been two calls for temporary cease-fires for humanitarian purposes.  Israel accepted both of them right away and stopped fighting.  Hamas used those temporary lulls to immediately launch more than 70 rockets against Israeli civilians.

Hamas has used many tons of concrete that Israel has allowed into the Gaza Strip not for the construction of buildings and infrastructure that will improve lives, but for underground tunnels to carry on its relentless pursuit of death.  Hamas commanders are now using those tunnels to hide, safe from attack.  But are the underground bunkers made available to civilians?  No.  They are left above ground to fend for themselves.

What does Hamas want?  Death.  The death of Israeli civilians, and the death of Palestinian civilians.  Because they know how those images are perceived around the world.

In 1969, Golda Meir said, “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”  What a perverse reality!

This is not a war that any of us want.  But while it continues, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel’s Defense Forces.  We pray for the millions of Israelis living under the constant fear of terror from above.  And we pray for all those who suffer in Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of the young soldiers who have been killed defending the Jewish people.  We mourn for the civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim, who have died.  Our hearts go out to their families.

And we pray for both kinds of strength for Israel’s leaders, its soldiers, its people, and Jews everywhere: the strength to be victorious, and the strength to maintain our humanity in the face of chaos.

Why BDS is completely misguided

In the past year, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, otherwise known as BDS, has really heated up.

The BDS movement tries to apply economic and political pressure on Israel to acheive its three goals, which are, in its words:

1.  the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of Arab land

2.  full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel

3.  respect for the right of return for Palestinian refugees

They use three main tactics.  The first tactic is a boycott of Israeli products and companies which they claim profit from violating Palestinian rights.  There is also a cultural boycott: convincing artists and musicians to refuse to perform in Israel.  And finally. there are academic boycotts, whereby Israeli professors and academic institutions are not permitted to participate in partnerships, conferences, and academic collaborations.

The second tactic is divestment, which means convincing those who control pension funds or universities with large endowments to not hold in their portfolios any stocks of corporations which they claim are complicit in violating Palestinian rights.

The third tactic is sanctions, which means keeping Israel out of various diplomatic and economic forums.

More generally, the BDS movement tries to negatively influence public opinion about Israel.

There have been a number of prominent people who have joined in on the boycott.  Stephen Hawking boycotted the Israeli Presidential Conference last year.  Also last year, the Association for Asian American Studies announced a boycott of Israeli universities and academic institutions.  Roger Waters, former front man for Pink Floyd, has been quite vocal in his participation in the BDS movement.

You may have heard the flap around the SodaStream commercial during the Superbowl this year.   SodaStream is an Israeli company based in Ashkelon that has a factory in the West Bank.  So, it has been included in the boycott.  The actor Scarlett Johanson, in addition to being the star of the commercial, had also been an official ambassador for Oxfam for eight years.  Oxfam supports BDS.

When all of this went public, Scarlett Johanson resigned her position with Oxfam (which is a big score for the Jewish people).

The ironic thing is that the SodaStream factory is a model for economic cooperation.  It employs Israeli Jews and Arabs along with Palestinians.  The Palestinians are paid way above market rates and recieve great benefits.  They are given a lot of workplace employee protections.  The CEO of SodaStream built the factory explicitly to promote economic cooperation and further the cause of peace.

But the BDS folks went crazy over Scarlett Johanson sticking to her principles and resigning from Oxfam.

There have also been numerous attempts on universtity campuses to pass student resolutions calling for endowments to divest from Israeli corporations.  I will speak more about that later.

What is wrong with BDS?  On its surface, the idea of nonviolent protest for a political cause seems reasonable.  It’s better than suicide bombings.  But the BDS movement is deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First of all, while the BDS movement is not explicitly anti-semitic, many of those who are involved in it are, and the rhetoric often turns nasty and personal.

The BDS movement does not actually target Israeli policies.  Rather, it aims to undermine the very legitimacy of Israel.

The idea that Israel, more than any other nation in the world, is deserving of a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is fundamentally ridiculous.  Israel is far from perfect.  There are many injustices in Israeli society, including in its treatment of Arab citizens in Israel and Palestinians in the territories.  The government has made a number of mistakes which have harmed the peace process.

That said, I don’t need to remind you that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  It is one of the most progressive countries in the world with regard to gay rights and women’s rights.  It is the only country in the Middle East with a free press.  Arab Israelis vote, serve in government, and bring cases to the Israeli Supreme Court where they are heard by Jewish and Arab justices sitting next to each other.

The BDS movement singles out Israel for denying citizenship to Palestinians.  Let us remember that Palestinians are not Israelis.  They, in fact, vote in Palestinian elections.  Compare their enfranchisement to the rights of the vast numbers of Palestinians living in refugee camps in other Arab countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Kuwait, where they have been denied citizenship for generations and live in horrible conditions.  Why?  Because those regimes are terrified that large numbers of Palestinians might further destabilize their hold on power.  Also, because it has enabled them to keep the pressure on Israel ratched up for the past sixty years.

Where is the protest on behalf of the one hundred fifty thousand people killed and millions of displaced Syrians?  Where are the campus protests calling for an end to discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia?  Why is there no movement to eliminate honor killings, which are accepted outright in some societies, or treated in other legal systems (such as the Palestinian Authority) as a mitigating factor that carries a lighter sentence.

Not to excuse improper actions by the Israeli government, but there is at best a gross naivety when one compares the moral challenges in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some of the terrible atrocities that are committed in repressive societies around the world.

This is nothing new for Israel.  Israel has been held to an unequal standard for its entire existence.  Of the 1822 resolutions passed by the U.N between 1948 and 2009, 235 involved Israel, which equates to 13% of all resolutions.  Since the formation of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006, Israel has been condemned forty five times, which comprises 45.9% of all country-specific resolutions passed by the council.

Dealing with international condemnation is nothing new for Israel.  In fact, despite such antagonism throughout its existence, Israel has built a thriving society.  It long ago learned to ignore most of what comes out of the UN and the international community.  The following story illustrates the point.  To understand it, you will need to know that the Hebrew acronym for the U.N. is או”ם, “um.

It is 1955, and the Israeli cabinet is debating what to do about increasing cross-border fedeyeen terror attacks from Egypt.  They are considering whether to invade and capture the Gaza Strip to prevent the attacks, and are debating the international repercussions.  Prime Minister Moshe Sharett points out that if it had not been for the 1947 U.N. resolution, Israeli would not have been founded.  In response, David Ben Gurion, who was the Defense Minister at the time, snaps “Um shmum!”  And that has been a pretty good description of how Israel has felt about the United Nations ever since.

So what else it wrong with BDS?

Simply put – it will not work.

Israel has become so successful in the global economy.  Its businesses are integrated with corporations and countries around the world.  Just think about all of the connections between Silicon Valley and Israel.  National borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant when it comes to the expansion of global businesses.  I am highly doubtful that a BDS campaign could negatively impact the thriving Israeli business and academic climates in any meaningful way.  It’s just not going to work in a globalized world.

But there is another, far more important reason why the BDS movement is completely misguided.  Historically, whenever Israel has felt pressure from the outside, it has dug in with even greater stubborness.  The idea that imposing sanctions and boycotts will bring Israel to its knees and force it to give in is totally naive.  If anything, BDS will acheive the opposite result.

Those who want to promote the cause of the Palestinians, improve the chances for coexistence, and possibly even bring about a peaceful solution, ought to do the exact opposite of BDS.

Instead of pulling money out of corporations doing business in Israel, pour money in.  Invest in economic development in the West Bank.  Invest especially in joint business and research ventures between Israelis and Palestinians.  Build more SodaStream factories.  People are willing to make concessions when they feel secure and when they have hope that their lives will improve.  People will take risks for peace when they can see the realistic possibility that their children will enjoy a higher standard of living than they themselves have experienced.

That is only going to happen when there is not only dialogue on a grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians, but when there are real economic incentives for building something together.

Unfortunately, the BDS movement is not actually interested in pursuing peace.  In calling for the right of return for all Palestinians to Israel and the granting of citizenship to all Palestinians, combined with intensive delegitimization, it seems clear that what the BDS movement is really after the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

The most hurtful aspects of the BDS campaign, sadly, occur at universities.  On numerous campuses, local BDS groups bring forth resolutions calling for the university to divest from corporations that do business in Israel.  The tactics are often filled with intimidation.

There are practical reasons why divestment is a bad idea.  Harvard President Drew Faust said last year, “Significantly constraining investment options risks significantly constraining investment returns.”  In other words, artificially imposing limits on investment opportunities will result in less money available for university programs.  That is bad for students.

The other reason is ethical and political.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a one-sided issue.  The plight of the Palestinians is wrapped up in complicated international histories and relationships.  There are many parties that bear responsibility, including Arab governments, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and yes, Israel.  To single out one side is ignorant and irresponsible.

Plus, these kinds of movements on university campuses are often experienced by Jewish students, staff, and faculty as unfair and discriminatory.  BDS campaigns often intimidate students, stifle constructive debate, and repress free speech.

Jewish students at NYU and other universities recently had mock eviction notices placed under their doors.  Students are sometimes harrassed walking across campuses.  The tone of the rhetoric is often hateful, equating Israel with Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, and targeting pro-Israel students in ways that often cross the line of anti-Semitism.  Some BDS protests have turned violent.

It is happening all over the country.  Five UC campuses, including UC Santa Cruz last week, have passed BDS resolutions.

Also last week, the student Senate at the University of Washington resoundingly rejected a BDS resolution by a vote of 59 to 8, with 11 abstentions.  That is the biggest defeat of a BDS resolution so far, and that is pretty remarkable at a school like UW, which has a history of anti-Israel activity.

The reasons it failed at UW are important.  Hillel students spent a full two years preparing for a resolution that they knew would be coming.  They did so in a grassroots way that united individuals who did not agree with each other.  It brought together students on the right and the left who were affiliated with AIPAC, Stand With Us, and J Street.

As a result of their efforts, the broader student body felt that the dialogue that had taken place had been respectful and substantive.

The UW outcome is a tremendous victory that has left students feeling energized and empowered, but it comes at a cost.  For two years, Jewish students and leaders on campus devoted an enormous amount of their energies to defending Israel.  What was neglected?  After all, there is more to being Jewish than defending Israel.  Think of all of the positive Jewish programming that did not take place because of the resources devoted to defeating a BDS campaign.  University is supposed to be a time for gaining independence, being exposed to new ideas, and engaging in constructive dialogue with people of different backgrounds and opinions – not defending yourself from attack and discrimination.

In an article published after the victory, Rabbi Oren Hayon, the Executive Director at UW Hillel, describes the numerous students who came to him under tremendous stress.  He writes critically of the treatment of students by people on both sides of the issue as “‘troops’ to be mustered, ‘vessels’ to be filled, ‘fields’ to be planted, and ‘assets’ to be positioned.  Rarely, if ever,” he writes, “were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.”  That is a shame.

What can we do?

It seems that we may need to get more involved.  Not because BDS poses a great threat to Israel’s security, but because it places harmful pressure on Jews living in the Diaspora, especially college students.  And we cannot simply rely on campus Hillels to bear the burden.

One simple thing that is easy for all of us: Buy Israeli products.

Also, do not get into emotionally-laden shouting matches with BDS supporters.  You are not going to change their minds.  Speak about Israel with people you know: friends at work and at school.  Don’t be shy about it.  But always speak with respect, ask lots of questions, and always listen.

A Different Kind of Hero

Gary and Sheila with the Berkenwalds

Gary and Sheila with the Berkenwalds

We recently lost my beloved father-in-law, Dr. Gary Romalis, z”l.  The following is a short tribute I delivered during the week of mourning.  For a more detailed article about Gary, see this article written by my wife’s cousin, Renee Ghert-Zand.

A Jewish teaching that is often quoted at funerals is from Pirkei Avot, a collection of wisdom passed down from teacher to student nearly 2,000 years ago.  Eizehu gibor.  “Who is a hero?” it asks.  And then it gives the answer one would not expect.  Instead of describing someone strong physically, it offers a different answer, a Jewish answer.  Eizehu gibor – “Who is a hero?”  Hakovesh et yitzro – “A hero is someone who can master his desires.”  Self-control.  That is the Jewish definition of heroism.

My father-in-law Gary was not that kind of hero.  One of his favorite meals went something like this:  A piece of rye bread, a half-inch thick piece of salami, a half inch thick slice of onion, a half-inch thick layer of mayonnaise.

Gary was the other kind of hero – the kind who puts his own life at risk to save others.  He dedicated himself to protecting women, ensuring that they would always have control over their own bodies.  After being shot and nearly killed in his home while eating breakfast, Gary continued practicing medicine.  After being stabbed at work six years later, he persisted.  That kind of selflessness is heroic.

But there is much more to this hero.  My wife Dana often talks of the kind of father he was.  This hero, despite his long hours at the hospital, made his daughters his number one priority.  When he came home from work, there was nothing that could distract him from them.  Gary knew how to shut out all the distractions and be fully present.  When they were with him, they were the center of his world – and they knew it.  Whichever one was sitting on his lap, in that moment, was “his favorite.”

I did not know Gary then, but I can picture it because I have seen him as a grandparent.  This hero loved nothing more that to strip down to his underwear and give his grandchildren a bath.  Gary just wanted to be in their presence.

Gary was so proud of his children and grandchildren, and he let us know it constantly.  He gave love freely and unconditionally.  Whenever I shared a sermon, Gary was usually the first person to respond, always with “I love you and am so proud of you.”

As a father, it is Gary who I think about as my model for being Present with my children.  With all of the technology that modern life provides, it is so easy to be distracted from those we love.  Gary liked his technological toys, whether the latest iPhone or his GPS.  But it was always put away around his grandkids.  As a father, I think about Gary whenever I am tempted to look at my cell phone around my children.

I’d like to share two personal memories.

Back when Dana and I were dating, we hit a bump at one point, and she broke up with me, leaving me pretty devastated.  I found myself back in the house with Gary, in the kitchen.  Without saying a word, he pulled me into a big hug.  He then told me, both of us with tears in our eyes, that he and Sheila would always love me and that I would always have a place in their home.  That was the most memorable hug of my life.

Several years ago, Dana developed a pregnancy complication that endangered her life.  It was exactly the kind of serious medical condition that Gary specialized in.  Of course, Gary was on the phone with friends and colleagues at San Francisco General Hospital.  Only the best would be allowed to care for his daughter.

When she went in for surgery, Gary was with me in the hospital.  After the initial procedure, a nurse came up to report that Dana had developed complications in surgery.  I remember it vividly.  We were in the hallway.  I became faint, and had to sit down on the floor against the wall.  I can only imagine what he was feeling on the inside, but Gary’s external calmness was so reassuring.

A little while later, Dana was in the surgery recovery room, where visitors are normally not allowed.  That wasn’t going to keep us away.  I will always remember what he told me.  “Walk in like you own the place.”  And we did.  Thank God, Dana recovered.  Gary and Sheila’s presence at that difficult time was so comforting.  I will be forever grateful.

As one of three men blessed to be married to “a Romalis girl,” I am eternally indebted to my father-in-law.

I will miss him deeply.  He was a hero.