Author Archives: Jordanna Birnbaum

Jordanna Birnbaum

About Jordanna Birnbaum

Jordanna Birnbaum is the intern at

The Rolls-Royce of Emergency Medicine

After the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti six weeks ago many of us saw YouTube videos streaming from CNN and other news sources displaying the heroism and organization of the Israeli field hospital in Haiti. But who were these fast acting, compassionate individuals?

This morning I had the unique privilege of meeting Dr. Ofer Merin, Director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center Emergency Preparedness & Response Program, who served as the head of the surgical and intensive care unit in Port-au-Prince. jb_merin.JPG

Dr. Ofer Merin, a composed and humble man, explained the mission which took the world by shock but left Israeli’s unsurprised at their fellow countrymen. Dr. Merin explained that the IDF is constantly training for disaster response scenarios and had just carried out a training a month earlier in Israel.

Some highlights of his talk included a slide entitled “Ma nishtana?” or “What made the Israeli’s different from other disaster response groups?” The list included the word “chutzpah” which Merin translated as ingenuity. Merin explained that when 16 babies were born, there were no cradles, or carriages in sight. The team improvised and procured large salad bowls lined with blankets to keep the infants comfortable.

After treating hundreds of people over the course of five days, the Israeli medical team ran out of the over 1,000 casts they has brought. Some good old Jewish chutzpah once again came to the rescue after a Moroccan-born Israeli searched throughout Port-au-Prince until he discovered over 2,000 casts in the basement of the Moroccan Embassy. When the Israeli’s ran out of special surgical nails, they headed into town and had a blacksmith create nails in order to be used in surgery.

Beyond these moments of chutzpah which separated the Israeli field hospital from others, the Israelis simply came prepared. They had a mini blood bank, an imaging center, an OBGYN, a pediatric surgeon, bar code identity cards, and other amenities that other field hospitals did not have. Dr. Merrin described that “nobody in Haiti has identity cards, photos were used to keep track of patients and for loved ones to identify them.â€Â  A total of 1,111 wounded and sick were treated, and 315 operations were performed. Sixteen babies, including a set of twins and a boy who was named Israel, were delivered.

As one CNN reporter put it, the Israeli field hospital was the “Rolls-Royce of Emergency Medicine.”

The Miracle of The Wind-Powered Menorah

When Yeshiva University student Mark Stauber would walk down Amsterdam Avenue daily to go to class, his yarmulke would continuously fly off. Although annoying, Mark thought that perhaps this wind tunnel could be put to good use. He turned to his friends Benjamin Recca and Raffi Holzer who put their heads and hands together to create a wind-powered, eco-friendly menorah. Both The New York Times and NBC News took notice of this innovative collaboration which merged religious and environmental values.

MJL:  How did you come up with the idea to create this wind powered menorah?

Mark Stauber and Raffi Holzer: We are in Washington Heights, and there are all of these wind tunnels.  We thought–hey we could make something out of this. We thought we should definitely power something with this annoying wind and then we decided on the menorah.

win_menorah.jpgMJL: What’s the relationship between sustainability and Judaism?

MS & RH: It goes deeper than that, because we thought of the Maccabees as they had to struggle to keep the oil burning for eight nights, so we saw a connection between the story and our civilization’s race for sustainability. So we wanted to look at the world through this prism of Torah and Mada (science), How can we use what we have been given, the resources we have been given, and make them last for as long as we need them?

MJL: What has been the feedback on the Yeshiva University campus?

MS & RH: Most people walk by and say “what the heck is that?” Students are really surprised that fellow students could create something like this. It’s a lesson for other students–the resources are out there and on our off time we dedicated time to set this up. Suddenly people are asking questions such as “what is a wind turbine?”  And we are really getting that conversation started.

MJL:  Do you see the press you’ve gotten as a sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem)?

MS & RH: Yes, definitely because we get to do pirsumei nis, publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah and simultaneously, get to spread the idea of sustainable energy.

MJL: So what’s your next project?

MS & RH: We are actually going to work to create a program at Yeshiva University where undergrads can get together to undertake these type of hands-on projects

Thanks for your time Mark and Raffi! May you have a sustainable and Happy Hanukkah!

Regina Spektor or Benjamin Netanyahu?

Last night I was lucky enough to see Regina Spektor perform at Radio City to a packed house. Even though my love for Regina’s music only started a couple of months ago due to Matthue’s post on her latest album “Far,” I’ve pretty much heard all of her songs, or so I thought. Towards the end of her performance after singing an upbeat, comical song, she suddenly started playing something dark and condemning. The whole room fell silent as Regina shocked the crowd with the words:

“All the Holocaust deniers
To a bathhouse warm and quiet
Complimentary soap, complimentary haircut
And gas them up until they know that

All their ink stains on their wrists mean business
And God is the almighty witness
I wish they’d cure the friendly neighbors
Of the disease which makes them haters

You who accuse the dying of lying
You can’t tell fake from honest crying
Argentina steakhouse Swiss Bank gold card
Aren’t going to help you were you’re going at

So who’ll be the Jew to make the papers
Drenched in blood up to your blue Jew eyeballs
And God and his almighty wisdom
May somehow grant an open season

All the Holocaust deniers
In a bathhouse warm and quiet
Complimentary soap, complimentary haircut
And gas them up until they know that

All their ink stains on their wrists mean business
And God is the almighty witness
I wish they’d cure the friendly neighbors
Of the disease which makes them haters”

Although I had previously applauded Regina for her witty and unique lyrics, now I also felt a sense of camaraderie and pride. Regina was expressing the frustration which people around the world have been feeling. With Ahmadinejad calling the Holocaust “a lie”, along with the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, many people, specifically survivors and there decedents feel helpless. Should we even come to the table to refute these obscene lies? But, at the same time how can we allow Holocaust denial to dominate the political conversation without intervening?

A few weeks ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spoke at the U.N., fully equipped with the original diagrams of the Aushwitz-Birkenau gas chambers and the documents signed by Heinrich Himmler at Wannsee ordering the Final Solution. But many people were torn about the approach of his speech and wondered, why is Benjamin Netanyahu even refuting Ahmadinejad’s ridiculous claims? Has historical truth become so inverted that even the greatest genocide on earth is now being debated? Unfortunately, it seems so.

A Chat With Shahar Peer

Recently at this year’s U.S. Open, MyJewishLearning spoke with Israeli tennis superstar, Shahar Peer. At 22 years old, Shahar Peer is ranked #34 in the world  and has recently won the Guangzhou Open in China and the Tashkent Open in Uzbekistan. Even with her busy schedule Shahar was gracious enough to answer some questions for us.

MJL: Unlike other players, you have an entire religious and cultural community who stands behind you, do you feel that support at every game? Have any Bubbe’s invited you over for chicken soup and a place to stay?

Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer

Yes, definitely. There are always Jews and Israelis coming to support me. Over the years, I have made really strong connections with Jews in cities all over the world. Now, instead of staying in a hotel every city I go to, I have different families who welcomes me in in a number of cities. Even if a family does not invite me to stay with them, I have received overwhelming support over the years during my matches. At almost every single match I have played, I have had fans cheering me on, Israelis or Jews. This has always been fun and extremely motivational for me. One event in particular in which I received amazing support was when I was not allowed in Dubai. I received hundreds of emails from Jews around the world.

MJL: For many people around the world, Israel is a symbol of conflict, but your status as an athlete shows Americans and others that Israel does have a face beyond the conflict. How does it make you feel to be such a symbol?

SP: While I am only an athlete, I do realize the importance of being an athlete from Israel. I do think I help bridge gaps and show people that there is more to this country than conflict. I hope there will never be any connection between politics and sports, but i do think that sports can help put Israel in a different light from what is seen on the news.

Breaking The Silence: Israel Activism & American Students

Just days after the Durban II conference in Geneva, and on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, New York University’s campus is being inundated with anti-Israel events and propaganda. Just today, Ynet news reported an anti-Israel event that was fraudulently planned as a climate change event and promoted as ‘The Hidden History of Zionism: The Road to Gaza’s Killing Fields’. Today, on the sidewalks around the village campus I spotted the statement “Zionism is Racism” written in chalk. On Wednesday, there is a “Free Palestine” gathering organized by BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) Intifada and the NYU Palestine Solidarity Coalition in Washington Square Park.

Why am I publicizing these events instead of shoving them under the rug so I can enjoy my falafel on Israel’s Independence day? Because Jewish students have to start caring more.

Zach Novetzky, a fellow NYU student who attended the Durban Conference recently stated in a an article titled, “A Shift is needed on American College Campuses:”

“During my time spent with the European Union of Jewish Students (especially the French students), I have seen a passion for action that shames the campus activism in America, where a real and unjust war is being waged against Israel. Yes, there are exceptional students  in America who do great things but sadly, such characters are rare. The EUJS students are not concerned with “not sounding politically correct” or “being ostracized by the larger community” because they fervently believe in the political correctness of their message.

There must be a paradigm shift on campuses across America: Jewish students need to stop being complacent, remaining silent and acting cowardly when libelous events like Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) sprout up on campus. When the charade that is IAW began, it was unknown; now, it is on more than seventy-five campuses. Why is there no American Union of Jewish Students uniting nationwide to combat this farce? Why are there no students ready to dress up as clowns, peacefully disrupt and expose the parody of IAW? There must be a revolution on the American campus, composed of creative students who are both human rights advocates and defenders of Israel. (Jerusalem Post)”

Shomer Negiah

Upon meeting an observant Jew, you may ask, “Are you shomer negiah?” before extending your hand. While the words “shomer negiah” literally mean “observant of touch,” the term refers to someone who refrains from physical contact with members of the opposite sex. Originally known in texts simply as “negiah,” the practice generally excludes one’s immediate family members–a spouse, children, parents, siblings, and grandparents. There is some debate, however, over the issue of touching siblings after the age of puberty.


The prohibition regarding touch is derived from two verses in Leviticus: “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Lord” (18:6), and “Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness” (18:19). Although these verses seem to be directed towards men, women are equally bound by the laws associated with these verses, just as they are with all other negative commandments.

The second of these verses, which prohibits intercourse with a niddah (a menstruating woman), applies not just to one’s wife but to any other women as well, married or not (Responsa Rivash 425, Lev. 18:19). The rabbis extend this prohibition to include not just sex, but all touching. And since unmarried women do not go to the mikveh, they are considered to be always in a state of niddah–and therefore always off-limits for sex, or physical contact with men.

Maimonides and Nahmanides, in a well-known rabbinic debate, consider how serious an infraction it is to touch a woman who is a niddah. According to Maimonides in Sefer Hamitzvot, “whoever touches a woman in niddah with affection or desire, even if the act falls short of intercourse, violates a negative Torah commandment” (Lev. 18:6,30). Yet Nahmanides’ (1194-1270) commentary states that acts such as hugging and kissing do not violate a negative commandment of the Torah, but only a rabbinic prohibition.

The Siftei Kohen (17th century) further explains Maimonides by stating that he was only referring to hugging and kissing associated with intercourse. There are several places in the Talmud that the Amoraim (talmudic rabbis) hug and kiss their daughters (Kiddushin 81b) and sisters (Shabbat 13a), and their behavior is considered permissible.

Project FEED: Focus, Engage, Educate, & Deliver

Each year NYU’s Bronfman Center plans Shabbat for 2,000, an event which strives to engage 2,000 community members in a Shabbat together. This year, students in the NYU community recognized the difficult times we are all facing and decided to take it upon themselves to create a week-long initiative with the goal of engaging 2,000 community members in helping to alleviate hunger.


The intense week of service begins this Thursday, March 26th kicking off with a “Challah for Hunger” event. Challah will be baked and sold around NYU’s campus and all proceeds will go straight to Project FEED, in efforts to end hunger in New York City. The week is jam packed with awesome programming. There is a concern for hunger fun run, a Shabbat lunch-and-learn about hunger, Meals on Heels food delivery, supermarket street teams, volunteering at the HUC soup kitchen, and more. The week will culminate with the Big Bang Bash at BLVD to celebrate the efforts of the week and with the hopes of raising $10,000.

This amazing effort, being pulled together by all different students on NYU’s campus, is at quite an apropos time. With Passover around the corner, we have a custom of welcoming those less fortunate into our homes for the seder as well as making sure that all have the ability to have food for their own seder. Rabbi Ronald Isaac, in our article on Maot Hittin, states “the custom of assisting the poor with free provisions of food for Passover is very ancient. The Talmud (Pesahim 99b) mandated a distribution of wine to the poor for the obligatory four cups at the Seder so that every person may proclaim the miracle of the exodus.”

What better way to prepare for Passover, the ultimate redemption, than by freeing the needy from their burden of hunger>

Those in the NYC area can go to to get the schedule of events or sign up to volunteer at one of the dozens of programs.

People of The Book

Last week at JELO, a weekly interdenominational learning program at NYU’s Bronfman Center, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the University Chaplain entered the room with an incomplete Torah scroll. Rabbi Sarna gathered the crowd of over 60 students and announced that this past summer a man told him that he wanted to donate a Torah to the Bronfman Center. Rabbi Sarna agreed but suggested that instead of returning with a completed Torah scroll, the students would help complete the scroll.Each week for the next few weeks, a different student will get to add a letter to the Torah scroll. Rabbi Sarna also introduced a halakhic question:”If a person’s grandparents or parents have already fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll, do their children still need to write one, or can their obligation be fulfilled through their parents or grandparents?”


Rabbi Sarna’s answer was touching:”A person cannot fulfill their obligation to write a Torah scroll through someone else, and they cannot fulfill it simply by knowing that someone who came before them wrote a Torah scroll. We must each have a direct link to the Torah, not a disconnected one. Perhaps we can learn from this that we must each have a personal, unique connection to the Torah and make the Torah our own. This commandment to write our own Torah embodies this idea of personalizing the Torah.”

Learn more about the mitzvah of writing a Torah and the laws regarding this commandment in MJL’s article on Sofrut.

The Kosher Quandary

Last night I attended The Kosher Quandary: Ethics and Kashruth, which was the inaugural event of Yeshiva University’s new student organization TEIQU, A Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding. The debate was moderated by Simcha Gross and Gilah Kletenik who jointly spearheaded the event and founded TEIQU.


The room was packed with hundreds of people, students from all different colleges as well as professors, parents, and nearby residents. Cameras and sound systems were visible at every turn, namely the New York Times and PBS.
The panelists consisted of Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbi Dr. Basil Herring, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and Shmuly Yanklowitz. Gilah Kletenik opened the discussion with a brief history of “kosher quandaries” as well as posing the opening questions to the panelists. “What if any is the relationship between ethics and kashrut? How should Orthodox organizations certify meat?”

Although I cannot fully recount nearly everything the panelists discussed, I will try and give you a sampling of each.

Rabbi Avi Shafran currently serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and the American head of Am Echad. He opened his statements in a cautionary note stating that he knows that his opinions are not as “popular” or as discussed as the other panelist opinions. He also said that whatever he says he is not judging people but rather things, for only God judges people.

He began his response with a metaphor for the relationship between kashrut and ethics.  He said they are like personal hygiene and poetry. A great poet may opt not to shower, but this does not affect his poetry. Kosher food producers are required to uphold ethical standards, but if they don’t, the kashrut of the food is not affected. Ethics are independent of kashrut.

Rabbi Shafran went on to speak about Hekhsher Tzedek and claimed that the initiative “conflates and confuses two Jewish concepts (ethics & kashruth).”

“Should food producers be held accountable for these wrongdoings?” he asked. “Of course they should” he responded, “but should organizations and people in the kashruth industry be more accountable than other Jewish organizations? Jewish ethics is a meta concept-not limited to kashruth.”

The Virgin Bride

In recent months I have received a flurry of wedding invitations. I have also been helping plan my sister’s wedding, which is in two weeks.


With this influx of invitations, I have started to pay closer attention to the Hebrew text which usually mirrors the English text on the invitation.

What I found was quite disturbing:

On the English side of the invitation it says “honored children” and then states the names of the man and woman who are getting married.  On the Hebrew side of the invitation there are two extra statements.  Above the woman’s name it states: “The virgin bride who is praised” or just simply “the virgin bride.” Above the man’s name it states “The young distinguished boy.”

When I pointed out these offensive words to people, many responded by stating that the woman is also referred to as a virgin bride in the marriage contract (ketubah). However, I believe that although it can be taken offensively in the marriage contract as well, I can understand it better, because, after all, it is a contract with both parties entering into the marriage under certain assumptions, in many cases the understanding that the bride is a virgin.

But on an invitation is it really necessary to have the phrase “the virgin bride” placed right on top of the woman’s name?

In my humble opinion, it is not only immodest and tasteless but it belittles the woman to nothing more than a sexual object that is being flaunted and bought by her “distinguished” husband.


It is surprising to me that in a culture that is so obsessed with modesty or tz’ni’ut such a phrase would be allowed on a document which is sent out to hundreds and sometimes a thousand people.

If you happen to be a woman making a wedding any time in the near future, keep in mind that you are more that just a virgin bride.

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