Healing the rift between Israeli and American Jews


During the Democratic National Convention, millions of television viewers saw former President Bill Clinton sporting a pin with the name “Hillary” in Hebrew letters — even though probably fewer than 2 percent of them could appreciate the gesture. For most Israelis, it’s merely just another example of the influence Jews have on American politics and their support for Israel. Unfortunately, most Israelis take that level of support for granted.

Last month, I had the privilege of meeting representatives from many aspects of the rich, complex, multilayered world of American Jewry in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We traveled as part of Kolot, an Israeli-based group that brings young Israeli adults closer to their American counterparts. 

My immediate insight was that we Israelis actually don’t know much about these Americans. We are not accustomed to their sense of commitment and community, to other perspectives and reflections on Jewish life, to their challenges and their diversity — and to the extent of their connection to Israel.

Among the many Jewish congregations and organizations we visited, there were quite different approaches toward Judaism and the role of American Jewry in U.S. society. Yet it seemed that they all agreed they have a special, almost unbreakable bond with Israel, regardless of its current policies. Digging into this connection, one discovered a mixture of tradition, commitment, belonging, longing, responsibility and variable degrees of guilt for not being in the trenches.

For many years, the equation between Israeli and American Jews seemed simple and stable: You give us money and political support, we give you a shared goal, purpose and cause for cross-denominational unity. But lately, it seems as if this equation is not balanced anymore. Israeli governments, public opinion, demography, perceptions and values — all are trending in a direction opposite to those of most American Jews. Soon enough, you might discover that the core values you cherish are being defied and diminished in Israel. 

Beneath the surface, the gap between Israeli Jews and American Jews continues to expand. It’s not all about the Palestinian conflict or the Iran deal. It boils down to the fact that many of your sons and daughters won’t be able to marry in Israel, as their denomination is unrecognized and denounced by the Orthodox establishment and Israeli marital laws. You’ll find it hard to get the recognition and respect you used to get in the States, being outsiders to the Israeli mainstream.

 Your concept of Jewish culture and the role of religion and community are almost strange to many of the central secular group of Israeli society. Many of the seculars will offer you to leave it to the Datim, or, in the words of a Jewish leader I’ve met with: “Israelis have allergies to synagogues.” The case study is already here for you to observe, in the form of continuing alienation between Israeli-Americans and Jewish Americans in the States.

In order to cope with this growing rift, it’s time to shift the perception and rebalance the equation. First, recognize that Israel — as many of your parents and grandparents knew it — has changed. Some may say “evolved,” others maintain it has deteriorated, but American Jews should change as well. The traditional roles as donors and lobbyists are still significant — but cannot be exclusive. As a community, as stakeholders in the Jewish homeland, you have not only the right but the obligation to become more involved — and even more important: Recognize what you have to offer besides your money, and what Israel could offer you, besides taking it.

Also, Israelis and American Jews alike should aspire to establish a more reciprocal relationship. Young Israelis should get acquainted with the immense achievements of their American counterparts, from all denominations. They should visit the congregations, the various organizations and activities of almost half of the Jewish world, recognize that alongside the historical achievement of Jewish statehood lies another remarkable story of Jews in the U.S., accomplishing intellectual, social and monetary achievements of epic scale. Israelis should know, since it’s their birthright, as well. Not as shlichim, not as beggars, but as equal colleagues of faith. 

You should take part in the revival of the Hebrew and Jewish culture, deal and take a stand with moral dilemmas that come with sovereignty, and try harder to reach out to the Israeli public, not only to its leaders. You should share with Israelis the impact of their choices on you and express your concerns; stop hiding the differences and controversies.

In other words, you have to speak up. As stakeholders in Israel, you have a say, and the obligation to express it. If Israel wishes to remain relevant to you, if it still wants to be considered as your homeland, and even just as an “insurance policy,” it’ll have to listen. If you want your future generations to feel that they belong in the Jewish homeland, they must change as well.


Ofir Richman is a content strategy professional and a communication lecturer at Tel Aviv University and IDC Herzliya. He is a former executive producer of Israeli “Meet the Press” and television news broadcasts. He lives in Herzliya, Israel.

The Israeli-Americans: Who they are, what they want, where they’re headed, why they matter


Last November, a group of ambitious Israeli-Americans captured the inside-the-Beltway limelight for a weekend with a large, flashy conference at the Washington Hilton. Among the highlights were billionaire businessmen and political donors Sheldon Adelson, a Republican, and Haim Saban, a Democrat — who had an animated, moderated onstage discussion — as well as appearances by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The conference was staged by the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which formed eight years ago in its home city of Los Angeles and has an expanding nationwide presence. Its conference served, in part, to brand and highlight the existence in the United States of an Israeli-American community that has a unique character, unique needs and unique ties to Israel. The conference, which often felt more like a party, sent a message to its 800 guests, as well as to the scores of Jewish- and Israeli-Americans who heard about it: The IAC is a serious, driven and very, very well-funded force on the Jewish and pro-Israel stage in America. 

And it’s growing at a startlingly rapid clip.

[TIMELINE: Sagi Balasha, the IAC’s outgoing CEO, plans to return to Israel this summer with his family. Photo courtesy of the IAC

The mission is to build a strong Israeli-American community, and strengthen the American-Jewish community and the State of Israel. 

Of course, this mission faces challenges, as well as some internal quandaries. The group is Israeli, but it’s also American. It wants to re-create some of the best things about Israel here, but not so much so that Israeli immigrants who had planned to return decide they can actually stay Israeli in, say, Tarzana. The group wants to connect with and impact the American-Jewish community, although Israeli-Americans more often like to create their own institutions and avoid membership in ones the American-Jewish community has used for generations. 

What drives the IAC?

Two distinct IAC offices occupy one floor of an office building in a cookie-cutter corporate office park in Woodland Hills, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where the majority of L.A.’s Israeli-Americans reside. One office houses the organization’s L.A. regional staff, the other its national staff. Both spaces display Hebrew-language magazines and pamphlets on the counters, and pictures of different Israeli cities and of Israeli soldiers on the walls.

The ambience is Israeli-casual — people are dressed in jeans or Dockers and a few of the women wear skirts. Staffers generally speak among themselves in Hebrew, and there are the ever-present sounds of ringing phones and buzzing email alerts. Five of the IAC’s seven founders still serve on its 13-member board. Three are successful real-estate developers — Milstein, Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff; Danny Alpert owns a jewelry company called Oro Alexander; and Yossi Rabinovitz is the owner of JMR Electronics. As they tell it, in the summer of 2006, around the time of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, then-L.A. Consul General Ehud Danoch encouraged them to create an organization that could unite the large yet uncounted number of Israelis living in Los Angeles to help support Israel, particularly in times of war.

The guiding mission of what was first called the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) — shortly thereafter becoming the Israeli Leadership Council — quickly expanded to creating a more formally cohesive Israeli-American community that could both nurture and perpetuate a sense of Israeli identity for Israelis and their offspring in America, as well as bridge the gap between Israeli-Americans and the institutions of the Jewish-American community. The reasons behind that gap stem from the days when yordim — those who “descend” as opposed to “ascending” in making aliyah — was still the default characterization for Israeli emigres. As a result, Michigan State University sociologist and Israeli Diaspora expert Steven Gold said, Israeli immigrants were seen as “marginal” to much of the Jewish-American community.

“They weren’t supposed to go abroad [from Israel], so they were kind of embarrassed,” Gold said. “Israel wasn’t supportive of them, and the American-Jewish community, which wanted to help Israel, didn’t reach out a lot.”

Israelis who have lived in the United States for decades remember well when, in a 1976 interview televised in Israel, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin derisively called Israelis who had left Israel “nefolet shel nemushot”— “fallen weaklings,” people not tough enough to make it in Israel.

Israeli and American-Jewish attitudes toward Israeli emigres changed in the 1990s, following the influx of more than 1 million Jewish immigrants into Israel from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, according to author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. With these new citizens, the “old Israeli anxiety about demographics began to ease,” Halevi said. Israelis who left were suddenly somewhat tolerable to the Israeli psyche, and, over the years, they began to be viewed as potential assets to the Jewish state, as evidenced by Danoch’s request to Israeli expatriates in Los Angeles.

From left: Sheldon Adelson, Israeli-American Council Chairman Shawn Evenhaim and Haim Saban at the IAC’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Photo by Shahar Azran

Since its founding, the IAC has had one big factor in its favor: wealthy backers, and lots of them. Its co-founders together are worth many millions of dollars. Saban (net worth $3.5 billion) was an early backer, along with Beny Alagem, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills. Both gave $250,000 at the IAC’s first major fundraiser, in 2008. With the 2013 addition of Adelson (net worth $30 billion), the IAC’s pockets don’t seem to have a bottom. 

At its seventh annual Los Angeles gala, which took place March 8 at the Beverly Hilton, the group announced it had raised $23.4 million, including $12 million from Adelson and $1.2 million from Saban. “Sheldon is 10 times richer than me,” Saban quipped to the crowded hall of 1,100 dinner guests, “I said to Sheldon, ‘Listen, whatever you give, I’ll give one-tenth.’ ” Less than one year earlier, in May 2014, Adelson and Saban together contributed $3.5 million of $6.5 million raised at a fundraiser at Milstein’s Encino home for the creation of a Birthright program specifically for Israeli-Americans.

At the March gala, the IAC also announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Winnetka, just east of its current San Fernando Valley offices, which it plans to use as a community center for the Israeli-American community and as the new headquarters of the IAC. The group may also offer office space for other Israeli organizations.

The vision for this community center, although not fully formed, sounds something like an Israeli-American version of a Jewish Federation combined with a traditional Jewish community center — a physical structure open to community professionals, families and individuals. It’s primed to be a major physical and figurative landmark for a community that notoriously “sits on its suitcases,” as Balasha put it.

“People come here with the intention to go back, and that creates a special psychology,” he said of Israeli immigrants. “You will not really try to be part of a Jewish community; you will not try too hard to integrate into American society; you will not spend your money on sending your kids to Jewish day schools, because you’ll just speak Hebrew at home.”

Instead of integrating into mainstream Jewish structures, Israelis in Los Angeles and around the country long have tended to create their own medley of after-school programs, nursery schools, social programs and lecture series, maintaining some mix of both Israeli and Jewish identity independent of traditional American Jewry. 

“They were just individuals around this country, and there was nothing that united them — they were not part of any community,” Balasha said. “Until now.”

Preserving what many at the IAC call “Israeliness” is one-third of the IAC’s mission. For all ages, from young children to working professionals and seniors, the IAC runs and funds dozens of programs that are infused with Israeliness. 

“To identify with Israel [in America] is a challenge, it’s a struggle, and you need to work a lot,” Balasha said. “You want to celebrate with your kids Halloween and Thanksgiving, but you want for them to feel that Pesach and Sukkot and Chanukah are as much theirs — and Yom HaAtzmaut, maybe more than any other holiday.”

For the IAC’s children’s programming, there’s Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which mails Hebrew children’s books and music to 15,000 Israeli-American homes in the U.S. once a month at no charge, according to the IAC’s chief programming officer, Shanee Feig. In June, the IAC will offer Machane Kachol Lavan, a Hebrew-language sleep-away camp in Running Springs, Calif., and Barryville, N.Y. It will mark the camp’s second year in California and its first on the East Coast.

College students have Mishelanu, which sponsors get-togethers and events on more than 30 campuses nationwide, said Nirit Hinkis, the program’s coordinator for the Southern California and Las Vegas regions. And the IAC’s Tzav 8 is a communication system with about 50,000 phone numbers and email addresses that the group uses to quickly organize rallies and demonstrations to support Israel during crises like the war with Hamas last summer. Balasha said the IAC has used this network four or five times to mobilize rallies, most recently in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Las Vegas.

There’s also the IAC’s largest and most expensive program, Celebrate Israel, which brings together tens of thousands of American and Israeli-American Jews to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. About 10,000 Jews (a number the group hopes to increase) have attended the Sunday event each year in Rancho Park, enjoying Israeli food, music, arts and culture on the heavily Jewish Westside of Los Angeles. The IAC’s operating cost for the Los Angeles festival is about $700,000 annually. 

This year, Balasha said, a Celebrate Israel festival in Miami on May 3 drew about 9,000 people, and one in Las Vegas on May 10 drew 3,600. The IAC’s regional offices in New York and Boston plan to have simultaneous Celebrate Israel festivals on May 31. Balasha said the group expects its five festivals this year will collectively draw a total of about 50,000 people.

In addition, the IAC also awards grants to dozens of Jewish and Israel-focused organizations and programs, including the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema and the Phoenix Israel Center, as well as StandWithUs and Taglit-Birthright Israel. 

Having their cake and eating it, too?

“There was one woman who told me, ‘The community is so amazing here that I feel less of a need to go visit Israel,’ ” Dikla Kadosh, regional director of the IAC’s office in Los Angeles, said. Kadosh said she thought at the time, “Oh my God, no, that’s not the intention. We don’t want to re-create Israel so much, so realistically, that people stop going to Israel.”

In Los Angeles, though, Israel doesn’t always feel so distant, particularly because of the climate, the Israeli-style restaurants and the concentration of Israelis in certain neighborhoods, and also because of what the IAC has built.

“Especially as our community strengthens here, there’s a lot less of that guilty feeling of, ‘What am I taking away from my children? What risk am I taking by being here? That my children will not be Jewish, that my children will not speak Hebrew, that my children will not have a connection to Israel,’ ” said Kadosh, who was born in Israel, moved here at 6, and has lived in L.A. for most of her life, with many trips back. She said she feels neither fully Israeli nor American, but comfortably identifies with the Israeli-American term the IAC has helped brand.

“I have been told by people who live in the Valley, in the center of all of this, that living here is like the best of Israel, because they can replicate the life that they had there in terms of easy access to the food and the culture and the people, within all the niceties of living a Southern California lifestyle,” said Miriam Alpern, who runs the IAC’s marketing and communications.

IAC board member Adam Milstein, right, with Sen. Robert Menendez at the IAC’s national convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Naty Saidoff, another board member, is pictured in the background.

No one really knows how many Israeli immigrants and first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans live in the United States or in Los Angeles. The IAC says about 250,000 Israeli-Americans live in Los Angeles and between 500,000 and 800,000 in the United States. In an email to the Journal, the Israeli Consul General’s Office in Los Angeles wrote, “There isn’t an official number, but we estimate there are 250,000 Israelis living in L.A.” 

Most demographers and sociologists who have studied Israeli immigration to the U.S. believe those numbers are far too high. Ira Sheskin, a geographer and demographer at the University of Miami, is director of the Jewish Demography Project, which released in 2010 what may be the most recent and reliable study on Israeli-Americans in the United States. Using data from the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample — a sort of annual mini-census the U.S. Census Bureau conducts by contacting more than 3 million households — Sheskin estimated that in 2008 about 329,000 Israeli-Americans lived in the United States, 136,000 of whom were born in Israel.

Asked where some estimates of up to 800,000 Israeli-Americans in the United States and 250,000 in Los Angeles come from, Sheskin said, with a laugh, “Their tuchis.”

“It’s like if you ask an Orthodox Jew how many Orthodox Jews are there in the area — these are always going to be overestimates. Everybody does that. If you ask a Nicaraguan in Miami how many Nicaraguans are in Miami, you’re going to get a number that’s higher than in the U.S. Census,” Sheskin said.

At a certain point, though, the real number doesn’t matter; what matters is that Israeli-Americans comprise a significant percentage of Jews in the United States, and they’re trying to create an Israeli-American identity while working outside of traditional American-Jewish structures, while still infusing the American-Jewish community with some measure of “Israeliness,” as board member and co-founder Saidoff said.

Saidoff moved to California in the mid-1970s at 21. He said he felt like so many Israeli emigres when he left — that he had “turned my back” on Israel, even when he decided he wanted to live in the United States for good. 

“I feel like I’m paying my dues the best way I can,” Saidoff said in a recent interview. “I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.”

Miri Shepher, another board member and president of Life Alert Emergency Response, said she still feels guilty 40 years after choosing to leave Israel. She was born in Tunisia but moved to Israel with her family when she was 2. She then came to America with her husband in 1975, intending to stay only a few years, but like so many Israelis, she eventually acknowledged that it wasn’t a one-way ticket.

 Forty years later, her guilt eased somewhat when Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told her at the IAC’s 2014 gala, “You guys can help more sitting here than making aliyah to Israel.”

“It was the first time somebody gave me that good feeling,” Shepher said. “Maybe he’s right.”

Preserving an ethnic cultural identity for future generations is a fundamental aim of many immigrant groups in the United States. To that end, organizations with some programs and resources similar to the IAC have popped up among Chinese, Italian, Korean and Mexican immigrants, to name just a few. But unique to the IAC, as Gold said, is the “explicitness and self-consciousness” with which the group promotes Israeli culture and the State of Israel.

For example, the group supports organizations such as Israel Scouts and lone soldier support programs, which celebrate and offer help to American Jews (many of them first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans) who serve in the Israel Defense Forces and often make aliyah.

“The goal is to have the Israeli-American second generation grow up here and have such a strong connection to Israel that they visit frequently, that they speak Hebrew like an Israeli,” said Kadosh, whose husband is Israeli and who said her 3-year-old son speaks Hebrew but barely any English. “Their identity is so strong that it doesn’t matter whether they ever lived [in Israel] — they still identify as Israeli-Americans.”

Israeli-Americans and American Jewry

Of the IAC’s three main missions, the one proving the most difficult to achieve, at least in Los Angeles, is its desire to strengthen connections to the American-Jewish community. In Boston, the IAC’s regional office seems to have a close working relationship with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), the name for that city’s Jewish Federation. But in Los Angeles, the relationship has been next to nonexistent since Israelis began moving here in large numbers in the 1970s.

“We have been courting the Israeli community in Los Angeles from the very beginning,” Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said. “It’s an important goal to engage a large and growing segment of the Jewish community that has not really engaged in the general Jewish community.”


“I think the best way to be a Zionist is to live in Israel, and since I don’t, the second-best way is to be an activist and donate money and do what I do now.” — Naty Saidoff, IAC co-founder and board member

Balasha and Kadosh, however, expressed disappointment at what they described as Federation’s failure to pursue a relationship with the IAC, particularly when it comes to the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Festival, which Federation doesn’t sponsor or promote.

“To us, it’s a big barrier to being partners. Getting the Federation to be a part of it is a stamp of approval,” Kadosh said. Becoming a partner in the festival, she believes, would send the message: “Israeli-Americans are a top priority in our community.”

“[It’s] an open sore for us and I think for our entire community,” Kadosh said.

Whether a relationship in Los Angeles between the IAC and Federation develops “all depends on the Federation,” Balasha said. “There are Federations, like in Boston, where we work so closely together.”

Sanderson, though, said, “To expect the Federation to work with them in the way they want, on the projects they want, on the time frames they want, is not realistic.”

He said Federation’s mode of operating, unlike the IAC’s with Celebrate Israel, is not to put “a lot of investment into one event,” but to work on long-term engagement strategies, as they have done with young Russian-American Jews in Los Angeles.

“We think the Celebrate Israel Festival is a great event, but it’s not as high a priority for us as it is for them,” Sanderson said. “I do not judge the IAC for their decision to prioritize this event, and I hope they will not judge us for our lack of prioritizing the event.”

Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s CJP, said he could not speak to the IAC’s relationship with the L.A. Federation, but did say that when the IAC first expanded to Boston last year, they asked for his help in reaching Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans in the area.

“No Federation has done great in involving Israelis in the work of the Federation, so I thought this would be a great way to make a bunch of new connections to the Israeli community,” said
Shrage, who was present at the opening of the IAC’s Boston office. “It would’ve been extraordinarily stupid for us to say no.”

Sanderson said that Federation wants to use what it has learned from its work with young Russian-American Jews in possible future engagements with young Israeli-Americans, and that his team has had discussions with the IAC to that effect. “We’ve had these recent conversations with the IAC about creating a similar model with young adults that we have with the Russian community,” Sanderson said. “[But] one of the big differences between the Russian-Jewish community and the Israeli-Jewish community is the Russian community doesn’t have an IAC — a well-funded organization with strong leadership.”

In Los Angeles, Israelis have their own community institutions, including, for example, the Mati Israeli Community Center, which was established in 2007 and provides Israeli cultural events and activities for people of all ages. For Hebrew school, there’s the AMI School. And as the Israeli-American version of America’s Boy Scouts, there’s the North American version of Israel’s Tzofim, which connects its membership of primarily second-generation Israeli-Americans with youth in Israel. Many Israelis are not accustomed to the structure of synagogue life in the United States — in part because Israel’s Conservative and Reform movements are tiny and largely unknown as compared to their counterparts in America. Balasha said most Israeli-Americans also don’t want to pay the required membership fees for synagogues here. And while many Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., as in Israel, are very loose with membership policies, a large number of Israelis here — many who tend secular — feel those congregations are “too Charedi.”

Separateness, though, according to the IAC’s and Federation’s statements, is not the goal. “If both parties are of good will and are not judging each other, we will find a way to make this work,” Sanderson said. “I’m hopeful — they need to be hopeful, too.”

‘The IAC will be involved in some lobbying’

At the IAC’s inaugural national conference in November 2014 and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in March, the IAC displayed the relationships it has built with several prominent politicians, including Romney, Menendez, Graham and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who spoke at a private IAC event for pro-Israel college students at AIPAC’s conference.

The IAC is currently searching for a director for its recently formed Washington, D.C., council, which Balasha said will be just like any of its other regional operations in providing services for Israeli-Americans. But he said the group also hopes to have a clear picture by October of how it might want to influence policymakers on Capitol Hill and in state capitals.

“The IAC will be involved in some lobbying, like any other big organization,” Balasha said. “But it’s not going to be our focal point. We may have one representative that’s working to represent the Israeli-American community on the Hill.”

What Israelis (who know about the IAC) think

Aya Achimeir, CEO of Debby Communications Group in Tel Aviv, has the IAC as a client, and her job is to get Israeli media outlets to cover the group’s activity in the United States.

She contrasted Israeli-Americans, who she said “never call on people to leave Israel,” with Israelis in Berlin in 2014 who fueled the “Milky” protest, which was sparked by Naor Narkis, an Israeli who lived for a time in Berlin and who encouraged Israelis to move to Germany as a gripe against the high cost of living in Israel. In October 2014, he posted on Facebook the German equivalent of Milky, a popular Israeli chocolate pudding, and said it cost the equivalent of only one shekel in Germany — one-fourth its cost in Israel. Narkis reportedly returned to Israel late last year.

Unlike Rabin’s view in the 1970s, Achimeir said Israel now sees Israelis in the United States as “ambassadors” and “advocates.” Evidence of this is Netanyahu’s meeting with the IAC’s leadership and board when he visited Los Angeles in March 2014. 

“His main message to the IAC was, ‘You’re an asset to the State of Israel. We need you on the frontlines of BDS,’ ” Balasha said, referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Netanyahu said the group received similar messages from former President Shimon Peres, as well as head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett.

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, is a regular attendee of IAC community events and said that while his and the Israeli government’s natural desire is for Israelis and Jews to live in Israel, they realize the Israeli Diaspora is a fact.

“The question is: Is it organized or not?” Siegel said. “The natural preference is that it is organized in terms of advocating for Israel, but also connected to Judaism. You can’t do that without a community that’s organized.”

He also said he hopes that the IAC’s success can be emulated in other large Israeli Diaspora communities. “You don’t see that independent organization in Europe, for example,” Siegel said. “[The IAC] could be a model.”

Some Israelis also hope Israeli-Americans can “pick up some of the slack” at a time when relations are strained between the U.S. and Israeli governments as well as between many liberal American Jews and the Israeli government, as Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, put it. 

“Israelis are becoming more anxious about the state of our relations with the world generally, and with America in particular,” Halevi said. “The emergence of a strong, nonambivalent pro-Israel lobby run by Israeli-Americans is something that I think is going to be noted here and appreciated.” Perhaps, he said, Israeli-born Americans and American-born Israelis, as the only two groups of Jews with a “deep experience” of both American and Israeli Jewry, can serve as “bridges” for American Jews and Israeli Jews.  

A mission with a time limit?

The “elephant in the room,” Kadosh said, is whether it’s possible to nurture an Israeli identity among Israeli-Americans in the third generation and beyond.

“That’s the big puzzle,” she said. “We haven’t really addressed [it].” 

In fact, said Evenhaim, whenever the board has retreats, they inevitably revisit and re-evaluate their mission. “We say we need to make changes, and then after a whole weekend we rip the mission apart and rebuild it — we have the same mission,” he said.

Although Kadosh said “it’s almost impossible” to keep an ethnic or nationalistic identity as far down the line as the third or fourth generation, she believes the IAC will endure, in part due to the “revolving door” of Israeli immigration to the United States. “We might move back to Israel,” she said of her own family. “My kids might grow up in Israel and later on, in adulthood, come back.” 

She predicts that in two generations, Israeli-Americans still will be coming and going from the United States on a regular basis.

The truth — and this is the other side of Israeliness — is that even among its leaders, the IAC doesn’t seem to agree about what the future will hold. Kadosh says one thing; Evenhaim sort of agrees; Balasha disagrees — he thinks the third and fourth generation “definitely will not be Israeli-Americans” yet hopes they’ll be active in the Jewish-American community. 

Saidoff thinks the IAC will “morph somewhat,” and didn’t elaborate, but did point out a major cultural divide he sees between mainstream American Jews and Israeli-Americans: “Americans are all about process; Israelis are about getting it done.” He conceded, though, with a laugh, that Israelis “don’t listen much” to outside advice.

Milstein, meanwhile, thinks that in two or three decades, Israeli-Americans will be integrated into the Jewish-American community and will no longer be a distinct entity. “We will not exist as Israeli-Americans 20 or 30 years from now,” Milstein said. “But the Jewish people of America will be by us, and will not be the Jewish-Americans that you have today.” 

Asked how Israeli immigrants in one generation will be active in an Israeli-American community if they integrate into mainstream American Jewry, Milstein said he thinks that by then, Jewish-American institutions will have learned how to integrate Israeli immigrants.

About Israeliness, Evenhaim said, “Some would say, ‘Why would you need it? Why not just have your kids become Jewish-Americans?’ ”

“Because,” he said, answering his own question by saying Israeliness can help Israeli-Americans remain Jewish, “we all know the problems of assimilation with the young generation [of Jewish Americans] — a lot of them just don’t remain Jewish.”

What the IAC will look like in two, three or four decades, clearly, is anyone’s guess. But for now, the group is in the planning stages of its second Washington, D.C., conference, which the IAC will hold later this year and hopes will draw twice as many people. 

For Americans though, what may prove most interesting about the future of the Israeli-American community, and of the IAC, is how one of the country’s newest immigrant groups will make its mark in the United States, and how it will navigate the challenges faced by all immigrants, such as, generations ago, the Irish and Italians, and, more recently, the Koreans and Latin Americans. How this will play out is probably impossible to predict.

The promise and the unknown stem from something Milstein said at the IAC’s national gala last year: “We’re different.”

————

Correction: May 18, 2015

A quote in which Adam Milstein said “We don't feel American” was not given the proper context and has been amended to read, “We don't feel [100 percent] American.”

Survey: Israelis in the U.S. become more like American Jews


The longer Israelis live in the United States, the less critical of Israel they are likely to be, a new survey suggests.

The Internet-based survey of nearly 1,600 people divided respondents into two groups: those living in the United States for less than 10 years, and those living in the country for more than 10 years. Whereas 64 percent of the under-10-years group strongly agreed that when Israel is criticized they feel the need to defend it and show its positive side, the figure was 75 percent among the over-10-years group.

When asked if they were to talk about Israel to an American non-Jew, 67 percent of the under-10-years group said they would say positive things about Israel compared to 78 percent of the over-10-years group.

Though unscientific because all the respondents came from the lists of various Israel-related organizations in the United States, the results nevertheless suggest that Israelis’ political views become more like those of American Jews the longer they reside in the United States.

The survey was commissioned by the Israeli American Council and carried out by the Israeli firm Midgam, which asked respondents to complete an Internet questionnaire.

The survey found that the longer Israelis live in the United States, the more likely they are to be interested in Israel’s internal politics, believe that American Jews strengthen Israel, say that American Jews should publicly support Israel and take a candidate’s attitude toward Israel into consideration when voting.

Israelis living in the United States for more than a decade are nearly twice as likely as the under-10-years group to marry out of the faith (8 percent versus 4 percent), and their children are twice as likely to intermarry (17 percent versus 8 percent), according to the survey.

The survey also showed slight increases in synagogue attendance and day school enrollment among those in the United States for more than 10 years.

Israel, U.S. successfully test David’s Sling anti-missile system


A team of Israeli and American defense officials completed a successful test of the jointly produced David’s Sling anti-missile system in Israel.

The test of the weapons system against a short-range ballistic missile was conducted Wednesday at a test range in southern Israel by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, according to a statement from Israel’s Defense Department. It was the second successful test of the system’s Stunner interceptor.

David’s Sling is capable of shooting down missiles with a range of about 60 to 125 miles — longer than the short-range Iron Dome anti-missile system and shorter than the Arrow 2 long-range ballistic missile defense system.

It is “designed as an additional layer of defense against ballistic missiles, to add interception opportunities to the joint U.S.-Israel Arrow Weapon System and to improve the active defense architecture of the State of Israel against missile threats,” according to Israel’s Defense Department.

The successful test comes amid a strain in U.S.-Israel relations over the possible easing of sanctions on Iran and its nuclear program, as well as in the face of concern that the terrorist Hezbollah organization will attack Israel from Syria or Lebanon.

“The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the David’s Sling Weapon System and provides confidence in future Israeli capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the statement said.

David’s Sling is being manufactured by Israel’s state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. in conjunction with the U.S. firm Raytheon Co.

Crisis and opportunity — Reflections on the Pew report


Full disclosure: I have been thinking about the results of the Pew report for more than a decade. I understand that Pew didn’t release its results until last week, but these statistics and trends have been obvious to some in the Jewish community for a very long time. Four years ago, I made a major life change and became the president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles because of the revelations now appearing in the Pew report. It is what drives our board, our staff and me every day, and it is what has motivated our Federation’s major reimagination and transformation. It is at the core of our mission and our work.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of reaction to the study’s findings, ranging from defensiveness to rejection with a smattering of thoughtful responses. The truth is that we can no longer afford to look the other way.  We must take a communal approach to building a Jewish community that will not just sustain but will flourish.

I love Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  I strongly believe that being Jewish adds immeasurable value to me, my family and our world.

We have a crisis. The numbers and the trending in the Pew report speak out loud and clear. Our crisis is not in the Middle East. It is in America. It is a crisis based on our success. We have truly succeeded in becoming American and in assimilating into this great country. 

The resulting loss of engagement, however, impacts every Jew and every Jewish institution.

But this crisis also offers us an extraordinary opportunity.

What got us here won’t get us there

Marshall Goldsmith, one of America’s preeminent executive coaches, wrote an insightful best-selling book titled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The book’s central tenet provides us with a solid piece of Torah.

We, as a people, have built great synagogues and great organizations. We have created enviable Jewish communities across the Diaspora.

It is clear that what we have built did get us here, but it is now equally clear that if we want to ensure a vibrant Jewish future, that infrastructure may not get us there.

I say this with caution. This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction, and there are no “innovative” quick fixes. This is a time to take a break from our preoccupation with our history to take a long, proactive look at the future, the future we want for the next generations. They are the loudest voices in the study. These voices demand to be in our communal conversations.

We need to learn from Apple

Steve Jobs and his crew understood almost from the beginning that once a consumer is introduced to the power of technology, he or she would be hooked. Once hooked, it was up to Apple to continue to deepen the relationship between the consumer and that technology by listening to the consumer and being ahead of the competition in introducing both new products and new applications.

We need to see Judaism like new and evolving technology, and we need to be more like Apple. We need to create a two-way conversation with our consumers, and we need to reimagine our product line.

This analogy speaks directly to our Millennials and the generations to come.

There is another central change we need to make. We have promoted “episodic” Judaism based on lifecycle milestones and communal events. Our institutions have promoted powerful programs like PJ Library, Taglit Birthright and Jewish preschool.  Our Federation supports these important, highly successful programs. But what this study says loud and clear is that “episodic” Judaism is not enough.

We need to create a Jewish journey for every Jew, a journey that each Jew helps to create. Think of the iPod. Millions and millions of people use the same device to listen to their music but with customized play lists. They listen to their iPods alone, or they plug them into speakers and play for their friends in a communal experience.

We need to embrace our young people, not blame them

Our young people are redefining their Judaism. We need to be an active part of that redefinition process. It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them. 

At the Federation, we are committed to not just engaging our young people, but engaging them in our reimagination and our transformation. They are not the problem. They are a part of the solution.

Many of our organizations have built models based on philanthropy first. We need to move away from “pay-to-play” Judaism. If young people are meaningfully engaged, they will become philanthropists. But we are pushing too many of them away by expecting them to give before they connect.

The challenge

Our future demands our attention. We need a strong, communal approach to build a rich, vibrant Jewish future. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has made the commitment to this process. Will you join us?


Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Pew study prompts spirited synagogue leadership debate


Five days after the release of the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a report revealing that Jewish engagement is on the decline, speakers at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Oct. 6 Synagogue Leadership Conference all appeared to be asking one question: Should we panic?

“I share your worries about the results of the Pew research study, but I don’t think we should panic,” Harvey Cox, a leading theologian who until his retirement in 2009 was a professor at Harvard Divinity School, told a room full of rabbis, lay leaders, communal officials, philanthropists and others. The group had assembled at Federation headquarters for an event titled “Staying Relevant in a World That Won’t Stop Changing.”

Cox, author of “The Future of Faith,” delivered the program’s keynote address. He also participated in the day’s closing panel, alongside Rabbis Naomi Levy and Yosef Kanefsky, and others.

Sunday’s event was planned prior to the release of the study, but it came at an opportune time, given that the study paints a bleak picture of what Judaism looks like right now. “The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s” and 32 percent of Jewish Millennials “describe themselves as having no religion,” is among the findings in the report.

Cox, who is not Jewish but is married to a Jewish woman and has raised his child as Jewish, said there is, nevertheless, a lot to find encouraging in today’s world, despite the findings of the report. 

He said he often meets young people at Harvard who are interested in God and spirituality. 

Kanefsky, however, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation, challenged Cox’s optimism, noting that he is worried not about fewer people being interested in spirituality but in the decline in levels of observance.

“If the question were: How do we make sure that young Jews remain people interested in God, people interested in spirituality? Then, absolutely, don’t panic. Because interest in God, interest in spirituality, is on the upswing. But if the question is: How do we want to ensure the continuity of Judaism? Panic,” Kanefsky said.

Kanefsky spoke during a panel that followed Cox’s keynote lecture, which addressed pluralization, American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel and other topics over the course of an hour.

Marc Rohatiner, who has served as a lay leader with multiple organizations, joined the conversation with Kanefsky and Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva, a spiritual community that also engages through social service. Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein served as moderator. 

Levy was decidedly more upbeat in her reaction to the Pew’s findings.

“The Pew study doesn’t scare me; it excites me. It means even more people for me to address,” said Levy, whose services are often an entry point for previously unengaged Jews.

But, Cox pointed out, the problem isn’t that people are less interested in being religious — on the contrary, young people want to be religious but are distrusting of the religious institutions. But it is key, he said, to rethink the approach of using institutions as a way to reach people.

In the future, maybe synagogues should exist, but then again, maybe not, Cox said, arguing that Jewish leaders must be open to anything when it comes to considering how the religion will proceed. 

“How do we retool our religious institutions so we can help people in suspicious mode, in searching mode, so that they can feel they’re not doing it alone? I don’t know. But I know religious institutions are not built for eternity,” he said. “They come and go.”

Kanefsky, however, said that to dismantle the institutions means there is no religion. 

“If you don’t have the scaffolding, it ain’t Judaism,” Kanefsky said.

No direct solutions were agreed upon by the panel. “The challenge is what changes and what doesn’t change,” Feinstein said.

It’s a challenge that affects synagogues as well as the Federation.

“We think challenges faced by synagogues are challenges being faced by us,” said Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president and chief program officer at the Federation, who participated briefly in the panel at the request of Feinstein.

The event was part of the Federation’s mission to work with synagogues to address the needs of the community, Cushnir said. Beryl Geber, Federation senior vice president, organized the conference. 

Other sessions — “Relational Judaism,” “The Impact of New Media on Organizational Loyalties” and “Models of Membership” — made up the remainder of the conference on Sunday, drawing more than 70 attendees.

Can common sense save Judaism?


It’s funny how the American Jewish community has a way of getting all breathless and excited when a new study comes out, as is happening right now with the new Pew survey.

As if we needed all this sophisticated evidence to remind us that Judaism in America is in trouble, and that we must find ways to make it more attractive and relevant if we want a healthy, pluralistic Judaism to survive over the next century.

When it comes to the decline of Judaism in America, we have this habit of getting bogged down with research specifics and losing the big picture.

As I see it, here is the big picture: What Judaism needs more than anything is great ideas and leadership, not more research.

We didn’t need research, for example, to tell us that the best way to connect with Israel is to visit Israel, and that young people love things that are free. The Birthright Israel program was a great idea, not a great study.

The most successful Jewish organization in history — Chabad — didn’t need pollsters to tell them that showing unconditional love for their fellow Jews is a really compelling idea.

Imagine if Chabad had done focus groups asking secular Jewish men if they were interested in having black-hatted rabbis with beards accost them on the street and urge them to put on tefillin

As advertising legend Bill Bernbach once put it, “We’re so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.”

What will drive the success of future Jewish initiatives is not a sexy finding from a research study, but common sense, creativity and brilliant execution.

We don’t need research to tell us that people generally love to laugh, hate to be bored, want meaning in their lives, want to be successful, have happy relationships, feel a sense of belonging, fall in love, eat good food, listen to good music and so on.

The challenge for the Jewish community is to take these fundamental human truths and creatively and organically marry them to the Jewish tradition so that more people will be interested in Judaism.

Piece of cake.

Let’s take one simple truth: It’s better to have a restaurant with 20 items on the menu than two or three items.

The problem is that most Jewish “restaurants” of today — the synagogues — feature too few menu items, which usually revolve around religion (prayer and Torah) and holiday events.

Religious practice is an essential component of Jewish identity, which I love, but it is not the only one. And let’s face it, not everyone loves “religion.” Thank God, we’re lucky that the Jewish buffet is so rich. If we want to succeed with the new generation, we’ll need to tap into these riches. 

I’d love to see synagogues transform themselves into centers of Jewish celebration that serve up the whole Jewish buffet in all its glory: culture, history, music, philosophy, art, literature, poetry, comedy, Jewish meditation, mysticism, self-improvement, social justice, etc., in addition to prayer, Torah study and everything else they offer now.

If the goal is to build Jewish identity, shouldn’t we put the odds on our side by creating as many connections to Judaism as possible?

Let’s look at just one item on this buffet that consistently gets ignored: telling the stories of our people.

When is the last time any synagogue did an event on the history of the Persian Jews, or the Moroccan Jews, or the Polish Jews, or even the Chinese Jews?

We’re always talking about building Jewish peoplehood, but how are we expected to do that if we don’t teach and celebrate the fascinating stories of the Jewish people?

I don’t buy the argument that synagogues should limit themselves to their individual communities. Every synagogue — including the Orthodox — should serve up, in their own way, the full buffet of Judaism to attract as many Jews as possible. That’s not just good for outreach, it’s also good for members.

To build Jewish identity, we ought to focus on things that are uniquely Jewish. Few things feel more uniquely Jewish to me than learning the stories of our people and their contributions to humanity.

Stories build loyalty. The more I know about my past, the more stories I hear about my ancestors, the more I learn about other Jews, the more I feel I belong to an extraordinary family that I don’t want to break away from. I’m now part of a people, part of a grand story, part of a shared destiny. That’s peoplehood.

Even the tikkun olam movement, as noble as it is, can dilute Jewish identity if it is not solidly grounded in the Jewish experience. As Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary in response to the Pew study, “Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew.”

If all this sounds like common sense to you, it’s because it is — just as sending kids to Israel for free was a great idea based on common sense, and just as taking advantage of the whole buffet of Judaism to attract the new generation is also common sense.

Now, if we can take all that common sense, sprinkle in some creativity and serve it up with great leadership, the only research studies we’ll ever need are those that will measure our success.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

How to inspire a Jewish future in America


Last week, the Pew Research Center released the first national demographic study of Jewish Americans in more than a decade. Like all such studies, there are disagreements at the edges about the accuracy of some of the results, but the study’s most significant findings have been generally accepted.

The big news is that one in five self-identified American Jews does not identify as Jewish by religion (one in three among younger Jews), and that even among Jews by religion, the intermarriage rate since 2005 is 55 percent. Looking only at the non-Orthodox, since 2005 more than 70 percent of the marriages have been intermarriages.

The big question now is how funders and Jewish organizations respond to this data.

By itself, the news that one-fifth of America’s Jews do not see themselves as Jewish by religion might not be disastrous. After all, there are many Israelis who identify with the Jewish people who call themselves “secular.” The problem is that the Pew study found that unlike Israeli “chilonim,” most of whom see themselves as integral members of the Jewish people and actually perform more than a few Jewish rituals as a matter of course, American “Jews of no religion” are unlikely to raise their children as Jews, be attached to Israel, give to Jewish causes or see being Jewish as important in their lives.

One Jew of no religion who was interviewed for the study described himself to Slate this way:

“Six months ago I told a friendly Pew pollster that I consider myself Jewish but not religious, that my wife is not Jewish, and that my daughter is being raised ‘partially Jewish,’ in Pew’s terms. And as an intermarried Jewish nonbeliever, I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition — even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”

In short, most Jews of no religion have both feet out of the Jewish community — or at least are on their way to the exit sign.

The astonishingly high intermarriage rate among recent marriages outside of Orthodoxy is so important because according to the Pew study, nearly all children of two Jewish spouses are being raised as Jewish by religion, while only 20 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised exclusively as Jewish. Some of these couples are Jews of no religion and others are headed for the exits anyway. Others might be seen as having one foot within the Jewish community and one foot out.

So what to do?

Without offering firm policy recommendations, which should be carefully developed, here are initial principles:

* We should recognize the big picture. In the aggregate, the many programs developed by Jewish philanthropists and organizations after the 1990 population study that first showed alarming intermarriage rates have failed to stem the tide of assimilation. (It will be interesting to see whether the Pew study supports the contention that Birthright Israel increases Jewish identity and participation.) There is likely nothing that can be done to attract Jews heading for the exits, and the programmatic efforts should focus on those who at least have one foot still within the community.

* Based on the Pew study, at least in America, Judaism will endure across generations almost exclusively in families that identify with Judaism as a religion. (It is less clear to me what level of observance or participation generates a “tipping point.”)   The reasons are less clear, but I imagine that part of the answer stems from the famous Ahad Ha’am saying, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.”

Or, as Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in his thoughts about the study:

“As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents. Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition. It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews [Hebrew] and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. … That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.”

* Along these same lines, we should measure the likely success of programs based on whether they offer the intensive and immersive education needed to give participants an understanding of the power and beauty of Jewish values and practices. Anything less will fail to give participants sufficient motivation to make the commitment of time, energy and money needed for engaged Jewish life. Programs that attempt to “meet people where they are” can only be justified if they actually succeed in attracting Jews to more substantive ongoing programs.

* Every business owner knows that it costs less to retain a customer than to attract a new one. While economic considerations may not be the only relevant ones, it is far more cost effective to invest in Jews who are closer to the core of the engaged Jewish community, whether they are children or young adults. The study tells us that these, too, are Jews at risk of assimilation. Investment in these young people is our community’s best chance for increasing retention of an energizing nucleus that has the potential to reverse the trends painfully evident in the study.

We all prefer good news to bad. This has caused some commentators on the Pew study to celebrate the number of Jews regardless of their commitments or argue that the answer is to be more “welcoming” of those who are heading for the exits.

There are no easy fixes. The only way to retain the next generation will be to inspire them to desire and love substantive Jewish life. If enough Jews can be so inspired, the Jewish future will be far rosier than the snapshot offered by the Pew study.


Yossi Prager is the executive director-North America of the Avi Chai Foundation.

Engagement trends are negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study


If you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building, what do you do when a survey comes along showing that the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting?

That’s the question facing major funders of American Jewish life following the release last week of the Pew Research Center’s survey on U.S. Jews.

The study — the first comprehensive portrait of American Jewry in more than a decade — showed that nearly one-third of Jews under age 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, that American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent (71 percent if the Orthodox are excluded) and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews.

For many of the Jewish world’s biggest funders, the answer to this question is clear: Stay the course.

“We’ve known about these issues and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” said Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which with more than $2 billion in assets is one of the Jewish world’s largest foundations focused on bolstering Jewish identity and community among young people.

“We haven’t done it yet, and by no means is success assured, but I do think as a community we have identified significant ways to address these challenges,” he told JTA. “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

The logic to this approach is relatively straightforward: The findings in the Pew survey mostly upheld the assumptions upon which major givers in Jewish life already have been operating. In their view, the survey validates their own philanthropic priorities — even if they disagree about what to prioritize.

“This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus which is literate in Hebrew, and which is engaged in intensive and immersive education and committed to Jewish life and Jewish institutions,” said Yossi Prager, executive director in North America of Avi Chai, a major investor in Jewish education.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, drew a different conclusion: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right,” he said.

“Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues in Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways — through culture, through arts,” Spokoiny said. “I think that’s a key message.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said the study demonstrates a remarkable failure to achieve many of the central goals adopted by the Jewish community in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed what many considered alarmingly high assimilation rates.

“As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree,” Charendoff told JTA. “I would love to tell you I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone’s waking up.”

Jewish foundations need to get on the same page to develop a comprehensive strategy to begin to reverse the negative trends, he said.

“Donors by and large are focused on particular efforts and not focused on the field as a whole,” Charendoff said. “There needs to be more coordination, more resources. We’re only going to have that impact if there’s alignment and not 10,000 people doing God’s work but without regard to what their neighbors are doing.”

Whether the Pew study will prompt a systemic response, or even an attempt at one by Jewish funders, remains to be seen.

Next month, the Jewish Federations of North America will convene its annual General Assembly, which draws fundraisers and leaders from federations throughout the United States. Jerry Silverman, the umbrella group’s CEO, told JTA that this year’s confab is not the place for beginning a communitywide conversation about the Pew study results.

This year’s G.A. will be held in Jerusalem and focus on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Pew study will not be on the agenda, he said.

“You really need to bring together thinkers and thought leaders who can really think this through. I don’t think that’s the G.A. population,” Silverman said. “That’s not the forum to think this through.”

Chip Edelsberg, the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has awarded about $280 million in grants for Jewish education and engagement since 2006, said his foundation needs more time to delve into the Pew data to figure out what changes are necessary, if any, to their strategies for engaging young American Jews.

“It will certainly animate our discussions and have a bearing on the foundation’s decision making, because it is actually good data,” he said.

Michael Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist behind Birthright Israel, Hebrew-language charter schools and a host of other Jewish community programs, said the results of Pew are hardly news: Separate community studies over the last few years have made the trends clear.

“We should not need the Pew study to give us a reality check,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Steinhardt says he isn’t optimistic that the Jewish community will respond effectively.

“Nothing’s a galvanizing event for the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it.”

Rouhani outreach rejected


Iran’s recently elected President Hassan Rouhani may have reached out to Iranian-American Jews during his visit last month to New York, but Iranian-American Jews aren’t returning the gesture.

Instead, they have responded with cynicism, declaring that recent comments made during Rouhani’s trip to address the United Nations General Assembly were mere attempts by Iran’s leadership to remove Western sanctions on their regime. 

“Iran is engaged in a thoughtful and extensive public relations and propaganda campaign to rebuild its image in order to persuade the easing of sanctions and to buy time for its nuclear weapons program,” said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After, an L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish civic organization.

Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federations (IAJF) in Los Angeles and New York, confirmed that while the Iranian mission at the United Nations invited members of both federations to a dinner reception with Rouhani during his visit to New York, no IAJF leadership attended.

“A number of factors went into the decision [not to attend],” Kermanian said. “Chief among them was the concern that such a meeting will be misinterpreted by our friends as an endorsement and serve to mislead them into believing that Iranian Jews no longer face any issues under the regime or have any concerns.”

One issue traced back to Rouhani’s perceived failure to strongly condemn the past Holocaust denial statements of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When asked by the media about his own views, Rouhani responded, “I am not a historian.” 

Likewise, officials with the IAJF said they were disappointed that the Iranian delegation brought with them Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament. They said he is vehemently anti-Israel and only serves as a propaganda tool for the Iranian regime to claim that they are supposedly friendly to Jews.

Iranian-Jewish leaders and activists in the United States said Moreh Sedgh has little credibility in their eyes because of his sworn and blind allegiance to the regime.

“The main functions of a Jewish member of parliament in Iran are keeping the Jews in line and acting as a public relations agent for the regime, said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. “If you read the official text of the oath of office by all members of parliament in Iran, including the Jewish representative, there is a statement that they must protect the Islamic Republic and Islam as a whole, and Moreh Sedgh is living up to that oath 100 percent.”

It is estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 Jews still live in Iran. Those who remain live in constant fear for their lives and have a second-class status. According to a 2004 report by Nikbakht, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated since 1979 by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody, and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. Just last November, a 57-year-old Jewish woman was brutally murdered — and her body mutilated — in the Iranian city of Isfahan.

For the past four years, Moreh Sedgh and other Jewish leaders in Iran have been banned by the Iranian regime from having any contact with Iranian-Jewish groups based in the United States, Kermanian said. Leaders of many of the Iranian-Jewish groups based in Los Angeles and New York have long avoided commenting on the status of Jews in Iran and do not openly criticize the Iranian regime for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community still remaining in Iran.

While IAJF leaders did not meet with the Iranian delegation in New York, the Journal has confirmed — by contacting Iranian Jews in New York who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue to the community — that a few individual Iranian-Jewish businessmen not affiliated with any specific group and living in New York did attend the Rouhani event. 

During Shabbat services on Sept. 21, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe informed his L.A. congregation, which has a sizable population of Iranian-American Jews, that Rouhani had extended a request to meet with several members of the area’s Iranian-Jewish community. However, he said, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) discouraged such a meeting.

“AIPAC was concerned that a meeting would be used for propaganda purposes,” Wolpe told the Journal on Sept. 25. “I was happy to announce that as AIPAC’s position, though I myself didn’t take a position.”

Leaders of various local Iranian-Jewish groups, including the IAJF and 30 Years After, said they were not pressured by AIPAC or other Jewish groups to boycott the Rouhani event and made the decisions on their own.

“It is normal practice for our leadership to consult with the leadership of the larger Jewish community and with other friends, for that matter, on a regular basis,” Kermanian said. “On this subject, too, there have been extensive consultations with the rest of the Jewish community, including AIPAC. The opinions and recommendations of all our friends, which we value tremendously, were gathered and considered, but at the end of the day it was up to our leadership to make the decision.”

AIPAC’s West Coast office declined to comment for the Journal when initially contacted on Sept. 25, and representatives of AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations contacted by the Journal did not return subsequent calls for comment on the Rouhani event. 

Other recent efforts by the Iranian regime — including Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jews across the globe via Twitter by the president and his foreign minister — have left Iranian-Jewish activists unmoved. 

“The Iranian regime’s leaders believe that Jews were instrumental in Obama’s election and are in control of U.S. policy, so they wanted to get the Jews’ support. Therefore the regime tried this PR stunt with Twitter to influence Jews in the U.S.,” Nikbakht said. 

Even if sincere, these efforts are the work of someone who activists see as a figurehead, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ultimately the policymaker in Iran. And while Rouhani may be branded a relative moderate by some, local Iranian Jews said they have been skeptical of him because they followed his pre-election debates in Iran where he boasted about deceiving the West and buying time for the nuclear program as a past negotiator for the regime.

Ultimately, Iranian Jews in Los Angeles said they were not swayed by Rouhani’s outreach efforts last month and will wait to see concrete changes from the Iranian regime before changing their minds.

“In the last 34 years and from the dawn of the Islamic revolution, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel stances have been a fundamental policy of the Islamic regime,” said Bijan Khalili, an Iranian-Jewish activist living in Los Angeles. “Iranians as a whole mostly have been here in exile because of the brutality of the Iranian regime and the violations of human rights by this regime. Therefore, if there is nothing changed in the constitution or the behavior of the regime, then Iranians in the U.S. should not take the lead to communicate.”


For more about the Iranian-Jewish community’s reaction to Rouhani’s trip, visit jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

AIPAC discouraged Rouhani overture, Rabbi Wolpe says


The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC “actively discouraged” an effort by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reach out to Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, according to Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

During Shabbat services on Sept. 21, Wolpe informed his congregation, which has a sizable population of Iranian-American Jews, that Rouhani had extended a request to meet with several members of L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community, but that AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) had discouraged such a meeting.

“AIPAC was concerned that a meeting would be used for propaganda purposes,” Wolpe told the Journal on Sep. 25. “I was happy to announce that as AIPAC’s position, though I myself didn't take a position.”

AIPAC’s West Coast office declined to comment. As of press time, the group’s spokesman in its Washington, D.C. headquarters had not returned the Journal’s telephone call or e-mail.


Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles, told the Journal that when Rouhani’s office reached out to the IAJF about two weeks ago, “We respectfully declined the invitation.”

“It looked like under the current circumstances any such meeting would easily be misinterpreted,” Kermanian said.

When asked whether IAJF consulted with AIPAC, Kermanian said that his group always consults with AIPAC and other national pro-Israel organizations on major issues, but that IAJF’s refusal of Rouhani was its own decision.

Kermanian added that even after IAJF turned down Rouhani’s offer, “The Iranian mission in New York was still inviting individual Jews to a dinner that the Iranians were hosting for the president.” Kermanian said that as far as he knows, nobody from Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community accepted the invitation.

Wolpe told his congregation that although he was ambivalent about discussing politics from the pulpit and would not give his personal opinion, he “trust[s] the judgment of AIPAC.” Wolpe added that he believed AIPAC was channeling the view of the Israeli government, and in particular Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who regarded Rouhani’s invitation as a public relations stunt.

According to The Guardian, Rouhani was accompanied to New York by Iran's only Jewish MP, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, as part of his efforts to revamp the country's image.

Although Rouhani’s election last June was welcomed as a potentially moderating force in the Iranian regime, he has not refuted the Holocaust denial of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Last week, during an interview in Tehran, NBC news anchor Ann Curry asked Rouhani whether he believed the Holocaust was a “myth.” Rouhani replied: “I'm not a historian. I'm a politician.”

Wolpe told his congregation that Rouhani’s pronouncement on the Holocaust was dubious, at best, and reminded them of Netanyahu’s response: “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”

Netanyahu is clearly skeptical of any sincere political shift in Iran — he has referred to Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”   

Earlier this week, Rouhani used the occasion of attending the U.N. General Assembly to express a more detailed opinion of the Holocaust, telling a group of U.S. reporters that “the Nazis carried out a massacre that cannot be denied, especially against the Jewish people.”

“The massacre by the Nazis was condemnable,” Rouhani said, according to NBC News. “We never want to sit by side with the Nazis. They committed a crime against Jews — which is a crime against Christians, against Muslims, against all of humanity.”

Netanyahu called Rouhani’s speech a “cynical PR charade.”

U.N. imprisonment watchdog calls on Cuba to release Alan Gross


The United Nations Human Rights Council's imprisonment watchdog called on Cuba to release jailed Jewish-American contractor Alan Gross.

The Human Rights Council's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in an opinion released Tuesday to Gross' lawyer that Cuba's lack of an independent judiciary, the imprecise nature of the alleged crime and the failure to grant bail to Gross rendered his 15-year sentence “arbitrary.”

The opinion does not consider the charges against Gross, who delivered computer and Internet equipment to the island's tiny Jewish community, saying they are out of its purview. The opinion also rejects complaints by Gross' lawyer, Jared Genser, that Gross was denied due process and that the charges violate speech freedoms.

However, it notes from its previous considerations of Cuban cases that the country's judicial system serves at the whim of the country's one-party system.

It also says the vagueness of the section of the criminal code under which Gross was convicted “does not satisfy the requirement of a rigorous description of punishable conduct.” The opinion also faults the courts for not releasing Gross on bail for 14 months.

“By virtue of what has been set out, the Working Group asks the Government of Cuba to immediately release Mr. Alan Phillip Gross,” the 12-page opinion concludes.

The working group is made up of experts from Chile, Norway, Pakistan, Senegal, and Ukraine.

Cuba is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in a news conference last month, a top Cuba official alluded to the report and suggested that Cuba would not heed its recommendation.

Cuba on Tuesday rejected the imprisonment watchdog's opinion and said its judiciary functions as independent within a socialist system.

Gross' wife, Judith, cited the opinion in her latest appeal Tuesday to Cuban President Raul Castro to release Gross.

“Given this ruling, I would like to know why your government is ignoring the declaration of the United Nations that his imprisonment to be wrongful and its request for Alan’s immediate release?” she asked Castro.

She also noted Gross' poor health — he has lost 100 pounds since his arrest in December 2009 — and again requested an independent medical examination.

She repeated a request that Castro allow Gross to visit his ailing mother, who is 90 and has cancer, as well as his family. One of Gross' daughters is a cancer survivor and the other recently survived a car accident.

Judith Gross concluded her appeal by “praising” Cuba's request for dialogue with the U.S. government on the matter, an allusion to Cuban suggestions that Gross could be exchanged for convicted spies known as the Cuban Five.

Reform leader Rick Jacobs slams Israeli gov’t discrimination against non-Orthodox


Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said American Jews should no longer acquiesce to Israeli state-sanctioned discrimination against women and non-Orthodox Jews.

“I would fight passionately for the right of Orthodox Jews to pray freely at the Kotel or anywhere else, so I can’t understand why we acquiesce when the rights of non-Orthodox Jews are denied by the Jewish state,” Jacobs said to wide applause in a speech Tuesday at the closing plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, where Jacobs served as the scholar in residence. “This is a moment that calls for Israel and the world Jewish community to address equality for all streams of Judaism by the government of Israel.”

Jacobs cited the case of activist Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, who was arrested last month at the Western Wall for leading a women's prayer service while wearing a tallit prayer shawl — an act that contravenes an Israeli law that has survived Supreme Court challenges.

“Yes, the Israeli Supreme Court has the authority to restrict the prayer of women and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. But why is this holy Jewish site run like an Orthodox synagogue? Why can’t there be space and time for both egalitarian prayer and for more traditional forms of prayer at this holy place?” Jacobs asked. “So long as Israel remains the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams, the Zionist dream of the ingathering of the exiles in a Jewish state for all Jews cannot be fully realized.

“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” he said, adding, “When women are subjected to discrimination at the Kotel, it feeds other forms of discrimination by the ultra-Orthodox against women — on buses and in other public facilities.”

Jacobs also called on American Jews to ensure that Israel not become a partisan issue, saying the Jewish community's traditional bipartisan consensus on Israel must be restored following a divisive U.S. election campaign.

“The pro-Israel community must be large enough to include the IDF veteran campaigning for peace on the college campus, the AIPAC activist lobbying members of Congress, the human rights activist protesting unlawful seizure of Arab homes in Jerusalem, the West Bank settler and the Jew who protests the lack of religious freedom in the Jewish state,” he said.

Approximately 3,000 people attended this year's GA held in Baltimore Sunday through Tuesday.

Naom Chomsky makes first visit to Gaza


Noam Chomsky, the prominent American academic and critic of Israel, has made his first trip to the Gaza Strip.

Chomsky, who is Jewish, is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a frequent critic of American foreign policy and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

He was in the Gaza Strip for a conference at the Islamic University, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Our trip to Gaza was very difficult, but we arrived here and I saw several things which I hoped before to see,” Chomsky said in remarks broadcast on Palestinian television from the university on Thursday evening.

In May 2010, Israel barred Chomsky from entering the West Bank, where he was to deliver a lecture. He finally broadcast his speech by video link from Jordan.

Chomsky, traveling with an academic delegation, coordinated his entry into Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egyptian authorities,Jamal al-Khudari, head of the university’s administrative board, told the news agency.

On Saturday, Chomsky was to deliver a speech on the Arab Spring and the future of foreign policy in the region. He will also meet with NGOs, especially human rights groups and tour refugee camps, al-Khadari said.

Protestant churches’ letter on Israel straining ties with Jews


When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.

Already, one major American Jewish group has canceled its participation in an Oct. 22 annual Christian-Jewish roundtable involving representatives from 12 Jewish and 12 Christian groups in New York. And other Jewish groups are expressing consternation.

“We’re not going to sit around the table and say ‘kumbaya,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which pulled out of the program and urged other Jewish groups to follow suit. “This is the clearest message I know to say, ‘You don’t get it. Maybe think about what you don’t get, and at a later date we’ll sit down and talk.’ ”

The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”

In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.

A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.

This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.

The timing of last week’s letter is further straining ties between American Jewish and Protestant groups. For one thing, it came just weeks before the annual national meeting meant to ensure smoother ties between the two sides. The Christian-Jewish roundtable, as it is known informally, was developed in 2004, when the divestment issue rose in prominence in Protestant circles.

For another, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

“Things are not in a good place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) umbrella group.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said boycotting the meeting is not the right response.

“As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue, because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience,” Marans said. “After all, until two generations ago, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalized within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”

Felson said JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. He said he has not yet decided if he will attend the roundtable.

“We feel strongly that if you want the parties to reconcile, we should model reconciliation,” Felson said. “But that’s difficult to do when we’re up against this brand of antipathy.”

Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”

Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in addition to national ones.

“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.

“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”

Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter.

“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”

Parsons did not return calls for comment.

David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East, whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue, they support Israel.”

Eilat shooting raises questions about recruitment for Israel programs


The recent shooting of an Israeli hotel employee by an American Jewish intern is raising questions about how Israel internship programs for Diaspora Jews recruit and screen applicants.

The assailant, William Herskowitz, was killed by police following a brief standoff last Friday shortly after the fatal shooting, in which he reportedly used the firearm of a hotel security guard to kill 33-year-old Armando Abed in the dining room of the Leonardo Club Hotel in the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat.

Herskowitz had been enrolled in Oranim’s Eilat Hotel Experience, an internship program for American Jews interested in the hospitality industry. He had worked in several positions at the hotel and took a course in hotel management. Oranim is a tour provider that offers long- and short-term Israel programs to young adults.

According to Oranim, Herskowitz had lost his job a day earlier for lack of discipline.

To get into the program, according to current and past Oranim employees, Herskowitz had to fill out an online form, pass a two-part phone interview with Oranim recruiters and send in a medical history form.

Past recruiters at Oranim and other long-term internship programs in Israel noted the difficulty of gauging the personalities of potential participants from across the ocean.

“On one hand you can have a phone conversation with someone and they sound fine, handle themselves well,” said a former Oranim recruiter who asked to remain anonymous. “You can have a doctor sign off on this form and not report certain medical disorders, and how would you know? People can seem completely normal on the phone or Skype, and then things surface once they get to Israel.”

Oranim's spokesman, Yuval Arad, said that Herskowitz had a clean medical record and no criminal history. While Oranim's online application included a resume, Oranim did not ask Herskowitz for references or a personal essay on why he chose the program — safeguards required by similar programs.

A recruiter for the WUJS Intern Tel Aviv program, which like Oranim combines work with Hebrew study and travel, said her program requires a personal essay and a video interview — and references, if deemed necessary — in order to ensure that recruiters know which applicants to watch closely, even after they arrive on the program.

“It is possible for people to fall through the cracks, but if you work for a program you know who your red flags are from the first conversation and monitor their behavior closely on the program,” said Amy Gross, the WUJS recruiter. However, she added, sometimes “all the monitoring in the world can’t prevent someone from doing something crazy.”

Career Israel, another long-term internship program in Israel, requires applicants to submit a recommendation.

Herskowitz also received funding for the program from Masa Israel Journey, an umbrella organization for 200 long-term Israel programs. In order to receive the stipends, which run into the thousands of dollars per person, participants must be Jewish and aged 18 to 30.

Following the shooting, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which governs Masa, said that it would be convening a panel “to examine the processes by which the American participant was accepted to the Oranim program in Eilat,” according to an email. A subsequent statement to JTA called the incident “a truly anomalous event.”

The former Oranim recruiter, as well as the group’s spokesperson, said the phone interview was enough to determine whether an applicant was fit for Oranim’s programs.

“You can tell by having a conversation with somebody if they sounded competent, if they sounded strange or if they had a strange reason for coming to Israel,” the former recruiter said, adding that recruiters sometimes called applicants’ grandparents to get more insight into them.

Arad, Oranim’s spokesman, said the organization has to rely on the applicants themselves to provide reliable information.

“You don’t ask a person, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Arad said. “They need to give medical assurances. What can you learn from the resume of an 18-year-old?”

Health care for all: It’s an American — and a Jewish — imperative


From antiquity to the 20th century, preventive medicine was not bad. The Torah (Leviticus 12-13) already knows about quarantine as a method to contain communicative diseases, and the Talmud knows about such things as the importance of fruits and vegetables in one’s diet, the dangers of obesity, and many other aspects of taking care of our health that our doctors still recommend today. Moreover, the psychosocial aspects of care of the sick were arguably better than what we do today because when you were sick, you were at home among family and friends rather than in a hospital or nursing home. Curative medical treatment, though, was largely ineffective and was, therefore, inexpensive.

This changed dramatically with the advent of antibiotics (penicillin came into widespread usage in the early 1940s), followed by a host of other new medicines, vaccines and surgical procedures discovered or invented in the last half of the 20th century and continuing into the present. Some of these new interventions are relatively inexpensive, but many cost quite a bit, and some are very expensive. As a result, only the very rich can afford many medical interventions available today, and all too many of us cannot afford even visits to primary care doctors. 

Canada, Western European countries and Israel responded to this situation through instituting a system of socialized medicine in which the government pays for both primary care and more expensive interventions for every citizen (and often tourists, too). Socialized medicine has its own problems. It is often hard to add to the package of services available as medicine develops, and people need to wait in line, sometimes for months, for important and effective surgeries that are not emergencies (such as hip replacements). Even so, for decades now, nations with socialized medicine have provided access to health care for all of their citizens.

Virtually alone among democracies, the United States has failed to do that. American individualism, at the root of some of the great blessings of freedom and pluralism of our country, is also the ultimate cause of our inability as a nation to come together to provide health care for us all, in shameful contrast to all the other Western democracies. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) is a plan finally to enable us to accomplish that end. Still, it was adopted in Congress by a slim margin, only after prodigious effort on the part of the president and his allies, at the cost of a number of members of Congress losing their seats in the subsequent 2010 election, and it has now been approved as constitutional by the slimmest of majorities of the Supreme Court as well. Furthermore, Republicans now vow to repeal the law, primarily because it imposes a duty on all Americans to contribute to the health care of us all. American individualism does not succumb easily to demands of the government, even for a plan to help us all as an American community.

Moreover, the president’s plan is a uniquely American way to provide health insurance for us all. It is not socialized medicine, for it is private parties, not the government, which will provide the medical care. The government, though, will function to organize insurance pools to act as the insurer of last resort for those who do not get health insurance from their employers and who cannot afford it on their own. Thus the American values of individualism and private enterprise are retained in the president’s health plan.

As American Jews, we inherit not only the American heritage of Western liberalism, but also the Jewish heritage that is much more communitarian, that requires us as a community to take care of the poor and sick in our midst. The Torah has multiple rules that require us to take care of the poor, and the rabbis added even more. Based on the Torah’s demands not to stand idly by the blood of your brother (Leviticus 19:16) and to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), later rabbis extended this duty to the sick as well. The Jewish part of us, therefore, applauds loudly for the fact that we Americans have finally found a way to come together to achieve this morally important goal. 

But the American part of our identity must also applaud. Pragmatism, after all, is also part of our American heritage. This includes the theory of pragmatism (e.g., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty) as well as the impressive achievements by Americans in all areas of engineering and technology. We are, in a significant sense, the “can do” society.

Until the new legislation, however, people without health insurance or who are underinsured have obtained the services they need but in the most expensive way possible — through the emergency room. This is not only morally problematic because it forces people to suffer the pain of diseases often for months or years before they get medical help, it is also fiscally irresponsible. It is no wonder that for the last 20 years, we Americans have been spending 15 to 18 percent of our gross national product on health care while Canadians, Europeans and Israelis have spent half that, and, according to annual United Nations ratings, they get much better results in health outcomes than we do.

So the pragmatic, American side of us, as well as the morally insistent Jewish side of us, should celebrate the fact that we as a nation finally have a way to provide for health care for us all. May it be put into effect fully and speedily.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University and chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Opinion: The myth of the Iranian-American Jew


This one’s for our children — the teens and 20-somethings who were born in this country or who’ve lived here most of their life, who have no memory of Iran except what’s been passed on to them or what they’ve constructed with their imagination. The kids who speak Persian with an accent or not at all, crack up at the way their parents pronounce their w’s and th’s, become wide-eyed and incredulous when they discover that we grew up without frozen yogurt, nonfat milk and broccoli. And who, more and more these days, find themselves having to define and defend that tangled nexus of nationality and religion, of likeness and singularity, of being and becoming that is their Iranian heritage.

I am speaking, of course, of the uproar within the Iranian community in reaction to a certain reality show over the past few weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but it pains me to see our young people cringe and shudder at the thought of what the rest of the country is going to think of us after having seen this show. They’re in a strange predicament, these children of hyphenated parents. Iranian-American. Iranian-Jew. Iranian-American-Jew. Already, they’ve had to walk the tightrope from one component to the other every hour of every day. But for too long they’ve also had to endure the harsh judgment of Los Angeles’ larger society, fight negative misconceptions, shrug off the myth of what Iranian-Americans are like because they feel they have little power to change it. Why else would they be so hurt and offended by the pitiful portrayal of a handful of Iranians on a less-than-second-rate television show?

Once upon a time, an army of rich, spoiled and ill-mannered Jews, having exhausted all the sources of glee and merriment in Iran, sat around and hatched a plan to conquer the idyllic city of Beverly Hills, destroy its library and public schools, and lay waste to adjacent Westwood Corridor and Sinai Temple. One bright summer day in 1978 they packed up all their jewels, cash and “attitude,” traveled some 7,581 miles, and descended en masse onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of said city. Overnight, they evicted, expelled and dislodged the rightful owners of Beverly Hills by paying too much for their land, paying all cash, opening short escrows. The natives who weren’t forced to sell by outsized offers sold anyway, perhaps out of fear of the jewel-slinging Jews and their all-night displays of libertinism on Shabbat.

Sound familiar? It didn’t start with the TV show; it started more than 30 years ago, within the “native” American community of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

Having planted their flag onto the “natives’ ” land, these Iranian Jews set out to expand their sphere of influence by infiltrating the four pillars of Beverly Hills’ community — the schools, synagogues, professional offices and Neiman Marcus. They spoke Persian to each other even when there were “natives” around. They invented shallowness, materialism, large houses and questionable business practices, and kept it all to themselves. All those unscrupulous bankers on Wall Street who rip off their own clients, the homeowners and real estate speculators who developed and built Brentwood Park and Holmby Hills, the international fashion houses and clothing stores that charge the equivalent of a midsize car for a wallet or a blouse — they must all be Iranian Jews. So must all the women prancing around this city with fish lips and Brazilian buttocks. And all the Americans who, no matter where they are in the world, speak English and expect everyone else to understand.

I shouldn’t have to, but I feel I must clarify that the above is, indeed, a myth. As with all myths, it has a kernel of truth buried somewhere within: Yes, a handful of Iranian Jews came to this country with a lot of money, though that’s hardly a crime; a few of their children own BMWs and drive too fast; a few come across as, or really are, impetuous and unpleasant.

But there are infinitely more rich, obnoxious, BMW-driving “natives” in this city than there are Iranians of that sort, and no one’s going around resenting their presence and blaming them for all the ills in the country. The difference is, when one of the “natives” commits a wrong, we blame him. When an Iranian commits the same wrong, we blame them all.

Sound familiar? It’s like what the world has done to Jews through the ages, except in this case, many of those wagging the finger and perpetuating the myth about the frightful Iranian-American Jew are — alas — “native” American Jews. At best, this is divisive and unhelpful.

So I’m here to tell you, lest it goes unsaid, that the real story of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles is vastly different from the one that’s being told — on television and off.

The real story is that by far the great majority of Iranian Jews who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and in the ensuing decade were anguished and traumatized refugees escaping the very real threat of extinction in a homeland where their roots stretched back thousands of years. Most got away with only the proverbial shirt on their back. What money they had made in Iran was the result of decades of hard work and ingenuity; whatever part of it they managed to bring to the United States, or to make here, helped contribute to the health and vibrancy of this economy.

The real story is that nearly no one, not even the most fortunate, was spared emotional loss and psychological hardship in the turmoil of migration. From the owners of the closet-size stalls on Santee Avenue who worked seven days a week selling quinceañera dresses, to the wives who took a job for the first time in their life because their husband couldn’t find one, and the children who were sent here alone to become the ward of a sibling, an aunt or a Jewish charitable entity — just about every Iranian here has earned whatever living he’s managed to make. To this day, most of them are not rich — not by Los Angeles standards. They don’t live in Beverly Hills, but in Pico-Robertson, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Northridge. Their kids don’t go to private school; they work nights and weekends, take loans to finance their higher education. That they manage to get into Ivy League colleges and succeed in medicine and art and law and technology puts the lie to the idea that they live and breathe to party, drink and spend their parents’ money.

They’re a splendid bunch, these young people who know, perhaps better than many “natives” of their generation, what a gift it is to wake up every day under the American sky. They take little for granted. They’ve learned to appreciate the salient parts of each piece of their identity and to tolerate the rest. That’s a gift they’ve been blessed with and a cross they’ll have to bear. But this other cross — being singled out as “foreign” by their fellow Americans, held to account for the flaws and failures of others, having the good in them overlooked and their faults magnified — this is a burden they’ve neither earned nor deserve.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Opinion: In survey of American Jews, questions for right and left


Mark Twain famously distrusted statistics. This was due to their malleability. Ask the question the right way, and you can claim a mandate for anything.

In contemporary society, statistics are often used to provide “unbiased evidence” for our pre-existing viewpoints. This is not to say that statistics tell us nothing useful. I believe they tell us much that is useful. But statistics are most illuminating if you look more intently at the numbers that challenge rather than simply confirm your assumptions.

On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey of Jewish values and opinions commissioned by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. We underwrote the survey because, as a funder of the Jewish social justice sector, and of Jewish life and values more broadly, the foundation believes it is important to better understand how Jews today understand our experience, engage our values and consider the issues facing our country.

The survey is fascinating. Some of the information confirms conventional wisdom, but not all. Liberals and conservatives who care about the Jewish future would benefit from mulling over the data beyond the headlines.

For example, conservatives might want to grapple with this finding. We asked participants: As a Jew, which of the following qualities do you consider most important to your Jewish identity?

The most popular quality was “a commitment to social equality,” chosen by 46% of American Jews. Support for Israel and religious observance came in second and third with 20% and 17%, respectively.

More and more we do an excellent job meeting the needs of those for whom Israel or religious observance are most important to how they see themselves as Jews. Yet too often we outsource our commitment to social equality to non-Jewish institutions, or make a passing wave at tikkun olam while dramatically underfunding the very Jewish organizations that embody this broadly held commitment. This is in part because conservatives assert that Judaism is—and should be—largely about religious observance and Israel.

Those on the right must rethink their campaign to belittle, delegitimize and excise Jewish social justice from the Jewish community. At a time when we need more avenues into meaningful Jewish life, they are imperiously dismissing almost half of the community. They declare certain conversations or advocacy issues verboten (taxes, human rights in Israel), attack funders who make grants to the social change sector (Open Society Foundations; Ford Foundation) and ridicule those who make connections between Jewish text and contemporary efforts to create a more equitable society.

On the other hand, liberal Jews take for granted popular support within the Jewish community. Often the support is there. But not always.

The survey asked whether or not poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs. A clear majority (54%) said they had.

So while Jews may support legal abortion and gay marriage in overwhelming numbers (93% and 81% respectively), they also agree with an argument long advanced by conservatives: Social programs create dangerous dependency.

What are the implications of this belief? Consider the fact that much of the money spent by Jewish institutions goes to administer government assistance programs. The entire federation system supports agencies that provide poor people with government-funded health care, food assistance, housing and more. Support for the poor has been at the core of Jewish communal norms for centuries.

Jews who believe that the government has an important role to play in providing a safety net for the poor are losing this argument in their own community, even among those who support most other elements of the liberal agenda. This new majority perception must be engaged.

There is a great deal more to say about the PRRI Jewish values survey. Soon the headlines will assert that some of us are right and others wrong. Instead of falling into self-congratulations, let’s instead take it to our Seder tables and ask a new set of questions about our experience, our values and our distinctive role here in America.

Simon Greer is the president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

Silence on Israel loses the next generation


American Jewish organizations have, over the last decades, struck a Faustian bargain regarding Israel. In return for the façade of unity and to avoid controversy, we have organizationally either stayed silent about Israel or addressed it in only the most idyllic strokes. As a result of this lack of investment, the American Jewish-Israel relationship has fallen on tough times, and Americans have lost the “why” of the State of Israel.

One need not exert oneself to demonstrate the Israeli government’s own lack of savvy toward American Jews — its recent offensive repatriation commercials do such a beautiful job on their own.

However, we’re not doing much better in the States. A month and a half ago, The Forward reported that staff, participants and alumni of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, a year-long social justice fellowship for Jews in their 20s, launched a petition protesting a Schusterman Foundation grant for a service trip to Israel. 

“A trip like this, organized by a social justice organization, helps normalize the oppression of Palestinians by drawing attention away from the daily abuses that they’re suffering,” said Michael Deheeger, the Avodah staff member who quit over the trip.

Not a ringing endorsement.

This particular brushfire is the symptom of a massive failure in Jewish leadership.

What one must understand is that each organization involved in the controversy represents the best that today’s Jewish community has to offer. Avodah has trained some of the most talented and brightest of my colleagues and friends — the most passionate, the most dedicated (I am not an alumnus). The Schusterman Foundation funds and develops the most innovative and successful of contemporary communal initiatives (I have worked for Hillel and Moishe House, and am quite biased, thank you). These two are the cutting edge, yet a simple trip to Israel caused revolt. Something is wrong.

My colleague Rabbi Ethan Linden has written convincingly that what joins the young social justice organizations is their silence on Israel: “For years, programs like Avodah and [American Jewish World Service] have been attracting hordes of young people to their programs on two important (but importantly unspoken) conditions … [the second of which is] we won’t be talking about Israel.” The dissenters themselves acknowledge this reality in their open letter: “As a domestic-focused service corps, Avodah has thus far refrained from addressing the potentially contentious issue of the conflict in Israel-Palestine.”

On the other hand, what links American funders and our old-guard institutions is their insistence that Israelis are still unified in their vision of a pioneering, kibbutznik, Zionist, enlightened ideal of the nation, and that American Jews are still unified by their strong connection to Israel. Neither belief has been reality for at least 20 years.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, and therefore a failure of leadership. In both cases, American Jewish institutions traded engaging contemporary Israel for fleeting freedom from the problems of dissention. But the bargain bought them time at best, and the years without connection to the real Israel have taken their toll.

As a result, the content of contemporary connection to Israel is almost entirely political, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thereafter empty. What I mean is that to be engaged with Israel today, either one joins the right or the left, Stand With Us or J Street, or one is politically disengaged and indifferent.

However, a relationship that encompasses more than politics has somehow become petrified, speaking of the past generation. A senior colleague of mine used to debate Zionist philosophy as a teenager in Young Judea – there is little opportunity, or interest, for such today.

We do not possess a contemporary vocabulary for the importance of Israel. The major reason given — a refuge from anti-Semitism — rings wrong in the ears of many Americans Jews, who feel safe and secure here.

We do not know what our individual relationship to Israel should be: Financial supporter? Political lobbyist? Unified in support of? Critic of policies of? Pray-er for in synagogue? Eventual maker of aliyah? American Jews no longer possess an idea of Israel; we are left only with the politics of Israel.

This reality is a shame and a tragedy. In a time when Jewish religious, cultural, social and communal ideas are literally growing faster than Jews can keep up with them — we are in a Jewish renaissance — ideas about Israel have lagged sorely behind. This is because we have had no investment in them, not because they do not exist.

Such people as David Hartman have done the first work of a new Zionism, in which Israel is, as he calls it, Judaism moving through history. In a summation that does not do him justice, Israel is the grand experiment of Judaism. It is important, critical, because it is the only place where the totality of the religious, cultural, political and social ideas of Judaism and Jews are expressed through a body politic. Israel is the only place in the world where Judaism is the civilization, and the ideals we claim to hold apply to a living country. For this reason, if for no other, Israel is of central importance to anyone who loves Judaism.

However, we have not carried this ball forward in our organizations.

It is incumbent upon us to make the idea of Israel — the why of its importance, the debate as to its future — a regular part of what we do and a noticeable chunk of our communal time. This process will be messy and contentious — if Israelis are divided as to Israel’s future, it’s ridiculous to expect Americans not to be. There will be no avoiding politics — that’s like talking football without mentioning tackling. But politics should be folded into the larger context — why Israel means something in the first place.

The good news is that making space for the why of Israel is an eminently achievable goal. Its accomplishment is simply a matter of some communal will and the patience to ride out the first wave of obnoxious comments. In this case, sowing in tears will mean reaping in joy, so let’s get to work.

Where are the great American Jewish leaders?


We are living in a troubling and dangerous time, a time when we need courageous and insightful leaders more than at any point since the Holocaust. We are facing a potentially existential crisis for Israel and ultimately, I believe, for Jewish people worldwide. Yet our leaders for the most part have not responded in a forceful way.

Those among us who understand what is at stake must immediately light a fire under our current leaders. At the same time, we need to rethink the process of how we select our leaders and what we expect of them.

If we look squarely at the facts and are unflinchingly honest with ourselves, we will admit that we are confronted with substantial threats. Today we are experiencing two primary attacks. The Arab/Muslim/Persian drive to remove Israel as a Jewish state is a fact, as is the very real threat of catastrophe that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel.

The unsettling recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and the entire Arab world add to the instability of Israel’s neighbors. Increasingly, radical Islamists, who interpret certain edicts of the Koran as instructing them to kill Jews, are directing their vitriol and hateful propaganda not solely at Israel but at the Jewish people as well. Anti-Israel sentiment is simply a new twist on an old canard. The hate has migrated from Christian religious anti-Semitism to Nazi racial anti-Semitism to Muslim political anti-Semitism and, finally, to a leftist, intellectual form of anti-Semitism under the guise of political correctness.

There is a frightening groundswell of negativity in the Western and Muslim worlds toward Israel and the Jews resulting from a deliberate, pernicious and astonishingly effective international propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel by portraying it as a colonial implant and oppressive occupier. We have a situation in which Jews everywhere are experiencing a level of insecurity that has not existed since the 1940s.

Many would agree that Jewish leadership has a poor record when it comes to the perennial American Jewish problems of Jewish education, assimilation and confronting modernity. Most everyone also would agree that American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust was abysmal.

Why, then, have we ignored the lessons of that era? We certainly have the wherewithal—we have shown ourselves to be effective change agents and effective leaders in so many spheres outside of the Jewish world, from the media to medicine to the sciences to the arts and humanities. Where is our “Jewish genius”?

To all who would argue that we already have been responding, I submit that we have not. Mass assemblies within our communities with the stars of the Israeli lecture circuit and American political leaders might make American Jews feel good, but won’t make a difference—preaching to the converted never does.

American Jewish leadership does a reasonably good job running nursing homes, feeding the poor and housing the homeless. It is essentially a model forged in the prewar Ashkenazic communities of Europe and in the Sephardic world of the Levant, when the Jewish people were in effect powerless.

But when it comes to issues of exercising serious power to prevent another catastrophe in which the unthinkable can happen in an instant, our leaders have been impotent. They have adhered to an outdated model based on powerlessness despite the fact that, since the founding of the State of Israel, we now have power and a voice that potentially can be heard the world over.

I am not denying that we have an effective group in AIPAC, which does a phenomenal job of lobbying Congress. Paradoxically, however, no Jewish organization has succeeded when it comes to lobbying the Jewish people—and no organization has been successful in motivating the masses of Jews to action.

Where are our great, inspiring leaders who will be able to rally us, help us coalesce to work together for the good of the Jewish people and the world? Where is our Brandeis, our Martin Luther King Jr.? Where is our American Ben-Gurion or Jabotinsky?



Threats and insufficient response


We are running out of time. While the Arab leadership funded a well-thought-out campaign to sway the hearts and minds of the masses in Europe and the left in the United States; while they endowed chairs on college campuses and subsequently embedded like-minded professors sympathetic to their cause; we were marching at Israel Day parades singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

While we were feeling warm and fuzzy, while we were asleep at the wheel, our enemies laid out and put into action a detailed and effective plan to destroy the State of Israel and the Jewish people. What they could not accomplish on the battlefield, they determined to carry out in the public arena.

We are now playing catch up—we finally realized what was going on and have been making a belated attempt to fight delegitimization and promote Israel studies on the campuses, but our efforts are nowhere near the scope that is necessary to effectively counter the momentum in place from our enemies’ efforts.  It is a case of too little, too late.

What are our leaders doing about these threats to the safety of Israel and the Jews? How loudly did our leaders protest when the world sided with the Turkish flotilla? How much is really being done about the Iran issue? Were our leaders vocal enough in response to the Goldstone report? And it staggers the mind how our leadership is not clamping down on some Jewish federations as they continue to fund organizations that espouse anti-Israel activities.

Considering our recent history, it seems inconceivable that our leaders are not more vociferous in their calls for justice and protection, are not organizing marches on Washington and putting unrelenting pressure on the president, are not coordinating a voice of truth to counter the growing threats. Quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy did not work during the Holocaust, and it won’t work now. The isolated voices of organizations like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and others are not enough. The groups that are pushing for sanctions are not doing enough.

We need our leaders to be louder and more forceful, and for their actions to have real results. They need to motivate not only Congress and the administration to take action, but also Jews as a whole from apathy into action. We need more in-your-face Jewish activism. And we also need to form real partnerships with those that wish us well, i.e., the Evangelicals.

Would today’s Jewish leadership have the wherewithal to call for Jewish civil disobedience if a nightmare scenario develops, as yesterday’s leaders should have but did not during the Shoah?

Of course, there are some very dedicated and inspired leaders among us. There are those who are speaking out, those who are trying to apply the lessons of the Soviet Jewry model, which was one of American Jewry’s successes (albeit only after impetus from the masses). But there are too few of them.

To understand, it helps to look back. The failure of American Jewish leadership during World War II was no doubt in part motivated by fear, by the conviction that not rocking the boat was the best course, by the desire to hold onto the relatively newfound security of living in America, a safe haven and an ocean away from the turmoil of Europe. During the Holocaust, there were grass-roots groups doing valiant work on behalf of Europe’s Jews that were essentially silenced by America’s mainstream Jewish leadership.

This is the legacy we have inherited. Our leaders today have additional reasons for choosing to keep silent. Raising the alarm about the threats to Israel runs the risk of being labeled a racist or Islamophobe. And certainly there are many leaders who simply don’t know what to do. As a consequence they are doing next to nothing.

We know from modern Jewish history that people, organizations and leadership can change. In the 1940s, despite the horrific news coming from Europe, a number of individuals, organizations and rabbis were and remained opposed to the establishment of the refuge of the State of Israel. Some Jews opposed the United States entering and prosecuting the war. In hindsight, their opposition was ghastly.

Yet when prompted by their constituents, organizations do change, as do their leaders. Although the American Jewish Committee was not enthusiastic about Zionism before the State of Israel was declared, today it is one of the leading advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.

Choosing our leaders

Finally, we must reconsider how we choose our leaders. Our decision-makers today, the ones on the boards guiding collective Jewish action, are predominantly consensus builders drawn from the moneyed class, many of whom are unschooled in Jewish history and ritual, often unappreciative of the mystique and grandeur of our heritage, and lacking a solid grasp of what is most beneficial for the Jewish people and for Israel. When they do act, they often make ill-considered decisions that lead to poor outcomes.

To continue to choose our leaders from the same subset year after year and expect different results is not rational.

We should choose our leaders with different criteria in mind. Leaders should be people who are independent, creative thinkers and committed doers. They should be people of conviction and vision with the moral courage to rock the boat. We need leadership that is more diverse in terms of age and range of experience.

Our leaders should include members of the clergy, the academy and the creative community—people who understand the lessons of history and believe that history has a purpose. They are the ones who can inject into our community the missing vitality, imagination and vision.

We are in dire need of leaders who are connected to core Jewish values and who are caring, have empathy, wisdom and a majestic vision to be part of the power structure. Their collective experience, combined with the acumen of some of the current leaders, should improve the process of decision-making and lead to better outcomes.

If we choose our leaders with these criteria in mind, we will increase the probability that charismatic and forceful leaders will arise.

We cannot afford to remain silent. It is up to us to speak up, motivate our current leaders and ultimately strengthen our leadership. That is our homework. Let us hope that there is still time.

(Aryeh Rubin, a JTA board member, is the managing partner of the Maot Group and the founder and director of Targum Shlishi.

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L.A.’s Jewish Community Library Likely to Move


A coalition of Jewish Community Library supporters say leaders at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have spurned their efforts to create an independent library and to stop a proposed merger with the American Jewish University.

Since March 2008, leaders of Federation, which funds the library through the Bureau of Jewish Education, and AJU have been exploring a merger of the 30,000-volume collection at the Jewish Community Library with AJU’s 115,000-volume library at the Mulholland Drive campus. AJU plans to expand its library facilities in the next few years and to open the library up to the community.

BJE leaders say the merger is the only way to keep the collection public, since Federation has been steadily reducing its funding for the library, which draws about 2,000 patrons a year to its third floor suite in Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.

BJE will not request funding to run the library for the 2010 fiscal year, BJE executive director Gil Graff told The Journal.

But library supporters say AJU shouldn’t be the collection’s only option. They have formulated a plan that would set the library on an independent course, to open a freestanding, centrally located facility, possibly with satellite facilities, that would increase community access to the library. They are not asking for funding from Federation – just to entrust it with the collection.

The supporters say a merger with AJU would sacrifice the library’s identity as a community resource.

“I just don’t think an academic library that sits on top of a hill, over a freeway, which you can’t even see from the street, which few people ever go to is the place to put a community library,” said Sherrill Kushner, an attorney who is heading up Save the Jewish Library, which also includes Orange County’s Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie.

But Federation officials say this plan is just another version of a 2006 plan that was already analyzed and rejected by a BJE task force set up to determine the library’s future. In 2008, that task force recommended pursuing the possibility of a merger with AJU. Those talks have been under way since June 2008.

Issues on the table include what to do with duplicate volumes, which could be placed in other libraries or institutions where the community could have access to them, Graff said. Still unclear is what would happen to the Slavin children’s library. Graff says BJE will not be asking for funding for that entity in 2010, either.

Eliezrie and Kushner say Federation leaders seem sold on the AJU plan, and they have had a hard time getting anyone to discuss their approach. While Federation vice president Beryl Geber said she is planning to meet with Eliezrie, Eliezrie said 10 days worth of emails to Geber, Graff and Federation President John Fishel have not yielded indication that a meeting will take place.

“The library should be an independent oasis for everyone,” said Eliezrie, who as Chabad’s liaison to United Jewish Communities is well seasoned in working with Federation. “I’ve been shocked that they won’t even talk about it. Let everyone meet and argue and hear what we have to say.”

Graff expressed pessimism about the ability of the grassroots effort would be able to take on the responsibility for the community collection with no facility, supporters or infrastructure to manage a library in place.

“It’s not clear to me that this is something as attractive as an entity with a history of 60 years and a campus,” he said, referring to AJU.

Kushner counters that it is difficult to fundraise without any indication that they could have access to the collection. The BJE and Federation will jointly decide whether the AJU merger will go through, and then the Federation’s Education Pillar will decide whether the new entity would get funding, and how much. Under a new structure put into place in Federation last year, Federation agencies do not get any entitlements and any non-profit can apply for funding – including AJU or an independent library.

The idea that AJU could get funding for absorbing the community collection is appalling to Abigail Yasgur, who resigned from her position as Jewish Community Library director in protest to the merger.

“Giving the library to the AJU serves only the interests of the AJU and the Federation, but not the interests of the people.  The arrangement serves the AJU by enlarging its collection. (While the specifics of the Federation-AJU arrangement remain unknown, should the Federation also decide to give funds to the AJU to take the Library, that would be scandalous,)” she wrote in an editorial submitted to the Jewish Journal. “The arrangement serves the Jewish Federation by lowering or eliminating the cost of running the library, which it has borne in major part.  But the losers in this deal, which has not been subjected to public scrutiny, are you and me and everyone else who seeks a Library that serves the people.”

Geber disagrees. She says the merger will give more people more access.

“What we are talking about is not the disappearance, but the expansion of the Jewish Community Library, and it relocation,” Geber said. “It means an expansion in the possible number of hours it is open, in the number of volumes, in the space it will have. These are all things it can’t do here.”

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‘Accidental Mexican’ Ilan Stavans probes cultural identity in first play


As an “accidental Mexican” born to an Eastern European family, author and essayist Ilan Stavans has hurdled critics to become one of the nation’s foremost commentators on Latino culture. As a Mexican American, he has written widely on immigration, the clash and fusion of languages and the quest for acceptance.

As a Jewish Mexican American, he has made himself a wrecking ball aimed at the walls — literal and imagined — that make virtual strangers of his varied ethnic roots.

“I’m very interested in borders or the absence thereof,” said Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. “We live in a world where every country is perfectly delineated with lines, where we can have fences or where we can have helicopters and dogs and patrols. To what degree are those borders replicated in our minds? How do we cross a border that is fictional or imaginary, or do we carry them with us forever?”

Cultural identity and the roles people play for the sake of assimilation are themes Stavans probed in his 2005 short story, “The Disappearance,” which follows a Jewish Belgian actor who seemingly fakes his own kidnapping by a neo-Nazi group. Stavans last year partnered with Massachusetts theater group, Double Edge Theatre, to adapt the story into a play, which will premiere at the Skirball Cultural Center Oct. 16-17.

The production marks the first time Stavans has helped adapt one of his works for performance — an endeavor inspired, in part, by the performer he’s known longest.

“It all comes from having seen my father at the theater. He was very influential for me,” said Stavans, who, as a child, watched his father become a popular stage and soap opera star in Mexico City. “I don’t feel that I have cut loose from my past — I feel that my past is still with me. I have spent my entire life as a writer trying to return to it.”

Stavans’ grandparents immigrated to Mexico from Poland and Ukraine, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism. They wanted to settle in the United States, but strict immigration quotas pushed them south. Stavans grew up in Copilco, a multiethnic, middle-class enclave in the southern part of Mexico City, and attended a Yiddish-language school.

Being one of a handful of Jewish people in his neighborhood was sometimes difficult.

“On the one hand, it made me feel special and unique, but it also made me feel vulnerable,” Stavans said. “I grew up with a sense of being a minority — that just by accident, I was Mexican. We were Jewish because our ancestors were Jewish, but we were Mexican because someone had put his or her finger on the map and said, ‘We need to escape; let’s go here.'”

Stavans dabbled in filmmaking and theater and began writing novels. He dropped out of college and traveled in Europe and Israel but never felt comfortable calling either place home. Back in Mexico, he got his bachelor’s degree from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in 1984. At age 25, he moved to New York City to pursue the life of an intellectual. But the transition wasn’t easy.

“When I came to this country, I became an altogether different person,” Stavans said. “I was never a Mexican in Mexico; I was a Jew. Upon arriving to the U.S., and particularly to New York City, I somewhat magically ceased to be Jewish. All of a sudden, I became Mexican.”

Amid shifting ethnic labels, Stavans also grappled with the newest piece of his cultural puzzle: being an American. He dove into academics, earning graduate degrees at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. An Amherst professor since 1993, he has, over the years, built a reputation as a prolific writer, lexicographer, translator and cultural analyst.

Throughout his career, Stavans said he has been criticized “a million times” by both Latinos and Jews, who claim he isn’t an authentic enough face for either culture to act as its spokesperson.

“I’m an appetizing target because I’m not your standard Latino or your stereotypical Jew,” he admitted. “But criticism is a source of energy. As long as you present work that is grounded, responsibly structured and aesthetically refined, criticism simply means that the work matters.”

Stavans’ numerous books include “The Hispanic Condition: The Power of a People” (1995), the autobiography “On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language” (2001), “Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language” (2003) and the newly released “Resurrecting Hebrew” (2008), which chronicles the revival of the language in the late 1800s by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Stavans also edited “The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories” (1998), “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda” (2003) and the three-volume “Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories” (2005), among others.

His short story, “Morirse Está en Hebreo,” was recently adapted as the 2007 feature film, “My Mexican Shivah,” in which his father, Abraham Stavans, had a role.

Not bad for an exile who didn’t even pick up English until his mid-20s.

“I feel very close to the Jewish diasporic tradition that traverses borders, both with countries and languages,” Stavans said. “There is something within Jews that defies established borders — or maybe that is inspired by them — to break them, to go beyond them. Diaspora is in our blood; it’s the source of our intellectual and spiritual sustenance. We can carry in our books the DNA that will keep that Jewishness alive through the next diaspora.”

The question for Stavans is how that Jewishness might be expressed.

Fictional actor Maarten Soëtendrop glides from stage to stage at the peak of his success in Stavans’ “The Disappearance.”

The Belgian population goes into an uproar when the Jewish actor is kidnapped by a band of neo-Nazis, reappearing 18 days later in an alley, bloody and beaten. But when Soëtendrop — a Holocaust survivor — confesses to plotting the whole scheme, suspicions swirl over his intentions, his past and whether, in a larger sense, Jews can ever find stable footing as perpetual outsiders in foreign cultures.

“I wanted to address the ghosts that Jews carry within themselves when living in a country where we are a minority,” Stavans said. “I wanted to explore the changing nature of Jewish identity — how do we react to the environment? Are we hypocrites because we keep one truth for ourselves and present another truth to society at large?”

The work is based on the true story of a prominent Belgian actor, Jules Croiset, whose self-staged kidnapping Stavans read about in The New York Times in 1988.

The story’s themes of secrecy and betrayal appealed to Stacy Klein, founder and artistic director of Double Edge Theatre, who wanted to collaborate with Stavans after reading some of his material.

Klein invited Stavans to see the Ashfield, Mass., group’s interpretation of “Don Quixote” in 2006. At the beginning of the piece, Stavans recalled, the performers staged a bonfire in which they were burning books.

“They knew I was going to come to that particular performance, and they put on top of that pile of books three or four of my own books,” he said. “I was shocked to see that my books were being burnt right in front of my eyes. It was a very provocative statement. I thought what they were doing was quite interesting and a relationship started.”

Stavans attended several Double Edge rehearsals, sometimes taking part in their improvisations.

“The shaping of the play was very untraditional,” he said. “Rather than the writer sitting in his office and deciding where to start, I gathered everyone in the troupe, read my story and each of the actors began improvising different aspects of the story.”

Not only is Double Edge’s production of “The Disappearance” Stavans’ first theatrical adaptation, but it will also serve as the author’s acting debut — Stavans said he plans to join the cast onstage during select dates in roles he won’t reveal beforehand. “It’s going to be a surprise for the audience,” he said.

After an engagement at the Skirball Cultural Center the show will travel to Legnica, Poland, and New York City.

On Oct. 15, also at the Skirball, Stavans will give a lecture titled, “Who Stole the Statue of Liberty? Immigration in America Today,” in which he will discuss the modern immigration experience.

For tickets or more information, call (877) 722-4849.

Dual Identity, Double the Questions


Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank.

“Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says.
Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band.

Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”

Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.

China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls.

These days, more American families are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.

There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish

Michael Richards: Still not a Jew


There’s a civil war brewing in Lebanon, missiles sizzle on their launch pads in Gaza; death and doom stalk Iraq; the earth’s climate speeds toward collapse; andIran is five days closer to going nuclear than it was before my Thanksgiving holiday began.

And when I return to work, what does the whole world seem to be wondering?Hey, is Michael Richards Jewish?

Richards is the former “Seinfeld” star who was videotaped at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood lashing out at hecklers using the N-word.

He’s been making the usual Stations of the Media Cross, apologizing ever since.And from the beginning, somehow Richards’ Jewishness, or lack of it, became an issue.

Comedian Paul Rodriguez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks.

Black leaders, self-proclaimed and otherwise, told journalists that they’d be watching to see whether Hollywood reacted as strongly to Richards’ racist outburst as they did to Gibson.

How proud Mel must be that the intensity of Hollywood hate speech is now measured in Gibsons.

But if Gibson himself set the standard at 10 Gibsons, Richards is probably closer to a 5. He never made a full-length feature film shot through with vicious stereotypes. He never stood by a kooky Holocaust denier. And when he vented, he vented onstage in the course of an act.

I happened to catch Richards’ act at the Improv back in September. Richards showed up unbilled and stole the evening. He didn’t have punch lines — he had riffs, rants and characters — and he wasn’t close to offensive. At one point, he channeled the conversation of two dogs barking to each other across a suburban neighborhood. You needed to be there, and maybe you needed a drink in you, but it was hysterical. But channeling a racist without sounding like one is a much taller order, and best left to someone not as untethered as Richards.

That said, there’s also just a touch of hypocrisy in roasting a guy for using a word that a great many black comedians from Chris Rock on down use like … a noun. He may have gone too far, in character or not, but he certainly went where other comedians, not to mention hip hop artists, have gone before. How ethnic groups speak among themselves is one thing. But to maintain that the N-word is okay only when black comedians say it in public is a perverse kind of racism of lower expectations, as if they can’t help it but we should know better.

A lot of people in this affair should know better. How goofy is it that Richards must genuflect in apology to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who, for all his good works, is hardly pure in these matters? Evidently, people who live in glass houses can throw stones, so long as the houses are outside “Hymietown.”

And how obscene that attorney Gloria Allred immediately tried to shake Richards down for money on behalf of her clients, the hecklers. How inspiring to see the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement looting the headlines for ratings and cash.

But what interests me about Richardsgate is not black hypocrisy, but Jewish pathology. What tribal chain of ours is yanked the moment someone of indeterminate ethnicity hits the headlines?

The second the brouhaha erupted, there was an atavistic rush to get to the bottom of Richards’ identity. On Nov. 20, The Journal posted a story at reporting that Richards, contrary to the intimations of Rodriguez and others, is not Jewish.

By Tuesday night we had tens of thousands of hits from around the world.

By the following Monday, after a period of Thanksgiving reflection led people to realize what really matters most in life, our Web site had hundreds of thousands of hits, and the piece had been picked up and echoed and blogged on ad infinitum.

Monday morning I had several phones messages and two dozen e-mails demanding confirmation that Richard is not, in fact, Jewish.

What happened is that over the holiday, two more aggrieved audience members came forward and accused Richards of launching into an anti-Semitic rant on the Laugh Factory stage April 22.

Richards’ New York publicist Howard Rubenstein tried setting the record straight. It was preposterous to accuse Richards of anti-Semitism because, Rubenstein told Yahoo News last week, “He’s Jewish. He’s not anti-Semitic at all. He was role-playing, he was playing a part. He did use inappropriate language, but he doesn’t have any anti-Semitic feelings whatsoever.”

That quote was good for another tens of thousands of Web hits. Thanks to Rubenstein’s one man beit din, our original story was under attack.

But our sources were entertainment industry people who’d known the actor his entire professional life.

“Not a Jew. Never was. Take him off the list for a minyan,” e-mailed one comedy writer by way of reassurance. “Rubenstein should be wasting his time on real Jews, like David Beckham.”

(For many in Hollywood, what matters is that Richards’ outburst doesn’t cripple the “Seinfeld” franchise. There are tens of millions of dollars to be lost if fans can’t separate Michael Richards from Cosmo Kramer.)

Hollywood Jews may not know much Mishna or give to Hadassah, but at the tribal level they are sharper than Abe Foxman at knowing who’s in and who’s out.

Rubenstein knows, too, of course. The man Inc. magazine called “PR’s top dog” started his career servicing the Menorah Home and Hospital for the Aged and Infirm in Brooklyn and got his first Manhattan real estate tycoon publicity by arranging for him to sing to little Jewish orphans on Jewish holidays. So I called him and asked how, suddenly, Michael Richards is a Jew.

“Well, he wasn’t born with Jewish blood,” Rubenstein tells me in a voice that is silky, deep and confidential — with just a shmear of Flatbush. “It wasn’t an inherited religion. But after studying some of the other religions, he believes in Judaism, and that’s what he’s adopted for himself.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position; Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, pan


Rabbi Gary Greenebaum takes national leadership position

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a key figure in Los Angeles civic and ecumenical relations for the last 16 years, has been appointed national director for interreligious affairs by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As director of AJC’s Los Angeles chapter and Western region since 1990, Greenebaum has worked closely with leaders of the city’s varied ethnic and religious communities to further mutual respect and understanding.

He plans to project the same skills and goals on the national scene in his new post, succeeding David Elcott, who has joined the Israel Policy Forum as executive director.

“I realize now more than ever how strongly religion affects American society,” Greenebaum said.

Greenebaum played another crucial role when Mayor Richard Riordan appointed him president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in 1993, in the wake of the previous year’s riots, sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.

“I think that my appointment to the Police Commission and my work there helped alleviate a sense among African Americans that Jews didn’t care any longer about their community,” he said. “I also believe that we have established a tremendous relationship with the Latino community over the years.”

In a different arena, Greenebaum and his chapter have spearheaded Jewish communal relations with some 45 countries represented by consulates in Los Angeles. In recognition of this work, he was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by the French government.

Greenebaum, 57, will retain his family residence in Los Angeles and expects to spend one week each month in New York.

Among highlights of his California tenure, Greenebaum recalled taking several delegations of Protestant and Catholic leaders to Israel and the 2003 AJC mission to Salt Lake City to meet with top Mormon leaders.

“Gary is a wonderful judge of people,” said Sherry A. Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter. “He knows exactly when to lead with his rabbinical side and when with his statesman side.”

Debbie Smith Saidoff, who serves on the national AJC board of governors, praised Greenebaum’s sensitivity in dealing with representatives of other faiths.

“Gary is a multidimensional leader of great insight, but he is never afraid to speak truth to power,” she said.

In his new position, Greenebaum will work closely with Jerusalem-based Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s international director of interreligious affairs.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Survival of Jews in Iran is a paradox, panel shows

On Oct. 20, the Women of Vision chapter of the Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, presented a panel discussion on “The Jews of Iran: Will This 2,700-Year-Old Community Survive?” to a standing-room-only crowd at the Museum of Tolerance.

At present, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, 15,000 of them in Tehran, making Iran’s Jewish population the second largest in the Middle East, outside of Israel. In the years following the 1979 revolution, approximately 75 percent of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country, some to New York but many more to Los Angeles, which now boasts the largest Iranian Jewish population in the world.

Speakers at the conference included Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, as well as Hamid Sabi, former chairman of the Iranian Jewish Centre in London. They were joined by Tel Aviv University professors Meir Litvak, an expert in Shi’ii and radical Islamic movements, and David Menashri, director of the Tel Aviv University’s Center for Iranian Studies; television producer and poet Roya Hakakian, author of “Journey From the Land of No” (Crown), about growing up as a Jewish teenager in post-revolutionary Iran; Shirin Taleh, a relatively recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Tehran, where she was a Jewish preschool and kindergarten schoolteacher; and Israel Radio personality Menashe Amir, who hosts a regular program listened to by Iranians the world over. The panel was moderated by Sharon Baradaran, a professor in UCLA’s Israel studies department.

The conference presented a complex look at the recent history of Jews in Iran. Amir made clear that over the last century, the condition of Jews in Iran had gone from bad to better (under the shah) to worse, prompting Baradaran to ask whether the better times under the shah were more of an aberration than had been thought.

Hakakian and Sabi both spoke of the role of Jews in the revolution and post-revolutionary period, time of great intellectual ferment and hope. Hakakian, in particular, still hopes a democracy will emerge in Iran, and she is encouraged by reports that average Iranians are losing interest in Iranian government-produced Palestinian propaganda and are showing interest in Israel.

By contrast, Litvak was vocal in pointing out that Iran only tolerates Jews living under Muslim rule — not as people living in an independent state. Iran has become the world leader in Holocaust denial, Litvak explained, as part of a political strategy to undermine support for Israel’s existence.

The panelists agreed that today’s Iran presents a paradox. In many ways, as Hakakian, Sabi and Taleh made clear, life for Jews in some ways has never been better. They are a “protected minority,” allowed to drink wine for their rituals, while Muslims are not allowed alcohol; Jews may allow men and women to mix, while Muslims cannot.Nonetheless, Jews are barred from government jobs, and under Muslim laws, their rights in criminal and civil courts are not equal to other Iranian citizens.

Iranian Muslims consider Jews “filthy” and impure. Yet Jews in Iran have the right to passports and to travel abroad and could leave if they choose.

Litvak suggested that Iran’s Jews have little future living as a minority in Iran and will not likely be able to improve their place in society. Kermanian recommended that the remaining Jews of Iran leave as soon as possible, in case conditions should change.

Menashri suggested that all Iranian Jews should move to Israel, while Hakakian argued that Iran’s Jews should remain and will flourish under a future regime. Taleh believes that there always will be a Jewish Iran, as long as parents teach their children about Judaism.

— Tom Teicholz, Contributing Writer

TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?


Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to “control the wolf within.”

With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters – second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004’s pitiable “Van Helsing,” the year’s 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn’t want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it’s not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren’t surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset?
From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture.

Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. “The Wolf Man” was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales.
Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak’s films — including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen.

In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that “The Wolf Man” was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak’s wolf man. In “American Werewolf,” Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for “American Werewolf” came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David’s family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man’s transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn’t the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf’s transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985’s underappreciated movie “Teen Wolf” and the fabulous Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” as prominent examples.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, “Buffy,” though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there.

And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence.

Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the “Buffy” generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz?

American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

GOP pro-Israel campaign is the real deal — why the hysteria?


Sure, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has an agenda.
 The RJC wants Jews to become Republicans. So, the RJC buys ads in Jewish newspapers.
 
Why the unbridled hysteria?
Were the ads pornographic?
 
For some liberals, free
speech is selective. For them, (Jewish) community standards define the Republican Party as obscene. They don’t want to read what the other side has to say, and they do not want you to read it, either.
 
To be fair, some Republicans also blindly follow their political party. And I am not one of them. I don’t think the Republican Party is perfect. But on most issues, Republicans are a better fit for me.
 
For many in either party, party allegiance is based on gut feeling, for others, a multiplicity of issues that can be discussed another time. For now, let’s talk about the most controversial issue RJC confronted — Israel.
 
The message in the RJC ads sent some Democrats up the wall. Why take it out on the messenger? These angry Democrats had two intellectually defensible alternatives. They could have said that Israel is important to them and, also added: (a) “Other issues are more important to us than Israel,” or (b) “We have an Israel problem in our party, and we’ll work it out within the party.”
 
But party hacks are loyal to their party, not principle. And major Jewish Democrats, who could rise to the occasion, are in denial.
 
Let’s not pretend, as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) does, that the RJC rhetoric somehow challenges a bipartisan coalition for Israel. Congressman Berman is a bright, honest, decent man who knows better. I respect Howard, but his political identity, vested in the Democratic Party, trumps his formidable IQ. It is not that he cannot, but he chooses not to see reality.
Bipartisan coalition? Anti-Semite Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) merely spoke more boldly than many of her African American colleagues in Congress, who are, I am sad to say, anti-Israel populists. The more patrician Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) publicly buys into the Jewish conspiracy line.
 
Then there is the “Southern gentleman” — then-Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who on the Senate floor blamed the Iraq War on Jews. I could go on and on (Lois Capps [D-Santa Barbara], Barbara Lee [D-Oakland], Fortney Pete Stark [D-Fremont] and Maxine Waters [D-Los Angeles] to name just a few more members of Congress).
 
Berman’s Jewish brethren in Congress are disingenuous. For years, if not decades, they have supported cuts in the size and scope of our intelligence community. Soft on defense, they also have consistently opposed U.S. strategic and tactical weapons systems.
 
Do Jewish Democrats like Sen. Barbara Boxer (California) and Rep. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) really believe that an intelligence out-to-lunch and militarily weak United States can support an ostracized, isolated Israel? These politicians embarrass me.
 
Indeed, my friend (and Republican) Michael Medved’s political re-awakening came after he, as a young Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, organized opposition to the Lockheed C-5A as a boondoggle. A few years later (1973), those aircraft transported armaments that literally kept Israel alive during the Yom Kippur War.
 
Consider the “Democrats for Israel” ad in this newspaper (Sept. 29). It argued that 96 percent of congressional Democrats supported “Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.” So did Saudi Arabia. Big deal. Besides, what about the most senior Democrat from Michigan, Israel-bashing Rep. John Dingell, who declared himself neutral between Israel and Hezbollah?
 
In most states in this country, you’ll have no problem getting a pro-Israel resolution at a Republican state convention. You won’t fare so well at a state convention of Democrats.
Why? For two reasons. Their party’s activists are allied with politically correct groups that are increasingly receptive to the anti-Israel theology. Increasingly, Palestinians are seen as a suffering group that must be supported by victims groups — African Americans, gays, feminists, immigrants.
 
And the second reason: That Democrat politicians reflect their base. Let’s talk reality. Polling data, as highlighted in the RJC ads, are conclusive (for example, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg). A majority of Republican voters support Israel; a majority of Democrat voters do not.
 
Since most Jews are Democrats, this would seem counterintuitive, because you would expect them to show up statistically. Until you realize that evangelical Christians who support Israel are disproportionately Republicans. And, conservative Republicans, as a group, generally see Israel as a worthy ally.
 
In contrast, many rank-and-file Democrats, including what James Carville might call “trailer trash,” buy into the Jewish-Zionist conspiracy. If you still don’t get it, look at Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Mass.) defeat. It wasn’t just Iraq. Look at the anti-Semitic ravings against him on liberal Web sites.
 
What of the distinguished Democrats? Former President Jimmy Carter has used his stature as a former president to travel the world attacking Israel. Former President Bill Clinton is hardly anti-Israel. But after the first Persian Gulf War, we had arguably the best opportunity for a negotiated peace. Yasser Arafat, discredited and isolated, was at his lowest point. What did Clinton do? He resurrected and legitimized him with an invitation to the White House, and the true moderates for a Mideast peace lost more than a decade.
 
What happens next month if the Democrats gain control of Congress? Anti-Israel John Conyers (D-Mich.) will chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Anti-Israel Dingell will chair the critical Energy and Commerce Committee. Anti-Israel David Obey (D-Wis.) will chair the key Appropriations Committee. This rogue’s gallery is far from complete.
 
Politicians pander to Jews on Israel. Does it matter whether Republicans remain in power?
 
If you still don’t get it, ask someone in Israel.
 

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst. He has written graduate texts on politics and media.

Trio of films offers eclectic choices: sea, spies, punk


“The Guardian”

Raised in a secular Jewish family in Chicago, “The Guardian” director Andrew Davis learned early the values and ethics he continues to believe in.

“My parents taught me war is not a good thing, so do everything you can to not go to war,” he says during a telephone interview. “And it’d be great if the armies of the world could help people and not hurt people.”

“The Guardian,” which opens on Sept. 29, is about the U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers, of whom there are only about 300 because of the rigorous training and the dangers of the job. Written by Ron L. Brinkerhoff, the film stars Kevin Costner as a heroic but aging swimmer based at Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Assigned to training school, he struggles to teach a brash, possibly reckless young recruit played by Ashton Kutcher.

“At this stage of my life or career, I didn’t want to make a film about how wonderful it is to kill somebody,” says Davis, primarily known for action films, including “Collateral Damage” (2002). “There are no bad people in this movie. Nature and the forces of weather motivate the heroism.

“I’ve done movies about cops and about soldiers, where violence is part of the tension and the entertainment. My most successful movie is ‘The Fugitive,’ which starts off with a woman being killed because her husband was not cooperating in drug protocol. That’s a very dark environment. So I was glad to make a movie where violence is not a part of it.”

Davis’ first work on a feature film was as assistant cameraman on Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking “Medium Cool,” a political drama shot during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention. His directorial debut was 1978’s “Stoney Island,” based on his brother’s experiences growing up white in Chicago’s racially changing South Side. Davis also directed “A Perfect Murder,” “Under Siege” and “Holes.”

Preparations were under way to shoot “The Guardian” in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit last year. The crew evacuated to Shreveport, La., amid the chaos.

“We were six weeks away from shooting,” Davis says. “When we arrived at Shreveport, there were 1,000 evacuees at the university gymnasium. So we were in the midst of an evacuation and trying to keep our movie alive. We hired about 200 people all told who had been affected by the storm — cast and crew.”

The Coast Guard, itself, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, was called into action to help those stranded after Katrina. By all accounts, it performed outstandingly — the Coast Guard’s Leadership News cited 24,135 lives saved by its personnel.Katrina inspired Davis: “I thought it was more important than ever to make this film and really point out what these guys do.”

“We felt the best thing we could do was maybe try to bring more light on these guys, so hopefully the government will fund them better, and there’ll be more of them, and they’ll get better facilities to train in,” Davis says. “It’s an element of the military I do support.”

— Steven Rosen, Contributing Writer

“American Hardcore: A Tribal History”

What would you do if the frustration in your life manifested itself in worries about civil liberties and a lack of freedom of speech, and you felt a combination of repression and depression about the policies and practices of the current political administration? You might be upset enough to write your local government representative or you just might be angry enough to write a punk song.

Steven Blush, author, promoter and now scriptwriter compiled the quotations of around 60 of the most notable American-born hardcore bands in “American Hardcore: A Tribal History.” In the book, Blush documents the history of the more hard-edged, second-generation of punk rock.Following up on the book’s success, Blush has written and produced a documentary using the same format. The fragmented and frustrated feelings that inspired this music are all too familiar to Blush, from his beginnings as a nice Jewish boy to his sub-culturally-inspired adulthood.

Growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Blush is the son of a typical Jewish family. His parents made sure he was always cared for; he became bar mitzvah and on the cusp of adulthood, they sent him to George Washington University to get a law degree.

One night while in college, Blush went out to a club and became fascinated by something that would change his life — a band called Black Flag. The group was one of a handful of emerging sub-cultural bands made up of and being followed by a bunch of frustrated and wistful kids with backgrounds similar to Blush’s.

Blush remembers, “I had liked groups like the Sex Pistols; they were pure rock ‘n’ roll out of England, known for being rebellious. Although I loved the music, I had trouble identifying with the scene completely, because most of the people who followed them were either artists, bisexual or heavily into drugs. It really wasn’t me; I was just a suburban kid who played basketball.”

But after he witnessed the slam dancing — the raw and often violent tendencies of what was to become standard behavior at hardcore shows — Blush found his calling. He quickly made friends with everyone in the scene by being the first DJ on the East Coast to play the bands on college radio and by letting touring bands stay on his couch when in town. Blush’s life finally had a deeper meaning for him.

He recalls, “My mom tried to give me the best education and surroundings, whatever our resources were, but I never connected to it and never agreed to it. I didn’t feel part of the thing. The values in my high school were materialistic, they weren’t into the big picture, like politics and free speech. When American hardcore music happened, it was like a perfect storm, it took me over.”

Blush was certainly not the only frustrated kid willing to submit allegiance to the hardcore music scene. From 1980 to 1985, the American hardcore subculture rallied support for its cause against yuppies, conservatism, drugs and most especially, the Regan administration.Blush adds, “It turns out I have been shaped by two ethical codes, one from my Jewish heritage, which I learned from my family, and one from being a part of this music scene. Writing the book and doing the movie is studying my life’s path.”