Israeli and American Jewry need therapy


The acrimony that has built up between the leadership of American and Israeli Jewry reminds me of two squabbling parents threatening a divorce. As the grown-ups act out their insecurities, the kids are being dragged into the fight. Because the parents are at each other’s throats, it has become a messy, all-around food fight. Just wait until the divorce lawyers get involved.

My suggestion is that, before that happens, we should get a good family therapist.

The first thing we’d need from this therapist is to tone down the hysterics. Yes, the issues are serious, but they shouldn’t shock us. So many of the conflict areas between Israel and American Jewry are perfectly normal given the unique circumstances of both communities.

American Jews are not part of a sovereign Jewish experiment. We are grateful members of the most welcoming foreign power in Jewish history, where we have thrived in a free and secular environment. There is no controlling religious Jewish authority in America. Different Jewish streams have different rules and customs, and no one can tell anyone what being “Jewish” means.

Israel is not America—it’s a Jewish state. Jews represent nearly 80 percent of the population in Israel, compared to around two percent in America. That fact alone suggests we should expect obvious differences between the communities.

Israel is the return of Jewish sovereignty after nearly 2,000 years. It has a core, fundamental interest in maintaining its Jewishness. This has led to an uncomfortable dance between synagogue and state, one that has been full of stumbles and mistakes. The religious stringency of the Chief Rabbinate is one of the key factors in the rift with Diaspora Jewry.

Another factor is security. Israelis experience terror directly. They go to the army. They are acutely aware of the risks of making peace deals with Jew-hating enemies. American Jews have the luxury of seeing Israel as an idea and an ideal. They can hold Israel accountable to uphold the best of Jewish values. This is an important role.

The point is this: We have two radically different contexts for Judaism in the 21st century. This is changing not just Judaism but Jews themselves. American Judaism and American Jews, and Israeli Judaism and Israeli Jews, are going in very different directions. What should we do about this?

All too often, we either fight or deny. Deniers go kumbaya and talk about the importance of Jewish unity and Jewish peoplehood; fighters get outraged and try to change the other side in their image. Continuing with this bipolar direction will only exacerbate the rift.

It’s true that recent decisions by the Israeli government — such as reneging on an agreement for egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall and giving total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate — have created a real sense of urgency. But while these latest quarrels are vexing and demand resolution, they’re only symptoms of deeper issues.

Instead of allowing each new quarrel to further damage the relationship, we ought to bring urgency to the process of building greater understanding between the two camps. By understanding each other, we will be better equipped to handle the problems that will inevitably come our way.

That’s why we need a good therapist, one who won’t take sides.

From my experience, groups like the Shalom Hartman Institute and the Reut Institute seem ideally suited to serve as expert go-betweens. They love and value both communities, they understand the commonalities and the differences and they’re in tune with the threats as well as the opportunities. I’d love to see them get together and figure out innovative ways of bringing both communities together, from the leadership level down to the grassroots.

The mission would be to create a long-term plan that would infuse both communities with knowledge, empathy and mutual understanding. The starting question ought to be: What is our vision of a healthy Diaspora–Israel relationship in the year 2100? We can even call it Project 2100.

Yes, it may take that long to save the marriage, but can we really afford a divorce?

Five heroes of 2016


In some respects, Election 2016 has not been American Jewry’s finest hour. 

Many of the major Jewish organizations that purport to represent the larger community  have not said a word in opposition to Donald Trump’s statements barring Muslims from entering the United States, or demeaning Mexicans, or groping women as a matter of entitlement.

These groups claim that they don’t want to be perceived as getting involved in politics — even though these same organizations and their leaders had no problem taking sides in the Iran nuclear debate.  This is shameful, but it also is myopic.  If a Trumpian candidate were to come along and say nasty things aimed at Jews, these same groups would clamor for the support of organized minority groups — who may then rightly point to the “official” Jewish silence over Trump.  So while these groups do a lot to help the needy and strengthen the Jewish community, what good is a Jewish community if it doesn’t stand up to defend fundamental Jewish values?

But there are bright spots.  One is that in less than three weeks, American Jews will vote overwhelmingly against the forces of prejudice and hate. And  from the start of this campaign, there have been individual and organizational heroes.

By heroes I mean quite simply the people and institutions who stood up against demagoguery and misogyny — and did so at some risk to their livelihoods.

I’m talking about people whose base is Republican, who themselves tend to only vote Republican and who had to take a stand against their own crowd, their own economic interest, their own past. It takes courage to do that, and before this election is over, they deserve credit.   

1. Michael Medved

Syndicated conservative radio host Michael Medved has been merciless in his opposition to Trump, and Medved’s biggest fans have in turn attacked him with the kind of vitriol only those who feel betrayed can muster.  

They call him, “idiotic,” “traitor,” “little weasel” and “little worm.” They vow to lead a boycott of his show. But Medved’s conservative critique of Trump has been unswerving from the start: Trump is no conservative. 

“Worst of all,” Medved wrote, “Trump’s brawling, blustery, mean-spirited public persona serves to associate conservatives with all the negative stereotypes that liberals have tried for decades to attach to their opponents on the right.”

2. The Columnists  

I’ve singled out these people before, but since they haven’t let up, they’ve earned more kudos.  Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist, has been relentless in attacking Trump’s foreign policy credentials.

Just this week he wrote, “it’s utterly unwise for politically conservative Jews to make common cause with Mr. Trump, on the theory that he’d be a tougher customer in the Middle East than Mrs. Clinton. Leave aside the fact that Mrs. Clinton called privately for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities in one of her leaked Goldman Sachs speeches, while Mr. Trump has found public occasion to praise both Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad.”

Early on, Jennifer Rubin, who writes for The Washington Post, threw down against Trump as well. The vitriol she receives as a staunch conservative and as a woman makes you understand just how deep the misogyny in the Trump forces runs.

Stephens and Rubin are the head of the spear. But a phalanx of reliably conservative pundits has opposed Trump, including John Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, David Frum, Ben Shapiro, Max Boot and David Brooks. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more pro-Israel, anti-Iran, anti-Obama group — and yet, for them, Trump is beyond the pale.

3. The Jewish Week

The Jewish Week has been the paper of record for New York’s Jewish community since the 1970s. In all that time, it has never endorsed a presidential candidate. Unlike the Jewish Journal, which as a nonprofit cannot endorse political candidates, The Jewish Week is a for-profit paper and had the ability to take sides; its owners just didn’t see an upside in dividing the community.   

Then, last week, The Jewish Week endorsed Hillary Clinton. 

The move was risky — many of the paper’s readers are traditionally minded and Republican. Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, is himself Orthodox. But in an unsigned editorial, The Jewish Week explained its position this way: “In his long career, Trump has embodied only the first half of our sage Hillel’s famous adage: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?’ ”

The endorsement continued:  “Most seasoned political and strategic experts in Israel are more comfortable with Clinton, who showed strong support for the Jewish state as a U.S. senator, has in-depth knowledge of the region – its leaders and its problems — and is more openly compassionate toward Jerusalem than either Obama or Trump. Experts have always insisted that a strong U.S. means a strong Israel, and they worry that Trump would be a loose cannon whose recklessness could incite even more instability and anti-U.S. attitudes, and violence around the world.”

“Hillary Clinton is no amateur when it comes to public service. Well before her experience as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, she was known for her deep knowledge of issues and empathy for the underdogs of society. She has faced Trump’s torrents of invective, like calling her “the devil” to her face, with self-restraint, dignity and tenacity. She, too, is a flawed politician. But her faults pale in comparison to the consistent boorish behavior and mean-spirited ramblings of Trump, who has proven to be an embarrassment even to Republican leaders.”

“This newspaper has not endorsed political candidates in the past. But this election is an exception. It’s not just about politics. It’s about character, competence and compassion. It’s about values that are American, and rooted in the Bible: Seeing all men and women as created in the image of God, having empathy for “the other” among us, recognizing the power of community, building bridges rather than walls.”

According to Rosenblatt, the endorsement generated some cancelled subscriptions and angry letters, but also “hundreds of letters” in support.

4. Howard Stern

If it weren’t for the brilliant interviewing skills of Sirius XM radio host Howard Stern, we wouldn’t have Trump on tape, on the record, being Trump:  demeaning women (including his own daughter) and supporting the Iraq War. 

Stern alone asked the kind of questions that exposed the real Trump.  He knew exactly who he was speaking to, and he opened him up with the kind of questions that revealed Trump at his truest.  And that truth — that Trump is a man who reduces women to numbers, who has zero problem sleeping with married women, that he enjoyed walking in on teenage beauty contestants while they were changing, and that no matter how much he denies it, that he supported the Iraq War.  If not for Howard, we wouldn't have a public audio record of all this.   In other words, Howard did the job that mainstream journalists failed at — exposing the man behind the Cheeto-colored mask.

As Howard explained on his show last week, he didn't do this as a Trump enemy– they are friends, though Howard has made clear since 2008 he is a Hillary supporter. There simply is no smarter interviewer in broadcast media than Howard Stern, and he knew whom he was dealing with — and he is fearless.  

5. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) 

Under its new leader, Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL has publicly denounced Trump’s tirades against Muslims and Mexicans as well as his campaign’s anti-Semitic tropes and wink-winks to the alt-right. Alone among big-tent Jewish organizations, it has held Trump accountable for the claptrap that comes out of his mouth.

“In a place where there are no men,” the rabbis teach us in “Ethics of the Fathers,” “strive to be a man.” When the stench of this election has cleared, these people and groups will be able to say they didn’t let down their party, their country or their community.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

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.

Why this Rabbi likes The Boss


A rabbi friend in the States knows a priest in Philly who says that Bruce Springsteen is the most important Catholic theologian today. I wouldn't know, but as a rabbi I do know something about theology and religion, and I've little doubt about the Boss's power as a galvanizing spiritual personality. I'll go further: I don't know a figure, religious or otherwise, who preaches and prances, dances and sings about redemption and hope as well as Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, I can't think of anybody else who has inspired hope in so many hearts for so long and so well. Not another performer, preacher, nor president or prime minister. I'm ready to so testify.

I'm not a long-time member of the Springsteen faithful. About six or seven years ago, while brooding one day about the complications of sibling bonds, I heard Bruce Springsteen sing of two brothers of divided fate — yet who were nothing less than “blood on blood”, bound together and ultimately responsible for one another. That zing to the heart swung my head around to the Boss. Soon I'd listened closely to his entire repertoire. By now I've read probably every book on Springsteen and I've watched his concert videos more than I'd care to admit. Well, actually, I don't mind saying so; after all, I learn from Bruce Springsteen in all his iterations, as I do from good books or good teachers: like them, he's become close to indispensable.

I love this uniquely American Jersey shore guy, this part rocker, part poet-philosopher. His music inspires his fans to think about life's serious matters, all the while making us want to dance.  Springsteen neither shies away from irreverence nor religion; he knows that each has its place and purpose.

Often he puts the two together.  In “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, one of his signature songs, Springsteen gyrates across the stage while regaling his incessantly jazzed up audience of how he went from lonely boy to fulfilled rocker “when the Big Man (Clarence Clemons of course, his late soul-brother sidekick) joined the band”.  Evangelical style, he proclaims, “Take me to the river, wash me in the water…I want to throw a Rock and Roll Baptism, a Rock and Roll Bar Mitzvah…I want to go to that river of life and hope and faith and transformation.”   And then his kicker, another zing to the heart, in case you weren't paying attention: “I want to go there with you because I can't get there by myself.”

Who else but the Boss could bring us together as if we were still in the church or synagogue most of us walked out of long ago? Reminding us all the while of our yearnings, religious and irreligious both — to say nothing of our desire to be better and do better. Who in this highly disaffected time doesn't want what the Boss seems to offer?  He grew up lonely and alienated, his guitar his only friend, and somehow figured out, like nobody else, how to use the music made of his yearning soul to bring people together.

Which is precisely what his remarkable concerts — three hours and more of frenzy, fun, friendship, and, dare I say, meaning and redemption — are about. It's not just that Bruce (you just want to call him that) brings the energy of the old time preacher to every concert; he fills his songs with religious imagery and language, and suffuses them with an understanding that life's a tough road to travel, but hope is real, and redemption is available for everybody. He gets loneliness and love, his own included, among other polarities of the human condition. When he sings, we feel the Boss knows what's in our hearts. And we feel more tied to one another: the guy in the row in front of us begins as a stranger and leaves a friend. It's what his saxophonist Jake Clemons (Clarence's nephew) calls “the churchiness of it”. Which means, Jake explains, the sense of the audience coming together “to make the experience bigger and stronger”.

Finally, this confession, embarrassing though it is: Until this past week, I'd never been to a Springsteen concert.  But there I was, finally among the faithful at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, joining the Boss (and the rocking E Street Band, the spectacular Jake — “Jakie” as his Boss calls him –in particular) down by that River of Hope and Transformation, most grateful to testify to the power of the experience!

John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, and the author of “Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi” (Dundurn Press 2015)

Combating an Israeli-American identity crisis


A year after Irit Bar-Netzer arrived in Los Angeles from Israel, she had her first son. That was 37 years ago, and that’s when the dilemma began.

“I wondered back then: How am I going to raise my children? As Israelis? Americans? Who is going to help us raise our kids? We didn’t have Grandma and Grandpa around. What’s going to happen to their identity?” 

It was by no means a new dilemma, however — in some ways, not even to her. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Bar-Netzer remembered how she felt growing up in Israel as a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak Hebrew very well. 

“The children used to laugh at us because we spoke Hungarian and not Hebrew,” she said. Still, she ended up speaking Hebrew to her first son in America because, she said, “It was easier and natural for us.”

Bar-Netzer, a psychologist who has worked with children for years, related this story during an Oct. 11 seminar at Temple Judea in Tarzana that was sponsored by Ma Koreh, a project of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) that is spending the next year providing lectures to Israeli parents. Conducted in Hebrew, the intimate gathering — the first in a series — was attended by 16 parents of young children and featured Bar-Netzer and child psychologist Ernest Katz. 

BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff said, “We want Israeli-American families to connect better through the organized Jewish community. We want them to understand that it is a tool in their toolbox for raising their kids here.”

The program is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and is done in cooperation with the Israeli-American Council and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which provides books written in Hebrew to young children. 

Although many of the parents at the recent event said they insist on speaking Hebrew to their children, they wondered if that’s enough to keep their kids “Israeli” and how important it is to send their kids to private schools in order to maintain their Jewish-Israeli identities. And while many agreed that not all aspects of Israeli characteristics are welcomed, they do want their kids to maintain some of the values and traditions they were raised on. (The famous Israeli chutzpah was not one of them, according to participants.) 

One father of a 4-year-old described the problem like this: “When my daughter asks me, ‘Am I an Israeli?’ I am confused. I don’t know what to answer her. I do want her to take the good things from both cultures: the Israeli and the American — because there are good things and bad things in each culture — but how do I do that?”

His wife, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8, said she experienced the issue herself as a child. 

“Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in English and I know they meant well, but today I know it was wrong. I never knew what I was. Israeli? American? Americans always thought that I’m an Israeli and Israelis thought I’m an American, so I was confused about my identity, and I don’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

Not that simply speaking a certain language solves the problem.

One mother of three said she insists on speaking with her children in Hebrew, even though they often answer in English. “I struggle with it every day,” she said. “Each time I speak to my son in Hebrew, he says, ‘I was born here. I’m an American. It won’t help you.’ It’s a constant conflict. How do you deal with that?”

Bar-Netzer said she believes part of the parents’ challenge is not only their children’s identities, but also their own.

“The conflict is huge, and you need to think what is right for your child,” she said. “You have decided to come here and raise him here; now you have to decide what’s important for you and what will be best for him. The fact that you had come here ready to listen and discuss it means that the subject is important to you and your children will benefit from that. When I came here, 38 years ago, there was no such discussion on how to raise Israeli children.”

While Bar-Netzer and Katz didn’t offer answers to the many issues the parents raised during the 1 1/2-hour meeting, they suggested that parents make a list of what is important for them and what’s important for their kids. 

“Learn to listen to your children and see what they need. You should send your children a clear message. That is the most important thing. You don’t want to confuse them by questioning their own identity,” Bar-Netzer said. “As long as it’s good and right to you as parents, it will be good for your children as well.”


UPDATE [10/19/15]: This article has been changed from its original form to protect the names of parents at the event.

Iran deal may transform American Jewry


One of the significant elements to this story involves American Jews opposing the president of the United States that they had helped to elect. One can define this moment as transformational, as it may lead to the redefining of how Jews understand and employ their political power. This contest has in many ways demonstrated the maturation of the Jewish political mindset and the changing social environment, namely that Jewish voters are making choices independent of their historic political and party loyalties.

With each political/military crisis facing the State of Israel, the political divisions among American Jewry seem more pronounced. The Iranian nuclear question has demonstrated the depth and intensity of the Jewish political controversy. Two American-Jewish identities are in conflict with one another over this question. For many, this conversation is defined in terms of seeing themselves as “American Jews,” where their liberal political values and Jewish prophetic ideals inform their civic engagement. They enter this particular debate holding a number of competing concerns but are prepared in the end to place their trust in the president. For others, whom we might identify as “Jewish Americans,” their political framework and identity are constructed around their Zionist passions. For these individuals, Israel and its security concerns inform their perspective on this agreement and shape their general political antennae around the centrality of the Jewish story as it intersects with their American citizenship.

What is profoundly evident is that no Jew is expected to remain “neutral” as the political battlegrounds have been drawn. National organizations, community institutions and rabbinical leaders are all being called upon to declare themselves in this test of Jewish political activism. It is estimated that this mobilization may be one of the most expansive and expensive political organizing initiatives in modern Jewish history. This issue has triggered new avenues of political expression, including the formation of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran and other forms of political activism involving high-level meetings, public debates, ads and petitions reflecting both perspectives within this debate.

This is a contest that has implications for the entire Middle East and, more directly, the place of Iran in the nuclear club. For Israel and the Jewish people, the political outcome in this matter may well reshape the nature of the Israel-United States relationship and the future role of the U.S. in this region.

Israel’s leadership has directly entered the American domestic arena as political actors, seeking to mobilize the Congress, the general populace and, more directly, American Jewry to act on a matter that has a specific impact on the future of the Jewish political enterprise. What are the longer-term implications of such intervention into the internal affairs of one nation by another?

In their efforts to identify with this cause, politicians and journalists have adopted various historical comparisons. One such scenario aligns this moment with Munich in 1938 and the act of appeasement, but is this a brilliant diplomatic maneuver designed to ultimately move Iran away from its current policies and lead to the unseating of its radical political base? Yet in the 1930s, Jewish organizations and their national leaders were at loggerheads over the best strategy to combat the rise of Hitler and to manage the case to defend and protect European Jewry. A divided community in that setting would fail to make its case with the Roosevelt administration. What are the contemporary as well as historical implications surrounding this policy debate?

In studying the tenor of this debate, we are likely to experience various forms of anti-Semitic/anti-Israel fallout, as well as an internal Jewish backlash, as the rhetoric accelerates and intensifies in connection with the forthcoming congressional vote. In the aftermath of this vote, will Jews be identified as “undermining” the administration’s foreign policy objectives? Will there likely be internal Jewish recrimination that follows this intense political contest?

What will be the impact of this issue on the 2016 elections and beyond, and what might be the spillover effect? Who will be seen as the political “winners” and “losers” in the aftermath of this battle?


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This article is reprinted from 

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.”

L.A. grad Max Levin survives attack in Gaza by ‘a quarter of a millimeter’


At 2 a.m. on July 23, Bud and Judy Levin were awakened by a call from Israel to their home in Los Angeles. It was their son, Max, a 21-year-old paratrooper in the Israeli army — calling from a hospital.

Just a few hours earlier, he had been securing a three-story home in Gaza with other members of his unit when a booby-trapped explosive planted by Hamas detonated, killing three soldiers, seriously wounding at least four others and lodging a piece of shrapnel above one of Max’s eyes.

If the shrapnel had struck “a quarter of a millimeter” in any other direction, Max likely would have been killed, Bud Levin told the Journal. Following the explosion, Max was airlifted to Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva for surgery. He has since been released. 

Speaking from Los Angeles recently, Max’s father said that he had just returned from a brief trip to Israel, where his wife remains with their son.

A 2011 graduate of New Community Jewish High School, Max Levin made aliyah in 2012 and is serving out the army’s mandatory three-year service for citizens. His unit’s July 23 operation in Gaza was part of Israel’s ongoing effort to find and destroy Hamas’ dwindling cache of weapons and explosives, and its network of underground tunnels, which the terrorist group has used in recent weeks to attempt to kill and kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers on the other side of the border.

Jonathan Price, a cousin of Max Levin’s and his only relative in Israel, wrote in an email to friends and family that a “steady stream” of people Max didn’t know paid him visits bearing food, balloons, flowers, letters and pictures drawn by Israeli schoolchildren for wounded soldiers.

“They offered Max their prayers and blessings, sang songs, told him stories, asked him about himself, and most of all, just said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Price wrote.

That evening, Price added, Israeli officials cleared the room of visitors so that an army psychologist could inform Max of the deaths of his three fellow soldiers and the serious wounds inflicted upon the others.

According to Price, Max was particularly close with his commander, Lt. Paz Eliyahu, who was killed in the explosion. “[He] is said to have been an extraordinary person, and to have helped Max in a personal way through the many difficulties of his army service,” he wrote.

Bud Levin said that even though his son probably won’t be in any shape to go back into combat for at least a month, he’s eager to return immediately.

“Everybody says no, including the army,” he said, adding that when he asked Max if, just maybe, he would consider returning to California to recover, his son responded:

“No. Somebody’s got to keep up the memory of my three buddies who we lost.”

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.

My Judaism: Millennials speak out following Pew poll


The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project issued its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” on Oct. 1, setting off alarms throughout the Jewish community about the future of Jewish life. Among the greatest concerns is this statement: “Among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” 

To hear the voices behind the statistics, the Journal invited Millennials to speak for themselves about what it means to them to be American Jews. Each tells a different story: 


ISABEL KAPLAN

The recently released Pew survey distinguishes between “Jews by religion” and “Jews of no religion” — otherwise called secular or cultural Jews. I tried to determine which of these two kinds of Jews I am, but neither term felt quite right, and I grew increasingly confused and frustrated as I delved deeper into the survey results and found, for example, that 16 percent of Jews by religion don’t believe in God, and 18 percent of Jews of no religion do believe in God.

Ultimately, I realized that the source of my frustration was that I was searching for clarity instead of accepting complexity. My relationship with Judaism is continually changing and full of unresolved questions. Like many of the Jews surveyed, I defy straightforward classification. So perhaps I’m better off describing my Jewish identity piecemeal, as opposed to trying to categorize myself within a binary.

Like 40 percent of Jews by religion and 20 percent of Jews of no religion, I identify with the Reform movement. I attended Hebrew school for eight years, although there was many a Sunday morning when I wanted to stay in bed, and many a Wednesday afternoon when I longed to be at play rehearsal instead of trudging through the Ve-ahavta. During my bat mitzvah, I gave a speech about trying to come to terms with the hypocrisy of the Jews becoming slave owners shortly after escaping slavery in Egypt. I (usually) fast on Yom Kippur, infrequently attend religious services and have a (Hebrew) tattoo. And I don’t believe in God.

This is the first time I’ve written that, and acknowledging it feels liberating, necessary and a little bit terrifying. Liberating and necessary because it’s central to my religious identity and terrifying because inside of me there lives the shadow of my younger self: a girl who always wrote G-d, panicked at the thought of accidentally dropping a siddur on the ground and desperately wanted to believe but was hounded by uncertainty.

Although I don’t believe in God, there are few things in life that I find more soothing — and spiritual, even—than reciting the Shema. I’m well aware of the contradiction. But when I recite the Shema, though I don’t feel a connection to God, I do feel a profound connection to the generations of Jews who came before me, who recited these very same words. I feel comforted by a sense of community and humbled by the history of the Jewish people and their strength of spirit. The Book of Genesis says God created man in his image, but I think it’s the other way around. Perhaps what I’m praying to, what I believe in, is a God that comes from and exists within the human spirit.

I arguably fit within the trend of decreasing religiousness among young Jewish Americans, but I will not be among the growing number of Jews raising children without religion. I know with certainty very few things about my future, but I know that when I have children — if I have children, which I hope I will — they will be raised as Jews, in a Reform community.

For this decision, I credit my parents and my upbringing in a Reform congregation that presented me with a religion open to interpretation and adaptation, where thoughtful inquiry was encouraged, and doubt was acknowledged and accepted.

I want my (hypothetical future) children to learn about Jewish history and values, and to feel connected to and a part of the Jewish community. And when it comes to God and religious belief, I want to empower them with the tools to ask their own questions and the freedom to decide for themselves what being a Jew means to them — just as my parents did for me. And I can only hope that they, in turn, will someday do the same for their children.

Isabel Kaplan is working on her second novel, a screenplay and a nonfiction book about arson and murders in the 1930s.


DANIEL SCHWARTZ

My home life was not typical of an Orthodox household. We kept kosher, went to shul and observed major holidays. But if you sat in hashkama minyan between my father and grandfather, you were treated to very unorthodox commentary. “Pesach and Chag He’Aviv were two different holidays,” my grandfather would mutter during Torah reading. Or my father, during the haftorah: “See how the rabbis ruined Judaism?” I was raised to be suspicious of Orthodoxy, even though it was what my parents had chosen for me.

In yeshiva, my suspicions were ignored. The big issues — biblical criticism, Darwinism, theodicy — were decided before discussion began. Biblical criticism was an anti-Semitic canard; Darwinism and creationism were seamlessly compatible; and the Holocaust was inexplicable, hence, irrelevant. We had no time for these nuisances anyway, not with nine periods of Gemara a week. Thus, we spent more time agonizing over talmudic minutiae than over the justifications for its existence.

Judaism was about prescribed ritual, end of story. We attended Shacharit every morning, while the principal stood facing us on a stage at the front of the room, scanning, screaming and shuckling. If you talked, he screamed. If you dozed, he screamed. If you sat when it was time to stand, he screamed. After awhile, I began to associate halachah with two things: fear and coercion.

But college was where my loyalties were really tested. There, you chose your lifestyle, and if you chose Orthodoxy, you were forced to make sacrifices. I began asking myself why I was sacrificing this or that and started thinking seriously about what the answers I’d been given amounted to — obscurantism, sophistry, superstition. It wasn’t about temptation; it was about what I was being tempted away from.

And then there was the temptress. Forget for a moment things like sex and cheeseburgers. In college, there’s this shattering encounter with Western wisdom for which yeshiva students are utterly unprepared. I remember my first Kant class, in particular, taught by the best professor I ever had, a steely-haired German fellow with a thundering voice.

The arguments were incredibly complex, but they had a vivid, irresistible logic to them. I had this sense of bumping up against a transcendent intellect, the Transcendent Intellect. All this other junk in the Jewish tradition, all the pitifully tenuous logic, all the willful distortions — none of that could be divine. Judaism couldn’t offer anything this complex or compelling. So what was it all worth?

After college, I spent a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem trying to find out. There were nuances to Judaism that my yeshivas had obscured or overlooked. The Bible could be complex when it wasn’t read through Rashi. And if you viewed halachah as an evolving ethical system, more of the minutiae started to make sense. But even Pardes didn’t have enough of the answers. And there was a lot of time spent apologizing for indefensible norms and notions. What was more, it was too little, too late.

I met with a teacher after the program ended and told her I was done with Judaism. Why, she wondered, couldn’t I discard the bad in Judaism while retaining the good?

Say you were wronged by someone you loved, a girlfriend who treated you badly, not once or twice, but for the whole of your relationship. You made a clean break. Then your friend comes along and reminds you of all the good times. Why can’t you look the girl up every once in awhile? Why can’t you hold on to what still works? But of course you can’t. The wounds are too raw, and the good and bad are all mixed up inside you. You can’t be friends, at least not for a few years. And maybe longer. Maybe you can never be friends.

Daniel Schwartz is a freelance writer studying screenwriting at UCLA. He blogs at WhotheEffisJeff.


COURTNEY BATZOFIN

When I sat down to write this piece, I found myself at a bit of a loss. How do I define my “Jewish journey” when I feel I’m still at the start of it? Feeling overwhelmed, I did what many a writer has done before me — turned on my television. A little “SNL” would surely inspire, no? Ironically, during the “Weekend Update” segment, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy came on. Lo and behold, this was the inspiration I was searching for! As I laughed and rewound and laughed some more, I found myself a bit unsettled by what unfolded. The sketch was fairly simple; it was Jacob explaining to Seth Meyers, Cecily Strong and the rest of the audience what he had done the previous evening. Jacob told Seth:

“We celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shabbat! And since my bubbe was over, we acted like we celebrated every week!”

Jacob went on to explain Shabbos and why we as Jews celebrate it, but I couldn’t get that line out of my head. It brought me right back to my own youth. A little background: My family is Jewish on both sides; my parents came from highly observant homes. They immigrated from South Africa in the late 1970s, eventually settling in Los Angeles by way of places including Texas, Nebraska and Northern California. The physical practice of our familial Judaism, however, was varied in my youth. We had one mezuzah, Friday night dinners somewhere between once and three times a month (much like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy), and attended temple on High Holy Days only when I became a teenager. This was after a botched attempt at a bat mitzvah, as my training was interrupted by a relocation to San Diego. In San Diego, my friends looked to me as highly Jewish, since I attended the Orthodox synagogue on the holidays — but I didn’t understand any part of the prayers being spoken. However, that immigrant mentality that so pervades my family strongly informed my understanding of what it is to be Jewish and allowed me to feel confident in calling myself a Jew.

Currently, I’m more observant than I was growing up, but I’m definitely not someone you would call strict or even highly knowledgeable about the traditions of the religion with which I strongly identify. I’m spiritual and believe in God, yet sometimes I find myself struggling through basic Bible stories. I know Bruegel the Elder did a painting of the Tower of Babel — but I’m not totally sure what the details of that story are. I feel the tenet of community within Judaism, and Judaism in Southern California, in particular, has always seemed an important one, at least to me. More than anything, that sense of belonging, of being strangers in a strange land, has lent itself to the formation of my Jewish identity.

When I relocated back to Los Angeles, a city of immigrants in its own right, to pursue a career in entertainment, I became even more confused with where my Judaism fit into my life. I’m almost certain the people I surround myself with, both personally and professionally, strongly identify me as Jewish. But again — where was this coming from? I don’t have that answer. And yet the sense of community, above all else, remains. I feel comfortable knowing many in this industry and I share a religion and the associated values that are instilled (whether culturally or through study). Maybe it will become clearer as my education grows and my journey continues. Until then, I’ll try to follow some sage wisdom that Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy relayed to Seth and Cecily:

“Moving forward as an adult in the Jewish community, I promise to fulfill the following commandments: Perform mitzvot, or good deeds; study Torah; and some day, visit Israel, even though I have nightmares about it!”

Courtney Batzofin currently works for a small production company and freelances for several publications.


JULIE BIEN

It took being the anonymous target of someone’s shabbily aimed rocket for me to truly internalize my Jewish identity —one I’ve historically had a complicated relationship with, despite being heir to many generations of Diaspora Jews.

Let’s be clear: I have an affinity for kishka and kugel that no gentile would quite understand, as well as an unwavering opinion about hamentashen — apricot is the best.

But I do not practice Judaism in the religious sense. Of course, I’ve been to many a Kol Nidre service, and there isn’t a Passover in memory that hasn’t included Manischewitz, gefilte fish and some bread of affliction. 

Despite that, I’ve always been highly self-conscious of my brand of “pick-your-own” Judaism. 

Then I went to Israel for the first time in 2010, on a two-week Birthright trip, and everything changed. Instead of a distinct discomfort with my religion, I felt proud of my cultural heritage. I found I could engage with my inherited traditions without having to buy into a belief system that I could not completely reconcile with my own worldview.

I returned to Israel in the summer of 2011 to film my thesis documentary about the social protests sweeping through the region. I witnessed tens of thousands of Israelis rallying together for social change — more Jews than I’d ever seen in one place, all participating in something that wasn’t about Judaism. Religion was simply a side note to the politics at hand.

For the duration of that trip, I stayed in Sderot, a city 2 kilometers east of Gaza City that has been a flashpoint for the ongoing regional conflict. Sure enough, while I was there, qassam rockets were launched targeting Sderot; bombs were dropped on Gaza, and a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus occurred in the Sinai.

After the third or fourth time that I felt the reverberations of bombs one weekend, I had a moment of extreme clarity. I realized the rocket-launchers on the other side of the border wanted me dead because I’m here, and probably Jewish. They didn’t know me, but they’d sure be happy if they hit me. 

And then I thought about the kid over there in Gaza who was thinking, “You, bomb-dropping Israelis, don’t care if you destroy my home and my family in your quest for retaliation.”

The insanity of the situation — the fact that most people on both sides of this volley of weaponry were probably thinking the same thing, “What the hell did I personally do to you?” — demolished any shred of inclination toward true religious observance that I’ve ever had: God and the scenario at hand were mutually exclusive. But it also reinforced my cultural identity as a Jew. Not just in my own eyes, but in the eyes of strangers as well. 

My heritage is undeniable. My unruly, curly hair gives me away as a Jew if my judicious sprinkling of Yiddish words hasn’t already — and so does the tattoo of a hamsa that I got inked onto my shoulder in Tel Aviv in 2010. The irony is not lost on me.

It’s important to me to make clear to the world (and to the pearl-clutching religious folks who are lamenting the loss of “the secular youth”):

Have no doubt — I am 25 years old, and I am Jewish. 

Julie Bien is the blog manager and a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal.


JARED SICHEL

About seven years ago, in the middle of a discussion with my father about Judaism, I said, “I’m not sure I believe in God.” 

“You don’t believe, or you aren’t sure if you believe?” he responded.

“Agnostic,” I replied.

I was well on my way to becoming part of the 10 percent of Jews raised in the Conservative movement who now identify with no denomination, as outlined in the just-released Pew Research Center study of American Jews. Although I was becoming less religious, even at that time I was hardly on the path to becoming a Jew of no religion (7 percent of Jews raised Conservative) or not identifying as Jewish (also 10 percent). There was too much that I enjoyed about Judaism.

As a child, my warmest Jewish moments came spending Saturday afternoons with some of my closest friends, who were Orthodox, and when I occasionally spent holidays with Orthodox relatives in Connecticut.
Yet by the time I enrolled as a freshman at Tulane University, in 2008, had I given my Jewish standing any thought at all at that point, I probably would have assumed that since I was on my own for the first time in a city with plenty of distractions (New Orleans), the odds of increasing my observance while in college were low.

Then, one Friday night early in fall semester, after attending a play in the French Quarter with one of my classes, I decided to stop by the Chabad at Tulane for dessert. It was warm and comfortable. So much so that I felt at ease challenging the rabbi with plenty of questions (or problems) I had with Judaism.

Soon after that, my Friday night routine included going to Chabad for Shabbat and then going out with friends. As I made new friends at Chabad and became close with the rabbi’s family, I regularly studied with him, and witnessing the warmth of an observant Jewish home again made Shabbat a fun day — even if I hadn’t entertained the possibility of fully observing it.

Shabbat became a weekly source of pleasure, so as a rising sophomore, I decided to observe the weekly holy day the way Orthodox Jews do. Not because I felt it was my obligation, but because I enjoyed those 25 hours more when I was acting Orthodox.

Among the non-observant, Shabbat is often viewed as a day on which you can’t do stuff. You can’t use your phone; you can’t use your computer; you can’t drive; you can’t watch movies. For me, however, dedicating an entire day to spending time with God, friends and community is warmer, more pleasurable and provides more meaning than making Saturday just like Sunday. 

If Pew had called me when I was a freshman, I would have labeled myself an unaffiliated Jew, among about 30 percent of American Jewry, according to Pew. Perhaps that is not a healthy trend for the future of Judaism. But what those numbers don’t reveal are the stories like mine: What portion of that 30 percent is actually growing religiously and doing things (learning, lighting Shabbat candles, cooking holiday meals with other students) that they have never regularly done? Maybe non-affiliation isn’t a problem, when there’s also an opportunity for being welcomed into increased religious involvement in Jewish groups like Chabad and Hillel.

Now, as a self-identifying observant Jew (can I call myself Modern Orthodox if I still eat tuna subs at Subway?), I know that those days that I “unintentionally” spent observing Jewish law on many Shabbats and holidays were, at least in part, my way of bringing more enjoyment into my life. That’s a compelling case for observance. 

Jared Sichel is a staff writer at the Jewish Journal.


ZAN ROMANOFF

I graduated from college in 2009, a year when even the administration couldn’t pretend to be optimistic about our chances of success in the job market. The university president gloomily addressed us, and our parents, about the economic climate and the declining worth of our pricey degrees. We were, essentially, patted gently on the shoulder and told there was nothing more they could do for us now, so we should go with God. 

Every generation feels it alone has been marked out for uncertainty and turmoil, but for us, the adults of the world seemed to agree with that assessment: Nothing will ever be the same, they said, and we can’t tell you what will happen next. 

Of course, eventually, we all got jobs, though it took longer than we wanted it to, and the future is still and always will be uncertain. It happened that my jobs have been Jewish ones, in large part because I left Connecticut, where I’d gone to school, to come back to Los Angeles, where it doesn’t snow, and where my Jewish parents have Jewish friends. 

I promise this is not a mercenary story.

Since graduation, I have been a substitute teacher at a Jewish elementary school and a freelance writer for a Jewish newspaper, and next week I will start a position as the program coordinator at a Jewish community center. My goyish friends think this is hilarious. The Jews, as a rule, seem to get it.

I think it helps that I went to a Jewish elementary school: I learned the Hebrew alphabet alongside the English one, and I know the rituals and the prayers like the seasons, like myself. It wouldn’t be fall without Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or spring without the complicated misery of Passover and trying to explain to non-Jews why I can’t eat that, or that, or … anything, actually, sorry. 

But really I think what has happened is that I’ve always believed, always felt myself to be faithful, and what I’ve gotten through these jobs is a structured way to remain involved in the community. It’s easy to drift away and tell yourself you’re still a Jew at heart; I’ve been lucky to have so many opportunities to keep in practice at something that goes beyond the parts that involve faith.

It doesn’t hurt that I like ritual and that I love being part of a community; I left Connecticut for a lot of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that loneliness was among them. I had friends, of course, close ones whom I loved dearly, but I did not have any kind of family out there.

In June, my grandmother died, and my family’s chavurah, a group we’ve been a part of since I was 12 — a collection of families whose daughters are like my sisters — came over to our house for a shivah minyan. Jews do not suffer grief alone; we gather our loved ones to us, we say familiar prayers and move slowly through the stages of mourning. 

In December, we’ll host a wedding shower for one of those girls. It will be in the same living room where we held the minyan, and where we celebrated before our bat mitzvahs, well over a decade ago. 

Whether you think you live in trying times, the future is always uncertain. The promise of ritual is that there will always be something familiar there for you, an action to perform and a ceremony to repeat. The promise of community is that you will have someone to go through those motions with you. I practice my Judaism because it provides me with continuity and with comfort, through the hard times and on to the good ones. 

Zan Romanoff is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal and is about to begin a position as program director at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center.


ZEV HURWITZ

Three types of students walk past the Union of Jewish Students table during student organization fairs at UC San Diego, where I am a junior. The first, non-Jews, approach our table, ask what we do and then walk away. The second group, the USY and Hebrew school alumni, excitedly ask us when our next event will be. Then, finally, there are the folks who glance at the Star of David on our banner, the lulav and etrog on the table or the yarmulke on my head and then walk away hurriedly in a manner such that we can only understand them to be non-identifying Jews.

Findings from the new Pew Research Center survey on Jews in America indicate that this third group of students may be the fastest-growing demographic. At UCSD, a campus of more than 20,000 undergraduates — 8 percent of whom are estimated to be “Jewish” — this trend is visibly affecting the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life. Meanwhile, the identifying and practicing Jewish students here and across the country are working to ensure the stability and growth of the Jewish community.

Granted, it’s no easy task to be a shomer Shabbat Jew keeping strict kosher, on a campus with little in the way of kosher amenities, while living with four non-Jewish housemates. I might be described as an observant or Modern Orthodox Jew, but, in my experience, it is far too simplistic to boil down religious Judaism to just who eats what and on what days. For many of us, community is the core value of Judaism. Our campus’ Jewish leadership is constantly working to strengthen both the number of people in our community and the quality of the services and amenities available to us. 

For me, the notion of the Jewish People is hybridization of the Jewish and the People. Our community needs our common faith, values and practice, while Judaism can only exist via a community in which it is followed. The founder of cultural Zionism, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg — better known as Ahad Ha’am — is attributed as having said, “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.” This is the focal reason I stick with the religious practices of my upbringing. Not only to further my own spirituality, but to assure the continuity of our community.

At UCSD and college campuses nationwide, the Jewish people are at a turning point. Dozens of campuses host annual Israel Apartheid Weeks, and the Anti-Defamation League reported in July that anti-Semitic incidents on campuses had tripled in 2012, even as overall anti-Semitism is on the decline. Jews and pro-Israel advocates have been on the defensive, needing to respond to attacks and criticisms from anti-Zionist groups and, in some cases, anti-Jewish activities. In a way, these outside groups are dictating the Jewish life and activity on campus. 

However, we college students now have the opportunity to define what our community is about. Now is the time to celebrate our culture, heritage and faith — and not only act in response to others. Those who choose not to participate will do what they want, but the future leadership of the Jewish People, is ready to engage, grow and thrive — regardless of what any survey may tell us. 

Zev Hurwitz, a graduate of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, is a junior at UC San Diego, managing editor of the UCSD Guardian newspaper and president of United Jewish Observance on campus.

‘Gravity’ and the Pew study


I have one big answer to the depressing findings of the Pew poll, but you’re not going to like it.

The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews came out last week, and the American Jewish community reacted about the way Sandra Bullock does when her tether snaps in “Gravity.” Except our “Oy vey!” probably could have been heard in space.

The bottom line of the study: Jews are becoming less … and less … and less Jewish. We are drifting away from religion like, well, Bullock from that space station. 

The long-awaited Pew study, initiated with admirable foresight by Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, found that only 32 percent of these Jews say their Jewishness is a matter of religion. Fifty years ago, that number was close to 70 percent.

“That is a big and significant number,” said Greg Smith, the Pew’s director of U.S. religion surveys, in a statement accompanying the report. “The generational pattern suggests that it’s growing, and that’s very important, because the data show that Jews of no religion are much less connected to the Jewish community, are much less engaged and involved in Jewish organizations and are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish as compared to Jews who describe themselves as Jews by religion.”

We all know many Jews who are bagels-and-lox, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” types — what you might call Brunch Davidians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Jewish law and practice is the scaffold on which Jewish culture and identity are built. Without Judaism, Jewishness disappears.

To add to the worries, the Pew study found that 71 percent of younger, [non-Orthodox Jews] are marrying out. Before 1970, the number of Jews with a non-Jewish spouse was only 17 percent. Intermarried Jews, Pew found, like Jews of no religion, are much less likely to be raising their children in the Jewish faith.

So, does this mean there won’t be any Judaism in the future? The short answer is: That’s up to us. 

There are three things we can, and must, do to stop the handwringing and reverse these trends.

First, we need to be very clear in our hearts why this matters. Each one of us who expresses concern has to be able to answer, clearly, this question: “So what?”

Now don’t skip ahead. Stay with that question. Why do you care that young American Jews are less and less Jewish, and if trends continue, their children and grandchildren will be even less so, or not at all? What is it that makes this religion, this culture, worth continuing? Funny how none of the discussions of the Pew study start with that question — because its answer is key to the solution.

Second, we must improve the experience of liberal Judaism. Not all synagogue services are boring, obscure and infantilizing, but too many are. Congregations that have innovated in their use of liturgy and music have been more successful in drawing people in than those that have not. This year, jewishjournal.com livecast the Kol Nidre service of Nashuva, the outreach congregation founded by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy. At least 60,000 people around the world watched all or part of the service, and judging by their comments, the experience was anything but boring. When you rebuild it, they will come.

That leads me to my one, big suggestion: conversion.

When I made this argument in the past, people looked at me like I was saying we should establish a Jewish state in Uganda. True, we have not been, for historical reasons, a proselytizing faith, but it’s time to rise above our history.

According to the Pew poll, 2 percent of Jews said they had formally converted to Judaism, 1 percent claimed to have informally. That’s 100,000 people. Say we double it. Triple it — or even add a zero. 

Can we?

Of course. We have the money and expertise to fund a creative and consistent marketing campaign aimed at conversion. Web sites and social media offer a low barrier to entry. Virtual engagement would be reinforced by actual outreach and education on the local level.

 This isn’t brain surgery — it’s branding, marketing and education. These are three things Jews happen to excel at. Jewish marketing ingenuity brought the world Polo, GAP and Levi’s. Jews turned pomegranates and hummus from foods to phenomena. Hey, three Jews — Plouffe, Axelrod and Emanuel — even sold America on electing a black president. We can sell the world anything. Why not Judaism?

If we don’t invite the rest of the world to experience the beauty, meaning and connectedness of Jewish life, we will never truly flourish. 

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis once told me. “Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time.”

The stories told by Jews-by-Choice reaffirm the opportunity to reach more like them.

“Judaism,” one once told me, “is the best-kept secret in the world.”

Meaning, connectedness, community and beauty — these are the essence of Jewish life, and they are what so many people long for. 

My suggestion: Put Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lynda Resnick, Axelrod, et al. in a room and have them come up with a marketing plan for the world’s best-kept secret. Put Judaism out there, and just watch people gravitate toward it. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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.”

Women of the Wall Megillah reading undisturbed by Israeli police


A women’s Megillah reading at the Western Wall took place on Shushan Purim without incident or arrests.

Approximately 80 women turned out, some donning prayer shawls, others dressed as police and haredi Orthodox worshipers, on Monday morning in Jerusalem, the TImes of Israel reported.

Hallel Silverman, the 17-year-old niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, who was arrested two weeks ago during rosh chodesh morning services for the Hebrew month of Adar, participated in the Megillah reading dressed in striped prison garb with two of her younger siblings dressed as police officers leading her by handcuffs.

Israeli police have made nearly monthly arrests related to dress code violations since June related to the Women of the Wall's monthly rosh chodesh service.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit, prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall.

Earlier in February, 10 women were arrested for praying with prayer shawls at the Wall as they celebrated the new Jewish month of Adar. Haaretz reported that the arrests took place after the services had concluded, which police had been observing.

Meanwhile, the Israeli nonprofit Learn & Live, established in 2009 to help at-risk youth, ran a Purim patrol on Sunday night assisting young women who were in distress because of drunkenness and brought them to one of two safe places in Jerusalem.

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.

Americans living in Israel sue U.S. government


Two dozen American citizens living in Israel filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government over its funding to the Palestinian Authority and other groups operating in the West Bank and Gaza.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Washington, alleges that the U.S. State Department, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, violated the Anti-Terrorism Act and disregarded the congressional safeguards and reporting requirements that are attached to American aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Thus, according to the lawsuit, federal money has fallen into the hands of Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other supporters of terrorism against civilians who live in Israel.

Successive U.S. administrations have gone on record as saying that controls are in place to keep funds from reaching terrorists.

The lawsuit requests that the federal court review actions of the State Department and any funds distributed by USAID in its programs to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. It also asks for aid to be suspended until there is compliance with all of Congress’ regulations and reporting requirements.

Some of the 24 plaintiffs are victims of terror. They are represented by attorney Norman Steiner of New York.

Under the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, the State Department is prohibited from providing material support to terrorist groups.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of Shurat HaDin-Israel Law Center, said that “once handed over, U.S. funding of the PA and UNRWA is difficult to trace and the State Department has been lax in requiring the Palestinians to utilize bank accounts and other transfer methods that ensure transparency.”

The U.S. government is “breaking the law and must cease all funding of the PA immediately,” she said in a statement to JTA. “U.S. aid to the Palestinians is killing innocent people.”

American push to temper Palestinian U.N. bid reportedly fails


An American push to temper a resolution asking the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians enhanced status has failed, Haaretz reported.

The final draft of the Palestinians' resolution, which is set to be introduced Thursday in the General Assembly, was circulated Tuesday in New York. The United States had urged the Palestinians to add a clause to the draft saying that they would not file criminal charges against Israeli leaders at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Israeli daily reported, but the Palestinians refused to make the addition.

The Palestinians, who are seeking status as a non-member observer state, told the U.S. that they would provide an oral promise not to file charges with the international court for some six months, but after that time period they would not be obligated to the guarantee, Haaretz reported.

Israel also wants a clause saying that the granting of enhanced status is a symbolic decision that grants no sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza Strip or eastern Jerusalem, according to the newspaper.

“We continue to try to dissuade the Palestinians from taking this action,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday. “We think it's going to be complicating and potentially a step backwards in terms of the larger goal, which is a negotiated solution.”

The Palestinians, represented by the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, were rebuffed last year in their bid to have the U.N. Security Council recognize Palestine as a state; the United States successfully lobbied against the move, threatening to use its veto.

There is no such veto in the General Assembly, where the Palestinians have an assured majority. Observer state status does not carry with it the privileges of full membership; observers must still apply to become members of U.N. constituent groups. The PLO is currently a non-member observer entity.

Poll: Majority of Americans say Israel’s Gaza offensive is justified


A majority of Americans believe Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip is justified, according to a CNN poll released on Monday.

The CNN/ORC International poll indicated that 57 percent of Americans support Israel's offensive against Hamas, while 25 percent of U.S. citizens believe Israel's attacks on Gaza are unjustified.

Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense entered its sixth day on Monday. The IDF attacked more than 1,350 targets in the Gaza Strip since the start of the operation, while more than 1,000 rockets were fired at Israel.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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.

American who shot Eilat hotel employee killed himself, police probe finds


The American man who killed an Eilat hotel employee while in Israel on an internship program committed suicide, according to an investigation by Israeli police.

William Herskowitz, 23, shot himself after locking himself in the hotel kitchen, an investigation by the Southern District Israel Police has found, according to Israeli media reports.

It was reported at the time of the incident in early October that Herskowitz was shot by a member of the police counterterrorism unit. 

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 Eilat, a resort city in southern Israel.

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.

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.”

Two American economists win Nobel Prize


Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley, American economists with ties to Israeli universities, won the Nobel Prize for economics.

The professors won the prize, called the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, for their research in how to make economic markets work better by more precisely matching supply with demand.

Shapley, 89, used game theory to study the problem. Roth, 60, helped redesign the medical residents’ match program to make it more efficient for young doctors.

The prize was announced Oct. 15.

Shapley was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in 1986 and has worked with Israeli Nobel Prize laureate Robert Auman, who won his Nobel for his work with game theory.

Roth, who is Jewish, was a visiting professor of economics at the Technion in Haifa in 1986, and a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University in 1995. Roth frequently visits Israel, Auman said.

“I have been hoping for this for years,” Auman said of the award to Roth and Shapley. “It is absolutely the best choice that could be made.”

Roth is a professor at Harvard University in Boston, but will be leaving for Stanford University, where he is currently a visiting professor of economics, at the end of the year. Shapley is professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

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?”

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