President Donald Trump takes the oath of office during inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

The rise of Leftism and rabbis fasting on Inauguration Day


Some weeks ago, my column was devoted to an event in American-Jewish life that was equally tragic and farcical — synagogues were sitting shivah after the election of Donald Trump.

This was partially the result of too many American Jews believing what is now known as “fake news” — namely, that Mr. Trump was bringing racists and anti-Semites into his administration. That there was no evidence for this charge — any more than there was when Americans were warned that Ronald Reagan would bring the Ku Klux Klan into his administration — didn’t matter.

So, then, why did many Jews believe this? Because that was what the liberal media reported. And why did they believe the media when they could have read empirically based refutations published in The Wall Street Journal and all other media not on the left?

The answer brings us to the primary reason for the shivah-sitting: the increasing identification of left-wing beliefs with Judaism. If it’s good for the left, it’s good for the Jews and it’s Jewish; if it’s bad for the left, it’s bad for the Jews and not Jewish. This is believed despite the fact that the left is the source of virtually all of the world’s hatred of Israel outside of the Muslim world.

I revisit this subject because of a news item from last week: The rabbi of a Conservative synagogue in Berkeley (and other left-wing rabbis, it turns out) fasted on Inauguration Day.

If it’s good for the left, it’s good for the Jews and it’s Jewish; if it’s bad for the left, it’s bad for the Jews and not Jewish.

As reported in The Jewish Press: “Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor, spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, this week sent an email to his members on the eve of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, sharing with them that he was ‘deeply worried about this American moment, as a Jew, as a father, as an American, which is why I cannot abstain from thoughtful action today. … Some of us will fast on Friday, an interfaith moment of unity.”

Did any of these rabbis announce they were fasting when America backed the most devastating anti-Israel resolution in United Nations Security Council history? Or when Christian communities were wiped out by Islamists? Or any time Israelis have been murdered? Or after any of the other horrors taking place in the world today?

If they did, I could not find mention of it. Apparently, it was the inauguration of Donald Trump that moved these rabbis to publicly fast.

Such is the depth of identification with the left among many American Jews.

In order to understand the modern world, it is necessary to understand that the most dynamic religion of the last century has not been Christianity, nor Islam, and certainly not Judaism. It has been leftism. Leftism has not only become the ideology of the Western world’s intellectuals, academics and media, but it also has deeply influenced Judaism and Christianity — far more so than Judaism and Christianity have influenced the world during these hundred years.

For many mainstream Protestants and many Catholics, including the current pope, Christianity and leftism are essentially identical. Christianity for these Christians is leftism with a cross. And for many non-Orthodox Jews, Judaism is leftism with a yarmulke and tallit.

Think about it. The one Jewish state is threatened with extinction, its population threatened with another Holocaust, and many American rabbis are in a frenzy about the election of Donald Trump.

What we have here is the latest example of the left in yet another hysterical moment. Hysteria is to the left what oxygen is to life. Thus, mainstream newspapers and electronic media are filled with stories about the new fascist — even Hitlerian — regime.

On Inauguration Day, Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” actually said Trump was Hitlerian, and at the Women’s March on Washington, actress Ashley Judd actually spoke of gas chambers. Innumerable New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post writers have called Trump a fascist. This abuse of the words “fascist” and “Hitlerian” has prompted no outcry from American Jews or their institutions, even though all it does is trivialize Hitler and the Holocaust.

In their thorough identification with the left, rabbis and Jewish academics publicly appealed to Rabbi Marvin Hier not to give an invocation at President Trump’s inauguration. That he was the first rabbi invited to do so in more than 30 years meant nothing to these Jews. That he read the biblical passage reminding people not to forget Jerusalem likewise meant nothing to them. Why? Because Rabbi Hier, in their fevered view, was giving a Jewish blessing at the inauguration of a fascist.

Last week, a colleague of mine attended a bat mitzvah celebration at a major local Conservative synagogue. In his congratulatory remarks, the rabbi told the girl how proud she should be that her bat mitzvah and the women’s march took place on the same day. At least a dozen people, recognizing my colleague, went over to her to express their resentment at the rabbi for injecting his politics into this celebration and for assuming that all his congregants are on the left.

Because of left-wing influence on American Judaism, this is a very bad period in American-Jewish life. When most Jews were liberal — in the image of Democrats such as Presidents Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy, and Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan — Judaism could thrive. But if the toxic influence of illiberal leftism is not abandoned, there is little hope for non-Orthodox Judaism. And that really is worth fasting over.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Skipping the inauguration


Many people are saying they won’t be watching the inauguration on TV.

Just putting it that many-people-are-saying way gives me the creeps. Like “believe me,” it’s Trump’s signature trick for turning lies true, the companion con to turning facts false by labeling them “fake news.”  

“I think we have one of the great Cabinets ever put together,” he “>told Chris Hayes on MSNBC, “He owned the day.” “Observed as spectacle, Trump came away with a resounding victory,” “>metaphor for our intelligence community — in Nazi Germany. “Damn, that Hitler’s a super showman!”

I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone loving every minute of the day Trump owned. “These papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my son,” he said, pointing at hundreds of manila file folders. If his loyalists saw that the “>blank paper in them, they must not have cared. If Trump seethed like “>said in her concession speech, “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” and that “we don’t just respect that — we cherish it.”

But respect is a two-way street. If Donald Trump respected the office of the presidency, it could mitigate the difficulty of the majority who didn’t vote for him to respect his claim on the authority we’re about to delegate to him. As it is, his legal authority will be corrupted from the outset by his refusal to subordinate his financial interests to the interest of our nation, as the Constitution requires. He has already nullified his moral authority by his deceit, his incapacity for accountability and his sociopathic absence of empathy. He’s no more capable of respect for the sacred responsibility of his office than he is of respect for the civic responsibility of a journalist.

If our body politic had two heads — a head of state and a head of government — it might not be as hard as this to recover from a bitterly divisive election. A monarch, a premier, a chancellor: an uncontroversial figurehead removed from the factional fray has a shot at uniting a nation. But in America, as George Washington apocryphally said, the people are the king, and we entrust the eagle of our freedom to a president who is simultaneously beyond, and buffeted by, politics.

Should you watch the inauguration? If that’s what it’ll take to mobilize you to join a progressive version of the Tea Party, a movement whose “>Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” then go for it. But chances are, you’re activated enough to do that now.

I’m not going to watch. If I miss something big, someone will tell me, or I’ll read about it. I know that won’t be a substitute for the real-time experience of it. But I don’t need to experience the fouling of the nest the Founders made for us to know it would break my heart to be an eyewitness to it.

It may be in different words, but many people are saying that.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Netanyahu will not attend Trump inauguration


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not attend the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, quashing earlier reports that he had been invited to attend.

Netanyahu was not invited to the inauguration in Washington, D.C., and leaders of foreign countries do not usually attend U.S. presidential inaugurations, the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom reported, citing the Prime Minister’s Office.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu canceled his trip scheduled for Jan. 18 to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, leading to further speculation that he might be planning to attend the inauguration.

The Prime Minister’s Office also said in a statement that the cancellation of Netanyahu’s participation in Davos, where he was scheduled to speak and had meetings planned, had nothing to do with a police investigation into possible bribery and fraud charges.

A day after Trump’s election victory in a phone call with Netanyahu, the president-elect invited the prime minister to meet with him in the United States “at the first opportunity.”

Open letter: Rabbi Hier, please do not go to the inauguration


January 12, 2017

Rabbi Marvin Hier
President, Founder, and Dean
Simon Wiesenthal Center
Los Angeles, CA

Dear Rabbi Hier,

I write to you out of respect for the work you’ve done in fighting intolerance, bigotry, and specifically anti-Semitism in Los Angeles and in this country.  While you and I have serious political differences in some areas, that does not detract for a minute from my admiration for you, Rabbi Cooper, and your team in making the Museum of Tolerance an important shield against prejudice in this country. 

I have resisted writing to you because I had believed that you have the right to choose whom you bless.  Your decision to offer a benediction at the inauguration of Donald Trump reflects, as you’ve stated, not a political preference, but your own commitment to the peaceful transition of power, a hallmark of democracy in this country.

And yet, what changed my mind was Mr. Trump’s tweet yesterday—and follow-up comment at his “press conference”—suggesting that his treatment at the hands of the press was reminiscent of Nazi Germany.  This was the last straw for me.  And, frankly, it should be for you.  As someone who has dedicated his life to fighting to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, you cannot be associated in any way with this kind of cheap and inaccurate invocation of Nazism.

There were clear warning signs about the danger Mr. Trump posed when he refused to denounce unequivocally the alt-right antisemites supporting his campaign.  And many of us, yourself included, were jolted to attention by his hinting at the prospect of a registry of all Muslims in this country.  And of course, his dismissive or inappropriate comments about women, African Americans, disabled people, and Jews shocked us to the core.

All of this was cause for grave concern.  But now the claim about Nazi Germany.  In the first instance, this remark betrays a complete ignorance of history.  Shortly after assuming the role of Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Hitler began to suspend the normal rules of democracy by granting himself the power to override parliament; boycotts were introduced in April of that year against Jewish businesses and then Jewish civil servants, professors, and university students.  As we know well, his assault on democracy, the rule of law, and the Jewish people bore ahead with ferocity from that point onward.  While there are danger signs about the health of democratic institutions in America today, we are a long way from the oppressive dictatorship of Hitler’s Germany.  To lend your support to someone with such blatant disregard for an historical chapter so central to your life’s work would be, I’m afraid, a very serious error of judgment on your part. 

What is perhaps more galling—though sadly consistent with Mr. Trump’s bullying personality—is that he is not the victim here.  To the extent that there are new authoritarian trends in American society, they do not emanate from the free press or supporters of Hillary Clinton.  They emanate from Donald Trump himself.  He is not the chief victim of fake news, damaging insinuations or disparaging rhetoric.  He and his team are the perpetrators of all of these tactics, and in a way rarely seen in American political culture.  And in a starkly personal way, these tactics add up to the opposite of what stands at the heart of your institution: tolerance. 

In light of Mr. Trump’s most recent degradation, I urge you, Rabbi Hier, to announce that you will not grace his inauguration with your presence.  I fear that if you were to go to offer a benediction, you would lend credence to Mr. Trump’s willful distortion of history and bring injury to the principles and institution on whose behalf you have labored so tirelessly.

Sincerely,

David N. Myers

Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History, UCLA

Wiesenthal Center’s Hier defends decision to appear at Trump inauguration


Sitting in his office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where he’s founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier pushed a stack of printouts across his desk — blessings and invocations he’s delivered on behalf of four sitting U.S. presidents.

“I’ve done invocations for President [Bill] Clinton, both Bushes, Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I wouldn’t make any exception.”

The Dec. 28 announcement that Hier would offer a benediction at the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump — the first rabbi to appear at an inauguration since Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk at Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 — was greeted immediately with controversy: Why would the head of an organization dedicated to fighting hate bless a politician whose candidacy faced repeated accusations of ethnic and religious intolerance?

A petition on Change.org calling on Hier to back out gathered more than 2,000 signatures in three days.

“By speaking at his inauguration, especially as a hero of a half-century battling hate and intolerance, we feel you lend those elements of your ‘brand’ — if inadvertently — to help create a smokescreen for Trump,” the petition reads.

But Hier remains unfazed. For him, the decision to appear as one of six faith leaders at the Jan. 20 swearing-in — and the only non-Christian — was an easy one. The peaceful transition of power is “the trademark of democracy,” he said, and he was honored to receive the invitation. 

“Who’s sitting on the platform [at Trump’s inauguration]?” he asked. “His worst opponents, sitting in the peaceful transfer of power: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, President and Mrs. Obama, George W. Bush and his wife — and they say that I shouldn’t partake. Come, come! Isn’t that the height of hypocrisy?”

His appearance shouldn’t be viewed as an endorsement, Hier said. He pointed out that he criticized Trump during the campaign, for instance when the candidate suggested a registry of Muslims in the United States.

“I’ve stated my views and I was invited to give the prayer anyway,” he said.

What’s more, he said, his appearance won’t impede his willingness to criticize the Trump administration in the future, just as he has criticized past presidents. For instance, in 1985, the Wiesenthal Center was among the most vocal opponents of then-President Ronald Reagan’s decision to visit a German cemetery where Nazi troops were buried, despite Hier sharing a close personal relationship with the president. 

“The same will happen under the Trump administration,” he told the Journal. “But what we’re not going to do is play this game that only when the president of the United States is a Democrat, then everyone should go to the inauguration.”

He said he would not be swayed by critics.

“They’re entitled to their points of view,” he said. “They’re not influencing me. Marvin Hier is going to the inauguration. They’re not influencing me at all. And they need to know, tremendous amounts of people have emailed me and called me and said, ‘Don’t you dare listen to these people.’ ”

He addressed concerns about the so-called alt-right, a loose-knit group of white supremacists emboldened by the Trump campaign, saying right-wing anti-Semites have received too much attention in recent months relative to anti-Semitic criticism of Israel on the left. 

“We’re very concerned about the alt-right,” he said. “We’re also concerned about the loonies on the left that never get any play, the ones who hate Israel. … Both extremes can do great harm to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

President Barack Obama’s decision to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank was the “biggest anti-Israel thing ever done,” he said, though he stopped short of labeling it anti-Semitic. 

Hier is optimistic that the next administration will represent a change in tone.

“If I were Hamas, I’d be very nervous,” he said, referring to the terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip. “The new president is going to do the opposite of President Obama. He’s going to mention Hamas 1,000 times and forget to mention the settlements, evening the score of the way it’s been all these years.”

Hier dismissed news reports linking his inauguration appearance to $35,000 in donations made to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the family of Jared Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka.

“They’re longtime supporters of Simon Wiesenthal,” Hier said of the Kushners, whom he considers friends. “It’s got nothing to do [with the inauguration]. They were supporters before Ivanka met Jared.”

He declined to preview his remarks except to say that he would draw on an argument by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik regarding a discrepancy in Exodus. According to the Torah, God observed the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt when Moses fled after striking down a cruel slave driver, but didn’t send the prophet to their aid until 60 years later. “What’s this business of the respite of 60 years?” Hier said.

“God waits on his human partners,” he explained. “If his human partners are not willing to assume their proper role and act, He’s prepared to just wait it out — 60 years, 600 years, 6,000 years. So one of the themes will be that when a human being is born, they do not collect Social Security at birth, because the expectation is: Do something first. That’s the point.”

Is God a Democrat or a Republican?


With President Obama having just taken the oath for his second term in office, we can allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about substantive issues in ways that transcend party affiliations and divisions. We no longer have to debate how and for whom Jews should vote, and instead can confront the far more important question of what Jewish values teach us about the nature of a just society and the role and responsibility of the individual in shaping it.

Jewish teaching on this issue begins early in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 4, when we are introduced to the personality of Cain, who personifies injustice and serves as a model for what we must not become. In response to God's query regarding the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain offers a response which sets the foundation for Jewish morality: Am I my brother's keeper? (Gen. 4:9) The core of Jewish ethics may be summarized by the answer: “Yes. You are your brother and sister's keeper.” When you walk in the world as a Jew, you relinquish the singular perspective of self-interest and accept that the existence of others breeds responsibility to them. This responsibility is not the mere consequence of a social contract but a core aspect of what it means to be human. Others claim you, and their existence demands of you that you see them and respond to their needs.

In the Jewish tradition this principle gets translated into a Law of Non-Indifference which serves as the foundation for governing the relationships among human beings. “If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray do not remain indifferent. You must take it back to him….you shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: You must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

The defining feature of a Jewish public space is that it must be a safe one, safe not merely from harm, safe not merely from a Hobbesian definition of the state of nature as being a state of war of all against all, but safe in the sense that individuals who enter it know that their well-being is a concern of all who share in that space. A space is a safe one when all who inhabit it are “fellow keepers,” a space wherein the individuals recognize their responsibility to override their personal interests and not merely refrain from harming others but actually care for and respond to their needs.

The biblical law of lost property quoted above shapes a mode of behavior and consciousness whereby fellow citizens do not come into the public domain either to merely survive, or conversely, in search of benefiting from others' misfortunes. What could be more natural or simple than “looking the other way” when coming into contact with a lost piece of property. Who needs the hassle of trying to run down the owner? As a busy person, I don’t have time to be my brother's keeper, or more opportunistically, I can view such a moment as a prospect for personal gain. Who knows, I might reason, perhaps it is meant to belong to me. Perhaps it is a gift from God. In both cases the lens is actually a mirror: when I look at someone else's loss, I can only see myself, my needs and interests. Jewish tradition commands, however, that we walk in the public domain in a different way. At the heart of the ethic of non-indifference is the smashing of the mirror of self-interest to do what is just and right.

Jews in America have been blessed with the gift of freedom and equality and given the opportunity to not merely pursue our religious life free of persecution, but also the opportunity of full partnership in shaping the American public sphere. The First Amendment “wall of separation” between Church and State which Jews so judiciously protect, is meant to ensure that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its aim is to separate Church from State but not religion and religious values from the public discourse.

I don’t know whether God is a Democrat or a Republican, nor do I want to argue that one of them is more conducive to creating a just society. I do want to argue, however, that as Jews we are inheritors of a value system which has much to contribute to a public discourse about the nature of such a just society. As Jews we must be the enemies of indifference and the advocates of a social contract which educates and obligates all to be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

America is in the midst of a serious discussion about its present and future identity and how the values which it holds dear ought to impact on issues such as universal health care, entitlements, deficits, gun control, and environment, to name just a few. As Jews our role in this discussion should not merely be expressed in the way we vote but in the way we bring the values of our tradition to shape this public discussion.

DC Jews react on Obama inauguration, honor MLK with service


Monday’s 57th Presidential Inauguration officially sent off Barack Obama into a second term as America’s 44th President and the country’s first African American commander-in-chief. After being formally sworn in Sunday at the White House, Obama gave his inaugural address to about one million people Monday, according to a recent White House estimate. This day also coincided with Martin Luther King Day.

In addition to participating in inauguration-weekend activism and service events, members of the Washington D.C. Jewish community shared with JNS.org a variety of views on the President’s reelection and upcoming second term.

In the 1960s Jewish activists, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly half a century later, the Friday before the presidential inauguration, a women’s leadership event, the Women’s Leadership Network luncheon of the National Jewish Democratic Council, kicked off the inaugural weekend in Jewish Washington. The discussion panel included former White House Communications Director Ann Lewis, Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA) and The Jerusalem Post Washington Bureau Chief Hilary Krieger.

It was “one of the most inspirational events I’ve attended in a very long time,” Barbara Goldberg Goldman told JNS.org.  “Proud Jewish women of all ages came together to share their desire to perform tikun olam and make a difference in the world in which they live.“

Goldman isn’t worried about Obama’s recent decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for defense secretary in the president’s second term. Hagel has made controversial statements such as “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people in Congress,” and critics are concerned with his questionable record on Israel.

Hagel’s “record has been distorted and twisted,” she said, and President Obama is “has done more for Israeli defense than any other president,” she said.

As the 57th Presidential inauguration unfolded Jewish U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) spoke of the “American tradition of transferring or re-affirming the immense power of the United States…as an enduring symbol of the American democracy.”

But even among those attending inaugural functions, not all members of the Washington D.C. Jewish community supported the President and his policies. One law student and Republican named Dan, who asked not to reveal his last name, spoke with JNS.org at a special Inaugural Ball organized by the Washington D.C. JCC Monday. He is deeply concerned with the on-going growth of social assistance programs he feels remove individual responsibility and harm the American work ethic. “The drive to succeed will disappear,” he said. But “even if I don't agree, you've got to see democracy in action, and hope that people will stand together to make the country grow,” he added.

Though Obama did not mention Israel in his inaugural address, the President emphasized his administration “will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

However, just recently Jewish American columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported Obama has said in private conversations that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” when it comes to construction beyond the Green Line. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded in an interview that he is “confident that President Obama understands that only a sovereign Israeli government can determine what Israel’s interests are.”

Senior Online Editor of Commentary magazine Jonathan S. Tobin recently wrote that “there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help.”

Scott Perlo, rabbi and associate director of Jewish programming at the historic Washington, D.C. Synagogue Sixth and I, is also less certain about the President’s second term but optimistic.

“I am conscious of the stratified society and social and economic inequities…Whatever your feelings are about the election, the new president is a vindication of the fact the democratic process works,” Perlo said.

The Sixth and I synagogue’s combined Moorish, Romanesque, and Byzantine-styled building was dedicated in 1908. After the congregation moved to another location, the building became a church, but was returned to the Jewish community in 2000. The building was restored, and now functions not only as a synagogue but also as a venue for lectures and exhibitions.

Inaugural festivities at the historic shul began with a January 16 NPR “Political Junkie Road Show” hosted by Neal Conan and Ken Rudin. “We have people whose perspective tends to be an inside-the-belt-way one. If you were a Jew in America in the 80’s, the presumption was you were a Democrat, but strongly pro-Israel.  That demography is changing,” Perlo said.

Leading up to the inauguration Washington’s Jewish community also participated in the National Day of Service Saturday. Erica Steen, Director of Community Engagement at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center (JCC), spent Shabbat afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Fair in the National Mall speaking with thousands of participating visitors about the outreach efforts of the Washington Jewish community. Repair the World, a New York City organization dedicated to Jewish community service, also represented the Jewish community at the fair.

Among the beneficiaries of the JCC’s outreach efforts is the Temporary Emergency Residential Resource institute for Families In Crisis (TERRIFIC, Inc.).  As part of inaugural weekend activities, more than twenty-five volunteers painted and repaired apartments for homeless families.

“It’s a community weekend,” Steen said, “an opportunity for the nation to come together to celebrate the presidential inauguration, remember Martin Luther King and really give back to the community.” 

“Judaism believes strongly in service – a basic critical elements of what makes someone a Jew… a sense of obligation to make the world a better place,” Perlo added.

Gil Steinlauf, Senior Rabbi of Washington’s largest Conservative congregation Adas Israel, said “it is a great honor to be attending the inauguration, representing one of the oldest congregations in the District – truly a joy and a celebration.” Both American Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, attend the synagogue, he said.

Steinlauf believes Obama’s selection of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, “is of concern” and “attention must be paid.” Although he is optimistic about “the United States’ continued support for Israel” and does not think we will see “some of the alarmist situations that some in the Jewish community fear,” he said, “the President will pose certain challenges,” Steinlauf agreed.

Obama in second inaugural speaks of a united America, U.S. involvement abroad


President Obama in his second inaugural address spoke of U.S. involvement throughout the world and Americans working together at home.

Obama was sworn in publicly for his second term at 11:50 a.m. Monday by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Some 800,000 people reportedly thronged the area to witness the inauguration.

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

In his address, Obama focused on the promise of American democracy and all Americans working for the common good. He spoke of the allegiance to the Constitution and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,” he said. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

The president alluded to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day set aside in the United States to commemorate the slain human rights activist.

Obama said the U.S. “must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”

He called for a response to the threat of climate change, and praised the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed services. Obama also spoke of equality for women in the workplace and for gays.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the inaugural ceremonies chairman, opened the ceremony and introduced the participants.

Obama was sworn in officially on Sunday, the inauguration day mandated by the Constitution, in a private ceremony.

Opinion: The Post-Kumbaya President


I wonder where Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan are having dinner tonight.

Four years ago, while Democrats danced at inaugural balls, Reps. Cantor and Ryan dined at The Caucus Room, a Capitol Hill steakhouse, along with other top Republicans, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Sens. Jim DeMint, John Kyl and Tom Coburn. 

Barack Obama’s presidency was by then all of eight hours old.  At midday, the man who rocketed to prominence in 2004 by declaring America to be not red states or blue states, but the United States, had told the nation, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” With those words, and the applause of 1.8 million Americans on the National Mall still ringing in their ears, some 15 GOP leaders discreetly gathered in the restaurant’s private room to decide what to do with the olive branch the president had extended.

As we know from a new ““>Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Caucus Room caucus decided, in Draper’s words, “to fight Obama on everything – this meant unyielding opposition to every one of the Obama administration’s legislative initiatives.”

No matter what was on Obama’s agenda, even if it was identical to Republican proposals, they planned to attack it.  No matter how many times Obama met with them, sought common ground or negotiated with himself, their strategy was to keep the number of Republican votes he got for anything whatsoever as close to zero as possible.  

This happened before there was a Tea Party, before there were 87 far-right GOP freshmen, before the birthers had migrated from the lunatic fringe to the party’s mainstream.  The economy was in crisis; a second Great Depression was conceivable.  Also conceivable was actually working together on behalf of the country.  But from night one of day one, the Republicans decided to torpedo Obama, a sentiment echoed the next year when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said publicly that denying President Obama a second term was his top priority.

Now that second term has begun.  The president has had plenty of experience with Republican intransigence.  He has learned the hard way that you can’t sing Kumbaya as a solo.  But even so, in his second inaugural he said that the oath he swore, “like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.”  Though he surely has the Republicans’ number by now, he said, nevertheless, that “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” that we cannot “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”  Was any of that more than wishful thinking?

Seven times he said “together”; five times he said “we, the people.”  Does he really think his opponents are capable of collaborating, or is he just laying down a marker to collect when they behave badly? 

A lot is riding on the answer.  “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” he promised at heartening length; “we will preserve our planet.”  But scores of Republican science-deniers hold very safe seats in gerrymandered House districts; they will face no electoral penalty for sticking it to the president every chance they get.  Immigration reform, tax reform, school reform, gun control: It’s hard to imagine Luntz, Gingrich & Co. working up a different playbook for dealing with the 2012 Obama agenda in a back room at steakhouse 2.0 than they did four years ago. 

Though the president didn’t put a fix for Citizens United in his inaugural address – isn’t fighting political corruption as important as the long shot legislation that made it into the speech? – he did use the word “citizen” eight times.  He said it at the top (“fellow citizens,” instead of the traditional “fellow Americans”), and he said it repeatedly in the peroration. 

I connect that word “citizen” with something else he said.  Between going after absolutism and rejecting name-calling, he said that we cannot “substitute spectacle for politics.”  In an age when the public holds politicians in such low esteem, it’s so striking that he chose to use “politics” as a positive term. 

Politics is what citizens do – that’s what I took him to mean.  Spectacles need spectators; democracies need citizens.  Spectacles treat citizens as consumers, markets, eyeballs to sell to advertisers.  Politics treat citizens as stakeholders, constituents – people to listen to, not just persuade.  Spectacles are circuses to distract us; citizens know the risk we run of “>most important political event of the past week may turn out to be neither the inaugural, nor the sirloin-fueled cabal it may have prompted, but rather the morphing of Obama for America into Organizing for Action.  Obama for America was an attempt to convert his 2008 ground game into a grassroots group at the Democratic National Committee, but it barely played a part in his first term’s legislative battles.  Organizing for Action will try not to make that mistake again.  His 2012 top command is determined to make the 2012 vote the beginning, not the end, of political action.  His first term was about negotiations between party elites; his second term will be about mobilizing citizen power. 

That thrilling phrase in his second inaugural – “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” – is about citizens, not spectators, about activists, not audiences.  If Washington actually ends up, despite steakhouse obstructionism, doing something important about climate change or guns or anything else on the president’s shortlist, it will not be because we saw his inauguration on television, but because we took his fate, and ours, in our own hands.

 

Marty Kaplan is the “>martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Spiritual Redevelopment


Cantor Mark Saltzman spent Sunday, Oct. 28 wearing a smile that could solve California’s energy crisis.

Leading his congregation in a member-composed rendering of "Ki Bayti" ("Because This Is My Home"), Saltzman had reason to smile. After nine years of searching, fundraising, working and praying, Congregation Kol Ami inaugurated its 7,000-square-foot permanent home in West Hollywood.

The afternoon’s festivities began with a procession, as Rabbi Denise Eger led congregants, friends and community supporters down two closed-off lanes of La Brea. From there, the Kol Ami crew filed into a tent in the synagogue courtyard for a dedication ceremony, and then finally home, into the new building.

Founded in 1992, Kol Ami is West Hollywood’s only Reform synagogue. The 250-member congregation is the first predominantly gay and lesbian synagogue in the United States to construct its own building, an achievement made possible by an ambitious campaign which raised $2.4 million in pledges.

Kol Ami’s mission of providing a nurturing environment for Jews of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles extends beyond its core gay and lesbian membership. As State Senator Sheila James Kuehl, the first open lesbian in the California Legislature, noted in her remarks to the congregation, "This house is not our house, it’s God’s house."

In its 10-year history, Kol Ami has become "part of the fabric of West Hollywood’s community life," Eger says. Previously, Kol Ami held services at West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. With a home of its own, "the synagogue will function as a center for activity and social action," Eger says.

Situated at the Northeast corner of West Hollywood in a redevelopment zone, the synagogue represents another aspect of Kol Ami’s place within the fabric of the city — what Eger calls "the mitzvah of redevelopment."

Among the celebrants carrying Torah scrolls, before joining Eger on the podium for the dedication service, were West Hollywood Mayor Jeff Prang; assemblymember Paul Koretz; state senator Kuehl; and county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who have "all been good friends of the temple," the rabbi says. Yaroslavsky congratulated the congregation on its success in facing the numerous hurdles to building. "I know what it’s like to build a synagogue," he said, "I know even better what it’s like to get zoning for a synagogue."

The Kol Ami building was architect Josh Schweitzer’s first synagogue. "And, since he’s not Jewish, he was kind of like a blank slate," Eger says. To prepare, the rabbi and the architect studied Torah together, particularly sections of Exodus "so he could understand this process and tradition of freedom."

Berlin Bound


More than 300,000 visitors have thronged the Jewish Museum in Berlin since it opened to the public in February 1999, and more are coming at a clip of 20,000 each month.

The figure is astonishing, considering that the building is completely empty. The exhibits, tracing the 2,000-year Jewish presence in Germany, won’t be in place until the formal inauguration next year on Sept. 9.

What attracts the primarily non-Jewish visitors to the multilingual guided tours is the exterior and interior architecture of the building by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind.

The building zig-zags on a site near the old Berlin Wall and, seen from above, resembles, according to one’s perceptions, a shattered Star of David or a bronzed lightning bolt.

The exterior walls are covered in zinc, with diagonal slashes across the facade that serve as the building’s 350 oddly shaped windows.

Reached by an underground passage, the interior is marked by slanted corridors, one leading to the empty upstairs exhibition halls. Another points to the outdoor Garden of Exile, with its 49 rectangular concrete columns, each sprouting an olive tree. The columns are slightly tilted, leaving an impression of a world somewhat askew.

A third corridor leads through a heavy steel door into the Holocaust Tower, a high angular room of concrete walls, with a single slit of light at the unreachable top. When the door clangs shut, a sense of oppression and suffocation grips most visitors.

Throughout the five-story building are “voids,” black-walled, permanently empty spaces, that embody the absence left in German life by the expulsion and murder of its Jewish citizens.

“Few buildings have evoked the unspeakable with such clarity,” a Los Angeles journalist wrote. So powerful is the impact of Libeskind’s creation that some visitors break into tears, and it has been proposed to leave it empty permanently as a mute Holocaust memorial.

Museum director W. Michael Blumenthal, who left Berlin for Shanghai as a young Jewish refugee and later became secretary of the treasury in the Carter administration, will have none of it.

The building’s purpose goes beyond its architecture,” he notes. “There were many Jewish citizens in this country, and they were not always helpless victims. They lived here for centuries and were profound contributors to the life of their country. This is part of German history that must not be forgotten.”

A network of Holocaust memorials is in place or rising in Berlin and throughout Germany, but “without showing how Jewish Germans lived here as citizens, the picture would be incomplete,” Blumenthal adds.The permanent exhibits will be divided into three parts. The primary one will chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of German Jewish history since Roman times. A second will focus on Judaism and everyday Jewish life, and a third will depict the Holocaust and the slow reconstruction of the Jewish presence in Germany.

Originally, the Jewish Museum was conceived as merely one wing of the adjoining Berlin municipal museum. It has taken more than a decade of stormy political debates and personality clashes to arrive at the Jewish Museum’s present autonomy and status as the largest Jewish museum in Europe. (The museum’s Web site at www.jmberlin.de offers a brief illustrated tour of the facilities.)

The construction costs came to $65 million, underwritten by the Berlin municipality. The current annual budget is $18 million, of which the German federal government contributes $12 million and the city of Berlin some $6 million, says Eva Soederman, the museum’s spokeswoman.

In addition, the museum is seeking private donations to help support an information center, research facilities, interactive learning center, lectures, workshops, theatrical events and films.

Another appeal has been for personal mementos by German Jewish émigrés to illustrate their former lifestyles and cycles. The response has been so overwhelming that additional staff had to be hired to handle the incoming packages.

“Our emphasis will not be just on famous persons and names but on ordinary people,” Soederman says. “For instance, we now have the histories of 8,000 German Jewish families.”

Adding to the research resources will be the transfer or access to the archives of New York’s Leo Baeck Institute and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

When fully functioning, the Jewish Museum expects some 500,000 visitors a year. One reason for a year-long delay in its opening has been to install additional air conditioning and other utilities to handle the large crowds.

German interest in the museum has been intense, perhaps not surprising in a country whose media coverage of the Jewish past and present sometimes borders on the obsessive.

This preoccupation hasn’t been lost on Blumenthal, who spends one-third of each month in Berlin and the rest at his home in Princeton.

“Each month, I arrive in Berlin as an American,” he noted in frequently quoted observation, “and I leave as a Jew.”

One Berlin newspaper interviewed visitors to the empty building and quoted a student as saying, “I hardly know any Jews, but I want to learn about them.”

The article concludes that “the visitors are searching for continuity of the Jewish presence in Germany. They want to see Jewish life in Berlin once again.”

Tom Tugend recently visited Germany as guest of the European Academy Berlin.

A Jewish Revival


For European leaders, the recent inauguration of three Jewish schools in Central Europe symbolizes far more than a Jewish revival.

They also reflect hopes for a return to normalcy in the heart of Europe more than 50 years after the Holocaust — and 10 years after the fall of Communism.

In this context, the schools — and their message of Jewish renewal in Germany, Austria and Poland, the countries where the Holocaust raged most fiercely — are feathers in the caps of local governments. They exemplify the ideals of a pluralistic, democratic order, not to mention a brighter future. At the same time, though , anti-Semitic political stirrings continue to attract followers. For example, shortly before the dedication of the Lauder teacher training center in eastern Berlin, the city’s biggest Jewish cemetery was seriously desecrated.

Meanwhile in Poland, while senior state and Roman Catholic church officials took part in the dedication of a monument to commemorate the Kristallnacht pogrom in Wroclaw, anti-Semitic militant Catholics defied church and government orders to remove a forest of crosses they had erected at Auschwitz.

In effect examples of political goodwill are taking place, but they coexist schizophrenically with widespread lingering prejudice.

Nevertheless, the presidents of Austria and Poland recently presented Ronald Lauder, whose foundation funds the schools and many other activities aimed at promoting Jewish life in the region, with high state awards honoring his work in strengthening Jewish life and in fostering local relations with Jews.

The homage paid to the new Lauder schools is just the latest in a long series of pro-Jewish actions, gestures and policy on the part of state and local authorities in many countries, part of the volatile mixture of politics, memory and history that are at play in this region.

In the wake of the Holocaust, and over the past decade in the wake of communism, official attitudes toward Jews and Jewish issues have frequently been used (by Jews) as a way of gauging the status of democracy, tolerance and civil rights in the region.

Starting in the early 1950s, official West German policy consciously attempted to make amends to the Jewish people, an ongoing process known as “coming to terms with the past.”

In Austria, such self-examination and confrontation with the past began much later.

In former Eastern Bloc countries, “filling in the blanks” that communism had created in historical memory has been a central motif over the past decade. These include gaping “blanks” about Jewish history and the Holocaust.

Under Communism, Jewish life was stifled, anti-Semitism was often state policy and study or discussion of Jewish topics was taboo. Most Communist states broke relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

The new post-Communist governments quickly moved to re-establish diplomatic relations with Israel, encourage Jewish study and open discussion of the Holocaust, including an examination of local involvement.

In all these countries, much of this activity has represented a sincere attempt to make amends and come to terms with the past. But there have also — inevitably — been many examples of lip service, cynicism and exploitative image-polishing.

Even before the fall of communism, some Eastern Bloc regimes in the 1980s openly co-opted or demonstrated support for Jewish causes in order to win support from the West — or from what they believed was a powerful Jewish lobby in the West.

But, the lofty ideals of officialdom have not fully trickled down to the mass public, where xenophobia is on the rise in some countries.

At the Lauder-Chabad school dedication in Vienna, for example, electoral gains by the far-right, anti-foreigner Freedom Party triggered international concern and threatened to sour relations between Austria and Israel.

It is worth quoting, however, Poland’s recent ambassador to the U.S., Drzysztof Sliwenski: “Our authorities are very much conscious that if Poland wants really to become a full member of the family of democracies, it must not just transform its political system and economy, but also the less-well-developed sphere of minority rights, human rights, et cetera.”