November 13, 2018

The Trump Factor: Now What?

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures at a campaign rally on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, U.S., November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Usually, I love Election Day. Watching people vote gives me a kick in the patriotic adrenals. But in this year’s Scrooge election, too many people looked grim, too many people confessed how anxious they were.

President Donald Trump pulled it off: He made these elections compelling. Midterms are the PBS documentaries of American politics — necessary, boring and upstaged by their Netflix rivals, meaning presidential contests. But Trump’s polarizing presidency GOTVed America — he got out the vote. Turnout spiked from an anemic 36.4 percent in 2014 to record levels.

Indeed, this election, like so much else in his life — and ours! — was all about Trump. But he over-Scrooged. His vitriol parlayed booming markets and unemployment lows into a 39-percent job approval and a repudiation in the House of Representatives.

Two years ago, Trump was The Miracle Maker. This year he was an electoral computer virus, weakening most candidates in his network.

Of course, he remains president. And the Republicans held the Senate — partially because of a different backlash: Millions watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings feared being held accountable for their teenage sins — even without corroborating evidence.

The elections thereby produced characteristically mixed results — for both parties and for American Jews, too, who may have shaped the Nov. 6 results more than any midterm ever, albeit as victims not actors.

First, the great news: The system worked. Tens of millions of Americans voted, peacefully. This everyday miracle should not be taken for granted, given the premature eulogizing about our dead democracy. Doom-and-gloom Democrats don’t like to admit that America-the-functional usually prevails and the Constitution works.

Donald Trump is the evil genie of American politics, mischievously outing inner demons among friends and foes. His refusal to act presidential has made many opponents act hysterical. His hyper-partisan, playing-to-the-base, tweet-fueled, wedge-making, presidency rejects the president’s role as the nation’s secular high priest.

Those who support him should nevertheless acknowledge his twisted priorities — and pathologizing proclivities. Similarly, his detractors must condemn their allies who turn thuggish. The right has no monopoly on shrillness or violence — remember the antifa riots.

Yet, day to day, America functions impressively for most. The checkers and balancers check and balance: from the obscure judges who defied Trump after his first Muslim-immigration-ban decree, to this week’s electoral-slap-in-the-presidential face.

Next, the less-great news: The Democratic House victory will block some Trumpian outrages. And former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 midterm loss produced presidential humility, congressional compromise, even national prosperity. But today’s atmosphere is too toxic. The fury seems bound to intensify; a Blue House and Red Senate seem destined for gridlock.

Finally, the Jews. As usual, Jews can delight in striking electoral success: A disproportionate number of Jews were elected. On the other hand, at least three new Blame-Israeli-Firsters entered Congress, all Democrats. Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — represent warning signals (not yet funeral bells) for the bipartisan pro-Israel alliance.

“Jews must unite against the left’s new anti-Semitism and the right’s renewed anti-Semitism. Political rivals are siblings who disagree with us, not enemies who betrayed us.”

Most disturbing: Most Democrats’ refusal to be furious about these three indicates how many Americans have become political contortionists: liberal Jews silly-putty themselves into rationalizing former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal, and downplaying the risks of progressive anti-Zionists Corbynizing the party. Those who complain that Israelis vote statehood issues not peoplehood issues, should admit that American Jews vote pro-choice or anti-Trump not pro-Israel.

Similarly, Jewish Trumpistas — Trumpistowitzes? — cannot tolerate any criticism of an amoral, bellicose, race-baiting demagogue — even though he was right to scotch the Iran deal and move the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

Fanatics on both sides are importing pro-Trump or anti-Trump my-way-or-the-highway litmus tests into synagogues, federations, schools — let alone Shabbat dinners. Jews must unite against the left’s new anti-Semitism and the right’s renewed anti-Semitism. Political rivals are siblings who disagree with us, not enemies who betrayed us.

Of course, to Americans, this is all internal Jewish stuff. The only Jewish story that counted was the Pittsburgh slaughter. Elections, like people, are complex, contradictory, not easily reduced to monocausal explanations. Still, it’s hard not to connect the dots between the Oct. 27 massacre and the anti-Trump vote on Nov. 6.

The Jewish vote rarely has determined electoral outcomes, unless you count the thousands of elderly Jews who wanted to vote for Al Gore in 2000 and mistakenly butterfly-balloted their way to voting for Pat Buchanan. But the Pittsburgh massacre mattered. It’s timeliness and bloodthirstiness alarmed Americans. It warned everyone where the nation could go if the polarization grows, if the hate festers, if Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit only becomes Trump’s bullying pulpit.

The anti-Trump vote voted “no” to demagoguery as a presidential leadership strategy. Along with millions of moments of outreach after the shooting, this vote affirmed America-the-functional and America-the-good. It’s a decent America, an America that appreciates nationalism as a pathway to liberal democracy not xenophobia, or white nationalism. It’s a purple America that doesn’t reduce every issue to black and white, red versus blue.

I repudiated radicals who blamed Trump for the killings, who rejected Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitism or his consoling visit to Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, I heard this election answer the Charlottesville, Va., Jew-haters’ yell: “Jews will not replace us.” I heard: The shooter does not represent us, haters will not define us, toxic partisans who cannot see a fellow American behind a political rival will not replace us.

I’m not naïve. I see the hate festering left and right, on campus and online. I understand the fears that Jews are canarying in America’s coal mines — the bully’s first targets.

But since Oct. 27, the unprecedented embrace of Jews, in churches and in synagogues, on streets and online, is the rainbow after the flood. These group-hugs affirm the American covenant uniting us, defining this exceptional nation, this exceptionally accepting nation, the last, best hope on earth. Those moving voices and millions of votes cast in free, safe elections created a mandate for all our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, to break the gridlock, mute the partisanship, and help us heal.

How ironic that in this Scrooge election, the exceptional American response to a far-too-familiar Jewish trauma — except in America — generated a rare ray of light.


Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Toronto and author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas.”

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

The Power of Story

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Jews always say that words create worlds.

I thought of this as I listened to Jewish-Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon speak at the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium in Miami last week.

Language is immensely important for Halfon. His grandfather — whose story Halfon tells in his novel “The Polish Boxer” — was taken to a concentration camp in 1939, and later to Block 11 to be shot. While there, he began to say Kaddish for his family and for himself, believing he would soon die. A man next to him recognized his Lodz accent. This man, a Polish boxer, was from the same town.

The boxer made it his business to train Halfon’s grandfather in the art of surviving the camp. But it wasn’t boxing that was the nature of this training. It was language. The boxer, whose skills made him a valuable entertainer in the camps — exempting him from being killed — trained him in what to say and what not to say. He trained with words, rather than fists.

Language, knowing when and when not to speak, saved Halfon’s grandfather’s life.

After the war, Halfon’s grandfather moved to Guatemala. And although Polish — his mother tongue and the language spoken between him and the boxer — essentially prevented his death, he stopped speaking it. “The Polish betrayed us,” he said.

He also said nothing about the camps until one day, when Halfon asked him about it. He spoke for six hours, his stories excavated and unearthed through language. There were “60 years of dust on his memories,” Halfon said.

For Halfon, an engineer, his grandfather’s story was a portal into Judaism, which he had pushed away. Halfon found that writing about his grandfather’s experience brought him unexpectedly closer to Judaism. It became the “entryway” to access his family story.

Halfon’s parents saw his resistance to Judaism as rebellion, but for Halfon it was about not wanting to claim what had been simply handed to him, passed down through generations, painted onto his genetic makeup. “If I wanted it back, it had to be by choice,” he said. “I had to find it on my own.”

“I’m working my way back through story, through my grandfathers. They are guiding me back slowly to that part of me I’ve been pushing away for so long. The only thing I’m interested in is story,” he said.

But story is all there is. That is what it means to be Jewish — to carry the stories of our mothers and fathers along with us, to protect and propel them into the future. Story and language are critical not just to our identity, but also to our survival.

“Still,” continued Halfon, “I’m resisting Judaism. … I push it away, but I look for it at the same time.”

To push and pull simultaneously — it’s an impulse passed down from biblical patriarchs and matriarchs who were pushed and pulled in different directions, whose internal struggles were no less intense than wars waged on battlefields.

As much as Halfon admits to being pushed away from Judaism, it is story that pulls him back and language that keeps him tethered to his identity. Story is always evolving. “My grandfather’s story keeps growing as I grow,” he said.

“My grandfathers are guiding me back slowly to that part of me I’ve been pushing away for so long. The only thing I’m interested in is story.” — Eduard Halfon

And isn’t this the way of Torah and the layers of commentary surrounding it? The Mishnah and later the Gemara prove our understanding that there’s more to every story. Halfon’s admission that each time he approaches his grandfather’s story he discovers more is the Jewish way of seeing story, of turning it and turning it to find everything within it.

Another scholar, David Patterson, recalled a midrash on Joseph, in which Pharaoh says: “I will see if you have wisdom, if you know the 70 languages of the nations.” It was knowing all these languages plus one more that saved Joseph’s life — while Pharaoh didn’t know Hebrew, Joseph did.

And it occurs to me: Maybe story is a language, and maybe Jews have known this all along. Yes, I think to myself, story will save us.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published in December.

Allegations of cow tongue price fixing troubles Persian Jews

A local rabbi is using his Facebook page to urge the Jewish community to boycott several local kosher supermarkets, alleging they and their suppliers are involved in a “scheme of price fixing” over the cost of kosher fish and meat, including cow tongue.

In a Sept. 14 post, Rabbi Netanel Louie, founder and director of Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills, said the recent price of kosher cow tongue “has exceeded a ridiculous $20 per pound in certain stores.” Louie also called for Los Angeles rabbis and local Jews to “boycott buying meat from all kosher markets in L.A. until prices drop.”

Most Iranian Jews consume cow tongue as a Rosh Hashanah siman, or sign to be “at the head and not the tail,” according to a passage in Deuteronomy.

Asked if he has verifiable evidence of price fixing, Louie said he knows people who can confirm it but declined to identify them.

Louie did not mention specific stores, but at least two are selling tongue at $19.99 per pound, citing low supply. At Elat Market on Pico Boulevard, a representative of the meat department, who asked not to be identified, said although he understood customer frustration, his distributors “don’t always have the supply. And when they do have it, they usually give it to clients who purchase more of it during the course of the year.”

Cow tongue has sold at lower prices at other times of the year.

A message from our very own Rabbi Louie, to the community: Dear members of the community, I am personally writing to…

Posted by Hebrew Discovery Center on Thursday, September 14, 2017

Glatt Mart, also on Pico, claims to have lowered the costs of beef and chicken to make products more affordable during the Jewish High Holy Days. Elat Market says it has done the same.

Representatives from both stores offered to make their recent invoices of tongue purchases from suppliers available to the public to demonstrate that they have not engaged in price fixing.

Meir Davidpour, a partner at Glatt Mart, called Louie’s allegations “false” and said they could be challenged “in a legal manner.”

Glatt Mart co-partner Aaron Nourollah said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cut imports from what they claim to be “any inside parts of the animal, such as tongue, liver, and brain,” particularly from Uruguay and Costa Rica. One of Glatt Mart’s primary meat suppliers, a company that asked not to be identified, also claimed that there is a “major shortage” of cow tongue available this year.

USDA import-export representatives could not be reached for comment.

Drew Alyeshmerni Leach, 32, a resident of San Pedro who runs an educational nonprofit, said she drove three hours round-trip last week to the Pico-Robertson area to purchase Glatt kosher cow tongue for Rosh Hashanah. An Iranian married to an Ashkenazi Jew, she said she enjoys sharing Persian-Jewish customs with her husband and his family.

“When I took the tongue off the shelf, my heart sunk — the tongues were priced at $40 to $50 [whole] or even more! Performing a mitzvah shouldn’t have to be a luxury,” she said. Instead of tongue, Alyeshmerni Leach bought a package of turkey necks for $6.

“We are hosting our very first Rosh Hashanah as a married couple and I’m sad that because of the high price, I won’t be able to continue this Persian tradition with my husband as we build our new home together,” she said.

Eman Esmailzadeh, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Westwood, said he has decided to adopt the Ashkenazi custom of displaying a fish head at his family’s Rosh Hashanah table this year.

“To my dismay, there are many that take Rabbi Louie’s claims of price fixing as another reason to bash kashrut altogether. The fact is that if you truly want to be kosher, you could keep kosher without ever buying a pound of meat,” he said. ​

Louie and representatives from Elat Market and Glatt Mart are expressing concern that the controversy will deter many Jews from adhering to kosher meat standards.

“When I took the tongue off the shelf, my heart sunk — the tongues were priced at $40 to $50 [whole] or even more! Performing a mitzvah shouldn’t have to be a luxury.”

“Such shameful actions over greed for money are examples of what perpetuate the community to wrongly criticize Judaism and in some cases even stop eating kosher,” Louie said on Facebook, adding in an interview, “It has to be very clear to the community that in no shape or form does boycotting kosher meat mean that they are encouraged or allowed to purchase nonkosher meat. All it means is do not eat meat for a short amount of time till the industry feels the pain and regulates itself.”

At Glatt Mart, Nourollah says that rather than high prices, accusations of corruption such as those by Louie are deterrents that turn people away from kosher practice.

Louie, who says he has received “99.99 percent positive feedback” for his call to boycott, is open to speaking with both markets and distributors. He would, however, like the supermarkets and distributors to agree “to an open audit of their books.”

He also is passionate about reminding Iranian Jews that enjoying cow tongue on Rosh Hashanah is only a custom and not a formal halachah, or Jewish law.

“I must inform the community that there is no halachic obligation, neither from the Torah or the Rabbis, to eat cow tongue on Rosh Hashanah,” according to his Facebook statement. Louie has encouraged Iranian Jews to display fish heads, instead. “If you can’t afford it [tongue], don’t buy it.”

Sam Yebri, a 36-year-old attorney from Westwood and board member of Builders of Jewish Education and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, also has joined the boycott.

“To me, the issue is not about allegations of price fixing, price gouging or supply-and-demand economics, and it certainly goes beyond cow’s tongue,” Yebri said. “I am hopeful that this debate reflects a tipping point for the Jewish community. The crisis of affordability of Jewish life is real and is as serious a threat to the future of American Jewry as any our people face, anti-Semitism and assimilation included.”

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

There’s an old joke that underscores our almost impish impulse for our streams of Judaism to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two  places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have been reciting it for my father who died last December. In some synagogues, only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each procedure. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, like a scarlet “M” has sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes my feelings or minimizes them as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention, of course, is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, as a rabbi I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually say the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it! Everyone recites, but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. She has recently authored a second book, Curiosity Seekers which is gentle science fiction about an endearing couple in the near future (Paperback or Kindle).

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Study finds more than half of young Jews have ‘no religion’

Photo from Wikipedia

A new survey examining the religion of Americans shows a growth in the number of Jews of no religion, compared to findings of the PEW survey of American Jews from four years ago. It also shows that the numbers of Jews claiming to be Reform and Conservative are declining while the number of those who identify with no denomination is on the rise.

The PRRI survey found that among the 2.3 percent of Americans who identify as Jews, about a third are “cultural Jews.” The study found that among those under age 30, fewer than half, 47 percent, identified as religiously Jewish while 53 percent are Jews of no religion (which this study calls “cultural Jews”).

The main part of the study deals with the general state of religion in America, naturally focusing on changes concerning Christian America. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., the study tells us, “now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country.” Moreover, “fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.”

What follows is an attempt to explain some of the data concerning the Jewish community and the possible implications of it.

1.

The most dramatic finding of this study concerns the “Jews of no religion,” as PEW’s study, Portrait of Jewish Americans, referred to them in 2013.

PEW reported that 22 percent of all Jews are such people of “no religion.” Namely, Jews who do not respond to the question — What is your religion? — by saying Jewish, but do indicate in a follow-up question that they are Jewish in some other way.

The PRRI study indicates that the number of such Jews is rapidly growing. It calls these Jews “cultural Jews” and explains that 1.5 percent of Americans “identify as Jewish when responding to a question about their religious affiliation.” An additional 0.8 percent of Americans “identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish.” So about a third of all Jews are cultural Jews.

“Cultural Jews” are the PRRI study’s version of “Jews by no religion” from the PEW study. “To identify culturally affiliated Jews,” the PRRI study explains, “we asked all respondents who claimed no formal religious affiliation the following question: ‘Do you consider yourself to be Jewish for any reason?’ Any respondent who said ‘yes’ or ‘half’ was classified as culturally Jewish.” This methodology is practically identical to the one used by PEW to identify “Jews by no religion.”

So according to PRRI, about a third of all American Jews are people who have no specific answer when asked about their religion. What does this mean? A paper I wrote for JPPI a while ago argued that calling these Jews “cultural Jews” would be a wrong choice: “Jews ‘not by religion’ are not ‘cultural’ Jews, they are disconnected Jews,” I wrote, based on the clear-cut data from PEW.

Here is more from what I wrote three years ago:

There can be no doubt that the data point to the possibility that about a quarter of American Jews will find it much harder to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation (and the one after that). Those who reacted to the Pew survey have taken care — and rightly so — to emphasize that there are many exceptions in the Jewish story and that among “Jews not by religion,” too, there are those strongly committed to the Jewish people. The statistical picture, though, does not change because of anecdotal exceptions. The value of a comprehensive quantitative study is precisely that it allows us to adapt policy to large groups.

What changed from PEW to PRRI? I assume nothing much, except that now it is not “a quarter” of all American Jews — it is a third.

1a.

Or maybe something else changed.

Prof. Uzi Rebhun noted that according to PRRI the share of Jews in the U.S. slightly increased, from 2.2 percent (PEW) to 2.3 percent. So it is true that the share of Jews not by religion among the total Jewish population increased, according to PRRI, but so did the total number of (adult) Jews in the country (a 0.1 percent increase is equivalent to an absolute growth of some 250,000 people over a period of only three years).

Hence, we can make another assumption by way of interpreting the data: some Jews are, indeed, becoming less connected (cultural Jews), but at the same time there are also people who avoided identifying themselves as Jews in the past and now feel a need to identify as such and connect themselves, albeit weakly, to the Jewish people.

2.

The change is clear when PRRI examines the differences between age groups. “Among Jews under the age of 30, fewer than half (47 percent) identify as religiously Jewish, while a majority (53 percent) identify as culturally Jewish. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of Jewish seniors (age 65 or older) are religiously Jewish, while 22 percent identify as culturally Jewish.”

To understand what this means, I will refer you to another JPPI study, by my colleague Shlomo Fischer. When we spoke yesterday, Fischer reargued his case: this change reflects a change in what Jewishness means in America. For many Americans, it is no longer a defining feature of identity — it is an anecdotal fact of which they are proud (as the PEW study proved), but not much more than that.

“Jews of no religion,” he wrote, “accept their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture.”

What changed? In the PEW study, Millennial Jews (born after 1980) of no religion were 32 percent. In the PRRI study, Jews of no religion under 30 are 53 percent. So nothing changed, except the even higher numbers. These numbers present the organized Jewish community with a challenge of abandonment that is not even close to being resolved.

3.

Denominational belonging of the Jews is always a topic of discussion, and the new study presents us with a question. Its denominational portrait is significantly different from the one presented four years ago by the PEW Research Center. The main question we need to ask as we look at the numbers is as follows: is this a result of a different survey methodology and articulation of questions — or the result of rapid changes in the community (of course, the same question should also be asked about Jews of no religion).

If the latter is the correct answer — if what we see here is rapid change — there are more worrying signs in this study for the two main Jewish progressive movements, Reform and Conservative. Reform Judaism still tops all other denominations in numbers, but the gap is shrinking. Seven points down in four years is significant. Conservative Judaism is also continuing to shrink. It is now not much larger than Orthodox Judaism.

4.

When we look at denominational questions, age is again the key to understanding the trends. To make it easy, here is a table of how Jews older than 65 define themselves and how Jews aged 18 to 29 define themselves. Note how among young Jews the Orthodox group has already surpassed the Conservative group and is getting close to the Reform group. Also note that close to half of all younger Jews do not belong to any denomination.

“Jewish seniors are about 10 times as likely to identify as Reform as they are to identify as Orthodox (35 percent  vs. 3 percent, respectively).” Among Jewish youngsters, the difference is just 5 percent. Three Orthodox for every four Reform.

Where is this going? Easy: “More than six in ten (62 percent) Orthodox Jewish parents say they have at least three children living in their household, compared to 17 percent of Jewish parents who identify as Reform who say the same.”

5.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100,000 Americans. Most of them are not Jewish. But changes among them will have a huge impact on America, and hence on Jewish America — and also on Israel. One such important change is the decline of white evangelist America. “Fewer than one in five (17 percent) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) in 2006.”

This group is one of the most supportive of Israel in the U.S. and is considered by some right-wing Israelis to be even more important than the Jews of America when it comes to backing its security and strategic needs.

But as Israel ponders its future relations with America, as it worries about trends concerning American Jews, and about trends concerning the American left, it ought to also consider these larger changes that could reduce the influence of evangelical whites (in the shorter term: 35% of all Republicans, more than a third, identify as white evangelical Protestants).

The left (still) is not our friend

Many progressive Jews are shocked that Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement they support, has turned out to be virulently anti-Israel — to the extent that in its new platform, it charges Israel with “genocide” against Palestinians. Their response calls to mind an event of nearly 50 years ago. 

In 1970, the most famous American classical musician of the 20th century — Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic and a major composer (“West Side Story,” operas, etc.) — along with other men of the left, both black and Jewish, threw what probably became the most notorious private fundraiser in American history at his Manhattan penthouse.

The honored guests were the Black Panthers, an America-hating, police-hating radical Black group, a sort-of predecessor to BLM. In the words of liberal writer Adam Gopnik in the latest issue of The New Yorker, the Panthers were “mindlessly cruel, misogynistic gangsters, capable of acts of torture and murder … ”

Here is how Panther leader “Field Marshall” Don Cox began the evening: 

“We call [the police] pigs. … We recognize that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons and they are ready to use them on the people. … They are ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them.”

Bernstein did not express a word of protest, let alone end the fundraiser, after hearing police labeled “pigs” and America labeled “the most oppressive country in the world.” In fact, Bernstein (who, to make the parallels even sharper, was very pro-Israel) pledged his entire fee for conducting the opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” to the Panthers. Four other prominent Jews — film director Otto Preminger, lyricist Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof”), lyricist and composer Burton Lane (“Finian’s Rainbow”) and renowned art dealer Richard Feigen — then made their pledges.

Prior to the Bernstein event, another Jew in the arts, film director and producer Sidney Lumet, also threw a party for the Black Panthers at his home. 

As New York Magazine reported:

“Ray ‘Masai’ Hewitt, the Panthers’ Minister of Education and member of the Central Committee … laid it on the line. … If buildings were burned and other violence ensued, that was only part of the struggle that the power structure had forced the oppressed minorities into.”

No country in history has treated its Jewish citizens as well as the United States has, yet left-wing Jews have supported almost every left-wing group that depicts America as an oppressor (and as war-mongering, imperialist, systemically racist, etc.).

But this love for the left has never been reciprocated. The left (not traditional liberals, it must be noted) has been Jew-hating (and later, Israel-hating) throughout its history.

Jews adored Karl Marx for well over a century, but that grandson of two Orthodox rabbis wrote one of the most influential anti-Semitic books of the 19th century (“On the Jewish Question”).

Shortly before he died last year, Robert Wistrich, the head of Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, wrote a devastating book on left-wing anti-Semitism (“From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel”).

And one of America’s most prominent liberals, professor Alan Dershowitz, has just written an article titled “Are Jews Who Refuse to Renounce Israel Being Excluded From ‘Progressive’ Groups?”

Professor Dershowitz’s answer is, of course, yes. The “progressive groups” cited in the Dershowitz article have contempt for America — and America-hatred and Israel-hatred always go together.

“Last year,” Dershowitz wrote, “Rabbi Susan Talve, a longtime activist on race issues in the St. Louis area, was told that her advocacy for Israel was incompatible with the objectives of Black Lives Matter: ‘Solidarity from Ferguson to Palestine has become a central tenet of the movement’ she was informed, because ‘Israeli and U.S. state oppression are deeply interconnected.’ 

“Similarly,” Dershowitz noted, “a student who attended a Black Lives Matter rally at Northwestern University last year was told, ‘you support Israel, so you cannot also support us.’ ”

Dershowitz then lists other major left-wing groups that are anti-Israel: 

“MoveOn, CodePink, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter [have] become openly opposed to the nation state of the Jewish people.”

And all these groups are supported by left-wing Jews.

Apparently, these Jews do not know a basic truth of history: An individual or group’s attitude toward Jews — and, today, the Jewish state — is one of the most accurate indicators of its morality.

When a group libels Israel with the charge of genocide, that group is by definition immoral. It is in the same moral category as those medieval Christians who came up with the infamous Blood Libel — the charge that Jews slaughter Christian children to use their blood to bake matzo. The only difference is that there were no Jews then who supported those Christians.


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).

Hebrew word of the week: Yehudi

How did we get from Yehudi to Jew? Originally, the word referred to a member of the tribe of Judah; later, someone from the kingdom of Judah, but in the late books of the Bible, the word takes on the meaning of Jew as we use it today (in Esther 2:5: Mordecai is called ish
yehudi,
“a Jew”; 8:17: yehudim, “Jews,” and mityahadim, “Gentiles professing to be Jews, becoming Jews, probably undergoing a circumcision”).

In European languages, there is the Greek-Latin Ioudaios (h omitted); English first kept the d, Iudea, and later influenced by (ancient) French so that Juiu became Jew (m.); Juiue (f.) became the modern French Juive (f.), derived from Juif (m.); but the d is retained in German, Jude, in Yiddish, Yid, and in Spanish, Judio.

Older English also used Jewess (f.); modern Hebrew: yehudiyyah, “Jewish woman” (noun); yehudit, “Jewish” (f. adj. and proper name, Judith); and idit (תידיא),“Yiddish.” 

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

‘Last Witness’ of Treblinka keeps camp’s memory alive in film, art

Samuel Willenberg, the last known living survivor of the notorious Nazi extermination camp Treblinka is nearing the end of a life's mission to tell of the horrors that he saw there.

Now 92, his remarkable story, featured in a documentary film produced by Miami public TV channel WLRN, is spurring efforts to fulfill that mission by building an educational museum at the camp's site in a remote pine forest in eastern Poland.

“Treblinka's Last Witness,” airing on Tuesday, tells the story of how Willenberg, a Polish Jew, became a forced laborer at Treblinka where his two sisters were among the 900,000 Jews sent to their deaths. He later escaped during a camp revolt, one of barely 100 Jews to survive the place.

A history professor he met in the camp told him: “You're not like other Jews, you have blonde hair, you know how to survive,” Willenberg recalled in an interview during a visit to Miami for a premiere of the film last week before a packed audience, many of them relatives of Holocaust victims.

“You have to run away from this,” the professor told him. “It will be your mission to tell people about what happened here.”

Willenberg, who after World War Two moved to Israel, married and worked for 40 years as a civil servant, has dedicated his retirement to memorializing what happened by creating a series of 15 haunting bronze sculptures, each capturing a scene from the camp, as well as leading educational visits there.

On Tuesday Willenberg will also be a guest of honor alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the opening of the main exhibition at Warsaw's newly built Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a project that sets out to recall not just how Jews in Poland died, but how they lived.

Of Poland's pre-war population of 3.5 million Jews, only a few tens of thousands remain, their place in the nation's history and culture having been largely eradicated.

Only recently has Poland started to re-connect with its role in history as a home for 1,000 years to one of the world's biggest Jewish communities.

LARGELY UNTOUCHED

Polish Jews have also played a major role in American history, with an estimated 80 percent of U.S. Jews able to trace their roots back to ancestors in Poland.

Unlike other Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald, where efforts have been made to educate visitors, the Treblinka site has been left largely untouched after the Nazis demolished it near the end of the war in a desperate effort to cover up their deeds.

All that exists there today are some railroad ties leading up to the remains of a station platform set among large stones.

“It's a very moving place, but there's nothing to tell the story,” said the film's British-born director, Alan Tomlinson.

“I have heard a lot of stories in my career, but no-one has ever told me a story like Samuel's,” Tomlinson, 66, told the audience at the premiere. “And Samuel is such a great story-teller,” he added, crediting Willenberg's lucid passion and vivid memory with providing the film's powerful impact.

Experts say that much more could be done at the current site to help visitors understand the monstrosity of Treblinka. Historians have called it the Nazis' most efficient death camp which, operating like a factory assembly-line, they killed almost 1 million people in barely 13 months in 1942-1943.

“It's an intuitive, emotional understanding that concentrates beautifully the sense of loss, but it's wordless and doesn't articulate what was lost there,” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

“You experience the presence of absence and the absence of presence,” he added. “Treblinka is a place where a crime is not manifest.”

Berenbaum said an anonymous donor has already committed $1 million to the museum project. During his Miami visit Willenberg met with a number of wealthy Polish immigrants who pledged to see the museum built.

“Thanks to Samuel's extraordinary persistence, the project now has real life,” said Tomlinson.

After the film airs on Oct. 28 on WLRN in south Florida, it will be distributed nationally through the PBS network.

Writing by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh

A rare and peaceful ‘Eid Kippur’ in Israel

This year, for the first time since 1981, the Jews’ biggest fast overlapped with one of Islam’s biggest feasts.

The two holy days, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Eid ul-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice, or Eid for short), have polar-opposite energy levels: Eid is about abundance and is celebrated by Muslim Palestinians with a flurry of barbecues, mini Ferris-wheel rides, family reunions and shopping trips.

Jewish Israelis observing Yom Kippur, in contrast, sink into such a deep state of prayer and repentance that even the secular among them don’t dare start an engine or crank a stereo. For one day each year, the Israeli airport shuts down and the nation’s streets empty out; even police vehicles turn off their sirens. 

So, while the world marveled over “Eid Kippur,” as it came to be called, the holiday overlap set off warning bells for leaders of mixed Arab-Jewish towns in Israel.

“All of us were expecting clashes — a very black situation,” said Raies Abu Seif, a 43-year-old criminal attorney and community leader in the central Arab-Jewish city of Ramle.

Conflict wounds were fresh. A devastating 50-day war between Israel and Gaza had ended only one month before, ripping hundreds of families apart. And soon after, just days before the holidays, Israeli and Palestinian heads of state voiced new extremes at the United Nations General Assembly: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the war a “genocide,” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Gaza’s government to ISIS.

Perhaps to compensate — and to avoid violent riots like the ones that hit the northern town of Acre on Yom Kippur 2008 — Jewish and Muslim leaders across Israel launched a vigorous campaign urging tolerance on Eid Kippur.

Palestinian children in Jerusalem’s Old City wait in line for their turn on a mini Ferris wheel set up for the Eid holiday.

On Oct. 2, Israel’s newly anointed President Reuven Rivlin met with Muslim leaders on neutral territory — the majority Christian town of Kafr Yassif. 

“As with any meeting of worlds, the coincidence of these holidays this year has all the ingredients to be a source of friction, just as it offers every reason to be used as an opportunity to repair and make a fresh start,” Rivlin said.

And a few miles away in Acre, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the local sheikh was telling a room full of junior-high school students: “We have a life and a future, but sometimes there is a small minority that waits for the moment to wreck it all. Don’t let them. Don’t let anyone from the Jewish side or the Arab side dirty the beautiful picture of Acre.”

These pleas from the top were apparently heeded on Eid Kippur, when, according to Muslim and Jewish residents who spoke to the Journal, a tragic and tense summer gave way to a remarkably peaceful fall holiday.

Ramle attorney Abu Seif guessed that perhaps the hype was so intense that everyone overcorrected. 

“After a situation of big anxiety — many talks, many meetings, publications on Facebook and all the media asking, ‘How will we overcome this day?’ — it was actually very quiet. I was very surprised,” he said.

In fact, said Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi, “It was better than most days.”

According to Mayor Lavi, the city received zero complaints on Oct. 4 from city residents. From his own home, too, the mayor said he heard “nothing — not a thing. The city was absolutely quiet during Yom Kippur.”

In Ramle, an interfaith council made up of more than 40 community leaders met for several Eid Kippur-themed meetings in the weeks before the big day. 

During these talks, the council’s Muslim members ended up making some key concessions: For the first time ever, three of Ramle’s main streets would be blocked off from traffic, and mosques would be required to turn down their loudspeakers.

Abu Seif also said he knew of many Muslim citizens who made the personal choice to walk, instead of drive, to the mosque for morning prayers. Others, he said, postponed the sacrifice of the lamb — normally performed on the first day of Eid — to the second day.

Some younger Muslim residents were somewhat frustrated about the dampened festivities, Abu Seif said. “Today the younger people have more awareness about their identity, and about their Eid” than on the last holiday overlap circa 1981, he told the Journal. “They know more about their rights.”

But in the end, he said, “They know this happens only once in about 33 years. And they know the importance of Yom Kippur, because their families are living here many, many years.”

According to Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, in all the mixed Arab-Jewish towns across Israel where police deployed extra forces, the only incident on Oct. 4 was a local brawl in Haifa. (“But not necessarily because of the holiday,” he added.)

In Jaffa — the old Arab port town annexed into Tel Aviv in 1948 — a car full of young men sped down a main street on in the afternoon of Oct. 4, music blaring from its open windows. The Orthodox Jews whose prayers drifted from a nearby synagogue, though, didn’t seem to mind. Just a few buildings down, a stream of secular young Israeli Jews ran through the alcohol stock of a corner shop owned by an Israeli-Arab who had doubled his prices for Eid Kippur.

“Eid Kippur: One set of Jaffa neighbors blasting Israeli pop, another has Cheb Khaled on repeat,” journalist Gregg Carlstrom tweeted. “Coexistence through bad music.”

One hour east, within the stone confines of Jerusalem’s historic Old City — where deeply religious residents are packed tightly into four quarters, divided by faith — the day went just as smoothly, Jewish and Muslims residents later told the Journal.

“We stayed on our side, and they stayed on theirs,” said Muslim teenager Basel Jaber. An Ethiopian-Israeli security guard standing near the Western Wall, who did not wish to give his name, confirmed as much.

A couple of days later, on Oct. 6, across the Old City near the exit to the world-famous Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, an elderly man from Gaza with tears in his eyes said he and his wife had just prayed at the golden monument for the first time since they were teenagers. 

“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “I wish my sons and daughters could be here.”

The 75-year-old, who didn’t want to give his name for fear that Israel might deny him a permit to visit the mosque next year, was one of around 1,500 Gaza citizens over the age of 60 allowed into Jerusalem and the West Bank over the three days of Eid. 

On Oct. 6 in Jerusalem, a Muslim woman shopped for Eid ul-Adha while a group of Jewish women carried home palm fronds for the upcoming Sukkot holiday.

This flow of visitors reportedly marks Israel’s most significant ease of its blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Thousands of West Bank residents also were allowed to visit friends and family in Israel during the Eid holiday. One of them, Hamud Abdalla, a 20-something Palestinian tour guide from Bethlehem, said he was granted a three-day pass into Israel with only four days notice. (He said he’d applied for a pass before but wasn’t approved.)

On his first day in Israel, Abdalla took a one-hour shared taxi ride west to Tel Aviv and saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in his life.

“Oh wow, it was so amazing,” he said of the sea. And of the many Jewish people he met at the beach, he said: “They were very open-minded. Everywhere you go, you see happy people. 

Abdalla guessed this ease of restrictions also helped feed the Yom Kippur calm.

Abu Seif, the attorney from Ramle, agreed. “If you release things and people have more movement, there will be more understanding,” he said. “The people will be more at ease, not feeling anger and hatred. Because the more you put people under pressure, the more you find them frustrated, conflicted.”

Understanding the Holocaust: ‘Why the Germans? Why the Jews?’

The Jew-haters among us, as recent headlines out of France and Belgium have reminded us, reach without interruption all the way back to antiquity. Still, the worst-case scenario of genocide in general and the mass murder of Jews in particular is what happened during the Shoah. And still the reason Nazi Germany tried to exterminate the Jews of Europe (and nearly succeeded in doing so) remains one of the afflicting questions of Jewish history.

A whole literature has accumulated since the end of World War II in the effort to answer the question bluntly posed in the title “Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust,” a 2011 book by German journalist and historian Götz Aly (” target=”_blank”>Basic Books) and historian Alon Confino in “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination From Persecution to Genocide” (

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Six million reasons I don’t like the new Holocaust book

I admit it. I dropped the ball on the story about the new remember-the-Holocaust-by-printing-the-word-Jew-six-million-times book. I saw it sitting in a veteran Jewish journalist’s office a week ago, but forgot to bring it up to my fellow JTA editors.

And then I look at the front page of the Times on Sunday and there it is.

The truth is, when I first looked through it, I couldn’t get past wondering about the copy editor. Did he/she have the easiest or hardest job in the world?

But thinking about it more later, the project rubbed me the wrong way. And my uneasiness only increased after reading the author — maybe creator is the better word — explain the project to the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren.

“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be something of a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.

“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” Mr. Chernofsky continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”

I have no major quibble with seeing this book as a testament to how Nazis looked at the Jews. But for the same reason that it might work on that level, it strikes me as a terrible form of memorialization, especially since most of Hitler’s Jewish victims are not nameless.

Rudoren’s story went right to my next thought — Yad Vashem and it database of victims:

While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 1/2 feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”

Clearly this project works for some folks. According to the Times, the ADL’s Abe Foxman lined up a few donors to buy 3,000 copies to send around.

“When he brought me this book I said, ‘Wow, wow, it makes it so real,’” Foxman reportedly said. “It’s haunting.” (OK, I’m a little hurt about not being on Abe’s comp list, but I promise that has nothing to do with this post.)

But still, I just don’t see it. The Nazis may have indeed murdered our people en masse, but that’s no reason for us to play along. We have 4.3 million actual names. I’d rather see them put in a book and have people ruminate on that.

Santa, the Easter bunny and raising a Jewish child

Last spring, I found myself averting my eyes when my 4-year-old mentioned something about the Easter bunny in front of my dad.

We were at my parents’ home in Michigan for Passover and my son said, “When I get back to Brooklyn, the Easter bunny is going to bring me a basket!”

I didn’t want to see the look on my dad’s face or hear him mutter under his breath.

Although my son is being raised as a Jew, he celebrates Christmas and Easter with his non-Jewish father, my ex. I know it bothers my dad to hear his grandson talk about these Christian icons. It bothers me, too.

During our four-year courtship prior to becoming engaged, my then-boyfriend and I came to an agreement about the religious upbringing of our future children. After taking two classes on Jewish culture and an interfaith couple’s workshop at the JCC, we agreed that our children would be raised according to Jewish tradition but could celebrate Christian holidays — in a secular way — with their non-Jewish grandparents. But after my husband and I separated and eventually divorced, some of the prenuptial agreements we made surrounding our interfaith family were no longer heeded.

Before our separation, my husband had begrudgingly agreed not to have a Christmas tree in our home. But since our separation, he has had a tree every winter. That means Santa doesn’t just bring gifts to my son’s grandparents’ homes in Seattle, but to his father’s home in Brooklyn, too.

I understand and respect that it is my ex’s right to observe his family’s traditions. I know he wants to share the holiday experiences he loved as a kid with our son, and that includes having the decorations and believing in the harmless characters associated with the holidays. But I struggle with it nonetheless.

Our son attends a Jewish preschool and has all kinds of children in his class – some with two Jewish parents, some from interfaith homes and others who are not Jewish at all. He already knows that families have their own ways of observing the holidays, and that you can be Jewish and still celebrate non-Jewish holidays with some of your family and friends.

Last December he rambled on and on about what Santa was going to bring him for Christmas. I was tempted to remind him that he is Jewish and explain that Jews don’t believe in Santa. But I went along with it because I didn’t want to burst his Christmas bubble.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to accept that our child won’t be raised according to the terms that my ex-husband and I had agreed upon before we married. And somehow I feel threatened that inserting these Christian traditions into my son’s home life will dilute his Jewish identity, even though I know a Christmas elf can’t come and stomp out thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

When April came around and my son informed me, “If I’m a good boy, the Easter bunny will bring me a basket of treats!” I decided not just to corroborate the Easter bunny’s existence but use him as a disciplinary tactic.

When my son began misbehaving, I said, “If you don’t act nicely, the Easter bunny may not bring you a basket!” But the tack didn’t feel right either.

Recently, I have been wondering whether my son could really understand what a character is. When we were watching “Shrek,” I decided to ask him.

“Is Shrek real?”

“No, Mommy!” he answered with an eye roll. “Shrek is a character!”

“Oh! Like Santa Claus?” I asked.

“No, Mommy! Santa Claus is real!”

“How do you know he’s real?” I said.

“Because he brings me presents!”

Do I break it to him that a fat bearded man will not actually squeeze himself through a chimney (especially considering there are very few chimneys in Brooklyn apartments)? Or do I let him figure it out when he gets a bit older, like he probably would if he were raised by two Christian parents?

And come spring, do I tell him that no giant Harvey-sized rabbit is going to show up with a basket full of treats, but that his grandmother will carefully pick out the treats in Seattle, put them in a priority mailbox and ship them to Brooklyn?

For the time being, I figure I’ll leave it alone, and age will take care of it.

I believe we will provide our son with a strong enough Jewish identity that these Christmas and Easter icons will not threaten his understanding of who he is. But ask me again later this month. I may change my mind.

(Annette Powers is a marketing and communications professional. In her free time, she writes about a variety of topics from co-parenting to Yom Kippur to compulsive texting.)

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.

Thanksgivukkah, Emma Lazarus & the Maccabees: Embracing our dual identity

There is something much deeper to “Thanksgivukkah” than sweet potato latkes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the blessing of our dual identity as Americans and Jews.

In 1883, the Jewish-Sephardic-American poet Emma Lazarus was invited to write a poem for a literary auction whose proceeds would go towards building a pedestal for what came to be known as “The Statue of Liberty.” Lazarus’ entry, titled The New Colossus, was eventually (in 1903) inscribed on a bronze tablet inside the Statue of Liberty for all to read. Its message about America, written by a Jew, captures the essence of what it means to be an American Jew:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Recasting the classical Greek Colossus (a representation of the pagan sun god) as “The Mother of Exiles,” Emma Lazarus turned the Statue of Liberty into an American version of a Jewish-Biblical matriarch standing at the door of her home, welcoming all those who yearn for freedom and shelter. No longer interested in the “storied pomp” of ancient empires, this matriarch seeks to house and assist the world’s “tired and poor” who “yearn to breathe free.” Replacing the Greek sun god – the conqueror of the world – Lazarus’ “Mother of Exiles” is now the nurturing and comforting symbol that welcomes newcomers to a new and unique world: the world of American democracy.

It is not by chance that an American Jew of Sephardic background would author a poem invoking the motifs of “exile and homecoming.” Well versed in her people’s long history of exile and persecution, Emma Lazarus fully understood what a privilege it is for Jews to live in the United States, the safe haven where they enjoy the blessings of American democracy. Lazarus expressed this in another powerful poem she wrote titled “1492”:

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

For Emma Lazarus – an American Jew of Sephardic descent — the “two-faced year” of 1492 held a double-edged irony. In 1492, after a long, bloody and brutal inquisition, the Spanish Jews were forcibly expelled from Spain, “when Spain cast forth with flaming sword the children of the prophets of the Lord.” In that same year – 1492 — Christopher Columbus discovered America (and later, in 1654, the first Jews to come to America were Spanish & Portugese Sephardic Jews, Emma Lazarus’s own direct ancestors).  In this poem, Lazarus also evokes the motif of America as a safe place of refuge – “Ho, all who weary, enter here.” This theme resonated deeply with Emma Lazarus, a descendant of a weary and persecuted Jewish people who found a safe haven of freedom and protection in America. So, too, it should resonate with all American Jews, on Thanksgiving, and every day of our blessed lives in this great country.

Over 2500 years ago, facing persecution and oppression, a small band of freedom fighters overcame all the odds against them and defeated an army much more powerful than them. They stood up to injustice and were willing to fight for the freedom and independence of their people. In his moving description of the story of Judah and the Maccabees, Rabbi J.H. Hertz wrote: “There is nothing finer in the whole history of heroism, or more soul-stirring in the annals of religion, than the account of this handful of Jewish warriors who were prepared to live or die nobly, in order that the light of revealed truth and righteousness be not extinguished in a heathen world.”

The torch of the Maccabees continues to shine brightly today. In Israel – a country founded on the same principles of freedom and democracy as those of America – the modern-day Maccabees of the Israel Defense Forces are taught a powerful ethic during their basic training: Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.

The modern State of Israel also serves as a safe haven of freedom and democracy. Much, much smaller than the United States, and lacking an impressive “Lady of Liberty” welcoming new immigrants, the State of Israel has certainly done its lion’s share of absorbing “the tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” From Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, to the Prisoners of Zion from the former Soviet Union and the Ethiopian Falash Mura, Israel – the tiny Jewish haven of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – has continued to cry out: “Ho, all who weary, enter here!”

American Jews have often felt conflicted by their so-called “dual identity.” On this Thanksgivukkah – a convergence of an American holiday giving thanks for America, and a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom – I have never felt so proud of being an American Jew.


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director at the Sephardic Educational Center.

Conservative Judaism reborn — in Germany

Of late, it’s been depressing to be a Conservative Jew. News of demographic and organizational challenges have fed a frenzy of articles delighting in our imminent demise. Many of the criticisms of Conservative Judaism are rooted in serious and valid concerns. Many of them are criticisms that I’ve made myself for two decades now. But the glee with which some challenging statistics and personal complaints have been proclaimed, while examples of Conservative vitality are ignored or underreported, need some correction.

Two years ago, I received a call from a professor, Rabbi Walter Homolka of the University of Potsdam — Potsdam is the capitol of the State of Brandenburg, near Berlin — informing me that his university, one of the major public centers of learning in central Europe, was interested in creating a new rabbinical school to train Conservative/Masorti rabbis to serve the growing communities of Europe. Yes, you heard me right: Both the Progressive communities and the Masorti (Conservative) communities of Europe are growing. But their future growth is limited by the lack of educated leadership who can speak to them in authentically Jewish ways yet also share their embrace of modernity as contemporary Europeans. They need rabbis who share their worldview, engagement and values.

I flew to Germany a year and a half ago, accompanied by the chair of the board of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Melissa Held Bordy, and we conducted intensive conversations with the university about the Ziegler School joining with the University of Potsdam, which would be responsible for the academic part of the education while Ziegler would supervise the religious standards and denominational training for this new generation of leaders.

It would be as though UCLA or USC had offered to fund and maintain a rabbinical school as an expression of its core mission in the heart of its own campus!

Last week, those conversations were rewarded. After a beautiful Shabbat in an egalitarian, intimate and moving service led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, a woman of vast learning and great warmth, at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue (the beautiful gold-domed building recognized as a living symbol of German Jewry), we launched the new rabbinical school: the Zacharias Frankel College. Already we have extraordinary young Europeans applying for our new program.

In an auditorium of this venerable building, hundreds of people — Jews and non-Jews from Germany and all over Europe, educators and academics from the great centers of learning, and members of the German federal and state governments — came together. We spoke of the great Jewish achievements of the past, and of the devastation of the Nazi regime, never to be forgotten. We affirmed that this open, vibrant approach to Jewish life retains the power to restore Jewish vitality across Europe and has much to teach non-Jewish Europeans, too.

Two days later, we gathered on the campus of the University of Potsdam and launched a one-of-a-kind institution, the School of Jewish Theology, which will teach Jewish religious texts and thought in the context of a modern Western university — not huddled in its own seminary or yeshiva, but out in the very apex of public learning. This school will house the two rabbinical programs: Abraham Geiger College (training Reform rabbis) and Zacharias Frankel College (training Masorti/Conservative rabbis). It will also serve hundreds of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who want to benefit from a rigorous engagement with Jewish texts and study.

This double educational miracle embodies the best of Conservative/Masorti vitality — a joyous affirmation that one can be fully Jewish and fully modern, educated in the best of Western scholarship as a way of enhancing the depths of Torah learning, mitzvah observance and robust spirit. 

In fact, there is considerable vitality that Conservative Judaism demonstrates every day, in its hundreds of congregations, day schools, camps Ramah, rabbinical schools, vibrant youth groups and introduction to Judaism programs. That very vitality, coupled with our tradition of intellectual honesty and Jewish passion, is what will save us. 

The evening of the dedication, I gave a short speech, surrounded by German parliamentarians and government ministers, university presidents, ambassadors from several European countries, bishops and imams and rabbis.

I pointed out that after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it took 70 years before Jews began to return to our ancestral home to rebuild what was to become the Second Temple. It took 70 years of mourning, grief and exile before we could begin the work of return.  

It is now approximately 70 years after the Shoah, I said, and the work begins. This time the Federal Republic of Germany, with its magnificent educational system, is the ally of the Jewish people.

The vital response to the modern age — a response that embraces the values of democracy and freedom, that relishes the openness of deep engagement with every branch of human learning, and affirms that Judaism authentically grows to integrate the best insights and new knowledge while retaining faith in sacred learning and passionate observance — this cluster of values has animated Conservative Judaism for hundreds of years, leaving a record of great scholars, great communities and great creativity.

Our task is now to mobilize those considerable strengths and to honestly face the unique challenges of our own time. Based on what I see every day at the Ziegler School — our brilliant faculty, talented lay leadership and our equally magnificent students, and based on the redemptive affirmation I witnessed in Germany, I want to share this news from the rooftops:

We’re not dead yet.


Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union.

On Emil Jacoby’s 90th birthday, a tribute to a life well lived

In late March 1945, a young Czech Jew hiding in Budapest organized a Passover service for escapees from the Nazis and for those working in the rescue efforts. Most of the people who gathered that day had worked and lived together in hiding. When a stranger appeared, the young Czech organizer decided to honor him by asking that he recite the haftarah, a chapter that told the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

As this young Czech listened to the man chant, he was taken by the sense that the ancient words were speaking directly to him. And it was in that moment that he decided to dedicate his life to making dry bones live again, to ensuring the continuation and renewal of the Jewish people. He promised himself that, if he survived, his job would be to help transmit the tradition, to help his community remain Jewish and to attempt to inspire others also to serve klal Yisra’el.

Thus began the career of Emil Jacoby, a career that lasted well over half a century and that has touched the lives of thousands of children and families in Los Angeles.

Many articles could be written about Emil Jacoby. Between the two of us, one could describe what it is like to be his son and to learn so many life lessons from him. One could write about Emil Jacoby, the mentor, supervisor, colleague and friend. We choose to focus on him as a model and inspiration. 

We will call him by a name that neither of us often use, but by which many of his closest friends and relatives have known him: Uzi. Short for Uziel (God is my strength), it is the name he acquired as a Zionist activist during and immediately after World War II.

Love what you live. Love what you do.

Throughout his career, Uzi was motivated by the experiences of his youth, which instilled in him a love of Judaism and a respect for community. Uzi’s mother lived by the principle of hiddur mitzvah, delighting in each mitzvah; she brought beauty and the joy of living into the family’s home and taught her family to appreciate the value of Jewish life. Indeed, hiddur mitzvah is an apt description of the experience that anyone fortunate enough to grow up in Uzi’s home, to go with him to Camp Ramah or join him at his synagogue, Adat Ari El, would have encountered.

Keep an open mind. Respect differences. Respect the past. Honor the present.

Uzi’s father was the secretary of the entire kehillah (congregation) of his hometown of Cop, in Czechoslovakia, trusted by the entire community — from Chasidim to liberal Jews. This is where Uzi learned the value of the klal, of the totality of the Jewish community, above and beyond any differences among individuals.  

Perhaps more than any other quality, respect for pluralism and diversity characterized Uzi’s tenure as a leader for decades at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. This respect, in turn, was complemented by an insistence on open-mindedness, a value Uzi internalized in his teen years, when his studies included both classical Jewish texts and the insights of Haskalah (enlightenment). After enrolling first in a traditional yeshiva, Uzi later transferred to the Hebrew Gymnasium, a Jewish school that included secular subjects — Latin and English — alongside Jewish history, Hebrew literature and Tanach. The Gymnasium’s expanded curriculum offered the foundation for the greatest joys of his intellectual life. His teachers there were powerful role models of Jewish commitment, leadership and caring, the model for what Uzi would become for hundreds of his own students in Los Angeles.

Don’t just survive. Rescue. Build.

After the liberation, Uzi used his background and skills to create educational programs needed for the young Jews returning from concentration camps and years of hiding. In the years immediately following the end of the war, he trained counselors and teachers, published books, organized a regional school and conducted summer camps. This experience strengthened his resolve to continue to serve as a Jewish educator.  

In about 1950, Uzi immigrated to New York, where he was a teacher, even as he also studied to advance his own formal education. He was also reunited with his fiancée, Erika, who had come to the United States via Cuba — but that’s another story.

By the time Uzi arrived in Los Angeles, in 1953, he’d had abundant training and experience, and he set out to develop one of the premier Conservative congregational schools in the United States. From 1953 until 1976, under his leadership, the school at Adat Ari El (then known as Valley Jewish Community Center) grew from 200 students to 1,500, and it earned a well-deserved reputation for excellence. At the heart of this success was Uzi’s effectiveness in nurturing other educators and developing an esprit de corps among his staff. Well before the notion of “family education” entered the lexicon of Jewish education, Uzi implemented a vast array of family and intergenerational programs.

Even as he built a model school, Uzi took on two other assignments of critical importance to Jewish education. First, he became director of education at Camp Ramah in California, where he helped build a camp program that nurtured an entire generation of rabbinic and lay leadership. At the same time, he was appointed to the faculty of Jewish education at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University). There, through the 1960s and ’70s, he raised up a cadre of educators who continue to serve with distinction in communities throughout North America.

In 1976, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) turned to Uzi to serve as its associate director. In that capacity, he called upon all of his remarkable skills and experiences in providing educational support to a community network of more than 150 schools serving 30,000 students. By 1982, his vast knowledge and unique background, his ability to work with professional colleagues and lay leaders, and his intimate familiarity with the Los Angeles Jewish community made him the appropriate choice for appointment as executive director of the Los Angeles BJE.

During a decade of service as CEO of the second-largest BJE in the nation, Uzi built a harmonious and productive community of educators, spanning all school types and ideologies. He mentored dozens of emerging Jewish educational leaders. He fostered outstanding inter-agency cooperation, and developed an active and supportive board of directors. 

In 1993, after 40 years of educational leadership in Los Angeles, Uzi turned his prodigious energy to an ambitious BJE initiative: the development and implementation of an accreditation process for all school types — including early childhood centers, day schools/yeshivot and congregational (part-time) religious schools.

Characteristically, Uzi worked skillfully in partnership with school-based educators, consultants from outside school systems, accreditation commissions and colleagues to devise approaches to self-study and external review that would help L.A. schools think about desired outcomes and strategies for getting “from here to there.” BJE’s school accreditation program — which Uzi coordinated for 15 years — became a national model. It helped schools reimagine curriculum and instruction to more effectively meet learners’ needs.

In 2008, Uzi and his wife, Erika, joined 136 L.A. teens, as well as staff and other survivors, on the BJE March of the Living. They shared with the high school seniors their experiences of adolescence and young adulthood — telling them of a very different reality. Erika, a survivor of Auschwitz, marked her 80th birthday by returning to that location, recounting there what it was like to be a 16-year-old in the death camp. Uzi shared the experiences of those outside the camps who were active with rescue efforts.

Uzi continued to serve until he finally retired at age 85 from his professional work at BJE. His leadership continues today to inform BJE’s mission, and to impact the lives of children and families of multiple generations. Uzi has surely helped bring renewed vitality — fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision — to Jewish life worldwide in the generations after the Holocaust. 

As he turns 90 this week, on Nov. 30, his family, friends, admirers, students and younger colleagues join together in saying: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu — how happy and fortunate are we to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration of Dr. Emil “Uzi” Jacoby, a model Jewish educator.


Jonathan Jacoby is senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Dr. Gil Graff is executive director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

Tigers summon the tribe, swap Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler

Detroit is bringing in the Jews.

A couple of weeks after hiring Brad Ausmus as manager, the Tigers on Wednesday traded for Ian Kinsler, previously of the Texas Rangers, to play second base. The cost for the Jewish infielder, a three-time American League All-Star: mega-salaried first baseman Prince Fielder and a cool $30 million. Lucky the bankrupt city doesn’t have to ante up.

Kinsler, 31, brings a sound bat and glove to help Ausmus, who managed the Israeli squad that came up short in its bid for the World Baseball Classic, in his MLB debut. The eight-year veteran averages 24 home runs and 82 runs batted in a season and has a lifetime batting average of .273. Last season he batted .277 with 13 homers and 72 RBIs.

Ausmus and now Kinsler are part of an organization that had probably the greatest Jewish hitter in history (take that Ryan Braun): Hank Greenberg, a one-time MVP who famously skipped a Yom Kippur game in 1934 despite the pennant implications for the Tigers.

And you thought the Cleveland Indians were the Tribe.

Watch: Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Zach Braff in ‘Tar’ trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure, the trailer for the indie film “Tar,” or as we like to call it, a film featuring a supremely high ratio of Jews.

There’s the sexy Mila Kunis, the highly roast-able James Franco, and the quintessential Kickstartering Jersey boy next door, Zach Braff. On the highbrow end of the spectrum, the film tells the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, author of “Jew on Bridge.”

“Tar,” which also stars Jessica Chastain and Bruce Campbell, was written and directed by 12 New York University film students and premiered last year at the Rome Film Festival.

Paris Jew’s reburial in Israel ends legal battle

A Jewish celebrity art dealer who died in 1870 in France was reburied in Israel after his body was exhumed from his Paris grave due to property laws.

The funeral for Jacob Giacomo Tedesco on Sunday in Beit Shemesh marked the end of a seven-year legal fight led by his relatives to receive his remains for reburial. Authorities exhumed his body under a French law that allows graves to be emptied 99 years after a burial.

Tedesco’s great-great-granddaughter discovered in 2006 that his remains had been exhumed from his grave in the Montpar­nasse Cemetery and placed at the Pere Lachaise depository.

“I found it had simply disappeared,” Debby Lifchitz, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel, was quoted as telling the Le Figaro newspaper of Tedesco’s grave.

The family then launched the legal battle to have his remains transferred to Israel, “where he would have an eternal resting place,” she was quoted as saying.

Tedesco, the owner of a major art gallery, also opened the first kosher butcher shop in Paris, founded an Orthodox synagogue and built a ritual bath that remained active until World War II.

Orthodox Jewish laws dictate Jewish graves be left undisturbed, except for unusual cases.

In 2011, France passed a law that allows authorities to cremate human remains they exhumed — a practice that also goes against Jewish customs.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, who attended Tedesco’s funeral in Israel, told the Israeli news site Ynet that the French laws on cremation and exhumation should be changed, as they “threaten to desecrate the dignity of the dead.”

Breslow’s bad night, and a save for a Cardinal with a Jew-y name

The St. Louis Cardinals tied up the World Series with Thursday night’s 4-2 win over Boston. The save went to Trevor Rosenthal.

Regrettably, unlike A.M., Lefty, Hannah and the NFL’s Mike Rosenthal, the Cardinals’ Rosenthal is not a Jew. But the reliever is sometimes mistaken for one, as ESPN reported earlier this year:

…he has to deal with the occasional mis-impression about his religious identification. Contrary to what numerous fans and bloggers might think, he is not Jewish.

“Every once in a while, someone will ask me about it,” Rosenthal says. “My dad is an attorney, and he gets invited to bar mitzvahs all the time.”

That means the tribe is left with Craig Breslow, the Yale-educated Red Sox relief pitcher (whom JTA profiled earlier this week). Alas, Breslow had a really rough night, with an unfortunate throwing error that gave the Cardinals the lead.

Watch the footage here.

Judea Pearl reaches out to young Jews

“I look at young Jewish boys as the army of the future, the elite force of the army of decency.”

With these strong words, Judea Pearl — activist, scholar and father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — used an Oct. 17 lecture to a group of Millennials to emphasize how important it is that proud Jews be a force of good in the world.

“This is what I feel about them, and that is what I want them to feel about themselves,” Pearl said.

He appeared before a group of about 30 people as part of an event organized by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) regional chapter of ACCESS, the young professionals initiative of the global Jewish advocacy organization that trains professionals in their 20s and 30s to represent AJC on the local, national and international levels. 

It took place in the Encino home of philanthropists Richard and Marcia Volpert, and drew ACCESS members who work in law, medicine, government relations and other fields. It was open to the public, but offered at a discount to ACCESS members. 

The talk on young American Jewry could be considered commentary on the recent and much-publicized study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Released last month, the report showed Jewish affiliation, particularly among young Jews, on the decline.

Without mentioning the study by name, Pearl, a UCLA professor emeritus and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, suggested that the way one achieves Jewish pride is by absorbing the history of the Jewish people and by placing Israel at the center of identity.

“By saying we are proud of the story, we are building the future together in the same shape, same mold,” he said during remarks that lasted about one hour and included a
Q-and-A.

Cole Ettman, one of the evening’s attendees, agreed that the history of the Jewish people — which spans thousands of years, from times living in disparate tribes to modern society with Jews acting as leaders in art, science, business and technology — can be an effective bait to grab the attention of the unaffiliated.

An ACCESS member who works as chief operating officer of the law firm Levine and Blit, Ettman used his soapbox during the Q-and-A to suggest that Pearl’s philosophy should be embraced by larger outreach efforts. While other organizations may promote Judaism by getting young Jews to wrap tefillin or keep Shabbat, identifying with the Jewish story is what’s essential, he suggested.

“You’ve got the right path, and it is enough,” Ettman said.

Pearl’s appearance followed a brief rendition of Bach’s “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor,” performed by 20-year-old violinist Stephen Tavani — the event doubled as one of the many concerts taking place worldwide this month as part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days. 

An initiative of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, World Music Days is an international network of live music performances during the month of Daniel Pearl’s birthday. This is the 12th consecutive year of concerts to honor Pearl and his love of music.

Founded by Daniel Pearl’s family and friends, the Daniel Pearl Foundation is a nonprofit that works for peace by supporting programs and fellowships around music, journalism and cross-cultural dialogue.

Goy until proven Jewish

“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

Pope warns of anti-Semitism as Rome commemorates Holocaust victims

Pope Francis urged vigilance against any resurgence of anti-Semitism ahead of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Rome’s Jews to Auschwitz.

Pope Francis made the warning Friday during a meeting at the Vatican with Italian Jewish leaders, including Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.

Commemoration of the 1943 deportation, he said, “will also be an occasion to recall the importance of remaining vigilant in order that we do not regress, under any pretext, to any forms of intolerance and anti-Semitism, in Rome and in the rest of the world.”

More than 1,000 Roman Jews were deported by Nazi occupiers on Oct. 16, 1943; only 16 survived.

Noting that Jews had lived in Rome for more than 2,000 years, the pope said that this history “as we well know” was “often marred by misunderstandings and real injustice.” However, he added, “by now this history includes, with the help of God, many decades of the development of friendly and brotherly relations.”

Francis also indirectly responded to criticism of wartime Pope Pius XII by noting that many Catholic religious institutions helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Critics say Pius turned a blind eye to the persecution of Jews during the Shoah.

The pope said he hoped to contribute “to that nearness and friendship” in the way that he had with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, where he had been cardinal.

He added, “It is a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic. His roots are in part Jewish. A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic! May anti-Semitism be banished from the heart and the life of every man and woman!”

Francis also paid tribute to Christians who aided Jews during the Holocaust. “We know that many religious institutions, monasteries and indeed the Papal Basilicas, in accordance with the wishes of the Pope, opened their doors to provide a fraternal welcome, and that Christians offered the assistance, great or small, that they were able to give.”

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.

‘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.

Women of the Wall agrees to pray in egalitarian space, with conditions

Women of the Wall agreed in principle to pray in a new egalitarian space adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza, provided the space meets several conditions regarding design and management.

Until those conditions are met, Women of the Wall said in a statement Monday that it will continue praying at the women’s section of the Western Wall, as the group has for 25 years.

Before now, though, the group had said a new egalitarian section of the wall would not be “relevant” to its needs.

Monday’s policy change brings Women of the Wall in line with other non-Orthodox groups in Israel, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, which saw the new section as an answer to their requests for pluralism at the holy site. Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the change “a very positive step.”

The egalitarian section, to be located in an area adjacent to the plaza known as Robinson’s Arch, was first proposed in April as part of a plan by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky to resolve religious conflict at the wall. Sharansky, along with Knesset Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit, is due to release the full plan in the coming weeks.

Women of the Wall meets at the beginning of each Jewish month for a women’s service at the Western Wall. Its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, told JTA that the policy change will give Women of the Wall more influence over how the new section is designed.

“For an organization that’s always been small and very dedicated, we are now going to become players at the political table, which means we’ll have to compromise on our demands,” she said. “Pure ideology does not reality make.”

The group’s new policy, however, will not lead to a change on the ground in the near future. In order to pray in the new section, Women of the Wall is demanding that the section be equal to the existing plaza in size, topography, budget and facilities. In addition, the group is demanding a unified entrance and a shared plaza between all of the wall’s sections.

Women of the Wall also is demanding that a body of Jewish leaders, with equal women’s representation, runs the new section. The existing plaza is managed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a haredi Orthodox organization.

Some of the changes may be difficult to implement. Altering the topography of the plaza would require approval from the Islamic Wakf, the body that controls the Temple Mount and historically has been resistant to any such changes. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett had a temporary platform erected at Robinson’s Arch in August, but Women of the Wall said it does not meet their needs.

Until Monday, Women of the Wall seemed defiant in its commitment to keep praying in the women’s section. The group scored a legal victory in court this year that allowed its members to pray without fear of arrest, but members have faced ongoing opposition and harassment from traditionalist opponents.

The group’s most recent service, on Friday, was the calmest in months, but the women still encountered opponents screaming and, according to some reports, spitting as they prayed.

“We had a choice,” Hoffman told JTA — “to continue being marginalized and insist that we pray at the women’s section, or to say here’s how we envision the Western Wall, open to all and friendly and clean.”

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.”

Calendar: October 5-11

SAT | OCT 5

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI

Shalom Hartman fellow Yossi Klein Halevi serves as Beth Jacob Congregation’s Shabbat scholar in residence. Author of the new book “Like Dreamers,” which explores the story of the soldiers who reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation, Klein Halevi will give the Shabbat morning drash and speak during a community lunch-and-learn as well as during a Melava Malka at a private residence. Thu. 9 a.m. (services), 11 a.m. (lunch), 8:30 p.m. (Melava Malka). RSVP required for lunch-and-learn: $35 (adults), $25 (children). Beth Jacob, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911. bethjacob.org.

“GARY BASEMAN: MYTHICAL HOMELAND”

The door is always open. Even if you missed Gary Baseman’s retrospective at the Skirball earlier this year, you’re still in luck. The painter, illustrator, performance artist, toy designer and TV/movie producer brings an extension of that retrospective to Venice. With a playful and dark aesthetic, Baseman pays homage to his family and creates wonder for his viewers. Through Dec. 14. Sat. 7-9 p.m. (opening reception). Free. Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. shulamitgallery.com


SUN | OCT 6

THE CAPITOL STEPS

Aggravated with Congress? Well, laugh at its expense! This improv troupe has been mocking our elected officials for more than 25 years, and they know what they’re talking about — they’ve all been staffers for the politicians they satirize. With 30 albums to their name and past venues like NBC, CBS and NPR, the group has a handle on clever comedy. There will be song parodies, costumed skits and some good old-fashioned stand-up. Sun. 4 p.m. $45. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1547. aju.edu.


MON | OCT 7

“FROM SCRATCH: INSIDE THE FOOD NETWORK”

A book launch party has never tasted so good — and so informative. Join Mozza’s Nancy Silverton, Midtown Lunch’s Zach Brooks and pastrami scholar Lara Rabinovitch as they discuss New York Times’ Allen Salkin’s new book. A panel discussion on the history of the Food Network and the Hollywoodization of cuisine includes Susan Feniger, Bruce Seidel and Karen Katz. Sat. 7 p.m. Free. The Border Grill, 445 S. Figueroa St., downtown. RSVP to lara@lararabinovitch.com.


THU | OCT 10

MARTY SKLAR

Once upon a time, a 19-year-old started as a member of Disney’s creative team. And then he worked happily ever after. Come listen to highlights from five decades of magic-making in Sklar’s new memoir “Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.” Serving as Walt Disney’s right-hand man, and eventually becoming the creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, Sklar will guide attendees through the reality behind the whimsy. A Q-and-A and book signing follow the program. Thu. 8 p.m. Free (reservations recommended). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

THE IDAN RAICHEL PROJECT

Do yourself a favor and join the more than half-million people who have listened to Raichel’s music. The Israeli singer-songwriter has transformed the idea of music as a universal language into something tangible. Singing in Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Amharic and Swahili, Raichel truly blends and binds nations and peoples. Named Musical Group of the Decade in Israel in 2010, The Project promises to deliver. Thu. 8 p.m. $30-$75, $15 (UCLA Students). Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101.

LONG BEACH JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

It’s four days of the best Jewish-themed films from around the world! Opening night kicks off with a reception and screening of “Hava Nagila (The Movie).” Other films include the documentaries “The Flat” and “God’s Fiddler,” indie comedy “Putzel” and World War II drama “Süskind.” Through Oct. 13. Thu. 6:30 p.m. (reception), 7:30 p.m. (screening). $10. Alpert Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601, ext. 1021. alpertjcc.org/filmfest.


FRI | OCT 11

“EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH”

It is a rare revival of a groundbreaking collaboration. Philip Glass and Robert Wilson joined forces in 1976 to create one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. Unconventional, non-narrative and fully visual with the help of choreography by Lucinda Childs, it will help viewers understand that knowing what you’re looking at isn’t as important as simply taking a look. Through Oct. 13. Fri. 6:30 p.m. $83-$312. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. (213) 972-8001. laopera.com.

“SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES”

Alexis Rodriguez Fish finds her life to be a little bit of a disaster after the recent death of her cheating husband, so she decides to spend some time with her zany Latino-Jewish family. With an overbearing mother, encouraging father and quirky sister, Alex re-engages with her roots in an effort to grow. Writer/director Nicole Gomez Fisher creates a relatable and poignant visit home for all of us. The screening is part of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. Fri. 7 p.m. $13. TCL Chinese Theatres, 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 446-2770. sleepingwiththefishes.eventbrite.com.