September 25, 2018

How the GA Can Fix the Jewish World

Photo from Facebook.

Jewish professionals and volunteers will gather next week in Los Angeles for the GA, The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. They will convene under the somewhat vague headline “Venture Further.”

Further to where? This is probably a matter for debate, but the slogan conveys a clear sentiment: What we have now is a transitional phase. Our job is to carve a course that will move us forward “into the future of Jewish education, philanthropy and our community.”

The future of “our community.” Here is something to think about: Is “our community” the North American Jewish community or the whole of the Jewish world? Clearly, in talking about a specific community, as large as it might be, there is also a need to keep an eye on other communities, as no Jewish community is an island. The future of “our community” must consider the future of the community that it not “our community,” but someone else’s.

In this spirit, and before this special annual occasion of discussion — where I will be a speaker this year — I would like to briefly suggest a simple framework for understanding the state of the Jewish world, and, hence, the test we must pass as we attempt to venture further. I know, many of the things I am about to write are obvious. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious, as not to drown in a conversation about marginal or irrelevant matters.

So, here it is:

The Jewish world rests mainly on two pillars: North America and Israel. These two pillars have different characteristics that occasionally put them at odds, and this has been especially true over the past couple of months. Their main challenges are quite simple: For Israel, it is physical survival; for North America, it is cultural survival.

Israel is located in a problematic and dangerous area, it is small, it is surrounded by people who want to see it gone. All other problems — and of course it has other problems — pale in comparison. Keeping Jews alive, in a Jewish state, is the main concern of Israel. As for culture, most worries are exaggerated: A long process of communal design eventually will produce an Israeli-Jewishness.

Jews in North America are physically secure. Their country is the most powerful on earth (I know, North America also includes Canada, Mexico and other countries). The challenge they face is cultural. They need a Jewish culture that can be preserved in a modern world, and an open society, where they are a small minority. They need it to be intense and meaningful enough to survive the expected erosion of a minority culture in a majority society.

That’s it. That’s the challenge for “our community.”

Can Israel overcome the challenge? I hope it can. To succeed, it must be strong, realistic, sober, battle ready, tough. And since this is Israel’s main challenge, it would be nice if the Jews of North America would attempt to assist Israel in this arena — even as they attempt to advance the other causes they have in mind for Israel.

Can North American Jews overcome the challenge? I hope they can. To succeed, they must strengthen their communal institutions, invest in education and find a way to have a “community” that means more than a group of people who have Jewish ancestry. And because this is their main challenge, it would be nice if Israel would assist them — even it is not always convenient, politically or otherwise.

The first step in using this formula to venture further is not to deny its validity: There are many who argue that Israel has issues larger than security, that it is about to lose its Jewish soul. These people, although right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the right order. There are also many who argue that the Jews of North America have issues more important than reinvigorating their Jewish culture — fighting the alt-right, or correcting Israel’s course, or whatever. These people, while right to identify some problems in need of addressing, are diverting us from prioritizing our policies in the proper order.

Simplicity is key: Israel needs to bolster its security — the rest will take care of itself. North American Jews need to bolster their culture — the rest will take care of itself.

As to how to achieve these two goals? That is what the GA is for.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at

Sunday Reads: Bannon is ‘going nuclear’, Watching Charlottesville from Jerusalem

White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts /File Photo


Rosie Gray reports that sources close to Steve Bannon believe “he’s going nuclear”:

“Steve is now unchained,” said a source close to Bannon. “Fully unchained.”

“He’s going nuclear,” said another friend. “You have no idea. This is gonna be really fucking bad.”

And Bannon himself uses similar language to describe his future plans in an interview with The Weekly Standard’s Peter Boyer:

“I feel jacked up,” he says. “Now I’m free. I’ve got my hands back on my weapons. Someone said, ‘it’s Bannon the Barbarian.’ I am definitely going to crush the opposition. There’s no doubt. I built a f***ing machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do.”

Bannon tells The Weekly Standard that he can be more effective without the constraints of the White House. “I can fight better on the outside. I can’t fight too many Democrats on the inside like I can on the outside.”


Daniel Gordis shares his impressions of Charlottesville from Jerusalem:

The tiny, embattled country our family now calls home has raised a generation of young people to understand that ultimately, the only people who can be fully trusted to safeguard the safety of the Jews are the Jews. For having afforded our children a chance to grow up with no sense of the vulnerability that we knew growing up in America, we owe Israel and its founders a profound debt of gratitude. It is a debt that I don’t believe we fully appreciated until Charlottesville and its disgraceful aftermath.

Shimon Shiffer discusses the Netanyahu couple’s ongoing legal trouble:

Fortunately for Prime Minister and Mrs. Netanyahu, the law in Israel does not permit the publication of the disputes discussed in family court. As such, one can only hint that if the public were to be exposed to the court discussions between Sara Netanyahu and her brother Hagai Ben Artzi, it would add new meaning to the concept of shame. The odor that wafts up from the conduct of the Netanyahus with their own family members was, at the very least, supposed to obligate them to behave more modestly. So it is not all about a cup of tea, food deliveries, or the persecution of the Netanyahu family, but about their behavior, whose repercussions will, as it stands today, be decided by the court.

Middle East

Nicholas Danforth believes that Turkish Democracy is dead but that things can get even worse:

But it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey’s fate will now be a stifling but stable form of civilian authoritarianism. The fragmentation of institutions such as the military, coupled with the erosion of Erdogan’s democratic legitimacy and the ongoing assault on Turkey’s veneer of parliamentary democracy, have left the country unprepared for the shocks it is likely to face in the year ahead. If the situation in the country spirals out of control, the result could easily be violence and chaos rather than a resurgence of democracy.

Shlomi Eldar writes about how Hamas, Egypt and Israel have been cooperating in the fight against ISIS:

The situation is clear to both sides: To the extent that Hamas proves that it is indeed acting against the groups threatening Egypt’s security, Gaza will enjoy the “fruits of its war against terror.” At the same Cairo meeting, the sides also agreed to establish a joint headquarters for Egyptian intelligence and Hamas’ security apparatus to cooperate in real time.

Meanwhile, Sinwar committed in his meetings with Dahlan to arrest wanted men living in Gaza based on lists supplied by the Egyptians. It can be assumed that some of the names on the list, associated with Salafi groups in Gaza, originate in Israel, which knows that the information will be passed on to Hamas. Thus, there is apparently indirect intelligence cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Hamas in the war against the common enemy — IS. Given the attack at the Rafah border crossing, it seems Hamas might now welcome indirect cooperation with the “Zionist enemy.”

Jewish World

Ron Kampeas assesses Steve Bannon’s record with the Jews:

Watercooler chat plus: Bannon brought into the White House a host of staffers, among them Jewish Breitbart alumni like Julia Hahn, who is a special assistant. He reportedly is close to Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was the National Security Council staffer responsible for coordination with the intelligence community. McMaster removed Cohen-Watnick from the NSC, reportedly in part because his views on Iran were too hawkish.

Watercooler chat minus: Bannon clashed with Jared Kushner, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and a senior adviser, reportedly calling him a “globalist” — seen in some quarters (see above) as coded language for Jews. Ditto Trump’s senior economic adviser, Gary Cohn. Breitbart, still believed to be influenced by Bannon, has recently taken to surrounding Cohn’s name with globes in its headlines.

Bret Stephens takes a look at Trump’s remaining Jewish supporters, who have a lot of thinking to do:

The president’s Jewish supporters are left to wonder why the Iran deal remains in force, the United States Embassy is still in Tel Aviv, Bashar al-Assad is stronger than ever, the Israeli government is outraged by the deals the administration has cut with Russia at Israel’s strategic expense, and Jared Kushner has not proved a worthy strategic heir to Henry Kissinger. What’s the mystery? A man whose word is worthless when it comes to his legal contracts will have no compunction breaking his political promises, no matter whom his daughter married.


Sunday Reads: Kissinger on North Korea, Netanyahu attacks the media, A Jew in Charlottesville

Henry Kissinger (Photo by Reuters)


Henry Kissinger weighs in on the North Korea nuclear crisis:

Since denuclearization requires sustained cooperation, it cannot be achieved by economic pressure. It requires a corollary U.S.-Chinese understanding on the aftermath, specifically about North Korea’s political evolution and deployment restraints on its territory. Such an understanding should not alter existing alliance relationships.

Paradoxical as it may seem in light of a half-century of history, such an understanding is probably the best way to break the Korean deadlock. A joint statement of objectives and implicit actions would bring home to Pyongyang its isolation and provide a basis for the international guarantee essential to safeguard its outcome.

Aaron Blake writes about what the conflicting voices in the White House on this matter show about the Trump administration:

As I wrote Wednesday morning, we may be witnessing a little “Good Cop, Bad Cop” here, with the administration providing different signals to keep North Korea guessing. It’s the “madman theory,” which says you want your enemies to think you’re capable of anything.

But this also seems to fit into a pattern of the White House not really having its story straight and figuring things out on the fly — which would be a perilous strategy, given the stakes of the North Korea situation. And it also fits into a long-running pattern of White House officials undermining one another, both privately and publicly. Having members of your staff undercut your own secretary of state doesn’t seem like a great way to do business. 


Micah Halpern writes about Israel and the fight against ISIS:

Israel is watching the fight to uproot ISIS very carefully. It is of utmost importance to get ISIS out of the area and far from the Israeli border. The entire Middle East, even Hezbollah, understands this.

But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. 

Nahum Barnea takes a look at Netanyahu’s attempts to deflect the corruption scandals he faces:

Netanyahu isn’t telling them the truth when he describes the investigations against him as a plot devised by a hidden enemy (the media? The Left?) to replace the government. The Netanyahu cases are being investigated by a police commissioner who he appointed. Only a person who has lost his mind can attribute left-wing views to Roni Alsheikh. The decisions on the cases are being made by an attorney general who he appointed, a man who served under him as cabinet secretary. Whoever ascribes left-wing views to Avichai Mandelblit is living in a fantasy world. The media’s influence on their decisions is smaller than the media’s influence on Netanyahu’s decisions.

Middle East

James F. Jeffrey and Wa’el Alzayat suggest consulting with the Powell Doctrine in the efforts to contain Iran in Iraq and Syria:

The objective of any U.S. military response to those violations has to be clear: to protect newly liberated areas and members of the international community who are helping there, rather than to initiate any future offensive operations against the regime or Russian interests in Syria. Of course, protecting areas in southern Syria, Raqqa, and the north would not only help civilians there but also undermine Iran’s efforts at extending its arc of control from Tehran to Beirut and serve as a pressure point in support of more serious political negotiations.

Sir John Jenkins writes about the West’s attempt to engage with Islamists:

I’m always happy for members of that Select Committee to correct me. But I cannot think of a single example where Western diplomatic or any other sort of engagement has produced any change in the position of any political Islamist. Deniable channels of communication may sometimes be wise, for example when we have kidnappings to resolve or to ensure the physical security of diplomats (both of which we had to do in Gaza when I was HM Consul General in Jerusalem).

But our decisions publicly to engage with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after 2000 and in 2008 to re-engage diplomatically with Hizbollah’s political wing produced absolutely no shift in their thinking.

Jewish World

Nathan Guttman reports on his experiences at the Charlottesville hate rally:

“[L]ittle Mayor Signer — SEE-NER — how do you pronounce this little creep’s name?” asked Richard Spencer, a right-wing leader who dreams of a “white ethnostate,” as he stood on a bench under a tree to rally his troops, deprived of their protest.

The crowd knew exactly how to pronounce his name: “Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew” some shouted out. The rest burst out in laughter. And that was one of the only moments of levity the alt-right audience gathered under the tree enjoyed.

JTA reports on a letter written by the leaders of Poland’s Jewish community amid the growing levels of public antisemitism:

Earlier this month, a lawmaker for the anti-immigration conservative Law and Justice Party, Bogdan Rzonca, wrote on Twitter: “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.”

Schudrich in an interview for JTA called this an “outrageous statement that smells of anti-Semitism.” He noted Rzonca was not reprimanded for the statement. Schudrich said that this “deafening silence by the government on specific acts or statements on anti-Semitism is disappointing and disconcerting.” In that regard, he added, “the letter is criticism” of the government.

Sunday Reads: Trump will defeat ISIS, The Arab states’ two-state solution, The Egyptian public & Israel

U.S. President Donald Trump smiles a as he holds a "Make America Great Again" rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY


Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky take a look at how Trump can take on Iran without sparking war:

Unless the administration has a clear end state in its sights and a viable road map for getting there, it will find itself on the short end of the stick in confronting Iran when vital American interests are not at stake and taking on Tehran will only make the situation worse.

Andrew Exum predicts that ISIS will fall during the Trump administration (and that Trump is going to take credit for it):

But the fall of the Islamic State is going to happen, and it’s going to happen on this president’s watch. Like the American jobs he claims to have created that were announced long before he took office, Trump will take credit for the Islamic State’s defeat. It will be in his 2020 campaign speeches, and it will be a cudgel with which he beats the Democrats each time they (or John McCain) point out his incompetence on issues of national security.


Dennis Ross doesn’t believe that Trump’s intention of involving the Arab countries In peace talks signifies a retreat from the two-state solution:

If Arab states decide that engaging on the peace issue with Israel makes sense, they will want to show that they delivered for the Palestinians what they could not produce for themselves. They won’t drop Palestinian demands, they will come to represent them.

The great irony may be that involving the Arabs is almost sure to ensure that there must be a two-state outcome if the effort is to lead anywhere. The Arab leaders cannot accept the Palestinians to be subsumed into an Israeli state.

Elliott Abrams examines the prospects of Trump’s “big deal” for Israel and Palestine:

But optimism should be restrained. Cooperating with Israel is always risky for the Arab states, which is why they do it in secret. It is a potential domestic political problem of great magnitude for them, so why should they risk it? The answer is that it would improve the lot of the Palestinians—but that has never been and is not now a compelling objective for most Arab leaders. It’s “nice to have” but not worth any real danger. They are most likely to try it if a strong and reliable American president presses them to do so, over and over again.

And that’s the rub here. Arab leaders do not yet know if they have a strong and reliable president with whom to work, or whether he is going to make this regional peace deal a major goal that he will pursue over time.

Middle East

Haisam Hassanein writes about the Egyptian public’s perception of Israel:

Observing Egyptian culture closely, including the way the young generation is taught to think about Israel, it becomes clear that the high-level relationship between the two countries would deteriorate should the shared security threats return to the pre-Islamic State level. Simply put, the Egyptian government would not have the incentive to continue building a covert relationship with a country viewed by the majority of Egyptians as the eternal enemy, expansionists desperate to take Sinai back and therefore a main reason to rally around the military.

The shaping of the young Egyptian mind on the subject of Israel starts in school, with the Islamic religious narrative that frames the Jews as traitors.

Rick Noack writes about a new report showing that the Islamic State’s “Business model” is failing:

“It is clear that the Islamic State’s business model is failing,” said ICSR director Peter Neumann. “It used to be the world’s richest terror group because it basically was a state. But its biggest strength at that time — the ability to loot and extract money through taxes in newly conquered territories — became its most significant weakness as it suffered battlefield losses.”

Jewish World

ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt is amazed Trump has not spoken up against anti-Semitism:

The issue is not whether Trump is anti-Semitic. The issue is whether he will stand up to anti-Semitism, let alone other forms of bigotry. And, as president, he will face far more difficult and daunting challenges in the years ahead, but speaking out against intolerance should be a no-brainer.

Tyler Cowen talks to Rabbi David Wolpe on leadership, religion and identity:

So if you want to attribute that to the fact that David listened to God, and that the Psalms are in fact an expression of David’s soul, I don’t have a problem with that. But if you want to be a pragmatist about it and just look at results, I would say that’s how you judge the success of a leader then and now.

Jews of the Midnight Sun


Each year, our congregation visits a different corner of the Jewish world. This year we traveled to Scandinavia and our first stop was Stockholm, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Sweden is green and vibrant and its capital city is surrounded by water. Many of us took a 10-minute ferry to Old Town each day and sat in cafes that have been in continuous use since the 1700s.

On television, which isn’t dubbed in order to promote English, we watched reruns of “Saturday Night Live” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The Swedes have a little trouble understanding Linda Richman being farklempt, but they seem to enjoy urban Jewish shtick.

Swedes tend to be extremely attractive and friendly, neither overly competitive nor driven. They also speak excellent English. As my Swedish cousin told me: “When you have a language that nobody else in the world speaks, you have to learn English well.”

Like most Scandinavian countries, Swedes are taxed above 50 percent, but they get 85 percent of their salary at retirement and are provided with health and welfare benefits throughout their lives. However, immigration is challenging their ability to be so generous.

Scandinavian Jews are well-integrated into the population, but they have to struggle to preserve Jewish life. Each major community is small — a few synagogues, a school, an old age home and a small Jewish Community Center. In Stockholm, the major synagogue has mixed seating, a rabbi originally from Buffalo and a few-dozen regular attendees. Families tax themselves about 3 percent of an average salary to belong to the community — and about 800 do.

Journalist Peter Wolodarski, 26, spoke to us of the keen interest that young Jews have in Jewish issues and Israel, but they just can’t find their place in the much-too-traditional organized Jewish community. He also addressed the issues of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and contrasted the pre- and post-Holocaust views of Jews.

Quoting Israeli author Amos Oz, Wolodarski reminded us that, before the Shoah, Jews were told to leave Europe and go to Palestine. Today, too many Europeans believe that Europe and Israel share no history or culture and that Jews now need to leave “Palestine.” “Don’t be here” and “don’t be there” can lead to “don’t be.” Israel’s rejection by the European Union, when Israel is actually more European than Turkey, struck Wolodarski as ironic, as did Poland’s present pro-Israel stance, since Poland is now anti-Soviet and the Soviets were anti-Zionist.

Our guide, Dr. David Fisher, a professor of Jewish studies at Uppsala University, was a wellspring of facts and figures. For instance, in 18th-century Sweden, Jews who converted to Christianity on a given Sunday could take home what was in the church collection plate that day. Despite the incentive, few converted.

By 1870, there were only 800 Swedish Jews, but 25 percent of the major stores in Stockholm were Jewishly owned. These Jews were quite charitable to hospitals and museums, and they even built a synagogue much larger than they could use to emphasize their importance in the community.

During World War II, Sweden was officially neutral, but it traded with both sides. Those whom we met in Norway and Denmark condemned this amoral approach, but all acknowledged Sweden’s role in saving Danish Jewry. In October 1943, during the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, most Danish Jews were rescued by the Danish Resistance who sent them across the Oresund in fishing boats to Sweden.

During and after the Holocaust, hundreds of German refugees came to Sweden, which to this day, like all Scandinavian countries, grant asylum to political refugees. But, because these refugees were different, they weren’t always welcomed by the well-established and integrated Swedish Jewish community, and many failed to join synagogues or the kehilla (community structure).

The Jewish community is quite elderly — one funeral a day, but not even one marriage a month. At the Jewish community center, we sang, spoke and visited with a Holocaust survivors group, at their weekly oneg Shabbat (now in its 20th year), and we met some of those immigrants, who never felt comfortable in the religious community. Languages abounded that day — Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German and Hebrew. Our cantor sang in Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino, I was asked to speak about Reconstructionism, and others in our group played the piano or conversed in the mamaloshen. It was a deeply satisfying mutual mitzvah and simcha that we shared with each other.

At Uppsala University, one of Europe’s oldest, the medieval church still depicts, in stone, Jews sucking from a pig. Swedish law doesn’t allow its removal for historical reasons, although it’s clearly anti-Semitic. Today’s anti-Semitism doesn’t come from Swedish Lutherans, but from radicals in a Muslim population of 350,000, all of whom arrived in the last 30 to 40 years.

Muslim immigration is a worry throughout Europe. Many come, as guest workers, but others are children, sent by their parents, claiming to be orphans. Then, once they are given to a Muslim foster family, “they discover” 20 relatives back home, who then have the right to immigrate.

Muslim triumphalism and Sept. 11 terrorism have combined to frighten Scandinavians who are now caught between a philosophy of open borders and the reality of different races, religions and cultures changing their progressive European society. With 350,000 Muslims and only 25,000 Jews, the Jewish community is worried, too.

“We’re just wild about Harry” was our pervasive feeling in Norway, because we spent a week with Harry Rodner, a former oil company executive, and now a marvelous guide. Sophisticated and menschlich, Harry’s family contributed the funds for Oslo’s synagogue. Norway is now the richest country per capita in Europe because of North Sea oil and salaries (and expenses) are 30 percent higher than in the rest of Western Europe.

Like all good guides, Harry shared more than facts; he told us wonderfully fascinating stories of Norway and its Jews, including his own. Harry introduced us to the Vigeland Sculpture Park — a must — representing 20 years of an artist’s creativity, in which Vigeland evoked powerful images of love and hate — within families, between lovers and in human striving. The National Gallery and Munch Museum were also artistic experiences of the highest order and we realized how little we knew about the cultural contributions of Scandinavia to Western Civilization.

Our first stop in Oslo was the Holocaust Memorial, honoring the memories of 750 Norwegian Jews who were murdered. There are only 1,000 Jews in Oslo today, so imagine the great pain of such a loss. Unlike many other countries, Jews and Muslims work together with Christians in an interfaith council, but there are serious problems with Muslim fundamentalists in Norway, as well.

A Christian hero to Jews was Henrik Wergeland, who vigorously promoted the legal and civic equality for Jews in the 18th century. To honor his memory, the Jewish community erected a large marker over his grave in the shape of a havdalah spice box.

Oslo was also the site of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords that offered such hope a few years ago as well as the place where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented each year (the other Nobels are given in Stockholm). Near that site, another Holocaust Memorial powerfully stands — empty Shabbat dinner chairs facing the dock from which Jews were deported. Fortunately, half of Norway’s Jews were saved by the Norwegian Resistance and each year, the Jewish community sends its 13-year-olds on a bar mitzvah march to walk the refugee trails to Sweden, remembering and re-enacting one of the major escape routes.

At the lovely shul, one of the most northern in the world, we joined in a circle for a havdalah service, singing songs and prayers calling for a more utopian world. Interestingly, we were told that there are many converts to Judaism in Norway because of marriage or due to the “coldness” of Norwegian Lutheranism.

For many of us, the fjords were a highlight. Formed by glaciers, these bays flow through the mountains, below skies that constantly change color from blue to gray to black. We saw rainbows and waterfalls and felt at peace in the overwhelming glory of nature. I have never seen a more unusual sky, and it’s one that’s found in so many Norwegian paintings. We stayed in a hotel not unlike a smaller version of San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, sipping tea on the porch and flashing back a century, while enjoying Norwegian pianist Age Kristofferson, playing Edvard Grieg’s music and telling us his life story.

Imagine a society in which a composer is a national hero, and you gain some insight into Norwegians. By the way, Grieg, whose music we played as we traveled through the fjords, was such an outspoken advocate for freeing Dreyfus that he refused to play in France during the Dreyfus affair.

In Norway, we also learned about trolls and how they’re not little and cute, but big with tails and possess up to seven heads. They only go out at night and during the day live in caves because sunlight makes them explode. So, we were told, if you see a big guy with multiple heads, he’s not a Norwegian. Moreover, never tell a Norwegian that you saw a troll with eight heads — he won’t believe you; seven is the limit.

In beautiful Bergen, a city of narrow townhouses, cobblestone streets and a colorful wharf, we ate lots of fish. Actually, we ate fish a lot throughout our tour and lox almost every day for breakfast. Although there are few bagels and little cream cheese, the main source of income for the Jewish community isn’t North Sea oil, but lox, since the rabbi is the mashglach/kashrut supervisor of the lox factories.

The Bergen Design Museum was also a highlight, in which furniture and other everyday functional household items were transformed into art. There’s a cosmopolitan joie de vie in Bergen and its citizens are know as the “Latins of Scandinavia,” because of their warmth and zest for life.

Like the Swedes, Norwegians are optimistic and warm, albeit a bit reserved initially. When an irreplaceable and historic wooden Stave Church was burnt down (by a satanic cult, no less), instead of mourning it as a tragedy, Norwegians saw it as an opportunity to build a new church that would be the “newest Stave Church built in Norway.” Talk about seeing the glass half full!

Or consider the story of one of our speakers, Wolfgang Pintzka, who displayed a “curious lack of bitterness,” in his own words, at his life story. In his book, “From Siberia to the Synagogue,” well known in Norway and Germany and soon to be published in English, Pintzka describes his Jewish father in Germany, who was Aryanized by Hitler, since he was a sports car designer and was needed to design tanks.

Pintzka, who survived Hitler and Stalin, was sent to Siberia at the age of 16 to work in the mines. The Russians punished him with a 25-year sentence for belonging to the Hitler Youth.

In the camp library, Pintzka found a book of Brechtian plays, banned by Hitler, but available under the communists. So he directed his first play in Siberia, was pardoned by Stalin after five years and then became the foremost director of Brecht in East Germany. In 1984, because of their cultural status, Pintzka was allowed to leave East Germany. He moved to Oslo, converted to Judaism with his wife and children (in Jerusalem) and is now a leading member of the Oslo Jewish community and a former president of B’nai B’rith. Next year, Wolfgang will be directing Brecht’s Jewish play, “Refugee Talks,” in Oslo.

We will never forget the Danes and they, of course, will forever merit our highest respect and gratitude. No country did more for its Jews, rescuing nearly all of them in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Students and fisherman, people who knew Jews in Copenhagen and those in villages who never met one, all joined together because “it was the right thing to do; it wasn’t a big deal; we couldn’t look at ourselves if we did any less,” according to our guide, Grette, as well as everyone with whom we talked.

The most well-known story of the Danish rescue isn’t factually true — King Christian X never wore a yellow star, because Danish Jews didn’t have to do so. But the important part of that famous story is that he would have, if the Jews had been forced to comply. That’s the way the Danes were and are.

Even more, non-Jewish Danes maintained the homes of their Jewish neighbors, sent food packages to those in concentration camps and, when the war ended, even business competitors welcomed the Jews back.

Are the Danes philo-Semites? In Copenhagen, a number of churches even have God’s name, YHWH, in Hebrew engraved above their front doors, in gratitude for Jewish financial help during a major 18th-century war.

Moreover, one of our guides, Gitta, was a non-Jewish Israeli tour guide, whose daughter and sister underwent Orthodox conversions in Jerusalem. Like so many in Europe, Gitta had some Jewish ancestry four generations ago, and so, out of curiosity, she visited Israel and stayed for 20 years!

Denmark is remarkably safe and sane. It has strict gun laws and little crime. In fact, few people use locks on the ubiquitous bikes one sees, and the city even allows people to rent a bike for a whole year for a deposit of only $8, which is even returned at the end of the year.

“We live the way we want life to be,” Grette said, “by standing up for a certain kind of reality, we create it.”

On the last day of our trip to Sweden, Norway and Denmark at our closing circle, our travelers spoke about what they liked best. Majestic fjords, impressive Embassy visits, fascinating speakers and deeply spiritual experiences were high on the list. But everyone realized the greatest benefit of “traveling Jewish,” deepening personal relationships around the world and having experiences unavailable to those traveling on other kinds of tours.

Most of all, we realized that when we travel abroad, and visit our fellow Jews, it’s a kind of homecoming. Everything and everyone feels both new and familiar, for traveling to distant lands to have new experiences is also a way of meeting and finding ourselves.

Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.