Iran deal may transform American Jewry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty Kaplan: Iran no-spoiler alert

So where are we in the Iran narrative?

I mean no disrespect to the victims of Iran’s terrorist clients, or the existential fears of Israelis and world Jewry, or U.S. security interests in the Middle East by calling it a narrative. Real events do happen in the real world, but people can’t help trying to fit them into larger stories.  We love to connect the dots.  Storytelling isn’t some atavistic remnant of our pre-scientific past; it’s how our brains are hardwired.

Today, with the advantage of hindsight, a reasonably explanatory Iran narrative would connect these dots:  In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalizes the British-owned oil industry.  In 1953, Mossadegh is ousted in a coup arranged by the CIA and MI6, and we put the Shah on the throne.  In 1979, he – and we – were thrown out by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Shia revolutionaries, and it’s been ugly between us and them ever since.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad never denied his desire to see Israel annihilated, which made it especially scary that he was barreling toward a nuclear bomb.  But our sanctions hurt Iran.  He was thrown out, and Iran got a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who sent Jews Rosh Hashanah greetings.  He said he would come to the table, and now there’s a deal.

Good deal, or bad deal?  Here’s where hindsight fails us.  We don’t know the ending of the story yet.  So we have to figure out a way to tell the story going forward without knowing whether Geneva will be the coffin nail in Israel’s security, or if it will be more like the destruction of Syrian weapons, a sign that talk can sometimes be at least as effective as, and always less costly than, military action.

There’s no question facts will play a part in how we rate the deal, but there’s too much input bombarding us to process as data.  What will win the day isn’t the power of facts, but the power of one story or another to feel right – yes, an emotion; we will retroactively find the facts we need to make our path to that feeling seem rational.

The public sphere is where competing storylines slug their way out, it’s where politicians, journalists, experts and yakkers connect the dots, find patterns and fashion narratives.  We take all that in, spoiler-free, in a state of genre-blindness, not knowing whether we’re watching a tragedy or an adventure play out. 

This process is often accused of being powered by political ideology, moral bias, religious dogma or personal psychology, and all that may be true to some degree, but I think the underestimated driver is our innate need for narrative.  Once upon a time isn’t kid stuff; it’s species stuff.

However, stories that feel right may be clueless about reality.  We are chronically required to revise the patterns we see in the past because we’re forced to absorb history’s hairpin turns.  At any given moment, there’s a fair chance that the stories we tell ourselves about the world are goofy.

My first job after graduate school was at the Aspen Institute, which was then deep into a relationship with the Shah of Iran and his wife, Empress Farah Dibah.  In September 1975, their Pahlavi Foundation’s generosity enabled Aspen to invite more than 100 guests to a week at the Aspen Institute/Persepolis Symposium, with trips to Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran, during which the Shah showed off his reforms and the richness of Iranian cultural history.  The Institute reciprocated by inviting the Shabanou to Aspen, where she (and I, a peon) attended a trout fry on the Roaring Fork River under the eye of SAVAK sharpshooters.  Locals nicknamed her the Shah Bunny.

I can’t find the coffee table book about Iran that I scored during her visit, but I did turn up “Iran: Past, Present and Future,” which arose from the Persepolis Symposium.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare the book with what actually happened in reality, but as for Iran: Past, the name of Mohammad Mossadegh does not appear in the book, and as for Iran: Future, Islam is also MIA.

I forget that level of ignorance is normal.  That’s how untrustworthy our stories are.  That’s also what creates an opportunity to appeal to our passions.  President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may say the Geneva agreement is a short easing of some sanctions in exchange for a delay in Iran’s nuclear program, during which more negotiations can occur.  But for the counter-narrative to that, there’s Texas Republican John Cornyn, who tweeted, “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention to O-care,” proving that the senator is himself something of an expert on distracting attention. 

To other storyteller-critics of the accord, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, the dot that threatens to come next after Geneva is continuous with a narrative that began in Munich in 1938, with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler; includes the story of Gush Etzion, where Jews living on land they purchased from Arabs in the early 1920s were massacred in 1948; and now threatens to conclude with Israel’s nuclear annihilation. 

For Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, too, “The Geneva mindset resembles a Munich mindset: It would create the illusion of peace-in-our-time while paving the way to a nuclear-Iran-in-our-time.”  Yet though “>he calls in his new book, “My Promised Land,” “the dark secret of Zionism”: “the nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.” 

By contrast, a recent

‘Thanksgivukkah’? Not quite

It’s taken American Jews a good century to fully absorb the miraculous idea that this country is unlike any other that Jews have experienced. After 2,000 years of feeling insecure no matter where we pitched our tents, the people of Moses finally found safe harbor in the land of Lincoln — the land of freedom, human rights and justice for all.

So maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised to see the Jewish community go head over heels for anything that makes us look and feel American. It’s our Jewish way of saying thank you.

Naturally, when we learned this year that Thanksgiving and Chanukah would fall on the same day — something that’s never happened before — our gratitude went into overdrive and … drumroll … Thanksgivukkah was born!

It’s eerie that this rare Jewish-American holiday meld would coincide with the just-released Pew study of American Jewry, which revealed, among other things, that Jewish identity is melting right into America’s loving embrace. 

Maybe it’s a sign of how intimate that embrace has become that hardly anyone in the Jewish community has uttered a breadcrumb of complaint about the “intermarriage” of these two holidays.

How dare we complain? How dare we show ingratitude on the very day of gratitude?

After all, it would be impolite to do what comedian Stephen Colbert did from his side, when he complained that “Chanukah is screwing up my Thanksgiving.”

For most American Jews, it’s the opposite: Thanksgiving is upgrading our Chanukah. It’s a shidduch made in heaven.

That certainly feels like the polite American response, but is it the proper Jewish one? I don’t think so.

For one thing, the meshing of the holidays makes it harder to appreciate differences. The holiday of Thanksgiving is one of my favorites, not least because it brings families together and puts even grouchy people in a good mood. Who can beat that? 

But Thanksgiving — however beautiful, warm and happy it is — is missing something.

As Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes on, there are two instances in the Bible where Jews are commanded to make a blessing of gratitude: after a material experience (eating a meal), and before a spiritual one (learning Torah).

“In biblical terms,” Blech writes, “Thanksgiving is a sequel to the biblically mandated Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals in which we express gratitude to the One Above ‘who feeds the world in his goodness with grace, with kindness and with mercy.’ ”

Thanksgiving, however, does not address another kind of gratitude we owe God: “It is the blessing for the spiritual part of our lives … a blessing that alerts us to the hunger of our souls and our yearning to be nourished by the sacred.”

That’s where Chanukah comes in.

As Blech explains, the real meaning of Chanukah is spiritual: “Antiochus was not bothered by the survival of Jews,” he writes. “What he wanted at all costs to prevent was the survival of Judaism. His decrees were against the observance of Torah.”

In other words, the threat “was not to our bodies, but our souls. The danger was not death but disappearance by way of assimilation.”

How appropriate, then, that Chanukah’s main ritual should be based around oil, the one liquid that never “assimilates.” This oil speaks to the singularity of Jewish identity and the unique importance Judaism places on ritual.

It is ritual that leads us, somewhat ironically, to the spiritual.

The Friday night Shabbat meal, for example, would feel empty and generic without our time-honored rituals such as lighting the candles, welcoming the angels, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, blessing the wine, washing our hands and then blessing the bread, singing Shabbat songs and reciting the long prayer of thanks after the meal.

This ideal Shabbat meal, in fact, probably comes closest to being “Thanksgivukkah”— a meal that marries the spirituality of Chanukah with the abundance and gratitude of Thanksgiving; a meal that feeds body and soul.

In the Jewish tradition, rituals elevate and add reverence to physical acts and deepen the very expression of gratitude.

As my friend Rabbi David Wolpe told me, maybe the real issue here is that “Thanksgiving is not Jewish enough.” Well, it’s an intriguing thought that Jewish notions such as rituals might enhance the Thanksgiving experience — and why not? It wouldn’t be the first time Jews gave something back to America as an expression of our gratitude.

In any event, as the Chanukah lights glow this year on the great American day of gratitude, Jews will have plenty to be thankful for. Just as our ancestors were grateful for the miracle of the Chanukah oil that lasted eight days, we can be grateful for the miracle of the Jewish oil that has lasted 5,774 years. 

That oil is a metaphor for the duality that challenges American Jewry: How do we engage with an embracing world while staying true to who we are? How do we shine the unique light of Judaism without making it mushy and generic?    

Let’s be grateful that we live in a country that allows us to do all that. 

Happy Thanksgiving … and Happy Chanukah.

Clergy reflect on Proposition 8

On a wall of the Autry National Center — among Los Angeles Jewish immigrant artifacts, biographies of Hollywood Jewry, above a case of kippot from Uganda — a white banner proclaims in crimson letters: “Beth Chayim Chadashim, Jewish, Gay & Lesbian & Proud.” The banner, used in gay pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, is part of the museum’s exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” which runs through Jan. 5. Lent to the museum by the world’s first gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, (House of New Life), the banner is presented as a symbol of gay liberation in Jewish life.

Just across the museum’s courtyard, in its Wells Fargo Theater, the gay pride movement and, in particular, the road to marriage equality, came to life at an Oct. 20 symposium, “Faith Meets 8,” linked to the “Mosaic” show. Moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus, speakers included the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the world’s first gay church, and Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), joined by Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks, and USC religion and sociology professor Paul Lichterman.

This November marks the fifth anniversary of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Much of the discussion at the Autry centered on the role that conservative religious groups played in the measure’s initial success — prior to it being overturned by the United States Supreme Court last spring — as well as what the speakers described as recent rapid shifts leading up to this year’s resumption of gay marriages.

“What we’re seeing now is this sea change that’s happening in same-sex marriage in state after state, such a sudden change and such a shift from what we saw in 2008,” said Edwards, whose Reform congregation is in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The rabbi attributed these changes to the hard work of activists, as well as the positive impact that recent same-sex marriages have had, especially on prior opponents. “There’s nothing like getting invited to a wedding … and seeing what a couple is creating together, a family together, to help people let that fear fall away, to break down those boundaries,” Edwards told the audience of about 60 people. 

It was Perry, whom Edwards referred to as “the founding reverend” of the BCC, whose encouragement led to the formation of the Jewish congregation in 1972, and his L.A. church served as the temple’s original home. In 2004, Perry, along with his husband, was among the first litigants to sue the state of California in seeking gay marriage. The Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 in June, along with the landmark ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, and in October, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize gay marriage. Other states, including Michigan, are expected to follow soon. Although Perry emphasized his belief in marriage equality as a civil right, he also found grounding in his faith: “I’m as serious as a heart attack over this issue. … I come from a religious background that told me it was moral to marry … so for me it was a religious issue.” 

The conversation at the Autry also focused on how many Mormons, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews voted in support Proposition 8, because they believed same-sex marriages might lead to infringements on their own religious liberties. When moderator Lazarus asked whether religion has impeded social change, the symposium speakers said that faith and progress can go hand in hand, and that it was time to look forward.

In an interview, Edwards said she has been delighted to see her calendar fill up with weddings and noted an influx of younger gay and lesbian couples joining together under the chuppah. “Celebrating Jewishly, and within the law,” Edwards said, “feels so good.”

Open Judaism: Judaism wins if all denominations win

There’s a nasty food fight going on right now in the Orthodox world between the stringent groups and the more open ones.

This latest brouhaha was ignited when the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) yeshiva invited non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars to a roundtable discussion during the installation of YCT’s new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. 

As reported by JTA, the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued a statement condemning the roundtable, saying it “does violence” to the principle that a yeshiva should shun rabbis of non-Orthodox movements that have led Jews “down the path toward Jewish oblivion.”

Since then, a verbal war has broken out over the appropriateness of YCT’s inclusive beliefs and actions, and whether its open views on many issues disqualify them from being considered “Orthodox.” 

The aspect of the dispute I want to focus on is the underlying premise from the more stringent groups that the Orthodox have little or nothing to learn from the non-Orthodox.

Are groups like Agudath Israel and others so insulated and sure of themselves that they can’t possibly see the value of engaging with non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars?

In the wake of the recent Pew study of American Jewry, and the subsequent conclusion among many Orthodox that “our side won,” I’m afraid that this sentiment is likely only to get stronger.

That is a real shame, because, in many ways, the future health and vibrancy of Judaism in America will depend on our ability to learn from one another.

Judaism will only win if all denominations win.

The paradox that comes out of the Pew study is that “religion” is both a savior and an obstacle. Raise your kids Orthodox and send them to Orthodox day schools and, not surprisingly, the odds will go up that they will remain Jewish and marry within the faith.

But this Orthodox segment to which I belong still represents, after all these years, a strong yet distinct minority of Jews. A large majority are simply losing interest in “religion” under any denomination. As The New York Times reported, the study found “a significant rise in those who are not religious.” 

The question we must answer, then, is this: For the large group of Jews who are turned off by anything “religious,” what can Judaism offer that will instill in them a strong Jewish identity?

Hint: It’s not just tikkun olam and ethics. The only answer I see is: Everything.

Yes, everything that can strengthen their Jewish identity, including Jewish culture and learning the story of their people.

The biggest failure, in my view, of the American Jewish community has been the failure to marry the obvious “do-goodism” of religion with the compelling “knowism” of Jewish culture.

It’s as if they exist in two different worlds — as if you can’t recite prayers and learn Jewish poetry in the same place, or study Torah after you study Philip Roth, or learn the story of King David and the story of medieval Jews, or debate the role of the Chasidic movement in Jewish history while debating a Chasidic tractate, or study Jewish music and art while also engaging in social activism.

I consider Shabbat one of Judaism’s greatest gifts, but why does it have to be only a religious experience? Why can’t we fully observe the Sabbath, recite all the prayers and follow all the rituals, while still incorporating Jewish poetry, history and philosophy? 

In so many ways, we have divorced Jewish culture from Jewish religion and, as a result, have ended up with a narrow-box Judaism that turns off most Jews of the new generation.

Trying to upgrade the religious experience is fine, but it’s hardly enough. What we need is to add more items to the Jewish menu to strengthen Jewish identity. Culture can do that. 

It’s easy to cancel a membership to a synagogue. It’s a lot harder to cancel a membership to a 5,000-year-old people whose story and culture are your own.

Our cover story this week on the success of the Skirball Cultural Center points the way to a more vibrant Jewish future — having more synagogues in America open up to the riches of Jewish culture and the Jewish story.

A big part of this opening-up process is opening up to one another. In the same way that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has begun an “open Orthodox” movement, we ought to begin an “open Judaism” movement.

Yes, the non-Orthodox and non-religious have plenty to learn from the Orthodox, but this quaint notion that it doesn’t work the other way around is borderline offensive. Just look at one scholar of the Reform movement who was on the YCT roundtable, Rabbi David Ellenson.

My Orthodox friends will be happy to know that Ellenson is a renowned expert on … Orthodoxy. In fact, if you pick up his book on Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, a prominent contributor to the creation of Modern Orthodoxy during the late 1800s, you’ll learn how Hildesheimer promoted the keeping of Orthodox tradition while also introducing certain innovations to meet the demands of modern life.

It makes you wish we had more Hildesheimers around today, or at least Orthodox synagogues that would invite scholars like Ellenson to share their knowledge.

Learning from one another doesn’t dilute our identity. It enriches it.

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

Caredim in church? The wackiest result from the Pew ‘Jewish Americans’ survey

The new Pew Research Center’s new study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” offers a treasure trove of survey data on American Jewry. It’s a particularly valuable service since the Jewish Federations of North America opted not do a repeat of the decennial National Jewish Population Study to cap “the aughts.”

To be sure, many of the headline findings told us things that knowledgeable observers already knew (high levels of intermarriage, the fecundity of the Orthodox, rising assimilation and disaffiliation, etc.).

Then there are the surprises.

One truly bizarre result is the finding that a not insignificant proportion of Orthodox Jews — including haredim — are attending non-Jewish religious services with some regularity.

According to the survey, a full 16 percent of Orthodox Jews “attend non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year.” The proportion is identical for Modern Orthodox Jews and what the survey describes as “ultra-Orthodox Jews” — 15 percent for both sub-groups. Shockingly, that’s slightly higher than the proportions of Reform Jews (15 percent) and non-denominational Jews (12%) who report attending non-Jewish religious services with similar frequency. (Are we to assume that sizable numbers of black-hatted haredim are ducking into churches or mosques for some interfaith davening on a semi-regular basis?)

The question that yielded this unusual result was: “And aside from special occasions like weddings and funerals, how often do you attend non-Jewish religious services?” (Perhaps taking into account the possibility of confusion on this question, there was a directive given to those conducting the interviews: “If respondent asks, clarify that we are interested in how often they attend religious services of a religion other than Judaism.”)

Given the traditional Orthodox prohibition on attendance at non-Jewish religious activities, the finding seems wholly implausible. Did large numbers of respondents completely misunderstand the question? Or are significant numbers of people who are not by any stretch of the imagination Orthodox, let alone ultra-Orthodox, identifying themselves as such? (I would guess the former would be the more likely answer.)

The study’s authors felt compelled to include the following explanatory footnote, which still fails to adequately explain the puzzling result: “Attendance at non-Jewish religious services is significantly less common among Orthodox Jews who live in areas with large Orthodox populations than it is among self-identified Orthodox Jews who live in areas of the country with fewer Orthodox Jews. Among Orthodox Jews reached in the high-density Orthodox stratum, 94% say they seldom or never attend non-Jewish religious services.”

Another related finding does seem more intuitive: Far fewer Orthodox Jews report having Christmas trees (4 percent) than their Reform counterparts (30 percent). Still, as one Twitter user noted: “I would really — really — like to meet the 1% of U.S. ultra-Orthodox Jews who reported having a Christmas tree.”

Ethiopian aliyah to end Aug. 28, Jewish Agency says

The Jewish Agency is preparing to end mass aliyah from Ethiopia with two final flights consisting of 400 immigrants on Aug. 28.

The Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia, Asher Seyum, made the announcement in a brief letter, saying the Jewish Agency will hand over its aid compounds in the Ethiopian city of Gondar to local authorities at the end of August.

For years the compounds — originally established by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and only recently taken over by the Jewish Agency — provided thousands of Ethiopians waiting to immigrate to Israel with educational, nutritional and some employment services.

Once the final flights are complete, Ethiopians wishing to immigrate to Israel will be subject to the same rules as potential immigrants from elsewhere in the world and considered on a case-by-case basis, a New York-based spokesman for the Jewish Agency told JTA.

A steady trickle of approximately 200 Ethiopian immigrants per month has been coming to Israel since 2010, when the government decided to check the aliyah eligibility of an additional 8,000 or so Ethiopians.

The petitioners are known as Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago but who now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. They have been accepted to Israel under  different rules than those governing other immigrants.

The Israeli government has declared an official end to mass Ethiopian immigration several times. Each time, however, aliyah from Ethiopia resumed after pressure by advocates.

In August 2008, for example, the Israeli government declared mass Ethiopian immigration over only to reverse course several months later and agree to check the aliyah eligibility of 3,000 additional Ethiopians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in May 2009 that those would be the last Ethiopians to be checked en masse, but that decision was reversed in 2010, opening the door for this latest group of immigrants.

Calling the decision to end Ethiopian aliyah “sensitive and complex,” Seyum acknowledged pressure from the Ethiopian community in Israel for the aliyah to continue but said he was bound by the government’s decision to end it.

Under his implementation of the government’s 2010 decision, Seyum said, more than 6,500 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel.

Is Sharansky the only one who doesn’t want confrontation at the Western Wall?

In the last two years, the Western Wall in Jerusalem — also known as the Kotel — has become a place of controversy as much as of worship. It’s the site of a battle that has long been waged by a group called Women of the Wall, who are demanding they be able to pray in the women’s section wearing tallits — Jewish prayer shawls — and also be permitted to read from the Torah, rights that the rabbi of the Kotel, backed by the police, wouldn’t give them. 

Suddenly, however, the battle has peaked with the assistance of North American Jewry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hearing reports that this issue was becoming highly disruptive in Israel-Diaspora relations, asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to find a solution. About a month ago, Sharansky presented to Jewish leaders a solution that goes well beyond the issue of Women of the Wall. It proposes that the Jewish people take back control of the Kotel, removing power over it from the rabbinate in order to make it a place where all Jews feel comfortable. Sharansky proposed adding a third section, a place where Jews of non-Orthodox practice could pray near the Kotel as they please. 

The proposal was initially well received and seemed to be on the right track. It was, that is, until an Israeli court highly complicated things by ruling against the authority of the rabbinate, thereby turning attention away from the long-term compromise and reigniting the battle over whether women activists can wear tallits in the women’s section.

A climactic moment in this controversy was deflated by the rough humor of the big-mouthed Knesset Member Miri Regev (Likud), the head of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, having just ended a short speech before the committee during its discussion on the Kotel, pulled a tallit from her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. This was no big surprise: Hoffman has always been somewhat theatrical in her presentations. Her opponents attribute such behavior to her desire for public attention — her supporters say drawing such attention is the only way forward to winning her cause, which they believe she is on the verge of achieving.

[Translation of Women of the Wall Jerusalem District Court decision]

That day at the Knesset, though, Hoffman came up against an opponent as capable of grandiose gestures as she is. Regev, head of the committee and not an avid supporter of Women of the Wall — she’s traditional and close to the Orthodox establishment — flatly demanded that Hoffman take off the tallit. The Knesset, Regev said, isn’t a place for shows. Hoffman treated this demand as an insult. Can I not get into the Knesset with a tallit? she asked. Regev refused to play this game of indignation. “Yesterday,” she said, cutting short the discussion, “a group of greengrocers was here, and they weren’t allowed in with their cucumbers either.”

A month and a half have passed since Sharansky presented the outline of his proposal for compromise to Jewish leaders in New York and got a nod of approval. A couple of days later, traveling with Netanyahu to London, he got another nod of approval, and he moved to the planning stages of the process in meetings with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and with National Security Council Adviser Yaakov Amidror. Sharansky’s compromise was moving forward when the judge’s ruling caught its architects by surprise, threatening now to overturn their hope of compromise.

It was a classic case of government folly where everybody is merely doing their job, no one is really at fault, and yet the outcome was unfortunate. On April 11, police detained five Women of the Wall activists — just as it used to do whenever women were caught with a loaded tallit at the Kotel. That same afternoon, the detainees were in court and then released by a judge who couldn’t find any reasonable justification for the arrest. 

The government — sensing a blow to any future similar arrests, and hence to its long-standing position that women can only pray at the Kotel if they abide by the rules set by the rabbi of the Kotel — decided to appeal. Bad mistake: This led to the second decision, by a district court, this time officially repealing Israel’s policy at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall, the judge ruled, can pray there as they wish and the state has no business dictating strict Orthodox custom in the women’s section. Thus, the government lost twice: It not only lost the appeal and its self-proclaimed mandate to manage prayers at the Kotel, but it also lost the path to compromise as the new rule made the implementation of Sharansky’s plan much more complicated, hence reducing the chances of what seems the only solution that could put an end to the ongoing friction.

This was evident in the second Knesset discussion, at which Sharansky himself was invited to speak. He believes a solution to the problem can’t be found at the courts or by attempting to win the case through legislation. But many others seem to have other beliefs. Some are like Hoffman, who feel they are winning without having to compromise. Others are like the Charedi members of Knesset — too angry to listen and in a vindictive mood. On Monday, in a meeting at the Rabbinate Council, Sharansky heard from the rabbis that the Kotel is a red line. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar explained to his guest that Hoffman achieved something remarkable by unifying the Charedi camp. Or, as Amar preferred to describe it at the meeting: “She unified the Israeli society.” 

Sharansky’s plan includes building a new platform at the southern side of the Mughrabi Gate that will serve as a third area for prayer near the Kotel. There, people would be able to pray as they wish, men and women together, Reform and Conservative. In the meeting with the rabbis, the speakers were weary of the objections: Israelis, one of them warned, might actually prefer having the third section. In the rabbinate’s dictionary, giving the public a choice is dangerous. Thus, the rabbis don’t yet approve of the plan and are waiting to hear from the Ministry of Religious Services as to what concessions and guarantees might be extracted from its dialogue with Women of the Wall leadership in exchange for such a section.


 Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, is detained by Israeli police.

Last Sunday afternoon, I called Hoffman in Kansas City, where she was visiting, and found her in no mood for either concessions or guarantees. In recent weeks, Hoffman has changed her tone a little bit, moving from fully supporting the Sharansky plan to fully supporting the “process.” At the Knesset she said she was too busy worrying about “now” to be able to support “an imaginary scenario.” On Sunday, she was even clearer: “I will not commit to a plan on paper.” A veteran of many battles, Hoffman is scarred by unfulfilled promises and unmet commitments. Of course, she wants “a negotiated solution” and “to avoid confrontation,” but right now, with the court on her side, she has little reason to jump onto the compromise train.

Sharansky’s plan, meanwhile, is slowly moving forward according to the schedule he laid out at a Knesset committee meeting. There are licenses to get, plans to finalize, negotiations to conduct. In two weeks’ time, he will have another meeting with the Jewish leadership to whom he initially presented the plan, and they will discover that advances have been made. 

Thinking about the way forward, Sharansky had two obvious obstacles to overcome: first was the archeologists, who voiced vehement opposition to a plan that would put their findings of ancient Jerusalem under the roof of the new platform. At the Knesset meeting, they went as far as threatening Sharansky that they will turn to United Nations’ agencies to put pressure on Israel until it abandons its plan. But talks with them in recent weeks give reason for hope that theirs is a manageable problem. A second possible opposition might stem from sensitivity toward any new construction by Israel in the Holy Basin. Even some proponents of the Sharansky plan wonder whether it can overcome possible objections from Jordanian and Palestinian authorities. In government circles, there was some debate whether Israel should talk to the Jordanians in advance, or whether it would be easier for both sides if Israel doesn’t corner the Jordanians into having to spell out a position on this matter.

These difficulties may be serious, but they pale in comparison to the real threat for the Sharansky plan: that his plan will be deemed extraneous within the Jewish world in light of the court’s decisions. At least in the short term, until everybody comes back to their senses. 

Just as Women of the Wall and some of its allies have altered their postures and are focusing on their post-court-ruling tactics, the Orthodox camp has also toughened its language since the ruling. “Along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, we must examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson’s Arch,” Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, said in a statement. Rabinowitz is a slick and well-connected operator — last week he was the rabbi presiding over the much talked-about wedding of Interior Minister Gideon Saar and celebrity TV anchor Geula Even. For him to reconsider his support of Sharansky is probably a calculated move: He does it because he sees more battles ahead.

Sadly, Rabinowitz is probably correct in this assessment. When it comes to religious affairs, the Jews love the battle more than the compromise and seem ready to keep it going. Knesset Member Yitzhak Herzog, the former minister and cabinet secretary, who was intensely involved in the first Kotel compromise (when the Robinson’s Arch area was first cleared for limited religious use about a decade ago), warns that “those who want an uncompromising legal solution to the problem will only lead to unnecessary confrontation.” Alas, Sharansky seems to be the last man standing who doesn’t want confrontation.

On May 10, Rosh Chodesh Sivan (the first day of the month of Sivan), and following a decision by the attorney general not to appeal the court ruling, women were allowed to pray at the Kotel for the first time without the threat of arrest by police. Of course, this didn’t mean a calm and peaceful prayer. Charedi rabbis — and even some Zionist-Orthodox rabbis — sent thousands of Charedi men and women to protest against the new rules and against the praying women. The protest was, at times, violent and ugly. And the battle became uglier still this week, with a vandal’s painting of graffiti reading “Women of the Wall are scum” and “Jerusalem is holy” on the home of Women of the Wall member Peggy Sidor. 

Some of the rabbis, asked for their interpretation, privately say that the current turmoil is all the fault of the court: “The judge essentially told us that the only way for us to prevent this provocation [Women of the Wall prayer] is to be aggressive,” one of them told me. So, aggressive they intend to be. June 6 will be the next Rosh Chodesh prayer service on the Women of the Wall calendar, and rumors started spreading this week that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, might attend in person, making the June confrontation much more volatile than last month’s — as he will not be coming alone. 

If this battle was only about Women of the Wall’s original goal of praying once a month wearing a tallit in the women’s section, some of the rabbis might have caved by now. “A couple of women coming to the Kotel from time to time with a tallit” is no big deal, one rabbi told me. However, they look at Hoffman and don’t really believe that this is her true endgame. They see in her a determination to keep pushing the envelope. The ultimate goal of Women of the Wall, as an official background document states, is to “enable freedom of religion and freedom of observance for all in the Western Wall.” The meaning of “freedom” and “for all” is open to interpretation, and the Orthodox don’t much trust either Hoffman or the courts to have the interpretive power over such matters.

In fact, the Sharansky compromise is also about much more than Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer. It is about having a Kotel that serves Jews of all stripes and denominations, a Kotel where any Jew can pray, or just visit, without being compelled to abide by rules of Charedi making. Sharansky has an ambitious goal for which he needs partners. But those partners, despite their faith in Sharansky, have little faith in one another, and apparently no one has yet reached the point of battle fatigue.

The women don’t trust the government and see the court victory as a sign that compromise might not be necessary. The Orthodox don’t trust the women and don’t yet understand that Israeli society is changing and is losing patience with Orthodox monopolies. The government doesn’t trust the progressive movements, and suspects — not without reason — that ending the friction at the Kotel would prove to be the beginning of some other conflict somewhere else. The progressive movements don’t trust the Orthodox or the government — and why would they, after so many years of condescending marginalization? 

Thus, as someone jokingly said in a recent meeting with Reform and Conservative leaders, when it comes to the Kotel compromise, “They all behave like Palestinians.” Namely, they would all reject a good compromise in the hope that someday they can have it all. Of course, such an approach could also end in losing it all.

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

How the Jews changed Los Angeles

“Los Angeles today is the bellwether of American style and taste and culture. Los Angeles Jewry is the bellwether of American Jewish life. … Los Angeles Jews are God’s people and they live in the City of the Angels.”

— “Guide to Jewish Los Angeles,” published by the Jewish Federation Council in the 1980s.

When Los Angeles was incorporated as a city in 1850, eight Jews, all bachelors, were included on the population rolls. Today, according to the best estimates, somewhere between 600,000 to 650,000 Jews live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with figures varying depending upon who does the estimating, how they define the geographical boundaries and, indeed, the definition of who is a Jew.

During the intervening 163 years, not only has the size of L.A.’s Jewish community evolved again and again, but so too has its neighborhood concentrations, social standing, occupational preferences and political clout.

On May 10, the Autry National Center in Griffith Park will open its doors to arguably the most ambitious attempt to encapsulate this vibrant history in its exhibition, “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic.”

The exhibition focuses in particular on two historical interactions — the impact of the Jewish community on the evolution of Los Angeles and the way the city, with its multiethnic population, has changed and molded its Jewish residents, in the process creating a Jewish persona distinct in attitude and lifestyle from its East Coast and Midwestern cousins.

At the exhibition’s entry, visitors are introduced to two disparate neighborhoods deeply linked to the evolution of Los Angeles Jewish life — Boyle Heights and Hollywood — and then to the first of the display’s three chronological divisions.

This first section, titled “Remaking Los Angeles/Making Los Angeles (1850-1900),” illustrates the distinctive fact that Jews were part of the city, and indeed of much of the American West, from the beginning, and were not just later immigrants to already well-established cities and towns.

Using maps, models, artifacts, business correspondence and broadsides as emblems of the rich fabric of the region, the show’s curator, Karen S. Wilson, introduces viewers to the community and to the Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1854 as the raw city’s first charitable organization.

The first synagogue, Congregation B’nai B’rith, which evolved into today’s Reform Wilshire Boulevard Temple, followed in 1862, and its ornate architectural home is represented by an elaborate column capital as well as an early embroidery of the Ten Commandments.

Stone capital from exterior synagogue column, circa 1896, courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Life was hard on the new frontier, so early  on in Los Angeles people were judged mainly by their labor, not by their religious or ethnic background. In such an environment, “bigotry was a luxury,” Wilson noted.

The next era, titled “Growing Pains,” spans the first 50 years of the 1900s, a period that proved a setback from the era of equality.

With the completion of the nation’s transcontinental rail links in the late 19th century, white Protestants, mainly from the Midwest, poured into Southern California, bringing with them anti-Semitic attitudes. As a result, social and commercial clubs and institutions, frequently founded by Jews, came to exclude them.

In one response, Jews created “an empire of their own” by inventing the movie industry, led by men with names like Zucker, Goldwyn (born Shmuel Gelbfisz, later Anglicized to Samuel Goldfish) and Mayer as the founding fathers. The immense legacy of the early history of the industry, and its impact on the region, is telescoped in the Autry show, represented by a single camera used in the shooting of “The Squaw Man” in 1918 and the program for the 1923 premiere of “The Ten Commandments” at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre.

The impresario Sid Grauman, who four years later would open the even gaudier Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, also illustrated in the exhibition, demonstrated that the Jewish impact on Hollywood extended well beyond just film producers and directors.

Linking two Jewish eras in the West, Grauman as a boy traveled with his father to the Yukon as Gold Rush prospectors.

Set of film “The Squaw Man,” 1913, Los Angeles Public Library Collection.

Jews also composed much of the popular music of the era, which can be heard at listening stations in the galleries.

Throughout the decades, the resident Jewish community was enlarged and invigorated by the arrival of newcomers. The early 20th century saw the arrival of Jews mainly from Eastern Europe, augmented by some from Mediterranean countries. In the 1930s, Jews exiled by the Nazi regime became major figures in the city’s intellectual and artistic life, and various artifacts and letters illustrate the attempts of film director Billy Wilder, conductor Otto Klemperer and composer Arnold Schoenberg and their émigré circle to establish themselves in the New World.

As Los Angeles’ Jewish community grew, it also laid the groundwork for new social service agencies, medical institutions (as well as fundraising techniques), including the City of Hope and the precursor of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, founded as the Kaspare Cohn Hospital in 1902 by businessman Kaspare Cohn.

The exhibition’s third and final epoch, titled “Possibility & Prosperity (1950s-2000s),” features the contributions of Jewish entrepreneurs and professionals in developing vast suburban housing tracts and new architectural styles, fashions and artistic expressions.

[‘Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic’ exhibition related events and programs]

In politics, Jews who once played prominent roles behind the scenes stepped out in front, such as the young City Councilwoman Rosalind (Roz) Wyman, who was instrumental in bringing the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles in 1958.

One photo from that era, showing Wyman with the great Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, encapsulates the rise of a new generation of young Jews entering — and succeeding — in fields generally considered non-Jewish domains.

Locally, as elsewhere, Jewish involvement has helped to nourish the fine arts and artists, and the donations in those arenas have, in turn, helped to add to the social stature of the major givers.

The Jewish community made major strides in bridging a deep-seated social separation with other religious and ethnic groups, through gifts to create — together with the Protestant establishment philanthropists — the new Music Center. One of the largest donors was Mark Taper, whose name continues to grace the landmark theater.

Design protesting the Vietnam War by Lorraine Art Schneider, “Primer,” 1966.

Jews also played a major role in helping to elect Tom Bradley as the city’s first black mayor, backing the civil rights movement, and, in later years, fueling the anti-Vietnam War protests.

The convergence of the black community with the Jewish world can be felt in a recording from 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, which can be heard at an exhibition listening station. Among other community actions saluted here is the drive by young Jewish activists to help their brethren in the Soviet Union and to establish the first gay and lesbian synagogue. Los Angeles is also home to the first Holocaust museum, established by survivors.

Two iconic American figures, Mattel’s Barbie and Ken, make an unexpected appearance in the show, illustrating innovative Jewish thinking in updating historical artifacts, such as dolls, to meet the tastes of a new city and generation.

These icons were created by Ruth Handler, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and part of a rising cadre of women entrepreneurs; she named Barbie, introduced in 1959, and Ken after her own daughter and son. Always keeping up with the times, Handler, then president of Mattel, also introduced African-American and Latina Barbies in 1980.

Located toward the end of the exhibition is a “public square” that encourages visitors to share their own views of L.A.’s Jewish future, in line with the city’s “particularly Western ethos of unfettered reinvention,” as Wilson put it.

Initial planning for this exhibition started as far back as 2003, on the heels of the Autry’s “Jewish Life in the American West” exhibition, which drew the largest attendance in the museum’s history, up to that time.

Wilson, the Kahn postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, was appointed as guest curator in 2007. She acknowledged that even with 5,000 square feet of floor space, 150 artifacts, 80 photographs, two listening stations featuring more than 50 songs, five videos and two spoken-word audio excerpts, visitors will inevitably find gaps in this presentation of Los Angeles Jewish life and history.     

For instance, Wilson said, the show includes little mention of the city’s many eminent rabbis or its prominent Jewish neighborhoods, nor does it cover the rise of the garment industry or the role of Jews here in law enforcement and politics.

However, Wilson emphasized that the main aim of the exhibition — in line with the Autry’s primary mission — is to look “outwardly” at the interactions of Jews with the rest of Los Angeles, rather than “inwardly” to the makeup of the Jewish community.

Given this outlook, she said, “It was inevitable that representative choices would have to be made, with a few ‘case study’ institutions standing in for hundreds of others. … The history of the Jews in Los Angeles is so rich and ever evolving.

“If this exhibition leaves us wanting more,” Wilson said, “then we have done a good job.”

Much additional information will be available through a richly illustrated catalog, also titled “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” published by the Autry and University of California Press and available at the museum’s store. In addition, an extensive program of talks, symposia, film screenings, musical events and city bus tours will be offered during the exhibit’s run through Jan. 5 of next year. (See additional story for highlights.)

For additional information, visit or phone (323) 667-2000.

Anti-Semitic incidents rise by 5 percent in Britain

Anti-Semitic incidents in Britain rose 5 percent over the previous year, making 2012 the third highest number of incidents on record.

The Community Service Trust, British Jewry's security unit, reported Thursday that there were 640 reported anti-Semitic incidents, compared to 608 in 2011.

Some 100 of the incidents were reported as part of a new joint program with the Metropolitan Police Service, the police force of the Greater London area. Under the new program, there was a reported 55 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in London. Without the police incidents, the report would have shown an 11 percent decrease in total incidents.

Sixty of the incidents were classified as “violent anti-Semitic assaults.” The majority of the incidents, however, included verbal attacks and graffiti. Social media also was  a source of many of the incidents.

“While these statistics show more is being done to share information, they are a stark reminder of the presence of anti-Semitism in our society,” said British lawmaker Eric Pickles, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government. “Every one of these incidents is an affront to decency, and we must continue to remain vigilant to these sort of attacks.

“It is encouraging that the Jewish community are now more confident in speaking out and reporting anti-Semitic incidents to the police and the Community Security Trust, as improved reporting of hate crime makes it easier to assess the scale of the problem and determine what further measures are needed.”

In Europe, big gaps exist among security precautions at Jewish institutions

Within hours of Israel's assassination of a top Hamas commander, the situation room sprang into action, anticipating retaliatory attacks and preparing instructions to keep civilians out of harm's way.

No, the room wasn't deep in a bunker beneath Jerusalem, but thousands of miles away — and at a seemingly safe remove from the violence on the ground — in London.

It was the situation room of the Community Security Trust, British Jewry’s security agency, which was open for business within hours of Israel's killing of Ahmed Jabari last week.

The CST has long been considered the gold standard in European Jewish community security. But communities across the continent recognize that they are all at risk from anti-Semitic attacks, which often spike in the wake of Israeli military operations, and are struggling to ramp up security precautions despite the often prohibitive costs.

“There’s no telling what would ignite the next wave of attacks against our communities,” Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, said at a crisis management training session that drew leaders from 36 Jewish communities to Brussels on Nov. 6, eight days before the Israeli military launched its Operation Pillar of Defense. “It could be hostilities between Israel and Iran or in Gaza or a stupid film on Muslims in YouTube. We have to assume it’s coming.”

Nine months after a deadly attack by a Muslim extremist claimed four lives at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, European Jewish leaders are beginning to take steps to address some glaring gaps in the security capabilities of the continent's Jewish communities. But the process is hindered by the enormous costs involved and differing views of where the primary responsibility lies for ensuring Jewish safety.

Approximately half of Europe's Jewish communities have no crisis-management plan in place. Even in large communities demonstrably at risk of attack like France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish community of about 500,000, security resources remain scarce and some congregations have virtually no protection. While CST's situation room was humming last week, the offices of the organization's French counterpart were unreachable by phone or email.

“Nine months ago, Jewish communities in Europe received a wake-up call when Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Muslim radical, killed three children and a rabbi in Toulouse,” said Arie Zuckerman, secretary-general of the European Jewish Fund, which bankrolls much of the EJC’s activity. “At the same time, the spike in anti-Semitic attacks coincides with a recession which is hampering communities’ ability to carry the burden of security costs.”

In Toulouse, the Otzar Hatorah school had surveillance cameras in place and a tall fence around the perimeter, but no one monitored the video feed and there was no guard, which allowed Merah to easily enter the compound toting a gun. Insiders from that community spoke of “a total collapse” immediately after the attack.

“In such an event, which has the potential of destroying a community, crisis management can restore a sense of order and enhance the community’s resilience,” said Ariel Muzicant, the former head of the Austrian Jewish community and head of the EJC crisis-management task force.

Only 20 of the 36 communities in the EJC have crisis-management programs, which determine who does what in case of emergency. In Marseille, where 80,000 Jews live among 250,000 Muslims, there is no security guard present even at prayer time and during Hebrew school lessons at the French city's Jewish community center and great synagogue. On a recent Sunday, walking into the complex simply meant pushing open the front door, which remained unlocked.

Among European Jewish communities, British Jewry is the undisputed security leader. The CST has five offices, dozens of employees and thousands of volunteers, drawn mainly from Britain’s Jewish population of 250,000. Since 2008, CST has installed about 1,000 closed-circuit cameras and digital video recorders in dozens of buildings, and has trained 400 British police officers on hate crimes.

The SPCJ, French Jewry’s security unit, did not respond to questions about its budget, size or procedures. But Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities of France, said SPCJ had a “vast network of dedicated volunteers.” The unit is particularly visible in Paris, where Jewish schools and buildings receive robust protection by SPCJ guards and police.

The CST budget was $5.8 million last year, which it raised through donations and government subsidies. The budget is more than double that of Britain’s Board of Jewish Deputies, the country's main Jewish umbrella organization, and far larger than most European Jewish security organs. Smaller communities, most of which are less than one-fifth the size of Britain’s, can only dream of deploying security resources at that scale.

“The subject of funding for security is particularly painful for Europe’s smaller communities,” said Anne Sender, a former president of the Jewish Community of Oslo, which has just 750 members. “We simply don’t have the deep pockets that larger communities have.”

Norway's Jews spend just $87,000 annually on security — about half of what they raise each year in fees that also support education and religious services, according to Ervin Kohn, the community's current president.

Kohn launched a media campaign that persuaded the government to make a one-time grant of $1.2 million this year to protect Norwegian Jews. It was half of what Kohn had sought to ensure security at a “reasonable level” over the next few years, he said.

In response to Kohn’s efforts, a known Muslim extremist last month wrote on Facebook that he would “protect” the synagogue right after he gets an “AK-47 rifle and a hunting license.” In 2006, a Muslim extremist opened fire with a semiautomatic assault rifle on the synagogue.

Unlike in Britain, where security is largely seen as the community's concern, other European Jews see it as the government's responsibility.

“I pay for Jewish life, not Jewish security,” said Eric Argaman of Oslo, who pays about $200 a year in community membership fees. “That’s the government’s job.”

Elsewhere in Scandinavia, Jewish leaders recognize that they cannot rely solely on the government. In Sweden, with a Jewish population of about 20,000, authorities have made a one-time grant of approximately $500,000 for security at Jewish institutions — a sum that doesn't “begin to cover costs,” according to Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities.

In Malmo, Sweden's third largest city and the site of dozens of anti-Semitic incidents each year — including a bomb attack in September on the Jewish community center — there is only one part-time security professional, according to Jonas Zolken, regional director for Sweden at the Nordic Jewish Security Council. In Denmark, where the capital city lies just over the Oresund Bridge from Malmo, the government offers no security funding for the country’s 8,000 Jews.

“Our experience shows we need to cooperate with local police and security authorities, but ultimately can rely on no one but ourselves,” said Johan Tynell, the Malmo-born director of security for Denmark’s Jewish community.

In the Netherlands, with 40,000 Jews, the community spends more than $1 million on security without any significant help from the government, according to Dennis Mok, the community’s security officer.

“Even after Toulouse, the official Dutch position is that there is no elevated threat toward the Jewish community,” Mok said. “We, of course, have a different view.”

To free communities from depending on the threat assessments and budgetary constraints of national governments, the European Jewish Congress has been lobbying European leaders to arrange for security funding from the European Union. French President Francois Hollande and Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas already have said they would support the initiative, Kantor told JTA.

Meanwhile, the EJC announced it was establishing a continent-wide security fund, but did not specify how much would be allocated. The congress also has teamed up with the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps to help small communities lower security costs. The corps, a nonprofit international organization that aims to empower young Jewish professionals, will send its “most capable” crisis advisers “to help small Jewish communities build foundations for defense,” according to its director, Michael Colson.

Moreover, some Jewish leaders say much more can be done, even on a shoestring budget. Tynell said at the conference that Jewish professionals should be recruited as volunteer crisis managers and given responsibility for talking to the media, doing internal communications, coordinating with local authorities and even delivering kosher food to anyone who might be hospitalized.

“When these things are left to chance, the resulting mess compounds the trauma which members of the community will experience in a crisis,” Tynell said. “Prevent this or your community members will suffer for a long time.”

BBC correspondent slammed for ‘Jewish lobby’ tweet

The umbrella organization of British Jewry criticized the BBC's correspondent in Washington for referring to the “Jewish lobby” in a tweet about the U.S. election.

Katty Kay used the term in a question-and-answer session on Twitter, raising the ire of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Kay was asked by a tweeter late last month why U.S presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney became defensive when their commitment to Israel was questioned. She replied, “US sees #Israel as key ally in MidEast but no one running for Pres wants to alienate the power and money of the Jewish lobby.”

Board of Deputies head Jon Benjamin told the British newspaper The Jewish Chronicle that the reporter’s “loose use of language really has to be seen in a context where support for America’s key ally in the Middle East is cynically questioned — and the motives of Israel’s supporters are seen as suspect.”

A BBC spokesman told the newspaper that Kay's “primary point in responding was that the U.S. regards Israel as a key ally in the Middle East and also recognizes the importance and influence of this relationship on the voting.”

In France, Marseille Jews look to Paris and worry that their calm may be fleeting

At a time when Jewish institutions across France resemble military fortresses for their security, entering the great synagogue and main Jewish center of this picturesque city on the Mediterranean coast is as easy as pushing open the front door.

The only obstacles on a recent Sunday were 20 children scampering around on their break from Hebrew school.

That same day in Paris, prosecutors announced that they may never catch all the known 10 members of a domestic, jihadist network described by French authorities  as “very dangerous” and responsible for detonating a grenade in a kosher store near Paris last month.

Days earlier, French Jewry’s security unit, the SPCJ, reported a 45 percent rise in anti-Semitic attacks this year, mostly by Muslims — part of an “explosion” of incidents after the March 19 killings of three children and a rabbi in Toulouse by a French-born Muslim extremist. Terrorists may try to infiltrate synagogues on reconnaissance missions, SPCJ also warned recently.

Yet while the 350,000 Jews in and around Paris — more than any other city in Europe — have seen violent convulsions with increasing frequency, Jews here in France’s second-largest Jewish community have enjoyed relative calm.

But many of the 80,000 or so Jews who live in relative peace next to an estimated 250,000 Arabs in this seaside city of 800,000 worry that things could get worse.

In Marseille, Jewish leaders and laymen say they wear their kipahs without fear of attack, offering varying explanations for how the peace is maintained: Some cite interfaith dialogue, others point to geographic segregation and a few make mention of the deterrent threat of Jewish gangsters.

From 2009 to 2011, there were twice as many anti-Semitic attacks per capita in Paris proper than in Marseille, according to an analysis of 1,397 incidents recorded by SPCJ. Only 59 attacks were registered here in those years, compared to 340 in Paris proper.

Michele Teboul, the regional representative of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, says these relatively low figures are part of “the miracle of Marseille.” She credits mainly the work of an interfaith dialogue group that the municipality established in 1991.

But Teboul, a businesswoman and mother of three, is worried that this effect is wearing off as “mosques continue to preach hatred” and the city’s Jewish and Muslim communities drift apart physically and mentally.

Elie Berrebi, director of Marseille’s Central Jewish Consistory — the institution responsible for administering religious services for French Jews — describes the presence of “a small but well-positioned” Jewish mafia as a deterrent to would-be Muslim aggressors, saying that attacking Jews here carries special risks.

“It’s a well-known secret that this community has its own gangsters,” he said. “Not many, but in powerful positions in that world. They speak the language of the other side’s criminals.”

Approximately 50 Jewish gangsters from Marseille are currently in jail, where the Jewish community offers them what services it can, according to Berrebi. One of them, identified only as Daniel S., was the subject of a feature published in August by the French weekly Marianne titled the “The revival of the Jewish Mafia.”

Bruno Benjamin, president of the Marseille Jewish community, dismisses the Jewish gangster theory.

“The Arabs have many more gangsters,” he said.

In 2002, Marseille saw the first synagogue arson attributed to anti-Semitism since World War II when the northern Or Aviv shul was burnt to the ground.

“Since the early 2000s, we’ve been seeing long periods of calm interrupted by eruptions of anti-Semitism,” Berrebi said. Jews in Marseille’s northern parts “have been hit pretty hard,” he said, since the early 2000s, when anti-Semitic attacks spiked in France.

Since then, the city’s Jewish population has gravitated away from the center and northern Marseilles in favor of middle-class neighborhoods in the city’s south, which Berrebi describes as safer. Approximately 80 percent of Marseille’s Jews now live in that part of town, he says. Arab families also are migrating from the center northward and eastward to working-class areas.

The separation is a mixed blessing, Berrebi says. While it insulates Jewish families from potential Muslim aggressors, “it means that there is a new generation growing up without knowing Jews, with a strong us-versus-them notion,” he said.

Berrebi arrived here as a boy in 1967. Like 90 percent of Marseille’s Jews, his family emigrated from North Africa shortly after the Maghreb — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia — gained independence from France in the 1950s. Arabs also came in large numbers and settled in the same neighborhoods as the Jews.

“We used to live together. My generation and the previous one had a lot of commercial exchange with the Arabs,” he said. This familiarity prevented hate crimes, he said, “but the younger generations have lost it.”

Meanwhile, one of Marseille’s biggest problems is unemployment — 30 percent above the national average in 2012 — and the accompanying crime. In 2011, some 26 physical assaults occurred here daily, and armed robbery rose by 40 percent from 2010, according to police statistics.

Lawlessness always seems to be nearby, with ethnic tensions roiling just beneath the surface. In July, what began on the street as a robbery ended in rape and assault after the perpetrator — a Muslim man whom authorities judged to be mentally unsound — saw his elderly victim’s mezuzah on the front doorway of her home, according to her account.

On Saturday, a convoy of seven reckless drivers raced down Rue Paradis, near the city’s great synagogue. In one car, women ululated while the driver swerved violently in consecutive hand-brake skids. In another, five men shouted and waved the Algerian flag. A passing police car only provoked them to intensify their conduct, then passed them.

Benjamin, Marseille’s Jewish community president, credited the non-confrontational approach of city authorities in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods with keeping things quiet.

“Some of the relative peace here owes to police not kicking those hornets’ nests,” he said.

Other members of the community praise Marseille Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin’s “declaredly pro-Israel” attitude.

“It sets the tone and discourages pro-Palestinian sentiment from turning anti-Semitic,” Berrebi said.

Even so, when Berrebi’s daughter wanted to move to Israel, he said he did not try to dissuade her. “There’s a growing realization we won’t be able to stay here indefinitely,” he said.

Jean-Jaques Zenou, 40, is the president of Radio JM, the area’s Jewish radio station. The Marseille native says he wishes his five children would immigrate to Israel.

“Even in Marseille, I get frightened when I stop to compare our reality to that of the 1990s,” he told JTA. “We have terrorist networks, a very strong far right. And what happened in Toulouse.”

Zenou says the community “may be behaving naively” by sufficing with relatively lax security arrangements.

“After all,” he said, “it’s not like the Jewish community of Toulouse ever expected what happened there.”

Jordan’s King to address British Jewry

King Abdullah of Jordan will address the Board of Deputies of British Jews at its annual dinner, the Jewish Chronicle reported. The November event’s theme is multiculturalism, interfaith and world peace, the newspaper said.

King Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, attended the board’s annual dinner more than a decade ago.

The Board of Deputies is the representative organization of British Jewry.

Representatives of Britain’s Jewish community met in June with King Abdullah.

Fear and Daniel Gordis

For reasons I can’t quite understand, many leaders in the pro-Israel community continue to insist that the young generation of American Jews has abandoned Israel.

That’s just not true. 

“Ours is the first generation in which the centrality of Zion in Jewish dreams is beginning to fade,” Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote in this week’s Tablet, an online Jewish magazine. “It is fading rapidly, and we know why. … [A] younger generation for whom war is anathema and occupation is morally unbearable has begun to drift away. …Young Jews today, discouraged by Israeli policies that they cannot abide, either explicitly or tacitly join those who condemn the Jewish State.”

Cut to:

John F. Kennedy International Airport, Aug. 14. Amid the bustling crowd, one group of 15 men and women, ages 18 to 22, all clad in dark green T-shirts, stands out. Although they shout to one another in English, their T-shirts have just Hebrew writing: “Olim Tzahal” — Israeli Army Immigrants.

They are on their way to join the Israel Defense Forces.

This year, a record group of 127 men and women flew on the Soldier Aliyah flight sponsored by the Israeli immigration group Nefesh b’Nefesh. Thirty-two of these young volunteers are from the greater Los Angeles area. They were joining an increasing number of young Angelenos who choose to enlist in the IDF.

I know a lot of these kids. Ezra, the Milken student who lives down the block and used to carpool with my son — soon he’ll be driving a tank. Alexi Rosenfeld, who just graduated from Milken, snapped the “class picture” of the group at JFK Airport and sent it to me with a note, “Hi Rob, As you may remember I have decided to join the IDF and will be postponing my photography career (unless the IDF sends me back!).” The daughter of a friend who is participating in secret training maneuvers in the Negev. The son of another friend, who just completed parachute training.

But this is just a small group, right? Anecdotal evidence is hardly proof that the rest of American Jewish youth isn’t drifting away. 

Except it just isn’t.

Gordis writes: “A recent study asked American Jews if the destruction of Israel would be a personal tragedy for them. … Amazingly, 50 percent of those 35 years old and younger said that Israel’s destruction would not be a personal tragedy.”

Amazingly! Amazingly, Gordis considers a study conducted in 2006 to be “recent.” And amazingly he neglects to mention a truly recent study that completely contradicts his point. In May 2012, Steven M. Cohen, who conducted the 2006 survey, completed a new study that found “Non-Orthodox younger Jews, ages 35 and under, are substantially more attached to Israel than those ages 35-44.”

That’s right: There is no evidence Israel is losing the next generation of American Jews. In fact, the opposite is true.

This proves a couple of things: 

1. Never ask a young person if the loss of anything would be a “personal tragedy,” unless you’re talking about his immediate family member or his fake I.D.

2. In the pro-Israel community, bad news travels fast, good news takes the 405 at rush hour.

Trading on the “next generation” fear is a useful device for Jewish leaders across the political spectrum. Peter Beinart got a whole book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” out of it. 

“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at the door,” Beinart famously and hyperbolically wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Except, of course, they haven’t.

Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award for “Saving Israel.” Get it? “Saving Israel,” “The Crisis of Zionism” — though Beinart and Gordis disagree publicly, and stridently, on Israeli policies, they have a kind of Mutual B.S. Pact, bonded together in their common fear mongering. 

So why? Why do we insist on looking at the dark side? The thing we most repress comes to define us, Carl Jung once said. If the Jewish people’s shadow is fear, is it surprising that Israel adopted as its national anthem, Hatikvah, “The Hope?”

We want hope, but we can’t quite embrace it. And when good news comes, when our hopes are realized, we continue to live in its opposite. 

In the case of Israel, I believe that’s because the truth is just a bit messier than Gordis and many in the pro-Israel community would have it. The point of Gordis’ (truly) recent essay is that American Jewry depends on Israel for its very survival.

“This is the point that today’s younger generation of American Jews simply do not understand,” he writes. “American Jewish life as it now exists would not survive the loss of Israel.” 

Hard to argue with a sentence that includes the phrase “as it now exists.” Because it’s impossible to imagine a world without Israel in which Israel’s largest protector and supporter, the United States of America, would turn its back on its ally, or not have the power to protect it. In that scenario, the loss of Israel might be just one of a host of American Jewish worries.

But dangling visions of post-nuclear Armageddon before us is just Gordis’ way of trying to tell us how much Israel strengthens American Jewish identity.

“Jews today no longer think of themselves as a tiptoeing people,” he writes. “Without the State of Israel, the self-confidence and sense of belonging that American Jews now take for granted would quickly disappear.”

Again, after the Apocalypse I’m not sure our biggest worry will be our depleted self-confidence, but so be it. 

Where Gordis, and to a lesser extent Beinart, misread or misrepresent young American Jews is in not defining more carefully the word, “Israel.”

The American Jewish romance with Israel, like America’s relationship with Israel more generally, changed dramatically after the Six-Day War in 1967. What had been a largely supportive community turned overnight into a passionate, proud and activist one. After that war, romance turned into love.

The reasons for this are integral to understanding the truly recent statistics.

In 1967, Israel fought and won a defensive war against daunting odds. Israel was restrained until it couldn’t be, tough and brilliant when it had to be and united as much as it ever would be. The Six-Day War burned an ideal of Israel deep into the American, and American Jewish, psyche.

In the 45 years since, the closer Israel comes to achieving that ideal, the more American Jews are drawn to it. The farther it drifts, the farther their affections do as well.

So when Gordis writes that it is Israel that has stiffened American Jewry’s spine, he is only half right. It is a certain kind of Israel — that state that strives toward its ideal state — that resonates, and will always resonate, with American Jewish youth.

There is no blank check of American Jewish love for Israel, but there is a lot of money, a ton of money, in the account. The idea that support for Israel has ever been completely independent of its actions is ahistorical, and doesn’t apply to any Jewish group — Orthodox, right, left, secular.

The bottom line is this: If we who love Israel worry about quality, the quantity will take care of itself.

You can—you should—follow Rob Eshman on Twitter @foodaism.

U.S. Jewry faces challenge as national movements decline

We are in the midst of one of the most significant downturns of traditional membership-based organizations in this country’s history.  Unions, service clubs, membership organizations and umbrella institutions are all reporting a decline in members and affiliates. Of particular importance is the marked decline in ideologically based social and religious movements.

According to social scientists, these trends date back to the 1970s as Americans began nearly half a century ago to pull back from their civic connections. Pamela Paxton of the University of Texas has suggested that democracy is based on having citizens connected with one another in promoting a shared identity and a mutual sense of responsibility. Any decline in civic participation is seen by Paxton as problematic to our democracy as it undermines the social capital of a society.

More recently, a combination of factors seems to have accelerated this pattern of disaffiliation. The economic crisis and the loss of trust in institutions are seen as two key elements. Loyalty to particular institutions has given way to a new consumer mentality where the value of acquiring the “best deal” has replaced the ideal of sustaining one’s organizational commitments.

Life-long loyalty to traditional institutional relationships has given way to a growing investment in single-issue initiatives and to specific social causes. In today’s marketplace, there are multiple and competing options with regard to affiliation and participation. In turn, the millennials represent a generation that is more readily prepared to jettison their parents’ institutional choices in favor of alternative ways to engage in the public square. Social networks for this generation are replacing traditional membership patterns.

For the Jewish community, these declining numbers are particularly problematic, as we are witnessing a transformational change across the nation in the composition and structure of our institutions. The closing of synagogues, the merger of schools, the downsizing of national organizations and the retrenchment of personnel reflect the contemporary communal landscape.  In the end, fewer Jews are supporting more of these core institutions.

Religious movements from all faith traditions are confronting an array of institutional pressures including the loss of members, policy conflicts over doctrine and practice, and leadership challenges. The Indiana University Center on Philanthropy reported that “increased competition from a proliferating number of non-religious organizations, a decrease in church attendance, and a general lack of sophistication within religious institutions regarding fundraising” represent specific factors that might be contributing to this decline within the religious sector. Experts on religious movements have suggested that a number of these bodies were constructed around “slow-moving bureaucracies that need to find a way to stay nimble in the 21st century.”

This declining confidence in institutions is not unique to religion. Americans are less confident in the leaders of many kinds of structures than they were in the 1970s. Still, confidence in religious leaders has declined faster than with representatives of other institutions. People now express as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, with public figures from other major institutions.

As a result of these social pressures and changing demographic trends, we can document a series of specific trends within the Jewish institutional world. Organizations report a return to localism, where institutions with global and national ties are opting instead to focus their resources in community-based efforts. Local affiliates appear often unwilling to sustain their levels of commitment to their parent or national governing units. Correspondingly, national systems faced with declining resources have been forced to downsize their service delivery options and curtail national programs.

As local institutions and their membership base are experiencing a rapid change in the types of services and resources required to manage their operations, community-based groups are frequently bypassing their national partners in favor of securing assistance from other types of management and organizational service centers. In this new paradigm, Jewish organizations will need to demonstrate a level of risk-taking in delivering their messages and in packaging their services if they wish to capture unaffiliated and disconnected Jews as well as reconnect with their former membership base.

Religious movements and national institutions inside the Jewish world will need to address these challenges by investing in an array of new strategies that will focus their energies on leadership development, infrastructural reorganization, social networks, and alternative policy and program initiatives that are designed to recapture the attention of the “street,” i.e. the general public. Movements of all types need to reframe their core messages as a way to affirm their legitimacy and brand their identity. Creating centers of learning and action will be core to a movement’s sustainability and growth. In the past, highly successful institutions had the luxury of ignoring their competitors, yet in more recent times, most great organizations have learned to build alliances, create partnerships and systematically enter into arrangements where allied or competitive groups were integrated or merged into their system. 

If movements and national institutions are to regain their legitimacy and standing within American Jewish life, they will need to assert a more transparent policy process, frame messages that respond to the values and behaviors of the millennial generation and serve the needs of the baby-boomer community, as well as reflect a structural nimbleness necessary to compete in the 21st century marketplace.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on

British Jewry rips Church of England’s vote to support ‘inflammatory’ pro-Palestinian program

Britain’s organized Jewish community slammed the Church of England’s General Synod for endorsing an “inflammatory and partisan” pro-Palestinian program.

The Synod on Tuesday passed a motion to support “the vital work” of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. The program brings church volunteers to the West Bank to “experience life under occupation” for three to four months, spending about one week inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel.

Participants are asked to lobby on behalf of the Palestinians upon their return.

The British Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s umbrella organization, issued a statement Tuesday ripping the vote.

“The Church of England has a duty to examine the situation in the Middle East in a balanced way,” the board wrote. “Instead, by passing this motion, it has chosen to promote an inflammatory and partisan program at the expense of its interfaith relations. Justifying its decision using the views of marginal groups in Israel and the UK, the Synod has ridden roughshod over the very real and legitimate concerns of the UK Jewish community, showing a complete disregard for the importance of Anglican-Jewish relations.”

The statement went to say, “Moreover, to hear the debate at Synod littered with references to ‘powerful lobbies’, the money expended by the Jewish community, ‘Jewish-sounding names’ and the actions of the community ‘bringing shame on the memory of victims of the Holocaust’, is deeply offensive and raises serious questions about the motivation of those behind this motion.”

The Times of Israel quoted the bishop of Manchester, the Right Rev. Nigel McCullouch, chairman of the British interfaith group the Council of Christians and Jews, as saying that lobbying efforts on the part of the Jewish community to prevent the passage of the motion may have backfired, causing more delegates to vote for the motion, which passed with 201 bishops, clergy and laity voting in favor, 54 voting against and 93 abstaining.

McCullouch told the Times of Israel that the fact that so many abstained is “very significant.”

“It was not an overwhelming endorsement by the Church of England,” the bishop said.

Opinion: Responses to readers on the left

I am devoting this column to responding to letters published in response to my last column, “Our Golden Calf” (March 9), because the topic is so important. If American Jewry’s embrace of leftism has not been a blessing for the Jews, then Jewish life is in trouble. On the other hand, if this embrace has been a blessing, Jewish life should be in great shape. It is hard to imagine, however, that many concerned Jews believe that American Jewish life is in great shape.

I salute The Jewish Journal for welcoming such dialogue. There is virtually no publication with a largely liberal readership that allows for non-left writers to interact with readers.

For some reason, I was shown only Doug Mirell’s letter prior to publication, so I responded to him in the last issue.

I will therefore begin with Barbara H. Bergen, whose blood pressure, she writes, both I and Red Bull raise.

Ms. Bergen’s letter illustrates the point of my article — that leftism causes decent people to say or do bad or foolish things.

Take, for example, her defense of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s statement that he respects the Muslim veil (which, I wrote, is “one of the most dehumanizing behaviors to women practiced in the world today”). How does she defend it? By comparing the veil to “Orthodox women in our own community who wear heavy wigs and headscarves along with ankle- and wrist-covering clothes in the California heat.”

“Could we find that equally ‘dehumanizing?’ ” she asks.

Only leftism — with its commitment to never harshly judging Islam and to multiculturalism — can explain how an intelligent person can morally compare wearing a wig, a headscarf, long sleeves or ankle-length skirts with never being allowed to show one’s face in public.

Martin A. Brower writes that it is not leftism that is our golden calf, but “Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater’s definition of the golden calf — ultimate truths, especially those ‘truths’ held by the right.”

This is another example of leftism causing people to say awful and irrational things. Ultimate truths constitute a false god? Do these people really believe that there are no ultimate truths? Is that what years at a Jewish seminary taught a rabbi, and what a college education taught Mr. Brower? How about, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Or, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”? Or, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …”? And what is the claim that there are no ultimate truths, if not something that purports to be an ultimate truth? I cannot think of a more morally distortive teaching than that there are no ultimate truths. This is how the left has created the moral relativism of our time — by teaching a generation that there are no moral truths because good and evil are purely a matter of opinion.

Leonard Kass begins his letter with: “Dennis Prager has written articles that consistently conflate liberalism with communism.”

There is no truth to that charge. I specifically wrote: “Leftism, not liberalism, has been the Jews’ golden calf… .”

Moreover, my reference to communism was to not to conflate liberalism, or even leftism, with communism but to note how many Jews have supported communism. I offered as examples the Yiddish press in the 1920s, which was the most pro-Soviet press in the Western world, and the many Jews who were leading communists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. One might add that many leftists who were not communist found more to hate in anti-communism than in communism.

Jacob Cherub writes: “Throughout history there have been repugnant dictatorships on both the left and right,” and their “repression and brutality is really no different than communist repression and brutality.” He then cites, among other examples, fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Nazi Germany, various Latin American dictators, the shah in Iran, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Ne Win in Burma and Sudan’s Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.

This is close to constituting a perfect example of how leftist teachings pervert history and thereby distort the thinking of those who believe those teachings.

It is morally indefensible that anyone would write — after the communist genocides in China (65 million to 75 million), Ukraine (5 million to 7 million), Russia (about another 20 million to 30 million), North Korea and Cambodia — that there is no difference between communist regimes and other kinds of dictatorships.

There are two rather significant things wrong with Mr. Cherub’s list of dictators: Many are not rightists, and none came close to communism in terms of the number of people murdered and enslaved. Yet, nearly everyone on the left thinks as Mr. Cherub does, namely, that left and non-left dictatorships (they label all non-left dictatorships “right”) are morally equivalent. That is why so many on the left supported the Khomeini revolution — anything would be an improvement over the right-wing shah, the left reasoned. But, of course, what replaced the shah has led to incomparably more suffering among Iranians than under the shah — not to mention the first threat of Jewish genocide since the Holocaust.

But it’s not only about the shah that Mr. Cherub is so wrong.

While Mugabe is indeed a monster, he is no rightist. In fact, he is a self-described Marxist. And his destruction of Zimbabwe has been done entirely in the name of African solidarity and fighting white racism.

So, too, Sudan’s al-Bashir is not a rightist; he is an Islamist.

And as regards Nazism, it was neither right-wing nor left-wing (even though Nazism stood for “National Socialism”). It was sui generis, a unique racial, not rightist, doctrine.

Mr. Cherub ends his letter: “It seems Prager wants to paint anyone politically to his left as evil and comparable with Stalin and the like.”

Apparently it doesn’t matter to some people that I have written in every column concerning the left that there are good and bad people on both the right and the left. And while I am convinced that leftism has damaged Jewish life and almost everyone and everything else it has strongly influenced, I find it quite easy to distinguish between people with left-wing opinions — many of whom I know to be fine people — and leftism. I have never in my life written, said, implied or even thought that anyone politically to my left is comparable with Stalin and the like. That is a smear.

Syd H. Hershfield writes the one thoughtful letter among those criticizing my column. Like my article, his letter deals with issues, not personal attacks. He defends Jews who sided with Lenin and Stalin as having been so burned by czarist anti-Semitism that they supported whatever supplanted it. This is an explanation — at least for those communism-supporting Jews who escaped czarist Russia — but it is not a moral defense of them, and certainly not of American-born Jews who supported communism. Would Mr. Hershfield defend Ukrainians who sided with the Nazis because Ukrainians suffered under the Soviets (even more so than the Jews did under the czars)?

Finally, I thank Jeffrey P. Lieb for his thoughtful letter about how disheartening he finds Jewish support for the left. Perhaps it will console to him to learn that slowly but surely, more and more identifying Jews are rejecting leftism.

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 (

Examining unconventional Judaism at UCLA

American Jewry is in transition, 20 speakers argued during “Looking for Judaism in [Un]Conventional Places,” a symposium at UCLA on Feb. 12-13. Scholars and academics discussed what Jews value, Jewish identity and which organizations are relevant today.

Shawn Landres, CEO of Jumpstart, set the tone early on Monday for the day’s presentations and panels, proclaiming the “era of consensus is over.”

Looking at “Judaism in Los Angeles,” speakers included Sarah Benor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), who distinguished establishment organizations from innovative ones; Gerardo Marti of Davidson College in North Carolina, who discussed conscientious innovators in the Christian community, focusing on leaders who reclaim unlikely spaces and turn them into places of worship; and Ari Kelman of Stanford University, who examined the history of the lay-led Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am.

Examining “new trends in Jewish religious life,” Shaul Magid of Indiana University said Jewish post-ethnic attitudes suggest identity is a matter of preference, while Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary presented data on the effectiveness of Orthodox outreach — 800,000 Jews come into contact with Orthodox outreach annually, he said.

Bruce Phillips of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles showed a survey of California Jews’ formal and non-formal affiliations, concluding that high numbers of Jews in the West are engaged with Judaism through non-formal affiliations, such as reading Jewish news and visiting Jewish museums. “Being unaffiliated doesn’t necessarily mean unconnected,” he said.

Wrapping Monday’s presentations, David Myers of UCLA spoke of Kiryas Joel in New York, an all-Orthodox town where Yiddish dominates and the mythic notion of the shtetl — as shown in “Fiddler on the Roof” — inspires everyday life.

Attendance was consistent throughout. Approximately 65 people attended Sunday’s presentation on “Trans- and Post-Denominationalism in American Judaism,” 45 attended the evening public forum, “Are Jews Still in the Pews? Jewish Religious Life in 21st Century America,” and nearly 60 people turned out for Monday’s program, at the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

Participants also included Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis University), Rabbi Naomi Levy (Nashuva), Stephen Warner (University of Illinois-Chicago) and Steven Cohen (HUC-JIR). Rabbis David Eliezrie (Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen), Laura Geller (Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills) and Ed Feinstein (Valley Beth Shalom) participated in the public forum.

Conference for art mavens reflects European Jewry’s niche-appeal trend

The roomful of artists, musicians and cultural leaders let their imaginations run wild.

Unencumbered by budgetary considerations or practical concerns, they dreamed up a theater partnership between Budapest and Bordeaux, a traveling photo exhibit on the idea of “kosher spaces” and a host of other ideas aimed at pooling the cultural capital of Europe’s Jewish communities.

Last month’s European Seminar on Jewish Culture and Innovation brought participants from more than a dozen European countries to this medieval city in Provence. The three-day conference was timed to coincide with Avignon’s famed monthlong summertime theater festival.

In efforts to strengthen European Jewish life, there in an increasing tendency to focus on niche appeals, said Mario Izcovich, director of pan-European programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which co-sponsored the conference.

“This connects with the time we are living in,” Izcovich said of specialized conferences like the one in Avignon. “We have different niches and different targets and different interests, and that’s the way we now approach Jewish life.”

Participants in the seminar, the first of its kind, came from Jewish hubs like London, Budapest and Paris, but also from smaller communities like Zurich, Belgrade and Copenhagen. In addition to JCC professionals, representatives of more outside-the-box Jewish cultural initiatives were well represented in Avignon.

Judith Scheer, chairwoman of Salon Vienna, a monthly gathering that uses Jewish texts and themes as the basis for artistic exploration and philosophical discussion, spoke about the struggles she faced in getting the established Austrian Jewish community to acknowledge her group’s appeal.

Scheer said the focus should be on creating programs that engage unaffiliated members of the Jewish community. “The fed-up-ness is everywhere,” Scheer said, describing the alienation of young European Jews from their organized Jewish communities.

Edina Schon, the producer of Budapest’s Golem Theater, which specializes in avant-garde works, told the Avignon gathering about her unsuccessful campaigns to secure funding from her local organized community. But, she said, the upside is that it gives her theater company a greater degree of artistic freedom.

“We don’t have to stay with the old tradition,” Schon said. “I think our responsibility is to give the artist the freedom to create whatever he wants to create and not be afraid of the results.”

The fact that many of the seminar’s attendees were not Jewish communal professionals but rather from more independent, grass-roots initiatives was a positive aspect of the conference, Izcovich told the crowd.

“All over Europe what’s happening—what’s growing like ‘champignons’ everywhere,” Izcovich said, using the French word for “mushrooms,” “are Jewish initiatives that recognize that not everything needs to be provided by the formal Jewish community.”

Finding common ground across diverse Jewish communities was one of the seminar’s most important takeaways, said attendee Stefan Sablic, a cantor from the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

“The value is that you get inspired to work further,” Sablic said. “You’re not alone, and you can link to the others—there’s a whole world of Jewish people working on similar topics.”

Jette Zylber, who coordinates cultural programming for the Danish Jewish community, echoed his sentiments.

“A lot of energy is cooking now. It’s like being in a melting pot of new ideas,” she said. “Each of us has our fights in our community, but you realize this is equal for all of us.”

Avignon was just the first step for a campaign of niche conferences sponsored by the European Association of Jewish Community Centers. Next on the schedule is a weekend focusing on volunteering to be held in Brussels in December.

Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers, said conferences that focus on what it means to be Jewish and European—and not just Jewish in a global sense—are key for strengthening communities across the continent.

“It’s very important that they feel there is a European cultural message,” she said. “Now the challenge is to continue the momentum.”

French Jewry rethinks its JCCs, with a focus on culture over ‘community’

It’s hard to think of a more innocuous word for most American Jews than “community.” But in France, things aren’t so simple.

France’s national ethos frowns upon displays of ethnic difference. So for many French Jews, the word “community” conveys a sense of separatism and insularity that clashes with the way they see their lives: French first, Jewish second.

That, in turn, causes headaches for France’s Jewish community centers—or “centres communautaires,” as they are known.

“When you say ‘Jewish community,’ it’s considered segregation and then it’s not French enough,” said Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers. “It’s interesting because in other countries, community is the most important thing.”

The issue is distracting enough that the Fonds Social Juif Unifie, or FSJU—the umbrella group that coordinates most aspects of communal French Jewish life—is considering changing the name of the centers, removing the emphasis on community and stressing something that better reflects the facilities’ commitment to culture and identity.

“We’re working now on improving the image of the JCC,” said Jo Amar, the FSJU’s director of cultural action. “We feel for a long time that we have a problem.”

Though plans for change are far from set in stone, representatives of some French community centers said that a shift could be welcome.

“The spirit is to find a balance between community center and cultural center,” said Sharon Mohar, an Israeli transplant who coordinates cultural efforts for a center serving the 2,000-family Jewish community in Bordeaux.

The question is also tied to how the centers relate to non-Jews. Mohar recalled an instance in which some older members of his community cautioned against allowing non-Jews to attend a community-run preschool, fearing that they would scare away Bordeaux Jews. Instead, she found that a policy of openness ended up appealing to Jews.

“In 2011, most people are just people, and it’s not that it’s less important for them to keep Jewish … but I think they are truly trying to find a balance between this part and the rest,” she said. “The balance is critical—[otherwise], we’re talking about a ghetto, and that’s not the reality people want.”

Ilan Levy, who coordinates cultural programs for the 3-year-old Hillel building serving the Jewish community in Lyon, France’s second-largest city, said Jews tend to be more apt to attend events that target non-Jews, too.

“If we make events for all the people, then the others come and the Jews say, ‘Oh, if the others come, then we can go,’ ” Levy said.

At France’s largest Jewish community center in Paris—catering to the country’s largest Jewish community—there is a renewed focus on bringing in new audiences and interacting with them virtually, said Jean-Francois Strouf, the center’s communications coordinator.

The center is developing an online university teaching Jewish and non-Jewish topics. The first of its kind in France, the project recently received funding from the Paris regional government and should be operational by 2013.

The facility prides itself on providing the Paris community with a well-rounded slate of programming—not discriminating on the basis of religion or, within Judaism, by denomination.

“It appears that a community center in the United States is a kind of private club,” said the facility’s director, Rafy Marceanu, citing sometimes high membership fees and perks such as pools and fitness centers. “In France it is the place of all Jews, and everybody finds his place.”

Regarding the larger rethinking of JCCs’ identities, the FSJU’s plan is still a work in progress, and each center will have the ability to make its own choices about any future name change. But Amar said the conversation is still worth having.

“We want to put it on the table and revisit the whole notion,” he said.

Food flight: Perusing American Jewry’s past and present

Two relatively new books tell the story of American Jewry, weaving together its past and present by examining tradition and making it relevant to today’s reader.

Where Sue Fishkoff’s “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority” (Schocken, 2010) is robust and detailed, Leah Koenig’s “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen” (Universe, 2011) is spacious and adaptable.

With the “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America has attempted to free itself from the matzah ball-and-chain and community cookbooks of its nearly 90-year past and plunge itself into the present-day reality of America’s Jewish kitchen.

An increased interest in local and healthy food, and the amplified availability of kosher-certified products—with an assist from popular television shows—have created a market of ever-more sophisticated American Jewish consumers, and Koenig doesn’t shy away from using trendy food items such as quinoa, miso and pomegranate.

Food is an important part of the Jewish home during Shabbat and holidays, but Jewish sensibilities don’t always kick in on the days and weeks between. “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” attempts to fill in the gap.

The recipes are simple and fast—no six-hour braising times or intimidating French techniques. The book is meant to be used, and through its use will continue the story of American Jewish cooking. The recipes are kosher, of course, and Koenig’s tone throughout is clear, concise and friendly. She informs the reader immediately that she is not a chef, and that a more experienced cook should “think of these recipes as flavors and ideas to riff off of.”

Some of its best recipes are among the more unusual. Honey-Glazed Carrots with Za’atar presents a synchronicity of the unexpected sweetness of carrots and honey and the zing of za’atar, a dried spice mixture common in Middle Eastern cooking, and lemon zest. Sweet Potato Kale Soup with White Beans and Caramelized Vegetable Soup utilizes familiar flavors in updated ways.

“Jewish” and Israeli foods make an appearance in the form of Cheesecake in a Jar, an attractive dessert inspired by a classic Jewish sweet; Quick(er) Borscht, a 30-minute remedy to an Eastern European comfort food; and Sabich, a fried eggplant sandwich commonly on the menu at falafel joints.

Generally the recipes in “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook” are global and health conscious, and more often than not vegetarian, reflecting an increased consumer consciousness of non-meat alternatives.

“Kosher Nation” contextualizes how it is that American Jewry got to a point where Walnut Pesto and Portobello Burgers, two foods not at all associated with traditional Jewish cuisine, appear in Koenig’s Jewish cookbook published by a major Jewish organization.

Written with the probing voice of a journalist like the JTA’s Fishkoff, “Kosher Nation” is a series of vignettes: the mashgiach in China hopping from factory to factory; the kosher winemaker experimenting in Napa; the Reform rabbi negotiating kashrut with a conflicted congregation.

Connecting these stories are data and history lessons on the building of today’s behemoth kosher infrastructure that shows no signs of slowing its growth.

“Today one third to one half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher,” Fishkoff informs the reader in her opening chapter.

This means that most people who buy kosher products are not even aware of what the small symbol on the label implies, but that many manufacturers see kosher as a hot food trend and kosher often is associated with cleaner, superior food in the American mind.

Kosher can even be connected with “hip”: The popular television series “The Office” in a recent episode had a character slap a “K” on bottles of pesto made by his mother without actually having the product certified. In his defense he remarks, “I meant like, it’s cool, it’s kosher, it’s all good.”

Fishkoff’s book helps make sense of that kind of pop culture reference.

It wasn’t always this way. Until only several decades ago, meat was the primary concern of kosher authorities and strictly kosher food in general was relevant to only a small number of observant Jews. Many Jews kept some form of kosher, refraining from pork or the practice of “eating out,” but American Jews often rejected dietary laws in an attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture.

With an increase in the number of baalei teshuvah, newly observant Jews, who refuse to settle for syrupy wine or processed cheese, combined with the increasing appeal of the kosher symbol to celiacs, vegetarians and many other demographics, the kosher industry has become relevant to manufacturers as far away as Thailand.

Fishkoff explains the rules of kashrut to the layperson, from biblical to Talmudic injunctions to modern-day stringencies that wouldn’t have been an issue even a generation ago. She breaks down the kosher industry, from “The Big Four” certifying agencies to slaughterhouses to kosher caterers, and brings the reader up to date on some of the most relevant issues facing today’s kosher consumer. They include the ethics involved in the scandal at the Agriprocessers meat plant in Postville, Iowa, and the burgeoning New Jewish Food Movement.

Throughout “Kosher Nation,” Fishkoff regards her subjects with objectivity. Even the most zealous figures—like the Chasid on a one-woman campaign to prevent Jews from ingesting insects—become sympathetic and even relatable. It is clear that Fishkoff was fascinated by the subject; the reader cannot help but be fascinated, too.

For anyone who remembers when Oreos became kosher, notices when sushi is served at an Orthodox wedding or simply wants to take a bite out of Jewish Americana, “Kosher Nation” offers a readable, in-depth exploration into the cultural shifts and subtleties surrounding the rise of an industry.

Paired with “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook,” readers have a chance to re-examine food traditions far beyond the holiday table.

Dipping back into the origins of the kosher industry in America and then cooking recipes that reflect a contemporary kosher reality prove a filling and fulfilling experience.

Amid rancorous debate, a voice for American Jewry pushes civility

When disagreement among American Jews on Israel-related issues runs deep, how does an organization that bills itself as the representative voice of the organized American Jewish community formulate policies and priorities?

By emphasizing civility in public discourse, for starters.

That was one of the main areas of focus at this week’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which drew delegates from Jewish community relations councils and national advocacy groups across the United States to talk about American Jewish public policy priorities.

Plenum organizers said the goal was to show that while differences within the Jewish community factions are substantive, particularly when it comes to Israel, it’s possible to discuss them without rancor.

“Civility is not avoiding uncomfortable conversations—it’s our respect for the dignity of other people and careful listening,” said Ethan Felson, the JCPA’s vice president.

That approach led to sessions featuring polar opposites: Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a doyen of liberalism, joined James Woolsey, a neoconservative icon and former CIA director, in a discussion on energy independence.

The liveliest session, delegates said, was when Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, faced off against author Peter Beinart, who argued in a controversial essay last year that reflective defense of Israel in the public sphere is alienating Jewish youngsters.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Young Jews in Israel, he said, have more in common with the Druze and Bedouin with whom they serve in the army than with American Jewish college students.

Oren said it was critical to overcome what can seem like “unbridgeable schisms” between Israelis and Americans.

“We are united at the heart, a rambunctious, often fractious people,” he said. “While the experiences of American Jews have made them more liberal and progressive, impelled by our traumas and our disappointments, Israelis have become somewhat skeptical of peace.”

Despite his plea for dialogue, Oren was among those who boycotted the J Street conference last month after a campaign by mainstream and right-wing pro-Israel groups to keep centrist and Israeli figures away from the conference.

In a separate appearance at the JCPA plenum, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and a J Street favorite, told a questioner who urged him to denounce those who describe Israel as an “apartheid” state that such rote statements are besides the point.

“We don’t need more cheerleaders for both sides,” he said. “We need more peacemakers for both sides.”

The applause for Ellison underscored the continued liberal bearings of a large segment of the Jewish community. So did the warm reception accorded Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, who revealed in her address that her great-grandfather was Jewish.

Jarrett went out of her way to suggest that tensions over Israel between organized Jewish groups and the Obama administration were overstated.

She referred to the March 1 meeting between Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, saying that the president “made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakeable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to delegitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”

The meeting’s participants described the meeting as friendly, but some were rankled by Obama’s remark that they and Israeli leaders should “search their souls” about whether Israel is serious about peace.

Most of Jarrett’s speech was devoted to the president’s domestic agenda and his efforts to push back against plans by the Republican-led House of Representatives to slash spending on education and infrastructure and assisting struggling families. She pitched legislative efforts to close the income gap between men and women.

“Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low-paying jobs, it affects the entire family,” she said.

Jarrett’s message of sustaining the social net resonated with a JCPA agenda that focused, in resolutions and in Hill lobbying, on alleviating poverty.

JCPA’s seven resolutions hewed more to the Democratic agenda than to Republican goals—unsurprising for a community that still consistently votes Democratic in substantive majorities. A resolution on supporting the elderly poor called for “robust funding” of anti-poverty programs, and one on immigration rejected efforts by some Republican lawmakers to remove “birthright” citizenship from children born here to illegal immigrants.

A measure on peacemaking hewed to the mainstream pro-Israel consensus, blaming the Palestinian leadership for scuttling peace talks by insisting on a settlement freeze and pushing for international recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Reform movement proposed a passage that called on Israel “to meet its obligations under prior agreements” and “avoid actions that do not enhance security”—a reference to expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—but it was rejected.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the conference’s most senior Republican speaker, recognized the community’s Democratic tilt in his address Tuesday morning, before delegates lobbied their representatives. Glancing through the JCPA’s agenda, Kirk noted that as a moderate Republican he supported much of it, including two initiatives against discrimination against gays.

“I was one of the few Republicans that voted to eliminate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said, referring to last year’s repeal of a law that forced gays in the military to hide their sexual orientation.

That was greeted with applause.

“It appears I will become the lead Republican on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” he said, referring to a law that would end sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace.

He looked up; more applause.

Baltimore Jewry shows sharp rise in a decade

The number of Jewish households in the greater Baltimore has grown substantially in the past dozen years.

A new demographic study of the Baltimore Jewish community also shows that Baltimore’s Jewish population has jumped by 2,000 people since the last survey, conducted in 1999.

Baltimore is home to 93,400 Jews, according to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study conducted by Ukeles Associates on behalf of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

The number of households with Jews jumped from 36,000 to 42,500 in the last decade. There are now 108,100 people living in homes with Jews, up from 99,900 in ‘99.

The study is the first major community survey to measure the impact of the national recession as well as the first to include cell phone interviews, which comprised about 10 percent of the total, according to demographer Dr. Jack Ukeles.

The study found that the total percentage of Orthodox Jews in the Baltimore area soared from 21 percent to 32 percent; Jews that say they are “just managing” economically or worse shot up from one in five to one in three; and people from age 85 have gone from being 9 percent of the 65-and-older population to 20 percent.

Some 87 percent of the Orthodox young adults aged 18 to 34 are married, according to the study, and 91 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in that group are single.

The study found that 30 percent of children of intermarriages are being raised Jewish.

Michael Hoffman, the Associated’s Vice President of Community Planning and Allocations, said his staff and volunteers are only beginning the lengthy process of calculating how the data differs among age groups, geographic areas, religious identity, intermarried families and other groupings. That, in turn, will help guide the planning and allocations process in the future.

More than 1,200 interviews were completed in 2010 between February and May. The survey has a margin of error of 5.3 percent.

View on Eisen From L.A.: Thumbs Up

Local reaction was positive — with an element of wait and see — to the choice of Stanford professor Arnold Eisen as the new, de facto leader of the Conservative moment. Eisen, who isn’t a rabbi, will take over this summer as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Rabbi Issac Jaret, president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, focused immediately on Eisen’s position on gays — the seminary does not currently ordain openly gay rabbis.

“On the one hand, Eisen has stated he is in favor of the ordination,” he said. “On the other hand, being that he is not a rabbi, professor Eisen may have less impact upon this decision than another chancellor might have had with similar views.”

Jaret would not articulate his own position on gay ordination but added that “any decision on this matter [would] leave a significant segment of the movement dissatisfied.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a prominent innovator in the movement, also foresees a period of division and discontent, adding, “The Conservative movement must become much more responsive to the world and not live by quotations of halacha [Jewish law] alone.”

Schulweis, a longtime rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, called the movement behind the times: “To be a movement that will excite its people, you have to be on the cutting edge, and you can’t be too little too late.”

He joked that the definition of a Conservative Jew “is someone who is willing to do something, but never for the first time.”

Schulweis quoted the Passover Torah portion to underscore his point: “The question Ezekiel asks is, ‘Will these dry bones live?’ The challenge to the new chancellor, the seminary and the Conservative movement is whether or not we can resurrect the dessicated bones of apathy.”

His colleague at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, put it another way: “The most important issue is what it means to be a religious movement in a completely voluntary and individualistic culture. How do you build contemporary spiritual community?”

Los Angeles rabbis interviewed for their reaction were unconcerned that Eisen is not a rabbi.

“They made an important statement in the scholar they chose,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “They didn’t take a biblical scholar or a scholar of rabbinic literature. They took someone who is an expert on American Jewry and American Jewish life — not in a historical context but in a contemporary sociological context,” he said.

Eisen’s books include “Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community” (University of Chicago Press, 1999), “Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America” (Indiana University Press, 2000) and together with Stephen Cohen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (Indiana University Press: 2000).

Vogel called Eisen “someone who can speak more on the condition of American Jewry and help to form a vision for American Jewry.”

More praise came from Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood, who took his own name out of consideration for the seminary job.

“Professor Eisen is a deep and subtle thinker about Judaism and American Judaism in particular,” Wolpe said. “This can only be a very powerful shot in the arm for a movement that was looking for a very powerful shot in the arm, that was looking for reinvigoration.”


Sharonism vs. Building a Wall

Any attempt to resolve the crisis in the Middle East forces us — the American people and American Jewry — to appraise the motives and the ultimate goals of the leaders involved.

Endless disputes have raged over whether Yasser Arafat and the other Arab leaders merely seek a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel or whether they continue to harbor the ultimate goal of exterminating what they once derided as the “Zionist entity.”

But just as important, perhaps even more so, is reaching an understanding of the true goals of Israel’s current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his close associates. They — even more than their Arab opponents — hold the fate of the Israeli people in their hands.

Consider the facts: Over the past 18 months, Israel has suffered over 400 civilian dead and thousands more wounded, primarily from the suicide bombings that have so horrified the world. These losses are the per capita equivalent of over 100,000 American civilian casualties.

During nearly all previous wars, danger in Israel had been largely confined to those in the military or civilians living on the border. Now all patrons of a pizza parlor or disco are suddenly on the frontlines. This change is inflicting terrible damage to Israeli morale. By any reasonable standard, Israel now faces the gravest threat to its survival since 1967, perhaps even since 1948.

Israel’s leaders have certainly recognized this threat by their rhetoric and by their actions, launching punishing military strikes against the Palestinian organizations and towns whence the suicide bombers have issued. Faced with resulting criticism from various world quarters, the Sharonists have defended themselves as the security-conscious guardians of a small, embattled nation, unwilling to take risks with their people’s very survival. They have reasonably asked how America itself would have responded to waves of attacks that together completely dwarf those of Sept. 11 in relative terms.

But perhaps this is the exact question that we ourselves should be asking. Suppose that over the past year and a half, over 100,000 American civilians had been killed or grievously injured by Mexican terrorists who crossed our border and filled our cities from Los Angeles to New York with daily explosions.

Certainly, we would have taken punitive military actions against the terrorist organizations claiming responsibility and also against any Mexican government that we judged complicit in these massacres. But surely the first and most obvious response on our part would have been — NAFTA or no — to completely fortify our Mexican border with the best possible safeguards, perhaps an electrified security fence studded with machine-gun turrets.

Israel has not. Today, America’s long border with Mexico is far better defended against the dire threat of Mexican nannies and gardeners than Israel’s own border is secured against suicide bombers. An unknown number of these recent attackers, perhaps even including the bomber who killed over two dozen at their Passover seder, simply walked across an unguarded frontier into Israel or else drove to their targets using well-known but unpatrolled back roads. This is madness, pure and simple.

Why have the Sharonists suffered through 18 months of terrorist incursions without building a simple fence? Such a fence would have provided much greater security than endless attacks on Ramallah and Nablus.

By all accounts, the Palestinians of Gaza are considerably more militant in their anti-Israel Islamic fervor than those of the West Bank, yet Gaza’s simple existing fence has prevented the infiltration of even a single suicide bomber and also kept ordinary terrorist attacks to a negligible level. If a border fence has worked so well in Gaza, why have the Sharonists not considered one for the West Bank as well?

Consider the above analogy. Perhaps an American president would have similarly done nothing if he and his close political allies firmly believed that God had granted them the land of Mexico, and that any American fence along that border would be a dangerous concession to the border’s legal validity.

Israel’s ruling Likud coalition contains a powerful political strain of individuals who fervently believe that the Palestinian territories of the West Bank — Judea and Samaria to them — are incontestable portions of the once and future homeland of the Jews, granted them by the One Himself. A fence would be a huge step backward from achieving that dream of a Greater Israel.

In support of this dream, Israeli governments have, for decades, encouraged some 200,000 Jewish settlers to make their homes in these Palestinian territories, and the ultimate disposition of these settlers is regularly cited as the most nettlesome part of any future peace agreement.

Most of these settlers are peaceable Israeli suburbanites, lured to the West Bank environs of Jerusalem by heavy government housing subsidies, many of which were established by Sharon in his past role as housing minister of the Begin government, and whose costs are ultimately paid by the American taxpayer.

But a hard core of these settlers, perhaps up to 50,000, are messianic and militant Jews, often from around the world, who are

absolutely convinced that God has commanded them to settle and thus control this portion of Eretz Yisrael, whether or not Palestinians have lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. Although less than one percent of Israel’s population, these determined individuals are a powerful force within the Sharonist coalition, many of whose leaders publicly or privately share their views.

And these Jewish militants in their hundreds of small settlements do not merely restrict themselves to lobbying. A few years ago, Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Yitzhak Rabin became the first Middle Eastern leader in years to fall to an assassin’s bullet, killed by a Jewish militant for his impious desire to make peace with the Palestinians.

A year earlier, a Brooklynite settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred dozens of peaceful Muslim worshipers kneeling at prayer in their mosque, before he himself was overpowered and killed. Random acts of senseless violence occur throughout the world, but Goldstein’s grave is still venerated as the tomb of a holy martyr by thousands of other Jewish settlers, who treat it as a pilgrimage site.

Some of these Jewish militants possess beliefs that would strike most Americans as strange and extreme even by the standards of the Middle East.

For example, over the years Israeli security forces have discovered and thwarted various militant plots to destroy by explosives the Muslim world’s holiest mosques in Jerusalem, an action intended to help ensure the outbreak of the biblical battle of Armageddon and thereby the ultimate restoration of the Kingdom of David. And just recently, the birth of a red heifer has been widely heralded by some of these militant leaders as a divine portent instructing them to redouble their efforts to cleanse Jerusalem of its defiling Muslim religious presence.

By any reasonable criteria, many of these 50,000 militant settlers — and they include at least some of my own relatives — are best understood as being bearded, Jewish Taliban, as uncompromising and difficult as their Islamic counterparts in Afghanistan.

Yet they are also the heart and soul of the Sharonist movement, and while an Israeli border fence might effectively protect close to 99 percent of Israel’s population from terrorism, it would also leave these militant settlers on what was obviously the wrong side of the eventual border. This terrible dilemma between protecting Israeli lives and preserving messianic Greater Israel ideology has so far been resolved entirely in favor of the latter.

And this ideology represents an almost complete abandonment of traditional Zionism. The modern state of Israel was founded by secular socialists from Eastern Europe, men whose own attitude toward Judaism ranged from mild distaste to deepest hostility.

Israel was intended to be a national homeland for a long-persecuted people, a place of refuge and safety for Jews threatened everywhere else. Yet today, in part because of the policies of men like Sharon, Jews enjoy less physical security in their own country than perhaps anywhere else in the world, certainly far less than in our own America. The founders of the Jewish national movement would surely regard a successor who sacrificed Jewish lives and safety to his dreams of a Greater Israel as an absolute traitor to Zionist principles.

They would not be the only ones. For decades, numerous rabbinical scholars, of the deepest Talmudic learning, have regularly denounced the supporters of Greater Israel as individuals who have disgustingly perverted their Jewish faith into a nationalist golden calf that they worship in place of the Almighty. For centuries, such false Jewish prophets have periodically arisen and invariably led their misguided followers into disaster.

If the current leaders of Israel are indeed willing to continue sacrificing the lives of their own people — including those of young, innocent children — to their imperial dreams of expansion and glory, then according to these learned Jews they are committing sins on a truly biblical scale.

How would Americans view a president who regarded over 100,000 dead and injured American civilians merely as unavoidable collateral damage toward his ultimate goal of annexing Mexico? We would view him as a madman.

If Sharon continues to wantonly sacrifice the lives of his people for messianic expansionism, then his arms are the ones elbow-deep in the blood of innocent Jews. He faces the world not as a David Ben Gurion or as our own Washington or Lincoln, but instead as someone whose extremism leads his own followers to their doom.

Ron Unz, a software developer and a 1994 Republican candidate for governor, led the 1998 initiative campaign to dismantle bilingual education in California. He can be reached at

Young Man on Campus

Last week I worried in this space that our college students were ill-equipped to defend American Jewry’s pro-Israel position. I asked for a volunteer to explain what’s going on. Luckily, Donald Cohen-Cutler, a UC Davis freshman and an international relations major, stepped up to the plate.

I say "luckily" because events on campus are even worse than I had suspected. Of course, I remember the beginnings of the Jewish-Muslim rift on campus during the first intifada. But I don’t remember blatant insults to Jewish ritual and history. That’s what’s happening now (see story, page 10).

Holocaust Remembrance Day at both UC Berkeley and UC Davis was sabotaged by the anti-Israel rhetoric of the Students for Justice in Palestine; 75 were arrested at Berkeley. Prayers for the Jewish dead were interrupted with shouts and jeers equating the martyrs of the Shoah over 50 years ago to Palestinian bombers. At Davis, the Sacramento Bee reported that among 300 protesters were those who called Jews "Nazis" and referred to Israel as a "racist state."

"It infuriates me to hear these insults," Cohen-Cutler told me. "I couldn’t do nothing."

He could take action. In the hours before the Yom HaShoah protest, Cohen-Cutler gathered 65 students, including many non-Jews, for a candlelighting protest.

Their presence helped restore dignity to the Jewish calendar, whose commemoration of the Holocaust is intended to ensure against future racist wars.

"This is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Millions of people died because of the way they believed. Racist rhetoric from either side is what causes hate," Cohen-Cutler told the Bee.

Since the protest, he and his friend Jesse Friedman of Thousand Oaks have been organizing a new national campus group — Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue — that he characterizes as a "Jewish humanitarian group."

"I’m a liberal supporter of Israel," Cohen-Cutler told me. "But the largest majority of my fellow students are standing silent."

What does a liberal supporter of Israel believe?

Cohen-Cutler was born in 1983, and his politics are shaped by the regrettable shadow of Israel’s incursion into Lebanon and the indictment of then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. To the Hillel activist and Calabasas High School grad, liberal politics today must face the limitations of Ariel Sharon’s military policies, while insisting on Israel’s right to defend itself.

"My group looks at the whole picture. I’m with Israel, but I’m not with the occupation. There is no justice in suicide bombings. At the same time, Israel can’t succeed by stomping on Arab buildings."

Cohen-Cutler explained that Jewish liberal students today are caught in the middle. A popular organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, is blatant in its anti-Israel stance. It includes many Jews.

The opposition takes the form of Campus Republicans or local groups like Aggies for Israel, or, more vehemently, Students for Justice in Israel, which Cohen-Cutler characterizes as too one-sided. To him, neither the left nor right are acceptable.

"We have to stand up without becoming extremists," he told me. "Jews are told to pursue justice, not just for ourselves but for all humanity. We want to help people see that the Jewish community is not full of evil oppressors but with people who fight the evil oppression."

As for his fellow students, they need educating. Justice, Justice will organize rallies and protest bias in the media coverage.

"We need to let the world know that Israel is still under attack and needs to defend herself," he said. "This campus is not apathetic, it just doesn’t know where to go."

Here’s a young man with an answer.

Passover Rescue

Five months ago, Beatrice Ballageure was struggling to make ends meet as a single, 47-year-old Jewish woman living in the capital city of an economically depressed Argentina. She had lost her job several months earlier, but she owned her own apartment and had enough money in the bank to afford basic expenses. She had friends with jobs, and she knew she could rely on her family if real trouble ever came.

Then the bottom fell out of Argentina’s economy.

The president announced that the country was defaulting on its public debt, the peso was devalued and immediately went into a free-fall, unemployment surged to 22 percent and the government froze all bank accounts, cutting off millions of Argentines from their life savings. In addition, food riots broke out, and the president, along with three of his successors, resigned.

Suddenly, Ballageure was out of options.

Last week, Ballageure found herself in a food line at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, waiting for a handout of basic foodstuffs for Passover. Over the course of three months, her sister had moved to Israel, all but two of her friends had lost their jobs and the few pesos she had left in the bank had been frozen and was rapidly shrinking in value. On top of that, she needed food to eat for the holiday.

“I was middle class,” said Ballageure, clutching her handbag in line at the Asociacian Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), Buenos Aires’ central Jewish community facility. “Now I have no class.”

Ballageure is just one of the tens of thousands of Jews — and millions of Argentines — who find themselves out of money and out of luck this Passover season. For Argentina’s once-wealthy Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone.

Unaccustomed to their sudden impoverishment, many of Argentina’s new Jewish poor are too ashamed to ask for help. However, their community leaders are sounding the alarm, and U.S. Jews have begun to respond.

Earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, and Dr. Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), led a group of a dozen rabbis on a two-day mission to Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine Jewish leaders and figure out how to distribute approximately $100,000 in relief aid for the purchase of Passover food.

The funds were raised for Argentina’s Jews by nearly 70 synagogues across North America, including several in the Los Angeles area: Sinai Temple, Temple Kol Tikvah, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Kehillat Israel, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom and Congregation Kol Ami.

“It’s like [Manhattan’s] Upper East Side suddenly went belly-up,” said Schneier of the plight of Argentine Jewry. “They still have their nice clothes and expensive homes, but they suddenly have no money to buy food and can’t make their monthly maintenance payments. It’s unbelievable.”

Bypassing the usual Jewish communal charity mechanisms, the group delivered the money directly to 32 synagogues in Argentina, many of which have had to open soup kitchens to feed their members. The checks were cashed at exchange centers rather than banks — where withdrawals are severely restricted — and the Argentine synagogues used the cash to buy food that was distributed to congregants and other needy Jews before the holiday.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs, spiritual leader of Woodland Hills’ Temple Kol Tikvah, took part in the mission, and he brought checks from the seven Southern California synagogues.

The swift fundraising operation was a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of maot hitim, giving food to the poor for Passover, said Schneier, the group’s president. “Usually we give maot hitim before Passover to poor Jews in New York,” said Schneier, who is the rabbi of Hampton Synagogue in Long Island, N.Y. “But when we focused this year on the issue of maot hitim, we knew there was a community of deep financial need in Argentina.”

Last month, the United Jewish Communities pledged $40 million in emergency aid for Argentine relief, $35 million of which is being allocated to aid Argentine aliyah and absorption in Israel, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, and $5 million of which is being spent locally in Argentina, under the aegis of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Commission of the Latin-American Jewish Congress, said Argentina’s woes pose nothing less than a problem of “physical survival” for the country’s Jews. “This community has no [financial] resources,” he said in Buenos Aires. “There are 50,000 poor Jews in Argentina, and only 20,000 have the protection of the Jewish community. Today we have a problem of the survival of Jews and of the Argentine Jewish community.”

“We came so that when we say in our homes on Passover behind closed doors, ‘Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat,’ we will not be lying,” said Singer, explaining the timing of the rabbis’ trip.

“It’s only a beginning,” Singer said. “We shall return.”

Discussing Israel, Zionism and Peace

As American Jews join in marking the 50th birthday of the State of Israel and the 100 years of the Zionist movement, there is cause for both celebration and concern.

“As we rejoice in the accomplishments of Israel, Zionism and American Jewry, they each face their own, though interrelated, crises,” says Yoav Ben-Horin, senior fellow at the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies and former RAND Corp. strategic analyst.

Ben-Horin will explore both the triumphs and challenges in a series of five Sunday-morning lectures, sponsored by the Labor Zionist Alliance.

The first lecture, on Jan. 18, will examine “The Modern Middle East: Where From? What About?” with tickets available at the door. This and the following four monthly lectures and discussions will start at 9:30 a.m. at the Institute of Jewish Education, 8339 W. Third St.

Subsequent talks will deal with Zionism, Israel’s middle-age crisis, the peace process and American Jewry’s relationship to Israel.

“Each of these areas is in a state of flux and facing crucial crossroads,” says Ben-Horin. “One purpose of this series is to relate the topics to each other and see where they fit together. For instance, Israel’s struggle intersects with the evolution of American Jewry.”

Tickets are $40 for the entire series, and $10 per individual lecture. For information, call (213) 655-2842.

Organizers of the series are Bernard Weisberg, president of the regional Labor Zionist Alliance chapter, and Ethel Taft. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations.
More than a century ago, Theodor Herzl was a prominent Europeanjournalist who lived in Vienna and was essentially a Jewishassimilationist. He wasn’t much concerned about Jewish life oridentity. As an intellectual, he considered himself a citizen ofEurope.

Then came the assignment that would change his life, and worldJewry, forever.

Herzl traveled to Paris to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, theJewish French army captain who had been framed as a traitor. “It wasa great shock for Herzl,” says Dr. Michael Ben-Levi, theadministrative vice president of the American Zionist Movement andthe chair of the Zionism Centennial Committee. “He witnessed activeanti-Semitism on the part of the French, who were supposed to be socultured, and suddenly realized assimilation was not the answer tothe Jewish question.”

The impassioned Herzl returned to Vienna and began to outline whatwould become the basis of his philosophy. He pondered the variousnationalist movements that were arising in Eastern Europe and came torealize that the fundamental “Jewish problem” was homelessness. Theonly solution, he concluded, was the creation of a Jewish state inPalestine.

Herzl put pen to paper and wrote a book, “The Jewish State,” inwhich he described a country that would be a light unto the nations,based on the prophetic concept of social justice.

The volume was an immediate sensation, and even Herzl wassurprised by how fervently it was embraced, particularly amongEastern European Jewry. The author, not only a visionary but apragmatist, soon called for the convening of the First ZionistCongress.

The gathering took place in August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland,where several hundred representatives of world Jewry founded theWorld Zionist Organization, which would become an umbrella group ofZionist organizations dedicated to the establishment of a Jewishstate. It was, in short, the founding of political Zionism and thebeginning of the modern period of Jewish history.

Today, 100 years after that crucial conference, the Los AngelesJewish community will commemorate and celebrate the landmark event.More than 50 organizations — left- and right-wing, secular andreligious — will co-sponsor the Zionism Centennial Sunday, slatedfor Sept. 21, at 2 p.m., at Temple Beth Am. It is a pluralisticgathering, with groups ranging from the Religious Zionists of Americato the Workmen’s Circle.

The fete will begin with greetings by representatives of theevent’s main sponsors: Rhoda Braverman, president of the AmericanZionist Movement of Greater Los Angeles; Yoram Ben Ze’ev, generalconsul of Israel in Los Angeles; and Herbert Gelfand, president ofthe Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.

Then Melvin Salberg, national president of the AZM and chairman ofthe Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations,will take the podium. He will talk about his recent trip to Basel,where he joined the centennial celebration in the very auditoriumthat housed Herzl’s congress, and he will address the unfinishedtasks to be completed in the second century of Zionism.

A performance of Zionist folk songs by Lisa Wanamaker and areception with Salberg and Ben Ze’ev as guests of honor will follow.