Crash kills three workers at Jewish camp in Pennsylvania

Three staff members of a Jewish camp in eastern Pennsylvania were killed when the van they were traveling in lost control and drove into a drainage pond near the camp just before 1 a.m. Thursday.

The two men and a woman, including the driver, were all seasonal workers at Camp Shoshanim, a summer camp for modern Orthodox girls associated with New Jersey Y Camps and located near Lake Como, Pennsylvania.

The victims, all Mexican nationals, were identified as Ana Rojas Lopez, 23; Diego Rivera Medrano, 22, and Ariel Jersam Galaviz Alvarez, 21. Another staff member is recovering in the hospital, and a fifth passenger was taken to the hospital and later released, according to a statement from camp directors

The staff members were preparing Camp Shoshanim and its sister camp, Camp Nesher, for its summer opening on June 29, according to the statement.

In the statement, sent to parents of incoming campers, Esther Staum Katz and Jeff Braverman said the camps “grieve the tragic loss of three members of our camp family.” The two are the directors, respectively, of Shoshanim and Nesher.

According to the statement, the staffers “had used a camp van for personal reasons without authorization, and we have been working with the authorities to clarify details surrounding the accident.”

In addition, the directors wrote, “We have spoken with the families of the staff involved in this very sad event and shared with them that they are in our thoughts and prayers, as well as in the thoughts and prayers of our entire camp community.”

Police are investigating the incident and, according to Newswatch 16, investigators said the van was going too fast to navigate a sharp turn in the road.

The chief of the Northern Wayne Fire Company told the station that rescue crews hooked up chains to the van and turned it upright, but could not save the three victims inside.

In fading Pennsylvania city, Jews bet on $11 million hub to save community

There once was a time when the Jewish community in this Pennsylvania city just west of the Pocono Mountains was thriving.

That much is clear from a quick tour. The sanctuary at the local Orthodox synagogue, Ohav Zedek, seats nearly 1,000. Temple Israel, the Conservative shul, has two huge buildings — a hulking sanctuary and a three-story school. There’s a Jewish day school, a JCC with its own bowling alley and a Reform synagogue with multiple sanctuaries.

But there’s also ample evidence that the Jewish heyday is long gone.

At the JCC, the six-lane basement bowling alley went dark years ago, shoes and balls sitting in their places as if frozen in time. Mold is growing on the ceiling at the four-lane indoor pool, and though there’s a lifeguard and it’s mid-afternoon, nobody is swimming.

The day school, United Hebrew Institute, left its 17,000-square-foot building in 2010 for a smaller space in the JCC. Now down to just six students and with its endowment gone, the school will cease operations later this month.

Most Saturdays, fewer than 20 of Ohav Zedek’s 940 seats are occupied. At the Conservative synagogue, the daily minyan has been trimmed to three days a week; the average congregant is over age 60.

Home decades ago to an estimated 6,000-7,000 Jews, Wilkes-Barre today has fewer than 1,800 Jews left.

Yet the Jewish federation here is about to launch an audacious new fundraising campaign to raise $6 million for the construction of an $11 million Jewish community campus.

The planned Center for Jewish Life, located about a mile away from the JCC and just across the Susquehanna River in Kingston, will house a new JCC, the federation and Temple Israel’s offices and congregational school — to start. The hope is that other local Jewish institutions eventually will move in, too, making the consolidated site the hub of the Jewish community in Luzerne County.

This old mining city nestled in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley is hardly the only shrinking Jewish community in America trying to figure out how to survive. But its plan for warding off its demise is quite unusual.

“It’s a very exciting project,” said Chuck Cohen, a dental products manufacturer who is a main backer along with local businessmen Paul Lantz and Rob Friedman. The three purchased the 13-acre property on Third Avenue in Kingston several years ago after a Price Chopper supermarket there closed down and the site went into bankruptcy.

In their view, the new campus is a one-size-fits-all solution. The old JCC is expensive to maintain, lacks ample parking and a regulation-size pool, and would cost $4 million to upgrade. A new JCC, they say, can attract and retain new members.

Other Jewish institutions in town — notably, the synagogues — also are in aging structures that are expensive to maintain and ill suited to the diminished size of their constituencies, the project’s backers say. Putting those institutions into smaller spaces in a modern facility would reduce maintenance costs and make more sense in the long term, they argue.

“We think it works if the community gets smaller or gets larger,” Lantz said. “Putting in more money will help us operate more profitably and attract people into town. And even if we continue to shrink for a while, it will be more affordable to the community.”

But not everyone in town thinks it’s a good idea to spend millions building a new Jewish campus for a shrinking community.

“What do we need a new one for?” said Shirley Schoenholtz, a longtime community member who works at the JCC. “We got a pool, we have a gym. It’s perfectly fine. I’m happy here.”

Rabbi Raphael Nemetsky, Ohav Zedek’s departing rabbi, says the notion that a new facility will help draw Jews to town is far-fetched.

“It’s hard for me to see how it’s going to work,” Nemetsky said. “Outside of a temporary blip, sustainability is not dependent on how nice the facility is and how much programming there is. I don’t think that’s the staying power of the Jewish community.”

It would be better to spend money to help attract businesses to the area that would employ Jews, he said.

Cohen acknowledges that even if the Jewish campus is a success, Wilkes-Barre Jewry is unlikely to grow. But he’s not only thinking about serving Wilkes-Barre’s Jews.

“The model we’re pursuing is the Hebrew National model: We’ve got kosher hot dogs, but not all our members purchasing hot dogs are Jewish,” Cohen said. “I think it will always be a JCC with Jewish programs, but it will also attract people from outside the community.”

The planners envision remodeling the old Price Chopper building into a JCC and adding a swimming pool and basketball courts. The offices of the federation and Jewish Family Services, which formally merged with the JCC in January 2013 to become the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, will be onsite. Chabad’s growing cheder school, currently a tenant of the JCC, will move to the new site, too.

The architectural plans, which are not yet finalized, are designed to leave flexibility so other institutions can join (and build at their own expense) later. So the day when Temple Israel decides it cannot afford to keep its 525-seat sanctuary, for example, the shul can sell its building and build a smaller sanctuary on the campus. Because it will be attached to the JCC, there won’t be a need to build supplementary facilities such as bathrooms, a kitchen or meeting rooms.

“We’re not a growing community. We’re vibrant, we’re engaged, but we’re an aging community with aging infrastructure and an aging population,” Cohen said. “The question is, how can we build an infrastructure for the community to thrive? We believe this could be a model for many communities going forward.”

Temple Israel is the only other institution that has committed to join the new site. And even Temple Israel is moving only its administrative offices and twice-a-week Hebrew school, not the synagogue itself, and the move is being done on a three-year trial basis.

“At this point, we’re going to see how things go in the new setting; we’re not going to sell the school building,” said Rabbi Larry Kaplan of Temple Israel. “And we’re going to keep our davening in the sanctuary of our historic building in Wilkes-Barre.”

But Rosemary Chromey, the synagogue’s president, suggested that the day might come when a diminished congregation would move, too.

“Temple Israel as a congregation will be around hopefully forever, but maybe not at the current location,” she said. “There’s always the possibility that you need to downsize 50 years from now if the community shrinks.”

With an eye toward that same fate, even the leaders of the other Jewish institutions in town that have rejected the move for now aren’t ruling it out for the future.

“Right now we really like our building,” said Rabbi Roger Lerner of Temple B’nai B’rith, a 168-year-old Reform congregation in Kingston. But, he added, “if we need to move in 20 or 30 or 40 years, it’ll be there.”

Jews aren’t the only demographic struggling in Wilkes-Barre. The city’s population is less than half what it was in the 1930s, the population of Luzerne County is in decline and the unemployment rate in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area is roughly 15 percent above the national average — and the highest among Pennsylvania’s 14 largest markets.

The city’s most severe blow came in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes caused the Susquehanna to overflow, flooding Wilkes-Barre’s downtown in 9 feet of water and damaging or destroying 25,000 homes and businesses. Like many other structures in the city, Jewish institutions were renovated after the flood and in many cases updated since — making it more difficult to convince them to abandon their current locations and join the new campus.

When Temple B’nai B’rith informally surveyed its 150 families to gauge interest, the building’s good condition and the synagogue’s healthy finances convinced members to stay put.

“For me what’s really important is being able to keep your identity and not lose it in another institution,” Lerner said. “As nice as it would be to join the campus, I think for us here it’s important to have a little separation.”

Ohav Zedek is the more likely candidate for a move. Most of its regulars already live in Kingston and hold a Shabbat minyan in a private home there because it’s too far to walk to Ohav Zedek in Wilkes-Barre. Talks are serious enough that the two sides have discussed design specifications that would enable Orthodox Jews coming to pray on Shabbat to avoid having to walk past a parking lot in use for the JCC, which is expected to be open on Saturdays.

The new campus is still not a done deal. The sponsors say they need to raise 80 percent of its $6 million fundraising goal before starting construction. That’s a tall order in a town where the federation’s annual campaign typically brings in about $500,000.

The balance of the $11 million or so (precise costs have yet to be finalized) will come at no cost to the community: The three families that purchased the new site, now valued at $2 million, will donate it, more than $1 million in state gambling funds has been secured, and an additional $1 million is expected from the sale of the current JCC building. Parts of the new campus may also be rented out to other tenants or sold off.

If Wilkes-Barre’s Jews don’t get started on the project now, Temple Israel’s Kaplan says, they won’t be able to build it later.

“This is clearly the last opportunity for our community as its structured now to do this,” Kaplan said. “We do anticipate a further decline in our demographics. If we don’t do this now, it’s not going to be able to happen in 10 years – not just because there won’t be as many people, but because there won’t be as many givers.”

Cohen says the new campus is a matter of survival.

“We’ve looked at the models of communities that go out of business,” Cohen said. “We do not want to be a community that dies off.”

A Jew tours for Mitt Romney

I spent last week speaking to thousands of Romney supporters in four “battleground” states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia. I traveled with my Salem Radio Network colleagues Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved and the actor Jon Voight, one of the few Hollywood stars who is a politically outspoken conservative.

I thought I would share some of what transpired, as it should be of particular to interest to a Jewish readership.

During the tour, I wished frequently that all American Jews could have seen and heard what was said about Jews and Israel and how much time was devoted to Jews and Israel. Voight and Hewitt and whoever was the non-Jewish moderator of the evening emphasized support for Israel and the Jews — in combating Islamic anti-Semitism, in acknowledging the American and the Western world’s debt to the Jews, and in regard to the Jewish origins of Christianity — as much as they did any American domestic issue, including the economy.

Moreover, the audiences, overwhelmingly composed of non-Jews, reacted in kind. They cheered at least as enthusiastically when Jews and Israel were mentioned as they did regarding any other issue dear to conservative hearts, such as small government, lower taxes, oil independence, a strong military, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, etc.

I wondered what most Jews — i.e., Jewish liberals — would think had they seen this. Would they think it was phony? That it was done to procure Jewish votes? That Democratic Party rallies would similarly focus on support for Jews and Israel? 

I pondered these three possibilities. 

Surely a Jewish liberal could not have dismissed the time and attention paid to Jews and Israel as inauthentic. What would be the purpose? If people put on an act, there has to be a reason for doing so. But there was no reason for doing so. Virtually everyone present at each of the rallies was a fellow Republican. One doesn’t act among like-minded people. When you’re with 1,500 other people who share your politics and your values, you are at your most authentic.

Well, then, was it done to procure Jewish votes? That is as implausible as the first explanation. There were few Jews present, and every one of them was already on board as a conservative and as a Republican.

And what about explanation No. 3 — that the same passionate support of Jews and Israel would be expressed by the speakers and audience at Democrat Party rallies?

This, too, is equally implausible.

Indeed, we all had one opportunity to see how Democrats feel about Israel when we observed the Democratic delegates at the Democratic National Convention split down the middle when voting on whether to include mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the Democratic Party platform. 

But even without that spectacle, it takes an immense amount of self-deception to believe that the left is as passionately supportive of Israel and the Jewish people as is the American right.

Outside of the Muslim world, virtually all the world’s anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hatred comes from the left, while virtually all of the greatest supporters of the Jews and Israel are conservatives. The most pro-Israel world leader today is Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada: He is a conservative and a religious Christian. And the world leader most involved in activities to counter the Islamic and leftist worlds’ efforts to delegitimize Israel is the former prime minister of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, another conservative. Aznar founded the Friends of Israel Initiative, an international effort to “counter the attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders.”

The Initiative is open only to non-Jewish members. Aznar believes that if Jews were allowed to join his group, it would not be nearly as effective in its activities, so he has restricted membership to non-Jews only. Among the other founding members of his pro-Israel initiative is former United States ambassador to the United Nations — John Bolton, another conservative.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that 15 leaders of various Protestant churches called on Congress to reconsider giving aid to Israel. The lopsided anti-Israel letter so upset Jewish leaders, including liberal ones, that “the Jewish leaders responded to the action as a momentous betrayal and announced their withdrawal from a regularly scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting. … The Jewish leaders called the letter by the Christian groups ‘a step too far’ and an indication of ‘the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations.’ ”

The churches were all liberal-left ones.

Meanwhile Evangelical and other conservative Christians regularly gather to honor Israel and the Jewish people in their churches.

At each of the rallies, Voight read a powerful statement he had written celebrating Israel and the Jewish people. No press, no cameras, no one to persuade. He just wanted to emote about his love for Jews and Israel before fellow Republicans and conservatives. In each case they gave him a standing ovation.

Is there a single other Academy Award-winning actor or actress reading love letters to Israel to non-Jews? Is there a single Democratic rally of mostly non-Jews where such support for Israel and the Jews is expressed?

I will end this column as I did my last:

None of this will matter to most American Jews. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Former US Senator Arlen Specter dies of cancer at 82

Arlen Specter, the longtime moderate Jewish Republican senator from Pennsylvania whose surprise party switch helped pass President Obama's health-care reforms, has died.

Specter, 82, died Sunday at his Philadelphia home following a long struggle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his family told The Associated Press.

He was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania in 1980, and his 30 years as a senator was a record in his state.

Specter was a combative moderate Republican with an interest in foreign affairs. Throughout the years he maintained contact with the Assad regime in Syria, even as it became more isolated, and offered himself as a broker for Syria-Israel peace talks.

As his party grew more conservative, he bucked it on social issues and health funding. Specter broke with the Republicans in 2009, joining Democrats because, he said, “the Republican Party has moved far to the right.” The switch effectively ended a long tradition of the Republican Party having at least one moderate Jewish U.S. senator.

Specter was especially embittered by a close 2004 primary race against Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican, feeling that the GOP establishment had not done enough to protect him.

His crossover helped Obama secure passage for his health-care reforms.

Specter's roots were in the Democratic Party. As a young assistant Philadelphia district attorney, he served on the Warren Commission in 1964 investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

He ran against his boss in 1965 on the GOP ticket, defeating him to become Philadelphia's district attorney.

Specter's turn to the Democrats in 2009 did not salvage his career; he was beaten by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) in the primaries after Sestak depicted Specter as an opportunist. Toomey went on to defeat Sestak in 2010.

Arlen Specter facing another bout with cancer

Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter reportedly is “battling for his life.”

Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate for more than 30 years, was diagnosed with cancer six weeks ago, CNN reported on Aug. 28. He previously overcame a brain tumor and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Specter’s office confirmed to the Philadelphia Inquirer on the morning of Aug. 28 that Specter is fighting cancer.

“I am battling cancer, and it’s another battle I intend to win,” Specter said in a statement issued by his office, according to the newspaper.

Specter, 82, was treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2005 and again in 2008.

The Jewish lawmaker served as a Republican senator from 1980 until 2009, then switched to the Democratic Party until he lost his bid for re-election in 2011.

Pittsburgh rabbi files federal lawsuit over Pa. funeral policy

An Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh filed a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Board of Funeral Directors for requiring the oversight of licensed funeral directors in Jewish burials.

Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and head of the chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, for the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh, alleges in his lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in Scranton that the policy mandating that licensed funeral directors oversee all burials infringes upon his constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection.

In 2009, Wasserman was contacted by an investigator from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Enforcement, who conducted an investigation of the rabbi for “practicing as a funeral director without a license.” According to the lawsuit filed Monday, the state board told Jewish families that their burials would be illegal without a licensed funeral director.

Wasserman’s suit also states that rabbis are not eligible for licensing owing to a religious prohibition against embalming. His complaint expresses that the state board’s implementation of the oversight policy is “for no other justification than personal profit,” noting that Amish burial societies are not subject to similar restrictions.

“The State Board of Funeral Directors selectively enforces Pennsylvania’s Funeral Director Law in a way that violates the religious freedom of the state’s clergy, and all of the religious persons they serve,” said Efrem Grail, an attorney who is representing Wasserman pro bono in the lawsuit.

Penn State’s Jewish community weighs how to move forward

One unlikely venue for fallout from the Penn State University sex abuse scandal is the campus Hillel, for which now ousted university president Graham Spanier—the school’s first Jewish leader—was a fundraiser and vocal supporter.

On Monday, the Penn State community was stunned when the NCAA levied a $60 million fine against the university and a four-year postseason ban on its football program based on a university-funded report by former FBI director Louis Freeh released several weeks ago. The report looked into the crimes of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is now awaiting sentencing for multiple counts of child rape, and alleged a cover-up by Spanier, iconic football coach Joe Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz.

Paterno died in January at 85, Curley is on administrative leave and Schultz has retired. Curley and Schultz are awaiting trial on perjury charges.

The school has about 40,000 students on its main campus in State College, Pa., some 10 percent of whom are estimated to be Jewish, according to data collected by Penn State Hillel.

Aaron Kaufman, executive director of the Hillel, declined to address specifics about Spanier’s impact on the organization.

“The events of the past year have reinforced the need for students to be part of a caring and supportive organization where they can engage in dialogue and address issues that are troubling them,” he said in a statement to JTA. “As we prepare for the start of a new school year, we remain steadfast in our commitment to helping our students—and the entire university community—heal and move forward in a positive way”

But Bill Jaffe, a former longtime member and past chair of Hillel’s board of directors, said the former president’s role was large. In addition to regularly attending High Holidays services, Spanier helped Hillel secure major speakers, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and make a case for larger on-campus facilities for the Jewish student organization.

“Clearly his energy and enthusiasm will be missed as part of the Hillel community,” said Jaffe, a member of the university’s endowment campaign executive committee. “I don’t think one can deny the impact he’s had on Hillel and therefore, if he’s not here and not involved, I would think there may be some impact” on the group, he said.

Jaffe added that he could not measure to what degree Spanier’s absence would be felt.

Shortly after the release of the Freeh report, Rabbi Nosson Meretsky, director of the Chabad of Penn State, wrote in an email to students and alumni that the difficult period could ultimately lead to positive change.

“In Judaism we believe everything happens for divine providence,” Meretsky told JTA this week. The rabbi noted that it is no coincidence that the report came to light during the three-week period leading up to Tisha b’Av, which Judaism attributes to some of its greatest calamities.

“Penn State has to look at itself and examine the culture, which in my mind is not a bad thing.  Examining yourself and that process of teshuvah can be a good thing,” he said, referring to the process of repentance. “Penn State has not been destroyed … I think it will only become better.”

For the past several years, Chabad had a letter of support signed by Paterno on its website. It was taken down in December, but Meretsky said that was because of a web redesign, not the scandal. The new site does not yet have a section for such comments, but once it does he is unsure that the Paterno letter would return, he added.

As for Spanier, the rabbi recalled bringing him matzah just before Passover and gift baskets, or shalach manot, for Purim. He said he will continue to reach out to Spanier.

Outside of State College, Jewish alumni are dealing with their school’s new image, too.

When the scandal broke in November, Rabbi Efrem Reis of Temple Beth Israel in Sunrise, Fla., and a 2006 Penn State graduate, urged people to reserve judgment until all the investigations were completed.

“Now it is clear that my university failed me and, much more importantly, the victims,” he told JTA. “They allowed innocent children to be scarred and hurt in a place that was supposed to foster and encourage youth to reach new heights.”

The fact that Paterno appears to have knowingly turned a blind eye is especially painful, he said.

“Joe Paterno made me a smarter person and helped me to be a better rabbi through his generosity” through donations such as to the Pattee-Paterno library and the campus spiritual center, which housed various student religious groups, including Hillel. “Unfortunately, his error tarnishes his legacy so deeply that it turns me away from connecting and donating to my alma mater.”

Despite his reluctance to donate to the university itself, Reis plans to continue giving to Penn State organizations and the university’s Jewish groups. He said alumni need to step up their efforts for these organizations so they can continue to help students—especially now.

Dan Greenstein, a 2008 graduate and a former Hillel religious chair, said Penn State provided him with a lifetime of memories that no scandal can erase.

“None of these things can be tarnished by the apparent failure of administrators to act like decent human beings,” the meteorologist said, adding that “The perception of Penn State has certainly changed to the greater public, and that will undoubtedly take a long time to repair.”

Reis hopes campus Jewish groups can play a role, urging Hillel and Chabad to work together to raise awareness of child abuse and “to be leaders in a campus coalition to restore the image of the university through good deeds and acts of loving-kindness.”

Rabbi David Ostrich of State College’s Congregation Brit Shalom, where Spanier is a member, believes the media and public have drawn conclusions from the Freeh report that go further than intended.

“I believe that Graham Spanier is an honorable man,” Ostrich said. “When he says that he was not covering this up, I believe him.”

When Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz first learned of the allegations against Sandusky, they thought they were dealing with a moral individual, the rabbi said.

“As it turns out they were wrong, and I am sure they all feel terrible about their failure to identify criminal and immoral behavior,” he said. “However, there is a big difference between being deceived or incorrect judgments and conspiring to cover up wrong-doing.”

Move over, Willie Horton

I just hope Peter Feldman isn’t Jewish.

In my parents’ New Jersey home, when the perpetrator of some awful act in the news was not yet known, I could always count on them to say, “I hope he isn’t Jewish.”

This worked out well in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, but for Jack Ruby, not so much. Sighs of relief greeted the announcement that the “Mad Bomber” terrorizing New York was George Metesky, but not when the “Son of Sam” killer was identified as David Berkowitz.

Peter Feldman is the McCain-Palin campaign’s communications director in Pennsylvania.

I don’t know Peter Feldman, and the only mayhem he’s suspected of is metaphorical, and the drip, drip, drip of evidence against him is coming out in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. I realize that politics ain’t beanbag, and I’m familiar with the riptides and undertows that can seize anyone working in a presidential campaign, especially an apparently losing one, in its final days. Still, for the sake of the reputation of Jewish ethics, and even for the sake of the reputation of Republicans, I sure hope he didn’t do last week what it kinda sorta looks like he did.

By now everyone knows that Ashley Todd, the 20-year-old McCain volunteer from College Park, Texas who told Pittsburgh police that a 6-foot-4 black man robbed her at an ATM machine and carved a backwards B on her face, has (in the words of a Pennsylvania prosecutor) “not insignificant mental health issues.” She made it all up.

But what everyone may not know is that before the contents of her allegation were fully known, let alone verified, it appears to be Peter Feldman – not the police – who told local reporters that her (fictional) big black assailant said to her, “You’re with the McCain campaign? I’m going to teach you a lesson.”

Move over, Willie Horton.

“>if you believe that Peter Feldman was just repeating what he had heard from the police, it is nevertheless arguable, as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said, that Mr. Feldman’s actions showed “not just a willingness to believe it, but an eagerness to incite a …racial backlash against the Obama campaign.”

On Saturday night, the same Peter Feldman ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”381″ height=”288″ vspace = 8 hspace 8 8 align = right />said that the party had not authorized the email; he blamed it on Bryan Rudnick, a consultant whom he said had drafted it. Mr. Rudnick denied that, saying that he had been hired by the party to do outreach to Jewish voters, and that “I had authorization from party officials.”

“>as he told the Des Moines Register, that he always tells “100 percent absolute truth” – that he is not winking at us ironically, not signaling “it’s just politics, my friends,” not asking us to pardon him for just-doing-what-a candidate’s-gotta-do, when he says that Jerry Falwell “>fire Rumsfeld; or that he’s the only presidential candidate not to receive “>balance the budget in four years; or that Obama wants kindergarteners taught “comprehensive “>expert on energy.

It is even conceivable that Sarah Palin really does think it’s true that the Troopergate investigation “>natural gas pipeline really is under way; or that Obama really does “>with terrorists; or that Obama’s economic plan actually amounts to

The Diaspora may be moving, but it isn’t going away any time soon

When Howard Grossman moved to the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wilkes-Barre 35 years ago, it was a thriving industrial city with a substantial, long-established Jewish community. Today, anyone who visits Wilkes-Barre cannot help but come away with the impression that this town of 43,000 has seen better days, and will perhaps see not too grand a future.

Along with the decline of the city’s industry, there’s been another loss: a massive reduction in its Jewish population. The community that numbered some 8,000 Jews in the 1920s has now shrunk to barely 2,100, a far more precipitous drop than the 40 percent decline experienced by the city at large.

Wilkes-Barre Jews, Grossman recalls, were prominent among the store owners of its bright and busy shops. But hard times for everyone had an even greater effect on the Jewish community. Today many Wilkes-Barre stores are empty while others have been replaced by low-end retail chains. The children of the original store owners, and of local garment manufacturers, teachers and professionals have, for the most part, decamped.

“It’s a shame,” Grossman says. “This is a town where they had a strong commitment.”

That commitment, Grossman insists, is still there. He estimates that 80 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s Jews are affiliated with a synagogue, a percentage far higher than in most places. Yet the depth of commitment doesn’t reduce the prospect that the community could eventually fade away.

The Protean Diaspora

The trajectory of this Pennsylvania city is nothing new — not in today’s United States, and not throughout the two-millennium-long history of the Diaspora. Jewish communities like the one in Wilkes-Barre have grown to prominence, only to decline over time into insignificance or even oblivion.

“The reality of Jewish life remains complex and protean,” Israeli historian David Vital suggests. “Jewry has no formal boundaries; its informal boundaries are subject to constant movement, change and debate.”

This has also been the history of the Jewish homeland itself: a bright period of ascendancy, followed by a stretch of desolation, and finally, today’s emerging reality, where Israel stands at the brink of becoming, for the first time since the heyday of the ancient state, the home of the largest Jewish community in the world.

Yet through history it has been the Diaspora, for all the contempt felt for it by some in Israel, that has dominated the “protean” history of our people, and marked what Martin Buber once called our “vocation of uniqueness.” Even when the old kingdom still existed in Palestine, Jews thrived mostly in “exile.” As early as 500 B.C.E., Jews established communities from Persia to North Africa. By the time of Jesus, when Hebrews accounted for roughly one in 11 residents of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean, nearly two-thirds lived outside Palestine, with roughly 1 million in Egypt alone.

Over the ensuing centuries these populations were constantly in flux, waxing and waning as economic, political and theocratic fashions forced migrations. Communities rose and then fell. At various times, Jews gathered in Antioch, Alexandria, Trier and, of course, the Eternal City itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Jewish fortunes shifted towards the Eastern Empire; later, to Islamic-dominated lands from Spain to Persia.

The Diaspora reached in all directions. Intolerant rulers spurred Jewish colonies to spread northward to The Netherlands and westward to England.

A different movement led eastward, this one from Germany and Central Europe to the vast, under-populated and economically backward lands of Poland and Russia. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it was there that the largest concentration of Jews, more than 5 million, came to live.

Meanwhile, as Britain, Holland and other European powers stretched their influence around the world, Jews followed. The Diaspora spread as far as India and China, to the “new world” of Australia, and, most portentously, to the Americas.

The Reshuffled Diaspora

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, poverty and growing anti-Semitic pogroms led to the movement of 1.8 million predominately Eastern European Jews to the United States, transforming America into the leading center of Diaspora life.

Then, two inextricably related events further shattered the archipelago of historic Jewish communities: the rise of Nazism and the establishment of the State of Israel.

The first event all but wiped out the great Jewish communities of continental Europe.

The second event, the establishment of the State of Israel, was, of course, a blessing to the notion of global Jewish survival. But it also signaled the end of many of the world’s oldest Jewish enclaves. Muslim reaction against the state led to the virtual elimination of long-thriving Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and North Africa. Most of their members sought safety either in Israel, or in the United States, Canada, Australia or France.

This process of consolidation has now accelerated. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a large population — roughly 1 million at least — out of a traditional center of Jewish life, and in to Israel, the United States and the remaining handful of countries willing to receive it, including, ironically, post-war democratic Germany.

The trend is continuing under the current Russian regime, which, although not openly anti-Semitic, follows an authoritarian, nationalistic bent uncomfortable for many Jews. Perhaps slightly more than 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to the United States since the collapse of the communist regime.

Most recently, new developments have enhanced the global concentration of Jews. Rising anti-Semitism and hard economic times, for example, brought many Mexican, Argentine and other South American Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. And the rise of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — a man deeply influenced by the Argentine anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole — seems likely to accelerate the diminution of yet another small (roughly 15,000) but well-established Latin American community.

Also significant has been the rise of Islamist Iran, a country closely allied to its fellow oil producer Venezuela, and arguably the leading center of anti-Jewish agitation in the world today. Since the 1979 revolution, about 80 percent of Persian Jewry have left. More than half — at least 50,000 — have relocated to the United States, mostly to Los Angeles and to Long Island, N.Y.