Melanie Steinhardt comforting Becca Richman at the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Feb. 26. Photo by Dominick Reuter/Getty Images.

Poll: 87 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of Republicans say anti-Semitism a ‘serious’ problem


Seventy percent of American voters see anti-Semitism in the country as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, up from 49 percent a month ago, according to a new poll.

The responses differed by party identification, with an overwhelming majority of Democrats, 87 percent, seeing anti-Semitism as a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem, and slightly more than half of Republicans, 53 percent, seeing it as such, according to the poll released Thursday.

The survey was was conducted by Quinnipiac University at the beginning of March.

Jewish institutions, including community centers and Anti-Defamation League offices, have been hit with more than 100 bomb threats so far this year, all of them hoaxes. In the past three weeks, Jewish cemeteries were vandalized in Philadelphia,St. Louis, and Rochester, New York.

Respondents were split on President Donald Trump’s response to the bomb threats and vandalism, with 37 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving. Most Republicans, 71 percent, approved of Trump’s response, while most Democrats, 66 percent, disapproved.

The poll also found that 63 percent of American voters think hatred and prejudice has increased since Trump’s election, while two percent say it has decreased and 32 percent say it has stayed the same.

Trump has come under fire for his delayed response to the incidents. Concerning the threats on Jewish establishments, Trump at first deflected questions – and in one instance shouted down a reporter who asked him about it – before calling them “horrible.”

Last month, the president noted the bomb threats and vandalism of cemeteries in his first address to a joint meeting of Congress.

“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

The Kansas City incident occurred after a patron ejected from a bar after hurling racial epithets at two workers from India allegedly returned with a gun and killed one of the men and wounded another.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the organization’s Never is Now conference in New York City, Nov. 17, 2016. Photo courtesy of the ADL.

ADL offers reward for information about Philadelphia Jewish cemetery vandals


The Anti-Defamation League offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia.

More than 100 gravestones were toppled and damaged at the Mount Carmel Cemetery in the city’s Wissinoming section. The vandalism was discovered Sunday.

The reward money leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandals is being provided by the Mizel Family Foundation, according to the ADL.

It is not known who committed the vandalism or if the motive was anti-Semitism.

A Gofundme campaign for the Philadelphia cemetery was launched by a private citizen, Raphael Caroline, 31, in the hours after the vandalism was discovered. It reached its $10,000 goal and beyond in seven hours.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia also is collecting donations for repairs to the cemetery.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey in a tweet called the attack on the cemetery “a despicable act of vandalism — these acts of hate cannot be tolerated.”

The state’s governor, Tom Wolf, in a tweet called the vandalism “a cowardly, disturbing act. We must find those responsible and hold accountable.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said city officials are working to discover who committed the attack.

“My heart breaks for the families who found their loved ones’ headstones toppled,” he said in a statement.  “We are doing all we can to find the perpetrators who desecrated this final resting place, and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  Hate is not permissible in Philadelphia. I encourage Philadelphians to stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters and to show them that we are the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”

Area Muslims from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s Philadelphia mosque  joined local Jews to help clean up the cemetery.

“They wanted to divide us. We united even more,” tweeted Kashif Chaudhry, a physician and Muslim activist.

“This is America,” read more than one response.

“This Jewish girl from Philly thanks Muslim community of Philly 4 standing w/us,” read another.

A candlelight vigil to support the Jewish community was held on Sunday night.

Gunman citing Islamic State ambushes Philadelphia policeman


A gunman claiming to have pledged allegiance to Islamic State militants shot and seriously wounded a Philadelphia police officer in an ambush on his patrol car, the city's police commissioner said on Friday.

Edward Archer of Philadelphia approached Officer Jesse Hartnett, 33, shortly before midnight and fired 11 rounds, three of which hit the officer in his arm, authorities said. Police released still images from surveillance video that showed the gunman dressed in a long white robe walking toward the car and firing, eventually getting close enough to shoot directly through the window.

Hartnett chased Archer, who was arrested by responding officers and later confessed to the attack, saying he had carried it out “in the name of Islam,” police officials told reporters.

“He has confessed to committing this cowardly act in the name of Islam,” Ross told a press conference, adding that the 30-year-old assailant also referenced Islamic State militants.

Philadelphia Police Captain James Clark added, “He said he pledges his allegiance to Islamic State, he follows Allah and that was the reason he was called on to do this.”

U.S. officials have been on high security alert following a series of Islamic State-linked attacks at home and abroad over the last few months.

In November, gunman and suicide bombers affiliated with Islamic State killed 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. Last month a married couple fatally shot 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in an attack inspired by Islamic State militants.

Those concerns have led to calls by some Republican governors and presidential hopefuls to restrict the admission of Syrian refugees fleeing that country's long civil war.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat sworn in on Monday, told reporters he did not believe Archer's actions reflected Islamic thinking.

“In no way shape or form does anyone in this room believe that what was done represents Islam,” Kenney said. “This was done by a criminal with a stolen gun.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the leading U.S. Muslim advocacy group, on Friday said Archer “does not appear” to be an observant Muslim. 

NO SIGN OF CONSPIRACY

There was no evidence as yet that the shooter had worked with anyone else, Ross said.

“He was savvy enough to stop just short of implicating himself in a conspiracy,” Ross said. “He doesn't appear to be a stupid individual, just an extremely violent one.”

About a dozen FBI agents and city detectives could be seen on Friday afternoon searching a two-story row house in a working class West Philadelphia neighborhood where Archer was believed to have stayed at times and a second home just outside the city where his mother lives.

The house where Archer was believed to have stayed was about two blocks away from the intersection where Hartnett was shot.

Archer has a criminal history. Court records show he pleaded guilty in 2014 to assault and carrying an unlicensed gun, charges that got him a prison sentence of between nine and 23 months.

Archer's mother told the Philadelphia Inquirer that her son, the oldest of seven children, had suffered head injuries from football and a moped accident and recently began acting erratically.

“He's been acting kind of strange lately. He's been talking to himself,” and hearing voices, the newspaper quoted Valerie Holliday as saying. “We asked him to get medical help.”

Hartnett was taken to Penn Presbyterian Hospital and will require several surgeries for three gunshot wounds in his arm.

“We're just lucky, that's all I can say,” Ross told reporters. “I can't even believe that he was able to survive this.”

The shooter used a gun that had been stolen from a Philadelphia police officer's home several years ago, but not by the shooter, Ross said.

“We know it was stolen, how many hands it may have passed through in the last couple of years, we do not know,” Ross said.

In New York City, where two police officers were shot dead in their patrol car in a December 2014 attack by a man angry over police killings of unarmed black men, the police department issued a memorandum urging officers to “exercise heightened vigilance and implement proactive measures” in light of the Philadelphia shooting.

“Those who carry out attacks in the name of ISIS or any other terrorist organization must be fully prosecuted,” said U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “We have to take every appropriate step to safeguard our communities and ensure safety.”

Israel closing five consulates, including Philadelphia


In a budget-cutting move, Israel is closing five of its diplomatic offices around the world.

The affected consulates are in Philadelphia, Belarus, El Salvador and Marseilles, France, along with a “roving ambassador” to the Caribbean, The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the saved money will go toward existing consulates and embassies.

The Philadelphia consulate was initially scheduled to be shut down two years ago, but was left standing after the local Jewish community and local politicians objected, according to the Post.

In addition to its embassy in Washington and the Philadelphia consulate, Israel has consulates in eight other U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

More than 100 headstones toppled at Philadelphia Jewish cemetery


A historic Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was vandalized, with 124 of its headstones knocked over.

The caretaker of Adath Jeshurun Cemetery discovered the toppled tombstones Thursday morning, NBC Philadelphia reported.

Johnny Gibson, who has worked at the 12-acre, 160-year-old cemetery for 44 years, said the vandals did not leave any markings or graffiti.

There are only a few new burials annually at the cemetery, which is in the northeastern neighborhood of Frankford and has not been vandalized in decades, according to Gibson.

“I don’t know who would do it,” he told NBC Philadelphia. “Were the people on drugs? Were they drunk? I don’t know. But you wouldn’t be in your right mind, I don’t think, to do something like this.”

 

 

At least six die in Philadelphia train derailment, scores hurt


Rescue workers on Wednesday sifted through twisted metal and other debris from the wreck of an Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia, killing at least six people and injuring scores of others, while investigators reviewed data to determine the cause of an accident.

Authorities said they did not know why the New York City-bound train carrying 243 people jumped the track at about 9:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday (0130 GMT Wednesday). One of the seven cars landed upside down and three were tossed on their sides, while passengers and luggage were sent flying, survivors said.

Philadelphia-area hospitals and health systems reported treating more than 200 people, a city emergency official said. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said authorities had not yet accounted for everyone aboard the train. He said six people were confirmed dead.

The conductor was injured, Nutter said at a news conference, and was giving a statement to police.

Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board had recovered recorders, or black boxes, from the train and were analyzing data, Robert Sumwalt, a NTSB member, said at the news conference. He said officials were also reviewing training records of the crew.

The agency was also investigating train speed, track condition, equipment and human performance, among other factors, he said.

The crash of Amtrak train No. 188, en route from Washington, D.C. with a crew of five, was the latest in a series of rail accidents on heavily traveled passenger train routes over the past year.

The train derailed in the city's Port Richmond neighborhood along the Delaware River, near the site of a 1943 rail accident that killed 79 people.

Amtrak, a publicly funded national passenger rail line, said Amtrak service along its busy Northeast corridor between New York and Philadelphia had been suspended indefinitely.

“We do not know what happened here. We do not know why this happened,” Nutter told reporters.

The crash and the issue of Amtrak funding are likely to come before Congress later Wednesday, when the House Appropriations Committee meets to discuss the transportation budget for the next fiscal year.

Dr. Herbert Cushing, Temple University Hospital's chief medical officer, said the dead suffered massive chest injuries. Most of the injured at Temple suffered fractures, he said at a news conference.

Port Richmond is a working-class neighborhood that has recently become a popular place to live among younger adults in the city.

Michael Hand, 44, who lives a few blocks from the crash, said he was outside drinking a beer at the time.

“There was a flash and then there was a big boom,” he said.

Jewish exec among missing after Amtrak crash


 A Jewish woman reported to be missing in the wake of an Amtrak train derailment near Port Richmond, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday apparently found inspiration for her early nonprofit work from her Jewish connections.

Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old mother of a 2-year-old, was still missing Wednesday morning, after the train accident that killed at least six people and injured more than 200 others.

Jacobs was recently hired as the CEO of ApprenNet, an online education start-up based in the University City section of West Philadelphia.

The 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College was commuting back and forth from her Manhattan home, which she reportedly shared with her husband and son.

Jacobs, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, Mich., spoke of her deep connection to Jewish community in a 2011 interview she gave to a Detroit fellow with Repair the World, a national nonprofit Jewish service-learning program that has a West Philadelphia-based branch.

“When we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community,” she said in describing Detroit Nation, a nonprofit group she co-founded in 2010 to help Detroit natives stay connected and involved even if they didn’t live there.

She said her family had always been involved in the Jewish and general communities of Detroit. “Going back to high school, I was very involved with NFTY,” she said of the Reform movement’s youth group. “I was the social action president for the Michigan chapter.”

She said the concept for Detroit Nation came from a “germ of an idea” started by the Jewish Federation in Detroit, and the Federation helped support it initially. It was modeled on Diaspora Jewry’s connection with Israel. “There was this huge diaspora of Detroiters who had grown up with very similar values, and really wanted to maintain a connection to the city whether they lived there or not.”

(This story was first published by the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.)

Iraq war vet sought in stabbing, shooting deaths of his Pennsylvania family


The wife and infant child of an Iraq war veteran suspected of fatally shooting and stabbing six family members in Pennsylvania were safe on Tuesday as the second day of a manhunt prompted lockdowns and cancellations of area schools, authorities said.

The search for Bradley William Stone, 35, was focused around his hometown of Pennsburg, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where residents were advised to stay inside with their doors locked, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman told a news conference.

Armed with guns and “cutting instruments,” Stone is suspected of killing on Monday his ex-wife, her mother, grandmother, sister and two other family members, including his 14-year-old niece, in communities around Philadelphia, Ferman said.

“Our SWAT teams have been out non-stop. All of those teams are working seamlessly to try to locate this fugitive,” she said.

A 17-year-old nephew, Anthony Flick, was seriously wounded in the attacks and hospitalized in stable condition, Ferman said.

A search of Stone's home and car yielded evidence, including his cell phone from which authorities pulled a photo that they digitally altered so the public could be on the lookout for the recently shaved Stone, she said.

“I would ask people not to try to stop Mr. Stone. He is considered armed and dangerous,” Ferman said.

Safe and secure were Stone's daughters, ages 8 and 5, whom he took from his ex-wife's house and left with a neighbor on Monday, and his current wife and infant child, Ferman said.

“They are secure,” she said.

It was Pennsylvania's second recent high-profile manhunt after a seven-week chase to capture survivalist Eric Frein, 31, accused of killing a state trooper in September.

Upper Perkiomen schools in the Pennsburg area were closed on Tuesday, the district said.

Stone suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the Bucks County Courier Times reported. He enlisted with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves in 2002, was deployed to Iraq and was honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant in 2011, according to military spokesman Captain Dustin Pratico.

Autopsies were underway on Tuesday. A law enforcement source said some of the bodies had stab wounds, some gunshot wounds and some may have had both.

Stone and his ex-wife, Nicole, 33, filed for divorce in 2009 and continued to have a custody battle. Stone asked a court on Dec. 5 to grant him custody on an emergency basis, according to court records.

Philly kosher butcher shop vandalized with swastikas


A kosher butcher shop in Philadelphia was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Crude swastikas were painted on the butcher shop, Simon’s Glatt Kosher meats, between the evening of Sept. 10 and the next morning, the Jewish Exponent reported. The butcher store has been at its location for 20 years.

A nearby synagogue was similarly vandalized in June.

There are no witnesses and no suspects in either case.

“The defacement of public property in Philadelphia with swastikas represents an attack on the entire community,” Anti-Defamation League associate regional director Joshua Cohen told the Jewish Exponent. “The swastika is a universal symbol of hate meant to instill fear and intimidation. It’s clear that the perpetrator intended to not only damage property but also to send a message of hate to the entire community.”

Labor charges dismissed against union-breaking Philly day school


The National Labor Relations Board dismissed charges against a Philadelphia Jewish day school that stopped recognizing its teachers union.

In an Aug. 22 letter to the attorney for the American Federation of Teachers in Pennsylvania, the NLRB’s regional director said his board has “lack of jurisdiction over” the case involving the Perelman Jewish Day School, the Jewish Exponent reported.

The AFT filed charges with the NLRB this spring after the Conservative day school’s board told teachers it would no longer negotiate with the union, which has represented teachers since 1976. The school leadership has defended its decision by arguing that as a religious institution, it is exempt from NLRB jurisdiction.

The AFT said it plans to appeal the decision; it has until Sept. 5 to file the appeal.

“It’s still immoral and unethical for a Jewish school to do this – it’s just wrong,” Ted Kirsch, the president of AFT Pennsylvania, told the Exponent.

Only a handful of Jewish day schools in North America have teachers unions. A number have been eliminated in recent years through board decisions or school closings. 

A private school affiliated with the Solomon Schechter Day School Network, Perelman serves more than 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Philly man, 89, arrested for Nazi-era crimes


An 89-year-old Philadelphia man, Johann Breyer, was arrested for abetting murder during his time as a Nazi guard at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Breyer, a retired toolmaker originally from Czechoslovakia who is also known by the first name John, appeared in court Wednesday, a day after his arrest. He is the oldest person in the United States to be accused of World War II-era Nazi crimes, according to The New York Times.

Federal officials arrested Breyer at the request of Germany, which issued a warrant for his arrest for complicity in the murder of 158 people at Auschwitz II-Birkenau and requested his extradition.

Breyer is accused of having served in the Waffen SS Death’s Head Guard Battalion from July 1943 to January 1945, where he worked as a concentration camp guard. All the guards were required to take an oath to implement the camp’s extermination protocols, making Breyer complicit in the murder of Jewish inmates.

The warrant for Breyer’s arrest from a German court in Bavaria was based on historical records, eyewitness statements, expert analysis and previous statements made by Breyer, according to the criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Breyer immigrated to the United States in 1952.

Drake cancels Philadelphia concert


Drake’s tour is off to a rocky start, much to the disappointment  of fans in Philadelphia. His show there Saturday night was postponed an hour after it was set to begin due to a mechanical problem, according to Philly.com.

“Due to the elaborate nature of tonight’s show and an unexpected technical issue, Drake’s ‘Would You Like A Tour’ concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia has been postponed until Wednesday, December 18th,” A spokesperson said in a statement. All ticket holders will get their second chance then.

This isn’t the first drama associated with the “Would You Like A Tour?” tour. Drake reportedly fired opening act Future after the rapper dissed Drake in a Billboard article, telling the mag, “Drake made an album that is full of hits, but it doesn’t grab you. They’re not possessive; they don’t make you feel the way I do.”

It’s all good between them now, though. Tonight they’ve moved on together to Montreal, where Drake’s Canadian home court advantage will hopefully bring some better luck.

Specter remembered as an iconoclast who enjoyed going toe to toe with tyrants


During his 30 years in the clubby confines of the U.S. Senate, Arlen Specter never lost his acerbic prosecutorial zeal, friends and associates say.

The insistent questions, the commitment to independence that made the longtime Pennsylvania senator a critical player in recent U.S. history, ultimately did in his career. In his 2010 bid for a sixth term, Specter lost the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Specter, who had been the longest-serving U.S. senator from his state, died Sunday of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.

His iconoclasm was his brand, from the outset of his career, when he made a name for himself as the young Philadelphia assistant district attorney on the Warren Commission who first postulated that a single bullet hit both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally.

[Related: Former US Senator Arlen Specter dies of cancer at 82]

And he wore his independence as a badge of honor: The pro-choice Republican who helped fell Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and then ensured Clarence Thomas’ ascension by leading what many liberal groups saw as the smearing of Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas who had accused the former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of sexually harassing her. The pro-Israel stalwart who enjoyed his one-on-ones with some of the Middle East’s most bloodstained tyrants.

Running for district attorney in Philadelphia in 1965, he left the Democratic Party, but returned in 2009, frustrated with what he said was the Republican Party’s lurch rightward. Specter the Democrat helped pass President Obama’s health care reforms.

“He would tell me, ‘Every morning I wake up I look in the mirror and I see the toughest guy in politics,’ ” recalled Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America who first lobbied and then befriended Specter.

Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate from 1981 to 2011, was shaped by his childhood as the only Jewish kid in his class in a small Midwestern town, Russell, Kan., said David Brog, a longtime aide to Specter who eventually rose to be his chief of staff.

“He was a tough Jew,” Brog said. Specter’s upbringing — helping out his father, a peddler and scrap metal business owner, when he was barely beyond toddler age — was a factor in his pro-Israel leadership, Brog said.

“He saw a little of Israel in himself as the only Jew in his class in Russell,” he said.

Although his sisters were Orthodox Jewish, Specter himself was not outwardly religious, though he had a strong sense of Jewish identity.

Brog noted that on his visits to the Jewish state, Specter would make a point of visiting the grave of his father, who came to the United States from what is now Ukraine, and who wished to be buried in Israel.

Specter was a congressional leader in advancing the cause of Soviet Jews, recalled Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ, the former National Council on Soviet Jewry.

“He had a particular interest in addressing these issues through legal means,” Levin said, particularly by leveraging international human rights laws. Specter would grill his interlocutors from the Soviet Jewry activist movement, asking them to come up with new avenues to leverage the Soviet Union and other European states.

“He wanted to know what more could be done, at the most difficult time when so few people were getting out,” Levin said. “What more could we do, whom do we need to speak to, what do we need to focus on? He was tough but fair.”

Specter also helped preserve the Lautenberg Amendment, named for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), which eased immigration for refugees from persecution. Designed as a way to advance the exodus of Soviet Jews, Specter extended the amendment to minorities from other nations, including Iran.

“A prescient leader, he understood early on that religious minorities within Iran needed special protection,” said a statement from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “The senator never forgot his Jewish roots, and his legacy within the Jewish community is great.”

Specter throughout his career was a pro-Israel leader, in recent years leading efforts to condition aid to the Palestinian Authority on its peace process performance. He also aimed to protect Jewish students on campuses from anti-Israel harassment.

An array of Jewish and pro-Israel groups mourned his passing.

“Time and time again, Sen. Specter worked to ensure that America’s ally had the resources necessary to defend herself and protect U.S. interests in the Middle East,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. “He was a good friend of our organization and a leading architect of the congressional bond between our country and Israel.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington called Specter “ an unswerving defender of the Jewish State and a stalwart advocate of peace.”

Yet Specter also courted the region’s tyrants, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Assads in Syria. He longed for a role brokering peace between Israel and Syria, even after his departure from the Senate.

“He visited these tyrants and he was convinced that he could convince them to moderate their policies,” Klein said. “And as we know, he never did.”

Brog said that Specter relished, from his days as a prosecutor, the challenge of going toe to toe with bad guys and getting them to stand down.

“He and Hafez Assad would sit for hours on end drinking tea, seeing who would need to go for a bathroom break first,” Brog said, referring to the late Syrian strongman and father of the country's current ruler, Bashar Assad.

More seriously, Brog said, Specter was committed to creating an environment friendly to peacemaking for Israel by forging a deal with its most recalcitrant neighbor.

“The prize was, if you could get Syria, the most extreme of Israel's neighbors, to sign a peace deal, you could create a climate in the region,” he said.

Specter’s independence took a toll on his staff, Brog said.

“Every single vote he wanted a briefing on the merits without just knowing how the party wanted the vote,” he said.

Specter was an exacting boss, Brog said, and notorious for sending staffers packing.

“Those of us who stayed with him saw this as a very good thing,” said Brog, who now serves as executive director of Christians United for Israel. “I look at my professional standards from before and after, and I see how I grew as a professional.”

Nominees for the federal bench were a regular target of his difficult questions, said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women.

“He was always independent and was proud of the fact that he went with his conscience,” she said.

Moshenberg found his tough questions gratifying when Specter grilled nominees on reproductive rights, but recalled being “infuriated” when he accused Hill of perjuring herself in accusing Thomas of sexual harassment.

“I remember standing in the Senate reception room waiting for him to vote and thanking him at times, and expressing disappointment at other times,” she said. “Many times I got to thank him.”

As the political climate grew more polarized, Specter found himself assailed by the left and the right. In 2004 he barely fended off a Republican primary challenge from his right by Rep. Pat Toomey.

Five years later, realizing he would likely not be able to beat Toomey again, Specter switched parties, saying the GOP had “moved far to the right.” Yet the Democratic Party proved no more welcoming; he lost in the 2010 primary to Rep. Joe  Sestak, who in turn was defeated by Toomey in the general election.

The Jewish affiliates of both parties issued statements commemorating Specter’s career. Each emphasized different aspects of his career — the National Jewish Democratic Council called him a “crucial voice of moderation” and the Republican Jewish Coalition said he was a “staunch supporter of Israel.”

But the groups echoed one another in describing Specter’s higher calling: The RJC noted that he was a “devoted public servant,” and the NJDC called him a “consummate public servant.”

A 220-year-old lesson


Last week, while on a family vacation in Philadelphia, my wife and I visited the new National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Square. We toured the wonderful installation chronicling American Jewish history from the first immigrants to the current period. The permanent exhibition alone is worth a few hours of touring.

We were especially lucky to be present on the first day of a new show that runs until the end of September: “To Bigotry No Sanction — George Washington and Religious Freedom.” The exhibition centers on the August 1790 letter that Washington sent to the “Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island.” The Museum recently acquired the original letter, which had been hidden away for the past decade. Due to the delicacy of the original, it can only be on display three months a year.

It is an extraordinary document and is especially worthy of attention in the days surrounding the Fourth of July. The letter was handwritten by Washington shortly after he received a letter from Moses Seixas, the “warden” of the Newport synagogue. In Seixas’ letter, he welcomed Washington to Newport and thanked God for having led the Jews to America:

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People … generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine. … [W]e desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness to the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of mortal life. And when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the after of life and the tree of immortality.”

In Washington’s response, a few days later, he laid out a vision of religious tolerance that likely had no historic precedent (the French legislation emancipating its Jews was not adopted until September 1791).

In a few terribly moving paragraphs, Washington declares that “the citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

In beautiful prose, he invokes the words that Seixas had included in his letter: “For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving on all occasion their effectual support.”

In what is a rather prescient view of societal dynamics, Washington makes clear that it is really not for one set of citizens to express “toleration” for another — acceptance is not theirs to give. Liberty is, after all, the exercise by the minority of their “inherent natural rights.” (You can find the full text of Washington’s letter at jewishjournal.com. It’s worth a read.)

It probably needn’t be noted, but the exquisite language of tolerance that Washington expressed in 1790 did not extend to slaves, women or Native Americans and did not reflect itself in the laws of many of the states, which had attitudes that were considerably less benign. The Emancipation Proclamation (freeing the slaves) was 73 years and a civil war away. And as recently as the past decade, seven states still had statutes on the books (though unenforceable) that had religious tests for holding office.

Notwithstanding the fact that Washington’s vision took a while to realize — “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid”— it was an aspiration that helped set the bar for what America was to become, a nation that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”


David A. Lehrer co-directs Community Advocates Inc. with Joe Hicks. They write The Wide Angle blog at jewishjournal.com/thewideangle, where this piece originally appeared.

Saperstein: Remark by Catholic League’s Donohue could be seen as ‘threatening’ to Jews


A Reform movement leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, said a statement to a rabbi by Catholic League chief Bill Donohue could be construed as “threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church.”

Donohue had a heated email exchange with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, after Waskow published a column on The Huffington Post website on June 11 criticizing the U.S. Conference of Bishops for its opposition to the Obama administration’s mandate requiring access to contraceptive coverage for employees of religious-run institutions like hospitals and orphanages.

In a statement June 20, Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted that Donohue ended the exchange with Waskow with a quote from former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who is Jewish, “in a manner that can be read as threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church.”

Donohue’s second email to Waskow ended with “Ed Koch, my friend, once said that Jews had better not make enemies of their Catholic friends since they have so few of them. Think about that the next time you feel compelled to attack my religion.”

Saperstein said that “the importance of both the health care rights of women and the social justice passion of the Catholic nuns who serve on the front lines of our neediest citizens’  struggles for economic justice deserve a more respectful response.”

In a June 21 statement, Donohue said he was quoting an address by Koch in January to a Jewish group in which the former mayor said, “We’re 13 million Jews in the whole world—less than one-tenth of 1 percent. And we need allies. The best ally we can have is the Catholic Church.”

Koch, in his own statement on the matter, said Donohue had misconstrued his remarks.

“My comments have always been about fostering good feelings between Jews and Catholics toward mutual understanding of our shared interests,” Koch said. “However, I certainly do not believe that Jews, or Catholics, should be threatened for making critical remarks, nor should my name be used when doing so. While I do have a high regard for Bill, his references to me and my remarks were inappropriate and different in substance and tone than what I said on an earlier occasion.”

Donohue’s reference to what he saw as Waskow’s “attack” on Roman Catholicism appeared to refer to Waskow’s criticism in his column of the Vatican for strictures it imposed recently on an American nun’s conference, Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Church leaders have tasked three male bishops with overhauling the group, alleging it had de-emphasized opposition to abortion in favor of social justice issues.

In his statement, Donohue said he had taken particular offense to Waskow’s claim in his Huffington Post column that for the bishops, “religion happens in the genitals.”

In his first email, Donohue asked Waskow whether it is “the business of any religious leader to condemn the strictures of another religion.”

In his release to reporters, Waskow attached only Donohue’s second email, with the Koch quote, and omitted the first, which makes it clear that Donohue is taking offense more at Waskow’s comments on the nuns than his dealing with the issue of contraceptive coverage.

The Catholic League’s spokesman, Jeff Field, told JTA that Donohue regarded that omission as “despicable.”

Waskow, in his comments on the exchange, noted a New York Times interview with Donohue last week that described the Catholic League leader as having moved from representing the church’s right wing to its mainstream.

“Now we will find out whether that includes threatening Jews for disagreeing with the Church hierarchy,” Waskow said in a release.

Vandals hit Philadelphia synagogue


Officials at a Philadelphia synagogue are calling a BB gun attack on the synagogue a hate crime.

“What else could it be?” Maxine Goldman, co-president of Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezreth, said Monday morning of the May 10 attack in which dozens of BBs reportedly were shot at the building.

The attack occured while about 130 people were attending a synagogue event.

Goldman said two police officers came within minutes of being called that evening, but detectives have not yet returned to investigate further. She said windows, the door and door frame of the building were damaged.

Synagogues officials are awaiting an insurance estimate for the damage.

“Quite a bit of work needs to done,” Goldman said. “We’re hesitant” that it might happen again.

Three years ago, the synagogue was defaced with swastikas.

Former Boston-area rabbi refuses plea over sexual abuse charges


A rabbi who taught at a Boston-area Jewish day school has refused a plea deal over sexual abuse charges.

Rabbi Stanley Z. Levitt of Philadelphia has been accused of molesting three former students at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. The allegations date back to 1975-76. He was indicted in Boston two years ago.

Levitt, 65, on Wednesday rejected a plea bargain in which he had agreed to plead guilty. The rejection of the plea came at the last minute, as his accusers waited to hear his admission of guilt, the Boston Globe reported.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Carol Ball criticized Levitt for changing his mind at the last minute, according to the newspaper.

Levitt’s attorney told the Globe that his client had agreed to the plea bargain in order to stay out of jail and to protect his health. But his client held on to his claim of innocence.

Levitt taught at the school for three years during the mid-1970s. He later moved to Philadelphia, where he was charged with molesting three boys from an Orthodox Jewish community.

A trial date has been set for May 14.

Biden’s future son-in-law is Jewish doctor


Vice President Joseph Biden’s future son-in-law is a Jewish doctor.

The news became public after Biden referred to Philadelphia doctor Howard Krein as his future son-in-law during an event in his home state of Delaware on Oct. 28.

Ashley Biden, 30, and Krein reportedly dated for a year before they became engaged in September, according to reports. Biden is a social worker. Krein is an ear, nose and throat specialist at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia.

In her Naked Philadelphian blog, Laura Goldman wrote that “Employees of Jefferson Hospital told me that Howard is proud of being Jewish, so expect some Jewish elements at the wedding. Maybe that will shut up some of Obama’s Jewish critics.”

The new National Museum of American Jewish History traces the immigrant ethnic experience.


PHILADELPHIA – George Washington never had it this good.

From five stories up, it’s pretty easy to see what he couldn’t, with the expanse of Independence Mall splayed out below. Washington’s newly recreated house is straight ahead, right next to the Liberty Bell Pavilion. One block to the left is Independence Hall and, to the right, the National Constitution Center.

But the top floor of the brand-new National Museum of American Jewish History — which opened late last year here in the dead center of the country’s single most historic square mile — is the only place that gives you a full panorama of the intricate, carefully planned landscape of the Mall.

From the balcony, the history is almost too much to take in. On surrounding cobblestone streets, top-hatted tour guides cart tourists around in horse-drawn carriages.

But for all the history outside, the stories inside are even richer. The museum’s history of the Jewish experience in America is a microcosm of both the whole history of the Jewish people and of the quintessentially American experience of the last couple hundred years.

Erev Passover is a particularly appropriate time to walk through the museum’s earliest artifacts, which date to the first Jews’ arrival in North America almost 350 years ago. Themes of freedom and liberation course through the exhibits, where stories and memorabilia from the Jewish immigrant experience are writ large in videos, displays and impressive interactive exhibits.

“This museum is a story of one immigrant ethnic group’s encounter with freedom,” said Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum. “At the beginning, notwithstanding the tremendous aspirations that drove people here, the freedoms were far from perfect.”

In some cases — fleeing Spain and Portugal in the 17th century, or Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the plight of the Jews on the run very closely mirrors the exodus from Egypt. Here, they had passports — the museum displays a few from early 20th century Russia — but once they arrived, their lives were often a complicated mix of Jewishness and Americanness, with the two not always compatible.

The museum does a skillful job of showing how these twin identities slowly bumped up against one another, with too many artifacts to count: a copy of Maryland’s 1819 “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to hold elected office; a pair of Levi’s jeans from 1885, which look shockingly similar to modern-day jeans (although Mr. Strauss probably didn’t think skinny jeans or low-riders would ever be in fashion); and English-Hebrew typewriters used to produce the myriad Jewish newspapers in New York and elsewhere. The exhibits tell of the slow, careful journey that Jews took in America, from searching for their own freedom to using their eventually perfected freedom to lift up others.

“It’s tough enough, when you look at broad strokes of those years of the American Jewish journey, simply to pursue and try to perfect and achieve those freedoms for one’s self,” Rosenzweig said. “By the time we get to the 20th century and certainly the 21st century, we have achieved those freedoms for ourselves and so it’s a natural thing, I think, given the ethos of our tradition, to begin to look very seriously at efforts to help others.”

After World War II, the American Jewish experience changed, so the museum’s tenor changes as well.

Jews became more engaged in the social and political life of the country, taking on leading roles everywhere from the entertainment industry (movie clips from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman put a fine point on just how funny we are) to politics. They vacationed in the Catskills and moved to the suburbs (one-third of all American Jews left cities for picket-fenced pastures from 1945 to 1965). And they went to camp.

The museum includes a whole room on Jewish summer camps, complete with “artifacts” (songbooks, packed trunks, the sew-in name tags of one Carol Levenson), field recordings (you hear the “ohmygodhowwasyourwinter” shrieks of the first day of camp piped in through speakers), and opportunities for interaction (visitors to both the museum and the Web site, nmajh.org, can upload embarrassing camp photos and postcards for all to see). One time I visited, other patrons walked through the room singing Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”

This focus on a crucial piece of the American Jewish experience — one that’s on the one hand extremely American, but at the same time a rare opportunity for American Jews to immerse themselves in such a Jewish atmosphere — articulates the different kind of freedom Jews have found just in the last 65 years. Not only do we have the freedom to be Jewish, and to practice Judaism as we please, but for the first time, we have the freedom not to be Jewish.

“Because we enjoy these intoxicating degrees of freedom, we can assimilate. We can be completely American and, if we wish, not at all Jewish,” Rosenzweig said. “The choice, the challenge, is living in that tension.”

Midler, Seinfeld, Biden headline Jewish museum opening


Vice President Joe Biden, Jerry Seinfeld and Bette Midler headlined a festive opening weekend for the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

The gala events marked the culmination of a decade-long, $150 million effort to move from a small space adjoining a synagogue to an impressive structure situated in the center of historic Philadelphia, near the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Constitution Center, the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent reported.

Midler jokingly wondered why the museum was located in Philadelphia rather than New York, where “there are more Jews in my building than in this town.”

But at the official dedication ceremony Sunday afternoon, which was heralded by a chorus of 50 shofar blowers, several dignitaries gave Midler her answer.

“The stories are Jewish stories, but they’re American stories above all else,” Biden told the crowd in his keynote address. “I can think of no other city that would be a fitting showcase for them.”

George Ross, co-chair of the museum’s board of trustees and chairman of the capital campaign, said he didn’t think he could have raised the $150 million for the museum if not for the prominent location in the middle of the city’s most historic square mile.

“If we can bring our children and grandchildren closer to that wonderful heritage, that moral compass that has preserved the Jewish people, then we will be a success,” Ross said at the ceremony, which also featured Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania’s outgoing governor, Ed Rendell.

Rendell, who is Jewish, complimented Ross for managing to get money from the state not just once but on four separate occasions.

“He wouldn’t accept the fact that this would be hard to do. His belief was so strong, his passion so great, he was impossible to say no to,” Rendell said. “It is something special for Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania, for America and for the world.”

The crowd ate up Seinfeld’s Jewish-tailored shtick. As the emcee and one of the chief entertainers, he riffed on everything from his mother who couldn’t figure out a cell phone to the undignified nature of bathroom stalls.

Barbra Streisand, who is one of only three living individuals honored in the museum’s Hall of Fame, was one of 800 guests to attend the opening dinner Saturday night.

Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler to headline Philly museum’s opening bash


Two of the country’s most famous Jewish performers will highlight the opening of one of the most ambitious Jewish museum projects in years.

Jerry Seinfeld will emcee and Bette Midler will headline a Nov. 13 gala to celebrate the official unveiling of the renovated National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, a $150 million project to place the museum on the city’s Independence Mall and expand it from about 10,000 square feet to more than 100,000.

The museum, which will trace the history of American Jews from the 1654 arrival in New Amsterdam of 20 Jews from Brazil until today, will aim to attract some 250,000 visitors per year—10 times what it has traditionally attracted since it opened in the mid-1970s.

“The opening is a celebration of an institution that is focused most of all on connecting American Jews more closely with their heritage and inspiring in all Americans a greater diversity of the American experience and the contribution they have made to this country,” the museum’s president and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, told JTA. “It was important for us to keep these purposes front of mind. And these two individuals”—Seinfeld and Midler—“are highly successful and both very proud of their Jewish heritage.”’

The museum, which received a lead $25 million gift from Jones Apparel owner Sidney Kimmel, has attracted some big names in Jewish philanthropy, including Steven Spielberg, the Tisch family, Raymond and Ruth Perelman, and Howard Millstein.

It also has attracted billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad and Michael and Susan Dell, two of the country’s most generous families who are not known for giving prodigiously to explicitly Jewish causes.

“We like to say that the story we tell is their story,” Rosenzweig said.

Quite literally, the museum will tell the story of its visitors—one feature in its main exhibit will allow visitors to videotape an interview about their own Jewish history. The video will be e-mailed to the participants and become a part of the museum’s archives.

The 25,000-square-foot main exhibit is entirely new and includes 30 films, all of which were created especially for the museum and a number of never exhibited artifacts.

The museum has been given a boost by the fact that it has become a Smithsonian Institute affiliate museum. Still, Rosenzweig feels that many of his donors became involved because the museum is the story of their own successes.

“For certain donors, what was very attractive was the story we tell. At its core it is a story of freedom, and of what one ethnic group—the Jews—can achieve when they are given the freedoms we enjoy under the Constitution of this country,” he said.

“Many took to heart that this was their story about what they have achieved by virtue of those freedoms. There are certain donors for whom philanthropy in the organized Jewish community has not been a priority, but they have found this a compelling project.”

The museum has raised about $141 million, which covers the $137 million cost of construction. By the opening Rosenzweig hopes to have pledges in hand covering another $9 million for the start of a $13 million endowment. That will have to grow to cover the museum’s $9 million annual operating budget.

Ticket prices for the gala have not yet been announced, but proceeds will go toward the museum’s operating budget. Having Midler and Seinfeld, who are being paid to perform, will likely give the event a boost, Rosenzweig said.

“They were at the very top of our list,” he said. “There were other individuals we were interested in, but they were both our first choices. We hit a home run in all respects.”

Philadelphia-area Rabbi Tapped to Head Conservative Body


PHILADELPHIA—Rabbi Steven Wernick, religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station, has been tapped to be the next professional leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm.

“I’m coming into this job with no illusions about all the challenges that exist,” said Wernick, a Philadelphia native who has led the Main Line synagogue for seven years. Before that he spent six years at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“I still feel that United Synagogue has something very important to say to the Jewish world,” the rabbi said in a phone interview.

The news leaked out Wednesday as his contract was still being negotiated and before he was able to inform his congregation.

Wernick is slated to replace the organization’s longtime executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

Wernick’s selection marks the latest in a series of key leadership changes in the Conservative movement.

In 2007, scholar Arnold Eisen, who also grew up in Philadelphia, replaced Rabbi Ismar Schorsch—who was largely viewed as a traditionalist—to head the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change that paved the way for the admission of openly gay rabbinical students.

Last year, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld became the first woman picked to lead the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s clerical arm. She is slated to assume the post this summer.

The 19-member United Synagogue search committee made its decision within the past week, according to movement officials.

“He really impressed us with his level of energy and his preparedness,” said Ray Goldstein, the lay president of United Synagogue. “He evidently took a congregation from a good solid base and helped to re-energize that congregation.”

Goldstein credited Wernick with helping to create the Conservative movement’s Leadership Council, a regional body that brought together the various arms of the movement. The council, for example, helped organize a series of educational events related to the King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute two years ago.

In recent years, the movement’s leadership has engaged in serious and sometimes bitter debate on the future of Conservative Judaism. It has grappled with such issues as the approach to intermarriage and the place of Jewish law in contemporary life. The decision on ordaining gay rabbis was among the most contentious issues.

The Conservative movement, once the strongest stream in the United States, has been losing ground steadily among American Jews to the Reform movement on the left and Orthodoxy on the right. Some observers have made dire predictions that the center position might not hold.

Last week, a group of Conservative rabbis and leaders sent a letter to Goldstein asserting that a fundamental change of direction was needed.

Wernick brushed aside predictions of doom and gloom for the movement. At the same time, he said one of his goals is to re-engage the movement’s core leadership and create stronger partnerships with synagogues that are facing difficult economic times.

“The biggest challenge facing the movement isn’t about ideology or theology,” he said. “It’s about re-engagement, setting priorities and carrying them out.

“Now is a great moment. We need to work together and create an agenda.”

In just a few years, Wernick helped to revitalize Adath Israel and also became involved in the larger community. He serves as co-chair of the adult education committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

At his congregation, he said, an innovative program he helped fashion was the Tuttleman Leadership Institute, which each year identifies some 15 congregants who engage in text study, leadership training and personal growth programs.

Wernick, a father of three, is the son of Rabbi Eugene Wernick, who served two congregations in the area, including Beth Am Israel.

As a child, he lived in Philadelphia but moved several times, including to California, as his father switched synagogues.

Wernick said he is not sure yet whether he’ll have to relocate to New York for his new position.

Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel): The biggest Jew in country music [VIDEO]


CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA)—Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ‘til I die.”

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

“Kinky’s not a country western singer—he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has—until now—kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”

Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.

“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.

The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.

On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House—they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.

In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain—period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites as an example a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career, and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there’s the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,’ ” Benson recalled.

“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.

“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.

The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,”  a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play, as Wills did, blues and jazz.

“Basically in this play I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag—hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of western swing,’” Benson said.

“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.

The point he wanted to make, he said, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”

Asleep at the Wheel: ‘Route 66’ (live)

 

Legends and lies


If the plans follow the promises of its sponsors, the site of the next preeminent national Jewish institution will be in the historic heart of Philadelphia.

There, steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, edging a revitalized Independence Mall, the proposed

Q&A with Reconstructionist Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz


Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia, recently made one of his biannual visits to Southern California, which is home to the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the world, as well as growing congregations from Irvine to Manhattan Beach to San Diego.

Ehrenkrantz, who has been in his post for five years, is in the middle of a $50 million fundraising effort to expand and continue the vision of the RRC, which was founded in 1968 as the first college for a movement that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Jewish Journal: What is Reconstructionist Judaism, and how does it differ from other denominations?

Dan Ehrenkrantz: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism start with the idea that Judaism is something that God created, and that God gave [the Torah] to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses delivered it to the Jewish people, and ever since, what we’ve been trying to do as Jews is to understand what it was God wants from us. The traditional conception of the way that Judaism began is God needed people to carry out his program, but the program came first and the people were chosen to carry out this program, so we are chosen people. The Jewish people were elected to bring the Torah into the world.

The Reconstructionist Movement understands Judaism to be the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. So here Judaism is understood as a civilization of the Jewish people; Torah is what the Jewish people have created, as well as Talmud and midrash and writings of Jewish life that have gone on till today, so the emphasis is on the Jewish people.

JJ: But what makes a Reconstructionist Jew?

DE: Anybody … who understands himself to be a Reconstructionist Jew, who buys into what that is, or someone who is affiliated with a Reconstructionist congregation. The primacy is not on what you believe, the most important element — if Judaism is ‘believing, behaving, belonging,’ — then belonging is the most important. I can’t answer for a Reconstructionist Jew what they believe or how they behave.

JJ: Do Reconstructionist Jews believe in God?

DE: The thinkers within the movement believe in God. Some people don’t. It’s a question of how central is belief. It’s important within belief to wrestle with God, whatever your belief (in God or not in God) — but is it helping you to be a better person toward one another?
The purpose of Jewish life it to bring us to belief and wholeness, what the founder, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, called salvation. What does that look like?

JJ: It seems like Reconstructionist Jews are very traditional and follow many mitzvot.

DE: A good Reconstructionist Jew will be deeply engaged in traditional Judaism. What their outward behavior may look like will vary. That said, to be deeply engaged is not a question of ‘Do you know everything?’ but are you attached to the Jewish community, to Jewish sources? Do you live your life allowing those elements, the Jewish past and the present Jewish community, to help form our life?

JJ: So if someone wanted to be a Reconstructionist Jew, what would they have to do?

DE: They would have to understand Judaism in a particular way. And be Jewish — someone who has a Jewish mother or father and was raised as a Jew, or converted.

JJ: What unites Reconstructionist Jews?

DE: They are united in being interested and open to questions of Jewish life, they are united in placing community as an extraordinarily high value. Different Reconstructionist congregations will have very different atmosphere in halachic observance, in terms of Hebrew/English mix in the service, but everybody in Reconstructionist congregations will speak in very similar terms about their congregation. It has to do with how the synagogues are run, insisting that members take Judaism and create it for themselves, and the process of doing that brings people closer together. We decide together what Judaism is and that creates a very different communal atmosphere.

JJ: Then what is the role of the rabbi?

DE: The rabbi is the leader. What is leadership? Leadership is the ability to see a vision of the community beyond what the community currently manifests, and then to be able to know the steps that need to be taken in order to reach the next level, and to find the resources within the community. That leadership might look different at a different time and different places. What might be right for the large congregation in Pacific Palisades may not be right for a small town in Colorado.

JJ: About 300 students have graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. What is a student’s course of study?

DE: It’s the only graduate school in the world where you can do a study of Judaism in a chronological fashion. If you imagine that Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people, then it makes sense to begin studying the beginnings of the Jewish people from the biblical period to contemporary times, studying the history, thought, literature, Talmud and midrash from each of those periods and what the Jewish community was doing and thinking. What record did they produce of their lives in those times?

JJ: It sounds like you’re training Jewish historians.

DE: Not historians exactly, although there is a strong emphasis on Jewish history, it’s true. But to see and understand how Judaism has changed helps you understand what Judaism is, both in the past and the present.

Here’s an example: if you ask a rabbi typically ‘what does Judaism say about capital punishment?’ or ‘hareg v’al yavor,’ they will answer in the same way: ‘Judaism says … ‘

What we learn is that Judaism doesn’t say, Jewish people say. Jewish people say many different things over time. So we could say ‘let’s look [at] what Jews did in Masada, or in Spain, and we see [that] in the time of the Inquisition some Jews, when given the choice to convert or die, chose to convert or pretended to convert. That’s a Jewish answer to that question, and you won’t read it in the Talmud or in Jewish codes. There’s a variety of responses that the Jewish people have given, not all of which are in the Talmud.

Fighting Exclusion


In a Philadelphia suburb, a Reform congregation has fought for more than a year to create a synagogue on a parcel of land that for many years had been the site of a Roman Catholic novitiate. An Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles has been in court for years over their use of a private house, even though their neighbors thoroughly approve of the shul. And in New Rochelle, N.Y., a modern Orthodox congregation has been stymied in what seemed like a routine move — across the street.

Now, thanks to a 6-month-old federal law, the three congregations are starting to think they might finally prevail in their struggles with zoning and planning boards and, in some cases, neighbors.

Thus far, however, only one religious institution has won its case under the new law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), according to a Web site devoted to the legislation (www.rluipa.org).

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in December that a small church could occupy a storefront in Grand Haven, Mich. Church officials had been told by the town that religious meetings and worship were not permitted at that location under city zoning laws, though private clubs, fraternal organizations and other assemblies were allowed in the zone.


Nunnery OK

Lacking its own building, Kol Ami in suburban Philadelphia has rented space for services and for its Hebrew school from theaters and other schools and facilities. Leaders thought they had found a perfect site in Abington Township — an 11-acre wooded parcel with a chapel that they could adapt and another building that could be altered for its school and offices. And the order of nuns who own the site were hoping that the purchaser would maintain it for religious uses.

But nearby residents said the synagogue would bring excessive noise and traffic and would lower the value of their homes. Township officials, meanwhile, dispute whether the synagogue would constitute a so-called “continued use” of the site under a current exception.

This month the zoning board ruled against the congregation, saying that the latter’s claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was not timely and that the township’s zoning ordinance “does not unreasonably limit” religious assemblies or institutions. The congregation, which has already spent $100,000 for lawyers and consultants, is girding for the costs and tsuris of an appeal.


City of Angels

Etz Chaim of Hancock Park, a tiny Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, has had nothing but grief since it moved into its current site about seven years ago, said its rabbi, Chaim Rubin.

Etz Chaim is a shtiebel, a synagogue in a home, and its members are mostly elderly and disabled. For most of them, it is the only shul they can walk to.

But houses of worship are forbidden within the Hancock Park residential zone. At the behest of a residents’ group, the city of Los Angeles has successfully fought the congregation’s bid for a special-use permit in local and state courts. The shul is appealing the matter in federal court and has spent more than $50,000 in the process.

For a generation, Rabbi Rubin’s parents’ home was a shtiebel in the same neighborhood, but the congregation outgrew it. Its members purchased a home, which, he noted, is “at the corner of two secondary highway thoroughfares, traveled by some 84,000 cars daily.” For daily prayer, a small minyan meets each morning for about half an hour and again at sundown for another half-hour, Rubin testified to Congress. On Shabbat, as many as 50 men and women walk to and from the shul.

“That is all we do.”

Rubin noted that the zoning ordinance primarily hurts Orthodox Jews, because they must live within walking distance from their shul. “Our right to pray in our neighborhood has been, at best, ignored, or probably more accurately, trampled upon,” he said, adding that he believes the primary reason the residents’ group is opposing the shul so strongly is their concern that it will attract more Orthodox Jews to the neighborhood.

The congregation, Rubin said, has had to spend $50,000 on lobbying and application fees. The expense would be significantly greater were it not for a neighbor who happens to be the managing partner of a Los Angeles law firm that is handling the case pro bono.

“I’m thrilled with” the RLUIPA, Rubin said, adding he hopes that when the case comes up in federal court in July, it will make Los Angeles “start doing business a little differently than it did before.”

A Garage for Nondrivers

Things are no better for Young Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., a modern Orthodox congregation that for the past six years has sought to move to a larger site diagonally across from its current location, according to Michael Turek, financial secretary and chairman of community relations for the 245-family shul.

Overcrowding has gotten so bad, Turek said, that the congregation has to hold three separate Shabbat morning services, each is standing room only. On the High Holidays, he continued, the synagogue has four simultaneous prayer groups, each in a separate room.

To ease neighbors’ opposition, the congregation has even offered to build an underground parking lot, despite the fact that congregants will walk to the shul on Shabbat. It has also offered to reduce the size of its planned social hall and have voluntarily “mandated to use it only for member-family life-cycle events,” Turek said.

He said environmental and other studies, as well as attorneys’ fees and other expenses incurred in trying to gain a zoning variance, have “cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though we haven’t put a shovel in the ground.” And that is before the zoning hearing has even begun. Turek said he hopes that will take place by the summer. And now he hopes the federal law will bring a happy result.



Provisions of the Law

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which President Clinton signed into law last September, was meant to restore some of the safeguards for religious institutions that were lost when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1997.
The new law says, “No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution.” It also says, “No government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less-than-equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”

There are exceptions if the government demonstrates there is “a compelling governmental interest,” and the zoning law is “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” the law states.

Greatness


In most big cities in the United States, horse-and-buggy rides are offered as tourist attractions. It is therefore not shocking to find them lined up in Philadelphia, right near Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell.

What was surprising, however, was whom I found driving a horse and buggy during a summer visit to Philadelphia. As I approached the horses and buggies, I noticed that all of the drivers were dressed in crazy costumes, each claiming that his ride was the best Philadelphia could offer. But one buggy driver was a little different. His outfit consisted of a beard and yarmulke. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately I thought, “What is wrong with this picture?” Didn’t this fellow ever hear Jackie Mason instruct that certain professions aren’t for Jews?

I inquired if he had any problem getting the job. Did the owner of the business object to his wearing a yarmulke? He told me, “Are you kidding? The owner loved it. He thought it was a costume, and the crazier you look, the better it is for business.” I then asked if it actually attracts people. He replied that Israelis love it, and they come and take rides so they can have pictures of him with the horse and buggy. They do this because no one in Israel will believe them unless they have the picture to prove it.

I wondered what a religious Jew was doing here. He told us that he is a college student majoring in history. I inquired if his interest in history led to his employment, but he assured me that it didn’t. I then asked if he had a natural empathy for horses, but he replied that until he took this job he had never come near a horse. Confused, I again asked, “Why would a nice Jewish boy like you be working here?” He replied simply, “I needed a summer job.”

It took me some time to appreciate his answer, but when I did I realized it also helped me understand a fascinating point about Noah and the view the sages of old had of him.

Our sages wondered if Noah was really great. Although the Torah states in the opening verse, “Noah was a perfect tzadik in his generation,” Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, quotes the Midrash that states, “But if he had been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered significant.”

In a penetrating observation, the 19th century Chassidic work, the Shem MiShmuel, wonders how we can say this when the Torah itself stated that Noah was “a perfect tzadik.” Abraham, in contrast, was never called perfect. Instead, God told him before his circumcision, “Walk before Me and be perfect.” In other words, Noah was perfect, but Abraham had to attain perfection.

This, claims the Shem MiShmuel, is the message of the Midrash. Noah was perfect because he was blessed innately with spirituality. As the Talmudic work Avot D’rabbi Nathan claims, Noah was even born circumcised. He needed to do nothing to attain piety. It was a built-in phenomenon that never changed.But, asks the Midrash, is true greatness received or achieved? In contrast to Noah, Abraham’s origins were idolatrous, and he attained piety because of his tremendous efforts. This, argue our rabbis, is true greatness. When one overcomes all the obstacles that are in front of him and becomes great, that deserves our recognition.

That young college student in Philadelphia proved to me that you can achieve anything you want if you just put your mind to it. He needed a job, so he overcame obstacles to get one. Some of us are like Noah with all of the blessings built in, but most people have to work to achieve success.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.