Brazil Hillel feigns closure in bizarre marketing stunt

Hillel Rio announced it would not close down just three hours after lamenting that it would, all via its Facebook page.

Before posting the second “official note,” the campus organization’s branch in Rio de Janeiro drew hundreds of supportive messages hailing the work led by its volunteers. Afterward, the group was slammed for what some saw as manipulative marketing tactics.

Hillel Rio’s executive director Rony Rechtman confirmed to JTA that the posts were planned as a promotion, and defended the move.

“We intended to draw attention about Hillel’s importance. Our community needs to talk more, interact more, we need one another,” he said. “The change in Hillel must come from outside, we can’t make it all on our own.”

Rechtman assumed his position at Hillel in January. The posts were his first major public action.

“We did cheshbon nefesh,” he explained. Taking a “cheshbon nefesh” — Hebrew for “accounting of the soul” — is a religious practice whereby the “credits” and “debits” of one’s spiritual life are examined and balanced.

“We are much more surprised than we expected with the reaction to the news about the closure. We now see that our work is worthwhile and touches people. We apologize to those who felt deceived,” read the second announcement. “Hillel Rio is now ready for new stuff that will the face of our Rio Jewish community.”

Opened in 2004, Hillel is the leading organization for Jewish students in Rio. Some 1,500 Brazilians have taken Birthright trips to Israel through the group.

Rio is home to about 40,000 Jews, one-third of the total number in Brazil.

The Passion of Mel Gibson

After watching Mel Gibson’s two-hour-and-six-minute “The Passion of the Christ” at the Fox Studio’s 200-seat Zanuck Theater, with barely a dozen carefully invited others in the audience, I came away with great admiration for Gibson.

Not for the film, I can assure you.

For while it is superbly photographed by Caleb Deschanel (“The Patriot,” “Being There” and “Black Stallion”) you can’t but sit in awe of Gibson’s brilliant publicity juggernaut that could teach Barnum and Bailey a thing or two about the not-so-delicate art of movie promotion and marketing.

This has to be the most brilliant marketing campaign in the history of movies. First, the story goes out: This movie will be in Latin and Aramaic and there will be no subtitles. The media swallows that one whole. Inevitably by the time the film is finished there are subtitles galore. Gibson may be a gambler, but he’s no fool, and there’s upwards of $25 million of his own money riding on this one. Then, there is the masterstroke of inviting a few token Jews to screenings. The inevitable cries of anti-Semitism guarantee ink in major newspapers worldwide — getting some Jews to cry anti-Semitism being only marginally more difficult than encouraging a yellow dog Democrat to attack Rush Limbaugh. Exhibit No. 1: When can you remember anyone securing a solid hour of “Primetime” puffery for an independent, unbelievably bloody (I defy anyone not to look away at certain points in this interminable torture) movie on a religious theme, in two dead languages yet?

So did we all fall into Gibson’s trap? Don’t bet the farm against it. This guy’s been around Hollywood for a long time. He knows what works.

Which brings us to the movie and the central issue — and no matter how much Gibson dodges the question that’s what the film is all about: Did the Jews kill Jesus? (Promotional postcards distributed by mainstream churches in North America do indeed provoke: “Who killed Christ?”) Gibson has removed from the subtitles the line in which the Jewish leaders, in encouraging Pilate to order the crucifixion, take the responsibility for the blood of Jesus into their hands and the hands of their children — the justification for centuries of Jewish persecution. The line remains “in the background” in the Aramaic dialogue. But he leaves no doubt whatsoever that the Jewish high priests under the leadership of the “ugly monster” Caiaphas, who on this evidence could have used a good dentist and cosmetic surgery, were the real instigators of the crucifixion. And that that perfectly decent chap Pontius Pilate, and his even nicer wife, really tried everything they could to talk some humanity into the bloodthirsty Sanhedrin.

The central problem with the film is that it is not the story of Jesus’ life. It is the story of his death: The slowest (all 12 hours of it), bloodiest, most painful death ever depicted on film. There are a very few fleeting flashbacks, all of which entirely, perhaps deliberately, miss any explanation of how we got to this point.

Why is this nice guy, who does nothing but preach sweetness and goodness and lovingkindness to everyone with whom he comes in contact, being treated like this? Why do the Jewish leaders want to get rid of him? One looks in vain for answers from the story “According to Gibson.” (He said the background is too well-known to anyone familiar with the Gospels so there was really no need to go into any explanations.)

In fact, it’s obvious from even a cursory viewing of the movie that he is not interested in historical niceties involving complex philosophical and cultural forces. His only answer — and it’s a lame one, even in a movie era obsessed with hobbits and goblins and child wizards — comes in the shape of a strange hermaphrodite, hooded creature that lurks on the edge of the crowd scenes and apparently represents Satan. For Gibson, the death of Jesus is a simple tale of good and evil — no further explanation required. His devotion to mediaeval nuns of 16th-century Spain and to his radical father for whom the current pope is a Polish heretic, gives him a simple, almost childlike black-and-white theology that is not too different from that preached by the Taliban.

Gibson, like most ludicrously powerful, rich, undereducated superstars, is immune to logic or history, and if he wants to propagate the “Gospel according to Mel” who can stop him? He’s the director and therefore entitled to shade his story as he sees fit. His version of the story of the Scottish rebel William Wallace in “Braveheart” — as any student of Scots history can attest — was no more accurate than his version of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. But his romantic ignorance of the struggles of the Highlanders against the English has considerably less serious implications.

As Jewish leaders cry for footnotes to accompany the movie, let me put in my suggestions: It would be nice if everyone who sees the movie was encouraged to go out and buy the best-selling book “The Sword of Constantine,” a scholarly and extremely readable account by James Carroll of the dealings of the Catholic Church with the Jews for the last 2,000 years. It would also be nice if just one Jewish leader had the guts to say we will hold Gibson personally responsible for any Jew who is injured as a result of this film, and that includes all the children who will run home from school having been accused — yet again — of “killing God.”

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

Sweet Support for Israel

Who doesn’t love honey? Dunking apple slices in it — along with challah, chicken and everything else — on Rosh Hashanah is a favorite holiday ritual symbolizing hope for a sweet New Year. Now you can buy your honey and help Israel, too.

The Jewish Federation of Orange County is on its way to starting another New Year tradition by again urging residents to buy Israeli-made honey for their own Rosh Hashanah tables as well as contributing a jar to an Israeli family.

This year, six other Jewish communities in Western states are joining in the "Honey for the Holidays" promotion, started by the broad-based O.C. Israel Solidarity Task Force, said Bunnie Mauldin, the O.C. Federation’s executive director. "We are with you in sweetness and sorrow," reads the card that will be attached to hundreds of honey jars expected to be distributed in the Israeli communities of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon.

Some of the nectar-filled jars, produced by the Hof Ashkelon apiary, Yad Mordechai, are also available for sale at several distribution points through October. Sites include Costa Mesa’s Jewish Community Center, Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha Jewish Day School, Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. A donation in multiples of $18 is requested, with extra funds going toward worthwhile projects in Israel.

For several years, Orange County has sent aid and visitors to the two Israeli towns. Last year, their cumulative gifts provided scholarships for higher education to four families, Mauldin said.

For more information or to order jars, call the Jewish Federation of Orange County at (714) 755-5555.