Jewish students at SF Bay Area high school threatened on social media

At least one arrest has been made after threats to Jewish students at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area were posted on social media.

Extra security surrounded the Fremont High campus in Sunnyvale, California, when students returned to school after the long holiday weekend, the local NBC affiliate reported. The threat was also made against students at Homestead High School in Cupertino, San Francisco television station KRON reported. Both schools are in Silicon Valley.

Administrators were contacted by several students and their families about the anonymous threat posted on Instagram. They did not disclose the specific threat, NBC reported.

School officials reportedly did not believe the threat was credible but contacted police.

The Fremont principal called the threat a “religious rant” targeting Jewish students, KRON reported.

Meanwhile, school opened without incident in Spartanburg County, in upstate South Carolina, following the Labor Day weekend after Jewish and Muslim students were threatened on social media.

Extra security was put in place Tuesday around James Byrnes High School and the other 11 schools in the district after a student reported the “extremely vulgar” threats toward Jewish and Muslim students at Byrnes High to the county Sheriff’s Office on Friday night.

The threats, which appeared on Facebook, warned that the high school would be attacked Tuesday and included pictures of a person in a gas mask and a knife with a swastika on the handle, according to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

Pro-Israel ads in Bay Area countering anti-U.S. aid campaign

The pro-Israel organization StandWithUs has launched an ad campaign in Bay Area Rapid Transit stations to counter local ads that call for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.

The posters will be on display Sept. 18 through Nov. 13 at five major stations, as well as on a local cable car.

The initial ad campaign, sponsored by Friends of Sabeel, Jewish Voice for Peace and others, went up in BART and Muni stations in late August, and runs through Sept. 23. It depicts Palestinian and Israeli grandfathers with a caption calling for an end to military aid to Israel.

The new posters feature two boys—a Palestinian and an Israeli—next to the slogan “Israel Needs a Partner for Peace.” In October, StandWithUs will launch a similar poster campaign in 18 New York City subway stations to counter an ad campaign opposing U.S. aid to Israel now on display there.

Battle over circumcision shaping up in California

In November, San Franciscans will vote on a ballot measure that would outlaw circumcision on boys under the age of 18.

Although experts say it is highly unlikely the measure will pass, the mere fact that it reached the ballot, and in such a major city, has caused much concern for Jews and their allies.

Opponents of the bill see it as a violation of the Constitution’s protection of religious rights and an infringement on physicians’ ability to practice medicine. More than that, however, the measure is being seen as a frontal attack on a central tenet of Judaism.

“The stakes are very high,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “Circumcision is a fundamental aspect of Jewish ritual practice and Jewish identity. While we certainly hope the prospect of its being enacted is remote, the precedent it would set and the message it would send would be terrible, not just in the United States but around the world.

“We don’t just want it defeated,” he said, “we want it defeated resoundingly.”

Anti-circumcision activists have been around for decades, particularly on the West Coast.

They range from the Bay Area Intactivists, a loosely organized group that protests outside medical conferences in and around San Francisco, to MGM Bill (MGM stands for male genital mutilation), a San Diego-based advocacy group that has prepared anti-circumcision legislation for 46 states. MGM has managed to find a legislative sponsor in only one state: Massachusetts, last year. The bill didn’t even make it out of committee.

Matthew Hess, who founded MGM Bill in 2003 and spearheads its legislative efforts, says he is trying to protect boys from what he considers a barbaric mutilation of their bodies. He became an activist in his mid-20s, he says, when he decided that his own circumcision as an infant resulted in diminished sexual sensitivity as an adult.

“Freedom of religion stops at another person’s body,” he said in an interview.

Last fall, MGM Bill changed its tactics, deciding to bypass the U.S. Congress and go straight to voters. The group gathered more than 12,000 signatures in San Francisco, enough to have the measure placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. If it passes, anyone who circumcises a boy under the age of 18 within city limits faces a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. The only exception would be for “compelling and immediate medical need.”

A similar effort is under way in Santa Monica, for that city’s November 2012 election. Hess says no other cities are being targeted — for now.

The Jewish community responded immediately and loudly to the San Francisco ballot initiative, with denunciations from across the nation. The American Jewish Committee called it a “direct assault on Jewish religious practice” that was “unprecedented in American Jewish life.” The Orthodox Union said the measure is “likely illegal” and is “patently discriminatory against Jews and Muslims.”

Locally, the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) organized a wide-ranging coalition of religious, medical, legal and political leaders to oppose the ballot measure. It was the first time the Jewish community organized a formal counter effort, because it was the first time that such a measure has made it to the ballot, according to Abby Porth, the JCRC’s associate director and the force behind the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom.

The newly formed committee, which also includes Muslim and Christian leaders, is still organizing its legal strategy; Porth declined to provide details.

Muslims also practice ritual circumcision on boys, although it can take place at any time before puberty.

The fight against the San Francisco ballot measure has brought a number of Muslim organizations into the JCRC-led coalition, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Bay Area director Zahra Billoo notes that CAIR rarely finds itself on the same political side as groups such as the Orthodox Union.

It’s the assault on religious freedoms that brings the two together, Billoo said.

“The civil rights of [Jews] and Muslims are being impacted,” she said. “We don’t agree on all things all the time, but we do find common cause in many areas. An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions.”

A popular local mohel, Rabbi Gil Leeds, director of the Chabad Center of the University of California, Berkeley, says he’s been fielding calls and e-mails from all over the area expressing concern.

“Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish observance, as well as many non-Jews, have responded in shock at this attempt to undermine our basic human rights as parents and as Jews,” Leeds said.

Proponents and opponents of a ban on circumcision argue over the health benefits and legal aspects of the practice.

“To say it has no medical benefit and so should be outlawed is completely untrue,” said Dr. Mark Glasser, a retired Bay Area ob-gyn who estimates that he has performed hundreds of circumcisions during his 35 years in practice.

Glasser notes that the World Health Organization supports circumcision as a preventative measure against HIV transmission, and several Centers for Disease Control studies show the same result. The American Academy of Pediatrics is neutral, as is the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. But Glasser says those positions have not been revisited since the most recent AIDS studies.

“The unfortunate part is that people laugh — they say the San Francisco crazies are at it again. But this is no laughing matter,” he said. “Circumcision is very low-risk and has tremendous benefits, including life-saving benefits.”

Joel Paul, professor of constitutional law and associate dean of the University of California Hastings School of Law, says the law likely would not survive a court challenge — which could come even before the Nov. 8 ballot.

The proposed measure appears to violate the First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion, and entangles the state in religious matters by putting the state in the position of judging whether a certain religious practice is permissible. Moreover, putting such a matter to a popular vote contravenes the Constitution’s many protections of the rights of individuals and minorities.

“This proposition would let the majority decide religious practice for a religious group,” Paul said. “It’s not part of our politics. No one should have to go into an election and be asked to defend their religion.”

Hess argues, on the other hand, that the law is on his side. Noting that female genital mutilation is illegal in this country, he says boys should get equal protection under the law, no matter the religious beliefs of their parents.

That is a false and dangerous analogy, Porth says.

“Female genital mutilation is illegal because it is a cruel practice, medically harmful and performed for the explicit purpose of preventing female sexual satisfaction,” she said. “In contrast, there’s no credible medical evidence that male circumcision is harmful or that it prevents sexual satisfaction. Its purpose is for health reasons and religious belief.”

Questions linger about SF death of pro-Israel activist

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Police said this week that the mysterious death of an outspoken pro-Israel activist appeared to be accidental, but friends and family of Dr. Daniel Kliman insist he was the victim of foul play.

“We almost expected something would happen to him at some point, given his activism and trips to Israel,” said Kliman’s brother, Jonathan. “We didn’t expect what seemed to have happened to him. It seems really odd, and I’m glad the investigations are continuing.”

Kliman’s body was discovered Dec. 1 at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the historic Sharon Building at 55 New Montgomery St. Apparently it had been there for six days.

Kliman, a 38-year-old internist who lived alone in Oakland, was supposed to leave for Israel on Thanksgiving, giving friends and family no reason to question his whereabouts.

As of Dec. 3, a San Francisco Police Department spokesman was saying that Kliman’s death appeared to have been an accident, citing police Inspector Matt Krimsky’s suggestion that Kliman died Nov. 25 after climbing out of an elevator stuck between the sixth and seventh floors.

That day, a surveillance camera recorded Kliman waiting for an elevator in the lobby. Authorities continue to analyze that footage, plus other evidence they obtained from the scene. An autopsy report is pending.

Kliman was taking classes at Pacific Arabic Resources on the seventh floor of the Sharon Building. It is unclear why he was in the building, as classes during the week of Thanksgiving had been canceled.

“A number of us find the circumstances of his death rather suspicious,” said Michael Harris, a longtime friend who helped found the advocacy group San Francisco Voice for Israel with Kliman. “Given that he was a relatively well-known public figure for Israel advocacy in the Bay Area, he would have people who strongly disagreed with the causes he stood up for.

“Two days before he’s going to Israel and [on] a day when there were no classes, why would he have been in the building?”

Jonathan Bernstein, the director of the Central Pacific Region of the Anti-Defamation League, said Dec. 3 that he had had several conversations with the San Francisco Police Department concerning the possible cause of Kliman’s death.

“[The police] clearly understood Dan’s background and how he was a recognizable figure in the Jewish community and was often out there demonstrating against anti-Israel demonstrations,” Bernstein said. “They understand why they need to look at this a little differently.”

Word of Kliman’s death spread quickly throughout the Zionist community in the Bay Area and beyond.

Harris said he was stunned to hear the news about Kliman, whom he met in 2003 when the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council rallied pro-Israel individuals to combat local anti-Zionist and anti-Israel protests.

A year later Harris, Kliman and a number of local activists formed San Francisco Voice for Israel. The group, an affiliate of the StandWithUs national Israel advocacy organization, was dedicated to publicly denouncing anti-Israel sentiment.

The passionate and take-charge Kliman designed and disseminated pro-Israel fliers and documented protests with a series of clips on YouTube.

“Dan had a much larger-than-life personality,” Harris said. “He was passionately committed to Israel. Without any question, he was the real driving force of San Francisco Voice for Israel.”

He added, “We would joke that Dan seemed to be somewhat incident-prone. He wouldn’t start a confrontation, but he wouldn’t back down from one either.”

Adamant about never owning a car, and very much against even riding in one—his father was killed in an automobile accident four years ago—Kliman would arrive at rallies throughout the Bay Area on his bicycle.

Harris called him a “bicycle activist” who was reluctant to take car rides from anyone. Before moving to the Bay Area, Kliman founded St. Louis Critical Mass, a monthly protest ride that aimed to draw attention to how unfriendly the city was to bicyclists.

During Bike Summer 1999, a huge celebration of bicycle culture, Kliman organized a post-ride Shabbat service in Duboce Park with prayer books and candles.

“Jews and non-Jews stood in a circle and sang L’cha Dodi,” recalled Katherine Roberts, who met Kliman when he traveled from Chicago to San Francisco for the bike event. “It was this wonderfully inclusive event, and incredibly unique and brilliant. It was the only Shabbat service I can remember.”

Roberts, a fellow bicycle activist, said she didn’t always agree with her good friend Kliman or his feelings toward Israel, but their differences never interfered with the friendship.

“If you have radical or philosophical differences, it usually causes a friction,” Roberts said. “I never had that with Dr. Dan. He was a wonderful person—the only Orthodox gay vegetarian bicycling doctor I knew. I was so impressed with his uniqueness.”

An active member of Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue near his home, Kliman attended Havdalah services regularly and always was involved when the temple had any pro-Israel programming.

A shaken Rabbi Judah Dardick said this week he still feels as if Kliman is going to walk through his synagogue’s doors.

“Dan was a very lively, alive and vibrant person,” Dardick said. “You really knew when he was in the room. To know he’s not going to be in the room anymore is a big shocker.”

On more than one occasion, Dardick asked Kliman to his home for Shabbat dinner. Dardick recalled that although Kliman found the meat on the table revolting, he still accepted the invitation.

“Dan said he never ate anything that ever had a mother,” Dardick said with a laugh. “He had a few causes that he fought for and cared about. He’s someone I learned a lot from.”

Funeral services will be held in Schenectady, N.Y., pending the arrival of Kliman’s body, according to Jonathan Kliman, who lives in Springfield, Mass.

Along with his brother, Kliman is survived by his mother, Edith, of Schenectady. Kliman was predeceased by his father, Gerald.

VIDEO: Woody Allen and the Jewish robots (from ‘Sleeper’)

Woody Allen is fitted for a new suit by robot Jewish tailors—from ‘Sleeper’


S.F.’s new Contemporary Jewish Museum meshes art, ideas and architecture

SAN FRANCISCO [JTA] — The Contemporary Jewish Museum, set to open Sunday, June 8, in its new San Francisco location, is a grand celebration of what Jewish sensibilities can contribute to the American cultural experience.

It’s also the latest example of the Jewish museum as event rather than institution.

Several things set this ambitious new creation apart.

First is the sheer scale: a $47.5 million, 63,000-square-foot building designed by Daniel Libeskind, famed architect of Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the master site plan for the rebuilt World Trade Center.

The facility, which incorporates an abandoned 1907 PG&E power station into a design inspired by “chai,” the Hebrew word for life, fairly screams high concept, but in a comfortable, Northern California kind of way.

The airy museum lobby lifts the spirits. As Libeskind explains in his architect’s statement, “No Jewish museum can ignore the darkness of the Holocaust,” but the building here “embodies and manifests hope” and, like the American West, describes “a culture of freedom, curiosity and possibility.”

It’s also a museum that fits Northern California, a community that is highly innovative, largely unaffiliated and has not experienced the discrimination Jews have felt elsewhere, said Mitchell Schwarzer, an art history professor at the Bay Area’s California College of the Arts,

“This is a place of life and celebration and moving forward,” he said. “It’s not a place of reflection on tragedy, because the Jewish experience in California has not been a tragic one.”

Another defining characteristic is that the museum will maintain no permanent collection, but will host temporary and traveling exhibitions.

That’s partly due to its proximity to Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, which owns the country’s third-largest Judaica collection. The two institutions are still smarting from an abortive merger effort that collapsed a few years ago, and are eager not to step on each other’s toes.

In fact, one of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s opening exhibitions includes a few pieces borrowed from the Magnes, illustrating what both institutions envision as a close ongoing cooperation.

“They’re doing something totally wonderful and unique,” said James Leventhal, development director at the Magnes. “They are carving out new ground, and the way they are partnering with us is part of that.”

Yet another distinctive characteristic is its focus.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum isn’t the only large-scale Jewish museum to open in recent years. There’s the splashy and quite successful 10-year-old Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles; the impressive Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, which opened in 2005 in Cleveland; and the country’s newest Jewish museum, which opened this spring in Milwaukee.

In 2010, Philadelphia’s National Museum of Jewish History will move to a new 100,000-square-foot facility on Independence Mall.

The latter three, like most Jewish museums in this country, focus on chronicling the history of a particular Jewish community. A lesser number function more like Jewish art galleries. And, of course, there are the Holocaust museums, which range from small private collections in federation offices or synagogues to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The San Francisco museum is most similar to The Jewish Museum in New York in terms of focus, scale and public programming. But while the latter is a collecting institution that interprets the history of world Jewry, San Francisco’s museum offers what director Connie Wolf described as “a contemporary perspective on Jewish art, culture and history.”

Wolf sees the new museum as devoted to “art and ideas.” It will host ambitious exhibitions, but the art itself isn’t the focus so much as the conversations that art engenders, and the community that Wolf and her staff hope to create from those conversations.

“Most people, if you say ‘Jewish museum,’ they think Holocaust museum or history museum. We are neither,” said Wolf, who headed the museum in its previous, much more modest incarnation at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street, near the Embarcadero.

Wolf was the driving force behind the museum’s yearslong re-imagining. “We want people to ask questions — what does ‘contemporary’ mean?”

It’s a lofty goal, envisioning a museum as community builder. To get that started, for example, the museum is hosting “Dawn,” a dusk-to-sunrise Shavuot celebration for young Jews on Saturday, June 7, featuring live music, spoken word, film, DJ dancing and rabbi-led text study.

And art, of course. The revelers will be able to wander through the exhibit halls all night, enjoying the artwork while marking a Jewish holiday. The holiday actually begins the next night, Wolf says, so as to enable observant Jews to attend.

Programming focused on events that appeal to the young, largely unaffiliated Jewish generation is more typical of what one might expect from a Jewish community center. What distinguishes the museum is a conscious reference back to the arts.

For example, the three inaugural exhibitions are “The Aleph-Bet Project,” a series of sound pieces based on letters of the Hebrew alphabet commissioned by musician John Zorn; “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig,” on loan from New York’s Jewish Museum; and “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,” for which the museum invited seven artists — not all Jewish — to create works inspired by the first book of the Hebrew Bible.

Five of the artists did a morning study session in New York with Arnold Eisen, a former Bay Area resident and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, demonstrating the museum’s focus on the interplay between art and ideas.

That focus is illustrated also in the writer-in-residence position created for Berkeley’s Dan Schifrin, who is doubling as the director of public programming. Many of his initial offerings show a heavy literary bias, including an October hosting of StoryCorps, a New York-based oral history project founded and run by Dave Isay.

Schifrin himself will facilitate a book group focusing on Jewish literature that deals with Jewish art.

Artists channel Genesis and Kabbalah in new museum’s inaugural exhibit

In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the fiendish French archaeologist Belloq describes the eponymous ark as “A transmitter — radio for talking to God!”

Well, we all know how that worked out. God, apparently, was on the Do Not Call list.

So rather than speak to God, artist Ben Rubin prefers to listen.

His installation is one of several making up the new Contemporary Jewish Museum’s inaugural exhibition, “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.” Collectively, they examine the biblical book from a variety of artistic perspectives.

The exhibition includes Roman-period mosaics, 14th century haggadahs and even a Chagall canvas depicting creation.

Museum curators are especially excited about the newly commissioned works, among them Rubin’s opus, titled, “God’s Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master’s Voice).”

His story begins in New Jersey.

In 1965, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were operating the massive Horn Antenna at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J. Ostensibly, they were tracking communications satellites. But they also picked up for the first time the universe’s microwave background radiation — audible proof of the Big Bang.

The story fascinated Rubin, who compares the microwave static to a whisper from God. His installation is a scale model of the original Horn Antenna (at about 14 feet long and 6 feet wide, it’s roughly one-third the size), and somewhat resembles a massive, reclining periscope.

Rubin is still working on the “soundtrack” to his installation: “There’ll be various actual recordings of the static sound of the cosmic background radiation and also theoretical renderings of what the sound of the Big Bang itself was.”

He’ll also have two pictures on display: Penzias and Wilson, dwarfed by the city bus-sized antenna and the familiar canine pitchman for RCA Victor, his head cocked to one side as he picks up his master’s voice on the phonograph.

“To me, in a flip sense, that’s what I’m doing. I’m the dog,” Rubin said with a chuckle. “I’m trying to figure out what that sound is. Can I replicate in some way what the origin of the universe sounded like?”

Six other artists completed commissions for the inaugural exhibit, including Kay Rosen, who mixes typology and numerology in her oddly titled piece “063.”

Her installation is a series of 20.5-inch letters spelling out “Do No Disturb/It Is So,” an environmental warning and the present tense of the oft-repeated phrase in the book of Genesis, “it was so.”

On the back of Rosen’s work, some of the letters seen from reverse resemble numbers. Adding up each “column,” one gets the numerals 0, 6 and 3. These, too, hold a deeper meaning: “Zero is the void of no creation, six is the days of creation and three is the [subsequent] depletion of what was created,” Rosen said.

Off in the corner, artist Mierle Ukeles reflects on the entire scene — literally. Her installation features 189 hand mirrors suspended from chains stretching halfway to the soaring ceilings (180 is 10 times chai, but Ukeles found she had room for nine more).

Those mirrors serve to remind viewers that humans were created in God’s image, so they reflect “an image of the divine.” Ukeles hopes to slowly give away each mirror over the course of the installation’s several-month run, replacing them with “pledges” by the recipients to undertake some sort of charitable or benevolent action.

Ukeles’ installation is titled “Tsimtsum.” This notion, described in kabbalah, describes a God who once occupied every last morsel of space in the newly created world but voluntarily recedes so other life could thrive in the resultant void.

A shattered glass will represent the vessels that, according to kabbalistic lore, could not hold the light God let there be, even before creating the sun. As Ukeles explained the story of Genesis, a pair of the museum’s young workmen hopped aboard a crane and installed the platform that will hold the shattered glass.

Ukeles was caught up enough in her tale that she missed this, so when she turned to explain where the vessel would go — poof! — there it was.

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for J, the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.