November 18, 2018

Roman Polanski, 10 other Hollywood Jews open up about surviving Holocaust

The Hollywood Reporter is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust with a feature on 11 survivors who went on to careers in American entertainment. The project, released Wednesday morning online and in print, includes moving video interviews with all the subjects, including director Roman Polanski and sex therapist Ruth Westheimer.

Director Steven Spielberg, the founder of the USC Shoah Foundation, wrote an essay for the feature. Below is a look at each subject’s testimony.

Roman Polanski, 82, director of seminal films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “The Pianist”

Polanski, whom the U.S. has repeatedly attempted to extradite from Europe on sexual assault charges, is wary of speaking to American reporters. But he spoke to Peter Flax, an editor at THR, for an hour about his Holocaust experience.

Polanski tells the story of the first person he saw killed: “Some old woman was crying and wailing in Yiddish — I didn’t quite understand because I did not speak Yiddish,” he says. “And at one moment she was on all fours, and suddenly there was a gun in the hand of that young SS man, and he shot her in the back, and the blood came out, like the little fountain that we have in the offices, you know, a bulb of blood.”

Flax was also allowed to view Polanski’s five-hour testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation, which has never been made public. He describes Polanski’s narration of the video, which filmed him walking through his native Krakow, Poland.

“He points out the spot where he slipped through barbed wire to escape the ghetto, tours the first ghetto apartment his family called home and muses about how opposite sides of a city street could demarcate life and death,” Flax writes.

Branko Lustig, 83, Academy Award-winning producer of films like “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator”

When the British army liberated Auschwitz, where Lustig was a prisoner at age 12, the sound of their bagpipes made him think that he “had died finally, and that was the angels’ music in heaven.”

Years later, he met Spielberg when the director was developing “Schindler’s List.”

“He kissed my number [from the concentration camp, tattooed on Lustig’s arm] and said, ‘You will be my producer.’ He is the man who gave me the possibility to fulfill my obligation,” Lustig says.

Meyer Gottlieb, 76, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and producer of films like “Master and Commander,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Tortilla Soup”

After leaving Poland as a child in the early 1940s, Gottlieb didn’t visit his native village — where most of his relatives were forced to dig their own graves before being shot by the Germans — until six decades later, in 2008.

“The truth of the matter is that the weapons of massive destruction are not bombs — they’re hatred, intolerance and bigotry,” he tells THR.

Robert Clary, 89, film, TV and stage actor best known for his role on the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” set in a German POW camp

Clary credited his natural joie de vivre and energy with sustaining him in the Buchenwald concentration camp as a child. He sang and performed with an accordionist for German soldiers every Sunday.

“Singing, entertaining and being in kind of good health at my age, that’s why I survived,” he says. “I was very immature and young and not really fully realizing what situation I was involved with … I don’t know if I would have survived if I really knew that.”

Leon Prochnik, 82, screenwriter and editor, known for adapting the script of the play “Child’s Play” into a film directed by Sidney Lumet

Prochnik grew up the son of a chocolate factory owner in Krakow. He nicknamed the tub that filled with melted chocolate “milka” and thought it had magical powers. When he repeatedly visited it to steal chocolate, great things would happen: One time, his father connected with diplomat Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler” who help thousands of Jews leave Europe. Another time, a Nazi officer missed a Jewish prayer book in a search of the factory.

Ruth Westheimer, 87, sex therapist and TV and radio talk show host

Ruth Westheimer reflected on her Holocaust experience to The Hollywood Reporter. Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

By the time the legendary sex guru was 10 years old, she would never see her deported parents again. By the time she was 17, she had moved to British-controlled Palestine to train as a sniper in the Haganah, a precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (even though she only stood 4 feet 7 inches tall).

“Looking at my four grand-children: Hitler lost and I won,” she tells the magazine.

Curt Lowens, 90, film and stage actor known for portraying Nazi characters, including the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele in the Broadway play “The Deputy”

After escaping Berlin and taking on a new identity in a small town in Holland, Lowens (née Loewenstein) joined a three-person Dutch resistance cell that saved 123 Jewish children by delivering them to families who hid them. After V-E Day, Lowens received a commendation from then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for rescuing two fallen American airmen.

Bill Harvey, 91, cosmetologist to the likes of Judy Garland, Mary Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Liza Minelli

After being transported from Auschwitz to Buchenwald on a frigid cattle car, Harvey fell unconscious and was left for dead in a pile of corpses stacked by the crematorium. Someone pulled him out days later. He was 21 years old and weighed about 72 pounds.

“My humble explanation for all the tragedies and the bad people who want just to kill is that maybe there have to be some bad things in order to appreciate all the good things that this world gives you,” Harvey says.

Ruth Posner, 82, founding member of the London Contemporary Dance Company, actress and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company

One day, while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, Posner and her aunt casually crossed from the Jewish to the Aryan side of the street. They shed their yellow armbands and assumed new identities. She would escape and keep her story secret for decades.

“Now when I talk about it, it seems like I’m describing my role in a play,” Posner says.

Dario Gabbai, 93, actor in the 1953 war film “The Glory Brigade”

Gabbai is likely the last living former member of the Sonderkommando, a set of Jews forced to assist the Germans with various morbid tasks in the concentration camps.

“I have inside some stuff I can never tell,” Gabbai says. “I saw so many things. Even now, I like to cry to get it out of my system. But it doesn’t go out.”

He recalls one time seeing two of his friends from his native Thessaloniki, Greece, in line outside a gas chamber. All he could tell them was the best way to stand inside to minimize their suffering.

Celia Biniaz, 84, supporter of the USC Shoah Foundation whose testimony was included in the DVD version of “Schindler’s List”

Biniaz was on the list of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler. When Liam Neeson was first cast for the film, some involved in the production thought that he was too handsome for the role.

“I told them that Mr. Schindler was very handsome, so he gets the job,” Biniaz said.

An American Immigrant Family’s Responsibility

Last week, we had the honor of celebrating Chanukah at the White House. Joined by President and Mrs. Obama, we watched as the candles of the festival of light were lit by Rabbi Susan Talve. As the lights danced, we couldn’t stop reflecting on how remarkable it was that we, children of refugees, were taking part in such an occasion.  The illumination emanating from the White House Menorah seemed to symbolize the lights of the Statue of Liberty shining on our parents and other family members who escaped Nazi Europe to land in New York on boats in 1939.

We the children of refugees, along with other descendants of immigrants, have accomplished incredible things as Americans—and that is why we feel compelled to call on this country to open its borders to the tired, hungry, and poor from Syria and elsewhere. That is our proud history as Americans, to welcome those without a home. 

Our parents had no idea what our family’s future would hold when they arrived on American shores. They only knew that America offered freedom, safety, and generosity. Our parents escaped from Nazi rule; from places like Germany where our mother’s childhood ended so young, and from Vienna where our father and his friends were forced to clean the streets with a toothbrush as Hitler readied to enter the city. Coming to America was literally a matter of life or death for our family; our great-grandmother was told she could not stay in the United States after she arrived here and was forced to return to Europe where she was murdered by Nazis. That’s what happens when America closes its doors to refugees.

As children growing up in California, social justice and Judaism were intertwined in our household – but not abstractly. And the issues weren’t partisan, they were not matters of being a Democrat or Republican. They were matters of right and wrong. They were matters of saving lives.

Our parents instilled in us a sense that in America each person is valued as an individual. They instilled in us a sense that all are welcome in the great American mosaic. They instilled in us a sense that anything is possible here.

And anything is. In 1980, we became the first brother-sister in history to be ordained as rabbis. Karen was a pioneer, the first female rabbi to work for the Reform Movement, the first woman congregational rabbi in Los Angeles—and the fourth in all of Jewish history. She served at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles as a rabbi for 25 years and today she continues to teach rabbinic students. As head of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Steve is honored to lead the largest organization of Rabbis in the world, with colleagues not just in North American but in Jewish communities in Europe, the FSU, and Israel.  Both live full Jewish lives that our parents or grandparents could only have dreamed of.

None of this would have been possible without American generosity. More specifically, none of it would have been possible without Americans who opened their borders to our family.

That’s precisely why our family feels a special obligation to call on America to live up to its highest ideals, to live the words of the Statute of Liberty, and to offer its blessings to refugees from around the world. It is especially vital for America to maintain a humane immigration policy when we hear ignorant, demagogic calls to close our borders to people simply because of their religion or nationality. Our family knows those fears well, and we know what happens when America acts on them.

We also know what happens when America is truest to its best traditions. Our ancestors in Europe who often were forbidden even to practice their Judaism could never have imagined their children – their direct descendants – being rabbis and being invited by the leaders of most powerful country in the world, into the home of our President, to celebrate Chanukah.

That’s what America has done for us. And we need to make it possible for others to come here and realize the American dream. That’s the Jewish way. And that’s the American way. 

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Elan Carr on the San Bernardino shooting

Like all Americans, Dahlia and I are outraged and heartbroken over yesterday’s murders in San Bernardino. Our prayers are with the many families affected by this heinous attack.  We offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends who lost their loved ones, and we pray for a speedy and complete recovery for those who were injured. We also salute the brave police officers and sheriff’s deputies who displayed exemplary professionalism in bringing the crisis to a conclusion. 

 A government’s most important job is to keep people safe. This was a planned, premeditated attack on county employees in a county facility. All Americans understand how vulnerable we are in the face of dramatically increasing threats from crime and terrorism. I call upon the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make public safety their absolute top priority.

Rescuing God

This is the first holiday in 45 years that Rabbi Harold Schulweis will not be on the bima. In his memory we offer this sermon.

Elie Wiesel offered a parable about our times:

Once upon a time, Man complained to God: “You have no idea how hard it is to be human — to live a life darkened by suffering and despair in a world filled with violence and destruction, to fear death and worry that nothing we do or create or dream matters.  You have no idea how hard it is to be human!”

God responded, “You think it’s easy being God? I have a whole universe to run, a whole universe demanding constant vigilance. You think you could do that?”

            “I’ll tell you what,” suggested the Man, “let’s switch places, for just a moment. For just a moment, You be Man, and I’ll be God, and that way we’ll see who has it harder.”

            “For just a moment?” God considered, “Agreed.”

So Man and God switched places. Man sat upon God’s throne. And God descended to the earth. After a moment passed, God looked up and said, “OK, time to switch back.” But Man refused. Man refused to give up the throne of God. This is our world — where Man plays God, and God is exiled.

Once upon a time, our ancestors attributed everything in their lives to the will of God. Health and sickness, war and peace, poverty and affluence, were rewards and punishments cast down from heaven.  No matter how random, arbitrary and cruel their fate, they had faith that this too is God’s will, inscrutable and mysterious as it may be. But there came a time when we lost that faith.  We coveted the power to control our destiny. So we turned our efforts from deciphering God’s will, to discovering the patterns in nature and society that might help us predict and control our world.

Sickness, we discovered, is not a divine punishment, but the result of infection, faulty genetics, the deterioration of organs and cells. Drought and deluge are the products of shifts in atmospheric pressure and moisture. The movement of tectonic plates brings earthquakes, and the movement of capital markets produces economic booms and busts. We don’t look to God’s will to explain our fate. We look out upon a reality shaped by politics and economics, by forces of nature, by our own choices. God has been dethroned, and for better or worse, we control things now. We sit upon God’s throne.

Even when we achieved that dominion, we weren’t finished. We set about liberating ourselves of all vestiges of the old faith. We demythologized, desacralized, secularized. We admit no authority beyond ourselves. We tore down heroes, debunked myths, discarded taboos.

Once upon a time, we had heroes: moral heroes, great leaders, sports stars. On our walls hung pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sandy Koufax. Who do we revere today? Political leaders today are just politicians representing entrenched special interests. Sports heroes are free-agents, playing for the money, or cheaters, or felons. Instead of artists, we exalt celebrities, and we cheer on the circus antics of their narcissism.

We subjected our myths to rigorous revisionist historiography and relished the opportunity to point out all that is unheroic and flawed. When I was young, I was taught to revere the American Founding Fathers – that extraordinary gathering of wise men, who cherished liberty, fought the Revolution for American freedom, and framed our Constitution. Now, we open a textbook and discover that the Revolution wasn’t fought to establish freedom but to defend the interests of a colonial merchant class. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where our Founders declared “all men are created equal,” you’ll find the newly-excavated quarters where George Washington’s slaves stay while the Constitution was being drafted. In Monticello, you learn about all the children Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Lincoln was a depressive. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were notorious for their White House peccadillos. It is as if, one by one, we’re tearing the images off Mt Rushmore.

Who is left to revere today?

I grew up with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, who told me each night: And that’s the way it is. And we believed him. Is there anyone we believe today? According to a Readers Digest poll, the most trusted Americans are Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Merle Streep, Four actor. We don’t know them, their values or their character. We only know the parts they play on screen.

We have lost our heroes, we have lost our myths, and ultimately, – we are losing the sacred. What is the sacred? The sacred is that which we serve with love and loyalty; the core of value upon which we build a life; the ideals which inform life with purpose. The sacred lifts us above the ego, above the endless desires and drives of the narrower self, to reach a bigger, truer, more generous self. Modernity is committed to liberate us from repression, superstition and authority. But in the process modernity, has subverted all that is sacred.

What is sacred today? What is inviolable?  

Patriotism? Patriotism is sullied by the divisiveness of our politics – the radically different views we hold about what America is, who it belongs to, and what it ought to be. Patriotism has become just another advertising slogan. 

Religion? The most popular Broadway show of the last decade is “Book of Mormon.” I’ll confess, it’s hysterical. But halfway through the show, you realize what it’s about. It’s a complete denigration of a community’s faith. What if they’d written “Book of Moses” instead? Would we be laughing? 

Family?

Once upon a time, we saw family as sacred. But research at the University of Michigan found that American children today spend about 20 hours a week interacting with their parents, but more than 30 hours a week, outside of school, in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Think of what those kids are seeing on TV. Is family really sacred?

The images of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts and places of worship shock us. But the truth is that we’ve been destroying the sacred for a long time now.

The problem is that human beings can’t live without a sense of the sacred. We need a core of value to motivate and inspire and provide purpose for life. We need myth – we need organizing narratives that answers our deepest questions – Who am I? What am I living for? What matters? Where do I belong? What’s my purpose?

People are so hungry today for myth and meaning, for the sacred, they run to embrace all sorts of belief systems. It was once imagined that as science progressed, all closed systems of belief would disappear in the face of scientific skepticism. The opposite has occurred. As modernity has progressed, fundamentalism has thrived.  No matter how irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, people run to embrace fundamentalism because it fills the deep hunger for the sacred. In fact, it seems the more authoritarian, the more attractive it is.

Of the five armed forces in the US – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – which one do you think has the most success recruiting young people? The Marine Corp. By far. In fact, there is a wait list to get in. Why the Marine Corp? Why would the most demanding and authoritarian, of the armed service be so popular? Listen to their slogans — The Army promises that you can “be all you can be.” The Navy offers you the chance to see the world. The Marines offer myth. In the Marines, it’s not about you. It’s Semper Fi. It’s about belonging, serving, sacrifice. In the Marines you give up the self to become one of the few, the chosen.

Modernity asks questions, modernity casts doubt. The fundamentalist has no doubts. He has certainty, and there is a charisma that comes with that kind of certainty. He has absolute truth. That’s compelling.  Standing in the presence of absolute conviction, we can imagine that the sacred is at least possible. Even if the God he worships is sexist, chauvinistic, domineering, abusive, even if his ideology is primitive and prejudiced — at least he believes with all his heart, soul and might, without qualification or condition. That provides a kind of security. Even if it means relinquishing our critical sensibility, and democratic values, standing in the presence unqualified faith, we are granted a momentary reprieve from the spiritual emptiness of modern life.

Fundamentalism today is growing. So is addiction.

The human soul craves the sacred. And if we can find nothing sacred, nothing to serve, we live with a hole in the soul. And that hurts. So we run to fill that hole with something to numb the pain. Drink and drugs, shopping and acquisition, sex, pornography, exercise, fantasy, obsessive work, and the relentless pursuit of entertainment. Karl Marx once condemned religion as the opiate of the people. Rabbi Schulweis pointed out that today, it’s the other way around. Today, opiates are the religion of the people. Addiction fills in the hole where the sacred once lived.

In another gripping tale, Elie Wiesel tells of the day his boyhood synagogue was filled with worshippers, when the crazed shamas ran it, and screamed, “Sha. Quiet Jews. Don’t you know that God is hunting the Jews of Europe?  Sha. Don’t let Him know where we are!”

The Holocaust was the capstone of the project of Modernity. As Dostoevsky predicted, when anything goes, everything goes. Absent a sense of the sacred, the unthinkable is suddenly possible. It is as if Western Civilization brought absolute evil into the world just to prove once and for all there is no Father in Heaven who will save us. 

In the chilling words of Wiesel’s memoir, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

In a moment of painful candor, my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, once asked, how is it that we say the same prayers, pray to the same God, observe the same holidays after the Shoah, as before? How has this cataclysm not changed us indelibly? The question raised by Job in the Bible and revisited throughout the generations of Jewish existence – How can a just and loving God tolerate a world of such suffering? That question comes to a climax in the Holocaust. In the presence of a million and half murdered Jewish children, Greenberg argued, we simply can’t talk about God in the same way anymore.  An April, 1966, cover of Time Magazine asked, in huge bold letters, Is God Dead? After all we’ve witnessed, is there any way today to speak about God, about faith, about God’s role in the world?

The purpose of religion is to identify the sacred, and cultivate and nurture our sensitivity and connection to the sacred. The sacred is rooted in our narratives, our myths. Sacred values grow out of the stories we tell. In Jewish tradition, our core values are rooted in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of God at Mt Sinai – the story of a God who hands down mitzvoth, commandments, to a covenanted people. The problem is, so many of us don’t believe those narratives any more. Science questions their facticity. Modernity makes it impossible to admit any transcendent source of values. But most of all, we find the tradition’s images of God, impossible to accept. What we’ve witnessed in the 20th century has changed us. We have known too much horror to embrace the old narratives of a God who interrupts history to save His people. We just can’t tell those stories any more. No amount of theological sophistry can bring us back the faith of our ancestors.

This is the task that Rabbi Harold Schulweis faced when he first stepped onto this pulpit, 45 years ago: Addressing a generation deeply yearning for the sacred, but a generation for whom the old narratives, the old beliefs, simply don’t work. That’s what every one of his books, his articles, his sermons are about.

Rabbi Schulweis did not deny or ignore or censure the disillusionment experienced by this generation. He didn’t blame us for doubting and question what our grandparents believed. On the contrary, he honored our doubt. He recognized that our questions of God didn’t grow from cynicism or indifference or despair. Our questions grew from love – love of the Jewish people, love of humanity, love of justice. He recognized in this generation’s doubt what the Talmud called “chutzpah klpei shamaya” – holy protest, sacred dissent. He perceived that our difficulties with the tradition’s image of God are rooted in a set of expectations that reflect traditional, Jewish sacred values. He heard in our questions the voice of Abraham: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice? Ironically, it is our very fidelity to traditional Jewish sacred values that makes it impossible to believe in the traditional narratives about God.

This is precisely where Rabbi Schulweis begins to rebuild faith. If we can no longer find the tradition’s sacred values in a narrative about God, he taught, let’s turn the process around, and root a new narrative of God in our sacred values. The goal of Judaism, he argued, is not to make us believers in a God above. It never was. The goal of Judaism is to make us vessels of divine holiness here on earth. It’s not about God, but Godliness, about the sacred values we express in our conduct of life. God is a verb, he taught, not a noun. Not a Someone. But a way of encountering the world.

This sounds strange to many of us, but it wasn’t to him, and most importantly, it wasn’t to the Jewish tradition. This idea has been in our tradition from the beginning. Open Maimonides. The greatest book of Jewish philosophy ever written, the majestic Guide for the Perplexed begins with the same dilemma, the God we inherit from tradition, we can no longer believe in. In the 12th century, Maimonides set about developing a radically new idea of God and religion. The ultimate goal of human life, he taught, is to perfect oneself so that one can know God. Moses is the Maimonides’ model of the most realized human life, and Moses’ ascent up Mt Sinai, is his metaphor for the journey of human perfection. But one important fact of Moses’ story vexed Maimonides: Having achieved perfection, and standing face to face with God, Moses turns around and descends the mountain. He returns to his people, and all their trouble. Why Moses doesn’t stay on the mountaintop with God? Only on the very last page, the very last paragraph  of the Guide to the Perplexed does Maimonides gives the answer: the perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired knowledge of God, and God’s Providence, … Having acquired this knowledge, one will then be determined always to seek kindness, justice, and righteousness, and to imitate the ways of God.  Do you hear that? Achieving intellectual perfection and knowing God is but a penultimate objective. The real goal of human life is to embody God’s justice and lovingkindness in the world – to live God, to do God. The last line of Maimonides is the first line of Schulweis. Godliness is the goal of human life.

You know this. You know that the fundamental building block of Jewish prayer is the brachaBaruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam. If the purpose of faith is to express belief in a God above, then the bracha should have stopped there. That says it all: Praised is God, Ruler of the Universe. Period. Why say anything else? But we continue — Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; borei pri ha-gafen, Shehechianu V’keemanu because the real purpose of the bracha is to build a vocabulary of sacred values, to identify what in life is sacred. Tradition commands that we recite a hundred brachot a day. This is our Jewish spiritual discipline. Its aim is to train our sensitivity for the sacred in life everyday.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson wrote that we become what we worship. The bracha invites us to move beyond the boundaries of the self, beyond our endless needs and desires and moods, to become Godly. To recite a bracha, is to recognize our capacity of self-transcendence, to care, to heal, to help, to give, to touch the lives of others. When we recite a bracha, we bind ourselves to a vision of what we can yet become – to the Godliness latent within.

Rabbi Schulweis believed that this curriculum of self-transcendence had to be more than a solitary spiritual experience. So he introduced a program of initiatives, beginning here at VBS and spreading throughout the country, which re-made the American synagogue.  All of the initiatives he introduced to the synagogue share this quality of breaking boundaries. He perceived the loneliness of suburban life, and so he gathered us into havurot. He felt our need to care for one another, so he trained us to serve as para-rabbinics, and para-professional counselors. He decried the divisions within the Jewish community, and called for cross-denominational youth programs. He felt the narrowness of the Jewish community, and so he reached out to welcome Jews by choice through a program of Keruv, he built a relationship with the Armenian community to commemorate our shared experience of Holocaust together, and in his ninth decade, he demanded we respond to genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and established the Jewish World Watch. Every initiative, an exercise in self-transcendence – becoming more.  

But he still faced one problem. How do we believe in anything after the horrors of the Holocaust? In the face of that evil, that absolute evil, how can we maintain any sense of meaning? 

A few years before Rabbi Schulweis came to VBS, he was attending a Jewish community affair at a hotel in San Francisco, when the owner of the hotel, Ben Swig, introduced him to hotel’s maintenance supervision, a German immigrant named Fritz Graebe. Graebe shared his story with the Rabbi. During the war, Fritz Graebe ran a construction company under contract with the Nazi, on the German-Ukranian border. Graebe had once been a member of the Nazi party. But he grew to hate the Nazis. He witnessed the massacre of Jews in the Ukranian town of Dubno, and it sickened him. So he told the Nazis he needed large numbers of workers, and he took Jews off of trains, and out of concentration camps, and put them to work on his projects. He invented projects, and inflated projects, so the Nazis would give him more work permits. When the Gestapo announced new deportations, he put Jews on trains to nowhere, holding bogus work permits. He used all the privileges afforded him as a civilian contractor, and he used up all his wealth, to save Jews. The Nazis had suspicions, but when they came to arrest him, he escaped to the Allies’ lines. Eventually he would testify at the Nuremberg trials. And when he received death threats, he moved his family to San Francisco. How many Jewish lives did Fritz Graebe save? There were 5000 Jews on his payroll on the day the war ended. 5000 rescued Jewish lives.

Fritz Graebe was only the first of the rescuers that Rabbi Schulweis discovered. He soon found Jacob Gilat, a young mathematics instructor Berkley who, with his brothers, was hidden and rescued by a German Christian family. Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved 3500 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. The Bulgarian royal family who defied the Gestapo’s order and allowed them to take not one Jew from their country. And so many more.  Collectively, they testified that God did not die in the concentration camps. They rescued Jews. Through their testimony, Rabbi Schulweis rescued God. Even in the deepest darkness, there were sparks of Godliness. 

In our history, there is a rare and special tradition of Jewish spiritual revolutionaries who were called upon to rescue Judaism at moments of profound disruption: Yohanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple, Maimonides when philosophy shook the foundations of Jewish faith, the Baal Shem Tov addressing a generation deeply disillusioned and despairing of faith. At these extraordinary moments, Jewish existence reached a crisis – when the sacred narratives of the past expired, and new narratives were yet to be born. These were the singular personalities who perceived that the survival of the community depended on its ability to transcend, to transform, to reinvent its ideas and institutions. They provided resilience, the courage and the inspiration to let go of the old, and to imagine the new. Rabbi Schulweis stands within that extraordinary tradition. As we sing at Hannuka: Hen b’chal dor, yakum hagibor, goel ha-am. In every generation, a hero arose to save our people.

He didn’t grow up in synagogue. Far from it. His father rebelled against religion, and raised him in a rich tradition of secular Yiddish culture. He didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 12 years old. It was Rosh Hashanah, and school was out in his Bronx neighborhood, so he was wandering the boulevard, when he heard the most remarkable music coming from one of the storefronts. He entered, and because he was small, they assumed he was a kid looking for his mothers, so they sent him upstairs to the women’s section, where he sat transfixed by the majesty and melody of the service. And so for the past 45 years he has sat here, again, transfixed by the majesty and the melody, the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be our blessing. 

Rabbinical Council of America conversion panel issues recommendations

A committee established by the Rabbinical Council of America to review its conversion processes has submitted its report featuring recommendations in nine areas of the process.

The review was put in place nine months ago after one of the RCA’s leading conversion rabbis, Barry Freundel, was arrested on voyeurism charges. Freundel was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for videotaping dozens of nude women at his former congregation’s ritual bath in Washington, D.C.

The recommendations focused on support for conversion candidates during and after their conversions, professionalism, transparency of expectations, sensitivity to candidates, educational experiences, the responsibilities and support for rabbis and rabbinic judges, and oversight, supervision, and grievance processing.

“I am hopeful that this report will make it better for American conversion candidates going forward,” committee member Bethany Mandel said last week when presenting the report to the national convention of the RCA, the country’s main modern Orthodox rabbinic association. “The framework we’ve laid out here … is a great start, but it’s up to many of you in this room today to make sure that the spirit of these recommendations is carried out.”

Some 439 conversion participants from a pool of 835, along with 107 sponsoring rabbis in a pool of 216, responded to an anonymous survey. Five focus groups also were conducted in New York, Montreal and Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the committee’s chair, called the review process a “historic moment.”

“Recognizing the critical importance of their perspective, we involved converts, our stakeholders, throughout the committee’s lengthy deliberations,” he said. “In addition, we encouraged them to publicly present their feelings, positive and negative, to our entire convention last week. The result was deeply moving and potentially transformative for our members.

“The review process helped us better understand the conversion process generally and will help us fulfill our religious mandates with greater sensitivity and responsibility.”

The review committee was comprised of six men and five women, including two female converts to Judaism.

Among the committee members were Abby Lerner, the admissions director and a teacher at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls in New York; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz school; Bracha Rutner, a female adviser of Jewish law; various rabbis and a psychotherapist.

The two converts on the panel were Mandel, a recent convert of Freundel’s who penned a proposed Bill of Rights for converts after the Freundel scandal broke, and Evelyn Fruchter, an attorney.

22 senators sign letter to Obama urging Israel support

Nearly one-quarter of the U.S. Senate signed on to a bipartisan letter urging President Barack Obama to support Israel around the world.

Twenty-two senators signed the letter, which was written “in response to your welcomed recent remarks at Congregation Adas Israel” on May 22 concerning his commitment to Israel’s security. The letter was sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

While welcoming Obama’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel’s security, the signers also want the Obama administration to remain committed to the United States’ “long-standing policy” of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as the way to peace.

The letter specifically asked the administration to oppose Palestinian efforts for membership in the United Nations and other international bodies.

Among the signers are five Jewish Democrats: Ben Cardin of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

The signers wrote that they were “deeply concerned by previously reported and unattributed comments by U.S. officials that the U.S. might change its approach to the peace process at the United Nations Security Council.”

“The United States has a critical role to play in facilitating these direct negotiations,” the senators wrote.

Confidence in Obama falls dramatically in Israel

While President Barack Obama remains popular in most countries, the sharpest decline in his image occurred in Israel, according to a new survey.

In Israel, confidence in Obama on world affairs fell from 71 percent to 49 percent in the last year, according to the 2015 Spring Pew Global Attitudes Survey released Wednesday.

Some 15 percent of residents of the Palestinian Authority said they had confidence in Obama on world affairs, compared to 82 percent with no confidence. Jordan had similar figures with 14 percent confidence and 83 percent no confidence.

Residents of the Philippines had the most confidence in Obama with 94 percent; next was South Korea with 88 percent. France was third with 83 percent confidence.

American’s overall image around the world remains largely positive, according to the survey, with a median of 69 percent holding a favorable view and 24 percent an unfavorable opinion.

Some 81 percent of Israelis view the United States favorably and 18 percent unfavorably, similar to the past two years. However, 87 percent of Jewish-Israelis view the United States favorably, compared with 48 percent of Arab-Israelis, according to the survey.

Lebanon, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan have largely unfavorable opinions.

Results for the survey are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International during April and May. In Israel, 1,000 surveys were conducted in face-to-face interviews in Hebrew and Arabic, with a margin of error of 4.3 percent.

Death in Charleston: Trapped by the tragic, unheeded lessons of the nation’s racial past

America's latest incident of racial violence, the massacre of nine people at historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., echoes some of the horrific scenes out of the civil-rights era. A young white shooter allegedly committed mass murder at a sacred space of black activism, spiritual renewal and educational commitment. The slaughter provides a stark reminder of the way in which racial violence has been used to limit the hopes and aspirations of the black freedom struggle.

Following a white North Charleston police officer's killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, which was captured on a cellphone camera, the Charleston killings look to be the second act this year of lethal anti-black violence to emerge out of South Carolina, a state that proudly flies the Confederate flag over the State Capitol building.

The nation's contemporary racial climate evokes images that, shorn of social media's ubiquitous presence, would not seem out of place 50 years ago, during Selma's roiling voting-rights protests or, indeed, a century before that in the aftermath of the Civil War and the end of antebellum slavery.

In 1964, music legend Sam Cooke released “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of the most important songs recorded during the civil-rights era. The song's genius lay in its ability to capture in miniature racial oppression's personal intimacy, political impact and policy reverberations.

Cooke's passionate narrative of Jim Crow's unforgiving assault on black bodies contained the dual recognition that racial segregation also harmed the American body politic. “It's been a long time, a long time coming,” he lamented, “But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

For many, President Barack Obama's watershed election in 2008, and re-election in 2012, ushered in audacious change on a scale that Cooke and the generation of civil- rights activists who battled Jim Crow could have scarcely dreamed of. The euphoria accompanying Obama's inauguration included open, often self-congratulatory discussion that the United States had finally achieved a new “post-racial” age in which race mattered less than it ever had.

The age of Obama made the sight of a black first lady and attorney general and the presence of powerful African-American civic, business, and cultural leaders seem ordinary. In 2012, for the first time in history, the percentage of the black-voter turnout exceeded that of whites. Racial progress, as manifested through Obama's political and personal biography, became the dominant narrative of American race relations.

But hidden beneath the pageantry of the first family's extraordinary achievements was another country, one in which millions of African-Americans resided far away from the spotlight of mainstream narratives of success or myths of post-racialism.

The rise of mass incarceration, proliferating rates of poverty, public school segregation and high unemployment remained defiantly persistent in too many black communities. Residential segregation, scant job opportunities and failing public schools were, in our post-civil-rights era, passed down ways of life that were exacerbated, not relieved, by public-policy choices that reinforced urban and suburban ghettoes.

The roiling #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, urban uprisings in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, anti-black police violence in McKinney, Texas, and now a mass shooting in South Carolina echo the racial turmoil, political protests and community organizing of the civil-rights era. Then, as now, African-Americans lived under a regime of racial oppression that constrained their life chances.

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy characterized civil rights as a “moral issue” and told the nation, “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Perhaps none acted as boldly as Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Malcolm, the Harlem-based black nationalist and Muslim preacher spoke truth to power in bone-rattling sermons that exposed American democracy's contradictions even as he empowered African-Americans by re-imagining the expansiveness of black identity. Baker, a feminist and radical labor activist, organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a group that breathed new life into American society by bleeding for democracy alongside poor black folk in the South.

King found his clearest voice in championing the poor, speaking out against the Vietnam War and calling out the United States as an imperialist power, the world's foremost purveyor of violence and an unapologetically racist nation.

Hamer, who remains less well known than she should, represented the organic intellectual. She was a sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, who defied the politics of white supremacy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention by exposing racial violence, threats and harassment directed at people, like herself, who wanted dignity and equal citizenship. “Is this America?” she asked the nation.

More than half a century later, the answer to Hamer's question is a resounding yes. This is America, a nation where 28 percent of black people live below the poverty line, 40 percent of black children live in poverty and 46 percent of black children attend high-poverty schools. African-Americans, while only 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up 28 percent of all arrests and now make up 38 percent of prisoners in local jails and 39 percent in federal prisons.

As sociologist Monique W. Morris's important book “Black Stats” (from which I have drawn these figures) illuminates in panoramic scope, African-Americans reside on the margins of society regarding health, justice, employment, education, wealth and income. And yes, a nation in which the African-American church, the resounding symbol of freedom and progress during and after slavery, remains a primary target of racial terror in a supposedly post-racial age.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, America continues to embrace denial as a cure to the persistence – and at times growth – of national racial inequality. America's tortured legacy of slavery, racial segregation and violence against people of color continues to shape society's institutions, political philosophies and public policies.

The nation is, it seems, caught in a perpetual feedback loop – destined to repeat the tragic, unheeded lessons of a racial past that we refuse to acknowledge exists in our present.


Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. His most recent book is “Stokely: A Life.” He can be followed on Twitter at @penieljoseph. The opinions expressed here are his own.

How to build an American shtetl — See: Bloomingburg, N.Y.

This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.

Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.

Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.

Step 3. Ensure the zoning is suited to Hasidic living: densely clustered homes big enough for large families and within walking distance of the community’s vital infrastructure.

Step 4. Build the infrastructure: Houses, a synagogue and beit midrash study hall, kosher establishments, a mikvah ritual bath. Lay the groundwork for a school. Launch a shuttle service so Hasidim who don’t drive or don’t own cars can get from the new shtetl to shopping outlets and other Hasidic communities in the region.

Step 5. Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.

That, essentially, is the playbook developer Shalom Lamm is following for what is shaping up to be America’s newest Hasidic shtetl — the town of Bloomingburg in upstate New York.

Located in Sullivan County about 80 miles north of Brooklyn, Bloomingburg is a tiny village of 400 people dotted with small farms, run-down homes and a couple of old churches. There’s just one stoplight, and there’s not much to the small businesses clustered around it: a hardware store, bank, tattoo parlor, barbershop and thrift shop.

This is the way things were for decades until Lamm — son of Rabbi Norman Lamm, Yeshiva University’s president from 1976 to 2003 — came to town a few years ago and started snapping up properties like they were sample-sale sweaters.

He bought the white house with blue shutters and a front porch just across from the barbershop. He bought the Hickory apartments just off Main Street, adjacent to a trailer park. He bought the hardware store and a pizza shop. He bought a large warehouse built to house antique cars with the idea of turning it into a girls school.

Lamm didn’t stop there. He bought a group of farms on 200 acres of unincorporated land about half a mile from the stoplight and in 2006 got the village to annex it and rezone it for residential development in exchange for building a new $5 million sewage treatment plant for the area. He bought the airport in the nearby village of Wurtsboro. He bought 635 acres five miles away. He also bought a house for himself in Bloomingburg and moved in (Lamm also lives in West Hempstead, on Long Island).

Soon, changes started happening in the village.

Homes were fixed up and repainted. The Hickory apartments, originally built as a senior housing development, were renovated and turned into 12 units, with a synagogue and study hall built in a basement. Most notably, in 2012 rows of attached five-bedroom townhomes began going up on the 200 acres he had gotten rezoned from agricultural — the first of at least 396 units planned for construction in a development Lamm dubbed Chestnut Ridge.

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, a two-hour drive away, Yiddish-language newspapers began to run advertisements touting a new Hasidic housing development going up in Bloomingburg. The ads noted its location near the Catskill Mountains and just 30 minutes north of the Satmar village of Kiryas Joel, home to more than 20,000 Hasidim.

Once the locals upstate caught onto what was happening — when Chestnut Ridge broke ground in 2012 — opposition materialized almost immediately. Village meetings were organized, accusations flew, angry protesters took to the streets and lawsuits were filed. The Town of Mamakating (pop. 12,000), in which the village of Bloomingburg is located, tried to annex the village so that it could gain zoning power over Bloomingburg and thwart the Hasidic-friendly construction, but the bid failed.

Lamm and his defenders, including the public relations consultant he eventually hired, cast their opponents as anti-Semites or anti-Hasidic, and for some that characterization seemed apt. The window of the kosher grocery was repeatedly shattered, and some early protests outside Shabbat prayer services included anti-Jewish epithets.

But for many locals, it was a case of not-in-my-backyard syndrome: They lived in a quiet, albeit poor, country village, and the dense housing and Hasidic influx would indelibly alter Bloomingburg’s character. They believed Lamm and his investment partner, Kenneth Nakdimen, had hoodwinked the village into annexing and rezoning the agricultural land he was turning into a dense residential development.

Last month, Mamakating and Bloomingburg filed a federal lawsuit against Lamm, accusing him of fraud, bribery, racketeering, voter fraud and corruption of public officials — saying he bribed a former mayor, used a frontman to help mislead the village about his intentions for Chestnut Ridge and engaged in racketeering by promoting an enterprise that was corrupt on multiple levels. Lamm denies the accusations and has filed lawsuits of his own against the town.

Shalom Lamm has completed 51 of 396 planned units in Chestnut Ridge, where the homes are suited to Hasidic needs.

If Bloomingburg was going to look like any of the other Hasidic communities north of New York City – New Square, Kiryas Joel, or the hamlet of Monsey in Ramapo – there were plenty of cautionary tales to give local residents pause. Overcrowding in those places was taxing local infrastructure to the breaking point, and in Ramapo the school board had been taken over by a Hasidic majority that was stripping local public school budgets and selling off public school buildings to yeshivas at cut-rate prices.

For the Hasidim, the appeal of Bloomingburg over Brooklyn was clear. It offered much cheaper living, less congestion and fewer of the sorts of urban temptations that could ensnare a devout Jew. With so few residents, the village also offered the prospect of something else: political power that could give local Hasidim nearly unfettered control over their own destiny.

It wasn’t long before the first Hasidic families began to arrive.

Some were older couples from points south looking for a quiet place near the mountains in which to spend summers or weekends. But soon full-timers started coming, too — mostly young families from Satmar and other Hungarian Hasidic sects looking for more affordable alternatives to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and a quieter lifestyle than that available in Kiryas Joel or in Monsey, the sprawling Orthodox stronghold in Rockland County an hour to the south.

Bloomingburg’s first Hasidic pioneers arrived with almost no Orthodox infrastructure in place. There wasn’t much suitable food available locally — one early newcomer quipped that the only produce available at the local grocery store was two-week-old tomatoes — and kosher food had to be delivered by special order from Kiryas Joel or nearby Middletown. There was no weekday minyan. There was no women’s mikvah (and still isn’t — the zoning appeals board has rejected Lamm’s site for one).

Then, last summer, the city got its first kollel – a Jewish study collective where men learn Torah full time and receive stipends in return from community supporters (in this case, apparently, Lamm). Lamm also bought a 22-seat minibus and a passenger van and began running shuttles to large shopping areas and to Kiryas Joel, where some of Bloomingburg’s adults work and kids go to school.

By fall, there were enough Orthodox families in Bloomingburg to support a daily minyan — the quorum of 10 men needed for public prayer. Weekday services start at 9 a.m.

Mendel Kritzler, 25, moved to Bloomingburg in mid-April with his wife and three boys from a fourth-floor walkup in Williamsburg. Now he lives in a ground-floor apartment within walking distance of everything he needs: the shul and study hall where he spends his days, the kosher grocery Lamm opened up right before Passover, and the new Hasidic day care that now has 10 kids enrolled between the ages of 3 and 4. He doesn’t own a car.

“I was a little nervous before coming here, but since I moved I’ve really been enjoying it; it’s the Garden of Eden,” Kritzler said. “It’s quiet. There’s peace of mind. It’s much, much cheaper – half the price of Williamsburg.”

Lamm’s rentals begin at $350 per month for small one-bedrooms to $1,200 for large three-bedrooms. One of his tenants noted that, unlike her landlord in Monsey, Lamm isn’t so strict about the rent.

At the now-fully occupied Hickory apartments, young Hasidic women gather in the late afternoons and sit on plastic lawn chairs, rocking infants in their laps and watching their toddlers run around while they chitchat in the springtime sun. Once a month, the Hasidic women in town get together in someone’s house or the local kosher pizza-and-sandwich shop for an evening devoted to bonding, noshing and spiritual inspiration. A recent gathering featured slides on the Jewish value of modesty.

The men studying at the kollel come home in the early afternoon for a break. Some walk up the hill to the small kosher grocery, where the shelves are well stocked but the aisles mostly empty of customers. Those who commute to work in Kiryas Joel are generally home by early evening.

Despite the sleepy feel in town, there’s a sense of excitement among the Hasidim – a feeling that they’re the trailblazers in a noble experiment of establishing a new outpost for Hasidic life in New York State.

“I’m the pioneer, really,” said a young Belgian-born Hasid named Yossele who said his was the second full-time family to move in.

So far, only 27 Hasidic families live full time in the village, according to Yechiel Falkowitz, a 22-year-old Hasid who moved in last summer and compiled a head count of the families in early May. Another 20 or so families live part time in Bloomingburg, he said. Lamm, who is the landlord of all but a handful of the Hasidic families’ homes, says there are 176 Orthodox Jewish residents in Bloomingburg, comprising 40-50 families.

(The true Hasidic population of Bloomingburg is the subject of a legal dispute. Over the winter, the county board of elections challenged the eligibility of more than 150 individuals, almost all of them Hasidim, to vote in local elections, and said it would remove them from voter rolls. Hasidim responded with a civil rights lawsuit against the board.)

The main obstacle to growth at present is the town of Mamakating and the village’s government, which has declined to grant certificates of occupancy for the 51 townhouses at Chestnut Ridge that have been move-in ready for months, according to Lamm. Without those certificates, Lamm can’t close the sales of the homes.

“Almost nothing gets permitted,” Lamm told JTA. “I get the sense that they’d like us to give up, but that’s not in the cards.”

Lawyers for Mamakating and Bloomingburg say modifications are needed to bring the homes up to code first and that the process for evaluating the homes and granting certificates of occupancy is underway.

If Lamm’s vision comes to fruition, there soon will be hundreds more Hasidic families in Bloomingburg – maybe thousands.

At Chestnut Ridge, the newly built 2,800-square-foot attached townhomes look like they’re straight out of a brochure for the American dream, with identical facades, fresh white garages and bright green lawns. Inside, the décor is bright, modern and spacious, with 9-foot ceilings, an upstairs laundry room, and kitchens with granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances.

The houses also have all the accoutrements Hasidim, with their large families and Orthodox practices, might desire. The kitchens feature two stoves, sinks, ovens and microwaves – one each for dairy and meat. There’s an outdoor sukkah deck just off the dining room. Special sinks are located outside the bathrooms for ritual hand-washing, and a small room near the front is designed for a miniature library or study.

The five bedrooms upstairs have sleeping space for up to a dozen. The master bathroom easily fits two full-sized beds – Hasidic couples do not share beds during women’s menstrual periods and for a week afterward – and the walk-in closet in the master bedroom is big enough for a crib, which Lamm doesn’t doubt Hasidic parents will notice when their babies are born.

The homes are priced between $299,000 and $334,000. Once the remaining 350 or so houses are built, there will also be four playgrounds for the kids.

Many longtime Bloomingburg residents say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach even as they’re still stinging from the way Lamm got his housing development approved. They blame Bloomingburg’s former mayor for agreeing to the deal and say the village population was told the site was going to be a golf course surrounded by luxury homes, not dense development suited to Hasidim.

“It was a shady deal. The politicians we had here threw us under the bus,” said Patti, the owner of a thrift shop in the village who, like all the locals interviewed for this story and many of the Hasidim, asked that her last name not be used. After so much conflict and bad press, people here are wary of reporters.

Patti lives across from the Chestnut Ridge development, which she said has dramatically altered the local landscape. “I used to look at farm fields every day, with silos and animals grazing,” she said. Now she looks out at Lamm’s townhouses.

Despite her misgivings, Patti says she’s reserving judgment about what’s to come.

“Things are definitely going to change. Whether it’ll be for the better or worse it’s too soon to tell,” she said. “It’s in limbo right now.”

Should Jews feel safe in America?

On March 30, the ADL released its annual report on anti-Semitic incidents in America, which announced a rise of 21 percent over the previous year — 912, up from 751. This follows quickly on the heels of several important pieces (by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and David Brooks in The New York Times) on the hailstorm of anti-Semitic attacks pelting Europe. American Jews ask ourselves a new question this year: Are we next?

The first time I visited the Great Synagogue of Rome, I was 22, and I remember it mostly for my smugly American reaction: “How sad,” I said to my best friend, a Catholic American, who was traveling with me at the time. “Jews here need armed security guards just to attend a service.”

This was December 2000, almost a year before 9/11, and although I’d spent my life attending various synagogues in Maryland where I’d grown up, in Philadelphia when we visited my grandparents, I was used only to the dowager-humped, hip-high, octogenarian greeters. Liver-spotted ladies with thick glasses and cotton-ball hair who didn’t clear 5 feet but somehow still managed to jumble the bones of your hand in the vice grips of theirs. Nowhere in sight was anyone you could conceivably call “security.”

This was America! “The greatest country in the history of the world to its Jews,” my father would often proclaim. Here, our synagogues were as safe as the churches and mosques.

My, how things change.

This year, my Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills took the reasonable step of increasing its number of armed security guards to five. For those communities that can afford it, entering a synagogue has become a little like entering an airport. We submit to metal-detecting wands, routine inspection of bags, while men with holstered guns nod us on.

The immediate provocation for the synagogue’s security upgrade was specific and, as these things often are, a little vague: A non-Jewish Middle-Eastern-looking couple wandered in one day and poked around the rooms. When confronted by a congregant, the woman bolted, the man became belligerent and had to be physically removed.

But this incident was perhaps just the most recent excuse for the security uptick. In August, a gang of anti-Semitic thugs assaulted an Orthodox Jewish couple in New York, punching the man in the head and throwing a water bottle at his wife. Then the gang hopped in its car and waved Palestinian flags before driving off.

“Everyone knows it,” a French Jew who now sends her sons to my children’s school in Los Angeles, warned me back in December. “America is no better than Europe. It’s just 50 years behind.”

I listened to this in stunned disbelief. We may have our problems in America, but we are nothing like Europe, I wanted to say. But something stopped me: Was she right?

Unlike many American Jews of my generation, I’ve seen European Jew-hatred up close. I was a graduate student at the University of Oxford from 2000 to 2002, the height of the Second Intifada. In the spring of 2002, a rally of 500 pro-Palestinian marchers was scheduled to descend on Oxford. I and fewer than a dozen Jewish students from around the university organized a pro-Israel rally to take place alongside it. We requested — and were refused — protection from the Oxford police, who accused us of inciting violence. The Oxford Jewish Congregation politely asked us to refrain from rallying.

Of all the things that shocked my American conscience, it was the explosive hatred of the marchers themselves that left the deepest impression. They waved signs bearing Israeli flags covered in swastikas. They hollered and screamed at our minuscule group, fists raised, while the Oxford police — there ostensibly to protect them from us — stood awkward sentry. I recognized a friend of mine, an Austrian grad student — affable, shy, knowledgeable in the finer points of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy — among the marchers.

Enter: America. In March, Congress passed a bill to grant an additional $13 million to Homeland Security for security at religious institutions. In Los Angeles, where I live, the police department reached out in January to the Jewish Federation and offered its protection to any Jewish institution that needed it in the wake of the Paris attacks on the kosher supermarket. There can be no doubt: America remains a safe place for Jews. My sons wear yarmulkes and tzitzit wherever we go, and we have never been treated with anything but courtesy by other Americans. The number of anti-Semitic incidents, while up sharply, is still low. While there have been numerous incidents of open hostility and discrimination against Jewish students on American campuses, those have not yet reached the level of violence.

But it’s also true that this country is changing. We all feel it. My father never boasts about the “greatest country in the history of the world for the Jews” anymore.

Every week, when my family attends Shabbat services, I am grateful for the armed guards and feel a shiver of disappointment that we need them. My children don’t know any other America. To them, armed guards are just one more necessary synagogue fixture, like an Eternal Light and an ark full of Torahs.


Abigail Shrier (@abigailshrier) is a writer and graduate of Yale Law School living in Los Angeles.

American Jews and the Israeli election

If there is one lesson American Jews will learn from Israel’s election, it’s this:  they’re not us.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Israelis went to the polls this Tuesday and returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office.  Had Bibi run versus Isaac Herzog among American Jewish voters, he would have lost.  He would have lost almost as badly as Barack Obama would lose against Bibi in Israel.   The fact that Netanyahu garnered 29 mandates against his opponent’s 24 was as shocking to the majority of American Jews as the fact that  Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly – twice – for Barack Obama is to most Israelis.

Jewish life is composed of tribes – Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli.  Different cultures, different languages, different reality.   Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life:  same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing – and so very different natures.

For years the greatest myth American Jews have been telling themselves is that Israeli Jews are just like us.  That works because we tend to prove this to ourselves by cherry-picking the Israel we most identify with.  We fell in love with Abba Eban like the French love Jerry Lewis.  Israelis, meanwhile, mocked him.  A friend of mine didn’t understand why former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who ran on the Kulanu ticket, wasn’t first on the ticket. He is American-born, Princeton-educated, brilliant, articulate and centrist.  I told him the leader of Kulanu is Moshe Kahlon, a tough (also smart) Israeli of Libyan background .  

“But Oren speaks such good English,” he said, absolutely perplexed.  

The Israelis we focus on, and whom we support, or invite to speak, are not representative of all those Israelis we never come in contact with, or prefer to ignore.   We love the Israeli artists and entrepreneurs and models and writers and actors – many if not most of whom are in the minority who voted for the losing teams.

Israel is not New York. Or LA. Or Chicago or Boston or Miami or Philadelphia. It is a Jewish “community” unlike any in America.

Language, income, ethnicity, ideology, religious practice separate us from the great mass of Israeli voters: the ones who don’t come to speak in our synagogues, or lead our children’s Birthright seminars, or appear in the papers with the latest hi-tech invention. There are thousands of Amoses in Israel – we just know Amos Oz.

We are drifting apart.  If the English and Americans are two people separated by a common language, Israeli and American Jews are one people separated by a common country.

We don’t know these people, and we don’t really understand their lives.   Economically they struggle more than most American Jews, especially the ones active and influential in Jewish and civic life.   More importantly, they live in a country that faces very real threats from its very real enemies. They and their sons and daughters are called upon to wear a uniform, take up weapons and prepare to die for their country – something some American Jews experience, but hardly the vast majority.

Culture matters. Circumstances matter.  The standard pap at countless Jewish fundraising banquets is how we and the Israelis are One People, and yes, on paper it’s true.  But if you’re talking about reality, and that paper is, say,  a ballot, then  it’s more true to say we are living very different lives, and have developed into two distinct branches of a very small family.  

That explains the reaction of most American Jews to the election.  They seemed to assume that Israelis couldn’t possibly reelect a person who had become so anathema to us.  The most common question I’ve been hearing is, “How did that happen?” My answer: because they wanted it to happen, and they vote, and you don’t.

So now what?

Israel relies on the power of America, which is significant, and that power derives in large part from the influence of American Jews in domestic politics, which is not insignificant.  The strength of this relationship, which has served Israel, America and American Jewry well, depends on the strength of the bond between American and Israeli Jewry.  To secure that, there is much work that needs to be done.  

American Jews have to get to know, for lack of a better word, the real Israel – the world where if Bibi is not exactly king, then he is the safe, secure and dependable choice.  (By the way, many of the left in Israel have to do a better job getting to know this part of their country as well).  If they want to understand, or even influence, these voters, they have to see them not as darker Mini-Me's, but as they really are.

And what about the Israelis?  The divide doesn’t do them any favors either.  Israel can’t rely solely on the support of the religious and the right. Just because they have Sheldon Adelson and an active, conservative base locked up, doesn’t mean they have American Jewry. In fact, the more Israel aligns itself with the values of the religious right and oligarchs like Adelson, the more it alienates the mass of American Jewry.

”“The [American Jewish] right is growing much more rapidly,” Michael Oren said in a pre-election interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, “even as a percentage within the Jewish community. There’s a greater percentage that is more religious, more conservative. That disparity is going to grow in favor of the right in coming years.”

That may be true, but it neglects a growing number of younger American Jews that polls show lean left on Israeli policies.  These will be the future Americans Israel needs to win friends and influence people in DC and elsewhere, and it can’t afford to lose them. 

The right and religious alone may never be big enough to make a crucial difference on the big issues.  And, when the pendulum swings in Israel and a liberal government takes power, these strong supporters may actually work against a sitting Israeli government.   

Bibi tacked hard right to win the Israeli election.  If he keeps sailing in that direction, he’ll leave American Jewry on a distant shore, waving goodbye.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.

Cartoon: A shining city on a hill

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Three American contractors killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghan capital

Three American contractors were killed and a fourth was wounded by an Afghan solider at the military airport in the capital Kabul, an Afghan air force official told Reuters on Thursday.

“It is unclear yet why he shot these advisers and no one else was there to tell us the reason,” the official said, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to give statements to the media. “An investigation has been opened.”

The international force in Afghanistan confirmed the shooting took place on Thursday evening.

Why Chanukah matters

There’s a certain narrative about Chanukah that has become near conventional wisdom among American Jews, and it goes like this:

Chanukah is a fun holiday that is big in America, thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But really, it’s a “minor” holiday that is more impactful culturally and sociologically than religiously, and it can’t really compare to the “big” ones of Yom Kippur and Passover.

And that’s all true. But it’s also too simple.

Chanukah matters for many reasons. It matters because, as one historian put it, it allows American Jews to feel included in the American holiday season while also remaining distinct, because they have their own holiday. It matters because, as one rabbi put it, Chanukah provides light in a season of darkness, giving families good reason to come together and celebrate. It also matters because, as another rabbi said, Chanukah carries an anti-assimilationist message that is as relevant today as it was 1,800 years ago.

Chanukah is a rarity within Judaism. It’s a holiday that, because of its scant halachic background, doesn’t provide much fodder for legal or practical disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. But it’s also a holiday that rabbis and Jewish academics and educators seem to agree is significant — uniquely so for American Jews — but for a variety of reasons. 

Chabad emphasizes the spiritual message of always increasing light. Modern Orthodox Jews focus on the sages’ narrative of the oil miracle pointing to God’s omnipresent role in the Maccabees’ military victory. Conservative and Reform Jews find meaning in why the sages altered Chanukah’s story by reducing the role of the Maccabees and increasing that of God, and also in how Chanukah allows Jews to feel just as American as Christians do in December. And many communal leaders see Chanukah as an ideal time to reach out to less-connected Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that takes on different meanings for each different group of Jews. But it also offers something that no other Jewish holiday offers, and it does so without the conflict that often characterizes how other parts of Jewish religious life ought to be observed: Chanukah is a home- and family-based holiday, with eight nights of candle-lighting and lots of good food and celebration — there is no argument about that among any mainstream group of Jews. And it also happens to be an easy and fun way to practice Judaism during a season dominated by the image of the fun and warmth of Christmas. 

Chanukah’s message, meanwhile, is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: To maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values assimilation is a challenge. But even with the holiday’s warning siren against assimilation, Chanukah and, to a certain extent, its message, have spread in America mainly because it has paired itself with Christmas. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Misremembering Chanukah

“Most Jews don’t know the stories of Chanukah, and if they do know the stories, they don’t know the real stories,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The sanitized version of Chanukah casts the underdog Maccabees as winners of an unlikely victory against the mighty Greeks, and after the war, when the Jews went to light the menorah in the Temple, there was only enough oil left for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Voila! That’s Chanukah — Judaism surviving against all odds with God’s hand clearly present. 

Typically left unexplained is the story of religious division among Jewish traditionalists and assimilationists, the religious zealotry of the Maccabee and Hasmonean victors and why Jewish tradition emphasizes the miracle of the oil over the military victory.

The Chanukah story most Jews don’t know is that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. (the Second Temple era) was as much an outward revolt against the Greek attempt to destroy religious and spiritual Judaism (there was no genocidal intent) as it was a civil war to violently defeat Hellenist Jews who wanted to abandon or compromise religious Judaism to fit into Greek culture, which primarily valued science, philosophy and the arts. Hellenized Jews were so fanatic in their anti-Judaism that some males tried to reverse their circumcisions, according to the First Book of Maccabees, or I Maccabees, which, along with II Maccabees tells the official story of the Jewish war against Hellenism, from the point of view of the Maccabees. 

The era’s urban Jews, as a generalization, wanted a Hellenized Judea. Rural, more traditional Jews wanted to maintain their distinct Jewish identity and resist the force of Greek assimilation. Pro-Hellenist Jews, fed up with the refusal of the traditionalists to assimilate, requested that Antiochus — the Greek king at the time — send military forces to suppress the traditionalists.

But the occupying Greek forces were not the traditionalists’ first target. The trigger for their revolt was an apostate Hellenist Jew who offered a sacrifice to a Greek god in Modi’in, according to the Book of Maccabees. Mattathias, a traditionalist and the father of Judah Maccabee, saw the Jew about to perform a sacrifice, killed him, and then killed a Greek officer and tore down the altar where the sacrifice would have occurred.

And thus began the Maccabean revolt, which ended in a Jewish victory that propelled the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty (essentially the political party of that era’s traditionalists) into power after the miracle of the war and the oil. The Hasmoneans’ story has been largely forgotten by modern Jews, in large part thanks to rabbinic Judaism’s decision during one of the early centuries of the Common Era to keep I Maccabees and II Maccabees out of the Torah canon, banished to the less authoritative realm of biblical Apocrypha — stories of Jewish history important enough to remain in our collective memory but kept out of the official canon for one reason or another. 

Purim, like Chanukah, also commemorates the Jews’ survival (although Chanukah celebrates religious, not physical, survival) against a mighty enemy — Haman and his cronies in Persia. The rabbis, though, elevated Purim above Chanukah, at least as far as halachah is concerned, by canonizing it. Open a Tanakh and the Book of Esther will be there; the Books of Maccabees won’t be. The rabbis of the third century felt uneasy canonizing and issuing their stamp of approval upon the Hasmoneans, an ultimately oppressive group of Jewish rulers who forced Jews into observance and killed religious deviants. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Modern Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach said the Hasmoneans’ extremism and their intolerance put them out of favor with the more moderate views of rabbinic tradition. “They were not the people of compromise,” Fink said.

Ironically, even though the Hasmoneans were the most extreme group of Jews ever to rule the land of Israel, the populace absorbed Hellenistic culture anyway, touting Jewish kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Jews, meanwhile, have adopted  Greek-derived words like Sanhedrin and synagogue to label core elements of religious Judaism.

And while Jews under Hasmonean rule experienced the spread of the very same Greek culture that the Hasmoneans so violently opposed, they also came under Roman occupation after two Hasmonean brothers fighting for the crown — John Hyrcanus the Pharisee and Aristobulus the Sadducee — asked the Romans to settle the dispute. The Romans then took advantage of the Jewish infighting to invade, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Roman exile, which lasts to this day and, according to Jewish tradition, will last until the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud who decided to omit the Maccabean version of history from official canon were not willing to elevate the tyrannical Jewish regime that lost Israel to the Romans, even if it was traditional in its religious practice. They felt, too, that the Chanukah story needed a miracle, and it needed God’s role to outweigh that of the Hasmoneans, so the rabbis told the story of the miracle of the oil, a spiritual miracle featuring God’s suspension of the law of nature. And this story came to outweigh the significance of the unlikely Maccabean victory that would lead to a dark period of Jewish power and a disgraceful fall.

The rabbis’ edited version of the story says much about how they believed Judaism needed to be understood during the era of Roman exile, especially by Diaspora Jews. 

“Although we were happy that [the Maccabees] won, that’s not the Judaism that we want to perpetuate,” Fink said. “The Judaism that we want to perpetuate is the one that speaks of light. To me, [the rabbis’] message was, ‘Don’t become an extremist.’ ”

A holiday of few (practical) disagreements

Disagreement is a pillar of Judaism, and most Jewish holidays are staging grounds for practical disagreements. Orthodox Jews disagree with Conservative and Reform Jews about how electricity should be used on Shabbat and other holidays. What’s considered chametz on Passover? What’s kosher? What’s not kosher? How many days of Shavuot should be observed? Should Shavuot be observed? 

Chanukah has no such disputes, which makes it one of the only agreeable festivals in the Jewish calendar.

“It’s one of the holidays with the least amount of halachic material,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There isn’t that much opportunity for much difference. From that perspective, it’s wonderful, because the entire Jewish community is observing it in the same way.”

And Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, up there with Passover and Yom Kippur, allowing American Jews to shelve their differences for eight days. Orthodox Jews wary of Americanizing Chanukah accept, sometimes begrudgingly, that capitalizing on the Christmas spirit and ritualizing gift-giving has helped lead many Jews to observe the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and displaying it publicly, which Maimonides held is a particularly important mitzvah because of its commemoration of the survival and spread of religious Judaism. 

And non-Orthodox Jews skeptical of many tenets of rabbinic Judaism, and who may feel that Orthodox practices unnecessarily separate Jews from American culture, have proudly embraced Chanukah’s central halachic feature (lighting the menorah) as Jews’ way to take part in America’s holiday season while maintaining a unique Jewish identity.

“The truth of the matter is the rituals are pretty much the same,” said Feinstein. “You have a holiday that has no politics; no one’s saying that my version of the holiday is better than someone else’s.” 

The differences in practices, Feinstein said, are not between American Jews of different denominations, but between American Jews and Jews in other countries. From the gifts to the decorations to the food to the music, Feinstein said, “American Jews celebrate Chanukah very differently than, say, South African or European or Israeli Jews.”

Chanukah, Americanized

Nowhere else is Chanukah celebrated with the grandiosity that accompanies it in the United States. 

“It is not such a huge event in Israel, where Christmas is not a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” said David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor.

How did Chanukah become a cultural phenomenon in America?

“Timing is everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was historically a minor holiday and only became more major because of Christmas.”

This year, Chanukah ends on Christmas Eve, right in the middle of the American holiday season, giving American Jews the sense of full participation in a time when the vast majority of Americans associate the word “holiday” with Christmas.

Myers says that American Jews’ ability to adapt their holiday into “mainstream cultural norms” is similar to what other Diaspora Jewish groups did in learning the language of their host countries in Spain, Persia, numerous Arabic societies and, especially, Germany, where Hebrew and German combined to form Yiddish. “This kind of dynamic has occurred throughout Jewish history,” Myers said. “Jews have continuously adapted names, languages and cultural values from their host societies.”

In the late 1800s, Myers said, observant Jews in America “sought to revive memory of the holiday as a traditionalist reaction” against Reform Judaism’s wish to assimilate into American culture and de-emphasize Jews as a distinct people. Then, in the mid-20th century, many more American Jews, primarily non-Orthodox ones, revitalized Chanukah with the aim of turning it into the other major winter festival alongside Christmas, which is when gift-giving became the norm.

Why did Chanukah become a holiday celebrated by most American Jews, while holidays of greater stature according to Jewish law, such as Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are primarily celebrated by Orthodox Jews? It’s not just because of Christmas, Feinstein said. Chanukah, as a holiday of lights, has a particular appeal in its spiritual and physical light during the short winter days. “Its correspondence with Christmas and its correspondence with the winter solstice are what give it its power,” Feinstein said. 

Fink pointed out that while Christmas has helped elevate Chanukah’s status in America, Orthodox Jews would celebrate the holiday no matter what time of year it fell.

“They are not the ones who are benefiting from this kind of American holiday atmosphere,” Fink said, adding, though, that Chanukah’s gaining from the presence of Christmas should not be viewed as a negative thing. “I’m not saying that we celebrate Chanukah because [Christians celebrate Christmas], but it’s a time that people are going to have an interest in experiencing their own traditions, so it’s wise to capitalize on it.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, in that sense, not only helps American Jews by acting as a “counterweight” to Christmas, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said, but benefits from the Christmas spirit, drawing upon one of America’s three biggest holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s being the others) to make Judaism fun for those whose only Jewish observance throughout the year might be fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting down at a Passover seder. Chanukah, Wolpe said, is “minor in terms of its status halachically [but] major in terms of its status sociologically.”

“Among Jews who don’t have the strongest identification or the greatest education, there’s a lot pulling them into the general population,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I think, arguably, that Chanukah has played an important role in giving non-Orthodox families a little bit of a hedge against the Christmas spirit.”

In America, Chanukah has drawn less-religious Jews into joyfully fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and has brought American Jewry as a whole closer to the (American) ideal of having both a distinct American identity and a religious identity, as Sarna believes.

“Chanukah allows Jews simultaneously to be part of and apart from, and that’s really a microcosm of what a minority religious community wants to be,” Sarna said. “It wants to stress its distinctiveness even as it wants to be part of a certain zeitgeist.”

Wolpe, contrasting what Chanukah and Yom Kippur offer American Jews in terms of feeling more, well, American, said, “Look, the White House does a Chanukah lighting, they don’t do a Yom Kippur fast, because Chanukah allows them to understand, yes we have a holiday, they have a holiday — and that matters in a society that’s always striving for balance and has lots of different factions.”

Martin Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, lights the Chanukah menorah on Dec. 5, 2013, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the day’s second Chanukah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  At left is Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. At right is U.S. Navy Lt. Ron Sachs. Photo by Consolidated News Photos

Myers, going a step further, believes the development of Chanukah in America is today’s example of how Diaspora Jews have managed to keep Judaism alive while blending into foreign nations. “It offers proximity to the American cultural mainstream while permitting some degree of preservation of Jewish distinctiveness,” Myers said. “Precisely the work of cultural adaptation and modification that allowed for Jewish renewal and, ultimately, survival.”

‘We don’t need to compete’

Perhaps no group has done more in America than Chabad to thrust Chanukah into the public square. American Friends of Lubavitch organizes the annual lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah in front of the White House; Chabad emissaries across American campuses place a menorah next to visible pedestrian walkways; Chabad families strap giant menorahs to the roofs of their cars and drive around like that for eight days. Whereas the commandment to publicize the miracle of Chanukah is fulfilled by most Jews by placing the menorah in a window, Chabad ratchets the practice up several notches, placing menorahs everywhere.

On the Chanukah agenda for Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is the public menorah lighting at City Hall, this year with Mayor Eric Garcetti — Greenwald’s seventh such lighting; separate menorah lightings at a Los Angeles Clippers game and outside Staples Center; and organizing yet another lighting at Pershing Square, an urban park in the center of downtown. 

“In America, it’s particularly meaningful, because here we can practice all the observances in full view in public,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald added, though, that Chanukah, as one of Judaism’s “most important holidays,” doesn’t need Christmas to make it important. The holiday can stand on its own spiritual and religious merit, he said. “We don’t need to compete in the marketplace of holidays,” Greenwald said. “I don’t want to look at it as the Jewish Christmas.”

There’s irony to Chanukah’s piggybacking on Christmas in the United States, and Greenwald’s objection to making Chanukah the “Jewish Christmas” alludes to it — one of Chanukah’s main lessons is that Jews must resist the temptation to discard tradition in favor of a newer culture. At the same time, though, Chanukah’s attachment to Christmas is perhaps the main reason that the holiday is observed by so many non-Orthodox Jews; the same can’t be said for a holiday such as Simchat Torah, which is given a higher halachic status.

“I think that outside of Orthodox Judaism, there’s almost this wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this is our version of Christmas,” Fink said. “Orthodox Judaism really would be very uncomfortable with that.”

And as a holiday that warns against succumbing to “pressure from any outsider alien society,” Adlerstein said, Chanukah matters as much today as it did for the Maccabees: “The conflict between Jews who wished to bring their own practice more in conformance with the cultural milieu and secular surroundings, and traditionalists who wanted to hold on to core Jewish beliefs and practices hasn’t gone away one iota in 2,000 years.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, assistant principal at YULA Boys High School and assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, said one message he tries to teach his students is not only Chanukah’s plea to “maintain the tradition” but also why it’s so important to publicize it with pride, a luxury afforded Jews in this country. “We can do that today, but there was a lot that had to happen” to reach this point of openness and safety, Sufrin said. “Chanukah is not a minor holiday.”

U.S. – Israel not in crisis, but…

The strain in US-Israel ties is one of the key issues in the Israel election campaign – and rightfully so. But if you glance at US media during the last couple of months, you’d think the relations have never been worse. Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, which announced a “full-blown crisis,” described relations as “the worst it's ever been” and quoted an anonymous administration official calling Prime Minister Netanyahu “chicken___”  unleashed a torrent of commentary to this worst-ever-crisis notion. Even venerable Bob Schieffer chose to question the Israeli leader about it on “Face the Nation.”

But history paints a very different picture. Until the late fifties, relations between the two countries were frosty and remote, and France was Israel's primary ally. In the sixties, Israel mistakenly sunk the U.S.S. Liberty, tragically killing 34 American sailors. In the seventies, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger froze all aid and deliveries to Israel, declaring a “reassessment” of U.S.-Israeli relations, after a harsh argument between Kissinger and Israel's Prime Minister Rabin. In the eighties, the Reagan administration tried to thwart Israel's plans to invade Lebanon by leaking its battle order to John Chancellor on NBC's Nightly News. In the nineties, there was the Pollard espionage affair; the freezing by President H.W. Bush of the loan guarantees to Israel, then the Israeli sale of Falcon fighter planes to China scandal. The list goes on.

One could argue that this nadir in US-Israel relations is personal, between their leaders and not governments. But that would also be incorrect. The leaders themselves, both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have mostly praised one another. The bad blood does not publicly emanate from them, but rather from anonymous “senior officials” and leaks from closed-door sessions — later denied.

To be sure, such leaks reflect a problem, but they pale in comparison to prior eras, when calumny was cast openly. “This American chutzpah makes my blood boil,' said Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin of President Carter in 1979. Twelve years later Israel's cabinet member Rehav'am Ze'evi declared President George H.W. Bush an “anti-Semite.” In 1997 Martin Indyk, then U.S. Ambassador to Israel, was derided as a “Jew-boy.” This same vitriol was also directed at Henry Kissinger in 1974 and U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer on the Knesset floor. Same goes for the Americans. Secretary of State James Baker, for example, was cited in 1992 as saying, “F— the Jews – they didn't vote for us,' raising hell in Israel.

What’s occurring now is no crisis. A crisis is when President Eisenhower tells Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in 1956 that if Israel doesn't immediately withdraw from the Sinai it will face severe economic sanctions. Or when America credibly threatens to devalue the British Pound and withdraw IMF aid when Britain similarly refuses to withdraw its forces.

Those were crises — not when a nameless official calls the Israeli Prime Minister names, especially when followed by a wave of qualifications and condemnations from the White House and State Department.

And a refusal to host senior Israeli officials is also not a new phenomenon. It happened to Ariel Sharon, then Israel's Minister of Defense, who was declaredPersona Non Grata for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon.

In fact, America and Israel have never been so closely aligned. Recent polls (and http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4600107,00.html) show high levels of American public support. Congress is as supportive of Israel as it has ever been. Tourism and trade volumes between the countries are peaking. Military aid is at a record high. Defense technology export policies are generous. Security cooperation has never been so close.

There are strains in the relationship, of course, as there are in any, but those should be viewed through the prism of history. I, for one, believe that Israel should be grateful to the American people for their strong, unwavering support.

However, even though the current strains are not the worst ever, they do have a destructive potential. If the Obama administration provides insufficient support to Israel in the United Nations Security Council regarding a unilateral move the Palestinians say they will make later this month, or if the US signs a deal with Iran on its nuclear program that fails to address Israel’s s genuine concerns, Israel and America will find themselves in a “full-blown crisis.” Such an outcome could be disastrous for Israel. That is why its leaders must make every effort to avoid a crisis in their relations with American officials.

Rather than fanning the flames of crisis and creating self-fulfilling prophecies, officials on both side need to reduce the inflammatory rhetoric and focus on finding practical ways to fix what needs to be fixed.

Uri Sadot is a Research Fellow at Israel's Institute of National Security Studies. He holds an MPA from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.

Welcoming the stranger

On almost every emerging issue of public policy, our community asks the same question, either in audible or hushed voices: “Is it good for the Jews?” In the matter of President Barack Obama’s recent decision to defer and sideline prosecutions that might have resulted in the deportation of some 5 million undocumented persons in the United States, the answer to the question should be said and repeated in a loud, clear voice: “Yes!” Sometimes, what is good for the nation as a whole is good for the Jews, and vice versa.

In a televised address to the nation on Nov. 20, the president responded to longtime congressional inaction over proposals for comprehensive immigration reform by executive action. Specifically, he exercised his authority as chief of the executive branch of the federal government to defer the initiation of removal/deportation proceedings (and administratively close already-filed cases) against foreign-born individuals who have lived in the United States for five or more years, have no criminal records and have U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children.  Persons eligible for the president’s initiative will be required to register with the Department of Homeland Security, undergo background checks, work only when they secure employment authorization (for which they will now have the right to apply) and pay taxes on their income.  Those persons will not be eligible for welfare benefits or Obamacare. 

The president’s executive action is limited in time and scope: It will only last for three years, and will not constitute a permanent immunity from deportation proceedings or a pathway to permanent residency or naturalization.  Moreover, it confers no immunity from deportation for millions of longtime undocumented residents of the United States who have no U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident children, or the hundreds of thousands of child and teenage migrants who have entered the United States without inspection over the past year. It is, rather, a temporary measure designed to maintain family unity for millions of hardworking, law-abiding adults who help support and sustain their children, many of who depend on them for financial support and all of whom depend on them for the emotional support that we all have needed from our mothers and fathers.   

As Obama said in his speech, “Tracking down, rounding up and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic.” The president has used his constitutional power as chief enforcer of the immigration laws to allocate the resources of his government’s immigration officers and attorneys to prioritize the commencement and continuation of deportation cases against criminals, the recently arrived, and those with few or no family ties in the U.S. If every possible deportation case that could be brought to the federal government were, the already overloaded, undermanned, and underfinanced immigration court and enforcement systems would collapse of their own weight. Every prosecutor in every jurisdiction makes decisions every day on which cases should be filed and which should be deferred. The president has done no more than that.

The president’s initiative now places the ball firmly in Congress’ court to pass or not pass comprehensive or even piecemeal immigration reform.  Since the administration of George W. Bush — who, to his credit, pressed for comprehensive immigration reform of the same kind now favored by Obama — the Republican right has stymied all efforts to bring a bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. Several times, the Senate has passed an immigration reform bill.  Several times, House Speaker John Boehner has indicated his desire to pass an immigration reform bill. Nevertheless, several times, the speaker has led from behind and refused to bring a reform bill to the House floor because of the intransigence of a minority of his GOP caucus. The speaker and other Republican leaders in Congress have decried Obama’s initiative as unconstitutional (which it is not), as amnesty (which it is not) and as a refusal to work with Congress on more comprehensive legislation (which is belied by the evidence of the recent past). Obama’s response to all of this hyperbole has been succinct and on point: “Pass a bill.”  

Returning to the question of whether the president’s initiative is good for the Jews, we should all dust off our Torah and reread Exodus 23:9. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Obama initiative is a limited, practical act of rachmones — empathy designed to lift some of the terrible burdens from those people who live in the shadows of our society, while they help raise our children, tend to our homes and gardens, and pick our fruit. As they help sustain us, we should find the compassion to help sustain them. That is the Jewish — and the American — way.

Bruce J. Einhorn served as a United States Immigration Judge in Los Angeles from 1990 through 2007.  He is currently a professor of immigration, asylum and refugee law at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, and executive director of The Asylum project, a nonprofit aid group for the victims of foreign persecution and torture.

Young Americans and Israel – a disconnect

The new concern in the American-Jewish community is the number 25. According to a Gallup poll conducted in the midst of the Gaza war, 42 percent of all Americans supported Israel’s action. Among people aged 18 to 29, that number was 25 percent.

This set off all the usual alarm bells here and in Israel. Israel has one great and powerful ally in the world — the United States of America. But that support ultimately depends on the will of the people. And the young people — they’re not so willing.

“Israelis need to look both outward and within,” Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote this week in Yediot Aharanot. “Israel is at a nadir in its foreign relations. The problem begins with public opinion in the West, including Jewish public opinion in the United States. … Israel is losing the young people.”

What’s happening is a generational shift in the quality and quantity of younger Americans’ support for Israel. Pew Research Center surveys indicate that young people still show more overall sympathy to Israelis than to Palestinians, but that number is also in decline. It’s a problem that may be easier to explain than to solve.

When it comes to Israel, there are two generations of Americans:

Generation ’67 sees Israel as a historical redemption story that began with the Holocaust, came to fruition with the War of Independence and climaxed with the Six-Day War.  

Millennials see an Israel apart from Jewish history, a country among countries; 20-somethings came of age during two intifadas, the Second Lebanon War and three Gaza wars. The Israel they saw in headlines blasted homes, put up a wall, built settlements. Where Generation ’67 sees the lamb beneath the lion, millennials just see a lion.

For this generation, the arguments of Israel’s defenders clearly don’t resonate.

Devorah Brous, who works with many young people through her food-justice organization, Netiya, explained it to me this way:  “The younger generation saw Gaza as an offensive war against the Palestinians, not a defensive war against Hamas.”

This despite all the fact books Generation ’67 distributes on campuses, all the exposés we send one another against the biased media, all the cool new social media initiatives. These open donors’ wallets but not young people’s hearts. It is all, to borrow Brous’ phrase, “Jewish conversation with other Jews about Jewish things.” 

So, who has been successful in mobilizing a younger generation? 

You’re not going to like the answer. 

Jewish Voice for Peace’s (JVP) growth in popularity among Millennials is inversely proportionate to Israel’s decline. According to federal tax filings, JVP revenues went from $310,000 in 2011 to $1.1 million in 2012, and almost doubled again this year. Since Operation Protective Edge began, the organization, with 40 chapters nationwide, reports it has had 50,000 new people — Jews and non-Jews — register on its website.

JVP is a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Its email alerts bring Jewish and non-Jewish activists out to disrupt speeches by Israeli officials. It calls for “democratic participation and equality” for all people of the Middle East, an end to Israeli military force against Palestinians, and for Palestinians to stop attacks on Israeli civilians.

JVP uses the language of civil rights and nonviolence to garner support among Millennials. It relies heavily on social media to inform or sway its members. And it’s a Jewish group that speaks to more than just Jews.

Students are drawn to JVP because it draws a crowd that reflects the world they know. During the debate on Israel divestment at UCLA this spring, some 600 people showed up to speak for and against, and sat on opposite sides of the room. 

“On one side of the aisle were mostly Jewish students and Jewish faculty members,” Estee Chandler, JVP’s regional director, told me, “and on the other side, you saw America: gay, straight, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, black.”

“Israel is no different than other social issues for the younger generation,” Chandler said. “It is about equality and justice and civil rights across the board.” Younger people, she said, are turned off by identity politics — they don’t get the ‘Jewish’ part of the Jewish state.

She bristles when JVP is called “anti-Israel,” especially because her father is Israeli, and many of her family members still live there. (“They don’t know what I do,” she said, “I don’t talk about it.”)

The right-wing Jewish groups that blame the Palestinians, President Barack Obama, The New York Times and Islam for all of Israel’s ills? JVP is their mirror image, putting all the blame on Israel. Yes, this sounds like nonsense, considering that the people in charge of Gaza aren’t exactly Quakers, but that’s the rhetoric, and it seems to be working.  

More openness, greater appeal to universal values, more engagement with the kind of diverse, uncomfortable opinions and images students see on their Facebook pages, even more dialogue with groups such as JVP that make the mainstream cringe — perhaps that’s where Israel’s supporters should start, said Brous.

And with numbers like 25 percent, they have a long way to go. 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Hillary Clinton, Israel and the Jews

Last month, I read an opinion piece in a Jewish publication wrongfully accusing Hillary Clinton of being anti-Israel and not fighting for the issues that matter most to Jewish Americans. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Throughout her career, Hillary Clinton has fought for and been a strong ally and representative of the Jewish community. To suggest otherwise is just absurd.

I have been lucky enough to know Hillary Clinton for more than 35 years, ever since I was a teenager in Arkansas in the 1970s.  I don’t know anyone who is more able and ready to work on the issues that matter and to make sure that the ideas and concerns of the Jewish people are addressed.

I first met Hillary when my father, who was a Rabbi in Little Rock, went to Fayetteville to perform the town’s first ever Bar Mitzvah. At the reception, we met a nice young couple, Bill and Hillary Clinton. My parents and the Clintons became friends, and thus began a long history working together in public service. 

The author of the piece I read cites obscure references to Hillary Clinton’s life and work back in Arkansas. Having witnessed that time in her life, I can say how misleading and unrepresentative these are to her history fighting for and understanding important issues to the Jewish community.

Hillary was always close to the Jewish community, and she and I worked together on many projects. Behind the scenes, Hillary became one of the leaders of a group of civic-minded professionals who worked together to help people of all faiths strive for communication and cooperation. While Hillary was a Methodist and Bill a Baptist, they always supported interfaith activities. 

Hillary was always good at thinking outside the box and finding unique solutions to problems. While traveling, Hillary discovered an Israeli educational program that was designed to help immigrants and their children adjust to life in new countries. Hillary studied the groundbreaking program and figured out that it could be adapted to help economically disadvantaged families in Arkansas. Hillary brought the HIPPY program to Arkansas, where it was soon offered statewide and now operates in 21 states, serving 15,000 families.

I also noticed that the author conveniently chose to exempt from his argument Hillary Clinton’s eight years in the Senate where, as a Senator from New York, she came to know the largest Jewish constituency outside of Israel and was an outspoken defender of Israel. Hillary Clinton’s support within the Jewish communities of both New York and Arkansas is a testament to her friendships and relationships that have been developed over a lifetime. 

Conflicts in Israel and the Middle East weigh heavy in the hearts and minds of the Jewish community. Strong leadership from leaders who understand our history and share the interests of the Jewish people is needed to bring about peaceful resolutions. The article chooses to neglect this in passing judgment on Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued her strong support for Israel. One of her greatest achievements as Secretary of State was negotiating a cease-fire to avert an all-out war in Gaza. She also helped lead efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. On the U.S’s relationship with Israel, Hillary said, “Israel and the United States are united by a deep and unbreakable bond based on mutual interests and respect.”

The domestic issues that the Jewish community cares about – freedom of religion and separation of church and state, personal freedoms and rights, education, and health care – are issues Hillary Clinton has worked on her entire life. Her passionate support of the Jewish community culminated with her being awarded a lifetime achievement award from the American Jewish Congress.

From her foreign policy abroad to her work back home, Hillary Clinton has consistently shown her support and dedication to the issues that matter most to Jewish Americans.

I share in the thoughts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in saying to Hillary Clinton, “you are a great friend and a great champion of peace,” and I hope the rest of the Jewish community can share in this long-lasting bond with Hillary Clinton


Lazar Palnick is an attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Islamic State vows to ‘break the American cross’

Islamic State, the Sunni militant group which seeks to establish a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, released a video on Tuesday that gave the strongest indication yet it might attempt to strike American targets.

The video with the theme “breaking of the American cross” boasts Islamic State will emerge victorious over “crusader” America. It follows a video posted on Monday warning of attacks on American targets if Washington struck against its fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The latest footage speaks of a holy war between the al-Qaeda offshoot and the United States, which occupied Iraq for nearly a dacade and faced stiff resistance from al Qaeda.

Islamic State's sweep through northern Iraq, bringing it close to Baghdad and in control of the second city, Mosul, drew U.S. airstrikes on the country for the first time since the end of the American occupation in 2011.

The video showed footage of President Barack Obama as well as strategic U.S. ally King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and attacks on American soldiers.

Reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Ralph Boulton

On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew

Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

How the Syrian-Muslim and American-Jew became best friends

I’m sitting at a pub my first night in Cyprus with a group of strangers. Peering around at potential friends I begin to talk to this hilarious guy. Syria, he tells me, that’s where I am from. He giggles as he sees the shock in my eyes. “I am not going to bomb you, I promise.” He then stuck out his hand for me to shake and smiled. We shook hands and jokingly made a “world peace” promise to each other. The rest was history. The Syrian-Muslim and the American-Jew were best friends.

This was my first encounter with anyone from anywhere I was taught to hate.

The rest of my trip to Cyprus was impacted most by these situations. Coming home I found myself so torn between my pre trip and post trip views on the conflict in the Middle East. Growing up as a Jew in America I was taught that Israel was my homeland, that all the Palestinians were wrong and that the Middle East was a scary and dangerous place that hated Americans and wanted all Jews dead. It has been a month since I have been home now and my views have become so different.

I am not writing this because I think it will change the world.  I don’t have statistics to share or a photo of a bomb going off in a helpless city. I am writing this because I do not feel as though I can sit back and do nothing as my best friend fears rockets while taking the bus in Beersheba and my Palestinian friends are threatened in the west bank daily. I am writing this because after being to Israel three times I believe I have the right to state my own unbiased opinions.

I am writing this because with my arrival date in Tel Aviv less than two months away; I am afraid.

Facebook is the worst. I sign on and scroll down my feed looking for a distraction. Suddenly I could use a distraction.  My news feed feels like a battlefield. People throwing out opinions, facts, and pictures of burnt children. Middle aged adults yelling back and forth through comments in a computer screen. Warped videos, misleading news articles and subjective opinions plague the once peaceful feed. But something is different. The colors of the flags in the articles are different; they are the “enemies”. For the first time since I installed my Facebook I have Muslim and Palestinian friends. There becomes no escape from the war. I am not just talking about the actual war. I am talking about the verbal war against brothers.

One of my most memorable moments during my semester abroad was a project I did for my Middle Eastern politics class. I was told to research the Sharia law and report back to the class with what I learned.  I neglected to find the answers on Wikipedia and instead decided to discover the answers from first hand sources. I gathered a group of Muslim students together and went around interviewing them on their views of the law and on being Muslim in general. We sat for a good half hour talking deeply about their interpretations and how it affected their personal lives. Before I knew it more Muslim students were gathering around.  In a matter of moments we were no longer strangers from conflicting countries; now we were friends laughing together and educating each other. Getting of topic, we instead discussed our similarities; the similarities between our two seemingly opposite religions.

Really made me wonder how two groups of people who don’t eat pork can’t seem to get along…

We had just spent an afternoon hiking in the rain through uncharted territory. Exhausted, we spend most the car ride home silent. He then broke the quietness with a question I was not expecting. “What religion are you?” He asked sweetly. This Muslim, body builder and I had been creating a solid friendship for the last few weeks after meeting at a soccer game. I had always assumed he knew I was Jewish so I was a little put off when he asked. Hesitantly, I responded. He then looked me in the eye, smiled, and told me, “We are cousins”.

These three short words had me reevaluating all my past beliefs. The people in these supposedly Jew hating countries didn’t hate me at all, in fact; they wanted to be friends.

It is my second week and I am Couch surfing in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. My pay-as- you go phone does not work on this side of the tiny island and I have never Couch surfed before, so you can believe my anxiety when two girlfriends and I planned a trip to stay at a Palestinians house for a couple days in the middle of nowhere.

Flash forward a few hours and, relaxed, my host and I walk around an ancient castle ahead of the rest of the group. Before I know it the conversation takes a turn and we begin talking about the conflict in Israel. He had left his Palestinian home months ago because he could not stand being in a country with so much hate. He told me that he did miss his family but did not know if he would go back because there was so much pain there. Sadly, he began to tell me that one of the main reasons he left was because his fiancé was killed by an Israeli soldier during a rally. He kisses me and thanks me for listening.

This conversation began to put things in perspective.

Before I knew it all my Palestinian friends were telling me horror stories from their own personal experiences in the country. Suddenly the country I was taught to love my whole life didn’t seem so innocent. And yet I couldn’t help but still feel the need to defend it.

 

We are not perfect people. There are evil people out there. There are people out there whose sole mission in life is to kill my people. But that does not make it my mission to do the same to them. Vengeance is not the answer. Nor is the answer to stand by and let innocent people die. There is no answer.

I am writing this because soon I will be living on a religious kibbutz in Israel. I am writing this because all my Palestinian friends want me to visit them while I am there and now I don’t know if I will be able to. I am writing this because having such dear friends on both sides makes me feel like I need to stand up for everyone. However, I am primarily writing this because I am sick of seeing so much hate comes out of the people I love.

There will never be peace without acceptance.

We can post our predisposed opinions all over the internet. We can shoot our guns and kidnap our children. We can shield our eyes to the harm. We can turn our heads and flip our T.V channels. We can hate each other and scream it. But what will it all do? There is no one completely in the right. And there will never be peace until we can speak to one another respectfully. There is terrorism on both sides. But there is also so much more. There is also love.

We can turn against our fellow man as long as we live. But then where will we be if not extinct? There are no easy answers, no automatic solutions. There are no mediated agreements or fair resolutions. We might not be able to fix the problems, stop the rockets or bring back the murdered but we can put down our weapons and instead discuss our similarities. There are so many to be learned.

All it takes is that first handshake.   

U.S. captures suspected ringleader of 2012 attack in Benghazi

The United States said on Tuesday it had captured a suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a raid that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador and ignited a political firestorm in Washington.

President Barack Obama said in a statement he had authorized the operation in Libya on Sunday in which U.S. troops, working with law enforcement personnel, captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah. He told an audience later in Pittsburgh that Khatallah was being transported to the United States.

“Since the deadly attacks on our facilities in Benghazi, I have made it a priority to find and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of four brave Americans,” he said in a statement. He said Khatallah would “face the full weight of the American justice system.”

After the 2012 attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Republicans accused the Obama administration of playing down the role of al Qaeda in the attack for political reasons.

They also said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had failed to take adequate steps to ensure the safety of American diplomatic personnel, an issue that is still resonating as Clinton considers running for U.S. president in 2016.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Khatallah was being held aboard an American ship after he was grabbed on the outskirts of Benghazi in an operation carried out by U.S. special operations forces.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. troops had acted with “extraordinary skill, courage and precision,” and the complex operation resulted in no casualties. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said all U.S. personnel involved had left Libya.

A U.S. official said Khatallah would be charged and prosecuted through the U.S. court system and would not be sent to the prison for suspected al Qaeda militants in Guantanamo, Cuba.

That is in line with Obama's policy of prosecuting suspected militants caught abroad through the U.S. justice system rather than trying them in the military tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay prison, which he is trying to close.

A criminal complaint released by the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C., accused Khatallah of killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility, providing material support to terrorists and using a firearm in commission of a crime of violence.

SPECIAL INTERROGATION TEAM

The Libyan government had no immediate comment on the U.S. announcement. The Pentagon said the United States had notified Libya of the operation, but a spokesman did not say whether it was before or after the capture.

It was the second time the administration has said U.S. special operations forces have gone into Libya to detain a militant. A U.S. Army Delta Force team grabbed al Qaeda suspect Nazih al-Ragye, better known as Abu Anas al-Liby, in Tripoli in October 2013 and sent him to a U.S. Navy ship for interrogation.

Al-Liby was later charged in a U.S. federal court in New York in connection with the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which killed more than 200 people.

Khatallah was expected to be questioned by an elite inter-agency interrogation team created in 2009 to seek information from suspects in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks, a U.S. official said.

The official could not say whether members of the U.S. High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which is housed at the FBI's National Security Branch, were already in place to question Khatallah aboard the ship where was held.

Lawmakers welcomed Khatallah's capture, but Republicans said they were concerned about whether the administration would take full advantage of the opportunity to interrogate him for his intelligence value.

“I want him to be held a sufficient period of time under the law of war to gather intelligence,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “We're shutting down intelligence-gathering. We're turning the war into a crime, and it will bite us in the butt.”

“I think they should take him to Guantanamo,” said Senator John McCain of Arizona. “That's why we have the detention facilities and it's totally inappropriate to keep him any place else.”

Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Khatallah stood a better chance of actually facing trial if his case went through the criminal justice system. Only a handful of people had been tried before military commissions while several hundred had been convicted in federal court, he said.

“It's a tired response from their side,” he said of the Republican calls for a transfer to Guantanamo.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Julia Edwards, Missy Ryan and Susan Heavey; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey, James Dalgleish and Cynthia Osterman

Palestinians support extending negotiations if more prisoners released

A new poll found that 65 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza would support extending the current American-backed peace talks if Israel releases extra Palestinian prisoners.

The negotiations are set to end on April 29. Israel is scheduled to release a fourth group of 28 Palestinian prisoners on March 28, but the Security Cabinet has said it will not release them unless the Palestinians agree to extend negotiations.

Some, 1,200 Palestinian adults were interviewed last week by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, the French news agency AFP reported.

Some 51 percent said they would support continuing the talks if Israel froze West Bank settlement construction.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Maan news agency cited an unnamed Palestinian official  as saying that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to extend the peace talks if Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and release additional prisoners, above the 104 agreed to in order to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table nearly nine months ago

Abbas indicated his agreement in exchange for the conditions during his recent meeting with President Obama in Washington, the unnamed official told Maan.

The official also told Maan that if the last group of prisoners, who have remained in Israeli jails since before the Oslo Accords, are not released on March 29 that the PA will turn to international organizations for recognition.

Jonathan Pollard case is about America

America is far from being an anti-Semitic country. In fact, it might be the first country in Jewish history where it’s actually “cool” to be Jewish. That’s one reason I’ve been so reluctant over the years to weigh in on the Jonathan Pollard affair — I’m so in love with this country and all it’s done for the Jews that the last thing I want is to appear ungrateful or, worse, disloyal.

Having said that, however, after a while it gets harder and harder to ignore what looks like blatant discrimination against a Jewish man who in 1987 pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. How else to explain the U.S. government’s harsh treatment of Pollard?

Of the millions of things that have been said about this case, one fact, for me, stands out the most: The government reneged on the deal it made with Pollard.

This point was flagrantly absent in a recent New York Times op-ed written by M.E. Bowman, a U.S. official directly involved in the Pollard case who continues to defend Pollard’s life sentence.

As Alan Dershowitz responded on the Times’ Web site, “M.E. Bowman fails to tell his readers that when Mr. Pollard entered into his plea bargain, the United States government solemnly represented to the court that a sentence of less than life imprisonment would satisfy the needs of justice.”

Nothing Bowman writes in his editorial explains or even refers to this injustice.

“That solemn representation,” Dershowitz writes, “was the quid pro quo for Pollard’s plea of guilty. It violates both the letter and the spirit of that plea bargain for Mr. Bowman, who was a justice department official at the time, now to urge that Pollard must serve the life sentence imposed on him by the court despite the government having sought a sentence that Pollard has already completed.”

Of course, based on historical and legal precedent, it made plenty of sense for prosecutors not to seek a life sentence for Pollard.

As historian Gil Troy documented a few years ago, “Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years.”

Even two American traitors who spied for the Soviet enemy during the Cold War, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree and FBI agent Richard Miller, served sentences of nine years and 13 years, respectively.

The well-known story that former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger had it in for Pollard and pushed for a life sentence with the sentencing judge may explain the government’s betrayal, but it hardly justifies it.

So, given that Pollard is now serving his 29th year behind bars, it’s not paranoid for Troy to wonder: “Pollard’s extreme sentence — along with the continuing refusal to free him — has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.”

Despite all this evidence of discrimination and unfairness, the mainstream Jewish community has generally been reluctant to dirty its hands with this case. If anything, it has gone out of its way not to defend Pollard, lest it be accused of dual loyalty. 

But what so many in our community have missed is that even more than anti-Semitism, the Pollard case is one of anti-Americanism.

Pollard should have been released years ago because discrimination and unfairness are anti-American ideas.

As Judge Stephen Williams wrote in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, the government’s treatment of Pollard is “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.”

It’s no coincidence that prominent non-Jews, including former Secretary of State George Shulz and former CIA Director James Woolsey, as well as political leaders from both parties, have been lobbying for his release.

They’re not lobbying because Pollard is a hero. He’s not. He’s a criminal. But in America, even criminals have rights, and those rights can get violated.

The Pollard affair is no longer about the darkness of his crime — it’s about the violation of his rights.

Jews must have enough faith in the American system to advocate for Pollard’s rights without feeling the paranoia of dual loyalty.

Those who are finally lobbying for his release on the basis of compassion — focusing on his worsening health — are not doing him any favors. This case doesn’t revolve around compassion; it revolves around justice run amok. As Troy writes, “Justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust.”

You can hate Pollard because of what he did. You can hate him for making you cringe in embarrassment. You can hate him for making American Jews look disloyal to this amazing country.

But if you really want to show your loyalty to America, in my book there’s no better way than to show loyalty to America’s values. And what American value is greater and more honorable than “justice for all”?

The very greatness of this country is that it puts values ahead of men. The values of fairness and justice for Jonathan Pollard are a lot more important than who he is — even if you think he’s a shameful Jew.


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

Rich still getting richer

The rich get richer. Andrew Jackson may have been the first to register the complaint in those terms. “When the laws undertake … to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society… have a right to complain of the injustice to their Government.” 

The phrase was popularized in a sarcastically titled hit song from 1920, “Ain’t We Got Fun?”: “The rich get rich and the poor get poor / In the meantime, in between time / Ain’t we got fun?”

But sadly, it was never more true than today. 

Perhaps the leading American scholar of economic inequality — a fine academic phrase but a lousy message — is professor Emmanuel Saez, a Berkeley economist who has charted waxing and waning wealth concentration beginning in 1913.

Today, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans take home a larger share of the nation’s income than at any point since data became available. The earlier high preceded the Great Depression. But from the mid-1940s until 1980, the richest 10 percent garnered about 33 percent of America’s total income. Their share then began a dramatic climb, culminating in 2012 (the most recent data available), when the wealthiest 10 percent received more than half — 50.4 percent — the nation’s income.

Most of those riches are further concentrated in the top 1 percent, who take home more than 20 percent of the country’s income — a percentage double what it was from 1948 to 1978.

These data answer one question clearly — it does not have to be this way. 

Some inequality is inevitable. But America and Americans did quite well in the post-World War II era with vastly less inequality than we have now. 

Putting the point more sharply, in terms often used by Republicans, the wealthy do not need to be rewarded at this level to be “job creators.” They are willing to make more money for themselves even if they have to share a bit more with everyone else. In fact, U.S. growth rates were higher in the decades before 1980, when equality was greater, than they have been since inequality took off. 

Another often-proffered rationalization for inequality is that “a rising tide lifts all boats” (which, combined with “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” illustrates “Mellman’s First Law of Aphorisms” — for every aphorism, there is an equal and opposite aphorism). Economic tides haven’t worked that way. 

During the economic expansion of the Bush years, incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent swelled by 61.8 percent, while incomes for everyone else increased by just 6.8 percent. And in the current recovery, incomes for the 1 percent increased 31.4 percent, but that was no help to others for whom the tide only rose by 0.4 percent.

Former President Bill Clinton demonstrated that the economy can be made to work for everyone. During his term, the 1 percent did nicely, seeing their incomes jump by a healthy 98.7 percent, but the rest of the country got a real benefit, too, with incomes growing 20.3 percent. The rich got much richer, but the rest of the country captured some of the benefit. 

If inequality is not inevitable, why has it increased? In part, it’s because taxes for the wealthiest Americans have gone down. From 1953 to 1973, when the top marginal tax rates were 70 percent or higher, income growth for both the top 1 percent and the “bottom” 99 percent was strong. When top tax rates began to slide, income for the 1 percent surged, while the rest of the country began to stagnate. 

The rich are richer than ever, but that is neither necessary to produce growth, nor does it trickle down. Equally important, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the richest 1 percent is not a natural or inevitable consequence of the free market; it is aided and abetted by government policy. 

It’s time, as Jackson advised, for Americans “to complain of the injustice to their Government.”

Reprinted courtesy of The Hill. 


Democratic pollster Mark S. Mellman is president of The Mellman Group.

The minimum wage battle: What makes a wage just?

Raising the minimum wage is a mitzvah.

The Rambam says that ensuring others have work that can sustain them is the highest rung on the hierarchy of tzedakah (Mattanot Aniyim, 10:7). In Judaism, tzedakah does not mean charity but justice. We rectify social wrongs and fulfill our obligations through tzedakah. By raising the minimum wage, we are enabling others who work to escape poverty. Tzedakah is all the more important when applied to a system of legislation, as the mission of the Jewish people is to perpetuate our most precious  values of the good and the just into broader society. Our messianic dream is the creation of a society where Torah values are brought into the world to create a more just and holy civilization.

The disparate gap between rich and poor is one of the most troubling moral issues in America today. Much of the problem has to do with unfair wages that block social mobility. The federal wage floor for most workers today is $7.25 an hour, paying at most around $15,000 annually for 40 hours/week (not including the millions of “invisible people” being exploited at under minimum wage). The issue of increasing the minimum wage has become muddied with partisanship, as politics, today, trumps justice. There was no increase from September 1997 until July 2007, at which point the minimum wage had fallen 22 percent in constant dollars while corporate profits had increased by 50 percent (Time magazine, July 24, 2009). Even then, the wage only rose from $5.85 in July 2007 to its current level of $7.25 in July 2009. Some have noted that the decline in value of the minimum wage has coincided with the decline of the American middle class, as previously the minimum wage offered families a chance to climb into the middle class, but now the gap is too wide. We must acknowledge just how far below subsistence the minimum wage has fallen. There has been a major decline of the real value of the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit has been crucial in helping to fill the gap (aiming to benefit low-income families with children and not just all low-wage workers).

Some argue that raising the cost of labor will hurt workers, because employers will then hire fewer workers. In a few instances this may be true, but overall many economists and researchers have shown this to be false. Speaking to this issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow stated that “… the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.”

Current state unemployment statistics (October 2013) tend to support Solow on this. For example, of the four states with a minimum wage below the federal standard, two (Minnesota and Wyoming) have unemployment rates below the average, while two (Arkansas and Georgia) have unemployment rates above the average. Of the five states with no minimum wage, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi have unemployment rates higher than the national average, while Alabama and Louisiana have lower unemployment rates. Thus, there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that a minimum wage adversely affects employment, or that a lower wage helps employment. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently helped to debunk the myth that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses. Studies have shown that when states raised their minimum wage they experienced no significant impact on employment compared to states that did not raise wages. Further, today, 76 percent of voters support raising the minimum wage. It’s a win-win because workers are empowered to sustain themselves, the government gives less “hand-outs,” and businesses flourish as that new income leads to increased spending.

Furthermore, minimum wage workers tend to work in industries that cannot be outsourced or eliminated (e.g., the fast-food and hotel industries), so it is unlikely that a rise in minimum wage would reduce these jobs. One significant study looking at the food industry found that raising the minimum wage did not result in employers trimming their workforce, and dozens of studies have confirmed these conclusions. For example, a study looking at airport employees found that not only did higher wages not lead to lower employment, but, in fact, led to reduced employee turnover.

We must consider not only the microeconomics but also the macroeconomics. There is evidence to suggest that when low-wage workers have more spending power, this creates demand for labor and employment opportunities. For example, in 2006 the Economic Policy Institute estimated that raising the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 would increase consumer spending by $5.5 billion, potentially offering a much-needed boon to the economy.

A final objection to raising the minimum wage is that those who work in these largely menial jobs are teenagers who are simply trying to earn extra cash, and therefore there is no need for a wage increase. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, this is untrue. Among the 15 million people working in minimum wage jobs today:

90 percent are age 20 or older.

• 50 percent are full-time employees.

• 25 percent are parents.

But at the end of the day, minimum wage reform is not enough. A minimum wage increase will not bring low-wage-earning families out of poverty. We must embrace a living wage to truly improve the lives of the millions of our fellow Americans who are living in abject poverty. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed the extent of U.S. poverty in graphic detail:

• Nearly 47 million people live in poverty (15 percent of the population), the highest number ever recorded. Of these, more than 20 million lived in extreme poverty (i.e., an income less than half the poverty level).

• Among children, 22 percent live in poverty.

• More than 17 million households are food insecure, the highest number ever recorded.

• Some 50 million people lack medical insurance, which will increase if enrollment under the Affordable Care Act is unsuccessful.

The sheer injustice of economic inequality is overwhelming. From 2007 to 2010, the average American family lost 39 percent of its wealth, while at the same time, 95 percent of all new wealth generated was accumulated by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. It has been estimated that six members of the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) own more wealth than 41.5 percent of Americans (nearly 49 million families). Is it too much of an encroachment on the wealth of the Walton family to encourage them to pay their workers more? Is it morally tolerable that the employee of a multibillion-dollar company is paid poverty-level wages?

It is our Jewish obligation to lead this fight for justice. The Rema, the great 16th century Polish authority, teaches that when one is involved in an issue of public monies, one must engage (act and vote) l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven (i.e., for reasons not based on self-interest) (Choshen Mishpat 163:1). It is crucial, and our religious duty, that Jews vociferously advocate for systemic change for the poor.

In Judaic doctrine, rabbis have limited the earning power of owners selling essential food so as to help the poor through the laws of “onaah” (fair pricing). The owner is forbidden from keeping more than one-sixth profit in order that others could be sustained as well (Bava Batra 90a, Choshen Mishpat 231:20). For the rabbis, the value of maintaining a just society where the needs of all can be met trumps the full autonomy of owners to maximize their profits to no end.

The primary wage responsibilities fall upon employers. Rebbeinu Yonah, the 13th century Spanish rabbi, taught:

“Be careful not to afflict a living creature, whether animal or fowl, and even more so not to afflict a human being, who is created in G-d’s image. If you want to hire workers and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household. You should not disgrace them, for you shall command them respectfully, and should pay their salaries (Sefer HaYirah).”

Rebbeinu Yonah teaches that when we hire a worker and find that he/she is still poor after we pay them, then we must treat them as b’nei beitecha (members of our households). If we choose to become an employer, then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.

The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the biblical prohibition of oshek (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of lifnei iver (social wrongs), linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.

I have experienced the challenges of Jewish activism on this issue. Tav HaYosher (Uri L’Tzedek’s ethical seal for kosher restaurants) has encountered unique and anomalous apathy in the Los Angeles kosher community. Personal wealth and low food costs have been prioritized over proper worker compensation and dignity. What is perhaps most troubling about my experience is that Tav HaYosher is only asking for the basic law to be followed, paying workers minimum wage and nothing more, and this, tragically, is asking too much for many kosher consumers and owners. The indifference from some in the Jewish community is deeply troubling.

Today, one working on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will have a gross annual income $12,000-$14,500, based on a 35- to 40-hour work week, after which federal and state income tax, Social Security and other taxes are then deducted. It is simply morally repugnant to argue that one working all day every day should live in poverty. As Barbara Ehrenreich, who once described her vain attempt to survive on a wage (above the minimum) in “Nickel and Dimed,” wrote in 2007: “There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the … states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification.”

Today, change is needed and the Jewish community has a crucial role to play. We should heed the word of President Barack Obama: “… let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

I believe we will get there, but I am not a total optimist. I am a possibilist. I believe we will only get there if we engage in courageous leadership. The Jewish community has a crucial role to play.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.

55 U.S. universities condemn ASA boycott of Israel

At least 55 American universities and colleges have rejected the American Studies Association membership vote in favor of an academic boycott of Israel.

The number was tracked by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“This remarkable response is a clear declaration that American academia will not be party to the efforts to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement,” Robert Sugarman, its chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman, said in a statement.

The Conference of Presidents said it wrote to each of the institutional members of the ASA outlining why the boycott call is an unjustifiable and blatantly discriminatory act.

“The response is very encouraging and we are grateful that so many took the time during a holiday week to respond,” the group’s leaders said. “We continue to urge the rest of the members to speak out against the action and to disassociate from supporting the ASA.”

Two-thirds of the 1,252 ASA members who voted approved the boycott, according to an ASA announcement on Dec. 16, a day after the deadline for online voting. At the time of the vote, there were 3,853 eligible voters, meaning one-third of the ASA membership participated.

Four universities withdrew their membership in the wake of the vote: Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Penn State Harrisburg.

Earlier this year, the Association for Asian American Studies announced it would mount an academic boycott of Israel. On Dec. 15, the Native American Studies Association urged its members to boycott Israeli educational institutions. The Modern Language Association next month will debate an academic boycott of Israel.

Why Obama won’t pardon Pollard

Israel is abuzz with allegations of American bad faith in continuing to imprison convicted spy Jonathan Pollard even though recent disclosures have revealed that the U.S. itself has snooped on many friendly countries for years.

A Nov. 10 Jerusalem Post editorial described the situation as “an egregious double standard and a stunning example of American hypocrisy.”

In Commentary Magazine, Jonathan S. Tobin charged that the use of the Pollard case “to demonize Israel or to claim that the Jewish state behaved in a manner unbecoming an ally is undermined by the revelations about the United States’ own considerable efforts to snoop on its friends.”

And Pollard’s wife Esther complained to the Post that U.S. President Barack Obama wouldn’t free Pollard even as he participated in the traditional presidential ritual of pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving. She objected that Obama would show “compassion and mercy to two lowly barnyard birds again this year, granting them a full pardon and sparing their lives” without showing her husband the same benevolence.

For more than 28 years, Jonathan Pollard has been serving a life sentence in American prisons for passing classified information to Israel. He is currently in poor health. Obama received a petition for executive clemency in October 2010, and has not acted upon it.

Many suspect the U.S. refusal to grant clemency to Pollard is evidence that Obama holds anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or even anti-Semitic sentiments. They’re wrong.

The problem is something else entirely:

Obama hardly pardons anybody.

So far, Obama has granted only 40 pardons and commutations, mostly for minor offenses (and none relating to convictions of more than five years). In fact, he offered exactly zero commutations for the first three years after his election. In toto, no more than two percent of pardon applications are treated favorably by his administration. (Ronald Reagan’s number was 20 percent.) And Obama’s only pardon in all of last year? Another Thanksgiving turkey.

By contrast, George W. Bush extended clemency to 200 people, and Bill Clinton did so for 459 people. No president in a century has been as stingy with mercy as Obama.

The president’s unlimited pardon power, which is ensconced in the American Constitution, exists to correct excessive sentences and show compassion to repentant convicts. Pollard is hardly the only one deserving the president’s compassionate treatment. Perhaps most egregiously, thousands of men and women currently serve inhumanly long sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

With an African-American president, and an African-American attorney general, the Obama administration should actually be extra sensitive to the injustices of the American penal system. Nearly 40 percent of incarcerated Americans are black.

Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe Obama doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a black liberal softie when it comes to crime. Do we really have to wait for a Republican president who’s willing to have a “Nixon-goes-to-China” moment in order to fix the insane reluctance to pardon deserving convicts?

My recommendation to those concerned with Pollard’s plight is as follows: Make allies. Work together with African-American, prison-reform, drug-policy, and other groups that would like to see the pardon spigot loosened.

No amount of pleading from Bibi, linkage with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, hunger strikes, demonstrations, or petitions from American congressmen is going to make a whit of difference with a president who has never commuted a life sentence for anyone and doesn’t appear open to changing his policy.

We’ve agitated, correctly, for a “pardon for Pollard.” But we’ve been focusing on issues related to Pollard when we should have been looking at the pardon power itself. It’s not too late to change strategies.


David Benkof made aliyah in 2010. He teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle which appears in the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Educated women and children

On the Jewish Web site The Tablet, Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing editor to The Nation, recently wrote: “In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have — those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower …”

This statistic provides yet another illustration of the low moral state of our universities. Just think: The more formal education a woman has, the fewer children she will desire. 

For those who care about Jewish or American survival, this should be, to put it mildly, disconcerting. If Jewish and other American women don’t reproduce, the populations of Jews and Americans will decline. And in the case of Jews, this is particularly problematic.

The question that needs to be addressed is, why? Why do the best-educated women have the fewest children?

Here are three explanations:

The first — and, I believe, most important — reason that women who attend graduate school have fewer children than other women is that the longer women (and men) stay in academic life, the longer they are exposed to values that denigrate the family in favor of career.

One can argue until the proverbial cows come home that feminism never pushed career over marriage and family, that it only wanted women to have a choice. But that argument is dishonest. Feminism greatly valued career above marriage and family. The result is that in our post-feminist (post-1970s) world, for a girl or woman of any age to say that she would like to be, or that she is, or that she was a full-time wife and mother takes courage. Among well-educated women, a woman accrues more prestige being in sales at Nordstrom than she does as a “homemaker.” The very word conjures up nightmarish images to most women with graduate degrees.

The more time a young woman spends at university, especially at a prestigious one, the more she is indoctrinated into believing that what really matters is career. Test it: Ask a young woman who attends a prestigious university — especially a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox — what she most wants in life, and it is quite likely that she will respond “a good career.”

Let’s be honest. If you asked a female in her junior year at Yale, “What do you most want in life?” and she responded, “To find a good man to marry and then make a family with him,” you would be shocked.

In fact, you would probably have to look for an explanation. And that explanation would likely be that she is a religious Christian or an Orthodox Jew.

Which brings us to a second reason for the extremely low birthrate among well-educated women — secularism.

The widely offered explanation for why fertility rates drop is affluence. As countries get wealthier, the thinking goes, the birth rate drops.

There is some truth to this, but there is a better explanation: secularism. As societies become more secular, the fertility rate drops. 

This is easy to demonstrate. Wealthy Orthodox Jews, wealthy devout Roman Catholics, wealthy Mormons and wealthy Evangelicals have a lot of kids. Meanwhile, wealthy secular people have the fewest children.

While secularism is good for government, it is a dead end for the individual and society. It is a moral dead end. Without God, good and evil are purely matters of opinion. And it is an existential dead end. If there is no God, life is objectively pointless. We live, we die, there is no reason we are here, and there is nothing when we leave.

So what do people do with that view of life? Some devote their lives to secular religions such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism or egalitarianism. And many simply decide — quite rationally — that in the incredibly brief time they are alive, they will enjoy themselves as much as possible. Hedonism is the most rational response to secularism. 

In such a world, children are often regarded as disruptive to whatever pleasures life affords. With a bunch of kids at home, it is hard to take many trips, and hard to see a movie or dine out whenever you want. 

In the age of birth control and of almost unlimited lifestyle options, one needs good reasons to have more than one — or even one — child. Religion has always provided such reasons: God wants you to be fruitful; it is vitally important to hand down one’s faith; the family is the locus of a religious life, etc.

A third and final reason is age. By the time a woman is finished with graduate school, she is likely to be close to 30 years old. And after all that work, she understandably wants to begin putting her education to good use — you can’t waste a doctorate or a master’s degree. So she further defers marriage. And even if she does marry, she defers having children. By the time she is ready to make a family, she may feel that she is too old to have more than 1.67 children.

American Jewry reveres graduate degrees. But this reverence comes at a steep price. The longer young women (and men) stay at the university (especially in the social sciences), the more secular they are likely to become, the more alienated from Israel they are likely to become (there is no mainstream institution as anti-Israel as the university), and the less likely they are to have more than one child.


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

Valuing the Reform perspective in the Pew report

The historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with our constant fear of extinction, as the “ever-dying” people. He wrote the essay approximately 60 years ago. Does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seems that every few years, a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community — Jewish continuity — in serious danger.

Such was the case with the publication of the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans, a study that quickly rang the alarm bells of the “ever-dying Judaism in crisis contingent.” Amid this 200-page report, the most complete survey of the American Jewish community in more than a decade, provocative statistics blared with shocking — though not really surprising — numbers. 

The intermarriage rate among Jews who married in the last 10 years is 58 percent. 

Two-thirds of all Jews don’t belong to a synagogue.

The fastest-growing cohort in the Jewish community is the 22 percent of all Jews who define themselves as Jewish but not religious. 

This last statistic led to the other major headline of the study: While 93 percent of Jews 60 and older define themselves as Jewish by religion, only 68 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify as Jews by religion. Moreover, 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion, identifying instead as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, put it this way: “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”

This last category, young people who define themselves as Jews of no religion, what we would call cultural Jews, are by an overwhelming two-thirds majority also not raising their children in any religion.

The survey, moreover, found that approximately one-quarter of people raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30 percent of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28 percent of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Significantly less movement is reported in the opposite direction.

The upshot of these two last data points — “cultural Jews raising their kids without religion” and “the steady decline in Jewish practice from one generation to the next” — led to a disturbing conclusion. Once Jews no longer define themselves as Jewish through religion, it is highly unlikely that they or their children ever will again. In short, when Jews walk away from shul, they don’t come back.

So what are we to do with this information? If the sky is falling, how do we hold it up? 

One response is to go back to Rawidowicz’s thesis, “Jews — an ever-dying people,” and see there in the looming demise of the Jewish people a silver lining. His premise was that crisis is “good for the Jews.” That seems ironic, I know, but a close look at Jewish history ancient and modern shows that we are good in a crisis, as bad as they are for us in the short term. In fact, we are in large part defined by our crises.

In the same way that the Yom Kippur War united Jews across denominational lines; that the cause of Soviet refuseniks empowered the Jewish federation movement; that a halt of Jewish teens traveling to Israel during the first and second intifadas gave birth to Birthright; and the overwhelming statistic also found in the Pew study — that 70 percent of the Jewish population of the United States has traveled to Israel — we should embrace this survey as the canary in the coalmine that it is and redouble our efforts to right the sinking ship. 

The Pew study also found that most non-Orthodox Jews enter and exit religious Judaism through the Reform movement. Reform Judaism is unique among the major Jewish movements in that it gets them coming and going. Thus, Reform Judaism has the opportunity to save Jews before they leave by providing meaningful religious experiences in a modern relevant context. Likewise, with its low threshold for acceptance, Reform Judaism is an ideal entry point for a cultural Jew to explore a religious identity.

The metric for an active, committed and engaged Reform Jew is not religious practice as it is commonly defined and understood in the other movements. How often you come to shul to pray is not a measure of how important Judaism is to you in your daily life. Rather, in Reform Judaism, we proudly teach that you can be Jewish in myriad meaningful ways that are not “religious” in the way that organized religion is off-putting to Millennials. Through study, social action, social justice, connection to Israel, Jewish music, art and culture — experiences that are open to any kind of family — Reform Judaism takes Judaism beyond the walls of the synagogue and into the 21st century of modern life.

When asked about activities or beliefs that are “essential” to respondents’ Judaism, the most common answer in the Pew survey was “remembering the Holocaust” (73 percent), “leading a moral and ethical life” (69 percent), “working for justice and equality” (56 percent) and “caring about Israel” (43 percent). Just 19 percent of the Jewish adults surveyed said observing Jewish law (halachah) was essential to what being Jewish means to them. But Pew didn’t just survey Reform Jews! The results just look that way. This survey of Jews across the board clearly shows that Reform Jewish priorities are in alignment with how the majority of Jews view modern Jewish values.

There are challenges, for sure:

• Synagogue membership is declining overall. Roughly four in 10 U.S. Jewish adults (39 percent) say they live in a household where at least one person is a synagogue member. Fifty percent of Conservative Jews belong to a synagogue, and only 34 percent of Reform Jews do.

• Intermarriage is increasing and leading to generations of religiously disconnected Jews, especially among the Reform population. Half of Reform Jews who are married have a non-Jewish spouse, and intermarriage is much more common among Jews who are themselves the children of intermarriage. Our principled and strategic response must be to embrace these families, not shun or ignore them.

• Reform Jews are generally less involved in Jewish life than are Conservative or Orthodox Jews. We must deepen engagement in the richness of Jewish life, not just for schoolchildren but for every Jew. And we can’t wait for them to walk in our doors. We have to go out and meet them where they are.

It is said, though not entirely accurately, that when asked why he robbed banks, the notorious Prohibition-era bank robber Willie Sutton replied, “That’s where the money is.” 

Well, Reform Judaism is where the Jewish identity is. We are the front line in the fight for the Jewish future. What Reform Judaism does at this time in history will tell the tale of what becomes of the Jews, our ever-dying, yet also ever-resilient people.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz blogs at

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