July 18, 2019

Dispelling the Myth About Jews and Poverty

Photo from the conference. Photo courtesy of The JFN International Conference

Every year, I look forward to attending the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) International Conference and being inspired by the breadth and depth of philanthropic work being accomplished through the generosity of foundations and individual funders. 

I recently returned from JFN 2019 in San Francisco, where a large crowd from all over the world descended on the Bay Area, ready to gain knowledge of trends and challenges affecting our Jewish community. 

Of the myriad significant issues facing us, however, I’d like to draw attention to one vexing challenge that isn’t always at the forefront of our communal agenda: poverty in the American Jewish community.

There is a persistent myth about the American Jewish population that looms large in our country’s collective imagination. This fiction is unique in that it’s cited both by well-intentioned allies who wish to express their admiration for American Jews, as well as anti-Semites who wish to voice their contempt and mistrust. Sometimes, this myth is even repeated proudly by American Jews themselves. 

The myth is this: American Jews are a “model minority” who have uniformly achieved financial success and security. This, quite simply, is not true. 

“Jewish poverty is a significant issue that deserves our urgent attention.”

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation convened an important session immediately following the JFN Conference to bring light to this critical issue. This session helped me further appreciate the growing plight of close to 20 percent of the Jewish population living in or near poverty in the United States today. This touches people of all ages and all backgrounds, from aging Holocaust survivors to individuals with disabilities to single-parent families seeking employment. 

The statistics are a stark reminder that the issue is widespread, and growing. Forty-five percent of children in Jewish homes are living in poor, or near poor, households. Between 16 percent and 20 percent of these households are earning less than $30,000, with 7 percent making $15,000 or less. These are not statistics that show uniform wealth. In fact, while some of the most dire cases are, not surprisingly, retirement-age and elderly people, young adults are also among those most affected.

Jewish poverty is a significant issue that deserves our urgent attention, and there is so much more we can do to uplift the most vulnerable members of our community. 

At the panel, I was reminded of a particularly painful fact: A significant portion of impoverished Jews worldwide are Holocaust survivors. These people certainly have suffered enough, yet they have urgent and critical health and welfare needs, and are aging with little hope. More than one-third of the 100,000 survivors in North America (as well as 60,000 in Israel and 62,000 in the former Soviet Union) are living at or near poverty.  Time is of the essence to reverse this trajectory and do chesed (kindness), in order to help survivors to live in dignity.

As a Jewish professional who has been involved in Jewish communal activity all my life, I know this has always been an important cause. However, given our world at this time, I feel this issue must be addressed urgently. How many of our fellow Jews are unable to participate fully in Jewish life due to financial barriers? Mitigating Jewish poverty and increasing Jewish access should be a major priority at every synagogue, Jewish institution and major philanthropic organization. Together, we must work to dispel the comfortable denial that has allowed deep economic stratification to fester without much notice, and take decisive action to ensure that all members of our community can participate fully in Jewish experiences. 

We should all work toward a day when we can say that the existence of Jewish poverty in the U.S. is a myth. Unfortunately, the struggles currently faced by many members of our community are far too real. 

By embracing our collective values and tearing down financial barriers to become more accessible and inclusive, we can ensure every Jewish American has the opportunity to partake in the richness of Jewish communal life. 

Jeremy J. Fingerman is the CEO of the foundation for Jewish Camp.

Will We Have a Choice for President in 2020?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable discussion of the Federal Commission on School Safety Report at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young

If ever a case could be made for a third party in American politics, it would be from the specter of next year’s presidential election being between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and a Jeremy Corbyn Democrat.

Events of the past few weeks remind us yet again that the same noxious brand of anti-Semitism infecting the British Labour Party led by Corbyn is strengthening its foothold in this country’s progressive circles. The Democratic presidential hopefuls’ failure to condemn Rep. Ilhan Omar’s most recent statements of intolerance toward the Jewish people speaks volumes about their party’s rapidly changing and increasingly worrisome dynamic.

Let’s be clear: None of the current or prospective Democratic presidential candidates is an anti-Semite. But when Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, launched yet another hateful screed February 27th — saying lawmakers and activists who support Israel hold “allegiance to a foreign country” — it was notable that none of them condemned her comments. Rather, it was House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who had the courage to object to her “vile anti-Semitic slur” and demand an apology.

Engel’s objection was followed by similar statements from a handful of pro-Israel congressional Democrats as well as a House resolution that offered a generic denunciation of anti-Semitism. But by the time this column went to press, there was only silence from the presidential aspirants. 

To be fair, political cowardice in the face of naked bigotry has become a bipartisan pastime. When a hateful anti-Omar poster was hung recently in the West Virginia capitol during a Republican program, no member of the GOP congressional leadership was willing to denounce the perpetrator. (Local Republican officials deserve credit for condemning the attack.) And it’s common knowledge that Trump has no interest in calling out the haters on his side of the aisle, so much so that no Republican member of Congress did anything substantial to refute Michael Cohen’s testimony last week that Trump routinely used racist language to belittle African-Americans and other minorities.

“Voting for a bigot in either party is an appalling concept. Supporting a candidate who is unable or unwilling to stand up to anti-Semitism is only slightly better.”

The minority of American Jews who support Trump rarely try to defend the president’s personal behavior, pointing to his record on taxes or Israel as a reasonable tradeoff for his lack of character.

And now we see that Trump’s opponents are just as willing to look past the timidity of their party’s leaders in the face of anti-Semitism. Democratic presidential candidates don’t want to voice disapproval of Omar because they must balance their relationships within the Jewish community against their need to avoid alienating the growing number of party activists whose hostility toward Israel is now a progressive badge of honor.

Polls show that liberal Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians rather than Israel by almost a 2-to-1 margin, and no presidential hopeful can succeed without securing a portion of these votes. The result is that every one of the party’s candidates stays quiet when fellow Democrats suggest that American voters who support Israel are guilty of treason. But Democratic White House hopefuls should remember that John F. Kennedy confronted similar prejudice during his 1960 presidential campaign, when his opponents suggested the nation’s first Catholic president would prioritize his loyalty to the Vatican over his allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

Voting for a bigot in either party is an appalling concept. Supporting a candidate who is unable or unwilling to stand up to anti-Semitism is only slightly better. The majority of American Jews consider Trump an unacceptable alternative. But until a Democratic presidential candidate chooses to follow Engel’s example, the question of who deserves the backing of pro-Israel voters will remain uncomfortably unanswered.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University. He is the founder of the USC-L.A. Times statewide political survey and a board member of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

A Teacher Whose Class is Eternal

Image courtesy Gratz College

When my grandfather died, our family received an outpouring of letters and cards from his former students. As a high school math teacher and coach for generations, he had inspired countless students with his wisdom, encouragement, and reminder to always have faith in themselves. Twenty-five years later, it is my turn to be “that student,” paying tribute to a beloved educator, whose lessons stay with me to this day. I hope I can do justice to someone who taught me so much and whose lessons stay with me 15 years later.

When I arrived as a student at Baltimore Hebrew University (BHU), I knew I wanted to learn more about Judaism. I also knew I loved the study of sociology. What I was not expecting was Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen. Taking her class “Sociology of the American Jewish Community” was like I had hit the academic jackpot. A required course that fascinated me. Class readings that I could not put down. I was hooked. Not just by the class, but by the scholar behind it.

Essentially, Rela (she let me call her by her first name—a sign of her true humility) had created her own field. She was interested in anything and everything related to modern Jewish life in America. Many Jewish scholars have studied texts, history and philosophy. Rela understood and appreciated those topics, but also what set us apart as Jews living in the United States. Her class felt less like a lecture and more like a talk show of sorts. She had us looking at wedding announcements from The New York Times, “Chrismukkah” cards, Hanukkah stockings and any other props she could find to launch discussions about what made American Jews so unique. Sure I had read NYT many times, but never paid attention to the fact that the occupations of the bride and groom’s parents were mentioned in their wedding announcements. Or the struggles people were having when they merged Hanukkah and Christmas in obscure ways.

Two years after I graduated, I stopped by her office to visit and tell her I was getting married. She asked me if he was Jewish (before seeing the name Goldberg on the save the date card!) and when I told her we met on JDate, she was overjoyed. Of course we had discussed modern Jewish dating in her class and I was now living it. It did not stop there. In my wedding video, there is footage of her greeting my cousins from Philadelphia. I did not know they knew each other and they did not know the other one knew me. Of course, who else but Rela, Jewish sociologist extraordinaire, could live out such a Jewish geography moment?!?!

Rela returned to Philadelphia and Gratz College in 2007 and BHU closed in 2009, its programs and faculty becoming part of Towson University. She died on Super Bowl Sunday, February 3, in Philadelphia at the age of 75. While I do not think she would have been happy with the Patriots win, she no doubt would have had a thing or two to say about the first Jewish MVP of a Super Bowl!

I thought about her as I got ready to go to work on Monday morning. Whether I was aware of it or now, her influence is all around me. From the copy of “Kosher Christmas” in the living room to the Judaism Unbound podcast waiting for me (topic: the Women’s March), I realize that although I have not seen or spoken to her in several years, she gave me a gift. More priceless than the washing cup she brought me from Israel. It is a gift she gave all of her students.  She turned on the lens that caused all of her students to see the world in a different way.  It is the greatest gift an educator can give.

So, I drove to work listening to that podcast with its diverse panel of guests of varying gender identities and expressions. And I must have heard the word “intersectionality” a dozen times. She would have loved it. Then I arrived at my office and looked at her signature on my diploma on my wall.

In the words of Kaddish d’Rabbanan (Kaddish of the Rabbis), beautifully set to song by the late Debbie Friedman, we ask for blessings for teachers, their students and the “students of the students.” I know anyone who has known or studied with Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen has been blessed by her wisdom and friendship. May she be blessed in peace forever.

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg received graduate degrees from Baltimore Hebrew University, when Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen was president. She is a social worker and Jewish educator living in Louisville, Ky., with her husband and their daughters.

The Quintessential Make-Ahead Dessert for Our Favorite American Holiday

We still haven’t caught our collective breaths in the aftermath of the horror in Pittsburgh, the heartbreaking shooting in Thousand Oaks, the approaching caravan of desperate refugees, the fallout from the midterms and the devastating fires in the most beautiful state in our republic, but open one eye to the calendar and gasp, because the holiday of gratitude is upon us. I’ve no clue what kind of sadistic time warp took hold and vanquished the months of September and October, but now, after all this, triggered and broken in spirit, we are expected to cook and plan to be thankful for all our blessings? Well, yes — most definitely yes. 

American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving almost without exception as it brings together the very Jewish concepts of gratitude, hope and community. I can’t think of a better time, given the current climate of sorrow and stress, to take a breather in the form of a long weekend. Cooking is an incredible stress buster — you can’t worry and fret too much when you are caught up in the concentration required to put together a big meal. 

As a chef in an American embassy overseas, I feel a responsibility to make sure that our diplomats and Marines get a taste of all their favorites. I change some side dishes each year but what I’ve noticed is that Thanksgiving is the “comfort food” holiday, and what’s comforting to most of us is familiarity. Although I know some families that keep some beautiful traditions that don’t involve turkey, stuffing and copious amounts of gravy, they are few and far between. My experience working at a foreign outpost feeding Americans is that while I can add some new dishes to the standards, I cannot subtract any traditional favorites. The good news is that I’ve found that this is just as comforting to the cook as it is to the diners. 

Most years, I cook eight 22-pound turkeys, 60 pounds of stuffing, 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, 30 pounds of sweet potato casserole, 30 pounds of green bean-mushroom casserole, 50 pounds of macaroni and cheese, 3 gallons of gravy, 2 pounds of cranberry sauce as well as hundreds of pies and biscuits. And because I’m Jewish, I still ask the other chefs, “Do you think we’ll have enough food?”

“Of all the pies I bake for my customers, it’s apple pie that practically carries with it a money-back guarantee to bring people to tears of joy.”

My Thanksgiving cooking prep schedule from last year is available online at jewishjournal.com/culture/yamits-table/227459. It has never failed me despite the fact that I have and a fully functional working restaurant kitchen humming in the foreground. 

I’d also like to pass along my foolproof all-American apple pie recipe, as high on the comfort food factor scale as any dessert recipe could be. Of all the pies I bake for my customers, not only on Thanksgiving but throughout the year, it’s apple pie that practically carries with it a money-back guarantee to bring people to tears of joy. Not only is it comforting in its rustic simplicity, its nostalgia-inducing aroma works wonders to spread good vibes to anyone who enters your home. Even better, it’s so easy to put together in advance and freeze unbaked. Then all you must do is bake it from frozen on the morning of Thanksgiving and let it sit on your counter welcoming all who enter with the incomparable aroma of apples, cinnamon and nutmeg. Serve this beauty, still warm, with a jug of caramel alongside and watch as even non-dessert eaters accept a piece gratefully. 

Because gratitude is such a profound component of happiness, tuning in to appreciation while drinking wine, watching a game and eating comfort food is so essential right now. Even though November sneaked up on us — I can’t help but thinking that this year, Thanksgiving is coming just in the nick of time.

Perfectly Flakey Pie Crust (makes 1 double crust pie or 2 single crust pies)
2 cups plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup neutral tasting vegetable oil
4 tablespoons ice water

In a bowl, combine flour and salt. Add in oil and stir with a fork until most of the flour is absorbed. Add ice water and stir just until the dough forms but do not overmix or the crust will be tough.

Divide dough in half and, using a rolling pin, roll out each half between 2 pieces of wax paper. Roll out dough into a circle that is approximately 2 inches larger than a 9-inch pie pan, using the pan as a guide. Lay dough on pie pan, tucking excess dough under itself making it even on all sides. Keeping the rolled-out top dough between the wax paper, place bottom and top dough in refrigerator while you make the filling. 

Apple Pie Filling
8 large Granny Smith Apples (or other baking apples), peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick (approximately 7 cups)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon margarine (or butter)
1 egg white
1 tablespoon sanding sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 F. 

Peel, core and slice apples in 1/4-inch slices. In a large bowl, add remaining ingredients except the butter and egg white, and toss to combine. Remove pie shell from refrigerator and pour apple mixture into shell. Place margarine on top.

Brush crust of pie shell with egg white. Gently peel back wax paper from other pie dough and lay it on top of the apples, trying to leave the same amount of surplus on all sides, and then tuck the edges of the top dough under while pressing to seal top and bottom crusts. Either crimp edges together or use the tines of a fork to seal the edges.

With a sharp knife, cut 4 slits in a sunburst pattern all around the top of the dough to release steam. Brush top crust with egg white and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

If baking pie immediately, place sheet pan on bottom rack to catch drippings, and bake pie 15 minutes at 425 degrees and then 50 minutes at 325 degrees. If the edge of the pie starts to become too brown, place a piece of foil loosely on the top to shield it from over browning. 

If freezing pie, wrap very well in plastic wrap or foil and place in freezer. To cook from frozen, preheat oven to 425 degrees with a sheet pan on the bottom rack (to catch the juices from the apples as the pie bakes). Place pie on sheet pan for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake for approximately 65 more minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the pie goes in easily and juices are bubbling. 

Let pie cool for at least 2 hours before cutting into it. Serves 10.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

On Bari Weiss, Franklin Foer and the Values that Sustain Our People

Photo from YouTube

Are Jews who like President Trump’s policies on Israel making a deal with the devil?

Last Friday on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” New York Times op-ed editor and writer Bari Weiss made this comment in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh tragedy:

“I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain,” she said. “They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people – and frankly, this country –  forever: Welcoming the stranger; dignity for all human beings; equality under the law; respect for dissent; love of truth. 

“These are the things we are losing under this president – and no policy is worth that price.”

“For Jews who are appalled by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but who still appreciate his policies on Israel, what should they do? Tell the president not to bother trying to ‘woo’ us with Israel?”

In other words, American Jews are paying too high a price for President Trump’s unbridled support of Israel, which includes moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, scuttling the Iran deal, defending Israel at the UN and enforcing consequences for Palestinian support of terror.

So, for Jews who are appalled by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but who still appreciate his policies on Israel, what should they do? Tell the president not to bother trying to “woo” us with Israel? That he so violates Jewish values that his favorable actions on Israel just aren’t worth it? That after Pittsburgh, we’re no longer willing to pay the price of that bargain?

And how would that work exactly? Weiss didn’t specify, but Franklin Foer, writing in the Atlantic, did have a suggestion to enhance Jewish security after Pittsburgh: 

“Any strategy for enhancing the security of American Jewry should involve shunning Trump’s Jewish enablers. Their money should be refused, their presence in synagogues not welcome. They have placed their community in danger.” 

Never mind that after Pittsburgh, the President said: “Anti-Semitism represents one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history. Anti-Semitism must be condemned anywhere and everywhere. There must be no tolerance for it.”

According to Foer, however, any Jew who still supports the president must be ostracized and shunned.

I wonder if Foer would be willing to stand outside a synagogue on Saturday morning with a sign repeating his message: “If you support Trump, your presence is not welcome. You have placed your community in danger.”

“Weiss could have said: ‘We can appreciate the president’s support for Israel AND ALSO speak out against his incendiary and divisive rhetoric. One doesn’t preclude the other.'”

I don’t mean to be snarky or cynical, but I’m just chastened by this Jewish instinct to blame other Jews under any circumstances, even when a Nazi comes to murder us. 

Weiss could have said: “We can appreciate the president’s support for Israel AND ALSO speak out against his incendiary and divisive rhetoric. One doesn’t preclude the other.” Foer could have said: “If you have friends or community members who support Trump, make your case vigorously, but there’s no need to go as far as cutting them out.”

Both of those options would have been consistent with the values that have sustained the Jewish people.

Poll: On Non-Israel Issues, American Jews Overwhelmingly Disapprove of Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump holds an umbrella as he departs to tour hurricane damage in Florida from the White House in Washington, U.S., October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A new poll conducted by the Mellman Group on behalf of the Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI) found that American Jews overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump, 75 percent to 25 percent.

The poll, which the Journal has obtained, shows that while American Jews narrowly approve of Trump’s handling of United States-Israel relations by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent, they largely disapprove of Trump’s handling of domestic issues, such as immigration, health care, the Supreme Court and gun control.

American Jews also disapprove of Trump’s handling of United States-Palestinian relations, the Jerusalem embassy move and the Iran nuclear deal.

Ninety-two percent of Jews consider themselves pro-Israel, but only 32 percent said they support the Israeli government’s policies. Fifty-nine percent of American Jews said they were pro-Israel but disagreed with some or many of the Israeli government’s policies.

Additionally, 74 percent of American Jews said they would vote for a generic Democratic presidential candidate over Trump, while 26 percent said they would vote for Trump. American Jews also said they would support a Democratic congressional candidate over a Republican congressional candidate in the 2018 midterm elections by the same margin.

Overall, 68 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats, 25 percent identify as Republicans and 7 percent identify as independents.

The poll was conducted from Oct. 2-11 among 800 Jewish voters.

Bluntness, Forgiveness, Better Conversations

Yossi Klein Halevi

A day before Yom Kippur, I asked Yossi Klein Halevi for forgiveness. He graciously granted it, and then we had a conversation about why I made him upset. It was a conversation worth repeating at the end of a holiday season and the beginning of the long slog of a new year.

Halevi is one of my favorite people and writers. I consider his book “Like Dreamers” to be a work of rare quality. But he was not quite happy with my review of his most recent book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” He felt it was somewhat testy. And I must admit that he is right. “In the cynical world of politics,” I wrote about Halevi’s spiritual self-portrayal in the book, “such a posture can be a surprise maneuver that catches everyone off guard — or it can be a naïve posture that catches no one.”

He thought that I made him look naïve, and he is not naïve. In fact, there are very few things on which he and I do not agree. So what was the point of the testiness? I gave Halevi an answer that I will now share with you, not because I know it is a good answer but rather because I am still undecided. My answer is basically: Halevi’s tone in the book annoyed me. He says many right things, but his tone is considerate and understanding. Too soft for my taste.

It is worth having a conversation about the tone of articles and the level of understanding needed as one writes about Israelis and Palestinians. Halevi told me, by way of example, that he thought my tone in a story I wrote about Gaza for The New York Times was much too harsh. Indeed, it was. Purposefully so. I wrote that “I feel no need to engage in ingénue mourning” over the death of Gazans who attempt to infiltrate Israel. “Guarding the border was more important than avoiding killing, and guarding the border is what Israel did successfully.”

Do I lose control of my message when I write in a fashion that seems blunt? Does Halevi lose something when he wraps his own message in compassion?

Halevi said such tone might work with Israelis but will not get me to where I want with other important groups of readers, such as liberal American Jews or Palestinians. He believes that it is crucial to reach out to the Palestinians, despite all we know about their national movement. As he told me when I was writing this column, we need “to stretch our capacity for empathy without, crucially, giving up our narrative.”

So, this conversation is not just about tone. It is about sensibility. It is also about differences of culture, about the impact of writings on the readers, about the advantages and disadvantages of detached bluntness versus embracing empathy. It is worth asking: Do I lose control of my message when I write in a fashion that seems blunt? Does Halevi lose something when he wraps his own message in compassion? The answer to both questions is probably yes. The answer to both questions is probably that we need both the softer language and the harsher one in our conversation — certainly in the conversation about the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I have no choice but to admit that Halevi has a much better way of communicating with crowds that I cannot reach. Crowds that will not even listen to me. When my story on Gaza was published, I received more than a few threats, was called a Nazi by dozens of readers, was caricatured as blood-thirsty, and my attitude was described as “barbaric.” Did I convince anybody? It is hard for me to tell. But maybe convincing people that Israel must do what it does in Gaza was not my intention. Maybe my intention was to convince the readers that Israel will keep doing what it does no matter what they think. 

As I already hinted, a lot of it is about temper and about having patience. Halevi seems to still believe that with a message crafted in the right way, he can win over Israel skeptics and possibly even Palestinians (even though some Palestinians responded dismissively). I did not lose hope as much as I lost patience. Do I really need to be more understanding of Palestinians’ sentiments as I argue that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the right move? Do I really want to be more understanding as I speak about the charade of Palestinian “right of return”? Yes, Halevi said. You must do this to be effective. You must do this to re-engage with both Palestinians and most readers of his book — that is, American Jews. 

What’s the bottom line? I admitted that I am not sure. For now, I will make it easy for myself and argue that both gentleness and bluntness are needed. Gentleness — for Halevi for to get the message through. Bluntness — for me to make sure that Halevi’s gentle message isn’t misunderstood.  

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Israel Is a Country, Not a Cause

If you’re like a lot of American Jews, you’ve gotten pretty worked up lately about the Nation- State Law, the questioning of Peter Beinart at Ben Gurion Airport or the LGBT protests about surrogacy. Before that, there was the Kotel controversy, and the Jerusalem embassy, and before that the Iran deal—and so on.

There is no country on earth whose domestic and foreign policy grips American Jewish attention like Israel. Because it’s the “Jewish state,” and American Jews care.

But there’s something wrong with all this caring.

In America, where many Jews don’t know Hebrew, arguments about Israel tend to be shallow and shrill mirrors of debates in Israel—after all, what do people use to interpret the news other than what Israeli right-wingers and left-wingers are telling them?

This kind of second-level arguing, however, is usually a waste of breath.

Why? In part, because it’s stripped of context. Israelis shout when they argue, even when they write. A writer from Haaretz can declare the rise of Israeli fascism, and another one from Israel Hayom can scream about treason against the nation, yet it’s a small Middle-Eastern country—when they’re done shouting, they still go to the same bars, the same family meals, listen to the same radio news, or run into each other at the gym or the boardroom.

A columnist for Haaretz once told me: “Of course I overstate the threats to Israeli democracy. If I don’t scream, nobody will hear me.”

Another reason American Jews are so breathless is that they feel powerless to affect the country they care about. They don’t vote in Israel, they don’t participate in the Hebrew-language policy debates, and no matter how much they feel Israeli decisions might affect them, they really don’t, at least not in the way they affect Israeli voters and taxpayers.

In fact, the disconnect between American-Jewish adrenaline about Israel and the actual, objective success and stability of the country is so enormous that it forces us to ask: What are you really worried about, American Jews?

The short answer, the only one that makes any sense, is this: It’s about you.

American Jews want desperately to care about something Jewish, but don’t really want to face the fact that their kids aren’t continuing the identity, that they have lost a sense of belonging, that their synagogue-based communities are dissolving into infinite WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups and political action committees, that their kids are, in some cases, getting blamed on campus for things that Israel is accused of doing.

Meanwhile, over here in Israel, something totally different is happening. Under the radar, Israel has turned itself from a cultural backwater into something vibrant, edgy, and increasingly influential. Remember Start-Up Nation? Now it’s happening with culture: Israelis are changing the face not just of hi-tech but of music, architecture, film and TV, of design and art and dance.

When will American Jews notice? When will they tell their kids: Go to Israel because something amazing is happening there. Forget Left and Right—it’s not important. Forget BDS—it doesn’t matter. A nation’s creative spirit, its deep Jewish soul, its language and culture—all these are much bigger and more important for you than anything you read in the news.

This is not about Whataboutism or going “Beyond the Conflict.” Israelis don’t live in the conflict and don’t need to go beyond it. Israeli reality is mainly about what everybody else’s reality is about: Work, family, vacation, entertainment. In short, life.

But it’s also a different reality—an incredible life, full of creative energy, new thoughts, big gambles and brass tacks. This can be a lot more interesting to young American Jews looking for something to anchor their identity in than all the endless political sword-fighting.

The point is: A government is not its people. For Americans to get worked up about Israel based on who is in power makes no more sense than for Israelis to decide whether to visit or do business with the United States based on the latest tweets coming out of the White House.

Instead of showing your caring by reacting to headlines, there’s a different way to care—a much healthier way, one that will take you farther and bring your kids closer: Find the Israel that adds value to your life.

Visit. Learn the language. Meet the people. Listen to the music. Drink the wine. Enjoy the country. Treat it like an exotic foreign land, not a rotting shack in your backyard that used to be pretty but now is full of dung. Israel is not rotting, it has only gotten more beautiful, and it’s frankly not your backyard.

In an important essay last year, David Hazony made this point about “Israeliness” as a key to the Jewish future in America. He ended by saying that the path to Israel means “rediscovering Israel as a country, not just a cause, and yourself as someone searching rather than acting out of certainty…  to see the Israeli other not as a threat but as a resource for your own journey.”

Bring to Israel your sense of exploration and wonder rather than anxiety and anger, and you’ll be shocked how much more it has to offer. Your kids will be grateful, too.

Adam Bellos is the founder of The Israel Innovation Fund, whose goal is to create culturally relevant initiatives that showcase Israel’s diverse culture. Its flagship program, Wine on the Vine, enables people to support Israel’s wine industry by planting grapevines and supporting charities. 

Poll: Israeli and American Jews Divided on Trump, Israeli Policy

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A new survey from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) shows some stark differences between Israeli Jews and American Jews on President Trump and Israeli policy.

The June 10 survey found that 77% of Israeli Jews strongly or somewhat approve of Trump’s handling of United States-Israel relations and 10% disapprove somewhat or strongly; for American Jews those figures were 34% and 57%, respectively.

There were also differences between the two when on Israel policy matters. Eighty-five percent of Israeli Jews approve of the Jerusalem embassy move while only 46% of American Jews supported the move. On the two-state solution, 44% of Israeli Jews favored it and 48% were opposed; for American Jews those numbers were 59% and 30%, respectively.

Additionally, differences were stark on the mixed gender prayer area on the Western Wall, as 42% of Israeli Jews supported it while 73% of American Jews supported it.

The survey was conducted from April 18-May 10 for American Jews with a margin of error of 3.9%; for Israeli Jews the survey was conducted in May with margin of error of 3.1%.

“The main factor predicting how people will respond is how they identify religiously,” AJC CEO David Harris said in a statement. “The more observant they are on the denominational spectrum, their Jewish identity and attachment to Israel is stronger; skepticism about prospects for peace with the Palestinians higher; and support for religious pluralism in Israel weaker.”

Harris added that differences in “political affiliation” were also part of the divide.

“The majority who identify with the Democratic Party and voted for Hillary Clinton are less attached to Israel, more weakly identified with the Jewish people, and more favorable to religious pluralism than the minority who are Republicans and report that they voted for Donald Trump,” Harris said.

The full results of the poll can be seen here.

Lame Excuse Jews

Photo by Reuters.

Once every couple of years, we are reminded of the special relationship between Israel and American evangelical Christians. Often, it comes up in a form of scandal: This preacher said this, or that preacher said that — they tend to say shocking things. Shocking, at least for those who have little practice in listening to the words of religious leaders. Shocking, for those who are easily shocked. Shocking, for those whose political tendencies are different from those of the evangelical leaders.

The relationship came to the fore in the last two weeks because of the presence of evangelicals at the ceremony marking the move of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “The dedication of the embassy in Jerusalem this past week doubled as the most public recognition yet of the growing importance the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu government now assigns to its conservative Christian allies, even if some have been accused of making anti-Semitic statements,” The New York Times reported.

It is worth noting that complaints about evangelical anti-Semitism, and about evangelical evil-intentioned support of Israel (all they want is doomsday and Armageddon), always comes from the quarters that also happen to disagree with evangelical politics. And, of course, the opposite is also true: A tendency to ignore or dismiss problematic statements made by evangelical leaders always comes from the quarters that also happen to agree with evangelical politics.

So, this is more about politics than it is about religion.

If it is politics, then the politics are quite simple: Someone offers Israel friendship and Israel gladly accepts. Someone offers Israel not just friendship, but also influence in the world’s most important capital, and Israel gladly accepts. Is there a downside to accepting evangelical support? Of course there is — some of it inevitable, some of it not. For now, Israel seems to be willing to pay the price. It is willing to pay because the need for support is great and immediate, and the price is more vague and less immediate.

What’s the price? Neither Armageddon, nor doomsday. Israel has its own foreign policy that the evangelical leaders support (or don’t). It does not run the foreign policy of the evangelicals. The price is the identification of Israel with the Christian right in America. That is to say, what Israel gains on the right it loses on the left. And why did Israel decide to pay the price? Two reasons: 1) Because the Christian right supports the policies of Israel and the left would only support the policies of another Israel, not the real one. 2) Because the Christian right is supporting it already, while on the left it is not even clear if support is available for grabbing.

It is not the choice of Israel, or of evangelical supporters of Israel, to turn off American Jews.

And there is another price that Israel is paying. The Israeli government, the Times reported, “has made a historic and strategic shift, relying on the much larger base of evangelical Christians, even at the risk of turning off American Jews who may be troubled by some evangelicals’ denigration of their faith.”

Ah, the risk of turning off American Jews. Yes, it is a risk. And apparently, the government is ready to take the risk. But why is there such risk? Is it because the government would not accept the support of both Jews and evangelicals? Of course not. Is it because the evangelicals would not extend their support if Jews also support Israel? Again, wrong answer. If there is a risk, it stems not from Israel shunning the Jews or from evangelicals shunning the Jews; it stems from Jews shunning the evangelicals, and possibly shunning an Israel supported by evangelicals.

In other words, it is not the choice of Israel, or of evangelical supporters of Israel, to turn off American Jews. It is the choice of American Jews to turn off. It is their choice to see the support of evangelicals as a reason, or excuse, to turn off (and, of course, we do not talk in Israel about all American Jews, we only talk about those Jews who “turn off”).

In many ways, the story of turning off because of evangelicals is not much different than the story of turning off because of other reasons — the Kotel compromise, Netanyahu in Congress, the Orthodox, the occupation, Gaza shooting, you name it. Israel does what it does, not always wisely, not always perfectly. Still, the choice to turn off is made by those turning off. And evangelical support is a lame excuse to turn off, as there is no mandatory either-or situation when it comes to supporting Israel. Jews can support Israel. Evangelicals can support Israel. One does not negate the other — unless you want it to.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israel and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

The Stick Shtick

Photo from Flickr.

American Jewish support is essential for Israel’s survival. This has been the tune we all have been singing for a long time, without much stopping to think, well, is this really the case?

Relations with Israel are essential for Diaspora Jewish survival. We’ve been singing this tune, too, but is it true?

Maybe stopping to think about these questions is too dangerous. What happens if we suddenly realize that Israel can do without Jews in the United States? What happens if U.S. Jews suddenly realize that Israel is a nuisance they can do without? What happens if this process of thinking ends up in miscalculation — “we” believe that we can do without “them,” when we can’t, or “you” believe that you can do without “us,” when you can’t?

On the other hand, maybe stopping to think about these questions could clarify some things.

For example, that Israel needs the support of U.S. Jews — but not as much if “support” means disruption and delegitimization.

For example, that U.S. Jews need the connection with Israel — but not as much if such connection means having to contend with insult and disrespect.

Understanding that the essentiality of connection holds true only if by connection we refer to a positive connection, is in itself an essentiality. As forgetting this seemingly obvious fact — we want to be friends, not “friends” — leads people to conclusions that are way off. It leads them to believe that they hold a stick that isn’t a stick. It leads them to believe that they can wave this stick and expect a result. Wave a Natalie Portman snub and get rid of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Wave an Anti-Defamation League protest letter and alter Israel’s immigration policy. Wave a Peter Beinart critique and Israel will change its Gaza modus operandi.

Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling.

Consider this: Realistic people do not expect to see all of their preferences materialize. I am displeased with China’s record on human rights. Yet I understand that my disavowal matters little to the leaders of that great nation. I am not happy with trends in the classical music world — but I know that my power to alter these trends is limited (especially so since I rarely go to a concert). It could make me dissatisfied, but never angry. I cannot be angry at China for not taking my advice.

Israel is used to getting advice from U.S. Jews, sometimes reasonable, sometimes puzzling (you must resume the peace process, American Jewish columnists scold us, as if Israel neglects to do this because of mere forgetfulness). Advice can be helpful, and even criticism has its place in a healthy relations. Israel would be wise to invite advice and criticism, and would be wise to occasionally listen to advice and seriously consider criticism. Still, the fact that many Jews in the U.S. get angry when Israel doesn’t heed their advice stems from simple confusion: These Jews assume that they have power to sway Israel when they don’t. Not more so than I have the power to sway China or the masters of classical music.

Israelis are not immune from making similar mistakes. They wrongly assume, for example, that their political preferences ought to convince U.S. Jews to vote for a Donald Trump rather than a Barack Obama. When the next round of election proves them wrong — and it will prove them wrong even if the Democratic opponent is highly problematic in the eyes of Israelis (anyone for Bernie?) — they will get angry. Why? Because they assume a clout that they do not have over American Jewish political preferences.

Mutual anger is never good for any relations, and it is even worse when the core reason for anger is misapprehension of the nature of the relations. If you assume that to have good relations “we” need to follow “your” advice — and if “we” have no intention whatsoever to follow “your” advice — both of us are stuck. And this is true whether by “we” you mean we Israelis or we Americans, whether by “you” you mean you Israelis or you Americans.

Ask any marriage counselor and you will hear this: Reasonable mutual expectations are vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And you will be told that respect for the preferences of others is vital for keeping a healthy marriage. And ultimately, you will be advised that anger will not get you very far. That is, if you want a happy marriage.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Should American Jews Criticize Israel?

Photo from Pixabay.

Whenever I go on a tear about how much I love Israel, my Israeli best friend rolls his eyes and says, “You should live here.” While he appreciates my enthusiasm for the Jewish homeland, he’s convinced my zealotry would be moderated if I had to daily endure a range of challenging Israeli realities, from long lines to crazy drivers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what he’s really saying is this: Because I do not live in Israel, my opinion of her isn’t wholly legitimate.

He’s entitled to his opinion.

Personally, I’ve always preferred the Leon Wieseltier view that “the merit of a view owes nothing to the biography of the individual who holds it” — meaning, a person is entitled to an opinion about anything he or she cares enough to consider despite the credentials of his or her resume. But to clarify, I asked my friend how he feels about my pronouncements on Israel.

“Are you saying my opinion is illegitimate or incomplete?” I asked. “Both,” he said. “You are not serving in the army; you are not contributing like the Israelis are contributing. You are not dealing with the daily struggles, the politics, Hamas, Lebanon. We live in this country and you are on the other side of the globe.

“I’m Israeli,” he continued. “You’re just Jewish.”

Ouch. And that’s for expressing my love of Israel.

“I’m Israeli,” my friend said. “You’re just Jewish.”

But this is also the conventional wisdom that has held for American Jews when it comes to criticizing Israel. We’re told there is a price we Diaspora Jews must pay for not living in the land, and that price is to exercise some humility and restraint in our public criticism of Israel. It is preferred, by some, that we not engage in it at all. Doesn’t Israel have enough enemies?

I thought about this a great deal last week in the aftermath of Natalie Portman’s dramatic snub of the Genesis Prize. In rejecting the award, Portman shared her (negative) opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and condemned some of his policies. Does that make her an enemy of Israel or the Jewish people?

“Self-criticism is the hallmark of a mature community,” Wieseltier has taught.

In fact, the Bible clearly instructs us not to hate our neighbor, but instead, rebuke him when he does wrong (Leviticus 19:17).

It is therefore a fatal mistake to assume criticism makes an enemy of the critic. On the contrary, the art of criticism is to encourage improvement, to help the subject refine its sense of itself and to set the stage for an eternal striving — whether for one’s country or one’s character.

“We should be cultivating a kind of criticism that comes from love,” Tal Becker, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute said during a panel discussion at UCLA Hillel last week. Becker explained why he doesn’t take personal offense when American Jews criticize Israel.

“American Jews who are criticizing are not telling you what to do, they’re telling you what they think,” he said. “Take a chill pill. Someone’s just telling you what they think.”

Still, no one likes to be on the receiving end of criticism. Even when it’s “constructive” it is almost always unpleasant to hear how you’ve fallen short or what you’ve done wrong. Moral criticism may be the hardest to bear, let alone accept. But it is nonetheless essential to the functioning of a healthy society, not least because it encourages the free exchange of ideas and promotes creative discourse. New ideas are rarely born of party-line agreements.

Consider the Talmud, a document of disputation. Why does its vitality stem from critique?Because stone sharpens stone, the rabbis say.

So many views are partial views and require other views in the attainment of truth. “Make for yourself a heart of many rooms,” the Talmud tells us.

To incorporate criticism is to grow and become better. Even heretical ideas lend themselves to expanded understanding: Monotheism was a heresy when the Jews introduced it.

But as Becker said, the trick to criticism is to do it with love. It is infinitely easier to hear if it comes from a wish for improvement and not from anger and desire for destruction. Pauline Kael could critique movies because everyone knew she loved them — even “great trash” was appreciated.

True, many of us don’t live in the land. But still, we love it. And it is sometimes the deepest act of love and holy chutzpah to tell your love the truth.

Land of Milk and Funny

Avi Liberman

American Jews’ relationship to Israel can be complex and emotional, but in Avi Liberman’s case, it’s also humorous. Since 2001, Liberman has successfully arranged widely acclaimed stand-up comedy tours in Israel to help boost morale, while donating all of the proceeds to a charity. The successful “Comedy for Koby” tour is now a biannual event, benefiting the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs therapeutic healing programs for the families of terror victims, in honor of teenage victim Koby Mandell, who was murdered in 2001.

A loving and hilarious portrait of one of these tours takes the form of Liberman’s upcoming new documentary, “Land of Milk and Funny.” It was screened for the first time “in 90 percent finished format” on Feb. 15 at the Writers Guild Theatre, presented by StandWithUs, a 16-year-old, international, nonprofit Israel education organization.

The idea for “Land of Milk and Funny” came to Liberman during a visit Israel in 2002, “when things were really bad there. I realized friends were not going out much, so the idea of a safe, fun night out came from that.”

That’s when StandWithUs, entered the picture. “I think co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein is one of the great people on Earth and when the idea of the tour first started, I would trade shows for airline tickets. I’d put up a show at the Improv, for example, and whoever would sponsor it could keep all the ticket sales. In exchange, I’d want a ticket to Israel for one of the comics. Roz was the first person to ever take the risk of trying that. Her husband, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Jerry Rothstein, and President Esther Renzer are also unbelievable people. Honestly, without StandWithUs being there from the beginning I’m not sure the tour would have ever continued.”

“I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.” — Avi Liberman

What does Liberman get out of all of this? “A way to combine what I do for a living with something positive for Israel. It’s fulfilling and, while it may not make me any more famous or advance my career in entertainment, the rewards outweigh any of that.”

Liberman’s bucket list includes getting “Land of Milk and Funny” out there and seen; having some of the screenplays he’s written produced; and obtaining an endowment that goes toward the comedy tour and the Koby Mandell Foundation that would ensure the tour’s future. He’d also love to do the comedy tours in countries that have an English-speaking audience.

When people ask about the danger in Israel, Liberman tells them to talk to the comics who’ve been there.  “I even tell them to talk to anyone who’s been to Israel, period. If they find just one person who said they didn’t feel safe while there, by all means don’t go, but I’m convinced they won’t.” At the same time, the film includes a segment during the tour, in Sderot, when a rocket attack occurred. Still, says Liberman, “I honestly never really had a frightening moment in Israel other than before shows hoping my material goes over.”

As to favorite moments, Liberman recalls an incident during the first tour when a girl came over after the show and thanked him, admitting it was the first time she was able to laugh in over a year. “But watching the comics go through being there is always interesting to me. Each group reacts to things differently and it’s always fascinating to watch what a particular comic will enjoy on the trip. Some love the history, some the religion, but all seem to really enjoy the crowds at the shows. They’re great audiences.”

Mark Miller is a humorist and journalist who has performed stand-up comedy on TV and written for a number of sitcoms.

Worried about anti-Semitism in America? You are probably a liberal!

People participate in a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policy at the Jewish Rally for Refugees in New York City, U.S. February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Last week, the American Jewish Committee published its annual survey of U.S. Jewish opinion. The survey found, among other things, that Jews “overwhelmingly disapprove” of President Donald Trump — and this was the main headline most media outlets chose as they reported on the findings.

But this survey contains much more than the quite-obvious truths about the current political tendencies of American Jews. It is one of the few surveys that ask Jews questions every year and, hence, provide us with a chance to look beyond obvious headlines. It gives us an opportunity to look at trends and to dig a little deeper.

The AJC generously provided me with some of the data that was not included in the basic presentation that appears on its website, and I will try to explain what it means. My main concern will be anti-Semitism in America.


The survey found that 41 percent of U.S. Jews believe that anti-Semitism is currently a “very serious problem” in the United States, and 43 percent believe it is “somewhat of a problem.” The combined 84 percent is 11 points higher than the number last year. But more significantly, the “very serious problem” camp is now more than three times larger than what it was in 2013, when 14 percent of Jews believed anti-Semitism is a “very serious problem.” There are now twice as many as there were in 2015, when 21 percent of Jews believed anti-Semitism is a “very serious problem.”

Look at this graph based on AJC surveys and note the following things:

– 2017 is dramatically different from all previous years since 1998.

– The trend line of the last 20 years is downward – and again, it makes 2017 unique.

– Only five years ago (in both 2011, 2013) “very serious” concern about anti-Semitism was at its lowest point. So, the least concerned and the most concerned Jews both appear since the beginning of this decade.


Of course, Jews are not all alike, and their assessment of anti-Semitism varies.

It varies by age, as you can see in the following graph. Note the following things:

– The youngest cohort is the one in which the least number of Jews say anti-Semitism is a very serious problem.

– The youngest cohort is also the one in which more people (albeit not many, 7%) say there is no problem of anti-Semitism.

What does it mean that younger Jews are less concerned about anti-Semitism than older Jews? Before we begin to speculate about the reasons, it is worth noting that this is not the first time younger Jews are less concerned than older Jews about anti-Semitism. For example, in 1998 the belief that anti-Semitism is a “very serious problem” in the United States was also “more prevalent among those who are older.” So maybe it is the inclination of older people — more concerned about the future, more aware of the past — to be more sensitive to anti-Semitism.


The AJC survey provides proof that perception of anti-Semitism is greatly impacted by political affiliation. Broadly speaking, liberal Jews see more anti-Semitism around. Conservative Jews are much less worried. Among the “lean-conservative” group, a significant 40% think that anti-Semitism is “not much of a problem” or “not at all a problem” in the U.S. (note: to simplify the picture, the graph below only includes the liberal and conservative groups and does not include lean liberal, moderate and lean conservative. I include the full data at the end of this post).

What is the reason for such differentiation? Again, speculation is possible, but we need to note, again, that this is not the first survey in which liberals seem more concerned about anti-Semitism than conservatives. On the other hand, it is also not always the case that liberal Jews are more concerned about anti-Semitism. For example, in 2003, 35 percent of liberal Jews thought that anti-Semitism is a “very serious problem” compared with a similar 34 percent among conservatives. Or another example, in a study of Jewish students, the more hawkish “AIPAC supporters” reported a higher level of anti-Semitism compared to the more liberal “J Street” supporters.”

Why, then, are liberals the more concerned group this year? A few options:

– Liberals are more integrated into the general American society and hence have a more first-hand experience of anti-Semitic phenomena.

– Liberals are more inclined to expect that anti-Semitism will be eliminated in the U.S., and hence are more disappointed by its persistence.

– Liberals connect anti-Semitism with their general disappointment with the recent election and see a connection between the two.


In several previous articles, I warned against “Politicizing the fight against anti-Semitism.” And, of course, I was hardly the only writer to do that.

Does the AJC data prove that the fight is politicized? It does not. But it does prove that the temptation to politicize it, the opportunity to politicize it and possibly the tendency to politicize it is there. It calls for caution, and sober assessment of the actual state of anti-Semitism in America.


One last word on anti-Semitism: I invite you to read my recent New York Times column on Israel’s response to anti-Semitism in America. It was published late last week.


Full table: ideological leaning and seeing anti-Semitism in the U.S. as a problem:

Here’s how to fix the Jewish community

Thousands of people typically gather for music, food and more at the Celebrate Israel festival. Photo by Linda Kasian Photography

Today, the collective strength of the Jewish people may be greater than at any other time in our history. We have an independent Jewish state with a booming economy and one of the world’s most powerful militaries. The American Jewish community has reached the heights of success in politics, business, arts and culture, and science, becoming perhaps the most influential Jewish diaspora community in history.

Yet, despite our strength, the challenges facing global Jewry are growing and multifaceted—in some cases posing an existential danger to our future as a people. Anti-Semitism is rapidly rising on the right and the left. Assimilation and intermarriage threaten to dramatically shrink the global Jewish population in the diaspora. The now infamous Pew Study, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that approximately two-thirds of American Jewish millennials do not feel a strong connection to Israel, and a recent Brandeis University found that fewer than half of Jewish college students could correctly answer even the most basic questions about Israel. The American Jewish community and Israel—the two great centers of global Jewish life—face an increasingly complex and in some cases, strained relationship.

In the last decade, a new force has come roaring into the Jewish world that has shown the potential to be a game-changer in advancing solutions to each of these challenges: the Israeli-American community. As an American organization rooted in a profound and rich connection to Israel, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) is able to unlock many of the doors that separate Jewish Americans from their connection to Israel, through a multifaceted and rich concept we call “Israeliness.”

Israeliness incorporates many elements. It’s Israeli culture, Jewish values, and Hebrew, the language of our religion for thousands of years. It’s tremendous pride in Jewish tradition, our history, and Israel’s ability to overcome overwhelming odds—from wars and political conflicts, to a lack of wealth and natural resources. It’s the courage to take risks, learn from failures, and move on to success. It’s a deep belief in Zionism. And it’s a commitment to the idea “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,” “All the people of Israel are responsible for one another.” Sharing our rich tradition with the next generation will further help them connect to Israel.

How can Israeli-Americans and the broader idea of Israeliness be leveraged to advance solutions for the Jewish people? This is the question that Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Jewish Journal/Tribe Media President David Suissa, and I will discuss at an upcoming panel on Sept. 6.

There are at least three ways that Israeli-Americans and Israeliness can be—and already are—game-changers.

First, Israeli-Americans can be leveraged as a bridge—both within the American Jewish community and between Israel and the American Jewish Community. The fact that we speak both “Israeli” and “American” has positioned us as a translator and facilitator of dialogue between the two communities. A prime example of this is the IAC National conference in Washington, D.C., an event where top civic, political, and business leaders from both countries come together every year.

Too many within the Jewish community take news media about Israel at face value— internalizing the negative stereotypes about our homeland and the Israeli people—which often leads to an inability to see the necessity of a Jewish state. Israelis then react to Jewish Americans’ disregard in a typically Israeli way: declaring that they do not need Jewish Americans and stubbornly refusing to engage in a gentler, American-style discourse. Israeli-Americans can bridge the gap.

Second, Israeliness can be used as a tool for the crucial task of engaging the next generation. Israeliness opens up a whole new world for young American Jews, many of whom have been conditioned to believe that Jewish identity must be centered on attending Jewish schools and synagogues. In discovering the people and culture of their homeland, young Jews are able to discover a piece of themselves.

The great success of many programs, such as Masa Israel, Gap Year, and in particular, Birthright—with its half a million alumni—illustrate how visiting, exploring and experiencing the people Israel makes a transformative difference in their lives. The best possible follow-up for these programs is to help their alumni reconnect with Israeliness through integration with the Israeli-American community.

Furthermore, Israel’s success is rooted in the young country’s willingness to take risks—in an understanding that failure is nothing shameful, but merely an opportunity to learn and move on to your next success. Being able to bounce back after failures is a crucial skill for young people to develop to handle life’s many challenges. The next generation can learn much from Israeliness.

Third, Israeli-Americans and Israeliness can be a powerful tool in fighting anti-Semitism and the BDS Movement. Israeli-Americans defend Israel by drawing on personal experience. Moreover, Israeliness means being proud to be who we are—and having the courage to stand up for what we believe in. We must communicate to the next generation that tremendous pride and willingness to stand up, speak out, and when necessary, fight back to protect ourselves when our faith, our values and our homeland are under attack.

The challenges facing the Jewish community are complex. Israeliness is a secret sauce that can help ensure that our people will not only survive, but continue to thrive.

Adam Milstein is the Chairman of the Israeli-American Council, a real estate entrepreneur, and the president of the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. 

On Sept. 6, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, David Suissa, and Adam Milstein will discuss the untapped potential of Israeliness on September 6, 2017 at 7:00pm at the IAC. This event is free for IAC Supporters and those registered to attend the IAC National Conference. The general public can buy pre-sale tickets for $10 at israeliamerican.org/israeliness, or pay $15 at the door.

Can American Jews threaten Israel?

People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The question presented in the headline has a short answer and a long one. The short answer is yes, they can. In fact, in the past week many of them have. Some leaders warned – an implied threat, no doubt – that philanthropy is going to dry down. If Israel does not change its policy, it will no longer get the billions that it used to get from American philanthropists and activists. If Israel does not change its policy, it will no longer benefit from the political support of American Jews. So, factually, American Jews can make a threat, and in the last couple of days some of their leaders have, much more than they did in the past.

That’s the short answer.

The long answer is really an answer to a different question: Do American Jews have a better chance of getting their way, of achieving their goals, by making threats or implied threats (“it’s not a threat, it’s a warning”)?

To that question there is no simple, short, definitive answer. I suspect that many of the implied threats made in recent days – some quite awkward – were more an expression of anger over Israel’s two decisions concerning conversion and the Kotel compromise than a well-planed and well-executed move to alter Israel’s behavior. And, of course, most of the anger is justified. The government of Israel decided to renege on an agreed compromise, and to change the status quo on conversion. Still, anger is not a plan. Anger can be channeled to become a planning process. And the planning process ought to include the question: will threats make it more likely that Israel’s policy will change?

Here are some things to consider when trying to answer this question:

1. Israelis have interest in Diaspora Jews if they feel that there is a partnership and an unconditional bond between all Jews. Threats could suggest that the bond is conditional and make Israelis more suspicious of US Jews.

2. Israelis are stiff necked and dislike threats. They have been threatened by many forces in the past, some of which were more dangerous and deadly than US Jews – and threats usually makes them less inclined to compromise, not more so.

3. Israel is a powerful country. It can probably manage without the support of other Jews (or not – but Israelis believe that they can).

4. Threats will split the camp of angered Jews, because some will feel uncomfortable with them, and some will go overboard in making them. A generally unified call for Israel to be more considerate of Diaspora Jews could become yet another intra-Jewish battle.

5. Threats carry the risk of escalation. Unless one wants Israel-Diaspora relations to deteriorate even further, one has to take this into account.

“But what can we do if we can’t even warn the Israeli government and public that the actions they take have consequences?” – that’s the question I was asked by a senior Jewish leader two days ago. I have to admit: I do not have a very good answer to this question. Clearly, the Israeli cabinet did not treat the danger of the consequences of its recent decisions very seriously. Without proper threats, how can US Jews make Israeli Jews internalize the dilemma facing them and the penalties they might have to endure if US Jews distance themselves from the country?

A partial answer would be: make sure you have a real plan when you make threats – or voice concerns and warnings. Use threats cautiously, sparsely. Be attuned to the reaction of Israelis to statements that sound like threats to the Israeli ear. Do not rush to escalate. Try to use back channels and quiet communication with policy makers – rather than making public statements. Yes, put pressure on Israel. No, don’t make it sound like threats. Yes, use available toolboxes to have an impact. No, don’t make Israelis think that you are out to get them and make them surrender. Yes, show Israel that you care about its character. No, don’t sound as if its current character might make you reconsider your support for the state.

A long answer – and not quite satisfying. Unfortunately, it’s the only one I got.

Will Jewish Americans defy anti-Semitism or hide from it?

Headstones lay on the ground after vandals pushed them off their bases in the Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Tom Mihalek


Is there a wave of anti-Semitism in America? Last week I argued that it is complicated. This week, as the threats continue and the incidents keep piling up, it is becoming clearer that something is going on. Maybe – hopefully – a passing wave. Maybe – possibly – a self-fulfilled prophesy. Maybe – possibly – a wave that feeds itself. Maybe – possibly – a more sensitive Jewish American community reporting more vigorously every suspicious incident.


We still haven’t seen suspects arrested for anti-Semitic behavior. This is, among other things, because of the nature of acts committed against Jews. Cowardly phone calls to JCCs and night raids on cemeteries are easy to commit and hard to catch. The result is that we don’t yet have much to say about the perpetrators. We don’t know anything about their motivations, about why the Jews, about why now. We don’t know if the perpetrators come from a certain group of people, or if maybe we are talking about an awakening of anti-Semitic sentiments among several groups.

Not that there’s any good excuse for anti-Semitic acts. Still, understanding the people whose actions rattle the Jews could be helpful and important. It could also feed, or refute, some of the allegations made against the Trump administration in lieu of recent attacks.


Last week I asked here – backed by numbers – “Have we (Jews) been wrong to assume – as a group – that anti-Semitism is in decline? Have we – as a group – showed a misguided tendency to ignore the reality around us?”

The question lingers.


The other day, Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog argued that Israel ought to prepare for a massive immigration of Jews from the US. He was rightly mocked for this trigger-happy alarmism. US Jews are not packing, and are less likely to come en-masse than Herzog assumes (we are still waiting for the expected, but never materialized wave of French immigrants). In fact, as Moshe Arens told me last week, this lack of enthusiasm for Aliyah can serve as proof that the anti-Semitic wave is not as threatening as our response seems to suggest.

Still, thinking about Herzog’s early prediction, one wonders: Many of the US Jews immigrating to Israel are Orthodox Jews. Many of the Jews who cannot hide from anti-Semitism because of their high visibility – those wearing special clothes, walking around with a Kippah, going to synagogue more frequently – are Orthodox. That is to say: Orthodox Jews in America might be more inclined to consider Aliyah and might have more reason to consider Aliyah.

Let’s change the question then: Are we about to see an intensification of Orthodox Jewish American Aliyah to Israel? (If the answer is yes, the Labor Party might not be the main beneficiary of such a trend, politically speaking.)


Jews respond to anti-Semitism in various ways.

Some prefer to disappear, to lower their Jewish profile, so as not to put themselves under risk.

Some prefer to strengthen their Jewish ties and to become more active and more proudly, even defiantly, Jewish.

Some prefer to come together as Jews, while others search for alliances with other minority groups.

Some do not let anti-Semitism – when it is at the current level – become a disruption in their lives. But some obsess about the rise of anti-Semitism and feel that the skies are about to fall.

Some have the self-satisfaction of “I told you so.” Others are shocked: they never suspected that anti-Semitism is still a real thing.

Some are looking for specific culprits – President Trump, Israel’s hawkish government, the BDS movement, radical Islam – while others believe anti-Semitism is a constant feature of society and isn’t worthy of too much specific parsing.


The responses listed above are personal responses. But they could also be the joint responses of certain groups of Jews. If the wave of anti-Semitism continues, expect studies of American Jewry to change accordingly. Rather than asking which Jews are more connected to Israel, more likely to light a Menorah, more likely to say that they want their children to be Jewish, less likely to have a Jewish spouse – we will ask which Jews prefer to lower their Jewish profile, and which prefer to defiantly strengthen their Jewish ties.

Look at the synagogue in your neighborhood: is it becoming more crowded, or unusually empty?

Look at Jewish day school registration numbers: are more parents deciding that it is safer to avoid such schools – or do more parents feel that now is the time to insist on a more thorough Jewish education?

Look at how young students behave on campus: do they have a growing tendency to forget to mention that they are Jewish, or are they congregating in Hillels more than in the past?

The answers to all of these questions will often be predictable: the stronger one’s Jewish identity, the lower the chance that he or she will hide. But sometimes they can be unpredictable: anti-Semitism has a strange ability to motivate Jews and make them defiant. We are, after all, a stiff-necked people.


To be clear: I do not intend to judge any of the above-listed responses. Israelis like me should be careful not to judge diaspora Jews for their response to a problem from which we Israelis do not suffer.







Pew: Jews are best-liked religious group in America

Members of USY celebrating at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 convention. Photo by Andrew Langdal.

Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in America, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

The survey, which was released Wednesday, found that Americans generally express more positive feelings toward various religious groups than they did three years ago.

As they did the first time the survey was taken in 2014, Jews topped the survey, in which respondents rank various religious groups on a “feeling thermometer.” On the scale of 1 to 100, 1 is the coldest and 100 the warmest; 50 means they have neither positive nor negative feelings.

Jews were ranked at 67 degrees, up from 63 in the 2014 survey, followed by Catholics at 66, up from 62, and Mainline Protestants at 65. Evangelical Christians stayed at 61 degrees.

Buddhists rose to 60 from 53, and Hindus increased to 58 from 50. Mormons moved to 54 from 48.

Atheists and Muslims again had the lowest ratings, but both still rose on the warmth scale. Atheists ranked at 50 degrees, up from 41, and Muslims were at 48, up from 40.

The authors noted that warm feelings toward religious groups rose despite a contentious election year that deeply divided Americans. “The increase in mean ratings is broad based,” according to the authors. “Warmer feelings are expressed by people in all the major religious groups analyzed, as well as by both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and younger and older adults.”

The random-digit-dial survey of 4,248 respondents was conducted Jan. 9-23. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Americans tend to rate their own faith groups highest, the survey found. Jews rated themselves at 91 and rated Muslims at 51, up from 35 three years ago. Jews rated themselves the highest compared to other groups; the next highest was Catholics at 83.

The survey showed a divide between older and younger Americans. While Jews received a 74 from respondents aged 65 and up, the age group’s second-highest ranking behind Mainline Protestants, respondents aged 18-29 ranked Jews at 62 and gave their highest ranking to Buddhists at 66.

Religious groups also were rated higher by respondents who knew someone from that religion. Those who knew Jews gave them a 72, and those who do not know any Jews gave them a 58.

Donald Trump Jr.’s call for school choice splits Jewish groups

An issue of historical concern to American Jews drew waves of applause when Donald Trump Jr. preached about it Tuesday night from the stage of the Republican National Convention.

It wasn’t Israel, Iran or the fight against anti-Semitism. It was a call for the government to assist with private school costs, referred to as “school choice.” Echoing traditional Republican orthodoxy, the son and namesake of the party’s nominee said it would promote competition and raise educational standards.

American public schools, Trump Jr. said, are “like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better in K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market.”

For more than 50 years, school choice has been a contentious issue for American Jews. Decades ago, mainstream Jewish organizations were vociferous in defending the separation of church and state, worried that if the government became involved in funding religious schools in any way, it could lead to infringement on Jewish religious freedom. Those fears, according to the American Jewish Committee’s general counsel, Marc Stern, remain today.

“The Jewish community has long been concerned that government not be in the business of supporting private education,” Stern said. “Communities that want to maintain religious schools should pay for them on their own without government support. People shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with.”

But with worries of Christian encroachment allayed and Jewish day school tuitions ballooning, some Jews see school choice legislation as a way to make Jewish education more affordable. The Orthodox Union and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America have both successfully lobbied for New York City and New York state to fund programs like security and special education for private schools.

According to Maury Litwack, the O.U. Advocacy Center’s director of state political affairs, more than 100,000 students attend Jewish day school in New York City.

“For parents who send their kids to Jewish day school, tuition is prohibitively high,” Litwack said. “They pay property taxes and a variety of other taxes. In American education there’s too often a one-size-fits-all approach to education. There should be more options.”

Republicans agree. A section of the party’s 2015 platform titled “Choice in Education” says, “Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status.”

“Empowerment” equates to vouchers, state-funded services for private education like those in New York or tax credits for corporations or people who donate to the scholarship funds of private schools.

Democrats have been less vocal about school choice, but the Obama administration has supported the formation of charter schools — schools with specialized curricula that meet state requirements, are publicly funded and don’t charge tuition. Some Jewish parents see the handful of charter schools that teach Hebrew as a cheaper alternative to Jewish day school.

At least 20 states have some form of school choice program, according to Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Fordham Institute, an education think tank that supports school choice.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee, has encouraged school choice in his state. In his speech introducing Pence, Trump said “School choice is where it’s at.”

“The idea that competition can help things improve has been historically a very Republican idea,” Aldis said. “It’s worked in a lot of facets of American life. The idea of putting it over in education is intuitive to a lot of folks.”

The AJC’s Stern worries, though, that government funding of schools could come with unwanted government regulation. States, for example, could mandate that Orthodox schools enforce gender equality, or that Jewish schools admit Jews and non-Jews without preference.

Still, he said, the fears that drove opposition to private school vouchers in the 1950s are less relevant today.

“The Catholic schools are very different than they once were,” Stern said. “They’re not teaching the doctrine [that] Jews killed Christ.”

Jewish Republicans wonder how to vouch for Trump when he won’t help out

Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency rolled out its Israel Advisory Committee last week — no one noticed.

Blame the unrelenting news cycle, if you will: July 14 was the day of the hideous mass killing in Nice, France.

But also, his Israel Advisory Committee consists of exactly three Jews, including two who work for him.

Not much news here, move along.

Trump’s unusual campaign extends to its Jewish outreach, or rather his lack of Jewish outreach resembling anything that has come under that rubric in other campaigns.

Campaigns routinely distribute talking points to Jewish supporters and cultivate them as “validators,” folks who will appear on their behalf in the community and Jewish media making their case. But insiders say that Republican Jews who want to support Trump within their community have heard … crickets.

No talking points. No invitations to speak on his behalf to their communities. Calls by potential supporters and donors on behalf of daughters and nephews who want to volunteer go unreturned. (Like JTA’s request to the Trump campaign for comment on this story.)

Tevi Troy, a deputy secretary of health under President George W. Bush and a formidable Jewish community validator for past Republican candidates, said no one has been in touch this year, but that may be because he’s not on any of the relevant lists. Troy had opposed Trump during the primaries, but once it became clear in May that Trump would be the nominee, he said he was open to persuasion.

“I don’t think they’re targeting messages specifically to the Jewish community,” he said.

That could cost Trump significant advantages, both in much-needed funding for the campaign and in votes.

“There’s a fundraising component to Jewish outreach,” Troy said. “There are Jewish populations in certain swing states in 2004 that really helped” Bush win reelection, he said, referring to Ohio and Florida.

On the other hand, Troy said, how one validates candidates may be changing, with more folks going to social media to solicit information and opinions.

“The Jewish community is a vocal one, there are a lot of bloggers, a lot of tweeters” pushing out the pro-Trump message, he said.

Troy said Trump’s pick of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as a running mate could reassure conservative Jews acquainted with Pence’s long history of friendship with Israel not just as governor but when he was in Congress.

Perhaps the biggest Jewish validator of all, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, was scheduled to attend a Republican Jewish Coalition event during the convention. But after pledging to contribute as much as $100 million to the Trump campaign, Adelson has yet to make a significant contribution nor convince other pro-Israel donors to chip in.

On Tuesday evening, Michael Mukasey, the Jewish attorney general under President George W. Bush, was scheduled to speak at the convention. Mukasey, who advised Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, is known for his warnings about radical Islam’s spread in the United States — a message that jibes with Trump’s own broad-brush comments about Muslims.

The names on the campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee included Jason Greenblatt, for years the Trump Organization’s general counsel, and David Friedman, who also for years has represented Trump in bankruptcy cases. The third name was Richard Roberts, a pharmaceutical executive and a benefactor of a major yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, who is also a Republican fundraiser.

Trump’s difficulties among Jews have much to do with his broadsides against minorities, the disabled and women; his refusal to disavow some of the anti-Semites who have attached themselves to his cause, and his back and forth on whether he would be “neutral” on Israel.

Their ambivalence was in evidence Monday morning at the Ohio delegation’s breakfast emceed by Josh Mandel, the state treasurer and a national Jewish GOP star. Mandel did not mention Trump’s name once, explaining at one point that he preferred to focus on close congressional races.

Mandel had invited Joan Synenberg, a judge whose husband, Roger, is a leader in the Cleveland Jewish community, to deliver the invocation before the program began.

“We praise a God who is black, white, red and every other color,” she said. “We seek that before we lash out, we reach out, we come together, whatever our differences,” describing what might be the antithesis to the Trump ethos.

“I’m here today because I’m with Him,” Synenberg said, pointing skyward.

Joel Pollak, a senior editor at Breitbart, a conservative news site, said the Trump campaign needed to overcome negative perceptions specific to the Jewish community.

“The challenge of making Trump’s case is primarily that there are a bunch of people shouting ‘Nazi’ and ‘shanda’ for no real reason,” he said, using the Yiddish word for an embarrassment.

Pollak, speaking to JTA via Twitter direct message, outlined a three-point strategy for overcoming complaints about Trump’s difficulties with minorities and allegations that he flirts with white supremacists.

“The argument for Trump among Jews boils down to: 1. (daughter) Ivanka Trump’s Orthodox conversion; 2. His long association with people like (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu; 3. A list of Hillary Clinton’s failings, plus the Democrats’ leftward shift,” he wrote.

Nick Muzin, a senior political adviser to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said Trump’s overarching message – that Clinton assumes office at America’s peril — was one that would resonate within the Jewish community and did not necessarily need tweaking.

“People are coming around to the fact that we want to defeat Hillary Clinton,” said Muzin, an Orthodox Jew who wrote an essay for JTA in support of Cruz for president. “The idea of the Democratic Party and where it’s drifted on Israel, and on the Iran nuclear deal — we can’t afford not to have a change.”

At a Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons, an area of tony seaside communities on Long Island a few hours from Manhattan, Muzin said he told donors this: “I’m seeing people say Donald may not be their first choice, but Donald is the choice we have considering where we are.”

After Elie Wiesel, can anyone unite American Jews?

Being an American Jew, more than anything else, means remembering the Holocaust.

That’s what nearly three quarters of Jewish Americans said, according to the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study on American Jewry. Asked to pick attributes “essential” to being Jewish, more Jews said Holocaust remembrance than leading an ethical or moral life, caring about Israel or observing Jewish law.

If anyone personified that consensus, it was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who through his writing and speaking turned himself into perhaps the leading moral voice of American Jewry. Some quarters of the left derided him for, in their view, being insufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But in a fragmented community, he was the closest thing American Jews had to a unifier.

Regardless of religious observance or thoughts on Israel, nearly all Jewish Americans agreed with Wiesel’s message of remembering the genocide and preventing another one.

Following Wiesel’s death on July 2, will another consensus leader rise to take his place? Or is the American Jewish community too divided to unite under any one person’s moral voice?

JTA asked a range of American Jewish leaders who, if anyone, can take up Wiesel’s mantle.


The most common answer given was that no one can or should replace Wiesel, both in terms of name recognition and moral authority.

Abraham Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League: “I don’t know of anybody out there who can be so comfortable in our very, very partisan, unique Jewish world and experience, and yet be a voice, and an icon, and a standard-bearer of moral issues,” Foxman told JTA. “He was such a giant in so many areas that it’s hard to see a successor.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “There’s no single moral voice — but that’s a good thing!” Jacobs wrote in an email to JTA. “It’s not healthy for our community to be dependent on a single voice — it’s much better when we have many voices, on and off the pulpit, bringing our Jewish values to bear on pressing concerns.”

Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief, Lilith Media: “There’s no one voice speaking now with the moral authority Elie Wiesel had,” Weidman Schneider wrote in an email to JTA. “Part of the reason is that we’re accustomed to hearing from a multitude of voices on any moral issue — thanks to a wider net, more diversity in the Jewish community, the open mic of the internet.”

Alan Dershowitz, law professor and Israel advocate: “No one can replace Elie as the moral voice,” Dershowitz wrote in an email to JTA. “There will be new voices, but none represents the combination of tragedy and hope that Elie characterized.”

Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian: “A moral, ethical rock-star (in the best sense of the word) … Wiesel was it and I think there are no more,” Lipstadt wrote in an email to JTA.

Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “What made Wiesel very interesting is that he was very particularistic but also deeply universal,” Berenbaum told JTA. “Wiesel was one of the very few people who had authority in the Jewish community that wasn’t based on institutional power or great philanthropic wealth. … No one will fill quite that role because no one will be able to wrap themselves in the authority of the Holocaust.”

Natan Sharansky

The most common name mentioned as a moral successor to Wiesel was that of a Russian-Israeli, Natan Sharansky. The former face of the Soviet Jewry movement, he spent nine years in Soviet prisons facing specious espionage and treason charges, but mostly for advocating his and other refuseniks’ desire to live as Jews and move to Israel. Sharansky, 68, now lives in Jerusalem and is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, leading liberal Orthodox rabbi: “While not a survivor, Natan’s fearless struggle against the empire of evil, turning that struggle into a pro-active commitment to Am Yisrael, is unparalleled,” Weiss wrote in an email to JTA, using the Hebrew term for the Jewish people. “Natan has achieved a rare combination of access to government leaders who see him as a Jewish Mandela, while being able to connect with and inspire the amcha,” or rank-and-file.

Jennifer Rubin, columnist, Washington Post: “[Sharansky’s] ordeal as a human rights dissident and imprisonment by the former Soviet Union give him a moral standing to address issues of Jewish persecution,” Rubin wrote in an email to JTA. “As someone who came to live and serve in the Jewish state, he represents the next link in the history of the Jewish people.”

Spielberg? Sacks? Somebody else?

Sharansky wasn’t the only leader proposed. One possibility was Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, 69, who made the foundational 1993 Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” and since then has dedicated energy to preserving Holocaust memory. Spielberg certainly has the name recognition, but not the full-time commitment to Jewish causes.

Another was Jonathan Sacks, 68, the former chief rabbi of Britain, who has written dozens of books on Judaism and ethics, and has an audience beyond the Jewish community.

Others were confident that while Wiesel has left a void, eventually someone will rise to fill it.

Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish historian: “There’s always another because we can’t live without them,” Sarna told JTA. “I never say there won’t be a central moral figure.”

Sacks, said Sarna, has “an ability to speak to non-Jews, which is crucial. His reputation, his wisdom, his ability to project Judaism as a crucial moral force and his support of Israel have all shaped him as a central moral figure in Jewish life.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent, The Atlantic: “He was the closest thing we had to a saint,” Goldberg said of Wiesel. “Spielberg is the most obvious first among equals, but he limits himself to Shoah activities and commentary. Elie Wiesel had the life experience to say what he wanted. … The reason we’re not going to have one [consensus leader] is that everyone wants to be the one.”

US Jewish leaders briefed after Islamic State ‘kill list’ includes Jewish names

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials briefed Jewish leaders on the inclusion of American Jews on an Islamic State “kill list.”

Some 200 Jewish leaders joined the conference call on Friday organized by the Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community, in the wake of the July 3 release of the Islamic State list that included members of synagogues and churches among 1,700 individuals. The names of the synagogue members were pulled from the synagogue websites, among other sources, according to SCN.

The SITE group, which tracks terrorist activity, spotted the list.

“The lists appear to be directed toward ‘lone wolf’ ISIL supporters who may be inspired to carry out attacks,” SCN said in a statement, using one of the acronyms for the terrorist group. “However, there have been no reported incidents to date in which an ISIL-inspired individual has carried out an attack on any individual appearing on these lists.”

The lists are released through online forums. Host websites often remove the lists soon after they appear, but they often crop up again.

Previous lists have targeted business leaders and military personnel. The lists appear culled from the internet. Homeland Security officials are contacting those named on the lists.

SCN is affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Can’t or won’t learn Hebrew?

Novelist Dara Horn recently asked, “Why don’t more American Jews learn Hebrew?” Her answer: “The reason American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is because they think they can’t.”

Horn believes that this failure stems from a lack of confidence. Even Horn, who tells us in this recent article that she grew up familiar with Hebrew words and that she was one of those rare, truly engaged students in the supplemental Hebrew schooling of her youth, was convinced that she “could never actually learn Hebrew” as a real language. In her mind, fluent Hebrew was something only Israelis or Orthodox Jews were capable of achieving. And so, even though she spent her teens and 20s reading Hebrew literature, it wasn’t until the age of 32 (a number which, by a lovely coincidence, is rendered in Hebrew by the word for “heart”) that she dared plunge directly, at an international writers conference in Israel, into the world of spoken Hebrew without the perpetual crutch of English translation.

It’s an inspiring story, but I respectfully suggest that she’s wrong about her premise. It’s not that American Jews think they can’t learn Hebrew, but that they actively won’t. After all, American Jews are hardly known for their lack of confidence, certainly when it comes to intellectual pursuits. We are surrounded by American Jews who learn languages and expect their children to learn languages: Spanish, Mandarin, JavaScript. And, as Horn notes, we now live with apps and iPads and streaming video on demand. A language is easier to learn and enjoy than at any time in human history.

The stubborn American-Jewish refusal — even by many Jews who are active in Jewish life, and who mouth Hebrew words as sounds week after week in synagogue — to treat Hebrew as a language that can be learned, spoken and used is nothing short of bizarre.

What we see in this is not an absence, then, of confidence or resources. It is a presence: the active pressure of the American-Jewish psyche. American-Jewish identity is based on feeling outside, on the threshold knocking at the door but never quite entering. Knocking at the door of Jewish identity, knocking at the door of American identity. To enter fully would be to lose one’s identity and become something different, unthinkable for most American Jews. For them, the front stoop has become home.

The reasons for this mainly have to do with the historical and psychological nature of the mass migration from Eastern Europe a century ago, and the new Jewish identity that those immigrants and their children invented for themselves in the United States. Even today, this odd, ironclad commitment to ambivalence — to that eternal door-knocking — takes myriad forms in American Jewish life and behavior. The point here for our purposes, though, is that learning Hebrew for most American Jews is psychologically impossible. (A similar dynamic applies, as it happens, to learning Yiddish.)

Where you do find American Jews who are more emotionally capable of learning Hebrew are among populations that are distant from the Eastern European mass migration and the American Jewish mainstream it produced, for example, Orthodox Jews, converts, Soviet immigrants, Mizrahi Jews, etc.

But for most American Jews, Hebrew must remain somewhat obscure, talismanic, at best liturgical, but never transparent or normal. If those Jews ever stopped knocking and instead opened the door themselves and stepped inside — well, there is no telling what they might find.

Michael Weingrad is associate professor at Portland State University. He is the author of “American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States” (Syracuse University Press, 2011).

This article was originally published at jewishstudies.washington.edu and appears here with permission. 

Beating health scares, Jonathan Sarna seals status as rock star Jewish historian

When Jonathan Sarna was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1999 at the age of 44, it changed his life.

Already a highly regarded historian at Brandeis University, Sarna was in the midst of writing his seminal study of American Jewish history when he realized with alarm that he might never finish it.

He underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery. Though he didn’t know it at the time, doctors gave him a one-in-five chance of surviving. Then, slowly, the professor began getting better. After a year, Sarna was writing again with renewed focus and a firm deadline: He wanted to finish the book in time for the 2004 celebrations of the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life.

The book, “American Judaism: A History,” came out in March 2004. The organization in charge of the 350th celebrations anointed Sarna its chief historian. He traveled the country delivering lectures, and “American Judaism” won the Jewish Book Council’s Book of the Year award.

“That book was life-changing,” Sarna told JTA in a recent interview in his large, cluttered office at Brandeis.

“I would say my great regret at the time of my illness was that I had not finished ‘American Judaism,’ and I promised myself that if all went well I wouldn’t take on other things until the book was out,” he said.

The book was translated into Hebrew and Chinese, sold more than 30,000 copies and became an indispensable resource on the subject. Today, students at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Conservatives’ Jewish Theological Seminary and Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University don’t study the same edition of the Bible, but they all study “American Judaism,” points out Sarna, who is working on updating the book for a new edition.

“I consider that my most important book. It certainly took me the longest, and it allowed me to put my stamp on the field,” he said. “It sold more books than any other I have done. It does change your life a little bit when you realize that you can talk to a broader audience beyond the academy. In the eyes of many people, I became ‘the American Jewish historian.’ It was a breakthrough.”

Now 61 and several books later, Sarna is something of a rock star in the world of Jewish academia — though neither he nor any of his colleagues would ever use that term to describe the diminutive professor with sparkling blue eyes and a vocal inflection that often bears traces of his parents’ British roots.

Sarna is the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, chairs the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership at Brandeis and recently concluded a stint as president of the Association for Jewish Studies. He’s on the board of JTA’s parent company, 70 Faces Media, and too many other institutions to count. He commands $5,000 a speech.

Last month Brandeis crowned Sarna, who has taught at the school since 1990, with the title university professor – an exceedingly rare distinction. Brandeis bestows it on faculty whose “renown cuts across disciplinary boundaries” and “who have achieved exceptional scholarly or professional distinction within the academic community.”

Among journalists, Sarna is known as the go-to scholar for erudite, succinct, quotable analysis on American Jewish history. But he’s also a favorite sage for aspiring Jewish academics; more than 30 doctoral dissertations have been written under his direction. That’s partly why he decided to make Brandeis, the Jewish-sponsored, nonsectarian university founded in this Boston suburb in 1948, his professional home.

“I came to Brandeis not only because I thought that Brandeis should be a major center of American Jewish history, but also because I thought I would enjoy teaching a wide span of future Jewish leaders covering all the movements,” Sarna said.

Brandeis also was his undergraduate alma mater and until 1985 the professional home of his father, the late Bible scholar Nahum Sarna.

In recent years, Sarna has become a sought-after commentator on contemporary American Judaism, too. Though he demurs from offering predictions about American Jewry’s future, Sarna draws on his deep scholarship to highlight some of the lesser-noticed trends he believes will play a big role in shaping that future.

Those who talk with certainty about where American Jewry is headed based on current trends, such as declining affiliation rates, should remember that the story of American Jewry has been more cyclical than linear, Sarna cautions. In the 1930s, community leaders watching young Jews becoming communists and leaving synagogues predicted the disappearance of American Jewry, but they failed to foresee the great religious revival of the 1950s.

American Jewry may be in a “religious recession” today, Sarna says, but that’s not necessarily predictive of tomorrow.

Among the other trends Sarna says are worth watching:

  • Worldwide Jewry is at the tail end of a great consolidation, with some 80-85 percent of Jews living either in Israel or North America. Even in America, the vast majority of the community lives in about 20 large metropolitan areas.
  • American Jews are now fully mainstream, underscored by the fact that both leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have Jewish sons-in-law – something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Americans no longer view Jews as a minority.
  • The nature of Jewish intermarriage is radically changing. Once, those who intermarried were thought to be lost to the Jewish community; today, intermarried Jews play a big role in Jewish life.
  • New technologies are having a dramatic impact on religion broadly and Judaism in particular.


“These are changes of enormous significance that desperately need to be thought about,” Sarna says. “Today there is a massive disjunction between how we think of ourselves and how we actually are.”

Even as a kid, Sarna seemed destined for academic greatness. His parents were both British intellectuals who immigrated to America in 1951. His mother, Helen, was a librarian at Hebrew College. His father taught at Philadelphia’s Gratz College and then JTS before settling at Brandeis, where he achieved wide renown. Jonathan, born in 1955, was the family’s first American-born child; he has an older brother, David.

When Sarna chose to focus on American Jewish history, it turned out to be one of the few Jewish subjects his British-trained father knew nothing about. His interest in the subject dates back to his teen years. His senior thesis at Brookline High School in suburban Boston was about the history of American anti-Semitism, and even in his driver’s education course Sarna went historical, writing about Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism for a required car-related essay. He got an A on the paper but failed the road test.

“Henry Ford had the last laugh on that one,” Sarna said wryly.

When Sarna started his career – he earned his doctorate at Yale and then taught at HUC in Cincinnati before landing at Brandeis – the field of American Jewish history was still in its infancy, he says. The challenge of the field was to synthesize not just knowledge of American history and American religion, but of Jewish history and Judaism.

Sarna’s career has spanned the colonial period to the present, including book-length histories of the Jewish communities of New HavenCincinnati and Boston. His most recent books, “Lincoln and the Jews: A History” (co-authored with Benjamin Shapell) and “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” both won critical acclaim.

The professor takes particular pride in being something of an insider in each of American Jewry’s three main religious denominations. Until the age of 10 he grew up at JTS, the flagship Conservative institution where his father taught. Sarna himself was reared in Orthodox institutions, including a post-high school year at the rigorously Orthodox Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem. And Sarna taught for more than a decade at Reform’s HUC.

Sarna attends an Orthodox shul, but his wife, Ruth Langer, a theology and liturgy professor at Boston College, is a Reform rabbi. The couple have two children: Aaron Sarna works for Google, and Leah Sarna is studying to be an Orthodox clergywoman at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

“I know the whole spectrum of the American Jewish world as an insider in a way I think few people do,” Sarna told JTA. “That’s given me a breadth of understanding and even sympathy with each community. I think I’m at my best when I help different groups in American Jewish life understand one another.”

His most recent book, too, almost didn’t happen. In May 2014, during a weekend visit to Yale for his daughter’s graduation, Sarna collapsed while walking back from the Hillel center to his hotel and went into cardiac arrest. Because it was Shabbat, he wasn’t carrying a phone.

Fortunately, a cardiologist happened to be driving by and Sarna immediately was taken to nearby Yale-New Haven Hospital. The speed of the emergency response not only saved Sarna’s life but also helped him avoid the irreversible brain damage that often occurs in patients who suffer cardiac arrest. His physicians told Sarna that his heart blockage could be traced back to the radiation treatment he had received for his cancer a decade and a half earlier.

Two years on, Sarna has had to slow down a bit – five or six hours of sleep a night is no longer sufficient, he says ruefully – but his rate of production hardly shows it.

Before he even left the hospital at Yale, Sarna resumed edits on his Lincoln book. This fall, he’ll be going to Jerusalem on sabbatical, where he’ll be at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies working on his new book about a little-known 19th-century American Jewish female writer and poet.

“This is what I’ve been put on this earth to do,” Sarna said, “to write about and read about the American Jewish experience.”

Israel emerges as campaign issue ahead of voting in three big Jewish states

Israel has prominently emerged as a presidential campaign issue ahead of critical primary contests in five states on Tuesday, three of which – Ohio, Illinois and Florida – have substantial Jewish communities.

Israel was the subject of a heated exchange in the Republican debate last week in Miami, with front-runner Donald Trump hammered by his opponents for saying he would be a neutral broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Trump has defended his position as essential to achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but his three remaining rivals for the Republican nomination said they would stand with Israel and that no peace agreement is possible.

“The policy Donald has outlined, I don’t know if he realizes, is an anti-Israeli policy,” Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who desperately needs a win in his home-state primary, said at the debate. “Maybe that’s not your intent, but here’s why it is an anti-Israeli policy: There is no peace deal possible with the Palestinians at this moment.”

The real-estate magnate parried the criticism by noting his love for Israel and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, the scion of another real-estate family. Trump said there was no one “on this stage that’s more pro-Israel than I am,” citing his role as grand marshal of the 2004 Salute to Israel Parade in New York, which prompted some laughter in the audience. And he defended his promise of neutrality, saying it was essential to achieving a peace deal.

“If I go in, I’ll say I’m pro-Israel and I’ve told that to everybody and anybody that would listen,” Trump said. “But I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done.”

The Israel discussion was the most expansive one on the subject in any Republican debate this season, and it continued even after the debate concluded. Rubio’s campaign sent an email blast immediately after with the subject line “Trump Is No Ally to Israel.” The next day, surrounded by prominent Jewish backers — including Adam Hasner, a close colleague of Rubio when they were both in the Florida Legislature, and Dan Senor, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration — Rubio took aim at Trump in an appearance at a West Palm Beach synagogue.

“We are electing the next commander-in-chief, and when the one leading in the polls will not take sides, imagine if he were president?” Rubio said Friday at Temple Beth El.

“For people in the Orthodox community, and more broadly in the pro-Israel community, who have a view they are unhappy with the Obama administration because Obama’s approach has been more neutral, Trump talking in those terms is not reassuring,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union.

On Sunday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also needing a win in his home state on Tuesday, notably pivoted on a key Israel-related issue, saying on the Fox News Network that he now favors suspending the Iran nuclear deal. Until now Kasich, like Trump, has said the deal is a bad one, but that he would first consult with experts before suspending it. Kasich said his mind was changed by Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests.

Ted Cruz, the last of the four remaining contenders for the Republican nod, took his pro-Israel message to voters through social media, a campaign official told JTA, reminding them of his pro-Israel activism in the Senate. Cruz’s Jewish surrogates have appealed to Jewish voters whose names they compiled from synagogue membership lists and made appearances at Jewish voter events in South Florida.

Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic race, has also been reaching out to Jewish voters ahead of the Florida primary. But her message has emphasized not so much her differences with Bernie Sanders, the Independent Jewish senator from Vermont who has mounted an unexpectedly tough challenge for the nomination, but to the threat Trump poses to Israel.

Sarah Bard, Clinton’s national Jewish outreach director, said Trump’s incendiary rhetoric had helped their efforts to mobilize campaign volunteers.

“Where we had a hard time pushing volunteers out the door, he does make our job easier,” Bard said.

Clinton has been leading in Florida polls, but after last week’s upset in Michigan, she is leaving nothing to chance. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., a Clinton supporter and the top Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, held a conference call Monday with hundreds of rabbis across the country. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., is speaking Monday with Jewish students at Florida Atlantic University on Clinton’s behalf. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., held a call Sunday with Jewish leaders organized by the Clinton campaign.

Another Clinton surrogate, Robert Wexler, a former congressman from Florida, in a weekend Op-Ed in the state’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper, warned that neither Sanders nor Trump has the understanding necessary to handle the Middle East, though he didn’t name either candidate.

No candidate understands “the nuances and sensitivities of the Middle East as well as the former secretary of state,” Wexler wrote. “Just look at the statements we’ve heard in the campaign as of late, with one candidate saying he’d be ‘neutral’ concerning Israel and another calling to ‘normalize’ relations with Iran. Both positions are naive, betraying a lack of understanding in general and about the Middle East in particular.”

Sanders has called for the normalization of ties with Iran in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal reached last year.

Deutch said in his pitches to Jewish voters, he contrasts Trump’s “neutrality” with Clinton’s record.

“After hearing the comments that Donald Trump has made, I have found that, with Secretary Clinton’s strong support for Israel, her very clear position that the United States, both during speeches and in debates, that the United States will stand with Israel, they found these very reassuring,” he said.

Trump does have Jewish backers. Philanthropist Jacob “Hank” Sopher ran a full-page ad in the Miami Herald on Sunday calling for Jewish support for Trump, calling him “a man of integrity, a friend of the Jewish people, a friend of Israel.”

“A person’s a person: Supporting all, no matter how small.”

The essay below was inspired by a discussion that occurred at a Haskalah Salon in a West Hollywood home.  Haskalah is an association of young professionals and alumni who support Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

One state, two state(s), red state, blue state.  

2015 was a challenging year for Reform Jews.  In congregations across America we wrestled with global issues such as the Iran Deal and Israeli elections and more local ones such as Black Lives Matter and “the Donald”.  And by the end of the year, not everyone was left whole. 

Though perceived as a liberal bloc, Reform Jews in fact run the gamut.  As a result, rabbis self-censored, congregations grew divided, and individual congregants left their synagogues over disagreements with their clergy – over what they said, or perhaps, what they chose not to say.  No doubt 2016 will bring more challenges, from the predictable — Election 2016 — to the unforeseen. 

Therefore, are there any issues we can address in the congregational setting?  And if so, how can we acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Reform Jews, while at the same time maintaining tenets central to the Movement?

Returning to some words that Dr. Seuss actually wrote – in Horton Hears a Who! –  the author offers some guidance.  The elephant Horton in the parable discovers the microscopic community of Whosville and responds to the Mayor’s plea to protect them from harm.  To the chagrin of Horton, the other animals who are unable to see this tiny population ridicule the elephant and instead inflict more harm on the Whos.  Not until a small shirker belts out a loud “Yopp!” do the other animals become convinced of the Whos’ existence and vow to help Horton protect this community.

At its conclusion, all finally believe: “A person's a person, no matter how small.”  Sound familiar? 

In some ways, it invokes Torah (Gen 1:26), as God said, “Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness.”  From B’Tzelem Elohim ((בצלם אלוהים – that humans are in God’s image – emanates the concepts of equality and universal human rights.  After all, all persons no matter how small are in God’s image. 

B’Tzelem Elohim is central to the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis.  From this concept it was declared: 

We are obligated to pursue (tzedek), justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth's biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage. In so doing, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.

This statement goes beyond words, compelling us to pursue social action.  And it follows a notable track record that includes contributions from American Jews of many shades and stripes.  American Jews helped found and fund some of the most important civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  And it wasn’t just organization and dollars, nor was it limited to our lay leaders such as co-founder of the NAACP, Dr. Henry Moscovitz.  There also were Rabbis involved.   

In 1964, in response to a letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that was read at a meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlantic City, Reform Rabbis – including Rabbi Richard Levy of HUC-JIR and Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein – descended on St. Augustine, Florida, where they were abused by local police and jailed overnight.  One year later, in one of the most famous images from the decade, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with Dr. Martin Luther King in his March on Selma. 

The idea of B’Tzelem Elohim need not be limited to one movement or one era. 

We may not see the evidence of institutional racism, but Black Americans surely experience it in inner cities where they suffer from brutal police tactics and in prisons where they endure long sentences, often resulting from discriminatory drug sentencing laws.  But ask any African American about “driving while black” and they will recount tale after tale of being pulled over for no real infraction.  Institutional racism has been made real to all of us as we watch young African Americans murdered by police in multiple cities across the U.S.

We may not personally hire the undocumented workers who tend our lawns, clean our stores, and pick our fruit, but they perform work that American citizens are unwilling to do. Yet the undocumented immigrants face threats of deportation and frightening new rhetoric from today’s politicians. We see fear-mongering rather than policy to help ease the situation and bring immigrants toward a pathway to citizenship and legal status.   

And we may not personally know transgender Americans that were born with gender dysphoria, but transmen and women regularly confront on-going bullying, hatred and misunderstanding.  The transgender community has disproportionate rates of suicide and lack dignity in public places and protection from discrimination.

These are just a few of the issues that we should address as Reform Jews, even if it makes some of us congregants uncomfortable.  When we are uncomfortable or out of stasis we can seek to correct, repair and heal.  And as religious leaders, we must look inward and acknowledge the diversity of opinion in our congregations and create space for dialogue.  By recognizing and showing consideration to all our members, we are in a way paying respects to B’Tzelem Elohim.  

It won’t be easy this balancing act; between looking inward and outward, between taking a position and recognizing the opposition, and between speaking and taking action.  But we must never lose sight: if we all are in God’s image and if we embrace concept of Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) – repairing the world – we also must consider and protect those who are not like us, those like the Whos, whom we do not know or, perhaps, may not even see.  

Matthew Louchheim is the founding co-Chair of Haskalah, the young associates of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood's Reform Synagogue, and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

Israel education needs coaches instead of cheerleaders

Imagine you’re playing in the Super Bowl. Would you rather have the encouragement of an enthusiastic cheerleader or the guidance of a skilled coach? 

The field of Israel education is crowded with cheerleaders. Believing that it is their responsibility to champion Israel, teachers and parents aim to instill in young children positive feelings toward the Jewish state, in the hope that they will be protected from bad press and negative feelings about Israel as they grow older. The only problem: It’s not a winning strategy

We know this because, as educational researchers, we have been following a group of Jewish children in Los Angeles for the past four years to better understand how they think and feel about Israel. These children, who come from a range of denominational and ethnic Jewish backgrounds, began speaking with us when they were 5, and we have watched them develop into confident and engaged 9-year-olds. We have found that, although many Jewish educators and parents want children to feel proud of Israel, most children’s perceptions are not wholly positive. 

In fact, the older children become, the more they voice conflicted emotions about Israel. By the ages of 7 or 8, most children’s thinking about Israel has begun to reflect nuance and a sense of ambivalence. They say things such as, “Israel makes me feel happy and also very sad” or “When I think about Israel, I feel a mixture of proud and anxious.” We have learned from the children that when they give tzedakah to Israeli causes, and when they pray for Israel’s safety, they come to care about Israel, but they also intuit from a very young age that Israelis face serious challenges. As their emotional range grows, the children begin to carry the weight of sadness, fear and anxiety for the Jewish state. 

We can respond to this reality as cheerleaders or as coaches. Cheerleaders enthusiastically support the Jewish state. They model how to marvel over Israel’s technological advances. They express awe at the very existence of a modern Jewish country and encourage children to do so as well. In good times and bad, the default position of the cheerleader is to champion Israel. Yet cheerleaders offer, and provide space for, only a part of children’s reactions. For even very young children are thinking about — and worrying about — the challenges that Israel faces, and not only its accomplishments. Feelings such as sadness, fear and anxiety cannot be cheered away. Children must be given space to feel, explore and work through these emotions — and that’s why coaching is essential. 

Coaches, like cheerleaders, are encouraging, supportive and passionate, but they are also guides, helping their protégés to manage unforeseen challenges. They certainly champion Israel’s strengths, but they also understand that to struggle with Israel’s imperfections, and to invest in its improvement, is embedded in the very meaning of the word Yisrael (literally “wrestles with God”). For coaches, struggle is a sign not of defeat, but of commitment and growth. 

How might a cheerleader and a coach approach teaching the Jewish prayer for the State of Israel? Both may view the prayer, and the country whose protection it requests, as important, but they frame it differently. A cheerleader promotes the idea that Israel is, in the words of the prayer, “the first flowering of our redemption.” A coach, on the other hand, always keeps in mind that there is more than one way to run a play. The coach propels children to tackle the question: Is “the first flowering of our redemption” a description of reality or an aspiration? By encouraging active engagement and by making room for a range of emotional and intellectual responses, the coach creates space for every child on the team, whatever their position. 

If Jewish-American children are to develop a deep and lasting relationship with Israel, they will need more coaching. If they have access only to cheerleaders, they may disengage altogether. This is all too common among American Jewish teenagers, who do not see room in their schools and communities to grapple with complex or conflicted emotions about Israel. But if Jewish-American youth are coached through their emotional journey, no matter where its peaks and valleys may lead, they may yet emerge with new skills that enable them to struggle — and grow — with Yisrael

Our research has shown that even young children are capable of tackling the big questions of contemporary Judaism: What does it mean to be Jewish? What responsibility do Jews have to each other and to the world? What role does Israel play in Jewish life? If children are to create their own Jewish lives, honoring the Judaism of their progenitors while seeking their own paths, they will need encouragement and room to grow. It’s our job to coach them through the process — not just stand on the sidelines and cheer for Israel. 

Sivan Zakai is assistant professor of education at American Jewish University (AJU) and an affiliated scholar of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. She directs the AJU Teaching Israel Fellowship and the Children’s Learning About Israel Project (Brandeis). Hannah Tobin Cohen is a Teaching Israel Fellow and a research assistant in the Children’s Learning About Israel Project.

The top 7 perks of being Jewish in December

Growing up, ours was the only house on the block with a menorah glowing in the window. This should have put me on the fast track to Christmas envy, but it didn’t. I respected Christmas but was never jealous of those who celebrated. In fact, watching my neighbors actually gave me a deeper appreciation for the simpler joys of Chanukah. Here’s why:

Early-bird shopping 

Celebrating Chanukah means I usually have an earlier gift-buying deadline to meet than my counterparts. I have to get myself in gear way before Christmas shopping madness descends on the rest of the world. By Thanksgiving, I’m usually done. I spend most Black Fridays sipping spiced cider and recovering from a turkey-induced coma. Being Jewish means never having to freeze my tuchis off in a parking lot waiting for a “Midnight Door Buster” sale.

Decorating ease

The town where I spent my childhood could probably be seen from space. Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, the neighborhood dads would hang Christmas decorations. They could all be found precariously perched on their roofs, stringing lights across the rain gutters. Plastic Santas and their reindeer would be dragged two stories into the air and then somehow fastened to shingles. I watched the scene, year after year, relieved we didn’t have to do the same. My dad + wires + heights = certain doom. The expectations for Chanukah decor are less labor-intensive. We plug in an electric menorah and park it on the windowsill. Done.

Time for fun

My non-Jewish friends have to find time for their kids, spouses, siblings, parents, cousins, in-laws and their great-aunt Shirley who flies in from Nebraska once a year, all within 24 hours. I get eight days to fill with lots of family togetherness. Eight. Long. Days.

The food 

Chanukah is the holiday of deep-fried everything. And chocolate gelt. 

’Nuf said.

No tall tales 

I am grateful that I don’t have to remember to hide an “Elf on the Shelf” in a new spot each day. And I don’t have to make up stories to tell my daughters about how a jolly fellow actually gets around the world in one night, or explain how a reindeer’s nose can glow in the dark. Instead, I get to teach them the dreidel game while we snack on latkes.

The music 

Only kidding. This is a category where I can’t honestly come up with a perk for the Jews; there just isn’t as much Chanukah music. Let’s see, we’ve got “I Have a Little Dreidel” and, um, what else? Seriously, what did suburban Jewish kids listen to before Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”?

Holiday spirit 

Whether families are making Christmas cookies or sufganiyot, the whole month of December is dusted with powdered sugar and scented with vanilla. Everyone’s mood seems to lift. People are kinder and more forgiving. It’s easier to believe that miracles can — and do — happen. This holiday season, I wish everyone peace, joy and magic.

Chag sameach!

Ron Wolfson: A precious gift from his Zayde and Bubbe

The Jewish community in Southern California is richly blessed with high-profile pulpit rabbis, and we tend to turn to these influential women and men when we want to know about Jewish identity and practice. But respect must be paid, too, to those whose teaching takes place outside the pulpit. Ron Wolfson, a beloved Jewish educator and author of “The Art of Jewish Living Series” and other influential books on Jewish observance and values, is one such figure.

Now Wolfson looks back on his life experiences in “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” (Jewish Lights Publishing), a funny, endearing and wise memoir. The title is explained in the opening pages, where Wolfson recalls his childhood in Omaha, Neb., and the praise bestowed upon him by his doting and beloved zayde. “I believed him,” Wolfson writes. “And in a certain way, I’ve lived the rest of my life trying to be that best boy.”

Along the way, Wolfson experienced some of the frustrations that ultimately inspired his uplifting approach to Jewish education. He was bored by Hebrew school: “I wanted to be home watching cartoons, or playing ball, or ogling Annette Funicello on ‘The Mickey Mouse Club.’ ” He picked up a vocabulary of Yiddish abuse from his frustrated Hebrew school teacher. And so he began to understand what was lacking in old-fashioned, Jewish classroom education, and he undertook the self-assigned mission of “bringing Judaism alive in a joyous and meaningful way in the home.”

Indeed, his glowing reminiscences of family observance are a clue to his philosophy of Jewish life. Every recalled detail adds to the vivid picture he paints. His bubbe, for example, washed the floors in advance of Shabbat and covered them with newspaper so they would still be clean after the meal was prepared: “She always used the Omaha World Herald for this purpose — never the Forverts, her beloved Yiddish newspaper.” And, significantly, it was the “big, wet, slobbery, scratchy” kisses bestowed upon him by his grandfather and grandmother after the Sabbath blessings that revealed to young Ronnie the inner meaning of Jewishness.

“At that moment, I learned the most important lesson I ever learned — or taught — concerning Jewish family life: it’s about the blessings and the kisses,” he writes. “The rituals without kisses are empty.” 

Another theme of Wolfson’s work is that patience and insight are as necessary as wisdom and knowledge in the task of bringing American Jews back to Judaism. He recalls, for instance, one woman who insisted that her mother’s Jewish name was “Brontosaurus,” and it took some imaginative effort to discover that “the mother’s Yiddish name was Branka Sureh, which, for obvious lack of use, had turned into ‘Brontosaurus.’ ”

Although Wolfson relishes a good joke, he is willing to share even the most painful moments of his life. Wolfson and his wife, Susie, lost a newborn child, which was the occasion for a theological crisis: “Why did this happen? How could God let this innocent baby die?” On another occasion, his interview for rabbinical school went horribly wrong, although he was ultimately praised by his interviewer for his candor. But the awkward interview may help to explain why he chose Jewish education over the rabbinate and ended up a professor at the University of Judaism (now known as American Jewish University), which was then housed in “the old Hollywood Athletic Club in the grungiest neighborhood, dotted with X-rated movie houses and deserted storefronts.”

Here begins Wolfson’s ascent to the stature he now enjoys in the world of Jewish education. But Wolfson insists throughout his winning book that the classroom is not the place where Jews learn how to be Jewish, and he tells a charming story to illustrate the point. At a Los Angeles restaurant where he had taken his family for dinner, his 1-year-old daughter saw a decorative candle on the table and began to re-enact the ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles that she had seen countless times at home, passing her hands over the flame and then covering her eyes.

“Suddenly I understood something that literally transformed the course of my teaching for the next twenty years: the family is the most powerful Jewish educational setting,” he writes. “We Jewish parents and grandparents are the most influential Jewish teachers our children will ever have.”

Ron Wolfson will share memories from his book “The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at


Steve Gutow’s 10-year crusade for Jewish civility ending on bitter note

For the past 10 years, Rabbi Steve Gutow has been trying to get American Jews to be more civil to each other, especially in debates about political issues.

But a decade on, as he prepares to step down from the helm of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community seems even more bitterly divided than when he started his tenure in 2005.

“It’s become much worse,” Gutow said with an exasperated sigh, and then a smile, at the JCPA’s annual conference being held here Sunday to Tuesday. “I see people say anything, and they don’t listen to your side.”

The JCPA is the national umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils — local advocacy groups that work with the broader community on public policy issues such as Iran sanctions, U.S. energy independence and hate crimes legislation.

Gutow’s signature issue while leading the JCPA was being civil to one another. He talked about the issue constantly, and in 2010 he hired Rabbi Melissa Weintraub to travel to communities and help set up local initiatives to advance civility. At this week’s conference, the focus was on the deterioration in Jewish discourse, particularly regarding the Iran nuclear deal debate over the summer.

The overall takeaway, Gutow acknowledged in an interview before delivering his valedictory speech on Sunday, is that the Jewish community has not heeded his appeals – indeed, his institutional commitment – to more civil engagement. In fact, if anything, the corrosive tone he identified when he assumed the presidency in 2005 has grown worse.

Gutow, who is stepping down at the end of December, was showered with accolades throughout the conference. During his final year, the JCPA allowed him to dial down his daily work for the organization and spend some time setting up his next venture, a training program for interfaith activists. Gutow, 66, is an ordained Reconstructionist rabbi.

“I’m not sick of the Jews,” Gutow said with a laugh, brushing off a question about whether he is burned out from Jewish organizational work. “The Jews are a tough row to hoe, though.”

Gutow said in the interview that there remain a number of issues where there is consensus: defending Israel, protecting Jews abroad, addressing hunger, championing rights in Sudan, combating man-made climate change, advocating for the disabled, and combating discrimination against women and minorities.

But in his speech Gutow focused on the vitriol in debates about issues on which American Jews were divided, notably the Iran nuclear agreement reached between the Islamic Republic and six world powers led by the United States. He said opponents of the deal were depicted by its backers as warmongers, while deal supporters were likened to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Nazi Germany.

“The very notion that those who opposed the Iran treaty simply wanted war flies in the face of most of those people whom I know,” Gutow said in the address. “And equally far-fetched is the idea of opponents of the treaty — that those who supported it were traitors and Obama was Neville Chamberlain.”

The aftereffects of the debate over the deal, which trades sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions and which pitted the administration of President Barack Obama against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are still being felt, according to many participants at the JCPA conference.

Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, in a workshop following Gutow’s speech, pushed back against an argument by his metro Washington counterpart, Ron Halber, that the Iran debate was a one-off and that the national community would settle back into a calmer discourse.

“All the underlying stuff that came out is still with us and we still need to deal with it,” Burton said. “We need to figure out a way to make it less damaging.”

Dov Waxman, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, said during the same workshop that Jewish organizations noted the gap between overwhelming Jewish organizational opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and polls that showed more Jews supported the deal than opposed it.

“The American Jewish community is divided and American Jewish organizations must acknowledge these divisions,” Waxman said. “We should be respectful of those differences, much more respectful than we have been over the last few months.”

Gutow in his speech singled out efforts to keep J Street, a Jewish Middle East policy group that has been harshly critical of the policies of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in communal isolation.

“The way some speak viciously and negatively about J Street, a clear supporter of Israel as a Jewish state, cannot possibly do anything but drive those on the moderate left away from Israel,” he said.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella group, last year rejected J Street’s application for membership.

Gutow blamed donor-driven demands in part for creating a divisive discourse.

“One of the troubles in our culture is that wealth seems to control decision making,” he said in the interview with JTA. “It’s a mistake. The community has gotten much worse that way.”

JCPA policy is driven by the decisions of the local community relations councils and synagogues across the country, not by top-down decision-making.

In the broader community, conservative donors set terms on pro-Israel activity that marginalize the left, argued Gutow, who in 1990 helped launch the National Jewish Democratic Council. But the native Texan said he has seen liberal donors also act as spoilers. As an example, he cited liberals making their donations contingent on advancing specific rights for the gay community that tend to alienate more traditional groups.

“‘Everyone needs to support what I support on LGBT marriage’ is what they say,” he said.

So what is the relevance of a consensus-driven organization for a community that finds it harder and harder to arrive at consensus?

Gutow says that when he speaks to non-Jewish leaders, including lawmakers, on consensus issues like defending Israel, protecting Jews abroad or addressing hunger, he is able to confidently say he speaks for the community. An example he cites is the annual hunger seder that the JCPA organizes on Capitol Hill — an event that advocates for increased food subsidies for the poor and draws lawmakers from both parties.

“I’m much stronger when I speak to a congressman if I can say I have the community behind me,” he said.