January 18, 2019

Diaspora’s Good Rap

Screenshot from Twitter

Can one word change history? One video? One person?

Diaspora. It’s not a new word. Jews have heard it all of our lives. But have we ever really felt it? Have we ever used it in such a way to make non-Jews understand it? And have we ever shown how the Jewish diaspora intersects with the African diaspora?

Noah Shufutinsky has thought about such questions for years. And he’s only 19. That’s because, being black and Jewish, he’s been a victim of both forms of racism. 

He’s felt racism so profoundly that, as the rapper Young Gravy, he created a brilliant new song called “Diaspora,” a mix of Hebrew and English that not only cuts through all of the faux intersectionality that’s trending today but inspires a revamped pride in Jewish identity. 

I’m a proud part of the diaspora
In my heart I hold Jerusalem and Africa
Kicked us out of our land and started gassin’ us
Till we put our foot down cuz we had enough.

“When you show pride in your indigenous culture, outsiders feel threatened,” said Shufutinsky, a sophomore at George Washington University majoring in Judaic Studies. “Black Americans reclaim our natural hair and it is externally defined as unprofessional, nationalist and threatening. When Jews reclaim our indigenous culture, ties to land and food, we are accused of appropriating and stealing it. Outsiders are OK with you as long as you fit into their narrative, but when we reclaim our narrative, we get attacked for ‘stepping out of line.’

“Historically, black people and Jewish people have stood side by side fighting for civil rights and equality, but there has been a new effort to erase solidarity between these two diasporas and pit them against each other.”

On college campuses they’ve been tryna erase us
And all that BDS campaignin’?
We’ve dealt with worse problem than racist associations
Of students all acting stupid
And thinking they’re making differences
Picking and choosing truths
And not knowing what real resistance is
You say you value social justice, are you kidding us?
What the hell gives you the right to tell me who’s indigenous?

Shufutinsky was born in Hawaii and spent most of his childhood in San Diego. So how is his Hebrew so good? He laughed. “Jewish day schools. But I was very dedicated to learning the language, as part of my identity.”

Check out the flag that I’m waving
Two blue stripes and a huge Star of David
Check out the flag that I’m waving
Keep shooting rockets but you never gon’ take it

This is not his first foray into BDS politics. Last April, he gave a jaw-dropping speech before a GWU Student Association vote on a BDS resolution. “I was told by a member of SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] that by inquiring about the discriminatory conditions black people face in the Gaza Strip under Palestinian leadership that I was ‘weaponizing my identity.’ … It showed me that the endorsers of this bill believe I am not entitled to speak about the persecution we go through as black people if it conflicts with their political agenda.

“I refuse to be a monolithic bargaining chip only brought up when I fit into a political agenda. I will not allow my racial authenticity to be questioned because I am not your Negro.”

The first time I watched the “Diaspora” video was after a long, difficult day. I can’t fully articulate the impact. It is a light in a struggle that’s often frustrating, draining and dark. It is a ray of hope that a 19-year-old can fight the battle against erasure of Jewish and Israeli identity through the power of music. 

The next day, I showed the video to my son, Alexander. Nine years of saying “Good night, my brave Maccabee” were suddenly crystalized for him in a metacool video of a young black dude rapping in Israel. Now, roughly every hour, Alexander raps/yells: “In my heart I hold Jerusalem and Africa.”

“It’s a song about pride and perseverance, about embracing our identities and our history,” Shufutinsky said. “No one else should be able to tell us who we are and where we came from.”


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Shemot with Rabbi Richard Rheins

Rabbi Richard Rheins is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Denver, Colorado. He is in his thirtieth year as an ordained Rabbi. He has served as the President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinic Council (Colorado), President of the Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association, and President of the Monroeville (PA) Interfaith Alliance. In addition, Rabbi Rheins continues to serve on many organizational boards including the National Executive Council of AIPAC. More about him here.

This week’s Torah Portion – Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) – features the beginning of the epic story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. The portion features a description of the oppression of the people of Israel by Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, his flee to Midian, the story of the burning bush, and Moses’ return to Egypt. Our discussion focuses on Israel leaving in the Diaspora of Egypt.



Previous Torah Talks on Shemot

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Nina Mandel

Rabbi Sybil Sheridan

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Sharon Sobel




Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parshat Vayechi with Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the rabbi of Congregation Chevra Thilim, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco. He comes from a Hasidic family of rabbis that goes back many generations. Growing up in Brooklyn, he studied Kabbalah and Hasidic thought. He is one of the foremost experts on the Kabbalah on the West Coast and is a frequent lecturer.

This week’s Torah portion- Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)- is the final parsha of the book of Genesis. The parsha describes the final days of Jacob, the blessing given to his sons, Jacob’s death and burial, and the death of Joseph. Our discussion focuses on the centrality of the Land of Israel, and how come Jacob still had his best days in Egypt.



Previous Torah Talks on Veyechi

Rabbi Denise Eger

Rabbi Josh Yuter

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler


From 1947 to 2018, the Miracles of Nov. 29

When supporters of Israel worldwide think about Nov. 29, they think about miracles. 

In 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in their own country.

This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations, which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild their national home.

Nov. 29, 1947, marked one of the greatest milestones along the road to realizing the miracle of the modern Jewish state. On that day, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their state is irrevocable. 

Subsequent events cemented this miracle, including how the nascent Jewish state proceeded to declare independence, and then to defy the odds by overcoming formidable Arab armies in the War of Independence. But the roots of the miracle were planted at the U.N. on Nov. 29.

I’ve dedicated my career and personal life to appreciating, advocating for, and preserving this miracle. Now, quite fittingly on Nov. 29, I’m adding an even more personal layer as to my part in the sacred responsibility that we all share in securing this miracle. 

On Nov. 29, I begin my new role as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA (United Israel Appeal). Born and raised in a religious Zionist environment in Miami Beach, I’ve long savored the realization of a modern Jewish state and the Jewish people’s miracle of sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. But even as I advanced in my career working on behalf of the State of Israel, it would have been hard to imagine that today I would find myself at the helm of an organization that has the most direct connection possible to the state itself by serving as the fundraising arm of the global Zionist movement.

Never would I have thought that an American Jew from Miami Beach would assume this position, whose selection process involves direct coordination with the prime minister of Israel — the leader of a strong and thriving Jewish state, dedicated to protecting the Jewish people worldwide. Although my appointment was announced about a month ago, I am still processing its full ramifications. How did my personal and professional journey ever bring me to this point?

After fulfilling a lifelong dream and making aliyah alone at age 17 in 1990, I served as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) armored corps, and later in the IDF reserves as a casualty officer. But my ensuing career was a back-and-forth journey between Israel and the U.S., including jobs in finance and law (in addition to attending business school and law school at the University of Miami), as director general in Israel for the World Jewish Congress, and as Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles to the Southwest United States — appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was truly humbling to have earned the prime minister’s confidence for my immediate past role in Los Angeles, as well as for my new position with Keren Hayesod, together with the support of the international Jewish leaders who comprise its board of trustees.

My time in Los Angeles was a high-level crash course in Israel-Diaspora ties and diplomacy.

My time in Los Angeles was a high-level crash course in Israel-Diaspora ties and diplomacy, and in Israel’s crucial relationships with various demographic groups and communities, from American Jews to Israeli-Americans to Latinos to Hollywood. Indeed, representing Israel in Los Angeles gave me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage and meet one-on-one with celebrities like Conan O’Brien, Billy Crystal, Mayim Bialik, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many others. In doing so, I had the privilege to build and fortify those relationships in an Israel-centric context enhancing our country’s diplomatic standing. I’ll never forget those exciting, action-packed years.

But now I’m moving on to a new, next-level challenge. And to understand that challenge, one really needs to understand what Keren Hayesod is and what it does. Admittedly, amid today’s “alphabet soup” of Jewish and Israeli nonprofits, it’s easy for true awareness about any organization’s actual work and mission to get lost in the shuffle.

Founded in 1920, Keren Hayesod helped lay the foundation for the future Jewish state. With the help of donations from throughout the world, it brought tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Europe to the land of Israel, helped absorb them, and started more than 900 urban and rural settlements. It provided the newcomers with homes and jobs, and developed the economic, educational and cultural framework of pre-state Israel. After Israel’s independence, Keren Hayesod-UIA became one of the country’s national institutions.
Today, in partnership with the global Jewish community and friends of Israel in more than 45 countries, Keren Hayesod-UIA helps advance the national priorities of the state. The most important priorities are rescuing Jews from places where their lives are in peril, encouraging aliyah, and absorbing new immigrants. Further, scores of Keren Hayesod-UIA projects strengthen weak populations in Israel, provide opportunities for disadvantaged youths, and connect young Diaspora Jews to Israel and to Jewish life. Our newest projects are the renovation of Israel’s national heritage sites and the development of efficient alternative energy.

As I reflect on these two improbable events occurring on Nov. 29 — the U.N.’s approval of the partition plan, and the beginning of my time as Keren Hayesod’s world chairman — I keep coming back to the word “miracle.” The modern State of Israel has forged a highly unlikely path to existence and continued survival and, personally, I’ve experienced an unlikely journey to my current role. I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors and the great-grandson of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. Yet today, my own children are approaching the age of IDF service and will soon defend the Jewish state. A few days before Hanukkah, I can’t think of a greater miracle.

Sam Grundwerg is world chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA (United Israel Appeal) and the former Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.

Israeli Chief Rabbinate Releases Standards for Recognizing Orthodox Converts

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate released their standards on Nov. 27 for recognizing those that have undergone a conversion to Orthodox Judaism.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the rabbinate’s criteria states that they will only recognize rabbinical courts that consist of three judges and convene on a regular basis. Rabbinical judges in courts that do not meet that criteria will have to undergo tests in Israel from the Chief Rabbinate for recognition.

Even if the rabbinical judges pass those tests, the Chief Rabbinate has to conclude that they liked the “impression” given by the judges to receive recognition.

The Times of Israel reports that under those standards, the rabbinate approved 70 Orthodox courts and 80 rabbinical judges; however, the Post notes that thousands of Orthodox-Jews –by-choice in the Diaspora would not be recognized under those standards because most Diaspora rabbinical courts do not convene on a regular basis.

The Chief Rabbinate’s criteria was made public after ITIM, a nonprofit that helps Jews with Israel’s religious bureaucracy, pressured the Rabbinate for years to do so.

“I am proud that ITIM’s steadfast public policy and legal work over the past six years has made the workings of the Chief Rabbinate more transparent,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM, told the Times of Israel. “This is the first step in improving relations between Israel and rest of the Jewish world.”

Tel Aviv GA Sought to Bridge Israeli-Diaspora Gap

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, speaks at its General Assembly in Tel Aviv. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky/JFNA

Jay Sanderson has attended many a General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, but the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said this year’s gathering in Tel Aviv was different.  

“In previous GAs we talked about a lot of different issues,” Sanderson said during an interview with the Journal at the Oct. 22-24 conference, which attracted more than 2,000 North American and Israeli participants. 

“What was unprecedented about this GA was that we focused on one thing: How to build a new kind of bridge between Israel and the Diaspora that enables as many people as possible to cross from both sides.”

The theme for this year’s event, “Let’s Talk,” was a recognition that Israeli-Diaspora ties are strained, and that both communities need to come together and heal the rift before it becomes unbridgeable. 

Held in Tel Aviv for the first time, the annual conference acknowledged that Israelis and North American Jews have different priorities and agendas because they have fundamentally different life experiences.

“We’re like two ships passing in the night,” Sanderson said. “Israelis don’t have a full understanding of what’s important to North American Jewry,” including religious pluralism, assimilation, anti-Semitism and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.  

In Israel, he continued, “Pluralism isn’t high on the list.” Security is, and the fact that most Jewish Israeli 18-year-olds are drafted when they’re 18.  

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders,” Sanderson said. 

Richard Sandler, who is concluding his term as chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that despite these differing priorities, “we share common traditions and a common value system. We need to focus on the things we have in common, which far exceed the things that divide us.” 

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders.” — Jay Sanderson 

During and between sessions, some of the North Americans expressed their concerns about Israel’s new Nation-State Law, which codifies Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people but does not mention the rights of the country’s minority groups. They also expressed hope that Israel will do much more to ensure the equal treatment of non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. 

Sandler said the North American-Israel relationship has shifted over the years, to the point where Israel — which once struggled to feed and house its citizens — now offers educational and logistical assistance to Diaspora communities and is seeking to expand that role. 

During the GA, Israeli leaders floated the idea of creating a “Reverse Birthright” that would bring young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, and setting up programs to teach Hebrew to North American Jews.    

“When I grew up you had two things you don’t have going on today,” Sandler said. “Back then, Israel needed a large infusion of philanthropic dollars from the U.S. Israel didn’t have the strong economy it has now. Today, Israel doesn’t need our dollars to the same extent, though of course there are people still in need.” 

At a time when Israel still relies heavily on the federations’ help to fund numerous programs for the most disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, Israeli officials are concerned about Jewish identity among North American Jews and are seeking ways to strengthen it. 

Sandler said this change in the Israel-Diaspora power dynamic has taken many Diaspora Jews by surprise. 

Referring to a presentation by the organization Israel Flying Aid, which is providing vital assistance to people in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Sandler said, “I don’t think American Jews think of Israeli NGOs reaching out beyond their border and making a difference in the world, just as we try to make a difference in the world. It makes us proud.” 

Helene Siegel, a federation delegate from Orange County, said she was impressed by the strides Israeli nonprofits have been making in addressing coexistence. 

During a GA session, two organizations that bring Jewish- and Arab-Israeli children together presented their work. One of them, Kids 4 Peace, brings Arab and Jewish teens together to work on joint projects and celebrate each other’s holidays. Their parents also meet on an ongoing basis. The program is considered a major success. 

“For me, this was a highlight of the GA because I really believe that kids are our future,” Siegel said. “These kids make connections with one another and then bring those connections back to their parents and ultimately to their communities. Instead of seeing them as ‘the other,’ they learn that ultimately most people want peace.” 

Blossom Siegel, Helene’s mother and a former head of the Orange County federation, said the GA always provides something new and innovative. The Tel Aviv GA marked her 40th visit to Israel. 

“This year, it was all about bridging differences,” she said. “The Israelis are more openly protective of their children while we Americans take our safety, our standard of living, our ability to get jobs somewhat more for granted.” 

Blossom Siegel said she felt gratified that so many of the sessions focused on the integration of Israel’s Arab community and on programs “that help children from different backgrounds become more tolerant of one another.” 

“It won’t happen overnight,” she added, “but it will happen.” 

Reform Judaism Doubles Down on Zionism

In June, the Reform movement decided to resist the headlines announcing the growing, “unprecedented” rupture between American Jewry and Israel by doubling-down on “our ties to Israel,” in the words of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. The URJ’s North American board meeting passed a resolution re-affirming the Jerusalem Program, the basic articulation of the Zionist Idea. As the “official platform of the World Zionist Organization and the Zionist Movement,” the Jerusalem Program proclaims that “Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people … views a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel to be the expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future.”

It’s outrageous. With one move, that darned movement defied three stereotypes distorting the Jewish — and American — conversation about Israel. How dare the Reform movement affirm its loyalty to Israel and Zionism when everyone knows its members are liberal traitors who prove that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible. How dare the Reform movement refute the claim that relations between American Jewry and Israel are deteriorating. And how dare those Reformers resist the universalist and anti-Israel drift everyone insists is sweeping American Jewry!

Apparently, such insolence runs much deeper than a quick, easy resolution. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the young, dynamic head of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), reports that ARZA and the URJ are deepening their institutional ties. “Increasingly,” Weinberg said, “we will be building programming, in North America and increasing our support for our movement in Israel, in the pews, in our camps, and in Israel’s streets, reflecting a basic commitment of every Jew to God, Torah and Israel.” Acknowledging that we’re living through “exciting and challenging times,” Weinberg said, “we’re looking to enhance our connection to Israel and to make Israel a central part of every Reform Jew’s identity.”

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
(Photo from Facebook)

Sarcasm aside, the Reform movement is doing precisely what it should be doing. This valued member of the Zionist movement won’t be defined by its enemies — either within the Jewish world or beyond. True, Reform Jews are overwhelmingly politically liberal. But anyone who knows anything about Zionism knows that Zionism without liberalism ain’t Zionism. Israel’s Declaration of Independence — and daily realities — bring liberal nationalism to life.

Even a brief history of Reform Zionism goes deeper. It proves how Zionist the Reform movement has become. It shows how much closer American Jews and Israeli Jews are than they once were. And it suggests that Reform particularists should have an upper hand in the intellectual civil war they must win against universalists.

“Judaism is fundamentally national,” the Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am insisted in 1910, denouncing “the ‘Reformers’” efforts “to separate the Jewish religion from its national element.” Initially, Reform Jewry rejected peoplehood and Palestine. America’s Reform rabbis distorted Jewish history and ideology — anticipating today’s ultra-ultra-Orthodox Jews — in their 1885 Pittsburgh Platform when they declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”

“Anyone who knows anything about Zionism knows that Zionism without liberalism ain’t Zionism.”

The Holocaust erased any doubts that we are one people, intertwined. In 1937, the Reform movement’s Columbus Platform affirmed the “Jewish people” and their “obligation … to aid” in “up-building Palestine as a Jewish homeland.”

Three decades later, the process peaked. The 1967 Six-Day War’s impact surprised many Reform Jews, deepening, as Reform theologian Eugene Borowitz recalled, “a very personal existential sense of the particularity of what it is to be a Jew, the specificity of being a Jew as a member of an ethnic community.” When “Old Jerusalem was captured and was somehow, to use that marvelous word, ‘ours,’ ” Borowitz wrote, “it hit us with an impact which we couldn’t imagine, and suddenly we realized the depths of roots we had in a very specific place.”

Rabbi Richard Hirsch has made “Zionizing” Reform Jewry his life’s work. A progressive activist who lent his Washington, D.C., offices to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, Hirsch moved to Jerusalem in 1973. In establishing the Hebrew Union College’s magnificent campus overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, Hirsch said the movement was marrying history.

In 2000, Hirsch articulated Reform Jewry’s “Declaration of Interdependence”: “of people and faith, of Jewish tradition and contemporary needs, of the universal and the particular, of Israel and the Diaspora, of each Jew with all Jews. ” The “establishment, protection, and development of the State of Israel are integral premises of Progressive Jewish belief,” Hirsch wrote. “This eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel is inseparable from the Land of Israel.”

Rabbi Richard Hirsch
(Photo from Vimeo)

While ideological rivals, Borowitz and Hirsch affirmed peoplehood and land — not just religion and ethics — as central to Reform Jewry. Rabbi David Ellenson has continued Hirsch’s teaching, demonstrating that the best way to be a good universalist is to be a proud particularist. Dismayed that too many secular Israelis build their identities solely on national and communal lines while too many American Jews build their identities around “individual choice and religious voluntarism above peoplehood and nationality,” Ellenson challenges all Jews to embrace their “national and religious foundations.”

An academic with deep Los Angeles roots, currently serving as interim president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Ellenson celebrates the Jewish people’s “return to history” as an opportunity to apply high ideals developed over millennia in a modern state. “Reform Zionism needs to know and affirm the religious significance of this [political] fact,” he wrote in 2014. Ever balancing, Ellenson explains: “Our Zionism must be built upon the dialectical foundations of universalism and particularism and the interplay between them.”

This is the proud legacy the URJ affirmed. This is the ideological vision it must embrace. I invite Reform Jews to join Jews throughout the world in hosting Zionist salons this year. Read Reform Zionist texts like these, which appear in my book “The Zionist Ideas.” Read other religious Zionists and compare their visions. Discuss progressive Zionists with whom you agree — or even right-leaning Zionists you might dislike.

Let’s jumpstart a modern Zionist conversation, house by house, boardroom by boardroom, synagogue by synagogue. And let’s embrace “identity Zionism,” not only asking what we can do for Israel, but understanding what Israel, land, peoplehood, Zionism, do for us —  individually, collectively, existentially.

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the recently released “The Zionist Ideas” (Jewish Publication Society), an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s anthology “The Zionist Idea.” A distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, Troy is the author of 10  books on American history, including “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” www.zionistideas.com

The ‘Reality’ of the Jewish State

We all live with dichotomies, but possibly none is more powerful than our differing views about the idea of nationhood. In the 19th century, the emancipated Jew emerges with a profound belief in the power of modernity and the capacity to dream about and act upon the idea of forming a national homeland for the Jewish people. For the first time in 2,000 years Jews would be able to affirm their national pride and gain their own political identity.

Indeed, the unfolding events of the 20th century would embolden the Jewish people, both as Zionists reclaiming their dream of statehood and as political actors operating within the modern world. The Zionist case was built in part around the illusion that once the Jewish people obtained their homeland, anti-Semitism would dissipate, as Jews would no longer be treated as a marginalized community. To the contrary, as Jews were claiming their political legitimacy, the forces that have historically haunted our people, the enemies of our community and the emerging opponents of the Jewish state, were reinventing their case against Judaism and Zionism. The seeds of modern anti-Semitism would be established.

At each turn of this experiment in nation-building, there would exist “the idea,” with its various proponents offering definitions of the perfect Jewish national model; and then there would be the haunting realities of constructing and defending a new state amid an array of political and religious threats.

Just as the saga of Jewish nation-building culminated with the establishment of the State of Israel 70 years ago, the very political powers that endorsed the creation of Israel began to move beyond their own historic commitment to the nation-state system. In the post-World War II era, governments began constructing military, political and economic alliances, in part leaving Israel in an isolated and vulnerable position, bereft of any immediate partners. Jews had been given a state, absent any assurances that it could be sustained as a viable enterprise.

At the same moment, Jews would come to terms with their uneasy historic encounter with Christianity, as the Roman Catholic Church charted a new pathway forward in advancing Christian-Jewish understanding. These extraordinary events would be offset by the rise of radical Islam with its commitment to the destruction of Israel and the marginalization of the Jewish people. If Christianity defined much of Western Jewish history, Islam would emerge as the significant religious player in these times.

Over the course of its history, Israel’s relationship with its Jewish world partners has undergone a series of transitions. Against the backdrop of the Holocaust during the middle years of the 20th century, we would be reminded that Israel’s “survivability” would be seen as critical to the welfare of the Jewish enterprise. “One people, one destiny” would be the dominant motif during the first 20 years of statehood. In that era, Israel would enjoy a broad degree of Diaspora support.

“Sustainability” would be the defining element for the next quarter of a century. Here, the nature of the Jewish partnership, symbolized by the United Jewish Appeal campaign theme of the time, “We are One,” would rest on garnering and maintaining the political, economic and military support vital to Israel’s standing. This period would profoundly change Israel’s partners as much as it transformed the State of Israel.

As a result of the Six-Day War of 1967, we all became Israelis, as our pride and confidence soared. This transformative moment fundamentally changed a particular generation from being identified as “Jewish Americans” to becoming “American Jews,” as we no longer defined ourselves only through our religious standing but now saw our Jewishness as core to our identity.

Jews had been given a state, absent any assurances that it could be sustained as a viable enterprise.

Jews would be reborn as a new class of people, empowered to reconstruct its identity as well as the image of what Israel represented. For those of us who recall the extraordinary week of June 6, 1967, it would be transformative to our Jewish consciousness. There existed a unique sense of awe at what had happened and what it would mean. Over time, we romanticized these events, creating new images of the war while allowing its memories to forever shape our lives. That moment, however, also represented a distortion of the coming realities.

That time frame would also lay the foundation for the fundamental divisions over Israel’s definition of its character. It would generate the seeds defining the great political divide. Again, the idea of Jewish nationalism would be set against its core realities. The divisive issues of settlements, Palestinian rights, the divisions between religion and state, and a conversation around the character and substance of what it may mean to be a “democratic, Jewish state” would emerge over the succeeding decades.

Over these past 25 years, Israel would move away from those themes that reflected its earlier vulnerable position to one that might be seen as “symbolic” or even as an exemplar of political and social ingenuity as the Jewish state emerged as a technologically accomplished “startup” nation with a sophisticated economy and an advanced military. In this third phase, Israel transformed itself from its dependency role to being the dominant player in global Jewish matters. But this moment in time also created a fundamental disruption in its historic partnership with its Diaspora as a widening divide unfolded.

One can find deep divisions today between the liberal-orientated attitudes of a majority of American Jews and the center-right views of the government in Jerusalem and its supporters over such complex issues as settlements and human rights. More particularly, some Jewish Americans are uncomfortable with recent Israeli initiatives and proposals that seek to curb the free speech rights of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement supporters and legislation denying admission into the Jewish state of individuals associated with specific anti-Israel movements. Just as American-Jewish liberals defended the Obama administration’s record on Israel, supporters of President Donald Trump embrace his policies in connection with the Jewish state, creating a significant political conflict among Israel’s historic partners.

Israel defenders have argued on what basis should Diaspora communities have the right to publicly critique Israel over its policies and actions? Ought that “right” be left to the citizens of the Jewish nation? Responders from the Diaspora push back, challenging that assumption, noting that Israel was created as the collective expression of the Jewish people, and as such, all Jews not only have the right to express their views but have an obligation to assert their ideas. Once again, the idea of Israel would come up against the realities of its politics.

Beyond these internecine battles, the question of how the international community ought to engage Iran or the issue of what constitutes anti-Semitic behavior in connection with dissent around Israel remind us of other elements contributing to this deep crevice that today defines these conversations.

In place of creative dialogue, one finds only disagreement and discord. Some American-Jewish critics’ arguments are framed in moral terms, suggesting that Israel “ought” to be held to a higher standard. In their minds, Israel is failing at this point to live up to the Jewish values that have informed and shaped the state’s Zionist heritage. For Jewish Americans who express their disappointment or despair over Israel’s move to the political right, the state has lost their trust. Israel’s political establishment is seen as either politically corrupt or operating around a set of deeply flawed assumptions. Adding to these divisions, as demonstrated by the most recent population studies, the declining levels of Jewish engagement with Israel, especially on the part of younger Jews, present another challenge to Israeli authorities and to American-Jewish leaders. The image of a perfect Jewish society is yet again challenged by its political realities.

As these debates unfold, the Jewish opponents of Israel’s politics are dismissed as misguided or worse, undermining the Jewish state by their betrayal to defend and protect this historic experiment in nation-building. Each side offers descriptions of the other seeking to minimize the political standing of their opponents, while reasserting their own definition of the state’s meaning. To advance our various perspectives, we have introduced terms such as naïve, foolish, destructive and disingenuous, which we employ to define the “other.”

Israelis and American Jews have their respective visions or images of the Jewish state. Some of these fixed notions today have become labels that we place on one another. Israel’s “romantics” are identified as individuals still holding onto an earlier image of the state’s Zionist origins. Others might be described as “political realists” because they focus on the multiple military and security threats that have defined the state’s history and remain its core challenges. Possibly, a third constituency could be defined as “bound by history,” in which specific events, such as the Oslo Accord and its promise of peace, resonate as the pivotal moment in Israel’s diplomatic journey. For this cohort, particular personalities or events have ultimately defined their vision of how the state ought to act and what it must become.

Upon reflection, with its enthusiastic endorsement of Donald Trump, Israel symbolically might serve as an ideal “red state” base for this president; contrastingly, many American Jews might metaphorically represent a “blue state” constituency, with their overriding opposition to this White House along with their current discomfort, even disillusionment, with Israeli policies. Again, labels and images are employed to establish our credentials as “realists” or “idealists” in constructing our expectations for Israel.

The internal disagreements among Israelis represent a different type of contest over the Jewish state’s political destiny. Inside the land, these wars around national perspectives take on a geopolitical battleground engaging “the state of Tel Aviv,” with its secular, liberal orientation, against “the state of Jerusalem,” with its traditional religious, politically conservative orientation.

With the rise of the “intersectionality” debate in this nation, many American Jews are being forced to choose between their social justice priorities and their Zionist passions. Maybe for the first time in American history, Jews are engaging with allies on specific issues of discrimination and victimhood where they find common ground, yet knowing that these “friends” espouse views that may be perceived as anti-Israel because this movement seeks to incorporate Israel as a purveyor of racism.

On this anniversary of Israeli statehood, how can we find common ground as our various images and expectations of Israel come up against its political realities? We are dramatically reminded that this experiment in state-building is a relatively new venture in the annals of Jewish history, hardly a significant period of time to develop a mature, sophisticated understanding of how a nation, its citizens or its Diaspora partners “ought” to behave and operate. Jewish history readily informs us that where our people remain in discord between our historic expectations and the realities of nation-building, the political outcomes have been unsettling and even problematic.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writings can be found on thewindreport.com. A version of this article originally appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com.

Wandering Israelis

If you had asked me as a child what I’d always remember from Jewish Day School, I doubt I would have counted Larry Milder’s song “Wherever You Go” among the minutiae I’d retain.

But the combination of really corny lyrics (no offense, Mr. Milder) and corresponding hand gestures really stitched them into my memory bank:

“Wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish  / You’re never alone ’cause God made you a Jew / So when you’re not home, and you’re somewhere kind of new-ish / The odds are, don’t look far — ’cause they’re Jewish, too.”

Not exactly a cultural highpoint of Judaism, and yet, I confess, I find myself singing this song all the time. Partly because the melody is one of those super-catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head melodies, but also because of something deeper: Whenever I travel, I always run into Jews. And I know they’re Jews not because of beards and payot, but because they’re speaking Hebrew — meaning, they’re Israelis. And they’re everywhere.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight. There is something profound and poetic about Jews returning to places where Jewish life has been destroyed, dulled or lost. But I’ve come to recognize many reasons behind the Israeli impulse to explore the Diaspora — and what it reveals about the Jewish psyche.

The Israeli presence abroad is, for me, a source of never-ending delight.

I first noticed the phenomenon of Israelis abroad when backpacking in Southeast Asia during Passover. I signed up with Chabad for what I assumed would be a modest seder in Phuket, Thailand, and was stunned when I entered a huge banquet hall with some 500 Israelis. I found them again in Inle Lake, Myanmar, where hotels were full of discarded guidebooks in Hebrew. Or in the Yangon airport, where hearing the sound of “Yalla, kadima!” turned into a daylong caravan with Israelis around the sites of the city.

I found them again in Budapest. And in Paris. And in Spain. When I told a friend I was interested in the “El Camino de Santiago” pilgrimage, he got me a book written by an Israeli about foraging for food along the way.

The Israeli draw to the world is deep and strong, propelled in part by the archetypal Jewish condition of wandering, which characterized Jewish life for thousands of years. But it’s also motivated by varying degrees of restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo that has inspired Jewish innovation and philosophy throughout the ages.

After completing their army service, the Israeli Student Travel Association estimates that from 30,000 and 40,000 young Israelis go backpacking every year. It’s their way of escaping the chaos and life in a war zone and reclaiming individual freedom. And they’re not alone: Last year, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announced that more than 2.2 million Israelis had flown abroad in just a six-month period, leading one travel agent to declare, “The people of Israel are simply going on vacation at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world.”

Into the cities where synagogues and Jewish quarters are today exoskeletons of a vibrant past, come the vivacious, boisterous, beautiful citizens of Israel, each bearing the gifts of Jewish statehood. From the sonorous sounds of the Hebrew language to the country’s economic successes that made leisure travel possible, Israelis are the roving satellite sparks of a reinvigorated Jewish nation.

We are both rooted and worldly. From the Jews who built the shtetl to those who ushered the Spanish Golden Age, Jewishness has existed and flourished on almost every continent throughout time. Note that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, does not celebrate the birthday of the Jews but the birthday of the world. We are tribal, but we have also always been universal.

Beyond Israeli tourism abroad, it is estimated that more than 1 million Israelis now live in the Diaspora — most of them in the United States. While it has undoubtedly expanded the reach and impact of Israeli culture, and been a significant political asset, it also may be compromising Israeli innovation, contributing to a so-called “brain drain,” and diminishing the Israeli census.

From 2012 and 2015, Israel lost more people to the United States (18,000) than it gained through American aliyah (13,000), according to the Department of Homeland Security. This prompted Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry to launch the campaign “Returning at 70,” to draw Israeli expats back home. Their presence is needed.

But, of course, it’s the security of having a homeland that allows Israelis to wander and still feel safe.

Thoughts On Diaspora

Photo from Flickr/ryan harvey

What does it mean to be home, and not home, at the same time?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of diaspora ever since I left the East Coast and moved to my husband’s adopted hometown of Portland, Ore., five years ago.

Let me pause for a moment to say: In an age of refugees and epidemic homelessness, having a safe and stable place to live is a privilege — although it should be a right. I know I am lucky to live here, to raise my children here.

But that’s the thing about diaspora: When one’s physical needs are met, the heart turns to the emotional ones.

I love many things about this town, and I’m certainly not here against my will, but every day I feel the distance from my family and old friends. Alongside the joy of new friends and the privilege of an actual backyard, there is a drumbeat of sadness. Two flights and nine hours of travel lie between me and my Baltimore-based parents. And so my kids see their grandparents only a few times a year. Being together on birthdays and holidays is a rare exception, and most of my oldest friends have never met my son.

The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home.

I truly am grateful to make my home here. It’s just … really far from home.

I know I am not alone in this. If you merge your life with a person from another place, especially with kids in the mix, it’s fairly inevitable. Economics, love and school districts combine into a stark truth: someone’s going to be far from home.

And so here I am in the diaspora of the Diaspora. And in the way Jewish prayers long for Jerusalem, I find myself longing for New York, where I lived for 14 years. (Not that I necessarily want to move back there — just as many Jews pray to return to Jerusalem three times a day for decades, although they could just buy a plane ticket.)

Still, when I go back to visit, just walking down the street in certain neighborhoods is like watching a slide show of my life. It’s as if the city holds keys to my past: There’s the block where my grandmother grew up; there are the red brick buildings of my college; there’s the office building where I worked; and the cafes and bars where I talked for hours with friends, when we were young together. I see layers of places I loved; ghosts of lovers and teachers; doorways and corners and elevators and apartments where I became who I am now.

And yet, again, even in this nostalgia, I am fortunate. New York may be gentrified almost beyond recognition, but it is there. How many refugees think of the shops, streets, chimneys of their former homes, knowing they no longer exist at all?

There is another side to the story of this place where I now live, too. Two hundred years ago, this land was inhabited by Native Americans of the Multnomah tribe. They were almost entirely wiped out by disease in 1830, the remainder forced by the white settlers to live on a reservation two hours away.

And now, as rents continue to skyrocket, people who have lived in Portland for generations — primarily families of color —  are being displaced from the city center, fracturing their communities. I am part of this story, too.

I don’t know how to solve these complex equations of diaspora. All I can do is to try to be mindful of them as I make my way in this new home.

Meanwhile, time passes, and we grow into the places where we live. The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home. And I, too, feel this place becoming part of me. Here my second child came into the world; here I make seder each spring and celebrate Rosh Hashanah each fall; here I teach Torah and plant my gardens and wake up each day a little more at home.

I think of the Jewish tradition of leaving part of a house unpainted in memory of the destruction of the ancient Temple, and the exile that followed. Perhaps this tradition is also a symbol of a larger truth.

Displacement, migration, diaspora: These are part of the human experience. We’re just lucky if we get some choice in the matter. A little heartbreak threads through every place we call home.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

A Diaspora Is Born In Nebraska

Photos by Eitan Arom

Thousands of year ago, when winter came and the days grew shorter, the Mesopotamian forebears of the modern Yazidi people became anxious. They feared that their one true God would take away the sun from them, and so they fasted and prayed for mercy.

As the days grew longer and they saw God had heeded their prayers, they showed their joy and gratitude by feasting and baking batches of holy bread. Civilizations rose and fell around them, and the Yazidis continued to celebrate and praise God during the depths of winter.

But when the Ottoman Empire spread its dominion across the Middle East, a slander arose among neighboring tribes that Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel whom the Yazidis believe is their celestial protector, was actually Iblis, the devil of Islamic lore. As a result, their neighbors falsely accused them of being devil worshipers and rose up against them time and again, issuing 73 genocidal edicts aimed at their destruction. Yazidis estimate that their population numbered 23 million 700 years ago. Today, about 1 million remain, a 96 percent drop.

But the 74th genocide — a campaign of rape, pillage and murder launched by the Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2014 — accomplished what its predecessors could not: It displaced the Yazidis from the Middle East almost entirely, scattering them across Europe and to the United States.

Upon arriving in the U.S., members of this 7,000-year-old tribe, which has proven unwilling to surrender its faith and traditions, settled in greatest numbers  in Lincoln, Neb., making it the de facto Yazidi capital in America.

“The community has had enough suffering. We need to feel how we felt in Iraq — to have at least a little bit of normalcy.” — Yazda Vice President Hadi Pir

Over four days this month, Yazidis in Lincoln acted out the eternal drama of the winter equinox, observing the prehistoric festival known as Rojiet Ezi, or Days of God. With thousands of Yazidis elsewhere enslaved or missing, and hundreds of thousands more trapped in a precarious exile within Iraq, the celebration proved to be an act of resistance.

“A lot of [our] people told us, ‘Why are you organizing a celebration when our people are still suffering?’” said Hadi Pir, a Yazidi community leader who helped organize a celebration to mark the holiday’s joyous final day. “But this is who we are.”

Ever since ISIS overran northern Iraq three years ago — declaring Yazidis devil worshipers to be converted at gunpoint or obliterated — Lincoln’s Yazidi population has tripled to an estimated 3,000. The newly arrived immigrants have spent much of their time mourning loved ones or waiting desperately for news of those captured by ISIS. Celebrations have been few and restrained.

But more than 1,000 people from Lincoln’s Yazidi community showed up at a banquet hall on the city’s outskirts to celebrate Rojiet Ezi on Dec. 15.

There, the sounds of a musician in the hall playing a tanbur, a traditional Iraqi stringed instrument, poured out from speakers into the jam-packed parking lot where groups of men — some wearing red and white headscarves — stood, chain-smoking cigarettes in the freezing cold.

Inside, dancers in a wide circle locked pinkies and wound their way around the room for hours, bobbing at the knees and hips in a traditional dance called a dilan, as sugar-high children darted beneath, behind, among and between them.

Pir, vice president of the Yazidi self-help organization Yazda, which hosted the event, is a former U.S. Army interpreter with expressive green eyes. He came dressed in a suit and tie, and unlike most Yazidi men, was clean-shaven.

As the music reached a deafening volume, Pir retreated to a corner of the room to explain the holiday tradition. In modern days, he said, fasting is meant to remind Yazidis of those suffering or in need — whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent years.

“The community has had enough suffering,” Pir said, facing the crowd gathering under strings of lights and diaphanous swaths of fabric hanging from the ceiling. “We need to feel how we felt in Iraq — to have at least a little bit of normalcy.”

A warm welcome

For refugees more familiar with the mud-hut villages in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, normalcy is hard to come by in Lincoln, a city of wide lawns and rabid support for University of Nebraska football, where few neighborhoods lack at least one Nativity scene at this time of year. But the state’s relatively low cost of living and plentiful employment opportunities have long made it a popular destination for new arrivals. Many of the new arrivals, like Pir, who came in 2013 to work toward a master’s degree at the university, considered it a temporary destination.

“We miss Iraq,” Pir said. “I’ve said this too many times: We thought we were going to come here, get an education and go back. Yazidis, like many other Asian religions, are very attached to their geography.”

Pir and other Yazidis said Lincoln’s American residents have largely received them with friendliness and respect.

Anne Rickover, who teaches English as a second language and is a longtime member of the Reform South Street Synagogue, said Lincoln has a history of accommodating waves of immigrants, beginning with Vietnamese fleeing war in the 1970s. In 2016, Nebraska took in more refugees per capita than any other state in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.  Among the many ethnic groups that have come, Rickover said, “Yazidis probably had the least knowledge of the outside world of almost any group I work with.”

Indeed, an International Organization for Migration study in 2011 found that 69 percent of Yazidis in Iraq were illiterate. Rickover has become close with some Yazidi students. When she invited a couple of boys to her son’s bar mitzvah, “they were fascinated with the heat vent in the synagogue. They thought we kept sacred objects in there.”

“We weren’t sure whether we would stay here or move to the Middle East again. Then suddenly, all the Yazidis started coming here.” — Yazidi community activist Khalaf Hesso

In recent years, though, Rickover said she has watched the Yazidis transcend the depravation and persecution of their past.

“Some of them have told me that when they were in school in the Middle East, the only way they would be allowed to read was to read from the Quran, and so they would be banned from school,” she said. “To see them find their voice [in America] has been very interesting.”

With the Yazidi community’s numbers in Lincoln increasing, one of its first domestic actions was to purchase and develop a cemetery, which opened last January. The effort was spearheaded by community organizer Khalaf Hesso, who is considered an “older” Yazidi, not because of his age — he’s in his early 30s — but because he’s been in the U.S. longer than most others. In fact, he said, his extended family was the first to settle in Nebraska in 1997 when the United Nations sent them there after a brief survey of their preferences and proclivities.

“We thought our community would never be any bigger,” he said. “We weren’t sure whether we would stay here or move to the Middle East again. Then suddenly, all the Yazidis started coming here.”

Khalaf Hesso, right, drove genocide survivor Hamo Ibrahim to the newly established Yazidi cemetery in Lincoln, Neb. on Dec. 15. Before the cemetery opened, the Yazidis sent their dead back to Iraq for burial.

A sense of permanence

Although many more Yazidis have ended up in Germany than the United States — some estimate there are nearly half a million there, as opposed to well under 10,000 here — many who had worked with the U.S. military have capitalized on their service since 2014 by obtaining so-called special immigrant visas for their families. Once here, they have turned to more seasoned immigrants like Hesso for leadership.

Almost every week, Hesso said, he drives community elders to the cemetery, where they can reminisce about the homeland they’ve lost. Yazidis customarily visit their dead on holidays such as Rojiet Ezi, and on Dec. 15 Hesso brought along genocide survivor Hamo Ibrahim for a visit.

The cemetery, a 10-minute drive from Lincoln, is little more than a dirt field alongside a highway, unadorned except for a chain-link fence and a few picnic tables. Hesso hopes to add restrooms and a mortuary when funds allow. The gravesites are ringed with the circles of stones prescribed by Yazidi custom and decorated colorfully with artificial flowers and offerings to the dead. On one, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes is sealed from the elements in a plastic jar.

The cemetery is the most tangible sign that members of this monotheistic, pre-Zoroastrian faith — whose origins pre-date Judaism’s by more than 1,000 years — see a long-term future in America.

Walking among the sparse gravesites, Hesso explained that before the recent genocide the deceased were almost always sent back to Iraq or Syria to be buried. Hopes of returning to the Middle East dimmed in 2014, however, as did whatever sense of impermanence still existed among Lincoln’s Yazidis.

“That’s when we really put a lot of our energy and time toward building a cemetery,” Hesso said.

Since January, a half-dozen Yazidis have been buried on the land, including two who were exhumed from other area cemeteries, and another who died in Canada but was brought to Lincoln to be buried.

As Hesso talked, Ibrahim, who spoke little English, stood by the fence smoking cigarettes, dressed in a khaki overcoat and a red and white headscarf. Ibrahim’s gray, tobacco-stained mustache and missing bottom teeth made him appear older than his 51 years — most of which he spent farming on the northern slope of Mount Sinjar, in a mountain range of Iraq that historically has served as a refuge for Yazidis fleeing hostile armies.

There, in August 2014, when calls began to come in from villagers south of Mount Sinjar that ISIS was on the march, Ibrahim’s family joined an exodus of cars, trucks and people on foot fleeing up the mountain. “Ten lines of cars from every different direction — everybody trying to escape ISIS,” he said, with Hesso translating.

Almost 7,000 Yazidis were kidnapped and another 3,000 were executed on the spot. Virtually the entire Yazidi population of Sinjar, estimated at 400,000 by the United Nations before the massacre, was displaced.

Ibrahim’s family members were among the lucky ones: They made their way from Sinjar to a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan before finding their way to Lincoln.

At the cemetery, when it came time to leave, Ibrahim bent down at each grave to touch the headstone and then kiss his hand.

Reaching out to help

That afternoon, Ibrahim sat in the living room of the cramped townhome he shares with his large family in a working-class neighborhood on Lincoln’s periphery. Guests stopped in to wish the family an ezidiya pirozibe — a blessed festival — and drop off plastic bags full of sodas and baked goods.

As the men gathered for tea in the living room, sitting on couches or cross-legged on the floor, Ibrahim plucked at a tanbur that he had fashioned in his basement workshop. Meanwhile, Ibrahim’s wife, Naam, and daughter Hadyah worked in the garage, baking a traditional holiday flatbread called sawek on an improvised tandoor — a blue, waist-high drum with a propane flame topped with a convex metal plate. It was their first time making the holiday bread since they immigrated in 2015, they said.

Yazidis Celebrate in Nebraska

How a community of 3,000 Yazidis are finding reason to celebrate after fleeing genocide.Read Eitan Arom's beautiful cover story here:http://jewishjournal.com/cover_story/228865/diaspora-born-nebraska/

Posted by Jewish Journal on Thursday, December 21, 2017

Most American Yazidis have family members living in squalid camps or who are unaccounted for, and many bear deep psychological wounds. Since his exile, Ibrahim has suffered from debilitating depression and hasn’t found work. He breaks up his days by fashioning the stringed instruments out of wood imported from Iraq, as well as wooden miniatures of the unique conical domes favored by Yazidis for their temples. His son Saeed is learning the craft.

Saeed, 23, speaking in a halting English that he’s slowly improving in community college, explained his appreciation for his father’s hobby. “People these days, they don’t care about old stuff,” he said.

As Saeed spoke, Ibrahim sat on his living room couch and then lifted the tanbur up to his face. “This … ” he said, planting a kiss on the instrument’s slender neck, “ … Yazidi!”

In the United States, the key to preserving Yazidi customs and traditions is to build a community around them, said Gulie Khalaf, one of Lincoln’s Yazidi activists. “Everything about our heritage and way of life will be lost without a community,” she said.

Like Pir and Hesso, Khalaf is among a cadre of activists who have emerged since the genocide, each putting their lives on hold to help displaced Yazidis in the Middle East and, as time has passed, to put the ballooning American diaspora on solid footing.

Khalaf had taken a semester off of teaching middle-school English in 2014 to prepare for a family trip to Iraq. But then Mosul fell to ISIS, imperiling the Yazidi homeland. Her family canceled their trip, but she used her time off from school to raise awareness of the genocide, eventually traveling to Iraq in a delegation of global Yazidi leaders. Soon, her activism took on a life of its own, and she scrapped plans to resume teaching full time.

Her focus in Lincoln has since shifted to setting up services and doing community-building for new immigrants, which she hopes will bolster their ability to practice their traditions. She co-founded the nonprofit Yezidi International (“Yezidi” is an alternate), which offers English instruction and driving classes to older Yazidi women.

Rickover, the Jewish teacher of English as a second language, is among the volunteer tutors. She said although the Jewish community has discussed how to help Yazidis, it has done little more than participate in interfaith gatherings that include them. “I honestly don’t understand why we don’t do more,” she said. “I think people don’t know what to do.”

Most American Yazidis have family members living in squalid camps or who are unaccounted for, and many bear deep psychological wounds.

While Khalaf acknowledged that some Yazidi customs will erode — the taboo about wearing blue is widely ignored among younger Yazidis, for example — she’s nonetheless optimistic that a sense of identity and tradition will carry on to younger generations.

Khalaf now works as a substitute teacher to accommodate her activism. She recalled that earlier that day, at the public school where she was teaching, a group of Yazidi students asked her, “Miss, are you fasting?”

“I tried to swallow my gum when the kids asked, but they noticed,” she said.
When they laughed at her, Khalaf said, she shooed them from the classroom, and told them to go to lunch. “They’re like, ‘What lunch?’” she said. “‘We’re going to the library. We’re fasting.’ ”

Thoughts of home in their new home

The Yazidi community’s modest means and rapid growth have meant that they have few places to call their own in Lincoln, other than private homes. But one well-established gathering place is the Golden Scissor, a barbershop operated by Hasan Khalil.

The barbershop doubles as a sound studio for Khalil and his friends to play and record music — both contemporary and traditional — and as a hangout for young Yazidi men. A mural on a wall showed Lalish, a mountain valley that’s home to the Yazidis’ holiest shrines, while a poster perched above a  doorway read “Huskers Man Cave,” a nod to the local university teams’ nickname — the Cornhuskers.

On the last fast day of Rojiet Ezi, a few men waited for a haircut from Khalil that they could sport at the party the next day. Among them was Naji Majo, 23, who came to the U.S. six years ago with his family from a small, predominantly Yazidi city called Khana Sour, where clashes between Kurdish and Yazidi fighters have broken out in recent months.

“I wish I could visit there, see my house,” he said. “But it’s kind of too risky.”

Majo said he appreciates the comforts of Lincoln that Iraq lacked — like ubiquitous indoor heating — but is chagrined by the political instability plaguing Iraqi Yazidis there.

“You fast for good things to happen, but instead, bad things happen every day,” said Majo, who decided not to participate in the voluntary fast this year.

Yazidi customs can be a point of tension between youth and their elders. The day before, Majo said, his grandfather caught him smoking a cigarette during daylight, a breach of the fast’s rules, and scolded him: “‘Are you even Yazidi?’”

But others in the barbershop said they chose to fast, and after night fell, Khalil’s brother Khaled disappeared into a back room and brought out a plate piled high with fruit, pastries and sawek.

Yazidis often have looked to rituals during times of distress. As ISIS surrounded the Yazidi village of Kocho in August 2014, the townspeople gathered at the home of a villager, a man named Khalaf, to practice the ritual of Batzmi, an offering of holy bread to God, according to Nadia Murad, a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

“Khalaf began to pray,” Murad wrote in her recent book, “The Last Girl.” “‘May the God of this holy bread take my soul as a sacrifice for the whole village,’ he said, and the weeping grew louder. Some of the men tried to calm their wives, but I thought it was brave, not weak, to cry there in Khalaf’s house where the sound might carry out to the checkpoints.”

Some customs have been adapted by necessity to Nebraska’s culture and climate. Traditionally, for example, Rojiet Ezi is celebrated by going from home to home to deliver and consume sweets and other goods, a practice that’s much easier in a small village than a freezing Midwestern city where urban sprawl makes cars a near-necessity.

Instead, at the banquet hall on Dec. 15, families each claimed a table of their own, piling it with candies, baked goods, fruits, sodas and boxes of Turkish delight, and inviting friends and neighbors to partake. When space at the round banquet tables ran out, folding tables were set up to accommodate the overflow.

According to some in attendance, this year’s Rojiet Ezi festival in Lincoln was the largest cultural or religious gathering of Yazidis in America.

“To be honest with you, the first couple of years it was hard for us to celebrate,” said Jameel Zandnan, 29, as he watched the banquet hall fill up. “But there’s no reason to give up. We have to fight.”

He recalled how ISIS chased his family members up Mount Sinjar — where they spent 10 days in heat that regularly broke 100 degrees — and, in the process, recognized their Sunni Muslim neighbors helping the terrorists.

As Zandnan spoke, his niece, a toddler dressed in a traditional Yazidi outfit of white sequins and gold bangles, clapped her hands and bobbed to the music.

When Zandnan first came to America in 2014, he went to Houston, but he soon packed up and moved to Lincoln. “I decided to spend my life here,” he said.

Gesturing out to the rapidly filling hall, he added, “This is the only place where I can come to have a piece of home. I don’t believe in Iraq anymore, but I miss it.”

Bibi hits a wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Western Wall in 2015. Photo by Marc Sellem/Reuters

When push came to shove, when he had to pick between politics and principle, between personal power and Jewish unity, between his position and his people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved. He picked his position. He showed us his ultimate priority.

Surrendering to ultra-Orthodox pressure, Bibi reneged on a January 2016 agreement to ensure an official egalitarian presence at the Western Wall and, as if that weren’t enough, he supported an initiative to give total monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. The timing couldn’t have been worse — it happened right when the Jewish Agency was having its annual conference in Jerusalem, with global representatives of the Diaspora looking on.

The moves were so insulting that the Jewish Agency did something unprecedented — it cancelled its dinner invitation to the prime minister. Meanwhile, the moves were condemned virtually across the board. You know you’ve gone too far when a beloved hero like Natan Sharansky goes against you.

Sensing that he may have overplayed his hand, Bibi has tried to do some damage control, but it’s not helping much. I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, Bibi clearly reneged on an agreement. His calls for renegotiation now ring hollow. It took years of hard negotiating, under the leadership of Sharansky, to come up with the compromise that recognized a non-Orthodox presence at Judaism’s holiest site.

As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The Times of Israel, “It was a noble compromise: The liberal denominations accepted with humility a secondary place at the Wall, but that at least recognized their right to be part of Israel’s public space; while the Orthodox seemed to accept an organized non-Orthodox presence at the Wall for the sake of Jewish unity.”

For those who fought so hard to obtain that agreement, the thought of going back to the drawing board must be demoralizing. As the head of the Reform movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said, “To spend four more years negotiating and then not have that implemented, either, is not credible.”

The second reason Bibi will have trouble spinning away from this crisis is that he’s associating himself with an institution with little credibility — the Chief Rabbinate. In the past year alone, two former chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger and Eliyahu Bashki Doron, have been convicted of felonies. And who is the politician leading the charge on these latest moves of intolerance? None other than Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who spent three years in jail for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Add it all up and there’s not much wiggle room for Bibi to repair the harm done to Israel-Diaspora relations. Until Bibi stands up to ultra-Orthodox forces for the sake of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish unity, they will continue to pressure him for their own divisive agenda, which puts a strict interpretation of halachah above all else.

The tragedy is that Bibi knows better. He’s a cosmopolitan Jew who understands the Diaspora and the importance of tolerance, pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. As the leader of the Jewish state, he knows he has a responsibility to make Israel a unifying force for all the Jews of the world. Once Israel becomes a divisive force that offends the majority of American Jews, what’s left? Startup Nation?

“I’m a Jew first and an Israeli second,” I remember him saying once at a Manhattan synagogue. Will he be able to say that next year at AIPAC, or at an American synagogue? Will anyone believe him? What American Jews are hearing today is that Bibi is an Israeli politician first and a Jew second. That is the price he is paying for appeasing intolerance.

What I find especially sad about this affair is that Bibi knows how to build bridges — with non-Jews. For the past few years, he has done a remarkable job opening up Israel to other countries hungry for Israeli expertise. He has traveled the world and received delegations from places like China, India, Africa and Eastern Europe in an effort to build economic and cultural bridges.

But while he built those bridges, he allowed another bridge to fray—the bridge between his government and the Jews of the world. So many of these Diaspora Jews are deeply in love with Israel and deeply attached to the Zionist miracle. I hate to think that they will now need some kind of financial “leverage” in order to be heard by the country they so love.

If the cause of Jewish unity is not enough leverage, what is?

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

Decaying relations with Diaspora yield bold words in Israel, but little action

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, on March 6. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Israeli politicians rushed to condemn their government’s decision Sunday to freeze a plan promoting pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.

Voices from across the political spectrum, including members of the governing coalition, criticized the vote by the Cabinet as a reckless affront to American Jewry. They warned it could weaken the community’s support for Israel.

“Canceling the deal constitutes a severe blow to the unity of the Jewish people and communities as well as the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement.

However, as in the past, such concerns were not enough to affect policy: An overwhelming majority of the Cabinet voted in favor of freezing the plan. Amid the outcry, haredi Orthodox politicians celebrated another success in preserving the powers and privileges granted to their community by the state.

When Israel approved the Western Wall plan in January 2016, it was widely hailed as a historic compromise between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews. The Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, the multi-denominational Women of the Wall prayer group and the haredi Western Wall rabbi negotiated the plan over several years.

They agreed to significantly upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall plaza and allow leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements to manage it. In exchange, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation would maintain control of the main prayer section. Women of the Wall, which for nearly two decades has protested limitations on prayer rites in the women’s section of the familiar Western Wall plaza, would move to the expanded space, known as Robinson’s Arch.

But when the plan was made public, haredi leaders decried the concessions to what they saw as illegitimate forms of Judaism, and Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who heads the Heritage Foundation, quickly withdrew his support. The haredi political parties have since pushed the government to scrap the plan entirely, which it came just short of doing Sunday.

Among the Cabinet ministers, only Lieberman, the head of the hawkish Yisrael Beinteinu party, and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the ruling Likud, voted against the freeze. In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had appointed Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman to draft a new plan for the site. He said construction on the pluralistic prayer section would continue uninterrupted.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement and a vocal advocate of the plan, called the government’s decision an “unconscionable insult to the majority of world Jewry.”

“The stranglehold that the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-Orthodox parts have on Israel and the enfranchisement of the majority of Jews in Israel and the world must – and will – be ended,” he said Sunday in a statement. “We are assessing all next steps.”

Tzipi Livni, a prominent lawmaker in the opposition Zionist Union political coalition, took to Facebook to explain why Israeli Jews should be concerned about the feelings of their American counterparts when it comes to prayer at the Western Wall and a new bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions completed under the auspices of the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

“Why do we care about Jewish Israelis from the Western Wall and the Conversion Law? Because it is important to us that Israel remain the state of the Jewish people and that Judaism be what connects us — and not what divides us,” Livni said Sunday in a post.

“The cancellation of the Western Wall arrangement and the new conversion law tear the Jewish people apart. The prime minister of the Jewish people divides them for the purpose of political survival, and gives the ultra-Orthodox parties a monopoly over the Judaism of all of us.”

Shuki Friedman, the head of religion and state research at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in Jerusalem, said many Israelis resent the influence that haredi leaders exert over state institutions. But, he said, most people do not prioritize issues of religion and state, nor do they embrace liberal forms of Judaism.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t something that will shake up Israeli politics. The storm is mostly in the media,” Friedman told JTA. “Generally speaking, the Reform and Conservative movements have failed in Israel, and the public isn’t really concerned about them. Therefore, mainstream politicians aren’t going to challenge the haredim on an issue like the Western Wall. ”

Meanwhile, he said, the haredi political parties have an almost singular focus on protecting their narrow interests. That makes them useful to forming and maintaining governing coalitions, but at the cost of accommodating those interests.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the haredi United Torah Judaism party welcomed the Cabinet decision as a victory over liberal Jews.

“This decision sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism has no access to or recognition at the Western Wall,” he said Sunday in a statement. “I thank the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, and the chief rabbis of Israel. To their merit we were able to sanctify God’s name.”

Also Sunday, government ministers approved a bill that would require the state to recognize only conversions conducted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. The conversion bill, drafted last month by Interior Minster Ayreh Deri, head of the haredi Shas party, apparently aims to circumvent a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those who undergo private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return.

Since helping to form the current government in 2015, haredi politicians have rolled back various efforts to reform the relationship between synagogue and state — many of them enacted under the previous government, which did not include them.

In November 2015, the Knesset postponed and watered down a law that would have ended the traditional exemption from military conscription for most haredi men. And in July 2016, Education Minister Naftali Bennett assumed the authority to ignore a law slashing state funding for haredi schools that do not teach math and English. State funding for yeshivas has reached record highs three different times under the current government.

However, some Israelis are mounting challenges to the religious status quo outside of the Knesset. The Cabinet’s decision came on the day of a High Court of Justice deadline for the state to respond to petitions on its failure to implement the Western Wall plan and build the pluralistic prayer space. How the court would react to the freeze was unclear.

Also, in an unprecedented move, the semi-official Jewish Agency issued a resolution on Monday calling on the government to reverse its decision, saying the move was un-Zionist.

“We deplore the decision of the [Government of Israel] which contradicts the vision and dream of Herzl, Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky and the spirit of the Zionist movement and Israel as a national home for the entire Jewish people and the Kotel as a unifying symbol for Jews around the world,” said the resolution, which the agency’s board of governors passed unanimously.

Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky were perhaps the most important Zionist leaders of the 20th century.

“We declare that we cannot and will not allow this to happen. We call on the GOI to understand the gravity of its steps and accordingly reverse its course of action,” the resolution continued.

Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was at the Cabinet meeting Sunday before the vote to freeze the Western Wall plan. He presented a report by the think tank he co-chairs, the Jewish People Policy Institute, that urged the government to promote Jewish pluralism, in part to ensure the continued support of American Jewry.

While dismayed by the ministers’ decision, Eizenstat said he felt his message was heard.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, and I’ve never seen a meeting that lasted so long nor one that had such a spirited debate,” he told JTA. “There was tremendous engagement on our point by nearly all the minsters. It was clear they took it seriously.”

Next Year in Jerusalem – a poem for the waning moments of Passover by Rick Lupert

As long as I’ve been alive
the words next year in Jerusalem
have left my mouth

at the end of every
Passover seder my ancient bones
have reclined at.

My bones in New Jersey cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Florida.

My bones in Florida cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Syracuse.

My bones in Syracuse cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in California.

My bones in California cried
next year in Jerusalem and the very
next year I was in Allentown.

We’re holding steady in
Pennsylvania, still crying for the
holy land.

I could just buy a ticket but
the rest of the family has declared
Jerusalem to be in the Rust Belt.

We don’t even gather in
the east end of the house.
This is the funk of diaspora.

This is the Jerusalem we
create in our North American
living rooms.

This is the holy city
whose golden bricks I see
whenever our eyes intertwine.

I’m going to keep crying
next year in Jerusalem.
A promise kept

in whatever city
that cushions
these old bones.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Would Ahad Ha’am be denied entry to Israel today?

Ahad Ha'am, c.1913

While reading an interview in the Forward with the 87-year-old literary critic and polymath George Steiner, I couldn’t help but think about the string of troubling bills that have been passed by the Knesset over the past few years.

The most recent bill, from March 6, denies entry to any non-Israeli who “has knowingly issued a public call to impose a boycott on the State of Israel.” It should be added that the bill includes those who call for a boycott of products produced in the settlements, which is a very different matter than calling for an academic, cultural or economic boycott of the State of Israel. A good number of prominent Israeli and Diaspora Jews support a settlement boycott, while a much more marginal group supports a boycott against Israel.

To the best of my knowledge, George Steiner has not called for a boycott of Israel. That said, he defines himself as “fundamentally anti-Zionist” in that he believes that Jews are called upon to be “the guest(s) of other men and women.” Given how things are going, I couldn’t help but wonder if the day might arrive soon when Jews deemed ideologically unacceptable — for example, self-declared anti-Zionists such as George Steiner — might be denied entry to Israel.

Steiner belongs to a long tradition of modern thinkers who have defined Jewishness as the quest for intellectual, cultural or ethical excellence, rather than as the aim to attain political sovereignty. Some of these thinkers have even been Zionists. Figures such as Martin Buber, Akiva Ernst Simon and Judah L. Magnes, founding chancellor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, made aliyah based on the belief that Judaism would reach its greatest fulfillment in the Land of Israel. They also held to the view that Zionism should not aspire to the formation of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, but rather should share power with the Arab population in a binational state.

One wonders how welcome such figures would be in the Israel of today. The Knesset has been chiseling away at the edifice of Israeli democracy through a raft of laws. In July 2016, it scaled back the principle of parliamentary immunity by making it easier to expel Arab parliamentarians. In the same month, it passed a law that called for new scrutiny of organizations that support a range of progressive causes in the country. Just last month, the “Entry Bill” turned the focus on individuals who, because of their political views, would be denied entry to the country.

Of course, many countries have used ideological beliefs as a criterion to deny entry to prospective visitors. The United States has done so itself, particularly in periods of heightened xenophobic and anti-immigrant fervor, such as the 1920s and 1950s. It is not something to be proud of. More recently, the U.S. Congress limited the practice of ideologically based exclusion through the Immigration Law of 1990 that prohibits entry only to those whose “proposed activities within the United States would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences.”

The Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

That is a pretty high bar. It is hard to see how a single person expressing her views, even in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, would cause “serious adverse foreign policy consequences” for Israel. It is especially hard to see how Israel gains by denying entry to someone who expresses opposition to the occupation via a ban on settlement products, which he may believe to be essential in order to preserve Israeli democracy! Indeed, as a general matter, the Knesset’s new limitations on speech both erode Israel’s democratic foundations and do damage to its reputation in the international community.

What also is unsettling about the law is that it cuts against the tradition of sharp dissent that has been a constant feature of both Jewish and Zionist thought. The Zionist movement was born in contentious and productive disagreement, from the very first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. It was at Basel that Theodor Herzl gave definitive public expression to the idea of a state for the Jews. It also was at Basel that another prominent Zionist, Ahad Ha’am, declared that he felt like “a mourner at a wedding feast.” Ahad Ha’am believed that Herzl’s emphasis on achieving sovereignty did not address the key problem of the day, which was the atrophying of Jewish and especially Hebrew culture. His solution was to promote a spiritual and cultural center in the land of Israel that would radiate out rays of vitality to the Diaspora. Ahad Ha’am was a central Zionist figure whose focus was on Jewish culture rather than power.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the divergence of views in various Zionist camps — Socialist, Religious, Revisionist, among others — was a source of strength, not weakness. This diversity allowed for different groups of supporters to enter the Zionist fold through various portals, as well as for a robust competition that fortified each ideological strain.

What has changed since that formative period? Simply put, Zionism has succeeded in placing a Jewish state on the map — and not merely a state, but a powerful, technologically advanced state without peer in the Middle East. It is strange to consider the prospect that this powerful state might no longer be open to the likes of Ahad Ha’am.

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

Israeli ministry plows ahead with ‘world Jewry’ project, even as funding and future remain uncertain

With a budget reaching $300 million, it was conceived as a broad partnership between the Israeli government and leading Diaspora Jewish groups. Its goal: to create a stronger connection between global Jews and Israel.

But nearly two years after its launch was announced with much fanfare — and after a string of delays — the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry has yet to get off the ground. Even as an Israeli government ministry moves forward with appointing its staff, two of the three bodies that once led the project are now distancing themselves from it, and funding remains uncertain.

“There’s been a lot of politics surrounding this initiative,” said Jay Ruderman, whose Ruderman Family Foundation focuses on strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties. “This initiative is talking about being around for the long term. The important question to ask is, who’s in charge? Who’s making the decisions? How open are they to learning about the Diaspora and treating them as equals?”

Inaugurated in November 2013, the initiative was conceived to fund Israel education and Jewish identity-building programs in Diaspora communities —  in camps, schools and on campus — and finance young Diaspora Jews coming on short- and long-term trips to Israel. The project hopes to replicate the success of Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trips to Israel that have drawn more than 500,000 participants, by building platforms for similar trips and programs that will make Diaspora youth feel closer to Israel.

But what has happened instead is a series of delays, caused in part by a war and last year’s election campaign, and further exacerbated by vague promises and a lack of concrete funding. When the project was approved in June 2014, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky predicted program proposals would begin to be issued within a month, but they have yet to materialize. Funders from the Diaspora, meant to provide a majority of the budget, have not yet committed to donating.

Israel’s Cabinet approved the project last year as a tripartite partnership: Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office would direct the initiative in concert with the Jewish Agency, which would represent major Diaspora organizations, and the Diaspora Ministry would manage the day-to-day operations.

The Cabinet voted to invest $50 million in the initiative by 2017 and a total of $100 million by 2022. The government wanted Diaspora sources — federations, philanthropic foundations and individual donors — to contribute double those sums for two-thirds of the initiative’s $300 million total budget.

But the initiative has yet to launch. A subsequent Cabinet decision in June, weeks after Israel’s new governing coalition formed, put the Diaspora Ministry in charge of the initiative’s policy and its operations — effectively removing the Prime Minister’s Office. In early August, the Jewish Agency quit the project, complaining in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it had been frozen out of the decision-making process.

“Until the program is returned to its original conception and direction, we no longer see this as the joint initiative between the Government of Israel and World Jewry and therefore can no longer see ourselves part of it,” Sharansky and his agency’s board chairman, Charles Ratner, wrote in the Aug. 6 letter. “This undertaking has transformed simply into a funding framework for programs to be conducted by a single government Ministry.”

The Diaspora Ministry says it has remained faithful to the initiative’s original goals and that it will begin funding programs across the Jewish world by early 2016. But a Diaspora Ministry official told JTA that the ministry will have exclusive final say over which programs are approved.

The ministry official said the funding will be allocated across the Jewish ideological spectrum. A steering committee appointed by the ministry includes a former Sheldon Adelson deputy, a Detroit federation executive, a Holocaust education activist and an Israeli philanthropist. The Jewish Agency has also been offered a seat on the committee.

“The professional staff will work together with federations, philanthropies,” the official said. “The initiative doesn’t look at denominations or political affiliations. It looks at platforms.”

However, the ministry official could not name any confirmed funders who have committed to matching the government’s budget for the project. And the umbrella Jewish communal organization in the United States, the Jewish Federations of North America, supports the Jewish Agency’s protest of the initiative.

“We are proud of the Jewish Agency’s ongoing effort to meet the needs of the Jewish people, and we support their strategy as they move forward with the Government of Israel’s initiative,” JFNA President Jerry Silverman said in a statement to JTA.

It isn’t even clear whether the Diaspora Ministry has Netanyahu’s support; a spokesman for the prime minister would not comment on the issue. And Netanyahu sent a letter to Sharansky and Ratner, the Jewish Agency chairs, weeks after their split with the Diaspora Ministry suggesting that he would like to continue working with them toward the initiative’s goals.

“The Jewish Agency is our historic and invaluable partner to this end” of strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties, Netanyahu wrote on Aug. 17. He added that he hopes to “expand our cooperation even further.”

Despite the conflicts and unknowns, the Diaspora Ministry is optimistic that the initiative will move forward. The ministry is hiring a professional staff to oversee it, housed in a government-funded nonprofit that manages the project. The official said the nonprofit would launch pilot programs within the next several months.

“There are a number of foundations and philanthropies who have already been in talks with the ministry,” the official said. “It’s good to be ambitious.”

The diaspora debate: Is it good for the Jews?

I’m 58, and I still don’t know what kind of Jew I am or really want to be.  I know that in spite of a complete lack of formal training, I remain a loyal Jew; devoted to Jews of all stripes everywhere.  I think I inherited this surety of feeling from my 90-year-old mother whose weathered face now bears the complex burden of Jewish suffering.  If you were to ask my mother to define for you her Jewish identity; she would laugh at you puzzled by the absurdity of your question.  For it simply is whom she is. 

For her, being Jewish is an exhilarating mixture of joy and anguish that is punctuated by the melodic and haunting tragedies of her beloved Yiddish songs.  Being Jewish takes places in her heart; not in synagogue or in prayer, or in Israel which she found uncomfortable and alien.  She feels no need to justify her Jewish essence or her lifelong commitment to liberalism.  They simply go hand in hand.  Her mother was devout, and kept a kosher home, but her aunts were budding communists who would secretly feed her on Yom Kippur while her mother fasted.  They all lived unbearably close together and helped each other out when there was a crisis.  This became her definition of Jewish morality, which she took with her from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  She always worries for Israel and cheers its victories but refuses to choose sides among the many contentious debates that divide the Jews.  Because for her, the enemy is elsewhere and still breathing down all of our necks.  Which is why my mother would be greatly disturbed by much of the rebellious rhetoric in Alan Wolfe’s compelling new book “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews” (Beacon Press). 

Wolfe doesn’t seem to possess my mother’s unshakeable certainty about Jewish identity; he is a 72-year-old wanderer still looking for his place amidst the complex matrix that defines modern Jewish life.  He has written on many topics including the culture wars, school choice, political evil, and the strength of our democracy.  He has researched the intricate belief systems of Christian evangelicals, and although a lifelong atheist, feels drawn to religious belief as an area of study.  But he has never written about his own personal relationship with his Jewish heritage and he does so awkwardly now.  He grew up in Philadelphia in a non-religious home, the son of a father who refused any sort of ideological classification other that intellectual explorer.  

In his new book, Wolfe examines the thinking of everyone from Maimonides to Philip Roth to David Ben-Gurion to Hannah Arendt.  His conclusion seems to be that life in the Diaspora is very good for the Jews, and the non-Jews whom they live among, since it allows Jews the opportunity to fight prejudice and work towards justice and human dignity for all.  He feels this benefits the perception of Jews worldwide.  His book is a nothing short of a call to arms.  He writes, “Exile is not the enemy of the Jewish state; isolation is.  Now more than ever Israel needs the universalism that isolation abhors.  It is one thing for Jews to turn their backs against the whole world.  It is even more problematic to spurn those proud to be Jewish but also happy to be citizens in the countries in which they were born.”  He resents the public comments of A.B. Yehoshua, who said recently that the only authentic life for a Jew is one lived in the Jewish state of Israel. 

With the New Age romanticism of an aging hippie, he idealizes those Jewish thinkers who want to redefine a meaningful Jewish life as one that embraces liberalism and tolerance and pluralism as a panacea for all our woes. He mentions Avraham Burg with praise.  Burg was the speaker of the Knesset before he switched political alliances and declared bluntly to a shocked Israeli public that “what I want to do is to expand the borders of Israel beyond land and location to include universalism and spiritual search…We were raised on the Zionism of Ben-Gurion, there is only one place for Jews and that is Israel.  I say no, there have always been multiple centers of Jewish life.”

Wolfe clearly casts his lot with Jewish leaders who believe Israel has become too militant and right wing, and in doing so, have relinquished the dreams of its founders.  Israel, claims Wolfe, was supposed to be the place where the precious values of the Enlightenment would be cherished and practiced and set an example for the world. Instead, Wolfe is upset by the growing Orthodoxy and nationalism that has infused Israeli life, along with the messianic settler movement and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  He believes Israel’s behavior has fueled anti-Semitism everywhere, and prompted a call by many countries for a boycott of its products.  He believes that new hope for Judaism and Jews now lies in the Diaspora – particularly in America, where he feels things for Jews have never been brighter or more secure. 

Even on intermarriage, Wolfe is cavalier.  He writes “Intermarriage is universalism in miniature; by bring Jews together with non-Jews in the most intimate of ways, intermarriage, both as Herzl once hoped and as the work of Fishman and McGinity documents, really does expand horizons.”  He wants Jews to stop living as a people “doomed to drown in a sea filled with danger, from Christians, from secularization, and from Muslims…”  He resents the attacks made on Jewish liberal thinkers like Tony Kushner and Jacqueline Rose and the late Tony Judt who are often labeled self-hating Jews.  He sees their comments as heroic since it reflects their belief that they expect more from the Jewish state and are willing to voice their opinions publicly. 

These feel like fighting words to Jews like myself who see great danger in his loose talk about the Jewish plight.  I am a secular atheistic liberal humanist Jew just like Alan Wolfe, but not an amnesiac.  Wolfe seems to have tremendous trouble accepting Jewish vulnerability.  He doesn’t waste a drop of ink mourning for them, or the Holocaust, or the Jewish oppression he has witnessed throughout his life.  His passionless intellectuality will irritate many readers and confuse them.  He refuses to accept that, as Harold Bloom wrote years ago, “the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today, the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli, and this modern trial of the Jews, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.” 

Anthony Julius, the author of “Trials of the Diaspora,” points out that much of what is said about Israel is frighteningly deplorable.  Julius adds, “There’s a frightening animus, a one-eyed assessment of the dynamic of the conflict there.  The cartoons coming out of the Arab world are couched in particularly anti-Semitic imagery of the Jew as hooked-nose and ringleted, behaving oppressively to the Arab.”  He adds that more troubling is the extreme rhetoric and violent behavior of Hamas and the atrocious amount of anti-Semitic discourse in the Muslim communities around the world.  He cites those who equate Israel to Nazi Germany and Zionism to Nazism as the most heinous.  But Wolfe dismisses Anthony Julius and describes him critically as possessing the “luxury of self-pity, and the moral status associated with being a victim, without any of the perils that define that condition.”  Julius seems to have had men like Alan Wolfe in mind when he wrote, “There is a small history to be written of Jewish critics’ insensibility to the anti-Semitism of anti-Semitic works.”

Still, one can understand why Wolfe feels the pull to extricate himself from the burden of Jewish history, memory, grief, and obligation.  Philip Roth confronted these issues when he wrote “Operation Shylock” in 1993.  In it, there are two Philip Roth’s; the one we are familiar with and his alter ego who believes Israeli’s Ashkenazi Jews should return to their ancestral homes in Europe to fulfill their Diasporist destinies.  Roth’s alter ego has it all worked out.  The anti-Semitism that remains in Europe will be controlled by a new organization called Anti-Semites Anonymous that even has its own 12-step program.  Roth’s alter ego is not afraid to criticize the policies of the Israeli government that harm Palestinians and leave Israel vulnerable to charges of wrongdoing.  He believes eventually the Arabs will wipe out the Jews or the Jews will have to destroy them with nuclear weapons and inadvertently destroy themselves.  Roth’s alter ego sees Israel as a no-win situation.  Better to flee now for the Diaspora! 

Roth grew up in a tight-knit home in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J., not far from Philadelphia, where Alan Wolfe was raised.  Roth claims his neighborhood was mostly secular, and he never saw a skullcap or a beard on any of his Jewish neighbors.  Like Wolfe, Philip Roth’s life was enmeshed in America and the pursuit of success.  He remembers that when he would ask his grandmother where she came from, she’d say “Don’t worry about it.  I forgot already.”  But Roth didn’t forget and much of his fiction explores the emotional contradictions inherent in forgetting.  Wolfe seems to have really forgotten. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Are Jews losing their story?

As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?

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

Seeking a Jewish ‘Reality’ for the YouTube generation

While the suits of the Jewish-American foundation circuit were banging their heads on their office desks, grappling for ways to engage an increasingly secular, drifting Diaspora youth, 28-year-old Jessie Kahnweiler, a loud Atlanta native with a Shirley Temple “Jewfro,” walked onto the scene in a pickle hat and made a crack about her pimps ’n’ hoes-themed bat mitzvah.

The suits caught on soon enough. Late in 2011, Kahnweiler, who had recently moved to Los Angeles and was working odd jobs in the film industry, scored a $40,000 grant from the Six Points Fellowship. The arts fellowship, according to its director, Josh Feldman, is an offshoot of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, built on “the realization that culture is … a major portal for meeting these young Jewish adults who are no longer going to synagogue.”

Kahnweiler was the New York fellowship’s first L.A. gamble, its first filmmaker and arguably now its most famous export. Her 11-part series, “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” — filmed using the Six Points grant money plus a few thousand dollars from crowd-funding Web site Jewcer — has amassed around 300,000 views collectively on YouTube.

This makes her grant-givers giddy. “Ninety percent of those were watched on mobile devices,” Feldman said. He believes this “confirms that young Jewish adults are looking for content and ways to engage in Jewish life. And when a project is made that actually speaks to them and their generation, they will watch it the way they view content — which often is on their phone.” 

The “Chutzpah” series followed Kahnweiler on a bouncy, messy spiritual journey from her bubbe’s funeral to an L.A. synagogue to a Holocaust survivor’s porch patio to the Holy Land and back, as she attempted to conquer the question: What does my Judaism mean to me? Until the 20-something could find a way to “live Jewish” for at least a year, according to the storyline, she would be cut off from the grand Jewish fortune that her bubbe had left behind.

If that sounds a little on the dorky side, she kind of thought so, too.

“I really half-assed my pitch,” Kahnweiler said of applying to the fellowship. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to get this. I’m the worst Jew.’ It was sort of like, OK, let me make something about being Jewish, so I’ll cover bagels, I’ll cover temples in L.A. — it wasn’t from a personal place at all.”

And when, much to her shock, she was crowned a Six Points fellow, Kahnweiler said, “It was just dread. Like, ‘Oh, great. What the hell am I going to do?’ ”

But after some nudging from Feldman to take the creative process more slowly and allow herself a research phase, Kahnweiler’s fictional journey toward Jewishness began butting into her own reality.

Just months after her on-screen bubbe died, Kahnweiler said, her real-life grandmother passed away as well. And although the latter wasn’t the cranky old tradition-monger portrayed in the film (“I swear she died so she could get me alone in a room with a Jewish doctor,” Kahnweiler says on-screen), her own bubbe’s death did, in a way, help bring out her inner chutzpah.

“My grandma would always smile at me in this way whenever I would be loud and crazy,” Kahnweiler said in a phone interview. “I feel her smile all the time — and it’s especially when I’m making noise and making a ruckus. That’s what my grandma would be proud of.”

In Jessie Kahnweiler’s most recent, and most controversial short, “Meet My Rapist,” the filmmaker, while at a local farmers market, runs into the man who raped her while she was studying abroad in Vietnam eight years earlier. So she takes the rapist on a tour of her current life, including to a family dinner and a job interview. 

For the spiritual climax of the “Chutzpah” series, Kahnweiler hits Israel like an untamed Yankee in a spotted blue sundress, a kiddie backpack and an oversized hair bow. She skips through the tear gas at the West Bank separation wall, hitting on Israeli soldiers and Palestinian activists alike, and wheels a watermelon around Jerusalem’s Old City in a baby carriage. In one scene, Kahnweiler dresses up like an Orthodox Jewish man in order to enter the strictly male prayer section of the Western Wall. In another, she takes shots at a Tel Aviv nightclub until dawn, then runs toward the ocean, screaming up at God: “Come on, reveal yourself! Burn my bush!”

“I meet a lot of self-hating Jews in L.A.,” she said over the phone. “They’re like, ‘Ugh, I’m Jewish.’ And it’s like, well, yeah, you are that kind of Jewish. But I’m not that kind of Jewish. I’m sexy, inquisitive, dangerous — why can’t that be Jewish? Why does my Judaism have to be allergies and overeating?”

In Israel, Kahnweiler said, she witnessed a different approach. “You meet all these people that are like, ‘I’m passionate, and I’m sexy, and I’m a risk-taker — I’m an Israeli.’ I think that was the turning point for me, when I shot in Israel, and I realized, ‘Oh — that can be Jewish.’ ”

Although “Dude, Where’s My Chutzpah?” never lands on a definitive answer for what it means to “live Jewish,” as it sets out to do, its many parts do add up to a greater sense of awareness for both Kahnweiler and her followers. And now that the series is over, the filmmaker’s openness and curiousness toward herself and strangers — her ultimate incarnation of living as a nouveau Jew — is apparent in everything she does.

Kahnweiler’s 2013 follow-up series, “White Noise,” watches her run around Los Angeles, conducting racially themed street interviews with topics such as “Why do black guys want to bang me?” and “Can a white chick be a Latino day laborer?” They sound pretty bad at first — girl knows how to troll — but the videos are surprisingly warm and nuanced, and reveal loads about our own preconceptions.

Her moments of comedic relief are never predictable but always distinctly Kahnweiler. She’ll raise her eyebrows halfway up her forehead, stretch her mouth sheepishly across her face and kind of cock her head, as if to say, “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m ignorant.”

But she embraces ignorance, and stereotypes — if only as a weapon against apathy. If the other Angelenos shuffling past the Latino day laborers and homeless guys on Skid Row are the realistic ones, Kahnweiler would rather approach the world from a clean slate of cluelessness. So she kicks it outside Home Depot for a day and asks a man named Jose what kind of job he would have if he were king of the world.

“It’s difficult to answer,” he says. “Well, I’m a difficult woman,” she replies. “Welcome.” 

Kahnweiler’s most-viewed short to date is her most recent, and her most controversial: an anecdotal piece titled “Meet My Rapist.” In the film, Kahnweiler is flirting with vendors at a farmers market when she runs into a dude (or more a beard in a hoodie) who raped her eight years ago while she was studying abroad in Vietnam. So she takes her rapist on a tour of her current life, including to a family dinner and a job interview.


Financial planning for a move to Israel

What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

On Israeli religious reforms, Naftali Bennett still figuring out road map

Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries — religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs — Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.

“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”

But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel — establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions — don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.

“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.

He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue — a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.

“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.

“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach — I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”

Bennett says his approach to religious reforms is governed by three considerations: The changes must be good for Israel, done in discussion with the relevant constituencies and cannot contravene Jewish law, or halachah. Some Orthodox rabbis merely enabling egalitarian prayer, as Bennett did by building the Kotel platform, violates halachah. Bennett said he’s still figuring out where his red lines are.

“Any move by any Jew that gets him closer to Judaism, to our heritage, is a good thing,” Bennett said. “At the same time, there is a value — notwithstanding the disagreements — there is a value of having, on an official level, let’s say, lines that we don’t cross.”

It’s not clear how much wiggle room that leaves Bennett on such issues as non-Orthodox conversions or Conservative and Reform weddings that do not conform to halachah. He has made clear he opposes civil marriage legislation, though he says he wants to find some kind of solution for couples who have no ability to marry under Israeli law, such as interfaith couples.

“This is perhaps one of the most sensitive issues that we’re only starting to learn and map out what we can do,” he said. “What we don’t want to do certainly is encourage couples that can get married according to halachah and encourage them to get married in a different way.”

Bennett said he met for the first time two weeks ago with coalition partners Lapid, Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party and Avigdor Liberman of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu to discuss areas in which they can push religious reforms. Bennett already is promoting a bill that as with marriage, would make it easier for Israeli non-Jews to convert to Judaism by enabling them to choose any rabbinical court in the country for their conversion.

Though he leads Israel’s fourth-largest political party, Bennett is a relative newcomer to the Israeli political scene. Following his army service in the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal and law school, Bennett became a successful software entrepreneur. The technology company he founded in his 20s, Cyota, was sold for $145 million when Bennett was 33.

Bennett said his combat experience during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 changed his career trajectory, propelling him into politics. He worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a couple of years, returned to the world of technology to run another company (Soluto, which was sold two weeks ago for approximately $100 million), led the Yesha Council of Israeli settlers and decided to run for the Knesset.

Stunning the Israeli political establishment with his meteoric rise, Bennett transformed what had been a moribund political party — the National Religious Party, which held three Knesset seats — into Jewish Home, which captured 12 seats in last January’s elections.

Bennett quickly formed an alliance with Lapid, the other rising star in Israeli politics, whose newly founded Yesh Atid party captured 19 Knesset seats. Together the two forced their way into Netanyahu’s coalition government, sidelining the haredi Orthodox parties, which were left in the opposition for the first time in years.

“This was a tactical alliance, but it grew into something that today is more profound,” Bennett said of his relationship with Lapid, who is now finance minister. On their work together cutting Israel’s budget, Bennett said he and Lapid jumped off the proverbial cliff together, like “Thelma and Louise.”

Bennett says economic issues occupy 60 percent of his time, with the balance divided between his other two ministerial portfolios, being a member of the inner security Cabinet, politics and life. Bennett, 41, has four children under the age of 10.

One of his main economic projects is getting haredi Orthodox Israelis to work. Bennett is promoting a bill that would grant a four-year reprieve from the military draft to 50,000 haredi Israelis if they enter the workforce. He wants to complement this with a $142 million program to train the haredim for the labor market, incentivize them to work and employers to hire them.

Bennett wants to do something similar for Israeli-Arab women, who have relatively low participation rates in the labor force.

Though Bennett maintains a hard line on Palestinian issues — he opposes Palestinian statehood — he says it hasn’t really come up much. Few in the current Israeli government seem to believe the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will bear significant fruit.

The primary regional issue that preoccupies Bennett is Iran. He spent part of last week in Washington lobbying U.S. lawmakers against easing sanctions pressure on Tehran during the current negotiations, arguing that only economic pressure will prompt the mullahs to agree to a deal.

“We need to create an either-or situation,” Bennett said. “Either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program.”

He also praised the Obama administration for being a “very good friend of Israel” and hailed what he called a “quality leap in defense ties” between the two countries.

But what Bennett seems most excited about is what he views as a historic opportunity for the current Israeli government to tackle domestic issues.

“I call it the 70-70 rule: Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues, but we spend most of our time on the 30 percent,” he said. “So this time no, we’ll do the 70 thing.”

List of acceptable Diaspora rabbis does not exist, Chief Rabbinate says

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate said it does not have a list of Diaspora rabbis whose testimony it accepts on clarifying one’s Jewish or marital status.

Responding to a request made in September by the Tzohar rabbinical organization to see such a list, a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate told The Jerusalem Post that “no list exists either hidden or public.”

According to the report, which appeared Monday, the spokesman said every request made for clarification of Jewish and marital status “is examined individually and thoroughly.”

Tzohar says an increasing number of Jewish couples from North America have had difficulty  in registering upcoming marriages with the Chief Rabbinate because the testimony of their communal rabbis was not recognized.

It had made its request under the freedom of information law, The Jerusalem Post reported after seeing the request. The request was filed on Sept. 12; the Chief Rabbinate was required to respond in 30 days.

Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav told the newspaper that he recently met with Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau to discuss the issue.

The Chief Rabbinate spokesman told the Post that for a Diaspora rabbi’s criteria to be accepted, he must be ordained by a recognized Orthodox Jewish institution; he and his community must live according to Orthodox Judaism; and he must have the appropriate skills and knowledge to sign such a document.

The spokesman said the number of rabbis currently being rejected is consistent with previous years.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Caucus on Religion and State is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the Chief Rabbinate’s rejection of letters certifying the Jewishness of immigrants to Israel by North American Orthodox rabbis.

The hearing comes after a request by the ITIM organization, an Israeli advocacy group that helps Jewish Israelis obtain services for life-cycle events, that the rabbinate be required to clarify what it takes for a rabbi’s testimony to be recognized.

In a letter sent to the chief rabbis last week, ITIM called for a clear policy relating to who can certify someone’s Jewishness.

“We believe that the rabbinate should recognize Orthodox rabbis who come from established institutions,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of ITIM. “It is an outrage that rabbis are being rejected based on individuals merits or demerits.”

Under a proposal floated by ITIM, institutions that have existed for more than 10 years with more than 50 members would have their members automatically accepted by the rabbinate.  The proposal also includes mechanisms that prevent abuses.

ITIM made the proposal in the wake of the rejection by the Chief Rabbinate of a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by well-known U.S. Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Temple Mount closed to Jewish visitors

Jerusalem Police closed the Temple Mount to Jewish visitors based on intelligence that Palestinians planned to cause disturbances there.

Tuesday’s closure, during the festival of Sukkot when tens of thousands of Israeli and Diaspora Jews visit Jerusalem, came after police received the  information about the potential unrest, according to reports.

Thousands already have visited the site during the weeklong holiday. Jews are not permitted to pray there. The site has limited visiting hours.

Last week at the start of the holiday, two Israeli police officers were injured at the site when dozens of Arab youths threw rocks at police and visitors. The Islamic Movement in Israel has called on its supporters to riot at the Temple Mount.

The closure forced the cancellation of a visit by hundreds of Jewish children and teens as part of an annual educational event sponsored by the Women for the Holy Temple Organization. The visit had been coordinated with police.

Knesset member Shuli Muallem of the Jewish Home party also had coordinated a visit for Tuesday.

On Monday, Temple Mount activist Michael Fuah was arrested for performing a Sukkot ritual — shaking a lulav and etrog — at the site.

Is Sharansky the only one who doesn’t want confrontation at the Western Wall?

In the last two years, the Western Wall in Jerusalem — also known as the Kotel — has become a place of controversy as much as of worship. It’s the site of a battle that has long been waged by a group called Women of the Wall, who are demanding they be able to pray in the women’s section wearing tallits — Jewish prayer shawls — and also be permitted to read from the Torah, rights that the rabbi of the Kotel, backed by the police, wouldn’t give them. 

Suddenly, however, the battle has peaked with the assistance of North American Jewry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hearing reports that this issue was becoming highly disruptive in Israel-Diaspora relations, asked Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, to find a solution. About a month ago, Sharansky presented to Jewish leaders a solution that goes well beyond the issue of Women of the Wall. It proposes that the Jewish people take back control of the Kotel, removing power over it from the rabbinate in order to make it a place where all Jews feel comfortable. Sharansky proposed adding a third section, a place where Jews of non-Orthodox practice could pray near the Kotel as they please. 

The proposal was initially well received and seemed to be on the right track. It was, that is, until an Israeli court highly complicated things by ruling against the authority of the rabbinate, thereby turning attention away from the long-term compromise and reigniting the battle over whether women activists can wear tallits in the women’s section.

A climactic moment in this controversy was deflated by the rough humor of the big-mouthed Knesset Member Miri Regev (Likud), the head of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, having just ended a short speech before the committee during its discussion on the Kotel, pulled a tallit from her bag and wrapped it around her shoulders. This was no big surprise: Hoffman has always been somewhat theatrical in her presentations. Her opponents attribute such behavior to her desire for public attention — her supporters say drawing such attention is the only way forward to winning her cause, which they believe she is on the verge of achieving.

[Translation of Women of the Wall Jerusalem District Court decision]

That day at the Knesset, though, Hoffman came up against an opponent as capable of grandiose gestures as she is. Regev, head of the committee and not an avid supporter of Women of the Wall — she’s traditional and close to the Orthodox establishment — flatly demanded that Hoffman take off the tallit. The Knesset, Regev said, isn’t a place for shows. Hoffman treated this demand as an insult. Can I not get into the Knesset with a tallit? she asked. Regev refused to play this game of indignation. “Yesterday,” she said, cutting short the discussion, “a group of greengrocers was here, and they weren’t allowed in with their cucumbers either.”

A month and a half have passed since Sharansky presented the outline of his proposal for compromise to Jewish leaders in New York and got a nod of approval. A couple of days later, traveling with Netanyahu to London, he got another nod of approval, and he moved to the planning stages of the process in meetings with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser and with National Security Council Adviser Yaakov Amidror. Sharansky’s compromise was moving forward when the judge’s ruling caught its architects by surprise, threatening now to overturn their hope of compromise.

It was a classic case of government folly where everybody is merely doing their job, no one is really at fault, and yet the outcome was unfortunate. On April 11, police detained five Women of the Wall activists — just as it used to do whenever women were caught with a loaded tallit at the Kotel. That same afternoon, the detainees were in court and then released by a judge who couldn’t find any reasonable justification for the arrest. 

The government — sensing a blow to any future similar arrests, and hence to its long-standing position that women can only pray at the Kotel if they abide by the rules set by the rabbi of the Kotel — decided to appeal. Bad mistake: This led to the second decision, by a district court, this time officially repealing Israel’s policy at the Kotel. The Women of the Wall, the judge ruled, can pray there as they wish and the state has no business dictating strict Orthodox custom in the women’s section. Thus, the government lost twice: It not only lost the appeal and its self-proclaimed mandate to manage prayers at the Kotel, but it also lost the path to compromise as the new rule made the implementation of Sharansky’s plan much more complicated, hence reducing the chances of what seems the only solution that could put an end to the ongoing friction.

This was evident in the second Knesset discussion, at which Sharansky himself was invited to speak. He believes a solution to the problem can’t be found at the courts or by attempting to win the case through legislation. But many others seem to have other beliefs. Some are like Hoffman, who feel they are winning without having to compromise. Others are like the Charedi members of Knesset — too angry to listen and in a vindictive mood. On Monday, in a meeting at the Rabbinate Council, Sharansky heard from the rabbis that the Kotel is a red line. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar explained to his guest that Hoffman achieved something remarkable by unifying the Charedi camp. Or, as Amar preferred to describe it at the meeting: “She unified the Israeli society.” 

Sharansky’s plan includes building a new platform at the southern side of the Mughrabi Gate that will serve as a third area for prayer near the Kotel. There, people would be able to pray as they wish, men and women together, Reform and Conservative. In the meeting with the rabbis, the speakers were weary of the objections: Israelis, one of them warned, might actually prefer having the third section. In the rabbinate’s dictionary, giving the public a choice is dangerous. Thus, the rabbis don’t yet approve of the plan and are waiting to hear from the Ministry of Religious Services as to what concessions and guarantees might be extracted from its dialogue with Women of the Wall leadership in exchange for such a section.


 Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, wearing a tallit at the Western Wall, is detained by Israeli police.

Last Sunday afternoon, I called Hoffman in Kansas City, where she was visiting, and found her in no mood for either concessions or guarantees. In recent weeks, Hoffman has changed her tone a little bit, moving from fully supporting the Sharansky plan to fully supporting the “process.” At the Knesset she said she was too busy worrying about “now” to be able to support “an imaginary scenario.” On Sunday, she was even clearer: “I will not commit to a plan on paper.” A veteran of many battles, Hoffman is scarred by unfulfilled promises and unmet commitments. Of course, she wants “a negotiated solution” and “to avoid confrontation,” but right now, with the court on her side, she has little reason to jump onto the compromise train.

Sharansky’s plan, meanwhile, is slowly moving forward according to the schedule he laid out at a Knesset committee meeting. There are licenses to get, plans to finalize, negotiations to conduct. In two weeks’ time, he will have another meeting with the Jewish leadership to whom he initially presented the plan, and they will discover that advances have been made. 

Thinking about the way forward, Sharansky had two obvious obstacles to overcome: first was the archeologists, who voiced vehement opposition to a plan that would put their findings of ancient Jerusalem under the roof of the new platform. At the Knesset meeting, they went as far as threatening Sharansky that they will turn to United Nations’ agencies to put pressure on Israel until it abandons its plan. But talks with them in recent weeks give reason for hope that theirs is a manageable problem. A second possible opposition might stem from sensitivity toward any new construction by Israel in the Holy Basin. Even some proponents of the Sharansky plan wonder whether it can overcome possible objections from Jordanian and Palestinian authorities. In government circles, there was some debate whether Israel should talk to the Jordanians in advance, or whether it would be easier for both sides if Israel doesn’t corner the Jordanians into having to spell out a position on this matter.

These difficulties may be serious, but they pale in comparison to the real threat for the Sharansky plan: that his plan will be deemed extraneous within the Jewish world in light of the court’s decisions. At least in the short term, until everybody comes back to their senses. 

Just as Women of the Wall and some of its allies have altered their postures and are focusing on their post-court-ruling tactics, the Orthodox camp has also toughened its language since the ruling. “Along with the Chief Rabbinate and other great rabbis, we must examine if we should oppose the proposal referring to Robinson’s Arch,” Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, said in a statement. Rabinowitz is a slick and well-connected operator — last week he was the rabbi presiding over the much talked-about wedding of Interior Minister Gideon Saar and celebrity TV anchor Geula Even. For him to reconsider his support of Sharansky is probably a calculated move: He does it because he sees more battles ahead.

Sadly, Rabinowitz is probably correct in this assessment. When it comes to religious affairs, the Jews love the battle more than the compromise and seem ready to keep it going. Knesset Member Yitzhak Herzog, the former minister and cabinet secretary, who was intensely involved in the first Kotel compromise (when the Robinson’s Arch area was first cleared for limited religious use about a decade ago), warns that “those who want an uncompromising legal solution to the problem will only lead to unnecessary confrontation.” Alas, Sharansky seems to be the last man standing who doesn’t want confrontation.

On May 10, Rosh Chodesh Sivan (the first day of the month of Sivan), and following a decision by the attorney general not to appeal the court ruling, women were allowed to pray at the Kotel for the first time without the threat of arrest by police. Of course, this didn’t mean a calm and peaceful prayer. Charedi rabbis — and even some Zionist-Orthodox rabbis — sent thousands of Charedi men and women to protest against the new rules and against the praying women. The protest was, at times, violent and ugly. And the battle became uglier still this week, with a vandal’s painting of graffiti reading “Women of the Wall are scum” and “Jerusalem is holy” on the home of Women of the Wall member Peggy Sidor. 

Some of the rabbis, asked for their interpretation, privately say that the current turmoil is all the fault of the court: “The judge essentially told us that the only way for us to prevent this provocation [Women of the Wall prayer] is to be aggressive,” one of them told me. So, aggressive they intend to be. June 6 will be the next Rosh Chodesh prayer service on the Women of the Wall calendar, and rumors started spreading this week that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, might attend in person, making the June confrontation much more volatile than last month’s — as he will not be coming alone. 

If this battle was only about Women of the Wall’s original goal of praying once a month wearing a tallit in the women’s section, some of the rabbis might have caved by now. “A couple of women coming to the Kotel from time to time with a tallit” is no big deal, one rabbi told me. However, they look at Hoffman and don’t really believe that this is her true endgame. They see in her a determination to keep pushing the envelope. The ultimate goal of Women of the Wall, as an official background document states, is to “enable freedom of religion and freedom of observance for all in the Western Wall.” The meaning of “freedom” and “for all” is open to interpretation, and the Orthodox don’t much trust either Hoffman or the courts to have the interpretive power over such matters.

In fact, the Sharansky compromise is also about much more than Women of the Wall’s monthly prayer. It is about having a Kotel that serves Jews of all stripes and denominations, a Kotel where any Jew can pray, or just visit, without being compelled to abide by rules of Charedi making. Sharansky has an ambitious goal for which he needs partners. But those partners, despite their faith in Sharansky, have little faith in one another, and apparently no one has yet reached the point of battle fatigue.

The women don’t trust the government and see the court victory as a sign that compromise might not be necessary. The Orthodox don’t trust the women and don’t yet understand that Israeli society is changing and is losing patience with Orthodox monopolies. The government doesn’t trust the progressive movements, and suspects — not without reason — that ending the friction at the Kotel would prove to be the beginning of some other conflict somewhere else. The progressive movements don’t trust the Orthodox or the government — and why would they, after so many years of condescending marginalization? 

Thus, as someone jokingly said in a recent meeting with Reform and Conservative leaders, when it comes to the Kotel compromise, “They all behave like Palestinians.” Namely, they would all reject a good compromise in the hope that someday they can have it all. Of course, such an approach could also end in losing it all.

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

Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel: Is it possible?

Every week, dozens of bar mitzvah boys from Israel and the Diaspora celebrate their rite of passage at the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, which, after the Temple Mount, is Judaism’s holiest site.   

Many Diaspora families, especially from the more liberal streams of Judaism, are therefore surprised to learn that Israel forbids women and girls from doing the equivalent — celebrating a bat mitzvah at the Kotel. 

According to Israeli law, “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.” Women are forbidden to read from the Torah, to wear prayer shawls or to blow the shofar there. 

Several members and supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW), a multidenominational group of religious-activist women who come to pray at the Wall every Rosh Chodesh, the start of the Jewish month, have been detained and sometimes arrested for wearing prayer shawls in the women’s section. 

For those girls who wish to celebrate their bat mitzvah near the Wall, without these restraints and scrutiny, there is an attractive alternative: Robinson’s Arch, a part of the Southern Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple. 

Named after Edward Robinson, the scholar who identified the remains of the site in 1838, the arch historically served as an overpass at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. 

Part of the Jerusalem Archeological Park & Davidson Center, it is a tranquil, picturesque site just outside the Western Wall Plaza. It is the place designated by the Israeli government for religious ceremonies that do not meet the strict ultra-Orthodox standards established and enforced by the Ministry of Religious Services. 

It is commonplace to see egalitarian or women-only groups praying here, in prayer shawls and reading from a Torah scroll.  

It is also an option for some Modern Orthodox families of boys becoming b’nai mitzvah who feel uncomfortable with the total gender segregation at the Kotel: the mechitza (divider) between the men’s and women’s sections has been built higher and higher in recent years, due to Ministry of Religious Affairs directives, making it difficult for some women to feel part of the simcha taking place in the men’s section.   

Non-Orthodox Jews have held egalitarian prayers at Robinson’s Arch since 2000, and Women of the Wall has often read from the Torah here (though not in recent months), following prayers at the Kotel. 

Photo by Michele Chabin

Both WOW and the non-Orthodox movements would prefer to be allowed to pray according to their own traditions at the Kotel, and not have to turn to Robinson’s Arch, and, in response, the government has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to study the issue. He recently proposed a plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza to includ a space for egalitarian prayer. It would include Robinson’s Arch, but be separated by several walls and a bridge, according to media reports.

Some have proposed allocating non-Orthodox groups one hour per week, or per month, at the Kotel to pray the way they feel comfortable. The Ministry of Religious Services has so far rejected this idea, believing it violates Jewish law and would hurt the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox worshippers. “We hope and pray to welcome women and girls for b’not mitzvah at the Kotel some day,” said Shira Pruce, WOW’s director of public relations.

“Right now, it would be impossible for a woman to be bat mitzvah at the Kotel. She and her family would be interrupted, harassed by police and detained. She wouldn’t be able to complete the service, certainly not with a Torah, as of right now.”

Although WOW at one time welcomed bat mitzvah girls and women to Robinson’s Arch, that isn’t an option through them at the moment, Pruce said. WOW’s board of directors recently voted to hold future Torah readings from a Chumash at the Kotel, as an act of civil disobedience, Ha’aretz reported. 

Those wishing to hold a simcha at the Arch should contact the Masorti/Conservative movement in Jerusalem, which manages the site for this purpose, 12 to 18 months prior to the simcha.

More often than not, it is the prospective bar/bat mitzvah’s rabbi who contacts the movement, which will issue an entry permit (ishur) and schedule a time, almost always in the early morning. Entrance is through the Davidson Center, which charges for admission — even to bar/bat mitzvah families — after 9:15 a.m. 

The Masorti movement maintains a list of rabbis (also Reform) with experience working at Robinson’s Arch. Their fees range from $300 to $1,500, depending on what services they render and whether they serve as tour guides the rest of the day. 

Ivette Schirelman, the movement’s director of resource development, said certain restrictions apply at the Arch, due to its status as an archeological site. 

These include a prohibition against bringing musical instruments or candy (to throw at the bat/bar mitzvah) into the park. Also, there is no seating, but if given advance notice, a few chairs can be arranged. If wheelchair lifts are needed, the movement needs time to ensure they are unlocked and functional.

Once the simcha is complete, many families head to the Kotel to take photos. It’s also possible to take guided tours of the Davidson Center and southern wall excavations and/or visit the wonderful City of David archeological park, both for a fee.  

Another option is to explore the Western Wall Tunnels at the Kotel (book way ahead) and the winding alleyways of the Old City’s four quarters before stopping for brunch in the Jewish Quarter or one of the restaurants in the Mamilla shopping district outside Jaffa Gate (reservations are strongly advised, especially in upscale Mamilla). 

“Linda from Florida,” a mother whose son, Xander, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch, wrote in a blog how much she appreciated the ability to personalize the ceremony. 

“I wrote a blessing for my son and read it to him, my older kids participated in saying prayers, along with my brother, mom and aunt. For us it was very meaningful and positive. It was the highlight of our trip to Israel.” 

Robinson’s Arch “was beautiful as it provided a peaceful and spiritual setting,” Xander’s mother wrote. 

For more information, contact Rabbi Sandra Kochmann at kotel@masorti.org.il. 

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Historical experiences and perception

Brief synopsis: The most puzzling aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be that after 65 years of violence, enmity and suffering, it remains unresolved when coexistence is inevitable and a two-state solution remains the only viable option. Although there are many contentious issues that must be specifically addressed, directly impacting every conflicting issue is the broader psychological dimension of the conflict, which makes it increasingly intractable. To mitigate the conflict, we must first look into the elements that inform the psychological dimension and how to alleviate them as prerequisites to finding a solution. This is the second of six articles; click here for the first article.

Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the scars that each side carries from their respective traumatic pasts. Their perceptions of each other were engendered by their independent religious traditions as well as their historical experiences as they related to one another. Unfolding events – violence, mutual recrimination etc. – between Israelis and Palestinians over the past seven decades, however, have made it virtually impossible for them to settle their differences. Maintaining an adversarial mindset toward each other has thus provided the justification and rationale to perpetuate their historical grievances through constant rancorous public narratives, placing the blame for the continuing discord on the other.

The Jewish experience throughout the Diaspora was one filled with discrimination, persecution, anti-Semitism, and expulsion culminating in the Holocaust. The genocide perpetrated during the Holocaust was surely something new in history: never before had a powerful state turned its immense resources to the industrialized manufacturing of corpses; never before had the extermination of an entire people been carried out with the swiftness of an assembly-line. The fact that many Jews were prevented from avoiding death camps by immigrating to Palestine added yet another layer to the horrific experiences of the Jewish people. The Jews have carried the scars of this past with them and still hold to the view that it can happen again unless they remain vigilant and relentless in protecting themselves at any cost. With this past in mind, the establishment of the state of Israel was seen not only as the last refuge to provide protection for the Jewish people but also the realization and hope of both secular Zionism and biblical prophecy (i.e. the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland). Thus, religious and non-observant Jews believe this trust must be guarded with absolute and unwavering zeal.

Yet, this historical sense of victimization and injustice has served to nurture the allegiance that each Israeli feels towards the state and each other with naturally-engendered, negative emotional sentiments towards the enemy. From the Israeli perspective, the establishment of Israel on the heels of the Holocaust was seen (and continues to be viewed) as the last chance to create a refuge; they must therefore remain on guard to protect Jews’ welfare and wellbeing wherever they may live and at whatever cost. This sense of being victimized resulted from an intentional infliction of harm in the past, universally viewed as utterly unjust and immoral. Yet, it has led to a lack of empathy towards perceived enemies; for example, it manifested itself in Israel shirking responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and violating human rights, all the while promoting self-righteousness.

Compounded, these conditions inherently endure, particularly when accompanied by extensive and continuing violence against Israel and growing concerns over national security. They are further strengthened by the Palestinians’ public narrative, which openly promotes the rejection of the very existence of the state. The Palestinians, for their part, have hardly made any serious effort to comprehend and appreciate the psychological implications of the Jews’ historical experience of religious persecution. Instead of understanding the Israeli mindset that was formed by the horrific past, the Palestinians have either denied the Holocaust altogether, or bemoaned that it did happen. It is not that the Palestinians should be held responsible for the Jews’ historic tragedy, but they failed at a minimum to appreciate the Israelis’ mindset in effectively dealing with the conflict.

For the Palestinians, the experience of the Nakba (the catastrophe), precipitated by the 1948 war, was no less calamitous. From their perspective, they were living in their own land, albeit for centuries under Ottoman rule and then under British Mandatory authority. They are absolutely convinced that during the 1948 war they were forced out of their homes by Israelis (in fact, many were encouraged to leave by their Arab brethren and return “following the defeat of Israel” for the spoil.)

Either way, over 700,000 Palestinians found themselves as refugees, an experience that has lasted for decades and continues to endure, leaving an indelible impression on their psyche; currently, nearly 5 million Palestinian are refugees. This traumatic experience served to bind Palestinians together in the same way that the Jews coalesced following the Holocaust, with each side believing their tragic historical experiences are unparalleled in scope and magnitude. The fact that the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian refugee problem over many decades to their advantage does not change the reality on the ground; it did not alter the Palestinians’ mindset, their perception of what the Israelis have done, or their sentiment and disposition about their plight.

Subsequent and frequent violent encounters between the two sides, especially after the 1967 war, further aggravated the Palestinian refugee problem. This war not only created another wave of refugees, but also set the stage for a bloody confrontation, during which many thousands lost their lives on both sides. The Israeli settlement project provided daily blows to Palestinian pride while demonstrating the futility of their efforts to stem Israeli encroachment on their territory, especially in the West Bank. The occupation and the repeated humiliation of the Palestinians further deepened their resolve to oppose the Israelis at whatever cost, but all was to no avail. The Israelis have proven to be a formidable foe and the Palestinians’ resentment, hatred and animosity have naturally only increased.

Israelis have never fully understood the significance of what the Palestinians have been enduring, how this has impacted their psychological dispositions, and why they have shown no desire to reconcile their differences with Israel. Israelis often argue that since nearly 800,000 Jews left their homes (or as many believe, were forced out) across the Arab Middle East and North Africa and largely settled in Israel, the Palestinian refugees must be considered a de-facto swap with the Jewish refugees. This view not only dismisses the historic trauma experienced by the Palestinians, but also disregards their national aspirations to establish a homeland of their own, especially in light of the 1947 UN resolution (known as the Partition Plan) which called for separate Jewish and Palestinian states. This psychological fixation, reinforced by public narratives and education in schools, has prevented either side from coming to grips with the inevitability of peaceful coexistence.

Understanding the Israeli and the Palestinian mindsets from the historical perspective is central to appreciating their respective resistances to change, which is detrimentally empowered by their historical experiences, especially if they continue to harbor political agendas that overshoot what they can realistically attain. That is, will their historical experiences, bequeathing a sense of mutual victimhood, be mitigated by the changing reality, or will they hold onto it until they achieve their objectives, however illusionary they may be? Indeed, do the Jewish people’s and the Palestinians’ unprecedented historical suffering – although they do not fall into the same category – somehow ontologically elevate them from “victims” to “Victims,” guaranteeing them, and by extension contemporary Israelis and Palestinians, an unconditional status of moral untouchability?

The French philosopher Alain Badiou is right to suggest that we need to question the presumption “that, like an inverted original sin, the grace of having been an incomparable victim can be passed down not only to descendants and to the descendants of descendants but to all who come under the predicate in question, be they heads of state or armies engaging in the severe oppression of those whose lands they have confiscated” (Polemics, 2012). Indeed, the victim mentality has become a political tool in the hands of those who seek to promote their interests at the expense of the opposing political parties, not to mention the enemy.

The Palestinian culture of victimhood, on the other hand, was equally divisive in that it perpetuates the refugee problem by promoting popular refusal of permanent resettlement. Palestinian leaders have also used it as a tool for public indoctrination, ensuring that the Palestinian plight remains central to any political and social discourse. Palestinians and their leaders have carefully and systematically ingrained their victim mentality in the minds of one generation after another through the media, schools and places of worship.

Israelis and Palestinians alike (especially those who, like Hamas, seek the destruction of Israel) must become more self-critical in their use of victimhood; both sides need to realize that neither has a monopoly on the position of “the victim,” and neither is granted a morally unimpeachable status as a consequence of their historical experiences or the shifting realities on the ground. The effect of adverse historical interaction, however, can be mitigated over time or reconciled through dialogue, eventually leading to changes in perception.

Notwithstanding their traumatic historical experiences, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can or should use history to foreshadow the present requirements to make peace. Historical experiences can be both instructive and destructive; a student of history must learn from past experiences but not emulate them and thus obscure a contemporary reality that can no longer be mitigated short of a catastrophe, in particular Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. The Palestinians have every right to demand the immediate end to the occupation and live with dignity; Israel has equal rights to satisfy its legitimate national security concerns. These two requirements are absolutely compatible and provide the only basis on which to build a structure of peaceful coexistence.

Without denying the Jews’ and Palestinians’ sense of victimhood, perpetuating their conflict ironically creates new generations of victims, robbing them of their future only because their elders want to cling to the past.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

David Hartman remembered: A voice that was freed – and now is silence

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before he made a monumental contribution to Jewish life and a significant contribution to Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of  the Shalom Hartman Institute, which is a innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both Rabbinic and lay. It all its program, and especially within teacher training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition and its many texts to students often alienated  from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted to most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the preeminent of Jewish 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history; Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until… until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80 and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice that accepted some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of no-Jews whom he encountered and knew well and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious world view. Unlike Haredi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world, unlike Modern Orthodoxy that seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith,  and unlike Conservative Judaism did not make history paramount and push the halakhic world view to the side.  A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements yet deeply regret his untimely passing for there was much that he left unsaid, one he was free to speak out.

Hartman’s personal journey is significant, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn when it was the second largest Jewish community in New York and also in the United States, he began his studies in the Haredi world, learning in Lakewood, New Jersey, which was then a small but growing Yeshiva. He then moved to Yeshiva University when he encountered the Rav and his marvelous example of religious studies and secular thought. The Rav was immersed in the world of Jewish texts, at home in the spiritual struggle with the religious experience that gave rise to these texts and their understanding of God, religious law and humanity and he was masterfully knowledgeable of the major philosophical traditions – classical and modern – that underscored religious thought.

It was he who advised Hartman to study philosophy with the Jesuits at Fordham University and thus to encounter classical philosophy, Roman Catholic theology – and secular thought – through the eyes of believing Catholics who engaged these text and their own faith. He went to Israel in the euphoria of the post 1967 excitement and could not quite fit in to Israeli institution. Religious institutions were narrow, the secular university was often equally parochial in a rather different way. A believing Zionist, he founded his own institution that gave voice to the issues on the top of his agenda and became a meeting place for secular Jews wanting to encounter Jewish texts and for religious scholars willing and able to engage secular thought.

In his last two books, Hartman has come clean. As he approached 80 and in failing health, with his achievements there is little reason to hold back. He spoke in his own voice and in his own name, struggling to make sense of the world in which he lived.  He was emotionally bound to the world of his youth, the Orthodoxy that reared him to a love of Torah and a passion for halakhah and yet he was a denizen of two worlds not one. He has engaged and accepted the categories of modernity, its engagement with ideas of equality, empowerment and engagement and its moral understanding of freedom. Unlike contemporary his master, the Rav, who was fortified and insulated in his encounter with modernity by an unchanging halakhah that was a historical and who could thus encounter modernity and its value system believing in the unchanging categories that established the framework of the world he encountered and unlike some in contemporary Orthodoxy who reject the modern world in its entirely and build a religious tradition that is oppositional and unlike some in contemporary so called modern Orthodoxy who want to live in a bifurcated world, a modernity untouched by their religious faith and a religious tradition untainted by modernity, Hartman was seeking a synthetic religious life; not a patchwork of dissident notions but an integrated religious tradition, embracing halakah and also engaging and being influenced by modernitry.

He knew and readily admits in the introduction to his work that others might then call him a Conservative Jew, but that was not who he was or where he wanted to go even though he wrestles with the poetic neo-Orthodoxy of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the religious sociology of Mordecai Kaplan, Yet the more he wrestles with these contemporary issues, the more he takes seriously the need to change in response, the more his situation resembles the religious circumstances of those who gave rise to Conservative Judaism passionately loving the tradition,   yet finding that the more they engaged the modern ethos the greater the tension with their faith of origin and their own sense that halakhah could actually accommodate modernity without an openness to change and a willingness to change.

Others will have to carry out that task. They could not do better than to use Hartman as their guide.

Taglit-Birthright Israel roundup

Since its inaugural trip in the winter of 2000, more than 340,000 participants ages 18-26 have traveled to Israel for the first time through Taglit-Birthright Israel. The 10-day excursions have attracted people from 62 countries, bringing together Jews from virtually every cultural and socio-economic background in the Diaspora. To fit the growing demands of such an eclectic cross section of participants, Taglit-Birthright also offers a host of niche trips, including theme and topic-focused programs (think LGBTQ, musicians, finance) and ones catering to those with special needs (there are programs for the hearing impaired, the physically disabled and those with developmental challenges). And if 10 days isn’t long enough, participants can extend their stay in Israel, choosing from a variety of four-day extension trips ranging from the adventurous to the relaxing, or a combination of both. 

Jewish people “come in all sorts of shapes, colors, personalities and backgrounds,” said Traci Szymanski, Taglit-Birthright alumna and former Oranim Educational Initiatives executive. “It is important for Birthright to accommodate young Jews from all facets of life. They have done a great job at partnering with a diversity of organizations to make sure that there is something for everyone.” 

Registration for Birthright trips from the United States and Canada for spring and summer 2013 begins at 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 13.
Past applicants can access early registration at noon EST on Feb. 11. For more information or to register, visit birthrightisrael.com.

The following is a sampling of some specialized Taglit-Birthright trips: 

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to send 360 young Angelenos to Israel on nine trips through a number of different organizers, according to Michael Gropper, program director for Birthright at Federation.

Foremost is their flagship, 10-day program that includes visits to Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. In addition, Federation this year is organizing “Recovering Israel,” in partnership with Beit T’Shuvah, targeting Jews in addiction recovery and those who want to live in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.

Another program, “L.A. LGBT & Ally” is designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths, along with their friends and families. There is a trip focused on the outdoors, and “LA 2 Israel — Persian Style” is geared toward the local Persian community.

Information: 323-761-8186 or mgropper@jewishla.org.


This trip caters to those who want to travel with Israelis for the entire 10-day trip (rather than just part of the time like many of the other programs). Shorashim staff members program alumni with several years of leadership experience who are committed to a pluralistic Jewish experience. Shorashim reaches out to all Jews, from secular to observant. Participants teach each other about Jewish life and culture in Israel and the United States. israelwithisraelis.com.


Crohn’s and IBD Birthright Trip

Organized by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), the trip is intended to provide an experience that counteracts the feelings of insecurity among many young adults with Crohn’s and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). In addition to being provided with emotional support, participants stay two to a room (rather than the standard three). “Although young adults with Crohn’s typically lead productive lives, the episodes of bowel dysfunction that accompany the disorder create potential for shame and social anxiety in this age group,” said Beverly Daley, a social worker at CHLA, who helped found the trip. “The fear of being in public places inhibits international travel; our program is organized around the need for frequent restroom stops and sensitivity to bouts of fatigue and abdominal pain.” For more information, contact Beverly Daley at (323) 361-2490. 


No Limits — In Motion

Routes Travel-Amazing Israel sponsors this trip, which is geared for those in wheelchairs or with mobility limitations. amazingisrael.com.


Ou Israel Free Spirit

For hiking, biking and nature enthusiasts, this trip (affiliated with the Orthodox Union) is for the adventure buff who wants to combine a passion for outdoor activities with the discovery of the land of Israel. israelfreespirit.com.


Sachlav — Israel On The House

One of the largest organizers of Taglit-Birthright trips, Sachlav is a nondenominational trip that features an all-encompassing itinerary offering a mix of outdoor adventure with hands-on experience with Israeli culture and people. Highlights include getting involved with the Lone Soldier campaign and being a guest in the home of Sachlav’s founder and CEO, who meets and greets every participant. israelonthehouse.com.


Aepi And Aephi Members Experience

For sorority sisters and fraternity brothers who want to party after last call at the on-campus keg party, Tlalim-Israel Outdoors offers a few trip options, including Israel Quest, Israel on Foot and Israel by Bike. israeloutdoors.com.

Gifted diaspora teens

Growing up in Los Angeles, Asaf Shasha, then 16, had everything a teenager could want: a loving family, good friends and a comfortable home. 

Still, Shasha couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life than the fancy gadgets prized by the kids at his Jewish day school.   

“Life was becoming very materialistic. Everyone was starting to get their license and cars,” Shasha, now 18 and a high school graduate, recalled recently. “It was a movie life where you were judged by how much you have, how expensive your car is. I didn’t want to get into that. I didn’t want to become that.”

After discussing the issue with his Israeli-born parents, Shasha made a big decision: to finish high school in Israel.

He enrolled in the Naale program (aka the Elite Academy), which in the past 20 years has offered more than 13,000 mature, gifted Diaspora youths a fully subsidized three-year high school experience at one of 26 religious, secular or traditional Israeli boarding schools.

Although fluent in Hebrew, Shasha wanted to be with other teens from English-speaking countries (10 percent hail from the United States, 60 percent from the former Soviet Union and the rest from other nations), so he chose to live and study at the Mosenson Boarding School, on the grounds of the Mosenson Youth Village in Hod Hasharon, whose campus also hosts English-speaking students from other programs.  

The goal of the program “is to connect the students to Israel, to underscore the value of Israel to the Jewish people,” Chaim Meyers, the program’s coordinator at Mosenson, explained during an interview at the leafy campus. 

Roughly 80 percent of Naale students remain in Israel through high school graduation; of these, about 85 percent decide to live in Israel for at least another three years, often in an army uniform or advanced yeshiva program. Of the 15 percent who return to their home countries following graduation, roughly half move back to Israel within a year. 

Regardless of which school they choose, Naale students receive free tuition, room and board, medical insurance, a phone budget to speak to their parents, trips and a one-way ticket to Israel from the Ministry of Education. 

The staff — program coordinators, teachers, counselors, house parents — keep an eagle eye on the teens, virtually all of them living away from home for the first time.   

During their first year in Israel, the students study Hebrew 20 hours a week, in addition to 20 hours of regular coursework, much of which is taught in easy Hebrew.  

“By 11th grade, their second year, they’re studying in Hebrew,” said Ofer Dahan, Naale’s director of development for the Western world. “Everyone studies toward their matriculation and [the academy has] a 93 percent success rate — the highest in Israel.”

The 60 percent of applicants who are accepted to the program must first undergo tests and interviews to gauge their maturity level and their ability to be in a group setting and live away from home. Knowing some Hebrew is helpful but not a prerequisite. 

Once in Israel, students whose families do not live in the country are provided with a host family, where they often spend Shabbat and holidays. 

Floren Avraham’s parents sent her to Israel on the Naale program believing they would join her in a few months. But it took the New Yorkers nearly three years to sell their house and make aliyah (her father is a returning Israeli). 

Taking a seat on the campus’ central lawn, Avraham said she “loved living at home” but that moving on her own to Israel “made me much more independent, more confident, more open. It was an amazing experience, and, looking back, I can’t believe I did it.” 

Avraham’s adjustment was softened by the fact that her grandmother lives just a short walk from the school; her uncle teaches there. 

Unlike Avraham, Kareen Haim decided to move to Israel more out of a sense of adventure than anything else. Her Israeli-born parents are still in Los Angeles, “But they hope to move back to Israel in a few years,” she said. 

“I wanted a change. I went to a fancy school, and I was looking for something more down to earth.  People were snobby and looked down on people like me who aren’t rich.”

Since moving to Israel — which she had visited but didn’t particularly like — Haim has found the people “are a lot warmer than they are in America. And although she has many Israel-based aunts, uncles and cousins, Haim said, “My friends here at Naale have become my family because we rely on each other.” 

Although she calls enrolling in the program the “right decision,” Haim said she wouldn’t have minded a bit more privacy. 

“It’s like living in a small neighborhood where everyone knows everything about you — what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, how late you’re sleeping.” 

The positive side is that “the counselors really care about us; they call us a lot to make sure we’re OK,” Haim said.  

The students emphasized that the decision to attend Israeli boarding school shouldn’t be taken lightly, even by the roughly 50 percent of students who hail from a home with at least one Israeli parent.  

“The adjustment was very, very hard in the beginning, and at some points I wanted to go back home to my parents,” Shasha said of the homesickness he felt. “But thanks to all the support I received from the staff and my parents, and after seeing how happy the 11th- and 12th-graders were, after two months I felt at home.”    

While Dahan said that few if any parents encourage their children to apply to Naale solely to save the cost of a day school education, the fact that the program is free to participants makes boarding school in Israel a viable option.   

Avi Toledano, who oversees Naale at the Education Ministry, said the ministry invests so much into the program because it makes overseas students excited about Israel. 

“The hope is that after the kids come, the family will follow,” Toledano said.

Conference sessions suggest new fundraising model, praise Israel-Diaspora cooperation

Delegates to the Jewish People Policy Institute conference proposed a new model for Jewish communal fundraising and stressed the importance of cooperation between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities.

At a conference session on how the global Jewish community spends its funds, former CBS executive and Fox News founder Mark Pearlman suggested that the community shift in part from focusing on umbrella Federation funding, and instead emphasize funding based on causes — though he noted the importance of Federations to American Jewish communal life.

He also said that Jewish communities should develop better online fundraising, and set up an organization that can monitor fundraising groups and direct donors to specific causes.

“It's not about auditing,” he said. “We need to continue to support the federated system but we need to promote a marketplace like this to get funding to solve causes.”

The conference, taking place Tuesday and Wednesday in Jerusalem, is called “The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” and brings together more than 120 Jewish leaders and experts from around the world. The Institute is a think tank focused on developing policy for the Jewish world.

Israeli President Shimon Peres also addressed the delegates on Tuesday.

Aside from the Jewish communal budget, the conference's sessions dealt with Israeli and Jewish identity and geopolitics.

Tuesday's keynote speaker, French Jewish public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, praised increased unity between Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, as compared to Israel's early days as a state.

In earlier years, “there was the feeling in French Jewry that Israel was a reality that had to be accepted but that it would probably create more problems than it would solve,” he said. “This whole debate seems over. Today it seems the Diaspora and Israel are like the two pillars of the Jewish world and one cannot work without the other.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, JPPI's parent organization, also appeared at the conference on Tuesday.