January 17, 2019

Star Wars and Jewish Cosmic Wars

I made a bet with myself that I could resist using the Star Wars craze as an analogy to write something about the state of the Jewish world. The moment I lost that bet was when I discovered, in Terror in the Name of God, Mark Juergensmeyer’s landmark book about religious extremism, the concept of “cosmic war.”  Then I realized that, just as Darth Vader and Han Solo are involved in a cosmic struggle, so too are we. Sadly.

Juergensmeyer and others use the term “cosmic war” to characterize conflicts in which one or both sides are extremely polarized, perceiving their fight to have larger-than-life proportions.

In a cosmic war, a disagreement over a specific issue—say, a government policy, or a territory—becomes much larger and much simpler. It’s a supremely significant struggle between pure good and pure evil, a fight to carry out the divine plan or enact the group’s ultimate destiny. Losing such a war is unthinkable, compromise with the “primary enemy” is impossible, and even those in the in-group who  consider compromise, or question the cosmic nature of the struggle, come to be seen as the enemy themselves (“the secondary enemy”). In a fight between martyrs and demons, moderates can’t be tolerated, and the primary and secondary enemy become so conflated that they are interchangeable.

Cosmic warriors feel ennobled, exalted. They aren’t just thugs or bullies; they are saving the world. Simultaneously, they invariably see themselves  as victims. Any violent act they commit is always self-defense, and in any case the urgency of the fight supersedes all laws and scruples. The dramatic denouement is always near, and the actions of a cosmic warrior can tip the balance to ultimate victory. That’s how jihadis of all religions go about murdering noncombatants without the slightest pang of conscience.  

These characteristics are demonstrated clearly by Islamic radicals, who fight for world domination and completely blur the distinction between primary and secondary enemies. The FIS in Algeria mainly killed moderate Muslims and neutral villagers for not joining their jihad. All Islamic terrorists see themselves as victims and “martyrs,” and compromise isn’t possible or desirable. Believing their cosmic war to be simple and binary, Islamic radicals are untroubled by inconvenient facts; radical Muslim clerics can claim — against all evidence — that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.

The mentality of cosmic war, while most prominently expressed in Islamic fundamentalism, is not the exclusive patrimony of Islam. All our communities, to different degrees, are infected by the same virus. In the Jewish world, the notion that we are at cosmic war is gaining ground, and creating a culture of unprecedented polarization and violence.  

When Yigal Amir killed Yitzhak Rabin, he was conflating the primary enemy with the secondary enemy who negotiates with him. Not all manifestations of cosmic war are immediately violent like Amir’s act of murder, but they do contribute to creating the ferment of violence. The latest of many examples in Israel include the vicious and verbally violent attacks on Israeli President Rubi Rivlin for daring to attend a conference of “left wingers,” and a video of wedding revelers singing as they stab the photo of a Palestinian infant. These unthinkable expressions of violent intention toward a president with whom they disagree, or a child far too young to deserve anyone’s enmity, can only be explained by the paradigm of cosmic war. A similar pattern emerged in the American Jewish community during the debate around the Iran deal. Both sides saw their opponents not as holding valid but dissenting opinions, but rather as cosmic foes.

We see the same ideology gaining ground in the larger American political scene. Policy debates and discussion of ideas are conspicuously absent from a political discourse that focuses increasingly on demonization. As with the Temple Mount, facts become irrelevant; the more outlandish the claim, the more political rewards one reaps. When reading the “fact check” after a recent presidential debate, I was bewildered; only one claim was qualified as “true but misleading”— all the others stood in diverse degrees of falsehood. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Cosmic wars, religious or secular, never end well. Their fighters hope their martyrdom will bring final victory, but while they may find death, they do not achieve their utopias. They come to the end as pathetic extremists, dying for no cause except hatred and paranoia, and creating vast suffering around them.

The weakening of the moderate center is changing the face of the Jewish community, which seems now to be dominated by extreme positions on the left and right. Without a conscious effort, the wave of radicalization sweeping the world will drag us, too, into the abyss of self-destruction. Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates of rationality and moderation. True, traditional Judaism embraces the vision of a future utopia where there’s no war and suffering: It’s called “the messianic era”. We pray for that several times a day and we never cease yearning for that time. But our sages, conscious of the dangers, never perceived this aspiration as a call to jihad or cosmic war. Rather, they saw it as a beacon that would guide human self-improvement until the final goal is attained at the “end of days.” Furthermore, the Jewish promise of a messianic future enables more pluralism in this world; disagreements don’t require an absolute winner now, because —as the Talmud says—the messiah will elucidate who’s right.

We must reject the notion of cosmic wars. Our disagreements are differences of opinion that can be bridged, not monumental fights to the death. We must reclaim our heritage of “elu v’elu,” the principle that two divergent opinions can be true and Godly. We need to reframe our conflicts as specific rather than cosmic, and rescue the notion of pragmatic compromise that was so dear to the Talmudic masters. This fight for moderation is a worthy and noble one, and it is one that we can win with the force of our reason and our passion.

May that Force be with you—and may we all remember that any Force worthy of the real world is a lot more complicated than one that has only two sides of Light and Dark.

Andres Spokoiny is the Executive Director of Jewish Funders Network

The Force is strong with Conservative movement teens

No spoilers here, but you must have noticed by now that “Star Wars” is everywhere. With the recent release of “The Force Awakens,” everyone from die-hard to casual fans are analyzing all aspects of the movie, from the posters to the cameos.

The big questions fans are asking: Will this “Star Wars” film live up to the originals in the franchise? Will it be faithful and convey the same meaning? Does the new generation at the helm have what it takes to tell the story in as compelling a way as the generation that preceded it?

These are also the questions our Jewish community is asking about Jewish teens: Will the Jewish future be strong in their hands? Will they grow to be faithful to our tradition? When they tell the story of the Jewish people, will it be recognizable to those that came before them?

As a professional in the Jewish teen space and a “Star Wars” fan, I am here to say yes. Many of our teens, especially those engaged in Jewish youth movements, are committed to a meaningful future for our people. I know this because I spend my time with them as director of teen learning at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

This week, we are gathering in this city for USY’s 65th international convention. Each year, our teen leaders are asked to create a convention theme. This year they came up with “Think More, Do More, Be More,” with a focus on advocacy and training about how to use their voices so they can advance from bystanders to “upstanders.”

Asked why this was important, they answered: “We are getting so many messages about what is waiting for us when we leave home, people who are attacking Israel, anti-Semitism and more. We want to be prepared to take the values we learn in USY to be ready for our future.”

What happened next was amazing. The teen leaders created a survey for their peers and received hundreds of clear and purposeful responses to this question: What area would you like to learn how to advocate for?

The top answer was preparing to speak up for Israel, followed closely by addressing and combating anti-Semitism. The teens also offered a thoughtful list of other topics: mental health awareness, gender equality, racial and economic justice, the environment and LGBTQ issues. The overwhelming sentiment is that they have grown as weary of being considered the leaders of the future as they are eager to lead now. And they have spoken up to ask for the training they need to do so.

Many agencies in the Jewish community and beyond — including the Anti-Defamation League, Sojourn, Keshet, Avodah, U Mattr and AIPAC — have stepped up to participate at the convention and make this a reality.

This is the real work that needs to be done with teens. We need to empower them to be drivers of the Jewish future and facilitate their strides to take ownership of their Jewish experience. We may not recognize all the areas where they choose to focus as the core issues of previous generations, but we need to trust that they are working as those before them to build a world of meaning that includes our most cherished Jewish values.

In the Talmud, there is a sci-fi type story told of Moses, who asks God as he receives the Torah why there are little crownlets on top of the letters. God responds that one day there will be a Rabbi Akiva who will make mountains of meaning from these little crownlets. Moses asks God to show him this rabbi, and in true movie fashion we find Moses in the back row of Akiva’s classroom.

The discussion is completely foreign to Moses, who becomes distressed until he hears a student ask, “From where do you know that?” Rabbi Akiva responds, “It is from the Torah that was given to Moses on Sinai.” Moses is comforted instantly by the link between the generations.

Which brings us back to The Force. Will the new movie feel like the original? The good news is that the answer is yes. But at the same time, the new chapter adds its own voice.

This is what we need in our Jewish community. We need to turn out and support (hopefully with “Star Wars” ticket sales-type dollars) our teens in writing their next chapter. We will find that we recognize our story in theirs and be amazed what they have added.

Rabbi David Levy is director of teen learning at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

White House Chanukah

For years, I watched as friends and colleagues posted photos of the White House Chanukah party. The exclusive gathering brings together prominent rabbis, politicians and Jewish communal leaders, as well as young Jewish innovators with a certain hipness factor. 

Still, no one is 100 percent sure how someone gets invited. Those who go are awed, those who watch it all on social media are jealous — and wonder what they could do in order to score an invitation to next year’s party. 

For years, I was among the jealous and wondering, but I understood not being invited. Until this year, I was just a freelancer, proud of my work, but not an innovator. At best, I was innovation-adjacent. Two years ago, when an invited friend wrote my Twitter handle on a napkin and held it up for a photo under the presidential seal, I was certain that was as close as I was going to get. 

Then, this year, I was invited. I reposted the napkin photo on Facebook, noting that it took two years from name-written-on-napkin to actual White House invitation. If anyone wanted me to write their names on a napkin, I joked, they should let me know. Expecting a few comments of “Haha!” and “Have fun!” I saw the post rise to more than 580 likes and 100 enthusiastic, if slightly jealous, comments. 

While a remarkable number of people thought this was truly how people were nominated for future attendance at #WHHanukkah — the official tag — I also realized I could give them the same feeling I had when my Twitter name represented me in 2013. I could bring them all with me virtually, give them the next best thing to being there.

I tracked the names of respondents and asked them a few other questions out of curiosity. What were their top concerns or issues, I wondered, providing a “check as many as you want” option (immigration, gun control, the war on terror, women’s rights, religious freedom, Internet privacy, health care, racism, LGBT issues and education) and a write-in option. And I also asked if they had any general questions for me about the experience.

When I received more than 50 responses, it became a bit of a social experiment. Who was responding and what were they concerned about? Their answers were fascinating and funny, ranging from the curious to the comedic. 

Not surprisingly, many wanted to know about the food: whether the latkes were “more like spider shreds or more mushed-up into a solid lump,” and, of course, whether there was applesauce or sour cream. (FYI, the latkes were small circles, neither shredded nor lumpy, and were accompanied by applesauce.) 

Most also checked off gun control, health care, education and immigration as their top issues of concern. One person wrote in “environment,” while a few added Israel-related issues such as “Israel security,” “U.S./Israel relations” and “political support for Israel.” Write-ins of “Scary Trump,” “getting a Democrat elected” and “Bartlet for America” (referring to “The West Wing” president played by Martin Sheen), alluded to the 2016 election. And one wrote, “Mostly I just want the government to stay out of my uterus.” 

I understood that this was an opportunity for me to attend not just as myself, but as a representative of a huge online community. I brought the list with me, and took a photo with it under the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, immediately sharing it on Facebook. (That post got more than 300 comments and a few Jewish geography inquiries trying to identify the other guests in the background). I’d promised to write everyone’s name on napkins and take photos — just like the one with my Twitter handle — but didn’t want to spend 20 minutes of the experience scribbling while the event went on around me. So I pocketed a bunch of White House cocktail napkins and promised I’d do it later, pretty sure at this point that they had no real role in nominating future attendees. 

Being there was incredible. And it was an honor. But it was also an enormous event: Who I was and why I’d been invited wasn’t relevant because no one really cared. POTUS and FLOTUS nicely spent a good bit of time shaking hands and schmoozing with those of us in the front two lines, but the fact is, my presence there meant more to me than to them. 

The day after, the photos and their comments were proof that it wasn’t just me in that room. I’d brought my community with me. 

Flying back from DC, I found myself thinking of the e.e. cummings poem: “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).” I often feel this way about my larger Internet community, people around the world — mostly Jews, but also Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths or no faiths — who have shared parts of my path with me, wherever it leads.

In my heart, I always carry my community as a whole entity and as the individuals that it comprises. And in this particular, probably once-in-a-lifetime case, I also carried my community in my bag, scrawled on napkins from the White House.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal. She is also editorial director of groknation.com, and freelances widely as a writer and consultant. 

Why transgender inclusion is a Jewish imperative

Just when the LGBT community thinks it has taken another step toward full equality and inclusion, along come the Dennis Pragers of the world to remind us how far we still have to go.

In his most recent opinion pieces in the Journal (“The Torah and the Transgendered,” Dec. 4, and “The Hate Is All in One Direction,” Dec. 11), Mr. Prager portrays transgender people and trans inclusion as incompatible with the teachings of Torah, and calls into question the very Jewishness of those of us who reject his narrow and bigoted view in favor of basic human dignity.

Most deplorably, he attacks — yes, Mr. Prager, attacks — Keshet board member Rabbi Becky Silverstein for having the audacity to identify and present as male while retaining a conventionally female name. 

Mr. Prager’s message is not only wrong — it is wrongheaded.

Wrong, because it demands that the Torah remain frozen in time, incapable of inspiring new generations of Jews seeking answers to contemporary challenges. Wrongheaded, because it appeals to the worst instincts of human nature.

Our Torah is a living, breathing document, whose words and teachings can be understood and interpreted anew to reflect humankind’s limitless ability to evolve, change and grow. Its beauty and wonder lie in its capacity to provoke and guide our community as much today as it did 5,000 years ago.

We claim a Torah that embraces complexity, mystery and inclusivity. Mr. Prager offers a Torah that is simplistic, static and divisive, one that not so successfully masks his contempt and fear of “the other.”

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that human gender is infinitely more diverse than the gender binary. Talmudic discourse over the generations identifies various categories of people who, according to their descriptions in the text, would today fall under the broad umbrella of “transgender.” These include the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the androgynos (a person with male and female sex organs), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).

To be sure, you won’t find a transgender liberation manifesto in the Talmud. But you will find thoughtful discussion of real people whom the rabbis clearly encountered in their lives, and an attempt to discern their roles in society. 

Like Mr. Prager, the rabbis concerned themselves with distinctions and differentiation. Unlike Mr. Prager, they well understood and acknowledged the magnificent diversity of human gender.

Mr. Prager’s decision to single out and scorn a specific rabbinic leader and Jewish institution is evidence that his voice does not belong in our discourse or any self-respecting Jewish publication. His words foment fear and hate, and serve to bully and intimidate. 

Our community must resolve to place understanding and inclusion at the forefront of our thinking and our actions. Mr. Prager’s recent comments notwithstanding, the news on that front is encouraging. 

In addition to the historic victory in the Supreme Court for marriage equality earlier this year, last month the Union for Reform Judaism publicly affirmed its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.

We challenge the Jewish community to build upon this momentum and use Mr. Prager’s words to spur us further, faster. It would be a terrible loss if even one Jewish organization thought twice about embracing or hiring a transgender individual for fear of being attacked in the Jewish media. Or worse yet, if even one transgender Jew decided to leave the Jewish community for fear of rejection.

We urge Jewish leaders of all denominations and movements to join with unflinching courage the fight for full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. 

Know that all of us at Keshet — and countless others — will always stand with you.

Idit Klein is executive director of Keshet, a national grass-roots organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman is director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, and a Keshet educator. B. Andrew Zelermyer is chair of the Keshet board of directors.

Deluge of letters to Prager shows inability to discuss serious issues

The deluge of letters vilifying Dennis Prager for his Jewish Journal column, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” is yet another manifestation of too many Jews’ inability to amicably, or merely intellectually discuss important, serious issues without dismissiveness and ridicule.

In nearly two full pages of letters printed in the Jewish Journal and myriad comments posted on its website, members of our Jewish community, including many members of our educated elite, accused Prager of being mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant, and publicly humiliating a transgendered rabbi, among much more.

Some went so far as to say Dennis should no longer be published in this paper. That’s a new low. Wow, how far we’ve regressed and how divisive we’ve become. To think, traditional/conservative, Jewish/social views should be prohibited in a community-wide Jewish newspaper.

Not one of the respondents actually spoke to the substance of Dennis’s main point: To what extent do you use the Torah as your moral/religious guide? The closest comment to anything substantive came from those suggesting Prager doesn’t understand that Jews rejected Karaitic Judaism.

Really? That’s the best one could do? I suspect that Prager knows well that Karaitic Judaism died centuries ago.  He simply believes, as rabbinic Judaism always has, that the Torah is the Jews’ basic text—our Constitution, if you will.

Let’s be clear here.  Those who wrote the hate-filled letters want to quell any attempt at open, rational dialogue with anyone right of center, especially Dennis Prager, a deep-thinking, rational and effective exponent of traditional Jewish values and conservative political/social positions. Add another peg in the coffin of respectful dialogue and intellectual openness.

Sadly, we live in an age of muddled thought and political correctness; an age of “micro-aggressions” and Orwellian doublethink.  Include in the bulging list of free-speech suppressing universities—Missouri, Yale, Brandeis, Smith, Ithaca College, Kentucky, Princeton, Claremont McKenna, Amherst, UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and too many more to list—large numbers of my rabbinical colleagues in Los Angeles and throughout America.

It used to be that arguments and debate defined our tradition.  To be sure, within the Talmud there was plenty of name-calling:  Am Ha’aretz (ignoramus), Sageh Na-Hor (dimwit) and re’kah (empty headed).  But, in spite of it all, there was an acknowledgement that the discussions were for the clarification of what God wanted from us.  Opposing sides could sit down and share a meal and talk; they could agree to disagree.

The academies of Hillel and Shamai exemplified all that. The Talmud recorded over 300 areas where these two schools of thought disagreed. Yet, through it all, they maintained respectful bonds.  The Talmud remarks they married among each other, and danced at each other’s weddings.

What do too many Jews do now?  They cast aspersions on a man who is strong enough and wise enough to raise questions that most of us won’t because we can no longer think beyond what’s popular and uncontested—or because we are simply too afraid.

Shame on those who wrote these hate-filled, personal attacks against Dennis Prager; shame on those who are unable to civilly discuss important issues of our day without the stifling cloak of political correctness guiding one’s every word; shame on those who have lost the ability to agree to disagree.  Where is their compassion?  Where is their sense of fairness?  Where is their Godliness?

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, Kehillat Ma’arav, Santa Monica, CA

Why I take personally chief rabbi’s criticism of non-Orthodox school visit

At the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly this year, it was made clear that a healthy Jewish community does not have to have unanimity on all issues, but we do need to be unified and, above all else, have civility in our discourse.

It was obvious this week that Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, missed the message.

It wasn’t that long ago that Rav Lau met with federation leaders and rabbinic leadership from across the denominations in JFNA’s New York offices. Calling himself “your brother in Israel,” the rabbi was extremely warm and welcoming. Given the frustration and anger that many non-Orthodox Jews feel when it comes to the myriad ways Israel’s religious establishment treats them as second-class Jews, we took his visit as a positive step forward.

That’s why it was so stunning and frustrating week to see Rav Lau publicly criticize Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a New York City day school affiliated with the Conservative movement.

“You cannot go to a place where the education distances Jews not only from the tradition, but also from the past, and therefore from the future of the Jewish people,” Rav Lau said, terming the visit “unacceptable.”

What makes those remarks all the more dismaying and perplexing is the double standard. He also recently visited a non-Orthodox school, one that originally held classes in a Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. During his October visit to the pluralist Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Rav Lau reportedly spoke of the “connectedness of all Jewish people” and told the children: “You are Jewish life in this city.”

It’s difficult to understand how Bennett’s visit to Schechter is any different.

Instead of criticizing Bennett, who also serves as Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, Rav Lau should be praising him for reaching out to the non-Orthodox Jewish community, for recognizing that there is more than one way to be Jewish, for understanding that we are all part of the community of Israel. Isolating and denying recognition to non-Orthodox Jews will not inspire people to move toward the tradition, as Rav Lau would like.

Israel’s core mission is to welcome and embrace all Jews, and we should be proud that a leader of the Jewish state is engaging Jewish students fortunate enough to attend any type of religious school. I encourage Rav Lau to listen to the speech Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave last month at our General Assembly, when he said that he was committed to ensuring that all Jews — regardless of denomination — feel at home in Israel.

Just as all Jews should feel at home in Israel, so should all Israeli leaders feel comfortable getting to know Diaspora Jewry at any institution without fear of reprimand.

It is difficult for me to reconcile Rav Lau’s disparaging comments about Bennett’s visit with the rabbi I met a year ago, who talked about reaching and connecting with the Jewish community. And I take such disparagement personally.

While my wife and I belong to and attend an Orthodox synagogue, we sent our five children to the Solomon Schechter school in Boston. We found our children’s education to be Jewishly inspiring and enriching, and it helped them build a strong foundation for their ongoing Jewish identity and love for Israel.

As an observant Jew myself, I take no issue with Rav Lau encouraging Jews to become more observant and follow Jewish law more closely. I do take issue with his saying that anyone on a different path is “on the wrong path.” Such comments are alienating and serve only to exacerbate tensions between non-Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and the Israeli religious establishment.

Bennett’s interest in learning about Jewish education modalities was absolutely appropriate, and visiting a school that promotes Jewish education, Jewish learning and Jewish living is in line with his ministerial responsibilities. We hope all Israeli leaders follow his example of reaching out to all Jews wherever they are — including at religious schools, day schools and camps affiliated with all Jewish streams.

Rav Lau should follow suit. He would see, as Bennett tweeted after his visit to the school, “so much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.”

We are hopeful that these comments criticizing leaders who believe in Am Echad, One People, will end, and we will move toward unity with civility.

Jerry Silverman is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federations of North America.

After San Bernardino, don’t let fear change our daily routines

With the recent shooting in San Bernardino, television and social media have yet again brought images of fatalities and injuries and the grief of those directly affected into our homes. For many Americans, and in particular the Jewish community, the constant streaming of these images may cause a diminished sense of security, a demoralized public and reduced confidence in the ability of our community to remain resilient in the face of ongoing attacks.

With Chanukah being this week, and with it many public celebrations across the country, individuals may seek to change their routines, modify their behavior or alter their perspective to remain safe and secure. In Boston, the marathon bombing led an entire city to shut itself down. In Brussels, an entire western European capital shuttered its stores, schools, houses of worship and government facilities, bringing everyday life to a virtual halt.

While the American public may change the way they view and assess their priorities, we must remind ourselves that loss of life, injury and property damage are often the least ambitious of the objectives of many terrorist organizations. The greatest impact that terrorists seek is to strategically erode our public morale. The 24/7 news cycle – where terrorist attacks are breaking news, footage is played again and again, and victims and relatives are interviewed constantly – sensationalizes the incidents. This is enhanced by the ability of social media not only to amplify the impact and message of terrorist organizations, but also convey them to larger audiences than ever.

Given this, homeland security strategies must address the psychological factor of terrorism.

If a terrorist organization believes that its attack on a particular community is not likely to create mass chaos and fear, it may have less reason to devote resources to such an attack. Citizens who are immunized against the psychological influence of attacks have a greater ability to resist such manipulation.

Fear and anxiety can be prevented. Homeland security efforts are enhanced by including a component to offset the psychological impact of terrorism. Adequately preparing our communities and the general public at large for the terrorist threat is essential to maximize not only the public’s confidence in their ability to weather a crisis, but also to understand the psychological manipulations of the terrorists and counter them by controlling their reactions to terrorist incidents.

In other words, strengthening the resilience of the American Jewish community should be a key goal in any homeland security strategy that aims to deter terrorist attacks and minimize the traumatic impact on the community in the event of an attack.

In that vein, timely and honest public messaging from senior officials is more critical today than ever and has become a fundamental pillar of our collective security efforts, not only informing citizens through credible information sharing but empowering them through trust, transparency and assurance.

Empowerment comes through knowledge, awareness and better understanding of how to mitigate risk and threats to our communities and institutions.

The Secure Community Network, working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been concentrating on efforts that strengthen the endurance of our communities and working to counterbalance terrorists’ manipulation of public opinion. Through training, information sharing, testing our response and emergency management protocols, we are empowering our community. Through knowledge comes power. Through preparation comes resolve and confidence. Our efforts – working together – not only reduce the level of fear and anxiety that some may experience in our communities, but make us safer and more secure.

The American Jewish community must accept the reality that at times it may be targeted, but at the same time Jews must not allow their daily routines to be redefined by fear and cannot allow their religious identities to be destroyed by terror. They must remain informed, and by doing so, be stoically vigilant and alert.

Through SCN, and with the leadership and support of The Jewish Federations of North America, we’re leading a national homeland security effort to ensure vigilance is eternal and our communities and neighborhoods can remain safe from harm. We’re building a culture of awareness, not a community of fear. In doing so, we’re protecting our families, friends, neighbors and our way of life.

(Paul Goldenberg is the national director of the Secure Community Network, the official homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.)

Jewish leader in Germany suggests cap on number of refugees

The head of Germany’s main Jewish organization has suggested capping the number of refugees allowed into the country, so Germany can do a better job of integrating those already there.

At issue are attitudes toward Jews, women and gays in the home countries of many refugees, said Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, in a wide-ranging interview with Die Welt. The problem is not the Muslim faith, but rather a cultural problem that won’t go away by itself, he said.

In the interview, which appeared Sunday, Schuster said eventually a limit will have to be established because of the challenges of integrating newcomers from cultures that are intolerant of Jews, don’t believe in equality for women and men, and eschew homosexuality.

“Many of the refugees are fleeing from the terror of the Islamic State and want to live in peace and freedom,” he said. “At the same time they come from cultures where hatred of Jews and general intolerance are par for the course.”

Schuster suggested that the integration problem he sees in European cities and countries has to do with the culture of the countries from which many refugees are fleeing and not with religion.

Unchecked acceptance of refugees “will make it increasingly difficult to transmit our [society’s] values,” said Schuster, who on Nov. 15 volunteered at a refugee shelter as part of the Jewish community’s annual Mitzvah Day program.

Schuster’s remarks drew criticism from a refugee aid organization, Pro Asyl, which pointed out that his words echoed the position of the conservative Christian Social Union party, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party,  in “overriding the European human rights convention.” Pro Asyl’s director, Günter Burkhardt, told  the French news agency AFP on Monday that both the European convention and the Geneva Refugee Convention guarantee protection from being rejected at the border.

The governing Christian Democrats have proposed holding a discussion about setting a limit on the number of refugees to be accepted.

To be a Jew means ‘I love you’

On Thursday last week, a suicide bomber murdered forty three human beings in Beirut and injured two hundred and forty. On Friday last week, a suicide bomber murdered nineteen human beings in Bagdad and injured thirty three. In Paris, seven men murdered one hundred twenty three human beings, and injured four hundred thirty. On Tuesday and Wednesday, this past week, forty nine human beings were murdered and over two hundred injured in Yola and Kano, Nigeria. That is more than 1,140 human beings, murdered or injured. In Israel, as for the last couple of months, attacks have come almost daily. On Thursday, a terrorist attack in the West Bank killed five Jews, including an 18 year old American student. (239 lives, 903+)

It is so much. We have witnessed so much violence this week. I’m angry and sad, my heart hurts, I am filled with grief and fear.

This has caused some to lash out. This desperate response is fueled by one thing, and one thing only: Fear. It is fear that prevents us from thinking clearly, responding appropriately, and from feeling all of our naturally conflicting emotions, in being whole selves. It is ok to be afraid, I feel afraid. When we allow that fear to push away everything else, that is when there is a problem.

In one of my favorite books, Dune by Frank Herbert, he writes the following mantra for his character to remember.

“I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The question becomes, what kind of person remains, how does that person respond? Who am I, when my fear is gone?

The way we must respond, the way the Tradition would have us respond, the way a Jew should respond, is with love. I’m still angry and I’m still deeply saddened. It is this tension that the Tradition guides us the way it does.

In Masechet Yoma, the tractate of the Talmud primarily focusing on Yom Kippur, transmits a Tradition that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to שינת חנם, through baseless hatred. Let’s break that down for a moment. God’s residence on Earth and among the Jewish people was destroyed because we hated each other for no reason. We kicked out God because we would not stand beside each other, because we did not try and understand each other, because we allowed ourselves to be drawn in by hate. Take a moment and think about that, because the Rabbis are telling us something truly profound.

Hate causes God to leave us.

It can be easy for us to place all of the terrorists into the tight little box and blame all Muslims for their actions. But this response is hypocritical. In Israel, the group Tag Machir, Price Tag, attacks Christian, Palestinian, and left-wing Israeli institutions. Do we blame all Jews for their acts? When settlers in the West Bank attack Palestinian farmers, are they a reflection of your beliefs?

Only a couple of weeks ago, a Jewish man attacked Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the Director of Rabbis for Human rights, for protecting those Palestinian farmers. Were we expected to denounce them on behalf of all Jews? No, we weren’t asked to do that. Why? Because, it is ludicrous to do so. Despite that, there were many statements decrying such terrorism from the Jewish community. Muslim leaders, scholars, and communities around the world decry the terrorism of Daesh regularly. To blame any whole population, much less a billion and a half individuals is simply racist and hateful.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook was the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine in 1921 until his death in 1935. He teaches: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to שינת חנם, baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with אהבת חנם, with unbounded love. Unbounded love is the way we respond to hate. It is the way we bring God close.

In Conservative/Masorti siddurim, you will see something special. In the morning blessings, we recite first, the blessing for our physical bodies. Praised are you God, who made us with bodies that have the ability to function. Following that, we recite the blessing for our souls. Without our souls, without the spirit that makes us all unique, we could not be here.

After this, there is the following line:
הריני מקבל עלי מצות הבורא: ואהבת לרעך כמוך.
Behold, I accept upon myself the commandment of the Creator: And you shall love your friend, neighbor, fellow human, as yourself.

We take it upon ourselves to fulfill God’s will, to place ourselves within the divine flow of the universe, when we love. ואהבת לרעך, and you shall love your neighbor, כמוך, who is just like you, who is you. This power is already within us, it is contained by us to see the other. The other who is like me.

What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish people? It means that I strive to bring forth God’s vision of love into the world devoid of fear and hate. We must live up to our potential, we must stand up and love.

It means that I don’t blame or hold responsible all Muslims for the acts of individuals. It means that I will not turn my eyes away from the refugees from Syria fleeing the violence of Daesh. It means that I will not stand idly by as presidential candidates, state governors, and our elected officials spout fear and hate. To be a Jew means that I love you. It means that I love Jews. It means that I love Muslims. It means that I love Republicans and Democrats, Europeans and Africans. It means that I love Palestinians and that I love Israelis.

You may have seen on the news, or through social media, an interview with a man and his son in Paris, themselves previously immigrants to France. His son, who is maybe five or six years old, is asked by the interviewer, “do you understand why those people did this?”

“They are bad guys and are not very nice” the boy explained, “and we must be very careful, otherwise we might have to move to a new home.” His father places his hand on his shoulder and says, “Don’t worry, we won’t have to move. France is our home.” His son looks up at him and says, “But there are bad guys here.” “Bad guys are everywhere,” his father tells him.

“They have guns and can shoot us because they are really nasty.” the boy responds. And here, the father says something really important. He says, “They might have guns, but we have flowers.” Our response to this statement might be just like his son’s, “Flowers don’t do anything.” His father points to the people placing flowers and lighting candles at the public memorial in Paris. “Look, everyone is leaving flowers. [The flowers] are to fight against the guns. And the candles are so we won’t forget the people who have gone.”

After a moment of watching the people, the boy turns to the interviewer and says, “The flowers and candles will protect us.”

This is not a naive response. What this young child understands, and what we need to remember, is that no amount of violence can take away our love of each other.

While, the heat of my anger still consumes me, and the cold of fear and sadness still comes to me at night, and the struggle to sleep remains. I refuse to let that bring me to hate. The only response for me, is to love. Even when it is hard, especially when it is hard.

Jeremy Markiz is a fifth year Ziegler student.

White House seeks menorahs with stories for this year’s Chanukah party

The White House is looking for menorahs with unique stories for its Hanukkah celebration this year.

Matt Nosanchuk, the White House liaison to the Jewish community, on Nov. 11 posted an entry on the White House website soliciting ideas for menorahs, noting it was the first time that the White House was issuing such an appeal.

“We’re looking for a special and unique menorah that tells a story to be part of our candle lighting ceremony,” Nosanchuk wrote. “A story about family, about community, about the long Jewish cultural tradition in the United States, Israel, or around the world.”

The deadline is Nov. 20, and the White House will not cover transport or insurance, and contributing the menorah does not guarantee an invitation to the party. Menorahs not used at the celebration may nonetheless feature on the White House website.

President George W. Bush launched the first formal government Hanukkah celebrations, although President Bill Clinton’s White House ran Hanukkah parties for Jewish staff and some invitees.

In recent years, the Obama administrations have used menorahs from a synagogue damaged by Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, and made by students at a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem targeted by vandals, in 2014.

The White House has not yet announced the date of this year’s White House receptions; in recent years the White House has hosted two on the same day to accommodate more guests.

Hanukkah starts this year on Dec. 6.

Outside the tent or in — what would Matriarch Rebecca have said?

This past week I have been reflecting on something important. Is there a red line that propels someone beyond the pale and out of the tent if they cross it? It is a fundamental question for all of us, and particularly for a rabbi, whose job as a representative of Judaism is to be a benign and inclusive presence, so that as many Jews as possible can feel at home in a Jewish environment and more inclined to be faithful to their roots.

I was lucky enough in my teens and early twenties to spend a considerable amount of time with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose twenty first yahrtzeit we observed a couple of weeks ago. No one epitomized the broad tent approach more than him. His genuine affection for every Jew – and indeed, every human being – was nothing short of breathtaking. One of the most remarkable aspects of his personality, and one that I always marveled at, was his desire and ability to remember people’s names, even many years after he had met them.

“Do you remember me?” people would invariably ask him. He would look at them for a moment, his face pensive. Then he would break into a smile. “Sure I remember you,” he would say, “you’re Moshe, and we met in Cleveland at a concert in 1981,” or something similar. He was almost always right. It was the mark of a man who loved people enough to make the effort not just to remember their names when he first met them and for that day, but to file their names away so that he might delight them by recalling it to them many years later.

In my own interactions with people over the years I have tried hard to emulate Reb Shlomo. His openness, his refusal to judge someone who didn’t share his views, his determination to ensure that everyone felt comfortable within a Jewish setting – these qualities have been my inspiration. But is there a point at which unconditional tolerance becomes self-defeating? I want to believe that no Jew should ever be rejected or excluded. After all, whatever they do, they are still part of the family. Or are they?

Take Gideon Levy, for example. Levy, born in Israel in 1953, is on the left edge of Israeli politics and writes a regular column for Haaretz. He considers himself to be an Israeli patriot forced to blow the whistle on his country’s ‘crimes’ against the Palestinians. Just as an example of what this means, in a recent article he decried the indifference of ordinary Israelis towards the killing of Arab knife murderers, whom he astoundingly refers to as brave and courageous. For Israelis, he writes, “the bleeding body [of a dead stabber] on the street is not the body of a person; it is, in the eyes of many, a carcass. But a few minutes earlier it was still a human being, with desires, feelings and dreams……how many Israelis even think about this?” Aside from the fact that this characterization is utterly preposterous, I find it incredibly ironic that he accuses Israelis of dehumanizing Arabs when it is the dehumanization of Jews that has resulted in knife-wielding Arabs seeing every Jew as a ‘Temple Mount defiler’ and a murder target, even if they are a 72-year-old woman or a 13-year-old boy.

But the greatest irony of this ‘patriot’ is his sympathy with BDS and wholehearted support for a ‘one-state solution’. Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s left wing opposition, is not a Levy fan. He recently wrote in Haaretz: “Levy…. wants the Jewish minority between the Jordan and the sea to be swallowed up by the Arab majority, so that after 67 years we turn the lights out on the state.”

So do we include Gideon Levy in our tent? Must we unquestioningly embrace him as a family member, despite his views? Let’s take a look the intriguing Bible narrative that describes Isaac’s blessings for some help. There is almost no story in the Torah that is more disconcerting and disturbing than the narrative describing Isaac’s blessings. At face value it appears as if the blind, helpless patriarch was duped by Jacob, with the help of Rebecca. Isaac had designated Esau as the recipient of the legacy blessings – the formal passing over of Abraham’s covenant with God to the next generation. But through a carefully orchestrated deception it is Jacob who gets the blessings, not Esau.

Does this understanding of the story make any sense? I think not. The most obvious flaw is that if Jacob was not meant to receive the blessings why didn’t Isaac simply revoke what he had done, and redirect them back to Esau? Instead, as soon as he discovers what has happened he confirms his blessing of Jacob. In other words, notwithstanding the subterfuge, Jacob would still inherit the mantle of Abraham, and Esau was out.

So what was really going on? The nineteenth century bible commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, offers an exquisite explanation. Isaac and Rebecca were engaged in a crucial debate about inclusion and exclusion. Isaac, only wanting to see the good side of Esau, felt that he had a role to play in Abraham’s legacy – as the ‘man of the field’ who would provide for Jacob. Rebecca disagreed. She had observed how Esau sold his birthright and then married idolaters. If he remained within, Abraham’s legacy was doomed. Only by demonstrating that it was possible for one person to embody both the ‘voice of Jacob’ and the ‘hands of Esau’ would Isaac understand his mistake.

Gideon Levy, by giving up his birthright and cavorting with idolaters, has demonstrated that he is outside the tent. He has lost the plot and joined the other team. Such a person, and anyone like him, can never be included in the tent, and it is our duty to ensure that they never are.


Five questions for the first woman to chair the Union for Reform Judaism

Last week was a big one for Daryl Messinger. A resident of Palo Alto, Calif., and an active board member of several organizations, Messinger was installed as chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, becoming the first woman to hold that post. And she chanted Torah for the first time — in front of 5,000 worshipers at Shabbat morning services. Following the biennial, Messinger answered a few questions via email.

What are your thoughts on becoming the first woman to chair the Union for Reform Judaism? Why do you think it took more than 40 years after the Reform movement ordained the first woman rabbi in America?

Our past chairs have served with distinction and brought substantial experience and commitment to the URJ and the Reform movement. The URJ has always stood for egalitarian, democratic and pluralistic values and advocated for the full participation of women and men in all aspects of leadership and involvement.

Women have trail-blazed from the very beginning in the Reform movement. The Women of Reform Judaism, for instance, started our youth movement — the North American Federation of Temple Youth, or NFTY — and helped to build the original HUC-JIR campus in Cincinnati and URJ headquarters in New York. There are, and have been, women in every lay leadership post and now also the chair. I’m very humbled and proud to be the chair of the URJ.

What goes through your mind when you make your debut chanting from the Torah in front of 5,000 people?

I never chanted Torah before at all — and never read Torah before so many people. I wanted to demonstrate that anyone can do this. I have limited musical ability or musical memory — I think that was evident. Yet, it was important for me to demonstrate that you do not need to be an opera star or the winner of “The Voice” to chant Torah. It’s not about being perfect or about being particularly courageous. None of us are. The Torah is there for anyone to read as long as they prepare.

You looked visibly moved when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the URJ, was giving you a blessing following your Torah reading. What were you thinking?

The power of being blessed in front of the open scroll, in front of 5,000 people, blessed in front of the Torah that was carried on America’s Journey for Justice (led by NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, and joined by 200 Reform rabbis, the Journey for Justice was an historic 860-mile march for voting rights went from Selma, Ala., to Washington) was overwhelming, inspiring and daunting. It was an incredible moment for me to realize the responsibility, trust and love that I have received.

Any major takeaways from your first biennial as chair?

There were many things I knew already about our movement, but that were on full display at this biennial. We are not just the largest and strongest Jewish movement; we are evolving, inclusive and unorthodox. Our leadership bench is incredibly deep and wide. We lead whether it is about equality for people who are transgender or marching for voting rights. We are outspoken about our love of Israel and our belief in a two-state solution.

We hold up our youngest leaders as examples for the entire community. Our NFTY president, Jeremy Cronig, had the courage to give the Kabbalat Shabbat d’var Torah at his very first biennial, enjoining the participants to fight gun violence. The more than 130 workshops inspired more and more people — from children to seniors — to explore what it means to be Jewish, pursue justice around the world and forge stronger ties to Israel.

What makes you most proud to be a Reform Jew and the chair of URJ? What do you feel most needs to change/be improved?

The Reform movement believes that everyone can feel at home in Jewish experiences, that Judaism must meet people where they are today to thrive for tomorrow. We stand for a Judaism that is inclusive and open.

There is much to be done to inspire the next generation; to make our congregations the best that they can be; and to make the world more just. We must act as one movement so that our congregations’ leaders see that the URJ, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and all our affiliates are integral and can help to make their communities successful.

Pope Francis: Attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic

Pope Francis said that attacks both on Jews and the State of Israel are anti-Semitic.

“To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism,” the pope said in a private meeting at the Vatican with Jewish leaders on Wednesday, according to a statement from the World Jewish Congress. “There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.” 

WJC President Ronald Lauder praised the pope’s comments, saying the relationship between Jews and Catholics had never been stronger. “Pope Francis does not simply make declarations. He inspires people with his warmth and his compassion. His clear and unequivocal support for the Jewish people is critical to us,” Lauder said.

Pope Francis also met publicly with nearly 150 delegates and members of the World Jewish Congress’ governing board on Wednesday. The meeting marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a landmark declaration that rejected the charge of Jewish responsibility for the killing of Jesus and helped transform the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism.

“Indifference and opposition were transformed into cooperation and benevolence. Enemies and strangers have become friends and brothers. The Council, with the declaration Nostra Aetate, paved the way. It said yes to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity, and no to any form of anti-Semitism and condemnation of any insult, discrimination and persecution derived from that,” Pope Francis said, according to the WJC statement.

The pope’s comments come at a time of strife in the Middle East and heightened violence in Israel. At a meeting on Tuesday, the WJC Governing Board “reaffirmed its continued support of a two-state solution and urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume peace talks without preconditions as soon as possible.”

The board also called upon the international community to maintain and, if required, expand sanctions on Iran pending verification of its complete compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal.

Skip college — embrace Judaism and learn a trade

The conventional profile of American Jews is that they tend to be highly educated and work in professions like medicine, finance, law and the academy.

Jews, of course, “value education,” as the trope about the “People of the Book” goes. And American Jews, since they started arriving in the United States, have pushed for their kids to get the best education as a means of guaranteeing a successful life.

It isn’t a Jewish value to be a doctor, lawyer or neuroscientist, however. Professional achievement isn’t the measure of Jewish success. And the higher education prescribed by Jewish tradition is not of the variant offered at American colleges. In fact, what Judaism has to say on matters of education and profession are quite different than the current American Jewish norm.

Given the realities of the job market — 12.2 percent unemployment for young workers and slowing economic growth — Judaism’s 2,700-year-old position may be extraordinarily relevant for young Jews today.

The most famous rabbinic declaration on education can be found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a). The passage enjoins Jewish parents to teach their children Torah and a trade, along with getting first-born sons circumcised, finding them a spouse and teaching them to swim.

Of course, this is not all our sages had to say on the matter of parenting: There are discussions about corporal punishment (if you have to do it at all use only a shoelace) and the importance of modeling good behavior (because other forms of advice are likely to be rejected). But this accounting of what parents owe their children is the backbone of Jewish wisdom on parental responsibility.

Lifelong Torah study — and not, say, the pursuit of an M.D. or a J.D. — represents the higher education to which all Jews are meant to commit. But why is a trade so important? The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the idea that a trade, like swimming, builds independence and self-sufficiency.

Later in that same Talmudic passage, there is a warning to parents who fail to provide their children with such tools: “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” This is an amazing degree of seriousness — the rabbis are essentially saying that without independence there is ruin.

Centuries later, in 1912, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky took up the same cause, beating the drum for commerce and the trades, in large part because he believed the desire among young Russian Jews to move into the professions was contrary to Jewish tradition.

“For generations doing business was the pillar of Jewish life – why abandon it now?” says the main speaker in an article by Jabotinsky called “A Conversation.” “Back to the shop counter! Back to the stores, the banks, the stock exchange – not only to buying and selling, but to industry, to manufacture, to everything ‘practical.’”

In 2015, is such a message really relevant? After all, we hear a lot about how college has become indispensable. President Obama argues that everyone must have access to college, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competing proposals for making public universities tuition-free.

Yet, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report offers a surprising retort. The government says that currently there are 6 million more people with bachelor’s degrees than jobs available for them. So college today clearly isn’t the inexorable path to a good job that it once was.

Even those with jobs don’t have the type of employment that a college education once practically guaranteed. The Economic Policy Institute reports that among college graduates, the underemployment rate is 16.8 percent. (Underemployment means the “highly skilled…working in low paying [and low-skilled] jobs… and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time.”)

Difficulty finding a job isn’t the only reason to consider skipping college in favor of the trades: The vast majority of graduates are leaving school with huge loans and no clear path to repaying the debt. As reported by USA Today earlier this year, there are “40 million people across the United States who have monumental student debt” for a total outstanding debt burden of $1.2 trillion. CNN reports that between 2008 and 2014 — the recession years — student loans increased by 84 percent, “and are the only type of consumer debt not decreasing,” according to a study from Experian over the same time period.

These are staggering numbers and the impact is not merely in the area of employment. College debt and a challenging environment in which to get hired have led to a whole generation of young Americans who are delaying adulthood. Couples are renting instead of buying their first house, getting married older and many women are delaying having children until they have established themselves in the workforce, which is taking a decade or longer.

Of course, training to be a welder, a carpenter, electrician, plumber, HVAC specialist or franchise owner is not everyone’s professional fantasy. But here’s something to consider: It takes two fewer years to complete a trade school degree than it does an undergraduate college degree. So while the college student is racking up debt, the trade school grad would be earning on average $71,440 in the same amount of time, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

We are not quite at the point where Jewish mothers across the land will proudly introduce their kid as “my son, the plumber!” But going to college, incurring massive debt and spending years toiling to pay back your loans isn’t necessarily the perfect trajectory – or a Jewish value – either.

(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based writer whose first book, “No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government out of Parenting,” will be published next year. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter and on Facebook.)

On eve of biennial, 9 things to know about Reform Judaism

Some 5,000 Reform Jews will gather Nov. 4-8 in Orlando, Florida, for the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism. With about one in three American Jews identifying as Reform, the movement constitutes America’s largest Jewish religious denomination. Read on for more about the movement, its leadership, and its connections to Cincinnati, Detroit, Scarsdale, New York, and, yes, Mattoon, Illinois.

1. The movement is led by a pilot and a dancer — both from Scarsdale

Two of Reform’s three main institutions, the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the flagship rabbinic school, are led by men who hail from the same synagogue: Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. Both men, rabbis Rick Jacobs of the URJ and Aaron Panken of HUC, also have unconventional hobbies. Panken is a licensed commercial pilot and has a degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. Jacobs, who stands 6-foot-4, is a formerdancer and choreographer.

2. Reform Judaism embraces intermarried families …

Today, half of all married Reform Jews have non-Jewish spouses, and 80 percent of those who married between 2000 and 2013 wed non-Jewish spouses. Concomitantly, the movement has moved away from discouraging intermarriage and has focused on welcoming intermarried families. In 1973, the movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. In 2010, a Reform rabbinic task force recommended reaching out to the intermarried and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Today, most Reform rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

3. … But won’t ordain intermarried rabbis

The movement’s rabbinical school bars ordaining rabbis who are married to non-Jews. However, Reform rabbis may marry non-Jews after graduation and face no sanction for doing so. Panken, the Hebrew Union College president, has indicated that a review of the longtime ban on ordaining intermarried rabbis may be in the works. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College recently dropped its own ban on intermarried rabbinical students, becoming the first U.S. Jewish denomination to make that decision.)

4. For converts, mikvah (and, sometimes, circumcision) are encouraged — but optional

Every year, at least 800-900 people undergo Reform conversions to Judaism, according to the movement’s records, and some 9 percent of all Reform Jews were raised as non-Jews. Conversion requirements and rituals vary. Immersion in a mikvah ritual bath is recommended but not required. Some men also undergo circumcision; others already medically circumcised undergo a drawing of blood called a “hatafat dam” to symbolize the covenant. Neither is mandatory. Those who have undergone a Reform conversion must make a public declaration of commitment to the Jewish people, living life as a Jew and Jewish values. They may do so at the mikvah, in the rabbi’s office before a three-person religious panel or in the synagogue sanctuary with the congregation present. In synagogue conversion ceremonies, converts typically hold the Torah, recite the Shema prayer, are given a Hebrew name and receive a blessing.

5. Summer camp is a major point of connection

Every summer, approximately 10,000 campers attend the Reform movement’s 15 summer camps — and the movement has plans to open five new camps by 2020. That’s nearly three times the number of children in the nation’s 13 Reform day schools. Between 2009 and 2014, enrollment at Reform Jewish day schools fell by 19 percent to 3,704 students, according to the Avi Chai Foundation, which tracks such data. Though about one in 10 Reform Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish day schools (including some at day schools not affiliated with Reform), about one-quarter are enrolled in some other Jewish educational program (such as supplementary Hebrew school) and about one-third take part in an organized Jewish youth program. With the Reform Jewish birthrate at 1.7 children per woman – lower than the replacement rate and below the other two major Jewish denominations (4.1 for Orthodox, 1.8 for Conservative) — the number of Reform Jewish children altogether is declining.

6. Synagogue attendance lags

If you took a representative sample of 100 Jews in synagogue on any given Shabbat, 13 percent would be Reform compared to 21 percent Conservative, 56 percent Orthodox and 8 percent with no denomination. Only 4 percent of Reform Jews say they attend religious services at least weekly, compared to 11 percent of American Jews overall. About 29 percent of Reform Jews say they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared to 41 percent of Conservatives and 89 percent of Orthodox.

7. The Detroit area is home to the nation’s largest Reform synagogue

That would be Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with 3,374 members. The smallest movement-affiliated synagogue? The Mattoon Jewish Community Center in Illinois: It has six members. Altogether, the Union for Reform Judaism has 858 affiliated congregations — about 15 new ones since the last biennial two years ago, according to URJ officials. Reform synagogues are spread across the country. Approximately two-thirds of American Reform Jews live outside the Northeast: 28 percent in the South, 22 percent out West and 9 percent in the Midwest.

8. Ohio is home to America’s first rabbinical seminary

HUC, Reform Judaism’s seminary, was established in 1875 in Cincinnati. Why Cincy? Because that’s where its founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, was a congregational rabbi. Today, the movement’s combined HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion maintains the Cincinnati campus as well as rabbinic seminaries in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. (Last year, 10 of HUC’s 35 rabbinic graduates were ordained in Cincinnati.) Fun fact: The Klau Library at HUC Cincinnati  houses the largest collection of printed Jewish material in America — and second in the world after Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem.

9. About half of new Reform rabbis are women

The gender breakdown of newly ordained Reform rabbis is about 50-50 these days, according to HUC. In all, 3,181 Reform rabbis have been ordained since HUC’s inception in the 19th century, including 724 women and 92 Israelis (37 of them women). The first American female Reform rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972, and the first Israeli woman to receive Reform ordination was Rabbi Naamah Kelman, in 1992. HUC also has 496 cantorial alumni, including 230 women, since graduating the first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, in 1975.

(Unless otherwise noted, the statistics cited are based on data from the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 survey of U.S. Jewry.)


Ron Wolfson: A precious gift from his Zayde and Bubbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


At Israeli-American Council’s second national conference, more people and less politics

As about 1,300 Israeli Americans convened from Oct. 17-19 in Washington, D.C., for the Israeli-American Council’s (IAC) second annual national conference, anxiety and anger over the recent wave of Palestinian stabbings in Israel was a much-discussed topic during a weekend that was otherwise less flashy, less political and more formal than the group’s flashy inaugural conference a year ago.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, gave the opening remarks on Saturday evening, with a message that Israeli officials have consistently sent over the past few weeks — that the torrent of stabbings of Israeli Jews is a result of incitement in Palestinian culture, and not something that would change even if Israeli policy toward the Palestinians changes. This was in sharp contrast with Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks at a Harvard event, where he blamed the stalled peace process and “a massive increase in settlements” for “this violence, because there’s a frustration that is growing.”

Dermer told the receptive crowd, “If the international community would focus on Palestinian incitement one-tenth as much as they focus on building apartments for Jews in Jerusalem, the situation might be very different.” And on Sunday evening, Israeli cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz offered a similar message, saying, “This violence is only about incitement.”

Dermer, like many in attendance, was born in the United States to an Israeli parent. Receiving numerous rounds of applause and a standing ovation from much of the crowd in a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton, Dermer said, “What my ima [mother] passed on to me, you can pass on to your children,” encapsulating one of the IAC’s primary goals — to foster a strong connection to Israel among first- and second-generation Israeli Americans.

At last year’s conference, which drew 500 fewer people and was held in a much smaller ballroom at the Hilton, headlines in major media outlets focused on big political names who addressed the IAC crowd, among them 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and billionaire rival political kingmakers Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, who participated in a lively and entertaining onstage discussion during which they talked (or joked) about teaming up to purchase The New York Times and Washington Post, in order to ensure that those two outlets would cover Israel more favorably, Saban said at the time.

At this year’s conference, the IAC’s VIP list and topics of discussion were much tamer — no presidential candidates, no senators, and an even split of Democrats and Republicans, all strong supporters of Israel and all opponents of President Barack Obama’s signature diplomatic nuclear agreement with Iran. They included California Congressmen Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).

Sherman, who spoke Saturday evening after Dermer, sharply criticized, to loud applause, the idea that Israeli settlements factor into the recent stabbings.

“They did not die because there were protesters who were concerned about settlements,” Sherman said. “[They] died at the hands of terrorists who are motivated by a racist ideology that calls upon its adherents to expel all Jews from the Middle East.”

Notably missing from this year’s conference was Saban, who recently ended his support of the IAC and of Campus Maccabees, a new task force he helped create last summer with Adelson to fight the growing on-campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has successfully passed dozens of resolutions in student governments targeting boycotts of Israeli goods and companies that do business with the Israeli government. Although it was rumored that Saban’s withdrawal of support from the two groups stemmed from differences he has with Adelson, his team has said he left in order to focus on other philanthropic efforts for the time being. Adelson has given millions of dollars to the IAC and is the group’s largest donor, having given $12 million to the group at its March gala and fueling its national expansion in 2013.

Adelson was notably lower key when he spoke Monday than he often is when in front of friendly audiences and reporters, mostly using the opportunity to praise one of his biggest philanthropic benefactors, Birthright Israel, for its impact on young American Jews. In his discussion with Barry Shrage, who heads the Boston Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among the largest Jewish Federations in the country, political observers in the room were closely watching Adelson for hints as to which Republican presidential candidate he’ll support for the 2016 election, but Adelson didn’t touch at all on politics. In fact, the most notable comments from the discussion, the last event of the conference, came from Shrage, who called on Jewish Federations across the country to work closely with the IAC and help integrate it into local Jewish communities.

“We insist that IAC become an integral [part] of every community,” Shrage said. In Los Angeles, home to the IAC’s national office and to the largest number of Israelis and Israeli Americans in the United States, the IAC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shared a cool relationship since the IAC’s inception in 2007, working together on very few initiatives. Shrage also criticized leading Jewish-American figures on the left, such as author and commentator Peter Beinart, “who would love us to believe that the best way to alienate our next generation is to engage on Israel issues.”

“That would be a horrible self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what I think some of those people actually want,” Shrage said.

The structure of the breakout sessions, offered in English and Hebrew, included topics such as “From the Frontlines: How to Defeat BDS,” “The Israeli Entrepreneur: What’s the Secret Sauce” and “Israel on Campus: Perception vs. Reality.” The conference felt similar in topics and structure to annual national conventions held by groups such as AIPAC and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), albeit with more emphasis on issues relevant to Israeli Americans.

And between breakout sessions, hundreds of people, ranging from college students and young professionals to veterans of the Jewish and Israeli professional world, chatted and networked over coffee, Bamba and Bissli, schmoozing and taking advantage of face time with pro-Israel and Israeli-American professionals who they more often communicate with via email and phone during the rest of the year.

The content of the major speeches and the groups represented during the breakout sessions indicated that the IAC, although currently active in seven cities nationwide, has quickly joined the professional mainstream Jewish-American pro-Israel community, which includes much larger groups such as AIPAC, the JFNA, and Birthright. And although Jewish groups such as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” JStreet were absent from the conference, Israel’s center-left opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, who lost handily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March elections, was received warmly by the crowd when he spoke onstage with Udi Segal, a journalist for Israel Channel 2.

As Adelson, who supported Netanyahu in the Israeli elections, sat only feet away, Herzog joked, “Unfortunately Sheldon and [wife] Miriam did not support me.”

“To say that it’s hopeless and therefore we should stay forever, wherever we are with no answer, leads us directly to the fact that we’ll be a one-state solution,” Herzog said to moderate applause.

Throughout the conference, people were constantly checking their phones for updates from Israel. News of several stabbings and attacks by Palestinians occurred over the weekend, and the grim news on the other side of the world was never far from the surface at the largest gathering of Israeli-Americans in the country.

“It makes me feel guilty that I am here talking about Israel and not actually supporting my family and friends who are in Israel,” said Niran Avni, an Israeli from suburban Tel Aviv who currently lives in Los Angeles. “But I like that we get to talk, and talk how we can influence from here what’s happening over there.”

One of the ways the IAC hopes to support Israel from the United States is by mobilizing teams of social media professionals to “defend Israel online” when conflicts break out. There were social media workshops and, in an area called “The Situation Room,” tables were set up with about two-dozen laptops where anyone could peruse the various ways that pro-Israel groups are using social media to advocate for and defend Israel online. The IAC also revealed a new partnership with IDC-Herzliya, in which the two groups will share resources and knowledge to assist Israel on social media.

Adam Milstein, an IAC co-founder who recently was named the group’s chairman of the board, said he believes the IAC offers Israeli-Americans a vehicle through which to support Israel from abroad. “Now that we have this organization, we have this identity, we have this movement. Part of it is to be advocates for the State of Israel.”

In addition to supporting cultural and Hebrew-language programs, and supporting Israel through social media and grants to pro-Israel groups, the IAC is also set to launch a lobbying arm that will be aimed at state and local governments, and maybe even the federal government. The group recently hired Dillon Hosier, former political adviser to Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles, to head the IAC’s statewide lobbying efforts, which Milstein said could include passing resolutions against BDS and for cooperation with Israel, and possibly become involved with Title VI anti-discrimination statutes at the federal level.

“We want to actually accomplish alliances in counties and municipalities,” Milstein said. “We want to be engaged in legislation that’s taking place on the federal level.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructionists to accept rabbinical applicants with non-Jewish partners

The Reconstructionist movement will accept rabbinical applicants who have non-Jewish partners.

A ban on such applicants, last reaffirmed in 2002, was revoked by the Reconstructionist Religious College following a faculty vote last week, the seminary said in a news release Wednesday. The statement said the suburban Philadelphia school’s “Non-Jewish Partner” policy has been under review since 2010.

“Our deliberations, heavily influenced through consultation with alumni, congregations and students, have simultaneously led us to reaffirm that all rabbinical candidates must model commitment to Judaism in their communal, personal, and family lives,” Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the college’s president, said in the statement. “We witness Jews with non-Jewish partners demonstrating these commitments every day in many Jewish communities.”

In a conference call with reporters, Waxman said that part of the impetus came from a number of students at the college who partnered with non-Jews during their studies. The seminary graduates eight to 10 rabbis a year.

She said it was important for rabbis to model “openness and transparency and consistency in their lives,” and also allow students to “bring their full lives to their training as rabbis.”

Additionally, Waxman said, the movement had lost out on superb applicants because of the ban.

“We have had to turn away wonderful students who would have made wonderful rabbis,” she said.

Reconstructionism is the fourth largest movement of American Judaism.

Washington scandal reveals politics behind European Jewish memorials

A small government agency for preserving European historical sites has been accused of criminal malfeasance, roiling Jewish community officials who say the agency has played a critical role in memorializing Europe’s Jewish past.

The controversy surrounding the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad offers a glimpse into the workings of influence in the capital and reveals how the focus in Washington on lost Jewish heritage at times stirs resentment among non-Jewish Americans of European descent.

Some are concerned that the controversy could roll back recent strides in getting European nations to confront and memorialize their role in the decimation of European Jewry.

“A lot of sites important to different parts of the Jewish community would not continue to be in existence if not for the commission,” said Mark Levin, who directs the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry, a body that advocates for Jews in many of the countries where the agency has helped set up memorials.

Most wounding for the heritage commission and its defenders was a statement that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, released to The New York Times.

“Established with the best of intentions to memorialize the horrors of 20th-century genocides, the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad did little to accomplish that goal but was instead used to enrich a lobbyist,” Johnson told the Times.

That lobbyist is Jeffrey Farrow, the heritage commission’s part-time executive director, who made a salary of $104,000 while also collecting fees for representing foreign governments, according to the Times.

Ezra Friedlander, a New York-based publicist who organized an event this year on Capitol Hill lauding the agency on its 30th anniversary, said he was taken aback when he read Johnson’s statement.

“The cemetery where my family was buried, for many decades following World War II it was almost impossible to pay respects,” Friedlander said, referring to the burial ground of the Liska Hasidic dynasty in Hungary. “As a result of the commission it was restored to pristine conditions. Today there are literally thousands of people praying and paying firsthand respects.”

William Daroff, a former member of the heritage commission, said the agency’s importance was in lending U.S. government heft to efforts to persuade European governments to back preservation projects and memorials.

“Congress has decided that it’s important for America’s heritage to be preserved, and if the U.S. didn’t step in, this piece of history would be lost,” said Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Private donors often join European governments in paying for the projects; the agency’s $644,000 government budget goes to administrative costs. Just under a sixth of the budget is for Farrow’s salary.

An official who works for Johnson’s committee told JTA that Johnson may have overstated the heritage commission’s lack of accomplishment to the Times, but that its glory days had passed. The agency has completed little recently, said the official, who spoke anonymously, emphasizing that Johnson did not want to end the agency but to reform it.

The heritage commission’s website is heavy with accounts of restorations and memorials completed in the 2000s, but lists only a few projects this decade. An agency official emailed to JTA information about 20 recent projects, many not appearing on the website.

In his statement, dated Aug. 10, Johnson cited a 2013 report on the heritage commission by the inspector general of the General Services Administration, calling it “a bizarre tale in which an obscure federal agency tasked with making lists of cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe morphed into the taxpayer-funded lobbying offices of an extravagantly-paid lobbyist,” referring to Farrow.

In addition to directing the heritage commission, Farrow has also registered as a foreign agent for Palau, a tiny Pacific Island nation that receives funding from the U.S. government, and he has lobbied on behalf of Puerto Rico.

The seeming duality of the role – a government official using government offices to rake in big bucks as a lobbyist – earned Farrow the rogue’s treatment in the Times.

“Mr. Farrow was at once a federal government bureaucrat and lobbyist,” the Times story said. “The revolving door did not even have to spin.” Farrow did not reply to a request for comment.

Lesley Weiss, the heritage commission’s chairwoman – and the deputy director at the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry — this week rebutted some of the charges.

Weiss, who is not paid for her role at the agency, said in a letter to Johnson that Farrow’s dual status is par for the course in Washington, particularly for a small agency able to pay for only one full-time staffer.

“For most of its existence, the commission has operated only by employing the services of various part-time and full-time contractors,” she said.

Johnson said in his letter that Farrow ran his lobbying practice out of the heritage commission’s office – among a litany of charges that he says may amount to “serious crimes.”

Weiss in her response denied that Farrow mixed lobbying with his heritage commission work. The Times, which obtained an unredacted copy of the General Services Administration’s inspector general’s report, said that although Farrow may have conducted lobbying business from the agency’s office, he used a separate laptop computer and cellphone, and the inspector general said “there was insufficient evidence to show any violation by Mr. Farrow.”

The General Services Administration’s Office of Inspector General sent JTA a copy of its 2013 report, but it was almost entirely redacted. That inquiry is closed, but a separate probe by the Office of the Special Counsel reportedly remains open. A spokesman for the special counsel office refused to comment.

Officials close to the heritage commission said that people like Farrow are useful precisely because of the influence and access in Washington they accrue through their other jobs.

“He developed important relationships with countries abroad,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a top official in the Carter and Clinton administrations who worked with Farrow during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and who has been deeply involved in memorializing the Holocaust in the United States and abroad.

“It’s not easy to get foreign and local governments to agree with these sites,” he said.

Part of what may be driving the current controversy is the perception that the heritage commission has favored memorializing Jewish sites over non-Jewish ones.

The agency, in the years after its establishment in 1985, compiled lists of properties targeted for preservation belonging to a range of minorities, but more recently the overwhelming majority of its projects are Jewish.

The whistleblower whose complaints initiated the government investigations is Katarina Ryan, the heritage commission’s only full-time employee, who has been on leave since the investigations were launched. Ryan is a Roman Catholic of Polish descent who, sources close to the commission told JTA, clashed with other officials because she wanted more attention paid to memorializing atrocities suffered by non-Jews.

Ryan did not respond to a query through LinkedIn. The Senate staffer said that when Johnson’s committee launched its own queries into the heritage commission’s workings, the committee was not aware of Ryan’s name, much less her ethnicity or religion.

Weiss told JTA in a written response that an emphasis on memorializing Jewish sites was natural, given that other minorities have not been nearly wiped out in Europe.

“Jewish sites are particularly endangered to an extent that sites of most other groups are not because of the Holocaust and because of Communist repression, which annihilated the populations that otherwise would have continued to care for Jewish sites,” she said.

Weiss nonetheless noted a range of non-Jewish sites that have been memorialized through the work of the heritage commission, including Muslim sites in Bulgaria, Roma sites in Poland and Old Believer Christian sites in Lithuania.

Pesos from Heaven: A High Holy Days message

I haven’t seen or spoken to my parents for years now. This isn’t because of negligence or lack of caring, it’s that they’re no longer in this world.

Nonetheless, we keep in touch. I guess you could call it a “long-distance” relationship.

With that in mind, I’d like to share something that happened to me this week.  

I‘m currently producing a new cartoon series called “Pig Goat Banana Cricket” for Nickelodeon, and I was getting ready to visit our animation studio in Mexico City. A few days before the trip, I walked into the kitchen and saw a strange site: a large Ziploc bag filled with a stack of old passports. They belonged to my parents and grandparents. Amazingly, alongside the passports was a stack of …

Mexican pesos.

That bag had been sitting in a storage box for years. I have no idea why it was unearthed when it was. But there it was, right before my trip — my parents’ passports and a stack of …

Mexican pesos!

We use passports to travel from one country to another. Or from this world to the next, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells it in “The Munkacher Passport,” an awesome story and a must-listen. 

I couldn’t escape the feeling that my parents, in their ongoing love, were giving me spending money for my trip. 

But how?

The Talmud teaches that this world and the next are as close as two hairs on a person’s head. As interconnected as one cup stacked within another. Our dimensions intersect. We just don’t have the eyes to see it.

The bills were old, but the man behind the glass partition of the airport’s currency exchange assured me they were still good.

My brother-in-law lives with his family in Mexico City. Before I left, my wife emailed him, asking about kosher restaurants near my hotel. He wrote back impishly with the address of “a restaurant for my soul.” In other words, the location of the nearest shul at the time of morning services.  

The truth is I was planning on going to morning minyan anyway, but it was nice to have an address and a time.  

One of the wonderful things about being part of the Jewish community is that you can walk into any shul around the world and instantly speak the same language. Walls fall, and you realize the larger Oneness we all inhabit.

But the real reason I’m writing this is to tell you what happened next.  

During the prayers, someone came around collecting tzedakah, charity for the poor of the community.  

I wanted to give, but I was in a foreign country, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  

Then I realized I had my parents’ pesos!  I reached into my pocket, took out the bills and gave them to tzedakah. 

After the Torah was read, they gave me the honor of gelilah, wrapping the Torah scroll.  I learned from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that this aliyah is a segula, a blessing to complete projects. How appropriate!

The idea that children can reach to a place in time and space that our parents no longer have access to amazes me. What a privilege it is to be our parents’ hands, and to have the potential to complete what they may have wanted to do but no longer can. 

This, of course, goes beyond our parents. It applies to the dreams of all the previous generations who worked and yearned to bring the redemption.  

We are their hands. We are their feet.

But let’s go deeper.

The same dynamic that applies to parent and child also applies to us and our own selves.  

At High Holy Days, HaShem creates a new us. The previous version of ourself no longer exists.  

As such, the new, inspired us has the ability to complete the work that the old us never got a chance to. The new, inspired me can reach to a place (in time and space) and do what the old me may have desired but was never able to accomplish. 

That means I can fix my own soul.

May HaShem bless us to see the wondrous completion of our work, of our parents’ work and of the work that all previous generations gave their souls for to bring to reality.

David Sacks produces torahonitunes.com.

Israeli artist’s stained glass creations bring life, light to community

Inside the sanctuary at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), a transdenominational seminary located in Koreatown, the atmosphere is rather dark and somber. Except, that is, for the brightly colored ner tamid above the ark.

Made of stained glass, the 60-pound umbrella-shaped lamp depicts the tribes of Israel, with vivid hues and familiar symbols (menorah, shofar, Star of David); a menagerie of birds and animals; and women of the Bible, including Esther, Deborah, Judith and Ruth.

The work is the creation of Revital Goldreich, a former accountant who began working with stained glass in 1998. “I have always been interested in the arts,” said the Israeli-born artist and educator, who previously served as director of visual arts at Leo Baeck Temple’s religious school.

She had dabbled in drawing and ceramics as a hobby, but when her friend Sheila Brossman, a glass artist, gave Goldreich her first lesson, she decided to become a full-time artist with this as her medium.

“The serenity and exhilaration I experienced with stained glass surpassed anything I’ve ever felt before,” she said.  

“Using paper, fabric, wood, clay, metal and glass was the starting point to bringing Bible stories and Jewish history to life and learning their lessons. But of all the materials I’ve touched and molded, glass has the most amazing effect on me,” Goldreich said. “Working with stained glass in three dimensions, making sure the artwork is not only pleasing and meaningful, but is also sturdy, durable and carries its own weight can be challenging.”

Goldreich, 55, donated her ner tamid piece to AJRCA, where she is working toward a master’s degree in Jewish studies, which she expects to complete in May 2017.

Revital Goldreich

“I like that it tells an important story. It has brought the room to life,” said Cantor Perryne Anker, associate dean of the cantorial school at AJRCA. “Unlike a lot of stained glass, it has life to it. It’s alive.”

Goldreich has done other public installations, including the Esther Kaleidoscope, a moving carousel-like sculpture depicting 36 scenes from the Book of Esther. It was displayed at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach for Hadassah’s centennial celebration in 2012 and has been part of traveling exhibits since then. She also created an 18-branch, 6 1/2-foot-tall Chai Menorah that was installed at the Israeli-American Council’s Woodland Hills offices in May 2012. 

Her website (


Paying to pray? Not quite

We’ve all heard this story, and some of us have lived it: A Jewish individual or couple, new in town or newly seeking to reconnect with the Jewish community, walks into a worship space just before the start time of a High Holy Days service and starts to enter the sanctuary, only to be stopped by an usher, who asks, “Do you have a ticket?”

If the answer is no, the would-be worshiper is directed to a table in the lobby, where he or she is offered admission to the service in exchange for a stated amount of money. 

How many Jews have been turned off from participation in synagogue life because this has happened? It’s a classic recipe for alienation. The stranger may be offended by what seems to be a crass business transaction at what’s supposed to be the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. He or she may not be able to afford the admission price. The person staffing the table may come off as officious or unfriendly. And, heaven forbid, the stranger doesn’t look particularly Jewish… This doesn’t happen in our bend of the river, of course. But it happens, and it’s always a horror story when it does.

This is a time of nervousness and heightened security measures, when you don’t know what kind of nut might walk through the door. But we who gather in congregations that are outlets for our Jewish spiritual and communal impulses have a responsibility even at the High Holy Days — especially at the High Holy Days — to make sure every single newcomer who turns up on the doorstep is welcomed warmly and unconditionally. I’ll get to how in a moment.

First, I would like those of you reading this column who are not affiliated with a congregation to understand why most synagogues ask for donations from nonmembers who want to attend High Holy Days services. It’s mostly to offset the greater expenses that congregations incur during the holidays. These can include space rental; additional personnel (from extra security guards to cantors and other professional musicians); food service for a crowd several times larger than usual; printing of bulletins, prayer-book supplements, memorial booklets. Keep in mind, too, that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only services for which congregations ask a specific donation. For every other visit to a temple’s sanctuary during the Jewish year — every Shabbat, every festival, every commemoration — the newcomer is asked for nothing but fellowship.

When you make a donation to a congregation in order to attend High Holy Days services, you aren’t paying to pray. (After all, you can do that for free, anywhere.) You’re supporting the ability of that congregation to provide a spiritually meaningful, aesthetically pleasing worship experience led by people who have trained for years and are working hard to express both the gravitas and celebration of the holiday season. You’re supporting the profoundly communal nature of Judaism, making yourself part of the minyan, if only for a couple of hours. And it’s tax-deductible.

The responsibility of the worship group, then, is to offer a sacred space and atmosphere that will embrace you and make you want to come back. The congregations that do this best at holiday time enlist their friendliest, warmest members to sit at the ticket table, take tickets at the door and hang out in the lobby, keeping an eye out for newbies. At least three types of people, all wearing big “Ask me” or “Let me help you” tags.

Collecting money from nonmembers is a much lower priority. Nonmembers who walk in without tickets should be directed smilingly to the ticket table, where they are told not that the ticket price for one service is X and for all the services is Y, but that the congregation asks nonmembers for a donation; this year, the suggested amount is Z. If the potential congregants offer a smaller donation, it should be accepted graciously. If they say they can’t afford any donation or aren’t carrying what they need to make a transaction, the volunteer member should hand them tickets and a stamped, addressed donation envelope, saying something along the lines of, “No problem. Here’s an envelope if you can send something later. We’re glad you can be with us for the holiday.” The odds of receiving a check? Unknown. Mitzvah points? Priceless.

During my years as a Jewish adult, I’ve been a temple board member eyeing the budget for the High Holy Days, and I’ve been the gal at the ticket table. I’ve been the cantor hired for the holidays and I am currently rabbi of a congregation-without-walls that needs to rent walls for the holidays. And I’ve been the stranger seeking a spiritual home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even when I was young and my financial resources minimal, the sense of being home was always worth supporting. 

If congregations and unaffiliated Jews alike approach the High Holy Days in a spirit of generosity, support and welcome, worship spaces everywhere will be filled with an extra radiance of joy and wholeness. L’shanah tovah um’tukah tikateivu: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year. And may you find your spiritual home in 5776.

Rabbi Cantor Ellen Jaffe-Gill (ellenjaffegill.com) is rabbi of Tidewater Chavurah, based in Virginia Beach, Va., and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom.” This column appeared first in Jewish News of Southeastern Virginia. Reprinted with permission.

Biden: Iran deal opponents seek regime change

Vice President Joe Biden said opponents of the Iran nuclear deal were seeking regime change, which could only be achieved through a messy war.

“The only thing that would satisfy deal opponents,” including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “is a change in regime,” Biden said Thursday, addressing Ahavath Achim synagogue in Atlanta.

That could only come with U.S. power, Biden said, which would involve “hundreds of sorties” by combat aircraft.

“There’s nothing surgical about this,” he said.

Biden addressed two Jewish audiences on Tuesday: Jewish community leadership in Broward County, Florida, in the morning and the Atlanta shul in the evening.

The outreach was part of an aggressive Obama administration effort to drum up support for the deal among American Jews, who have faced similarly intense lobbying against the deal from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Biden vigorously defended the sanctions relief for nuclear restrictions deal reached in July between Iran and six major powers, saying it would prevent Iran from “ever” obtaining a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu and AIPAC, along with most Republicans, say the deal leaves Iran a nuclear threshold state.

Biden said the Obama administration’s support for Israel was unprecedented.

“Israel has no greater friend than the U.S., and no president has done more to advance Israel’s security than Barack Obama,” he said.

“As the Israeli consul may have to reluctantly acknowledge, 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget” is provided by the United States, Biden said.

The Atlanta event was moderated by Stuart Eizenstat, a top official in the Clinton and Carter administrations whose late wife, Fran, the lecture honored. Eizenstat asked Biden whether he was considering a run for the presidency.

“The honest to God answer is, I don’t know,” said Biden, whose son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in May. “The most relevant factor in my decision is whether my family and I have the emotional energy to run.”

Biden appeared with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., at the event at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie, Fla. Wasserman Schultz is under intense scrutiny as Congress must consider by Sept. 17 whether to reject the deal; the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, she is among the most senior Jewish lawmakers among Democrats, and has yet to declare how she would vote.

“I am and have been going through a very careful evaluation process,” she told the Sun-Sentinel. Biden and Wasserman Schultz are close; she headed the student arm of his campaign when he ran for president in 1988.

Wasserman Schultz came under fire from Democrats recently after reports said she blocked the Democratic National Convention from issuing a pro-deal sentiment.

Deal backers have garnered 37 senators, more than the one third – 34 – needed to beat back an override of Obama’s pledged veto of any deal-killing bill. The latest to sign on was Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., whose pro-Israel activism dates back 25 years when he met Rabbi Shmuley Boteach at Oxford University.

The unexpected power of vacation Shabbat

Shabbat – the 7th day, a day of rest, a chance to refrain from all the usual business of the week. No work, no cell phone, no computer, no spending money. You know the deal. After a busy week, it feels great to give yourself permission to slow down. But what if it wasn’t a busy week? Or furthermore, what if the week itself was filled with relaxation and pleasure? Is a break from a break really all that necessary? And what if all the limitations spoil the fun you’re having? This is a question I pondered a few months ago as I prepared to embark on a two-month journey traveling through Europe. As I consulted a calendar and tried to figure out where I wanted to be on which days, one column of dates kept glaring back at me. I’m talking about the Saturdays. As someone who observes Shabbat and who was going to be traveling alone, I feared the worst. What will I do for food? What will I do for entertainment? What kind of city would be best suited for 25 hours of doing “nothing”? When I’m at home with my family in Los Angeles on Shabbat, it’s my easiest day of the week. I have a comfy bed to sleep late in, plenty of books and things to read during the day, and a Jewish mother stuffing me with food. But as a single, lone visitor in a foreign country, I knew Shabbat would be different. What I didn’t expect was that my Shabbats in Europe would turn out to be the best of all my days. It was incredible to experience how Shabbat always provided me with exactly what I needed at the time and place I found myself in at that moment.

My first Shabbat was in Berlin, a spectacular city packed with young artistic people from all around the world. They move there to pursue their dreams and collaborate with others who share their passions. Sort of like Los Angeles, but without all the Botox. The city is vast, with many different neighborhoods that each offer a totally different atmosphere. If you love good culture, good food, and good coffee, the city is a giant playground. But all this variety can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. With so many options and such convenient public transportation, it can be easy to find yourself paralyzed with choice. Drifting in a sea of possibility, the arrival of Shabbat was a much needed life-jacket for me. Suddenly, I had structure and a plan. When sundown approached and I put my cell phone and computer away, I was overcome with a feeling of peace. I had signed up to attend a student Shabbat dinner at the home of a lovely and welcoming Rabbi and his wife. With about 15 other young Jewish people in attendance, I deeply appreciated the intimacy, after spending my previous few days constantly surrounded by crowds. The following day, I had lunch at the local Chabad, where I met plenty of friendly locals as well as fellow travelers passing through. And for the rest of the day until dark, I simply hung out by the river with a book and a beer I had bought the day before. It felt great. For one day I didn’t have to worry about which museum to check out or read reviews to choose which restaurant to eat at. Shabbat showed me the pleasure of enjoying the simple things, even when you’re in a foreign country, because you get to experience how locals live rather than be consumed with a checklist of must-see tourist spots. When Shabbat ended, I was refreshed and ready to hit the town again, with a newfound perspective and peace of mind.

A week later I found myself in Prague. In this city, Shabbat provided another essential ingredient: comfort in the familiar. Prague is a city that makes you feel very foreign. For one, since the Czech language is not Latin-based, you can’t get by with recognizing a few words here and there or phonetically reading signs. They also use their own currency (not the Euro), so it’s not as easy to quickly figure out how much you’re spending. On top of that, it’s an extremely touristy place. You can’t take more than a few steps without walking into a selfie stick. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come to Prague to experience the familiar. It was a pleasure to take in a totally new environment. But it requires a lot of energy and awareness to make your way around. So after a couple days of exploring, Shabbat once again came to the rescue. Prague is home to the Altneushul, Europe’s oldest active synagogue (completed in 1270) and home to the mythical Golem. I showed up for Kabbalat Shabbat services there and with its stone walls and gothic architecture, I suddenly felt transported to another era. As we went through the familiar songs and prayers, I couldn’t help but feel at home, not only with the people who shared the room with me at that moment, but the generations of Jews who have also prayed the same prayers in that same room for the past eight centuries. In Prague, Shabbat showed me the comfort of tradition when in a place that’s far from familiar. 

A couple weeks later I found myself in Paris. The physical beauty of Paris is unmatched. Every building, every bridge, every baguette is a moment out of a post card. Even if you avoid the tourist trap spots, there’s no way to escape the fact that you might be in the most picturesque city in the world. And yet I couldn’t help but think about how beneath this veneer of beauty rested a darkness that only a few months earlier had claimed the lives of innocent cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and a group of Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket. How could such ugliness occur amidst so much beauty? I’d also seen the viral YouTube video of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke walking through the streets of Paris while a hidden camera captured passersby yelling hateful comments and spitting at him. It was hard for me to fathom this seeming contradiction. But on Shabbat it suddenly felt very real. I had signed up to attend dinner at the Chabad located on the famous Champs Elysees. I walked back and forth past the address listed on the website, but I saw no marking or label for Chabad. Finally, a woman dressed in plain clothes came up to me and quietly escorted me into what looked like some sort of office building. She signaled to a nearby French soldier armed with a huge rifle, who then led me to the courtyard where I found the entrance to the Chabad house. Two other armed soldiers manned the area for the duration of the evening. I was shaken by this experience. It’s 2015 in Paris and a group of Jews gathering to eat food together requires the protection of three heavily armed soldiers? Even in Israel I never experienced such security. In that moment I truly had the feeling that there’s a war on the Jewish people. The experience of Shabbat forced me to confront and reflect on this truth. I’m grateful for that.

These are just a sampling of my experiences with Shabbat on vacation. Each in its own unique way had an impact on my traveling experience and undoubtedly enriched my journey. And that’s the power of Shabbat. It’s not just one thing. It’s a special space in time that stands apart from the rest of the week and gives us what we need at that exact moment. It’s an opportunity to look at the world through a different lens, to slow down and reflect, and to connect with others wherever we are. Sometimes a vacation from a vacation can be a very good thing. 

IKAR announces its move to Shalhevet

Egalitarian spiritual community IKAR announced on Aug. 26 that it is relocating to Shalhevet High School’s new building near Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, following its 11 years operating out of the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC). 

“We are thrilled to announce that as of Sept. 5, 2015, all IKAR Shabbat and holiday services and Limudim will be held at Shalhevet High School’s beautiful brand new building, just down the street from the JCC. The IKAR offices will remain at the JCC for the time being,” said a statement signed by IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous, executive director Melissa Balaban and board chairwoman Karen Hogan.

The final IKAR Shabbat service and bat mitzvah at the JCC was Aug. 29. That’s when Brous told a crowd of about 300 people, “Sometimes space is holy because holy things happen in it.” 

Services wrapped up with the congregation singing and swaying together as the IKAR clergy led them in a rendition of the Beatles’ “In My Life.” 

Afterward, a ceremonial Torah walk to Shalhevet was followed by singing and dancing. As the congregants walked on the busy L.A. streets from one campus to another, IKAR Hazan Hillel Tigay led them in another Beatles song — this time “Hello Goodbye.”

It was a bittersweet chance to say goodbye to one space and be introduced to another, Balaban said in a phone interview.

“The JCC has really been our Jewish home. Our kids grew up in this place; we all grew up in this place [and] IKAR grew up in the JCC. We will have a lot of nostalgia. I think we will miss it,” she said. 

The statement by IKAR clarifies that the synagogue community is still hoping to eventually purchase a building of its own.

“As many of you know, our long-term goal is to build a Jewish center for social innovation — a laboratory for experimentation in all aspects of Jewish expression: spiritual, ritual, political, cultural and social. The move to Shalhevet is an interim step as we lay the groundwork for a capital campaign,” the statement said. 

Balaban told the Journal that IKAR signed a two-year lease with Shalhevet on Aug. 26.

IKAR is a nondenominational community of about 600 member units, while Shalhavet has more than 180 students and identifies as Modern Orthodox. Shalhevet Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal said the new arrangement benefits both communities.

“What makes us a good match is that our schedules are essentially mirror images. Sharing our space with an organization that has different religious viewpoints does not require relinquishing our own opinions; renting to an organization with different religious beliefs does not equate to religious relativism.

“It helps generate income to support the ongoing operations of the school, programmatic and curricular investments, and our increasing financial aid budget — and that is hugely important to us,” Segal added.

IKAR’s announcement coincides with Shalhevet concluding construction of its new $12 million campus at 910 S. Fairfax Ave., less than a half-mile from the JCC. 

Last year, Shalhevet began the ambitious effort of selling off half of its property, demolishing the other half and building a brand-new campus. During construction, Shalhevet moved to the Westside JCC, where it became acquainted with IKAR. The two organizations developed a mutual respect during their time of sharing the tight JCC quarters, according to Balaban. 

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with their administration and their faculty. It was very tight when we were all in the building at the JCC, but I enjoyed them being here,” she said. “They added a life to the building.”

Over the next two years, IKAR will conduct its services in the Shalhevet gymnasium, only holding services on Shabbat and on holidays, which are times when Shalhevet will not be in session. An IKAR weekday morning minyan takes place once a week at its early childhood center, which is run offsite. IKAR’s Hebrew school program, Limudim, is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays and will take place after the Shalhevet school day is over. 

As for parking, Balaban said that the amount of parking spaces available at Shalhevet is comparable to the amount of parking that was available at the JCC.

Aside from the logistics working out well, the IKAR leadership said the beauty of the new Shalhevet campus was part of what convinced IKAR that it would make a great home for the shul. 

“We just feel incredibly fortunate to be able to rent space in such an inspiring, beautiful and light-filled space,” Balaban said.

Brian Greene, executive director of the Westside JCC, had only positive things to say about the time JCC and IKAR spent together.

“It has been a terrific 11 years of growth for both organizations, and we wish IKAR continued success,” he said in an email. “Looking back at where both organizations were a decade ago, I think we can all be very proud of our achievements.”

For aliyah promoters, Ukraine’s troubles provide a boost

Until April of last year, Julia Podinovskaya felt like she had a pretty good handle on where her life was going.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Podinovskaya, who is in her 20s, was volunteering with the local Jewish community while preparing to finish her bachelor’s degree in education at a local university.

Moving to Israel, or anywhere else, was not on her mind.

“Everything was planned,” she said in an interview at a Jewish summer camp near Tbilisi, the capital city of this republic. “On my father’s birthday, I already knew what I would give him the following year.”

But Podinovskaya’s life was turned upside down in the spring of 2014 when her city — and its Jewish community — were ripped apart in deadly fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. When the university shut down, Podinovskaya began helping the Jews of Donetsk, restarting the besieged city’s cultural activities for Jewish children after their shuttering because of the war.

In February she left for Kharkiv, a city located 185 miles northwest of her hometown, joining hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians.

Now, after spending the summer at the Zionist camp in Georgia, Podinovskaya is considering leaving Ukraine for Israel.

While not “instinctively attracted” to the idea of living in the Jewish state, Podinovskaya said, “I need to weigh my options because of the circumstances of my life.”

The summer camp she attended, Tchelet, is run by the Kiev-based Zionist Seminary, or Midrasha Zionit. It’s part of an effort by the Jewish Agency, which works to facilitate immigration to Israel and co-funds the camp, to reach out to Ukrainian and other Russian speakers who once had been resistant to the idea of moving to Israel.

“Generally speaking, those who wanted to leave left in the ’90s,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to the approximately 1 million Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

But war has driven thousands more to Israel, or at least to consider the possibility. From January to August, 4,204 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel — a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period the previous year. That’s on top of a nearly 200 percent increase in immigration to Israel, or aliyah, between 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, 5,920 Ukrainians moved to Israel. Only France, whose Jewish population is about twice that of Ukraine’s, sent more immigrants to Israel in 2014.

War and instability are also contributing to aliyah from neighboring Russia, where the economy is suffering from international sanctions connected to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists. The conflict also has unleashed a nationalistic resurgence that is making many Russian Jews uncomfortable.

Aliyah from Russia in the first seven months of 2015 was 3,756 people — a 52 percent increase over the same period last year. Sharansky told JTA that he expects 6,000 Russian Jews and 7,000 Ukrainians to make aliyah this year. The European Jewish Congress estimates that there are 260,000 Jews in Russia and 380,000 in Ukraine.

“In Russia there’s a serious increase from Moscow and St. Petersburg that we haven’t seen in the past, and that’s mainly businessmen, intelligentsia, people who are afraid to find themselves closed off from the free world,” Sharansky said.

Amid the increased interest in aliyah from Ukraine and Russia, the Tchelet camp expanded this summer to include families in addition to its usual groups of teenagers and young adults. This was also the first summer that Tchelet was taking place in Georgia; from 2008 to 2014, the camp was situated in Ukraine, near Kiev, where the Zionist Seminary was established in 2006.

The move to Georgia was part of a push by the Jewish Agency to relocate nearly 1,000 youths from Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Recognizing an increase in demand for aliyah among populations of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency sent in dozens of extra workers to facilitate the influx.

Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry, meanwhile, responded to the Ukraine war by simplifying aliyah procedures for Jews in eastern Ukraine. And the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — a Christian-funded group that has facilitated aliyah as well as community life in the former Soviet Union and beyond — stepped in with extra funding of millions of dollars for relief operations and special aliyah flights from Ukraine.

At Tchelet, 140 participants — most of them young, single adults, but also some families — stayed for one to two weeks this month at a rustic mountain resort. The visitors — the majority were from Ukraine and Russia, but also some from Belarus, Israel and even France — attended mandatory discussion and workshop sessions led by a mostly modern Orthodox staff about the Jews’ biblical connections to the Land of Israel and their longing for it in the Diaspora.

But at the end of each day, groups of young men and women, many wielding guitars and sometimes a bottle of vodka or two, went down to the lake or stayed indoors as they sang a repertoire of Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian pop songs until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the counselors’ declared commitment to promoting aliyah, some participants came in the hope of strengthening Jewish life in Ukraine, not Israel.

“This year I came here with the goal of finding a bride,” said Itshak Reynish, a 28-year-old Orthodox Jew from Kiev who has attended Tchelet for seven consecutive years.

Reynish said he does not intend to leave.

“Who said all Jews should leave? I think we should stay and make a strong community,” he said. “At least I intend to.”

Tchelet instructor Efraim Bogolyubov, who grew up in a secular home in Kiev but became religiously observant and made aliyah in 2012, said that despite the aliyah push, “we also give them the feeling it’s legitimate to stay and be Jewish back home.”

(The Zionist Seminary sponsored Cnaan Liphshiz’s trip to Georgia. It had no role in the writing or editing of this story.)

Facing declining numbers and a bad economy, Italian Jews stay upbeat

Whenever Georges De Canino worries about the future of Italian Jewry, he looks at the bricks in the building across the street from his apartment in the center of this city’s old Jewish ghetto.

A painter who sometimes stares at the stones for inspiration, De Canino claims that they originally came from the Colosseum, and they remind him of history’s long arc.

The stones have been in Rome for nearly 2,000 years. The city’s Jews have been here for longer. And neither of them, De Canino says, is going anywhere.

“Above all, it’s a community that survives invasions, barbarians, the economy,” De Canino said. “We’re a small community that is reborn, that grows. We play a very important role in Italy.”

It’s a sentiment widely shared by other members of Italy’s 24,000-member Jewish community. At a time when growing anti-Semitism and rising immigration to Israel is prompting even large European Jewish communities to fret publicly about their future, community leaders here are surprisingly optimistic even as they contend with many of the same challenges facing small communities elsewhere: high intermarriage rates, young people moving abroad and shrinking numbers.

“The Jewish community in Italy is a small world, but very diverse,” said Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “There is a phenomenon of demographic decrease of the Italian communities. But I think this is balanced out by the increase of the cultural activities.”

The community has an intermarriage rate of 50 percent, and many young people, driven by a skyrocketing youth unemployment rate – it hit 44 percent this year – have sought better opportunities abroad. Last year, 340 Italian Jews moved to Israel, doubling the previous year’s figure. The national Jewish community’s numbers are also declining, from an official figure of almost 27,000 in 1995 to 24,000 today.

“I don’t think of the future of my children in Italy,” said Johanna Arbib-Perugia, former chair of the Jewish fundraising operation Keren Hayesod in Rome. “I don’t see Italy as a country that presents brilliant prospects for the future – not in terms of jobs.” She added that some Italian Jews “see Israel today as the land of opportunity.”

With a history dating to the time of the Roman Empire, Italian Jewry predates – and developed in relative isolation from – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Judaism. What has resulted is a Jewish population with distinctive customs and dress. Florence’s 1,000-member community has a prayer book with a liturgy and melodies all its own, as do Rome, Venice and other cities. Unlike other European communities, many Orthodox Italian synagogues have organs – a holdover from a 17th-century legal ruling.

But Italy’s Jewish leadership appears unfazed in the face of declining numbers that would seem to imperil the community’s survival. Leaders call unemployment a national problem, not a Jewish one, and Gattegna said that plenty of people move back and forth between Israel and Italy. Rome and Milan, he predicted, would preserve the traditions of smaller communities.

“Jewish survival doesn’t depend on numbers, it depends on ideas,” said Guido Vitale, who edits the national Jewish newspaper, Pagine Ebraiche. “People who see problems in small communities are people who want to treat Jewish people like an army that needs to go to a war of propaganda.”

Several Italian Jews preferred to focus on what they described as a vital community. Rome supports more than 20 kosher restaurants, many of which opened in the past few decades. One eatery, Ba’Ghetto, has opened two branches in the past seven years to meet demand from locals, not tourists. The capital also has three Jewish kindergartens and one K-12 school.

In Florence, an effort to engage more with the wider community led to the launch of Balagan Cafe, a biweekly series of cultural events. In Milan, the local Chabad outpost hosted an annex to the EXPO Milan 2015 food fair that focused on kashrut. And in Florence and Torino, Jewish student associations have formed to organize cultural events and celebrate holidays.

“I think the communities of Rome and Milan and Florence and Torino will have a very strong Jewish life,” said Gabriele Fiorentino, a consigliere, or board member, of the Union of Young Jewish Italians. “There is a part that moves to another country, but there are also young people that remain in Rome or in Milan, so I think in the near future there’s no danger for the bigger communities.”

Roman Jews say the increase in kosher restaurants and the active Jewish school scene are part of a rise in Jewish observance that began in 1967, when 5,000 Libyan Jews escaping anti-Semitic riots fled to the city. On the whole, the Libyans were more religious than the native Romans. Though they still maintain their own synagogues, the two communities have married and merged, spreading Jewish observance.

“You dress and speak Italian, but at a certain point when it comes to your culture, only you can keep it,” said the Libya-born vice president of the Rome Jewish community, Claudia Fellus. “After the Libyan Jews came, there were many more kosher butchers.”

One of the community’s greatest strengths is what it lacks – a fear of anti-Semitism. There have been attacks, but leaders and laypeople alike dismissed them as a fringe phenomenon or tied them to developments in the Middle East.

On a recent summer day, Italian Jews wore yarmulkes on the street and tourists loudly spoke Hebrew under Israeli and Italian flags. The scene stood in stark contrast to Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe, where locals warn visitors against any outward signs of their Judaism.

Community members say Italy’s Jews have always gotten along with their neighbors. This contact, Gattegna says, isn’t a threat but a strength. He says Italian Jewry could grow even stronger by channeling that instinct for integration toward Jewish communities in neighboring countries, forging contacts with them to play an active role in world Jewry’s future.

“Italian communities are not well connected with other European communities or American communities,” Gattegna said. “It is a mistake not to develop this contact. We risk missing a great chance for cultivating friendly relations.”

De Canino disagrees, saying the community should invest in emphasizing its own distinctiveness. Italy has succeeded, he says, in drawing tourists to view its historical and cultural landmarks, and Italy’s Jews should do the same. That, he says, is how the community will live on, like stones from the Colosseum.

“The future of this community is as a cultural community,” he said. “We need to invest in culture, in tourism, a role of hospitality, a cultural role. Petroleum runs out. St. Peter’s Basilica never ends. Venice never ends. Milan never ends. The Uffizi never ends.”

Natalie Portman should be commended, not criticized

Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman clearly hit a nerve when, in a recent interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, she questioned the validity of the type of Holocaust education she had received growing up.

“I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education,” she said.

“Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things … We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”

[RELATED: In defense of Portman]

Specifically, she expressed dismay at only having been taught about the Holocaust in a vacuum, as it were, without also learning about other more contemporary atrocities such as the Rwandan Genocide.

Ms. Portman did not say that Holocaust education should be eliminated. On the contrary, she emphasized that “it must be taught.” Her concern is that it “can be subverted to fear-mongering.”

Ms, Portman probably could have expressed herself more artfully. While insisting that “I don’t mean to make false equivalences,” she appears to be equating the Shoah with – rather than relating it to – other genocides. Nonetheless, the essence of her comments is valid.

There are two distinct ways of ingraining the Holocaust into our collective consciousness. The first posits the event as a solely Jewish martyrology in the spirit of Tishah be'Av and a succession of countless subsequent deadly brutalities to which Jews and only Jews were subjected over the centuries. In this memorialization, the Warsaw Ghetto fades into Auschwitz fades into Treblinka fades into Babi Yar fades into Bergen-Belsen in a dirge-like recitation of suffering, without respite but equally devoid of purpose other than, perhaps, to instill in young Jews the sense of paranoia to which Ms. Portman refers: You, too, they are warned repeatedly, could also become a victim of obsessive anti-Semitism, and if that happens you will be all alone, abandoned by all but your fellow Jews.

The other approach to Holocaust remembrance sets the implementation of Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish Question squarely into its historical – as opposed to a quasi-mythological – context. While it acknowledges the Holocaust as the epitomic manifestation of genocide, as the ultimate consequence of bigotry and hatred as official public policy, this pedagogical model also recognizes that other genocides such as the slaughter of the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century and the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century occurred before the Shoah, and that subsequent genocides – Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur – have taken place since.

Some of the criticisms of Ms. Portman’s comments have been over the top. “I am shocked,” one Holocaust survivor told the Jerusalem Post. “The Nazis tried to erase the Jewish people from the face of this earth – 6 million. Before she talks about the Holocaust, she should go to Auschwitz with a survivor, she would never compare the Holocaust to anything else.” Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, groused that Ms. Portman’s “success in the movie world does not turn her into an expert in history or on genocide. If she wants to express her sympathy with all victims of such tragedies, this is definitely not a smart way to do so.”

I, for one, am far more sympathetic to Natalie Portman’s sentiments, especially since I know them to reflect prevalent attitudes toward the Shoah among large segments of the post-Holocaust generations, both Jews and non-Jews. The students who take my courses on the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities want to learn about the Holocaust, but not in isolation.

My own views in this regard are clear. As my teacher and mentor Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel has eloquently said, “the Holocaust was a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications.” World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder wrote in The New York Times last year that it is precisely because “the Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent” that Jews in particular must not remain silent when Yazidis and Christians are persecuted and murdered by ISIS in the present-day Middle East. Ms. Portman correctly concludes that such universal implications of the Shoah are all too frequently ignored in contemporary Holocaust education.

The Holocaust is indeed unique – not worse and certainly not more tragic – among genocides because of its enormous, continent-wide scope, because of the complexity and systematic methodology of the annihilation, and because of the willing participation of much of not just German but other societies. At the same time, none of us should ever engage in comparative suffering.

I tell my students that from the perspective of the victims of genocides or their families, all of whom share a common humanity, it really makes no difference if they were murdered in a gas chamber or with machetes. Acknowledging such a fundamental moral truth in no way detracts from the preservation and perpetuation of Holocaust memory.

The integration of Holocaust education into Jewish education requires a balancing of competing imperatives: conveying the enormity and uniqueness of the Shoah without alienating the very audiences we most need to reach. Natalie Portman should be commended, not criticized, for making the need for such a proportionate approach a topic of discussion.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015)

More than 900 rabbis sign letter opposing Iran nuclear deal

Over the past three weeks, more than 900 rabbis across every major denomination have signed an open letter calling upon the United States Congress to reject the proposed Iran nuclear deal. The letter was written by two Los Angeles rabbis, Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation and Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul. It appears to have garnered more signatures than any of the other campaigns by Jewish spiritual leaders supporting or opposing the deal, of which there have been a few.

An earlier letter supporting the deal was signed by 340 American rabbis and released on Aug. 16 by the nonprofit Ameinu.

The new letter is being released at a time when it has become increasingly uncertain whether Republicans in the Senate will receive enough Democratic support to pass a resolution of disapproval — or to override a presidential veto in the event that the resolution of disapproval passes. If Congress rejects the deal, President Barack Obama has pledged to veto the resolution. Opponents need a two-thirds majority of both houses to override the veto.

“For more than 20 months, our communities have kept keen eyes on the nuclear negotiations overseas. As our diplomats from Washington worked tirelessly to reach a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge — we have hoped, and believed, that a good deal was possible,” the letter states. “Unfortunately, that hope is not yet realized.”

The authors posted the letter on an online petition website, setting as their goal 1,000 signatures from ordained rabbis in the United States by Sept. 7. As of Aug. 25, the letter had received 902 signatures — including from Los Angeles rabbis such as David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Meyer H. May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. 

Rabbis, Bookstein said, “have a responsibility as leaders in the community to speak out when people’s lives are in danger, and to take a stance — we call it in Hebrew pikuach nefesh, saving a life.” 

The letter calls on other Jewish organizations to express a “collective opposition to this dangerous agreement,” at a time when Jewish-American organizations are increasingly divided on how to respond. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are among the many groups that have publicly opposed the agreement. 

J Street, a prominent liberal Zionist group, has backed the agreement, as has Ameinu, the liberal Zionist organization that released the earlier letter.

The letter organized by Topp and Bookstein asserts the deal “will not subject Iran to an airtight, comprehensive inspections structure,” and will provide the regime with the means to “develop a covert nuclear program.” 

“The deal would also lift key arms embargos, so that in eight years Iran will be given international legitimacy to arm terror groups with conventional weapons and ballistic missiles,” the letter states.

Nuclear experts, however, have largely praised the deal’s controls. Twenty-nine prominent American scientists lent support to the deal in another open letter, published in early August. Five of nine Jewish Democratic senators also have publicly backed the deal. So far, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York is the only one of the nine to speak out in opposition. 

As of press time, 56 senators — including Democratic Sens. Schumer and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — were publicly opposed to the deal, though 60 votes will be necessary to pass a resolution of disapproval.

Congress is expected to take up the deal in the coming weeks. The deadline for passing a resolution is Sept. 17.