(JTA) — Robert Neulander, a Syracuse, N.Y., physician active in his local Jewish community, was indicted this week in the murder of his wife.
Whether the 62-year-old Robert Neulander — who chaired his local federation’s campaign and has served on the board of his JCC — is found guilty or innocent in the Sept. 17, 2012 death of his wife, Leslie, he will be the second American Jewish leader named Neulander to face such charges.
In 1998, on the eve of the High Holidays, Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, N.J., was taken into police custody and accused of hiring a hit men to murder his wife, Carol, in their home four years earlier. The longtime spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Shalom, a 1,000-member Reform temple he founded (he resigned before the indictment, after news leaked that he was under investigation), Rabbi Neulander is believed to have been the first American rabbi ever tried for murder. While his first trial resulted in a hung jury, Neulander was convicted in 2002. Now 72, he is serving a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison.
In addition to the shared indictment of wife murder and each man’s prominence in his local Jewish community — Dr. Neulander is still listed as a board member on the Jewish Federation of Central New York website — the two Neulander cases have a number of things in common. (It is not clear whether or not the two are related by blood.) Each was freed on bail after being arraigned ($400,000 for the rabbi, $100,000 for the doctor); each was indicted more than a year after his wife’s death and both had several adult children (three for the rabbi, four for the doctor). Each wife was found dead in the home she shared with her husband — Carol in the living room, Leslie in the bathroom.
As Rabbi Neulander’s trial neared a close, JTA attempted to ascertain “the impact of the Neulander trial on the Jewish community.” Kim Fendrick, a member of Neulander’s temple, told JTA that when Neulander “was a rabbi, he was a rabbi, and he did a very, very good job. When he didn’t assume the rabbi’s cloak, he was a very vulnerable person. This is not unusual in the world in general. I suspect that Hitler was very nice to Eva Braun.”
But the disconnect between the two was problematic: “This really touches our souls, because we trust our religious leaders, and we wonder whether we can trust anybody when something like this happens,” she said. “It certainly touches me as a Jew.
“So many people, especially young people, put such faith and trust and honor in this man, and they have been so disappointed,” she said, pointing to those for whom Fred Neulander was a teacher, a role model, a religious leader — the man who shaped their values and officiated at their life-cycle events.
How Dr. Neulander’s trial will affect his central New York community remains to be seen, although for now, the Forward reported this week, local leaders are calling his arrest “a major shock, especially given his activism in the Jewish community and in other humanitarian causes.”
Yesterday, Jane Eisner, with whom I most often agree, wrote about the Presbyterian vote to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. These are three companies that reportedly participate in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by providing heavy equipment for the construction of the barrier-fence, the destruction of Palestinian homes and building settlement roads. The vote passed at this year’s biennial assembly by a slim margin of 310-303.
Eisner wrote about an implied argument of Netanyahu’s in a speech he gave to a group of journalists last Tuesday night at the first Jewish Media Summit. The Prime Minister, in a “snide tone” according to Eisner, had two suggestions for the Presbyterians whom he invited for a tour of the region (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq): “One, make sure the bus is an armor-plated bus, and two, don’t say you’re Christian.”
This implied that the Presbyterian decision to divest held Israel to an unfair double standard. For Eisner that meant something very stark and very disturbing: the Presbyterian vote, by virtue of the fact that it singled out Israel while ignoring the abuses perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors, particularly against Christians, was “biased, hypocritical and, yes, anti-Semitic.”
But I’m not sure it is. Far be it from me to claim expertise in identifying anti-Semitism, but it’s worth noting that the resolution includes a line that explicitly distances the Church from “an alignment with the overall strategy of global BDS,” a movement which can at times arguably be accused of real, historically recognizable anti-Semitic tropes (I personally do not support BDS for reasons explained here, here and here). And while I’ll admit that neither this distancing nor even explicit statements of philo-Semitism are any kind of proof — one can claim to love bananas and still hate bananas — I’d like to point out a few things about the perhaps more specific argument of “double standard” that the Presbyterians purportedly uphold.
Choir members at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida / Getty Images
When Christians fight, Jews are collateral damage. The prize is Israel, or at least how Americans perceive Israel. That’s one lesson to take away from the Presbyterian Church-USA’s (PC-USA) decision on June 20 to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.
The debate preceding the vote at the PC-USA’s General Assembly was emotional, or at least as emotional as a debate can be that features speakers whose lilting cadence is reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. At one point, the bow-tie-wearing moderator sighed, “Guess I won’t be going to Israel next week.”
The divestment resolution passed by the slimmest of margins — the vote was 310-303. Shortly after, groups associated with the BDS movement trumpeted their achievement and a remarkably unified American Jewish establishment issued ritualized statements complete with finger-pointing and outrage. Even J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, Rachel Lerner, who attended the General Assembly to protest the resolution, expressed her exasperation with the PC-USA. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.
You’d think that this was the first time a church group had voted to use economic pressure to call attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s not. The Mennonite Central Committee voted to divest last year. The Quaker American Friends Service Committee did so even earlier. Nor does the PC-USA vote signal a wholesale divestment from Israel or announce the latest dubious success of the BDS movement. The final text of the PC-USA resolution explicitly rejects the “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.” The fact that the vote will be misconstrued by observers and manipulated by BDS partisans who lobbied PC-USA delegates doesn’t alter the narrow scope of the resolution. BDS supporters will not be cheered that the resolution reaffirms the Church’s longstanding support of a two-state solution and the importance of “a secure and universally recognized State of Israel.”
Nonetheless, David Brog, executive director of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), vented his frustration with the Presbyterians before the vote in an email statement to me: “The fact that they are focusing their attention on the one democracy in the Middle East…raises troubling questions.” Indeed there are troubling questions at the heart of the PC-USA’s decision, but those questions have as much to do with Christian sectarianism as with anti-Israel politics.
Jesus Christ Superstar filmed in Israel’s Beit Guvrin Bell Caves / Youtube
What makes a place so special that it might be considered the inheritance of all humanity — a World Heritage site, as it were?
If you were to consult UNESCO’s list of World Heritage criteria, you would see that the international body that determines such status considers ten benchmarks. Does the site “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization,” for instance, does it “contain superlative natural phenomena”? All those things are, no doubt, very important.
But when it comes to one of the most recent additions to the U.N.’s list, Israel’s Beit Guvrin Bell Caves, there’s even less doubt as to what the real reason was: “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Lital Eliyauh, an Israeli left-wing demonstrator, runs from Israeli tear gas in the West Bank
Earlier this week, Jay Michaelson wrote that the Jewish left is in decline and may be dying. As proof, he cited data and statistics, and then went on to provide very few data or statistics. But even if Michaelson had written that 68.27% of Jews between the ages 18-31 in the greater Brooklyn area believe that the Jewish left is either Dead, Dying or N/A, I would still be unconvinced. And that is because there are no data or statistics that can sufficiently tell the story of the Jewish left — past, present or future.
In fact, except for voting patterns (which still show Jews voting liberal; while the 30% that voted Romney in 2012 was indeed a bit higher than the 22% that voted McCain in 2008, it is less than the 35% that voted for Bush Sr. or the 39% that voted for Reagan), statistics and data tell us very little about the vibrancy, creativity, efficacy or essence of the Jewish left.
I’m a young Jewish leftist, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the Jewish left. Now, I’m an activist and an organizer, not a sociologist or a statistician, so the best arguments I can make are based on the very anecdotes that Michaelson dismisses as “eddies against the current” of Jewish-left-death. Take that as you will. For good measure, though, I’ll try to throw in a few numbers to show how numbers actually show us very little about the world.
Moroccan Jews living in the Jewish ghetto in Marrakesh circa 1955 / Getty Images
I wish I could cheer the latest bill approved by Israel’s Knesset. I should, theoretically, be happy about it — the new law is designed to address the issues of people like me. And yet, when I read about it, I felt more worried than anything else.
The law sets up November 30 as the national day to commemorate the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands following the founding of Israel in 1948. Every year, on this day, the country’s attention will be directed toward the troubles they endured. Israeli children will learn about the history of Mizrahim — Middle Eastern and North African Jews — who have for decades been sidelined in Israel, despite the fact that they now make up about half its population.
That sounds pretty great, right? Remembering the half-forgotten histories of marginalized people is, generally speaking, a good thing. And on a personal level, I’m grateful for it. My family comes from Iraq (on my dad’s side) and Morocco (on my mom’s side), and they were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews pushed out of those countries in the 1950’s. For me, this bill and the national day it establishes isn’t just an abstraction — it speaks directly to my family and the story of why we are where we are today.
So why am I so wary of this November 30 business? Because the campaign for greater recognition of the plight of Arab Jewish refugees is often part of a larger political campaign to block recognition of the plight of Palestinian refugees. It’s about countering the narrative of the Palestinian people — a people that, after all these years, still insists on the right of its refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. And it’s about countering the narrative of the “delegitimizers” who question Jewish Israelis’ right to be there in the first place.
Greed may be good, but even better is having Michael Douglas right here in this week’s news quiz, along with ad men, airline mishaps and a resume builder you can believe in!
American Apparel’s idea of an Orthodox man
What is “Orthodox”? Is it “Haredi”? Is it “Modern”? Is it “Ultra”? Is it “Yeshivish”?
These days, the Orthodox world is a confusing place.
Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews (who had been known at the turn of the 20th century as “Traditionalist”) talked about three flavors of Orthodoxy: (1) the Modern Orthodox; (2) the “Yeshiva Welt,” the arena of sectarian or “Haredi” yeshivas — Torah Vo-Da’as, Mir, Telze, Chaim Berlin, Lakewood and many others; and (3) Chasidim. Period.
In 2014, none of these categories works the way they did in 1954 or 1964 — or even 1994.
In my new taxonomy, there are six categories: Modern Orthodox; Centrist Orthodox; the Yeshiva arena (“yeshivish”); Chasidim; Chabad; and Satmar. These last two, whatever else they may be, are not Chasidim.
Simba, 14, a child in conflict-ridden South Sudan / Getty Images
The Forward’s Nathan Guttman recently reported that researchers may soon be able to predict where the world’s next genocide will take place. These number crunchers already have a good track record: apparently, their methodologies accurately predicted the recent genocide in South Sudan.
As someone who experienced this genocide firsthand, I was struck by the report.
If someone had asked me a year ago whether I was anticipating the December 2013 outbreak of violence in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, my answer would have been yes. But despite doubts over the country’s security arrangements and pace of development, I did not think this would happen so soon after independence. I was on holiday in Uganda when disagreements within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) national convention sparked off violence in Juba, which later spread to other parts of the country.
At first I didn’t panic, because South Sudan is not new to conflict. But the more I watched news reports on the death toll and spoke to my family back in Juba, the more unsettled I became. Things became even more worrying when foreign missions started evacuating their staff from the country. Hundreds of people fled their homes to designated Internally Displaced Persons camps, while others left for refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
My family declined to leave the country. They were tired of living in exile — and so was I. Being away from home and depending on phone calls or media stories for information was really upsetting for me. I was left with one option — to get back to Juba and see how this would all turn out.
A #BringBackOurGirls rally in New York included Jordan Soffer (center), Rabbi Avi Weiss (left)
Sigal Samuel’s observation that the #BringBackOurBoys campaign is an “insensitive” appropriation of Nigeria’s #BringBackOurGirls does far more harm than good for advocates of both groups of innocent, young captives.
Instead of expressing solidarity at a time of distress, it invents, through mere speculation, a moral controversy that doesn’t exist. I’m not sure who’s on board with Samuel’s spontaneous moral pronouncement, “It’s wrong to capitalize on the virality of one nation’s desperate and grief-soaked social media plea in order to increase the virality of your own campaign,” but I’m not, and neither are the people who attended the #BringBackOurGirlsNyc rally at the Nigerian Consulate on Monday. Coming from a prayer service for the kidnapped boys, Rabbi Avi Weiss and several of his students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah happened upon the rally at which Rabbi Weiss was then invited to speak, following Mayor de Blasio and Al Sharpton.
According to Jordan David Soffer, one of the YCT students, Rabbi Weiss “spoke about our commitment to stand up for each other. The girls in Nigeria and the boys in Israel, he said, will never be found, unless every person in the world sees them as their brother, sister, daughter or son. God created man singularly, so that no person can claim superiority over another human being.”
As a college student often working on my resume, I am always given impersonal directions. “Keep the sentences concise and specific — subject-verb-object, then get out,” college advisor wags; “Move that ‘Award’ section where it can be seen,” Mom presses; “Strong verbs are critical. Throw in an ‘Achieved’ or ‘Progressed’ for best results,” career center lady assures.
And yet replace my name with North West or Apple Martin and it’s as if I never existed. Turns out the greatest tip I might have received is to emphasize my name by adding the single, most personal of identifiers to my resume: Jewish.
A recent study out of the University of Connecticut discovered that adding religious affiliation to 3200 fake resumes sent to 800 jobs in a 150-mile radius of two major Southern cities hurt the applicants’ chances in all cases except one — Jews.
“Jewish applicants received significantly higher employer preference rates than all other religious treatments,” the research team wrote in their conclusion. “They were more likely to receive an early, exclusive, or solo response from employers, compared with all other religious groups combined.”
Jews gather for a mass prayer for the release of three Israeli teenagers / Getty Images
On Monday the New York Times reported that the recent abduction of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank has raised a “hushed debate [within Israeli society] over the conduct of Jewish settlers.”
While I think it’s fair to point out that Israel’s reactions to the kidnappings have been marked more by anger and prayer than debate (however hushed), the simple fact that any questions whatsoever have been posed in conversation with an American reporter is significant and reflects a broader shift in attitudes toward the settlement project.
Earlier this month, Justice Minister (and one-time right-wing stalwart) Tzipi Livni was quite blunt: “It’s time to say things exactly as they are: The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to [a peace agreement].” Moreover, a recent study found that a growing majority of Israelis no longer support that enterprise.
It’s important to note, however, that if the citizenry shares Livni’s general sense of disapproval, they do not appear to share her reasoning: 71% of those surveyed say settler violence against Israel’s military keeps them from “identifying with” their settler brethren; 59% say the settlements are bad for Israel’s relationship with the U.S. The violence of some settlers against Palestinians, the financial drain on Israel’s increasingly inequitable society, or the obstacle that settlements pose to achieving a workable resolution of the conflict do not appear to be major concerns. In fact, while 52% support a full or partial withdrawal from occupied territory in the framework of an accord with the Palestinian Authority, 31% support full or partial annexation — where the difference lies between partial withdrawal and partial annexation is unclear.
All of which is to say: The average Israeli may question the wisdom and efficacy of hitchhiking in what is clearly dangerous territory just to prove you can; the average Israeli may prefer good relations with America over the rabble-rousing of true-believers; and the average Israeli may find attacks against the country’s defenders to be reprehensible — but the average Israeli still doesn’t appear to understand that every problem raised by the settlements is a necessary outcome of their very existence.
(Haaretz) — Like (almost) everyone else, I hope against hope for the safe return of the three kidnapped yeshiva students. One can only imagine their nightmarish ordeal as well as the agony and anguish of the father or mother whose child has disappeared under such bone-chilling circumstances.
But it is not only the immediate families that I am concerned about. In fact, the dignified and even inspiring public appearances of the worried parents leads one to pray that they will be able to cope with the worst, if it should come to that, God forbid. But Israel - or at least large parts of Israeli society - may not be so resilient: the killing of the three boys could push us closer to the edge that we’ve been long approaching.
I am not talking security here, though that too could deteriorate in the wake of what seems to be Israel’s strategy of achieving long held objectives under the guise of searching for the missing students. And I don’t think there is much cause for concern at this point about Israel’s international image, as the world’s attention is on the World Cup in Brazil and the disintegration of Iraq and, if there’s anything left, on the ongoing turbulence in the Ukraine.
I am less focused on the tangible and more on the emotional and psychological toll of the kidnapping on the Israeli psyche. No one can deny that Israeli society has grown more insular and less tolerant, especially over the last decade: prone to bouts of self-righteousness, blind to its own transgressions, allergic to dissenting points of view. The despicable crime committed by the terrorists who carried out the kidnapping could hasten this dangerous and ongoing process.
Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, left; Palestinian student Mohammad AlQadi, right
Since the kidnapping of three Israeli teens last Thursday, the Israeli media has been engaged in a full court press to fill in the blanks and tell a compelling story — whether or not it’s true.
Today, I came across a Facebook post from Mohammad AlQadi, a Palestinian student and activist living in Lyon, France. His picture had been posted (without permission) to an article in Walla, a major online news source for Israelis. The article reports on a campaign to support the kidnappers by holding up three fingers as if to gloat that three Israelis have been abducted.
According to AlQadi, the photo of him with three fingers up was taken last year. The three fingers that he was holding up were related to last year’s Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian singer born in Gaza. The three-finger salute in that context refers to the campaign to vote for Assaf on the show by choosing option 3.
AlQadi had been trying to get the picture taken down, which seemed to me like a normal reaction to the situation. A colleague and I also contacted Walla to tell them about the error. The photo was taken down soon after. But the problem remains.
Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
Prayer vigil for the three missing Israeli teens / Getty Images
(JTA) — Four days into the search for three kidnapped Israeli teens, I attended a group prayer session dedicated to their safe return.
Dozens of women gathered together to read responsively psalms seeking God’s mercy and intervention before the start of our morning Jewish studies classes. Our voices broke as we prayed for the boys’ safe return, though most of us do not know the families personally.
I returned home to find my teenage daughter, who is about the same age as two of the boys and should be studying for finals, preparing to perform special mitzvot to help bring them home. My teenage son returned home from school and immediately ran off to participate with the community’s youth in special prayers on behalf of the captives.
It is amazing how quickly the rhythm of our lives and our daily schedules has begun to revolve around the three teens, including one dual Israeli-American citizen, who were kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists while trying to get rides home from a junction in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements located south of Jerusalem.
Since the abduction of Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, we are all checking news sources from the Web earlier and more often on our computers at work or on our phones. Even my younger children have been coming home from school and turning on the television news instead of their usual Nickelodeon. Not that some SpongeBob wouldn’t do us all some good.
I have not slept well since the boys were discovered kidnapped, and it is clear to me that none of my neighbors and friends here in Israel have either, if the times stamped on their Facebook posts are any indication. We ask each other for updates at the supermarket, at exercise class, at school pickup. We talk about our fears for the boys around the Shabbat table and at the “makolet,” or corner store. We curse their kidnappers as we pick up the kids from the pool and at the library.
Elliot Kukla, first out transgender rabbi ordained by the Reform movement / Nic Coury
Reactions to the Forward’s transgender and Jewish series varied from “after a decade of acceptance, this is news?” to “the synagogues are being overrun by sex maniacs” to an attitude of open curiosity, perhaps best espoused by Sheila Rubin in Naomi Zeveloff’s piece about transgender converts:
“Look, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I need to know if you need me to call you by another name or another pronoun. I don’t want to call you by your old name if that is going to hurt you.”
It is in answer to her question that I suggested we provide a glossary to our new Ebook (also available in print edition) “Transgender and Jewish”. After all, we try to explain Jewish terms like Torah (the Five Books of Moses or, metonymically, the word of God or, more broadly, wisdom), bimah (central dais or stage from which synagogue services are led) or aliyah (literally “ascent” it means taking up Israeli citizenship and going to live in Israel or being called up to the bimah to read the Torah).
A picture tweeted from Matisyahu’s Twitter feed
In writing about the decision to adapt #BringBackOurBoys as the virtual call to action for the three kidnapped Israeli students — Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frankel — Sigal Samuel expresses her regret that the hashtag appropriates the call to action for the 200 Nigerian school girls captured by Boko Haram.
While I do not know Samuel personally, her presence online has struck me as one of a person with at least her fair share of Internet savvy.
When searching for a hashtag, those activists looking to raise awareness for the three captured teens must have found the current hashtag had a lot to offer: It has instant recall in the mind of the public, playing off of a rallying call we are already familiar with, and is helped with an extra dose of alliteration to boot.
What’s more, to those creating the hashtag at least, the comparison of kidnapping students by a terrorist group seemed to be a common theme between the two hashtags.
One must ask Samuel, aren’t cross-appropriation and meta-reference the lifeblood of any meme?
Last year’s Maharat graduation ceremony / Robert Kalfus
Two dramatic moments punctuated yesterday’s graduation ceremony of the New York-based Yeshivat Maharat, the rabbinical academy for Orthodox women, which ordained its second class of women who will serve Orthodox communities as poskot — halakhic decisors and advisors. They were granted the title “Maharat,” and acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, “one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.”
The first moment was that of Maharat founder and former dean Rabbi Avi Weiss, who, in the course of his remarks to the graduates, twice invoked the word “semikha,” the normative ordination granted to those who have completed the prescribed course of study in mainstream yeshivot or with respected rabbinic authorities. “Semikha,” in the context of Maharat and like academies, is a hot-button word to the Jewish religious establishment, especially to the institutional structures of the Modern Orthodox communities — and especially to the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA) — which do not accept the ordination of women in the Orthodox communities.
The use of the word “semikha” is a sensitive matter. The RCA and other Orthodox rabbinic bodies view with dread the idea of granting the semikha ordination to women. (Forget about women; the RCA will not permit male musmachim (ordinees) of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Avi Weiss’s Open Orthodoxy yeshiva, to join the organization, thereby depriving YCT graduates of the “union-card” necessary to assume pulpits in many Orthodox communities.)
The Maharat curriculum, however, is modeled on those of mainstream yeshivot, and would seem to pass muster, at least educationally, in the Modern Orthodox world. Included in Maharat is intense study of the first section of Yoreh De`ah, the volume of authoritative halakhic text that addresses the intricate questions of the manifold aspects of kashrut — standard fare for semikha in yeshivot. In the words of YCT faculty member Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, “You could superimpose Chaim Berlin on Maharat without rough edges.”
This week brings us Mila Kunis, Katz’s Deli and, yes, a schmaltz joke. Always with the schmaltz jokes.