Forward Thinking

How Long Is the Road From Jerusalem to Damascus?

By Michael Kaplan

Have you ever tried Google Mapping the directions from Jerusalem to Damascus? I have, and the site’s recommendations came as a bit of a shock.

I decided to look up the travel route after reading Mairav Zonszein’s blog post about how the recent snowstorm in Israel reminded her of that country’s geographical connectedness to the wider Middle East. Specifically, she writes, “there were once open roads and railways that connected Damascus to Jerusalem.” She’s right — though you’d never know it from Googling.

Once upon a time, life was pretty calm along Israel’s northern borders. Until the late 1970s, Israeli farmers from the town of Metula would toil their agricultural lands in the Ayoun Valley inside Lebanon.

And going even further back, open roads used to connect the now war-engulfed city of Damascus to cities that are today in Israel.

Things, however, have changed. Today, Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria are highly fortified and overseen by United Nations peacekeeping forces. The Good Fence (as it was called until 2000) separated Israel from Lebanon. It’s now legally referred to as the Blue Line and demarcates the highly secured, U.N.-mandated border.

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News Quiz: Lady Gaga, Alan Dershowitz and Bibi

By Lenore Skenazy

Lady Gaga, Alan Dershowitz and Bibi? Yes, it’s time for the Jewish News quiz again. This week also featuring a brand new pastry!

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Never Too Late For Justice in Y.U. Abuse Case

By Paul Berger

It’s one year since the Forward published its first story about abuse allegations at Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys in Manhattan.

Little did we know then that the recollections of four former students would prompt dozens of men to come forward with their own claims of abuse. Nor could we have foreseen that it would lead to a $380 million lawsuit against Y.U. and an internal investigation that found “multiple instances” in which Y.U. staff failed to respond to allegations of abuse.

One year ago, the allegations, particularly against Y.U. high school’s former principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, were treated within the Modern Orthodox community as a rumor. Today, it is widely accepted that inappropriate behavior went on for decades at a range of Y.U. institutions and that those in charge failed in their duty to protect students.

These are troubling times for Y.U. The institution has a special place in the Modern Orthodox community. Its deep fiscal troubles, coupled with the negative publicity and financial threat posed by the lawsuit, have conspired to create an air of crisis.

At times like these people’s instinct is to rally around. And rally they have. Anecdotally, I have heard of people hectoring the victims, who are seen as either whiners or money-grubbers. The refrain among many is still that what happened to the victims was either not serious enough or happened too long ago to be dredged up now.

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A Blanket of Snow Changes Jerusalem — Even Just for Shabbat

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images

They say that the sun shines on the righteous. Maybe not, but you did have a better chance of weathering this weekend’s Middle East storm if you’re Haredi.

At the height of the Alexa storm, which brought unusually cold temperatures and severe snow, some 60,000 Israel households were without power. However in some neighborhoods, lights were shining brightly in Haredi homes while others were in the dark.

A strain within Israel’s Orthodox doesn’t use electricity from the country’s national grid on the Sabbath out of concern that it is the produce of Jews laboring on the day of rest (a concern that isn’t relevant to Jews in the Diaspora where the majority population is non-Jewish). And so, these households are hooked up to either private “Sabbath generators,” or in most cases, a generator that serves a few dozen homes in their neighborhood.

Just before the candles are lit for the Sabbath, householders flick a switch to move from weekday electricity from the grid to locally produced Sabbath-electricity. Of course, when the grid went down, they were just able to switch to their local supply.

In general, the past weekend was one of both stunning beauty and notable hardships in Israel. The Old City of Jerusalem looked magnificent with its blanket of white, and it seemed that the usually divided population for once took joy in the same things, building snowmen and playing with snowballs. The weather brought out the best in many people, as it did in New York a year ago. Strangers took in people who were unable, or unprepared because they don’t travel on Shabbat, to get home over the weekend. The community spirit was even such that Jerusalem, a woman was able to wear a tallit by the Western Wall without generating controversy. She was a snow woman.


Harvard Hillel Falsely Accuses the Forward

By Larry Cohler Esses

Credit: Flickr/timsackton

Harvard being Harvard, and Hillel being Hillel, it catches an editor’s attention when the executive director of Hillel at Harvard sends out an email blast publicly accusing the Forward of printing an untruth; especially when he does so without the courtesy of telling us or others what that untruth might be — despite our having asked.

In this case, my concern is exacerbated by the fact that the charge is flat out wrong.

It was on Friday, December 13 — as we at the Forward were still waiting to hear back from him after an initial exchange — that Harvard Hillel’s executive director, Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, sent out his email blast to the Hillel center’s thousands of members and supporters.

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Jewish Exploitation of the Educated Underclass

By Gordon Haber

thinkstock

Right now Jewish academics in the U.S. are preoccupied with the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel. But very few Jews in academia — or Jews in any position of moral authority — have spoken up about an academic scandal that has been quietly building for decades: the exploitation of adjunct instructors at American colleges and universities.

Think of adjunct instructors as highly educated temps. They can be fired at any time, for any reason, sometimes no reason at all. And the pay is horrendous. According to the Adjunct Project, the average is just under $3000 per class. So an instructor who teaches nine sections a year — say, four per term and one in the summer — earns $27,000. If a section is cancelled, an adjunct is plunged into poverty. I’ve been eligible for food stamps.

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A Community of Exes — Hasids, That Is

By Frimet Goldberger

Frimet (third from right), holds up her Footsteps certificate with the other fellows.

I am a Footsteps member and supporter. I am also an observant Jew.

To the critics of Footsteps, a not-for-profit organization that helps those seeking to leave their ultra-religious communities, this statement may seem like an oxymoron. Until about a year ago, I too believed that one could not remain Orthodox and be a Footsteps member at the same time — that one could not eat a plate of chulent at the Shabbos meal, completely unplugged from the world, and engage in an intelligent existentialist debate.

I became a Footstepper — the term of endearment embraced by members — this past May. Five years after leaving the Hasidic community I grew up in, but still remaining Orthodox, I finally decided to join the community of exes (ex-Hasidim, ex-ultra-Orthodox and ex-Orthodox). I’d never felt the need for social and emotional support, but until this year I had been unaware of the other resources Footsteps offers to help the exes get better education and find jobs.

Furthermore, as an Orthodox woman, I half believed the rumors flying around — that Footsteps is anti-religious, that their only goal is to get you to abandon your traditions and that all Footsteppers are losers, drug-addicts and ne’er–do–wells. I almost bought into it because I did not know otherwise. Even though some of my closest friends — successful, educated and settled individuals — had been Footsteppers for years without spewing venomous fires of atheism through their nostrils, it was still easy to think that joining Footsteps meant throwing the Jewish baby out with the cultural bathwater.

My first visit to the Footsteps headquarters in New York City was on a scorching hot Sunday morning. I was selected to participate in the Footsteps Career Fellowship pilot program — a paid opportunity for 12 members to gain meaningful work experience, develop a career network, improve their presentation, and access valuable professional support (full disclosure: I ended up using my fellowship to work at the Forward). This first welcoming workshop was designed to acquaint fellows with the program. In between panel discussions and introductions, lunch was served — turkey and ham sandwiches from a local restaurant. Oy.

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Israel's Blood Donation Rules Are Becoming a National Problem

By Nathan Jeffay

Yesterday, an Ethiopian-born lawmaker was told at a Knesset blood drive that the state doesn’t want her blood because of her origins. I know how she feels.

There is widespread outrage following the news that Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian born Knesset member, was told not to donate (or that she could donate but the blood probably wouldn’t be used). Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein threw the blood collection stand out of parliament, President Shimon Peres has condemned the decision, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced concern.

The shunning of Tamano-Shata stems from a policy that generated much publicity in the past but long ago fell off the public agenda. Since 1997, the Israeli Ministry of Health has prohibited donations from people who were born or who lived in a country with high HIV incidence.

Israeli rules also make me persona-non-grata at blood donation stands. On my most recent attempted donation, I was in a hospital, killing time as my wife underwent a procedure, thinking that it would be fitting to do a good deed as she was on the receiving end of medical care. But no, I still wasn’t welcome, and given that blood donation is an honored tradition in my family — my father has given many times his body weight — it’s an unhappy feeling.

The reason for my rejection? Remember 1986 and the start of Britain’s “mad cow disease crisis? Well it’s because of that. I’m British, and anyone who lived in Britain for more than six months between 1980 and 1996 still can’t donate blood in Israel because of “mad cow disease.” I get the same kind of response from the blood stand staff as I saw on the video of Tamano-Shata’s attempted donation — an embarrassed statement of the rules with a tacit understanding between us that they are outdated.

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A Trailblazing Cantor

By Michael Kaminer

Courtesy of Marc Goldman

In many ways, Mark Goldman’s a traditional cantor. He serves a 900-member Reform congregation, in Plantation, Florida. He’s performed around the world, including a historic group gig at the Vatican. And he loves to chant the “haunting, yet familiar” Kol Nidre.

But this year, the UK expat became a trailblazer. After nearly two decades as a member, Goldman was elected president of the American Conference of Cantors, making him the first openly gay chazzan to hold the post.

Descended from a long line of cantors, the yeshiva-educated Goldman came out to his parents at age 27 — three years after emigrating to the States. He took on his first cantorial position at Temple Kol Ami, which later merged with Temple Emanu-El of Fort Lauderdale. Nineteen years later, he’s become a beloved fixture on the South Florida Jewish scene.

The Forward caught up with Goldman from the home he shares with interior designer Aaron Taber, his partner of 17 years.

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Mr. Obama, Your Selfie Sent All the Wrong Messages

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Getty Images

Thank you, Mr. President.

You’ve just made it harder for me and every other parent and educator to convince young people that taking selfies at memorials and on solemn occasions is not okay.

Just what were you thinking when you leaned in close to Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron to snap a group self-portrait at the memorial service for the late great South African Nelson Mandela on Tuesday?!

The folks behind the “Selfies at Funerals” Tumblr blog said it best: “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done.”

Sadly, I fear, that the image of you grinning in to the lens of that mobile phone you held up together with Thorning-Schmidt is going to be recalled far more clearly and much longer than anything you said in your well-written four-and-half-minute-long eulogy for Mandela.

I completely understand that you were too busy to read my piece about the unfortunate and misguided (some would say disgusting) trend of young visitors to Holocaust sites and memorials in Europe taking cheery (and sometimes sexy) selfies and posting on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. But for parents like myself and educators, a world leader setting this example only reinforces that these pictures are ok for teens to take.

I’m sure your wife Michelle also didn’t have a chance to read my piece, but from the look of disapproval on her face, it seems she didn’t have to in order to know how a world leader should act at a memorial service.


Censoring Hillels Goes Against Jewish Traditions

By Andy Bachman

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student. Flickr: Hillel News and Views.

Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims — all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.

Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.

In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.

It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.

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40,000 Sign Petition To Help 6 Year Old Jewish Boy

By Hody Nemes

youcaring.com
Raphael Elisha with his mother Devorah Cohen.

Rabbi Yaakov and Devorah Cohen have run out of medical options to save their six-year-old son Raphael Elisha, who suffers from a malignant brain and spine cancer.

Desperate to save their son, the Cohens have turned to the internet. The couple posted a petition which asks the FDA to authorize a compassionate exemption so their son can undergo an experimental treatment that the government has shut down research on. Over 40,000 people have signed the petition since it was posted to the White House website on December 3.

“The fact that people are so concerned is really heartwarming and really the greatest sense of comfort that this family can get at this difficult time,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, executive director of TORCH, a Houston-based Jewish outreach program run by Orthodox educators which has employed the Cohens for the past two years.

Online supporters have donated over $74,000 to assist the Cohens through youcaring.com, a fundraising website.

“Money is coming in from all over the country and it’s not just [from] Orthodox Jews,” said Randy Barnes, a friend of the Cohens, who has spearheaded the fundraising efforts. “The story is starting to go viral.”

Money raised on the site is primarily used to cover Raphael Elisha’s mounting medical costs, many of which are not covered by insurance. The boy’s health is deteriorating and he cannot walk or swallow.

The Cohens also have five other children, which the funds have helped support. “We want them to be focused on helping Raphael Elisha and not have to worry about how is rent going to be paid,” Barnes said.

The Cohen’s petition to the FDA still needs almost 60,000 signatures before it reaches the 100,000 threshold required for a response from the federal government. Even if that happens, the likelihood of the FDA being willing to assist is quite low, according to Yaakov Cohen.

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An Open Left?

By Nathan Jeffay

Getty Images
Einat Wilf

In recent years, the Israeli left has argued strongly for freedom of expression and open debate, often in the face of calls from the right for the silencing of such-and-such an NGO, conference, or political event. But it seems that open-mindedness isn’t universal across the left.

Einat Wilf, a former lawmaker for the Labor and Independence parties, says that she has just been uninvited from an upcoming Peace Now conference on the grounds that she serves on the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor.

NGO Monitor is a self-appointed watchdog group that looks in to the operation of Israel’s non-profits, mainly those on the left. It is highly critical of many of the groups, including Yesh Din and B’Tselem, close allies of Peace Now, and constantly criticizes the fact that they receive funding from foreign governments.

Some of NGO Monitor’s supporters are strongly right wing. Others, such as the American law professor Alan Dershowitz who serves alongside Wilf on the International Advisory Council, embrace call for a two-state solution. But seemingly as far as Peace Now is concerned, membership of a group that locks horns with its allies puts even a left-leaning politician beyond the pale.

“If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country,” Wilf said.

Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, told the Forward that leadership of NGO Monitor is a “red flag” for Peace Now. He denied that this is because of “ideological dispute” and said it is rather because the group “tries to silence human rights organizations and civil society organizations.”


News Quiz: Wonder Woman, Cannabis and a Brand New Pill

By Lenore Skenazy

Wonder Woman, weed and a strange new pill. It sounds like a bad trip, or even worse comic book. But actually it’s just last week’s Jewish news, all rolled into one big, fat quiz.
Getty Images

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How Much Is Mandela Worth To Israel? Less Than Thatcher

By Nathan Jeffay

The Knesset’s speaker has just confirmed that he will lead a delegation of Israeli lawmakers to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, following announcements that the Prime Minister and President will skip it.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is saying that he has Israeli taxpayers’ interests at heart in his decision to skip the burial — it would simply be too expensive. And Shimon Peres’ office says that he is getting over a bout of flu. And so, the country will be represented by a cross-party delegation of lawmakers.

Let’s cast our minds back a few months, and remember the passing of a Margaret Thatcher. She was less of a uniting figure than Mandela. In fact, in the UK and elsewhere she was a highly divisive figure. But back then there were no hesitations about the cost — Netanyahu attended the funeral. And compared to South Africa the UK is hardly a budget destination.

Why is honoring Thatcher’s legacy worth costing the Israeli taxpayer but not honoring Mandela’s? Does the extra sensitivity to cost have more to do with recent negative press about Netanyahu’s spending in various items including wine, flowers and water than the real cost the economy? Or is there something deeper going on here?

It’s quite conceivable this is a strategic decision on Netanyahu’s part (one is tempted to take the health-related decision of the elderly Peres at face value). Today’s South Africa is hardly a hospitable environment for an Israeli leader — particularly a leader of the right. His office may well have taken a decision to avoid confrontation with protestors and demonstrators; to avoid negative press images of him being denounced by people who claim to be honoring Mandela’s legacy. What is more, staying away keeps a lid on discussion of the history of Israel relations with the apartheid regime.

Netanyahu would seem to realize that, at this time and this atmosphere, respectful tributes from afar are the best and safest way of honoring Mandela’s memory.


What Nelson Mandela Taught the Jewish World

By Yermi Brenner

Few people have had the impact on their community that Nelson Mandela had on the history of a continent. Often compared to Mohandas Gandhi or to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the South African leader demonstrated throughout his lifetime how compassion and forgiveness could go a long way in divided societies. Mandela’s legacy of peace offers vital lessons for the human race as a whole, and specifically for the Jewish world.

“He raised the moral imagination of humanity in terms of what was possible to do in order to change the world for the better, and was an extraordinary inspirational model for people involved in social justice work,” said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). “I think that struck a particularly strong cord with the Jewish community.”

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Words Are Battleground in Holy Land

By Renee Ghert-Zand

I recently interviewed Yehudah Glick for the Forward. He’s, an Israeli Jewish activist who went on a hunger strike after being banned from the Temple Mount.

While writing the introduction for the Q&A, I tried to dot all my i’s and cross my t’s, making sure to mention that the Haram al-Sharif (as the Temple Mount is known to Muslims) is administered by the Muslim Waqf. I explained that although Israeli law enshrines free access to religious sites, the Israeli police are given discretion to control that access, and also why the Waqf is wary of people like Glick, who want Jews to be able to worship on the Temple Mount.

I was pleased with myself for covering all bases—providing context and avoiding one-sided or loaded language. However, that feel good moment was short-lived, as I realized that I have probably been less careful when writing other pieces dealing with matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One read through “Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” confirmed so.

The glossary, put out by the Vienna-based International Press Institute, is a useful tool and reminder to journalists to make sure they say what they mean and mean what they say. Although the guide aims for clarity, the identities of its authors have been obscured. Because of the political sensitivity of working together on this project, the six contributing Israeli and Palestinian journalists and media experts opted to remain anonymous.

There are many nuances behind common expressions associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, partisan writers deliberately choose to use loaded language. But journalists aiming to be as even handed as possible would be advised to keep this 60-page booklet handy. This is especially so for foreign reporters who might not have spent a lot of time on the ground in the region, or followed the conflict closely over the decades.

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A Newtown Clarification

By Naomi Zeveloff

Last week, the Connecticut State Attorney issued a long-awaited report on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The report painted a clearer picture of the events of last December 14, and also provided details of shooter Adam Lanza’s life — his untreated “Asperger’s characteristics,” his love of Dance Dance Revolution and his obsession with the deadly school shooting at Columbine High.

What it didn’t include was the detail I needed to know: the number of times six-year-old Noah Pozner was shot.

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DIY Bris

By Debra Rubin

(JTA) — Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.

But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Though most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.

“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”

The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Natan the option of making the cut.

The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she says was intended to say, “Are you crazy?,” a friend reassured her it would be easy.

“I then took a deep breath, surrendered to the faith I had in Phil and motioned that they had my blessing to proceed,” Raab said.

Sherman set up what was needed, gave the baby some sugar water, put a clamp in place and offered Zaidenweber some direction. Making the cut, Zaidenweber said, was a powerful bonding experience.

“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I’m glad I have that connection with my son. Your love is equal for both [twins], but it’s special that we have that bond.”

For Raab, too, the experience was a positive one. Sherman had told the gathering that a baby’s cry during a bris is like the sound of the shofar opening the gates of heaven.

“I closed my eyes, heard Jay’s cry and actually was able to experience it as deeply spiritual and beautiful,” Raab said, noting her pride that her husband took on the role.

“He stepped up, fearlessly, with a faith in himself that I wouldn’t have had in myself,” she said. “I have since been aware of how much his modeling has helped me to muster more courage as I face the tasks of mothering.”

If the couple were to have another son, would Zaidenweber make the snip again? Yes, say mom and dad, without hesitation.


Jewish Star on Russian Gay Bashing Victim

By Jay Michaelson

The latest video from the Russian Neo-Nazi group “Occupy Pedophilia” has hit the Russian social media site, VK.com.

getty images

The video follows the same format of the gay-bashing torture videos that the group is (in-)famous for: a bully taunts, assaults and humiliates a gay man lured by a fake personal ad. Only this time, the victim is Alexander Bohun, a recent contestant on the Ukrainian version of “X Factor.”

What’s also notable is that, in addition to a rainbow flag painted onto Bohun’s head, the young man’s tormentors drew Jewish stars on his body. It is not known whether Bohun is actually Jewish — though this hasn’t mattered to Russia’s militias and thugs, who have targeted people for appearing Jewish just as it has targeted people for appearing gay. What does matter is that it shows that Jews need not be Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“First they came for the Communists…”) to stand up and take notice of the daily torture of LGBT people in Russia. To “Occupy Pedophilia,” gays are foreigners are pedophiles are Jews. There is no distinction in their feeble minds, and there should be no distinction in ours either.

The chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, has so far remained silent on this anti-Semitic aspect of the anti-gay violence sweeping Russia. Will he speak up now? Probably — he’s a staunch Putin ally. But he is also a prominent Chabad-Lubavitch leader. Will Chabad’s American leadership demand an end to this anti-Semitism? Or does the intermingling of Judaism and homosexuality somehow erase the anti-Semitism of these thugs?

How many more people have to be tortured with Jewish stars painted on their chests before the American Jewish community rises up in outrage, and demands that the Chabad organization take a stand in Russia?


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