Forward Thinking

News Quiz: The Pope, Mark Zuckerberg and Canada

By Lenore Skenazy

There are certain things we humans cannot get enough of, and several of them surface in this week’s news quiz. These include sexy bottoms, French food, Mark Zuckerberg’s money…and Joan Rivers.

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Orthodox Rabbis Stand by Avi Weiss — Sort Of

By Uri Heilman

(JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America is standing behind Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., in his dispute with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate — sort of.

Last week, the Rabbinate for the first time offered its reasons for deciding several months ago that Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi and RCA member, wasn’t kosher enough to affirm that a Diaspora Jew seeking to marry in Israel was indeed Jewish (Israel requires that such people provide a letter from their local Orthodox rabbi affirming they are Jewish and single).

The reason? Well-known American Orthodox rabbis, including members of the RCA, had told the Rabbinate that Weiss — spiritual leader of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and founder of Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that ordains Orthodox female clergy — had a “questionable” commitment to Jewish law, or halachah.

Last Friday, the RCA – America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — issued a statement saying it wasn’t the RCA that had cast aspersions on Weiss: “Recent assertions that the Rabbinical Council of America advised the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject the testimony of RCA member Rabbi Avi Weiss are categorically untrue.”

But the RCA statement did not contain any expression of support for Weiss or endorsement of his commitment to halachah.

So on Monday I phoned up RCA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, to ask him whether or not the RCA stands by Weiss.

“We stand by his letters,” Dratch said.

But do you stand by him? I asked.

“He is a person who is committed to halachah, although there are many within the RCA that do not support every halachic position that he takes,” Dratch said. “Rabbi Weiss has done many wonderful things and continues to do many wonderful things for the Jewish people, but not everything he does is agreed to by members of the Rabbinical Council of America and so this is an ongoing discussion and debate.”

The debates, he said, concern Weiss’ ordination of women, among other things.

“There’s no official RCA position with regard to some of these matters,” Dratch said. “A majority of RCA members feel that some of his decisions are pushing the halachic red line or beyond that.”

Dratch called Weiss a “person of integrity.”

As for the dispute with the Israeli Rabbinate — which involves about a dozen other Orthodox rabbis who over the last few months have had their letters suddenly rejected by the Rabbinate — Dratch said his office is in constant contact with the Israelis.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to come to an understanding in the very near future about how to process these letters,” Dratch said. “Our goal is to be able to support the rabbis of the RCA, to be able to make sure that their letters are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate’s office.”


In Menachem Stark Slay, Where's the Humanity?

By Eliyahu Federman

Menachem Stark, a Brooklyn Hasidic real estate developer, was abducted, murdered, and thrown into a dumpster. Stepping to a new low, the New York Post reports this story with inappropriate levity and derision toward the victim.

Practically gloating over Stark’s death, the front cover of Sunday’s New York Post rhetorically asks, “Who didn’t want him dead?”

We still don’t know all the facts and it’s certainly possible that Stark’s business deals in some way caused a dispute that led to his murder.

But how about the eight children and widow mourning over him? How about the hundreds of mourners who showed up at his funeral in the bitter cold to pay respects? How about any decent human that believes murder is the wrong way to settle disputes?

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Ani DiFranco’s Slave Plantation Gaffe

By Ari Paul

At first glance, it seems that Ani DiFranco has become the latest example of how a mix of star-fueled insulation from the real world and white privilege can lead to bad public relations. After an Internet-inspired backlash, the feminist singer-songwriter has canceled a musical retreat at a former slave plantation in Louisiana, now a resort that promotes the quaint imagery of antebellum life.

But the dreadlocked diva isn’t to blame. Many have wondered how the normally socially progressive artist could be so insensitive. The answer is that for more than a century, since the South lost the Civil War, it has buried the horror of slavery to such an extent that celebrating at a site of such human suffering doesn’t seem so absurd. That a place like the Nottoway Plantation, where DiFranco wanted to have her event, exists as a luxury destination for weddings and other celebrations is telling enough. This is just one example of both collective amnesia and resilient pride in a racist ideology.

The fact is that it’s not that hard for a society to publicly condemn its own past and actively work toward a better future. As Jews, we know that Germany’s monuments to the Holocaust explicitly define the dead as victims of the nation. Those who resisted have museums in their honor. The death camps, both in Germany and outside, remind us of the dark possibilities of the human spirit, a sign that regular people can participate in unspeakable evil. Nothing about that era is celebrated.

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Israel Is Running Out of Pre-Oslo Prisoners

By Nathan Jeffay

A nephew of a murdered Israeli soldier protests a Palestinian prisoner release. / Getty Images

For 26 Palestinians, this weekend will be the first one in decades spent at home with their families. They were released on Monday as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The discourse over prisoner releases tends to be dominated by the big questions about their desirability, morality, wisdom, and also the aftermath. Israel is understandably perturbed that the prisoners, many of whom were involved in serious acts of terrorism, were greeted as heroes by its negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority.

But this release also raises a more basic question. All of those released were imprisoned before the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, and for a clear reason. Releasing prisoners from before the major change that Oslo brought about in Palestinian politics is less emotionally charged than releasing terrorists from a later period. The Second Intifada, for example, is far more raw in the Israeli psyche than the First Intifada.

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Pew Poll Reveals How Americans View Israel

By Michael Kaplan

Pro-Israel marchers walk along Fifth Avenue on May 5, 2002 in New York City. / Getty Images

While Americans continue to hold long-time allies like Great Britain and Canada in high esteem, they are pretty divided as to how they feel about some of the government’s other key allies — like Israel.

A recently published Pew Research Center poll reveals that 61% of Americans view Israel favorably, which puts it on par with Brazil in terms of likability, but lagging behind Germany (67%), Japan (70%), Great Britain (79%) and Canada (81%) among the 12 countries surveyed.

That level of support is not incredibly low, though perhaps disconcerting for Israel’s more zealous advocates. Just over a quarter of those surveyed (26%) said that they view Israel unfavorably, and presumably the jury was still out for the rest of those surveyed.

But when accounting for political affiliation, the Pew research reveals just how starkly the partisan divide plays into the issue. Only a little over half of Democrats (55%) said that they view Israel favorably, compared to nearly three quarters of Republicans (74%). Eighty-six percent of Republicans who lean toward supporting the Tea Party said they felt favorably about Israel.

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How Good Is Israel’s New Abortion Policy?

By Sigal Samuel

A doctor performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman on November 9, 2011. / Getty Images

It’s not every day that progressives get to see encouraging policy changes coming out of Israel, so we should celebrate them when they do come along — even if they don’t go quite as far as we might like.

Starting next year, Israel will pay for all abortions for women between the ages of 20 and 33, health officials announced Monday. Currently, women under 20 or over 40 can receive subsidized abortions for personal reasons, but women in between those ages are only eligible in cases of medical emergency or forbidden relations like rape, incest or adultery — elective abortions aren’t covered. The new funding, which will cover elective abortions, is part of Israel’s state-subsidized “health basket” for 2014, and will go into effect pending approval by the Health Ministry and the Cabinet.

Contraception isn’t included under the new policy, but officials say that’s just due to budgetary constraints. They have indicated that they plan to expand coverage in the future, eventually offering subsidized abortions to women of all ages. In the meantime, this is a pretty good start.

And yet, it bears noting that women seeking state-funded abortions will still need to appear before a government committee to make their case and obtain approval. Even though the committees approve nearly all requests, this requirement is problematic because, as Roni Piso of the Isha l’Isha (Woman to Woman) organization has noted, “there are women who are afraid to approach the committees in the first place because they fear they are going to be turned down.”

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Can't Top Weegee on New Year's Eve

By Michael Kaplan

Ever attend an awkward New Year’s Eve party? Probably can’t top this one.

Here’s a picture taken by Weegee, the famed tabloid Jewish photographer, born Arthur Fellig, at a 1943 New Year’s Eve party 71 years ago. The photo was snapped at Sammy Bowery Follies, described by National Geographic as an “alcoholic haven,” where the uptown rich would reportedly meet with and gawk at the needy to learn some about New York’s underbelly. Seems like that’s probably what is happening here.

The photo is aptly called “the Bowery Cherub,” and apparently sold for $5,400.

Think a party like this would fly today?


News Quiz: Yasser Arafat, Portuguese Plumbers and the ‘Quenelle’

By Lenore Skenazy

From Portuguese plumbers to Maimonides, we’ve got Jews in the news for you, along with Facebook, Yasser Arafat and creamed herring. Just try finding those someplace else. (All together, we mean.)

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How To Defend Quebec’s Secularism Charter

By Sigal Samuel

The Charter of Values seeks to ban conspicuous religious symbols. / Government of Quebec

Do you remember the Quebec government’s Charter of Values, the proposed legislation that would bar public workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols — like the kippah, hijab or turban — on the job? Of course you do. Have you been biting your nails over how you’re going to defend it at your upcoming family holiday party? Of course you have. Well, never fear! The Parti Québécois has you covered with its newly released, handy-dandy how-to guide for defending the controversial charter.

The six-page handbook, released just before Christmas, features a turkey on its cover (no doubt because a tree would seem too religious) and is enthusiastically titled “Holiday party answers to your family’s questions!” Because what family isn’t itching to delve into this perfect storm of religion and politics at a time usually spent in eggnog-sipping bliss?

The Parti Québécois knows how much you hate it when your relatives best you at family debates, so this year it’s decided to give you a leg-up over that obnoxious uncle or know-it-all cousin. How? By arming you with rebuttals to every objection they could possibly voice when it comes to the Charter.

Oops — did I say rebuttals? I meant diversions. And fallacies. And diversionary fallacies.

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How Not To Solve Israel’s Housing Crisis

By Nathan Jeffay

Has Israel just eased the housing crisis — or issued an invitation for wanton wastage of natural resources?

From the start of 2014 on Wednesday, municipal taxes on second homes will double. Or to be accurate, taxes on all homes that are occupied for less than nine months a year will be double taxed.

This represents a new year’s resolution by the government to deal with so-called phantom apartments that are normally empty, many of them owned by Diaspora Jews and inhabited only during the big religious holidays and a few weeks in the summer. It is also directed against investors who purchased property to take advantage of Israel’s real estate boom and are waiting — with the property empty — for the right time to sell.

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As One Jewish Retail Empire Falls, Another Rises

By Michael Kaminer

Two retail empires with Jewish roots collided in New York this week — one on its deathbed, the other ready to take its place.

Loehmann’s, the fashion discounter founded in 1921 by an enterprising department-store buyer named Frieda Loehmann, announced this week it will shut down its remaining 39 stores after its third bankruptcy filing.

And Barneys New York, the luxury retailer launched in 1923 by an ambitious tailor named Barney Pressman, unveiled plans to take over Loehmann’s space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood — the same storefront where Barneys began in the first place.

Loehmann’s demise puts an ignominious end to an illustrious history. From a single store in Brooklyn without frills or even dressing rooms, the pioneering chain grew to 100 stores before debt — and competition — accelerated its decline.

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For Edgar Bronfman, Humanity to LGBT People Was Intuitive

By Idit Klein

Six years ago, I had lunch with Edgar Bronfman, along with the Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s executive director, Dana Raucher, at the Four Seasons in New York. The dining area was quiet and empty, and I was nervous. Dana whispered to me, “There’s Barbara Walters. Don’t look.”

I was there to tell Edgar how much it meant to me to have learned just six months earlier that in the early 1970s, as CEO of Seagram, he had stood up for a gay employee.

As I’d learned, one of his senior executives had approached him back then to recommend that this employee be terminated. When Edgar asked why, the executive replied, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”

Edgar’s response? “You’re fired.”

This happened in the 1970’s when anti-gay sentiments were commonplace. Now, many years later, I did my best to emphasize to Edgar the significance of his refusal to tolerate homophobia in his company then.

With his eyebrows raised over his Arnold Palmer drink of iced tea and lemonade, Edgar looked at me incredulously and said, “How else should I have responded?” He shrugged and returned to his Caesar salad.

To Edgar, human decency was intuitive. It was obvious and unremarkable.

Edgar’s commitment to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is one of the lesser-known aspects of his legacy, but it helped shift the discourse in the American Jewish community and beyond. Years after our meeting at the Four Seasons, I understand how Edgar’s integrity, moral conscience, and belief in human dignity have animated a Jewish world I call home.

Idit Klein, a 1989 BYFI fellow, is the executive director and founder of Keshet, a Boston-based organization that works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.


A Man Who Took Jewish Faith as a Challenge

By Naamah Paley

Last summer in Israel, one of the teenage Bronfman Fellows asked me why the group wasn’t required to pray together every morning. He found it to be offensive, and a real loss that a pluralistic group of Jews weren’t learning to pray as a means to transcend their differences of opinion and practice.

I took his question into consideration and replied: “Edgar doesn’t care about God. He doesn’t even believe in God. He wants us to learn together — participating in rigorous debate and respecting each other’s opinions. That’s the vision of this program.”

My ability to offer this response was a product my years of work in carrying out Edgar’s vision through the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program and our alumni community. It has been my honor. The more I got to know Edgar through our weekly staff Talmud sessions, the greater I grew able to confidently answer questions from our fellows about what the “agendas” of our program were. And with each of these answers, my respect and admiration for Edgar’s vision grew.

Edgar was a deep thinker and was always the smartest person in the room. He never hesitated to challenge the theories and insights posed by the rabbi in the room. And he made it clear he expected the same from others.

From my first Talmud session several years ago, it was clear that I was expected to participate in full, to challenge and argue as much as anyone.

Edgar surrounded himself with interesting people from whom he truly wished to learn. He inspired all of us to do the same. Two years ago, he brought in several Orthodox feminist speakers and challenged them, repeatedly, on how they considered their feminism consistent with their Orthodoxy. How could they possibly sit behind a mechitza yet consider themselves full participants in their faith?

I could see that Edgar really wanted to know. He was struggling to understand. He gave each speaker a platform to try and explain. That approach has been a rich model for me and a tenet of my own work: To follow Edgar’s lead means surrounding ourselves with interesting people and focusing especially on those whose practices we, at our core, don’t understand. But it means also listening to those we have invited and committing ourselves to learning from them. Because it’s those we don’t understand who have the most to teach us.

Naamah Paley, a 2002 BYFI fellow, is Manager of Alumni Initiatives at The Bronfman Youth Fellowships.


How Edgar Bronfman Transformed an Alienated Russian Jew

By Ella Shteingart

Edgar Bronfman, did not know me, and I had limited interactions with him. Yet I feel a deep sense of loss at his passing.

In 1988, as a Russian emigre living in Brooklyn, I was completely unaffiliated, and turned off by the Jewish community. Yet my alienation did not disqualify me from being selected to be part of the second class of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel program. Through it, for the first time in my 17 years, I was introduced to the breadth of the American Jewish community: to the notion of pluralism and to Conservative and Reform Judaism; to commitment to Jewish life and thought; to the beauty and brilliance of text, and to Israel.

At the time, I did not know that just one year earlier, Edgar had flown to Russia, as head of the World Jewish Congress, to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. His efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews over the years, of course, contributed greatly to their freedom to emigrate.

Over the years, the BYFI program has continued to purposefully include Russian-speaking young change-makers, even when the rest of the Jewish community did little to invest in, include, or actively engage this population. Today, three of the four chairs of the BYFI Alumni Advisory Board are Russian Jews – engaged and impacting others in the Jewish community.

On a more personal level, BYFI changed my life and paved the way for my deep commitment to the Jewish community as a lay leader, Jewish professional, and Jewish parent. At one point four of my children attended Jewish day schools of different denominations — a tribute to the impact of Edgar’s commitment to pluralism, via BYFI, on my own outlook.

Ella Shteingart, a 1988 BYFI fellow, is a consultant for the Wexner Heritage Russian-Speaking Jews Cohort, cosponsored by the Wexner Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York.


I Never Said Thanks to Edgar Bronfman

By Jonathan Tepperman

My first meeting with Edgar was not what you’d call auspicious. I was 17 and had just, mysteriously, been selected for Edgar’s newest philanthropic venture, the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.

This was a mystery because I was a very sheepish and reluctant Jew — as Edgar himself had been at that age — and was confused about why I’d even been included. At a welcoming reception that summer of 1988, Edgar asked me in his Winnipeg/Montreal/somehow-Boston brogue about a baseball team I knew nothing about; I stammered a sheepish response.

Yet Edgar would go on to become a great patron of mine, shaping my life in ways even he probably wouldn’t have anticipated. A few years later, the fellowship led (again mysteriously — I wasn’t qualified) to a job at another Bronfman venture, UN Watch, which launched my career as an Israel-obsessed journalist with a growing fascination with Judaism. More job offers — always mysterious — would issue from the Seagrams Building, Edgar corporate headquarters in Manhattan, over the years (to assist with a book, to work with his philanthropy). Perhaps foolishly, I turned those down. But these encounters led to others, including an irregular series of lunches for two at the Four Seasons. At each, my patron, in his deceptively simple way, would ask deceptively hard questions about what I was doing and thinking — questions that pushed me to learn more, work harder, dig deeper.

Twenty-five years later, the sheepishness, at least, is finally gone, and even the reluctance has faded. I have a career, an intellectual life, and a Jewish home that I owe, in no small part, to that other once-reluctant Jew’s generosity and encouragement.

And I have a wistful sense that I never properly expressed my gratitude for all those gentle nudges — and for the man they helped me become. Which makes me feel a little sheepish.

Jonathan Tepperman is managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Watch Limmud Live From Britain

By Forward Staff

The Limmud conference starts today and continues through Thursday. The Forward is exclusively providing the live stream of the event in North America.

limmud on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Jonathan Pollard and the Spying-on-Israel Scandal

By Sigal Samuel

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.

And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?

This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”

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News Quiz: Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Grace Kelly

By Lenore Skenazy

Hitler, Sarah Silverman and Jonah Hill walk into a news quiz. You just know it has to be this one, right? Come on — what other news quiz could it possibly be?

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It's a Christmas Tree, Stupid

By Eliyahu Federman

In a Yuletide shift, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee finally agreed to call a 17-foot statehouse spruce a Christmas tree, admitting that his past practice of calling it a “holiday tree” generated too much anger.

No kidding. Naming a Christmas tree a holiday tree or Hanukkah bush should be offensive to both the religious and secularist or atheist. It is deceptive.

While using green trees during the winter solstice celebration predates Christianity, by the 16th century and possibly even the 15th century the custom of the Christmas tree developed as “devout Christians (bringing) decorated trees into their homes,” according to History.com. By 1982, Pope John Paul II formally introduced the Christmas tree custom to the Vatican.

Urban Dictionary defines a holiday tree as a “phrase used by folks who feel vaguely guilty about celebrating Christmas, and decide to pretend that what they are doing is celebrating some ‘universal’ holiday that uses ‘universal holiday’ trees” and a Hanukkah bush as a “Jewish Christmas tree.”

That is pretty accurate.

The religious should be offended because it is an attempt to secularize a Christian symbol of Christmas. Similarly, the Hanukkah bush is an attempt to Judaize an otherwise uniquely Christian symbol.

For Jews, it would be like calling a menorah a holiday candelabra. It would be misportraying a symbol of the holiday because the menorah represents the Jewish religious holiday of Hanukkah.

Secular people should be offended because it’s an attempt to deceptively rename an inherently religious symbol, in an effort to universalize it so more people adopt it. This is like calling creationism intelligent design in an effort to pass religion off as science.

Renaming the Christmas tree a holiday tree is also subterfuge to avoid potential First Amendment establishment clause issues.

The position that we should accurately define the Christmas tree is reflected in past polls that show Americans overwhelmingly believe it should be called a Christmas and not a holiday tree. According to a 2008 Clarus Research Group poll, eight in 10 side with “Christmas” over “holiday.”

The bottom line is that the Christmas tree is used to symbolize Christmas, not secular holidays or Hanukkah. There is no religion or culture in existence today that uses it to symbolize any other purpose.


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