Forward Thinking

Romemu Bans ‘Email Chametz’ on Passover

By Sigal Samuel

We’ve all felt it. That ever-present desire — compulsion, really — to check and then recheck our email. Just one more hit of the refresh button. Just one more scroll. Just one more reply-all. Just one more delete. We love it. And we hate it.

Most of the year, we bemoan but ultimately accept the fact that our work lives require us to be shackled to our smartphones. But as Passover approaches, that reality becomes even more problematic. How can we celebrate our liberation from slavery when we still feel — mentally, if not physically — enslaved? How can we rid our houses of chametz — the leavened food that Hasidic masters taught symbolizes everything unessential and overcomplicated in our lives — while holding fast to something that complicates our lives more than any breadcrumb ever could?

Romemu, a progressive synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, today announced its quirky solution to this contemporary problem. In a notification sent out to the entire congregation (via, yes, email), Rabbi David Ingber and Executive Director Ilene Sameth wrote that over the holiday they will be getting rid of “The Ultimate Chametz: Email.”

From Monday evening, April 14th until sundown on Tuesday, April 22nd, Romemu will not send any community emails and the staff will not send or respond to any individual emails.

And since any chametz that is owned during Pesach should not be eaten after Pesach (this is known as chametz she’avar alav ha’Pesach), any emails that come in while we are out will not be read. Everyone will get an auto-response asking that the email be resent after Pesach.

After reassuring congregants that staff will still be reachable by phone voicemail in case of a death or other emergency, the Romemu leaders signed off with an invitation to “De-email…and taste freedom.”

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Does Takeover of Crimea Mean Messiah Is Near?

By Sigal Samuel

Getty Images

Most of the Jewish and general world is fuming over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. But some ultra-Orthodox Jews are positively delighted by it.

This week, Grand Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, the vice president of Israel’s Rabbinical Court and a descendant of the revered rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon (aka “Genius of Vilnius”), announced to his disciples that Putin’s actions are a sure sign that the Messiah is on his way.

Apparently, Shternbuch heard this secret prediction from Rabbi Yitzchak Chever, who heard it from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn, who heard it from the Vilna Gaon himself, who said shortly before his death:

When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard. And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.

Shternbuch’s pronouncement, which was reported this weekend in the ultra-Orthodox press in Israel, has some Haredi Jews working themselves into a messianic frenzy. A few, like this rabbi, are even going so far as to say that “we owe a note of thanks” to Putin for hastening the coming of the Messiah.

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Jews for Jesus Use Pew '34%' in Ad

By Hody Nemes

The Messianic Jewish movement’s new marketing tool / Hody Nemes

If you went searching for a mainstream Jewish organization that welcomed the findings of the Pew study of American Jews, which showed declining levels of Jewish affiliation and high levels of intermarriage, you’d be hard pressed to find one.

But so-called Jews for Jesus found news to celebrate: 34% of American Jews reported that a person can accept Jesus as the messiah and still be Jewish.

Now this perplexing finding of the Pew study has made its way into a storefront display in midtown Manhattan.

I’ve walked by this particular building on 31st Street several times without noticing it. But yesterday, I stopped in my tracks when I caught a glimpse of the photo in its window: a group of Hasids are seen walking in front of the Western Wall, and one of them is wearing a Photoshopped red t-shirt that reads “Jews for Jesus.”

But that’s not all.

The text printed beside the photo reads: “34% of Jewish people surveyed say you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. What do you think about Jewish people believing in Jesus?” A phone number is provided – to which you can, apparently, text your answer.

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Jewish Brides Make British Gay Marriage History

By Daniella Peled

Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit / Courtesy of Nicola Pettit

(Haaretz) — Tania Ward and Nicola Pettit will make history this Saturday when they become one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in Britain.

More than that, their marriage will be among the first to receive a Jewish blessing, as Liberal and Reform streams prepare for a flurry of simchas to follow the change of law.

Since 2005, the United Kingdom has allowed civil partnerships which give the same rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage.

Campaigners, however, continued to lobby for full equality, facing opposition from conservative politicians and religious communities despite broad public backing. The new law comes into effect on Saturday March 29.

The couple, who live in southern England’s seaside Brighton resort, one of the country’s most bohemian centers of LGBT life, met when a mutual friend set them up on a blind date six-and-a-half years ago. “And that was that, really,” says 27-year-old Nicola.

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Real Roots of Austria's Nazi Comparisons

By Anna Goldenberg

Supporters listen to Austrian Freedom Party head Heinz-Christian Strache in 2013. / Getty Images

Last Friday, a German magazine article quoted Andreas Moelzer, a member of the European Parliament for the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, saying that the Third Reich had fewer rules, regulations and bans than the European Union, and probably looked informal and liberal in comparison.

The fact that controversial Moelzer — the co-publisher of the controversial German national newspaper “Zur Zeit,” in which an author once praised Adolf Hitler as a “great social revolutionary” — made these statements is hardly surprising. The public outcry that followed was to be expected as well: Politicians from other parties as well as Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish community of Vienna, demanded Moelzer’s withdrawal as a candidate for the upcoming EU parliamentary elections, while news outlets lamented the frequency of Nazi comparisons uttered by Freedom Party leaders.

The statement is outrageous, no question. It is offensive and plain wrong. Austria joined the European Union in 1995 and, growing up there, I never had the impression that I was growing up in a dictatorship. After all, I can work and travel freely in 28 countries, while my grandmother was denied the chance to attend school at the age of 12 and forcibly deported to a concentration camp.

Nevertheless, public outrage over Nazi comparisons is a double-edged sword. While it is necessary, there is little point in doing so unless we face a vital, underlying question: Why isn’t the Freedom Party’s voter base more upset about this? The answer isn’t as obvious as it seems.

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Stop Comparing Jewish and Palestinian Refugees

By Michael Kaplan

Yemeni Jews get instruction at a center for immigrants in Israel. / Getty Images

As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grinds on, and the issue of Palestinian refugees continues to be a sticking point, some Jewish groups are arguing that these aren’t the only refugees we should be considering as the parties move forward in negotiations.

They’re calling on Western governments to recognize the more than 850,000 Jews pushed out of Arab countries in 1948 and the years that followed — and claiming that the Arab Jewish refugee issue should be tied to the fate of Palestinian refugees.

“Palestinians document every tent, well and thicket they had here but we left behind property worth billions of shekels,” Meir Kahlon, representing Libyan Jews, recently told the Israeli press. He argued that stolen property should be compensated for as a part of the ongoing U.S.-led negotiations.

And just a few weeks ago, six years after a similar resolution passed in the United States, activists pushing for recognition of Arab Jewish refugees enjoyed a big win in Canada, when pro-Israel Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided to back a government committee recommendation to “recognize the experience” of Jewish refugees.

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The Town Called 'Jew Killer'

By Diego Melamed

(JTA) — There is a town in Spain called Castrillo Matajudios, and in Colombia “Matajudios” is a common surname.

The problem is, in Spanish one meaning of the name is “Kills Jews.” Which has led a Colombian emigre cashier in Argentina to attract the ire of a Jewish organization there.

It all started when Adrian Marguiles, a customer at the Expoalimentos supermarket in Argentina’s San Isidro district, discovered, upon reviewing his receipt, that his cashier went by the name Ivan Matajudios.

Thinking the cashier had chosen Matajudios as a nickname, in order to incite violence against Jews, Margulies complained to DAIA, a Jewish group that, just four days earlier, had signed an agreement with the district’s mayor to work together on educational activities promoting coexistence and tolerance.

When DAIA leaders met with the supermarket owner, they discovered that Ivan Dario Matajudios Galindo was the cashier’s actual name.

DAIA Vice President Waldo Wolff told JTA that the supermarket owners asked if they should fire the worker.

“We told them that this is not necessary at all,” he said. “But we want the cashier to appear in the receipts with his other surname, as Ivan Galindo.”

DAIA plans to request a meeting with Argentina’s interior ministry to request that immigrants with names that appear to promote anti-Semitism be required to choose a different moniker while in Argentina.

Perhaps Amajudios, or “Loves Jews,” would be a good option.


Seeking Salvation? Dial 1 for Baruch Goldstein

By Sigal Samuel

Right-wing activist Baruch Marzel wipes his eyes at the grave of Baruch Goldstein. / Getty Images

These days, you can order almost anything by phone. Books. Movies. Food. Sex. Salvation?

Sure, why not. Salvation. And not just any old kind, but the kind you can only get by virtue of an appeal to one of Israel’s most notorious killers: Baruch Goldstein.

Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs 20 years ago, and to this day right-wing Jews still flock to his grave in nearby Kiryat Arba. They go there to pray, hoping that proximity to this “holy man” will help get their prayers through the pearly gates.

But since not everyone can afford to make that pilgrimage, Baruch Marzel — a right-wing activist and Goldstein devotee — has organized a telephone service allowing Jews to outsource their prayers, according to a Walla report cited today in Yeshiva World News.

Call Marzel’s service and you’ll be invited to “Push 1 for a Yeshua,” a salvation. That salvation, which will come by way of a prayer to be said on your behalf at Goldstein’s grave, includes everything from financial and romantic success to improved health and victory in court cases.

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News Quiz: Martin Scorsese, Ritz Crackers and James Deen

By Lenore Skenazy

From Jewish porn stars to bacon-flavored Kosher treats to Martin Scorsese’s new, “Jewish” movie, the world is becoming a very eclectic place. Or at least this quiz is.

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Bernie Madoff Didn't Betray 'The Jews'

By Eli Valley

Bernie Madoff / Eli Valley

In an interview from prison last week, Bernie Madoff insisted, “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews, I betrayed people.”

I’m no psychologist, and it’s possible he was just trying to salvage any scrap of social and cultural connection as he languishes alone. But taking his words at face value, I agree with Madoff.

He didn’t betray “the Jews,” he betrayed human beings of all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Although his scheme disproportionately swindled from Jewish individuals and charities, they were targets not because they were Jews but because they were the most easy to access. They existed in his vicinity – in synagogues, country clubs and other social circles – and they were willing to give him money.

“Betrayal” insists that Madoff targeted his victims because they were Jews, and/or that he owed them more because they were Jews. It touches on an uneasy balancing act between peoplehood and chauvinism that comes to the fore whenever there’s a Jew in the news (i.e., always). While there can be something charming about ethnic responsibility and group fealty, it can quickly cross uncomfortable lines – lines the Jewish community never tolerates when others talk ominously of Jewish preference. It’s a line that makes some Jews mourn more deeply when a Jew is identified among scores of victims, or gloat when a Jew escapes tragedy by observing Shabbat, or even machinate to keep non-Jewish communities out of affordable housing. “Betrayal” implies crimes against Jews are worse than those against others, and Jewish lives more sacred.

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Netanyahu's Fake Jerusalem Stalls Peace

By Emily L. Hauser

Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images

Last week we learned that Israel’s government is advancing plans for another 2,269 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; 144 are planned for the Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Har Homa.

Discussion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to focus on minutiae, or the broad sweep of an entire century; our frames of reference rarely allow us to discern patterns within the broader picture. In geopolitics, however, the patterns found in any nation’s behavior are often determinative – such as, for instance, the pattern we find expressed in Har Homa.

Har Homa is located in what is inaccurately called (by everyone, including me) “East Jerusalem.” The inaccuracy becomes clear as soon as you look at a map: Har Homa is actually south of the Green Line that demarcates internationally recognized Israel from the West Bank; it’s southwest of the Old City. Much of the Palestinian land that Israel has annexed in its decades-long push to turn what was once tiny Jewish Jerusalem into a behemoth of land and resources is east of the historically Jewish part of the city, but much of it is not. Another well-known settlement neighborhood, Pisgat Ze’ev, is to the north, as is French Hill. A more accurate term would be “Palestinian Jerusalem” or, in the case of Har Homa (which was never any part of anyone’s Jerusalem) “the West Bank.”

Every settlement is a political statement – “here we sit, we will not be moved” – but Har Homa’s is particularly blunt: Established in 1997, four years after the Oslo Accords were signed, Israel’s then-Prime Minister was very clear about Har Homa’s purpose: “The battle for Jerusalem has begun. We are now in the thick of it, and I do not intend to lose.” Who was that Prime Minister? Benjamin Netanyahu.

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How I Built My Jewish Charity Database

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Kurt Hoffman

Last summer, I hit upon a way to measure Jewish institutional power: Using data from the IRS, I would gather financial information on every single Jewish organization that files a tax return.

My first story based on that project is printed in this issue of the Forward. This addendum, which is only for readers with a high tolerance for boring data stuff, describes how I built my database.

I started with two files, posted online by the IRS last spring, that contained data from all tax returns filed by tax-exempt groups in the 2012 calendar year. The IRS posted one set of data extracted from Form 990s, which are filed by larger tax-exempt groups, and another from Form 990-EZs, which are filed by smaller groups. I chose not to include a third dataset extracted from Form 990-PFs, which are filed by private foundations, as those groups are generally harder to classify as Jewish or not-Jewish.

The Form 990s and Form 990-EZs ask different questions, and the datasets provided by the IRS were structured differently. I mapped the two datasets onto each other so that they could be considered together. Then, using another dataset from the IRS — the Exempt Organizations Business Master File Extract, which includes information like names and addresses on all tax-exempt groups registered with the IRS — I searched for Jewish organizations.

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Why a Sicilian Nun’s Song Moved Me as a Jew

By Sigal Samuel

Left: Ophir Ben-Shetreet on Israel’s ‘The Voice.’ Right: Sister Cristina on Italy’s ‘The Voice.’

I’m not usually the type of person who goes in for reality TV shows. Especially not when they revolve around singing competitions, and especially not when one of their singers’ performances becomes an overnight Internet sensation, to be endlessly posted and reposted on social media.

So why did I feel compelled to watch a Sicilian nun singing a song by Alicia Keys on Italy’s ‘The Voice’ about a dozen times over the course of this weekend?

After giving it some thought, I realized it wasn’t the TV lover or even the music lover in me that drove my obsessive replaying of this video. It was the Jew — or, more specifically, the formerly Orthodox Jewish woman — that couldn’t resist its charm.

Strange as it may sound, watching 25-year-old Sister Cristina Scuccia belt it out on stage while a cluster of habit-clad nuns cheered her on from the sidelines, I couldn’t help but do a simple thought experiment: What if this were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman instead? Would she dare to sing like that in front of a mixed audience of men and women, knowing that her performance — her intimate voice — would be broadcast to millions more around the world? And would her ultra-Orthodox female friends stand there, cheering her on?

No way, I thought. Not in a million years. The reason why can be explained in two words: Kol Isha.

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Harvard Group Was Right To Visit Arafat's Grave

By Elisheva Goldberg

Harvard students pose at Yasser Arafat’s grave. / Twitter

Last Monday, the Harvard College Israel Trek went to the Muqata’a, the offices of the Palestinian government, in Ramallah. While they were there, the group took a picture with Yasser Arafat’s grave, which was inevitably Tweeted by the group’s tour guide. The photo was picked up by two far-right blogs — one Jewish, one not — and then nailed down by the Jewish Press, which ran the provocative headline “Jewish Donors Funded Harvard Students’ Trip to Arafat’s Grave.”

The headline, of course, is ridiculous: The family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies funded a wide-ranging ten-day trip all over Israel for 50 of Harvard’s best and brightest, during which they spent half a day in Ramallah and 30 seconds for a photo shoot at Arafat’s grave.

But that’s not the point. The point is that allowing students to engage in conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Palestinians themselves is still taboo among the American Jewish establishment. And it’s high time that changed.

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Anne Heyman Supporters Redouble Rwanda Effort

By Michael Kaplan

Anne Heyman walks with Rwanda President Paul Kagame at a graduation ceremony at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. / Courtesy of Agahozo-Shalom

More than a month after the untimely death of Anne Heyman, friends and supporters say they are dedicated to ensuring the success of her unique Rwanda youth village.

“We’re all tremendously saddened but there is a rededication and a recommitment,” William Recant of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a personal friend of Heyman’s and a supporter of her work, told the Forward.

Heyman established the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in 2008 for children who lost their parents during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The village was modeled on the techniques Israel’s kibbutzim used to deal with Holocaust orphans.

When Heyman died in a horse riding accident January 31, tributes poured in from Jewish leaders across the country. Students at the Rwandan school that she had founded mourned her death.

Recant said that Heyman’s death, which came a year after Agahozo-Shalom lost its first director, saddened everyone involved with the project, but that supporters are determined to keep their vision alive.

“I personally am committed to giving more than I have in the past, because we can’t financially rely on Anne to be the one to make it happen,” Recant said. “A lot of us feel that way.”

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Did Israeli Conversions Just Get a Lot Easier?

By Nathan Jeffay

Immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrive in Israel. / Getty Images

Did you hear about the latest coup for the Reform and Conservative movements in the Knesset? A new piece of legislation that passed the Law Committee today and is ready for voting in a few weeks will apparently bring closer a day when non-Orthodox movements can carry out state-recognized conversions in Israel.

Orthodox lawmaker Orit Struck of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home party is furious. The proponent of the bill is “is trying to appease all kinds of Reform and Conservative groups that are trying to give us conversions that are not according to Jewish law,” she said.

Struck continued with her statement of alarm at the imminent non-Orthodox gains, saying: “There is no way we can do anything to aid in widening the opening for the Reform with regard to anything that touches on what they call conversion. We can’t defraud people who want to embrace Judaism. We are selling them a bill of goods instead of conversion.”

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Trading a Palestinian Flag for a Kid's Freedom?

By Emily L. Hauser

IDF soldiers order Shadi Sidr to remove his Palestinian flag in Hebron. / YouTube

Last week I wrote about that wacky video of a Hebron settler climbing onto a Palestinian’s roof to steal his flag, getting stuck, and calmly telling the Palestinian that the roof, house, and everything within shouting distance actually belonged to the settler – that is: Israel. I posited that had the situation been reversed – had the Palestinian climbed onto the settler’s roof instead – the Palestinian would now be dead.

Rather than, say, arrest the settler for trespassing, though, soldiers responded to this absurd series of events by attempting to browbeat Shadi Sidr, the Palestinian in question, into handing over his flag. At various points, various soldiers insisted that flying the Palestinian flag was forbidden and that Sidr would be taken into custody if he didn’t take his down, but when he refused, at least one of them had the good sense to understand that continuing the farce in front of cameras was not a good idea. Later it transpired that the Israeli military in fact has no anti-flag regulation.

And that, you would think, was that.

Or, at any rate, you might think that was that if you had no experience with Israel and the occupation. Because of course that was not that. That was not even remotely that.

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Will Settlers and Arabs Unite To Tank Peace?

By Nathan Jeffay

John Kerry / Getty Images

As Jerusalem and Ramallah wait anxiously to see the framework peace agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is drafting, large numbers of Israelis are ready to take matters into their own hands if they don’t like what they see.

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute just asked Israeli citizens whether, if a framework deal goes against their political position but gets approval from the government and passes a referendum, “will you then accept the framework or will you act to prevent it from being implemented?”

Some 24.8% of respondents said that they would act to prevent its implementation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a quarter of Israelis say they would work against any peace deal, but rather a quarter of Israelis would work against a deal if they object to its terms. But it is still a high figure that points to a defiant spirit in relation to the peace process.

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Rabbi's Meditation Lessons Changed My Life

By Brent Spodek

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg

On those very rare occasions when I start to get anxious or freak out or dive down the rabbit hole of “What if this bad thing happens and then this and then this?” I hear the lilting voice of Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg in my head, telling me to breathe and compassionately bring my attention back to my breath.

My first experiences with meditation were with Weinberg at the Jewish retreat center Elat Chayyim when it was in Accord, N.Y. I had come for a 36-hour introduction to Jewish meditation, and simply getting to the center had been an ordeal of inefficiency, with buses that arrived late and cabs that never appeared.

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Peace Now Video Advances Mockery, Not Peace

By Mira Sucharov

A new plea for Israelis to push toward an agreement with the Palestinians has been launched in the form of a Purim video sponsored by the Israeli group Peace Now. Called “It’s fun to be a rightist” and set to the song “Got my mind set on you,” the video is an unsubtle sendup of the settlers and their Knesset backers.

With the Israeli peace group already marginalized in mainstream Israeli affairs, deciding to openly mock their opposition is a risky strategy. Looking closer, though, it’s a message that may serve to skewer the whole nature of domestic ideological clashes in a conflict zone.

The video opens with Yossi Belin — now visibly older than he appeared during the height of his peace process involvement in the early 1990s — getting dressed up as a West Bank settler for a television spot. With an army-issue parka, wearing socks and sandals and a knitted kippah, Beilin-as-settler exclaims, “Isn’t it fun for me that there’s no partner, and that the Arabs understand only force and bombs! Because otherwise, what would I have to scare you with? Monsters?”

“It’s fun, convenient and comfortable to be racist and destructive. It’s fun to be a rightist. So what if it’s inflammatory and beyond the realm of reason?” the jingle continues.

The “rightists” are spoofed with phrases such as, “You built our new highways, and gave up on an apartment so I can sit here [in my balcony in the West Bank]. Nice, isn’t it?” And “if you dare speak of peace, we will legislate against free thought.”

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