Tired from his voyage, Abba Arikha is pleased to finally find the Jewish community at his destination. “I’m from Israel; I’m a Jew,” he tells its members. They reply: “Prove it!”
He has a scribbled letter from one of his teachers, but the locals don’t trust it. He turns around, dejected.
It’s amusing to impose our modern-day reality onto antiquity. Abba Arikha was one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived — so great that the Talmud simply calls him Rav. He moved from the Land of Israel to Babylon in the third century, when Babylon was becoming the center of Torah study. Who checked his documents and verified his Jewishness?
It’s now just over a week since the Israeli Chief Rabbinate pulled away, at the last minute, from an agreement to solve the chaotic controversy over how it can determine who’s Jewish.
Palestinian and Israeli activists at a joint protest in the occupied West Bank in 2014 / Getty Images
The Jewish and Israeli press is quick to report any and all Palestinian violence against any Jew, anywhere. Which makes sense, of course. Israelis and Palestinians are at war, Jews everywhere have a dog in the fight, violence is deplorable, et cetera and so on.
But, by contrast, there’s a marked reticence to report on events that show Palestinians actively engaged in nonviolent forms of protest, like last week’s little-noted “protest village,” Ein Hijleh, established by hundreds of activists to protest Israeli annexation plans in the Jordan Valley. This reticence speaks volumes. Really inconvenient and uncomfortable volumes.
The Jewish and Israeli narratives — the way we talk about who we are and why we’re here (and though they run parallel, these narratives are not the same) — are, like any other cultural narrative, heavy on self-promotion. Jews share a deep and disturbing history of anti-Jewish violence and hate, and we often tell ourselves that this is the only part of our story that matters when we’re looking out into the world. This is the part that tells us everything we need to know.
In this light, our enemies can only be unjustified in their hate; the use of violence defines them and reveals their truest selves; anything else is aberration and cannot be trusted.
(JTA) — When my simple Nokia flip-phone broke last year and could not be repaired because it was so old, I upgraded – kicking and screaming – to an iPhone.
My 14-year-old son – who is dying for a smartphone but has to make do with his iPod – handled downloading the apps, telling me he would put on all the essentials. One of the most useful ones turned out to be WhatsApp, which allows me to send free text messages throughout the world and to be part of texting groups.
The app, which has only been around a few years, recently made some headlines for being the latest piece of technology banned by haredi Jews. Der Blatt, a Yiddish-language newspaper published by members of the Satmar Hasidic group in Brooklyn, reported last month that rabbis overseeing divorces say that WhatsApp is “the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the Forward reported this week.
In the United States, WhatsApp is gaining in popularity, particularly among niche users like teens, immigrants, people with friends and family abroad – and, apparently the fervently Orthodox — but it still lacks the wide, mainstream audience enjoyed by social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google Chats.
Not so Israel. Here, WhatsApp is a way of life. I’m on several WhatsApp groups – including one for parents of my younger son’s Little League team, one for parents of my youngest daughter’s youth group and a family group that consists of me and my three oldest children (asking them to do chores when I am away from home became so much easier!).
Anti-Semitism in Europe is, once again, making headlines. In Paris, crowds sang, “Jews, France is not yours” at an anti-government protest last month. In Rome, a right-wing extremist mailed three pig heads to major Jewish sites, and Italy had its own anti-government protest — complete with anti-Semitic slogans — a couple of months ago. Plus, a recently released survey conducted in seven EU countries suggests that the perception of anti-Semitism is on the rise among European Jews.
As anti-Jewish hatred gains ground, some Jewish communities are growing more insular in response. In certain Jewish circles, there’s a growing perception of living “under attack” — a siege mentality that results at times in self-segregation. But resorting to self-segregation may just be another way of falling victim to anti-Semitism.
This week’s Jewish News Quiz heads to Sochi, high fives skater Jason Brown, then comes back home to Hasidim, hummus and Chuck Schumer. Somehow, there’s always Schumer.
“Do you kids have a permit to hang up all of these posters around the city?” the policeman asked. “Permit?” my friend and I questioned in response. “We are trying to raise public awareness about baseless hatred, and destructive conflict, and you’re asking us for a permit?” Yet, after several hours in the sweltering heat of a downtown Jerusalem police station, we reconsidered the idea of advertising the 9th of Av as a day warning against baseless hatred along religious and political divides.
Twenty years later, Jews and Jewish communities are still very much conflicted and divided. Now, with a few more friends, and as the director of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution, I find myself once again attempting to promote a Jewish day of constructive conflict — only this time it’s not on the 9th of Av, but on the 9th of Adar.
You may be wondering, “The 9th of Adar? What exactly happened on that day?” If so, you’re not alone. I had never heard about the 9th of Adar until a year and half ago,when I came upon it by chance one Friday night at shul. What I would later discover was that on the 9th of Adar, approximately 2,000 years ago, the initially peaceful and constructive conflict or machloket l’shem shamayim (dispute for the sake of Heaven) between the two great Jewish schools of thought, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, erupted into a violent and destructive conflict over 18 legal matters — many of which had to do with how open or closed to be towards non-Jews.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik provided counseling to those mourning at Ground Zero shortly after 9/11. Illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Last winter when we asked readers to tell us about the rabbis who inspire them, we were overwhelmed by stories of individuals like Rabbi Joseph Potasnik who provided counseling at Ground Zero shortly after the twin towers came tumbling down and Rabbi Ellen Lippman who helped a person new to Judaism find a spiritual and communal home.
We named 36 of these individuals America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.
But these remarkable stories represent only a fraction of the rabbis around the country impacting their communities in profound ways. So this year we are asking again. Tell us about the rabbis who have changed your life, the life of your family or community. Whether it’s a rabbi who stands behind a pulpit, sits in a hospital waiting room with a family, or leads an unforgettable Jewish camp, share your stories here by February 19th.
We will publish the most compelling entires next month when we name America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis 2014. Here are snippets of a few we have already received:
Providing comfort, even in the midst of war:
________ entered the rabbinate with the sole purpose of becoming a military chaplain, and he served for 25 years in the Navy and the Marines. The glory he sought was to bring Judaism and spirituality to our troops overseas, often following them into the field and conducting “Shabbat” services regardless of what day of the week it was.
Helping a community mourn and grow stronger:
On a recent Shabbat afternoon, in the shadow of disappointment surrounding the thwarted gun reform legislation, a group of concerned locals gathered on a street in St. Louis notorious for gun violence. They stood together and named each of the 46 children who died from hand guns on that very corner. They stood together with Rabbi _______, who weeks earlier had marched in the same place with a local Palestinian grocer, who opens his store to kids as a safe haven and with the neighborhood minister, who was once a drug lord on the street.
Offering education without judgment:
I was completely unaffiliated with no Jewish education. I became interested in Judaism when my wife became pregnant with our first child, but did not feel comfortable in shul due to my lack of knowledge. I not only did not know how to daven, but I could not even read Hebrew. Rabbi__________’s outreach program, provided a place where I not only felt comfortable, but was able to learn and ask questions.…I was someone who could have easily been lost to assimilation. He is one of only three people outside my family who has had a profound impact on my life.
Allowing each congregant to connect to Jewish tradition in their own way:
__________ has taken two synagogues, merged them into one, with a new name. On Shabbat there is an early mystic minyan, a regular service, a torah yoga service, a discussion group. Congregants choose to go where they wish, and at the end, everyone gathers for a healing service and a Ruach rally.
For the past two years, increasing numbers of English speakers worldwide have been turning to The Times of Israel for news and analysis on Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world. Beginning this week, Arabic speakers can do the same.
The Jerusalem-based online newspaper’s founding editor David Horovitz announced on February 4 the launch of The Times of Israel Arabic. “We’re not exactly sure how The Times of Israel Arabic is going to be received in the Arab world. But we do know what its goal is: to report Israel, the region and the Jewish world accurately and engagingly for Arabic readers wherever they may be — precisely as we have been doing for two years for English readers,” he wrote in an op-ed.
“This is really important. No one else is doing this,” Horovitz told me a day later. According to the editor-in-chief, the Arabic edition of his publication surpasses other efforts by Jewish Israeli publications to gain readership in the Arab world. “Yediot [Ahronot] published in Arabic for a short time, and i24 has an Arabic site — but they’re TV news,” he noted.
Horovitz is particularly excited by the fact that The Times of Israel’s popular blogging platform and its attendant open exchange of ideas will carry over to the Arabic edition. “There’s no other [comparable] Arabic site that allows people to blog,” he said. “We are really going to encourage Arabic bloggers to contribute.”
Will I apply?
That’s what people are asking me today, as news circulates of the law the Spanish cabinet just approved to offer citizenship to Sephardic Jews.
Two weeks ago, the Forward published a long essay I wrote about this citizenship offer, which the Spanish justice and foreign ministers first proposed in 2012. I went to Spain in November 2013, at first thinking I would apply for a passport myself. When it turned out that that wasn’t yet possible, I tried figure out why the law had not been passed.
Three months after my trip, the text of the law is finally available. Spain’s Ministry of Justice posted it online today after it was approved by the Council of Ministers. It still must be voted on by the Parliament before it becomes law.
An activist wearing a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin joins protesters on the opening day of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. / Getty Images
As the winter Olympics open today, there has been a crescendo of condemnation in the West of Russia’s many human rights violations. Sadly, in spite of all the attention Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians and the environment of violent homophobia have received, the situation has not gotten any better. We published our editorial on Sochi back in November with the hope that the International Olympic Committee and sponsors like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s or the large network covering the event, NBC, might try and apply some pressure on Russia. But sadly that has not happened, and with the exception of a few token words from Putin, gays and lesbians feel even more embattled now just as the parade of athletes begins.
Shimon Peres / Getty Images
Israel’s President Shimon Peres has just secured his second appearance in the Guinness Book of Records. But he missed an opportunity when setting his new record yesterday.
I was excited to watch Peres — who is already in the book as oldest head of state — teach the largest ever civics class, using videoconferencing to connect with 9,000 students from across Israel’s ethnic divides. And he started well, talking about the importance of knowledge. He said that money “comes and goes” while knowledge endures, and if we all read three times a day like we eat three times a day, we would be in a good position. Even at his age, he said, he’s still learning.
In a country where teachers all too often talk at students, this looked promising. The President was becoming a teacher for the day.
Not many people of his age would have the charm, vision and appeal to address such a huge number of youngsters, and it was moving to see him do so. But he could have done much more with the opportunity.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner / YouTube
“I believe that we are now at one of those critical, pivotal moments in our history,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, recently informed the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “It’s sneaking up on us. What is happening is an upheaval that threatens our cohesive fabric.”
American and British Jewry share the same fate. On one end of the religious spectrum, through intermarriage and assimilation there is a drifting away from Jewish identity. In the United Kingdom, the preliminary findings of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s National Jewish Community Survey showed that under half of intermarried Jews attend a Passover seder, one third fast on Yom Kippur, and only 18% attend a Friday night dinner most weeks.
In the center of the religious spectrum, British Jews under 40 are more likely to value belief in God or marrying within the Jewish faith than their parents, yet some don’t have the knowledge or language of Judaism to live a fully Jewish life. And, at the other extreme, the burgeoning, young Haredi community is displacing an aging, secular or traditional population. Today in the UK, nearly one third of all Jewish children under the age of five are born to Haredi parents.
David Harris-Gershon signs copies of his book / Austin Hill
When it comes to the communal tent of dialogue around Israel, the last few years have seen a concerted attempt by Jewish leaders and institutions to delineate who should be considered “in” and who should be kept “out.” On the heels of the controversy surrounding Hillel’s guidelines, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center has now entered the fray in an embarrassing way.
Writing in Haaretz, David Harris-Gershon revealed this week that the DCJCC uninvited him from a previously scheduled book event. Harris-Gershon was to speak on his memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” The reason for the cancellation? A July 2012 blog post Harris-Gershon wrote in Tikkun called “Today I’m Coming Out in Favor of BDS.” This is the second time in a few weeks that Harris-Gershon has been disinvited; as the Forward reported, last month, Hillel in Santa Barbara canceled an event at which he was slated to speak.
Last November, I wrote about the decision by Le Mood Montreal to bar two panelists due to their controversial views on Israel. But what we’re seeing now is a self-declared Zionist being barred from Jewish institutions for not being loyal enough — a new low in attempting to discipline discourse and silence meaningful dialogue.
In addition to the Scarlett Johansson Super Bowl ad, part of the reason that SodaStream has gotten so much attention — as opposed to many other products on the boycott Israel list — is because it presents an ethical conundrum for its lefty customers. SodaStream has become a symbol for health and environmentalism, but also for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In other words, if you want to make your soda at home, but you’re also a BDS adherent — or even if you’re practicing limited, West-Bank-only BDS — you’re mostly out of luck. As a recent New York Magazine story pointed out, “Even the most fervent anti-Zionists will admit that, for seltzer addicts, SodaStream’s competitors leave something to be desired.”
But what happens if you’re a SodaStream detractor who happens to own a SodaStream — whether by dint of a gift, or a purchase made previous to a political awakening (or maybe even a guilty one-time acquisition)? Rather than toss their seltzer makers, some SodaStream owners are taking a cue from hackers who have figured out how to use the machines without continuing to support the company by buying its CO2. For the hackers, it’s all about saving money — a SodaStream CO2 cartridge, which must be replaced every two to four months, costs between $15 and $45. For the anti-occupation SodaStream owners, on the other hand, it’s political.
“Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold leads a Passover seminar in Moab, Utah. Photo by Jeff Finkelstein
Last year, this project began with a hunch and a hope. The hunch was that amidst the depressing reports of the decline in organizational Judaism, synagogues struggling to stay afloat, rabbinical seminaries trying to stay relevant, and young Jews turning away, there were rabbis across America who, every day, without fanfare and often without recognition, taught and lead and touched and inspired.
The hope was that our readers would help us find them.
You did. After sifting through hundreds of heartfelt nominations from congregants, students, and even other rabbis, we selected 36 rabbis and shared their stories with you. America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis was one of our most well-read projects in all of 2013, proving that there is a hunger for stories about spiritual leadership in the modern age.
So it is with great pleasure and anticipation that we renew the call for 2014. Using the form below, please tell us about a rabbi who did something remarkable, in a day or over a lifetime, from the pulpit or the classroom, the Hillel or the hospice. We mean to cast a wide net here, because we recognize that profound spiritual leadership can come in many forms and sometimes in the most unlikeliest of places.
Help us tell these stories.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Haman / GettyImages/HipsterJew.com
First he was described as “obsessive” and “messianic” by Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon. Then he was accused by Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz of “holding a gun to Israel’s head”. And now, Secretary of State John Kerry faces a new barrage of criticism coming from the holy land. This time from a group of rabbis going all biblical on his peace plan.
A letter signed by five Israeli rabbis, all known for their hard-line opposition to any compromise with the Palestinians, compares Obama’s top diplomat to two of Israel’s worst enemies in history. “If you continue on this destructive path, you will ensure your everlasting disgrace in Jewish history for bringing calamity upon the Jewish people — like Nebuchadnezzar and Titus who destroyed, respectively, the first and second great Temples and the entire Holy City of Jerusalem, and who, by heavenly punishment, brought eventual disaster upon themselves, too,” the open letter to Kerry states.
Settler youth bear signs reading “Girls of Israel for the nation of Israel,” “A king’s daughter doesn’t date a non-Jew,” and “No more assimilation!” / Elisheva Goldberg
Last night in Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews (well, mostly Jews) got together at an event called “Pashut Sharim” or “Just Singing,” a four-year-old initiative funded primarily by Hillel and the Pratt Foundation that brings Arabs and Jews together in song. In practice, given that the event took place in the heart of West Jerusalem’s hippie-cum-hipster Nachlaot neighborhood, there were very few Arabs present. But that didn’t seem to matter to the settler youth who came out to protest the Arab-Jewish mingling. Nor did it stop the liberal-lefty students from counter-protesting. Sure, last night’s protest bears witness to the intense power of political ideology that can cleave a nation in two. But the fight is also…really fun.
The subject of the protest was Jewish assimilation, the supposition being that Arab men, if allowed to inhabit the same space as Jewish women, would either tempt them into intermarriage or simply seize them without a second thought. It was organized by the ultra-right organization LEAVA, whose acronym stands for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land.” It’s a group run by Benzi Gopstein, an outspoken Kahanist and elder statesmen of the Hilltop Youth. He founded the organization with the explicit belief that the purpose of Israel — indeed, Zionism itself — is to keep Jewish people Jewish. His activities to ensure such a state of affairs are as intrusive as they are varied.
Last year, he wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg beseeching him not marry to his long-time non-Jewish girlfriend. One of LEAVA’s fantastical promotional videos shows a Jewish girl being wooed by an Arab man only to find herself caged, beaten, and wearing a naqab (face-veil), though she is eventually emancipated by a smiling Gopstein who leads her back the Kotel. Most recently, he made an appearance on Israeli talk shows where he advised Netanyahu on how to convince his son to break up with the Norwegian woman he’s dating.
Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman’s husband and a bevy of Swedish supermodels, to boot? What kind of Jewish News Quiz is this? The pandering kind! And why not? By the way, Russell Crowe is in here, too.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images
Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.
Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.
Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.
Anyone can change the course of events, especially when they see injustice.
That was the mantra of Gordon Zacks, who died Saturday in the Columbus, Ohio area at the age of 80. A founder of the Republican Jewish Coalition and an unofficial adviser to George H.W. Bush, Gordon wrote the book on character, courage and leadership, and how one person can make a difference. He called such events “defining moments.”
Every encounter with Gordon was a defining moment. He had the ability to persuade, inspire, and do the right thing.
Embedded in his DNA was a Jewish moral compass. He unabashedly followed it in word and deed, always motivating others to reaffirm Jewish life through Jewish education, formal and informal. Not just for the young, he said, but for the old, for every Jewish family and for every caring person, inside and outside the home.
Gordon believed that Judaism has a message to give to mankind to help it deal with the issues of living and respecting difference, and building a just and free world.