At 111, Dr. Alexander Imich may be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. / YouTube
As a writer for a Yiddish newspaper and as a Yiddish translator, I spend a lot of time working with Holocaust survivors and their writings. I’ve spent upwards of 1000 hours conducting oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and translating Holocaust testimony. Recording, preserving and sharing these stories is a large part of my day-to-day life. So although I’d hardly consider myself an expert on the topic, the Holocaust plays a much greater role in my life than it does for the average 20-something American Jew.
That’s why I was taken aback last week when I realized that I couldn’t answer a colleague’s seemingly simple question: “Who ‘counts’ as a Holocaust survivor?” The question arose after the inimitable Alice Herz-Sommer died at 110 years old on February 23. Herz-Sommer, a gifted pianist who knew Kafka in her youth, survived the Theresiendstadt concentration camp in her early 40s along with her son Raphael. Herz-Sommer’s life, musical career and indomitable spirit are recalled in the Oscar-winning film “The Lady in Number 6.”
Although Herz-Sommer was widely described as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at the time of her death, I believe there is an older survivor living in New York City. Dr. Alexander Imich, with whom I conducted an oral history interview in July, was born in Czestochowa, Poland on February 4, 1903. That makes him 111.
Bill De Blasio and his family celebrate inauguration as New York mayor. Like predecessors at Gracie Mansion, liberal and conservative alike, Hizzoner is hewing a pro-Israel line.
(JTA) — New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, drew some attention last week with his remarks at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event. “Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio isn’t the first New York City mayor to see the job this way.
New York City mayors have been outspoken defenders of Israel since its establishment — and of the Zionist cause even before that.
They have visited Israel, called for American aid, opposed arms sales to Israel’s enemies, snubbed visiting foreign leaders who were hostile to Israel, and criticized U.S. presidents on Israel-related issues.
A woman prays wearing tefillin in Jerusalem/Getty Images
Must, should, or can observant Jewish women wrap tefillin, or not? This well-worn question was recently revived thanks to the two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York — SAR and Ramaz — that have tepidly embraced female students who wish to wrap tefillin publicly in their schools’ prayer services.
In an email circulated to parents, students and board members, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Ramaz’s Talmud chair, offers an internally contradictory five-point bulletin that makes his distaste for the practice clear. On the one hand, women are not obligated to wear tefillin (point 1) but nevertheless receive the benefit of having performed a mitzvah, or commandment (point 2). But in the very next breath he argues they should not be encouraged to do so and perhaps even discouraged from doing so (based on his “proof-text” in point 3), and “taught that they do not need to wear tefillin to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives” (point 5). The schizophrenia of the letter is demonstrated by the head of school’s hopeful sign-off to “see more people observing more mitzvot.”
Which is it? Is women’s observance of this mitzvah a religiously suspicious act destined to shame Torah and undermine halakhic (Jewish legal) commitment? Is it merely religiously tolerable, the isolated province of a few outliers on the religious bell curve? Or is it the natural, proper response to the times in which we live, possibly even mandated by our changed social circumstances?
A young woman prays wearing tefillin on April 11, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. / Getty Images
On December 8, 2013, SAR High School principal Rabbi Naphtali Harcsztark permitted students Ronit Morris and Yael Marans to lay tefillin in the school’s daily women’s prayer group, allowing them to do so within the school building. While this is the first time in its 12-year history that SAR High School has faced this issue, SAR Academy, the associated elementary and middle school, has had female students who lay tefillin. So has Ramaz, another Modern Orthodox high school in New York.
I began laying tefillin when I was a seventh grade student at SAR, over thirteen years ago. Unlike in the case of Morris and Marans, the SAR administration barred me from praying with tefillin in the school building, and excused me from praying with my class. Instead, my prayer took place in my living room, before I left for school.
As a result of not being able to pray daily with the rest of my classmates, I missed out on a lot. Announcements were regularly made at the end of services, and I missed them. Students celebrated bnei mitzvah during services, and I missed them. I missed class jokes about the boy who always hit the ceiling when he did hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, or the boys who (flirtatiously?) handed their tefillin to the girls for re-wrapping at the end of services. I missed the camaraderie of praying with my peers.
After graduating from the eighth grade, I attended Ramaz High School, where another student, Shifra Mincer, also began to lay tefillin. Shifra and I were excused from morning services, and prohibited from laying tefillin in school. However, there was one exception to this rule: Tuesday mornings.
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?
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.
(JTA) — At most Jewish conferences, speakers and participants are careful to focus on sharing only their successes and accomplishments. After all, you never know when a potential donor might be listening.
But on Monday, 120 Jewish communal professionals and lay leaders are gathering to focus on something very different: failure.
Sponsored by New York’s Jewish Education Project and San Francisco’s Upstart, Monday’s event is being touted as the Jewish world’s first-ever “Fail Forward” conference. “Fail Forward” is a new buzz phrase in management circles: the idea being that fear of failure stifles innovation and that failure is a learning opportunity.
Ashley Good, the founder of a consulting group called Fail Forward, will facilitate Monday’s events, where participants and speakers will share some of their biggest failures and learn how to “bring intelligent failure” to their organizations, according to the program schedule.
David Bryfman, director of the Jewish Education Project’s New Center for Collaborative Leadership, told JTA that “if you establish a culture whereby talking about failures is acceptable and dominant, it allows you to take more risks moving forward.”
He also emphasized that a “failure” is different from a “mistake,” in that it’s bigger and more measurable.
And what failure does he plan to share? “One of our Jewish Futures conferences in Denver was a complete bust,” he said. “We over-programmed and had too many speakers, we forgot the people in the audience were actually smart. “
Since then, he’s made sure to schedule more time for interaction at conferences, including Monday’s.
Here’s hoping the conference is a success. But if it’s a failure, well, maybe that would ultimately lead to success.
For this week’s story about the cases of accused molester Baruch Lebovits and accused extortionist Sam Kellner, the Forward was provided with a trove of secretly-recorded conversations.
Among the recordings is a conversation Sam Kellner had with the family of a man who had already pled guilty to abuse charges.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Kellner counsels the family that the man could avoid jail by getting ultra-Orthodox rabbis to pressure Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes and by bribing prosecutors. (A spokesman for the DA’s office said assertions of possible wrongdoing are “ludicrous.”)
The Forward made a commitment to protect the identity of the family involved, therefore we have provided two excerpts from the recording. Passages where people other than Kellner talk have been bleeped out.
More than 5,000 Chabad rabbis and supporters gathered on Sunday for the 30th annual conference of international Shluchim, or messengers of the Hasidic movement. Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman addressed the crowd as the first keynote speaker.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg, Chabad rabbi at Stanford University, told the crowd that you are more likely to find an atheist, secular, or humanist Jew at a Chabad house than you were to find an Orthodox Jew.
And one lanky man in the sprawling crowd of black-hatted men summed up what he meant.
Among the guests was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.
Chabad strictly follows Orthodox Judaism’s central belief that the Torah was given directly from God to Moses and applies in all times and places. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions are not divine and can be modernized, changed, to reflect surrounding culture.
Chabad’s invitation to Jacobs reflects the movement’s philosophy to embrace everyone on the human level, without regard to creed or denominational differences.
Jacobs returned the sentiment, telling Lubavitch.com that it was “inspiring to be with a group of Jewish leaders who feel so passionately about bringing the love of yiddishkeit [Judaism] and the life of commitment to the widest possible circle.”
If the Reform president and Chabad Shluchim can sit at the same table to connect as one people, who knows: Maybe there’s hope for other denominations of Judaism to sit together notwithstanding their deep theological differences.
(JTA) — So far as I know, there are two major roll calls each year in the Jewish world. One takes place each spring at the annual AIPAC convention in Washington, in which the names of hundreds of members of Congress are read aloud from the rostrum. The other took place last night, at the annual gathering of Chabad emissaries, or shluchim, in Brooklyn.
The former is a display of political power, showcasing AIPAC’s ability to get more than half the members of the world’s most powerful legislative body to show up and demonstrate their pro-Israel bona fides. The second is a show of another kind of power, the spiritual strength of a group of rabbis who sacrifice much in terms of comfort and convenience to connect thousands of far-flung Jews to their heritage.
At a time of angst in the Jewish world over the falloff in Jewish affiliation, the ranks of Chabad shluchim continue to swell. There are currently more than 4,500 around the world (twice that number if one counts, as one should, the rabbis’ wives). More than half of those have been dispatched in the nearly two decades since the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose eyes peered down on the gathering from a massive portrait above a rotating speakers’s podium.
The bulk of those shluchim assembled Sunday night in a marine terminal along the Brooklyn waterfront for their annual banquet, the capstone of a days-long conference, or kinus. Emissaries traveled from such remote locales as the Cayman Islands, Laos, San Martin, South Korea and Martinique, arriving at the cavernous warehouse by bus, taxi, subway and limousine. (So far as I could tell, I was the only attendee who arrived by bicycle.) And their strength was evident not only by the sea of bearded men in black suits and hats, but by the presence of their benefactors — billionaire Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev and the financier George Rohr foremost among them — political figures like Joe Lieberman and the former CIA director James Woosley, and representatives of other major Jewish streams, including the Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
The convention theme was zarach b’choshech or, a phrase from the Psalms meaning “radiate light into darkness,” and the speeches and videos were replete with metaphors of luminescence — sparks of yiddishkheit ignited, torches lit, Jewish souls set aflame. Rare in the Jewish world is a group as fired up and self-assured as this one.
The morning after the funeral for Samuel Cohen-Eckstein, the Brooklyn teenager who was killed by a van just a month before his bar mitzvah, the leaders of his family’s synagogue wrote to me, extremely upset about our coverage. Since these are leaders I respect, who raised serious, vexing questions, I responded to them right away.
Then Dave Goldiner, the Forward’s director of digital media, who oversaw the coverage of this horrible accident, suggested that I explain to readers just how we go about making decisions in these cases, when the impulse to honor a grieving family’s privacy conflicts with the journalistic imperative to tell stories that matter to our readers.
This story was an important news event in the Jewish community. Samuel’s parents are prominent members of a thriving synagogue, Kolot Chayeinu, and are well-known in their Brooklyn neighborhood. They have been advocates for traffic safety and have spoken at public forums about the need to better protect pedestrians. The spot where their son died, next to a popular entrance to Prospect Park, is instantly recognizable to many of our readers; indeed, I drove by there the other day and was moved by the memorial created by his friends and neighbors.
After 12 years and three terms as mayor, Michael Bloomberg somehow still can’t figure out how the average New Yorker thinks.
The out-of-touch billionaire who bought a trifecta free pass to Gracie Mansion is leaving office this year. But he couldn’t resist the urge to make an idiot of himself on the way out the door.
Bloomberg blasted Bill de Blasio, the Democratic frontrunner to succeed him, for seeking to “divide” the city. That’s because de Blasio has ridden to the top of the polls with a message that government must do more for middle- and working-class New Yorkers.
It was bad enough that Bloomberg obviously has no idea how the majority of New Yorkers feel about rising rents and failing schools in the gilded city that he has molded in his patrician image.
Like Anthony Weiner in an internet chat room, Bloomberg had to go even further.
Speaking in a swan-song interview with New York magazine, Bloomberg made the outrageous and offensive claim that de Blasio was running a “racist” campaign. Mayor Mike blames de Blasio for making political ads featuring his African-American wife (who was once a lesbian) and their teenage son, Dante, whose eloquence and trademark Afro has made him the defining symbol of the campaign.
“He’s making an appeal using his family to gain support,” Bloomberg said. “I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing.”
Bloomberg went on to prevaricate that he doesn’t think de Blasio himself is “racist.”
New York mayoral candidate Bill Thompson’s political tour guides to Hasidic Brooklyn are two guys named Joseph — both famous influence-peddlers with strong community connections and checkered pasts.
When he campaigned in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg on Labor Day, Thompson was accompanied by Hasidic fixers Joseph Menczer and Joseph Goldberger, the New York Observer reported.
Menczer and Goldberger are members of the Pupa Hasidic sect, a small ultra-Orthodox group based in Williamsburg. They have close ties to Rabbi David Niederman, a leader of the larger of the two halves of the divided Satmar Hasidic community.
Once owners of retail stores in Williamsburg, the two rose to prominence in the late 1990s after their prodigious fundraising efforts for George Pataki’s gubernatorial campaign gave them exceptional access to the governor’s office.
In 2000, the New York Times revealed that Goldberger and Menczer had parlayed their $500,000 in donations to the Pataki campaign into a highly unusual relationship with state health officials who they lobbied behalf of for-profit businesses.
Anthony Weiner’s entry into the New York City mayoral contest further crowds a packed Democratic primary field and gives the race its first major Jewish candidate.
The disgraced ex-lawmaker, who resigned from Congress in 2011 after he sent racy pictures of himself to women online, announced his comeback candidacy in a YouTube video posted late Tuesday.
He enters the race late, giving opponents a major head start in building constituencies and attracting support. He also faces steep hurdles in overcoming the still-fresh sexting scandal.
A Quinnipiac poll posted today found that 49% of New York City voters think that Weiner should not run for mayor.
Jewish political insiders say that it may be too late for Weiner to amass major Jewish support, particularly in Brooklyn’s large Orthodox community. Orthodox political operatives are already long-committed to Weiner’s Democratic opponents.
“I think [Christine] Quinn, [Bill] de Blasio and [Bill] Thompson all have made major inroads into the Orthodox community,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group, a political consultancy, who backs Quinn in the race. “Weiner at one point was very popular and energetic representative for the community, but it’s going to be quite difficult for him to carve out his niche.”
A ho-hum New York City mayoral race just got a whole lot more interesting.
Sext scandal-ridden former congressman Anthony Weiner announced, a few paragraphs into a laudatory New York Times Magazine profile, that he’s considering joining the crowded Democratic field.
That could shake up allegiances among New York City’s political clans, including some city Jews. And analysts warned against betting against Weiner, given his potent resume and proven vote-winning prowess.
“Before his difficulties, before his personal troubles, he was going to be mayor,” said Michael Tobman, a New York City-based political consultant, alluding to the pervading sense prior to Weiner’s 2011 scandal that he was the frontrunner in the mayoral race.
Weiner ceded that leading spot in the Democratic field to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. In a race without any Jewish candidates, Quinn and the progressive Public Advocate Bill De Blasio have been contending for the city’s non-Orthodox Jewish votes.
Quinn’s strength is in Manhattan, where her City Council district is located. De Blasio, who previously represented parts of Brooklyn in the City Council, has built support in Brooklyn and Queens.
“Weiner makes trouble for Public Advocate De Blasio and Speaker Quinn,” said Hank Sheinkopf, another New York City political consultant. “He’s got the right name and a history in the outer boroughs, in places where the bulk of the Jews live.”
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced she was running for mayor Sunday, making official what had been all but acknowledged for months.
In a whistle-stop tour of the city and a new campaign video, Quinn touted her middle-class roots and a campaign agenda that emphasizes housing and education.
If she wins, Quinn would be the first female and also the first gay person to occupy Gracie Mansion.
Quinn has long been considered a frontrunners in the 2013 mayoral race. Yet she faces stiff competition from a large field of Democratic and Republican rivals, many of whom have made strong plays for Jewish votes in a field without a major Jewish candidate.
As City Council speaker, Quinn has opposed a measure that would force New York businesses to offer paid sick leave to their employees. Jewish groups backed the bill, including a long list of prominent New York City rabbis. Many of Quinn’s Democratic opponents support the paid sick leave measure.
The nascent alliance between the ultra-Orthodox and the Republican Party that some analysts say could revolutionize New York state politics is getting off to a rocky start.
UPDATE: Click through for Yossi Gestetner’s response.
That’s the takeaway from the drama over Yossi Gestetner, the Hasidic political operative who abruptly resigned from his position directing Jewish outreach for the GOP after just a few days on the job. He quit following a report from The Jewish Channel about his ties to ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist groups.
The Jewish Channel also reported that Gestetner has been a spokesman for an event supporting an Orthodox alleged child molester, and that he had argued that Jews should report crimes to rabbis before going to the police.
In a blog post on June 20, Gestetner denied that he resigned over his anti-Zionist ties.
New York’s Jews aren’t overwhelmingly pro-Obama.
That’s one finding in a poll released last week by Siena College, and backed up by months of similar reports from the same organization.
The monthly survey of New York State voters breaks out the Jewish vote from the non-Jewish vote. The sample size of Jews is small, fewer than 100 in each poll, so fluctuations in responses from Jews don’t mean much. But while Jews do say they plan to vote for Obama over Romney — by 51% to 43% in the June poll — they don’t seem to support him in numbers much greater than the general population.
In June, 51% of Jews said they would vote Obama over Romney compared to 59% in the general population. In May, 62% of Jews said they would vote Obama over Romney compared to 57% of the general population. In April, 50% of Jews said they would vote for Obama over Romney compared to 60% of the general population.
Again, the month-to-month fluctuations are likely insignificant here. What’s notable is that Obama doesn’t seem to be doing any better among Jews in New York than among non-Jews. That’s surprising on its face, given that New York Jews have long been defined by a reputation for liberalism.
“Dear Jew: You are entering a dangerous place. Shield your eyes.”
That’s the Hebrew-language text on a huge billboard that an Orthodox group has paid to post alongside a Brooklyn highway.
The “dangerous place” is Manhattan. The danger isn’t specified, but it’s clear they’re not talking about muggings.
Presumably directed at ultra-Orthodox Jews traveling to Manhattan for work, the billboard puts a stark spin on the new study out yesterday from the UJA-Federation of New York, which raised the possibility of an impending Orthodox majority among New York Jews.
New York’s Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews exist in separate, parallel worlds. In the broadest terms, each group has its own borough. Brooklyn Jews are poor, young, and religious. Manhattan Jews are rich, old, and more secular.
While Brooklyn’s Jewish community is exploding, Manhattan’s is shrinking. And judging in part by the highway billboard, the ascendant Brooklynites have little regard for the declining Manhattanites.
Hoping to preserve its massive growth, the ultra-Orthodox community has been on a war footing in recent months, striking back against web access in its homes and yeshivas by holding a massive anti-Internet rally and promulgating new bans against web use.
The billboard, which has been up for at least a few weeks, seems to signify the opening of a new front in the same war. The billboard was sponsored by an organization called the Congregation of Yad Moshe, which appears to have ties to New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind.
There’s no explanation on the stop sign red billboard, but the message is clear: Manhattan is unkosher. Stay in Brooklyn.