Washington’s Synagogue Mural / Jewish Historical Society
Stephanie Slewka was peeling layers of paint and plaster from her just-purchased house in downtown Washington, D.C. when she spied a blue patch — unusual in the mildewy mess of browns and beiges. Removing a few more gunky strata revealed a Star of David. And tearing off even more exposed an arc of Hebrew letters across a sky-blue background speckled with stars. “We didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed awfully cool,” she told the Forward.
The artwork turned out to be a 1920s mural commissioned by Shomrei Shabbos, an Orthodox congregation that occupied the house in the early 20th century. To understand its history, Slewka called on the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. To restore it, she tapped local artist Nicholas Kahn, who also added a Venice-inspired winged lion. And so the non-Jewish homeowner became the unlikely guardian of a rare and valuable piece of the region’s Jewish history. “It just became part of the house,” Slewka said.
That was 1993. Now, ten years after Slewka sold the house, the mural is facing a new threat to its survival. A developer plans to convert the house to condominiums. And the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is mounting a last-ditch effort to save the artwork, believed to be the only surviving synagogue mural in Washington.
An Egyptian policeman in front of the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. / Haaretz
In early April 2012, two friends and I visited the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in downtown Cairo to observe the first night of Passover in Egypt. The irony was too obvious to point out, and so we didn’t.
When we arrived, we joined a line that had formed in front of the building, which was guarded by roughly 20 police officers. I glanced around to see if anyone was paying attention, assuming that the sight of people entering a synagogue would cause a stir. Anti-Israel sentiment is widespread in Egypt, and opinions about the government’s relationship with Israel are often suffused with anti-Semitic rhetoric. Two years earlier, a bomb had been thrown at the building. But no one seemed to notice us.
After about ten minutes, we arrived at the front of the line, where a police officer entered our names onto a list. I didn’t like the idea of being on that list, but was pretty sure I wasn’t getting in otherwise. We walked down a corridor that opened into a massive central courtyard, adjoining a high temple wall adorned with Hebrew writing. But we weren’t going in there. Instead, we were ushered into a brightly lit room at the far end of the courtyard.
Seated around the long table in the center of the room were about 15 foreigners, most of whom were likely Jewish; representatives from the U.S. Embassy; Muslim Egyptians; a Moroccan Jewish rabbi who’d flown in from France; and Carmen Weinstein, the head of Egypt’s Jewish community. As far as I could tell, no Israelis were present.
No one welcomed us. We eventually found seats at the end of the long center table, and I waited uncomfortably for the service to begin. I supposed that at this point, in the room filled with Passover celebrants in a Cairo synagogue, I’d finally feel the gravity of the moment. But I mostly felt hungry.
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.”
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.
Pete Seeger never stopped singing — or fighting for justice. Just last month, he turned up at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance to explain why it was important to join the town’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
If you move to Beacon, or even think about moving to Beacon, someone will tell you that this is where Pete Seeger lived.
When I moved to Beacon, a town of 15,000 on the banks of the Hudson River, I knew where Pete’s house was before I knew where the hardware store was. But before I knew him as a neighbor, I knew him as most people did, as as the icon, the figure that Bruce Springsteen called “a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
It was shocking to realize that the icon Pete (who was known to everyone as Pete), was also the old man on line at the post office, on Main Street, at the riverfront.
Ellen Gersh, the cantor at Beacon Hebrew Alliance, grew up in Beacon and has known Pete for her entire life. She met him as a child because her grandfather was friends with Pete’s father-in-law and then later, she got to know him through music.
“When I was eight or 10 years old, we were on a class trip to the Clearwater (Revival) and he heard me sing and invited me to sing at the Sloop Club,” she said. “The meetings were on Friday nights and that was a conflict [with Shabbat], but my father said I could go to the first half and then needed to go to services.”
Rabbi David Ingber is the spiritual leader (and main draw) for Romemu, a fast-growing congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Its quest for spiritual meaning can hardly be disassociated from Ingber’s personal journey.
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox family, Ingber, 44, was drawn to ultra-Orthodoxy while on a gap-year program in Israel in the late 1980s. He described the next five years as “flipping out.”
“I was completely God intoxicated,” he said.
But after years of study at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn, Ingber decided he’d had enough. “I felt that Orthodoxy with all of its beauty [had made me swallow] all of the bathwater, and it was making me sick,” he explained.
The next 10 years marked a period of soul-searching. After turning his back on Judaism, Ingber looked to Eastern spiritual practices as a way to fill the void. Working nights as a waiter at Carmine’s, a restaurant on the Upper West Side, he would fill his days with yoga and meditation.
True to his openness to other religions, Ingber described his struggle as “the prodigal son myth.”
“I was trying to find a way back to Judaism, but I wasn’t sure I had figured it out,” he said.
The tradition of English liberty which runs through the political culture is a deep one, traceable back to John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644, through Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The nub of it was best put by Mill when he wrote, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
It is with this in mind that the recent decision by the British government to pre-emptively exclude Pamela Geller from travelling the United Kingdom should be considered. Geller, it must recalled as often as possible, is a spiteful and malicious person. Founder of Stop Islamisation of America and proprietor of the Atlas Shrugs blog, she has used her public platform to minimise the Bosnian genocide, label secular, democratic Kosovo a “militant Islamic state in the heart of Europe,” and perpetuate the myth that President Obama is the secret love child of Malcolm X.
And then there’s Islam, about which she has said so much it’s hard to filter. “There are no moderates. There are no extremists. Only Muslims,” she said. “Devout Muslims should be prohibited from military service. Would Patton have recruited Nazis into his army?” she enquired on another occasion.
Geller has expressed support for Geert Wilders and the thuggish English Defence League, with whom she shares concerns about the so-called Islamisation of Europe, even nefariously calling upon Jews to stand up with them in this struggle.
But even considering the foregoing, or especially considering it, withdrawing Geller’s right to speak and address a rally organised by the EDL in the London neighborhood of Woolwich violated English liberal tradition. It is precisely this sort of application of state power to silence another that Mill deemed ‘noxious’ in any circumstance, whether “exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it.” The state, rather, must protect against “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
Geller’s case would be especially troubling because the government not only proscribed her based on what she had said but what she might say. If she were to repeat her slurs against Muslims of the type previously exhibited, she would be “committing unacceptable behaviours”, the Home Secretary deemed. This type of prior restraint goes against the grain of English liberty. Mill questioned rightly what authority has the right to decide what words are appropriate or inappropriate, what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. “They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.”
It was after 11 p.m. yesterday that I first heard the news that my synagogue, the Great Neck Synagogue, had announced the cancellation of a speaking engagement by Pamela Geller, founder of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), described as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I breathed a great sigh of relief. I quickly stopped writing the piece I was working on about how my heart was broken by the intransigence of the synagogue and its leadership in confronting a moral challenge.
Despite the cancellation, I am still filled with pain. When the synagogue announced its decision to cancel Geller’s talk, originally set for April 14, it cited “security concerns,” particularly for member families and their children. This indeed may be the reason that the executive board of the synagogue cancelled the event.
In my heart, I hope it was not the only reason. I hope the leadership was (at least unconsciously) influenced by the virtual flood of phone calls, emails, and private conversations in which Great Neck Synagogue members, as well as others, made the point that even though Geller has the right to speak, the synagogue does not have an obligation to offer her its pulpit.
I wish my synagogue had spoken of the moral question. I wish the leaders had stood up and said, “We didn’t initially realize what Geller represents. Now that we do know, we will stand proudly against hate speech.” I wish that they had noticed that Geller’s concerns about radical Islam often morph into a vilification of all Muslims and the Islamic faith. Her language encourages denigration and dehumanization, rather than constructive discussion and cooperation.
What is even more distressing to me is the reaction that the cancellation has engendered. The commentary on the blogosphere, including a statement posted on Geller’s website, now denigrates the synagogue and its leaders. The vitriol and hatred in these postings are frightening. Both sides in this conflict feel that they are right, that they own the moral high ground, and that an evil is being perpetrated. But a quick survey of these postings will find that the supporters of Geller have totally lost the capacity for civil discourse.
I had planned to use two quotes from Elie Wiesel in my original post about the Geller invitation. His most famous one is: “Indifference to evil is evil.” And then, just days ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a young friend posted this, also from Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
I feel that these quotes give me added strength to do what I think is right. And then I read scores of quotes online from supporters of Geller,also using the example of the Holocaust as a reason that she should be permitted to speak. Most used the phrase, “Never again.” Who knew that even the Holocaust can be used to justify such disparate viewpoints?
In one of his final acts as a lawmaker, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) will reportedly file a proposed amendment to provide Federal Emergency Management Administration aid to houses of worship that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The American Jewish Committee, which has long opposed federal aid to religious institutions, consistent with the separation of church and state, supported the amendment in a written statement provided to the Forward.
The statement, signed by Richard T. Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the AJC Office of Government and International Affairs, and Marc Stern, AJC general counsel said that, “we believe that aid distributed under a neutral program of storm relief may constitutionally be made broadly available to a wide range of organizations where eligibility is determined on the basis of an objective and unusual factor — hurricane damage — and not under the standardless discretion of government officials, posing a risk of religious favoritism.”
Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel of Long Beach, which incurred an estimated $5 million worth of damages from the storm, said that if Lieberman proposes the amendment and it is approved, it would be “a wonderful thing.”
“That would allow not only my synagogue, but all faith institutions to get the help they need,” Bauman said. “They deserve it, they’re the backbone of this country.”
Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”
He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.
“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.
While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.