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Sebastian Kurz, Austrian chancellor who supported Israel and opposed antisemitism, resigns amid corruption probe

Sun, 2021-10-10 15:52

(JTA) – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has made support of Israel and the fight against antisemitism key policy issues, has stepped down amid a corruption probe.

Kurz’s resignation, which he announced Saturday, means that he shares yet another trait with Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister he admires: out of office, with a scandal hanging overhead.

Under Kurz’s leadership, Austria reversed its stance toward Israel, going from very critical to very supportive. This year, its parliament passed a resolution calling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel a form of antisemitism. Kurz has called Austria’s annexation into Nazi Germany in 1938 something that “guides my political work today.”

He has spoken of Netanyahu as an inspiration, citing Israel’s then-prime minister’s seemingly successful handling of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as a blueprint for his own.

A police investigation is underway connected to the alleged funneling of public funds between 2016 and 2018 toward publishing opinion polls favorable for Kurz’s center-right party. Kurz denies the allegations, the Heute daily reported.

But coalition partners of his People’s Party threatened to call a new election unless he stepped down. Chancellor since 2017, Kurz remains the leader of his political party and has suggested his foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, as a replacement.

“In these difficult times government should never be a question of personal interests or party tactics, because my country is more important to me than my person,” Kurz said in a speech.

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After years of debate, including over its handling of Jews, California’s ethnic studies requirement is signed into law

Sun, 2021-10-10 13:32

(JTA) — After months of controversy and tens of thousands of public comments, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed off on legislation that eventually will require students to pass at least one course in ethnic studies in order to graduate from California high schools.

Under the law, schools will have to offer at least one class in ethnic studies by 2025, and the graduation requirement will go into effect in 2029.

Newsom’s signature on Friday caps an extended debate over the legislation, which was accompanied by a recommended curriculum that faced criticism in its earlier drafts and which Newsom vetoed in an earlier form last year.

After the first draft of the curriculum, meant to teach students about the historic and current challenges faced by minority groups in the United States, was released in 2019, several Jewish groups suggested changes to the draft, as did representatives of other minority groups that believed they were unfairly excluded from the curriculum. The draft did not include a section dedicated to American Jews but did include material that some deemed antisemitic, particularly in the way it discussed Israel.

Citing the controversy surrounding the first draft, Newsom vetoed a bill in 2020 that was much like the one he signed into law Friday. Some 57,000 comments were submitted to the state’s department of education between the release of the first draft and the third draft, which was released last December.

By the time the third draft was published, including two lessons focused on American Jews and without the sections deemed antisemitic, several of the groups that had campaigned for changes to the first draft celebrated the curriculum. Several Jewish groups from the Bay Area issued a joint statement Friday praising the ethnic studies requirement.

“Today Governor Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 into law, which makes ethnic studies a graduation requirement in California, ensuring that historically marginalized communities will see their own stories reflected in California high school education. We thank Governor Newsom for caring about the Jewish community’s concerns,” the groups, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, said.

Others continued to oppose the law, arguing that the fight against the inclusion of antisemitic material in the ethnic studies classes would now move to the district level. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of AMCHA Initiative, a group focused on antisemitism on college campuses, claimed that most school districts would use the first draft, rather than the updated third draft, in their classes. “This bill could and should have been stopped at the legislative level and must not be forced on the Jewish community to fight in each of California’s 1300 school districts,” she said.

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Writing Hebrew letters creatively is a Jewish tradition. This rabbi sees sacredness in doodles, too.

Sun, 2021-10-10 13:00

(JTA) — When the pandemic kept Rabbi Emily Meyer stuck at home last year, she took up a hobby familiar to any elementary school student — doodling.

But Meyer, a Jewish educator in the Pittsburgh area, didn’t use the margins of a notebook as her canvas. Instead, she started drawing around Hebrew letters, using brightly colored markers to hug the contours of the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet, sometimes making detours to doodle images related to each letter. Then she started posting them on Facebook as Doodly Jew.

In the process, she realized that the doodling process could be a tool to teach Hebrew words, Jewish prayers and the names of the weekly Torah portion. 

“This is not art that you can hang up in a museum, right? These are really doodles,” Meyer said. But she stressed that art doesn’t have to be professionally produced to be worthwhile, saying, “There’s actually a cognitive benefit to drawing shapes and images to represent words.”

Over time, Meyer began collaborating with other Jewish educators to produce more involved videos, still based on her drawings. In addition, Jewish educators across the country have used Meyer’s videos to teach vocabulary — a boon at a time when many Hebrew schools have remained virtual and teachers are contending with challenges engaging students.

“That for me is definitely the most rewarding element of this, finding a way to reach into the screen of the students and help them engage,” Meyer said.

We spoke to Meyer about how she became Doodly Jew, the historical tradition that inspires her and how she hopes Hebrew education can evolve. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JTA: How did you come up with the idea of doodling as a way to teach Hebrew?

I’ve been a teacher for a long time and I am a rabbi. It’s hard to find ways to engage students. Teachers are always doing amazing work, and in the pandemic had to step up and figure out how to do their amazing work in a mostly digital realm. So I wanted to help create something to make it easier for teachers to engage students online. I thought about ways to simply, quickly, show something interesting about Hebrew. I know it’s really hard to teach a second language or a heritage language online.

But actually doodling around the letters of the aleph bet is age-old — it’s part of Jewish tradition to have illuminated manuscripts.

An illustration of the Hebrew alphabet. (Rabbi Emily Meyer)

Tell me more about how you see Doodly Jew as connected to historical examples of art related to the aleph bet.

Art has been a part of Judaism for as long as we understand, and creativity is really valuable in seeing shapes and letters in the aleph bet.

In the story of all the letters coming to God and asking which one can be used first for the creation of the world, they’re making their case to be used first in the creation of the world. It talks about how each letter has words that are connected to it, are integral to it, like the letter took on the personality of the words that they begin. And the shape of the letters is meaningful, what letters make up the shape of other letters, like the “heh” being made up of that hidden “yud” in there. And from those ideas we go to the illuminated manuscripts of the 1100s to 1200s and beyond.

Making Hebrew beautiful is a part of the evolving story of Jewish interpretation. Making Hebrew beautiful is valuable.

What do you want your audience, or students who are learning from your videos to get out of your doodles?

I want students to get a deeper appreciation for Hebrew, more familiarity with vocabulary and playfulness, love of learning. That’s part of what Judaism has as a core value. So I’m just hoping to enhance that love and that creativity and that excitement for engaging with Hebrew.

We know that children learn best when they’re doing something creative or doing something playful. I also talk about that when I work with teachers, showing them that being creative is part of this tradition and that we shouldn’t shy away from playing with the letters.

Do you have a favorite video that you’ve done so far?

My favorite work that I’ve been doing is my collaboration pieces, so I got to collaborate with some amazing artists like Chava Mirel and Eliana Light and Ben Pagliaro on songs and prayers, with the added visual benefit of doodling, and that’s been absolutely rewarding.

Hopefully that shows teachers and students that art can be a way to engage with the prayers of our tradition, not being afraid to give students colored pencils or markers to use during tefilah [prayer] time. I hear from a lot of teachers that they’re looking for ways to engage students during tefilah, and hopefully just getting to play with art, getting to play with prayer artistically, is good inspiration.

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Latvia grants Holocaust restitution — while insisting it’s not at fault

Sun, 2021-10-10 12:12

(JTA) — Latvia’s parliament voted to pay $46 million to the country’s Jewish community for property that was stolen from it during the Holocaust from individuals with no surviving legal heirs.

The Holocaust restitution law passed last week by the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament, in Riga states that the country is not to blame for the Holocaust or the theft, which the law states was conducted by the Nazis and later by the communists who replaced them as rulers of Latvia. Rather than reparations, the law refers to the payment as a form of “goodwill compensation,” according to the LETA news agency. The compensation voted on last week will be paid in annual increments of $4.6 million from the state budget to the Jewish community until 2032.

Jewish groups have been lobbying for the compensation of communal-owned assets in Latvia since 1992. Claims for restitution of private-owned property have been largely denied in Latvia, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an organization dedicated to the restitution of Jewish property in Europe.

Of the 70,000 Jews who were living inside modern-day Latvia when the Germans invaded in 1941, only 200 survived, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Locals, including Latvian police, played a key role in the genocide, according to the museum, forming armed groups to attack local Jews, whom they believed were collaborating with communists.

As in other Eastern European countries, Latvia’s government has protested claims that its predecessors and population were partially responsible for the Holocaust. Many Latvians view their country, despite strong support for the Nazis during the war years, as a victim of Adolf Hitler’s occupation.

Hundreds of Latvians served in special battalions of the Nazis’ SS elite military force. The veterans of that unit hold annual marches in Riga, which are the only SS veteran marches in the world.

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Argentine court: ex-president did not cover up Iranian responsibility for Jewish center bombing

Fri, 2021-10-08 21:47

(JTA) — An Argentine court dismissed allegations that former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sought to cover up Iran’s role in a deadly 1994 terrorist attack at a Jewish center.

The 1994 bombing of the AMIA building killed 85 people and injured hundreds. Iran has been accused of orchestrating the attack. Fernández de Kirchner, in turn, was indicted by a federal judge in 2018 for trying to obscure Iran’s culpability for the attack through a memorandum that set up a joint investigation of the bombing, headquartered in Tehran.

In 2007, Interpol issued arrest warrants for six Iranian officials in connection with the bombing, but none of them have been arrested.

On Thursday, the judges of Federal Oral Court 8 ruled that “the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, regardless of whether it is considered a political success or a failure, did not constitute a crime or an act of cover up”.

Speaking to the court earlier this year, on the 37th anniversary of the bombing, Fernández de Kirchner denied any wrongdoing.

DAIA, a Jewish umbrella organization, called the ruling unusual and announced that it would appeal.

The allegations stem from the 2015 murder of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who claimed in 2015 that Fernández de Kirchner had a secret backchannel with Iranian officials who were involved in the bombing and worked to keep them free of suspicion. He was later found dead in his apartment, hours before he was to present his findings in court. His death was eventually ruled a homicide, after being initially deemed a suicide.

Fernández de Kirchner still remains indicted in multiple other corruption scandals from her time as president.

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Noah’s ark is one weird bedtime story

Fri, 2021-10-08 21:08

(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — Our oldest son is named Noah, and as a result we collected a lot of children’s books based on the Bible story (which will be read in synagogues this Shabbat). On its face, the story of Noah and the flood, with its parade of animals, is just right for kids. In truth, it’s a weird and woolly story that gets weirder and woolier the more you think about it. If bedtime reading was supposed to be relaxing, we picked the wrong story.

Every kids’ version of a Bible story is a “midrash,” which is a Jewish method for explaining and expanding on the Hebrew canon. The closest English word is “homily,” but midrash is really literary analysis, except written in the form of parables, legal arguments and fan fiction. A midrash can fill in the gaps of the typically terse Torah. The famous bit about Abraham smashing his father’s idols? That’s a midrash, made up by the rabbis to explain how the future patriarch of the Jewish people came to reject his father’s bad example.

There is a formal literature of midrash, but the spirit of the enterprise lives on whenever people use the Bible as inspiration for novels, films, comic books – and children’s books.

Midrash is also what you leave out of a story. When its comes to Noah. there’s an awful lot an author or parent might prefer to leave out. First of all, it presupposes an exasperated God who, terrifyingly, decides to wipe out nearly all of humanity because of the sinful ways of the people He created. A kid just might ask exactly what all those sinners did to deserve annihilation.

And while Noah, his family and the animals survive their 40-day ordeal, and God makes a rainbow as a sign that he’ll never to do it again, you can’t help but think about the 41st day. In his new book, “The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary,” Rabbi Eli L. Garfinkel notes that when the Noah story is told to children, the tale is given “an age-appropriate cheery patina, depicting the ark and the animals with bright, primary colors. The actual biblical text, however, is anything but colorful and happy. It is a dark, dismal story, a tale of people who are left to mourn a lost and destroyed world.”

Sweet dreams, kids.

Kids’ books about Noah tend to glide past the sticky theology, but some deal with it. “Two by Two” by Barbara Reid, with amazing illustrations fashioned out of modeling clay, is a whimsical, pun-filled poem (“Space within was so restricted/Even the boas felt constricted”). But it opens by acknowledging that people “turned to evil ways” and with God declaring “Let them drown!”

Bright children might also wonder — just as the classic midrash does — why Noah doesn’t do more to save people outside of his immediate family. The rabbis solve this by suggesting that he took so long to build the ark – perhaps 52 or 70 years – because he wanted to give his fellow humans time to see what he was up to and repent. But there’s also Bart Simpson’s midrash, which comes to the opposite conclusion: Acting out the story, Bart has the people cry out, “Noah, Noah, save us!” To which Bart, as Noah, replies tersely, “No.”

The Little Golden Books “Noah’s Ark” deals at some length (for a kid’s book) with Noah’s unease and his neighbors’ contempt. After God tells Noah he is going to “Wash away the evil in the world,” Noah is next seen telling his wife and kids, “We must obey God!” You are left to imagine, as any good midrash writer would, the heated family discussion that came before this declaration. Any parent who tells his kid “We must obey God!” has probably lost the argument.

For those who don’t want story time to become a seminar on theodicy, there are books, like “On Noah’s Ark” by Jan Brett, that leave God out of the story entirely. Instead, Brett’s version begins with, “Grandpa Noah says that the rains are coming.” No God, no bad guys. Of course, this only ends up shifting the conversation from “Must we obey God?” to “Must we obey Grandpa?”

A lot of the children’s books instead treat Noah as an ecological cautionary tale. That’s a Jewish tradition too, based in part on the verses: “The earth became corrupt before God.” (Genesis 6:11) A literal reading suggests that humankind’s evil had infected the earth itself – a potent metaphor and prophecy for environmentalists. And Noah, as the savior of all life on earth, can be portrayed as the very first eco-warrior. In a science book for kids, “Planet Ark: Preserving Earth’s Biodiversity,” author Adrienne Mason takes the ark as a metaphor for the earth itself: “In many ways, our beautiful blue home – planet Earth – is like an ark sailing through the universe,” she writes. “Thankfully, there are many modern-day Noahs – groups and individuals – who are working hard to preserve Earth’s biodiversity.”

One of our favorite versions of the Noah story, “Aardvarks, Disembark!” by Ann Jonas, is essentially a roll call of the animal pairs as they leave the ark. The kids loved hearing us recite the odd names – aurochs, gerenuks, lechwes, peludos, urumutums – and we adults understood that a lot of these animals were extinct or endangered.

Parents know their kids best, and its up to them to decide what sort of lessons they’d like to impart and what books best help them do that. Is Noah about the wages of sin? The possibility for forgiveness and a fresh start? The need to protect a fragile planet? If your kid doesn’t ask you what they did with all the poop on the ark, you’re missing out an a peak parenting moment.

My Noah is all grown up, and the children’s books have been set aside in the hope that we’ll one day read them to grandkids. Given the headlines, I suspect that the Noah story and its themes — a reckless populace, a degraded environment, a retributive flood (or fire, or pandemic) — are only going to become more relevant. Bedtime with grandpa is going to be a bummer.

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OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, is selling artwork praising Hitler

Fri, 2021-10-08 20:21

(JTA) — OpenSea, the world’s largest marketplace for non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, has been allowing the sale and trade of antisemitic and Nazi-glorifying artwork.

The American start-up, which has a $1.5 billion valuation, is the biggest trader of NFTs, which are digital artworks that can be bought with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and, more commonly, ethereum. Some items have been sold for millions of US dollars. Purchased items are saved on the blockchain, a permanent digital ledger in which every transaction is logged and made public.

But among OpenSea’s offerings, according to the publication Vice, are a large number of Adolf Hitler-themed NFTs. Some artworks have disturbing titles, such as “Hitler did nothing wrong” or “Heil Hitler.” One viral tweet this week took note of a particular collection on OpenSea featuring Hitler drawn in various digital attires. Other listings depict swastikas.

OpenSea did not respond to a VICE request for comment. The site’s terms of service say it is “committed to providing a platform for the exchange of a wide range of content, including controversial content.” 

However, the terms of service also say offerings that incite “hate or violence against others” will be removed. The terms of service also say OpenSea “offers the widest selection of assets possible while promoting trust and respect, as well as adherence to the law.”

It’s not the first time digital shopping platforms have come under fire for hosting Nazi-themed items and memorabilia. In the past, e-commerce giants like Amazon and eBay have also dealt with their share of controversy for offering Nazi-related artifacts and products on their sites. 

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A Proud Boys-affiliated rabbi in Florida is offering to endorse COVID-19 vaccine exemption requests

Fri, 2021-10-08 19:35

(JTA) — Who are the rabbis writing religious exemption letters for Jews (and others) who oppose COVID-19 vaccine mandates?

One answer came this week when a New York City teacher said she’d gotten a letter from a rabbi who was penalized by Chabad for his anti-vaccination rhetoric.

Another answer came Thursday in a Miami New Times report about a local rabbi and YouTuber with a history of taking fringe positions. The rabbi, Asher Meza, says he signed 200 letters in the last week and a half giving people a religious excuse for sidestepping workplace vaccine mandates — even though the vast majority of Jewish clergy say there is no basis for such a exemption in Jewish tradition.

Contacted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Meza said he personally has been vaccinated against COVID-19, but he doesn’t believe others should be forced to. The letter, which four other rabbis from Florida and New York also signed, cites several Biblical passages to support the argument that vaccination “puts us in direct conflict with biblical mandates to preserve one’s own life.”

“[We’re] just allowing people to express themselves formally,” Meza said. “We’re just articulating what people already believe. We’re not putting words in their mouth. The form is pretty generic. We’re not anti-vaxxers.”

The letter puts Meza and his co-signers in conflict with the vast majority of rabbis, across denominations, who have urged their congregants and followers to get the vaccine. Public service announcements urging vaccination by more than 20 Orthodox rabbis in Baltimore and Long Island went viral in August.

Instead, it puts him in line with a small number of haredi Orthodox rabbis who have taken stands against vaccination. Those rabbis have fueled a view — held devotedly by a minority of Orthodox Jews, along with mostly right-wing vaccine critics from other backgrounds — that the vaccines are dangerous and that other treatments that have been discredited by the medical establishment are preferable.

Meza — who says he studied in Israel, did Jewish outreach work there, and got religious ordination from a rabbi who now lives in New York — has long defied religious norms, and also and allied himself with the American far-right.

Arguing that the conversion process offered by mainstream Orthodox bodies is more stringent than what foundational Jewish legal authorities describe, he offers a fast-track conversion course that includes listening to his podcast. He openly proselytizes and is planning trips to India and the Philippines to convert students there.

Meza has also gotten involved with the Proud Boys, the far-right organization with links to antisemitic groups at the center of several violent protests in recent years. He said he had worked on websites for the group and donated to it, and on Telegram, the secure messaging site popular with far-right activists, he goes by “Rabbi PB.”

That’s where the Miami New Times found Meza advertising his exemption letter, which he says he has signed for Jews and non-Jews alike under the auspices of his own organization, called Torah Judaism International. He also advertised the letter on Facebook and YouTube. He does not know whether the letters have been effective in sidestepping mandates.

A local Orthodox rabbi who said he is unvaccinated and also said he used to be friendly with Meza told the New Times that Meza was “a hack” who is “not recognized by any religious community that I know of.”

For his part, Meza told JTA that he is a Proud Boys supporter, but said he considers himself first a devoted Orthodox Jew.

“Ideologically, I guess there’s no difference between supporting the movement and being in the movement itself,” he said of the Proud Boys. “But I consider myself more a student of Torah and a family man, and I’m not out to hurt people.”

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80 years later, and after several failed projects, Ukraine inaugurates historic memorial to Babyn Yar victims

Fri, 2021-10-08 19:20

KYIV, Ukraine (JTA) — Ukraine’s government inaugurated a memorial complex to the victims of the Babyn Yar massacre this week, 80 years after the tragedy that has long been a flashpoint in the country’s collective Holocaust memory.

The memorial at the Babyn Yar site, where Nazis and local collaborators killed some 33,000 Jews in a ravine near Kiev in September 1941, is still under construction. But it currently features a quartz crystal-studded “Wall of Crying,” designed by the famed Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovi?, and a new wooden synagogue above the only portion of the ravine, into which victims were ordered to lie before they were shot, that remains visible. 

By 2026, its organizers say, the center will also house museum space and additional monuments. It costs around $100 million and is privately funded. A large portion of the funding has come from a group of billionaires, including Russian Mikhail Fridman and Ukraine-born Viktor Pinchuk, who are both Jewish.

Various initiatives to commemorate Babyn Yar victims had previously failed to materialize and, for decades, the only reminders of the tragedy were a couple of small and neglected monuments.

“The time for memory has come,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, at the inauguration ceremony.

“It’s hard to breathe at this place — thousands of children took their last breath here,” he added.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog spent three days in the country for the inauguration ceremony and other events, including a historic meeting of two Jewish presidents, when he met with Zelensky on Tuesday at Kyiv’s Mariinsky Palace. Herzog’s father Chaim Herzog established diplomatic relations with the newly independent Ukraine in 1991 when he served as Israel’s president.

“The Jewish people have a long and complicated history, interwoven with Ukraine,” Herzog said at the center’s inauguration. In Ukraine “there flourished one of the greatest and most important Jewish communities in the world,” including “leaders and statesmen, intellectuals, poets and great rabbis. They all lived, thought and wrote on the soil of Ukraine.

“A formative event and a chapter that must never be erased from the annals of the family of nations,” he added. “An eternal scar on the surface of our planet.” 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also attended and spoke at Wednesday’s event. American and other Western leaders had been invited but chose not to attend. Israeli parliament members Moshe Arbel, Michael Malkieli and Evgeny Sova joined Herzog’s delegation to the Ukrainian capital. 

Plans for the center came under scrutiny in recent years when it was revealed that controversial Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky presented a plan for a series of immersive visitor experiences, involving the recreation of Nazi torture and other disturbing images, at the site. The idea was described as a “Holocaust Disneyland” and derided by critics. Those plans were dropped and replaced by a series of monuments and other memorials.

Between 1941 and 1943, around 100,000 Jews were murdered at Babyn Yar in multiple killings. In another historic unveiling tied to the 80th anniversary of the initial massacre on Wednesday, the new center’s researchers published a list of names of some of the more than 150 Nazi perpetrators of the massacre.

Herzog praised the memorial center in a speech, which has been given strong support by the Ukrainian government, saying it “corrects the historic injustice of many years of denial and forgetting, and represents a lesson learned, and a study resource for future generations.” 

Zelensky, who does not speak Hebrew, greeted journalists Tuesday at the Mariinsky Palace with “boker tov,” or “good morning” in Hebrew. The former comedian and actor who was elected president in 2019 later opened a press conference following private meetings with Herzog with a “shalom.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, greets Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Oct. 5, 2021. (Israel GPO)

At their press conference, Herzog thanked Zelensky and the Ukrainian parliament for the recent passage of a bill outlawing anti-Semitism and invited the Ukrainian president to visit Israel. Zelensky said publicly that he expected that Israel’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty to be maintained, particularly at the United Nations, in its ongoing territorial disputes with Russia.

Sources say that Zelensky pressed Herzog further on that issue behind closed doors, asking for stronger public support for Ukraine’s efforts to secure the return of Russian-annexed Crimea and occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.

But Zelensky is also said to have recognized that Israel has an important bilateral relationship with Russia that it would not be expected to put at risk. 

Herzog told his Ukrainian counterpart that “concerning the conflict between you and Russia, Israel believed “a diplomatic solution to the conflict is the correct solution.”

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Jews, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: The Jewish stories behind a heavy metal cult classic film

Fri, 2021-10-08 16:27

SILVER SPRING, Maryland (JTA)  — The Star of David pendant comes exactly 15 minutes into the 16.5-minute documentary. 

It bounces against the chest of a guy with big hair who’s prancing in front of his girlfriend, who has equally big hair. He’s wearing suspenders over a bare torso, and he has something to say about this moment in 1986, in a suburban Maryland parking lot, where fans of the rock band Judas Priest are waiting to get “f**ked up,” as several documentary subjects and one of the filmmakers put it.

“Let’s rock, OK, all right!” says the big-haired guy, as the Jewish symbol bounces in and out of the frame.

Thirty-five years later, that man, who was once known as Robbie Ludwick, has a different take.

“When I listen to heavy metal, I don’t see the hand of God,” says Zev Zalman Ludwick, a member of the Breslov Hasidic sect who lives a quiet life in the Maryland suburbs. Instead of pregaming in parking lots, Ludwick now mends damaged violins and tends koi fish in his backyard about a 20-minute drive from the long-demolished Capital Centre, where he saw Judas Priest perform on Memorial Day weekend in 1986.

“Let’s rock!” cries out Robbie Ludwick in a screenshot from the 1986 documentary, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.”

“Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” a mini-documentary that accidentally achieved iconic status via underground word-of-mouth, turned 35 years old this year. It has received no shortage of accolades during that time: the sports website Deadspin once called it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ Of Wasted Teenage Metalness.” Professed fans include filmmakers Sofia Coppola and John Waters, and Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters frontman.  

Today it’s held up as a snapshot of a before-time: before the Internet erased physical presence as a predicate for human interaction — a time when, if you wanted to find people who thought like you, you had to get into a car and drive out to a parking lot in a godforsaken suburb and, well, find them.

That search continues today, in a different way. Many of the documentary’s subjects, men and women in their teens and twenties in 1986, now see the film refracted through not just nostalgia but the exigencies of aging and experience. And for at least three people involved — Ludwick and the film’s two directors, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik — some of the experiences that color their viewing of the film today are Jewish.

In 1986, Krulik, then 25, worked at a public access TV station in Prince George’s County, in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. Heyn, 28, had a job duplicating videotapes for internal company use. He heard Krulik wanted to make documentaries and had access to the necessary equipment, so he got in touch. They filmed a local group’s rock concert in-house in the studio.

They then cast around for a second idea. Heyn heard there was a Judas Priest concert at the Capital Centre in Landover, and the duo’s thoughts turned to the types of people who would be in attendance. 

“Heavy metal fans were a subculture that we didn’t really know firsthand, but we were curious about,” Krulik said. 

“We were more into punk and new wave,” Heyn said. Krulik and Heyn had become fast friends, with much in common: namely, a suburban Jewish Maryland upbringing. “A lot of it’s just kind of an unspoken bond,” said Krulik. “Being Jewish is one way we bonded.”

But the bonding came mostly through the making of a film that Krulik likened to anthropological research. “We had a hunch that it would be entertaining and lively,” he said.  “We just went into it like on some kind of an expedition.”

They loaded the car with the necessary equipment and rolled out on a bright May afternoon. The film starts with the two-man crew pulling into the parking lot. They pay the attendant, and then, to the soundtrack of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” they roll by tailgate parties. Inchoate cheers of “Prieeeeeest!” erupt from the clusters of women, dressed to the nines, and guys, in t-shirts or more often bare-chested.

The next 16 minutes are a mix of eccentric and troubling. A shirtless man posits that “they should make a joint so big it fits across America, and everybody would smoke it”; a guy in a zebra-print pantsuit damns Madonna to hell; a 20-year-old french kisses a 13-year-old. (That moment has sparked much online disgust, and the man and the girl have since said that it was a one-off for the camera.)

“People came to us,” Heyn recalled of the shoot. “It was like swimming in the ocean, all the beautiful fish that you would see in a coral reef. The gems were there for us to take. There’s just a whole level of innocence and happiness and joy about it, and [none of the] self-consciousness that I think is really prevalent today because cameras are so ubiquitous.”

It was infectious, although it took a while to infect: Screenings in the DC area were at first pretty much limited to record conventions. Heyn and Krulik graduated to more mundane jobs until 1992, when a VHS copy of the film landed on the Nirvana tour bus. From there, celebrities including Grohl, then Nirvana’s drummer, embraced it, and the rest is history. 

“This was their bread and butter,” Krulik said of the celebrities who embraced the film and who were fascinated by its close-ups of the fans they otherwise kept at a distance. “They didn’t go into the belly of the beast.  Now, it’s different. Now there’s much more contact. You can’t be successful unless you have contact with your fans.  Back then there was a real separation, a real line that was rarely or never crossed.”

Krulik worked for a period in the 1990s at the Discovery Channel and then branched out into short documentary films, at times reuniting with Heyn. The filmmaker continued his fascination with the fraught intersections between cultural phenomena and their consumers. 

A sampling: “Ernest Borgnine on the Bus” tracks the actor who played heavies in the 1950s and 1960s as he travels the country in his later years to meet fans; “Go-Go Girls Don’t Cry: The Art of Fred Folsom” is about a devout Christian artist whose muses were strippers at a club near his home; “Led Zeppelin Played Here,” with Heyn, is about a 1969 DC-area concert by the legendary band, which a lot of people remember taking place, but for which there is no evidence; and “Harry Potter Parking Lot”, centered on a J.K. Rowling book signing in Washington DC in 1999.

Krulik’s oeuvre also takes periodic detours into Jewish content: “Neil Diamond Parking Lot,” with Heyn, and with more women, more clothes and fewer hallucinogens than “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”; “Hitler’s Hat,” about Hitler’s top hat, kept for years by a Jewish GI; and “I Created Lancelot Link,” which reunites two Jewish TV comedy writers in 1999 who created a short-lived 1970s Saturday morning TV show about chimpanzee spies who spoke with Brooklyn accents.

Then there’s “Obsessed with Jews,” a 2000 film which is eight minutes of Neil Keller, a DC accountant, going through his apartment-filling collection of Jewish pop-culture memorabilia. “I collect Jews whether they’re good or bad,” Keller explains on-camera, setting his Jewish athlete collection aside to talk about the Jewish victim and lawyers in the O.J. Simpson case.

Krulik’s forays into Jewish content are “just kind of happenstance,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s not like I’m seeking out Jewish-themed projects — but you know, I’m happy to be pursuing them. Neil [Keller]’s kind of channeling things that I was curious about because I’m still plugged into my faith.”

Heyn, who is a documentary video producer at the National Archives, has not delved as deeply into Jewish content, although he has assisted his brother, a rabbi musician in San Francisco, in making music videos.

Like Krulik, Heyn is fascinated by fans, by the intersection between the producers of entertainment and its consumers. 

“Whether it’s sports or music… there’s almost a religious fervor about it,” Heyn said. “And that particular cultural or recreational event becomes almost like a religion to people. You’re part of the flock, you’re part of the tribe.”

Many of the fans featured in the film see things differently in the rearview mirror. For one, Ludwick is not proud of a rant he gave to the camera. It was profane and, he acknowledges, homophobic.

“Ian Hill, I’m a former bass player,” he says in the film, addressing the Judas Priest bassist. “You’re an inspiration of mine. Everybody else, you’re rocking. Robert Halford, I don’t know about you, but everybody else, you’re definitely dynamite.”

His reference to Halford, he says now, had to do with rumors that the lead singer was gay. (Indeed, Halford would come out a dozen or so years later.)

“As a 22-year-old, I was always, you know, macho, whatever you wanna call it, ‘rock and roll’, or not tolerant of other people’s lifestyles, you know?” Ludwick said.

That bouncy Magen David, though, has a story, and  that Ludiwick is proud of. 

His mother and her parents got out of Poland at the last minute, he said: They were the last to be selected to board a ship for the U.S.; the ship, returning to Poland to fetch more Jewish families, was sunk by the Nazis.

“Talk about a miracle story,” Ludwick said. “I knew this story when I was little. And so something about that story resonated with me — that, wow, I’m such a miracle being here. And I had a big Jewish identity even though I was completely secular.”

He noticed something about his fellow metalheads. “You know, you see all the rock and rollers wearing crosses. Black Sabbath, you know, other bands with a lot of musicians would wear these crosses, so I said, ‘Where’s my Jewish star?’” he said.  “So I asked my parents when they went to Israel to find me a gold star. And they did.”

Ludwick himself played bass for a metal band at the time. Why heavy metal? “Being a little guy, you have little man syndrome, you know, and, and something about that bass is just so …  you feel it in your chest, you know? You feel like you’re really the carrier of thunder.”

By that time, he was also deep into addictions. “By the time I was 12, I was already addicted to drugs and alcohol,” he said. Ludwick, the youngest of six children, described a “house of sorrow” haunted by the death of his oldest sibling, a girl, from lupus when she was 17. 

Then, when he was 31, Ludwick lost his best friend to a blood clot. The tragedy shocked him into seeing he needed to change. He lived for a while with a brother in Hawaii, where he developed an affinity for acoustic music. When he returned to Maryland a few months later, he bought a mandolin and got into bluegrass.

He became close to bluegrass giants like Ralph Stanley and Richard Underwood, and he also became more religious after dunking himself in a freezing cold mikvah in the mystical Israeli town of Safed on the eve of his nephew’s wedding. 

Back in Maryland, Ludwick got married. He and his wife gradually became Orthodox. After they had two daughters, his wife told him he needed to do something more remunerative than playing bluegrass and working part-time at a kosher pizza restaurant. He was good at woodworking and he loved mandolins, so he googled luthiers (craftspeople who work on stringed instruments) until one brought him on to learn the trade.

After a number of years (and a second marriage) Ludwick struck out on his own, contracting out as a stringed instrument repair person. More recently he has taken to building violins from scratch. His studio is in a small building he built in his backyard, and with the midday light streaming in, he attends to the array of wooden instruments on tables and slung from the walls in various stages of repair. “Ludwick’s House of Violin, where tradition never goes out of style,” his website says. Naturally, the logo is a fiddler on a roof.

Zev Zalman Ludwick feeds koi in a pond outside his luthier studio in Silver Spring, Maryland on May 23, 2021. (Ron Kampeas)

He gravitated toward Breslov because an older brother is a devotee, but also because worshipers at the synagogues he would attend told him he looked like a Breslov Hasid, who are known for their beards and joyful dancing. (He doesn’t know why. “I don’t have a long face and my beard was short.”) His brother, about a decade ago, invited him to travel to the grave of the movement’s founder, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, in Uman, Ukraine around Rosh Hashanah, and he decided to take on the uniform, accentuated by a large white knit kippah. 

He gave his Magen David, now a piece of rock-and-roll history, to one of his daughters. Breslov Hasids, he explained, eschew jewelry.

The post Jews, drugs and rock ’n’ roll: The Jewish stories behind a heavy metal cult classic film appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Gary Shteyngart’s botched circumcision • The Supreme Court’s new session • Reading ‘Noah’ to kids

Fri, 2021-10-08 12:49

Shabbat shalom, New York. Don’t forget we offer a printable digest of this week’s best stories to read offline. Download today’s edition here and sign up to get The Jewish Week/end in your inbox every week.

EVERYBODY’S TALKING: In a New Yorker essay, Jewish novelist Gary Shteyngart writes about the botched circumcision he suffered as a 7-year-old Russian immigrant at Coney Island Hospital and the lifelong complications.

  • The essay recounts his painful visits as an adult to Manhattan’s top urologists, whom he identifies as “Dr. Funnyman,” “Dr. Neuroma” and “Dr. Cortisone.”
  • Although he doesn’t come out against the rite, Shteyngart asks, “Is a practice born of ancient Egyptian feats of endurance indispensable enough for us to continue cutting one of the most sensitive parts of the male anatomy, where any miscalculation may lead to tragedy?”
  • Response: “[H]is experience should not be taken as evidence that neonatal circumcision is a dangerous procedure that regularly leads to lifelong complications,” writes an Israeli mohel.
  • Related: A new organization, founded by Jews, supports Jewish parents who decide not to circumcise their sons.

FIGHTING HATE: In a Zoom panel, experts discussed antisemitism in Westchester County and laid out a series of actions to combat hate crimes. (LOHUD)

ACTIVISM: Five voting rights activists, including Noelle Damico, social justice director of the New York-based Workers Circle, were arrested in front of the White House Tuesday in a demonstration calling on President Biden to take immediate action in support of voting rights. (lwv.org)

ALLYSHIP: In an essay on the 1965 Immigration Act, Jay Caspian Kang remembers the influence of Rep. Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn (1881-1981), the Jewish lawmaker who advanced the idea that “restrictions on Asian immigration were racist and immoral.” (New York Times)

SCHMEAR CAMPAIGN: The Forward attended last week’s BagelFest in Brooklyn, and its reviewer found it overdone and under-baked.



(ANNITHINK/Getty Images)

The story of Noah, read tomorrow in synagogues, has inspired a slew of children’s books. Andrew Silow-Carroll wonders if that’s a good idea, since it is a “weird and woolly” story that raises very adult questions about sin, divine retribution — and waste disposal.


The Torah depicts Noah as “righteous” and deeply flawed — an important reminder in an age when celebrities are put on pedestals and then quickly torn down, writes Dvir Cahana in this week’s column on the portion.


Welcome back, Kastin: The Brandeis School in Lawrence, New York welcomes Leah (Kastin) Einhorn as the early childhood director. Einhorn, a 1998 graduate of the school, graduated from Hunter College with a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and worked as a pre-K teacher at Temple Israel in Manhattan.

Talya Bock, senior vice president in private wealth management at Merrill Lynch in Washington, D.C., is the new president of Hadar’s board of directors. Bock, who holds an M.A. in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, served as gabbai at Kehilat Hadar, the independent minyan on the Upper West Side, from 2008 to 2010. She succeeds David Gilberg, president of Hadar’s board for the last five years.

Jeffrey Veidlinger is the new chair of the Academic Advisory Council at the Center for Jewish History. Veidlinger, the Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, succeeds Beth Wenger. The council provides guidance and insight for the center’s academic efforts and serves as its voice among the scholarly community.

Have an appointment to announce? Let us know at editor@jewishweek.org.


Singer, songwriter and cantor Shira Ginsburg’s “Bubby’s Kitchen” will be presented for one night only at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, NY). The one-woman show, depicting her ties to her family’s past, her financially unstable present and her aspirations for a musical future. Tickets are $56-$76 and are available here or by calling 631-288-1500. For more information visit BubbysKitchen.com. Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

Join Moving Traditions’ conversation with Anita Diamant, best-selling author of “Period. End of Sentence,” featuring two Kol Koleinu teen feminist fellows advocating for menstrual justice: the struggle to end taboos surrounding menstruation and make menstrual products accessible to anyone who needs them. Register here. Sunday, 7:00 p.m.

Photo, top: The Workers Circle Social Justice Director Noelle Damico (second from left) participates in an act of civil disobedience at the White House, urging President Biden to support voting rights legislation, Oct. 5, 2021. She was subsequently arrested. (Sammie Moshenberg)

The post Gary Shteyngart’s botched circumcision • The Supreme Court’s new session • Reading ‘Noah’ to kids appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In ‘Golden Voices,’ Russian movie dubbers reinvent themselves in Israel, to hilarious effect

Fri, 2021-10-08 12:14

(JTA) — The familiar Jewish narrative of outsiders struggling to assimilate to their new homeland gets turned on its head in the charming Israeli comedy “Golden Voices.” Here, the strange, unwelcoming new land the Jews face is Israel itself.

The year is 1990, and married middle-aged couple Raya and Victor are new immigrants from the Soviet Union, which has just collapsed. With Israel suddenly playing host to an influx of new Russian-speaking migrants, Raya and Victor are our eyes and ears to this culture clash — and in a literal sense, our voices, too. 

In the Soviet Union, the couple used their voices to make their living, dubbing classic movies into Russian to bring world cinema to their comrades. (“You turned Kirk Douglas into a great actor!” one of their fans gushes about their dubbing of “Spartacus.”) But in Israel, deprived of a use for their skills and forced to learn a new language, their finely cultivated chops are suddenly proven useless and the two become economically stranded, just like every other Russian migrant around them.

What do you do when your voice once brought pleasure to an entire nation, but now you can only speak to a small, marginalized sliver of your neighbors? Each protagonist finds a different approach to the question. Raya (Maria Belkin) finds work as a phone-sex operator catering to all of these new lonely Russian men; the scenes of her in the call center, using her theatrical background to assume the personas of whatever her clients desire, are a naughty delight. 

Meanwhile, Victor (Vladimir Friedman) has a harder time letting go of his past — particularly once he stumbles upon a VHS rental store for Russian migrants that deals in pirated, crudely dubbed copies of the latest releases. Is he doomed to live in a celluloid past, like a Norma Desmond of the Negev?

“Golden Voices,” which is seeing a U.S. release two years after an award-winning Israeli run, is a unique immigrant story that taps into a rich vein of dramatic potential. Its director and co-writer, Evgeny Ruman, was himself born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1990; Ruman dedicates the film to his parents, clear inspirations for Raya and Victor. Both Belkin and Friedman are post-Soviet emigres in real life. 

Both actors turn in performances that offer fully lived-in encapsulations of the late-in-life immigrant experience — which is good, because a film about actors lives and dies on the strengths of the actual actors playing them. Belkin’s gradual euphoria upon finding she enjoys her new erotic ventures is as touching as it is hilarious, particularly when Raya begins to develop feelings for one frequent customer. Most of her scenes are effectively solo performances, where she plays both the character her clients are calling for, as well as Raya herself, brimming with confusion and elation at her ability to conjure a sexy new life for herself through sheer pretense. (The actress won an Ophir Award, an Israeli Oscar, for her work.) 

Friedman, meanwhile, captures not only the pain of Victor’s inability to blend into this new society, but also his gradual unease over his loss of identity as an actor. In one of the film’s many highlights, he tries to audition for a play with Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” monologue from “On The Waterfront.” He contorts his body and distorts his voice to deliver an uncanny Brando — if Brando were a burly, 60-year-old Russian — only to look flabbergasted when the director suggests, instead, that he play it as himself.

Evident throughout is Ruman’s careful plotting, love for his characters and wry, observational humor (Ziv Berkovich is his co-writer and cinematographer). Small, intimate moments with the couple create breathing room for big thoughts about the inequities of Israeli life; the hollow economic prospects of middle-aged workers and immigrants; the utter strangeness of leaving a lifetime spent under Communism; the never-ending scope of the Jewish diaspora; and the movies (and art in general) as both an object of utter rapture and a prison. 

Nowhere do all of these moments collide better than when a beaming Victor, in the video store, shows off a photo of him and Raya with legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, proud of the role the two of them played in getting his “8 ½” past the Soviet censors. Because of them, Victor says, millions of people got to experience a masterpiece. His coworkers, themselves down-on-their-luck Jews trying to make their living in an unfamiliar land, only ask, “Who’s that?”

“Golden Voices” opens Oct. 8 in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

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Neal Sher, Nazi hunter and former AIPAC director, dies at 74

Thu, 2021-10-07 20:50

(JTA) — Neal Sher, who as the U.S.’s chief Nazi hunter established the formula that led to the deportation of dozens of Nazis, has died at 74.

Sher, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations for 11 years and was for a period the director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, died Sunday in Manhattan, his widow, Bonnie Kagan, said in an email to friends.

Darkly handsome, dapper and intense, Sher cut a dashing figure throughout the 1980s. At press conferences he would unveil the discovery of monsters disguised as working men living contented lives in American suburbia.

But behind the drama, there was hard work, in a formula crafted by Sher during his years at the OSI, first as a litigator when he joined in 1979, the year it was established, and then as its director from 1983-1994.

He transformed the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting system from one that had relied on tips, which were not always reliable, to one which systematically checked Nazi-era German records against U.S. immigration records. Under his system, the office has, since 1979, removed 69 former Nazis, in most cases revoking their citizenship for lying about their Nazi past when immigrating to the United States. A number of them killed themselves as the feds were closing in, some spectacularly.

In one explosive episode, Sher, citing evidence that former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had not disclosed his past as a Nazi officer, got the U.S. government to ban his entry to the United States.

Sher’s doggedness led to the discovery not just of Nazi cogs, but of major figures, among them Archbishop Valerian Trifa, who had instigated a pogrom against Bucharest’s Jews, and Arthur Rudolph, the NASA scientist deported to Germany after Sher showed that he had directed a German wartime factory where he worked Jews to death.

“For these people to live freely in the United States is contrary to everything this country stands for,” he told “60 Minutes” in 1983.

There were occasional flubs: The OSI’s efforts led to the extradition in 1986 of Nazi camp guard John Demjanjuk to Israel; the OSI identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, the mass murderer at Sobibor, and it was for those crimes Demjanjuk was sentenced to death in an Israeli court. An Israeli appeals court in 1993 established that Demjanjuk was not Ivan, and returned him to the United States, where a U.S. court chastised the OSI for withholding exculpatory information.

The OSI continued to pursue the case, noting the overwhelming evidence that Demjanjuk was a lower level camp guard implicated in the murder of thousands, and he was deported to Germany in 2009, where he was tried and convicted, and where he died in 2012.

Sher’s relentlessness infuriated the leaders of Ukrainian, Polish and Romanian communities in the United States who said that the old men should be left alone decades after the crime, sometimes claiming that some of the evidence against the former Nazis was tainted because it was gathered in the former Soviet Union. Sher rejected those objections.

“There’s no statute of limitations for mass murder,” Sher said on “60 Minutes.”

Sher became AIPAC’s executive director in 1994 but lasted in the job for only two years. Both sides said it was not a good fit; an AIPAC insider at the time told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Sher was not able to bring the passion he showed for hunting down Nazis to defending Israel.

Sher was silent at the time, but in a 2007 op-ed for JTA, he described underlings as maneuvering around him to position AIPAC as confrontational with the Clinton administration, pushing though a Jerusalem-related bill that both the U.S. and Israeli governments opposed.

“We mourn the passing of Neal Sher, who led a life dedicated to the pursuit of justice and the defense of the Jewish people,” AIPAC said Thursday in a statement.

In 1998, Sher became the first chief of staff for the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, the body established to extract claims that insurance companies had resisted disbursing to the survivors of clients murdered in the Holocaust. He was forced to resign in 2002 after the Baltimore Sun exposed him for filing more than $100,000 in false expenses. He repaid the fees, was disbarred in Washington D.C. and was suspended by the New York Bar.

He had at least one more win up his sleeve: His New York Bar status restored, he went to bat as legal representation for the families of victims of a 2009 terrorist shooting at Forth Hood in Texas. The army characterized the killings, carried out by a psychiatrist who became an Islamist, as “workplace killings.” Sher’s relentless advocacy led Congress to pass legislation in 2015 that allowed the Purple Heart to be awarded to the 13 people killed and the more than 30 wounded in the attack.

The post Neal Sher, Nazi hunter and former AIPAC director, dies at 74 appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The 2021 Supreme Court’s Jewish issues: Abortion, church-state separation, a painting stolen by Nazis — and the court itself

Thu, 2021-10-07 20:10

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Supreme Court opened a new session of cases this week, and an array of them affect Jewish life in the United States.

But there is one issue that a range of Jewish groups are keenly interested in that is not on the docket: the Court’s credibility.

A series of bruising confirmation battles in recent years and a pair of recent decisions — on Texas’ controversial abortion law and on President Biden’s proposed moratoriums on evictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — have polarized public opinion about the Court. In the wake of last year’s rush by Republicans to get Amy Coney Barrett confirmed as the Court’s sixth conservative justice, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there have been calls from left-leaning groups to reconstitute the Court by adding more justices. 

Sensing the growing criticism, several justices — liberal and conservative — have spoken out in recent weeks. Barrett emphasized that justices should not let personal biases influence their decisions. Samuel Alito dismissed claims that the Court’s conservatives have formed a “shadow docket” to push decisions through without traditional debate sessions.

That has not appeased many Jewish organizations, who worry about how erosion of the Court’s reputation could eventually harm Jews.

“There will be a time when the court’s prestige is necessary to protect individual or group rights or the institutional interests of the country, and the prestige shouldn’t be squandered,” said Marc Stern, general counsel for the centrist American Jewish Committee.

He cited as an example Cooper v. Aaron in 1958, when the school board in Little Rock, Arkansas, fearing anti-Black riots, sought to delay the desegregation ordered by the court several years earlier. The court unanimously rejected the school board’s bid. 

Stern noted that at the time, desegregation was unpopular in the south, and President Dwight Eisenhower equivocated about federal intervention. 

“What carried the decision was the prestige of the court,” he said.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s more progressive Religious Action Center, said recent court decisions have set it on a path toward radical changes, among them severely curtailing the right to an abortion.

“We are worried about the hyper-polarization of the Court and the potential that it is being delegitimized when it is so out of sync with thoughtful consensus issues, like access to abortion,” Pesner said.

Under that cloud, the Court’s justices will hear a range of impactful cases this fall. Here are the ones that Jews should know about.

The threat to Roe v. Wade

The Court has agreed to hear Dodds v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, pitting the state of Mississippi, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks, against an abortion clinic. 

Lower courts — including those known to lean conservative — have upheld the abortion clinic’s claim that the law violates the seminal 1973 decision that upheld a woman’s right to an abortion, Roe. v. Wade, which held that abortions are legal until the fetus is viable, at between 22-24 weeks of pregnancy.

The National Council of Jewish Women is leading a friend of the court brief on behalf of the clinic, with some 50 organizations signed on, and the Religious Action Center and Anti-Defamation League have signed onto separate amicus briefs. 

NCJW has launched an initiative, 73Forward (referring to the decision’s year), that will educate women about abortion and help facilitate access to abortions. It includes a component called Rabbis for Repro, now numbering some 1,500 rabbis, to underscore that for many Jews, access to abortion is a religious imperative.

“We are deeply concerned about laws that would severely limit access to abortion,” Pesner said. He said the laws particularly afflict segments of the population that do not have access to private care or the means to travel to states with more liberal laws. 

Jody Rabhan, NCJW’s chief policy officer, said that by taking up the case the Court is signaling it wants to revisit Roe v. Wade — even though the Supreme Court does not usually take up cases that are not in dispute in the lower courts.

“It’s been in front of the Court for some time, but only after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed did the Supreme Court decide to take up this case,” she said. “There was no reason to take up this case; there was no discrepancy in the lower courts.”

Another ominous sign for abortion rights advocates is that the Court recently let stand without hearing a Texas law that allows civilians to sue anyone who facilitates an abortion, although multiple experts said the Texas law was unconstitutional. (A federal judge temporarily blocked Texas’ enforcement of the law on Wednesday, siding with Biden’s Justice Department, which had filed an emergency request.)

The Roberts Supreme Court in 2021. (The Supreme Court)

A Pissarro painting’s rightful place

In Cassirer v. Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, the descendants of a Jewish woman forced to give up a Camille Pissarro painting to Nazis for her freedom are seeking its restitution from its current owner, a state-owned museum in Madrid. 

The case hinges on whether California or Spanish law applies here.

Spanish law allows an owner to retain stolen property if there was no reason at the time of purchase to believe it was stolen, and if no one comes forward to claim it within a given period of time. In the U.S., by contrast, there is no time limit for the original owner to reclaim stolen property. 

Stern said the AJC is considering an amicus brief, in part because he would like the Court to consider an issue narrower than the thorny one of whether Spanish law supersedes U.S. law: if the museum is lying. 

Stern does not believe the museum carried out due diligence when it acquired the painting in 1999, and may not be entitled to the painting even under Spanish law.

“You could write a brief like ‘no literate person could believe that this was not stolen,’” he said.

Paying for religious schools

Accepting a case involving the separation of church and state is the one sure way to get dueling Jewish amicus briefs before the Supreme Court. Carson v. Makin fits the bill. 

In Maine, some parents want to use state funds to send their children to religious schools. Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow parents of children in rural districts without a high school to opt out of sending their kids to a neighboring district’s public school. Instead, they can use state funds to send them to an in-district private school — unless that private school is religious.

The parents in Carson v. Makin say that this ban is unconstitutional.

The Orthodox Union has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the complainant parents, and the Anti-Defamation League is set to file an amicus brief on behalf of the state of Maine. 

Steve Freeman, the ADL’s vice president of civil rights and director of legal affairs, said that court precedent allows public money to be spent on religious schools as long as it did not involve religious instruction — for instance, in the use of funds for a playground. He said the ADL, in its amicus brief, will join arguments that public money should not fund indoctrination in a faith.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington director, said that the distinction that the ADL is hoping the Court will uphold may be impossible to make: There is little that a religious institution instructs that is not founded in religious belief, even if the topic is ostensibly secular, he said. 

Additionally, he said, it’s too late to stop public funding for religious institutions, noting as an example the decision last year to lend pandemic aid to religious institutions, which had bipartisan support.

The American Jewish Committee, once a reliable partner to the ADL and other Jewish civil rights groups in defending the separation of church and state, will not be weighing in, Stern said. 

“There’s been a disposition within the agency to reexamine our position on aid to parochial schools,” he said.

The case of the Christian flag

The ADL and the AJC are both considering whether to weigh in on Boston’s rejection of a Christian group’s request to fly a Christian flag outside city hall, a case known as Shurtleff v. Boston.

The Christian group sued on free speech grounds because the city makes the flagpole available to local groups for a limited period of time. Excluding a religious group is discriminatory, the group argues.

The ADL’s Freeman said the case is “a slam dunk kind of question that flying a religious flag in front of City Hall is not consistent with what the framers had in mind when they adopted the First Amendment.”

The AJC’s Stern said a case could be made that flying a religious flag on public grounds amounts to an endorsement of faith, but he was also concerned that precedent might not be on the side of church-state separationists: Courts have for decades upheld the rights of Jewish groups (most frequently, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement) to position menorahs on public property during Hanukkah.

Heeding the kids from Parkland

In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a gun group is joining two individuals challenging a New York state law that only grants permits to carry concealed handguns outside the home if someone can show “proper cause” for a need for self-defense.

The Reform movement’s Pesner said his group has joined an amicus brief, in part because younger Reform Jews have made gun control a focus since the deadly 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. There were a number of Jewish victims killed in the attack, and local Jews in response took up gun reform advocacy through Reform-affiliated groups.

That advocacy was in part also motivated by racial equity, said Pesner. “Our young people in Parkland say they witnessed a horrific tragedy, but that event takes place every day in cities like Washington DC and Chicago and does not get the same attention.”

The case of the community college crank

In Houston Community College System v. Wilson, a former member of a community college’s board of trustees sued the board for passing a resolution censuring him for his relentless opposition to the board’s agenda. He allegedly leaked confidential information, filed lawsuits against the system and trolled the other members’ constituents with robocalls. 

Wilson said the censure violated his right to free speech. A lower court said that the censure amounted to little more than a statement and threw out the case. Then an appeals court reinstated it.

So why is this the single case, so far, that the AJC is addressing in an amicus brief? 

Stern said a ruling upholding Wilson’s claim — that the community college board limited his free speech — could have dire consequences for Jewish groups that call out instances of antisemitism. Government officials should have the freedom to call people out for bad behavior without being sued, he argued, and also linked it to the AJC’s efforts to get governments to embrace the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

“If every time a government official called out antisemitism, he’s guilty of infringing free speech, that would be a severe setback,” Stern said.

Upholding the right of the undocumented to a hearing

The Court is hearing two cases, Garland v. Gonzalez and Jonson v. Arteaga-Martinez, in which undocumented migrants in detention who face dangers if they are deported to their homeland argue that they are entitled to a hearing after six months to determine whether they are eligible to be released on bond.

HIAS, the lead Jewish immigration advocacy group, is tracking the cases closely, in part because the Supreme Court has leaned in favor of continued detention in recent cases, said Andrew Geibel, the group’s policy counsel.

Geibel said the detainees are susceptible to COVID infection, are suffering mental health privations and are unable to adequately prepare for their defense while in detention. 

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These Jews want to normalize not circumcising — and they want synagogues to help

Thu, 2021-10-07 18:01

(JTA) — When Elana Johnson was shopping for a synagogue three years ago, the mother of four approached a Conservative congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, to ask about joining.

For most synagogues, such an inquiry would have been a no-brainer. But Johnson had elected not to circumcise three sons, departing from one of Judaism’s most widely practiced traditions, and she was concerned about whether that would be a problem.

Johnson says the synagogue told her she was welcome to enroll her sons, but that without circumcision they would not be allowed to celebrate their bar mitzvah. That decision was in line with a position adopted by the Conservative movement’s Jewish law authorities in 1981 that recommended including non-circumcising families in synagogue life but denying uncircumcised boys a bar mitzvah.

Johnson didn’t feel included: Her family joined a nearby Reform synagogue instead.

“I want to be more observant and in a more observant community,” she said. “But I also just want my kids to be happy and welcome and feel as little judgment as possible no matter where we go.”

A new organization launching this week aims to make that more likely. The group, called Bruchim (Hebrew for “welcome”), is seeking to normalize the decision not to circumcise Jewish boys, a venerable religious rite that goes back to the Bible and which is widely practiced across the spectrum of Jewish observance, even by otherwise non-observant Jewish families.

“Families who are making this decision shouldn’t feel marginalized and they shouldn’t feel like they have to be secret about it,” said Lisa Braver Moss, Bruchim’s co-founder and president.

Bruchim’s website includes ways for Jews who object to circumcision to connect with each other and congregations. (Screenshot)

The group is an outgrowth of advocacy that Moss and Bruchim co-founder and executive director, Rebecca Wald, have been doing for decades. Moss first argued against Jewish circumcision in a 1990 essay, and together they outlined an alternative ceremony, brit shalom (literally “covenant of peace”) in a 2015 book and distributed flyers at that year’s Reform movement convention outlining ways for synagogues to be more welcoming for families that had opted out of circumcision.

Now, in Bruchim, they have a volunteer staff, including Johnson as social media strategist, as well as a four-member rabbinical advisory board. The team includes people with professional backgrounds in all of Judaism’s non-Orthodox movements, as well as several people who grew up Orthodox.

Among its objectives, Bruchim wants to see synagogues make proactive statements of welcome for non-circumcising families similar to those that have become common toward Jews of color and LGBT+ Jews. They also hope rabbis will offer one of several alternative welcome ceremonies for newborns in place of the traditional bris.

??“I see circumcision — it’s described as an oath and a sign, it’s a sign of the covenant — and there are many options for signs,”  said Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and a member of Bruchim’s rabbinic advisory board. “I actually don’t think that it is an option [not] to bring your child into the covenant. I think you must bring your child into the covenant, or you should bring your child into the covenant. I want to push that as an expectation. How it’s done — there are many equally valid options.”

Whether Bruchim’s requests will find a ready reception within American Jewish communities is uncertain.

The Reform movement does not have a policy about how to handle families who are considering or have decided not to circumcise. But the movement’s leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said in a statement that ritual circumcision remains something his movement “will always advocate” for — even as other choices are accepted.

“As one of the oldest rituals in the Jewish faith, we will always advocate and educate our community about the beauty and meaning of brit milah,” Jacobs said. But he added, “Connecting oneself to the Jewish community may take many forms, and we understand that some families and individuals are making the choice to not circumcise as part of the brit ceremony. There will always be a place for everyone in the Reform community, regardless of how they or their family choose to express their faith.”

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the leading bioethicist in the Conservative movement and the chair of its top Jewish law authority, said there is no basis in Jewish law for denying an uncircumcised man access to religious life, including bar-mitzvah. But his movement has not made any formal statements since the 1981 opinion taking bar mitzvah off the table for uncircumcised children.

And Dorff said that advertising openness to non-circumcising families, one of Bruchim’s main asks, is not something that he would endorse.

“Do I want to say publicly, even though it’s certainly true, that people who violate Shabbat publicly are welcome in our community?” Dorff said. “Of course they’re welcome in our community. But I don’t want to say publicly that it’s wonderful that you violate Shabbat.”

Jerusalem resident Alexandra Benjamin and her son at his bris, or circumcision, in 2016. (Yitz Woolf)

One Bay Area Conservative rabbi who asked not to be named out of fear he would become the target of hate mail, said he has turned away about a half-dozen non-circumcising families in 20 years leading his synagogue.

“It’s a covenantal mitzvah,” the rabbi said, referring to circumcision. “It’s the sign of the covenant, which is about as basic to Judaism as you can get. By not circumcising, you’re saying that you’re outside the covenant of Judaism. And bar-mitzvah is saying you’re part of the mitzvah-observing community. You’re starting with the basic idea that you’re not going to observe one of the most fundamental mitzvot of Judaism.”

No reliable statistics exist on the percentage of American Jewish men who are circumcised, though the vast majority are believed to be. In part, that’s because circumcision is performed on the vast majority of American boys — some 90% of non-Hispanic whites, according to a 2014 study, making the U.S. a global outlier on this issue. But that figure appears to be dropping.

Critics of circumcision object to the practice on a number of grounds, including the physical and emotional trauma inflicted on children, a conviction they lack the right to modify someone’s body without permission and a belief that there is no medical benefit for the child. The position of the American medical establishment is that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks.

The broad societal trend, coupled with the fact that 72% of American Jews who married between 2010 and 2020 chose a non-Jewish spouse, according to the 2020 Pew study, means that while the numbers of Jewish parents who choose to leave their children “intact” is almost certainly a tiny minority, their numbers are likely to be growing.

“I looked into the medical reasoning. I thought a lot about the ethics of it all. And my conclusion … was, I don’t think I feel so good about this,” said one Jewish mother who sits on Bruchim’s board but asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject. “Am I the only Jew that doesn’t feel so good about this? And I started to realize that I wasn’t, but everyone felt the need to be very quiet about it.”

Some efforts to bar circumcision — in San Francisco, where Moss lives, and elsewhere — have been criticized as antisemitic. Bruchim is limiting involvement to Jews, advertising that anyone who is Jewish may donate and come to meetings, in an effort to make parents like the board member feel comfortable discussing their wrestling with tradition.

“We need almost a safe space to have these conversations without that sort of outside interference, where people can be really negative, even hateful, or just simply not get it even with the best intentions,” said Johnson. “It’s a conversation that Jewish people should only really be having with other Jewish people. And having Bruchim means that we’re able to offer that support and community in a way that has not really existed until this time.”

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Gavin Newsom launches council to boost California Holocaust education

Thu, 2021-10-07 16:25

(JTA) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the formation of a council on Holocaust and genocide education Wednesday at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

The council will provide educational resources regarding the Holocaust and other instances of genocide to students at California schools and “provide young people with the tools necessary to recognize and respond to on-campus instances of anti-Semitism and bigotry,” according to the governor’s office.

“We find ourselves in a moment of history where hate pervades the public discourse,” Newsom said. “National surveys have indicated a shocking decline in awareness among young people about the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.”

In the 2021 state budget, California allocated $10 million to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles as well as $2.5 million for an expansion of the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. It also allocated $1 million for the renovation of the Tauber Holocaust Library and Archives at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center in San Francisco.

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A story about Palestinians won Israel’s highest film honor. Its stars skipped the award show in protest.

Thu, 2021-10-07 13:06

(JTA) — The award for best feature film at Israel’s Ophir Awards, the country’s top film honor and its automatic nominee for the foreign film category at the Oscars, went to “Let It Be Morning,” a film about an Arab-Israeli man forced to grapple with his identity as both Palestinian and Israeli.

But most of the Palestinian stars of the film skipped the award ceremony Tuesday night, calling out what they described as appropriation of a Palestinian story.

“In a normal situation, I would feel happiness and recognition for the prize, but to my dismay that’s not possible when there are efforts being made to wipe out the Palestinian identity and the collective pain that I carry with me is found in every role I play,” Juna Suleiman, one of the film’s stars, wrote in a statement that was read for her at the ceremony, according to the Times of Israel.

Most of the cast also skipped the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July due to the movie’s categorization as an Israeli film rather than a Palestinian one.

The story, based on a book by Sayed Kashua, one of Israel’s most prominent Israeli-Arab writers, follows a Palestinian citizen of Israel as he tries to return home to Jerusalem after visiting the village where he grew up to attend a wedding. When the Israeli army blocks the road back to Jerusalem, the man is forced to remain in the village and grapple with his identity as a Palestinian and citizen of Israel.

Directed by Eran Kolirin, the Jewish Israeli filmmaker who also made “The Band’s Visit,” the film won seven Ophir awards in total, including in the categories of best director, best actor and best actress. Ehab Elias Salami, who won the award for best supporting actor, attended the award ceremony and used his acceptance speech to speak about peace.

“I have a dream, and that dream does not harm humanity, and doesn’t damage health. It’s in two acts — first, a just peace for the Palestinian people; the second act is a calm life, a peaceful life, a creative life for the citizens of the [Israeli] state,” Salami said to applause from the audience.

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Gov. Hochul announces $25m in security grants • WhatsApp outage hits hard among Orthodox Jews • Nazi hunter Neal Sher dies

Thu, 2021-10-07 12:11

Good morning, New York! Today we’re thrilled to welcome Julia Gergely as the latest member of our team. Julia will be covering Jewish life and institutions throughout the city, as she explains:

  • “My name is Julia Gergely and I am the newest reporter for the New York Jewish Week and JTA. A recent graduate of Dartmouth College, I am joining the team after internships at The Forward and Betches Media. I’m excited to work at this historic publication and tell the important stories of the New York Jewish community, from its food and art to its history and politics. You can send tips, comments or story ideas to  or find me in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

‘I WILL PROTECT YOU’: In a presser at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $25 million in grants to boost security at nonprofits and a new system for tracking hate crimes. (JTA)

CUT OFF: Monday’s social media outage brought into sharp focus the degree to which many Orthodox Jews depend on WhatsApp for business and everyday communication.

  • The Jewish Week and JTA spoke to Jews in New York and beyond after Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp siblings went dark for about seven hours.
  • Why it matters: Many haredi Orthodox have filters on their phones to prevent them from accessing external websites and social media platforms, so they receive all their information — and sometimes misinformation — through WhatsApp, says a community leader in Brooklyn.

INTO AFRICA: New Yorkers Mark Gerson and Rabbi Erica Gerson have become possibly the largest private funders of Christian-provided medical care in Africa. (JTA)

  • The Gersons talk to Asaf Shalev about the impact of their giving to the African Mission Healthcare Foundation, their decision as Jews to fund missionary medical work, their love of evangelical Christians and how the couple responds to those who suppose they are Messianic Jews.


The cover of Curt Leviant’s translation of “Moshkeleh the Thief.” (The Jewish Publication Society)

New Yorker Curt Leviant‘s new book is the first-ever English translation of a forgotten Sholom Aleichem novel about a misunderstood horse thief. (JTA)

  • It’s like “Fiddler on the Roof” meets “The Sopranos,” Penny Schwartz explains.
  • Leviant talks about the book at a virtual YIVO event, today at 1:00 pm ET.

Ron Kampeas remembers Alan Kalter, the mild-mannered synagogue president from Westchester who often played an enraged, foul-mouthed sidekick on David Letterman’s late-night talk show. (JTA)

A 4K restoration “Hester Street” — the 1975 Jewish love story infused with the flavor of the Lower East Side — is now playing in select theaters, after a recent screening at the New York Film Festival. (Alma)

Brooklyn-born actor and comedian Adam Sandler, at 55, is the most popular celebrity among teenagers, according to a new survey. (JTA)



Neal Sher, an attorney who hunted Nazis as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s and ’90s, died Sunday. The New Yorker was 74. As the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1994 to 1996, he corralled support for the Oslo Accords. More recently he asked the Internal Revenue Service to strip the Whitney Museum of American Art of its tax-exempt status, after the museum appeared to bow to pressure from anti-Israel protesters.


The Orthodox Union won’t certify Impossible Pork as kosher, and that’s a good thing, writes David Zvi Kalman, a scholar at New York’s Shalom Hartman Institute: “[W]hen a new technology threatens to undermine Jewish tradition, the rabbis have tended to respond appropriately.”


Show your appreciation to frontline and essential workers at a virtual benefit for The Workers Circle. The evening will include performances from Daniel Kahn, The Peace Poets and Alfre Woodard, along with greetings from other celebrities and more. Register here. Tonight, 8:00 p.m.


Learn about the national identity of Christians in modern Israel from Rima Farah, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. The talk is part of the Fall 2021 Schusterman Seminars, presenting the latest research in Israel Studies. Register here. 12:15 p.m.

Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin speaks with Scott Rechler, chair of the Regional Plan Association and CEO of RXR Realty, at a free 92Y event today. Register here. 7:00 p.m.

Hear the story behind the discovery of a treasure trove of thousands of glass photographic plates that offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of Jews and Poles before 1939, with Piotr Nazaruk, curator at Poland’s Grodzka Gate–NN Theatre. Register for this Yiddish Book Center virtual public program here. 7:00 p.m.

NEXT WEEK: Join UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Week for a conversation between Dara Horn — author of the new essay collection, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present” — and Abraham Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League. Their wide-ranging conversation will touch on Jewish memory, history, identity and antisemitism. Monday, Oct. 11, 6:00 p.m. Register here.

Photo, top: Gov. Kathy Hochul announced grants for boosting security at nonprofits during a news conference on hate crimes, held Oct. 7, 2021 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. (Governor Kathy Hochul Flickr)

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For Orthodox Jews and Israelis, Whatsapp outage highlighted basic community infrastructure — and its vulnerability

Thu, 2021-10-07 08:21

(JTA) — Asher Lovy was expecting a flood of notifications on Monday morning when he posted information about a sexual abuse case to several WhatsApp chat groups devoted to tracking the work of his organization, which provides support to survivors of sexual abuse within the Orthodox community. 

Instead, he heard nothing. WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app he uses, was down, along with Facebook and Instagram, three of the most widely used social platforms in the world. 

“I was worried that people who were trying to reach us wouldn’t be able to,” Lovy said. He began to worry about what would happen if the outage extended later into the week, when Za’akah would ready its mental health hotline for Orthodox Jews who have crises on Shabbat, when many other services are closed or inaccessible.

“We have people contacting us on WhatsApp to get referrals for resources for therapists or lawyers, or just to talk and receive support,” he said. “I get texts at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning from people in crisis who need support or resources, who do they reach out to if not us? … The thought of Whatsapp going down on Shabbos is terrifying.”

Lovy’s fears did not come to pass: WhatsApp was back up after eight hours, along with Facebook and Instagram. But the outage, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said was the most significant interruption in service in years, brought into sharp focus the degree to which WhatsApp is baked into the communication infrastructure for most of the world’s Jews — and how vulnerable that infrastructure may be.

With more than 2 billion users worldwide, WhatsApp is by far the most widely used instant messaging service in the world. Its simple platform, which works even on older flip phones, is the communication standard in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, and its early adoption in Israel and the relative unpopularity of iPhones there means it remains the country’s text messaging app of choice.

In the United States, its dominance is perhaps most clear in the haredi Orthodox world.

Even as Orthodox rabbis were warning about the dangers to religious life posed by WhatsApp way back in 2014, as Facebook began to consider acquiring the platform, the app became popular in Orthodox communities as an easy way to communicate. “The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business,” the Hasidic newspaper Der Blatt reported in Yiddish that year. Its dominance in the communities only increased over time, with misinformation and anti-mask activism spreading quickly through group-text channels that were already well established before the pandemic.

It’s not just rumors that take hold on Orthodox WhatsApp chats. “We run all our groups of employees on various businesses through WhatsApp,” said Mordy Getz, a community leader who owns a health clinic and Judaica store in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

A unique confluence of factors drives the penetration and lasting power of WhatsApp in Orthodox communities. 

Many community members have filters on their phones to prevent them from accessing external websites and social media platforms, so they receive all their information through WhatsApp, according to Getz. (This creates its own problems, as misinformation can circulate easily and quickly without the ability to fact-check.) 

What’s more, WhatsApp’s integrated voice notes option allows people with wide-ranging skills in written language to communicate with each other, a potential issue in communities where critics have charged that yeshivas do not always leave graduates with a strong secular education.

And WhatsApp video and phone calls don’t carry long distance calling fees. For Jewish families in which some members are Orthodox and others are not, or some members live in Israel and others in the Diaspora, WhatsApp can serve as a vital convening ground. 

“Every Orthodox Jew has people in Israel and Europe,” said Getz. “You have to have WhatsApp if you want to talk to them.”

When that stops working, the distance can feel greater.

Orli Gal, a Philadelphia nurse, said her family, which includes people in Israel and across the United States, would have been celebrating a milestone in her sister’s medical training over WhatsApp Monday when the outage cut off their communications. 

“We’ve got people all over the world, and some of them are pretty elderly. This is the only way they know how to get in touch,” she said. “WhatsApp is the only thing that connects us all.”

Mendel Horowitz, a therapist and teacher in Jerusalem, was suddenly unable to be in touch with his 20-year-old son, Alty, who was vacationing in Egypt’s Sinai Desert with friends. 

“I don’t want to say I was up all night worried because I wasn’t,” he said. “But it was on our minds that this is the only way to reach him and we can’t.”

The outage got Horowitz thinking about his own family’s reliance on WhatsApp and whether it was wise given the app’s vulnerabilities. “It’s not an emergency, but it gets us thinking about the next time somebody goes somewhere, we should have a plan B,” he said.

Horowitz wasn’t alone. 

If WhatsApp were to disappear, “there would be no backup infrastructure” for communication within the Orthodox community, said Lovy. 

The outage, Gal said, “mostly made me rethink: Why did we allow Facebook to buy it in the first place?”

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