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Park East Synagogue pushes out assistant rabbi, sparking protest

4 hours 52 min ago

NEW YORK (JTA) — Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, fired its popular assistant rabbi after the longtime head rabbi rebuffed a congregant-led push to “revitalize the synagogue.”

Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, 34, had been working for the synagogue for a decade and was known for his outreach to Russian-speaking families. He began at Park East as a rabbinic intern and congregants told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that many hoped he would lead the synagogue one day.

But his tenure there abruptly ended with an email from Senior Rabbi Arthur Schneier that went out to community members on Monday. Schneier wrote, “Assistant Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt is no longer employed by our Synagogue,” but did not elaborate on the decision.

The firing is making waves in the venerable 133-year-old congregation, which is linked to a day school named for Schneier. More than 200 people have signed a petition protesting Goldschmidt’s termination, but their identities have been hidden after a note said the first 70 signatories “were receiving harassment for speaking up.” The synagogue claims a membership of 700 households.

This story is part of JTA's coverage of New York through the New York Jewish Week. To read more stories like this, sign up for our daily New York newsletter here.

Neither the synagogue nor Goldschmidt responded to requests for comment. Goldschmidt’s biography on the synagogue website, which was active as of the beginning of the week, has been deleted.

Reached by phone Wednesday, the synagogue board president, Herman Hochberg, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was not at liberty to discuss why Goldschmidt was fired, but said it was not “because we don’t like him.”

Goldschmidt is the son of Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt and has written in a number of publications about his work as well as Israeli politics. His 2014 wedding to the journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt was the subject of a feature in the New York Times’ “Vows” section.

Goldschmidt’s firing follows a contentious exchange of emails to the synagogue membership by members and Schneier. On Oct. 4, a group of four synagogue members sent an email out to the membership list titled “The future of Park East Synagogue.” The email praised Schneier, 91, who has led the synagogue for more than 50 years. But it also expressed concerns about the synagogue’s trajectory.

“As congregants, we are concerned about the state of our beloved synagogue and what the future holds,” it said. “Our overall synagogue attendance has declined; while Shabbat services used to bring in several hundred worshippers, now they bring in far smaller numbers, with few younger individuals and families (unless there is a special event).”

The email announced that the signatories would form a committee to work with Schneier, Goldschmidt and the Park East leadership on how “to revitalize the synagogue.”

In his own email, sent two weeks later, Schneier inveighed against that email and another, sent to the synagogue’s affiliated day school, which he said were “not authorized by me.” He defended his record at length, and then, without any segue, announced Goldschmidt’s termination.

“When I became the Rabbi of our beloved congregation, there was a single building and approximately forty members,” he wrote. “Under my leadership, and with the help of the wonderful team around me, we have grown by leaps and bounds to become a vibrant center for Jewish life in New York City.”

According to the petition launched Oct. 19,  signatories “were shocked and disheartened” by the decision.

The organizer of the petition did not respond to a request for comment, but a string of comments below the petition express outrage at Goldschmidt’s firing.

“I’m devastated by this shocking and uncalled for news,” wrote Aliza Licht, the former president of the parents association at Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School. “Rabbi Goldschmidt and Avital are nothing but bright lights and beacons of all that is good in this world. They have our full support and deep appreciation for all they have done and will continue to do.”

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Jewish actor declines Off-Broadway role as Syrian immigrant amid conversation about representation

Wed, 2021-10-20 22:12

(JTA) — An Off-Broadway show about an undocumented Syrian immigrant will open without the Jewish actor who was slated to play the part.

“The Visitor,” starring the Tony Award-winning actor Ari’el Stachel, was set to open Off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater in April 2020 and is only now in previews following the COVID-19 shutdown.

Stachel had previously expressed misgivings about his casting in the musical, in which he plays an undocumented Syrian character who is sent to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. Earlier this year, he told Playbill, he asked the production team why his character — who was raised in the United States — would speak with an accent.

The start date of “The Visitor” had been delayed this fall, with the theater citing “conversations and commitments around equity and anti-racism.”

This story is part of JTA's coverage of New York through the New York Jewish Week. To read more stories like this, sign up for our daily New York newsletter here.

Requests for comment from Stachel’s representatives were not immediately returned.

“The Public Theater and Ari’el Stachel have made a mutual decision that he will step away from THE VISITOR and his role in the production,” the theater said in a statement posted Oct. 20 to its social media channels. “We are grateful for his artistry and participation over the past six years. We wish Ari well in his future endeavors.”

“The Visitor” previews began Oct. 16, but in the show’s early preview performances, including one attended by JTA, Stachel’s role had been filled with an understudy.

The stage musical is adapted from the Oscar-nominated 2007 film of the same name. It tells the story of Walter, a white college professor, who travels to New York City to find Tarek and Zainab, a young, undocumented couple staying in his apartment. After Tarek, who is Syrian, is arrested due to a misunderstanding and subsequently sent to an ICE detention center, Walter gets entangled in their lives trying to help him stay in America.

According to Playbill, “recent discussions have included the concern over the centering of a middle-aged white man as a protagonist in a story largely about immigrant experiences as well as assurances that cast members have access to resources to fully participate in telling these stories.”

The COVID-19 shutdown of New York theater coincided with the protests over the police killings of African-Americans, forcing many theater and arts companies to confront issues of representation and inclusivity.

Stachel has been with the show since early workshops, and his frustration over his character’s accent has been one of the more contentious issues of the show.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t separate the experiences I was having in the world with what I was doing on stage. It is not enough to just play a role and have fun, it really needs to exist and align politically, spiritually, artistically, for me,” Stachel told Playbill in April. “I thought to myself, ‘my brown body needs to be not seen as an “other” anymore,’ so I’m actually trying to morph this opportunity.”

Stachel previously won a Tony for his role as Haled, an Egyptian musician, in “The Band’s Visit,” the smash-hit stage adaptation of the 2007 Israeli movie. Stachel’s father was born in “an immigrant absorption tent city” to Yemeni Jews and his mom is Ashkenazi, from New York.

“In third grade, someone told me I was too Black to be Jewish,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017. By high school, said Stachel, “I started avoiding being seen in public with my father. I didn’t want to be seen with somebody who looked like an Arab.” “The Band’s Visit,” about an Egyptian band stranded in an Israeli backwater, helped him connect with his Middle Eastern and Arab identity.

When auditioning for Haled, Stachel explained to Playbill, he “felt this was actually our only shot and, at the time, it was exhilarating to just have a job on Broadway. By the time I got around to ‘The Visitor,’ actually, I started having an issue with the fact that all of the roles I was playing had accents.”

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Snowstorms, bears and Stars of David: Even in Alaska, a tiny Jewish community can make its voice heard

Wed, 2021-10-20 21:56

(JTA) — I grew up Jewish in Alaska. The Jewish community in Anchorage, the city where I grew up, did things their own Jewish way. It was the only kind of Judaism that I knew.

For example, I used to think that everyone had their bar or bat mitzvah during the summer, because in Alaska, anyway, that was the best time to invite relatives.

Later, of course, I encountered many forms of Judaism. I have lived in Jerusalem. I have worshipped and worked at Jewish communities too small for a synagogue and congregations with over 1,500 families. All these experiences convinced me to become a rabbi. But I would have never predicted that, after ordination at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in 2017, I would come back to my hometown as a rabbi.

I now officiate at b’nai mitzvah in the very sanctuary where I received mine. As a lover of nature and someone who has grown to appreciate Judaism in smaller cities and towns, I feel Alaska is a great place to be Jewish. While some may think it’s distant and cold, I have always found it cozy and welcoming.

Except when it isn’t.

This past year, as our state officials and politicians decide on how to best fight COVID, we saw an uptick of people comparing health mandates to the Holocaust. During a contentious Assembly meeting on mandating masks in Anchorage, protesters against mask mandates started wearing yellow stars of David, appropriating the Holocaust and the Nazis’ genocide against the Jewish people. Anchorage’s mayor at one point even exclaimed that the Alaskan Jewish community would support these protesters’ message.

A small community of some 4,500 people, far from the large centers of Jewish life, might have been expected to let this go. Or perhaps grumble among ourselves and let “outsiders” object for us.

Instead, at a hearing on masks in September, one of my congregants, State Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar, read a letter I had written. “It was heart-wrenching for me when I noticed individuals were wearing yellow Stars of David, mimicking my Jewish ancestors who perished during the Holocaust,” he read, quoting me. “For myself and most Jews, seeing the yellow Star of David on someone’s chest elicits the same feeling as seeing a swastika on a flag or the SS insignia on a uniform. I believe it is a constitutional right to protest for your values. But I request that you do not use symbols that diminish the 6 million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust.”

The mayor apologized the next day, thanks to the work of a confident Jewish community that showed him how hurtful his remarks were for Alaskan Jews.

Our confidence comes with deep roots. In 1900, a community of 60 Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Nome using a Torah brought by Sam Bayles, a Latvian immigrant who sought his fortune in the Alaska Gold Rush. The Bayles Torah stayed in Nome until after World War I, when it was moved slightly south (537 miles) to my congregation, Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, where it remains today alongside other Torah scrolls with their own uniquely Alaskan histories.

Their stories are much the same as the story of how Jews came to Alaska. Whether through a pioneering spirit, a sense of amazement or a need to connect with tradition in the farthest North, Jews have been coming to Alaska since before it was even a state. 

I often feel that Jews in the lower 48 consider Judaism in Alaska to be diminished due to its isolation and its limited population. We certainly have our own unique problems here. Starting Shabbat is a difficult venture when our sunsets are swinging from light most of the night to dark most of the day. Moose get in our sukkot, and snowstorms and bears have prevented us from coming or leaving shul.  

However, I believe that Judaism is beautiful here. This is not a place where Judaism just survives, but a place where Judaism thrives. We have our own special Alaskan way of being Jewish.

For example, our community, which has 160 family members, has no formal mikveh, or ritual bath, and yet we are surrounded by mikveh possibilities. Every one of Alaska’s 3 million lakes are pristine, and most of them are remote. Every summer I ready laminated mikveh prayer cards for Jewish Alaskans who wish to enjoy a mikveh experience against the incredible backdrop of rugged mountains and emerald green forests.

Most people’s Jewish experience, I imagine, come from a connection to Jewish institutions, Jewish professionals and Jewish friends. My Jewish experiences seem always to be nestled among the splendor of God’s creations.

The dispute over Holocaust analogies and its resolution was a great reminder that Jews in Alaska are a part of, not apart from, Alaska. We are not an isolated shtetl, but rather working members of the Alaskan community. There are several current Alaskan Jewish lawmakers, and we have been represented in state leadership all the way back to the framing of the Alaska Constitution. Prior to the current Anchorage mayor’s hurtful comments, three of the city’s previous mayors were Jewish. 

We love this place, and we support it in every way we can.

 

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Environmental group quits democracy rally because ‘Zionist’ groups are present

Wed, 2021-10-20 21:38

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Washington D.C. branch of a national climate action group turned down a role at a voting rights rally because a “number of Zionist organizations” will be taking part.

“Given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology,” Sunrise DC said in a statement it posted Tuesday on Twitter.

The group named the National Council of Jewish Women, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs as groups supporting Israel, which Sunrise DC called a “colonial project.”

The Freedom to Vote Relay-Rally on Saturday features a bike ride to the U.S. Capitol from West Virginia, the home state of Senate Democrat Joe Manchin, who is sponsoring a voting rights act named “Freedom to Vote.”

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has asked the Sunrise Movement, a youth group garnering attention for its advocacy to stem human-caused climate change, whether it endorses the statement by its D.C. chapter. The national group is not listed among the groups joining the rally although its West Virginia chapter appears to be participating. Sunrise Movement has not responded.

Sunrise DC called for one of the rally’s main organizers, Declaration for American Democracy, to remove the three Jewish groups from its coalition. Not mentioned in the Sunrise DC statement are two other Jewish groups belonging to the same coalition, Bend the Arc and Workers Circle. Bend the Arc has no position on Israel and Workers Circle backs the two-state solution, but has been highly critical of Israel, and has called on the U.S. government to condition aid to Israel on its human rights record.

Notably, the Declaration for American Democracy coalition includes at least two groups that are highly critical of Israel, the Arab American Institute and Code Pink; neither group appears to have objected to joining in a coalition with the three Jewish groups named by Sunrise DC.

All three Jewish groups cited by Sunrise DC have long-established records of pro-Israel advocacy but have in recent years devoted much of their focus on domestic issues. The three groups all back the two-state outcome; NCJW and the Reform movement’s RAC have sister groups in Israel that advocate for the rights of minorities and for women.

Each of the groups said in statements to JTA that they would not be deterred from attending the rally on Saturday.

“National Council of Jewish Women works for the safety and wellbeing of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians,” said its CEO, Sheila Katz. “We fight for access to the ballot, an end to gender-based violence, increased equity, and for women to build power despite systemic barriers at every turn. All of this work is done in the coalition, often led by impacted communities, to center those with lived experiences. Our commitment to working across lines of difference includes our willingness to engage in dialogue with groups that take issue with our policies. Let’s move forward together to advance human rights and dignity for all people.”

JCPA, the umbrella group for Jewish public policy groups, and Reform’s RAC have in recent years emphasized voting rights advocacy. “In keeping with our 77-year history, JCPA will continue our ongoing engagement on voting rights efforts in coalition with interfaith and diverse communities, including our involvement in the freedom to vote rally and in support of fair, free and accessible elections for all people,” said its senior vice president, Melanie Gorelick.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, RAC’s director, said it was “unfortunate that any organization would refuse to join together to protect voting rights. The work of our coalition to ensure that every American has access to the right to vote is too important not to remain in partnership as we push Congress to act. As an organization committed to social justice and our progressive Zionist values, we will continue to work toward the passage of comprehensive voting rights legislation.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives and a leading voting rights advocate in Congress, also weighed in. “Refusing to participate in civic life with Jewish groups — especially those groups who are committed to social justice here in the US, in Israel and around the world — is misguided, unproductive, offensive and wrong,” he said on Twitter.

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Jewish serial sperm donor Ari Nagel nears 100 children after a prolific pandemic

Wed, 2021-10-20 20:00

(JTA) — While others were perfecting their sourdough bread-baking or watching the entire catalogue of Netflix, Ari Nagel spent the past 20 months of the pandemic doing what he does best: donating sperm. He now has nearly 100 children to show for it.

Nagel, whom the New York Post once dubbed “Sperminator,” grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Monsey, New York, before becoming a college math teacher and eventually a serial sperm donor. In a profile published Wednesday in Esquire, Nagel said he fathered 21 children in 2020 and expected another 30 babies in 2021, bringing him to a total of almost 100 babies.

“I wasn’t meant to have 90 kids. You have to make it happen,” Nagel says in the Esquire story.

Nagel has donated sperm in Target restrooms, the American Museum of Natural History and countless hotel rooms. He’s traveled the world to do so, including during the pandemic. At one point, he even snagged his brother’s passport to travel to Israel after the country banned him from donating sperm there.

Nagel’s accelerated donations come at a time when donor sperm is under short supply worldwide. He says he is driven to donate because he wants to help women, especially those in same-sex relationships, and he frequently stays in touch with the families he helps to grow. He also has children from his own marriages.

Over lunch on Tisha B’av, the Jewish day of mourning that this year fell in mid-July, Nagel told Esquire that his parents didn’t understand his life choices and that his mother believes he brings shame on the family. Nagel took a different view.

“I hope I’m a better grandparent to my kids’ children than they are to mine,” Nagel told the magazine.

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Chinese state-run site proposes ‘final solution to the Taiwan question,’ and German lawmaker compares it to Nazi rhetoric

Wed, 2021-10-20 19:57

TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) — A German lawmaker heard ominous echoes of Nazi Germany after a Chinese state-run media outlet threatened violence in calling for a “final solution to the Taiwan question.”

Frank Müller-Rosentritt, a member of German parliament and its foreign affairs committee, compared the terminology to the Nazis’ “final solution to the Jewish question,” its plan for the mass murder of Jews.

“If a Chinese propaganda medium operates with historically loaded terms, then all alarm bells should ring for us against the background of our history,” Müller-Rosentritt told the German news organization Welt on Saturday.

China’s Global Times published an article in English last week warning that it will take action to occupy Taiwan and used the “final solution” language in a tweet.

The CPC's warning against secessionism is not just talking the talk, and whether the final solution of Taiwan question will be peaceful or not, the secessionists will be judged, condemned and punished. This is also a promise to all Chinese people: expert https://t.co/cjB6ERsIrQ

— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) October 12, 2021

The Nazis often talked about how to deal with Europe’s Jews in terms of resolving what they called the “Jewish question,” and it embarked on the Holocaust seeking what they called a “final solution.”

Alexander Pevzner, founding director of Israel’s Chinese Media Center, noted that the Global Times does not represent the Chinese government and often uses “inflammatory rhetoric,” adding that the choice of words was likely due to ignorance.

Israel cultivated closer ties with China for years under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who worked to dramatically expand trade with the Communist powerhouse.

The People’s Republic of China claims Taiwan as its own territory and has promised to “unify” the two, though the PRC has never governed Taiwan. Tensions intensified earlier this month as China sent a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Some experts say the latest air incursions have been in response to the growing international support, including from the E.U., for Taiwan’s independence.

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Anti-hate summit in Pittsburgh uses Tree of Life shooting as warning to all

Wed, 2021-10-20 19:49

(Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA) — Standing before a crowd of several hundred, Pittsburgh resident Michele Rosenthal welcomed attendees to the Eradicate Hate Global Summit Monday by remembering her brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal.

Rosenthal’s voice cracked as she recalled her brothers and the events of three years ago, when a gunman killed them and eight other worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue complex here in Pittsburgh.

Cecil and David, she said, were good men who lived good lives. She recalled how they were affectionately known as the “mayors” of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, how they bought flowers for their mother, how they were treated as members of the local fire department and how they often shared a cup of tea with Tree of Life’s custodian.

“They did not judge anyone,” Rosenthal said. “Not by religion, color or ethnicity. They are my example, and they should be your example, too.”

The Eradicate Hate Global Summit 2021, which ran from Oct. 18-20, hosted more than 100 experts on hate and extremism. They were charged not only with sharing their expertise, but with spending the next year working on specific “deliverables” which will be evaluated at next year’s summit, said Laura Ellsworth, first partner in charge of global community service initiatives for the law firm Jones Day.

Ellsworth co-chaired the summit along with Mark Nordenberg, University of Pittsburgh chancellor emeritus. The massacre at the Tree of Life building loomed large over the summit, which was conceived following the attack, said Nordenberg.

“Laura called and said, ‘We need to do something to make certain Pittsburgh becomes better known, not for being the site of this attack, but for its effective and constructive response to hate,’” Nordenberg told the audience.

Ellsworth, who is not Jewish but said she was “close friends with a number of people who were present or lost loved ones on that terrible day,” charged participants with spending the next 12 months developing solutions to combat hate. Evaluations of those proposals will occur at next year’s summit, she said.

Summit panels cast a wide net in their definition of “eradicating hate,” but largely seemed to focus on identifying how hate speech and violent actions have metastasized in the social media era. Some were focused on security: A panel on cryptocurrency discussed how “bad actors” have employed largely untraceable online payments to fund terror operations.

Others focused on legislation: Several speakers discussed the need for better regulation of social media to prevent the spread of hate speech online. (Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act, which effectively immunizes Internet publishers from legal responsibility for the content users publish on their site, was a hot topic; many conservative lawmakers have been seeking in recent months to overturn or reform the law, saying that it provides a shield for partisan attacks.)

Day three of the summit pivoted once again to discuss victim responses. Other panels ran the gamut from discussing domestic terrorism laws to the link between online speech and real-world violence in Myanmar.

Even with such a wide expanse of topics covered at the summit, and so many prominent speakers, including video recordings from former President George W. Bush and Jewish current Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, organizers took care to continually re-emphasize why they were all gathered in Pittsburgh on that particular date.

Before the start of the various summit sessions, Tree of Life’s Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers spoke to the audience and offered an invocation. He said that if not for the massacre three years ago, which occurred in the midst of Shabbat services, he would have read that day’s Torah portion, which describes patriarch Abraham welcoming three unknown guests into his home.

The focus on Tree of Life continued throughout the summit, which also included a preview of an upcoming public television documentary about the massacre.

Rita Katz, the executive director and founder of SITE Intelligence Group, explained to summit attendees how the man who attacked three congregations at the Tree of Life building became an emblem of extremism and violence in the years following the massacre. Katz shared a theory she called “the chain of ‘screw your optics,’” in reference to a social media post the alleged shooter wrote just prior to his Oct. 27 attack: “All Jews must die. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

She described connections between the Pittsburgh attack, which was fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment as well as antisemitism and was widely promoted by hate groups online, and other attacks that followed: the Christchurch Mosque attack in New Zealand; the attack on a Chabad Center in Poway, California; a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; the attempted terrorist attack at a Norway mosque; and a thwarted attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany. 

Keynote speaker Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke about the role social media has played in growing antisemitism and other manifestations of hate. “What starts with the Jews,” Greenblatt said, “never ends with the Jews.”

Greenblatt railed against the antisemitism of right-wing extremists as well as that coming from the political left, including the BDS movement on college campuses. “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism, pure and simple,” he said.

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein, who introduced Greenblatt, was on the planning committee for the summit.

“This is a nice way for our community to share with the world experts on hate,” Finkelstein told the Chronicle. “But this isn’t a program about Pittsburgh, although the program takes place in Pittsburgh. It is one way to remember what took place here.”

The objectives of the conference, Finkelstein said, extend beyond fighting antisemitism.

“Remember it’s ‘anti-hate,’” he said. “Antisemitism is one piece of hatred. This is about hate as a broad topic.”

Speakers at the summit spoke of hatreds beyond antisemitism. Gary Locke, former governor of Washington, discussed experiencing anti-Asian hate while in office; other speakers hailed from the Arab-American Institute, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Asian-American Foundation. No speakers representing Latino or LGBT+ groups were listed on the agenda.

In his pre-recorded remarks, Bush thanked those in attendance for taking up the important work of combating hate. “This is a bridge against our nation’s greatest divisions,” he said.

Brad Orsini, who served as director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh from 2017-2020, said he was pleased with the summit.

“This is the first step to get everyone together and see what deliverables come out of this and build really tangible results on the back end,” he said.

Not everyone, though, shared Orsini’s optimism.

The progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc Jewish Action: Pittsburgh and local Latino immigrant advocacy group Casa San Jose Latino Resource and Welcome Center issued a joint statement expressing disappointment that Bush, Mayorkas and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge were keynote speakers at the summit, saying the Department of Homeland Security, created under Bush’s watch, “exploited anti-Islamic fervor” in its war on terrorism.

“Their inclusion,” the statement said, “undermines the bold and admirable mission of the Eradicate Hate Global Summit, and turns a blind eye to the roots of the hatred that led to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.”

As the three-day event was transpiring, eyewitnesses to the Tree of Life shooting, testifying in a pre-trial hearing, said that the alleged perpetrator had made antisemitic comments during his rampage. The perpetrator of the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of murder.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and is reprinted with permission. Additional reporting by JTA staff. 

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The Thomas Jefferson statue removed from New York City Council chambers was a gift from a Jewish military officer

Wed, 2021-10-20 19:15

(JTA) — The statue of Thomas Jefferson that will be removed from the chambers of the New York City Council at the urging of Black lawmakers was a gift in 1834 from one of the first Jewish officers in the U.S. military.

The city’s Public Design Commission decided to remove the statue following complaints from Assemblymen Charles Barron, Councilwoman Inez Barron and others that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

The statue, which has stood in the city council’s chambers for over a century, was commissioned by Uriah Phillips Levy, a lifelong fan of Jefferson’s. Levy was a member of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in New York City.

Levy served in the U.S. Navy, including during the War of 1812, eventually earning the rank of commodore. Having faced antisemitic prejudice in the Navy, Levy fought against religious discrimination and commissioned a bronze sculpture of Jefferson that stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, in honor of Jefferson’s support for religious freedom. The New York version is a copy. Levy even purchased Monticello, Jefferson’s mansion in Virginia, in 1836 and restored it.

This story is part of JTA's coverage of New York through the New York Jewish Week. To read more stories like this, sign up for our daily New York newsletter here.

It is not yet clear where the statue will end up after it is removed from the city council chambers. Possible new locations include another place within City Hall or at the New-York Historical Society, where it can be displayed with historical context.

In the same week that the decision was made to remove the Jefferson statue, a statue of a Jewish woman was put up in New York City. A life-size bronze of Diane Arbus, a photographer who was born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1923, was erected in Central Park, where she took some of her most famous photos. The statue, only the second sculpture in the park to honor a real-life woman, will be on display until August 2022.

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Medieval Jewish prayerbook sold for $8.3 million, a near-record for Judaica

Wed, 2021-10-20 18:45

(JTA) — An 800-year-old Jewish prayerbook from Germany, offered for sale by a French Jewish organization to shore up its finances, sold at auction on Tuesday for $8.3 million. 

Known as the Luzzatto High Holiday Mahzor, the prayerbook easily beat the $4-6 million pre-sale estimate by Sotheby’s New York auction house as four bidders battled one another for five dramatic minutes. 

The item, which was sold to an unnamed private buyer, comes out of the collection of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a 160-year-old French Jewish organization that operates schools in Israel and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Only one Judaica item has ever sold for more at auction: the Bomberg Talmud from the Valmadonna collection, which sold for $9.3 million in 2015. 

An artifact of medieval Germany that went on to circulate among various Jewish communities in Europe, the Luzzatto Mahzor is handwritten in Hebrew and features colorful illustrations of human bodies with animal heads.

“In my 26 years at Sotheby’s I handled many rare and interesting books,” said Sharon Mintz, the auction house’s senior consultant for Judaica, in a video presentation. “However I have never had an opportunity to sell an early illustrated medieval Hebrew prayerbook and I’d be surprised if I ever have this opportunity again. It is such a rare manuscript.”

The sale offers another sign of just how hot the rare Judaica market has become in recent years in line with the overall market for collectibles. 

But the transfer of the book from a library to private hands also points to the increasingly precarious state of some public Judaica collections serving the Jewish community. 

In interviews in French media, Alliance representatives said their organization, which runs an important Jewish library in Paris as well as numerous Jewish schools, is facing an economic crisis. 

“The sale is the only solution that will guarantee the survival of the organization’s library until 2030,” Marc Eisenberg and Roger Cukierman told the French outlet Actualité Juive, according to Haaretz. The money raised from the auction will pay for scholarships, programs for children with special needs and investments in digital education, according to a statement released by Alliance. 

There had been efforts to stop the sale from taking place with some calling on the French government to invoke a law declaring the prayer national treasure. 

The disclosure of the sale and the reason for it stands in contrast to recent revelations that the renowned library of the Jewish Theological Seminary had quietly sold off assets to raise funds in recent years. 

The winning bidder for the Luzzatto Mahzor has not been publicly named but some hints are available, leading Judaica experts to speculate on the person’s identity. 

Sotheby’s said the item went to a “renowned American collector, who has one of the most significant collections of Medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the world.”

In an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Mintz, the Sotheby’s advisor, gave an additional clue. 

“I would add to this that the buyer is known to be very generous in sharing his manuscripts with the public – they have been in many public exhibitions and the buyer also provides access to scholars,” she wrote.

Ironically, the sale to a private collector could end up increasing the public’s interest and engagement with the prayerbook. 

According to Mintz, very few people knew of its existence before the auction, and those who did could only examine it in the physical setting of the library. As part of the preparation for the auction, the prayerbook was professionally digitized and reproduced online. 

“I am fairly certain that as a result of our research and cataloging and photography, a much larger group of people than ever before now know of its existence and significance,” Mintz wrote. “Should they wish to study it, they are now able to do so 24/7 through the comprehensive digital images.”

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United Arab Emirates to join Israel in moon shot

Wed, 2021-10-20 17:46

(JTA) — The next time Israel tries to land a spacecraft on the moon, it will have some neighborly help.

United Arab Emirates and Israel plan to land Israel’s un-crewed Beresheet craft on the moon in 2024 in a joint space exploration deal, Haaretz reported on Wednesday.

Israel’s first attempt to land a lunar module on the moon failed in 2019 when it crashed.

The Beresheet 2 effort will be part of an agreement slated to be signed between Israel and the UAE to develop space technologies. The craft will collect soil samples and conduct experiments.

Israel and the UAE are accelerating their cooperation under the Abraham Accords normalization deal brokered last year by the Trump administration. Last week, their foreign ministers met in Washington with their U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to sign trilateral agreements on advancing religious freedoms and collaborating on climate change.

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Rabbis arrested demanding climate action by Wall Street giant’s Jewish CEO

Wed, 2021-10-20 14:16

NEW YORK (JTA) — Three rabbis and six Jewish teenagers were among those arrested Monday at a climate protest at the Manhattan headquarters of BlackRock, the largest investment management company in New York. 

The demonstration, organized by the Jewish Youth Climate Movement with support from the interfaith organization GreenFaith, demanded the firm stop its investments in and cut ties with companies that fund the fossil fuel industry, which include Enbridge, Inc., Formosa Plastics and Shell. 

Rabbis Rachel Timoner and Stephanie Kolin of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, vice president of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, were among those arrested.

“Judaism’s highest priority is saving lives,” said Timoner in a statement. “The Jewish youth who are leading us today understand that we are in a life or death moment, that we must divest from fossil fuels now in order to save lives.”

This story is part of JTA's coverage of New York through the New York Jewish Week. To read more stories like this, sign up for our daily New York newsletter here.

The Jewish Youth Climate Movement, founded by the Jewish environmental group Hazon in 2019, is a Gen Z-led movement dedicated to combating climate change and environmental injustice from a Jewish lens.

The demonstration was one of 500 demonstrations across 41 countries taking place over Oct. 17-18 as part of the “Faiths 4 Climate Justice” campaign organized by Greenfaith. The campaign was set for two weeks ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, starting on Oct. 31. 

The activists specifically called on Larry Fink, BlackRock’s founder and CEO since 1988, “to stand by his Jewish values and end BlackRock’s funding of the fossil fuel industry and end human rights violations,” according to a news press release.

“BlackRock is the biggest funder of climate destruction in the world. It’s time for Larry Fink to live up to his talk and divest from the fossil fuel industry and end BlackRock’s human rights violations,” said Morgan Long, one of the organizers of the event. 

Fink, in a 2021 “Letter to CEOs,” said BlackRock was taking steps to ensure that the companies its clients are invested in “are both mitigating climate risk and considering the opportunities presented by the net zero transition,” that is, emitting no more carbon dioxide than they remove from the atmosphere by 2050.

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Rabbis arrested at NYC climate protest • Senators back terror victims • Have a ‘Nora Ephron Autumn’

Wed, 2021-10-20 13:07

Good morning, New York. 

CLIMATE CRISIS: Three rabbis and six Jewish teenagers were among those arrested Monday at a climate protest at the Manhattan headquarters of BlackRock, demanding the Jewish CEO of the Wall Street giant cut ties with the fossil fuels industry. (Jewish Week)

  • Related:  Workers Circle CEO Ann Toback and its director of social justice Noelle Damico — and actress Alyssa Milano — were arrested Tuesday in front of the White House at a demonstration for voting rights in D.C. (The Hill)

FRIENDS OF THE COURT: New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are backing the American families who want the Supreme Court to reconsider their case against a British bank, which they say aided the terrorists responsible for the deaths and injuries of loved ones during the Second Intifada. (JTA)

IN THE PICTURE: A life-size statue of the late photographer and NYC native Diane Arbus is on temporary display in Central Park’s Doris C. Freedman Plaza, courtesy of the Public Art Fund. (Gothamist)

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK: Emily Burack, our colleague at Alma, wants you to have a “Nora Ephron Autumn,” in honor of the director and writer who captured the delights of a New York City fall in hits like “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail.” (Alma)

AROUND THE JEWISH WORLD, WITH JTA

BOOKS & AUTHORS

Jean Meltzer’s new novel, “The Matzah Ball,” is about a Jewish writer of popular Christmas-themed novels who wants to throw the glitziest Hanukkah party New York City has ever seen. (JTA)

PEOPLE & PLACES

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York holds “The Convening” today and tomorrow, bringing together leaders in philanthropy, technology, the arts, journalism and  politics for two mornings of conversation to amplify women’s voices. Go here for the speakers’ schedule and here to sign up for the virtual sessions. Tickets start at $36.

WHAT’S ON TODAY

Join the Museum of Jewish Heritage for a virtual program exploring the echoes of antisemitism in QAnon, with CNN senior political analyst and anchor John Avlon, whose new digital series “Reality Check: Extremist Beat” examines the rise of QAnon and other recent conspiracies in the United States. Avlon will be joined by Dr. Mia Bloom and Dr. Sophia Moskalenko, the authors of “Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon,” and Paul Salmons, a Holocaust education specialist. Register here. 2:00 p.m.

The Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County presents a free webinar, “What is Antisemitism?”, with Abraham Foxman, former longtime National Director of the Anti-Defamation League; Michael Cohen, Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Stephanie Hausner, Chief Program Officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Register here. 7:00 p.m.

Dr. Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University discusses “Shtisel: Its Impact on Israeli TV, Pop Culture & Society.” Register here.  7:00 p.mm

Photo, top: Members and supporters of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement demonstrate at the headquarters of BlackRock in Manhattan, demanding that the investment firm’s CEO Larry Fink defund the fossil fuel industry, Oct. 18, 2021. (Erik McGregor)

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American victims of the Second Intifada want the Supreme Court to review their case suing British bank over transfer of Palestinian funds

Wed, 2021-10-20 08:05

(JTA) — More than 15 years have passed since the end of the Second Intifada, but some American victims of the terror attacks from that period have not given up on their legal battle to hold a British bank accountable for allegedly aiding the terrorists responsible.

A group of about 200 Americans with family members harmed in the early 2000s attacks in Israel are asking the Supreme Court to review a decision by a federal appeals court decision from April of this year. The appeals court dismissed their suit against the bank due to lack of evidence that the bank “funded terrorist attacks or recruited persons to carry out such attacks,” or received any indication that the bank transfers were made for the purpose of terrorism.

Several Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and the Orthodox Union, filed an amicus brief last week on behalf of the terror victims. Another amicus brief was filed by a group U.S. senators from both parties, including Chuck Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand, Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst.

The group originally sued the National Westminster Bank, part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in 2005 over claims that a charity called Interpal, which held accounts at the bank, was acting as a fundraising arm for Hamas — the Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.

U.S. authorities had also designated Interpal as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization, but the federal appeals judge still dismissed the case.

In 2014, the United States Second Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act required plaintiffs to show that the bank knew or was indifferent to Interpal’s support for Hamas, “irrespective of whether Interpal’s support aided terrorist activities of the terrorist organization,” according to Reuters. But in April 2021, the same appeals court dismissed the case for lack of evidence that Interpal “funded terrorist attacks or recruited persons to carry out such attacks,” and “Interpal did not indicate to NatWest that the transfers were for any terroristic purpose.”

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Portuguese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust receives posthumous honor

Wed, 2021-10-20 08:01

(JTA) — The government of Portugal honored the memory of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, at a ceremony in Lisbon Tuesday.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was among the many dignitaries who attended the ceremony at the National Pantheon, a former church in Lisbon where national heroes are commemorated.

The parliament at the National Assembly in Portugal’s capital decreed the honor unanimously last year, voting to add a monument honoring de Sousa Mendes to the statues already on display there.

“Aristides de Sousa Mendes changed Portuguese history in that tragic moment,” Rebelo de Sousa, the president, said during the ceremony, according to the SAPO public broadcaster which aired the ceremony live. Portugal is “eternally grateful to him,” the president said.

In 1940, de Sousa Mendes served as consul in Bordeaux, France, where he granted visas to refugees fleeing the Nazi advance. He is estimated to have saved 30,000 people, including 10,000 Jews.

Mendes was eventually suspended and fired from Portugal’s diplomatic service for his actions in Bordeaux under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. However, he was posthumously vindicated and recognized in 1966 as a Righteous Among the Nations, a title conferred on behalf of the State of Israel by the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Mendes, who died in 1954, was the first diplomat to be recognized with the title.

He has received several honors in his native Portugal, including by the national airline TAP, which named an airplane for him in 2014.

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Rachel Levine is named an admiral, becoming the most senior transgender person in the uniformed services

Wed, 2021-10-20 07:35

WASHINGTON (JTA) –Rachel Levine made history in March when she assumed the role of assistant secretary for health, becoming the first known transgender person to be confirmed by the Senate.

Now Levine, who is Jewish, is the most senior transgender person in the uniformed services, after she was sworn in on Tuesday as the admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of two nonmilitary U.S. uniformed services. The other is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps.

The swearing-in also makes Levine the first known transgender four-star officer in U.S. history.

The public health corps, established more than 200 years ago and numbering 6,000 workers, is deployed to assist in national health emergencies, most recently in helping to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Levine, in her previous position as the health secretary in Pennsylvania, earned accolades for stemming the spread of the virus in that state.

Levine told The Washington Post that she plans to wear the uniform immediately.

“This is a momentous occasion and I am honored to take this role for the impact that I can make and for the historic nature of what it symbolizes,” she said in a video message after the swearing-in. “I stand on the shoulders of those LGBTQ+ individuals who came before me, both those known and unknown.”

Levine, 63, was born and raised in Massachusetts. Speaking to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle upon becoming Pennsylvania’ physician general in 2015, Levine noted that though she grew up attending a Conservative synagogue, she became more inclined to Reform Judaism as an adult, in part because of the movement’s embrace of transgender people.

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Sweden’s foreign minister visits Israel, ending 7-year diplomatic freeze

Tue, 2021-10-19 22:27

STOCKHOLM (JTA) — Sweden’s foreign affairs minister visited Israel on Monday, ending a seven-year freeze in diplomatic relations between the two former allies that had started over disagreements on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Foreign Minister Ann Linde’s visit opens “a whole new book of friendship and cooperation,” said her Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid. Israeli President Isaac Herzog said it symbolized that the countries were “turning a new leaf.” 

“Sweden and Israel have a deep and long-standing friendship, with extensive trade and cultural ties. There are also quite a few arguments. In recent years, these arguments have caused us to drift apart. Today we are changing that,” Lapid said at a press conference with Linde in Jerusalem on Monday.

The visit came less than a week after Sweden’s government hosted a high-powered international conference on combating antisemitism in Malmö, a city known in recent years for being a hotspot of that form of hate. 

Put together, the two moves signal outgoing Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s desire to repair relationships with Sweden’s local Jewish communities and the Jewish state.

“On behalf of Sweden I promise that we say ‘never again,’ and mean it,” Linde tweeted Monday after a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. “We will continue to take action to combat antisemitism in all its forms, to make sure that we never forget.”

Israel and Sweden had ceased formal relations in 2014, after Sweden officially recognized a Palestinian state. The following year, after the multiple terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, Sweden’s then-foreign minister, Margot Wallström, linked the killings to what she argued was a feeling of hopelessness among Palestinians.

Wallström, a longtime outspoken supporter of a Palestinian state, then in 2016 called for an investigation into how Israeli security forces responded to Palestinian attackers during a spate of violence. In response, Lapid, then an opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, called her antisemitic.

On Monday, Lapid — whose father and grandmother were among the tens of thousands of Jews saved by the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg during the Holocaust — welcomed Linde at a press conference in Jerusalem.

“In my parents’ house there is a wooden box in which my late father kept some souvenirs that survived the Holocaust. There is a yellow badge with the letter J, Jude — Jew, some photographs and letters that somehow survived the war,” Lapid said. “And there’s a ‘Wallenberg passport,’ a document laden with seals and signatures, designed to hide the fact that Raoul Wallenberg had virtually no authority to grant it to my father. But he did … and saved their lives.”

Linde said that “Sweden’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which supports a two-state solution, “has not changed.” She added that she has been impressed by how Israel’s new government has shown it is interested in improving living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, and that it has condemned violence by Israeli settlers.

On Tuesday she visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki in Ramallah, and in talks emphasized that Sweden wants to play “a bigger role in renewing the peace process.”

“I have invited both [Israel’s and the PA’s] foreign affairs ministers to Stockholm,” Linde also told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. “Not at the same time though, we take it step by step.”

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German-Israeli singer insists he ‘didn’t lie’ about discrimination over Jewish symbol at Leipzig hotel

Tue, 2021-10-19 20:35

(JTA) — A German-Israeli singer who said he had been denied service at a hotel in Germany for wearing a Star of David pendant doubled down on his account following doubts about it published in the German media.

Gil Ofarim became a cause celebre after he said on social media that an employee of the hotel told him on Oct. 5 that he would not receive service at the Westin Leipzig hotel unless he covered the pendant. Hundreds of people showed up at the hotel in protest.

Visual evidence recorded that night at the hotel is giving police “serious doubts” about the accuracy of Ofarim’s account, which the employee denied, multiple German newspapers reported this week.

The Leipziger Volkszeitung paper cited an unnamed police source, while Bild am Sonntag published a video clip that shows Ofarim arriving at the hotel without his Star of David pendant visible.

In an interview Monday with Leipziger Volkszeitung, Ofarim insisted that he “didn’t lie” about what happened to him. And to Bild am Sonntag, he said the comments he had described made sense even if his necklace could not be seen.

Ofarim has also said that a person standing in line behind him first brought up the pendant, saying Ofarim should remove it. Only then did the employee also demand this, Ofarim had said.

“That means, someone recognized me,” he told the newspaper. “This isn’t about the pendant. It’s about something much bigger. Because I am often on television wearing the Star of David, it was used to insult me.”

The hotel employee, who was suspended pending an investigation, has complained to police that Ofarim had defamed him, according to the Focus magazine. The police told the magazine that they have obtained the full video and are examining it. Police have declined to comment on the matter until the review is concluded.

Ofarim told the Volkszeitung paper that he always wears the pendant, and that it may have been tucked under his shirt sometime close to his arrival at the hotel.

“The complete video from that evening at the hotel has not been shown, and I ask those who have published these images to show the whole thing,” he told the newspaper.

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Kosher food made available at British parliament

Tue, 2021-10-19 20:04

(JTA) — More than three years after a similar push was denied, kosher and halal food has been made available regularly at the headquarters of the British parliament, where about 11,000 people work, hundreds of them Jewish or Muslim.

The launch on Tuesday follows a push that two Labour lawmakers — Charlotte Nichols, who is Jewish, and Zarah Sultana, who is Muslim — began in 2019, the Jewish News of London reported.

The move was approved in 2020 but implementation was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down parts of the British parliament in London, according to the Jewish News.

The kosher meal provider is 1070 Kitchen, a catering service based in London under the supervision of that city’s rabbinical court. Its name refers to the year in which the first written record of Jewish settlement in England was authored.

The dishes on offer Tuesday included chicken schnitzel, beef goulash, Moroccan salmon and roast chicken.

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The author of ‘The Matzah Ball,’ a Hanukkah novel, wants Jews to read more romance

Tue, 2021-10-19 19:33

(JTA) — Jean Meltzer always knew how “The Matzah Ball,” her first novel, would end. 

“The rule of romance is that there has to be a happy ending; the characters have to get together,” Meltzer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “If they don’t get together, that’s not a romance; that’s literary fiction.”

So (not-really-a-spoiler alert) it was a foregone conclusion that protagonist Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt, a best-selling Christmas-themed romance writer who has kept her career from her observant Jewish parents, would wind up with Jacob Greenberg, her Camp Ahava crush who is now throwing the glitziest Hanukkah party New York City has ever seen.

But while Rachel and Jacob’s love story conforms to the conventions of the romance novel, Meltzer sees it as subverting traditional Jewish stories that more often dwell on the difficulty or danger of being Jewish.

“I wanted to write a book for Jews where the heroes were sexy, where the men were strong, where the women were beautiful, where they got their happy ending,” said Meltzer, a self-proclaimed rabbinical school dropout and Christmas junkie.

Meltzer also wanted to spotlight a character who, like her, struggles with chronic illness. Rachel’s myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, is invisible to those who don’t know her but shapes her life in every way, much as it has for Meltzer, who was diagnosed as a young adult and describes herself as “basically homebound.”

Meltzer spoke to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from her silver-tinsel-draped home office in Northern Virginia about the impetus behind “The Matzah Ball,” why she believes the Hanukkah bush has a place in Jewish homes and the power of romance novels to shape Jewish identity. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: Why did you decide to write this book and what are you hoping to achieve with it?

Meltzer: I’ve always been a nice Jewish girl who loves Christmas. And every year I go into, say, Target, and there’s a holiday display with all of the Christmas books. Year after year, I went looking for a Hanukkah book, and there never was one. I just wanted to see myself represented on that table. I could envision it: a blue and white book in the sea of red and green. 

I also had an experience where my 7-year-old niece was sitting on my lap and she looked at me and she goes Auntie Jean, you have a big nose, and big noses are ugly. She goes to Jewish day school, she’s surrounded by strong Jewish women, and I thought, where did she get this message? 

So when I sat down to write this book, I wanted to do something different from the stories I had grown up with, which were Holocaust stories, stories where Jews were being taken hostage by terrorists — you never really saw us as the heroes of their own stories. I wanted to write a book for Jews where the heroes were sexy, where the men were strong, where the women were beautiful, where they got their happy ending. I wrote this book primarily for myself, but it was really out of a desire to sort of just create a different type of Jewish story.

I think we all know that antisemitism is a growing problem. I didn’t want to add to that. I wanted to write the best of my community. I wanted to write the best of Shabbat dinners that I’ve been to, the best of Jewish mothers, the best of Jewish friendships, and all the fun of living in the Jewish world. I wanted people to see Jews in a different light.

In the literary world, the #OwnVoices movement has argued that stories about communities and cultures should be written by people from those communities and cultures. There’s also backlash to this idea from those who say it deprives writers of the power to invent and may cause writers to be pigeonholed. How do you see your work fitting into this debate?

Having worked with non-Jewish editors and seeing how people have reacted to the book, I can see now that I think in a very Jewish worldview that is very different from how the rest of the world thinks. Things that I sort of take for granted and nuances that I thought everybody would sort of understand, I had to realize and learn that that was not the case.

Listen, I’m a writer. I love writing. Any writer should be able to write any story. But I really think there is something to #OwnVoices. You would have to do years and years and years of research, I think, to write a book like “The Matzah Ball,” if you didn’t have the experience. I think there’s absolutely something to be said for #OwnVoices.

The book is very thoroughly Jewish — not just the characters and setting but the text, which is peppered with references to the Talmud and other Jewish texts. Who do you see as the audience?

At the end of the day I don’t know who the audience will be but I will tell you that absolutely non-Jews have picked up the book. Debbie Macomber is the queen of Christmas romance: She fell in love with the book, and not only gave me a blurb but she did my launch event recently

The first international territory my book sold to was Sweden, which again is a place that you don’t think has a huge Jewish population, and it’s going to be [the publisher’s] Christmas lead in 2022. So, obviously, the book is resonating with non-Jewish readers and I think it’s been resonating with Jewish readers as well, which is the ultimate hope — that it reaches who it needs to reach.

Your story is about a celebration of holiday aesthetics, but there’s also a moment where the characters realize that a bunch of dreidels and menorahs just don’t have a glitzy effect. The Christmas aesthetic is so well developed, and there are so many variations on it. Why do you think the Jewish holiday aesthetic is so much less developed?

I did not grow up in a family that had any type of Christmas or Hanukkah decor, but I love it now. Every year I start sort of scouring for, like, a new Hanukkah inflatable for the lawn, and every year it’s impossible to find something that’s good, that doesn’t look just like a tchotchke on my lawn. Even so, I’m very proud of my outdoor display — we have gone insane. We have giant blow-ups and we put up lights and it’s gotten to a point where people literally drive to see it.

In Jewish law, there are prohibitions against mimicking your foreign neighbors and things like that. So growing up I think that was very strong: There was a fear of assimilation and that having a Christmas tree, we were all going to go off and marry non-Jews and not be Jewish anymore. For me, I feel like I’ve done the work Jewishly, and I am very comfortable in my Judaism. So I don’t feel like the Hanukkah bush is going to be my slippery slope that’s going to push me over the edge and change my belief system. 

But there is also a commandment of beautifying your holy objects, and then the commandment for Hanukkah lights is that you’re supposed to publicize the miracle, right? I’m not a rabbi, but you can maybe make an argument [in favor of Hanukkah lawn displays].

I’ve always been a person who likes pretty things, and especially with chronic illness and in the middle of a pandemic, holding on to my joy is such a big part of my life. And when I walk and it’s nighttime and the lights are twinkling, I feel it in my kishkes. It just makes me feel good.

If you were to pick a favorite moment in the book or the writing process, one that felt like a peak moment for you, what would it be and why?

The hardest thing for me to write, or what I think was the most important thing, was the bedazzled wheelchair. [Jacob sends a sparkly wheelchair to Rachel’s apartment after a flareup of her chronic fatigue leaves her unable to leave home.] 

The problem of chronic illness is that it’s invisible. Because we’re invisible, our struggles are not fully seen and because they’re not seen, they’re not understood. So this idea that like, again, it’s almost like intersectionality of identity — we think of ourselves as Jewish, but we’re more than just Jewish. A lot of us have multiple identities. By making it visible, by showing that it’s so much more normal than we realize, that’s how we get people to understand that it’s part of our experience.

And when you’re chronically ill, that moment where you want to use a wheelchair is really the moment when you’re like “holy crap, I’m really sick,” and when your disability goes from invisible to visible. So I felt it was incredibly important and powerful that women who were chronically ill and sick could see that they could be loved, even in a wheelchair. And that it’s okay to accept your disability, and then also that a man or a woman or a partner will love you in spite of whatever your disability is, will love you through all the good and bad of your life. 

It was the hardest thing to write because I had never seen anything like that in a romance, but I felt like at the end of the day it was the most important scene I wrote in the book.

What else would you want Jewish readers to know about your book?

It was written to create a joyous Jewish story. I know it’s different but I really think everyone should at least pick it up, give it a chance, give it a try. You might find that you actually like romance and romcom more than you realize. I know it’s new for the Jewish world.

I really think it’s important that young people and all of us see ourselves in stories beyond the lens of victimhood, and I really think that one of the ways we do that is by making ourselves heroes in our own stories. And this is a way to do that. Romance gives us the ability to become heroes and love interests, and champions of our own narrative. 

I hope I’m not the only Jewish romance writer going forward. [Meltzer’s second book, “Mr. Perfect on Paper,” will come out next year, and she’s at work on a third.] I hope we have lots of Jewish rom coms because there’s a huge gaping hole in the market there. And, you know, I think it’s really important that we start telling stories where we get a happy ending. I know it’s not what we do, but everyone deserves a happy ending, including Jews. 

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What the Tree of Life shooting revealed about American Jewry

Tue, 2021-10-19 19:00

(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — A few years ago a colleague called to interview me for a book he was writing about journalists who worked for Jewish publications. I told him that it would be the first book in history whose readership would overlap 100% with the people being interviewed.

That’s a little bit how I feel about books that look deeply into the ins and outs of Jewish communal affairs: the admittedly small genre of synagogue tell-alls, studies of Jewish philanthropy, scholarly work on how Americans “do” Judaism. Of course, I eat these books up – it’s my job and passion. But I suspect I am a distinct minority within a minority.

I also suspected Mark Oppenheimer’s new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” might be similarly narrow in its scope and audience. In some ways it is, but that is also its strength: In describing the Oct. 27, 2018 massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh and how individuals and institutions responded, he covers board meetings, interviews clergy, takes notes on sermons and reads demographic studies by Jewish federations. The result is a biopsy – or really, a stress test – of American Jewry in the early 21st century, the good and the bad.

And as a result it tells a bigger story about and for all Americans in an age of mass shootings, political polarization and spiritual malaise.

First the good: The Squirrel Hill in Oppenheimer’s book is a model of Jewish community building – home to the rare American Jewish population that stuck close to its urban roots instead of fleeing to the far suburbs. The neighborhood boasts walkable streets, a wide array of Jewish institutions, a diverse public high school and local hangouts that serve as the “third places” so elusive in suburbia. Oppenheimer credits a federation leader, Howard Rieger, who in 1993 spearheaded a capital project that kept the community’s infrastructure — “from preschool to assisted living” — in place and intact.

The universal outpouring of support after the shooting also showed American Jewish life at its best. Offers to help flooded in from Jews around the country and the world. Non-Jews rushed to assure Jews that they were not alone. Barriers fell between Jewish denominations, and people put politics and religion aside to focus on the qualities and threats that unite them.

The downside is a photo negative of all that’s right about Squirrel Hill and American Jewry. The diversity and demographics of Squirrel Hill are a reminder of the more typically segregated way of American Jewish life — religiously, racially and economically. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews spin in separate orbits. Many white Jews rarely interact with people of color who aren’t cleaning their homes or taking care of their kids.

As for the support that flowed in: Oppenheimer also describes the ways the offers of help could feel both patronizing and self-serving, as outside Jewish groups and “trauma tourists” rushed in without considering the needs or feelings of the locals. One New York-based burial society sent “experts” to help the provincials tend to the bodies of victims; they were not-so-politely told that the locals had it under control. There’s a sad and hilarious profile of an Israeli medical clown who, like so many clowns, ends up sowing more confusion than comfort.

Oppenheimer also complicates the rosy portraits of Pittsburgh’s “Stronger Than Hate” response to the shootings. While the Jewish community remains mostly grateful for the shows of solidarity, there were missteps and miscommunications along the way. Even one of the most iconic images of the shooting – the Kaddish prayer written in Hebrew characters on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – has a complicated backstory that ended with the departure of the newspaper’s editor.

Internal divisions are on display as well: Jewish progressives who protested President Trump’s visit to Squirrel Hill after the shooting argued with “alrightniks” who either supported Trump or felt his office should be respected. Victims’ families reacted angrily after a local rabbi dared bring up gun control during an event on the one-year anniversary of the shootings. The rabbi later apologized for appearing to break an agreement that his speech would not be “political.”

Perhaps most of all, “Squirrel Hill” describes American Jewry at a crossroads, with Tree of Life as a potent symbol of its present demise and future possibilities. The synagogues that shared space in the building drew and still draw relatively few worshippers on a typical Shabbat, and those who come tend to be older. While the Tree of Life shooting galvanized a discussion about whether Jews could ever feel safe in America, America’s embrace of Jews has left non-Orthodox synagogues empty or emptying.

Tree of Life will apparently be rebuilt as a complex that will be “part synagogue, part Holocaust museum, part 10/27 memorial.” Whether anyone will come is another story. In his High Holiday sermon a year after the attack, Jeffrey Myers, Tree of Life’s rabbi, offered “a brutally candid assessment of the state of the synagogue, a plea for help, a challenge” for twice-a-year Jews to show up for programs and services, lest the synagogue cease to exist in 30 years.

That’s not just a Pittsburgh, or Jewish, thing. As Myers puts it, “low attendance at regular worship services was not a Jewish problem but an American problem.”

Oppenheimer does bring more hopeful stories, starting with the bustling Orthodox synagogues and including people and congregations offering spiritual, political and cultural alternatives for a generation of disenchanted seekers. How “sticky” these alternatives will be — to borrow a term from Silicon Valley — remains to be seen.

“Squirrel Hill” is both inspiring and deflating. It’s a reminder of the persistence of one of the world’s oldest hatreds and of the resilience of its targets. It’s a celebration of an American Jewish community, and a lament for fading Jewish connections.

And it is also a useful corrective for me, someone who is paid to cover these issues. After the one-year anniversary event, a local Jewish leader tells Oppenheimer that “she felt that the narrative of strength and unity had obscured how much people were still hurting.” Her words and Oppenheimer’s book are a reminder that there is always more to the story.

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