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Post  Admin on Thu 09 Jan 2020, 11:18 pm
6 Common Foods Popularized by Jews
Jan 5, 2020  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
6 Common Foods Popularized by Jews
Common foods whose popularity was spread by Jews.

Some of the most commonplace foods we take for granted weren’t always so easy to come by. In many cases, it was Jewish traders or businesspeople who introduced basic ingredients to new markets. Take artichokes – for years, Italians called this vegetable “Jewish food”, because Jews introduced it to the region. In Spain, Jews introduced eggplant; the vegetable was so associated with Jews that during the Spanish Inquisition, eating eggplant was even grounds for accusing someone of being a secret Jew.
Here are six other common foods whose popularity was spread by Jews.

Growing Oranges in Europe
Surprisingly, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot helped popularize oranges in Europe. Because Jews use etrogs to celebrate Sukkot, Jews in Southern Europe were adept at tending to citrus trees and orchards. (In fact, in the chaotic period after the fall of the Roman Empire, Jews are thought to have been the only people continuing to grow citrus fruit in Europe.) When Arab traders started bringing the first oranges from India to Europe to sell in the Middle Ages, Jewish citrus growers added the new fruit to their orchards.

Soon, oranges became a quintessential Sephardi Jewish food, used in cakes, meat dishes, and salads. Food history writer Gil Marks notes that “It was by no coincidence that the centers of medieval citrus cultivation directly corresponded to the centers of Jewish population.” (Quoted in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, John Wiley & Sons: 2010.) Jewish traders brought oranges – as well as etrogs and other citrus fruit – to Jewish communities in northern Europe, where they were a coveted treat. In some Ashkenazi Jewish communities, an orange was a popular Hanukkah gift. Later, Sephardi Jews introduced orange cultivation to South America and the Caribbean, as well.

In more recent times, Jewish peddlers introduced oranges to mass markets in western Europe. In a book about London’s poor published in 1851, the author Henry Mayhew noted that “the (orange) trade was, not many years ago, confined almost entirely to the Jew boys who kept aloof from the vagrant lads of the streets”. (London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1861.)

Jewish vendors sold oranges from baskets or stalls on busy streets, and later branched into the wholesale and import markets, ensuring that oranges became available widely in Europe and beyond.

Secret Formula for Vanilla
Vanilla is native to the eastern coast of Mexico, and for years the Totonac Indians and Aztecs cultivated it and cooked with the fragrant vanilla flowers. Vanilla only develops its delicious flavor after weeks of intense processing; Native American chefs developed top-secret techniques to cook vanilla, and refused to share their knowledge with European conquerors. But they did let some Jewish traders and interpreters in on their secret.

Jews – both Sephardi Jews and also secret “Converso” Jews who maintained their Jewish identity and practice in secret in order to outwit the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions – often served as translators in the 1500s and 1600s. Jews in the New World frequently spoke Dutch, Spanish and English, and also taught themselves some indigenous languages, and were in high demand among traders. Some of these Jewish interpreters gained native Indians’ trust.

The first non-natives to manufacture vanilla were David and Rafael Mercado, Jewish brothers who settled in what is today French Guiana, and built a sugar processing plant there. The local Dutch authorities forbade them from making sugar, so the Mercado brothers turned to vanilla instead. Vanilla is extremely hard to grow, but the Mercados – and soon other Jewish producers – developed methods to make vanilla commercially viable.

Sephardi Jews began exporting vanilla to Jewish communities in Europe. Ashkenazi Jews entered the vanilla trade too, and for years the vanilla industry was closely associated with Jewish producers, who never let out the secret to vanilla production. It was only in the mid-1800s that French traders succeeded in smuggling vanilla plants out of Mexico to the French tropical colony Tahiti; it took years to grow them there. Eventually, Jewish dominance of the vanilla industry faded away as vanilla became more widespread and popular and scientific advances in Europe allowed people to process vanilla more easily. (For more information, see Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, John Wiley & Sons: 2010).

Jewish Doctor Prescribing Tomatoes
Tomatoes are a New World fruit, brought back to Europe by Spanish conquerors in the 1500s. While tomatoes quickly became popular in the Ottoman Empire and were embraced by Middle Eastern cooks, including Jews, it took generations for Western Europeans to start eating them.

Tomatoes were a popular plant to grow, but only for ornamental purposes, and were considered dangerous to eat. Many Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous, in part because they’re a member of the nightshade plant family, which contains poisonous plants, and also because diners used to eat off of pewter plates, which reacted negatively with the acidity in tomatoes, causing unpleasant tastes and sickening some diners.

One of the first Westerners to recognize tomatoes’ high nutritional value was a Jewish physician living in 18th Century Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Dr. John de Sequeyra. He took care of Thomas Jefferson’s father, and had some progressive ideas. Dr de Sequeyra believed tomatoes were chock-full of vitamins and advised eating one tomato every day. Dr. de Sequeyra made an impression on the Jefferson family, and Thomas Jefferson took Dr. de Sequeyra’s advice. One day, Thomas Jefferson announced he would eat a tomato in public; a crowd gathered and waited for ill effects. None came, and tomatoes began to be embraced in Virginia, and beyond.

(Discussed in Notes on an Early Virginia Physician: Dr. John de Sequeyra: The Portuguese-Jewish PHysician of Colonial Williamsburg by Robert Shosteck, American Jewish Archives: 1971).

Bringing Coffee to the West
Native to Ethiopia, coffee beans were being used to make beverages in Yemen in the Middle Ages. From there, coffee drinking made its way north, becoming popular throughout the Middle East. Years later, Jews were in the vanguard of bringing coffee to Western Europe, introducing this delicious beverage to European consumers and building coffeehouses where it could be sampled and enjoyed.

Jews in the Italian city of Livorno opened the first coffeehouses in Europe in 1632. It was a huge success, and soon, Jews, as well as Turks and Armenians, were opening coffeehouses in the Netherlands and France, encouraging the first generation of coffee drinkers in those countries. England’s first coffeehouse was the brainchild of a businessman known as “Jacob the Jew”, who opened the Angel Inn in Oxford in 1650. Four years later, another Jew named Cirques Jobson opened England’s second coffeehouse nearby.

French Chocolates
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are indigenous to Mexico. European explorers encountered xocalatl, a bitter drink made from cocoa beans that was popular with the Aztecs. In the 1600s, European settlers competed to produce and export cocoa beans and products made with them from Mexico; many of these early traders were Sephardi Jews.

The world’s first commercial cocoa-producing factory was founded in the late 1600s by Benjamin d’Acosta de Andrade, a secret Jew from Portugal. When Benjamin was expelled from a French colony in the Caribbean, he moved to the Dutch-controlled island of Curacao, where Jews could live openly, and began manufacturing cocoa. Many of his customers seem to have been European Jews, who developed a taste for early chocolate products.

The center of chocolate production in Europe in the 1600s was the Jewish ghetto of Bayonne, France. Jews had moved to Bayonne from Portugal after the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. They brought their business ties to traders in the Americas with them, and for a time, Bayonne was one of Europe’s most prolific traders with West Indies, importing chocolate and other products into France.

Jews in Bayonne experimented with cooking techniques, mixing bitter cocoa beans with sugar, cream, vanilla and other ingredients to create sweet-tasting delicious chocolates. They built Europe’s first ever chocolate factories and soon Bayonne was the center of the new craze for chocolate that was sweeping France. Non-Jews near Bayonne began producing chocolates too, and Christian producers started pressuring the French government to stop Jews from selling chocolate and competing with their French counterparts. In 1691, the French government banned Bayonne’s Jews from selling chocolates to Christians.

In 2013, French authorities formally recognized and thanked the Jewish community of Bayonne for bringing chocolate to France 500 years before. “Since we are the inheritors of the Jews’ savoir faire, it was our duty to thank them, but also to restore a historic truth: after they introduced chocolate to France, Bayonne Jewry was gradually evicted from the chocolate industry in the 17h century by the very people who had learned everything from them” explained Jean-Michel Barate, then head of the Chocolate Academy of Bayonne.

Inventing “Kiwifruit”
Frieda Caplan started working in her husband’s family business, selling wholesale fruits and vegetables in Los Angeles, in 1955 because she could work flexible hours and be with her young children. The child of Jewish refugees from Russia, she was part of a tight-knit Jewish family. Other wholesalers in Los Angeles regarded Frieda as a curiosity, and whenever an unknown type of produce would arrive in the market, sellers would shunt it to Frieda. She started her own company, Produce Specialties, Inc., in 1962, focusing on importing and distributing fruits and vegetables that were little known in the United States.

Frieda Caplan

One of her first customers was a buyer in Salt Lake City who’d just come back from New Zealand and tasted delicious fruit there called “Chinese Gooseberries”. The product wasn’t available in the United States – could Frieda Caplan import some for him, he wondered? Frieda ordered a delivery, but didn’t think something called Chinese Gooseberries would sell in the US. Since the fruits were grown in New Zealand, she renamed them kiwifruit instead. It took about 18 years, Frieda estimated, for kiwis to become popular in the United States, but by 1986 she was selling a million pounds of kiwis each year.

Kiwis aren’t the only fruits introduced and popularized in the United States by Frieda Caplan. She also introduced seedless watermelon, spaghetti squash, habanero chilis, sugar snap peas, jicama and “champagne” grapes (which she named – they were previously called Zante currants) to the American market. Previously unavailable or only sold in specialty ethnic stores, these popular fruits and vegetables are now widely popular and commonly available – thanks to Frieda Caplan and her years of innovative importing and marketing business

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Post  Admin on Mon 06 Jan 2020, 1:14 pm
Torah Is Food for the Soul: Celebrating the Completion of Learning the Talmud
Jan 2, 2020  |  by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Torah Is Food for the Soul: Celebrating the Completion of Learning the Talmud 
We defeat the anti-Semites by embracing Torah stronger and dedicating ourselves to share it with our brothers and sisters.

When Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l, the founder of the Daf Yomi, the page-of-Talmud-a-day program, was seven years old, he found his mother crying and he asked her why. She explained that she was terribly sad because his Torah teacher was scheduled to come that day but didn’t show up. The young boy didn’t understand why that moved her to tears. She explained, “You don’t understand Meir’l because you are too young, but my son, I want you to always remember, if you miss a day of learning, it cannot be replaced, it cannot be made up.”

Rav Meir Shapiro’s mother understood something so fundamental, so basic and so core to our people: Torah is not information, it is not a set of facts, laws, or history. Torah learning is not just a way of life, it is what provides life, sustains life and nourishes life. Without it we simply cannot live.

Rav Meir Shapiro’s mother’s tears left an indelible impression and when the opportunity presented itself, he introduced a system and initiative which would ensure we would never miss a day of learning in our lives. It is estimated that today there are more than 300,000 people around the world who learn the Daf Yomi daily. Rav Meir Shapiro and his wife didn’t have biological children, but make no mistake, each page of Talmud learned is his continuity and legacy, each of the members of the daf his progeny.

Much of the credit for the Daf Yomi, for the countless people who learn it daily, for the tens of millions of pages of Talmud learned in the last seven and a half years, goes to his mother. She, and Jewish women since then, have inspired, supported, promoted and sacrificed to ensure that a day of learning is never missed. They, too, are heroes of the daf who deserve recognition and appreciation this morning.
In the golden age of the Jewish people, Torah informed and inspired us, and in some of our darkest periods and bleakest moments, Torah learning is what gave us not only courage, faith and hope, but it gave us life.

The Tanya writes: Torah is the nourishment for the soul who learns it sincerely. Mitzvot are garments, they enable us to make contact with the Divine by doing them, but Torah is the spiritual food we ingest. We digest it and it becomes absorbed by us, part of us, informing us, inspiring us and enabling us to not only touch the Divine but be of one mind with Him, integrated as one. When we learn Torah we are feeding our soul, hydrating our spirt.

Today, we are going to recite the Hadran, the prayer recited upon completing a tractate of Talmud, from a very special Gemara. The Nazis had stolen, looted, and burned all the Torah books belonging to German Jews. Not one complete set of Talmud could be found in Western Europe. Rabbi Samuel Snieg and Rabbi Samuel Rose, both survivors of Dachau, had an idea to print an entire full-size set of Talmud in Germany. They printed 50 sets of what became known as “The Survivors’ Talmud” on the exact printing machines the Nazis had used to produce their propaganda during the war. The survivors in the DP camps were starving for food, but many were also desperate to feed their souls, eager to resume learning the Daf Yomi.

Today, almost 75 years later, as we once again face a rise of those who want to harm us, heinous attacks by those who want to eliminate us, we will celebrate the completion of Shas with a statement of defiance, of triumph over our enemies. With this siyum, completion, we once again declare "The Jewish People are eternal." We will read the Hadran from a volume of the Survivors’ Talmud, a testament to the immortality of our people and to the central role of Torah in sustaining us.

Shortly, we will hold that volume and proudly declare "we will return to you," we will return to learning the Torah. No matter what, no matter when, "we will return to you." Some will try to cause us to forget the Torah, but we will be back. Others will burn you and destroy you, but we will be back. Yet others, even today, will try to destroy Torah in Shuls in Har Nof, Pittsburgh, Poway, or Monsey, but we will keep coming back, because nothing can keep us away. This is our mission as Jews, this is core to who we are and remains an essential part of our mandate.

Torah is for every single one of us. None of us can afford to be too busy, too distracted, have too much insecurity or too little interest to learn Torah. It needs us and we need it and nobody understood that better than the extraordinary person whom we dedicate this siyum to today. When our dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Brian Galbut, was diagnosed with a devastating brain tumor, he knew that as important as any medicine, treatment or therapy was for his health and wellbeing, it was Torah learning and the learning of others in his merit, that would give him life.

Brian cherished the Daf Yomi, even if it meant breaking his teeth over a difficult topic. Learning a page of Talmud was only a part of his rigorous learning schedule that included exploring topics that interested him and preparing high-level classes that he delivered. The wear and tear of his books, the notes in their margins and the underlines on its pages all testify to his diligence and commitment to learning Torah, all while earning a reputation as an outstanding physician and being one of the most hands-on fathers I ever saw.

When he got sick, the Daf in particular took on special significance for Brian, not only for what it meant for himself but as the perfect project to recruit others to join in his merit. When people wanted to visit while he was recovering from surgery, he suggested learning the Daf together. He got his uncles, brothers-in-law and cousins to learn it with him and for him. He called friends and acquaintances and asked them to take it on for him. As his illness progressed, understanding the Daf became harder and harder but you wouldn’t know it. He smiled and laughed, even while he struggled. He was never fatigued, never defeated. He kept plugging away until he literally, physically couldn’t learn the Daf anymore, and even then, it continued to play in his ears.

In anticipation of this siyum in his memory, several people shared with me the experience of being recruited by Brian to learn the Daf. I will just share what one person wrote:

I will never forget the call. It was a Friday afternoon in July. I was driving home from work. When I first saw the name on the caller ID my jaw practically dropped: “Brian Galbut.” This was two weeks after Brian had been diagnosed and undergone brain surgery. It shocked me to see that he was calling me now. I picked up the phone and said hello. After answering my “How are you doing” with his trademark “Baruch Hashem, feeling great, everything’s great,” he told me he wanted a favor. “You’re smart, you’re capable, you can learn…. I was wondering if you could start learning Daf Yomi in my merit?” I didn’t hesitate to agree.

Those few minutes literally changed my life. I started Daf Yomi the next day. And that learning, but most of all the source behind it – Brian putting himself out there to personally ask me to do it – sparked something in me… Until then, I could check off every box as someone “observant” — but I wasn’t connected in a serious way to learning or davening or in my connection with Hashem. Seeing how Brian immediately reacted to his illness, calling people like me, trying to get us to commit to learning, inspired me to re-evaluate my life and consider what I could do to be more like Brian, someone I had always admired as a model of a true servant of God…

There is literally no area of my life that has not improved because Brian picked up the phone and called me one July day and solicited the initial commitment. Among other things, my Torah learning and davening are better, qualitatively and quantitatively, than they have ever been. We weren’t close friends and yet not a day goes by that I do not think about Brian and what he did for me with one short phone call. I cherish his memory and I will continue to learn Torah in his memory every day.

Brian Galbut knew that if he could get others to learn Torah in his merit, it would not only extend his life, but it would give them eternal life.

Many here are marking the completion of the Talmud, an enormous accomplishment. I wish you all a huge mazel tov and bless you that Hashem should continue to grant you energy, good health and the wherewithal to continue learning. But those who finished the Talmud are only half the reason we are celebrating. We are also here to celebrate those who are about to embark on this extraordinary journey, whether of learning Daf Yomi, or anything else. If you are moved by this event and by this time to imbibe the sweetness of Torah, this celebration is for you. If you are determined to go from today and incorporate Torah study into your life in a real and consistent way, the joy we feel with you today knows no limits.

Make a plan today. Join the movement of those who realize that Torah is our lifeline and take upon yourself a commitment for Torah learning. It could be a page a day or a page a week, it could be Mishna or Tanach, it could be listening to a class or having a study partner but everyone, absolutely everyone here, men, women and children must nourish our souls by feeding them Torah.

Anti-Semites are once again trying to destroy us. Of course, we must fight them in the halls of Congress, in the court of public opinion, with greater measures of safety and with security. But, we ultimately fight their nefarious plan when we double down on our Jewish identity, when we recommit to our Jewish mission and when we promise to keep Torah the centerpiece of our lives. We defeat them not only when we embrace Torah stronger ourselves, but when we dedicate ourselves to share it with our brothers and sisters who have never been introduced to Torah before. This large gathering is extraordinary, but for each person here, there are literally 100 Jews living in our area who are spiritually malnourished, dehydrated and on the brink of spiritual death.

Take something upon yourself right now, right here. May yourself a promise. Do it for the Jewish people, do it elevate the soul of Brian, Boruch Tzvi ben Reuven Natan, most of all do it for yourself.

Adapted from Raqbbi Goldberg's remarks at the South Florida Siyum Hashas in memory of Brian Galbut – Baruch Tzvi ben Reuven Nosson – held on January 1, 2020
Jewish Genius and Bret Stephens
Jan 5, 2020  |  by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Jewish Genius and Bret Stephens
Don't confuse racism with hard-earned excellence.

How smart are Jews?

Bret Stephens, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, was enthralled by Norman Lebrecht’s new book Genius & Anxiety discussing the intellectual achievements of Jewish thinkers, artists and entrepreneurs between 1847 and 1947. So he decided last week to devote a column to this fascinating question: How is it that people who never amounted even to one third of 1% of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations? In short, what is the secret of Jewish genius?

And that’s when the roof caved in for Bret Stephens. As one of the lone conservatives and vocal supporters of Israel on the Times staff, Stephens is no stranger to controversy. His views have often elicited strong negative reactions. This time though his critics are calling for his head. After all, how dare Stephens suggest there is even the slightest truth to the idea that Jews are somehow intellectually superior.

Never mind the inconvenient facts: Jews, more than any other minority, ethnic or cultural, have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, with almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates being Jewish. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates. Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, and 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction. A remarkable study conducted by psychologist Richard Lynn and political scientist Tatu Vanhanen, published in 2006 in IQ and Global Inequity, calculated that a Jewish average IQ of 115 is 8 points higher than the generally accepted IQ of their closest rivals – Northeast Asians – and approximately 40% higher than the global average IQ of 79.1.

But, Bret Stephens, you better not dare even hint at Jewish intellectual superiority because that makes you guilty of the contemporary crime of racism.

Regretfully, Stephens did make one mistake of judgment. In citing data about Jewish intellectual achievement and IQ, Stephens linked to a paper written by three anthropologists, one of whom, as it turns out, has been accused of being a racist. The Times subsequently removed the link. But guilt by association is wrong; nowhere did Stephens proceed to base Jewish genius on faulty racist doctrine.

Before political correctness would surely have prevented him from stating it so boldly, Mark Twain wrote this about the Jews in the 19th century:

[The Jews] are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy… [Jewish] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are... way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world… and has done it with his hands tied behind him.

Twain wasn’t a racist; he was a realist. He chose to recognize the remarkable gifts of a people who excelled for a host of reasons – and passed on their commitment to education and to excellence to their children. And Bret Stephens, searching for the traits that have clearly allowed one people to stand out at the peak of human achievement, did nothing more than focus on possible reasons for Jewish greatness, reasons – as he himself points out – that are not genetically exclusive to Jews but potentially available to all who are willing to pursue excellence.

Why are Jews so smart? At the very same time the “fire Bret Stephens for racism” protest gained steam, Jews around the world offered a highly visible answer. A little shy of 100,000 Jews gathered in the cold at Met-Life Stadium in New Jersey; tens of thousands at Barclays center in Brooklyn; similar numbers in major cities across the country as well as around the world. Venues accustomed to serving as sites for major sports events and entertainment were filled to capacity with Jews celebrating a joyous achievement. For more than seven years, every single day – no matter the weather, their other commitments, their health or their schedules – they learned one full page of the Talmud. In a little over seven years they finished this momentous project. To have studied the Talmud is to recognize the difficulty involved. It is a curriculum which affords no degree at its conclusion. It will in no way add to anyone’s ability to achieve greater financial security. It is purely learning for the sake of learning. It is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is making the statement that as our bodies need food for physical sustenance, so too our souls require “soul food”, the nourishment of wisdom and understanding.

I know of no other people who have a similar universal commitment to study and to perfection of the intellect, the quality which Maimonides teaches is the meaning of being created “in the image of God.”

It is not racism to recognize that Jewish respect for scholarship has been a highly significant factor in the creation of an intellectual aristocracy. Here is Talmudic advice for acquiring a suitable mate:

“Our Rabbis teach, Let a man sell all that he has and marry the daughter of a learned man. If he cannot find the daughter of a learned man, let him marry the daughter of one of the great men of his day. If he does not find such a one, let him marry the daughter of one of the heads of the congregation, or, failing this, the daughter of a charity collector, or even the daughter of a schoolmaster; but let him not marry the daughter of an illiterate man, for the unlearned are an abomination.” (Pesachim, 49: 2).

“What makes Jews special is that they aren’t,” Stephens contends in his allegedly eugenicist column. Others might achieve the same goal if they chose to live by similar values. Stephens explains the Jewish focus on education as a consequence of roughly two millennia of exile and persecution.

And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible – knowledge most of all – is potentially everlasting. “We had been well off, but that was all we got out,” the late financier Felix Rohatyn recalled of his narrow escape, with a few hidden gold coins, from the Nazis as a child in World War II. “Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that the only permanent wealth is what you carry around in your head.” If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.

Jews in the diaspora learned that the only possession they could truly call their own was what they accumulated in their mind. The people of the book cherished the book above all – and that is the secret Jews passed on from one generation to the next.

Poor Bret Stephens. Little did he realize that when he chose to acknowledge Jewish genius he opened the floodgates for Jew haters who found yet another way to deny Jews recognition for their achievements - by confusing racism with hard-earned excellence.


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Post  Admin on Wed 01 Jan 2020, 12:28 pm
The Monsey Hanukkah Horror
Dec 29, 2019  |  by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
The Monsey Hanukkah Horror
We Jews, descendants of the Maccabees, need to become more Jewish, not less Jewish.

After the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh we foolishly thought there was only enough hate to last for one day in our civilized society of America. But we were wrong. The list of cities in the headlines with anti-Semitic incidents almost daily grows longer. The virus of hate continues to flourish and incredibly grows stronger. Synagogues have armed guards. Jews are attacked. The darkness overpowers the light in a stunning reversal of the Hanukkah miracle.

It seems just days ago that we were horrified by events in Jersey City. Now, in addition to the Hasidic areas, it is even the exclusive upper East side of Manhattan as well. It does not take peyot, sidelocks, and wide-brimmed black hats to bring out the hatred. It is enough today for the anti-Semites merely to suspect that their victims are Jews.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the remarkable connection between the latest Monsey incident and Hanukkah.

“For the miracles, for the deliverance, for the strength, for the salvation and for the battles” – we thank God for all of these, including the battles. We thank God for Mattathias and his sons who bravely demonstrated that Jews do not believe in passively accepting the efforts of those who seek to destroy us. Jews do not live by the maxim to turn the other cheek. Jews, even those for whom the temple as a dwelling place for God on this earth is the ideal, recognized the need not to rely solely on the Almighty but to put forth all of our own efforts as well to rid us of evil and to make us worthy of God’s presence in our midst.

Hanukkah is the holiday of the Maccabees as much as it is the commemoration of miracles.

It is not a time for silence when anti-Semitic attacks are countered with political platitudes of “zero tolerance” followed by revolving door justice. It is almost impossible to believe that suspects arrested in last week’s string of eight anti-Semitic attacks were quickly released right back into the neighborhoods they allegedly terrorized due to bail reform legislation. New legislation requires arraignment judges to free suspects “in any non-sexual assault that doesn’t cause physical injury, even in cases of hate attacks. Even if there is an injury, then bail could be requested”, but not necessarily granted.

In New York City’s Orthodox neighborhoods Jews are incredulous to discover that even when violent bigots are caught they are immediately released in accord with changed legislation.

Ever since I came to America, fleeing as a young boy from the Europe which made it possible for 6 million Jews to be brutally murdered, I have proudly fulfilled the Hanukkah mitzvah of “publicizing the miracle.” It is Hanukkah which demands of us that we place the menorah by the window facing the street in the outside world. It is our way of imitating the Maccabees. We will not hide our faith. We will proudly announce our identity as Jews.

America to me has always been the blessing that allowed me to walk everywhere, unafraid, with a yarmulke on my head.

Today, for the very first time in my life, someone said to me, “Maybe, for your own sake, it might be safer for you to walk around with a baseball cap instead of your kippah.”

And that of course is the beginning of the end for Jews in every country they have ever lived.

We Jews, descendants of the Maccabees, need – in the spirit of Hanukkah – to become more Jewish, not less Jewish.

Of course I have intensified my prayers. Of course I turn to God and beseech him to help us in this terrible time of danger. But I do not forget that there once was a priest with five sons who joined action to prayer, who proved to the Syrian Greeks that Jews will not choose to be meek victims but rather proud Maccabees.

When Jews are attacked with a machete in a synagogue while celebrating Hanukkah it is way past time for us to make clear – to our politicians, to our neighbors, to our society, to our country – ENOUGH! This will not be allowed to continue - and this time around, after the lessons of the Holocaust, our heroes are the Maccabees, not the Jews of silence.
Jews of Monsey Will Not Be Cowed
Dec 30, 2019
by Faygie Holt,
Jews of Monsey Will Not Be Cowed
Less than 24 hours after the attack, Jews sang and danced, celebrating the dedication of a new Torah scroll.
Less than 24 hours after five people were stabbed at a rabbi’s home on Forshay Road in Monsey, N.Y., Jews gathered on the lawn to sing and dance as a Torah scroll was dedicated at a nearby synagogue, making for a far different scene from the night beforehand.

On Saturday night, Grafton Thomas, 38, entered the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg and began stabbing people who had come to celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah. Using what has now been described as a machete, the attacker began slashing at people in the home, though several people reportedly threw objects at him, eventually prompting him to flee.

He then turned his attention to Rottenberg’s synagogue, located on an adjacent lot. Finding the building locked, the attacker returned to his car and fled the scene. He was apprehended several hours later by members of the New York Police Department.

While a motive for the attack has not been released, on Sunday New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the rampage an “act of domestic terrorism” after meeting with Rottenberg. Cuomo said he planned to introduce legislation that would increase the penalty of such cases to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo meets with of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, N.Y. after an attack in his home.
A statement released by Thomas’s lawyer, Michael Sussman, said he had suffered from a “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations,” and had “no known history of anti-Semitism.” Thomas pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary at his arraignment on Sunday. Bail was set at $5 million.

“We need more police presence. We need to feel more secure, and we don’t feel that now.”
Nevertheless, in the federal hate-crime criminal complaint on Thomas—an African-American who grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and now lives with his mother in Greenwood Lake, N.Y., about 20 miles from Monsey—said that law-enforcement agents recovered journals from his mother that included anti-Semitic references, as well as Internet searches on Adolf Hitler and where to find local Jewish synagogues.

Eli Cohen, a lifelong resident of Monsey who grew up going to the Rottenberg shul, said the attack has impacted the whole community. “We are all concerned. People are nervous,” he said, noting that kids can no longer walk to synagogue on their own because no one knows what will happen. “Monsey used to be a nice, calm, quiet place, and now, not so much.”

On any given Shabbat morning, some 200-plus people attend Shabbat services at the Rottenberg shul. Holiday programs, like the Hanukkah gathering the rabbi was holding at his home on Saturday night, can draw hundreds more people from the community.

Rivkie Feiner, a member of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County’s Jewish Community Relations Council and a board member of the JCC Rockland, was spending Saturday evening with her children at a skating rink less than two miles from Rottenberg’s home when her phone began shrill with notifications about the attack.

As the assailant was on the run and no one knew where he was heading, Feiner began urging everyone standing outside of the indoor rink to come inside and wait.

“It was scary,” she recalled. “Then you started hearing the sirens, the ambulances, the helicopters flying above.”

“People don’t understand the ripple effect. It’s horrible. The entire community is connected through social media, and even our kids hear about it,” said Feiner, a communal leader who was at the scene for a while on Saturday night and met with government officials Sunday. “My 8-year-old came over and asked me what’s a stabbing, and my 11-year-old wouldn’t go to bed until we checked that all the doors were locked. He just wanted to know that the person was caught.”

According to Richard Priem, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate regional director for New York and New Jersey, the attack in Monsey was the 10th anti-Semitic attack recorded by the group since Dec. 23 in the region. Many of those attacks happened in the borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., and were directed at Chassidic Jews who are identifiable by their dress, which for men include long black coats, black hats and on Shabbat, wide fur hats known as streimels.

“The Jewish community is utterly terrified,” Evan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey, said in a statement. “No one should have to live like this.”

The attack also came less than three weeks after a deadly attack on a Jewish market in Jersey City, N.J., where two members of the Chassidic community were among three civilians and a police detective killed during an hours-long siege. The two attackers in that case—a man and a woman—were also killed.

According to Feiner, members of the Chassidic community in Rockland County and elsewhere have expressed how vulnerable they feel because the way they dress makes them identifiably Jewish. “We need more police presence,” she said. “We need to feel more secure, and we don’t feel that now.”

Priem said “It’s hard to pinpoint a specific cause as to why this is happening, but we do know that something meaningful needs to change. We need change from the top level—from the government down to the grassroots.”

In the hours after the attack, life began to return to normal—or at least a “new normal”—in Monsey. People continued to go to synagogues throughout town to pray and shoppers filled local stores, including the kosher supermarkets.

Even Rabbi Rottenberg continued with his plans. Just hours after the attack—his son was among those who had been stabbed—the rabbi addressed members of his congregation. He also recited the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving, which is said when a person survives a dangerous situation.

For Priem, who along with his colleagues had been on the scene for hours, seeing the Torah procession stop in front of the Rottenberg residence was a particularly powerful moment.

“This shows that despite the fear, they continue to adhere to their faith,” he said. “They won’t be cowed to change.”

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Post  Admin on Sun 29 Dec 2019, 7:54 pm
The Rock from Dachau
Dec 29, 2019  |  by Rabbi Michoel Green
The Rock from Dachau
When you light your menorah, you’re never alone.

Lighting the menorah on Shrewsbury Town Common is no easy task, but I've done it nearly every night of Hanukkah for the past 17 years. The first night's lighting is always well-attended, since we invite the community to participate.

People often come to assist me or just watch while I light the kerosene lamps. Sometimes it's just me. Today was one of those times. Or so I thought.

Rabbi Green setting up Menorah

As I finished kindling the lights, I alighted from the ladder and began to head back to my van when a man came over to greet me.

"Are you the rabbi who lights this menorah every day?" he asked.

"Yup, that's me," I replied.

"Thank you for doing this," he said. "I'm not Jewish, but I really appreciate this. May I give you something as a token of appreciation? Please wait here for a minute." He ran to his car parked nearby and returned with a small clear-lucite box that contained a small rock glued to a miniature pedestal.

"This rock is from Dachau," he explained. "My grandfather helped liberate it in 1945. I went there several years ago to see it for myself. Please accept this rock as a keepsake. We want people to have them so that no one ever forget what happened there."

The rock from DachauThe rock from Dachau
After a brief conversation, I was surprised to learn that his 95-year-old grandfather and namesake, R.F. Gouley, a veteran of the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division, is alive and well, and still living here in town. I asked if his grandfather might be willing to speak to groups about his experiences. He replied that his grandfather cannot speak about the horrors he witnessed, so a mere rock from the concentration camp would have to suffice.

After the obligatory selfie, he thanked me again for lighting the menorah in town, and I thanked him for teaching people about his grandfather's experiences. More importantly, I asked him to convey my deepest gratitude to his grandfather for liberating my fellow Jews who survived the horrors of the first Nazi concentration camp.

Mr. Gouley and meMr. Gouley and me
As I returned to my van clutching a rock from Dachau in one hand and my menorah lighter in the other, I couldn't help but consider the significance of this fortuitous encounter.

I felt as though the souls of the kedoshim, the holy martyrs murdered at Dachau sent me a greeting. The rock that witnessed untold horrors and darkest crimes against our people needed to bear witness to the light of our nine-foot menorah proudly illuminating the Town Common of Shrewsbury, MA. From darkness to light.

No, I'm not alone when I light the menorah. Even in snow, sleet, or subzero temperatures. It's never just me.

I am accompanied by all my ancestors from the Maccabees until modern times.

I am joined by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (R' Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson) who fearlessly fought to preserve Judaism in the dark days of Stalinist Russia.

I am accompanied by my Rebbe, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the faithful shepherd of world Jewry who rekindled the menorah of our people from the embers of the Holocaust.

And I am accompanied by holy Jews throughout history who lit the menorah with mesiras nefesh, personal self-sacrifice, heroes and heroines who fought to live as Jews, and who died for being a Jew. They are all with me.

Menorah lighting
These kerosene lamps that I faithfully kindle each night are no mere "festive lights." They bear testimony to the Rock of Ages. Let that rock from Dachau witness the Rock of our Salvation, Maoz tzur y'shuati.

That's why our light is unstoppable.

That's why our light will ultimately succeed in illuminating the world, in transforming darkness to light.

When you light your menorah, it's not just you. You are not alone.

You are part of something awesome and invincible. You are a modern-day Maccabee.

Your light will prevail.
Happy Hanukkah. Spread the light.

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Post  Admin on Thu 26 Dec 2019, 9:44 pm
“You’re a Jew!”: Germany's Controversial Ad Campaign
Dec 22, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
“You’re a Jew!”: Germany's Controversial Ad Campaign
A German ad campaign shines a light on a common slur.
“You’re a Jew!”
Residents of the German capital Berlin have been bombarded with that message on billboards this week. It’s part of a campaign against anti-Semitism that seeks to destigmatize the word “Jew”, which in Germany and other places today is used as an insult.

The posters feature the screaming caption Du Jude (“You’re a Jew!” or “You Jew!”) alongside an object or animal. The posters have received a lot of criticism. Not because they make the assumption that “You’re a Jew!” is some sort of insult, but because the objects featured in them – apparently doing the talking – are so odd: some feature pictures of cleaning cloths, while others feature leeks and ostriches. At the bottom of each poster is the message: “You’re a Jew. #sowhat.”

This campaign is the seventeenth program run by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which works to fight hate and strengthen democracy in Germany. The “You’re a Jew – so what” campaign was co-sponsored by the Anne Frank Center and funded by Germany’s Federal Government.

“Anyone who deals with anti-Semitism is familiar with the problem,” explains Miki Hermer, one of the women behind the “You’re a Jew” posters. Children routinely insult schoolmates by calling them “Jew” in German schools, and the problem is spreading in popular culture, with “Jew” employed as one of the most shocking slurs in the German language.

In 2018, Michal Schwartze, a Jewish teacher in Frankfurt, Germany, recounted her fears of revealing she is Jewish in her school, where being a Jew is considered one of the worst things anyone can imagine. When students use “Jew” as an insult, she explains, “I don’t say hey I am Jewish, but I make it clear that I am personally affected.” A few years ago, she wrote an article for her school’s newspaper urging students to stop employing “Jew” as an insult, but the problem hasn’t gone away: in the face of such casual hatred, she notes that many German Jews simply “hide their identity”.

For years, Europeans and others have routinely used “Jew” to mean something terrible. In 1973, the Oxford English Dictionary was sued by an elderly Jew named Marcus Shloimovitz, who objected to the dictionary’s definition of “Jews” as “a name of opprobrium or reprobation; specifically applied to a grasping or extortionate money lender or userer, or a trader who drives hard bargains or deals craftily”. The Dictionary’s editor, R. W. Burchfield, defended this definition, but did make one concession: in future editions he would include the historical background behind this insulting definition, explaining that generations of rampant Jew-hatred had given rise to the anti-Jewish loathing behind the dictionary’s offensive definition.

Instead of fading away, using “Jew” as an insult is gaining ground. A 2016 report by the Dutch Jewish information center CIDI noted they were “concerned about the degradation of the word ‘Jew’” in the Netherlands recently. “This word has become increasingly ‘normal’” as a way of insulting people, even when no one involved in a dispute is Jewish. “Jew” has emerged as an all-purpose insult used by people from all backgrounds.

A recent report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights quoted a Danish woman explaining that “‘Jew’ is a widespread cuss word in Copenhagen”. As a result, she now avoids telling people she’s Jewish.

I find people using “Jewish person” to avoid saying “Jew”, as if the word Jew is somehow shameful or embarrassing. Among French-speaking Jews, “Israelite” is a popular substitution to avoid using the word Jew.

From a Jewish point of view, the name “Jew” doesn’t denote something shameful or negative.

In Hebrew, “Jew” is Yehudi; It comes from the name Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew), the son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and our matriarch Leah. The Italian Rabbi Obadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550) noted this is a particularly beautiful name, containing the letters yud and hey, which also form the Hebrew name for God. Yehudah also derives from the Hebrew root meaning "thankfulness” and “praise,” Sforno observed.

In fact, during the very week that the You’re a Jew! Posters appeared in Berlin’s subway, Jews around the world were reading about Judah in the Torah portion Vayeishev in synagogue.

In Vayeshev, Judah at first behaves less than honorably. He has a hand in selling his younger brother Joseph into slavery, and later slanders his daughter-in-law Tamar. But then, when he’s confronted with the fact that he was wrong about Tamar, Judah finds the courage to publicly admit he was wrong. In a situation where it would have been easier to keep quiet, Judah is willing to risk embarrassment and declare “She is right!” (Genesis 37:26) and that he was wrong.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This moment is a turning point in history. Judah is the first person in the Torah explicitly to admit he was wrong. We do not realize it yet, but this seems to be the moment at which he acquired the depth of character necessary for him to become the first” person to work to improve his character and draw closer to his God-given potential."

For the rest of his life, Judah displayed true heroism: “The man who proposed selling Joseph as a slave...becomes the man who is willing to spend the rest of his life in slavery so that his brother Benjamin can go free” (Genesis 44:33). Without the courage to admit he was wrong, without the strength and humility to work to improve his character, Judah’s later courageousness could never have happened. As Jews, we’re all the heirs of Judah, who worked his to refine himself and push himself to be a better person. It’s an awesome legacy.

Every time we call ourselves “Jew” we’re acknowledging our rich Jewish history – and recalling our ancestor who was unafraid to admit mistakes, who didn’t shirk from acknowledging when he was wrong, and who set us all a shining example of self-improvement and a life devoted to working on becoming the best person we can possibly be. That is the true meaning of “Jew” – and we don’t need any ad campaign to teach us to be proud of that fact.

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Post  Admin on Thu 26 Dec 2019, 9:43 pm

Hanukkah & Weddings: The Deeper Connection
Dec 22, 2019  |  by Rabbi Benji Levy
Hanukkah & Weddings: The Deeper Connection
Celebrating Hanukkah represents the same type of joy as getting married – we actively choose who we love in order to continue our people.

Should a couple getting married on Hanukkah light a menorah at their wedding?

The most recent time I was asked this question, rather than answering, I took advantage of the educational opportunity and asked if one can even get married on Hanukkah. The answer is yes, but why?

The Talmud famously states we do not mix two different smachot, or joyous occasions, as they can detract from or be confused with one another, preventing adequate attention to each.1 For this reason, the custom is not to get married on Purim.2 With so many similarities between these two festivals, why can one get married on Hanukkah but not on Purim?

Purim represents the ultimate miracle of physical survival against a physical threat. Haman hated the Jewish people and therefore wanted to exterminate every Jew. The gallows that were set did not discriminate against female or male, young or old, believer or non-believer – the very existence of Jews necessitated their eradication. Jews were never welcome into society regardless of what they could potentially add or remove.

Hanukkah, on the other hand, was very different in this sense. Jews were not hated for who they were but for what they did. It was not their existence but their practice that threatened Greek culture. Jews that acted as Jews were different from those that were prepared to assimilate. Indeed, they were loved as people and only hated as Jews – if only they could express their humanity through Greek society and abandon their particularity, they would be welcome to not simply survive but thrive.

When read this way, the miracle of Purim is a celebration of the most basic human need – the ability to live and breathe. The miracle of Hanukkah, however, is a celebration of the most basic Jewish need – to live freely and actively as a Jew. The enemy of Purim hated us so much that they would kill us regardless of what we did – the enemy of Hanukkah loved us so much that they wanted us to subscribe to their Hellenistic way of life.

Returning to our question, celebrating the miracle of Purim represents a different type of joy to getting married – the former represents being alive, the second how we choose to live. Celebrating Hanukkah represents the same type of joy as getting married – we actively choose who we love in order to continue our people.

A Jewish wedding is becoming rarer, not because of hatred, but because of love – universalism is more embracing than particularity and assimilation is more accommodating than distinction. It is for this reason that one may get married on Hanukkah, according to all opinions, as essentially the smachot are two expressions of the same source – choosing to love rather than falling in or out of love, celebrating the perpetuation of our destiny and Jewish continuity.

Therefore, while there are questions around the blessings, one can light Hanukkah candles at a wedding for the purpose of publicizing the miracle, because indeed, the miracle of a Jewish wedding is the perpetuation of the miracle of Hanukkah – “the strong were delivered into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.”3 Hanukkah is a time to learn from our past as we spark, ignite and shine through the next generation, illuminating the path ahead for a brighter future!

1. Moed Katan 8b.
2. See the Be’er Heitev on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Hilchot Megillah Purim 696:8. See also the Levush, Magen Avraham and Pri Chadash.
3. HaNissim prayer.

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About the Author
Rabbi Benji LevyMore by this Author >
Rabbi Benji Levy is the CEO of Mosaic United, a $200m joint venture partnership between Israel and the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity and connections to Israel for youth around the world. 

Previously he served for 6 years as the Dean of Moriah College in Sydney Australia, one of the largest Jewish schools in the world with over 1,800 pre-kindergarten through high school students where he created a renaissance in Jewish Life and Learning and was instrumental in growing the teen-Israel program. 

 Levy was recently awarded the ‘Educator of the Year Award’ by JNF Australia for his leadership and service and founded several successful educational programs. In January of 2019 he was named by Mekor Rishon as one of the top 3 global change-makers working behind the scenes for Diaspora Jewry. 

He holds a BA in Media and Communications and Honors in Jewish Civilization Thought & Culture from the University of Sydney (USYD), an Education degree from Herzog College in Israel, and is an ordained rabbi. He is currently completing his PhD in Jewish philosophy for which he received the Australian Postgraduate Award. Levy is married with four children.

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The Hanukkah Expulsion of American Jews
Dec 21, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
The Hanukkah Expulsion of American Jews
During the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant expelled American Jews from their homes during Hanukkah.

In the depths of America’s Civil War, the run-up to Hanukkah was tense for the United States’ tiny Jewish community.

Amounting to only half of one percent of the nation’s population, many American Jews at that time were recent immigrants who arrived penniless from Central Europe. Shop-keeping and trading were popular jobs for these new American Jews. Though their community was tiny, as Civil War raged Jews were routinely accused of being traitors and war profiteers, and were demonized in the press and official correspondence.

Antipathy to Jews spanned both sides in the Civil War. In the South, Jews were often regarded as outsiders. In the North, the presence of several high-ranking Jews in the Confederate Army gave fuel to the pernicious falsehood that Jews were somehow behind the South’s decision to secede from the Union and had caused the war. Historian James M. McPherson notes that during the Civil War, “harassed Union officers had come to use the word ‘Jew’ the same way many southerners used ‘Yankee’ – as a shorthand way of describing anyone they considered shrewd, acquisitive, aggressive, and possibly dishonest.” (from Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press: 1988)

Many of these lies about Jews generally centered on the slander that Jews were war profiteers. When the Civil War began, the price of Southern-grown cotton skyrocketed from 10 cents a pound in December 1860 to 68 cents a pound two years later. Even in the midst of war, the North and South continued to depend on each other economically. Northern textile mills relied on Southern cotton; even the Union Army used Southern-grown cotton for its uniforms and tents. To facilitate trade, President Lincoln authorized the distribution of carefully regulated, licensed trading permits allowing cotton to be exported to the North.

Permits were overseen by senior Union Army officials. One of those in charge of distributing them was General Ulysses S. Grant, who governed the District of Tennessee, including areas of nearby Mississippi and Kentucky. Unlike Lincoln, Grant despised issuing trading permits, wondering aloud to aides how the Union Army was supposed to win a war against the Confederacy if they continued to trade with them. In addition to those who legally traded cotton, a robust black-market cotton trade sprang up; many people wrongly assumed that black marketeers were Jews, smearing Jews as profiteers and motivated purely by greed.

Historian Jonathan Sarna describes the simmering tension: “In short order, public corruption rose, mutual trust declined, and recriminations abounded. As is so often the case in such circumstances, suspicion fell particularly upon the Jews, long stereotyped in Christian culture as being financially unscrupulous. Jews became the focus for much of the hatred and mistrust that the war unleashed...” (from When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Nextbook: 2012)

Gen. Grant seemed to be obsessed with Jews, falsely viewing them as somehow being behind the entire black-market cotton trade. Historian Ron Chernow notes that Grant’s imagination was increasingly “endowing (Jews) with almost diabolical powers” and that Gen. Grant ranted about Jews’ supposedly all-reaching influence, writing that Jews “come in with their Carpet sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere…” and spread throughout the country (Quoted in Grant. Penguin Press: 2017). Of over two hundred merchants who were given permits to export cotton to the North, only four were Jewish. Yet this small number didn’t prevent Gen. Grant and others from wrongly seeing Jews as uniquely successful in trade and hating them for it.

Gen. Ulysses Grant

In early December 1862, just weeks before the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, Gen. Grant’s anti-Jewish loathing boiled over. His own father, Jesse Grant, applied for permission to import cotton to the North. Gen. Grant had a strained relationship with his father and now his father was asking to use his son’s influence to prosper in the cotton trade Gen. Grant so despised. Even worse, Jesse Grant was working in partnership with a Jewish family of clothing manufacturers in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was too much for the General; he decided to take a radical step.

General Order No. 11, issued on the first day of Hanukkah, December 17 1862, was brief and chilling:

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order. Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until and opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners…”

Every Jew in Gen. Grant’s sizeable district was to be expelled within a day. Those returning faced arrest. Instead of targeting Jewish businessmen (which would have been unfair in any case) all Jews – women, children, those not working in trade – were included.

Luckily for many of the Jews in this large area, fighting disrupted telegraph lines and it was hard to get out word of the new law. Nevertheless, Gen. Grant’s order did make it to some districts. Shockingly, locals seemed more than happy to comply and turn on the Jews in their midst.

A Jew identified only as Mr. Silverman, originally from Chicago, was travelling to Holly Springs, Mississippi over Hanukkah, when he heard the order he could no longer remain in the territory. Local reports noted that Mr. Silverman made his way to a telegraph office to contact Gen. Grant and clarify this bizarre request. He was arrested for this so-called “crime”.

In the eastern part of Gen. Grant’s territory, a young Jewish newlywed couple was detained while they travelled through. According to the New York based newspaper Jewish Record, the couple was arrested, had their money and personal possessions robbed, their horse and buggy confiscated, and their luggage burned. It seems there was a scuffle or fight, because the couple became drenched. Despite the winter weather, they were brought to jail, forbidden from changing out of wet clothes, and verbally abused. When they appealed to Brigadier General James Tuttle, commander of the Union garrison in Cairo Illinois, he declined to help, declaring, “You are Jews, and...neither a benefit to the Union or Confederacy.”

Anti-Jewish violence broke out in a number of towns across the region, reaching a crescendo in the town of Paducah, Kentucky.

Jews first moved to Paducah in the 1840s; by that infamous Hanukkah of 1862 the small community had put down roots. The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities notes that by 1859, eleven Paducah businesses had Jewish owners; half a dozen Jewish-owned clothing stores dotted the town. In 1859, twenty local Jews founded the Chevra Yeshurun Jewish burial society and purchased land for a Jewish cemetery.

When news of General Order No. 11 came, local authorities quickly turned on the Jews in their midst. The B’nai B’rith Missouri Lodge described what happened next: all Jews were given the order “to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky within twenty-four hours after receiving this order”. Women and children were forced out, too, and in one case a baby was nearly lost in the confusion. Two elderly Jewish women were too ill to leave their homes; kind-hearted local neighbors volunteered to care for them while their relatives were forced to leave.

The petition to Pres. Lincoln from the B’nai B’rith Missouri Lodge
Forced out of their homes, Paducah’s Jews appealed to President Lincoln. Cesar Kaskel, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia who’d moved to Paducah years before, travelled to Washington DC to speak with the president himself. At each stop along the way, he appealed to local journalists “to lend the powerful aid of the press to the suffering cause of outraged humanity (and) to blot out as quick as possible this stain on our national honor” (quoted in Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell. St. Martin’s Press: 2015).

When he finally arrived in Washington DC, Cesar Kaskel met Cincinnati’s Congressman, John Addison Gurley, and enlisted his help. Together, the two men went to speak with Pres. Lincoln, who told them he’d had no idea of Gen. Grant’s order expelling the Jews. Lincoln was Biblically literate and spoke to Cesar Kaskel using the metaphor of the ancient Jews being driven from the Land of Israel, asking him: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied in a similar tone: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

Lincoln replied, “And this protection they shall have”.

Historians debate whether or not this conversation really took place using this exalted tone, but Pres. Lincoln did immediately instruct Henry Halleck, the General in Chief of the Union Army, to revoke the decree, which he did on January 6, 1863.

Most of Paducah’s Jews returned, but the pernicious effects of General Order No. 11 lingered for years. The singling out of American Jews “as a class” for special treatment make many feel unwelcome and raised fears that the violence so many had fled in Europe had followed them to their new homes in the United States. Though Ulysses Grant came to regret his order expelling the Jews, the infamous order, coming during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, remained a reminder that even in America, Jews could never feel truly at home.

Each year, Jews around the world sing the song Maoz Tzur after lighting the Hanukkah candles. The words in its final verse – “there is no end to days of evil” – never seemed more true to American Jews than in the winter of 1862, when Jews “as a class” – men, women and children – were denied security and torn from their homes.

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Post  Admin on Sun 22 Dec 2019, 5:33 pm

8 Short Thoughts for Hanukkah
Dec 18, 2019
by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
8 Short Thoughts for Hanukkah
Illuminate your 8 nights of Hanukkah with these inspiring insights.

1. Inspired by faith, we can change the world
Twenty-two centuries ago, when Israel was under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great, one particular leader, Antiochus IV, decided to force the pace of Hellenization, forbidding Jews to practice their religion and setting up in the Temple in Jerusalem a statue of Zeus Olympus.

This was too much to bear, and a group of Jews, the Maccabees, fought for their religious freedom, winning a stunning victory against the most powerful army of the ancient world. After three years they reconquered Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple and relit the menorah with the one cruse of undefiled oil they found among the wreckage.

It was one of the most stunning military achievements of the ancient world. It was, as we say in our prayers, a victory of the few over the many, the weak over the strong. It’s summed up in wonderful line from the prophet Zechariah: not by might nor by strength but by my spirit says the Lord. The Maccabees had neither might nor strength, neither weapons nor numbers. But they had a double portion of the Jewish spirit that longs for freedom and is prepared to fight for it.

Never believe that a handful of dedicated people can’t change the world. Inspired by faith, they can. The Maccabees did then. And can we today.

2. The light of the spirit never dies
There’s an interesting question the commentators ask about Hanukkah. For eight days we light lights, and each night we make the blessing over miracles: she-asah nissim la-avotenu. But what was the miracle of the first night? The light that should have lasted one day lasted eight. But that means there was something miraculous about days 2 to 8; but nothing miraculous about the first day.

Perhaps the miracle was this, that the Maccabees found one cruse of oil with its seal intact, undefiled. There was no reason to suppose that anything would have survived the systematic desecration the Greeks and their supporters did to the Temple. Yet the Maccabees searched and found that one jar. Why did they search? Because they had faith that from the worst tragedy something would survive. The miracle of the first night was that of faith itself, the faith that something would remain with which to begin again.

So it has always been in Jewish history. There were times when any other people would have given up in despair: after the destruction of the Temple, or the massacres of the crusades, or the Spanish Expulsion, or the pogroms, or the Holocaust. But somehow Jews did not sit and weep. They gathered what remained, rebuilt our people, and lit a light like no other in history, a light that tells us and the world of the power of the human spirit to overcome every tragedy and refuse to accept defeat.

From the days of Moses and the bush that burned and was not consumed to the days of the Maccabees and the single cruse of oil, Judaism has been humanity’s ner tamid, the everlasting light that no power on earth can extinguish.

3. Hanukkah in our time
Back in 1991 I lit Hanukkah candles with Mikhail Gorbachev, who had, until earlier that year, been president of the Soviet Union. For seventy years the practice of Judaism had been effectively banned in communist Russia. It was one of the two great assaults on our people and faith in the twentieth century. The Germans sought to kill Jews; the Russians tried to kill Judaism. Under Stalin the assault became brutal. Then in 1967, after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, many Soviet Jews sought to leave Russia and go to Israel. Not only was permission refused, but often the Jews concerned lost their jobs and were imprisoned. Around the world Jews campaigned for the prisoners, Refuseniks they were called, to be released and allowed to leave.

Eventually Mikhail Gorbachev realized that the whole soviet system was unworkable. Communism had brought, not freedom and equality, but repression, a police state, and a new hierarchy of power. In the end it collapsed, and Jews regained the freedom to practice Judaism and to go to Israel.

That day in 1991 after we had lit candles together, Mr Gorbachev asked me, through his interpreter, what we had just done. I told him that 22 centuries ago in Israel after the public practice of Judaism had been banned, Jews fought for and won their freedom, and these lights were the symbol of that victory. And I continued: Seventy years ago Jews suffered the same loss of freedom in Russia, and you have now helped them to regain it. So you have become part of the Hanukkah story. And as the interpreter translated those words into Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev blushed. The Hanukkah story still lives, still inspires, telling not just us but the world that though tyranny exists, freedom, with God’s help, will always win the final battle.

4. The first clash of civilizations
One of the key phrases of our time is the clash of civilizations. And Hanukkah is about one of the first great clashes of civilization, between the Greeks and Jews of antiquity, Athens and Jerusalem.

The ancient Greeks produced one of the most remarkable civilizations of all time: philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, dramatists like Sophocles and Aeschylus. They produced art and architecture of a beauty that has never been surpassed. Yet in the second century before the common era they were defeated by the group of Jewish fighters known as the Maccabees, and from then on Greece as a world power went into rapid decline, while the tiny Jewish people survived every exile and persecution and are still alive and well today.

What was the difference? The Greeks, who did not believe in a single, loving God, gave the world the concept of tragedy. We strive, we struggle, at times we achieve greatness, but life has no ultimate purpose. The universe neither knows nor cares that we are here.

Ancient Israel gave the world the idea of hope. We are here because God created us in love, and through love we discover the meaning and purpose of life.

Tragic cultures eventually disintegrate and die. Lacking any sense of ultimate meaning, they lose the moral beliefs and habits on which continuity depends. They sacrifice happiness for pleasure. They sell the future for the present. They lose the passion and energy that brought them greatness ion the first place. That’s what happened to Ancient Greece.

Judaism and its culture of hope survived, and the Hanukkah lights are the symbol of that survival, of Judaism’s refusal to jettison its values for the glamour and prestige of a secular culture, then or now.

A candle of hope may seem a small thing, but on it the very survival of a civilization may depend.

5. The light of war and the light of peace
There is a law about Hanukkah I find moving and profound. Maimonides writes that ‘the command of Hanukkah lights is very precious. One who lacks the money to buy lights should sell something, or if necessary borrow, so as to be able to fulfil the mitzvah.’

The question then arises: What if on Friday afternoon, you find yourself with only one candle? What do you light it as — a Shabbat candle or a Hanukkah one? It can’t be both. Logic suggests that you should light it as a Hanukkah candle. After all, there is no law that you have to sell or borrow to light lights for Shabbat. Yet the law is that, if faced with such a choice, you light it as a Shabbat light. Why?

Listen to Maimonides: ‘The Shabbat light takes priority because it symbolizes shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.’

Consider: Hanukkah commemorates one of the greatest military victories in Jewish history. Yet Jewish law rules that if we can only light one candle — the Shabbat light takes precedence, because in Judaism the greatest military victory takes second place to peace in the home.

Why did Judaism, alone among the civilizations of the ancient world, survive? Because it valued the home more than the battlefield, marriage more than military grandeur, and children more than generals. Peace in the home mattered to our ancestors more than the greatest military victory.

So as we celebrate Hanukkah, spare a thought for the real victory, which was not military but spiritual. Jews were the people who valued marriage, the home, and peace between husband and wife, above the highest glory on the battlefield. In Judaism, the light of peace takes precedence over the light of war.

6. The third miracle
We all know the miracles of Hanukkah, the military victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks, and the miracle of the oil that should have lasted one day but stayed burning for eight. But there was a third miracle not many people know about. It took place several centuries later.

After the destruction of the second Temple, many rabbis were convinced that Hanukkah should be abolished. After all, it celebrated the rededication of the Temple. And the Temple was no more. It had been destroyed by the Romans under Titus. Without a Temple, what was there left to celebrate?

The Talmud tells us that in at least one town, Lod, Hanukkah was abolished. Yet eventually the other view prevailed, which is why we celebrate Hanukkah to this day.

Why? Because though the Temple was destroyed, Jewish hope was not destroyed. We may have lost the building but we still had the story, and the memory, and the light. And what had happened once in the days of the Maccabees could happen again. And it was those words, “our hope is not destroyed,” became part of the song, Hatikvah, that inspired Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their ancient state. So as you light the Hanukkah candles remember this. The Jewish people kept hope alive, and hope kept the Jewish people alive. We are the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.

7. Inside/outside
There is more than one command in Judaism to light lights. There are three. There are the Shabbat candles. There is the havdalah candle. And there are the Hanukkah candles.

The difference between them is that Shabbat candles represent shalom bayit, peace in the home. They are lit indoors. They are, if you like, Judaism’s inner light, the light of the sanctity of marriage and the holiness of home.

The Hanukkah candles used to be lit outside — outside the front door. It was only fear of persecution that took the Hanukkah candles back inside, and in recent times the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced the custom of lighting giant menorahs in public places to bring back the original spirit of the day.

Hanukkah candles are the light Judaism brings to the world when we are unafraid to announce our identity in public, live by our principles and fight, if necessary, for our freedom.

As for the havdalah candle, which is always made up of several wicks woven together, it represents the fusion of the two, the inner light of Shabbat, joined to the outer light we make during the six days of the week when we go out into the world and live our faith in public.

When we live as Jews in private, filling our homes with the light of the Shekhina, the Divine presence, when we live as Jews in public, bringing the light of hope to others, and when we live both together, then we bring light to the world.

There always were two ways to live in a world that is often dark and full of tears. We can curse the darkness or we can light a light, and as the Chassidim say, a little light drives out much darkness. May we all help light up the world.

8. To light another light
There’s a fascinating argument in the Talmud. Can you take one Hanukkah light to light another? Usually, of course, we take an extra light, the shamash, and use it to light all the candles. But suppose we don’t have one. Can we light the first candle and then use it to light the others?

Two great sages of the third century, Rav and Shmuel, disagreed. Rav said No. Shmuel said Yes. Normally we have a rule that when Rav and Shmuel disagree, the law follows Rav. There are only three exceptions and this is one.

Why did Rav say you may not take one Hanukkah candle to light the others?

Because, says the Talmud, you diminish the first candle. Inevitably you spill some of the wax or the oil. And Rav says: don’t do anything that would diminish the light of the first.

But Shmuel disagrees, and the law follows Shmuel. Why?

The best way of answering that is to think of two Jews: both religious, both committed, both living J

ewish lives. One says: I must not get involved with Jews who are less religious than me, because if I do, my own standards will fall. I’ll keep less. My light will be diminished. That’s the view of Rav.

The other says No. When I use the flame of my faith to light a candle in someone else’s life, my Jewishness is not diminished. It grows, because there is now more Jewish light in the world. When it comes to spiritual goods as opposed to material goods, the more I share, the more I have. If I share my knowledge, or faith, or love with others, I won’t have less; I may even have more. That’s the view of Shmuel, and that is how the law was eventually decided.

So share your Judaism with others. Take the flame of your faith and help set other souls on fire.

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Post  Admin on Mon 16 Dec 2019, 6:55 pm
Nu, Jersey City?
Dec 15, 2019  |  by Rabbi Dr. David Fox
Nu, Jersey City?
Dealing with crisis intervention and trauma in the wake of the murderous attack.

With the echoes of sirens and bullets still rebounding off the brick wall buildings of this small urban enclave, my team of volunteer first responders is on the ground. Part of Project Chai's Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department, they move in, superbly prepared to face the victims, the witnesses, the survivors and the spectators who have endured hours of fear and terror. These are Chassidic men and women, trained to provide intervention when crisis strikes and as trauma sears its way into the minds and bodies of those who have been impacted by tragedy.

We pre-briefed our team leaders, and this group, coming from their homes and their jobs, knows the nature of trauma. Some are teachers. Some are EMTs. Some are mental health professionals. Some are rabbis. They have all earned their RRR degree – they are Respectful, Respectable and Respected by others. They understand terror, they comprehend pain, they overlook blood and injury and, yes, carnage, as they triage, rapidly assessing which person will respond optimally to which team member. They converse in Yiddish, yet they also speak English and Spanish, and many other languages, because they attend to Jew and non-Jew, Chassid and atheist, persons of color and persons of prejudice, none of that matters. Trauma has no favorites, and spares nobody.

The team spends the long afternoon and late night in Jersey City. There are students who have been on lockdown in their school which is in the building housing the kosher store from where the shooting was done. There are parents who have waited in fear, and in tears, not knowing what they would discover. There are pedestrians ordered off the street by the courageous police officers struggling to get the catastrophe under control. There are teachers who sheltered their young charges, in this school, and in the next and in the one nearby. Some cannot speak. Some cannot stop speaking. Some cannot move and some cannot keep still. This is the face of trauma, and the body of the traumatized. The interventions begin.

We distribute materials for schools and for parents on understanding their reactions and how to respond as their young ones react with their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We present phone consults and phone conferences, in English and other languages, to provide guidance, support and encouragement. The team members huddle to process what they are seeing, hearing, and noting, about the range of distress signs. They call for supervision. They continue the next day and the next. There are, tragically, death notifications to be made. They handle that. There are school presentations to be undertaken. They do that across the adjacent states of New Jersey and New York. They attend funerals, to offer support and reassurance where needed, when the shuddering and tears and anguish overtake family and stranger alike.

A new wave of anxiety surfaces as word emerges from the authorities that this was no random act of violence. Words such as “targeted”, “hatred”, “terroristic”, “anti-Semitic” appear in the news, and now Jewish people across the continent and across the ocean experience further reactions. A new fear, a very, very old and atavistic feeling infiltrates the erstwhile sense of security and assumptive safety which so many older Jews yearned for as the moved to these shores. They fret and query: “Is it happening here too?”

Yet, as I tuned into the news today, I got a different perspective. I watched the cameras scan the site of the attack, outside the little kosher store. There was a small street rally. I listened as one after another individual explained that the whole calamity was the Jews’ own fault. I learned that these things never happened until the Jews moved in. I heard how the Jews were the cause of these shootings. And amidst the expletives describing obscenely what Jews actually are and what Jews should do, I was informed that much more of this Jew-killing needs to keep happening. And I watched as one of the Chassidic first responders spoke gently to one protestor, intuiting from the angry invective that they too might have had a child affected by the hostage siege, and he offered gentle words of consolation.

I am impressed with that man’s demeanor and humanity. And in contradistinction with their vulgar attempt to describe this religion and culture, I concluded that this is what Jews actually are, and this is what Jews should do. My Death to be a Jewish One
Dec 14, 2019
by Moshe Vistoch, Israel Hayom
I Want My Death to be a Jewish One
During the Holocaust monasteries were Paula's refuge and she delved into Christianity. But now, at 94, she’s decided she wants to die as a Jew.

Earlier this month, Holocaust survivor Paula (not her real name), decided she had to become Jewish again, decades after she had to convert to Christianity in order to survive.

She climbed the stairs that led to her local rabbi’s office with a singular goal: Some 80 years after being baptized into Christianity, she wanted to return to her roots.

“I’m going to die and I want my death to be a Jewish one,” said the 94-year old Venetian native.

"Paula" was the name given to her as she endured the horrors of the Holocaust, where she sought refuge by moving from monastery to monastery throughout the picturesque Italian city. In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, she tells her story – asking us not to reveal her true identity – for fear of persecution.

Her roots in Italy are difficult to trace, most likely because her grandmother was born out of wedlock. At 25, her grandmother married another local Jew and received a dowry in the form of a big house. To this day, her descendants – including her granddaughter – live there.

As the noose tightened around the necks of Jews across Italy, many Jews baptized their children, hoping to hide their Jewish roots and save their lives.
Paula, though, was born in 1925 to a family that was both assimilated and connected to the local Jewish community. In the late 1930s, when the Nazis' rise to power coincided with that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the noose tightened around the necks of Jews across Italy. As a result, many Jews baptized their children, hoping to hide their Jewish roots and pass as Christians, hence saving their lives.

In 1938, the 13-year-old girl was abruptly taken to a nearby church by her aunts, where she was baptized.

“In those years, the race laws went into effect and my family thought that if I was baptized, the Germans would let me live," she recalled.

Her mother went into hysterics when she heard what her aunts had done.

“My mother quickly washed me, in an attempt to rinse the baptism off me,” she said.

Her mother died that very same year, and the family decided it was best for Paula to hide in monasteries so German forces wouldn’t find her.

“There I was given a new name and forgot my real one,” she said, saying she hid in those buildings for some two years and barely saw her family, who were starving under Mussolini’s rule.

“I had dresses with big pockets, where I would hide morsels of food and give them to my aunts whenever they visited me,” she said.

During that time, the Allies began to occupy the country from its southern coast, compelling many Italian officers to flee to the north – some even staying in the very convent where Paula hid.

Paula then feared she may be discovered, so she and her sister quickly relocated to another monastery.

While staying in these monasteries, Paula attempted to diligently practice the Christian faith, but she never truly connected to the religion and only pretended to do so in order to save her life.

When the war finally ended, the two sisters reunited with their father, an engineer imprisoned in a labor camp in Germany.

“When my father returned, he knocked on the door thin and emaciated. I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t know who he was,” she said.

Life, eventually, returned to normal. Paula became a pharmacist and opened a laboratory at the University of Venice, which continues to operate. After a distinguished career, Paula was considered a prominent figure in the city’s healthcare industry.

She went on to marry a non-Jewish man and had two daughters with him.

“Because I was baptized at such a young age and against my will, I always identified with the story of the anusim,” she explained, referring to Jews who were forced to abandon their faith and convert to another religion while secretly remaining as faithful to Judaism as they could.

Over the years, she maintained an informal relationship with the local Jewish community in Venice. But it was only a month ago that Paula decided to begin the process of becoming a Jew once again.

Paula and her daughter blessed the new mezuzah we hung on her door.
After contacting the local chief rabbi, she was referred to Rabbi Daniel Touitou, an emissary at the Strauss-Amiel Institute of the Or Torah Stone network.

Upon hearing Paula’s story, Rabbi Touitou immediately uncovered Paula’s family history and scanned local archives. The documents revealed that Paula was indeed Jewish and all she needed to do to be admitted back into the fold was to hold an official ceremony.

According to Rabbi Touitou, assimilation and intermarriage pose significant challenges to the local Jewish community, where there are only some 450 left. And although Venice is a very open and tourist-friendly city, there are undercurrents of anti-Semitism, he explained.

“My wife and I came to her house,” Rabi Touitou said. “Paula and her daughter blessed the new mezuzah we hung on her door. We were very excited about her unconventional journey back to Judaism. Paula and her daughter cried when we gave them her certificate admitting her back into the religion.”

This article originally appeared on Israel HaYom.

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Post  Admin on Thu 12 Dec 2019, 5:10 pm
Michael Schudrich: Rabbi to Poland’s Jews, the Living and the Dead
Dec 8, 2019
by Deborah Fineblum,
Michael Schudrich: Rabbi to Poland’s Jews, the Living and the Dead
Since 1989, thousands of Poles have discovered their Jewish roots and are free to pursue what it means to be a Jew.

The phone rings in Michael Schudrich’s study. The young man on the other end sounds upset. His grandmother died, and he needs the rabbi’s help.

Not so unusual, right? Except that, just before she died, this grandmother revealed something that shocked her family. It turns out they’re not Catholic after all. They’re Jews.

“Sometimes, they tell me, ‘Grandma did some strange things,’” says the rabbi. Like lighting candles Friday nights, refusing to eat bread for a week in the spring and forbidding them to drink milk after a meat meal.

“A lot of Poles come to me reeling from a deathbed confession,” he says. “Many of them want to connect to a Jewish part of themselves they never knew existed, but they have no idea where to begin.”

The numbers of new-to-you Jews is substantially up since 1989, when communism collapsed in Poland and with it, the edict that religion – in particular, Judaism – was an enemy of the state. “From 1939 to 1989, a Jew could not feel safe in Poland,” says the rabbi. “But since then, thousands of Poles have discovered their Jewish roots because their parents and grandparents now do feel safe to reveal this secret to their families … and they, in turn, are free to pursue what it means to be a Jew.”

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich meets with late President Lech Kaczynski.

But welcoming freshly awakened Jews into the fold (a delicate and case-by-case process) is only a piece of the puzzle. As chief rabbi in a country that continues to live with a haunting past when it comes to its Jews – all six Nazi death camps were built in occupied Poland and hundreds of mass graves have been discovered, most of them awaiting preservation and markers, Schudrich is often called upon to rescue Jewish cemeteries from the bulldozer; handle issues of anti-Semitism when he sees it; and negotiate with the government over matters of religious freedom, such as the ritual kosher slaughtering of animals for consumption. Not to mention overseeing kashrut for restaurants, food manufacturers and exporters.

Today’s Jewish population – estimates swing wildly from 8,000 to 40,000 (depending who you ask and how you define being Jewish in Poland) – stands in sharp contrast to the 3.5 million Jews who called the Eastern European country home in 1939. At that time, Poland could boast the world’s largest concentration of Jews; six years later, nine out of 10 of them were dead. And most of the 350,000 survivors, often faced with less than welcoming neighbors, fled to Israel, the United States and other countries in the Diaspora.

“Today, it’s a small community struggling to reassert its Jewish identity while being responsible for preserving its glorious past,” says the rabbi.

‘The priorities of the entire community’
“What’s amazing is his ability to time travel; he manages to be in two places at the same time,” says Agata Rakowiecka, director of the Jewish Community Center in Warsaw. She met the rabbi in 1990 when she was 6 and he taught a bunch of Jewish campers a new game called baseball.

“I liked him from the beginning – he was friendly and knew how to talk to a child,” she says. “And he remembered me each time we met.”

Now that they’re colleagues, Rakowiecka sees the rabbi as “our connecting point with the wider Jewish world and with Polish authorities. But what’s impressed me all these years,” she adds, “is his vision of the priorities of entire Jewish community beyond particular interests of various groups, his support of different kinds of Jewish belonging.”
Indeed, for most of his 64 years, Schudrich has focused his considerable energies on representing and serving all the Jews of Poland – the living and the dead – as both a leader who is no stranger to trick negotiations and as a spiritual guide doggedly determined to revitalize the Jews as individuals, families and community.

“Only an optimist can do that job,” says Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Krakow JCC. “Only someone who truly believes they can do the impossible could be the main architect of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.”

Or, as Schudrich likes to say, “Nothing is impossible.”

So how exactly did a kid from New York, weaned on the Mets and Cocoa Krispies (not soccer and perogies) become a Polish citizen and the chief rabbi of the entire country?

It has been a circuitous journey that’s taken the man around the world, but always back to his adopted home.

Empowering Poland’s Jews to be Jewish
Born in 1955, Schudrich grew up with a Conservative rabbi father, a schoolteacher mother, two little brothers and a little sister. He studied religion at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island, N.Y., before heading to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan for rabbinical school, followed by a master’s in history from Columbia University.

But it was as an 18-year-old that Schudrich first set foot on Polish soil, determined to bring Judaism (and smuggled prayer books, Torah commentaries and an Encyclopedia Judaica) to Jews starving for it in the Communist-controlled 1970s.

He returned again and again, joining forces with the Jewish Flying University, where people gathered secretly “to study whatever the government didn’t want them to,” recalls Konstanty Gebert, a Polish journalist and Jewish activist who met Schudrich back then. “He was already serious about empowering Poland’s Jews to be Jewish.”

“I was challenged by the fact that the only difference between me and these young Jews was that my grandparents left while theirs stayed,” says the rabbi. “I’d been given this tremendous Jewish education and wanted to share it, to level the playing field and to give something back.”

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich with his mother and siblings.

After graduating from JTS, the rabbi headed to Japan, where for six years, he served as chief rabbi to a community of a few hundred, mostly tourists, professionals and post-army-duty Israelis.

But he met someone in 1990 who would point him to his life’s purpose: Ronald S. Lauder, whose foundation was heavily invested in rescuing the Jews of Poland and their history – of not letting the world forget. “Ronald is the one who got me here,” he says 29 years later. “Without him, I don’t know if we could have accomplished a fraction of what we have.”

Representing Lauder, the rabbi returned to Poland in 1990 after the fall of communism, and beginning in 2000 (after returning to the States to pick up a second rabbinical ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University), he served as the rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz. In 2004, he accepted the job of Poland’s chief rabbi.

This was a time when the door was just starting to creak open for a revitalization of Jewish life – one Jew and one family at a time. “We were beginning to hear from parents who had kept their Jewishness a deep dark secret for years,” he said, “not even telling their own children.”

The number of Poles who have discovered their Jewish roots is now in the thousands, and continues to mount.

Kasha Ornstein was 25 when her sister Marta discovered documents showing their father and much of their mother’s family were Jewish. Curious, Marta began attending study groups with the rabbi and invited her sister to a Hanukkah party, where she met her future husband. “Before, everything was hidden from us, but now we wanted to be part of the Jewish community,” says Kasha. After completing her conversion, she was married by the rabbi and is now a kosher caterer in Warsaw preparing weekly communal Shabbat dinners.

Today, Polish Jews have 10 active communities to connect to: the bigger ones offering daily services, the smaller ones weekly or holiday ones. In Warsaw, there’s a kollel for Torah and Talmud study, a Lauder-supported Jewish day school, a teen youth group, and active Hillels there and in Krakow. Locals also can find kosher meat, and there’s a kosher food pantry for the needy, including righteous gentiles who rescued Jews during the Shoah.

The rabbi with children at Poland’s Camp ATID.

For the chief rabbi, nothing is typical except a 13-14 hour workday. A given week might find him counseling those who have recently discovered their Jewish roots. Many of them are hungry to learn everything Jewish – the holidays, prayers, Torah readings; how to keep Shabbat and kashrut; the ins and outs of conversion for those with Jewish fathers. Others want to take it more slowly. “I’ve learned never to push,” he says. “I look to them to guide me to what they need from me now.”

Schudrich may also find himself helping a restaurateur or food manufacturer/packager looking to make their products kosher. He’s also likely to speak at ceremonies rededicating a restored Jewish cemetery, erecting a memorial or commemorating the date of a community’s deportation of its Jews. Meetings abound with officials over protecting Jewish remains from the bulldozer, with the Israel ambassador about responding to a recent anti-Semitic act, with church leaders on interfaith matters and groups of visitors – some 200,000 arrive annually from Israel alone. And he spent one recent evening helping lead a memorial service for those murdered last October in Pittsburgh.

And always on the rabbi’s mind: Poland’s 1,400 Jewish cemeteries – many in varying states of disrepair – and mass graves still being discovered when a pile of human bones mysteriously surfaces at construction sites or playgrounds and parks. Or when an elderly Pole reveals that before he dies, he wants it known that Jews were buried in a certain place. “We need to pay tribute to them,” says the rabbi, “and make sure that their remains are respected and protected.”

But he acknowledges that he can’t do it all. “Whatever we possibly can do to preserve and mark them, we will, though we know the full task is beyond our capabilities,” he says. “As Rabbi Tarfon taught: ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

“I’ve seen him go to incredible pains to ensure that nothing happens to the remains,” says Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “He has a strong sense of reverence, for both the living and the dead.”

Anti-Semitism: Every incident has to be condemned and punished
No one can argue that Poland doesn’t have a complex history when it comes to its Jews, so the role of the chief rabbi here carries with it much of that complexity, much of that pain.

“The signs of the Holocaust are all around us; no one can forget,” says Secretary of State Wojciech Kolarski. “Poland became a cemetery after the German Nazis conquered it and built on Polish soil a machine to murder millions of Jews from around Europe.” He maintains that contemporary Poles are “fully aware of what happened here during those six years, and Poland makes an enormous effort to honor Jewish life and to provide lessons for generations to come.”

Yes, Kolarski concedes, there are Poles who have not learned these lessons. “Anti-Semitism is unfortunately present in various societies, and, of course, in Poland also,” he states. “And every incident has to be condemned and punished.”

Recent incidents include a swastika and Jude Raus (“Jew, get out”) on the Warsaw offices of a liberal opposition movement, and a giant straw effigy of an Orthodox Jew burned last Easter in the town of Pruchnik, not to mention countless hate-filled Internet and social-media postings.

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich (left) seen during a March of the Living event ahead of Israel 70th Independence Day in the city of Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. Photo by Yossi Zeliger.

Particularly disturbing was Holocaust bill voted into law by the Polish parliament in late 2017, making it illegal to “falsely” accuse the Polish people or Polish state of any complicity in the crimes of the German Nazis, to the point of outlawing the term “Polish death camps” for those that Nazi Germany built and ran in Poland during World War II. Punishment included fines or a maximum three-year term in jail.

And here, too, the rabbi was cast as spokesman for an outraged Jewish world. "The law threatened to stifle serious academic research into the Holocaust,” notes Schudrich.

Worse still, he says, were comments made by several Polish leaders, including one who maintained that Jews wanted to go into the (Warsaw) ghetto. “My major concern was that some of the statements were clearly anti-Semitic – the kinds of things we hadn’t heard since the Holocaust,” said the rabbi. “My focus was making sure those statements would not go unresponded to.”

After months of international pushback, the government took the teeth out of the law by eliminating the punishment of fines and imprisonment.

Work together on creating a solution
The rabbi is known as a consummate peacemaker, attempting, whenever possible, to broker mutually acceptable resolutions – be they between the Jewish community and Polish officials, or disagreements between Jews.

“In a contentious time, with anti-Semitic rhetoric on the rise, including last year’s law dictating how we talk about the Holocaust and Poland, the rabbi is consistently sensitive to the concerns of both the Jewish and Polish communities,” says Andrew Srulevitch, director of European affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “He’s always eager to see things from another’s point of view and how they can be worked out.”

“I’ve been given a chance to make a difference."
The rabbi credits this mindset to two of his greatest teachers: his father, Rabbi David Schudrich; and Rabbi Chaskel Besser, a Chassidic rabbi who fled Poland the day the Germans invaded in 1939 and made the shidduch between the young advocate and Lauder. “They taught me how to put all the people on one side and the problem on the other, so we can work together on creating a solution everyone can live with.”

And while he is certainly a peacemaker, he is also not afraid to call a spade a spade. “He refuses to see anti-Semites lurking under every bed,” says Gebert. “But he can be blunt and direct when it comes to confronting anti-Semitism when he sees it.”

So, when chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Isaac Herzog sent letters to Europe’s heads of state in the wake of the recent Yom Kippur attack at the synagogue in Halle, Germany, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki answered with assurances that “Poland remains committed to combating all forms of anti-Semitism,” prompting Herzog to respond: “This is a very important statement by the Prime Minister of Poland, in every regard,” how did the rabbi react?

He wanted more than soothing words. “The statement is good, but needs to be followed with actions,” he said. “In fact, the prime minister has never met with Poland’s Jewish leaders.”

“I’ve been given a chance to make a difference,” Schudrich states. “To stand up for my people and help them come close to each other and their Jewish selves. So when a rabbi I met asked me, ‘How can you be here?’ I answered him, ‘How can I not?’”

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Spoons from Auschwitz
Dec 8, 2019  |  by Andrea Seiden
Spoons from Auschwitz
With my elderly father, a survivor, a message of resilience and hope at NYC’s Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibit, “Auschwitz, Then and Now.”

At NYC’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, I walked my elderly father, John Gimesh, through the exhibit, “Auschwitz, Then and Now.” We slowly wound through the galleries, trying to wrap our heads around the numbers, locations, names and faces. Born in Hungary in 1930, my father's lively green eyes faded, blinking back tears, as he recalled his own war years as a child in Budapest – and the relatives who did not survive.

Toward the end of the exhibit, we came upon a showcase, entitled, “Amalgam 1945.” It displayed hundreds of mangled utensils that Jews had brought to the camp – spoons, keys, scissors, pliers, etc. Just before Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz, the SS set fire to the storage sheds. The heat of the fire soldered the utensils together, creating this disturbing piece of abstract art.

Together we bent over the showcase, staring. We wondered about the ordinary people who once held those everyday objects, oblivious to their pending fate. Surely, there would have been an old man sipping tea, a mother serving kugel, a child spearing boiled potatoes.

A young John Gimesh and his father in Hungary

Hidden for 70 Years
My thoughts wandered to visiting Auschwitz with my father a few years earlier. I wanted to bear witness to the horrific acts carried out there, and wanted to confront the cruelty my father had spoken of so often.

At one point, not far from the crematorium, I saw my father poking around in the dirt with the toe of his black Reebok sneaker. He had found several spoons, from so many years ago, peaking up from the ground. Despite the dull patina, these spoons captured the morning sunlight, sending out hopeful, glistening rays of silver. They seemed to say, "Here we are: Witnesses!"

It was inconceivable that those spoons remained hidden for over 70 years – yet there they were, begging for care. With dust flying, my father bent down, cleaned them off with the corner of his shirt, and tucked them into his coat pocket.

Early on, I realized that nothing in my life could compare to the loss of 6 million. My skinned knees, disappointments, heartbreaks, and frustrations paled in comparison to Dad's childhood. So I rarely complained, and as much as possible pushed my own feelings aside, to make space for his sadness and not add.

Standing there in Auschwitz, I wanted to ask my father what memories those spoons conjured up, but I feared it would add too much to the heavy yoke of sadness I carried for him. So instead of curiosity and connection between father and daughter, I protected myself by reprimanding him for taking the spoons, and not being respectful of that sacred space.

John Gimesh’s passport photo, upon emigrating from Europe to the U.S. in 1956

Poppy Seed Pastry
Suddenly my father nudged me, interrupting my thoughts of Auschwitz. He was tired and needed a break at the museum's cafe. As we sat eating my father’s childhood favorite – poppy seed strudel – he asked, "How can we sit here laughing and eating this delicious pastry, knowing that 6 million innocent people were murdered?"

He stared at me, demanding, "And for what?" Patting his thin, bruised hand, we sat in uncomfortable silence, knowing there are no answers to such unimaginable questions.

Ready to head home, I held my father's hand as we navigated out of the cafe. Then, piercing the low hum, I heard the faint sound of clanging chimes. I looked down to my purse to see the spoons we used to stir our coffee (plus the dessert forks, still with bits of poppy seed pastry). They had magnetically clung to the metal closure on my handbag, creating waves of sound like wind chimes gently colliding with an invisible clapper.

I agree with those who say “there is no such thing as coincidence.” Was this a sign that my father had every right to take back the things that Auschwitz stole from him? Or that his family had been with him all along? Or that I would always be inextricably entwined with my father's experiences?

There is truth in each possibility. I also came to believe these everyday utensils symbolize my father's lesson of resilience and hope. Unlike those born with a “silver spoon,” my father endured a beastly hell – yet emerged with his humanity intact.

In his web of intertwined silver, tin and copper, each thread melting into the next… forming a matrix of dreams realized and dreams lost… hopes and despairs, tranquil moments, anxieties, passions, brilliance, and above all… the sweetness of life.

For me, I am gifted with the legacy of these spoons – to hold dear, and from which to draw strength.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Pro-Palestinian Defender
Dec 8, 2019  |  by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Jeremy Corbyn’s Pro-Palestinian Defender
A Marxist philosopher peddles in anti-Semitic tropes.

Much has been written about anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party. Indeed the Jewish branch of the party has now issued a 53-page report documenting nine instances of Corbyn personally engaging in anti-Semitism.
What is less understood is the philosophical undercurrent driving these anti-Semitic trends. A recent op-ed penned in The Independent by Slavoj Zizek – a philosophical mastermind of European anti-Semitism – offers examples of today’s worse anti-Semitic tropes. (Ironically presented in defending Corbyn and Labour from anti-Semitism!)

Trope #1: Anyone who critiques Israeli policy is automatically tagged an “anti-Semite.”
The subheadline of Zizek’s op-ed declares that “the charge of anti-Semitism is addressed at anyone who critiques Israeli policy.”

This is patently false. Half of the Israeli electorate “critiques Israeli policy,” yet nobody would suggest they all are anti-Semites.

Yet Zizek uses this bogus rhetoric to invoke the despicable “Livingstone Formulation” – the claim that Jews automatically cry “anti-Semitism” as a way to: (1) silence criticism of Israel, and (2) mobilize Jewish “victim power” against the Palestinians.

For anti-Semites, this perverse twist works like a rhetorical boomerang: Giving cover to those who disguise their anti-Semitism as a critique of Israeli policy – while cynically turning that criticism around against the accuser.

Trope #2: Zionism = Holocaust
In his op-ed, Zizek writes:

When the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations… it is the State of Israel that, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, ruthlessly using them as an instrument to legitimise present political measures.

Zizek’s words are in clear violation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” Zizek portrays those who attack Israel as the “real” victims – while suggesting that Palestinians are the new Holocaust victims, and Israel the new Nazis.

Slavoj Zizek

How painfully ironic that these new “Nazi victims” are the same Palestinians who, during the 1940s, were avowed and active partners in the Nazi Holocaust. Palestinian founding father Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini organized 42,000 Muslim troops to form Nazi SS divisions – carrying out police actions in fascist Hungary and participating in the genocide of Yugoslav Jews. Husseini enjoyed a close relationship with Hitler (upon whom he conferred the Islamicized name, Abu Ali), and spent the war years in Berlin where, at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, he delivered a daily pro-Nazi radio broadcast to the Muslim world.

High-ranking SS officer Dieter Wisliceny would later testify at the Nuremberg trials: “The Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry, and had been a collaborator and advisor of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan... He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures.”

In this so-called “Holocaust Inversion,” where Israelis are cast as the “new Nazis” and Palestinians as the “new victims,” the Holocaust becomes a moral indictment of the Jews – perverting history and desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims.

Trope #3: Palestinians, not Jews, are the true land’s indigenous people.
In his op-ed, Zizek claims that Jews today have “chosen the path of rooting.” He explains that because anti-Semites “reproach the Jews for being rootless, Zionism tries to correct this failure by belatedly providing Jews with roots.”

“Belatedly”? A historic timeline unpacks this false statement:

3,800 years ago – Abraham binds his son Isaac on the altar on Mount Moriah (Jerusalem).
3,000 years ago – King David purchases the Temple Mount from Jebusites; his son Solomon builds there the Holy Temple.
2,000 years ago – The Jewish people are exiled from Israel; a continuous Jewish presence remains in the land.
1,400 years ago – Mohammed begins a new religion and declares that, theologically, Islam has replaced Judaism as the heir to Jerusalem and Mount Moriah.
Short of pegging their ancestral heritage to the idolatrous Jebusites, it is impossible for Palestinian Muslims to predate the first Jew, Abraham. Yet Zizek falsely claims that “the trouble with Jews today is that they are now trying to get roots in a place which was for thousands of years inhabited by other people.”

Further echoing this replacement theology, Zizek declares “obscene” the historic fact that “the Jewish people have the legal and moral right to live in their ancient homeland.” Zizek concludes: Israel is “the trouble with Jews today.”

With this op-ed, The Independent has sunk another notch in its animosity toward Israel and the Jewish people. It is unsurprising that the op-ed was edited by Rivkah Brown, a self-proclaimed activist for the radical Na'amod: British Jews Against the Occupation.

Those who value truth must speak out against such vicious anti-Semitism. Send your comments to The Independent here.

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Identical Twins: One a Nazi, the Other a Member of the Israeli Navy
Nov 27, 2019  |  by Rabbi Efrem GoldbergIdentical Twins: One a Nazi, the Other a Member of the Israeli Navy
Our nature predisposes us, but through the way we nurture our lives, we can choose who we are and the legacy we leave.

As twins, Jack and Oskar shared the same DNA, the same nature, and yet, they emerged radically different people. Born in Trinidad in 1933, they were six months old when their parents divorced. Oskar went to Germany with his Catholic mother, while Jack stayed with his Romanian Jewish father. Oskar grew up as the Nazis rose to power, greeted the school principal with “Heil Hitler,” and later joined the Hitler Youth movement.

Jack, meanwhile, always thought of himself as Jewish, but didn’t feel its significance until he was 15 years old and was sent to Venezuela to live with his aunt. A survivor of Dachau, she was the only person from his father’s side to make it out alive.

After the war, Jack’s aunt encouraged him to move to Israel and so at 16, he made Aliyah and joined the Israeli Navy, ultimately becoming an officer. In 1954, Jack went to Germany to meet his identical twin. They were 21 when they met for the first time as adults.

Psychologist Nancy Segal tells the story of that encounter in her book “Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins.” Jack and Oskar examined one another as if they were looking at an alien, even though the other’s appearance should have been entirely familiar to them. Their cultural differences were as immediately apparent as their physical similarities. Casting a wary eye at Jack’s Israeli luggage tags, Oskar removed them and told his long-lost brother to tell others he was coming from America, not from Israel.

Suffice it to say that first reunion did not go well. Two brothers – one raised a proud Jew who served in the Israeli Navy and the other raised a German Catholic who had risen in the Nazi Youth movement and been taught to hate Jews. Because of the language barrier they couldn’t communicate much. At the end of the visit, they shook hands like strangers and Jack set off to San Diego where he lived the remainder of his life.

In 1979, Jack read about a study being done on twins and the great debate between nature and nurture. He asked if he and his brother could participate and thought after 25 years it might provide another opportunity for them to see one another and develop a relationship.

Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr

They met at the Minneapolis airport and to their amazement discovered they were wearing the exact same thing – a white sports jacket, similar shirt and wire- rimmed glasses. During the study, they learned that they had so much in common. Both were stubborn and arrogant, both fiercely competitive. Both read books from back to front, both sneezed incredibly loudly, they walked in a similar fashion, and they both wore rubber bands around their wrists.

And yet, with all that nature gave them in common, nurture had made them different. They could never agree on issues about Israel and her enemies or who was responsible for World War II. Oskar’s repeated reference to German soldiers as ‘we’ infuriated Jack. In a BBC documentary about the twins, Jack describes that they tried to like each other and enjoy each other’s company but there was always something in the background that they could not tolerate about one another. Jack died a few years ago at 82 years old. Oskar passed away in 1997.

As twins, Esav and Yaakov shared the same DNA, the same nature, and yet, they emerged radically different people. One became a patriarch of our people and the other a great villain of Jewish history, the progenitor of Edom, the exile in which we remain until this very day.

The name Esav comes from the Hebrew word "asui" which means complete, or finished product. The simple way to understand this is as a superficial description of Esav’s appearance. He was physically mature, covered in hair and appeared complete, fully grown as an adult.

But Esav’s name is not just about his physique; more importantly it is about his spirit and approach to life. Esav sees himself from the start as a finished product. What you see is what you get. He had no interest or ambition to grow, change, or improve. He was already made, complete from the start. Therefore the Torah describes Esav as a “man who knows hunting, a man of the field.” He remains a primitive, boorish man who spent his days among the animals, doing what animals do – hunting in the field.

Yaakov’s name reflects the exact opposite quality, the insatiable appetite for growth and improvement. The root of Yaakov’s name is “akeiv,” or “heel.” When we walk, the heel is the first part of the foot that touches the ground. It represents the beginning, the first step, with much to follow. Akeiv means the beginning of a process with much greater things to come as in the expression, “ikvesa de-Meshicha, heel of the Messianic Era.”

Esav and Yaakov are twins who enter the world with the same DNA, the same “nature,” but who bring contrasting attitudes towards their “nurture.” Esav is satisfied with who he is from the start while Yaakov feels entering the world is just the first of many steps and journeys to come.

Indeed, while Esav is spiritually stagnant, remains immature and undeveloped, Yaakov spends his life struggling, wrestling and thereby growing. He overcomes his shy nature to assert himself, first by obtaining the birthright and then collecting on it by going entirely against his nature and tricking his father into giving him a blessing. Later, before his reunion with Esav, we will read of his encounter with the angel with whom he wrestles the entire evening and triumphs. The shy, passive yeshiva bochur who is characterized as sitting learning diligently in the tent, emerges the strong, dynamic, assertive patriarch and leader who is among the greatest role models of our people.

Esav chooses to remain "complete" – stagnant, but Yaakov puts one foot in front of the other, walks, jogs and ultimately runs to his destiny as Yisrael. No matter what our nature, we are not finished products. We can nurture ourselves to grow, improve, and change in all areas of our lives.

Jack and Oskar did not leave legacies based on the “natures” they shared in common like sneezing loudly or by the way they walked. Because of how they were nurtured, Jack left a legacy of having been an officer in the Israeli Navy while Oskar left of a legacy of having been an enthusiastic member of the Nazi youth.

We all have natures that predispose us, but through the way we nurture our lives, ultimately, we can choose who we are and the legacy we leave.

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Sacha Baron Cohen, Facebook and Antisemitism
Nov 25, 2019  |  by Rabbi Benjamin BlechSacha Baron Cohen, Facebook and Antisemitism
We need to fundamentally reevaluate how “the greatest propaganda machine in history” spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.

Sacha Baron Cohen achieved international renown as a comedian. What he had to say however last Thursday night, speaking at the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Summit on hate and anti-Semitism, was deadly serious.

Hopefully his spot-on analysis of a major contemporary contribution to the spread of worldwide hatred and divisiveness will get the hearing it rightfully deserves – and perhaps might even be the spark to action that will bring about change to the horror of the present unregulated chaos of our social media.

Criticizing what he called “the greatest propaganda machine in history” he blamed the tech companies – YouTube, Twitter, Google and especially Facebook – for “stoking the fires of bigotry and enabling the spread of dangerous conspiracies, often fueled by algorithms designed to keep consumers hooked.”

If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.'”
“If you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie,” he said, noting the company would even help an advertiser find the right microtargeted audience for the message. “Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.'”

Cohen called for a fundamental reevaluation of how social media “spreads hate, conspiracies and lies,” pointing to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech warning against laws and regulations targeting companies like his. “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach,” Cohen asserted. “I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and pedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims.”

In the speech, Cohen urged that the companies be seen as “what they really are – the largest publishers in history.” “As such, he said, they should follow basic standards and practices that newspapers, magazines and TV news adhere to in their daily reporting.” Publishers can be sued for libel. People can be sued for defamation. Yet amazingly enough social media are exempt from responsibility. Social media companies are almost completely protected from liability for the content their users post – no matter how indecent – by Section 230 of, astonishingly enough, the Communications Decency Act!

To get some idea of the relevance of Cohen’s criticisms it might be interesting to remember that in October 2015, twenty thousand Israelis joined a civil lawsuit filed against Facebook in the Supreme Court for the State of New York. Led by the civil rights organization, Shurat HaDin, the suit alleged Facebook allows Palestinian extremists to openly recruit and train terrorists to plan violent attacks calling for the murder of Israeli Jews through their Facebook pages. Somehow though Facebook didn’t see anything wrong with making their site available to the highest terrorist bidders.

That may find striking similarity to the pernicious anonymous troll who posted a call-to-action on 4chan, a fringe online messaging board frequented by white supremacists, asking for people to create “a massive movement of fake Jewish profiles on Facebook, Twitter, etc.” Soon after that message was posted, numerous accounts impersonating Orthodox Jews emerged on Twitter sharing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel content.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an editor with The Forward, an online Jewish American publication based in New York, writes of the day she landed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey from France when she turned on her phone to discover that her husband had also been targeted by the same 4chan scheme. The fake account was using a photo of her husband, a New York City rabbi, and featured a sign reading “Boycott Israel” behind her husband’s photo. After reporting it to Twitter, she found other accounts that seemed suspicious, too. “These trolls were impersonating far left, social justice warriors who were promoting anti-Israel content,” Chizhik-Goldschmidt said. “It’s very disturbing how they got the language to seem real – like a real person was writing this.”

I can hardly imagine what that must’ve been like. My picture is out there somewhere on the web and I can only thank God that I did not suddenly find myself starring in a Facebook or Twitter account with a fake quote attributed to me condemning Israel or praising the boycott divestment and sanctions movement!

In an unregulated social media environment none of us is safe from exploitation.

While the United States continues to be slow in both recognizing as well as responding to this threat, lawmakers in Australia just recently passed new legislation to hold social media companies accountable for the spread of hate content on their platforms. With its implementation, companies such as Facebook and YouTube could be subject to huge fines, and their executives threatened with jail time, if they do not ensure the “expeditious” removal of inappropriate material. The Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material bill was enacted following criticism of social media for enabling the live broadcast of the horrific Christchurch, New Zealand mosque massacres.

The world was created by words. We need to remember that it can be destroyed by words as well.
For Jews it becomes even more necessary to identify the powerful role of words misused as propaganda for evil. Historian Karl Dietrich Bracher argued that the success of Nazi ideology can only be understood via the role of propaganda in the Third Reich. The Nazis’ modern techniques of opinion-formation in order to create a “truly religio-psychological phenomenon” made the propaganda especially powerful.

Joseph Goebbels, the appointed minister of propaganda of Nazi Germany, once said: “There are two ways to make a revolution. You can blast your enemy with machine guns until he acknowledges the superiority of those holding the machine guns. That is one way. Or you can transform the nation through a revolution of the spirit.” Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, told the Nuremberg Tribunal “that what distinguished the Third Reich from all previous dictatorships was its use of all the means of communication to sustain itself and to deprive its objects of the power of independent thought.” Hitler was a magician of illusion. The cultural historian Piers Brendon has described propaganda as the “gospel” of Nazism.

How tragic would it be if we pervert the potential of the Internet and social media from its ability to spread knowledge around the world faster than any other time in history to the creation of a medium that permits deceit, deception and dishonesty to speedily triumph. The rabbis long ago prophetically cautioned: the world was created by words – we need to remember that it can be destroyed by words as well.
Arabs and Muslims Standing Against Anti-Semitism
Nov 25, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt MillerArabs and Muslims Standing Against Anti-Semitism
Three recent cases of Arabs and Muslims taking a brave stand against anti-Jewish hatred.

With anti-Semitism skyrocketing, many Jews are finding themselves under attack. At times it can feel that few non-Jews want to stand up in defense of Jewish communities in their midst. Yet three recent events in Europe have given Jews some hope, as unexpected heroes stepped up to say enough is enough.

Standing up Against Hatred on British Train
Asma Shuweikh, a 36-year-old Muslim mother from the British city of Birmingham, was travelling on the underground tube in London on November 22, 2019, when she witnessed a Jewish family with young children being harassed and threatened by an aggressive, seemingly unhinged man spewing hate and threatening violence.

The Jewish couple was taking their young sons into town when an angry man began quoting Christian Bible passages disparaging Jews and yelling at them. He accused Jews of funding the slave trade and other vile falsehoods, and threatened them. The father repeatedly told the man to step back and stop threatening his children, but was ignored. A passenger filmed a brief clip of the abuse, but the father later told journalists that represented only a brief portion of his family’s ordeal which lasted over 15 minutes and terrified his children.

As the man continued to spew vile abuse at the Jewish family, at least one passenger tried to step in and intervene, only to be threatened with physical violence and back off. Finally, in a portion of the video clip that went viral, Mrs. Shuweikh starts to argue with the man, telling him not to direct such hatred to the family. Though the yelling man was extremely aggressive and physically imposing, towering over Mrs. Shuweikh, she stood firm and argued with him in a calm voice. The man turned his full attention to Mrs. Shuweikh, seemingly forgetting the Jewish family entirely. Though he can be heard on film saying disparaging things about Muslims, Mrs. Shuweikh continued to engage him in conversation, calming him down.

Without her brave intervention, the Jewish father, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels certain the abuse would have gone on and “could have escalated to physical violence”. He has publicly thanked Mrs. Shuweikh for saving his family for further fear and abuse. Mrs. Shuweikh has explained that she saw that the Jewish father “was trying to keep calm for his children” and wanted to help. She “tried to bring (the abuser) down to a level where you can have a conversation so he doesn’t go back to the Jewish family that were on the train.”

“I’m a mother,” she explained, “and I thought if I were with my children, I would want someone to intervene” to help as well. With no one on the train seemingly willing to step in and help, she stepped up to do what was right.

Arab Man Spending A Fortune to Keep Nazi Memorabilia Out of the Wrong Hands
When Hermann Historica, an auction house in Munich, announced that it would be auctioning off an extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia on November 20 and 21, 2019, many Jews in Germany were outraged. Among the items being sold were clothes and books that once belonged to Adolph Hitler. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, president of the European Jewish Association, noted that Germany is currently “in the forefront in Europe with regard to the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents”. Many feared that selling Nazi items would only fan the flames of anti-Jewish hatred, allowing neo-Nazis to acquire these vile items.

Abdallah Chatila
Despite calls to cancel the sale, the auction went on and was a huge success for the auction house, bringing in tens of thousands of Euros. But unbeknownst to many at the sale, many of these items were bought by Abdallah Chatila, a Lebanese businessman, who purchased them in order to keep them out of neo-Nazi hands.

Mr. Chatila was born into a Christian Arab family in Lebanon, a country in which Jews and Israelis are routinely demonized. Lebanon refuses to have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and is officially at war with Israel, and Lebanese public news and television provide a steady diet of negative views towards Israel and Israelis. Despite this, Mr. Chatila seems to have very different views. He moved to Geneva and made a fortune in jewelry and real estate, and is concerned by the rise of anti-Jewish hatred.

When he heard about the Nazi artifacts going on sale, he decided to do something about it, spending over half a million Euros – over $600,000 – on ten lots of goods. “I wanted to buy these objects so that they would not be used for neo-Nazi propaganda purposes,” he later explained. “Far-right populism and anti-Semitism are spreading all over Europe and the world, (and) I did not want these objects to fall into the wrong hands and to be used by people with dishonest intentions.”

Among the items he bought include a hat, cigar box and typewriter that once belonged to Hitler, as well as Hermann Goering’s copy of Mein Kampf.

Mr. Chatila said he believes these disgusting objects should be burned, but since historians have told him they should be preserved, he’s turning them over to the Jerusalem-based organization Keren Hayesod, an umbrella group that funds myriad pro-Israel programs for Jews across the world. Mr. Chatila said he believes in the goals of Keren Hayesod, which include working “for the building and development of the State of Israel”.

Arabs Rejecting Boycotts Against Israel
On November 19 and 20, 2019, 32 Arabs gathered together in London to publicly state something extraordinary: despite pressure in their home countries and around the world to repudiate Israel and demonize the Jewish state, these brave individuals stated publicly that they opposed boycotts against Israel. In clear, ringing language, they rejected much of the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist slander that fills the airwaves and press in their home countries, and declared Israel is a country that is worth recognizing and embracing.

Participants hailed from 15 countries, including some with no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Some risked their lives or freedom to attend. (Just months ago, Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied, condemned calls like this to improve relations with Israel as “high treason”.) Despite the dangers, the participants explained they are “determined to push for cooperation between the Arab world and Israel”.

Participants included Egyptian MP Mohammed Anwar Sadat (nephew of former President Anwar Sadat), Kuwait’s former Minister of Information Sami Abdul-Latif Al-Nisf, who declared, “It is a mistake to insist on Israel’s being a racist apartheid state when it clearly is not,” and Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian professor who shocked Arabs in 2014 when he led a group of Arab students on an educational trip to Auschwitz and insisting on teaching about the Holocaust and standing up to the Holocaust denial that’s rampant in much of Arab society.

Participants decried anti-Semitism in Arab school curricula, condemned preaching hatred of Jews in mosques, and asserted their opposition to the BDS movement, which calls for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning the Jewish state.

Following two days of intense debate, the group adopted the name Arab Council for Regional Integration and called on further meetings and debates to help spread their calls for repudiating hatred and boycotts against Jews and Israel. Some face danger at home for their embrace of Israel, but the conference participants are standing firm and planning to meet again early in 2020 in Washington DC to continue their work.
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Nov 24, 2019  |  by Judy GruenIt’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
The new film about Fred Rogers and a cynical journalist is a movie we need right now.

It is fitting that the new movie about Fred Rogers and his friendship with a hard-bitten reporter is getting universal acclaim. At this time of bitter and wearying divisiveness, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reminds us that Fred Rogers, a beloved figure to children and adults, always emphasized kindness and acceptance, and that while anger is often understandable, it can and must be controlled.

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel are both superb in this film, based on true events. In 1998, reporter Tom Junod was assigned a 400-word profile of Rogers for a special issue of Esquire magazine devoted to America’s most inspirational people. In the movie, Junod’s character is Lloyd Vogel, a writer with an attitude who seems insulted at the assignment.

“You hired me as an investigative journalist,” Vogel complains to his boss. “I don’t do puff pieces.”

“Four hundred words. Play nice,” his editor answers tartly. In fact, Vogel’s cynical nature had become a liability in his career. As the film plays it, Fred Rogers was the only interview subject selected by the magazine who agreed to work with Vogel.

Rogers turns what others see as a deficiency into a strength.
Vogel is flummoxed right away upon meeting Mr. Rogers. Sitting together on the soundstage of his television program, he can barely hold Rogers’ gaze, one that conveys a deep and uncanny understanding. Rogers had done his homework, having read many of Vogel’s pieces. He understands that this man is in emotional pain. In fact, he carries an industrial-sized load of bottled-up anger from his father’s abandonment of the family at a time of crisis many years earlier.

Rogers begins asking Vogel about his own childhood during their meeting, and Vogel cuts him off: “I’m asking the questions here.” But Vogel quickly realizes that Fred Rogers is much more than a children’s entertainer who speaks a little slowly and who doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he is the voice behind his puppets. He is a man old enough to be Vogel’s own father, and watching Mr. Rogers relate to all children – both the ones he meets and the millions he doesn’t – with such authentic acceptance and affection touches him deeply.

Suddenly, 400 words seems completely inadequate to capture the essence of this inspirational man. Eventually, he turns in a 10,000-word feature titled, “Can You Say Hero?” Mr. Rogers graced the magazine cover.

For viewers like me who saw last year’s outstanding documentary about Mr. Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this is a marvelous follow-up. It builds on our appreciation of Fred Rogers as a complex man of faith, whose personal sense of mission was to help children deal with and manage their own difficult feelings and to feel valued. On each show, he validated children for being who they are, in all their God-given precious individuality. In the movie, he does the same thing for a grown man.

Vogel chooses to spend more and more time with Rogers, who gently, persistently, prods to learn the source of the writer’s anger and pain. As a new father of an infant struggling in his role, Vogel does not want history to repeat itself. Slowly, he allows Mr. Rogers into that tender space in his wounded heart. Mr. Rogers often said that when feelings are mentionable, they become manageable. As Vogel opens up, Rogers shows him a path forward to greater emotional peace.

In one conversation, Vogel challenges Rogers, saying, “You love broken people like me.”

“I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers answers. He tells Vogel that where other people may see him as being unyielding and tough, he sees a man of conviction. And, he adds, without the pain of Vogel’s past, including his father’s wrongs, he would not have become the man of principle he became.

He turns what others see as a deficiency into a strength.

Fred Rogers never saw himself as a hero. His greatness stemmed from his humility, and he confides in Vogel that he, too, carries his own burdens from the past and must fight his nature. Becoming patient, accepting, and controlling anger were not miracle gifts. They were the work of consistent faith and self-actualization.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a moving and memorable film about trying to repair broken relationships, managing overwhelming feelings, and learning to see with eyes that seek the good. At the end of the movie, the audience applauded. No one got up to leave until after the final credits had rolled. More than twenty years after that Esquire cover story and sixteen years after he passed away, Mr. Rogers continues to inspire with his focus on peace, not division; on kindness, not mocking cruelty.

Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, his animating values are core Jewish values. He had an ayin tov, a good eye that looked for the good in others. He knew that anger “took us out of this world,” as it says in Pirkei Avot, and for that reason needed to be controlled. He knew that daily acts of kindness, of chesed, were the responsibility of every person, to help make the world a better place.

There are three secrets to happiness: Be kind. Be kind. And be kind.”
In an interview with CBS News about his role as Mr. Rogers, Tom Hanks dismissed the frequently floated idea that his personal reputation as an unfailingly nice guy made this an easy role for him to play. In fact, he said, as soon as he agreed to take the part, he began to have night sweats. “Everyone has an idea of what Fred was like. It was terrifying. You want to land in a place that people recognize is true human behavior.”

Joanne Rogers, Mr. Rogers’ widow, loaned Hanks some of her husband’s ties to help him feel he was in the role, and each day, the cast was presented with a “Fred quote.” Hanks said that his favorite was this:

“There are three secrets to happiness: Be kind. Be kind. And be kind.” Hanks noted, “It sounds namby-pamby, but it means that you give everybody a fair shake. It means being open to a possibility of making a simple choice of making the world a little bit better.”

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Scoring for God: The Spiritual Journey of Former Basketball Star Doron Sheffer
Nov 16, 2019  |  by Hillel Kuttler
Scoring for God: The Spiritual Journey of Former Basketball Star Doron Sheffer
The Israeli athlete is discovering the Torah's wisdom on how to live in a more healthy, happy and balanced way.

Grasping a basketball in his enormous hands, Doron Sheffer looks slim and nimble enough to hit the court again as he greets a visitor to his home on Moshav Amirim. The glorious afternoon in this hilly community with breathtaking views of the Galilee’s mountains seems light years from the snow and chill of New England, where Sheffer played for three seasons for the University of Connecticut Huskies in the mid-1990s.

As a UConn guard, Sheffer fed the ball to such star teammates as Ray Allen (now with the NBA’s Miami Heat) and played for legendary coach Jim Calhoun. Sheffer averaged five assists and thirteen points per game, hit 40 percent of his three-point attempts and led the Huskies to a sparkling 89-13 record and NCAA tournament appearances in each of his three seasons. Sheffer was the first Israeli ever drafted by the NBA – the Los Angeles Clippers selected him in the second round in 1996 – but he instead signed a lucrative contract with Israel’s dynastic professional basketball team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, leading it to four consecutive national championships.

Raised in a secular home near Tel Aviv, Sheffer, 41, retired from basketball in 2008. Today, he sports a trim beard and a black-knit kippa rests on his head. A set of Talmud stands with other traditional texts lining his living room shelves. All attest to a changed man, someone who has evolved most strikingly in the past decade but whose shift in orientation began at UConn when his mother, Yael, mailed him a book about spirituality.

Sheffer’s journey has featured dramatic mileposts: a sojourn to India, a successful battle with testicular cancer and several basketball comebacks. One such comeback, playing for Hapoel Jerusalem for two seasons beginning in 2003, proved pivotal because that is when Sheffer began wearing tefillin more regularly and reading Psalms. By the time he returned to Jerusalem in 2006, he had married his second wife, Talia, and together they decided to observe Shabbat, kashrut and family-purity laws and to start going to shul. He also began wearing a kippa and tzitzit and studying Talmud at the Ashrei Ha’Ish Yeshiva.

“It wasn’t a decision made in one day or one minute,” Sheffer explains. “At a certain point, though, I realized, ‘I’m going for it.’ There were rises and falls. I wore tefillin and stopped, learned Torah and stopped, observed Shabbat and stopped.”

Sheffer is sitting at a kitchen table in a guest apartment in the couple’s modern sun-drenched home where they run a business catering to people who come for healing of the body and mind.

Sheffer points to an Israeli woman and her daughter relaxing on a bench, a small fountain bubbling nearby amid a lovely garden of purple tulips and clusters of other flowers interspersed with rock paths. The mother has cancer, went through multiple operations and, losing hope, came to their retreat to rest and to contemplate, Sheffer says.

Sheffer’s livelihood also comes from running youth basketball clinics that impart values and addressing various audiences in Israel and abroad about his life story. He’s synthesized those experiences and life lessons in an autobiography published in Hebrew. It’s titled Aneni, from David’s famous proclamation in Psalm (118:5) “Out of my distress I called upon the Lord; the Lord answered me [aneni] with liberation.”

Played for the right reasons, Sheffer says, basketball is “a teacher of life,” imparting joy and inculcating in its practitioners the values of work, play and consistency.
Personally, Sheffer says, “I had distress, and God answered.”

One answer was Sheffer’s surviving cancer; another, Sheffer’s path toward observance and back to the region, far changed from the adolescent who headed north to play for the Hapoel Galil Elyon team in 1990 and concluded his career with the same club nearly two decades later.

Amirim consists primarily of nonobservant residents, with approximately twenty observant families. It was founded in 1958 as a retreat for vegetarians, and that ethic remains. Amirim’s entrance features a billboard speckled with more than 100 signs promoting the moshav’s businesses: aromatherapists, massage therapists, herb gardens, spas, a health food shop, an organic olive oil shop, art galleries, restaurants and plentiful bed and breakfasts.

“It’s a vegetarian community, which spoke to us,” Sheffer explains. “I eat healthily – organic fruits and vegetables, except for some occasional meat. Health of body and of soul – it’s all here. It does me good to eat healthy, to breathe clear air.”

A healthy soul includes Jewish learning, and classes are held most nights in residents’ homes. Many of Amirim’s observant families come from less observant backgrounds.

“To be a ba’al teshuvah is a way of life, a never-ending story: not too much, not too little; not to climb too high up the tree, but not to flee from it, always seeking balance,” he says.

The Sheffers have four children together: daughters Gavriel, eight, and Michael, seven, who were given the names of angels; a son, Yedidya, four; and another daughter, Yaara, three. Sheffer’s eldest child, Ori, eleven, resides primarily with her mother in Tel Aviv, but often comes to Amirim. Ori’s situation is unique, Sheffer says, because she lives with both observant and nonobservant parents.

The children constitute the Sheffers’ “starting five.”

“We don’t push. We give her freedom,” he says. “On Shabbat, if she wants to call her mom, we let her. We try not to push something before its time. Thankfully, she feels a part of our home and blends into our lifestyle.”

Not pushing children – when it comes to religion or to sports – is central to his philosophy. Screaming parents and coaches making demands on players, says Sheffer, constitute pressure points that sidetrack young athletes from the joys of competition.

But, played for the right reasons, he says, basketball is “a teacher of life,” imparting joy and inculcating in its practitioners the values of work, play and consistency. That is the approach Sheffer takes in promoting basketball to kids – what he dubs “basketball therapy.”

In comparison, “the Torah is the teacher of life,” he says. “The Torah includes everything. It gives me endless advice, tools and inspiration for how to live in a more healthy, happy and balanced way – in my married life, raising my kids, employment and faith. All in all, it helps me be a better human being.”

Sheffer rises. He has to head to Jerusalem, a three-hour drive, to address Hebrew University students, mostly nonobservant, who gather weekly for discussions on Jewish thought.

In a university meeting room thirty-five students and a rabbi await. Sheffer strides to the front and softly relates his background, basketball career and battle with cancer. Finally, he tells of his search for meaning and his discovering it in living a religious life.

During the hour-long appearance, Sheffer quotes freely from NBA legends Pat Riley and Michael Jordan, along with Chazal, Chasidism, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Pirkei Avot. He acknowledges that religious observance stimulates ever-more questioning of a path fraught with continual challenges. He takes students’ questions: Are you happy? How did cancer shape your life? What about the stereotypes of newly observant Jews?

Afterward, a third-year engineering student, Luda Loginova, speaks of having gained from the presentation.

“It gives us inspiration that it’s possible to deal with any difficulty, make any change and try to be a better person,” she says. “He helped me think about things I don’t think about daily.”

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2013.

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Reclaiming Jewish Identity from Anti-Semitism
Nov 10, 2019
by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Reclaiming Jewish Identity from Anti-Semitism
Defining Jewish identity through joy and celebration, not pain and persecution.
One year after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting shook world Jewry to its core, we are continuously flooded with disturbing reminders that, unbelievably, anti-Semitism is back on the agenda and threatens our way of life more seriously than we could have ever imagined in the modern era.
The latest wake-up call occurred when a neo-Nazi gunman came to kill Jews at a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur. By now, the attack in Halle is all too familiar. Violent anti-Semitic incidents rose 13% worldwide last year, according to Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center. The synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh; Poway, California; and Halle have between them claimed 14 lives. A wave of anti-Semitic assaults has also conjured images that the Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, believed were decades in the past.

Nor is this trend confined to the United States. In Germany, government officials have warned Jews against wearing kippot for their own safety. A recent report by France’s National Human Rights Advisory Committee found that anti-Semitic acts in France have increased more than 70% in a year. And in the United Kingdom, the Community Security Trust recorded 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, including 123 involving violence.

The hatred comes from east and west, Left and Right. How should we respond?

We cannot let our Jewish identity be defined by the hatred and oppression we suffer at the hands of others.
Certainly, there are practical measures – security measures, political activism and awareness campaigns – that must, and have, been taken to protect Jewish life and limb. But we must also remember that rising anti-Semitism is a threat to the Jewish soul, not just the Jewish body.
We cannot let our Jewish identity be defined by the hatred and oppression we suffer at the hands of others. A Jewish identity defined by anti-Semitism is depressing and empty – a pathetic fight for survival. It is also unsustainable. It is impossible to inspire a new generation of Jews with a message of persecution and suffering. We will only be truly inspired by a vision of Jewish identity and values, rooted in Judaism, one which gives us a sense of higher Divine purpose – of who we are and why we are here, of our moral calling is compelling enough to sustain and inspire Jewish continuity.

It is this life-affirming sense of Jewish identity that animates the vision of the international Shabbat Project to reignite and rejuvenate, the passion, inspiration and celebration of being Jewish.

The Shabbat Project is a global, grassroots movement that brings Jews from across the globe together to keep a single Shabbat, transcending religious beliefs, politics, ethnicity, geography and walls that separate us from each other. Last year, the Shabbat Project involved communities in 101 countries and 1,511 cities and towns. It was also held on the same weekend that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred. A year later, the Shabbat Project (to be held from Nov. 15-16) presents a more opportune time than ever to unify the Jewish people.

The Shabbat Project seeks to rejuvenate Jewish identity through the power and energy of Shabbat, and its values and ideas that have permeated and inspired Jewish life for thousands of years.

The most precious dimensions of Jewish values are celebrated and reaffirmed on Shabbat: faith, family, community and Jewish peoplehood. As we make Kiddush at our Shabbat tables, we declare in the presence of family and friends, and give thanks to God as the Creator of the Universe. Shabbat is also the nurturer and protector of the Jewish family. For thousands of years, this weekly holiday has held Jewish families together in love and loyalty. Strong, indomitable families have been the source of strength of the Jewish people. The oxygen of healthy families is uninterrupted time together to talk, share and bond. Shabbat creates the shared time and space for family members to connect with one another in a real, loving way. Through the Divine wisdom of its laws, we create space for our most precious relationships.

Paradoxically, we experience the freedom of Shabbat by embracing the restrictions of the day. Not being able to drive a car or go to work, or turn on our phones and screens frees us to enjoy a day without frantic travel, traffic, errands, appointments and commitments. We can spend the day connecting to family, friends, community and God – recharging ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. We eat together, pray together, laugh and celebrate together.

Shabbat gives us the blessing of belonging. We are not alone in the world. We are part of something much greater and larger: the Jewish people. Shabbat holds us together as a people. On Shabbat, Jewish communities worldwide read the same Torah portion and feel part of the natural rhythm built into the Jewish week. We feel part of a community. We feel a sense of belonging in a world of fragmentation. We rediscover a Jewish identity rooted in the life-affirming values of faith, family and community.

There is a sense that we come together through the Shabbat Project not because the hatred of others forces us to do so, but because we celebrate being Jewish, appreciating the bountiful blessings of Shabbat in our lives.

Ultimately, the Shabbat Project has resonated with so many because it gives us the opportunity to define Jewish identity on our own terms – through our Divine purpose and values – rather than through force of hatred and the struggle for survival; through joy and celebration, not pain and persecution. Shabbat allows us to give a new generation of Jews an inspired Jewish identity – one that they will be proud to embrace.

Reprinted with permission from

Israeli Soldier Following His Brother's Footsteps
Nov 9, 2019
by Hanan Greenwood and Israel Hayom
Israeli Soldier Following His Brother's Footsteps
Capt. David Sarel, whose brother Maj. Benaya Sarel was killed during Operation Protective Edge, is driven to protect the people of Israel.

This week, before the lead company of the Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion left the Gaza Strip, Capt. David Sarel got up at 4 a.m., as he usually does, for another insanely busy day. At 9:30 a.m. an explosives device was found at the border fence, a suspicious vessel was spotted offshore at 11, and that was only the beginning.

On Monday, more than five years after his brother Maj. Benaya Sarel was killed on Black Friday in Operation Protective Edge, David was getting ready to depart the most dangerous and volatile zone in Israel.

"I haven't finished with Gaza," David says. "This was a very challenging mission from every aspect – both in terms of the military combat and personally. This is the hottest zone in terms of ongoing security measures and daily missions. I don't know if I can say if closes a circle, but I had the privilege of returning to the place where my brother was killed. It gave me a lot of strength and reminded me that I didn't break, that my family didn't break. We are going on."

Q: How do you handle it? Do you look at Gaza every day and say, 'This is where my brother was killed'?

"Not exactly, because most of the day I don't think and I work like a well-oiled machine. But there are moments when you catch yourself, at morning or night, in the command center or on patrol, and suddenly you miss him."
David Sarel had been in the army for only 12 days when he was informed that his brother had been killed. That same morning, Benaya had called him, but David couldn't answer. Later, he was the one who opened the door to the local army liaison who brought him the life-changing news.

The late Maj. Benaya Sarel, who fell in the Gaza Strip on Aug. 1, 2014

"It's easy to think, in retrospect, what I would do differently, but that's the way it is with every decision," he says.

"I don't regret the path I've followed, but I do regret that I suppressed what I was undergoing for so long. I went through something really tough and I chose to get back to my routine really quickly and continue with business as usual. Within two weeks, I was back to basic training with the Golani [Brigade], without any favors. Like everyone else. It helped me a lot at the time and centered me, but looking back I realize that I'm now dealing with a lot of things I had to work through then, and today the wounds are deeper."

In the past five years, David has undergone a major process. He finished officers training successfully, served as a commander at the Golani Brigade's commando school, then later as reconnaissance company commander. The past few months, he has been in charge of combat soldiers near Zikim on the southern coast, the northernmost part of the Gaza Strip – only a few kilometers from Ashkelon. On Monday, he and his soldiers left for training, and when that's done, they are slated for operations in another very tense zone – Mount Dov, in the north.

David is full of praise for his troops: "We have Spartans who are protecting the people of Israel," he says proudly.

"These are soldiers who are sacrificing their lives for them, very special people with a very strong sense of mission and devotion who handle this reality from a strong basis of values and combat spirit. It's amazing to look at my company and realize that everyone here has a common goal, to protect the people of Israel."

Sarel poses for a picture with some of his soldiers:
We have Spartans who are protecting the people of Israel

David's father has only visited him on the Gaza border once.

"My dad happened to be here. I saw it was very hard for him," David says.

Q: How did your parents respond when you told them you were headed for Gaza?

"My parents are heroes and are very adept at detaching some of their personal feelings and doing what needs to be done. I feel as if what I've chosen to do is hard for them in general, with the price they've already paid. They feel it every day. But at the same time, I'm sure that it also gives them a lot of strength."

Q: May you live to 120, but if I were in place of your family, I'd automatically think of the family of Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons in battle. Isn't that scary?

"No. I believe that every person has a role in this world. It's scary to drive, to go out, or be in the country at all … Aside from that, I can say that if I am ever asked to go into a situation where I have to sacrifice my life, I'll do it."

Q: Do you feel that your story has made your service different? Something bigger?

"I don't think I'm different from other people and the fact that my brother was killed doesn't make my blood any bluer or give me any privileges. There are a lot of people who understand the importance and the value of devotion, and anyone who serves under me and around me is like that. Indeed, not everyone has paid such a heavy price. I'm motivated both by values and ideology, which are the main reason why I'm here, but it's not just about values. You need to be good at what you do. I'm not here from a place of 'poor me' or ongoing suffering. I do it out of love, not out of a desire for revenge or because anyone is forcing me. Revenge is a very animalistic instinct, and it's not what motivates me. I'll do everything I can to defend Israel."

David says he wanted to serve in Gaza: "I needed to bring that to a close."

He is very honest, and doesn't hide the fact that sometimes he has a hard time with the fact that his brother was killed only a few kilometers from where he has been serving.

"There's something very sad about bereavement and grief: on one hand, a hole opens up, but on the other, with time a little sprout grows in that hole that softens the loss, kind of heals the wound. I admit that I'm kind of in denial about what happened, because I can say that if I focus on it, I won't be able to do what I do. I funnel the sorrow, the pain, the loss into action."

Q: Do you ever break down?

"Yes. I break a few times a day, but they're little breaks and I know that every one of them also comes with an uplift in spirit. I always remind myself why that's important. And when I look to my left and to my right and see the soldiers and commanders, when I look back and see the people of Israel backing us up, when I look at my family and my wife, my home and this country, I don't have any more questions."

David is very frank about his feelings, and hides nothing. Not even things that aren't easy to hear. He sees that as carrying on Benaya's values and legacy.

"He was a legend, in life and in death, and I never go anywhere and tell people my last name without them telling me where he met them while he was alive. It warms my heart, and his memory has to guide me to a place of action.

"If I can touch one or two people, give them something and cause them to do something meaningful, the way Benaya would, then I've done what I had to – even if it demands a lot of effort and spiritual strength."

This article originally appeared in Israel HaYom
A Special Double Wedding In Israel, When the Rockets Rained Down
Nov 14, 2019  |  by Adam Ross
A Special Double Wedding In Israel, When the Rockets Rained Down
A bride and groom share their big day with another couple whose wedding plans were cancelled due to rocket fire, with the hall owners covering the extra costs.

Ilan Koren, an events manager at a wedding hall near Petah Tikvah, woke up Tuesday morning to the news that hundreds of rockets had been fired at Israel in the wake of an IDF pre-dawn strike on renowned Islamic Jihad terror chief, Baha Abu al-Ata in the Gaza Strip.

Until the recent ceasefire, over 450 rockets were fired indiscriminately at southern Israeli towns and cities.

Ilan told, “The fall out meant schools and businesses were closed and many weddings as well as other big events had been cancelled.

“There was a news report I watched that included a bride heartbroken about what had happened. I couldn’t sit by and watch weddings be cancelled when I thought there was something I could do about it.”

Within moments, he was on a call with Moran Nizrad and Yaniv Kahlon a young couple set to get married at the Telya events venue that night with a question he had never asked before.

Will you share your wedding?

“I explained the situation in the south and asked whether they would consider sharing their wedding with a couple from the south? They answered together and immediately ‘yes.’”

“They are wonderful people. I had got to know them during the arrangements and preparations, and I felt immediately that they would also want to help.”

With its capacity for 700 guests, and the Nizrad Kahlon wedding party numbering around 300, the venue owners, who have asked to remain anonymous, agreed immediately to pay for all of the added costs.

Two wedding parties who had never met united for a joint celebration.
Koren’s plan would mean that although Telya would arrange a separate site for the second chuppah (ceremony) Moran and Yaniv would share the band, dance floor and banqueting area with the other couple. It would be two wedding parties who had never met, uniting for a joint celebration.

Just very happy to help
When media took hold of the story, a flurry of requests came in and it was up to Moran and Yaniv to choose the couple they felt would best fit in with their own guests.

“We were so happy with the idea,” Yaniv and Moran said. “When Ilan asked us, we didn’t hesitate. We were just very happy to do something to help.”

A couple from Sderot, one of the towns closest to the Gaza Strip and often in the firing line of rocket and mortar fire, were chosen and quickly got to work, letting their guests know of the change of venue.

Round the clock preparation
Even for a large events venue, organizing double the amount of food, drink, and waiting staff was a huge task, but Ilan says it was well worth it. “I probably lost 9 pounds that day,” he smiled, “But I have 15 years of experience in this business, so we knew if we really wanted to, we would get everything done in time.”

A convoy of buses arrived at the venue as the second couple arrived. It was such a wonderful atmosphere. They brought their rabbi, their guests and all of their simcha, (joy) and it was a very special night.

“The day had been a roller coaster for the second couple. They had been shocked, in tears, and then racing to rearrange everything and find buses to bring their friends and family. When they arrived it was incredible, they were so grateful.”

"The two couples got on so well,” he added. “They were both so excited, they danced together, it was a wonderful occasion and I am sure they made a lifelong friendship that night.”

“No logic, it was pure emotion”
The cost of the additional wedding ran into the tens of thousands of shekels, although Ilan says it was not a factor for the owners. “The residents in the south have been suffering under rocket fire like this for well over ten years. The owners said there was no way they were going to take their money.

“There was no logic in any of his thinking, it was pure emotion. Here in Israel it’s true we fight a lot about politics, about religion, left and right, religious, secular, but eventually when it comes down to it there is nothing we wouldn’t do for each other.

“I have since heard that many other wedding halls in the center of the country also responded the same way that we did. This is what it means to be family.”

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Shema Yisrael: 8 Facts
Nov 9, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Shema Yisrael: 8 Facts
Fascinating facts about this central Jewish prayer.

They are the most iconic words in the Jewish liturgy: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad - “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

It's a mitzvah t recite the Shema in the morning and the evening, and it's recited by Jews around the world just before they go to sleep each night. Parents teach it to their children, and through the ages countless Jews have recited it at moments when they faced death, making the timeless words of the Shema the last they ever said. Here are eight facts about this iconic Jewish prayer.

Reciting the Shema
The full Shema prayer is three paragraphs long. (It comprises the sentence beginning with Shema, above, then the line “Blessed is the Name of His (God’s) glorious kingdom for all eternity”, then three paragraphs taken from the Torah: Deuteronomy 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41.) These express core Jewish beliefs: recognizing that God is One, living a life of mitzvot, and understanding that Jewish life is tied to the land of Israel.

The first paragraph of the Shema beautifully describes the commandment to remember all the mitzvot of the Torah: “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise…” The Talmud (Berachot 10b) explains that “when you retire and when you arise” means we have an obligation to say the Shema each morning and each evening. Shema is also said just before going to bed.

Core Jewish Belief
The central belief in the Shema is that there is one God and that we have a relationship with Him. Four thousand years ago our patriarch Abraham promulgated monotheism to a polytheistic world, creating a spiritual revolution.

Monotheism maintains that God is infinite, existing beyond time and space as an eternal, absolute Being Who is the continuous source of all creation. There is no power outside of Him; He is the transcendent source of morality Who is omniscient and good. Since an infinite Being is perfect and has no needs, His creation is ultimately for our benefit and the Torah and its mitzvot serve as the blueprint to forge a relationship with Him.

Being Witnesses Today
Take a look at the Shema in a Hebrew prayer book or a Torah scroll and you’ll see that the final letters of the first and last word of the Shema are enlarged. (It’s written something like this in Hebrew: ShemA Yisrael, Adonei Eloheinu, Adonai EchaD.) These two enlarged Hebrew letters, ayin and dalet, spell the Hebrew word Ayd, or “witness”. By saying the Shema, we are acting as a “witness”, testifying for the existence of the Divine presence in the world.

Covering our Eyes
It’s traditional to cover our eyes while saying Shema Yisrael Adonai Elocheinu Adonai Echad. Covering our eyes helps us blot out the distractions of the outside world so that we can focus on these words with our entire being, and feel our connection with God that they convey.

On the Doorposts of our Homes
The Shema instructs Jews to make remembering our relationship with God so central in our lives that we put reminders “on the doorposts of (our) houses”. For thousands of years Jews have placed copies of the Shema inside mezuzot on our doorways.

The piece of paper containing the Shema prayer inside a mezuzah is called a klaf (parchment). It’s written by hand by a specially-trained scribe on fine parchment. Any mistake invalidates a klaf. It’s customary to get them checked every seven years to make sure the letters haven’t flaked off or faded.

Parchments containing the Shema are also found in the boxes of Tefillin that Jewish men wear during morning services every day except for holidays and Shabbat.

Rabbi Akiva’s Final Shema
Rabbi Akiva lived in Israel during the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. He is known for his brilliant teachings and his deep love of mankind. “Beloved is man” Rabbi Akiva used to say, “for he was created in God’s image” (Pirkei Avot 3:18).

During the brutal Roman occupation, Roman forces forbade Jews from studying Torah. Risking his life, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach classes and run a Jewish school. When one of his colleagues asked how he could defy death to pass on Jewish teachings, Rabbi Akiva told the following story as a metaphor. A group of fish was scared of being caught in a fisherman’s net. A fox lurking on the riverbank suggested to the fish that they leave the water, climb up onto land, and then they would be free from the danger of the fishing net. The fish replied that if they did so they would face certain death. Similarly, Rabbi Akiva explained Jews cannot abandon our Jewish way of life, even in the face of danger. Torah is our oxygen; leaving its waters would lead to spiritual death.

Rabbi Akiva was arrested and sentenced to death by torture in 135 CE. Roman soldiers took him to an arena in the town of Caesarea where Romans watched while his skin was scraped away with iron combs. Somehow, Rabbi Akiva managed to recite the Shema, saying it with great enthusiasm and even joy. Shocked, his anguished students who were standing by witnessing their teacher’s torture, asked how he could pray at a moment like this.

“All my life I have been troubled by the verse in the Shema saying you should love the Lord your God with all your soul,” Rabbi Akiva gasped. In that final moment he stood facing certain death, Rabbi Akiva finally understood what it meant to devote one’s entire soul to God. He proudly declared Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Witnesses recorded that he drew out the sound of the final word Echad until his soul left his body (Talmud Berachot 61b).

Shema in the Holocaust
One of the greatest proponents of the Shema in modern times was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the leader of the Kaliv Chassidic group in Israel. Throughout his long life, he encouraged Jews around the world to say the Shema. It was his horrific experiences during the Holocaust that drove him to encourage Jews to say this ancient prayer.

Born in Romania in 1923, Rabbi Taub’s entire family, including his six siblings, were murdered in the Holocaust. Rabbi Taub was kept alive only because the Nazi “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele subjected him to gruesome, sadistic medical experiments. After the Holocaust, Rabbi Taub moved to Israel and taught Torah - and encouraged Jews around the world never to forget the Shema prayer.

Just before he was liberated from Bergen Belsen, Rabbi Taub later explained, Nazis were tossing Jewish prisoners into huge bonfires. “I cried out the Shema Yisrael,” Rabbi Taub recalled, and said “Ribbono shel Olam (Creator of the World), this might be, God forbid, the last time I will be saying Shema Yisrael. Soon I will be with the rest of my family in Heaven. If you give me life, then I promise You that I will say time and again Shema Yisrael, declaring Your eternity and those who will outlive the war.”

Rabbi Taub passed away in 2019 at the age of 96. His legacy of Shema Yisrael lives on as Jews around the world continue to recite the Shema, as he encouraged.

Finding Jewish Children with Shema
Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, also known as the Ponevezher Rav, was a famous rabbi and Member of Parliament in Lithuania before World War II. He founded three yeshivas and a Jewish orphanage in Lithuania, all of which were destroyed during the Holocaust.

When World War II broke out, Rabbi Kahaneman was in the land of Israel, and he stayed there, eventually rebuilding the institutions that he’d lost in Lithuania. He rebuilt the Ponevezh Yeshiva in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv; today it is once again one of the world’s foremost Jewish schools. He also founded orphanages for the many Jewish children whose parents were being murdered in the Holocaust.

After World War II, Rabbi Kahaneman travelled to Europe to gather Jewish orphans and take them home to Israel. Many Jewish children had been entrusted to local convents or Christian orphanages, and local priests and nuns were loath to give them up. In one Christian orphanage, the priest in charge told Rabbi Kahaneman that there were no Jewish children there. Undeterred, Rabbi Kahaneman stood in front of the orphans and called out Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Immediately, young children who’d last heard those holy words years before as their parents tucked them into bed began crying and calling out Mama! Mama! Their remembrance of this beautiful prayer ultimately led them to new lives in Israel.

Click here to watch a video by Charlie Harary on the meaning of the Shema.

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From Ethiopia to Israel: Sharon Shalom's Epic Story
Nov 9, 2019  |  by Adam Ross
From Ethiopia to Israel: Sharon Shalom's Epic Story
As an 11-year-old boy, Sharon Shalom crossed the Sudan desert to the Red Sea to realize his dream of reaching Israel where he became first Ethiopian to become a rabbi.

Sharon Shalom grew up with the name Zaude Tesfay in a Jewish village in Northern Ethiopia with no running water or electricity.

“It was a simple life,” he told ”There were no toilets, no technology and we lived in huts made of straw and mud. We knew nothing of the luxuries we have today”

“There were around twenty families and we lived together. We were disconnected from the local population who were mainly Christian.”

Jewish Life
Many historians trace the Jews of Ethiopia back around 3,000 years to the reign of King Solomon who dispatched 400 men from the tribe of Dan to accompany the Queen of Sheba back to Ethiopia after she had visited him in Jerusalem.

A Jewish village in Ethiopia dated 1964

In contrast to the majority of Diaspora Jews dispersed after the Roman conquest of Israel, Ethiopian Jews had no knowledge of the destruction of the Temple, nor many of the Jewish laws subsequently taught by the rabbis in the Talmud.

“Our synagogue was the center of our communal life. Men and women prayed separately, we celebrated festivals like Passover and Sukkot, and we rested on Shabbat. The towns around us called us the ‘people of the river’ because it was known we would regularly immerse ourselves to stay clean and pure.”

Dreaming of Zion
“I would sit with my grandfather who would quote by heart the prophecies in the Bible that God would one day take us to rejoin all of the Jews from the whole world. We lived with such hope that one day we would be brought home. If there is one thing which defines the Ethiopian community more than all else, it is this hope, this optimism, that was passed down over thousands of years, that one day we would be redeemed.”

Rabbi Sharon Shalom

Realizing this Biblical promise not only filled Sharon’s thoughts and dreams, it led him and a friend at the age of seven to leave the village in search of Jerusalem.

Leaving Home
“At seven years old, I asked my grandfather where Jerusalem was and he pointed over the horizon. A friend and I packed a bag and we left the village to walk there.” He smiles. “We got lost and after a few days we came home.” Although unsuccessful, Sharon’s resolve just grew stronger and six months later, as Ethiopia slipped further into civil war, another opportunity emerged.

Civil War in Ethiopia
With the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selasse in September 1974, many regions in the country were engulfed by violence and lawlessness, During the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians left northwards fleeing the violence arriving at refugee camps in Sudan, the Jewish community among them.

“We, the Jewish community, were not running away from war,” Sharon says. “For us, it was far more an opportunity to get one step closer to the Land of Israel.

The journey northwards exposed refugees to attacks, along with illness and hunger with some members of Sharon’s village dying on route. “When we arrived at the sprawling camps, conditions were very poor. It was chaotic, there were rapes, violence and disease. The children were particularly at great risk.”

Ethiopian Jews in a Sudan refugee camp, 1984

Amid an impending humanitarian crisis, and aware of the stream of Jews who had fled north to Sudan, Israel’s parliament, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, passed a law committing Israel to bring the Jews of Ethiopia home.

Shortly after, the Mossad began a series of covert missions to bring the Jews home. Operation Moses in 1984 and then Operation Solomon in 1991 brought tens of thousands of Jews to Israel mainly by air, removing the seats of planes, flying thousands to safety in quick succession to avoid famine and war. Now the subject of the Netflix movie, Deep Sea Diving Resort details how Israeli secret service agents also set up a diving school as a diversion as they smuggled thousands of Jews to the Red Sea Coast and then northwards to Eilat by boat.

Leaving the Camp
After spending a year in the camp, fearing for his safety, Sharon’s mother sent him to join a group of Jews leaving for Israel. He was eight years old at the time.

Operation Solomon

“Although Some of our friends had gone to Israel already, I didn’t know anyone else among this group, I was completely alone in my thoughts.”

“Ever since I was a boy, I had always tried to take responsibility for myself, but on that journey, I decided that my way in life would be not to expect things from others.”

Dangerous Operation
“One day in the middle of the night we left the camp on foot. No one spoke, it was total darkness and very dangerous. The group numbered around three hundred, and after several hours, we reached two army trucks.”

The greatest fear was that Sudanese soldiers, notorious for their crackdown on illegal immigration, would stop the trucks and kill them as they had killed many other refugees who had left the camps.

Sharon with Natan Sharansky

Forbidden to speak, and still under the cover of night, the group, 150 people crammed into each truck, traveled off road on a rocky trail until they reached the Red Sea coast.

“We heard a loud roaring noise, I didn’t know what it was. As we got closer, I understood it was the noise of the sea. I had never seen or heard the sea before and was very afraid.”

Amid the sounds and fears, Shalom was greeted by a sight that will be forever engraved in his mind: the faces of Israeli soldiers, overcome with emotion as they loaded their Jewish brothers, remnant of a 2,000 year old exile, on boats to rejoin their people.

“They were wearing black diving suits, they didn’t didn’t speak to us, but they were crying. To us they were like angels, and they brought us to Israel.”

"When we arrived in Israel we kissed the ground from excitement," he recalls. "We felt like we were home. It was like a dream come true.”

Tears for Jerusalem
Sharon began his new life in a youth village for new immigrants in the central city of Or Akiva. “Israel was so different to my village in Ethiopia. I remember seeing lights everywhere and people with electronic gadgets and machines.”

“Shortly after settling in, we were brought to Jerusalem and the Western Wall. We cried and cried. Many adults wept for the Temple’s destruction. I remember thinking of my grandfather, the prophecy I saw being realized, and all of his words flowed back to me.”

Devastating News
A year after arriving in Israel, Sharon was called to speak to the counselor of the youth village. The counselor broke the news that Sharon's family had died in Ethiopia. There had been a wave of brutal attacks on the refugees in the camps and his family were among those unaccounted for. The loneliness was palpable.

“It is the most terrible thing, to be told you are an orphan.”

Despite the anguish of loss and knowing he would not see his family again, Sharon stayed optimistic about his future.

Sharon and Avital with their five children

“This is at the heart of what it means to be an Ethiopian Jew,” he says. “We lived with a promise from God in our pocket of thousands of years and none of us ever forgot that. We never stopped believing and I knew I was the living the fulfilment of that prophecy. My response to tragedy was to be even more resolved not to give up and just to take even more responsibility for myself.”

Two years later, when he was eleven, Sharon was given the breathtaking news that his family was alive and had also arrived in Israel! Contrary to the initial reports of their death, they had fled the violence in the refugee camp and later returned joining up with other Jews hoping to reach Israel. Overjoyed, he traveled to greet his mother, father, siblings and his ageing grandfather. “It was even more of an emotional reunion because, incredibly, my family had also been told that I had died on the way to Israel.

“The Jewish people is the nation of hope,” he says, “and no one knows it better than we do. This moment of rediscovering my family and how grateful I felt to have them back remains with me every day of my life.”

An Officer and a Rabbi
Growing up in Israel, Sharon realized his first dream of serving as an officer in the IDF before turning to his love of Judaism, hoping to become a rabbi. After enrolling at the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva, he was introduced to his future wife Avital, a Swiss-born social worker and art therapist. “Switzerland is a world away from Ethiopia,” he says, “but this is the beauty and wonder of the story of the Jewish People and we have five wonderful children.”

Sharon at Ohr Etzion Yeshiva where he studied to become a rabbi.

After being ordained in 2001, Rabbi Shalom enrolled at Bar Ilan University completing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and began teaching in his home town in Kiryat Gat where he now serves as the Rabbi of the Kedoshei Israel synagogue.

In 2012, he published his first book – From Sinai to Ethiopia: The Halachic World and Ethiopian Jewish Thought. A follow up book on the Jewish philosophy of love and fear was published earlier this year and his next project is an autobiographical work detailing his own journey to Israel and his insights into overcoming life’s challenges and difficulties.

“Every Ethiopian who succeeds here in Israel is a role model, whether they become a fighter pilot, a lawyer, a doctor or a high-ranking officer. It’s not only about succeeding in this new country, it is also about being so proud of who are and where you came from.”

Voice of Hope
“It is not easy for the young Ethiopian community who often grow up in lower socio-economic conditions than their peers. Many of them grow up with parents who have moved here as adults with little education and don’t speak Hebrew well. Unfortunately there is some racism, and some young Ethiopians struggle to have pride in where they come from.

Positivity is in our genes.

“My message is not to live expecting society to give to you, not to ask what someone else can do, but to ask what you can do. The Torah says you should love your neighbor as yourself; before you expect love from others, you need to know how to love, to become a giver, to commit to taking responsibility. This is our fight, to take responsibility and ask, what can I give? How can I love others?

“Positivity is in the genes of the Jewish people,” he says emphatically. “Sometimes as Jews we can forget the greatness we possess, the positivity and hope, to take responsibility and not to get knocked down by the obstacles along the way. We have carried with us over 2,000 years of belief. I live with this and every day. It is a privilege to be here and I am filled with thanks to God.”

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How Shabbat Saved a Girl from the Triangle Factory Fire
Nov 5, 2019  |  by
Her father's parting words were: "Remember, more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."
How the Rabin Assassination Changed My Life
Nov 6, 2019  |  by Sivan Rahav Meir
How the Rabin Assassination Changed My Life
To us non-religious kids in Herzliya, religious, right-wing fanatics had murdered our prime minister – and I couldn't let that be all I knew about Judaism.
When I was in seventh grade, I was part of a group of “good kids” from Herzliya. We came from excellent families and went to a prestigious school. One morning in January 1994, our teacher came into our classroom in shock. Our math test was even canceled that morning. It turned out that two boys from our city, Arbel Aloni and Moshiko Ben Ivgi, had been arrested on suspicion of a murder that shocked the country at the time: the murder of taxi driver Derek Roth. We knew those boys from school and from the neighborhood. Everyone knew them. They were tough, cool, and a bit older than we were. Prior to that, the most serious offence we had ever attributed to them was writing their names in graffiti, which they sprayed all over town. But suddenly, this happened. Boom.

Outside of our school, TV crews were already waiting. Inside our classroom, not only was our math test cancelled, but the entire day’s program was cancelled. Every subject was moved aside to make way for hours of classes on education and society. It was a year in which quite a few psychologists, educators, and police officers came to speak to us, the youth of Herzliya. These lessons were far more interesting and meaningful than our usual lessons. For the first time, we talked about what the law is, what murder is, what democracy is, and what violence is.

A year passed. One Saturday night, a few friends from school went to the large rally held by the left at Kikar Malchei Yisrael, Kings of Israel Square. But I stayed home to study for a big chemistry test that was scheduled for Sunday morning (at the time, girls like me were called “nerds”). Suddenly, at 9:45 PM, Rabin was murdered. Within minutes, it was announced that the murderer was from Herzliya, and a few minutes after that, the television crews had descended upon my city.

My chemistry test was canceled the next morning, and, again, we had educational classroom discussions. They were much more pointed than they had been the previous year. This time, my whole class did not all simply agree on an amorphous call to “end the violence,” as we had when Derek Roth was murdered. This time, our outcry was more loaded: the religious and right-wing fanatics had murdered our prime minister Rabin.

Sivan Rahav (left) aged 14, together with Yitzhak Rabin, on the Dan Shilon Live program,
in honor of the Jewish New Year, September 1995.

On that Saturday night, as I ran from my room to the TV in my parents’ bedroom, I passed the dresser that stood in the hallway, perpetually covered by a pile of changing notes and other documents. On top of the pile were photos of me and Rabin smiling in the studio of Dan Shilon’s famous “Circle” on Channel 2 TV. I had met the prime minister there about a month before the assassination; I had been invited to the talk show to interview him in my capacity as a young reporter. The filming lasted several hours, and it was my first and last meeting with Rabin.

When everyone in my class was talking about the murder of the prime minister, I was thinking about a person I had recently met in real life.
What I remember most was his lack of social distance. On the one hand, there were singers, fleeting stars who were full of themselves when I interviewed them for a children’s magazine, and, on the other hand, there was the prime minister whose conduct was devoid of any posturing. In school the next day, when everyone in my class was talking about the murder of the prime minister, I was thinking about a person I knew, a person I had met in real life just a short time before, and now he was gone. I think it was the first time someone I had known personally passed away.

After that Sunday morning, the municipality, the Ministry of Education, and the staff of our youth movements all bombarded us with overdoses of educational activities, perhaps due to a secret desire to ensure that, next time, the disgrace would not come from Herzliya again. Classes were followed by workshops; lectures were followed by panel discussions. They had titles such as “Judaism and tolerance,” “Thou shalt not murder,” and “Violence erodes the foundations of democracy.”

I remember one night when we went to Rabin Square. It was probably on the shloshim – the 30th day after the assassination. We sat there, members of different youth movements, in circles. One of the youth leaders, a young man wearing a kippah, handed out source sheets. The texts on the page seemed to me to be written in spoken Chinese – I found them fascinating.

“Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God,” it said on the source sheet. “Especially beloved is he, for it had been made known to him that he had been created in the image of God, as it is written: ‘for in the image of God He made man.’” This teaching about man’s divine image was attributed on the page to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. But I had no idea what Pirkei Avot was.

Another source discussed the gravity of murder: “It was for this reason that a single person was created in the world, to teach that anyone who causes a single life to perish is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and anyone who saves a single soul, is considered by Scripture to have saved an entire world. For all people are created in the image of Adam, and yet none of them resembles the other. Therefore, each and every person can say: the world was created for my sake.” According to the source sheet, this text was taken from the laws of the Sanhedrin in the writings of Maimonides. But what is that? Where do these ideas come from? Why hadn’t we ever learned them in school? And how could I find them on my own and read more?

And there was more: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Rabbi Akiva says: 'This is the most important rule in the Torah,’” says the Midrash. But what is Midrash? And why do all these texts sound foreign and strange, but at the same time as if they are mine? And why are the fascinating discussions here in the square so different from the rather boring Bible lessons at my school?

The Rabin assassination was a low point which led me to embark on a long journey and to begin to take responsibility for my Judaism.
On the way home on the bus, I read the source sheet over and over. By the time I got home, I knew some of the texts by heart. And I wanted to know more. I remember the chills that I felt when I realized: Yigal Amir knows all this, and much more. He knows how to find things on his own in Pirkei Avot, in the writings of Maimonides, and in the Midrash.

When people who return to religious observance are asked how it all began, they often talk about “seeing the light.” I, in a sense, saw the dark. The Rabin assassination was a low point, which led me to embark on a long journey and to begin to take responsibility for my Judaism.

While everyone around me was saying that democracy must be strengthened, I actually thought that it was Judaism that needed to be strengthened – that this act of murder could not be what represents Judaism. It was inconceivable to me that when secular-Ashkenazi-left-wing children from Herzliya hear the word “Judaism,” their association would be to the murderer who assassinated the prime minister.

At the time I understood very well what Judaism was not, but not what it is. I wondered: What about us? What is our Judaism? I felt like we were behaving like a group of fans who thought their team was playing badly. We were sitting in the bleachers, shouting, calling out advice, getting aggravated. You can waste your entire life ranting about “those religious people,” “those fanatics,” and “those extremists.” But when it comes to Judaism, I felt we are not just fans. We are part of the team. We must come down from the stands and onto the field and start playing ourselves. We have to take responsibility.

When it comes to Judaism, we are not just fans. We are part of the team. We must start playing ourselves and take responsibility.
A whole new world opened up to me, a Jewish bookshelf full of thought, and a panoply of deeds. This was all a far cry from everything I had thought about religious people at the time. While the secular Tommy Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox Israel Eichler were shouting at each other about this on the popular political talk show, in a discussion that ostensibly focused on Judaism, completely different treasures were buried beneath them: Shabbat, Jewish prayer, Torah, and acts of lovingkindness.

To this day, when I am asked to talk about my journey back to the observance of Torah and mitzvot, I am somewhat embarrassed. “The Yom Kippur War made me religious,” says a pilot in the Israeli Air Force reserves. “I returned because of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav,” a fashion model says. And as for me? What will people think if I say “the Rabin assassination brought me back to Judaism”?

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Jewish Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Nov 5, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Jewish Conductor on the Underground Railroad
August and Henrietta Bondi’s Jewish home was a stop for slaves fleeing North.

The stirring new movie Harriet brings the incredible bravery and heroism of Harriet Tubman to life. Born a slave in Maryland in the year 1822, she escaped to freedom in 1849, then returned to the South 19 times to help other slaves escape, ultimately shepherding over 300 slaves to freedom.

In 1863, while the Civil War raged, Tubman became one of the only women in US history to lead an armed military raid. She guided three boats full of Union soldiers along the Combahee River in South Carolina, attacking Confederate soldiers and freeing 750 slaves who worked in plantations along the river.

One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Harriet is led to a top-secret cellar where she is inducted into Underground Railroad and named a “Conductor” who guided slaves to freedom. It’s unclear whether this moving scene is accurate; historians disagree about just how organized the “Underground Railroad” was. What we do know is that as far back as the 1700s, a loose network of individuals – both Black and White – worked together to help hide runaway slaves and guide them to safety.

Historians estimate that 100,000 slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad between 1800 and 1850.
Historians estimate that 100,000 slaves escaped this way between 1800 and 1850, primarily from border states such as Maryland, as Harriet Tubman did. In the 1830s, as railroads crossed America, people began using the language of trains to describe this network, calling it the Underground Railroad, labeling hiding spots “depots” or “stops”, and dubbing people who risked their lives and freedom to help runaway slaves “Conductors”.

August Bondi 

One important stop on the Underground Railroad was the home of a Jewish couple, August and Henrietta Bondi, in Greeley, Kansas. Their home became a refuge for an unknown number of slaves, and the Bondis worked tirelessly, as Jews, to oppose the horror of slavery.

August Bondi was born Anshl Mendel Bondi in Vienna in 1833 into a Yiddish-speaking family which was involved in radical politics. The family moved to St. Louis in 1848 and August worked various jobs throughout the Midwest where the treatment of slaves shocked him. Working on a riverboat, August travelled through Texas and later recorded his horror at the cruel outrages of American slavery: “During my stay in Texas I gathered a great deal of information on Southern life,” he wrote. “When in Galveston the howlings of the slaves receiving their morning ration of cowhiding waked me at 4 o’clock….”

August went duck hunting with a group of white ship captains and their children. When one enslaved oarsman accidentally dropped his oar and scared the ducks away, the teenage son of a ship captain shot the slave in the shoulder. August yelled at the teenager, and was shocked when all the white captains turned on him, chiding him and calling him an abolitionist for protesting this appalling cruelty. August later recalled that whereas he’d once felt indifferent to the plight of America’s slaves, he began to appreciate just how evil the institution of slavery was. He began to understand that his only option as a moral human being was to oppose it.

August Bondi fighting in the Civil War
When Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, allowing the residents of Kansas to decide whether they would be a slave state or a free state once they were admitted to the Union, August moved to the Kansas Territory to work for the Free State Movement. It seemed that anti-slavery activists would win the election, but on election day thousands of heavily armed pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” poured into the territory from Missouri, seized control of polling places and ballot boxes, and declared that the Kansas territory had elected a pro-slavery legislature.

As pro-slavery zealots attacked anti-slavery activists, August joined with other anti-slavery activists in the Battle of Black Jack, on June 2, 1856. Anti-slavery forces captured 48 “Border Ruffians” who’d been menacing and attacking anti-slavery Kansans. (August fought alongside the notorious anti-slavery figure John Brown, though he later declined to participate in Brown’s most infamous adventure, the 1859 raid on an arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in order to obtain arms for anti-slavery fighters. Brown was captured and executed for treason.)

At the Battle of Black Jack, August fought alongside two other Jews: Theodore Wiener, from Poland, and Jacob Benjamin, from Bohemia.
At the Battle of Black Jack, August fought alongside at least two other Jews: Theodore Wiener, an immigrant from Poland, and Jacob Benjamin, from Bohemia. August later described the battle: “We walked with bent backs, nearly crawled, that the tall dead grass of the year before might somewhat hide us from the Border Ruffian marksmen, yet the bullets kept whistling.” Theodore Wiener was right behind him and August asked him in Yiddish, "Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt? Now, what do you think of this?" In the thick of battle, Wiener respond in Yiddish-accented Hebrew: "Sof adom mavis – the end of the man is death."

Harriet Tubman
All three Jewish fighters survived the battle and August went on to work tirelessly against slavery. He married Henrietta Einstein in 1860 and the couple moved to Greeley, Kansas. Their home became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves knew that they could find a place to shelter there, receive food and rest for a time.

Faced with unfettered evil, August Bondi risked his life and freedom to help others.
The film Harriet can help give us a clue what their home might have been like. In the movie, Harriet Tubman walks for days, following the directions that a member of the Underground Railroad gave her, until she arrives at the home of a sympathetic Quaker who lets her stay in his home and gives her food, a change of clothes, and treats her with the dignity that every human being deserves.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, August Bondi volunteered for the Union Army. He was still fighting on January 1, 1863, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery in areas controlled by Union forces. A joyous August recorded in his diary: “No more Pharaohs and no more slaves.”

August continued to fight and was lightly wounded several times. In 1864, he was seriously wounded and left for dead by Confederate soldiers. He survived, and after the war, attended law school, eventually working as a lawyer, a farmer and a judge in the small town of Salina, Kansas.

Though he lived far from established Jewish communities, he always lived his life as a proud Jew. When his daughter got married, August insisted that her wedding be held in Leavenworth, Kansas, where there was a Jewish community and a rabbi could officiate. August died in 1907; a rabbi travelled from Kansas City to officiate at his funeral.

Faced with unfettered evil, August Bondi had the moral clarity not to explain away the horrors of slavery as so many Americans once did. Bondi was willing to risk his life and freedom to help others. We’ll never know the exact number of slaves he and Henrietta helped, but their shining example should continue to inspire us today.

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The Nazis Knew
Nov 3, 2019  |  by Rabbi Avi Shafran
The Nazis Knew
“They don’t hate us as a people. They hate us because of our holy books."

A dear friend who had a secular upbringing and maintains an irreligious outlook took issue, gently, if a bit cynically, with something I had written for, a website that reaches out to a broad swath of Jewish readers.

The article was about Reb Yosef Friedenson, z”l, the longtime editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Yiddish-language periodical published for many years by Agudath Israel of America. “Mr.” Friedenson, as he preferred to be called, survived the Holocaust and was a keen historian, meticulous journalist, eloquent speaker – and one of the nicest people I have ever met. I had the pleasure of his company for some 20 years in the Agudah national offices in Manhattan.

In my tribute to Reb Yosef, I included a story from his recent, posthumously published collection of memories, Faith Amid the Flames (Artscroll/Mesorah).

At the start of World War II, when Poland had been overrun by the Nazis, Mr. Friedenson was a 17-year-old living with his family in Lodz. One day, two German soldiers burst into the family’s apartment.

At one point, they demanded the teenager identify the stately tomes on the bookshelf.

He had no reason to lie. “The Talmud,” he answered.

At the mention of the word "Talmud", they became like mad dogs, throwing them on the floor and trampling them.
“At the mention of that word, they became like mad dogs,” Mr. Friedenson recalled many decades later. “They threw the holy books on the floor and trampled them, ripping them to shreds with their heavy boots.”

And when they had left, the young Yosef asked his father why the Nazis had responded so viciously.

“They don’t hate us as a people,” was the response. “They hate us because of our holy books. What is written in them is a contradiction to all they stand for, to their outlook and corrupt mentality.”

My friend was suitably impressed with my description of Mr. Friedenson. “Nice memory,” he emailed me, “of what sounds like a remarkable man.”

But, he continued, “I’ll take a pass, out of respect, as to the assertion that the Nazis hated Jews because of the content of books the former almost certainly never read.”

My friend found it hard to imagine that the Nazis’ hatred was qualitatively different from the antipathy of various ethnic or national groups toward others. His materialistic outlook attributed no specialness to our mesorah, our chain of tradition and, hence, no rationale for how a movement based on power and paganism might find Torah a mortal threat to its success.

I can’t prove otherwise to him, but shared something to buttress Mr. Friedenson’s father’s observation, a memorandum discovered by the noted Holocaust historian Moshe Prager, z”l.

It was sent on October 25, 1940 by the chief of the German occupation power, I.A. Eckhardt, to the local Nazi district governors in occupied Poland. In it, he instructs German officials to refuse exit visas to “Ostjuden,” Jews from Eastern Europe.

Eckhardt explains that these Jews, as “Rabbiner un Talmudlehrer,” Rabbis and Talmud scholars, would, if allowed to emigrate, foster “die geistige erneuerung,” spiritual revival, of the Jewish people in other places.

So it seems that it wasn’t just Jews whom the Nazis hated, but Judaism. In fact, writing in 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue, denounced “the honorless character of the Jew” – his take on the idea of personal conscience and devotion to the Creator – as “embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch.”

The “spiritual renewal” that the Nazi memo author so feared, despite the best evil efforts of the movement he championed, has in fact, thank God, come to pass.

Torah-committed Jewish survivors helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding Jewish communal and educational institutions and fostering observance of mitzvot and, yes, Talmud study, in new lands. The scope and enthusiasm of the Siyum HaShas, the celebration of the completion of learning the entire Talmud, one page a day, is powerful evidence of that.

Daf Yomi was introduced by Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, in 1923. It isn’t known how many attended the first or second Siyum HaShas. But, amazingly, right after the Holocaust, in 1945, thousands of Jews in Israel, the Feldafing displaced persons camp and New York united to mark the third Siyum HaShas.

The 1968 Siyum at the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park drew 300 people; by 1975, at the 7th Siyum, five thousand celebrants gathered at the Manhattan Center; and, at that gathering, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah permanently dedicated the Siyum HaShas to the memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

The 1990 Siyum filled Madison Square Garden’s 20,000 seats. In 1997, the Siyum required both Madison Square Garden and the similar-sized Nassau Coliseum.

In 2012, the 12th Siyum Hashas filled MetLife Stadium with close to a hundred thousand Jews – joined at a distance in countless other locales by thousands of others.

The Talmud and its learners had emerged victorious.

This article originally appeared in Hamodia.

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Abraham: Altering the Course of History
Nov 3, 2019  |  by Rabbi Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov AstorAbraham: Altering the Course of History
Our forefather changed the way the world thought about itself, life and especially the Creator.

Our forefather Abraham changed the course of history. He altered the way the world thought about itself, life and especially the Creator. That is why his name, in Hebrew, means, “Father of Numerous Nations.” He is the father of civilization as we know it. From his time and onwards people would never think about themselves the same way.

He was born in a time of tremendous upheaval and turmoil. Abraham lived in a world with a collective memory of the Flood; a world contending with the tyranny of Nimrod, the first true tyrant; a world that will divide into separate nations; a world deeply at conflict with itself that will endure more than two decades of war between major powers; a world buried under the heel of a thousand years of idolatry; a world gone mad – ultimately, a world with no hope for the future.

Until Abraham appeared.

The Tyranny of Idolatry
He was born in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq and Iran. His father Terach was a merchant who sold idols. Selling idols was big business in those days. There was a different one for every mood, temperament and personality.

The masses believed in paganism. They were frightened of it. However, the more sophisticated people knew it was nothing, but as far as they could see they was no other alternative. There was no other philosophy in the world. They did not have the tools to go beyond it.
Abraham provided the leadership to change all that.

He traveled a number of times from Mesopotamia to what would become the Land of Israel. He was not alone in his travels. It was a time of great movement and migration. Great cities and city-states were springing up, each with their own unique culture and deities.

Jerusalem was called Shalem (Salem) at the time. According to the Oral Tradition, Noah’s son Shem, and his grandson Eber, started and headed an academy located there dedicated to the traditions of the Creator and morality. The knowledge and philosophy of monotheism were developed there. However, it did not have a large following. It was an ivory tower that did not influence society. One had to go to it; it was not exported to others.

Abraham changed that. Every place he went he opened an “inn” and offered people a free meal. When people came to thank him he told them, “Don’t thank me. Thank the One who gave us everything.”

Likewise, wherever he settled he opened a school. In our terms, we would say he established institutions of social welfare and education. Through those institutions he was able to reach thousands and thousands if not millions of people.

Historians say that a number of the Pharaohs were essentially monotheists. Not coincidentally, those Pharaohs lived around and after the time of Abraham. His visit to Egypt (Genesis 12) made an impression. The idea of monotheism took hold in the highest echelons of Egyptian society. However, they had no way to sell it to the masses because there was a tremendous bureaucracy of idol worship. None of the priests in the temples were going to give it up. Egyptian society remained pagan because the infrastructure of idol worship was so strong that the Pharaoh himself could not turn it around. Whether they believed it or not, the priests were not going to give up their jobs.

Outside of Egypt, however, Abraham’s name spread rapidly among the masses. His ideas, character and personality became the talk of the civilized world. He roused the world from the slumber of paganism. Now there was an echo within countless individual families that there is a God, morality and a greater purpose to life.

Family Life
Abraham married Sarah, who was a great person in her own right. Even without Abraham she would have been a tremendous force to reckon with in the world. God told Abraham to listen to Sarah, because, Tradition has it, she was greater in prophecy than Abraham was.

Nevertheless, these two great people had a long and difficult life together. Sarah was barren for many years. In trying to remedy the situation, Sarah asked Abraham to bear a child for her through her maidservant, Hagar. Ultimately, the child born from her, Ishmael, caused many problems. Eventually, God told Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from his household, which was extremely difficult for him.

Abraham had a nephew, Lot, whom he hoped would be his heir apparent, but once Lot tasted success he decided to go his own way and settle in Sodom. Lot is not necessarily an evil person; he just does not want to shoulder any responsibilities – and Sodom is the ideal place for a person who wants to escape responsibility.

Domestic strife in Abraham’s house is omnipresent. All he wants to do is build civilization through his family and all his family does is fall short of the task or forsake him.

The Covenant
Finally, when Abraham was seventy years old he had a great vision known as the “Covenant between the Parts” (Genesis 15). This covenant singled out him and his family for a special existence in humanity. It is really the beginning of the Jewish story. Indeed, Jewish history cannot be understood properly except through the lens of covenantal theory.

This special covenant is a two-way commitment between God and the Jewish people that will unleash forces to compel it to continue, including horrific suffering. And that is why Abraham is at first terror-stricken by the vision. He sees darkness, vultures and fire. He sees the enslavement in Egypt and the destructions that will come upon the Jewish people throughout history. He sees Auschwitz.

Nevertheless, far from a punishment leading to annihilation, the suffering of the Jewish people will ultimately make them stronger and bring them back to their commitment to the covenant. And we have seen this borne out in history again and again. Just look at the enormous advances of the Jewish world after the Holocaust, which is only the most recent example of this phenomenon.

Jewish history begins with Abraham's acceptance of the covenant. Whatever happens to the Jewish people is a result of that covenant. All the ups and downs are based on its predictions.

In reality, Abraham’s choice is the choice that faces each and every generation, indeed each and every Jew. The struggle within the Jewish people to live by the covenant and pursue its goals or to give up on it — as well as the struggle of the world to break the covenant from them – is part and parcel of the struggle implied by acceptance of the covenant.

Beyond Impossible
Of course, at the time Abraham is offered to enter into the covenant there is one technical problem: he has no children and his wife is incapable of having children. She is infertile.

That, too, is part of the covenant: under normal circumstances there is no Jewish future. The Jewish people are always “infertile,” coming face-to-face with the impossible. There cannot be another generation. And the world counts upon it; it is a sure thing that they will disappear.

After 3,000 years they are still waiting for it to happen.

The future of the Jewish people is that there is no future. On paper it will never add up. The covenant does not rely on logic. It is a truth that exists on a different plane. Who could imagine that after so many years we are still here?

That is the covenantal nature of Jewish history.

The covenant, impressed in the flesh of the Jew through circumcision, emanates from a realm beyond human reason. It is our commitment to our God and a higher morality. It is our faith and our responsibility; our history and destiny.

And it all originates in the great person, Abraham, who single-handedly changed the course of civilization.

This article originally appeared on

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The October 31 Pogroms
Oct 29, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
The October 31 Pogroms
On October 31st, 1905, thousands of Jews lost their lives in violence that swept across Russia.

For most people October 31 is a day of parties and dressing up in costumes. But just over a century ago, October 31, 1905 was a tragic day, ushering in hundreds of pogroms that killed thousands of Jews across Russia. Crowds surged through the streets, yelling threats, destroying property, and murdering Jewish men, women and children with impunity.

The immediate cause of this seismic wave of violence was the October Manifesto, a declaration from Czar Nicholas II guaranteeing basic freedoms and political rights. Promulgated on October 30, 1905 (sometimes referred to as October 17 on Russia’s “Old Calendar”), the declaration came amid rising political turmoil and the threat of revolution. Instead of calming tensions, the manifesto led to huge demonstrations and riots in many Russian cities. Tragically, it was Russia’s Jews who suffered the most.

In the city of Odessa, crowds rushed into the street to celebrate the manifesto. One student recorded that “a joyous crowd appeared in the streets; people greeted each other as if it were a holiday.” Among the throngs were many Jews who believed the new laws would help grant them long-sought legal rights. But violent scuffles soon broke out.

As the mood in Odessa darkened, many Russians began turning on the city’s Jews with almost unimaginable sadism. At first, angry rioters beat Jews in the streets and ransacked the homes and businesses belonging to local Jews. The extreme right-wing anti-Semitic group, the Black Hundreds, entered the fray, encouraging pro-Czar Russians to blame Jews for their country’s ills. When a city official was shot dead, the surging crowds became enraged and attacks accelerated, turning into a violent pogrom that lasted several days. The police either turned a blind eye or eagerly participated in the attacks.

Eyewitnesses described Jews being thrown out of high windows to their deaths. Jewish children were murdered in front of their parents. Rioters targeted Jewish pregnant women, assaulting them and killing some by cutting open their stomachs. Parents were tortured by watching their children die. By the time the pogrom was over, over 400 Jews were dead and about 300 injured in Odessa alone.

October 31 saw hundreds of other pogroms across Russia, mostly in the south. 690 pogroms cost 4,000 Jews their lives; the wave of hatred and murder saw another 10,000 Jews injured.

In the Belarusian town of Rechysta, local Jews, many of whom belonged to Communist and Communist-Zionist groups, organized to defend themselves from murderous mobs. The threat of violence was high: local Black Hundred members issued warnings calling Jews “enemies of the Czar” and demanding Jews’ “extermination”. Police officers distributed rifles to townspeople, and a parish priest announced “the Jews should be killed to a man, since they want to overthrow the Czar.” Violence erupted in the town when some locals beat up Jewish businesswomen and ripped up the dry goods they were selling.

About twenty Jewish men organized and fought back, but were soon hopelessly overwhelmed. One Jewish fighter, Noi Geizentsveig, later explained, “We did not see the enemy during the skirmish, therefore we did not throw the bombs (the Jewish self-defense group had acquired) and responded by aimless shooting." The Jewish fighters were overwhelmed; local thugs shot and stabbed them, yelling “Here is your freedom!” and “Here is your constitution!”, references to the October Manifesto they blamed the Jews for bringing about.

New York Times, November 5
Within hours, eight Jewish fighters were murdered and twelve were wounded. They were dragged to the town’s police station and locked up with no food, water, or medical care, dead fighters together with those still living. Later on, the fighters who were still alive were consigned to house arrest, denied medical care even though some were severely injured.

The final pogrom of the hundreds that started October 31, 1905 was in the town of Bialystok (in present day Poland). Eighty-two Jews were murdered in those few convulsive days of violence, and about 700 people were injured. Czar Nicholas II dispatched officials throughout Russia’s territory to report back on the pogroms, which dissipated nearly as abruptly as they began.

Victims of the Kiev Pogrom

For many Russian Jews, the October 31 pogroms was proof that they had no future in Russia and spurred many to leave. One Russian Jew who fled was the famous Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem. He and his family watched three days of pogroms overwhelm the Jewish community of Kiev from their hiding spots in one of the town’s hotels. When the violence was over, they hastily made plans to flee Russia, eventually moving to America.

On November 25, 1905, three weeks after the terrifying pogrom and just before he left Russia for good, Shalom Aleichem wrote to a friend in New York, Dr. Maurice Fishberg, begging him to use his influence with American Jews to encourage the United States not to help Czar Nicholas II (who was embroiled in the Russo-Japanese War and was looking for a loan). After watching his fellow Jews murdered in cold blood, Shalom Aleichem, like many Russian Jews, despaired of Jews’ future there. “Six million Jews” in Russia could be “murdered” there, the author wrote, in a long, impassioned letter about Russian politics and the war.

Over a century after the horrible spasm of violence that consumed much of Russia, we owe it to the many thousands of Russian Jews massacred in the pogroms of October 31, 1905, to remember their deaths and honor their memories.
Noah's Ark
Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
Oct 10, 2004  |  by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Noah's Ark
Pivotal lessons from this week’s enigmatic parsha.

We all know the story of this week's Parsha: God wants to send a flood to destroy the world, so He tells the righteous Noah to build an ark and bring in two of every animal. Then it rains for 40 days and 40 nights, God sends a rainbow, and Noah lives happily ever after. Right?

Well, at least it makes a good children's story. But given that the Torah is the driving force of the Jewish nation and the eternal source of our collective wisdom, let's take a few minutes to uncover deeper layers of "Noah and the Ark"...

Big Boat

Our first question: What was the terrible sin of Noah's generation that God sought to destroy them? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 57a) tells us that the world was immersed in jealousy, greed, theft, violence, lying, intolerance, deception and fraud. The worst of all transgressions? Explain the great commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra: People exploited each other sexually.

Before God sends the Flood, Noah spends 120 years building an Ark. (They lived long in those days.) This was no ordinary boat. It measured larger than a football field and contained over a million cubic feet of space! It was outfitted with three separate levels: The top for Noah and his family, the middle for the animals, and the bottom for the garbage.

(Which, by the way, shows the Torah's unique concern for the environment: Even while the world was being destroyed, they wouldn't throw the garbage overboard!)

But there are obviously many ways by which God could have saved Noah. So why did Noah have to bother building an ark? And why did it take him 120 years?!

The Midrash says that God specifically wanted Noah to undertake a strange and unusual project, to arouse people's curiosity. God accentuated the oddity of it all by having Noah construct this huge boat ― not at the sea shore ― but on a mountain-top! This way people would ask Noah ― "What the heck are you doing?!" ― and Noah could engage them in discussion about the global crisis, and how catastrophe could be avoided if people would change their ways.

Well, 120 years is a long time, and you would think that Noah would have convinced a lot of people to get back on track. But alas, instead of reaching out to influence others, Noah saw the Ark as his own ticket to survival ― a chance to build a big wall and insulate himself from the evils of society.

One Big World

In one sense it is true that we have to protect ourselves and our families. Maimonides warns us about the danger of living next to neighbors who don't share our system of values. Where there's corruption, the good frequently get swept up with the bad. And we have to guard against this.

It's like the story of the community where everyone was employed as chimney-sweeps. Each day they went to work and got very dirty. But they had one rule: One person from the group had to stay at home each day ― so that when the others would return and see his clean face, they'd be able to gauge how dirty they'd become.

In a spiritual sense as well, a home has to stand as a safe haven, to rejuvenate and clean oneself up.

But there's a second side to this. The "Ark" cannot be completely insulated; it must be porous as well. We have to reach out and try to make a difference in the world. The Chasidic writings compare this to a wealthy person who needs to warm himself in the winter. He could build a fire, in which case everyone in the room would benefit. But imagine instead that he warms only himself with a heavy coat and blankets. In both cases he's warmed; the only question is to what degree he's concerned about others.

Even if we aren't willing to fix things out of altruistic love for others, then at least we should do so for ourselves. Because the reality is that no matter how hard we try, some "bad" does seep in. And in the end it will get us as well.

It's like the story of two guys on a boat, and one of them is drilling a hole in the bottom. "What are you doing?!" his friend shouts. "Oh, don't worry," replies the other, "I'm only drilling under my OWN seat."

The hole in the ozone layer does not discriminate. Drugs and theft and violence have no boundaries. Ignoring this reality was Noah's tragic mistake. He believed that he could lock himself inside the Ark, and escape from it all.

Noah's Painful Lesson

After the Flood ended, Noah re-emerged with his family onto dry land. The Torah records what happened next:

"Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. He became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent. [His son] Cham saw his father's nakedness..." (Genesis 9:20-22)

When Noah emerged from the Ark and saw devastation heaped upon the world, he knew deep down that he had selfishly stood by and watched it all happen. Depressed and disappointed, he got drunk. Then "Cham saw his father's nakedness," meaning that Noah's son either sodomized or castrated him (Talmud ― Sanhedrin 70a).

It was a painful lesson for Noah, yet in a sense it was fitting justice. While Noah's generation sexually exploited each other, Noah thought he could ensconce himself in the Ark and escape. But it had penetrated inside.

The Jewish Fight

Every Jew recognizes that all the Jewish people are bound together. When there is a terrorist attack in Israel, we all feel it. The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) says "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh" ― every Jew is responsible one for another.

I once heard Rabbi Motty Berger of Aish HaTorah speaking to a group of Holocaust survivors. What he said impacted me for the rest of my life. He told them: "When I was a child, I would look at my grandparents and wonder, what were they doing during the Holocaust? The fact that millions of Jews were being placed into ovens was no secret; these horrors were reported regularly on the front page of the New York Times. So I wondered... were my grandparents out raising money to help ransom Jews? Were they organizing secret rescue efforts? Were they demanding media attention and marching on Washington?"

Today, the Jewish people are fighting wars on many fronts. The very existence of the State of Israel is being questioned in world forums. Anti-Semitic acts around the world are mindful of 1938. And there is the cancer of assimilation, where every year, 50,000 Jews between the ages of 20-29 opt out of the Jewish people, lost to us forever.

So what are we going to do about it? Because one day, our own grandchildren will look at us and wonder...

Taking Responsibility

The Kabbalists explain that "taiva," the Hebrew word for "ark," also means "word." For they are two sides of the same coin. Each of us wants to build an ARK ― the best life possible for ourselves and our family. Yet at the same time we are obligated to use the power of WORDS to reach out and influence others. Noah was given 120 years to build his "taiva." So too, we are given 120 years ― a full lifetime ― to do the same.

What can we do? We can speak out against garbage in our rivers and garbage on TV. We can attend a Torah class and teach over what we've learned to others. We can understand clearly why humanity must refuse to tolerate gossip and infidelity. We can organize a community campaign to demand objectivity in the media.

Noah's failure to try and influence his generation is why the Flood is called "the waters of Noah" (Isaiah 54:9). Don't think the problem isn't affecting you. Because it is.

Let's commit to taking responsibility ― for ourselves, our family, our community, our world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Jews of Kurdistan: 10 Facts
Oct 27, 2019  |  by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Jews of Kurdistan: 10 Facts
Jews lived in thriving Kurdish communities for thousands of years.
Kurds are one of the oldest and largest ethnic groups in the Middle East. For hundreds of years they have called an area encompassing parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia home. Promised an independent homeland by Western powers in 1920, they have never achieved a state of their own. Instead, distinctive Kurdish communities have maintained Kurdish culture and language in a number of countries, often in the face of hatred and violence from neighboring ethnic groups and central governments.

The modern-day region of Kurdistan.

For much of Kurdish history, Jews were an integral part of life. Persecuted in much of the Middle East, Jewish towns and villages flourished in Kurdish lands. Here are ten little known facts about Jews from Kurdish lands in the past and today.

Ancient Origins
Many Jewish communities in Kurdish lands claim they have lived there for over 2,500 years, ever since the Jews of the northern kingdom of Israel were sent into exile there. The Tanach records that in the 8th Century BCE, “Shalmaneser king of Assyria went up against” the Jewish King Hoshea, invading Jewish lands and laying siege to cities and towns. Eventually, “the king of Assyria captured Samaria and exiled Israel to Assyria. He settled them in Halah, in Habor, by the Gozan River, and in the cities of Media” (Kings II, 17:1-6). These sites listed are within the Kurdish regions of Iran and Central Asia.

For generations, the Jews in Kurdish areas lived in relative isolation. Many worked as farmers and their insular communities developed distinct customs, including marrying at a very young age and praying at the graves of Jewish prophets. The medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Kurdish areas in 1170 CE and encountered over a hundred Jewish communities in Kurdish lands. One of the largest was Amadiya in current-day Iraq, where he recorded that the Jewish community numbered about 25,000. Though the largest community of non-Jewish Kurds is found in present-day Turkey, Kurdish Jews lived primarily further east, in modern Iraq.

Language of the Talmud
The Babylonian Talmud is written in Aramaic, a language that uses Hebrew letters and is closely related to Hebrew, but with some key differences. For generations, Jews living in Kurdish lands maintained Aramaic as their everyday spoken language. They adopted some words from Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic and Hebrew, but in general spoke an Aramaic very similar to their ancestors in Talmudic times.

Kurdish Jews called their language “Lishna Yahudiya”, meaning the “Jewish Language” or “Lashon Ha’Targum”, meaning “Language of the Translation”, presumably referring to translations of the Torah, or “Lashon HaGalut”, meaning “Language of Exile” (from the land of Israel). Local Arabs called the Jews’ language Jabali, meaning “from the mountains”, referring to where some Jews in Kurdish lands lived.

A Jewish Queen
In the First Century CE, the kingdom of Adiabene in Iran became a loyal part of the Jewish community after the local monarch’s wife, Queen Helene, converted to Judaism and encouraged her subjects to do the same. Kurdish Jews still recall the kingdom of Adiabene in what is today Kurdish lands as part of their unique heritage.

Queen Helene’s remarkable journey is recorded in the writings by the Roman Jewish historian Josephus and in the Talmud (Gittin 60a). Queen Helene and her husband King Monobaz of Adiabene regularly encountered Jewish merchants passing through their lands. Queen Helene was so impressed with Jewish life that she hired a teacher to tutor her in Judaism.

An immigrant from Kurdistan arrives in Israel with her son, 1951. (Photo: Israel Government Press Office)
After King Monobaz died, his son Izates took his place on the throne. Like his mother Queen Helene, Izates was also interested in Judaism and the pair learned all they could, first from a Jewish trader named Chananyah, then from a rabbi named Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee. Eventually, the royal family converted to Judaism and encouraged their subjects to do the same. They sent many gifts to the land of Israel, including beautiful golden candelabras and goblets for the Temple in Jerusalem, and shipments of emergency food during a famine. When Roman forces battled Jews, Queen Helene sent soldiers to help their Jewish brethren.

The Jewish kingdom of Adiabene lasted until 115 CE, when Roman forces crushed its leaders, but Kurdish Jews continue to regard its descendants as part of their Jewish community.

Holy Woman
One of the greatest Jewish scholars from Kurdish lands was a woman named Asnat Barazani, who led a respected yeshiva in the town of Mosul, in present day Iraq, in the 1600s. Asnat’s father Rabbi Shmuel ben Netanel Ha-Levi of Kurdistan built the school in Mosul to train a new generation of Jewish scholars – including his daughter. Perhaps because he had no sons, Rabbi Shmuel lavished care and attention on his daughter’s studies.

In a letter, Asnat described the intense education of her childhood: “I never left the entrance to my house or went outside, I was like a princess of Israel… I grew up on the laps of scholars, anchored to my father of blessed memory.”

Asnat married a fellow scholar, Rabbi Jacob Mizrahi, and had an unusual clause in her marriage contract: Asnat was never to be expected to perform any housework so that she could devote herself entirely to learning Torah.

After her husband died, Aseat continued to run the family yeshiva, which by then was plagued by financial problems. Asnat wrote a famous prayer, Ga’agua L’Zion, or “Longing for Zion”, which allowed many Jews to put their deepest hopes and desires into words of prayer.

Jewish Refugees to Kurdish Lands
In the 12th Century CE, some Jews fled violent Crusaders in Syria and the Land of Israel, finding refuge among the Jewish communities of Kurdistan. In the mid-13th century CE, Iraqi Jews fled from major Jewish centers like Baghdad as Mongol captured those areas; many moved north and west into Kurdish areas, joining the vibrant Jewish communities there.

As Jews poured from the land of Israel into Kurdish areas, David Alroy, an infamous Kurdish Jewish figure, arose. In the 12th century in the city of Amadiya, he raised a Jewish army and prepared to march to Jerusalem and liberate the city from the Crusaders. Before his Jewish warriors could depart on this mission, David Alroy was killed.

Accounts vary. The Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tudela wrote that he was murdered by the local sultan after encouraging Jews to rise up against their rulers. Some accounts maintain that Alroy was killed in his sleep by his father-in-law. After his death, some Jews falsely revered Alroy as the Messiah, even though his grand plan to come to the aid of Jerusalem’s Jews had utterly failed.

The Prophet Nahum
Kurdish Jews particularly revere the Jewish prophet Nahum who wrote about the end of the Assyrian Empire and its capital city Nineveh. Each year during the holiday Shavuot, Jews travelled to Nahum’s tomb, in modern-day Iraq, staging elaborate holiday celebrations there.

Nahum's Tomb

Local Jews described a major renovation of the tomb in 1796, paid for by wealthy Jews from Iraq and India. The tomb was owned and operated by the local Jewish community, and was a sumptuous center of gathering. A visitor during World War I described its splendor: the floors were covered with beautiful Persian rugs, and hundreds of notes with Hebrew prayers on them covered the walls. The building also housed lodging rooms where visitors could stay and pray.

After Kurdish Jews fled their homes for Israel in the 1950s, the Tomb of Nahum was cared for by a local Chaldean Christian family. They were not able to keep it up and today the building is largely in ruins. The tomb is located in a Christian village about 30 miles north of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was the site of many bloody battles recently between ISIS fighters and local Kurds. Kurdish Peshmerga forces protected Nahum’s tomb throughout the fighting, preventing ISIS forces from destroying it completely.

Longing for Israel
Kurdish Jews in Rawanduz, northern Iraq, 1905
Jews from Kurdish lands were intensely Zionist; generations longed to return to the land of Israel from where their ancestors originally came. Jews in Kurdish areas had contact with travelers and rabbis from the land of Israel, and learned Torah and heard news from them. In the 16th century, Kurdish Jews began moving to the land of Israel, settling in the city of Safed. Thousands more moved to Israel during the 1920s and 1930s.

Coming Home to Israel
Despite its vibrancy, life was hard for Jewish in Kurdish lands. Tribal squirmishes posed danger to many groups, including Jews, and the area’s harsh landscape made it difficult to farm and thrive. After 1948 when the State of Israel was established, life became even more difficult for Kurdish Jews, most of whom lived in present-day Iraq. Iraqi’s government passed a series of harsh decrees against Iraqi Jews, seizing their assets and stripping many Jews of citizenship.

Rabbi Moshe Gabbai, head of the Jews of Zacho Iraq who immigrated to Israel in 1951. He is petitioning then president of Israel Yitzchak ben Zvi to help his community.

The fledgling nation of Israel came to the rescue of Iraqi Jews, including the approximately 25,000 then living in Kurdish areas. Between 1949 and 1952, a series of airlifts, called “Operation Ezra and Nehemia” in honor of ancient leaders who helped restore Jewish life in Israel, brought over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel. Many Jews from Kurdish lands settled in Jerusalem, often helped to flee the country by friendly Kurdish neighbors. Virtually all other Jews from Kurdish areas followed their brethren to the Jewish state; it’s estimated that only a handful of Jews remain living in Kurdish lands today.

Refugee Kurdish Jews in Tehran, Iran, in 1950. Via the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley.

Writer Ariel Sabar’s father was born in Iraq’s Kurdish north. He wrote about him and his family in My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. “The moment his foot touched the ground at Israel’s Lod Airport near Tel Aviv” in 1951, Sabar wrote, “my great-great grandfather Ephraim began to cry. He dropped to his knees, bent forward, and kissed the tarmac.”

As Kurdish Jews stepped off the plane, they were amazed to find themselves in the land of Israel at long last. Sabar writes:

“The Kurds stepping off the Near East Transport planes in their hand-spun jimidani head coverings looked as dazed and disoriented as if a time-travel machine had just deposited them in a distant future. Parents descended the steps to the brightly lit tarmac with wary gazes and armfuls of children. Tired bodies clanked, with teapots slung to belt loops and demon-banishing amulets bunched at necks and wrists. Few had ever before seen an airplane, let alone traveled one.”

Sukkot and Saharane
For generations, Jews in Kurdish lands celebrated their own unique holiday, called Saharane, during Passover. It mirrored the non-Jewish Kurdish holiday Newroz, and featured singing competitions and outdoor picnics.

Celebrating at a Saharane festival

When Jews from Kurdish lands moved to Israel, some worried that Saharane was getting confused with another Passover-time festival, Mimouna. (Mimouna originated with Moroccan Jews and became popular in Israel. It’s celebrated the day after Passover concludes and is marked by visiting friends and neighbors for friendly meals and open houses.) In the 1970s, Kurdish Jews began celebrating Saharane during the Autumn Jewish festival of Sukkot instead.

Today, one of the largest Saharane festivals is held each year in Jerusalem, drawing over 10,000 participants for Kurdish Jewish food, music, and story-telling. In recent years, non-Jewish Kurds have even travelled to Jerusalem’s vibrant Saharane festival from Iraq, Europe, and elsewhere. In 2013, one Syrian Kurd now living in the Netherlands visited Jerusalem’s Saharane festival and explained to an Israeli journalist that even though she’s not Jewish, hearing the Kurdish music and watching people wearing traditional Kurdish dress made her feel at home: “We feel we are a part of Israel.” she explained about her fellow Kurds at the festival, who all received a warm welcome when visiting the Jewish state.

Life in Israel
Many Kurdish Jews entered the stonework and construction industries in Israel in the 1950s. Some Israeli towns such as Mevasseret Tzion and neighborhoods in Jerusalem housed vibrant Kurdish communities. Today, over 150,000 Israelis trace their heritage to Kurdish lands. The beautiful songs, foods, traditions and prayers of Jews from Kurdish lands continue to flourish in Israel today.

Photo at top: Refugee Jews from Iranian Kurdistan, 1950 © The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
The Holocaust and Sephardic Jews
Oct 27, 2019  |  by B. Gordon
The Holocaust and Sephardic Jews
Are Sephardic and Mideastern Holocaust victims being forgotten?

The Holocaust – one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history – has understandably become an Ashkenazic symbol. But by defining the Holocaust as an “Ashkenazic tragedy”, do we risk forgetting the Sephardic and Middle Eastern victims, or the encompassing definition of antisemitism?

While the destruction of Ashkenazic Jewry dwarfed the Holocaust’s impact on Sephardim, some traditionally-Sephardic populations – such as Salonika, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, and the former Habsburg Islands – shared the same fate of their Ashkenazic brethren.

The community of Salonika in particular was almost completely wiped out. According to the, 86% of the Sephardic Jewish community in Salonika was killed. There were approximately 10,000 survivors from what was once thriving community of 80,000 Jews.

Skopje, Yugoslavia, Jews rounded up prior to their deportation
in the Monopol tobacco depot, March 1943. Yad Vashem archive

Stephanie Shosh Rotem, author of the essay Holocaust Museums as Civic Spaces, notes that Salonika wasn’t included in the collective memory of the Holocaust. To this day, says the author, the story of the Salonikan tragedy is not a part of the main exhibition at the Yad Vashem but displayed outside the museum halls.

On a similar note, Isaac Jack Levy compiled the anthology And the World Stood Silent. The poignant book commemorates the nearly 200,000 Sephardic victims of the Holocaust. On its jacket cover, he writes, “The Sephardic victims of the Holocaust were, indeed, forgotten at the gates of the camps. Their tragedy at the hands of the Nazis remained unknown...”

Henriette Asseo, a woman of Salonikan heritage, contributed to Levy’s work. In the anthology, she lamented:

My people do not exist
Banished from memory
at the gates of the camps.

While North African and Middle Eastern Jews were thankfully spared from the final solution, they weren’t immune to Hitler’s wrath.

Deportation of the Jews of Macedonia, March 1943. Yad Vashem Archive

In the 1940’s, anti-Jewish laws were enacted and labor camps were established throughout Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Thousands of North African Jews suffered in these labor camps.

Libyan Jews under Mussolini
In 1938 the Fascist Mussolini implemented anti-Jewish laws on Libyan Jews by marking Jews’ passports and restricting their freedom and cultural activities. Later, Mussolini sent close to 5,000 of his citizens to concentration camps where hundreds died of starvation and disease. Jews who weren’t Libyan citizens were even less fortunate. Hundreds of Jews with foreign citizenship were shipped out to concentration camps in Europe.

Shimon Teshuva, survivor of the labor camp Giado, Libya, recounts his experience:

“The area was divided and each family was given 1 meter squared.... A long wooden plank with holes – was used for latrines... There was no running water, we were covered in lice. The majority of the camp inhabitants contracted illnesses, including typhoid.”

562 Libyan Jews perished at Giado concentration camp.

North African Jews under French Rule
Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were colonies of the Vichy regime which fell to the Nazis in the 1940s. During that time, the Vichy-German controlled government established anti-Jewish laws on its approximately 415,000 Jewish inhabitants.

On November 23, 1942, the Germans arrested Moises Burgel, the president of the Tunis Jewish community, and several other prominent Jews, signaling the beginning of Nazi oppression under the Vichy regime. Tunisian Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David, had their property confiscated and were sent to forced labor camps. Four thousand Jews were deported and forced into hard labor camps while foreign citizens and some of Tunisia’s Rabbis were deported to the European concentration camps. 2, 575 Jews died in Tunisia during the war.

Some 7,000 Jewish men ordered to register for forced labor assemble
in Liberty Square in German-occupied Salonika, Greece, July 1942.

In Algeria, and to a certain extent in Morocco, Vichy law stripped Jewish citizens of their rights, confiscated their land, expelled Jewish children from schools, and sent some of the men to labor camps. According to Sephardic Gen resources, some were forced to relocate to ghettos and Jewish foreigners in Morocco were detained in “special concentration camps.”

According to, the Nazis didn’t intend to leave North African Jews alone. The Vichy-appointed High Commissioner Henri Dentz also planned to establish European-style concentration camps in North Africa. His efforts were stymied when the allies began to liberate North Africa in 1942.

Pogroms in Iraq
Another tragedy largely overlooked in the history of the Holocaust is the Farhud, the Nazi-inspired pogrom in Iraq. Though Iraq was never under control of the Nazis, Iraqi Jews also suffered the ripple effects of Nazi hatred.

Iraqi Jews reach British Mandatory Palestine after the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad of 1941.
Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy Moshe Baruch

During the war, pro-Nazi propaganda was spread throughout the country and the book “Mein Kampf” was translated into Arabic for the public. In May 1941, on the festival of Shavuot, mobs swearing allegiance to the Mufti and Hitler went on a rampage through Iraqi cities and instituted a bloody pogrom. Approximately 180 Jews were killed, more than 2,000 were injured or maimed, 900 Jewish homes, and hundreds of Jewish shops were destroyed. Victims of the pogrom are not recognized as Holocaust survivors liable for compensation under Israeli law.

The Nazi threat to Israel
There were close to 450,000 Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939. Were the Nazis content with leaving them alone?

Evidence shows that in 1942 the Einsatzgruppe SS squad in Egypt was set up in the Athens and prepared to carry out a mass killing of Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. Thank God, the Nazis' plans for the destruction were not carried out after their defeat by the allies at the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt.

The majority of the Jews killed in the war were Eastern Europeans of Ashkenazic descent. But let's also remember the Sephardic and North African victims who were killed because they were Jews.

May the memories of all Holocaust martyrs be a blessing.

Photo credit at top: Deportation of the Jews of Macedonia, March 1943. Yad Vashem Archive

Links for additional information:
North African Jews in the Holocaust:

Sephardic Greek Jews in the holocaust:

The Holocaust of North Africa:

Jewish Holocaust victims of Salonika:

The Farhud:

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The Holocaust and Sephardic Jews
Oct 27, 2019  |  by B. Gordon
The Holocaust and Sephardic Jews
Are Sephardic and Mideastern Holocaust victims being forgotten?

The Holocaust – one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history – has understandably become an Ashkenazic symbol. But by defining the Holocaust as an “Ashkenazic tragedy”, do we risk forgetting the Sephardic and Middle Eastern victims, or the encompassing definition of antisemitism?

While the destruction of Ashkenazic Jewry dwarfed the Holocaust’s impact on Sephardim, some traditionally-Sephardic populations – such as Salonika, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, and the former Habsburg Islands – shared the same fate of their Ashkenazic brethren.

The community of Salonika in particular was almost completely wiped out. According to the, 86% of the Sephardic Jewish community in Salonika was killed. There were approximately 10,000 survivors from what was once thriving community of 800,000 Jews.

Skopje, Yugoslavia, Jews rounded up prior to their deportation
in the Monopol tobacco depot, March 1943. Yad Vashem archive

Stephanie Shosh Rotem, author of the essay Holocaust Museums as Civic Spaces, notes that Salonika wasn’t included in the collective memory of the Holocaust. To this day, says the author, the story of the Salonikan tragedy is not a part of the main exhibition at the Yad Vashem but displayed outside the museum halls.
On a similar note, Isaac Jack Levy compiled the anthology And the World Stood Silent. The poignant book commemorates the nearly 200,000 Sephardic victims of the Holocaust. On its jacket cover, he writes, “The Sephardic victims of the Holocaust were, indeed, forgotten at the gates of the camps. Their tragedy at the hands of the Nazis remained unknown...”

Henriette Asseo, a woman of Salonikan heritage, contributed to Levy’s work. In the anthology, she lamented:

My people do not exist
Banished from memory
at the gates of the camps.

While North African and Middle Eastern Jews were thankfully spared from the final solution, they weren’t immune to Hitler’s wrath.

Deportation of the Jews of Macedonia, March 1943. Yad Vashem Archive

In the 1940’s, anti-Jewish laws were enacted and labor camps were established throughout Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Thousands of North African Jews suffered in these labor camps.

Libyan Jews under Mussolini
In 1938 the Fascist Mussolini implemented anti-Jewish laws on Libyan Jews by marking Jews’ passports and restricting their freedom and cultural activities. Later, Mussolini sent close to 5,000 of his citizens to concentration camps where hundreds died of starvation and disease. Jews who weren’t Libyan citizens were even less fortunate. Hundreds of Jews with foreign citizenship were shipped out to concentration camps in Europe.

Shimon Teshuva, survivor of the labor camp Giado, Libya, recounts his experience:

“The area was divided and each family was given 1 meter squared.... A long wooden plank with holes – was used for latrines... There was no running water, we were covered in lice. The majority of the camp inhabitants contracted illnesses, including typhoid.”

562 Libyan Jews perished at Giado concentration camp.

North African Jews under French Rule
Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were colonies of the Vichy regime which fell to the Nazis in the 1940s. During that time, the Vichy-German controlled government established anti-Jewish laws on its approximately 415,000 Jewish inhabitants.

On November 23, 1942, the Germans arrested Moises Burgel, the president of the Tunis Jewish community, and several other prominent Jews, signaling the beginning of Nazi oppression under the Vichy regime. Tunisian Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David, had their property confiscated and were sent to forced labor camps. Four thousand Jews were deported and forced into hard labor camps while foreign citizens and some of Tunisia’s Rabbis were deported to the European concentration camps. 2, 575 Jews died in Tunisia during the war.

Some 7,000 Jewish men ordered to register for forced labor assemble
in Liberty Square in German-occupied Salonika, Greece, July 1942.

In Algeria, and to a certain extent in Morocco, Vichy law stripped Jewish citizens of their rights, confiscated their land, expelled Jewish children from schools, and sent some of the men to labor camps. According to Sephardic Gen resources, some were forced to relocate to ghettos and Jewish foreigners in Morocco were detained in “special concentration camps.”

According to, the Nazis didn’t intend to leave North African Jews alone. The Vichy-appointed High Commissioner Henri Dentz also planned to establish European-style concentration camps in North Africa. His efforts were stymied when the allies began to liberate North Africa in 1942.

Pogroms in Iraq
Another tragedy largely overlooked in the history of the Holocaust is the Farhud, the Nazi-inspired pogrom in Iraq. Though Iraq was never under control of the Nazis, Iraqi Jews also suffered the ripple effects of Nazi hatred.

Iraqi Jews reach British Mandatory Palestine after the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad of 1941.
Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy Moshe Baruch

During the war, pro-Nazi propaganda was spread throughout the country and the book “Mein Kampf” was translated into Arabic for the public. In May 1941, on the festival of Shavuot, mobs swearing allegiance to the Mufti and Hitler went on a rampage through Iraqi cities and instituted a bloody pogrom. Approximately 180 Jews were killed, more than 2,000 were injured or maimed, 900 Jewish homes, and hundreds of Jewish shops were destroyed. Victims of the pogrom are not recognized as Holocaust survivors liable for compensation under Israeli law.

The Nazi threat to Israel
There were close to 450,000 Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939. Were the Nazis content with leaving them alone?

Evidence shows that in 1942 the Einsatzgruppe SS squad in Egypt was set up in the Athens and prepared to carry out a mass killing of Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. Thank God, the Nazis' plans for the destruction were not carried out after their defeat by the allies at the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt.

The majority of the Jews killed in the war were Eastern Europeans of Ashkenazic descent. But let's also remember the Sephardic and North African victims who were killed because they were Jews.

May the memories of all Holocaust martyrs be a blessing.

Photo credit at top: Deportation of the Jews of Macedonia, March 1943. Yad Vashe

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My Encounter with al-Baghdadi’s Victims
Oct 29, 2019  |  by Sara Yoheved Rigler
My Encounter with al-Baghdadi’s Victims
Shabbat dinner with three Yazidi women from Iraq.
An intriguing request showed up on the e-bulletin board of our community in the Old City of Jerusalem a few months ago:
Dear Neighbors,
Professionals from a foreign country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel are quietly being brought for professional development. The lead coordinator host wants them to encounter the positive face of Judaism. They will be at the Kotel next Friday night. The host body would like to arrange home hospitality for 17.
Barnea Levi Selavan
My husband Leib and I volunteered to host three for the Shabbos night meal. Our neighbor Barnea, a tour guide and archeologist, made it clear that no information would be forthcoming about who our mystery guests would be or from what country they came.
The day before their arrival, Barnea confided the secret: They were Yazidi women from Iraq, brought surreptitiously to Israel to get training on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in order to help the thousands of their fellow Yazidi women who had been enslaved by ISIS.
Participants in the workshop. The faces of the Iraqi women are
blurred for security reasons. Courtesy Bar-Ilan University
I keenly remembered seeing years ago the video of a Yazidi woman in the Iraqi parliament shouting and crying because ISIS, at the height of its power, was raping Yazidi women and taking them as sex slaves. It was that video that first woke up the world to the abhorrent evil of ISIS and moved President Obama to use American forces to stop them.
Leib and I were nervous about how to relate to our guests. On Friday afternoon, I googled “Yazidi” and discovered the basics of their history and religion. They espouse a monotheistic religion derived from various traditions including Islam (although Muslims are forbidden to marry them), tracing their roots back seven or eight centuries. An embattled minority, a half-million adherents lived in northern Iraq, in villages clustered near Mosul and Sinjar, until they were displaced by the ravaging hordes of ISIS. They believe that God entrusted the world to seven angels, one of whom is called, the “Peacock Angel.” I duly put my Shabbos flowers into a vase decorated with a peacock and placed it at the center of our Shabbos table, my meek gesture at trying to make our mystery guests feel comfortable.
Barnea brought them to our door—three thin women dressed in slacks. Two of them, V. and R., smiled warmly. They spoke English and greeted me with a hug.
The third, N., looked pale and worn, older than what we would later learn was her age of twenty-nine.
N. described how the men were given the choice to convert to Islam or be killed. The women and girls over the age of 9 were taken as sex slaves.
They were so open, so friendly, so eager to experience whatever we wanted to share about Judaism and Shabbat. At that point they had been in Israel, at Bar Ilan University, for just a few days, yet they obviously felt safe with us. Was it because they recognized in us Jews an innate empathy with those who suffer?
Twelve of us sat down around the table, including our adult son and six Jewish guests. Leib made Kiddush, and then we did the ritual hand-washing for bread. During the meal, as is our custom, we went around the table for each person to introduce his/her self. Although Barnea had cautioned us to ask no searching questions, the Yazidi women seemed driven to talk about themselves. V., who spoke excellent English, said that she lived in a town that ISIS approached but did not conquer. R., who spoke halting English, had fled her village with her family before ISIS attacked.

N. spoke only Kurdish and Arabic; V. translated her for. N.’s voice, like her eyes, was lifeless, but she told her story like a tired sentinel guarding truth, as word after word marched out of her cavernous heart. Her village was captured by ISIS. She described how they separated the men from the women and children. The men were given the choice to convert to Islam or be killed. The women and girls over the age of 9 were taken as sex slaves. (Because, she explained, Mohammed had relations with his 9-year-old wife, that is the minimum age for Muslim men to take sexual partners.)
N. had 91 members in her extended family. Only 24 came back after ISIS was defeated. All the men chose death rather than convert.
After Shabbos, we heard from other neighbors who had hosted Yazidi women. One related the story of their guest: She and her two friends had been taken as sex slaves by ISIS. At some point, they decided to escape. This entailed running through a mine field. Both her friends stepped on mines and were blown up in front of her. She kept running and somehow managed to get to safety.
Our Shabbos guests were among 18 Yazidi and Christian mental health workers who had been brought to Israel by Bar Ilan University and IsraAID for an intensive two-week workshop on how to treat PTSD, C-PTSD, depression, attempted suicide, insomnia, etc. Professor Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Yaakov Hoffman organized the program. Their research among Yazidi women who were captured by ISIS found that over 50% of them suffer from C-PTSD (complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and another 23% suffer from standard PTSD. Of the 6500 women and children kidnapped by ISIS, 3500 managed to escape or were liberated (3000 are still missing), but few mental health services are available to these survivors. "We feel a moral obligation not only to study the effects of genocide but to share our know-how to assist those suffering from it," said Dr. Hoffman.
I felt like I was hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor just out of hell.
Listening to N.’s story at our Shabbos table, I felt like I was hearing the testimony of a Holocaust survivor just out of hell. I have read innumerable Holocaust books and wrote a biography of a Holocaust survivor, but this was the first time in my life that I was hearing such a story “raw,” not mellowed by decades of time and the mental enzymes the mind uses to digest the indigestible. Hearing N.’s story and looking at her anguished visage, I felt a kaleidoscope of emotions: Horror at what had been done to her people, repulsion at the unmitigated evil of ISIS, recognition because her tragedy was like our Jewish tragedies, relief that the world had responded to their cry and vanquished ISIS, and the prescience of knowing that, even though her group had come to Israel to learn how to cope with trauma, she would never be able to cleanse her soul of the nightmare she had been through. We Jews post-Holocaust know that.

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Tree of Life Massacre One Year Later: Fighting Hate with Love
Oct 27, 2019  |  by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
Tree of Life Massacre One Year Later: Fighting Hate with Love
From Pittsburgh, reports on anti-Semitism in America – and possible solutions.

Standing at the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues in Squirrel Hill, I gaze at the Tree of Life building and reflect how a Jewish prayer hall is called “sanctuary” – a safe haven of peace, love and spiritual communion.

On October 27, 2018, this sanctuary was shattered when – in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history – a gunman burst into Shabbat services and gunned down 11 worshippers.

Squirrel Hill is at the heart of Pittsburgh’s 50,000 Jews, one of America’s oldest and most respected Jewish neighborhoods, an otherwise quiet, tree-lined community that Mister Rogers called home and where 40% of residents are Jewish.

One year after the attack, a walk along Murray Avenue – the strip of Jewish bookstores, bakeries, butchers and boutiques – reveals a community forever transformed. Store windows and lampposts proclaim “Pittsburgh: Stronger than Hate,” with the Star of David superimposed on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo. Windows of the local Starbucks bear the words “love, kindness and hope” – written in both English and Hebrew.

Poignantly, the Tree of Life building remains bolted shut (with plans to rebuild). Jeffrey Myers, rabbi and cantor of Tree of Life who emerged as the face of the Jewish community following the attack, told “We're displaced from our home, which is a constant reminder of our loss and of the need to move forward.” visited Squirrel Hill to examine the challenges of American Jewry grappling with a new normal.

Makeshift memorial at the Tree of Life building.

Graffiti and Violence
Anti-Semitism isn’t new to America. (Think General Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh.) Yet the exceptions prove the rule: The United States has been safer for Jews than anywhere in Diaspora history.

Post-Pittsburgh, however, this security has been shaken. Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. are at near-record highs, fueled by the far-right (KKK, The Daily Stormer) and far-left (BDS, Ilan Omar, Farrakhan), toxic political rhetoric, and social media free-for-alls.

According to latest FBI stats, 58% of all anti-religious hate crimes are anti-Jewish, and 80% of all hate crimes in New York City feature swastikas. These crimes extend beyond mere graffiti – to the synagogue shooting in Poway, Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogue windows, vandalized menorahs and gravestones, multiple attacks on Orthodox Jews on the streets of Brooklyn, and dozens of foiled plots to target Jewish institutions.

In a sad paradox, the Squirrel Hill community was one of the synagogues best prepared to handle an assault. In the year prior, Jewish community officials had run dozens of security training sessions, including at Tree of Life, and congregants had cellphones on hand to call 911.

For American Jews, the fear is real. According to a new poll by the American Jewish Committee (AJC):

88% of American Jews believe that anti-Semitism is a problem in the United States today.
31% of American Jews avoid publicly displaying items that might identify them as Jewish.
25% avoid certain Jewish places or events out of safety concern; children exhibit particular fear.
Security: The New Normal
The result has been a permanent mind shift in the American Jewish community regarding security. Guided by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Jewish infrastructures are now being fortified into “hard targets” – with Kevlar-coated shatterproof windows, video surveillance systems, reinforced gates, and barricades of concrete pylons.

Many U.S. congregations now offer Krav Maga and other self-defense courses. Others offer defensive firearms training, with many American Jews considering the purchase of their first handgun. The nonprofit Secure Community Network (SCN) and Israeli counter-terrorism experts conduct active shooter drills, where the primary lesson is “Run, Hide, Fight”:

Run – In any active shooter situation, the preferred response is to quickly exit the building.
Hide – Second-best, hide in a bathroom or closest – with lights out and door locked.
Fight – As a last resort, fight back using any available means – chairs, books, guns.
With synagogues across America beefing up security – armed guards checking bags, metal detectors, and police patrols – the question becomes: What of the synagogue’s traditional role as an open, hospitable, welcoming space?

To address this, many congregations now have longtime members serving as plain-clothes security – “shul marshals” with concealed weapons who do not reveal their role to other congregants. Other congregations instruct security guards to dress business-casual and greet congregants with a hearty “Shabbat Shalom.”

In Squirrel Hill, the windows of Starbucks bears the words
love, kindness and hope – in English and Hebrew.

Why the Jews?
History provides many examples of oppression, racism and intolerance. Yet despite the tendency to “universalize” anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred is unique in intensity, longevity and irrationality, falling outside of normal sociological bounds. Anti-Semitism has haunted Jews for millennia, ever since the Bronze Age when Nimrod, the world’s most powerful leader, tried to murder Abraham for his Monotheistic beliefs. Today, Jews collectively suffer the scourge of anti-Semitism violence that a new United Nations report says has increased 38% across the globe.

So whether it is a Yom Kippur attack in Halle, Germany, headstones smashed at UK Jewish cemetery, or missiles raining down on Sderot, anti-Semitism is – in the words of New York Times' columnist and Squirrel Hill native Bari Weiss – an "ever-morphing conspiracy theory" where the Jew is "whatever the anti-Semite needs him to be."

As an ethical response, Pittsburgh Jewry has adopted the beautiful rallying cry of “Fight hate with love.” To succeed at such an effort, the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero suggests that “love is achieved by pondering a person's virtues. One should strive to ignore deficiencies, focusing not on flaws but rather on positive qualities” (Tomer Devorah 2:4). Indeed, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that every person has some element of “good,” and it is our job to search and find that good in every person (Likutey Moharan – Torah 282a).

As Rabbi Noah Weinberg says in 48 Ways to Wisdom: The more we identify people with positive qualities, the more we will love them. It's all a matter of appreciation and focus on virtues.

In Squirrel Hill, store windows proclaim that Pittsburgh is “Stronger than hate.”

Moving Forward
After a year of recovery and healing, Squirrel Hill is moving forward with resiliency and rebuilding. Plans for the 60-year-old Tree of Life building include a massive refurbishing to incorporate mixed-use communal spaces, a memorial for the 11 victims, and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

To commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on Sunday, October 27, 2019, people around the world can receive a text message from “Pause With Pittsburgh,” prompting a moment of silence at 5 pm Eastern time (11 pm Israel).

In that moment, the question for each us of is: What can I do to best honor the memory of the victims?

An insight is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 89a), which ponders the existential question of anti-Semitism and points to Mount Sinai, where Jews were charged as a Light Unto the Nations. Despite never constituting more than a tiny fraction of the world’s population, Jewish ideals became the basis for the civilized world. And with that, Jews became a lightening rod for those opposed to the moral message.

Which brings us to the exquisite irony of Jewish history. The problem and its solution are one and the same: Jewish values are the cause of anti-Semitism, and Jewish values are the solution. Only by strengthening the moral doctrine that Judaism brought to the world from Sinai, can we hope to create a peaceful, loving, and compassionate society where no anti-Semite could reasonably exist.

In this spirit, to mark the upcoming yahrtzeit on Cheshvan 18 (November 16, 2019), the Pittsburgh Kollel is welcoming everyone to study a particular portion of Chumash or Mishnah in the merit of the 11 Pittsburgh Kedoshim, hy”d:

Joyce Feinberg – Yehudit Bultcha bat Abba Menachem
Richard Gottfried – Yosef ben Hyman
Rose Mallinger – Raizel bat Avraham
Jerry Rabinowitz – Yehudah ben Yechezkel
Cecil Rosenthal – Chaim ben Eliezer
David Rosenthal – Dovid ben Eliezer
Bernice Simon – Mayla Rochel bat Moshe
Sylvan Simon – Zalman Shachna ben Menachem Mendel
Dan Stein – Daniel Avrom ben Baruch
Mel Wax – Moshe Gadol ben Yosef
Irving Younger – Yitzchak Chaim ben Menachem

As I stand at the Tree of Life building, its cornerstone hewn from limestone quarried in Jerusalem, I am reminded of that part of the synagogue service when we put the Torah into the Ark and sing the verse from Proverbs 3:18: Aitz chaim hee – “Torah is a ‘tree of life’ for those who grasp it.”

Jewish national destiny depends on our commitment to study Torah, to live it passionately, and to share its wisdom with a world desperate for its loving, peaceful message.

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