Monthly Archives: June 2011

Rabbis Let Loose

by Gabi P. Remz

They packed into the auditorium, excited for a good show. There were promises of top-notch dancing performances by celebrities they had seen on TV. This would be a good show, all right, and would be well worth the $60 ticket, especially considering the fact that the money was going to charity. This was entertainment. This was “Dancing with the Rabbis.”

The event was held in April in Los Angeles, when rabbis from the Conservative and Reform movements participated in the American Jewish University’s own version of the popular TV show “Dancing with the Stars.” There, five local rabbis performed everything from the tango to the cha-cha with professional dancers. The event created lots of buzz by bringing in Louis Van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff, who serve as professional dancers on ABC’s original version.

Though its primary purpose was to serve as a fundraiser for the American Jewish World Service, the evening also serves as an example of a new wave of outreach in the Jewish community.

One of the most prominent Rabbis in America is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a pop-culture darling who has made a following for himself more by getting his name through the airwaves than by gaining respect for his knowledge of Judaism. He gained notoriety in the  late ‘90s when he befriended pop star Michael Jackson, and in 2006 hosted the TLC reality show Shalom in the Home. Rabbi Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi placed 11th on Newsweek’s “Top 50 Rabbis in America” list, is the epitome of Jewish leadership in pop-culture. His media prowess—he currently blogs for The Huffington Post, and continues to host Shalom in the Home—allows him to serve as the rare Rabbi who can reach nearly anyone.

With his daily podcasts and frequent appearances on Oprah, the man dubbed “America’s Rabbi” has a website that looks more like that of a pop-star than that of a rabbi. Rabbi Boteach, like the rabbis at AJU, was able to make connections to Jews throughout America because they can see him in a fun and entertaining setting beyond the synagogue. He forced himself to be relevant by bursting into American Jews’ airwaves and televisions, and it worked.

The trend of making religious leaders more widely appealing is discussed in a recent article by Hillel President and CEO Wayne L. Firestone and Assistant Director for Partnership Campuses Rachel L. Gildiner in The Journal of Jewish Communal Service. When describing how Hillel—the largest Jewish organization on college campuses throughout the U.S—has changed over the last five years, the Hillel leaders explain that the Hillel rabbis have transition “from exclusivity in leadership to inclusivity.”

With programs like Jewlicious Fest—an end-of-summer music festival for students—and Campus Superstar—an American Idol spinoff created by Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh—the push is well underway to be as inclusive as possible. And just as with Los Angeles Rabbis and Rabbi Boteach, the key to inclusiveness was incorporating elements of pop culture into events.

Simply put, tapping into pop culture to promote events and make connections with community members has led to successful results in terms of creating followings and attracting attendees to events.

And while many of these efforts to immerse in pop culture have been successful, there have been some harsh critics who say rabbis are going too far.

The “Dancing with the Rabbis” event in particular drew heavy criticism, as some felt that the participating rabbis were acting unprofessionally and inappropriately in their efforts to connect with the community.

In an op-ed published in The Jewish Journal following the event, nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager called for the event to be canceled next year, despite its fundraising success.

He went on to write that he disagreed with every participating rabbi’s decision to perform in the event.

“My disagreement emanates solely from a desire to see these and all rabbis guard and preserve the prestige and dignity of their title,” Prager wrote.

Prager then compared rabbis to teachers, explaining that the levels of respect for authority figures must be maintained.

“We need to honor teachers and preserve their prestige. When they come into class wearing shorts or ask students to call them by their first names, they may be hip, but their profession loses prestige.”

I am sure the evening was fun. But it was not the kind of fun a Jewish seminary should have sponsored, nor the kind of fun that its rabbis should have engaged in.”

Similarly, Rabbi Boteach was heavily criticized by members of the Chabad movement, which ordained him.

Rabbi Yosef Korf, in a response to Rabbi Boteach’s column in which he called for reform of Chabad’s policies, wrote a scathing op-ed in COLLive, Chabad’s official news site. Rabbi Korf attacked and delegitimized Rabbi Boteach, describing him as “all about self-promotion and aggrandizement.”

“Once again ‘America’s Rabbi’ – pastor to the famous and infamous – rears his head to hang Chabad’s laundry by denigrating its hard-working soldiers in public,” Rabbi Korf wrote.

And so debate rages on, as rabbis scrounge to maintain and develop their communities and authority in the Jewish world. Clearly, using the secular, American cultural world can be an effective tool, as that is something many Jews can relate to and find appealing. But while many leaders have determined that going “hip” is the best approach, the question arises, how far can they go?

 

A Social Media Intifada

By Adina Rosenthal

Move over “Angry Birds.” The newest up-and-coming iPhone app may be for revolutions. While social media platforms have become commonplace in both our vernacular and daily use, they have also played an important role in fomenting recent revolutions.

In 2009, thousands took to the streets of Moldova to protest their Communist government in what was titled the Twitter Revolution for the platform’s success in galvanizing and organizing the public. When the Iranian government prevented journalists from reporting on the 2009 post-election protests, Iranians flocked to social media outlets to update the world on their plight. Recently, social media platforms took like wildfire in the Arab Spring, empowering people to unite and demand reform from their oppressive governments, resulting in immediate resignations, swift ousters, and, in the cases of Libya and perhaps Syria, war. According to panelists at an Arab Media Forum session in Dubai, “Whether social media led to the Arab Spring or facilitated it, it played a major role in mobilizing Arab streets as they rose against their ruling regime.”

Sitting right smack in the middle of the Arab Spring, Israel should receive a pat on the back for its involvement in the social media phenomenon. But for the country that created the technology behind AOL instant messenger, voicemail and the first high-resolution cell phone camera (not to mention a couple that have named their baby girl “Like,” after Facebook), Israel clearly has a hand in the social media trend. These beneficial innovations may be coming back to bite it in the tuchus.

For example, thousands of activists are members of “Boycott Israel” groups on Facebook. These forums are used to organize boycotts on products, encourage divestments from Israel, and incite hatred of Israel with graphic and violent imagery. Recently, a Facebook page titled, “Shakira: Say NO to apartheid and YES to Freedom For Palestine,” implored the pop singer, a UNICEF ambassador and advocate for quality education worldwide, to cancel a scheduled trip to Israel, to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference (she went anyway).

However, these boycotts seem innocuous compared to a recent iPhone application that called for a Third Intifada (“Uprising”) against the Jewish state. “The Third Intifada” app provided users with news about upcoming Palestinian protests, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic articles and information on the web, and activities that called for violence against Israel. Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, sent a letter to Apple founder, Steve Jobs, asking him to remove the app “and thus continue the tradition of Apple applications dedicated to purely entertainment and informative purposes and not serve as an instrument for incitement to violence.” Apple removed the app a week later, noting that it violated Apple’s store policy. Edelstein also successfully lobbied Facebook to remove the “Third Intifada” group last March.

Despite Israel’s success in removing the “Third Intifada” application, it still feels like Israelis are treading on a new battleground, the brink of an intifada of a different sort. A “Social Media Intifada,” to be exact. While not innately violent, such an intifada could potentially affect Israel’s economy and lead to violence, as recent events in the Middle East have proven. After the Second Intifada, Israeli tourism reached a twenty-year low, foreign investment slowed, and public perception of Israel faltered. How can Israel prevent a sequel on the social media battlefield?

Not always at the peak of its public relations game, Israel has recently focused additional resources on their PR strategy. Last summer, the Foreign Ministry was granted NIS 100 million to focus on social media, 60-70% of which would target leading social media figures as part of a new PR campaign to “cultivate Israel as a brand.” Additionally, Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, recently made an unprecedented move by enlisting the aid of European PR firms to combat Israel’s deteriorating image around the world. He explained that “with proper and professional work in the field we can significantly improve Israel’s standing and support for it.”

Additionally, Israelis and Jews from around the world are well-known for their social media prowess (just think Mark Zuckerberg) According to a recent poll, the average Israeli spends almost 11 hours a month surfing social networks, more than any other country in the world. From facebook groups that call for “buycotts” to purchase Israeli goods to an IDF twitter account, to boycotting rising prices on cottage cheese, Israel is no stranger to using social media to raise awareness, provide answers, and combat hate speech. Such social media savvy will be critical in countering anti-Israel rhetoric and creating a positive image for Israel. Israelis and Jews alike are up to the task.

So, in the spirit of Facebook: The social media trend? Like. Israel’s initiative to rebrand itself and counter hate speech? Like. The name of “Like” for a child? Not so much.

On the Cyber Frontiers of the Anti-Israel Movement

by Theodore Samets

The Internet has changed the world.

Less than a decade ago, the late Israel critic Edward Said published an essay in the London Review of Books that asked “Is Israel more secure now?” Those who wanted to respond to Said’s piece had to wait and hope that the LRB would publish their letters to the editor in future issues or sound off in other publications.

At the beginning of this month, Allison Benedikt penned her own anti-Israel essay, “Life After Zionist Summer Camp.” To say that Benedikt touched a nerve within the pro-Israel community doesn’t do her agitating essay justice.

The Said essay serves as a reference point for two reasons: First, Benedikt’s ironic tone, which many have criticized, bears the markings of Said’s work here and elsewhere. Second, the change in reaction times has changed the debate over an article such as this; more than simply speed it up, it’s caused some of the voices who weighed in to say things they quite probably regret.

Benedikt’s essay was published in The Awl, an online magazine, and the response has remained online. It’s not the only anti-Israel piece to be published this year, or even this month, yet it’s been the focus of many bloggers’ hours. Why?

Well, Benedikt brought it upon herself. Whether it’s how she actually feels or not, she wrote the essay in a way that implies she’s never had her own, unique thought on the existence of the state of Israel or Zionism. Where she once blindly followed her parents and camp counselors, now she follows her non-Jewish and seriously anti-Zionist husband.

Benedikt’s responders were angered for good reason. The essay showed a lack of deep thinking, ridiculed those who appreciated or loved Israel, and was written in a “childlike” voice, as Gal Beckerman called it, that is almost painful to read.

As Benedikt and her husband have taken to Twitter to defend themselves against criticism, things have gotten heated. When Jeffrey Goldberg, who first brought Benedikt’s essay to the eyes of many Israel/Jewish bloggers, didn’t print her response (it turned out that his spam filter had caught her tirade), Benedikt’s husband called Goldberg a “dick” via Twitter, and then forced his wife to retweet the statement.

And in response to Yaacov Lozowick, an Israeli writer who posed a few questions about Benedikt’s statement that she had removed the story of the wicked child from her family’s seder, Benedikt answered that she chose to edit her Haggadah because “I am Jewish, you mother fucker.”

In this new world, where responses can be instantaneous and are rarely seen by an editor, the quality of debate has gone in the same direction of the quality of rock music.

Within a few days of the original essay’s publishing, online debate had moved from discussion and concern with the piece itself to Benedikt’s comment about removing the wicked son from the seder.

Her decision is weird, yes, but is it really that terrible? I wouldn’t want my seder examined and excoriated online or anywhere (“He let people leave before the grace after meals!”). While Benedikt opened the subject up by referrring to her edits, it seems like an unnecessary distraction.

It’s also when the debate went from bad to worse. While the conversation should have remained focused on Benedikt’s zombie-like approach to opinions on Israel and her obliviousness to the many intricacies of American Jewry’s connection with Israel, it didn’t. In this, the bloggers who spend much of their time perusing the net for modern Protocols of the Elders of Zion allowed themselves to become sidetracked.

Social media continues to change the world. This is felt acutely in the world of political debate, where a day was once like a week and is now like a year; pro-Israel bloggers can’t ignore the demand for the quick response, but they must remember that there’s no existentialist threat to the Passover seder, and no great need for concern that young Jews don’t care about matzo ball soup.
If they don’t, they’ll lose sight of the bigger picture.

Hate Speech in the Netherlands

by Symi Rom-Rymer

Last week, popular far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of all charges of inciting hatred against Muslims.  The allegations made against him were based on his provocative statements that likened the Koran to Mein Kampf and called Islam a fascist religion.  The judges, after just 20 minutes of deliberation, threw out the case.  According to the BBC, “although the [judges] found [Wilders’] warning of a ‘tsunami’ of immigrants to be on the border of what is permissible, they said he had stayed within the bounds of the law.  [The] judges called some of Mr. Wilders’ comments ‘crude and denigrating,’ but not illegal.”  Buoyed by his success, Wilders gave a victory speech following the verdict in which he did nothing to tamp down the controversy surrounding him.  Instead, he declared that his win was a slap in the face to the Islamiziation of Europe.

Wilders is infamous in the Netherlands for fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment.  He has written inflammatory pieces in the Dutch media about Muslims and other non-Western immigrants and in 2008, made a film, Fitna, that depicted Islam as inherently violent.  His involvement in anti-Muslim speech does not stop at the Dutch borders.  Last year, he brought his act to the United States.  During the debate over Park51, the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, he joined Newt Gingrich at a rally to oppose the building of the mosque.

It is deeply disheartening that in the Netherlands, where it is illegal to deny the Holocaust and where there are strict laws on hate speech, language clearly used to denigrate the Muslim minority population was deemed permissible. During the Second Intifada in Israel, a French journalist commented that his country’s government only recognizes anti-Semitism if it’s goose-stepping down the Champs Elyseé in jackboots.  It appears that the Dutch courts are similarly limited in their perceptions of hate speech.

Given its history and the laws in other EU countries, it is understandable why Holocaust denial, and by extension attacks on Dutch Jews, is considered a crime in the Netherlands.  However, protection from vile and ignorant language in the public sphere should not only apply to those in the Jewish community.  Other minority groups, too, should be able expect legal protection from hate speech.  While the Holocaust is an extreme example, it is worth remembering that the deep-seated hatred and rage that helped fuel it was not created in a vacuum.  It was in part the product of centuries of accepted discrimination and hate speech left unchecked.  Based on the right-wing response to the ruling, there is now a sense that a taboo has been lifted and the boundaries of acceptable rhetoric have widened.  The hate-filled rhetoric aimed at Muslims and other non-Western minorities is spewed by those who now, more than ever, feel a freedom to feed the existing atmosphere of anger and suspicion in the Netherlands.  As John Tyler, political editor at Radio Netherlands told the BBC, “This is a precedent-setting case that now allows people to feel like they can say more than they felt they could say before.”

According to the State Department website, in December 2009, Dutch politician and former EU commissioner Frits Bolkstein suggested that Dutch Jews should emigrate because of rising incidences of anti-Semitism, a statement that he later denied amid criticism.  If Wilders and his supporters continue their rhetoric against Muslims and other non-Western immigrants living in the Netherlands, perhaps other Dutch politicians will suggest that Muslims, too, should leave the country.  If they do, will anybody care?

Mind the (Israeli) Gap

By Gabi P. Remz

AIPAC and J-Street send very different messages. Netanyahu and Obama cannot agree. Synagogues vehemently debate the prospects of saying a prayer for the IDF. So for an 18-year-old fresh out of high school and beginning to flesh out his or her relationship to Israel and Judaism, all the confusion and flat-out angry disagreement can lead to a very unfortunate result: apathy.

According to The David Project, less than three out of every 10 Jews under the age of 35 identify as Zionists. More than four out of every 10 Jews younger than 35 do not believe caring about Israel is an important part of being a Jew. (

It is important to note, however, that some may simply not feel comfortable with the politically charged term “Zionist,” and therefore do not identify as such.)

Still, there is growing concern over increasingly apathetic youth, and so many parents and educators are looking for ways to help their children foster a deeper connection to Judaism and Israel. Birthright Israel was founded in 2000 to address these concerns, and has sent nearly 200,000 young people from 52 countries to Israel over the last decade. However, Birthright trips only last 10 days, a very short time to pack in thousands of years of Jewish history and culture.

Many parents also opt to send their children to Jewish day schools, which, as Professor Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, told The Forward, leads kids to be “disproportionately active in Hillel, Jewish studies, independent minyanim, Jewish learning, and [have] higher rates of in-marriage.”

However, day schools can be prohibitively expensive, and an increasingly popular alternative is that of taking a gap year in Israel. Though several programs have been around since the founding of the state in 1948, their participants totaled in the low hundreds. But as major American universities such as Princeton and Harvard endorsed the gap year idea in the last decade, the idea of a year to explore and grow before college has become far more mainstream for American college-goers in general.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof endorsed the gap year idea in a December op-ed, writing, “If you’re a high school senior, think about taking a ‘gap year’ — nearly all colleges will defer admission — and exploring the world. It’ll be cheaper than a year of college and may well be more educational.” Some gap-year programs offer significant college credit at a fraction of the price, making it a financially appealing option, and organizations such as MASA offer scholarships to those wishing to connect to their Jewish roots.

But what stands out about taking a gap year in Israel is not what can be saved on a year of college or how well the year in Israel can encompass so much of what is taught in 12 years of day school. What stands out are be the invitations to Shabbos meals received when walking around the Shuk on a Friday afternoon because, they say, that is what Jews do for each other. What stands out is when a stranger on the bus talks to you for an hour and a half, first trying to understand where you see yourself as a Jew before explaining his own journey and struggle. What stands out is being in the land where it all began and where it is all coming back together again. It is an unparalleled experience, and for young Jews trying to figure out where they stand, truly experiencing their nation will serve as an eternal reminder of who they are.

There are some drawbacks to taking a year off—Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger explains in a December article that when living abroad, “academic skills can get rusty.”  Some students “lose direction after taking time off and don’t enroll in college,” so Shellenbarger recommends that students enroll in college before signing up for a gap year program.

The last few years have seen substantial growth in gap-year programs, particularly from the Jewish community. The gap year option in Israel had 7,904 participants in 2009, a number that has been steadily increasing since 2006, when the yearlong Israel programs had a total of 6,477 participants.

There are plenty of different gap year options in the country, from religious Yeshivas to dance programs to universities. One of the largest gap year programs, Young Judaea Year Course offers 27 credits (approximately equivalent to a full year of college) for a year, and the credits are recognized at most colleges.

One of the oldest and most popular Israel gap year programs, Year Course has sent Americans fresh out of high school to Israel since just after the founding of the state. This past year, more than 300 students spent the year learning Hebrew and the history of Zionism, volunteering everywhere from soup kitchens to farms, and traveling throughout the country.

The program, according to its website, looks to address issues such as the ability to “enable participants to grow as Zionists” by “demonstrating the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and responsibility toward the land of Israel.”

And the results of this program are staggering.  According to Professor Cohen, who did a study entitled, “International Survey of Israel Program Graduates” Year Course alumni maintain a far stronger connection to the Jewish world and Israel than the rest of Diaspora Jews. The study showed that 91 percent of alumni marry other Jews, 79 percent maintain synagogue membership, 71 percent return to Israel two or more times in the years to follow, 72 percent volunteer in a Jewish setting, 57 percent contribute to Federation campaigns and 36 percent send their children to Jewish day schools.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “Every young Jew should spend at least one year of his life in Israel.”  The evidence suggests that he was correct.

Sneak Preview of our July/August Issue!

The Moment you’ve all been waiting for:

The Jewish National Pastime

By Aarian Marshall

Some people collect stamps, others baseball cards—Neil Keller collects famous Jews. He speaks quickly, with a slight lisp, and with his red polo and faded jean shorts, looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to a suburban Little League game, though it’s unclear whether he belongs with the throng of eager parents in the stands, or with the overexcited kids in the diamond. Before him is a tableful of binders, each nearly five inches thick. They are color-coded, their titles neatly typed and affixed to their fronts. And Neil Keller is grinning, in a way one rarely sees among men in their thirties.

His website boasts that Neil is the “Expert On Who Is Jewish,” and that his collection of Jewish memorabilia, which includes over 15,000 items, is one of the largest in the world. And that is what’s in those binders—pages and pages of sports trading cards, signed headshots, and personally addressed letters from thousands of celebrities, either confirming or denying their Jewish-ness.

“John Kerry is half-Jewish,” he told me. “His father changed his last name from ‘Cohen.’” So is Katie Couric—through her mother’s side. Blonde, buxom, blue-eyed Scarlett Johansson was raised celebrating the Festival of Lights. And Marilyn Monroe, that other blonde, converted to marry the playwright Arthur Miller. Most surprising? “Probably Elvis Presley. There’s a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone.”

Neil began his project on a whim. He was at a flea market in 1990 when he spotted a Sandy Koufax trading card. “I knew he was Jewish,” Neil said, “and that he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.” As the product of an Orthodox community (though not an Orthodox household), Neil respected that. “I read something about him, learned that his catcher was also Jewish,” he remembers. From sports, it moved onto entertainment, to politics.

With the advent of the Internet, Neil’s research has become a lot easier, but he spends a lot of time corresponding with celebrities themselves. He estimates that of all the celebrities he has written, 90-95 percent have written him back. Robert De Niro sent him an autographed headshot (not Jewish). Madonna reported that she had shared his website with her friends at the Kabbalah center. When Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew wrote Neil to tell him that no, he had not converted to Judaism (despite his taking to wearing a chai in photographs), Neil sent the information to Adam Sandler, whose popular Chanukah Song had included Carew in its run-down of Jewish people. Sandler wrote back to thank Neil, and subsequently changed the lyrics of the song.

Neil’s total investment in this hobby might seem strange, but considering his warm receptions at speaking engagements, it might not just be Neil: this obsession spans the Jewish community. Neil travels to camps and JCCs alike to give short talks, consisting of forty-five minutes of straight trivia. Perhaps short is an understatement—at one talk in Toronto, the audience kept Neil onstage for a full four hours. “People love to hear about this,” Neil says. “They love to know who is Jewish.”

He might have a point—something of a cottage industry has cropped up around the question of who, exactly, is Jewish. Sandler’s Chanukah Song aside, there’s Guess Who’s the Jew, a website that allows users to, well, guess who’s Jewish. The Chicago Tribune inexplicably maintains a website of celebrity Jews, as does Wikipedia. And the blog Stuff Jewish People Like, which occasionally updates a list of things that really get Jewish people going (Florida! All You Can Eat Buffets!), names Famous Jews as its number one.

Which raises the question: Why? Why are Jews so into knowing who is Jewish? For some, knowing whether a public figure is Jewish can become a strange, inexplicable need, the seed of a thousand Googlings. Maybe it’s because there’s something a little goofy about imagining that hot stud on the television chanting at his Bar Mitzvah, kippah slipping off his head. We do silly things for Judaism sometimes, but so do you, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Neil had as much trouble putting his finger on it as I did. “It’s…inherited,” he said. “We all want to know.” Heebz!, a group that maintains its own Famous Jews website, asserts that Jews are “at the center of every creative, scientific, cultural, political and philosophical endeavor,” and while that might be a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that there is this peculiar “Jewish Mystique.” Maybe it’s because being Jewish occasionally veers into the not-so-cool—the hair, the nose, the books—that famous Jews are so thrilling. Think we’re ugly? Take a look at Natalie Portman. Think we’re wimpy? Challenge Bruce Goldberg to a wrestling match.

Maybe there’s a bit Neil’s self-affirming, red-poloed exhilaration inside all of us. Neil wants to find me a picture of Elvis Presley’s mother’s grave, and his keyboard clacks furiously. “Oh!” he stops. “The creator of Google is Jewish!” And that, I decide, is kind of cool.