Category Archives: Misc

Sticky Fingers’ Sweets and New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

By Monika Wysocki

A self-described “Jew-talian from New York,” Doron Petersan grew up in the land of Jewish delis, bagels, cannoli and knishes. But after assisting with a surgery in a veterinarian’s office and realizing that the flesh of the dog looked just like chicken she had just eaten, Petersan began to look for new ways to cook her favorite foods without using animal products. Her kitchen experiments, combined with courses in food science at the University of Maryland, eventually led to the birth of Washington, DC bakery Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats, and cupcake recipes like the George Caramelin (chocolate cinnamon cupcake, filled with bourbon caramel) that have beat out non-vegan competitors twice on Food Network’s baking competition, “Cupcake Wars.”

In her new cookbook, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, Petersan shares the secrets behind 100 of the bakery’s hugely popular recipes—everything from tiramisu to red velvet cake to key lime pie—and not an egg or an ounce of butter in sight. Moment Magazine sat down with Petersan at the Columbia Heights bakery to find out about her favorite Jewish foods, the cupcakes that made her a celeb chef and the recipes that elude her to this day.

MM: In Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, you call yourself a “Jew-talian from New York.” What was it like growing up there and how important was food to your family?

DP: I grew up in a household that celebrated every type of food. Every single Italian deli or Jewish deli in New York that you walk into, there’s this sort of Italian-Jewish hybrid food where it’s like, pizza, bagels, calzones… It’s just a constant meshing of the two cultures—the Jewish and the Italian food groups. Even though I went to junior high and high school in upstate New York, my family is from Queens, so I would always head over there for every holiday and every family gathering. So, I did grow up eating a lot of Jewish foods, but it was all one to me really. It was just New York food. These days, I would say that I identify with a more Mediterranean style of eating.

MM: If you had to pick just one, what would be your favorite Jewish food?

DP: I would say my all-time favorite is latkes. We made them here at Sticky Fingers this year during Hanukkah, and then during Purim we made apricot hamantaschen, which was really fun. We’re definitely learning how to introduce foods that are not as common in DC and really be able to enjoy making them…and eating them!

MM: What led you to open up a vegan bakery in Washington, DC?

DP: When I first decided to go vegetarian, I went home and ate every single one of my favorite foods in my grandmother’s house—chicken cutlets, meatballs. I just emptied out the fridge and the freezer, because I thought I’d never get to eat them again. But soon I realized that I could still make the flavors I was missing and I really loved. I was taking some food science classes at the University of Maryland and suddenly realized that a lot of the ingredients that came from animal products could easily be tweaked using some food science techniques to come up with the vegan counterparts. I didn’t want to have to suffer or risk not being vegetarian, so that led to the creation of the bakery. Although we started off as a bakery, we quickly realized that people are going to pass out from sugar overdoses, so when we expanded into Columbia Heights, we included a café, so now we have everything from sandwiches to soups, salads, and wraps. But we’re still really known for our vegan baked goods. You can go anywhere and find a veggie burger but you rarely find an egg-free, dairy-free cupcake.

MM: As a two-time winner of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” you’re definitely known for your cupcakes. What do you think is behind the cupcake craze in Washington, DC, New York and across the country?

DP: They’re the perfect little hand-held dessert. They’re the perfect size, just enough to satiate a sugar craving, and they’re inexpensive. We sell more cupcakes than anything else in the store and the chocolate cupcake is our most popular cupcake. But if you had to pick one individual item that we sell the most, it’s a toss-up between our cinnamon sticky bun and our Calvin cookie, which is an oatmeal sandwich cookie filled with frosting.

MM: Do you have a vegan cannoli recipe in the works?

DP: Yeah, I talk about cannoli a lot. My mother’s side of the family is Sicilian and we’re very particular about the flavor of the filling. So I’ve had a lot of cannoli in my life and tried a lot of vegan cannoli, and I have not found the right combination yet, but it’s something I’m actively working on. I promise we’ll get it!

New York Cheesecake Cupcakes

(adapted from Sticky Fingers’ Sweets)

Crust

  • 1.5 cups almond flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 tablespoons non-hydrogenated vegan margarine (recommended: Earth Balance)

Filling

  • 2 cups non-hydrogenated vegan cream cheese softened (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 2 cups vegan sour cream (recommended: Tofutti)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons egg replacer (recommended: Ener-G)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4  teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/4  teaspoon orange zest
  • 1/4  cup all-purpose flour

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line two 12-cup muffin tins.

For the crust:  In a medium bowl, mix together the almond flour, the sugar, and the almond extract. In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the margarine. Add the melted margarine to the sugar mixture and stir to combine. Fill the muffin cups with the two tablespoons of the crust mixture each and press the mixture into the bottom of the muffin cups. Set aside while you make the filling.

Make the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer whip the cream cheese with a paddle attachment until soft, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and add the sour cream and sugar. Cream together the ingredients until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg replacer and water to dissolve the egg replacer. Add the egg replacer to the sugar mixture and mix until incorporated. Add the vanilla, lemon zest, and mix until incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that all the ingredients are mixed together. Add the flour and mix.

Fill the twelve prepared almond-crust cups with the cream cheese filling until the filling reaches the top of the muffin liners. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops begin to brown. Cool completely on a cooling rack. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours to firm the cupcakes before serving.

Hungry? Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats is in Columbia Heights, on Park Road between 13th and 14th streets—and everything in the café is baked on the premises. Sticky Fingers’ baked goods are also available for purchase in the Mid-Atlantic region at natural foods stores and Whole Foods. Have a knack for baking? Petersan’s recipe book, Sticky Fingers’ Sweets, is on sale at the bakery, as well as on her website.

Embracing Rosh Hodesh

By Scott Fox

I love Hanukkah: the presents, wintertime, dreidels, candle lighting. I love all of it. I was born on the fourth day of Hanukkah (28th of Kislev), which makes the holiday particularly special. I lament the beginning of the month of Tevet because it signals the coming end of that special time and the return to normal life. As a semi-celebratory day, Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the new month) seemed just as perfunctory as Tevet. It is a time that is marked but not especially noteworthy.

Two years ago, however, Rosh Hodesh Tevet completely changed my relationship with that time of the year. On that two-day Rosh Hodesh, I lost a woman who shaped my practice of Judaism, and also discovered new women Jewish heroes who would inject Rosh Hodesh with a newfound importance for me.

In December 2009, I went on a winter break program to study modern Israeli literature and religion with students and professors from my college. The best part was being able to spend Hanukkah in Israel. One of the people we spoke to on the trip was Anat Hoffman, executive director of the advocacy group Israel Religious Action Center and the leader of a protest movement called Women of the Wall. She told us about how religious customs function as de facto law in Israel, reducing the rights of women and non-Orthodox Jews.

Women of the Wall organizes groups of women to pray on the women’s side of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh. There, many of the women read Torah and wear kippot, talitot and tefillin, even though the holiest site in Judaism forbids women from praying in any way that could resemble a man. Much of what Hoffman said surprised me—this was not the Israel that I grew up learning about that welcomed all Jews with open arms. To me, the Kotel seemed like a solemn place where all Jews could come together to worship at the spot that united Jews for more than 2,000 years in their longing to return.

With two days left in Israel, I got a call from home—my grandmother had unexpectedly died. It was 30th of Kislev but the news made it feel like time had stopped. Her condition had been deteriorating since the summer. Nevertheless, her death was a shock.

The next day, Hoffman suggested that we attend the next Women of the Wall gathering on the first of Tevet. Like many of the other students, I felt both apprehensive and a bit energized about encountering the situation. I had already been to the Kotel a few times on the trip to respectfully worship. Now, I was returning, in a way, to denounce those who worship there. It almost seemed wrong to disrespect such a holy place, especially since my family was beginning a burial and mourning process that was meant to convey deference to God’s master plan. But somehow it still felt like the right thing to do for her.

My grandma was perhaps the biggest religious force in my family. She insisted on keeping a kosher home and having her children and grandchildren attend Jewish day school because she believed the structure was necessary to keep future generations practicing Judaism.

She was also far from a Lubavitcher rebbe. She was a sophisticated, ardent liberal who lived in a secular world. She was continually abreast with the latest political developments or art exhibits. While embracing the structure of Jewish tradition, she could also be very combative toward anything she did not approve of. She always fought for what she believed. As a Conservative Jew, she believed that all Jews had the right to practice religion as they desired. At her funeral, the rabbi of the synagogue praised her for doing something rare today: raising a family committed to observance of Jewish tradition while avoiding any sort of fanaticism.

That Friday morning, the first of Tevet, a cold, relentless rain fell on Jerusalem. We were already soaked as our group walked up the hills into the Old City. The women in our group went into the women’s section and joined a larger group under a colorful array of umbrellas that hid a Torah underneath.

Although it was too wet for the women to read from the Torah that morning, Orthodox men on the other side were still outraged by their presence and began yelling “Asur” (“forbidden”), throwing things at them and calling them transvestites and other derogatory words. Shockingly, this seems tame compared to what recently happened to an eight-year old girl.

Ultra-Orthodox men are forbidden from hearing women sing, especially while praying, because it will be a distraction to their religious devotion. That day it was the opposite. The men were so disruptive that I was unable to focus on praying for my grandmother over on the men’s side. Police separated the enraged men from the women who did their best to drown out all of the haranguing directed at them. I still cannot believe what I witnessed in what seemed like such a hallowed place—my grandmother would have been outraged. Supporting Women of the Wall was my way of continuing my family’s tradition.

This year, Rosh Hodesh Tevet fell on my birthday, meaning that I would honor my grandmother by saying Kaddish as I began a new year of my life. It’s easy to celebrate a new year but celebrating a new month was more difficult for me to understand until I encountered Women of the Wall demonstrating the true spirit of Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh is meant to be a shake-up from the laws of the status quo in hopes of provoking a more righteous month to come.

Little Jewish School on the Prairie

By Scott Fox

A girls’ high school catering to Orthodox Jews in the little town of Bricelyn, Minnesota, population 340.  Sounds crazy, no? On the surface, The Minnesota Girls Academy (MGA) seems unusual for several reasons, which could be a reason for its lack of success. The school opened in 2009, but was forced to shut down earlier this year after running out of money to operate. Yet it is a needed resource for a community that is sometimes unnoticed.

People sometimes assume that due to their devout nature, teens in Orthodox Jewish communities in places like Borough Park, Brooklyn, do not succumb to self-destructive behavior like abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting themselves, or  suffering from eating disorders. Teens facing emotional and/or behavioral challenges, also known as at-risk teenagers, are not only just as prevalent in Orthodox communities but have become a growing problem there recent years. A  New York Times article from April featured rabbinic leaders confronting a growing of number of teenage girls in their community dealing with eating disorders.

MGA, also known as the Miryam Ghermezian Academy, was devoted to putting the lives of at-risk teenage girls on the right track. Its student body was entirely composed of girls from Orthodox communities in the U.S., U.K. and Israel. The school was the first Jewish-run therapeutic boarding school in the U.S.

“In the non-Jewish world, there have been programs running for troubled teens for a long time,” Rabbi A.Y. Weinberg, founder and director of the school, explained. “That left a need for Jewish troubled teens that are searching for some sort of spirituality, which they will not get in a non-Jewish program.”

Going back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there have been Jewish groups, such as local Jewish Family Service organizations across the country, devoted to helping troubled children. However, there had not been a year-round Jewish therapeutic boarding school before MGA.

Why Bricelyn? Weinberg was surprisingly nonchalant in discussing the seemingly unlikely selection of a town 90 miles from the nearest Jewish community (Rochester).

“We came across a vacant public high school with the right price and right location,” he said. “Rural Minnesota is not a problem. Twin Cities Poultry distributes kosher meat and products throughout the Midwest.”

One factor that likely helped Weinberg pick Minnesota was that the company run by the school’s largest benefactor, Don Ghermezian, helped create and currently owns the Mall of America in the suburbs of Minneapolis. MGA has used the Mall of America for fundraising and to educate the girls on life skills and professional experiences. Weinberg also said it is not uncommon for therapeutic boarding schools to be placed in remote areas.

Bricelyn turned out to be a welcoming community for the Jewish educational center that took over the community’s old public school (Bricelyn has become too small for its own school; the nearest public school is in nearby Wells). The local school district helped set up an online-based program for the girls to take classes in English subjects. and has also employed several local residents as dorm staff and cooks. Many of the town’s residents attended the school’s dedication ceremony in 2009 to show their support. Students were also involved in the community by volunteering at local hospitals, schools, and senior centers.

After 19 years spent serving as Midwest Regional Director of National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), an Orthodox teen group, Weinberg founded MGA’s parent program, Project Extreme, in 2001 when he saw an unfulfilled need in his community for the teens that required the most help. Project Extreme began as a summer camp that took Orthodox Jewish boys and girls whose behavior was alienating themselves from their loved ones and community out to the Canadian Rockies. The program, based out of Long Island, soon introduced weekend and holiday retreats in upstate New York, character-building “Nights on the Town”, and a helpline to provide year-round service.

Starting a full-time school was the next logical extension of the program’s reach. Advertising itself as “kosher, therapeutic, residential setting,” the school opened its doors in 2009 as a year-round facility with a student body of 15. It closed last September.  For now, the school is on hold until a source of outside funding can be discovered.

One could argue that the school’s downfall was its extensive commitment to its students. MGA had ten staff members for its 15 students. Each student’s individualized treatment was overseen by a clinician, program director, assistant program director, program nurse and academic administrator. According to Weinberg, the cost of caring for each student is $75,000 a year. Since each student’s parents are required to only pay what they can afford, much of that $75,000 for each student needs to come from fundraising. Weinberg has so far explored several avenues, including state and federal governments, in search of funding, with no luck.

While it was open, the school was able to attract girls primarily through word-of-mouth in Orthodox communities. Though Project Extreme’s programs are run by Orthodox Jews, separated by gender, and have a solely Orthodox clientele, the program is open to teenagers from all backgrounds and hopes to attract Jews from other denominations in the future. Students at MGA were not required to adopt an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle beyond keeping kashrut and observing Shabbat.

One especially helpful aspect of MGA and Project Extreme is their requirement that all of its staff sign a social contract stating that they will maintain contact with each teen that they work with into adulthood.

“It’s a necessity,” Weinberg explained. “If you run a program, the impact needs to last. If we follow up, the impact lasts or we send them to another program where they need to go to. We need to be there to pick up the pieces when they slip. There’s nothing like helping (these kids). You’re basically saving their life.”

What Does Kosher Mean Today?

By Scott Fox

Food is perhaps one of the “greyest” aspects of Jewish life today. The Torah instructs us to abstain from ritually impure foods—but what does this mean in the 21st century?

One could argue that keeping kosher is both easier and more difficult than ever before. Today, between one-third and one-half of food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, an astronomical increase since previous decades. It may seem surprising that so many companies pay for kosher certification (Orthodox Union, the blue label of hekhshers requires fees between $4,000 and $10,000) since observant Jews make up such a small portion of the consumer market, but others like Muslims, vegetarians and those concerned with food allergies are also buying into the kosher market for different reasons.

“It’s easier now than ever before to keep kosher,” says Rabbi Alexander Davis, senior rabbi of Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. “It’s really just a question of choices. You can find practically any ingredient with a hekhsher today.”

But in a society with greater choices, many Jews no longer cling to traditional dietary rituals. This can be seen particularly in the Conservative movement, where many believe fewer Jews keep kosher than ever before. Davis infers that earlier generations of Jews were willing to do more to keep kosher, citing a congregant’s parent who grew up in North Dakota and traveled across state lines once a month in order to purchase kosher meat. But Davis estimates that only 20 percent of his congregation keeps strictly kosher in their homes today. And according to the most recent National Jewish Population survey in 2000, only 30 percent of Jews maintain kosher homes.

As an observant Convservative Jew, keeping kosher has often felt like the most essential part of my Jewish identity, probably because it requires the most continual focus. I feel like I can skip going to shul for Shabbat, but not skip out of kashrut for a lobster roll. Going to college 40 miles away from the nearest provider of kosher meat, I’ve become primarily a vegetarian in order to keep up my religious obligation. Of course, by kashrut, I mean my own internal conception of keeping kosher. That includes not asking if certain restaurant dishes contain meat and assuming that what looks like dairy is dairy. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss. I also tend to rationalize eating products without a hekhsher by looking through a food item’s ingredient list and assuring myself that none of them sound like they contain treif even if that’s not really the case. In some ways, kosher is more of a mindset that makes me feel okay about what I eat.

Cost is another factor. As food prices rise and incomes lower from years of economic turmoil, many feel that being kosher is too expensive. The price of kosher food is typically more expensive than regular food, as is buying two sets of dishes and silverware. The price difference is particularly true in communities that don’t have easy access to kosher products. Aaron Rubenstein, rabbi of Beth Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Memphis, said the high cost was definitely a reason for people to avoid keeping strictly kosher homes.

“Some people might be willing to go vegetarian to keep kosher [on a budget],” says Rubenstein. “But for others, it is hard for them to part from meat in their diet. Some people feel that they’re being price gouged and think they should not be buying into the system because someone is taking advantage of their need for Passover food or kosher meat.”

Hazon, a leading Jewish food organization, is helping to make kosher food an affordable option. The group sponsors community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the United States, Canada and Israel. Hazon’s programs provide access to healthy, local produce to connect clients with their Jewish communities. Jewish food banks have also helped those unable to afford food. But those endeavors cannot solve the entire cost problem of kosher food.

But kashrut is about more than just food. Many feel that food is not kosher if the workers, animals or environment are mistreated in the process, even if the food meets all halachic standards. Many became aware of the terrible conditions in slaughterhouses after newspaper articles and a federal government raid exposed Agriprocessors, the largest producer of kosher meat, violating many labor laws, including the use of undocumented immigrants and child labor. Until the federal government raided their plant in Iowa in 2008, about half of the country’s kosher meat came from Agriprocessors. Since the company was forced to restructure after the scandal, their meat prices have risen even further.

The shame of Agriprocessors led the Conservative movement to sponsor the implementation of a hekhsher tzedek. Rubenstein calls the new certification more of an “ethical good housekeeping seal” than an actual determination of whether a product is halachically kosher or not.

But will our generation of Jews continue to keep up this somewhat idealistic obligation that is kashrut as they move through adulthood? Davis is optimistic. “There’s a greater awareness among that generation of the role food plays in our lives,” he says. “I think and hope that, as a Jewish expression of our identity and ideals, eating with consciousness would be more attractive than ever.”

The Rise of Jews in the True North

By Scott Fox

Last week, Canada’s Consul General came to talk at my school (Carleton College in Minnesota) about the importance of the United States’ relationship with Canada. But what actually came across was a recruitment speech for joining our Northern neighbor. To tell the truth, I was nearly convinced as he mentioned the country’s comparatively low national unemployment (around six percent), government-provided healthcare for all and its drive for new immigrants.

I’m not the only American looking to Canada for a brighter future. In 2007, the number of American citizens moving to Canada reached its highest rate in 30 years—and the numbers have only been climbing since.

But what does Canada offer Jews? If you’re a Canada-curious American Jew thinking of heading North, don’t worry aboot the lack of Canadian yiddishkeit. Even though they’re usually overlooked, Canadian Jews have a rich culture and history in North America just like their American counterparts. In fact, Canada is home to the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, only standing behind the United States, Israel and France.

Around 375,000 Jews live in Canada—just over one percent of the national population—and are concentrated in the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas. And according to writer Jonathan Rosenblum, 74 percent of Canadian Jews have visited Israel—twice the rate of American Jews.

Canadian Jews experienced a somewhat parallel history as their American counterparts. Jews first came to Canada in large numbers between 1880 and 1930 from Eastern Europe. Most settled in Montreal, but rising Jewish immigration also led to rising anti-Semitism. The city’s French Catholic leadership supported discrimination against Jews in housing and employment, and a homegrown French Nazi movement also flourished in the 1930s. However, after World War II, anti-Semitism declined, and during the Quebec separatist movement of the 1970s, most Jews left for Toronto due to their strong opposition to the movement.

In the realm of entertainment, Jews have been as prolific in Canada as in the United States. Recording artist and actor Drake, one of Canada’s biggest stars, identifies as Jewish, attended Jewish day school and had a bar mitzvah. “My mother is Jewish and we have great Jewish dinners on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he says.

The most popular sitcom in Canadian history was “King of Kensington,” which starred the late Al Waxman, who was born in Toronto to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Leonard Cohen, whose grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the Canuck answer to Bob Dylan. And of course the greatest Canadian entertainer of all is Jewish William Shatner.

And much of what we consider American-Jewish humor is actually Canadian-Jewish. Lome Michaels, Eugene Levy and Seth Rogen are among other funny makers who grew up in Canada. Rogen, whose parents met at an Israeli kibbutz, was born in Vancouver and got his start by performing stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs. His early jokes usually revolved around his Jewish upbringing. His hit film, Superbad, was co-written with Evan Goldberg, a friend Rogen met in bar mitzvah class. In another movie, Funny People, Rogen even wears a “Super Jew” t-shirt that has the Superman “S” inside a Star of David. Canadian literature also has its own major Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, a foulmouthed version of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth wrapped into Tim Horton’s pancake.

Becoming Canadian wouldn’t even mean shifting your taste buds that much. Like American Jews, Canadian Jews love deli food, but with French-inspired touches. Montreal-style bagels are smaller, sweeter, denser and have a larger hole than traditional New York bagels. Deli meat is also smoked Montreal-style with less sugar and more peppercorns and coriander than American salted, cured meats.

Hearing about the exciting world of Canadian Jewry almost makes me want to say, “Next year in Mississauga!” But I don’t think I can handle the Montreal-style bagel.

“Ex-Gays”: Not Just for Christians

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday, people gathered outside Barnes & Noble in El Paso, TX to protest a book signing by Pastor Tom Brown, a local clergyman who gained notoriety during the midterm election for organizing a ballot initiative that stripped health benefits from unmarried partners of city employees. He was promoting his new book Breaking Curses, Experiencing Healing, a guide to healing depression, fear, anxiety, anger and homosexuality through the Christian faith. In an interview with El Paso Times, Brown referred to the last point, claiming that “through a step-by-step process of cleanliness” one can rid oneself of these unwanted feelings and “find healing through Christ.” Outside, 12 protestors from the LGBT-rights group El Paso for Equality waved signs reading “Homosexuality is not an illness” and “Keep sex and religion in the bedroom.” Drivers of passing cars honked in support.

Brown said he was surprised by the negative reaction he received from the LGBT community and their allies. “Once people read the two chapters that deal with homosexuality in my book, they will see that there is not a word of hatred in there,” he said. “It’s all about understanding those who struggle with the same-sex issue and how to find healing through Christ. For those marchers, I would first challenge them to read the book before making a prejudgment.” In an interview with NBC El Paso, Brown said that he is not attempting to single out the LGBT community – despite his book and his contributions to the controversial ballot measure – but is doing his job as a minister to “spread the word.”

“He takes the teachings from the Bible and misconstrues them,” El Paso for Equality member Daniel Rollings told El Paso Times. “I’m openly gay and a Christian myself, and Christ does not teach hate. Tom Brown uses the Old Testament verse and Jewish cleanliness laws to make things about how one can be healed of homosexuality.” This statement should give members of the Jewish community pause, as it implies that prohibitions against homosexuality are halakhic territory. When looking at the compiled Jewish and Christian Bibles we find three specific passages that refer to the forbidden nature of same-sex relations, one in Leviticus (18:22) and two in the New Testament (Romans 1:26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9-10, both Pauline letters to early Christian communities). The weight of prohibitions is spaced across the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  Some have construed other passages as referring to homosexuality – such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis – yet these contain oblique, rather than explicit, references.

The rhetoric concerning the “healing” of homosexuals is largely Christian. Organizations like Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the American Family Association are a tangible presence within national debate. This raises the question: Are there Jewish groups with a similar “pro-family” agenda? Are community leaders like Tom Brown exclusively a Christian phenomenon?

In 1998, two Jewish couples in New Jersey founded an organization called Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH). According to their website, they “[believe] that homosexuality is a learned behavior and that anyone can choose to disengage from their same-sex sexual fantasies, arousals, behavior and identity – if motivated and supported in that process.” This past year they debuted a new logo to reflect an “increased professionalism,” expanded services, and growing staff made necessary by high demand for their services.

Although there have been voices from within the Orthodox community who have expressed opposition to LGBT rights–take the rabbis who opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–JONAH is unique in its organization and its alignment with ex-gay Christian organizations. According to a July 2010 press release from Truth Wins Out–a group for LGBT individuals who have experienced ex-gay therapy–one of JONAH’s therapists, Alan Downing, who also worked for the ex-gay organization People Can Change, was accused of sexually harassing his male clients.

Where was our indignation when this case was brought to national attention? It is easy to lose sight of these conservative constituencies within the Jewish community; we populate the most liberal cities in America and boast a large, progressive presence on national media and within the blogosphere. It is tempting to dismiss people like Tom Brown as a Christian problem. Yet–quietly–organizations like JONAH have a real impact on LGBT members of the Jewish community. It’s time we take notice.

For Refugees, a Modern Exodus

By Adam Chandler

Before escaping to Israel in 2003, Ephraim lived in a camp with 15,000 other Eritreans. Like a growing number of refugees from Eritrea as well as the Congo, Darfur, and Southern Sudan, Ephraim set off to evade the lethal farrago of political unrest, genocide, and deprivation that has come to typify the drought-laden portions of Eastern Africa. He left when he was 19, some seven years ago, a decision he says he made “to preserve life.”

The trek itself was a life-risking gambit. He paid smugglers to take him north through a maze of menace filled with unceasing obstacles. Those who don’t die of fatigue, starvation, or dehydration on the way must make it through the Sinai Desert where an Egyptian policy of shoot-on-sight claims dozens of lives yearly. Women making the journey are frequently raped, sometimes by their handlers, and refugees often face financial extortion by a cast of profiteers.

Once the refugees enter Israel, they begin the daunting task of acculturating to life in a new country, looking for jobs and shelter. Some of the women who arrive widowed or pregnant with the children of their assailants end up sleeping in places like Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv’s seedy Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. This is often where Nic Schlagman  finds them.

Schlagman, 30, first became aware of the community of African refugees simply by walking through the neighborhood surrounding Tel Aviv’s decrepit Central Bus Station. Separate from Tel Aviv’s beach scenes and chic Bauhaus buildings, South Tel Aviv is home base for an ingathering of migrant workers from far-flung countries and exiles who come to Israel to work or start a new life. Israel, a Westernized country boasting a strong economy, has become a prime destination for both.

According to government statistics, there are more than 215,000 foreign workers in Israel, just under half of them working without a legal permit. Schlagman estimates the population of African refugees living in Israel numbers around 25,000. But beyond the hope for work and stability, Schlagman believes the appeal of life in Israel has a deeper resonance for refugees like Ephraim.

“It all began with the Seder.” Schlagman says.

Struck by the narrative of the migrant community in Tel Aviv, Schlagman began working with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) to provide food, shelter, and cultural immersion assistance for African refugees in Israel. On a spring day in 2009, some of the volunteers were talking about their plans for the Jewish holiday of Passover. The refugees were familiar with the story of Moses leaving Egypt, but were curious about the Passover ritual of the Seder, a ceremonial recounting of the exodus into the Promised Land.

“As we were explaining the festival, it occurred to me that this wasn’t just our story, this was really their story. They literally, in many cases, walked through Egypt crossing the Sinai to flee oppression, hoping to find freedom. We had this idea that we would try to create this Seder together.”

The Seder was held in Levinsky Park and drew 1,000 people, an even split between refugees, curious Israelis, and a melange of contributing community activists and volunteers. The pastor from a refugee church brought in a choir to sing traditional Passover songs with a choir from a nearby Jewish seminary. The event, which aimed to bring about a broader consciousness regarding the refugees, combined the normal order of the Seder with the opportunity for Africans and Israelis to explore parallels between their stories.

Despite the commonalities in narrative, Israel’s policy regarding the refugees is a confusing one. After their status as asylum-seekers is determined, refugees are granted “temporary protection,” which ensures that they are not arrested or deported for three months. At the end of three months, a rubber stamp re-extends their stay another three months. Throughout these periods, refugees are not issued work permits. While the Israeli government doesn’t prosecute employers for hiring illegal labor, the refugees are frequently resigned to working menial jobs without the inherent protections that a work permit provides.

The debate about the refugees inspires much theater. Right-wing Israeli politicians label the refugees anything from infiltrators and security threats to the xenophobic extreme. As Israel faces a demographic problem vis-a-vis its Jewish character, even the idea of naturalizing a relatively small non-Jewish community remains politically unpopular across the spectrum. Calls from the largely-marginalized Israeli left wing argue that Israel was founded as an asylum for those fleeing oppression and genocide, but go largely unheard. Schlagman adds:

“It begs the question, what was the point of coming here? If this land doesn’t allow us to flower from the experiences of our history as wanderers for 2000 years, then what have we learned?”

In the meantime, activists like Schlagman and volunteer groups like the ARDC go about their work. Grassroots efforts have given some refugees a safety net to acclimate to life in the country. And while in limbo, refugees manage a precarious life. Some find better work and even open small businesses. For four years, Ephraim’s family didn’t know where he was. He now works a sanitation job from the early evening until five in the morning. He then goes to class on two hours’ rest and tries to stay awake. Ephraim, who secured a large scholarship at an Israeli university, has found a poetic topic of study: government.  When asked about his long-term plans in Israel or abroad with his family, he explains he doesn’t have any.

“I don’t have time to think about that.”