Monthly Archives: March 2011

Loving Israel The Right (Or Left) Way

By Amanda Walgrove

Last week, Sarah Palin visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of Israel’s right-wing coalition, including Likud Chairman, Danny Danon. Many have questioned whether or not this was an early campaign move; many GOP members who may throw their hats into the Presidential ring—Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Haley Barbour—have recently made visits to Israel as well. “It’s not the Ames straw poll, but I do think a visit to Israel is an important stop for folks who are running for president,” Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matthew Brooks told Politico. “So much of what our commander-in-chief will deal with in the White House is rooted in this part of the world.” Besides being a shiny credential on the checklist for candidacy, Palin’s visit also serves to put another face to the name of what has become an increasingly conservative stance on what it means to be “pro-Israel.”

Tea Partiers have been split between what Walter Russell Mead has deemed the “Palinite” and “Paulite” approaches to foreign policy. The “proactive” tactics Palin  endorses call for maintaining a tight alliance with Israel. Garnering significantly less support from the GOP is Ron Paul’s “passive” approach, which suggests that America distance itself from the Israeli-Palestine conflict and avoid supporting one over the other. Speaking out about the need to condemn Palestine for attacks on Israel, Republican House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, responded to the recent bombing in Jerusalem by saying, “The White House must do more to tamp down anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian territories. That’s why I support bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate that call on the White House to put an end to anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian territories.” But how has the median Jewish American constituency reacted, considering the latest tragedies that Israel has faced?

Dominating the American Jewish landscape, the right-leaning AIPAC fully supports the policies of any Israeli government, including the current one, stating on its website, “AIPAC works to secure vital U.S. foreign aid for Israel to help ensure Israel remains strong and secure.” Jeremy Ben-Ami, creator of the three-year-old J Street, felt that this conservative domination left a gap for American Jews who wanted to commune and raise money for a more peaceful solution to conflicts between Israel and Palestine. While a tagline of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” has a positive ring to it, the controversy lies in the idea that Palestine should not be reprimanded for attacks on Israel, but rather, they must be persuaded to make a peace agreement. For supporters of J Street, questions arise such as: Is someone anti-Israel if he or she believes that the Palestinians deserve the same rights as the Jews? Can someone be pro-Israel without fully supporting the Israeli government’s decisions?

Israeli lawmakers held a hearing on Wednesday to decide the answers to these questions, discerning what role Jews living outside the country should have in Israeli policymaking. A recent poll showed that only 14% of Israelis had ever heard of J Street and only 19% believed that the American Jewish community should provide unconditional support for Israeli politics. However, right-wing Israeli politicians, believing America’s support to be crucial, think that J Street verges upon  treason by not backing the decisions of the Israeli government. Lawmaker Otniel Schneller, a member of the centrist Kadima party, said at the hearing, “J Street is not a Zionist organization. It cannot be pro-Israel,” suggesting that J Street’s display of love for Israel “has strings attached.”  While extreme critics of J Street have labeled the lobby group “anti-Israel,” Danon said he would call for a committee vote to have J Street labeled a pro-Palestinian rather than a pro-Israeli group, a move Ben-Ami said could compromise J Street’s appeal in the United States.

Without having to label any group or belief as the “anti,” it’s easy to see that there are different definitions of what people consider to be “pro-Israel.” After the recent brutal murder of the Fogel family in Israel, representatives from the left and right sent letters to President Obama, advising him on how to stand with Israel in the conflict with Palestine. Obama’s dedication to the “Pro-Peace” sentiment is supported by J Street and its passionate followers, but remains  neglected by Netanyahu’s administration. Meanwhile, Republicans have been accusing Obama of taking a weak stance in supporting Israel, especially after his reluctance to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy.

Ahead of Palin’s visit to Israel last week, an Obama official reportedly joked that the Netanyahu was “waiting for President Palin.” But preoccupation with American campaign strategies, lobbyists, and party lines seems increasingly distracting during a time of violent unrest in the Middle East. The real problem is that powerful stances on foreign policy are becoming dangerously polarized, to a point where disingenuous jabs will be made from each side.  AIPAC was recently condemned for using the recent bombing in Jerusalem in its fund-raising and J Street has been accused of criticizing other organizations in order to promote a more leftist standing. Instead of figuring out who is centrist, hypocritical, leftist, or conservative, the focus should be put back on a practical strategy for the safety of Israeli citizens and the ways in which America can use its resources to help.

All Converts Go To Heaven: The Case of Elizabeth Taylor

By Steven Philp

On April 6, 1959 Time Magazine reported the birth “of the most famous and perhaps most beautiful baby,” a Jewish girl named Elishaba Rachel Taylor. The prior week marked the conversion—or “birth”—of the 27-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to the Jewish faith, following six months of study under the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA. Over fifty years later, we mourn the passing of a screen legend, AIDS activist, and proud member of our faith community. Or do we? In an article posted on the Jewish-interest blog Jewlicious, Taylor’s commitment to her faith is skimmed over in favor of details about her multiple marriages and celebrity rabbi. The article ends, “Rest in peace Liz, and when you get to Kaballah [sic] Center heaven, say hi to Marilyn and Sammy.”

The reference to the center is a jab at Taylor’s faith.  The Kabbalah Centre—located near the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles, CA—has been embroiled in controversy since its genesis in 1965. Attracting A-list celebrities like Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, the center is at best tolerated as an idiosyncratic take on Jewish mysticism and at worst—as detailed in a BBC article from 2005—“an opportunist offshoot of the faith with charismatic leaders who try to attract the rich and the vulnerable with the promise of health, wealth and happiness.” To be associated with the Centre is to have the authenticity of your Jewish faith questioned, if not dismissed entirely.

The irony of the Jewlicious article is that Taylor’s association with the Kabbalah Centre is not well-documented. In a survey of Taylor’s commitment to the Jewish faith, an article posted to CNN claims that “Taylor had been a supporter of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles.” Yet the Jewish Journal obituary it cites as the source for this information contains no mention of her involvement, or Jewish mysticism. What it does detail is a lifetime of service to the Jewish community—through her support of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, her participation in the 1981 documentary “Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust,” and her Israel activism—that shows a deep commitment to her adopted faith.

The Jewlicious article reveals a common bias against the Jewish convert, pegging them as somehow less authentic than those born in to our community. The idea of a “Kaballah Center heaven”—home to those A-list celebrities who pandered with Judaism—may have been intended as a light-hearted joke, and perhaps struck some readers as humorous, but it reinforces the stereotype that the Jew-by-Choice can never truly be genuine to the faith. Yet Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor—each having converted before the foundation of the Kabbalah Centre—all demonstrated indisputable chutzpah in their faith commitment. In an article written by Time shortly after Davis’ conversion, he is quoted as saying:

I wanted to become part of a 5,000-year history and hold onto something not just material, which would give me that inner strength to turn the other cheek. Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression, and I wanted to become part of that strength. As a Negro, I felt emotionally tied to Judaism. Certainly the background of my people and their history cannot be compared to that of Judaism, but the same oppression and obstacles thrown in our way were overcome by a greater force than mere tenacity…I wanted to become a Jew because Judaism held an honesty and spiritual peace that was lacking in my personal makeup.

Similarly, the decision to convert for Taylor—according to Time—was “no sudden shift.” Nor did she abandon her faith commitments after conversion, devoting her time and money to supporting Israel, fighting against AIDS, and advocating for equal rights for the LGBT community. Elizabeth Taylor is not destined for “Kaballah Center heaven.” She has a spot reserved next to all other great Jews, born or by choice.

Reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

by Symi Rom-Rymer

One hundred years ago today, 146 immigrant women, primarily Jewish and Italian, died while trying to escape a fire that raged through the upper floors of the sweatshop where they worked. In closed-off rooms full of highly flammable scrape of fabric and swirls of cigarette smoke, anything could have set off the blaze; its cause has never been determined.

As we commemorate those who lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire this week, the tragic aspects often stand out the most: the avoidable deaths, the destitute families left behind and the seemingly heartless factory owners. It is especially chilling to remember that the factory owners themselves were Jewish and had helped to bring over many of the women who were killed in the fire.  They apparently cared enough about their fellow Jews to help them come to America, but not enough to secure their safety once they arrived.

But there were also more positive consequences, which are discussed less frequently. Many key aspects of our social safety net, however imperfect it may be, from building safety regulations to collective bargaining rights to social security, can trace their origins to the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One of the most prominent examples of those who drew lasting lessons from the devastation was Frances Perkins, who later became the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While visiting a friend in Greenwich Village only a few streets away from the factory on the 25th of March, she and her friend heard the fire trucks and the screams of those trapped in the building.  As they stood on the pavement in front of the factory that day, they could do nothing but watch the women jump to their death.  It was a pivotal moment in Perkins’ life and a catalyst for the reforms that she would help to bring about under the FDR administration.  As labor secretary 22 years later, she helped to create social security, unemployment insurance, and legislation on bargaining rights, all institutions that many of us today take for granted.  As  Hilda Solis, the current US secretary of labor, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed reflecting on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and its consequences, “Perkins clearly had the Triangle victims in mind as she weaved the nation’s social safety net.”

But much of the work that went into ameliorating the situation for immigrant garment workers, and others, after the fire came from within the Jewish community, not from national legislators. Even prior to 1911, Jewish activists had pushed for changes to sweatshop working conditions.  Many women played an important role in the reforms, among them the 23-year-old Claire Lemlich, who helped to launch the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 that brought about a massive strike in New York’s garment district.

Following the fire, the Jewish labor unions agitated for greater protection for those whom the larger American society had largely ignored: its immigrant laborers and, specifically, its Jewish immigrant laborers.   Because these unions did not let the fire or its causes recede from the public’s mind, they also played a important role in universalizing the experience of immigrants in America and forever changed how non-Jewish Americans saw their Jewish neighbors.  As Richard Greenwald, author of The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York, explained in a recent article in the Forward, “The Triangle fire turned what was considered “a Jewish problem” into a national symbol of reform, and helped move Jews from the margins of society into the mainstream…It seemed to instantly become a national symbol of the dangers of unregulated workplaces and unprotected workers. It was no longer just a Jewish or an immigrant issue. It was an American problem now.”

So where are we today?  Judging from the heated debate in Wisconsin over collective bargaining and the traumatic stories from Hispanic and Asian immigrants forced to work in sweatshops in terrible conditions, the legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is far from secure.  A century may feel like a long time, but many of the same struggles remain.  Here, on the cusp of the next 100 years, let’s hope that we can continue to absorb and remember the lessons of the past as we move forward towards the future.

Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

by Amanda Walgrove

Chinese and Jewish cultures are among the oldest remaining civilizations in the world. Besides the spiritual divide, both cultures highly value family life and educational pursuits, and although both have absorbed various other cultures, their central foundations remain strong. As developments in the Middle East have begun to change the landscape of Israel’s international relationships, China has become a central player for it. While China’s attitude towards Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are worrisome, efforts are still being made to boost tourism, trade, and communicative cooperation between Israel and China. Most recently, on March 2, visiting Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming met with Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu with intentions of enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Although Sino-Israeli relations were first officially established as late as 1992, China’s history with people of the Jewish faith dates back to the eighth century.

Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center and Dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, has developed a recent project, Jews in China: Legends, History, and New Perspectives, which outlines the history of Jewish and Chinese relations, beginning with the four waves of Jewish immigration to China. As early as the eighth century, Jews from the Middle East traveled over the Silk Road to Kaifeng and formed a Kaifeng Jewish Community during the Song Dynasty. Many became government officials, doctors, clergymen, and businessmen. They assimilated into Chinese culture, learned the language, and began to intermarry.

While in China, Jews established a Chinese style synagogue in Kaifeng, influenced by Confucianism but modeled after Jerusalem synagogues. Jews had their own clubs, hospitals, cemeteries, and volunteer corps. Russian Jews had a fur bank in Shanghai, and opened the “Siberian Fur Store.” They founded over fifty newspapers that ran in over eight languages, such as the Israel Messenger (founded in 1904) and the Gelbe Post. The Kadoorie family opened a school for refugee children, free of charge, where many first learned to speak English. Mordechai Olmert, father of the former prime minister of Israel, grew up in Harbin. Most notoriously, China opened its doors to over 30,000 of refugees fleeing from the German occupation after 1938.

Not only did Chinese and Jewish cultures share certain core values, but they were also both subject to political persecution. After thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. Chinese were sympathetic towards anti-Semitic suffering. In his lecture, Guang noted that while prejudice may be imported, there has never been any native anti-Semitism on China’s soil. At the core, Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but they remain accepting of other spiritual aspirations. On a stone monument erected in 1489, Kaifeng Jews wrote: “Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends.” In turn, Jews in China supported the Chinese national-democratic movement against Japanese aggression and many began working with the Chinese Underground. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen famously acted as aide-de camp to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

Considering themselves, “old China hands,” Chinese Jews now live throughout the world and often return to their Chinese roots to visit old friends. Many have invested in business enterprises and taken advantage of their former home’s new upsurge of development. The commercially successful Shanghai Diamond Exchange Center, for example, was the brainchild of refugee, Shaul Eisenberg. But how do these amiable cultural assimilations tie in with current relations with Israel? Representative of the Schusterman Foundation and Project Interchange believe that by establishing and expanding Israel-related scholarship in China will create opportunities for deepened cultural ties and mutual appreciation between the Chinese and Jewish people, as well as an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. writes, “Despite interest in Jewish culture, Middle East policy and even Hebrew language, few Chinese scholars have ever traveled to Israel, and Israel is rarely…the explicit subject of scholarly research.”

Today, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, contains only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (Guang argues that newspapers underreport the number at 3,000, excluding those that do not attend synagogue). While many Jews were pressured to leave China during the Cultural Revolution, the impact shared between the two communities stands strong today. Culturally, Jews in China became an academic hot topic during the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently extended to mass media. There is a wealth of Jewish how-to literature as well as a fascination with the Jewish mystique. Some Kaifeng Jews still follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut. Jordan Maseng, a native New Yorker working in China, recently opened up his own bagel shop in Beijing. Guang noted that there are over forty documentaries about Jewish relations in China but a narrative film has yet to be made. With a mixture of jest and sincerity, Guang admitted that he has many ideas but none of them seem good enough, rather adding the assertion, “We want a movie like Schindler’s List.”  Until that happens, Chinese Jews will continue to slowly contribute to the culture, while the rest of the Jewish population indulges in Chinese food.

Kafka’s Jewish Ghosts

By Kayla Green

Franz Kafka is truly representative of three distinct cultures. He was raised in the Czech Republic—a fact that Czech nationalists and aficionados will never let one forget—and is used as a symbol of pride for the Czech Republic. However, his writing, the source of his fame, is in German, a reality that speaks to his family’s loyalty during the Austro-Hungarian era in which he was raised. Finally, Kafka was Jewish, something that continued to inspire and influence his work all throughout the course of his life. Knowledge of Kafka’s Judaism, as well as his relationship and feelings towards Judaism had an important influence on his renowned texts.

In a letter, Kafka once defined himself as a “typical example of a Western Jew,” later stating, “This means that I don’t have a moment of peace, that nothing comes easily to me, not just the present and the future, but even the past, that thing that each man receives as his birthright: even that I have to conquer, and perhaps that is the hardest task.” His frustration and morbidity—features now defined as “Kafkaesque”—clearly relate to the internal struggle he had with his Jewish identity.

One potential source of Kafka’s trouble with his Jewish identity was his unstable relationship with his father, Hermann Kafka. The writer referred to him as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, and knowledge of human nature.” He summed up his dissatisfaction and resentment towards his father in a letter to him, in which he wrote, “I found equally little means of escape from you in Judaism.” It was Hermann who originally had a problem with his Jewish identity; having escaped a poor Jewish upbringing in the town of Wossek, about fifty miles southwest of Prague, he decided to fully assimilate, register as a Czech national and give his children German, not Jewish names.  This identity struggle, both with his family and his religion was a source of inspiration and frustration for Kafka over the course of his life.

Fortunately, Kafka expressed his Jewish identity in many positive ways, most famously through Yiddish theatre, which he was drawn to after a traveling troupe settled in Prague in late 1911.  He would sit transfixed by plays and write about them extensively in his diary.  Eventually, he developed a friendship with actor Jizchak Löwy, a Polish Jew who educated him about Jewish life in Poland and Jewish poetry.

In this light, it is clear that much of the sorrow, pain and misunderstanding Kafka represents have roots in his Judaism. Many scholars speculate that some of his works are allegories for larger Jewish issues: The Metamorphosis, for example, may be symbolic of the Jewish Diaspora. Symbolism and allegory aside, it is imperative to have a knowledge to Kafka’s Jewish identity to understand him as a writer and intellectual. In the words of writer and critic Harold Bloom, “despite all his denials and beautiful evasions, Kafka’s writing quite simply is Jewish writing.”

Is Gay the New Black?

By Steven Philp

Voicing an opinion that is shared among conservative leadership, Reverend Keith Ratliff, Sr.—president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP—complained that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement has “hijacked” the civil rights debate. According to the De Moines Register, Rev. Ratliff addressed an anti-marriage equality rally outside the Iowa state capitol on Tuesday, stating that “there is no parallel” between LGBT rights and the 1960’s movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He emphasized that Dr. King would not have supported same sex marriage, explaining that he was a “Bible-believing Baptist preacher.” To argue contrariwise is “an insult to the civil rights movement.”

But whose civil rights movement is it, anyways? This past January, in honor of the late Dr. King, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. delivered a rousing sermon at Conservative Chicago synagogue Anshe Emet. Despite moments of tension between our communities—several of which found their origin in his history of anti-Semitism—Rev. Jackson called upon Jewish and African American leaders to remember our common purpose: to secure civil rights, as traditionally oppressed minorities, for ourselves and for each other. He recalled the important role that Jews like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel played in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, meeting with Black activists and marching with them in Salem and Birmingham. In fact, Jews were one of the most actively involved non-Black groups in securing equality for the African American community.

Yet the Civil Rights movement derived less strength from Jewish manpower—however important—than from the Jewish narrative; we are a people who have experienced oppression, fought against it, and achieved freedom.  The liberation theology that fueled the impassioned sermons of Dr. King and Rev. Jackson derived many of its images from Exodus. It is easy to see the parallels between the emancipation of African American slaves and our journey from bondage in Egypt, making the latter narrative a powerful proof text for the former: liberation is the historically attested will of G-d. Yet, this where Rev. Ratliff has it wrong: the fight for LGBT equality is an appropriate parallel to the Civil Rights movement, just as the Civil Rights movement followed our path to freedom. The story of liberation does not belong to anyone, because liberty—as enshrined in the Constitution—is universal. It is continually informed by each of our narratives, whether Jews, Blacks, the LGBT community or other minority groups. The experience of emancipation gives us the space to empathize with other oppressed communities, to add another stepping stone to the path toward equal opportunity. To be liberated makes it imperative that one fights for the liberation of others.

This past week, former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins lent their voices to the Human Rights Campaign’s video series for marriage equality. In his 30-second spot, Dinkins—the first and only African American elected to the office—says, “I know that we are a diverse people who believe in fairness and equality.” In response Koch—an outspoken and proud Jew—explains that “Right now, our state is not doing so well when is comes to fairness.” Yet the one-time Democratic rivals agree on one thing: They are compelled by the narrative of their respective communities to stand on the side of equality for LGBT Americans.

Shalom Y’all

By Symi Rom-Rymer

“Stand up and introduce yourselves,” invited the speaker on the Bima.  “I want to know where y’all are from.”   Unaccustomed to such warmth from strangers, Northerner that I am, I tentatively stood and was immediately rewarded with a welcoming smile.  Fifteen minutes into Shabbat services at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), it was clear I’d left New York City far behind.  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I am hardly the first Jew to find such a friendly greeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston is often called ‘The Holy City’ with good reason.  Church steeples dot the skyline and Sunday mornings are alive with church bells.  But its nickname also dates back to the Colonial era when it was one of the few cities that allowed most immigrants to worship freely, whatever their religious affiliation.  Jews, like many others, flourished in the tolerant atmosphere.   It may be hard to imagine that another American city could be as important to American Jewry as New York but until the Civil War, Charleston was the epicenter of Jewish life in North America.   Like New York, the city’s first Jews were Sephardi, coming primarily from Portugal with  German Jews following soon afterward.  By 1800, Charleston boasted the largest Jewish population of anywhere in the United States.  Only 40 years later, it became the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.

Following the Civil War, however, the fortunes of Charleston’s Jewish community, like those of Charleston itself, declined sharply and it lost the prestige it previously held.  Jews that came to the United States in subsequent waves of Jewish immigration flocked to other cities and by 1902, Charleston had lost its unofficial status as the Jewish capital of the United States.

Charleston may no longer be the Jewish powerhouse it once was, but it is still home to a vibrant community with three synagogues.   KKBE, the oldest Reform synagogue in the United States, is currently home to 500 families and recently hired its first female Rabbi, Stephanie Alexander.  Following services, I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Alexander and she offered me a taste of what contemporary Jewish life is like in Charleston.

How does it feel to be the first female rabbi of KKBE?
People are either impressed or taken aback that I’m a women and that I’m young.  I had one family say to me that I was breaking every stereotype.  There was so much chatter about my coming to Charleston, and people would come up to me and say, ‘we hear such wonderful things about you.’  I would answer, ‘that’s funny, I’ve heard that I’m young and a woman!’  But I recognize it is an honor to be the first woman and I see it as such.

How integrated do you feel Jews are in Charleston?
They’re very well integrated.  Everyone in Charleston is related to each other.  You might bring up an issue or ask a question and because of who someone knows or who someone is related to, there is a vast network at your disposal.  For example, I was contacted earlier this week by a family whose unborn baby was diagnosed with a heart condition.  The father is a Reform Jew and wanted to be blessed by me.  When the baby was 4 days old, the president of the synagogue brought to my attention that he was friends with the head of the pediatric department of the local hospital.  He then personally watched over the family while they were in the hospital.  People want to be mobilized to help; it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.

Is KKBE’s congregation is continuing to grow?
Yes.  We’re attracting people across the board: young families, retirees, and others in between.  People, especially retirees who are looking for a warmer climate and a vibrant Jewish community, see that combination of factors in Charleston and at KKBE and want to move here.   This is also the first place I’ve ever been where on any given Friday night or Saturday morning during the tourist season the numbers swell.  Right now, we also have a number of people pursuing conversion.  We had to close our most recent class at 50 people.  I was very lucky to follow a rabbi who helped bring the congregation to new places and I definitely see exciting places where we can go.

Have you encountered any anti-Semitism in Charleston?
No.  Although there is a lack of sensitivity or, I suppose one might say, willful ignorance of Jewish holidays in the schools that has definitely been a challenge.  But, we haven’t had to deal with anti-Israeli sentiment which was more prevalent at my previous synagogue in Iowa.

What, if anything, makes Southern Judaism distinct?
Well, I don’t know of any other synagogue where the main course for Shabbat dinner is fried chicken!

The synagogue itself has great historical significance.  How does that affect your relationship with it and with the congregation?
I love being the sanctuary on Shabbat morning with the light that pours into through the stained glass windows.  The space feels eternal.  It could be 1850 then.  When I sing the Sh’ma, I sing the first part out loud and the response softly.  I do that because when I lower my voice with my eyes closed, I feel I can hear the voices of other people who have been there and the generations to come.  There are certain moments when it just happens and I can feel the presence of how my people have come through that space.  When I hear the organ, I have the sense of grander that this is so much bigger than me and so much bigger than this place in time and I’m so honored to be a part of it.

An Uncomfortable Cohabitation with the Holocaust

By Kayla Green

You would miss it if you blinked. You could pass it in one second, never knowing the significance and the history of the very ground on which you are walking. But right there, located under the bustling Park Hotel in the middle of cosmopolitan Prague 7 sits the Holesovice memorial, a small plaque which in Czech commemorates the fact that what is now a thriving, transportation-heavy area was once the deportation point for thousands of Czech Jews.

Just yards away from a burger restaurant and grocery store, swarms of innocent victims once stood, clutching all the belongings they were allowed, waiting to meet the horrific fate that no one could expect. From that very place, they were first sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp (often referred to as Terezín), a Nazi German ghetto established by the Gestapo in the fortress and garrison city of Terezín, located just 65 kilometers (approximately 38 miles) from Prague. To outsiders (including the Red Cross), the camp was presented by the Nazis as a model Jewish settlement, but in reality it was a concentration camp where over 33,000 inmates died as a result of hunger, sickness, or the sadistic treatment meted out by their captors. Theresienstadt was also used as a transit camp for European Jews en route to Auschwitz. The tiny Holesovice memorial introduces two large issues: The first is the omnipresence of the Holocaust in Europe, and the second is how and to what extent to memorialize it.

Unlike in America, where a special space must be carved out in classrooms and museums to teach and discuss the Holocaust, in Europe it is impossible to compartmentalize or avoid it.  It can neither be ignored nor forgotten.  Every place has significance, every building and cobblestone has seen more history, and in many cases, horror than we can imagine.

The morbid mix of everyday life with the pain of the past is especially significant in the town of Terezín. As incomprehensible as it seems, the area which was once a concentration camp and ghetto, is now a town housing thousands of residents. Playgrounds have been erected in front of buildings once reserved for torture; I even spotted a young couple with a baby carriage and puppy playing fetch in a forlorn, abandoned field, right in front of the crematorium. It is shocking to see a community exist amidst a place of such historical terror, where elegant restaurants and hotels host marriages and parties around a “memorial.”

As awful is it is to see modern day life prospering around anything related to the Holocaust, there is extreme significance in the paradox of memorializing while moving on. On the one hand, the Holocaust absolutely must be remembered, and buildings and camps must be maintained to teach the lessons of the past and honor the victims. On the other hand, life must continue, families must emerge and prosper, cities must grow and thrive.  The world has suffered too greatly from wartime atrocities to allow us to be set back any further.  Thus, Europeans have settled into an uncomfortable cohabitation with the Holocaust. They cannot cordon off specific areas for memorials and tell people not to live there. They cannot  compartmentalize, cannot separate, and absolutely cannot forget it. There is no “here” and “there”, there is no “then” and “now.” In Europe, the Holocaust simply is.

As Violence Spreads in Bahrain, Ambassador Breaks Silence

By Sarah Breger

Disheartening news from Bahrain this weekend, as clashes between armed forces and anti-government protesters left 800 wounded. Yesterday, demonstrators blocked roads to Manama’s financial center and around the city’s university. Police used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, according to witnesses.  Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S. Houda Nonoo released a statement—among her first since the protests erupted last month—saying protesters attacked police with Molotov cocktails and sharp utensils, injuring many policeman.  On Friday, Nonoo gave her first public statement since the protests began. She said law enforcement has dealt in an  “appropriate manner” with the situation  and that their self-discipline “ensured that there was no serious impact on the social fabric of Bahrain from a large-scale sectarian confrontation”

The clashes over the weekend have been the worst outbreak of violence since seven protesters were killed nearly three weeks ago. This morning 1,000 Saudi troops crossed the causeway connecting the two countries into Bahrain to support the Sunni monarchy, which only further enraged the mostly Shiite protesters.

Moment explores these sectarian tensions in its profile of Houda Nonoo, “The Unlikely Emissary.” For the complete article click here.

There is No Love in Bigotry

By Steven Philp

On Sunday, March 6 the Jewish Federation of North America kicked off Tribefest, a three-day event in Las Vegas, NV that billed itself as “an entertaining, interactive and educational celebration” of Jewish Life. Approximately fifteen hundred people aged 22 to 45 were said to attend the conference, participating in workshops led by Jewish leaders from across North America. One of these presentations—entitled “The Kabbalah of Love”—focused on love as a “central theme of Jewish teachings.” A description of the workshop leads with the question: Is love coincidental, or does each of us have a “destiny to connect to another?” Unfortunately the featured speaker participated in one of the larger demonstrations of hate in recent months; Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of the North County Chabad Center was photographed carrying American and Israeli flags in protest against a Muslim charity event in Yorba Linda, CA.

According to an article posted on Salon, on February 13 the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) organized a fundraiser at a local community center to benefit women’s shelters and homeless rehabilitation programs in Southern California. The event drew attention because of two controversial speakers, Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Abdel Malik Ali. According to the Orange County Register, the former was named by a U.S. attorney among 169 others as a coconspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. However, Wahhaj was never charged and has consistently denied involvement in the attack.  The latter speaker is known for having levied heavy criticism against Israel. Notably, Ali participated in the 2010 “Israel Apartheid Week” at the University of California Irvine. This led local organizations—including several Tea Party groups and the North County Chabad Center—to hold a protest in an adjacent park. Several hundred people came to the event, which was attended by at least two Members of Congress and several local politicians. In response to the protest, ICNA spokesman Syed Waqas emphasized that they “should know the facts. We have no links to any overseas organization. We absolutely denounce violence and terrorism.”

Yet this did not prevent 100 protesters from breaking off from the main event to stand outside the community center, heckling people attending the fundraiser. In a video released on March 2 by the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), people can be heard shouting hateful rhetoric as families—many with small children—walked from the parking lot to the charity event. Among the many slurs yelled by the protesters, several chanted “USA! USA!” “Mohammed was a pervert. Mohammed was a fraud,” and—strangely, given that many attendees were American—“Go back home.” As noted by blogger Max Blumenthal, the shocking bigotry that characterized this event is eerily reminiscent of anti-desegregation protests that occurred at our schools only fifty years ago.

To his credit, Rabbi Eliezrie has released a statement disassociating himself with the protestors outside the community center. Yet he falls short of denouncing their message, instead accusing CAIR of releasing the aforementioned video as part of  “a long history of distorting the truth.” He states that he discouraged people from attending the other smaller protest, yet he fails to mention that anti-Muslim vitriol was present at his event. When Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly noted that her son is a Marine, she quickly added, “I know quite a few Marines who would be happy to help these terrorists to a, uh, early meeting in paradise.” The crowd responded to her comment with applause and laughter.

As stated by a Muslim woman who attended the charity event, “It is surprising, but everyone has a right to express their opinion.” Rabbi Eliezrie is within his rights, if not his perceived duty, to protest against anti-Israel activists like Abdel Malik Ali. Yet by attending an event which espouses violence and bigotry against Muslim-American families, displaying an American and Israeli flag at the protest, and then failing to denounce the vitriol of his fellow protestors Rabbi Eliezrie has sent a strong message about his politics and those of his larger community. Before he teaches the ins and outs of love to the next generation of Jewish leaders, he should first consider his current association with hate.