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.

Fierce Competition for Yeshiva A Cappella

By Charles Kopel

Just when you thought the Maccabeats craze was finally over, a new a cappella group is making strides in Washington Heights. The Y-Studs is performing at Yeshiva University (YU) events, posting videos on Youtube, and giving the competition a run for its money. More surprisingly, the suggestively-named group at the Orthodox school is exploring non-Jewish themes. Among its repertoire are renditions of the gospel tune This Little Light of Mine, The Lion King classic Be Prepared, and Bruno Mars’ Marry You (first performed for a public marriage proposal on the Yeshiva campus). It’s rolling out the Jewish hits as well, including remakes of Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (the Israeli response to the Beatles’ Let it Be). Ironically enough, the presentation of non-Jewish themed music to YU is what may place this group at the forefront of the next chapter of Jewish collegiate a cappella in the United States.

The Y-Studs, consisting of ten male undergraduate and graduate students, was launched in late 2010. Founder and president Mordy Weinstein decided that the Yeshiva community had room for quirky, creative, college-style a cappella, “sort of a cross between a fraternity and a singing group.” He hoped to fill a niche left empty on campus by the Maccabeats, who, despite achieving renown since its 2007 founding, maintained a style seen by many as reflecting standard “Jewish a cappella,” with mostly traditional, Hebrew songs. Weinstein hoped to depart from an exclusive focus on Jewish themes, emulating a diverse array of groups, including the “Beelzebubs” of Tufts University, “On the Rocks” of the University of Oregon and “The Accidentals” of the University of Georgia.

The genre of Jewish collegiate a cappella is increasingly popular around the country. A February article in the Forward estimated that some 40 Jewish collegiate singing groups exist today, up from 30 a decade ago, and just one in 1987 (“Pizmon” of the Columbia/Barnard/JTS community). In recent months, this surge gave rise to the Kol HaOlam National Jewish Collegiate Competition in Washington, DC. Weinstein’s other group, Queens College’s Tizmoret, took the title at the first annual competition, which featured nine groups, and received a consultation with JDub records.

While the few dozen Jewish a cappella groups on secular campuses present something of a novelty in their respective settings, the Jewish a cappella scene at the Yeshiva University may seem ordinary by contrast. The Maccabeats have managed to transcend its setting with notable talent and creativity, and also with a commitment to reaching out beyond the YU community with a message. As Julian Horowitz, the Maccabeats general manager, explains, the group’s purpose is not just to entertain and profit, but also to educate and inspire. “Our music reaches all kinds of Jews,” adds Horowitz, “and being able to touch people from so many backgrounds is what really keeps us going.”

The Y-studs takes the converse approach, imagining that its community will appreciate a singing group that doesn’t confine itself primarily to Jewish themes. But the Maccabeats, perhaps unknowingly, beat Weinstein’s new group to the punch, releasing the viral single Candlelight, a spoof of Taio Cruz’s Dynamite, just a month after the Y-Studs’ launch—before its first major performance. Although the theme of its lyrics was very Jewish, Candlelight’s invocation of pop-culture preempted some of the Y-Studs’ innovations. Word had not yet spread about the Y-Studs, and the new gang in town was immediately cast by critics as a response or imitation.

Still, the competition has breathed new life into both groups, as each seeks to snatch new gig openings on and off campus. The hope is, as in any industry, that the competition will breed greater talent. (Representatives of the Maccabeats have publicly welcomed the arrival of competition.) There is also a basic necessity of numbers. Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus has 1,500 undergraduate students, and many more than 14 (the number of Maccabeats members) of them are interested in singing. YU’s female undergraduates on the Beren Campus in midtown Manhattan have an a cappella group of their own, “The B’Notes.” Because of religious modesty laws, it is unlikely that a co-ed a cappella group would fare very well in the Orthodox university.

It is only the beginning of a journey for the new singing group, and the coming academic year will be crucial for the Y-Studs singers to prove themselves as performers on a larger stage and distinguish themselves from the Maccabeats. The group’s decisions to perform non-Jewish themes and to forego the Maccabeats’ formal style (white shirts and ties) for casual dress, and even occasional costumes, has begun this process, but only the Y-Studs’ creative arrangements and stunning harmonies can really set them apart. Even if stardom is not in their future, these students have contributed something special to campus life in the all-Jewish college. As Weinstein said, “I wanted to cultivate a brotherhood of singers and create more of a love for a cappella, an art form that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.”

Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and now Kate Bornstein

By Bonnie Rosenbaum

My introduction to Jewish heroes can be traced back to one amazing Barbie doll.

It was 1986, I was in 7th grade, and my Sunday school class at Temple Sinai had started a unit on “Great Jews.” Carrie Horrowitz marched to the front of the classroom, launched the blond statuette into the air, and began her oral report: “Hannah Senesh was a brave woman who parachuted into Yugoslavia to save the Jews during the Holocaust.”

Barbie quickly crashed to the floor and my classmates and I tried to stifle our laughs. Thus began our lesson on Jewish heroes.

As a 12-year-old girl who spent her lunch hour playing football with the boys, Hannah defined awesomeness through her parachute alone. Only years later did I learn the full story of her life, her poetry, her defiance.

When it came time for my presentation, my friend and I staged an interview between a journalist and Golda Meir, the fourth Prime Minister of Israel and the world’s third female to hold this title. Another kick-ass woman who flaunted gender roles and came out ahead. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion even called her “the best man in his cabinet.” Golda soared to the top of my personal list of Jewish heroes. (I wish I could say that I played Golda, but I was too shy. Plus my friend’s father was a real Israeli, so I reasoned that she had a more legitimate claim to the star role.)

The other Great Jew who made a mark on my consciousness was Sandy Koufax, the award-winning pitcher for the Dodgers who refused to play the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Even then, I understood the public nature of his private decision and joined his legion of admirers.

Now, in June 2011 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Pride Month, I’m marveling at a new roster of Jewish heroes recognized by many and selected by our staff at Keshet to inspire a new generation of 7th graders. We took three LGBT Jewish changemakers who transformed our world—Harvey Milk, Kate Bornstein, and Lesléa Newman—and put their beautiful faces on bold, modern, 18×24 posters for the LGBT Jewish Heroes Poster series. We celebrate their amazing accomplishments and their dual identity as Jews and queer people. And being 2011, we also created a small website to showcase them.

I’m working up the courage to call the rabbi at my old synagogue to ask him to buy these posters for the Hebrew and Sunday school classrooms. Hang them up for the cool athlete who never mentions his uncle has a boyfriend, for the quiet girl who doesn’t feel right in her own body, and for their classmate who is worried what it will be like when both her moms are called to the bima for her bat mitzvah. Hang them up for the teacher who shows up to services with a handsome friend he calls his roommate. And hang them up because we know all too well the feeling of being outsiders, strangers, and a people who need visible role models.

Our deepest hope is that these LGBT Jews find their rightful place alongside Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, and Sandy Koufax in classrooms, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, camps, Federations, Hillels, and Jewish organizations everywhere—as educational tools to spark conversation, dialogue, learning, and reflection.

And pride.

Bonnie Rosenbaum is the Deputy Director of Communications and Planning for Keshet

Governor Perry Wants You to Find Jesus

By Steven Philp

Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, if you are passing through the Lone Star State on August 6 you might encounter an unexpected stranger: Jesus. That is if you believe the testimony given by Eric Bearse, spokesperson for The Response; according to a radio interview posted on Right Wing Watch, Bearse has promised that the event—an ecumenical prayer meeting scheduled at the Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX—will allow people “regardless of their faith tradition or background… [to] feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ.”

Bearse’s comments—broadcast on American Family Radio—came after the event received heavy criticism for alienating non-Christian Texans; after all, The Response is being co-hosted by the office of Texas Governor Rick Perry. His administration published a press release on June 6advertising the event. In the statement, he issues an official proclamation for a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation to seek God’s guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation” and encourages his fellow governors to give similar legislation in their states. The official website for the governor continues to carry the statement, which implies that his administration is strongly biased toward the Christian tradition despite the diversity of his constituents. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a 2000 survey estimates that both the Jewish and Muslim populations of Texas fall over 100,000 individuals respectively.

According to his press release, Governor Perry’s participation in the event is motivated by a vision of “unity and righteousness for our states, nation, and mankind.” He states, “Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel.” Yet he is decidedly non-specific concerning what is degrading American culture. If anything, the language is uncomfortably similar to a number of extreme conservative voices; a quick search of the Internet will reveal that the term “debasement of our culture” or “debasement of American culture” is used in reference to the LGBTQ community, immigrants and us: the Jewish community.

The association between Governor Perry and the event is complicated by its co-host, the ultraconservative American Family Association. This organization has lent its voice to a number of national issues, including freedom of religion, same-sex marriage and abortion; their advocacy trends to the far right, and it has become a leader in the fight against religious pluralism, marriage equality, and the right to choose. According to the Action Statement posted on its Web site, the American Family Association hopes “to restrain evil by exposing the works of darkness.” A component of this is converting individuals to Christianity. It is evident that The Response is another evangelical tool of this organization; in fact, Bearse explained that a component of the event is to convey the message that “there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.” Naturally, religious expression and the right to assemble is protected by the First Amendment. Yet some are questioning whether Governor Perry’s sponsorship of an event that—in part—envisions the United States as a Christian nation is appropriate of his office.

On June 9, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League released a statement criticizing Governor Perry; while it supports the need to address the economic and social hardships faced by many Texans, the ADL does “not agree that official statements and rallies that divide along religious lines are a productive way to address these difficulties.” The press release—authored by Martin B. Cominsky, ADL Southwest Regional Director—continues, stating that elected officials should not be using the resources at their disposal to promote events that endorse a specific religion over others. Although the statement from Governor Perry promises that he has attended functions “hosted by various faith traditions,” it does not hide the fact that The Response is Christian, albeit “non-denominational” and “apolitical.” Regardless, his sponsorship of the event has revealed which Texans Governor Perry is representing, and it is certainly not all of them.