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J Street leader to speak in Tenafly

 
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J Street is coming to town.

A senior official of the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” organization will be speaking Sunday at Temple Sinai in Tenafly.

Alan Elsner, J Street’s vice president of communications, said he plans on discussing the state of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian permanent status peace negotiations and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to Israel.

“And I will be outlining what J Street is doing in our Two Campaign, which aims to educate people about Kerry’s initiative and get people to support it,” he said.

In asking Jewish Americans to support the American official’s diplomatic efforts, J Street is finding itself opposing the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which twice has in the past week found itself at odds with the United States. First came a dispute over whether Israeli announcements about new apartments in the west bank were a stumbling block in the negotiations. Then came Netanyahu’s harsh, if premature, condemnation of a reported agreement between Iran and the United States (and five other countries) over Iran’s nuclear efforts. (In the end, no agreement was reached.)

Mr. Elsner’s presentation is part of a series of speakers on American Jews and Zionism organized by the synagogue’s brotherhood, according to its president, David Klein. “We’re trying to get differing views presented to our congregation,” Mr. Klein said. “My understanding is that J Street is the potentially more liberal view; we might have somebody from AIPAC present a more conservative view.”

The congregation’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein said that the program is “part of what we’re trying to do to build a deeper relationship with Israel among our members.

“The issue for us in the American Jewish community is that there is fortunately a very broad support for Israel, but at the same time there are many people who don’t agree — of course, we’re Jews, we’re not going to agree — with policies that are taken by a given Israeli government,” Rabbi Millstein said. “Debate is important. People in our community have to recognize that diverse views are held and that those views — as long as they are in support of Israel — are legitimate.”

Mr. Elsner came to J Street a year ago from the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group; before entering Zionist organizational life, he had been a reporter for Reuters and wrote two books of nonfiction and two novels. Born in England, he moved to Israel in 1977.

“I have an Israeli passport,” he said. “I’m a citizen of Israel. I served in the IDF. My wife and I met there; we lived there together for eight years.

“J Street really reflects what I believe and have always believed: That the only way to end the conflict is through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to end the occupation, which is having a corrupting effect on Israel,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Kerry traveled to the Middle East, meeting with Prime Minisgter Netanyahu and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

Following the meeting with Abbas, Mr. Kerry reiterated U.S. opposition to Jewish settlements.

“We consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate,” Mr. Kerry said when he was in Bethlehem. “And I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree, as a matter of going back to the talks, that they somehow condone or accept the settlements.”

“That’s a restating of long-standing American policy,” Mr. Elsner said.

“I think there is a limited tolerance on the Palestinian side for constant announcements of new settlement apartments. It seems every project gets announced five or six times. The latest ones were the same ones announced previously.

“I understand Netanyahu may have domestic reasons to make announcements in terms of calming down elements of his coalition, but this needs to be weighed against the international diplomatic consequences every time he makes one of these announcements.”

Mr. Elsner said it was “bizarre” that Mr. Netanyahu would have chosen to free Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, rather than acceded to a settlement freeze.

“The release of convicted murderers sparked a wave of revulsion in Israel that cut across party lines and united the nation,” he said. “It weakened support for negotiations, since it associates negotiations with the release of murderers.

“I can’t really understand why he would prefer to free murderers than to freeze settlements.”

Mr. Elsner said he doesn’t expect the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians to collapse, “but I do think that some time in the new year, the U.S. will have a to take a new role, in terms of putting a new detailed framework on the table.”

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

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Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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