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Past, present, and beyond

At Berman talk in Wyckoff, historian explains how our world got this way

 
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Dr. Stephen M. Berk addresses Gerrard Berman Day School parents, alumni, and supporters.

What was that about the end of history?

Oh, right.

In 1992, political scientist Francis Fukuyama opined that because human culture had pretty much perfected itself, nothing much beyond tiny refinement was possible.

A lot has happened since then.

Dr. Stephen M. Berk, the Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., is an effortless speaker who can draw on his wide knowledge of world history to tie together seemingly unconnected events.

That is a storyteller’s art, and last week it was on display at Amy Silna Shafron’s house in Wyckoff in tribute to the first 28 years of the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, a Solomon Schechter-affiliated Conservative institution that draws children from Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Orange counties.

To celebrate that history, Dr. Berk talked about some of what had happened in the world — with a special emphasis on history likely to be relevant to Jews — to an audience of the school’s supporters, parents, and alumni. He is the proud grandfather of GBDS students, and Ms. Shafron is not only the school’s development director but a parent there as well, so the themes of family and history were woven together, to create a fabric of community.

Dr. Berk talked “about the demise of the Soviet Union, which no one had predicted but really was a consequence both of internal problems and the spiritual bankruptcy of Marxism/Leninism,” he reported. “The consequences of this for the Jewish people was that the gates were now open, and hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union would come to Israel. This would have a tremendously invigorating effect on the Israeli economy, particularly in science and technology.”

Another fallout was that “millions of people who had been enslaved by communism would now really be free, so we would have democratic countries all over eastern and central Europe. And even though [President Vladimir] Putin rules Russia with an iron hand, it’s not the same as it was under the communists.

“With the destruction of the Soviet Union, too, the threat of a nuclear conflagration is no longer there. There are tensions, but they are not of the same magnitude. Russia is much weaker now.”

Another change in the last 28 years has been “the emergence of a powerful China,” Dr. Berk continued. “It has come on very strong economically. That’s the results of Deng Xiaoping, who led systematic reform at the end of the ‘70s.

“A third factor was the emergence of a strong sense of Islamic extremism, which I attribute to the coming to power [in 1979] of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini, and to the success of the mujahideen in throwing the Red Army out of Afghanistan. That emboldened extremists who thought they could fight the United States and overthrow Israel.

“There also were positive developments,” Dr. Berk said. “In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and soon he became the democratically elected president of South Africa. Apartheid was thrown into the garbage can of history.”

Israel continued to develop scientifically and economically, he continued. “It became Silicon Valley East. A country of no more than 8 million people, devoid of natural resources, has so much brainpower. It has engineers, physicists, and mathematicians, many from the former Soviet Union — although of course native Israeli talent played an important part as well.

“Unfortunately, though, Israel is a good country in a bad neighborhood — and that neighborhood has gotten worse. Israel faces a number of threats, including the existential one from Iran.

“Internally, Israel faces two very dramatic problems. One is income inequality” — many Israelis are not benefiting from the booming high-tech economy. “The other is the continuing struggle between more secular and more religious elements about what kind of country Israel is going to be.”

Then Dr. Berk shifted gears, returning to this country. “The most positive development since 1985 was the extension of toleration on the part of large numbers of Americans toward gays and lesbians, and minorities in general,” he said. “No matter what you think of Barack Obama, it was a great thing to elect an African-American president.

“The negative aspect, though, is the stagnation of the American middle class. Real income for the middle class has not increased in a very long time. It’s a consequence of globalization, the decline of the manufacturing sector, and our country’s failure to provide meaningful education in science and technology, which would allow the middle class to grow, and people to enter it.”

He criticized President Obama “not as much in terms of domestic policy, but foreign policy. Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, Turks, Syrians, Egyptians — they just don’t take him seriously any more,” he said. “He made a mistake in not intervening in Syria early on, in 2011, when the rebels were more secular. But to draw red lines and not to follow up on them, to turn the issue over to Congress — it makes him look very weak, and in the Middle East weakness doesn’t go over very well.

“Governments there don’t take an Obama threat seriously any more, and that can have dangerous consequences.”

He is worried about Europe, Dr. Berk said. “If this were 1945, and I were to say that Jews wearing kippot would be attacked in the street, Jewish schools would be attacked, Jewish boys and girls weren’t safe, people would say, ‘Oh those Poles! Those Ukrainians!’ But the fact is that these things are happening in Paris, Brussels, Marseilles, even in London. Anti-Semitism has become mainstream in some of these countries, and now they are taking off the mask of anti-Zionism,” behind which true anti-Semitism lurked. “Anti-Semitism is coming back out of the woodwork.”

Dr. Berk returned to the GBDS anniversary. “A 28-year slice of history is just a blink of an eye for a historian,” he said. “I am not a navi — I am not a prophet — but I will say that the next 28 years are sure to bring very interesting developments.

“And I hope that this very fine school to which my grandchildren go will continue to provide interesting and inspiring education, so the Jewish community can continue to be invigorated.”

Cardiologist Dr. Ed Julie’s children graduated from GBDS long ago — his wife, Beth Julie, was one of its first presidents — but he still sits on the board. He was enthusiastic both about the school and about Dr. Berk.

“The conclusion of his lecture had to do with the importance of Jewish education in maintaining our legacy,” Dr. Julie said. “He underscored the importance of developing future community leaders who will have an impact on Jewish events, and on the relationships between different communities.”

 
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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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Mississippi burning, remembered

Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

It was a summer that changed lives.

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.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

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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