Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter


entries tagged with: Ben Harris


Jewish group to Glenn Beck: Haik U

If Glenn Beck has his way, many American Jews would be abandoning their synagogues. If one Jewish group has its way, the popular right-wing talk-show host will be drowned out by a wave of haikus.

Beck — who has called the health care reform legislation “an assault on the republic” and the first African-American president a “racist” — is urging people to quit their churches if the term “social justice” appears anywhere on their Websites. “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Website,” Beck said on his nationally broadcast radio program March 2. “If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

Glenn Beck says “social justice” has no place in religion. The Rocketeer/flickr

To illustrate the point further, Beck, on his television show, held up cards imprinted with a swastika and the hammer and sickle. Social justice, Beck said, was tantamount to Nazism and communism.

Christian leaders of various stripes were outraged. But surprisingly, considering that a good number of synagogues in the United States would be shuttered if American Jews followed Beck’s advice, Jewish groups haven’t had much to say.

The exception was Jewish Funds for Justice, which recently launched a Website, “Haik U Glenn Beck,” in which users are invited to respond to Beck — poetically.

“Hurling expensive/coffee at the expensive/TV screen now, Ahhh,” wrote the novelist and Daily Beast columnist Christopher Buckley in one of nearly 1,000 haikus submitted during the site’s first week of operation.

The Beck controversy comes at a moment when social justice, for years a growing — and minimally controversial — area of communal activity, has emerged as something of a dividing line between Jewish liberals and conservatives.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor and former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, sparked a minor uproar last month when, in the March issue of Commentary magazine, he criticized the diversion of community resources to projects aimed at helping non-Jews under the guise of social justice.

More recently, Jennifer Rubin, also writing for Commentary, called President Obama’s Passover message, with its emphasis on a universal social message, “off-key, hyper-political, and condescending.” Obama’s “secularized spiel,” Rubin wrote, denies the holiday’s uniquely Jewish message. At the same time, liberal Jewish bloggers sided with the president, arguing that the retelling of the Exodus story is meant to inspire Jews and others to combat injustice.

Such talk, but especially Beck’s comments, are a sign of desperation, said Mik Moore, the chief strategy officer at Jewish Funds for Justice.

“It’s part of a broader assault, in this instance, on faith communities that put social justice at the center of their work,” Moore said. “It stems from a fear that the side that rejects the relationship between Judaism and social justice, that they’re losing.”

It’s noteworthy that the tension between Jewish particularism and wider social concerns should come to a head around Passover, perhaps the most expansively understood and universally resonant of all Jewish holidays. Passover seders have long been an occasion for interfaith dialogue, and Jewish groups routinely organize seders around such diverse themes as labor rights, children’s nutrition, and the civil rights struggle.

Jewish conservatives, for their part, don’t call for Jews to abandon wide social causes altogether, but rather to find a better balance between them and the specific needs of the Jewish community.

“Nobody here is claiming that we need to expunge a universalist frame of reference from our Jewish point of view,” said Jonathan Tobin, the executive editor of Commentary, who asserted that putting Beck and Wertheimer in the same category is “screwy.”

“What we’re saying is, when things get out of whack, when you are primarily interested in the universal agenda, then the Jewish end of it can suffer,” he said.

Newer Jewish nonprofits often claim that social justice is a greater animating cause for younger Jews than the issues traditionally associated with older, more established Jewish organizations. But Tobin believes that if Jewish affiliation and donations to specifically Jewish causes continue to decline, then all Jewish institutions will suffer — the social justice groups included.

“The idea that only Jewish universalism will survive while Jewish parochialism goes down the tubes is, to me, a remarkably foolish point of view,” Tobin said.

For his part, Moore accepts that. Jewish Funds for Justice, he said, wouldn’t be training rabbis and working with synagogues if it was unconcerned with strengthening the Jewish community. “But,” he added, “we’re doing it in a way that is meaningful to them and yet is genuinely rooted in Jewish history and tradition.”



Orthodox rabbinical parley to address women’s leadership

Rabba Sara Hurwitz lectures to a group of junior high school students who attended the recent conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Josh Newman

With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near-ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision in January to confer the title “rabba” — a feminized version of rabbi — on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Weiss’ rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities — some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting “smicha,” or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” said Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and that is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Pruzansky said he supports the amendments in principle, adding, “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”



Conservative synagogue group releases strategic plan

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 11 February 2011

NEW YORK – In the latest attempt to reverse the fortunes of what was once America’s largest synagogue denomination, the congregational association of the Conservative movement has released a draft strategic plan that seeks to improve its governance, reduce the financial burden on member synagogues, and refocus its attention on “sacred communities.”

The result of more than a year of deliberations, the plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism calls for a narrowing of the group’s focus and a raft of organizational changes, from the establishment of regional advisory councils to a name change.

Specifically, it urges the United Synagogue to focus on three core areas: strengthening “kehillot,” or sacred communities, a change that points to the possibility of non-synagogue-based affiliation; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership.

“These are the core functions that synagogues have been asking for the most,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the UCSJ executive vice president, told JTA.

The plan is the latest effort to diagnose and treat the ills of the Conservative movement, which has been overtaken as the largest Jewish denomination in the United States by the Reform movement and is still struggling to articulate its position at the center of the Jewish religious spectrum.

The movement endured a bruising battle in 2006 as it sought to formulate its policy toward gay clergy, and the economic recession has dealt a punishing blow to the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary.

But the movement’s troubles have been most acutely felt within the United Synagogue, which has faced its own serious budget gaps and seen its member congregations decline sharply in recent years from 800 to 650. In the past nine years, the report notes, there has been a 14 percent drop in membership.

In 2008, three Canadian synagogues — among them the largest movement-affiliated congregation in North America — quit the USCJ claiming, among other things, that the organization was not providing a decent return for their membership dues. Then, on the eve of Wernick’s appointment, the USCJ came under withering criticism by some of the movement’s most successful rabbis, who in a coalition calling itself Hayom (“Today”) called for a new strategic planning process.

United Synagogue was largely responsive to Hayom’s demands and has billed the strategic plan as a joint effort between the two.

Rabbi Michael Siegel, a Chicago rabbi and leader of Hayom, said the plan represented a “huge step forward” and a “bold move” on the part of the USCJ leadership. Nevertheless, he said, it is only a first step

The United Synagogue does not possess the expertise to deliver on the plan, Siegel said, and its implementation will therefore require a “leap of faith” on the part of member congregations.

The USCJ board must approve the plan before it becomes operational. Its next meeting is scheduled for March 13.

Much in the current plan is a direct response to the criticisms Siegel and others have leveled at the organization. The plan calls for a new governance structure, including a general assembly of representatives of each kehillah, as well as regional district councils that elect their own representative to the board of directors. It also calls for a reduction of synagogue dues. More than 80 percent of UCSJ’s $10.5 million budget comes from dues.

The plan also proposes reshaping the organization’s board to include philanthropists and “thought leaders.” The board now raises only about $105,000.

But Wernick said the plan’s greatest significance is its recognition of broader sociological changes in American Jewish life. Synagogue membership is no longer considered a requirement for Jewish engagement, and many of the movement’s most promising younger members have migrated away from formal identification with Conservative institutions.

JTA Wire Service


Moshe Tendler thinks you’re wrong, and he isn’t afraid to say so

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 18 February 2011
Rabbi Moshe Tendler believes that critics of his view that brain stem death is a valid criterion for death under Jewish law eventually will see the error of their ways. Ben Harris

After the January shootings in Arizona and the resultant calls for greater civility and moderation in the national discourse; after an acrimonious back-and-forth over the Jewish legal approach to death and organ donation; and after still more calls for a gentler, more civil public discourse, Rabbi Moshe Tendler stood up in a Jerusalem synagogue and accused his fellow Orthodox rabbis of perpetrating one of the worst desecrations of God’s name in American Jewish history.

The rabbis in question — authors of a four-year study on the Jewish legal criteria for death and members of the halacha, or religious law, committee of the chief Modern Orthodox rabbinic group — have “not the slightest idea of what we’re talking about,” Tendler told his audience.

“I want to call your attention to what has been one of the most dramatic chilul hashem [desecration of God’s name] incidents in [the] American Jewish community,” he said.

Tendler wasn’t done: The paper was “pages of drivel” and “as close to a blood libel as you can come,” he said.

Even the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who had endorsed the position that the paper’s authors appeared to favor, did not escape opprobrium. On the issue of halachic death, Tendler charged, Sacks also was ignorant of the relevant science.

Tendler’s remarks were presaged by the disclosure in December of a paper by the Rabbinical Council of America’s committee on religious law asserting the legitimacy of the view that death occurs with the cessation of heartbeat and respiration — a position apparently rebuking one long championed by Tendler.

Tendler for some time has been the leading proponent of the view that death occurs with the cessation of brain stem activity — a criterion that permits vital organs such as the heart and lungs to become available for harvest and transplant.

It is a position for which he has argued passionately and unapologetically for more than two decades.

As one of the deans of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a leading Modern Orthodox authority on medical ethics, Tendler is an authoritative figure in the Orthodox world, but also a polarizing one. And when it comes to questions on which he is rightly considered an expert, he has neither patience nor respect for the views of those he deems less than competent to render an opinion.

Several insiders say it is precisely that trait which has made it more difficult to achieve common ground on this issue and personalized a debate that should remain scholarly and dispassionate. Tendler insists that the battle mostly is substantive not personal, though given some of his quotes in the media, it’s not hard to see why his foes sometimes fail to appreciate the distinction.

“You say a thing, I believe you’re ignorant on this topic,” Tendler told JTA. “That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”

Tendler’s willingness to publicly call out rabbis with whom he disagrees is unusual within Modern Orthodox circles, where internal disagreements on sensitive issues are resolved more typically behind closed doors, often with vague language that allows everyone to declare victory.

Tendler’s style could not be more different, and over the years he has developed a reputation as something of a go-to guy for an incendiary quote.

“I have no doubt that R. Tendler’s comments will generate much discussion and likely criticism and ridicule,” wrote one Orthodox rabbi on his blog. “I can also predict that R. Tendler will not care one bit.”

If Tendler, who just turned 84, is unusually outspoken, it may owe something to his background. He was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when most Jews in the area were recent immigrants whose children were studiously going about the business of assimilation.

Tendler, though, was a native, and has grandparents who were born in America. His mother, the grandchild of a man Tendler describes as a “rabid chasid,” was a law school graduate and Tendler’s first Talmud teacher. His father was the longtime head of the prominent Rabbi Jacob Joseph yeshiva in New York.

The Tendlers lived on Henry Street a few blocks from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading Orthodox legal decisor in the United States, whose daughter would become Tendler’s wife. The couple met at a public library on East Broadway when Shifra Feinstein approached Tendler — already gaining a reputation for scientific acuity — to ask a question about chemistry.

“After that, somehow I managed to come more often to the library to study,” Tendler said.

Tendler went on to graduate from New York University and earn his doctorate in microbiology from Columbia University in 1957. For a time he worked in cancer research, developing a drug he dubbed Refuin — a play on the Hebrew word for healing — that earned him a mention in a 1963 Time magazine article.

In the early 1990s, the RCA tapped Tendler to draft a health-care proxy statement reflecting Orthodox sensibilities. In a section on organ donation, the document — citing the authority of both Feinstein and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate — asserts that “brain stem death, together with other accepted neurological criteria, fully meets the standards of halacha for determining death.”

The proxy was drafted by the RCA’s medical ethics commission, which Tendler chaired, and endorsed by the council’s executive committee. Four members of the RCA’s law committee, of which Tendler also was a member, subsequently issued a statement rejecting the brain death criterion. And there the issue rested until the study paper surfaced late last year.

Much of the ensuing fracas resulted not from the many errors of scientific fact that Tendler claims are contained in the 110-page study, but from the verbal dynamite he set off in the press. He accused the authors of promoting anti-Semitism and perpetrating a blood libel for appearing to sanction the receipt of organs by Orthodox Jews, but not their donation.

In a recent interview at his home north of New York City, he said his critics have blood on their hands.

“When a Jew’s life is at stake, you have to use strong language,” Tendler told JTA. “You can’t let someone die. But they’re letting people die because of this. I want them to back off.”

JTA Wire Service


New Pollard clemency campaign

A new campaign to free Jonathan Pollard, shown with his wife Esther, is being seen as generating more momentum on the issue than any campaign on his behalf in recent years.

NEW YORK – A new campaign for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has racked up a series of big name politicos in the last few weeks: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama.

The recent successes can be traced not to Washington lobbyists or a New York boardroom, but to a small team of four activists whose doggedness, rather than political connections, has yielded results.

The four men, spread across America, have managed to generate more momentum on the Pollard issue — or at least more expressions of support for clemency from public figures — than any public campaign in recent years.

Foremost among the activists is David Nyer, a 25-year-old Orthodox social worker from Monsey, N.Y.

Nyer was the force behind a letter last November to President Obama from 39 congressional Democrats urging the president to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who received a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Over the past few months, Nyer successfully elicited letters calling for Pollard’s release from Quayle, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz. Korb went so far as to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formally call for Pollard’s release, which Nyer says is a key gain in the effort to free Pollard.

“It’s not really hard,” Nyer said of his ability to get powerful or once-powerful officials on the phone. “I myself was very surprised by all of this. I guess that’s the great thing about living in a democracy. The average citizen can reach a former vice president.”

Along with Nyer, the team includes University of Baltimore law Prof. Kenneth Lasson, Phoenix attorney Farley Weiss, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a longtime Pollard advocate and executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Weiss is a second vice president of the council and the president of a Young Israel synagogue in Arizona, as well as a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The four activists say they are in regular contact, bouncing around ideas and names of prominent individuals to solicit for support.

Lasson has a long track record of involvement with Pollard, having written more than a dozen articles in the past two decades calling for his release. Weiss, a trademark attorney, has a history of activism on issues related to Israel. Weiss was instrumental in reversing the views of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who long had opposed Pollard’s release.

Lerner has tended to Pollard’s spiritual needs, acting as his rabbi and paying him visits at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

It is Nyer, however, who has done much of the legwork in recent months.

His start on the Pollard case came in graduate school, when Carlos Salinas, a former Amnesty International official, presented a lecture at the school and Nyer pushed Salinas to review the case. Salinas went on to join 500 signatories, most of them clergymen, in a separate letter to Obama on Pollard’s behalf.

Among the letter’s signatories were Pastor John Hagee, the Texas minister who founded Christians United for Israel, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and now president of the conservative nonprofit American Values.

Nyer and company have been strategic in picking their targets.

They have recruited former officials who, like DeConcini, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to classified material and can speak authoritatively on the appropriateness of Pollard’s sentence. The biggest score on that front was James Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, who called on Obama in January to release Pollard.

DeConcini was a longtime opponent of clemency for Pollard, but he told JTA that he changed his mind at the repeated urging of his finance chairman, the late Earl Katz. He wrote to both Obama and former President George W. Bush on Pollard’s behalf at the behest of Weiss, whose credibility Katz had vouched for.

“He has been on my case for a couple of years,” DeConcini said of Weiss.

The group also has targeted those with particular influence on Obama, such as Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, a mentor to the president, who wrote to the White House in January. Several sources said the group is seeking support from others who are personally close to the president.

The activists hope that all the letter writing will give Obama the political cover he needs to take the potentially controversial step of freeing the spy. The fight for Pollard’s release typically has been spearheaded by the pro-Israel right wing in America, but the congressional letter was signed entirely by Democrats.

Nyer suggested that a pardon could boost Obama’s standing with American Jews and Israelis in advance of the 2012 election.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to create a political climate which would be easy to grant clemency,” Nyer said. “It would be very easy for Obama to do it. He has all the cover.”

Neither Nyer, Weiss, nor Lasson was eager to speak about his efforts on Pollard’s behalf. They each said that the injustice of the case speaks for itself.

Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for passing classified materials to Israel — a longer sentence than anyone else convicted of espionage on behalf of a U.S. ally.

While the activists would prefer that their names stay out of the media glare, they say their efforts have raised hopes that Pollard’s life sentence might soon be commuted.

“In 25 years,” Lasson told JTA, “I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”

JTA Wire Service


U.S. supports Israel’s security, Obama tells Jewish leaders

Ben HarrisWorld
Published: 04 March 2011
President Obama meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the White House State Dining Room on Tuesday. Pete Souza/White House

President Obama reportedly urged Jewish communal leaders on Tuesday to speak to their friends and colleagues in Israel and to “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.

In an hour-long meeting Tuesday with about 50 representatives from the Jewish community’s chief foreign policy umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel, according to statements from both the White House and Conference of Presidents.

But several participants at the meeting told JTA that the president also implied that Israel bears primary responsibility for advancing the peace process. They interpreted the president’s comments either as hostile, naïve, or unsurprising.

Obama said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is eager to secure his legacy by establishing a Palestinian state and would accept a decent offer if one were on the table, according to participants.

“The Palestinians don’t feel confident that the Netanyahu government is serious about territorial concessions,” the president reportedly said.

Obama reportedly said that the Jewish sections of Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands as part of any peace deal, but that the Arab sections would not.

Participants uniformly declined to speak on the record about the meeting, in keeping with admonitions from Conference of Presidents leaders that specifics should not be discussed publicly. While there was general consistency in the reports about Obama’s comments, interpretations of them varied widely.

“Many people felt that their worst fears about Obama were confirmed with respect to Israel,” one participant said. “They felt an enormous hostility towards Israel.”

Other participants disagreed, calling such views ridiculous. They said the meeting was a positive one, described the president as “thoughtful” and “forthcoming” in his remarks, and said no new ground was broken.

“The people who loved Obama probably still love him, the people who had big reservations about Obama probably have more reservations than they had before,” one longtime Jewish organizational official told JTA.

The atmosphere, most agreed, was cordial and gracious.

“I thought he reaffirmed his support of Israel, and I thought he did it quite well,” one participant said. “Nothing that he said would I interpret in any way as being anti-Israel or opposed to Israel.”

Others suggested that the president wasn’t hostile so much as naïve about Palestinian intentions and his belief about Israel’s supposed lack of commitment to peacemaking. Still others suggested both interpretations were flawed.

“I think the president showed a deep understanding, in great depth, of the issues that have arisen in the Middle East, including the Palestinian-Israeli peace process as well as the broader regional issues,” a participant told JTA. “I would be very surprised for anybody in the room who listened to the detailed and thoughtful way in which he responded to questions to characterize them as naïve or unknowledgeable.”

JTA Wire Service


Expanding its presence in Africa, Chabad faces unique challenges

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, right, dancing with Congolese officials at a gala dinner March 1 celebrating 20 years of the Chabad of Central Africa in Kinshasa. Israel Bardugo/

Congolese President Joseph Kabila probably had other things on his mind last week than the celebration in his capital city of Kinshasa marking the 20th anniversary of the city’s Chabad center.

On Feb. 27, about 100 fighters armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers staged two simultaneous attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of them directed at Kabila’s residence in an affluent neighborhood of the capital. More than a dozen people were killed, including several Congolese soldiers.

But a few days later, Kabila managed to take time out to call the local Chabad director, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, during the Chabad celebration at the Grand Hotel, and to send a representative to deliver a speech on the president’s behalf.

The event coincided with the announcement that Chabad will open two new centers in the heart of Africa in the coming months — in Nairobi, Kenya, and Lagos, Nigeria. The one in Congo currently is the only Chabad in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa.

“The work is not easy, but we are seeing, thank God, fruits, and we hope to continue to see that,” Bentolila, the Chabad director for Central Africa, told JTA by phone from Kinshasa.

Chabad will send emissaries to the new centers, which are located in the capitals of the two countries.

Chabad’s Africa operations — now 20 years old and encompassing activities in 14 countries — are no stranger to political unrest or the unique challenges presented by working on the continent.

Bentolila, a father of four from Montreal, has survived two Congolese wars, including the revolution that deposed Mobotu Sese Seku. The rabbi went outside to greet rebel forces taking the capital who passed by his synagogue on a Shabbat afternoon in 1997.

“Those past 20 years have not always been easy for you and for your family,” Antoine Ghonda, the president’s representative, said at the Chabad celebration, according to a transcript provided to JTA. “But since you believe in this country, its people, and its future, you continue to provide support.”

Like most Chabad emissaries who find themselves setting up shop at the perimeter of the Jewish world, Bentolila struggled in his early days in the Congo to secure kosher food and recruit a minyan for Shabbat prayers. Today the community has a supply of kosher meat, a ritual bath, and a small Jewish school.

Bentolila says the new centers were supported entirely by local philanthropy.

“We don’t go abroad to take money,” he said. “We support ourselves locally.”

Chabad centers in Africa play a unique role, serving Jews and Jewish communities comprised largely of expatriates — transient American, British, and Israeli Jewish businesspeople and their families and a few descendants of European Jews who fled to Africa during the Holocaust.

Unlike at many Chabad centers in other exotic locations, Chabad emissaries in Africa see relatively few tourists.

Chabad tries to do everything from fly in emissaries to lead seders and High Holidays services in cities all over the continent to helping orchestrate the return home of sick, stuck, or deceased Jews.

“There are both physical and spiritual challenges to working in Africa,” says Chananya Rogalsky, a Chabadnik from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., who travels frequently to Africa to perform Jewish outreach work.

The day before a seder in Angola for some 150 guests, all the food spoiled when the hotel’s electricity went out on a typical stiflingly hot day. While Bentolila made sure enough food made it to the hotel in time for the seder, Rogalsky was left with little more than a box of matzoh and bottled water to make it through the remainder of the holiday week. He had some local fruit, but it turned his stomach.

The biggest scare, however, came when the Israelis at the seder starting running through the service so quickly that they reached the meal part in 15 minutes, he said.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t have a seder that ends in half an hour. This is ridiculous,’” Rogalsky said. “So we started singing songs, and everybody started singing along with us. That lasted five hours. Nobody left the hotel ballroom till after midnight. It was an unbelievable experience.”

JTA Wire Service


Manning the Zionist ramparts at Santa Cruz

Published: 02 December 2011
(tags): ben harris

Santa Cruz, Calif. — On the third floor of the Baskin Engineering building at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is reviewing points of Hebrew grammar.

Her 25 students in first-level Hebrew — a panoply of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and whites — call out the gender associations of Hebrew words as Rossman-Benjamin reads aloud. Some words, such as “father” and “brother,” are easier to remember; they are grammatically masculine. Others, such as “door” and “window,” have to be memorized.

“It’s pretty random,” Rossman-Benjamin told her students. “The way to know is its form, how it looks.”

For the past 10 years, Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew-language lecturer at the school, has been following that same directive with single-minded determination, spending much of her time outside the classroom on a very different task: tracking incidents of anti-Israel activity at this coastal campus.

Seen in isolation, it is possible to argue that the incidents she has tracked might be considered legitimate, albeit harsh, criticisms of the Jewish state. Rossman-Benjamin says, however, that when taken together, statements by faculty and others in an array of campus events often display anti-Zionism, demonization of Israel and Israeli leaders, comparisons to Nazi Germany, and even questioning of the Jewish state’s very legitimacy.

Rossman-Benjamin says the collection of incidents takes the form of something truly insidious: a sustained, inaccurate, and hateful assault on a core aspect of Jewish identity.

Such rhetoric has been prevalent on California campuses for years, raising concerns from Irvine to Berkeley, ranging from the well-being of Jewish students to the integrity of academic discourse on the Middle East. At Santa Cruz, as on these other campuses, a combination of activist student groups and left-leaning academic departments has subjected Israel to withering censure — harsher treatment, critics say, than is meted out to any other nation.

While no claims of anti-Jewish violence or harassment have arisen so far at Santa Cruz, as have been alleged at other schools, Rossman-Benjamin contends that the consequence of this rhetoric has seeped beyond the confines of debate, submerging Jewish students in an atmosphere of hostility and intimidation that no other campus group is forced to endure.

“Here, the problem has to do with faculty and administration who misuse their classrooms and university-sponsored events in order to promote their personal political agendas,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “My complaint isn’t about anti-Semitism. My complaint is about a hostile environment for Jewish students.”

Since 2001, Rossman-Benjamin’s repeated appeals to the university have been met with silence or dismissal. So in 2009, she lodged a landmark complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the atmosphere on campus is so hostile that Jewish students suffer discrimination as a result.

In 2010, the San Francisco office of the USDOE’s Office for Civil Rights informed her that it had opened an investigation of UC Santa Cruz.

The result of all this is that Rossman-Benjamin, 55, has become a pariah on campus.

Not a single member of the UC Santa Cruz faculty has endorsed her view of the situation — save for her husband, Ilan Benjamin, who chairs the chemistry department. Several have accused her of intimidation and of infringing on their academic freedom.

Even in the Jewish world, she has proven divisive. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national organization, is considering a draft resolution that cautions against using legal means to censor anti-Israel events under the guise of protecting Jewish students. Rossman-Benjamin, however, is not only unbowed, she is as committed as ever.

Friends describe her as a woman of deep conviction and high principle, unafraid to defy opponents and go it alone when she believes that a larger purpose is at stake.

Since arriving in Santa Cruz in 1989, she has founded a synagogue (when the existing one no longer suited her), tried unsuccessfully to start a Jewish day school (despite opposition from some quarters of the local community), and publicly confronted the rabbinate of the Conservative movement over its lack of commitment to traditional biblical understanding.

Inevitably, she has stepped on some toes. “There are people in town who really don’t like Tammi, many of them at the university,” said Angela Eisenpress, a friend of Rossman-Benjamin, who worked with her on the day school project.

Rossman-Benjamin was born and raised in a Conservative family outside Philadelphia. She studied literature at McGill University and earned a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Concordia University. At 25, she arrived in Israel on what was supposed to be a trip around the world teaching English; she wound up staying for three years. It is where she met and married her husband.

“She ignores the naysayers,” said Eli Eisenpress, Angela’s husband. “She doesn’t have any particular interest in being popular in all segments of the community, or finding other people who support her ideas before she goes ahead.”

That kind of commitment, rather than a particular political identification, is what Rossman-Benjamin says animates her campaign on campus. Israel is central to her religious identity. Vicious attacks on its right to exist are not just abstract academic discussions for her; they are tantamount to attacks on her Jewishness.

“I don’t separate my Zionism from my Judaism,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “What it means to be a Jew is to have a love and a connection for Israel. It’s a part of my identity.”

In 2001, Rossman-Benjamin began noting the frequency of campus events hostile to Israel. A flier for one such event depicted a jet with a Star of David dropping bombs on civilians. Eight university departments were listed as co-sponsors, and Rossman-Benjamin complained to them all. No one responded.

Eventually, she and Ilan appealed to the academic senate. A committee report on the matter, released in 2008, concluded that Middle East-related events on campus did not constitute threats to the academic integrity of the university.

Several professors reported to the committee that Rossman-Benjamin’s activities were having a chilling effect on their activities. None of those professors responded to requests for comment for this story.

Undeterred, in 2009, Rossman-Benjamin appealed to the federal government. Capitalizing on a policy change that afforded Jews protection under Title VI, a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin, Rossman-Benjamin submitted a 29-page letter to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) detailing years of anti-Israel activity at UC Santa Cruz.

“The anti-Israel discourse and behavior in classrooms and at departmentally and college-sponsored events at UCSC is tantamount to institutional discrimination against Jewish students, which has resulted in their intellectual and emotional harassment and intimidation, and has adversely affected their educational experience at the university,” the letter said.

The OCR has said nothing publicly about the complaint. It is unclear whether and how the claims are being investigated, or when a conclusion might be reached. Rossman-Benjamin, however, said that even if her claims are found wanting, the exercise will still have been worth it.

“For as long as it’s open, it really brings a certain kind of scrutiny to the situation and the problem,” she said. “Even if the end result is not as I would have wanted it to be, it will still have been a very worthwhile thing.”

Rossman-Benjamin knows her continued activism will not win her any friends. She feels she cannot desist, however.

“I feel like I’m the strongest one, as an individual, to make the case that I make,” she said. “I’m not doing this with an organizational agenda. I’m not doing this even from a position of strength. I’m doing this with everything to lose.”

JTA Wire Service/J. weekly/Jewish Journal

Page 1 of 1 pages
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31