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entries tagged with: Zionism


‘I want to see our fences become fringes’

A secular Jew argues for inclusiveness

Does Jewish secularism have a future? Will there be American Jews half a century from now who are nonbelievers, uninterested in prayer, but nevertheless affirmatively engaged with Jewish identity through culture, language, politics, and community life?

The late, great Irving Howe was doubtful about it. As the author of “World of Our Fathers” (1976), Howe detailed the effusion of vibrant Jewish culture that resulted when Jews became secular, or “worldly,” in the 19th and 20th centuries — yet he believed that the secular movement was “reaching its end,” with its “messianic impulse” perhaps nearing “a point of exhaustion.” Therefore, he concluded, with a sage wink at the Apocrypha (and James Agee), “Now let us praise obscure men.”

I read that final line as an obscure young man myself, 30 years ago. I had just taken my first Jewish job as assistant editor of Jewish Currents magazine, and I was seeking from Howe’s best-seller a quick education. Instead, his elegiac tone about Jewish secularism — the very culture that the magazine represented — made me feel like a dinosaur at age 27.


Today, at 57, I’m the editor of Jewish Currents, Website and all — but it would be nothing but boosterism to pretend that Irving Howe had it wrong. As recently as my own childhood, Jewish secularism was a bubbling culture, with many thousands of families sending their children to Jewish schools, summer camps, and socialist kibbutzim, reading daily Yiddish newspapers, participating in Jewish politics, theater, folk dance, choruses, and holiday celebrations, obtaining life insurance and health benefits through Jewish organizations, and imbedding themselves in communities — all without ever stepping into a synagogue or JCC. Today, there are only a few dozen shules (secular Jewish schools) left across North America, and most of the secular Jewish camps that dotted the Northeast have become spiritual retreat centers or condo developments. Of the 10,000 members of the Yiddish-oriented Workmen’s Circle, about three out of five are octogenarians. Even the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which was savvy enough to adopt a congregational model when the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine launched it in 1963, has stalled in its growth. Certainly, there are some thriving pockets of secular Jewish life and even new ventures (most notably, the growth of secular Jewish studies programs at college and universities, thanks to funding by the Posen Foundation through the Center for Cultural Judaism). Overall, however, the challenge of generational continuity has not been well met by Jewish secularists in America.

Worse, the history and legacy of these movements seem in danger of vanishing. Young Jews often have no idea that it was primarily radical secularists who launched and built the Zionist movement, founded the State of Israel, led Jewish resistance to Nazism (including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), wrote the best-known modern Jewish literature and songs, sacrificed for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, launched the Israeli folkdance movement and the klezmer revival, and so forth and so on. When I gave a brief talk about this to a college class a few years ago, one young woman actually burst into tears. The very idea of a nonreligious Jew was alien to her, and she somehow thought I was dissing her favorite Israeli heroes and heroines.

Cluelessness aside, it is painfully easy to cite the factors that have contributed to the decline of secular Jewishness. Most obvious and devastating was the destruction of the Eastern European taproot by Nazism. Stalinism then wiped out dozens more secular Jewish cultural figures and institutions while making Jewish identity of any kind seem almost politically suspect. Here in America, meanwhile, Jews got a clear message, especially during the McCarthy period, to keep a low profile, ethnically and politically, and express their Jewish identities chiefly through religious channels. Religion, as April Rosenblum recently wrote in Jewish Currents, was “the one difference that was tolerated” in that intolerant era, and Jews learned to be “simply the white people who ‘went to church on Saturday.’”

Secular Jewish groups also contributed to their own decline with fratricidal passion. When I attended Camp Kinderland, founded in 1923 by secular Jewish communists, the Workmen’s Circle also had a camp, Kinder Ring, directly across the lake from us. Though we were all Jewish socialists, living in the 1960s, no one on either shore would so much as row a boat across. Three decades later, when my communist grandmother outlived her Yiddish newspaper (the Morgn Frayhayt) and I offered her a subscription to the Forverts as a substitute, she shot daggers at me with her eyes. “Never! They’re social fascists,” she said, digging up an epithet that the communists had used against the social democrats more than half a century earlier. My bubbe couldn’t remember the names of her own great-grandchildren, but this she could remember.

Jewish secularists’ lack of excitement about Zionism has been another confining fence for them. True, even among religious Jews, Zionism had a rocky going before the Holocaust: The Reform synagogue movement, for example, did not embrace Jewish nation-building until 1937, by which time Nazism had disabused the Reformers of their faith that people of the “Mosaic persuasion” could live safely among non-Jewish majorities.

Secularists, however, had deep roots in Jewish radical movements of Europe, notably the Jewish Bund, which strongly believed in the value of doikayt (“hereness”) and considered Zionism to be a distraction from the building of revolutionary movements. Secular Yiddishists also bore a righteous grudge against Zionism for suppressing Yiddish and downplaying the positive achievements of the Jewish diaspora. The eventual alignment of Israel with the U.S. military-industrial complex, and the rightward-pulling influence of Israel upon the left-leaning Jewish community, didn’t do much, either, to endear Zionism to progressive, secular American Jews.

Finally, the decline of the Jewish secular movements has been speeded by their passionate indifference to Judaism, which has fetched scorn and censure from many rabbis, scholars, funders, and denominational leaders for decades. Notwithstanding various ringing endorsements of “klal Yisrael” (Jewish unity), a whole lot of observant Jews seem eager to ban secularism from the marketplace of Jewish ideas.

Last autumn, for example, I heard historian Jonathan Sarna gratuitously attack secularists as “false messiahs” during a keynote address at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation convention — this in front of a movement that disavows the existence of a “personal” God! (Surely Mordecai Kaplan was spinning in his grave.)

For their part, secular Jews have foolishly left the hall, expressing their distaste for God-worship, Torah-worship, rabbinical authority, and halachic strictures by depriving themselves and their children of fundamental Jewish knowledge and leaving themselves out of the loop of interpretation, renewal, and ritual creativity that has so redeemed Judaism as a spiritual path during the last three decades. The line that separates a secular Jew from an amhorets (ignoramus) or assimilationist thus gets thinner each decade . . ..

Who cares about any of this? What does the crisis of Jewish secularism mean for the rest of the Jewish community? In my judgment, the secular Jewish movements have represented the most committed embodiment of the countercultural, “let’s-change-the-world” aspects of Jewish identity. Even their discomfort with the Zionist project of “normalization” was rooted in a deeply Jewish (if historically naïve) belief that our people should serve as a “light unto the nations”: peaceable in a warlike world, merciful in a vengeful world, skeptical in an idolatrous world, communal and generous in a dog-eat-dog world, and fiercely devoted to the overturning of “slavery in Egypt.” Y.L. Peretz, the classic Yiddish writer whose literature has Torah-like stature for some secularists, put it this way: Jews who “wish to be true to ourselves” should be asking “vital questions” about “conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.” Isaac Bashevis Singer brought the sentiment more down to earth: Jews, he wrote, are “a people who can’t sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.”

I know that these values have deep expression in the Jewish religious world and that Jewish social action will not fade away with the Jewish secular movements. But I also know that there are tens of thousands of “nonbelievers” (or “semi-believers”) in the American Jewish community who desire a means of expressing their Jewishness without enduring hours of worship — or immigrating to Israel. They don’t believe in God, even with His beard shaved off, and they’re less interested in understanding the distinctions between Torah and Talmud, Mishnah and Midrash, or Aggadah and Akedah, than in understanding their social responsibilities and ethical heritage.

As a secularist who has served several Jewish agencies as well as the Reform and Reconstructionist synagogue communities, I have been waiting more than 30 years for synagogues, religious organizations, and philanthropists to awaken to the opportunities and needs created by the stasis of the secular Jewish movement. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a rabbi reading Peretz’s “Bontshe the Silent” or “If Not Higher” instead of a Torah portion on a Saturday morning. Among secular Jews, therefore, I agitate for fundamental literacy about Jewish religious philosophy; among observant Jews, for fundamental literacy about the legacy of secular Jewish culture. I want to see our fences become fringes, our ideologies give way. I want to see an armada of rowboats crossing the lake.


Yavneh play honors ‘unlikely hero’ of the Holocaust

Philip Meyer is the older Pinchas. Jeanette Friedman
The entire cast is onstage for the finale. Jeanette Friedman

Charles and Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum traveled from Geneva and Jerusalem to Paramus last Thursday to watch the Yavneh middle school graduating class perform “The Unlikely Hero,” a play honoring their father, Pinchas Rosenbaum, who saved Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. In this production, Pinchas the younger was played by Leora Hyman and the older by Philip Meyer. The script was written and the scenery was designed and painted by members of the graduating class.

The script was adapted from interviews commissioned by the two brothers and their sister Leah, lifelong friends of Yavneh’s Rabbi Shmuel Burstein. Though he knew the family, the teacher first heard the story 25 years ago at dinner honoring the memory of Pinchas Rosenbaum, who died in 1980. According to Charles Rosenbaum, his father rarely spoke about his rescue efforts. But as his children traveled the world, they were approached by those he rescued who told them their stories.

Burstein, a teacher of Tanach and Jewish history at Yavneh, noted that “Pinchas Rosenbaum was a personal hero of mine. My great attachment comes from his overwhelming love, passion, and willingness to risk all for his fellow Jews, regardless of where they stood on the political or religious spectrum. He fulfilled, in all its meanings, the commandment not to stand idly by your brother’s blood.”

Moshe Rosenbaum gave Burstein the interviews and Dominique Cieri, an actress, playwright, and director engaged by Yavneh for the project, drew up an outline. The students then wrote the play, together with Cieri and Burstein.

Leora Hyman is the young Pinchas. Courtesy Leora Hyman

When the play opens, Pinchas, son of the rebbe of Kisvarda, Hungary, is learning about his illustrious “yichus,” his lineage, and is reminded of his obligations to their tradition. Rosenbaum is the descendant of a long line of ultra-Orthodox rabbis that included the Maharal of Prague. The promising student is sent to Rabbi Josef Elimelech Kahane, the Ungvar rebbe, played by Oriel Farajun, who like his father and most ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Hungary, was anti-Zionist.

The play shows how young Pinchas learns about Zionism from neighborhood boys and rebels against what he is being taught when he sees how his fellow Jews are victimized by anti-Semites. At the outset, the students in his class argue with him, Rabbi Kahane argues with him, and all quote passages from the Talmud to determine whether it is it more important to save lives by fleeing to Palestine or to wait for the messiah to establish a haven for Jews.

The unlikely hero, Pinchas, receives his rabbinical ordination at 18, joins the religious Zionists, and does not allow neighborhood anti-Semites to bully him. Then he is arrested and sent to a labor camp. His family is deported to Auschwitz while he is a prisoner. Distraught, he escapes, disguises himself in a Nazi uniform, and begins saving Jewish lives by “capturing” Jews. He brings them to the Glass House, a haven protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and to other safe houses under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who disappeared into a Soviet prison. Pinchas tries to convince his own father to save himself and the family, but his father refuses to abandon his community and insists on being deported with them.

Burstein said that “all sides of the issues of Zionism and non-Zionism had to be explored through the life experiences of those who lived with Pinchas, including the views of the ultra-Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and the Zionists.”

“It was so refreshing to see those youngsters act in such a meaningful and sincere way,” said Moshe Rosenbaum. “It was clear that for them, it meant everything.”

One point didn’t come out during the play, said Rosenbaum. “My father was very concerned about the safety of non-Zionist Orthodox Jews who came to the Glass House and were pushed away by the Zionists. He tried to keep them safe by creating a space where they could learn and pray without being harassed.” Their leader, Rosenbaum said, was a descendant of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, who is now in Jerusalem.

“I was proud to play the part of a real hero,” said Leora, “but I don’t think I would be brave enough to do what he did. The lesson I learned is that when you put your mind to something, and if it’s really important to you, you can make it happen.”

Philip, who played the older Pinchas, said, “It was an honor to portray a heroic person who made such a difference during a dark time in Jewish history. Since the play was a group effort, it made a great graduation project. We came together to make it happen, just like Pinchas Rosenbaum worked with his group, which made it easier to save Jews…. A lot of what happened back then doesn’t apply anymore, but what we can learn from this great tzaddik, what we should keep close to our hearts, is that we should help our fellow Jews and stand up for what we believe in.” (Both “Pinchases” are from Teaneck.)

Oriel, who played the Ungvar rebbe, had this to say: “I felt that Rabbi Kahane overreacted when he yelled at Pinchas not to become a Zionist and that he should have listened to Pinchas’ ideas. He seemed like a good teacher … but … look, when we went to the Israel Day Parade we saw the Neturei Karta protesting on the side, so I know there are people who still feel that way today.”

Oriel, who is from Fair Lawn, continued, “Pinchas took risks and succeeded in saving hundreds.… We American Jewish kids were never in such a situation so we never had to take huge risks…. It’s hard for us to know if we would do such things. I am not sure that I would, but I hope I would be able to risk my life to save others. In its way, the play prepares us for the future. It shows us the world is good but that there are lots of bad things going on. We have to look out for each other, and not just think — we have to take action.”

Charles Rosenbaum said the play was beautiful. “It was very emotional — the students did it with so much warmth, and made me very happy I came. They are just amazing. My father spoke about the past only reluctantly — perhaps it’s because he died so young (at 57) and the wounds were still too fresh. Though he did not tell it to us directly, it is our obligation as the second generation to tell it. By writing and producing this play, this obligation has passed to the third generation, who are now telling the story to future generations.”


Beinart pins his thesis to the synagogue door

WASHINGTON – Peter Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue, once edited The New Republic (the closest thing to a smicha for Jewish policy wonks) and backed Sen. Joe Lieberman’s quixotic 2004 bid to become the first Jewish president.

Pro Israel, with questions

Which is why he’s always been counted among the Washington pundits who defend Israel, Zionism, and the right of American Jews to lobby for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Beinart also frets about how Jewish his kids will be.

Peter Beinart has pundits and Jewish officials debating about his recent essay asserting an increasing American Jewish alienation from Israel.

Which is why he worries about how Israel behaves, how it is perceived, and what it means for American Jewry. And why, he says, he published a lengthy essay in last week’s New York Review of Books arguing that American Jews are becoming alienated from Israel and blaming U.S. Jewish groups for refusing to criticize the Israeli government’s perceived rightward shift.

“Having kids makes you react differently to things,” Beinart told JTA, speaking of what brought about his 5,000-word (not counting several subsequent rebuttals to rebuttals) piece.

“It made me think more, not about my own Zionist identity, but about what Zionism was going to be available to them,” Beinart said. “I began to grow more and more concerned about the choice they would make, which would have been agonizing for me to watch unfold” — between an American universalism stripped of Zionism or an “anti-universalistic Zionism that has strong elements in Israel, and in the Orthodox community for which I have strong affection.”

Beinart’s essay has had an impact, unleashing a stream of responses. It is being examined as well in the uppermost precincts of organized U.S. Jewry, and has become fodder for lunchtime chats, insiders say.

“Everyone’s read it and everyone is talking about it,” said Marc Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The essay comes as dovish and leftist groups in Israel and the United States are beginning to push back against the conventional wisdoms that define organizational American Jewish attitudes about Israel. The most prominent case is the rise in recent years of J Street, but there are other examples: B’Tselem, the human rights group, recently exported an Israeli staffer to direct its Capitol Hill operation.

Officials of Ir Amim, a group that counsels accommodating some Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem as a means of keeping the peace in the city, are touring the United States this week. They are sounding out Jewish leaders about how to make the case for a shared city to an American Jewish polity where dividing the city is something of a third rail.

For the most part, the debate has assumed something of the tone of an earnest, friendly exchange, with the combatants avoiding the sort of dueling take-no-prisoners charges of dual loyalty and anti-Semitism that sometimes marks such exchanges.

In large part that’s because of Beinart’s biography and standing. Even his critics admit that Beinart — unlike other critics of U.S. Jewish support for Israel who have cast it as an anomaly at best and dual loyalty at worst — cannot be shooed away.

James Kirchick, like Beinart an alumnus of The New Republic, said in a critique published on Foreign Policy’s Website that Beinart’s arguments could not be dismissed.

“Beinart has never been part of American Jewry’s leftist faction; up until recently, he was a prominent spokesperson for the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party,” Kirchick said.

Beinart’s synagogue-door declaration of independence from what he says is establishment Jewish orthodoxy (small o) is framed in the politest of terms, although he names names: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In theory, mainstream American Jewish organizations still hew to a liberal vision of Zionism,” he writes. “On its Website, AIPAC celebrates Israel’s commitment to ‘free speech and minority rights.’”

Beinart says the Conference of Presidents declares that “‘Israel and the United States share political, moral, and intellectual values including democracy, freedom, security, and peace.’ These groups would never say, as do some in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Israeli Arabs don’t deserve full citizenship and west bank Palestinians don’t deserve human rights. But in practice, by defending virtually anything any Israeli government does, they make themselves intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

The response, on the record from the pro-Israel commentariat and off the record from some of Beinart’s targets: He’s moved on. Once an Iraq war supporter, he is now affiliated with the New American Foundation, the liberal-realist think tank that is home to a number of pronounced critics of traditional American pro-Israel orthodoxies.

Shmuel Rosner, a blogger for The Jerusalem Post whose focus for years has been on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry, wondered whether Beinart hadn’t made it a little too personal.

“It is a story worthy of telling, with careful attention to detail, with open mind,” Rosner wrote. “A story more interesting than the personal misgivings one Jewish liberal is trying to impose on the community as a whole.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent at The Atlantic, and Leon Wieseltier, Beinart’s former colleague at The New Republic, chided Beinart for publishing his essay in The New York Review of Books, which has published material questioning the validity of a Jewish state. In response, Beinart has noted that it also has published tough defenses of Israel — and that it is an apt forum for a writer trying not only to reconcile Zionism with liberals, but liberals with Zionism.

More substantive complaints had to do with Beinart’s omissions: He mentions only in passing the Palestinian responsibility — through the failure to contain terrorism and incitement — for frustrating the peace talks, and also does not substantially treat the existential threat implied by Iran’s current rulers. He also focuses on Netanyahu’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations,” which severs the Palestinians from his vision of a peaceful Middle East instead of the prime minister’s more recent pronouncements acceding to a two-state solution.

Beinart, in follow-up essays in the online Daily Beast, another of his employers, argues that he glances by the Palestinians because he is writing about and for Jews.

“My piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict,” he writes. “Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians.”

As for Netanyahu, Beinart argues that his acceptance of Palestinian statehood was only grudging and came under intense American pressure.

Rosner also picks over Beinart’s statistical analyses, wondering if they hold up. The research, Rosner says, shows that American Jews who believe in trading land for peace — and who conceivably would be at odds with its current government — nonetheless describe themselves as attached to Israel, whatever its current political posture. Kirchick notes that attachment to Israel has traditionally increased with age.

Steven M. Cohen, one of the sociologists whose work Beinart cites in his essay, thinks Beinart is right to say younger Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel, but wrong to blame it on politics. Instead, he argued in a response published by Foreign Policy, the main factor is intermarriage — more specifically, the “departure from all manner of Jewish ethnic ‘groupiness,’ of which Israel attachment is part.”

That said, Cohen added, “Jewishly engaged young adults” are turned off by their perception that debate over Israel is not welcomed in Jewish communal circles.

“If Israel is to retain the engagement of the coming (and present) generation of American Jews,” he wrote, “organized American Jewry will need to provide a third alternative — one that combines love of Israel with a rich and open discourse on its policies and politics.”

Whatever the dimensions of the threat, even some of Beinart’s named targets — speaking off the record — agreed that a crisis was imminent and that he raised worthwhile issues.

“Is my diagnosis as dour as his is? No, I’m probably not as pessimistic as Beinart is,” said one official. “But anybody’s who’s not worried about” disaffection among younger Jews, “whether they believe his thesis or not, is fooling themselves.”

Beinart’s best point, this official said, is that young Jews are not as prone to see themselves as victims as the establishment is.

“The most correct part of his analysis, the challenge for us, is a Jewish community that is changing,” the official said. “We have viewed ourselves as having been powerless and weak, but we have evolved into a community that is powerful and strong.”

Plenty of previous debates over Israel and the pro-Israel lobby have descended into name-calling and generated plenty of hostility. Not this time, according to Beinart.

“In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn’t surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing,” Beinart wrote in an exchange with Goldberg. “There’s been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It’s made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.”



New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives — leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body — the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.’”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.


Facing confrontation on Israel, Presbyterian Church manages a compromise

WASHINGTON – U.S. Jews and Presbyterians say they have salvaged a fragile unity of purpose from an assembly that was poised to create a rift between the two faiths.

The outcome of last week’s General Assembly in Minneapolis of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was remarkable in that all sides in the contentious debate — Jewish groups and the authors of a controversial report on the Middle East that had alarmed the Jews — agreed that the outcome was better than any side had expected.

Rather than adopt the report’s recommendations, including sanctions against Israel and divestment, the assembly revised the report’s recommendations and adopted an amended resolution that both camps applauded as evenhanded.

Katharine Henderson, the president of the Presbyterian Church USA’s Auburn Theological Seminary, was key to facilitating a compromise resolution on the Middle East July 9 at the church’s assembly. Courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary

Ron Shive, who chaired the Middle East Study Committee, released a letter to the assembly prior to the vote urging endorsement of the changes that incorporated some of the concerns raised by Jewish groups.

“A week ago, it looked as if the Presbyterian Church (USA) was going to enact a version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its own body, so divided were we on all sides,” the letter began. “Today, we still have disagreements on items in the report, on methods we should pursue, on arguments we should make. But today, by God’s grace, we have discovered that together, we may actually be more faithful and effective in seeking peace with justice for both Palestinians and Israelis than separately.”

The president of the church’s Auburn Theological Seminary, Katharine Henderson, who was key to facilitating the dialogue on the resolution, said the Presbyterians who favored the Palestinian cause had been unaware of the prominence within the Jewish and Israeli communities of groups that took Palestinian needs into consideration.

Conversely, Jewish groups had not internalized the degree to which Presbyterians, and other Christians, are moved by the plight of the diminishing numbers of Palestinian Christians who have been squeezed out because of the conflict. Those sympathies often lead to broader sympathies for the Palestinians.

“I think that people came from very polarized places supporting the narrative that they had been persuaded by, so there was a pro-Palestinian camp and a pro-Israel camp,” she said.

She co-authored the letter Shive sent before the vote. The letter anticipated a more healthy dialogue.

“Beyond any expectation, we find ourselves discovering a new model of ministry together, a model committed to seeking, hearing, and responding to the fullness of narratives and commitments with the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” it said.

The culmination was that in votes last Friday in Minneapolis, the assembly rejected sanctions and divestment as a means of protesting Israel’s Jewish settlements in the west bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as theological critiques of Zionism that Jewish groups said bordered on the anti-Semitic.

The assembly resolution that eventually passed recognized both Israeli and Palestinian claims in the conflict.

The consensus encompassed the church’s most strident critics of Israeli policy and an array of Jewish groups including organizations that often lean conservative on pro-Israel issues, such as CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It was critical to maintain that consensus in the coming months, the sides said, in order to keep positions from hardening down the road.

Ethan Felson, the director of domestic concerns for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish public policy umbrella organization, credited Henderson for facilitating dialogue rather than confrontation between the two sides.

“Many people who are passionate on all sides live in echo chambers,” Felson told JTA on Monday after hosting Henderson on a conference call with JCPA constituent groups. “When you develop genuine relationships with people with contrasting views, oftentimes you recognize that it’s possible for our narratives to overlap rather than conflict.” Felson also attended the assembly.

Henderson said the challenge was the devolution of the argument into pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps within the church. At an assembly with the sides setting up competing booths, she and others endeavored to get the sides to communicate.

“Over the course of the General Assembly, as people began to listen to each other, they realized the importance of the other narrative and really began to learn why people felt the way they did,” she told JTA.

A coalition of 12 national Jewish groups signed a JCPA statement welcoming the rejections of the problematic recommendations on Israel prepared by the church’s Middle East Study Committee.

“Rejection of overtures calling for the use of divestment and labeling Israeli policy as apartheid demonstrate a desire for broader understanding in the quest for peace,” the statement said. “The General Assembly has modeled a more inclusive voice on the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

There were qualifications: The JCPA statement noted with disappointment that the assembly deferred for further consideration a paper recommending improvements in Presbyterian-Jewish relations that has been long in preparation.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a separate statement that was sharper in its disappointment. Though the ADL credited the assembly for actions that “averted a rupture,” it slammed the conference’s recommendation that the U.S. government consider withholding aid as a means of pressuring Israel.

What made the outcome extraordinary, participants said, was that the drafters of the report saw its effective rejection as an improvement as well. The assembly endorsed the positive elements of the report — promoting hope, love, and reconciliation. But instead of disseminating the report, the assembly tasked the committee with coming up with eight representative, authentic narratives — four Israeli, four Palestinian — for consideration.

Shive told the Los Angeles Times that he did not see the changes to the recommendations arising out of the report as weakening the Middle East Study Committee’s argument pressing for greater consideration of the Palestinians.

“I don’t think that’s watering down,” he said, referring to language recognizing Israel’s security needs. “I think that’s listening to our Jewish partners and saying, ‘This is something that needs to be in the report.’”

Dexter Van Zile, the Christian media analyst for CAMERA, a pro-Israel monitoring group that often sharply hits back at Israel criticism, said it was incumbent on Jewish groups to recognize the depth among Christians of sympathy for the Palestinians.

“One of the things I have learned in the past few years is that there really is a genuine concern on the part of the activists; it’s genuine,” said Van Zile, who attended the assembly. “People who ignore that concern and dismiss it aren’t going to get anywhere.”

Conversing with pro-Palestinian activists has the potential of introducing pro-Israel concerns about burgeoning anti-Semitism in the Middle East, he noted.

“You have to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and you have to talk about some of the underlying causes of hostility to Israel.”

Henderson pressed the case for follow-up at the local level, perhaps extending to joint Jewish-Presbyterian projects such as investment in the west bank economy, and face-to-face encounters between Jews and Palestinians such as those organized by her seminary.

Letting the good will engendered by the dialogue at the assembly lapse, she warned, might harden positions two years from now at the next assembly.

“It’s incumbent upon those of us who were there, myself included, and all of us in this coalition,” Henderson said, “that we are accountable to each other to continue the work with each other in the church and with our Jewish and Palestinian partners.”



Goodbye, AJCongress, and thanks


Loathing the oath


Ruth Wisse to discuss treating the disease of anti-Semitism

First identify its purposes, says Harvard professor

Looking at the findings of the many groups that track anti-Semitism, one might be forgiven for concluding that it is an irresistible force.

Indeed, wrote author/scholar Ruth Wisse in her book “Jews and Power,” anti-Semitism may well be “the most successful ideology of modern times.”

Still, Wisse told The Jewish Standard in an interview this week, despairing does no good. Rather than tracing, exposing, opposing, and decrying this phenomenon, we must “determine to understand it properly and see how and why it works.” Only then can we “set ourselves the goal of eradicating it.”

The Harvard professor — who will speak at Teaneck’s Cong. Bnai Yeshurun on Nov. 27 on the topic “Anti-Semitism: Can It Be Stopped?” — acknowledged the prevalence of discouraging data coming, for example, from the Pew Research Institute, college campuses, and The Middle East Media Research Institute.

Ruth Wisse links politics, anti-Semitism. File Photo

“It sometimes seems that this is a force so irresistible and protean, it takes so many different forms, that people may throw up their hands,” she said.

But none of these groups work with an investigative approach, she said. None sets itself the task of treating this as “science goes about treating a problem, asking when and how it starts, who uses it, and what purposes it serves.”

According to Wisse, the success of anti-Semitism is best explained politically.

Indeed, she wrote in a recent Commentary article, “it arose … not to address the realities of the Jewish situation but to meet the political needs of others and to satisfy the political ends of others.”

While the creation of the modern State of Israel was both a marvel and a step in the right direction, “[t]he error lay not in the confidence placed by Jews in their capacity to establish a homeland but in the expectation that doing so would mitigate or put an end to the hostility directed against them.”

Anti-Semitism, she says “cannot be arrested by any remedial action of the Jews.” Adopting a “defensive reaction of negotiation, accommodation, and no small amount of self-blame” will not only fail but will have increasingly dire consequences.

Questioning the wisdom of the 1993 Oslo Accords, for example, she suggests that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin should have pointed out to the Arab world that while Israel was choosing to make concessions “because we feel it is in our national interest to do so,” it was also clear that “the lopsidedness of the war against us means that only its initiators can halt their incitement against us.” Rather than calling on the international community to help Israel enforce penalties against those who might violate the agreement, “Israel walked open-eyed into the peace trap.”

“Politically, anti-Semitism succeeds by working through misdirection,” she said, noting that Israel is blamed for the aggression directed against it and that many people, Jews included, buy into this characterization.

What Israel must do, she holds, is to “reject vigorously the role of defendant at the bar of world opinion and to instigate political, diplomatic, moral, and intellectual countersuits on every front.”

“It’s troubling to people to really hear this spelled out,” Wisse told the Standard. “People respond emotionally.”

Still, she added, she’s not a historian of anti-Semitism but “just working as someone trying to figure this out. I don’t see people bearing down on this problem,” she said. “It requires on the part of Jews and Jewish leadership and all of us a very difficult process of self-transformation.”

While Jews hoped that Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state would be the answer — which it would have been, she said, in a perfect world — instead “it triggered a return to the situation in which Jews always found themselves, looking at themselves as a powerless, disenfranchised little minority having to answer charges.”

Wisse said we should not overlook the importance of Zionism, not only as “a step in the right direction but a fulfillment of what Jews had been preparing for throughout their history.”

“There’s no phenomenon to compare with a people who in the same decade see one-third of its members annihilated in a process so spectacular that the word genocide is created to define it, and in the same decade reclaim its political place in the world after a hiatus of 2,000 years,” she said. “That’s the story we should be telling.”

The story is not the Holocaust, she said, “but the rise of the State of Israel,” with the Jews accepting responsibility for power and self-defense.

Wisse said “there are probably more voices, strong — and in some cases brilliant and insightful — speaking for Israel and the Jews today than at any time in Jewish history.”

At the same time, however, “The forces against Israel, the usefulness of the organization of politics against the Jews, [are] also so great and growing that it is a struggle between the destroyers and the builders.”

The destroyers, she said, always work to destroy liberal democracy, “so the enemies of the Jews are going to be enemies of America as well. There’s not an accidental connection but [rather] an essential connection” between those who oppose Israel and those who would destroy the free world.

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