Alphabet Soup

Happy refugees at Farchana in Chad spell out “Thank You HIAS!”  (Photo by Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

Happy refugees at Farchana in Chad spell out “Thank You HIAS!”
(Photo by Glenna Gordon/HIAS)

The announcement last week that HIAS, the century-old Jewish immigrant and refugee aid organization, will relocate its headquarters from New York City to Silver Spring is just another sign that the Jewish organizational universe is changing.

Once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the agency has responded to the end of Jewish refugee immigration into the port of New York by refocusing on refugee advocacy Washington, D.C.

In doing so, HIAS is joining an exodus of religion-based immigrant agencies, said Mark Hetfield, HIAS president and CEO.

“All of us started in the Ellis Island days when almost all immigrants came through New York and all migration organizations and refugee organizations were based in New York,” he said. “Then, over the 1990s, that gradually started to change, and now five of the nine refugee organizations [sanctioned by the U.S. State Department] are already based in the Baltimore-Washington area.”

Those organizations include: the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service (LIRS), World Relief (Evangelical), the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Church World Service (mainline Protestant), Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

In the Jewish community, HIAS’s shift is part of a growing trend of organizations shedding old identities when their original missions have been filled. That often includes streamlining names to avoid referring to those outdated missions. The result can sometimes seem like an alphabet soup, with the Anti-Defamation League becoming the ADL and the American Jewish Committee rebranded AJC — not to be confused with the American Jewish Congress.

Hetfield said that one of the motivations for the upcoming move was a belief that HIAS could have a greater impact by being closer to Congress, the State Department and other federal agencies where immigration and refugee policy is made.

Although HIAS already has a small advocacy contingent in Washington, bringing the leadership, experts and program staff to the area is intended to better assist this advocacy wing shape immigration and refugee policy, he said.

According to Charity Navigator, which gives HIAS its highest rating for transparency and accountability, 65.3 percent of the agency’s annual budget of $25 million comes from government grants — from the State Department, the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Still welcoming the stranger
From its establishment in the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century, HIAS’s primary goal was to facilitate the immigration and resettlement of Jews coming to the United States — the majority of whom were escaping persecution in Europe, Russia and later the Soviet Union. But with the end of immigration from the former Soviet Union, during the last 20 years, HIAS shifted to apply its experience in resettlement and to non-Jewish refugee communities worldwide.

HIAS says this new work is based on the biblical commandment to welcome the stranger as well as the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or social justice.

“After doing it for our own community almost exclusively for over 120 years, we’re now in the position where we can do it for others,” said Hetfield. “We and others feel that it is important to have the Jewish community, not just the various Christian communities, taking part in refugee protection and refugee resettlement.

“It would be a tragedy, it would be a shandah [scandal] to have the Jewish community absent from refugee protection programs in the United States when every other faith community is represented,” he added.

HIAS’s expansion and rebranding included making the group’s acronym its official name. Hetfield said the word “Hebrew” is exclusionary and outdated, much as the word “colored” is to refer to African-Americans.

Not only will HIAS join other refugee aid organizations in Washington, it will also compete with other Jewish organizations involved in advocacy and claiming to be the “Jewish voice” on this or that political issue. Each group is fighting to carve out a niche for itself in what some think is an oversaturated market of advocacy groups, none of which seems to close down when its job is done.

But Jewish historian and Brandies University professor Jonathan Sarna sees a cycle in the growth of American Jewish institutions.

“There are periods in American Jewish history that had a great growth in organizations, and certainly as the community grows from a quarter of a million in 1880 to a community that is going to be about 3.5 million in 1920, it’s not surprising they needed new organizations for that community,” said Sarna.

“And, of course, we’re seeing a lot of new organizations in our own day, where young people look around the world of startups and say ‘I want to change American Jewish life, but I don’t want to work with these great big organizations. I’m going to start something little, hopefully it will take off.’”

Sarna added that although there are many examples of Jewish organizations failing to evolve and shutting down, there is a phenomenon that “Jewish organizations come into existence but are not so easy to put out of existence.”

The March of Dimes goes on
The event that most recently strained the Jewish organizational world was the crash of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession. Many Jewish organizations lost significant investments with Madoff.

“Nonprofits have a way of self-preservation,” said Alan Ronkin, regional director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “The March of Dimes was founded to cure polio. And miraculously, Dr. Jonas Salk cured polio. Now, in theory, the March of Dimes should have gone out of business, but their leadership decided that they had a great way of helping people, so they expanded their mandate to all childhood diseases, and to this day they still exist and help children.

“Sometimes you do see that nonprofits evolve to adapt to a changing world, and those that don’t disappear,” he added. “So in some ways, having the larger, sort of aircraft-carrier nonprofits that are very solid and hard to get rid of is a good thing because they have longevity and can last through times of crisis.”

Ronkin sees the proliferation of aid, benevolence and advocacy organizations in the Jewish community as a sign of success and the will to use this success to help others.

But are there enough donations to keep so many of these behemoths afloat? Yes, said Ronkin. Despite the number of old and new active Jewish organizations, they are managing to raise more money than they ever have. Only, there is a change in where the money comes from and what it is for.

“We’re raising more money but from fewer people,” he said. “In the past, American Jews gave almost exclusively to Jewish organizations. Many in our community have diversified their philanthropy such that they can give to a host of mainstream organizations in the general community that wouldn’t have accepted them years ago.

Ronkin also said that today, even though organizations are receiving more money on average, there has been a rise in designated giving: money given for specific projects or programs. This sometimes makes it harder for administrators, who would traditionally allocate money within the organization to where they felt it was most needed.

With so many organization such as HIAS moving to the Washington, D.C., area and the ones already there, Sarna points to another trend — the increasing importance of Washington.

“There has been a significant migration because I think American Jews increasingly believe that they have to engage with government in order to really demonstrate power,” Sarna said. “The sense of Washington of being where the power is is very strong, but I would say that this has something to do with the migration of power from New York to Washington nationally. Government is increasingly recognized as being big and powerful, and you’ve got to be there.”

President Praises Community Efforts to Free Gross

December 17 remarks from President Barack Obama on the release of Alan Gross:

“I wanted to begin with today’s wonderful news. I’m told that in Jewish tradition one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim. My Hebrew’s not perfect. But I get points for trying. But it describes the redemption. The freeing of captives. And that’s what we are celebrating today because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.

Alan’s dedicated his life to others. To helping people around the world develop their communities and improve their lives. Including Israelis and Palestinians. He’s a man of deep faith who once worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Five years ago he was arrested by Cuban authorities simply for helping ordinary Cubans, including Cuba’s small Jewish community, access information on the Internet. And ever since, those who have loved and cared for Alan never stopped working to bring him home.

Judy, his wife of 44 years and their daughters, including his oldest daughter who walked down the aisle without her dad on her wedding day. His mother, who passed away this year without being able to see her son one last time. His whole family, including his sister-in-law Gwen Suarez who joins us here today (looks her way and waves to acknowledge her presence: Hey Gwen). His rabbi. His friends at his congregation in Maryland, Om Kolel, who kept him in their prayers every Shabbat. Jewish and other faith leaders around the country and around the world, including his holiness Pope Francis. And members of Congress and those of us in the United States government.

And Alan’s fought back. He spoke out from his cell. He went on a hunger strike. With his health deteriorating his family worried that he might not be able to make it out alive but he never gave up and we never gave up. As I explained earlier, after many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds.

I spoke to him on his flight. He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me (laughter). I told him he had mustard in his mustache. I couldn’t actually see it (more laughs in audience). Needless to say he was thrilled and he landed at Andrews in a plane marked United States of America (applause).

He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs. He’s back where he belongs in America with his family, home for Chanukah and I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday with its message that freedom is possible than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy (loud cheers). These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.

Alan’s remarks about the need for these changes was extremely powerful.”

Statement from Gross on Return Home from Cuba

Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Alan Gross, freed from a Cuban prison earlier in the day, waves after concluding his remarks with his wife, Judy, at a news conference in Washington shortly after arriving in the United States, Dec. 17, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Upon returning home from five years of imprisonment in Cuba, Alan Gross had the following to say:

“Chag Sameach.  What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America.  Thank you President Obama for everything you have done today.

I want to acknowledge the extraordinary and determined efforts of my wife of forty four and a half years, Judy Gross, and my lawyer and Personal Moses, Scott Gilbert, to restore my freedom.  They have my endless gratitude, love, and respect.  The relentless and often intense efforts by Judy and Scott, the partners, associates, and staff of Gilbert, LLP law firm, Tim Rieser on Capitol Hill, and Jill Zuckman of SKDKnickerbocker have been inconceivable.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has been instrumental in shepherding the arrival of this day.  I want to thank all of the members of Congress from all sides of the aisle, such as Senator Jeff Flake and Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Barbara Lee, who supported, spoke up for, and visited me, subjected themselves to my ranting, and helped me to regain some of my weight.  [Even in Cuba, M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand.]  To all of those who tried to visit me but were unable to, thank you for trying.  I am at your service as soon as I get some new teeth, hoping that they will be strong and sharp enough to make a difference.

To the Washington Jewish Community, Ron Halber in particular and his staff at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), all of the executive directors, staff, and volunteers of participating JCRCs, federations, synagogues, schools, and other Jewish, Christian, and Moslem organizations nationwide, God Bless You and thank you.  It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten.  Your prayers and actions have been comforting, reassuring, and sustaining.  And to my extended family, especially my sister, Bonnie, my cousins, and friends – Howard, Bruce, our Shabbat group, Nonie and Larry and so many others who exemplify the true meaning of friendship – thank you.

I do understand that there are many others who actively participated in securing my freedom, of whom I am only nominally aware at this juncture.  I promise that I will express a more direct and personal gratitude just as soon as I know who you are.  But ultimately – ultimately – the decision to arrange for and secure my release was made in the Oval Office.  To President Obama and the NSC staff, thank you.  In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my 5-year tenure in captivity I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly would not want to trade places on this glorious day.  Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community.

I also feel compelled to share with you my utmost respect for and fondness of the people of Cuba.  In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected.  To me, Cubanos (or at least most Cubanos) are incredibly kind, generous, and talented; it pains me to see them treated so unjustly as one consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.  Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment; two wrongs never made a right.

I truly hope that we can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies.  I was very happy to hear what the President had to say today – it was particularly cool to be sitting next to the Secretary of State as he was hearing about his job description for the next couple of months.  In all seriousness, this is a game changer which I support.  In the meantime, I ask that you respect my wishes for complete and total privacy.  Claro?

A judicious lesson that I have learned from this experience is that freedom is not free.  And, as personified by Scott and our entire team, we must never forget the two pillars of Moses’ covenant, freedom, and responsibility.  I am incredibly blessed – finally – to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life.

But for now I will close with a quote from a Nelson DeMille character, “it’s good to be home”.  Thank you.  I wish all of you a happy holiday season.”

What Matters Most

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip celebrate a deadly attack on a Jerusalem  synagogue in November. Israel's elections in March are expected to  have a much greater focus on security than they did two years ago.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip celebrate a deadly attack on a Jerusalem
synagogue in November. Israel’s elections in March are expected to
have a much greater focus on security than they did two years ago.

TEL AVIV — This government was supposed to be different.

During the last election campaign in 2012, Israelis seemed to tire of the existential issues that have plagued the country for decades. Barely anyone talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Long-simmering social tensions over the rising cost of living and the economic burdens of the underemployed haredi Orthodox community were going to finally get their due.

The Knesset’s arrivistes — former television personality Yair Lapid and technology millionaire Naftali Bennett — swept into government by championing middle-class concerns. As members of the coalition, Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Lapid’s Yesh Atid worked on a number of social and economic initiatives, including efforts to lower dairy prices and curb growing housing costs.

Though Jewish Home vehemently opposed Palestinian statehood and Yesh Atid supported it, both agreed that haredi Orthodox men should be drafted into the army and integrated into the workforce.

Less than two years later, the partnership has broken up over the very issues that the parties had downplayed. Bickering over peace talks began in the spring, and the shouts grew only louder after this summer’s war with Hamas. The recent crisis in American-Israeli relations further fanned the flames.

The rifts came to a head last week with the Cabinet’s adoption of the so-called nation-state law — a measure to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character into law. Bennett supported the bill, while Lapid, the finance minister, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni were opposed.

In announcing Dec. 2 that the coalition had faltered, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited three areas of disagreement: building in eastern Jerusalem; demanding Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character; and maintaining a strong stance against Iran.

Netanyahu also singled out Lapid and Livni for their criticism of government policy after firing them from their Cabinet posts. The next government, the prime minister vowed, would be like the previous one — a stable coalition of hawkish, conservative parties.

Following the collapse of peace negotiations, the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers in June, the 50-day war in Gaza over the summer and the recent violence in Jerusalem — including the killing of four Jewish worshippers and a Druze policeman at a Jerusalem synagogue last month — politicians are focusing again on the issues that have always preoccupied them. After elections, scheduled for March 17, everything old will become new again.

“The 2013 campaign was after relatively quiet years,” said Tal Schneider, author of the respected political website Plog. “Israel is not used to having such a length of time without any terror attacks. We’re back to normal, [but] last time it wasn’t on the agenda.”

Recent polls predict the elections will be good for parties on the far left and right that have made the Palestinian conflict their principal issue. Surveys show Jewish Home jumping from 12 to 16 seats, even to 19, and the far-left Meretz, which went from three to six seats in the last election, rising to nine. Every survey shows Yesh Atid losing seats.

Meanwhile, Likud’s historic chief rival, the left-wing Labor party, has returned to its dovish roots, electing as chairman, Isaac Herzog, a former corporate lawyer who strongly supports peace talks with the Palestinians. Herzog replaced Shelly Yachimovich, an assertive former journalist who stayed all but silent on the Palestinian issue in the 2012 elections.

And that shared agenda of integrating haredim into the army and workforce? The realities of parliamentary politics will almost definitely make that a thing of the past.

If he wins again in March, Netanyahu has vowed to ally again with haredi parties who seek to roll back the law passed earlier this year requiring some haredi men to serve in the army. Even a left-wing government would likely need haredi support to form a parliamentary majority.

Israelis, of course, still care about housing prices that have soared 80 percent since 2007 and growing income inequality. An as-yet-unnamed party founded to address those concerns, headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is expected to draw plenty of votes.

But Israelis aren’t pitching tents on the street to protest economic policy as they did in 2011. This year, they have massed to support soldiers fighting in Gaza, to pray for the kidnapped teens, to oppose the nation-state law and to protest the torching of a Jewish-Arab school.

“People vote by security,” Schneider said. “They may say in the polls that they’re more into the housing crisis, but it’s really never about the economy.”

Yesha Council Pushes for Alternative Solutions

Benny Kasriel, mayor of Maale Adumim in the West Bank, speaks to a group of European politicians. (Provided)

Benny Kasriel, mayor of Maale Adumim in the West Bank, speaks to a group of European politicians. (Provided)

Israelis living in the West Bank have a message to politicians and world Jewry: The two-state solution is no solution.

Members of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization that represents the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and, up until the 2005 Israeli disengagement, Gaza, have ramped up outreach in an effort to open up dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I would say we’re less trying to advocate a particular solution to the conflict other than to suggest the two-state solution, as its been understood for last 20 years, is not workable and has been proven unsuccessful and has only made peace more elusive and further away,” said Elie Pieprz, director of external affairs for the council.

While statements such as Pieprz’s are rarely heard from American politicians and not generally accepted in the organized Jewish community, the Yesha Council is hoping to engage those who don’t share similar views with op-ed pieces, public forums, stories from the settlements and mission trips to the settlements.

“We neglected the outside world, including the Jewish community in America and Europe,” Dani Dayan, the council’s chief foreign envoy, said of the settlement movement’s previous outreach strategy. “We are talking to engage both in the political arena, the media arena and the Jewish arena.”

Both Pieprz and Dayan attended the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in National Harbor, Md., last month, where Vice President Joe Biden was among the speakers advocating for the two-state solution.

“We do not have an illusion that we will come and convince everyone, but we are in the business of shifting perceptions and dispelling stereotypes of the so-called settlements,” said Dayan. “Slowly and surely and we hope steadily to change the course of the political discourse also in the Jewish community.”

Around the same time of the GA, Raphaella Segal, assistant mayor of Kedumim in Samaria, was speaking to Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and New York. The 61-year-old, who is one of the founders of Kedumim, speaks about what the communities of the West Bank are like — such as the industrial factories where Jews and Palestinians work side-by-side — and explains how important the communities are to the strength and future of Israel.

“I think the majority of the politicians, they are against us. It’s very unpleasant,” she said. “In Israel there’s a kind of awareness and awakening to understanding this [two-state solution] is not going to work. On the other hand, the pressure is greater after the Gaza war.”

In addition to networking with diplomats and international media, the Yesha Council takes elected officials on tours of the region. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, whose congressional district includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, went on one such trip this past May. He told the Tazpit News Agency that the trip was eye-opening.

“We met with Israeli residents who just want to live their lives, to coexist with their neighbors,” Harris told Tazpit. “They want to leave politics out of it. It was impressive to see how these communities actually function and how well they get along with their surroundings.”

Among the places Harris’ group saw on its trip was Ariel University, an Israeli university located in the West Bank that has Jewish and Arab students and faculty members.

“So many of their expectations are just shattered,” Pieprz said of the trip.

He believes that if alternatives to the two-state solution were considered and that if political leaders accepted the conflict might not be solved in the immediate future, there could be discussion about improving living conditions of Palestinians and rebuilding trust between the Israelis and their neighbors.

Although the Yesha Council isn’t advocating for a particular solution, Pieprz points to security checkpoints when discussing what could improve. He mentions looking at the security barrier around Tel Aviv and discussing what checkpoints could be taken down.

“Even some other things like making sure that when we have checkpoints, it’s done in a way that’s respectful to the Palestinians,” he added. “Avoid having young people in their 20s in a position of authority to those in their 50s and 60s. There’s things like that Israel could be doing that could make things a little better.”

He also mentioned renovating refugee camps, since there is an assumption that Palestinians in those camps would be losing their political refugee claims if they returned home, and therefore probably won’t, he said.

“Let’s go see what we can do in the interim without anyone giving up any political bargaining chips,” he said. “I think that Israel can do some very positive tangible things on the ground in the short-term, which might lead to an environment where we see a positive resolution to the conflict.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

A Safe Haven

A concern for safety pushed Julie and Nathanael Weill and their sons Eytan and Lior to move from France to Montreal.

A concern for safety pushed Julie and Nathanael Weill and their sons Eytan and Lior to move from France to Montreal.

TORONTO — When Dan Charbit and his wife, Gaelle Hazan, moved to Montreal from Paris two summers ago, it was meant to be a temporary fix — a yearlong attempt for Charbit to reboot his stalled career as a special-effects artist in Quebec’s thriving film and television industry. They agreed to fly home if the experiment failed.

Fourteen months after arriving in Canada, the couple has no desire to return to France. The 43-year-old Charbit, who won an Emmy earlier this year for work on the fourth season of the hit HBO show “Game of Thrones,” started a new job last month as a supervisor at Mokko, a Montreal-based special-effects studio serving the film and television industries. Hazan, 39, has found employment as a construction project manager.

Charbit and Hazan are part of a new wave of French Jews who have resettled in French-speaking Quebec, fleeing France’s dismal unemployment rate, which hit 10.5 percent in September, as well as the shock of anti-Semitism that has reverberated throughout the country in recent months and crested over the summer during waves of anti-Israel demonstrations.

France’s Jewish Community Protection Service reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2014, compared with 276 in the same period last year. In recent months — and especially in the wake of the most recent Gaza war — there have been incidents of Jews being harassed, even physically assaulted, in the streets, and synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and restaurants being torched. And notably, in 2012, four people, including three children, were killed during a shooting rampage at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

While Israel remains the destination of choice — 5,063 French Jews made aliyah between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the most from any European country — Quebec, and its largest city of Montreal in particular, is quietly becoming a popular alternative for émigrés.

“I hear and I know of young couples moving to Quebec,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the Lyon, France-born secretary general of the European Jewish Congress. “The reason is not necessarily related to the rise of anti-Semitism, but it’s more to find a proper future, in terms of good work, good salaries and a cheaper way of life.”

There are some 90,000 Jews in the Montreal metropolitan area.

Jews are not the only French citizens resettling in Canada. Overall, French immigration to Quebec has skyrocketed since 2011, when Canada last conducted its National Household Survey. The French consulate in Montreal told the Canadian Press earlier this month that 55,000 French citizens had notified it of their residence in the city, a 45 percent increase from 2005. Since immigrants are not required to register upon arrival, the consulate estimated the actual number of French citizens in Montreal could be as high as 110,000.

Although up-to-date data on French Jewish immigration does not exist, Monique Lapointe, director of Agence Ometz, Montreal’s primary Jewish social services and resettlement organization, said she has noticed a significant increase in newcomers, especially over the past year. Inquiries, Lapointe said, have poured in through Ometz’s email system and Facebook page — including from French Jews currently living in Israel.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge number of [immigrants],” Lapointe said. “But it’s a trend. We’ll be anticipating more.”

Lapointe described the average immigrant as single, between the ages of 25 and 35, “very well educated and looking for a new kind of life.” The wider Montreal Jewish community, Lapointe said, is now in the early stages of crafting a coordinated approach to handle the inflow. Thus far, it has been difficult to track newcomers, she added, partly because French Jews keep looser ties to Jewish community organizations than do their North American counterparts.

“In France, people don’t talk about Jewishness,” Lapointe said. “They’re not used to community organizations. Some will never come to see us. They don’t have this reflex.”

Montreal’s cheaper rents and relatively low cost of living are as much a draw for French Jews as the familiar language and secular Francophone culture. In a focus group of French nationals conducted last year, Ometz identified four reasons Jews were moving out of France. The new immigrants pointed to a higher quality of life in North America, a greater openness toward immigrants and shrinking job opportunities for a younger generation of French citizens back home. Families with children also reported a fear of anti-Semitism and anxieties about their ability to practice Judaism safely amid a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

For Julie Weill, a 31-year-old mother of three, the decision to leave her home in Strasbourg five years ago was prompted by the increasing sense of unease she and her husband, Nathanael, felt as Jews in France. While the modern Orthodox couple was never victimized by anti-Semitism, they heard stories from friends and family, and it was considered dangerous, Weill said, to walk around downtown Strasbourg wearing a yarmulke.

When it came time for Nathanael to choose a post-doctoral fellowship in bioinformatics, the Weills declined compelling offers from European schools and instead chose McGill University, in Montreal. They found the prospect of raising a religious family in Europe too unsettling.

“We wanted a place with a strong Jewish community, with Jewish schools, a place you can practice freely, where you feel safe,” said Weill, whose synagogue in Montreal is run by another French immigrant from Strasbourg.

Quebec has struggled with its own, albeit minor, resurgence of high-profile anti-Semitism. During a provincial election campaign last spring, Louise Mailloux, a candidate from the separatist Parti Quebecois, publicly dredged up the longstanding “kosher tax” canard, claiming that kosher-certified products are sold at higher prices on supermarket shelves, with Jewish interest groups collecting the surplus. And in August, Gilles Proulx, a prominent Montreal columnist and television host, told a local radio station that Jewish communities worldwide “provoke the hatred” of their host countries.

Cwajgenbaum also noted that Quebec’s Muslim population — roughly 221,000 of the 3.8 million residents in the Montreal metropolitan area — as a cause for concern; France’s Muslims, of which there are roughly six million, compared with 500,000 Jews, are routinely fingered as culprits in the upsurge of anti-Semitism.

Cwajgenbaum said the integration of immigrants from the Arab world has been more successful in Quebec than in France but speculated that the province may one day face similar problems from its swelling Muslim minority. When a delegation of Quebec Jews visited Paris nearly a decade ago, searching for prospective immigrants, Cwajgenbaum told them with metaphorical flourish, “To transfer a sick man from one hospital to another one will not cure the sickness.”

The data, however, suggests that Quebec anti-Semitism is on the wane. Last year the province saw its number of reported anti-Semitic incidents fall to 250, a nearly 26 percent drop from 2012, according to B’nai Brith Canada, which tracks anti-Semitic activity across the country.

Weill still finds it difficult to let her two boys, who attend a Sephardic Jewish day school, wear yarmulkes in public, an old habit from the family’s life in Strasbourg. But the concern, she acknowledged, is largely “irrational.”

Charbit and Hazan, both non-observant, have also felt a difference in how Quebec society treats its Jewish community.

“In France, you don’t put your mezuzah outside,” Charbit said. “Jewish life in Montreal is safer.”

Soldier for His People

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch stands at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, where he was arrested in 1970.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch stands at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, where he was arrested in 1970.

ST. PETERSBURG — Through the backseat window of a black KGB car, Yosef Mendelevitch could see university students his age hurrying to take their finals.

It was June 15, 1970, and the 23-year-old Mendelevitch had just been arrested along with 11 accomplices for trying to hijack a plane to escape the Soviet Union. On the tarmac of an airport outside St. Petersburg — then Leningrad — officers from the Soviets’ secret police detained the conspirators before they could board the single-engine plane they planned to fly to Israel.

Mendelevitch spent the next 11 years in prisons and a gulag, where he endured cruel treatment and constant harassment for being Jewish. He was denied a last visit by his ailing father as punishment for wearing a yarmulke and force-fed after a 56-day hunger strike he undertook to protest the denial of kosher food and the right to pray.

“I remember thinking to myself, they’ re going about their daily lives, while my own life was ruined,” Mendelevitch said last Sunday during his first visit to the city since his release in 1981.

But his life was far from ruined.

Now a rabbi and father of seven living in Jerusalem, Mendelevitch received a hero’ s welcome last week from local Jews who flocked to hear him recall the hijacking attempt that many regard as the opening shot in the massive international campaign to free Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Speaking at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference here, Mendelevitch needed two sessions — each packed with some 100 listeners — to convey the details and aftermath of the daring attempt known as Operation Wedding.

But Mendelevitch had another objective in returning to a place he says “brings back no good memories.” He wants to encourage participants to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel.

“This city has 100,000 Jews, but only 350 came to Limmud FSU,” Mendelevitch said. “Most of them became lost to our people through the actions of the system that tried to tear away my identity. I tell them my story. They can draw their own conclusions.”

Mendelevitch was one of the leaders of the hijacking team that grew out of Zionist activists who were running underground Hebrew-language night schools in Leningrad and Riga, the capital of Latvia, then under Soviet control. Mendelevitch was born in Riga and was in charge of the cell’s Latvian contingent.

The group was led by Mark Dym-shits, a former Soviet Army pilot who was sentenced to death along with Eduard Kuznetsov, a repeat anti-communism offender. The sentence was commuted, but it sparked international outrage that focused unprecedented attention on the Soviet Union’s so-called Prisoners of Zion.

Surprisingly, the group knew full well they would be arrested, Mendelevitch revealed.

“On the night before the hijacking, our team camped in the woods near the airport,” he recalled. “Two government black Volga cars pulled up next to our bonfire in the middle of nowhere, and KGB officers started sniffing around before disappearing. We knew they were watching our every move.”

The group decided to go ahead anyway, “even if only so the world will hear our cry,” he said.

Among the millions who heard the cry was a young Jewish engineer from Donetsk named Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik whose incarceration in 1977 for Zionist activism became a symbol for human rights activists who rallied across the world for his freedom. Sharansky was released in 1986.

“We had no CNN, no Internet. Nobody knew anything,” Sharansky said. “And though the Soviet regime twisted [the incident] in its propaganda, their action pierced a wall of silence, having a huge impact on the movement to free the Prisoners of Zion.”

The death sentences at the Leningrad Trials — the name given by the Russian media to the kangaroo courts that punished Mendelevitch and his team — “no doubt played a major role in my decision to begin my activism,” Sharansky said. “And the realization that there were people willing to die for freedom — not only did it galvanize protests in the West, but it became the first rally point.”

For Mendelevitch, this “propaganda success,” as he calls it, came at a heavy personal price.

While serving time in the gulag, he was put in solitary confinement for refusing to remove a kipah that he had made by cutting out the hem of his prison uniform. Mendelevitch was ordered to remove the cloth while waiting to see his ailing father, who had traveled hundreds of miles to see his son one last time.

“I knew it was the last time,” Mendelevitch said. “But I was a soldier and representative for the Jewish people. It sounds harsh, but a dying father is not a factor. Plus, any weakness would’ ve invited my captors to crush me — a sign that I, who had worked hard to be branded a religious fanatic immune to Soviet logic, may finally be cracking.”

In 1981, a KGB judicial panel informed Mendelevitch that he was no longer a Russian citizen. Shortly afterward he was deported in what he described as “one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Yet, Mendelevitch says he does not bear his captors any particular grudge.

“Some of them took immoral actions, yes, but ultimately they were the servants of a regime that I vowed to fight,” he said. “I fell captive, as fighters often do. But unlike them, I was not a victim of the Soviet regime. I was a combatant.”

Behind the Scenes

Zili Grossman, a former PR  professional for Eilat’s hotel scene, now runs an aid organization for the city’s poor.

Zili Grossman, a former PR
professional for Eilat’s hotel scene, now runs an aid organization for the city’s poor.

EILAT, Israel  — Zili Grossman did public relations for “half the hotels” in Eilat, she says. She was the mayor’s press adviser. Her job took her to festivals, bowling alleys, theaters and miniature golf courses — the gamut of tourist attractions in Israel’s best-known resort town. After a career shift, she opened up a fashion boutique in the city center.

But now Grossman sits in a small office of a radio station here, splitting her time between taking calls from needy people and directing a small staff of aid workers. She is the executive director of Eilat Gives, an aid organization she founded in 2000. With an annual budget of $650,000, the organization provides food and medical assistance to the city’s underprivileged.

The transition had started earlier in 2000, when she was working at the women’s clothing shop she owned a few blocks from Eilat’s promenade and saw a man in poor health lying beside its entrance. She called City Hall to get help, but the man died before it came. Within weeks Grossman had turned her business from a store selling dresses to what she called a “welfare office.”

Eilat — located on Israel’s southern tip, hundreds of miles and a metaphorical world away from the busy streets of Tel Aviv and the tense political climate of Jerusalem — is known as a destination with swanky hotels, swimming, snorkeling and sun tanning. But residents of the city say that behind the promenade, a faltering tourist economy and rising cost of living have made its atmosphere increasingly uncertain — and are driving some people to leave.

“There are many who make a lot, and there are the young people who make 4,000 [shekels, about $1,000] and pay 2,000 [shekels] in rent and become poor,” Grossman said.

She added, “Eilat is a special case because it looks like a sparkling city, but how much does a cashier at a hotel make?”

Nearly 8 percent of residents left Eilat in 2011, according to the Israeli news website Ynet, and the city saw a decline of 73 percent in direct foreign flights in October as compared with October 2013, according to the Israeli business publication The Marker. With an increasing number of low-cost flights available from Tel Aviv to Europe, Israelis are also choosing other vacation destinations.

Eilat is home to nearly 50,000 year-round residents. It was founded in 1950 as a outpost on the borders with Egypt and Jordan. It was declared a city in 1959 and at the time was populated mostly by fisherman and employees of the local port. Today, the city looks like an average peripheral Israeli town with a tourist strip tacked on. It has the same faded stucco houses, the same red-pitched roofs, the same rundown housing projects, the same new developments lined with McMansions.

But living a five-hour drive from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem comes with its differences. Residents don’t pay sales tax as an incentive for living here. They rarely mention addresses when giving directions: Just ask around, they say, and someone will show you where to go.

“The isolation makes us feel like we’re in the same boat,” said Oren Zadok, the city’s sole X-ray technician and someone who has lived here nearly all his life. “If there’s a bar mitzvah or a wedding, there’s a thousand people there. The funerals are giant. Eilat is essentially a kibbutz.”

Indeed, there is a small-town mentality in which everyone seems to know each other by name. Grossman gets a free slice at the pizza place down the street from her office. She is friendly with the cab driver who picks her up at a busy intersection.

Residents worry, however, that young people won’t stay in the city. Four satellite college campuses have opened in the city, and socioeconomically, Eilat ranks above-average overall among Israeli towns. However, being so far away from Israel’s big cities means Eilat doesn’t offer the same educational and employment opportunities as Israel’s center.

“The fact that you can study here is wonderful,” said Eli Attias, 53, whose father moved to Eilat soon after it was founded. The question now is, you study, and when you get your degree, what will you do? Will there be work? That’s the challenge.”

Volunteers in a soup kitchen pack lunches for poor schoolchildren in Eilat.

Volunteers in a soup kitchen pack lunches for poor schoolchildren in Eilat.

In the meantime, signs of distress are visible in Eilat. A large, crumbling housing project nicknamed “Sing-Sing” towers over one of the main streets crowded with migrants from Eritrea and Sudan as well as poor Israelis. The town center, only a few streets behind the strip, looks faded — wiry neon signs are the outstanding feature on an otherwise unremarkable traffic circle. Grossman says her hands are full with requests from the city’s poor.

“There’s economic difficulty, and because most of the city is built on tourism, if there aren’t enough tourists, the shops and restaurants are hurt,” said Nora Bitton, a social service worker in Eilat. “We didn’t get missiles [during the recent war], but we were hit hard.”

To address the economic woes, the Eilat municipality wants to make the city a commercial and industrial center as well as a tourist hotspot. A large international airport nearby that would offer more than the current small airfield is set to open next year. And plans are underway for a high-speed train from central Israel and an expanded port.

“It’s a huge infrastructure project that gives Eilat land, air and sea connections to Africa, Asia and Europe,” said Eilat Mayor Meir Halevi. “The most challenging project is to build infrastructure to create professional workplaces.”

The mayor’s constituents say such projects are essential but are skeptical they will come to pass. Residents note that previous plans to lay train tracks to Eilat from Beersheba and Tel Aviv have failed for decades.

“We’re very doubtful,” Bitton said. “We’ve been talking about a train since Eilat was founded. But if you don’t build it, you don’t attract people.”

Eilat is far from the poorest of Israel’s municipalities, but some data point to its challenges. As of 2010, one-quarter of Eilat families have a single parent as the head of household, the highest percentage among cities with more than 5,000 families. And the average monthly salary per employee in the city in 2012 was the equivalent of $1,763 — 23 percent lower than the overall Israeli average.

“Conditions have been very hard in recent years,” said Toni Lis, a reporter for Yediot Eilat, a local newspaper. “The rise in cost of living didn’t pass over Eilat. More and more people are searching in garbage cans. People have to choose between medications and food.”

Still, Eilatis say, even with the distance from Israel’s center, the limited jobs and a growing sense of uneasiness, they remain committed to their city. Drawn in by the hot days and a warm community, the residents say what Eilat really needs is for the rest of Israel to see the city beyond the hotels.

“When I leave Eilat, I’m like a fish out of water,” said Alona Yosef, who runs the Eilat Gives soup kitchen. “I like the air here. There’s a lively atmosphere.”

“Most people don’t know there’s a city here. They know there’s the hotels, but they don’t know there’s a city here, there are people here.”

A Revelation

Photos courtesy of M. STAROWIEYSKA, D.GOLIK/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Photos courtesy of M. STAROWIEYSKA, D.GOLIK/POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Given that half of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust came from Poland, many descendants of Polish Jews may be surprised to learn about the current hospitable environment for the Jewish population of their ancestors’ country. Poland experiences far less anti-Semitism than the typical European country and is home to a burgeoning — albeit relatively small — Jewish community (estimates suggest 10,000-20,000, but no definitive figures are available). At the same time, young non-Jewish Poles are increasingly curious about Jews and the Jewish religion.

Recognizing that this environment was fertile ground for a museum highlighting the history of Polish Jewry, a group of Warsaw-based organizers invited émigré scholars and cultural activists in New York to help promote the museum concept and identify funding sources for what two decades later became the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened its core exhibition on Oct. 28.

The museum, located on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising directly across from the Monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes, has received more than $60 million from the Municipality of Warsaw and Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The rest of the needed funding was raised by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, a nonprofit that has served as a caretaker of the country’s Jewish heritage for more than six decades.

As a civic initiative and state-funded institution, the museum’s target audience “is much broader than the Jewish community in Poland,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the museum’s core exhibition, which traces the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland.

“It is intended for a much broader public: Poles, including Jews; the world Jewish community; and the European and world public,” she said.

From the perspective of Polish-born philanthropist Tad Taube, honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in San Francisco, the significance of the museum’s content goes beyond Polish Jewish history. “In portraying 1,000 years of Jewish culture and history in Greater Poland, the museum traces the foundations of Judeo/Christian Western culture,” he said, referring to the contribution of Polish Jews to the various spectrums of Jewish and Christian faith in addition to significant Jewish cultural influence in philosophy, literature, theater, music, and the physical sciences. Taube is the chairman of Taube Philanthropies and president of the Koret Foundation, which together provided significant funding for the museum.

Retired Polish diplomat Krzysztof (Kris) W. Kasprzyk, who has been an enthusiastic promoter of the project for more than two decades, sees the museum as particularly important to the Poland of today. “Our national cultural heritage is really impoverished without all that Jewish history in Poland had been bringing for centuries,” he said. “This museum is like bringing fresh water to the desert—maybe that is an overblown metaphor, but we needed this venue badly.”

The museum’s goal of reaching out to both the Polish Jewish and broader Polish communities stems from the country’s increasingly welcoming environment for Jews. Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich suggests two reasons for that trend: first, the papacy of Polish-born John Paul II, who he noted was “the first pope to ever say that anti-Semitism is a sin according to the Catholic Church.”

The second factor is the fall of communism, which created not only political and economic change, but also a social upheaval. “People are willing to be more open to change than under normal circumstances,” Schudrich said, adding that younger Poles are curious about Jews, who had been largely absent or secretive about their identity in the country for 50 years after the Holocaust.

The fall of communism, adds Kasprzyk, gave people the gift of free speech, which has allowed them to explore painful events from the past. One of these was the 1941 murder of Jews in Jewabne, a small town in northeast Poland where a Polish mob, encouraged by German Nazis, burned Jews from several surrounding communities in a barn. This incident was revealed to the larger Polish public in the book “Neighbors” by Tomasz Gross (published in 2000) and was widely and openly discussed, a process that Kasprzyk says “heals the wounds.”

Although Kasprzyk had strong Jewish connections from an early age and today cooks gefilte fish and Jewish sweets, the definitive moment in his lifetime devotion to Polish-Jewish relations came during his sophomore year at the University of Krakow. That year, during the 1968 Polish political crisis, Kasprzyk recalled that he “witnessed the expelling from Poland of many colleagues from my high school and from the university [because of the anti-Semitic campaign sponsored by the communist government], and I also witnessed labeling them simply as ‘Jews,’ as somebody who would be outside of the Polish community.”

“Ever since that time, the subject of Polish Jewry was always very dear to my heart,” he said.

About two decades after the political crisis, the fall of communism in Rabbi Schudrich’s estimation marked “the first time in 50 years people [could] now think about, ‘Do I feel safe telling my children and grandchildren that they are really Jewish?’

“Since ‘89 thousands and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Poles, have discovered they have Jewish roots,” Schudrich added.

Schudrich, whose job is to create pathways back to Jewish identity for Poles, says the museum can play a role in that process. “For Poles with Jewish roots it can be an entry point into some kind of connection with their Jewish identity; they can learn more about their past and what Judaism is about,” he said.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said the museum “can support the renewal of Jewish life” by showing to “Jews in Poland, who kept their Jewish roots a secret, that they have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be afraid of, and much to be proud of.”

But the museum goes beyond a sense of pride, offering a tangible resource for Polish Jews to learn about their history.

Featured in the POLIN Museum are  two magnificent galleries — The Jewish  Town (left) and The Paradisus Iudaeorum.

Featured in the POLIN Museum are
two magnificent galleries — The Jewish
Town (left) and The Paradisus Iudaeorum.

“[The museum’s creation] says Jewish roots are not enough—you also need to know who you are,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett . “And who you are is not simply genetic. It is also historical and cultural. While the chain of transmission may have been broken, because of the Holocaust and communism, there is an opportunity to restore that chain of transmission, and the museum can play a very important role.”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests that Jews today are not aware that their coreligionists lived in the Polish territory continually for 1,000 years. “It’s quite baffling, because they assume it was one unmitigated story of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust,” she said, explaining that if this was true, Polish Jewry would never have become a center of the Jewish world and also, for some of its history, the world’s largest Jewish community.

“We place the Holocaust within the 1,000-year history of Polish Jews, not a 1,000-year history of anti-Semitism,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

The approach of the core exhibit is what Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls a “theater of history” that organizes the story of Polish Jewry “as a continuous visual narrative.” The exhibit intends to explore more than instruct, empowering the visitor.

“We are not offering a master narrative, but a rather more open story, asking visitors to engage in that story and engage with primary sources and engage with debates and with conflicting views on particular subjects,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

Regarding how the museum presents Poland and Poles, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, “We are a history museum and have to be intellectually responsible, so it is not our intent to improve anyone’s image and engage in any kind of polemic. We never start from the misconceptions. We think Jews will be surprised, and Poles will be surprised. Jews expect that the museum will whitewash Polish history, and Poles expect an unmitigated indictment of Polish history. I think the museum will be a revelation for both.”

Some highlights of the exhibit are a hand-painted gallery of the medieval period based on Hebrew illuminated manuscripts; a comic-book version of the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism; a painted animation telling the story of the modern yeshiva via 24 hours in the life of the Volozhin Yeshiva; and an 85 percent scale model of the painted roof and bimah of the 17th-century wooden Gwozdziec Synagogue. The model, built over the course of two years by an international group of volunteers, is based on complete drawings and sketches of both the synagogue and its ceiling.

Emphasizing why he believes this museum is as important for young non-Jewish Poles as it is for Jews in Poland and worldwide, Kasprzyk said, “The Jewish world of Poland was exterminated during the Holocaust, and I feel the Jewish world of Poland as the phantom pain—we don’t have this limb but it hurts; we feel it; it’s still there.”

“This museum somehow closes the gap or brings back, very often in virtual form, what we had had for centuries,” he said. “It is very important, especially for the younger generation, because the younger generation don’t have Jews around. They don’t have Jewish colleagues or Jewish friends.”

Horror in Har Nof

A bullet hole inside Kehilat Bnei Torah is a stark reminder of the savagery that claimed the lives of four rabbis. (Photo Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A bullet hole inside Kehilat Bnei Torah is a stark reminder of the savagery that claimed the lives of four rabbis. (Photo Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Robin Kahn and her husband, Simon, have lived in the Jerusalem suburban neighborhood of Har Nof for more than 22 years. This past Tuesday, their morning began like any other with Simon leaving at 7 o’clock for early morning prayer services at his synagogue.

Normalcy ended soon thereafter.

“He called me, which is strange because normally he’d be in shul and his phone would be off,” Kahn related. “He said that he heard approximately 20 shots from a gun.”

Simon’s synagogue, Kehilat Zichron Yosef, stands at 10 Agassi St., just steps away from Kehilat Bnei Torah, site of one of the most horrific terror attacks in recent memory. What Simon heard was an attack perpetrated by two Palestinian men, who, according to reports, entered that synagogue armed with knives, meat cleavers and guns and began slaying worshippers as they were immersed in prayer. They killed four on site and left another eight men wounded.

Identified as residents of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber — home to the lone gunman who murdered eight students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in western Jerusalem in 2008 — the assailants claimed the lives of Rabbis Moshe Twersky, 59, a grandson of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and founder of the Torat Moshe yeshiva; Aryeh Kupinsky, 43; Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68; and Kalman Levine. Three of the dead held American citizenship.

Zidan Saif, 30, a Druze police officer who responded to the attack, succumbed to his wounds later that day.

One of the Kahns’ neighbors was among the injured.

“[He is] one of the most seriously injured,” Robin Kahn said. “He was cut with an axe in his head, and he was in surgery for I don’t know how many hours [Tuesday].”

Kahn, who volunteers with the police, said she was not surprised by the violence, despite describing her neighborhood as quiet, unlike other neighborhoods that border Arab villages.

“I’m just surprised that it’s taken so long to happen,” the New Jersey native said. “Unfortunately, people hire a lot of Arab workers. A lot of the local stores have Arab workers, so it’s not surprising that it happened here, maybe less so because it’s a quiet neighborhood.”

Whether reached in Israel or in the United States, English-speaking Jews such as Kahn with ties to Har Nof reacted to Tuesday’s attack with varying degrees of shock, sadness, grief and resilience in the face of tragedy.

Sara Wagschal, whose parents live in Baltimore, made aliyah 10 years ago and lives in Har Nof with her husband, Yossi. Like Kahn, Wagschal described a normal morning until ambulances and a fire truck came screaming down her street. No police came by with a warning to stay inside; she found out about an area lockdown from her upstairs neighbor.

“It’s really scary because no one gave us any information, and we’re about a block from where it happened,” said Wagschal.

Where the attack took place, she noted, is not the center of town. “It’s not a main street, it’s a side street, where no buses go. It’s sandwiched between two main streets.”

Despite the events, however, life went on. Neighbors who had to get to work and school left their young children with Wagschal, who described her full apartment as “cozy, like a snow day.”

“At the end of the day, you get on with life,” she said. “You can’t live in fear or you’ll always live in fear.”

Michael Hoffman, former president of Southeast Hebrew Congregation in Silver Spring, made aliyah to Har Nof a year ago. He described the neighborhood as predominantly haredi Orthodox and was surprised that institutions there would become targets of terrorists.

“They don’t have much to do with politics at all,” he said of residents. “The community is dedicated to Torah and to learning.”

112114_coverstory2Adam Rabinowitz and his wife, Elisheva, lived across the street from the Bnei Torah synagogue when they were there 20 years ago. Their son, Yisroel Meir Rabinowitz, 18, is in Har Nof studying at Torat Moshe.

“My wife and I have both been there during difficult times — the first intifada, the second intifada, and I volunteered during the first Gulf War, so we know how the country deals with crisis,” said Rabinowitz, who lives in the Greenspring area northwest of Baltimore. “We are concerned for Yisroel Meir’s safety, but being there and davening there, it helps klal yisrael be more safe.”

The attack has neither derailed plans for the Rabinowitzes to visit their son this winter nor prompted Yisroel Meir to return stateside.

“[Yisroel Meir] calls after incidents happen to let us know he’s OK,” said Rabinowitz. “Since my wife and I have been in Israel during difficult times he asks us how we dealt with things in stressful times. We ask him to be prudent, keep his eyes open and be aware, and maybe add a little extra learning time and extra [Psalms].”

Chaim Ziman, 20, a yeshiva student from Baltimore, studies at the Aderet Hatorah yeshiva on Shmuel Hanavi Street, 10 minutes from Har Nof. He attended Twersky’s funeral on Tuesday afternoon.

“The whole yeshiva went, it’s a mitzvah to be by the levaya, to show support, to escort the person,” said Ziman.

“It’s been crazy here in Israel, the past three months,” he continued, adamant that despite it all, he still felt safe in Jerusalem. “Two things happened outside my yeshiva. One happened just last week, an Arab driver ran over somebody.  It’s crazy to be in a place where these things happen. In America, these things have happened [before], but not so close to where I live.”

ALSO READ “Har Nof: ‘Scenic’ Home To Families, Learners”

Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum, director of Aish HaTorah D.C., studied under Twersky at Torat Moshe.

“He was not from this world. I’ve never met anyone like that in my life,” said Buxbaum. “Every single mitzvah that he did, he did with joy, he did it with fire, he did it with passion. He did it with love, with care.

“I’m obviously horrified; I’m broken by this,” he added. “I feel very much like I did after many years back when there was an attack on eight boys at Mercaz Harav or when the three boys were kidnaped this past summer. It’s that same feeling.”

Eitan Charnoff, 24, works with the Emergency Volunteers Project that sends needed relief missions of American first-responders to Israel. He grew up in Potomac and now lives in Herzilya, north of Tel Aviv.

“This is one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen described,” he said. “This is just barbaric. The pure quantity of blood on the ground — people just bled out. This is crazy.”

Israeli police and rescue workers remove the body of one of the four victims. One witness said, “This is one of the most shocking scenes ... people just bled out.” (Photos Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli police and rescue workers remove the body of one of the four victims. One witness said, “This is one of the most shocking scenes … people just bled out.” (Photos Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Noting that the gruesome images from Tuesday’s attack held a raw emotive power that those from other attacks might have lacked, Aaron Mannes, a specialist in terrorism and international security at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, has seen an “evolution of tactics” among the various Palestinian groups.

Just the past several months have seen Palestinian drivers killing civilians by ramming vehicles into crowds near rail line stations in Jerusalem as well as an attack last weekend by a screwdriver-wielding Palestinian man.

“There’s definitely been an uptick of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem,” said Mannes. “Unfortunately, these terrorist attacks with axes and knives have been done before. Terrorist group tactics are based on their capabilities and what their adversaries, in this case Israel, can keep them from doing.”

According to Mannes, suicide bombings are ideal for terrorists because of the mass casualties and high media visibility, but they take a high level of sophistication to pull off. In building the security barrier snaking its way north and south through Israel’s midsection, the Jewish state has reduced the number of suicide bombings, leading to less sophisticated forms of terrorism.

Among Israelis, “the feeling is that no matter what they do, things like this will happen,” said Mannes. Plus, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has not been helpful and has really been playing up events in Jerusalem, perpetuating rumors about changing the status quo on the Temple Mount.”

Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that the attack is not quite unprecedented, but the fact that it was aimed at people in prayer stands out and adds to the religious undertones of recent unrest. He also saw in the attack, and others in recent weeks, a lack of central planning, although the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the event in Har Nof.

“This is part of a wave of violence in Jerusalem from individuals [and] is not well orchestrated from above, which is very different from the [last] intifada,” said Sachs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placed blame squarely on Hamas and Abbas, saying, “We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the attack, claiming that it was in retaliation for the death of a Palestinian bus driver who was found hanged in his bus late Sunday night at a terminal in Jerusalem. An autopsy Monday at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv found that the death was not criminally related, Israel police said.

In the United States, condemnations came swiftly from Jewish communal organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Secretary of State John Kerry similarly condemned the attack.

“People who had come to worship God in the sanctuary of a synagogue were hatcheted and hacked and murdered in that holy place in an act of pure terror and senseless brutality and murder,” he said. “I call on the Palestinian leadership at every single level to condemn this in the most powerful terms. This violence has no place anywhere.”

Joshua Runyan, Dmitriy Shapiro, David Holzel, Suzanne Pollak and JTA contributed to this report.

mapter@jewishtimes.com