Rabbi Marvin Hier on Inauguration, American Democracy

Rabbi Marvin Hier (Bart Bartholomew/SWC)

Rabbi Marvin Hier (Bart Bartholomew/SWC)

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, knows a thing or two about receiving criticism.

On Friday, Jan. 20, Hier  became the first rabbi since Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in 1985 to contribute prayer services at the swearing-in ceremonies.

One of the six diverse spiritual leaders to read his benediction at the event, Hier is only the ninth rabbi to be invited to a presidential inauguration and the first from the Orthodox  denomination.

Despite the auspiciousness of his involvement, Hier received backlash before and after the ceremony from both sides of the political spectrum.

There were critics on the political left critical of Hier’s participation in the legitimization of an election they believe symbolizes an affront to their way of life.

Hier was similarly condemned from some on the extreme right who issued virulently anti-Semitic statements and, according to the rabbi himself, replaced his face in photos of the service with the devil in their postings online.

“We have to be very straightforward that the anti-Semites are not only those on the extreme right like the Neo-Nazis,” Hier told the JT. “We have to remember there’s an extreme left. The two of them are coming at it from different angles, but they both join the anti-Semitic club.”

Hier is further concerned by a possibly direct relationship between his observation that “anti-Semitism is more rife today than it’s been in a very, very long time” and what he sees as the proliferation of anti-Zionistic rhetoric.

Though Hier was clear that the Wiesenthal Center, and by proxy he, cannot endorse a political candidate, he was just as forthright that “I’m very eager to be supportive of anyone that supports the State of Israel, because I think Israel was treated in a horrible manner in the last few months.”

One of the reasons he accepted the invitation, in fact, is the rabbi’s stance that “there’s no question Donald Trump will be a very close friend to Israel. … He’s showing the world that if you think the United States will desert Israel … we’re going to have very close ties to the state and I’m happy about that signal.”

Hier said he was comforted too by Trump’s involving such an eclectic pool of spiritual leaders at the inauguration, which the rabbi believes to be emblematic of the president’s “signaling that he wanted it to be representative of American society.”

When asked if he believed this “inclusivity,” as he put it, was in earnest on the part of Trump, Hier responded, “It would be only speculation, but he seemed very sincere. I watched him very closely when my colleagues came up and [Trump] was concentrating; it was a great moment for him.”

Although Hier hopes the gesture will open doors to  involving more rabbis at future inaugurations, saying “it’s a good idea to be more inclusive,” he’s less enthused by the message broadcasted by the chorus of those who have and continue to oppose the election results.

“That doesn’t sound like tolerance,” Hier said. “It sounds like intimidation.”

As he’s expressed in previous interviews, Hier fears that such oppositional engagement becomes a “game of seesaw where both sides hit rock bottom. So this time the left hits rock bottom and they’re not coming [to the inauguration]. As a result, four years from now or eight years from now, if a Democrat wins, the Republicans might say they won’t come to the  inauguration.

“The loser is American democracy,” Hier said. “So I’m not a big fan of the Democrats who boycotted. I think it was a mistake. 364 days a year of bickering ought to be enough. For one day, both sides should be able to come together.”

Hier suggested that those who might not necessarily agree with Trump should “follow thier leaders,” pointing out that unlike those who boycotted the inauguration, “the smarter move was made by the Obamas, Carter, the Bushes and the Clintons. … They don’t like anything Trump stands for, but they came.”

Proclaiming that it’s “time for a little patriotism,” Hier is emboldened by his sense that, if nothing else, once those  opposing Trump “get a letter in the mail saying that their taxes have been cut, they’ll immediately jump for joy.”

In the meantime, Hier hopes that those “trying to figure out how they can get rid of Donald Trump” will consider that such continued tension “will take us back to the 1860s. And nobody wants that.”

To Hier, not only would America suffer should the growing schism here lead to some kind of unfortunate civil war, but being that “we’re holding up the rest of the world,” the rest of the globe would suffer in his estimation as well.

“I would recommend to those people who are popping pills because the election didn’t turn out the way they planned to get a hold of themselves and do what people have done for generations in America: hope that the new president is a great president.

“You can be a Republican, you can be a Democrat, but  either way, the election is over,” Hier concluded.

“So if you want, make plans for four years from now. But in the ensuing time, hope that he turns out to be a great president. That’s much better than bickering and trying to do something you can’t do anything about … We don’t hold elections every two weeks. That’s not democracy.”


JCCs in Baltimore and Beyond Evacuated for Second Time in Two Weeks JCC was also evacuated Jan. 9; other facilities report threats across country


(Daniel Nozick)

The Park Heights JCC, along with JCCs across the country, has now been the target of two bomb threats this month after the most recent threat Jan. 18, which follows a previous threat on Jan. 9.

The second round of bomb threats affected 27 JCCs in 17 states.

The Park Heights JCC received the phone call threat around 11 a.m. Jan. 18 and the Baltimore Police Department responded shortly thereafter. The JCC reopened after about an hour, once police had done a walkthrough with staff to check for any suspicious materials.

The JCC made the decision to immediately evacuate, according to Paul Lurie, chief operations officer for the JCC of Greater Baltimore, following protocol as they did after the Jan. 9 threat.

“They were evacuating as officers arrived,” said BPD spokesman Det. Jeremy Silbert.

In addition to Maryland, there were threats to facilities in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut and South Carolina, among states, according to the JCC Association of North America.

Lurie said the Baltimore facility had actually heard of some of the threats to other JCCs through Secure Community Network, a safety initiative from the Jewish Federations of North America, before receiving one. The staff was already on heightened alert after the previous week, he added, and evacuation protocols went smoothly.

“We have always had really strong protocols in place,” he said. “Obviously, after what happened [Jan. 9] we are working with our community partners and law enforcement to be at the top of our game.”

None of the threats thus far have been substantiated, but Lurie said they always assume a threat is serious. Other Jewish groups, such as Anti-Defamation League, are urging all JCCs to do the same.

“Although the threats do not appear to be credible, the League is urging all communal institutions to take these threats extremely seriously,” the ADL said in a security alert statement issued shortly after the Jan. 18 threats.

In the last round of threats on Jan. 9, 16 facilities in nine states were victims of the calls. In that instance, the Park Heights JCC was evacuated after the late morning call. The JCC reopened by 2 p.m.

Silbert said the case is under investigation and city police are working with state and federal officials.


Orthodox Rabbis Join Opposition to Assisted Death



The debate over death with dignity, also known as assisted suicide, will be reignited in Maryland this year, as state legislators plan to reintroduce the End-of-Life Option Act.

Despite growing acceptance of medically assisted suicide, a group representing more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis came out against the practice, calling it “murder.”

In a recent statement, the Rabbinical Council of America said it “vehemently protests legalizing any pathway for killing the ill, since society thereby supports and normalizes the act of murder.”

In addition, the organization called “for legislators and medical care professionals to reject or limit physician assisted death laws where they are proposed, as well as to seek their limitation and repeal where they are already law.”

The RCA also warned that legalizing medically assisted suicide may drive clergy away from the health care industry due to a conflict between religious beliefs and civil law, and the legislation will be used to prey on vulnerable individuals.

The group’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said that the timing of the announcement, which followed the Washington, D.C. government’s passage of the Death with Dignity Act, is purely coincidental.

Dratch said that RCA members voted on resolutions at the end of the summer, and the organization is gradually announcing each one, therefore the several month delay.

Washington, D.C., pushing its own Death with Dignity Act “only proves the importance of this issue and the necessity of the RCA voicing its opinion on the matter,” he said.

The RCA’s stance is popular among most Orthodox rabbis.

Jews oppose medically assisted suicide “as a default position. There are specific cases that need to be dealt with, but as a default position we oppose it and consider it murder,” said Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, part-time interim rabbi of the Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown.

Although traditional Judaism prohibits medically assisted suicide, Milevksy said, each situation is different and must dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

For example, the best end-of-life decisions for a terminally ill young person may not be suitable for an elderly person.

Maryland’s legislation and similar laws allow certain people with terminal illnesses to buy prescribed medication to end their own lives. Proponents of the legislation say it allows the terminally ill to die peacefully and on their own terms. Critics argue that some patients will be pressured into ending their lives by relatives or physicians.

In the Maryland General Assembly, Sen. Ronald Young (D-District 3) and Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13) introduced the Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer End-of-Life Option Act in 2016. It received an unfavorable report in the Senate and was withdrawn.

Young said he will reintroduce the bill in the upcoming session with Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-District 13) as a co-sponsor; Pendergrass said she will also reintroduce the bill in the House. Despite a lack of changes in the bill, Pendergrass hopes people will change their minds.

“I think as people understand how [the Death with Dignity Act] works, people become more comfortable with it,” she said. “I’m hoping this is the year enough people do understand.”

One opponent Pendergrass and Guzzone may hear from this year is Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland. A registered lobbyist, Sadwin has opposed medically assisted suicide and argued against it in Annapolis.

“As much compassion as we have on those who are ill and suffering, to go ahead and say, ‘Sure, take your own life,’ there is no basis in Jewish law to say that is permissible,” he said.

In Washington, the D.C. Council in November voted 11-2 to pass the Death with Dignity Act of 2015. The bill was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser last month.

On Jan. 6, the bill was transmitted to Congress, which can sign a joint resolution of disapproval if it chooses, a legislative process unique to the District of Columbia. If the president does not sign the resolution of disapproval before a 30-day deadline expires, the law will take effect in October.

In Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, Sen. Daylin Leach (D) has introduced medically assisted suicide bills several times since 2007, most recently with Sen. Lisa Boscola (D), but the bills have never made it out of preliminary committees.

The rabbis interviewed for this story are Orthodox, but views on medically assisted suicide do not change from one denomination to another. Both the Conservative movement’s Rabbinic Assembly and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis have previously made rulings on Jewish law that prohibit medically assisted suicide.

Even states whose populations seem to favor a death-with-dignity measure struggle to make it law.

A law allowing a terminally ill person to end his or own life saw its first legislative win in 1994 in Oregon. Oregonians later defeated an attempt to nullify the law in 1997. Since then a handful of states have followed, and most recently Colorado passed the law during the November elections.

States that have enacted a medically assisted suicide law or similar legislation include, in addition to Oregon, Washington (2008), Vermont (2013) and California (2016).

Montana has not enacted such a law, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law does not prohibit a physician from honoring a terminally ill patient’s request to end his or her life. Both proponents and foes of the law have attempted to pass legislation since then, but neither side has succeeded.


Groups Ready for March on Washington

Womens March

Screenshot of Women’s March homepage

Progressive Jewish groups are gearing up to participate in the potentially massive Women’s March on Washington, a protest against President-elect Donald Trump that will take place the day after his inauguration.

Organizers expect around 200,000 people at the Jan. 21 demonstration, which coincides with Shabbat. While
Jewish organizers acknowledge that Shabbat could prevent some Jews from participating, many groups plan to incorporate Shabbat prayer services into the day of protest.

“We understand that the fact that this is on Shabbat is a challenge for some Jews and organizations,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of the progressive New York City-based Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc, which is an official partner
organization of the march. “While our policy is not to initiate or lead actions on Shabbat, we see participating as a way to convey [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s idea of praying with your feet,” she said, referring to the 20th-century theologian and social activist. “We see this as an expression of Shabbat observance.”

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington will partner with Jews United for Justice, the human rights group T’ruah and others to host members of the local community and what Rabbi Shira Stutman said would be “busloads” of people from out of town.

The program at the synagogue will include services on Friday night and Saturday morning before participants head to the rally, which will begin at 10 a.m. near the Capitol.

“Shabbat can be a time of calm in any sort of whirlwind,” said Stutman. “Of course, many Washingtonians are disappointed with the election results, but no matter who you are, the idea of pausing on Shabbat can be incredibly meaningful.”

After the rally, Sixth and I will host a lunch and an afternoon of meditation, music,
reflection and workshops on social justice activism.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism will also hold a morning Shabbat prayer service at a hotel in Washington, led by Rabbis Amy Schwartman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., and Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Barbara Weinstein, associate director of the Religious Action Center, said that her organization expects about 600 people at the morning service, including local congregants.

“We know that there is deep interest in the march among our congregations and congregants because the issues of
reproductive rights and women’s equality are issues we care deeply about,” she said.

The National Council of Jewish Women is also organizing some of its members to participate in the march. Jody Rabhan, the NCJW’s director of Washington operations, said that the fact that the march is on Shabbat was a “big consideration” for her organization and that her team spent the last two months deliberating how to participate.

“Ultimately, we decided that the effort and meaning of the march was too important for us to not be involved,” she said.

In part because the march will take place on Shabbat, NCJW also will participate in advocacy and training workshops the day after the march with Planned Parenthood and the United State of Women.

The New York City advocacy organization Jews for Racial & Economic Justice is another partner organization to the march and many of its members will travel to Washington for the march, according to executive director Audrey Sasson. She said that it is important for participants to stand with the groups she believes will be most vulnerable under a Trump administration.

Demonstration organizers initially drew criticism from people who claimed this year’s march appropriated its name and message from the 1997 Million Women March, which protested mainstream feminism for ignoring people of color. Sasson acknowledged that march organizers “might have fumbled a bit” in the beginning but are on track now.

“What for us is most important now is to stand beside the people who will be most impacted by what’s to come,” she said. “This is really a moment for us to come together and build our power.”

The Schusterman Family Foundation, Repair the World, Moishe House, Hillel and the Jim Joseph Foundation are planning events for people who are visiting Washington over inauguration weekend. They will hold a Friday night Shabbat dinner, including table-based guided conversations about how to encourage civic participation and how to speak to people who have differing viewpoints, according to Roben Smolar, director of communications at the Schusterman Family Foundation. She said the organizations also will offer volunteer opportunities in the local community during the weekend.


JCC Association Names New President, CEO

The JCC Association of North America  announced on Dec. 20 that the 100-year-old central agency had named Doron Krakow as its new president and CEO.

Krakow has long been a prominent member of the professional Jewish communal scene on a national level and most recently served as head of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s American fundraising arm. He previously has served as senior vice president of Israel and overseas programs at the Jewish Federations  of North America (formerly United Jewish Communities).

Prior to that integral role, Krakow operated as the national director of Young Judea, bolstering that organization’s amalgam of youth groups, summer camps and Israel and university  programs.

Residing in Tenafly, N.J., with his wife and three sons, Krakow earned his M.B.A. from Cornell University after receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers University.

“I’m honored and humbled to accept this  position and embark on an exciting new journey with an organization that truly drives innovation across Jewish communities all over the United States and Canada,” Krakow said in a news release issued by the JCC Association of North America.


Trump’s Israel Envoy Pick Shakes Up American Jewish Status Quo

President-elect Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, N.J., in Feb. 2010. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka Trump and attorney David Friedman exit U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Camden, N.J., in Feb. 2010. (Bradley C. Bower/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) -– Nearly six years ago, when President Barack Obama was set to elevate one of his top emissaries to the Jewish community to the Israel ambassadorship, Dan Shapiro asked for – and got – the endorsement of one of Obama’s fiercest pro-Israel critics.

“Dan has always spoken to us, patiently and carefully explaining the administration’s position, and he does so with aplomb, with concern, and with intense appreciation of the other side’s position,” Morton Klein, the Zionist Organization of America president, said at the time.

Don’t expect J Street, or the Reform movement – or, really, anyone on the liberal side of the pro-Israel spectrum – to extend that embrace to David Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer who is one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top emissaries to the Jewish community and whom he nominated to be ambassador to Israel.

An “intense appreciation of the other side’s position” does not describe Friedman’s denigration of J Street as “not Jewish” and “worse than” Jewish collaborators with Nazis; his calling Obama “blatantly anti-Semitic,” and his lament that more than half of American Jews are not pro-Israel.

The nomination of Friedman has sent shock waves through a chunk of the organized Jewish community because of the signal it sends to the 71 percent of American Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton: One of marginalization, not of outreach. While Friedman’s nomination was hailed by a hawkish but influential minority as a sign that Israel will get the U.S. support it deserves, it possibly sidelines a pro-Israel mainstream that believes moderation best builds a pro-Israel consensus.

“We’re all trying to figure out how to navigate this administration,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “But the notion that someone who would represent the United States would describe people as ‘not Jewish’ and ‘kapos’” — the Jews who collaborated with the Nazi death machine – “what does that say about respect for civil discourse and what does it say about temperament in a particularly volatile region?”

There are less than a handful of ambassadors who must navigate domestic constituencies as assiduously as they do their host countries, and are chosen with both audiences in mind. They include the envoys to Israel, Ireland and, occasionally, Greece and Italy.

American Jewish leaders have long expected a warm reception from their ambassador when their delegations pay a visit to Israel.

“It’s a very multifaceted position, they do a lot of outreach to Jewish communities in the United States,” Ron Halber, the director of the Jewish Community relations Council of Greater Washington, said of ambassadors to Israel. “It’s more than diplomatic, it’s symbolic. I’m concerned that symbol could be tarnished by someone who has staked out extreme ideological positions on internal Israeli matters.”

Those positions include a rejection of the two-state solution and unchecked expansion of the settlements — the former counter to the stated position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter also a challenge to longstanding U.S. and international policy.

Friedman did not return a request for comment.

A range of liberal Jewish groups have already denounced Friedman, citing his online history thick with broadsides against liberals, many appearing on the pro-settlement Israeli news site, Israel National News, as well as his extensive fundraising for the settlement movement.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., a Jewish congressman known for his close ties to the organized community, said in a statement that Friedman’s “extreme views and use of such hateful language is an insult to the majority of American Jews.”

J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, joined a number of groups in pledging to do its best to keep the Senate from confirming Friedman. “Friedman should be beyond the pale for senators considering who should represent the United States in Israel,” the group said in a statement last week.

The New Israel Fund launched a fund-raising appeal on Monday based on what they called Trump’s “dangerous” nomination of Friedman.

Hawkish Jewish groups have welcomed the appointment, most pronouncedly Klein’s ZOA. It said Friedman has “has the potential to be the greatest US Ambassador to Israel ever.”

In an interview, Klein said he stood by his 2011 endorsement of Shapiro, who strove to reach out to right-wing Jews in the United States and hard-liners in Israel as a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council and then as ambassador.

“I said I found Shapiro to be a person of integrity,” Klein said. “That’s true of Dan and it’s true of David Friedman.”

Friedman was reported to have said earlier this month at an off-the-record segment of the annual Saban Forum colloquy of U.S. and Israeli influencers that were he to become ambassador, he would not take meetings with J Street.

“He’s not there to represent the views of most Jews,” Klein said of Friedman, although he said he believed that Friedman’s support for moving the embassy to Jerusalem and for settlement expansion was representative of the Jewish community.

Klein said he would not use “kapos” to describe J Street, which opposes settlement expansion and advocates for an assertive U.S. posture in bringing about a two-state solution, but he understood how Friedman might have done so out of “anguish and misery.”

The Union for Reform Judaism stopped short of saying it would oppose Friedman, but expressed concerns about his statements and his rejection for the two-state solution.

In an interview, URJ President Rick Jacobs said that the Reform movement has relied on U.S. administrations to represent to Israel, through their ambassadors, the broad range of American Jewish opinion. An ambassador who represented only one segment of the Jewish community would diminish attachment to Israel among Jews already unsettled by Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, and by exclusion of non-Orthodox groups from civil matters like marriage and divorce, he said.

“Our larger project has been to keep people connected to Israel,” Jacobs said of the URJ. “We may be seeing a series of policy shifts” under Trump “that make it harder for non-Orthodox Jews to see Israel as a place they love.”

Larger groups were treading carefully around the nomination. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to a JTA request for comment, stuck to its longstanding position of not pronouncing on nominees. The Anti-Defamation League was also not forthcoming.

The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that it was noteworthy that nominating a Jew for the job no longer raised hackles (that’s been the case for close to three decades) and that it wanted to know more about what picking Friedman said about Trump’s Israel policies.

“We shall be eager to understand Trump Administration policy regarding the special U.S.-Israel bilateral link, as well as the quest for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian accord — which AJC continues to believe is the only tenable solution to the conflict — and, of course, the larger regional context in which Israel lives,” the AJC said.

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, said in reply to a JTA query that Friedman was representative of the minority of Jews (and a majority in his community) who voted for Trump.

“Trump’s selection of David Friedman to be his Administration’s ambassador to Israel is consistent with the policy view Trump expressed during the campaign and consistent with the view of most of those American Jews who actually voted for Trump for president,” he said.

Burton, whose Boston JCRC called on Friedman to apologize for his past remarks, said that it was key for Jews who object to Friedman not to be drawn into the polarizing invective that characterized Friedman’s writings in the past.

“We have to acknowledge that some members of our community are optimistic about the next administration,” he said, noting parts of Trump’s Israel message that should please most Jews, including his expressions of friendship to the country and his desire for peace. “We do ourselves a disservice collectively if we are in the black or white zone on everything.”

Obama Lights the Menorah One More Time



If any word could describe the scene from the East Room of the White House on Dec. 14, the site of the final two Chanukah parties hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, it would be irony.

Unless you paid close attention to the fact that there was a silver menorah being lit at the front of the room for the second ceremony in the evening, or the fact that some of the 550-plus guests at each ceremony were wearing kippot, the Christmas trees and lights adorning the room may have given you a different impression.

Obama appeared to be in good spirits, referring to the infamous “Thanksgivvikuh” holiday confluence of 2013, when the Obamas lit a turkey-shaped menorah, and noting that the annual White House event gives them a lot of nachas. He even managed to recast his presidency as the Chanukah story of the day’s worth of oil that lasted for eight.

“You know, at the beginning of my presidency, some critics thought it would last for only a year, but — miracle of miracles it has lasted eight years,” he said to raucous applause.

But Obama also noted the many accomplishments of American Jews, including the Jewish Supreme Court justices. He said this as recent court nominee Merrick Garland stood near the back of the room With Garland’s nomination all but dead, Obama said the Garland will “continue to serve our country with distinction as the chief judge on the D.C. circuit.”

Both ceremonies featured relatives of important Jewish figures who died this year. At the first event, Obama compared Elie Wiesel’s survival in Nazi concentration camps to the story of Chanukah and the larger concept of overcoming adversity.

“Through centuries of exile and persecution, and even the genocide of families like the Wiesels’ endured, the Chanukah candles have been kindled,” he said. “Each wick an answer to the wicked.  Each light a signal to the world that yours is an inextinguishable faith.”

During the second ceremony — Obama has run two parties in recent years due to demand; each one on Wednesday drew 550 people — he recalled former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Obama also noted the contributions Jews have made in fighting for the rights of other marginalized groups.

“It’s why Jews marched in Selma, why they mobilized after Stonewall, why synagogues have opened their doors to refugees, why Jewish leaders have spoken out against all forms of hatred,” he said.

Both ceremonies ended with Chanukah blessings — minus God’s name because the holiday won’t actually begin until Dec. 24 — and the traditional song “Ma’oz Tzur.” The first ceremony included a bit of gospel flavor with the singing of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Obama’s final menorah lighting followed one of the bitterest presidential campaigns in American history. Obama’s words Wednesday, while consoling, may not have been enough for those who attended.

“The story of this community and the work you continue to do to repair the world forever reminds us to have faith that there are brighter days ahead,” Obama said as the crowd chuckled.

“They’re a little cynical,” Michelle Obama remarked to her husband, to which he replied “No, no, no. They’re not cynical.”


Hillel Gives Awards, Receives Record Gift

Three Hillel campus centers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., were among the recipients of awards from Hillel International, presented at the organization’s annual Global Assembly in Orlando, Fla., this month.

Goucher College Hillel won the Israel Education and Engagement Award; University of Maryland Hillel received the Phillip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Outstanding Campus Award; and Hillel at the George Washington University won the Joseph Meyerhoff Award for Jewish Educational Vision.

Melissa Kansky, director of Jewish engagement at Hillel at the University of Virginia, received the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award.

Meanwhile, Hillel International received its largest gift ever, $38 million from a foundation established by the co-founder of Home Depot.

The Marcus Foundation, established by Bernard Marcus and his wife, Billi, said it would make the multiyear donation to a new Hillel staffing initiative, Talent Grants.

The initiative seeks to “recruit, train and retain talented professionals who will inspire every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel,” according to a prepared statement.


Size matters: How a ‘largest menorah’ tiff landed two rabbis in Jewish court

The World's Largest Hanukkah Menorah being lighted by then-New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg with Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman, Director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, in 2013. (PR Newswire)

The World’s Largest Hanukkah Menorah being lighted by then-New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg with Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman, Director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization, in 2013. (PR Newswire)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Each year in Brooklyn, Chabad Rabbi Shimon Hecht ascends 33 and a half feet to light the tallest menorah in the world.

But he’s not allowed to call it that anymore.

By decree of a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical court, Hecht must cede the title of “World’s Largest Menorah” to another candelabra, this one also erected by a Chabad rabbi, also in New York. That menorah is, in fact, is six inches shorter than Hecht’s, but because it used the “tallest” moniker first, the court said it owns the title.

“Every Hanukkah operation is meant for publicizing the miracle in a way that sanctifies God’s name and the name of Chabad, and not, God forbid, the opposite,” the judges wrote in the Dec. 1 decision. “So when another organization in the same city uses the same descriptor without permission from the plaintiff, it could cause the opposite of respect to Lubavitch.”

Each Hanukkah since 1984, Hecht’s menorah has stood at Grand Army Plaza, a public plaza at the main entrance to Prospect Park in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Across the river in Manhattan, the other Chabad menorah, erected by Rabbi Shmuel Butman, stands on Fifth Avenue at the southeastern corner of Central Park.

The bases of both menorahs reach 32 feet, the maximum allowed by Jewish law. But Hecht’s central candle, called the shamash, pokes half a foot higher into the sky than Butman’s.

“The whole spirit of the holiday is to spread the miracle” of Hanukkah, said Rabbi Moshe Hecht, Shimon Hecht’s son. “Putting menorahs out in the public garners attention.”

Both rabbis lead institutions within the vast Chabad infrastructure. Shimon Hecht is rabbi of Chabad of Park Slope and Butman is the director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization.

In the mid-1970s, former Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson began encouraging his emissaries to build public menorahs to increase awareness of the holiday and to inspire Jews to light their own menorahs. More than two decades after his death, Chabad rabbis put up large menorahs every year in cities around the world — one of the most visible signs of the global Hasidic Jewish outreach movement.

Each New York menorah has staked its claim to being the world’s largest — and each has used that distinction for all the publicity it’s worth.

The Manhattan menorah, first set up about a decade before its Brooklyn rival, stands between the posh Plaza and Pierre Hotels on Fifth Avenue. Designed by Israel artist Yaacov Agam, the menorah’s candlesticks rise from a rectangular base and shoot off diagonally. A string of New York City mayors and New York State governors have ascended in an electrician’s cherry-picker to light the Fifth Avenue menorah — though former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Mayor Bill de Blasio have lit candles at both locations.

In 2006, the Fifth Avenue menorah scored a coup —  it got Guinness World Records to certify it as “World’s largest menorah.”

“The prominence of the menorah carries an additional message,” Butman, who wouldn’t comment to JTA, said in a 2014 press release. “The Rebbe teaches that soon there will be another light, an eternal light, the eternal light of Moshiach, the eternal light of the Great Redemption.”

But until the rabbinic ruling on Dec. 1, the Brooklyn menorah hadn’t let go of its claim to the title. Standing opposite a military memorial in the center of Grand Army Plaza, it rises from a single gold-colored stem that widens into an angled candelabra. Last year, Hecht drew 2,000 people to the first candle-lighting and expects a similar turnout this year.

To promote the menorah, Hecht runs the website www.largestmenorah.com and — until the court decision — advertised it on the Facebook page World’s Largest Menorah. Both the website and Facebook page feature a logo of a menorah rising from a globe.

The dispute, said Schneerson biographer Samuel Heilman, exemplifies Chabad’s dilemma since its leader’s death in 1994. Decades ago, Hecht and Butman would have appealed directly to the rebbe, whose word was final. But now, a variety of sometimes competing Chabad institutions can operate independently of one another.

“Chabad is now no longer led by a single authority, and today is really in a situation where each emissary or each territory is its own independent operator,” said Heilman, who co-wrote the biography “The Rebbe,” published in 2012.

In this case, the court became the acting authority. In the ruling, the judges ordered Hecht to change his promotional materials or surrender them to Butman, and to instead use a descriptor like “The central menorah of Brooklyn.” Moshe Hecht said he and his father are still working on a re-branding.

“We’re Jews, so we have to follow the ruling of the beis din [rabbinic court], and no further comment on that,” he told JTA. “It’s going to be the same menorah it’s been for the last 30 years.”

What Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick as secretary of state, could mean for the Jewish agenda

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., speaks during the World Gas Conference, in Paris, France, on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Oil companies that have pumped trillions of barrels of crude from the ground are now saying the future is in their other main product: natural gas, a fuel theyre promoting as the logical successor to coal. Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., speaks during the World Gas Conference in Paris on June 2, 2015. (Christophe Morin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil, an energy company large enough to have its own foreign policy.

It is a policy, however, that doesn’t always align with the priorities of Jewish and pro-Israel groups. Oil companies have clashed in the past with the pro-Israel lobby.

“Exxon Mobil has not been a friend to Israel through the years,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, referring to clashes in the 1970s over the Arab boycott of Israel and in the 1990s over the imposition of sanctions on Iran.

Others suggest, however, that fears that Big Oil will tilt U.S. policy against Israel are a thing of the past.

“There was a time that being associated with oil made you automatically deemed hostile when it comes to Israel,” said David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “However, at a time that Israel and Gulf states are quietly pursuing common interests when it comes to enmity toward Iran, the Mideast is no longer zero-sum.  Hopefully, oil executives see this shift as much as the Arabs themselves.”

Makovsky recalled how one of President Ronald Reagan’s secretaries of state also had ties to one of the energy industry’s biggest builders of oil, chemical and natural-gas facilities.

“One should recall that when George Shultz came in, people thought his business connection to Bechtel projects in the Gulf made him hostile to Israel, and this did not prove to be the case,” he said. “I think a question Tillerson will be asked at the hearings beyond the focus on Russia is how does someone whose business background made him a skeptic on economic sanctions [against Iran] now be the one who will have to enforce them and even advocate for more in certain instances?”

That focus on Russia will involve scrutiny of Tillerson’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson led the expansion of Exxon’s joint drilling with Russia in recent years and has objected to sanctions imposed on the country over its invasion of Ukraine.

“We are unfamiliar with his larger geopolitical view of the world and America’s place in it,” the American Jewish Committee said in a statement on Tillerson’s nomination late Tuesday. The statement recommended to senators confirming Tillerson six areas of inquiry, including maintaining U.S.-Israel relations, containing Iran, supporting alliances in Europe and Asia confronting radical extremism and supprting human rights.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his anxiety was allayed to a degree by what he saw as the friendliness to Israel of Trump and his team.

“I had concerns about [Tillerson’s] closeness to Arab countries and to Russia, all of whom have been hostile to Israel,” Klein said. “But then again I wonder because of his close relations and because of President-elect Trump and the pro-Israel people around him, I’m hoping he will use some of these relations and turn their minds around.”

Steve Rosen, the former policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, recalled the 1990s battles with oil companies over sanctioning Iran — but said they were not ideological, and that Tillerson could well change his outlook once he changes jobs.

“It would be a little unnatural if a CEO with a company with material interest in the freedom of his company to engage in profit-making behavior” were to favor sanctions, he said. “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

As for Trump, his statement Tuesday morning announcing the nomination emphasized Tillerson’s executive skills.

“Guiding operations around the world that include more than 200 offices, Mr. Tillerson knows how to manage a global organization and successfully navigate the complex architecture of world affairs and diverse foreign leaders,” Trump’s statement said. “As Secretary of State, he will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America’s vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America’s security and standing in the world.”

Nevertheless, Tillerson faces a tough nomination fight. And while Jewish groups have largely hesitated to critique Trump’s appointments, they will quietly be asking more than a few questions about Tillerson and what he signals about the president-elect’s foreign policy.

Russian reset

Trump wants to reset relations with Russia, saying it would be better to have them alongside the U.S. rather than rivals. The president-elect has boasted of his mutual admiration for Putin. What does that mean for Syria?

Like most of the world, Israel wants the carnage to end. Unlike Russia, it does not want the outcome to include the empowerment of Russia’s ally, the Assad regime. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, for one, says Assad must go. Israel also does not want Iran and Hezbollah — Assad’s allies  and, effectively, Russia’s — to come out of the deal strengthened.

Iran sanctions

Tillerson is on the record saying sanctions on Russia were counterproductive. What about Iran?

It’s not clear yet whether Trump is committed to scrapping the Iran nuclear deal or enforcing it more strictly than Obama did. And whatever one’s objections to the pact, which swapped sanctions relief for a nuclear rollback by Iran, the Obama team has enhanced sanctions in other sectors, with a special focus on targeting Iran’s Lebanon proxy, Hezbollah.

Jewish groups will want to know if Tillerson’s opposition to sanctions is a matter of principle, or is he against them because it affects his business now. Had he led Exxon Mobil in the 1990s, would he have joined in the oil industry’s fierce opposition to Iran sanctions introduced at that time?

Two states?

Trump says he wants to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The Republican Party over the summer, in its convention platform, officially became agnostic about a two-state solution and said it would defer to Israel on whether this is the preferred outcome. Trump’s aides have said the same thing. The mainstream and left-wing pro-Israel communities, meantime, remain committed to a two-state outcome.

“We expect senators to question him vigorously to determine whether his views are consistent with decades of bipartisan U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and with upholding our country’s international commitments, such as the successful nuclear agreement with Iran,” J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, said in a statement.

(The centrist American Jewish Committee became the latest mainstream group to reassert support for the two-state solution, issuing a statement Monday calling it the “only realistic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as established through direct bilateral negotiations between the parties themselves.”)

Through his role at Exxon, Tillerson forged deep and friendly ties in the Arab world. How necessary does he believe a two-state outcome is to a lasting peace? Is he ready to relaunch negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians? The last round, in 2014, ended in a war between Israel and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, and the rumblings of a third intifada in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has said that the common enmity Israel shares with Arab states against Iran has created an opportunity for a simultaneous deal – a broad peace deal with the Arab states that could encompass the Palestinians. Tillerson has had his ear to the ground in that region. Does he agree?

Human rights and climate change

The Trump transition team in its statements Tuesday about the nomination depicted Tillerson as a petroleum executive who worries about climate change and the effect of big business on impoverished nations. It relayed excerpts from an Associated Press profile that dug up a quote in which Tillerson advocates for “sensible strategies that address these risks [of manmade climate change] while not reducing our ability to progress other global priorities such as economic development, poverty eradication and public health.”

The American Jewish World Service was not buying, and referred in a statement to Exxon’s alleged role in suppressing scientific evidence of manmade climate change.

“Tillerson’s nomination is deeply disturbing, as he is the leader of one of the world’s largest energy corporations — which has polluted the global environment, developed close relationships with dictators, and used its resources over 40 years to suppress climate science,” said AJWS President Robert Bank.