Polarized Polling

 

 

RAMAPO, N.Y. — After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.

Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.

The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.

Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.

Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.

Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.

“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”

Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.

“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.

After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.

Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes.

Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.

“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.

“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.

Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.

“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.

Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure.  A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”

But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.

“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.

“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”

He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.

“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Still Waiting

Photo by Melissa Gerr

Photo by Melissa Gerr

After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.

Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.

The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.

Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.

Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.

Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.

“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”

Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.

“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.

After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.

Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

 

Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.

“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.

“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.

Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.

“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.

Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure.  A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”

But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.

“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.

“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”

He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.

“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”

Election regulations were not the only last-minute communications in Ramapo. There was a glimmer of possible compromise the day before that appeared via robocalls and a booklet that went out to hundreds of Orthodox homes. The booklet appeared on social media as well.

The booklet on the Preserve Ramapo Facebook page appeared to come from a loosely identified Jewish group. It featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield was listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.

Several pages of graphics and text urged citizens to vote in favor of redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that a yes vote would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”

Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.

“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” he said. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”

Polarized Polling

10714006_10152453633743935_923254016792451115_oAgudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, recently disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town of Ramapo, N.Y. — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey — to vote against today’s referendum on political districting. The measure would reshape the town’s voting districts away from a citywide to a ward-based system of membership on the Town Board that would ultimately, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”

The second part of the referendum calls to increase the Town Board from four to six members. Agudath Israel’s statement also cited “voter minority dilution” as the referendum’s purpose and equated the potential lack of Orthodox representation with that of the local African-American community.

“The reason we felt a particular need to speak up loudly here was to make sure that voters were aware of what is at stake, namely the inhibiting of the voting power of easily disenfranchised minorities,” Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel, wrote in an email. “Currently, the Orthodox Jewish community in Ramapo is able to play a role in electing public officials, as are other minorities. The referendum at issue seems clearly intended to erode, if not eradicate, that ability.”

Agudath Israel is not the only voice bringing Ramapo’s local politics to a national light.

A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and everybody else over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.

Both the Town Board and the school board function independently, but it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the upcoming referendum mirrors the school board fight.

“It’s 100 percent just as polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.

White is also editor of communications for the grass roots organization Power of Ten, which hopes to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community to poll sites today.

“Right now they take all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, added White. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now … since the 90s.”

In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition to ward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.

“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”

Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.

“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”

Two other villages are Wesley Hills and New Hempstead, which White called “extremely segregated.”

“That’s why I think the [redistricting] referendum would work,” he said. But “this is not a Jewish thing or a non-Jewish thing, it’s about when democracy is not really working well, when people cannot have free communication and free will.”

Ramapo has had its share of political discord, and even the redistricting vote taking place this week took two years to finally happen. According to news reports, the battle began with petitions that were thrown out. The petitioners sued the town and were granted the right to hold the referendum by the New York State Supreme Court.

Social media has played a strong part in mobilizing the vote in Ramapo for announcing meetings, polling sites and volunteer opportunities.

A Facebook post the day before the election on the Preserve Ramapo page appeared to come from a loosely-identified Jewish group that used Hebrew phrases throughout and featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield is listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.

Several pages of graphics and text then urged citizens to vote yes for the redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that voting yes would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”

Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.

“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” said Castelluccio. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”

White wasn’t as hopeful.

“I think that we’re going to get clobbered,” he said. “They’ll bring out their full force of 12,000 [voters].”

Shafran saw the election in broad terms.

Though he wrote via email that he “wouldn’t go so far as to say that as goes Ramapo so goes the nation,” he added, “It isn’t paranoia to imagine that if a tactic is employed successfully to disenfranchise Jewish voters in one locale that others might see fit to try to follow suit. So anyone concerned with preserving the rights of minorities to play a meaningful role in the election of public officials should be concerned with the current situation in Ramapo.”

Voters in Ramapo will cast their ballots from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sept. 30. An update of the events and results will be posted online at Jewishtimes.com.

Caught on Camera

Hillary and Bill Clinton share a laugh during an Iowa event benefiting the campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. (Karen Murphy)

Hillary and Bill Clinton share a laugh during an Iowa event benefiting the campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. (Karen Murphy)

Former President Bill Clinton caused controversy last week when off-the-cuff remarks appearing to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were caught by C-SPAN cameras.

While greeting attendees at a campaign event for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) headlined by Bill and Hillary Clinton, the 42nd president had a small conversation with a man who questioned Netanyahu’s ability to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Netanyahu himself said that he does not want peace,” the unknown man is heard telling Clinton in the video. “If we don’t force him to make peace, we will not have peace.”

“First of all, I agree with that,” Clinton responded before saying that in 2000, he got former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to “agree to something that I’m not sure I could have gotten” former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin “to agree to, and Rabin was murdered for giving land to the Palestinians.”

Pushed again to admit that Netanyahu isn’t the right leader by the attendee, Clinton agreed.

Some observers pointed to the candid comments as indicative of a break from support of Israel by the mainstream left and as a predictor of what his wife — a former secretary of state and a likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate — and President Barack Obama privately think of Netanyahu and Israel.

“In public, Hillary Clinton, like Obama, will recite her pro-Israel credentials, but her words and action in [private] are more revealing,” Jennifer Rubin wrote on her blog for The Washington Post. “Like so many other Democrats she tends to view Israel as an irritant.”

But longtime Clinton supporters such as Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official who now runs his own public relations firm in Washington, D.C., say that the exchange shouldn’t be taken as a serious reflection of how U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers work to get things done.

“Bill Clinton and Bibi Netanyahu have a tortured but very mature relationship where they got a lot of business done to their countries’ mutual benefit,” said Rabinowitz. “The people who care about what someone says under his breath are really people who don’t like the guy in the first place. [Clinton and Netanyahu] didn’t get along perfectly personally, but they’re both pros and they figured it out.”

Rabinowitz believes that support for Clinton among Jews is still high. If he ran for president again, he said, Clinton would still get 80 to 90 percent of the Jewish vote.

“Bill Clinton could get elected president of Israel too,” Rabinowitz said.

One staffer with the Ready for Hillary PAC who declined to speak on the record said that too much weight should not be put into one unartful comment by the former president.

“I think no matter what, the peace process is really difficult and there are a lot of emotions and a lot of history involved,” said the staffer. “I think that for anyone it would be very difficult, and I think Netanyahu is someone who could [bring peace], but it will always be hard.”

The former president wasn’t the only Democrat last week whose comments upset the Jewish community.

Speaking at a 40th anniversary conference of the Legal Services Corporation on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden recalled a story his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, told him about unethical banks taking advantage of military personnel when they were fighting abroad.

“That’s one of the things that he finds was most in need when he was over there in Iraq for a year,” Biden said. “That people would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being … I mean these Shylocks who took advantage of, um, these women and men while overseas.”

Shortly after the statement, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman rebuked Biden for referencing “Shylock,” a character from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” who is based on popular anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Later, the vice president called Foxman to apologize for his remark, admitting that it was a “poor choice of words.”

Foxman then issued a statement thanking Biden for his apology and praising the vice president for “turning the rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

ADL Sends Recommendations to College Campuses

The Anti-Defamation League shared recommendations with American university officials on how to deal with a predicted uptick in anti-Israel activity on college campuses as the High Holy Days near.

In a letter sent from the ADL’s headquarters earlier this month, the organization discussed its concern that anti-Israel organizations might take upcoming holidays as an opportunity to increase their efforts. Those efforts, the letter said, could effectively “isolate and demonize Israel and Jewish communal organizations.”

The ADL pointed to one national campus organizations as a potential threat. American Muslims for Palestine, it said, has planned an “International Day of Action on College Campuses,” for Sept. 23, just a day before the start of Rosh Hashanah, and is advocating for the abolition of study abroad programs that send students to Israel in addition to boycotts of Israeli institutions and faculty travel to Israel.

“Such tactics disrupt campus life and stifle the ideals of inquiry, free expression and the civil exchange of ideas – precisely the foundation on which university communities are built,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.  “No university should countenance attempts to discourage and suppress free speech, or harass and intimidate Jewish and other students.”

The letter went on to request that campus officials provide security during events on campus and reach out to students with educational and support services that encourage acceptance and respect in the campus community.

Neighbors, Secret Service Prepare for Obama

AFP PHOTO/ MICHAEL REYNOLDS - POOLMICHAEL REYNOLDS/AFP/Newscom

AFP PHOTO/ MICHAEL REYNOLDS – POOLMICHAEL REYNOLDS/AFP/Newscom

Residents of Green Meadow Way in northwest Baltimore may get a glimpse of President Barack Obama Friday afternoon as he heads to a fundraiser at the home of Howard Friedman.

“The secret service, or people who look like secret service, have been here since Sunday,” said Josh Hurewitz. “They’ve been driving back and forth.” He thought they did a test-run of the motorcade in the early morning hours once this week.

Green Meadow Way resident Sandra Glazer said the road was supposed to close around 1 p.m., and only people who lived on the street would be allowed to come and go. They’d have to show identification to get back home if they left, she said.

Hurewitz said all the neighbors have received notices about how the day was going to go. Residents were told to move cars off the street and into driveways or garages.

Although people are a bit upset the president’s appearance is so close to Shabbat, Hurewitz said people plan to watch the motorcade.

“Everyone’s getting excited,” he said. “Everyone wants to get a spot on the block if they can.”

According to an invitation obtained by jpupdates.com, the president will attend a reception and dinner at the home of Howard Friedman, along with U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland. The event is a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the invite.

A group calling itself Citizens of Pikesville plans to protest near the site of the reception. A press release from the group said it is a group of neighbors who support Israel’s right to defend itself.

“President Obama has not supported Israel. He halted flights out of the United States for 2 days this summer,” the release said. “President Obama halted Hellfire missiles to Israel. He appealed Israel to a building freeze. We want Obama to release Jonathan Pollard.”

Obama Coming to Northwest Baltimore, Protest Planned

AFP PHOTO/ MICHAEL REYNOLDS - POOLMICHAEL REYNOLDS/AFP/Newscom

AFP PHOTO/ MICHAEL REYNOLDS – POOLMICHAEL REYNOLDS/AFP/Newscom

President Barack Obama will be in Baltimore on Friday, Sept. 12. According to an invitation obtained by jpupdates.com, the president will attend a reception and dinner at the home of Howard Friedman, along with U.S. Senators Michael Bennet, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin. The event is a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the invite.

A group calling itself Citizens of Pikesville plans to protest near the site of the reception. A press release from the group said it is a group of neighbors who support Israel’s right to defend itself.

“President Obama has not supported Israel. He halted flights out of the United States for 2 days this summer,” the release said. “President Obama halted Hellfire missiles to Israel. He appealed Israel to a building freeze. We want Obama to release Jonathan Pollard.”

Tête-à-Tête

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a Sept. 2 discussion on rising anti-Semitism around the world. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a Sept. 2 discussion on rising anti-Semitism around the world.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Concerned about growing anti-Semitic rhetoric, vandalism and violence plaguing Europe and the rest of the world in recent months, leaders from Jewish organizations in the United States and Europe met with State Department officials and Secretary of State John Kerry on Sept. 2 for an off-the-record roundtable
discussion on how to combat this growing international threat.

The discussion was hosted by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, with Kerry stopping by briefly for a photo-op and a few statements on various topics of interest to the group, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post.

The secretary “reiterated the U.S. government’s deep concern about the prevalence and pervasiveness of anti-Semitic threats and attacks against Jewish individuals, houses of worship and businesses during the past few months,” according to a State Department statement.

Writing in a blog post the following day, Forman cited specific examples that moved the department to convene the meeting: specifically, the looting of Jewish-owned stores and protestors lobbing a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in Paris; and a group of teenagers in Sydney,

Australia boarding a school bus for a Jewish primary school and shouting anti-Semitic epithets.

“These and other incidents are of deep concern to the United States government,” wrote Forman, adding that Kerry “emphasized that monitoring and combating anti-Semitism is a global State Department priority, and reaffirmed our commitment to speaking out against this scourge whenever and wherever it exists.

“For Secretary Kerry, whose own grandparents came to the United States escaping anti-Semitism in what is today the Czech Republic — and whose own ancestors who stayed behind lost their lives in the Holocaust — this cause is very personal,” he added.

Each organization that was invited — mostly those involved in monitoring anti-Semitism — were represented by one individual each. The list included B’nai B’rith, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, the Reform Action Center and the Anti-Defamation League, among others.

Prior to his appointment as a special envoy, Forman was the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council from 1996 until 2010, and served as the Jewish outreach director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

His current post — which is uniquely tasked to represent U.S. policy on anti-Semitism globally — was created as part of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004.

Although he would not comment on what was said during the meeting, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that the most important aspect of the meeting, other than what was discussed, had to do with it being the first time that the State Department had elevated the battle against anti-Semitism to such a high level within the department’s leadership, an achievement he credits to Forman and his office.

“The State Department’s record during the second world war is abysmal. Books have been written about that. Nobody wanted to interfere, nobody wanted to get involved in the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, so it’s refreshing that the State Department has done this,” said Hier. “This sends a loud message to the entire world that there is now an active office [dealing exclusively with anti-Semitism]. It’s not an office where [it] will get lost in a larger agenda, it’s specifically to monitor the new phenomenon of worldwide anti-Semitism.”

Hier’s colleague, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, agreed with Hier’s assessment about the importance of this week’s meeting for the global anti-Semitism battle, although he did not take part in the roundtable.

“I can just tell you that for me, when I go to Europe, the fact that [Forman] convened this means we can now tell the Europeans, ‘Hey, you’re talking about the United States of Europe? Terrific! What are you going to do now about this problem?’” said Cooper. “So the answer is to create an Ira Forman or a committee like it and put some money behind it. I think [the meeting] has the potential to be extraordinarily significant.”

Cooper also heaped praise on Forman, saying that Forman has been actively lobbying all levels of the State Department to make anti-Semitism a priority.

“It’s a signal within the bureaucracy of the State Department that this is an issue that doesn’t end at the desk of Ira Forman,” said Cooper.

Although, the Gaza conflict was not the cause of rising anti-Semitism, according to Hier, it helped bring it to public attention.

“This is now a malignancy. The Ebola outbreak is not nearly as ferocious as the anti-Semitic outbreak,” said Hier. “I don’t mean in terms of death, but the outbreak that we’re seeing now in anti-Semitism is unprecedented in the world, so it’s good that we have an office that is looking after that.”

Some of the other high-level State Department officials participating
in the meeting included Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Paul Jones.
JNS.org contributed to this story.

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Medal of Honor

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently announced he would recommend the late Jewish World War I veteran Sgt. William Shemin for the Medal of Honor. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently announced he would recommend the late Jewish World War I veteran Sgt. William Shemin for the Medal of Honor. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Jewish veterans had a lot to celebrate at their recent convention in Charleston, S.C., not the least of which was an announcement by Baltimore resident Erwin A. Burtnick, a retired colonel and commander of the Jewish War Veteran’s Department of Maryland, that World War I veteran Sgt. William Shemin is being posthumously recommended for the Medal of Honor by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

“I have been fighting for years for Sgt. Shemin to receive the Medal of Honor,” said Burtnick, one of several locals among the approximately 150 people in attendance at the JWV’s 119th National Convention, which ran from Aug. 17 to 24. “We don’t have many Jewish Medal of Honor recipients. Many people think he was overlooked because of his religion. Four decades after his death, he is going to get one.”

Founded in 1896, JWV is the oldest active military veteran organization in the country. It was formed by Jewish Civil War veterans after a newspaper falsely reported that Jews had not served in the war. Supporting the rights of veterans, JWV focuses on national security, veterans’ affairs, support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism.

“The Jewish War Veterans is as important today as it was during the Civil War era,” said Burtnick. “Historically, the percentage of Jews who served in the military is larger than the percentage of Jews who lived in the U.S. Keeping the Jewish War Veterans alive is so critical, and I’m thrilled three of us made it down from Baltimore to this year’s convention.”

Receiving the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in 1918, Shemin ran into no-man’s land three times to carry wounded soldiers back to shelter. At 19-years-old, Shemin took over his platoon, leading his soldiers to safety and suffering a bullet wound to the head.

With the reading of Hagel’s letter line-by-line at the convention, it was indicated that once a waiver revision is made, Shemin simply needs Obama’s approval to receive the esteemed award.

In addition to Burtnick’s announcement, several other speakers gave presentations at the convention, including retired Gen. Baruch Levy of the Israel Defense Forces. In his speech, he shed light on the current military situation in Israel.

“The Jewish War Veterans is, of course, a huge supporter of the IDF,” said Burtnick. “Levy’s speech this year truly ties everything together.”

Many new officers were elected at this years’ convention, including new national commander Col. Maxwell Colon, National Museum of American Jewish Military History president Joseph Zoldan and National Ladies Auxiliary of Jewish War Veterans president Petra Kaatz. In addition, committee groups met throughout the convention to work on different aspects of the JWV organization.

A former computer programmer at the Edgewood area of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, retired Sgt. Stephen Mintz was among attendees.

“It is important to spread the veterans’ stories of how our nation is protected,” said Mintz. “Through my committees, I help record and computerize Jewish veterans’ stories. [At] Jewish War Veterans … we feel a strong sense of patriotism. Everyone has a story in the war effort, and I want them to be heard.”

Next year’s convention is scheduled for Tampa, Fla.

“The Jewish War Veterans have served from the Civil War to today,” said Burtnick. “We have been in Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II, Operation Desert Storm and more. If you look through history, we are, and always have been, defending our nation.”

afreedman@jewishtimes.com

Star-Studded Sendoff

Joan Rivers (File photo)

Joan Rivers (File photo)

The funeral for legendary Jewish comedienne Joan Rivers, who passed away Sept. 4 at the age of 81, a week after suffering cardiac arrest during routine throat surgery, was a star-studded affair indeed.

“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” said her daughter, Melissa. And the tributes that were spoken at Temple Emanu-El in New York on Sunday certainly reflected Rivers’ joy for making people smile.

Howard Stern delivered the eulogy, Audra McDonald sang “Smile,” and bagpipers from the New York City Police Department played “New York, New York.”

“It was uplifting. We were celebrating her life,” said fashion designer Dennis Basso. Hugh Jackman sang “Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage” at the end of the ceremony.

Among the attendees were Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelly Osbourne, Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Barbara Walters, Geraldo Rivera, Diane Sawyer, Kathie Lee and Donald Trump.

Known for never holding back when it came to providing her unfiltered opinions on everything from what Kim Kardashian was wearing on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standup comedienne — known for her catchphrase “Can we talk?” — was renowned for her fearlessness, tenacity and courageousness to say whatever was on her mind.

Rivers began her career as a standup comic in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a time when the words “female” and “comedy” almost never went hand in hand. Rivers’ performances led to her first appearance on national television, which was a guest spot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” a gig she said was responsible for launching her professional career.

In more than five decades, Rivers hosted two syndicated talk shows, recorded comedy albums, appeared in numerous films, TV shows and standup specials, had her own jewelry line on the Home Shopping Channel and was the author of 12 best-selling non-fiction humor, memoir and self-help books. Recently, she was best known for hosting “Fashion Police” on E!, a weekly program that launched in 2010 in which she, Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, George Kotsiopoulos and a number of celebrity guests commented on the best and worst looks donned by Hollywood celebrities. Rivers also shared a reality TV series with her daughter called “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (2011-2014) and launched a YouTube series in 2013, “In Bed With Joan,” where she interviewed celebrities and comedians, including her first guest, fellow Jewish funny girl Sarah Silverman.

In July, she appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I Synagogue to discuss her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” with journalist Hanna Rosin. Washington Jewish Week reported on the event, noting that Rivers gave every ticket holder a copy of the book with an autographed nameplate, as she said it was “too cheesy” to ask people to buy it. During the talk, Rivers provided her thoughts on Heidi Klum, Helen Keller, the Kardashians, and her fondness for telling Jewish jokes.

Her opening joke was about Heidi Klum and the Holocaust: “I haven’t seen anything that hot since the Germans were pushing Jews into the ovens,” she said. “I’ll get [it] from the ADL for insulting the Jews, but if I had said the gypsies, the Jews would have complained they were left out.”

And her thoughts on Anne Frank? “I’m nothing like Anne Frank. She lived in a walk-up; I live in a penthouse. She stayed home all the time; I go out shopping.”

Rivers said she performed a lot of Jewish jokes “to remind people about who we are and that we’re still here … and to shake things up.” She went on to talk about the difficulties of becoming a successful comedienne as a young woman and how she remained grateful to Johnny Carson.

“I have never found being a woman in this age to be a hindrance,” she said. “Back then I couldn’t do an abortion joke. … I couldn’t even say I was pregnant on the air to Ed Sullivan. I had to say soon I will be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” She also told the audience that she never thought she ever went “too far” with a joke. “Every time I can make someone laugh, it’s like giving them a small vacation,” she said.

izelaya@washingtonjewishweek.com