Uncertain Future BDS ties to trade package riles pro-Israel community

Despite unprecedented Democratic backing, including the overwhelming support of the Senate Finance Committee that approved it more than a month ago, Congress’ only legislative volley in the war against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill.

In advance of a likely vote Wednesday on the so-called Trade Promotion Authority that President Barack Obama says he needs in order to close a deal with 12 Pacific Rim nations and that contains an amendment authored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) committing the United States to the elimination
of state-sponsored boycotts against Israel, Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-Pa.) indicated late last week that, despite supporting the amendment, he will ultimately vote against the bill.

Even Cardin, who approved an earlier iteration of the bill that failed to advance in the House of Representatives when Democrats spurned entreaties by Obama to support the trade package, was noncommittal Monday on how he would vote.

Sen. Ben Cardin (Photo REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

Sen. Ben Cardin (Photo REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Newscom)

If that leaves members of the pro-Israel community scratching their heads, Casey said that while fighting BDS remains a core priority of his, defeating the trade package is even more important.

“I don’t believe that this TPA legislation, or frankly any bill on TPA, is the only way to combat [BDS] or the most effective way,” he said.

When the legislation was last taken up by the full Senate — and approved in a 62-37 vote — Casey voted against it. When the House took it up June 12, a must-pass companion bill on Trade Adjustment Assistance that would provide funds for workers displaced by international trade fell victim to Democrats arguing that past comprehensive trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s, ravaged America’s labor force.

At Obama’s urging, the TPA and TAA provisions were then decoupled, and the House approved the trade authority, which would subject any trade deal negotiated by the White House to a simple up or down vote in Congress, last week.

Through a spokeswoman, Cardin said that he bemoaned the fact that he would have to vote on the trade authority without the corresponding worker assistance package, which he supports.

“On TPA, Sen. Cardin prefers that the measures were bundled together,” spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said in an email.

Labor union members and environmentalists were scheduled to rally outside of Cardin’s district office in suburban Maryland.

“It’s time that you listened to your constituents and reject the effort to advance fast track trade authority in the Senate,” Communications Workers of America member Pam Wilt said in a news release directed at Cardin. “You cannot walk away from working people for a second time.”

When the Finance Committee discharged the trade legislation in a 20-6 vote on April 23, Cardin hailed the legislation for containing the BDS amendment, which passed unanimously. It requires trade negotiators to make rejection of BDS a principal objective in negotiations with the European Union.

“Israel is one of the America’s closest allies and the only stable democracy in the Middle East,” Cardin said at the time. “We may not agree with every Israeli policy, but we cannot allow our potential trading partners in the EU to fall prey to efforts that threaten Israel’s existence.”

In his interview June 19, Casey stood by Cardin’s assessment, calling BDS a movement rooted in anti-Semitism and having as its design the delegitimizing of Israel in the international arena.

“It is really, really disturbing,” he said. “Virtually every American knows about the strength of our relationship with Israel and how it is such a partner with us in the Middle East. So to have an effort that I believe undermines that relationship is disturbing and insulting to what we stand for.”

Although the only BDS legislation with any reasonable chance of passing on Capitol Hill will ultimately fail if Casey gets his way, Pennsylvania’s junior senator said there are other ways he can lead in the fight against BDS.

“As a senator, to prevent it and to mitigate it is first of all to use my voice,” he said. “The good news is as an elected official, you have a voice. But you can also use your vote to vote against any policy consistent with BDS or that advances a policy … counterproductive to working towards peace with the Palestinians.”

Associates of Casey’s on both sides of the aisle said that it would be unfair to see in his objection to the trade legislation anything more than a stand against a bill opposed by the labor movement. They didn’t question his commitment to Israel.

“Sen. Casey is probably as pro-Israel as any member of Congress right now,” said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, who has traveled to the Jewish state with the senator. “I can guarantee [BDS] is going to come up [again] and in the way he wants it to come up.”

Melissa Apter contributed to this article.


Hogan Announces He Has Cancer

052314_cover-hoganGov. Larry Hogan announced Monday that he has been diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer, which he described as  “very advanced and very aggressive,” according to reports.

Hogan, 59, canceled several events after returning from a recent trip to Asia two weeks ago. He said he would not step down and will begin chemotherapy soon.

He was joined by his wife Yumi and his daughters, son-in-law, granddaughter, two younger brothers and members of his cabinet when he made the announcement at the State House, according to The Washington Post.

This story is developing.

‘This is Just the Beginning’ Local, national Jewish organizations reach out to AME Church community in Charleston

Charleston residents during a prayer vigil outside the Morris Brown AME church (RICHARD ELLIS/EPA/Newscom)

Charleston residents during a prayer vigil outside the Morris Brown AME church

After nine people were killed by 21-year-old gunman Dylann Roof during a prayer study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Thursday, many, including the local Jewish community in Charleston, S.C., reached out to comfort and support their neighbors and publicly denounced the act as a hate crime against the African-American community.

Rabbi Stephanie Alexander from Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston had been on a bus tour through the South with a members of three area churches when they heard about the tragedy, she said. They had just spent the day at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis which made the news even more “surreal.” The bus traveled from there to Montgomery, where Alexander and two other clergy immediately flew back to Charleston. Alexander attended the vigil happening that evening.

“Inside was packed to capacity, it was overflow crowd onto the street outside,” she said. “We could hear the singing outside as we listened to the speakers inside. It was a really a diverse group of Charlestonians who came to show support, and draw strength and healing as well.

“[Emanuel AME] lost their pastor — their leader and guide and spiritual center,” said Alexander. “At the moment the most important thing we can do is be the visual Jewish presence for the community as we all gather together as one.”

Prayer vigils and gatherings have been happening throughout the city and the country since the shootings. The Charleston community has offered support to the victims and their families.

“This is just the beginning because the huge loss isn’t going to disappear with the media coverage,” said Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Charleston Jewish Federation. She said for the long term, her organization plans to implement curriculum from the “Remember Program for Holocaust Education and Genocidal Awareness” to area middle and high schools.

“There’s work that needs to be done with tolerance, and an integral part is reaching out to the community and using the lessons of the Holocaust to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity,” she said. The Federation has set up a donation link on their site. “We’ll be there every step of the way,” she said.

But, Corsaro said, “For greater Charleston this is a wake-up call. When something like this happens we have to be more aware.”

Many national Jewish organizations came out in support as well. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York expressed “solidarity with and deep sorrow” for the congregants in Charleston. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said in a statement, “houses of worship are places of safety, comfort and inspiration. For the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to have become last night a place of such horror, tears at the heart of every person of faith and goodwill.”

Jacobo Mintzer, president of Synagogue Emanu-el in Charleston said in a written statement, “Today, we are all members of the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston.”

“The hateful actions that took place last night at Emanuel AME Church are a horrendous tragedy that is being felt throughout the Charleston community. Jointly, with other members of the Jewish community, Synagogue Emanu-El strongly condemns these criminal and hateful acts,” he said.

The mayor’s office will hold an interfaith community service organized in the 5,100 seat TD Arena at the College of Charleston on Friday.

“[The synagogue is] about 5 or 6 blocks from Emanuel [church]” and just a few blocks more to the arena, said Alexander. “And even though this program is running through Shabbat, we’re invoking Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” a rabbi who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, who was questioned why he chose to walk instead of stay home to lead and pray with his own community. He answered he was “praying with my legs,” said Alexander, which she will invite her congregants, about 520 households, to do tonight. The participants will light Shabbat candles at the synagogue then walk to the interfaith service together. Her congregants also offered their space to the church as a place to hold their services on Sunday.

“I’m hopeful the Jewish community will be a real visible presence,” she said, “which will be meaning for us and powerful for the community as whole.”

Voice of The Godz Musician Larry Kessler, 73, reflects on his unsuccessful but highly influential band from the ’60s

Larry Kessler holds The Godz’s second album in his record shop. He is second from the right on the album cover.

Larry Kessler holds The Godz’s second album in his record shop. He is second from the right on the album cover.

They made animal noises, they taunted their audiences, they’d talk on their records. The word
‘dissonant’ doesn’t quite do the band’s auditory shenanigans justice. Even Lou Reed thought they were strange. The Godz were unpopular, unappreciated and unsuccessful in their time as a band from 1965 to 1968.

“Anybody who knew us, they claimed that we couldn’t play our music, which we really couldn’t,” said 73-year-old Larry Kessler, who played bass and sang in the band. “People hated us. I’m serious. They would scream at us because we’d tune up for a long time, then we’d start meowing and carrying on, and we were all tanked up anyway.”

Fifty years later, Kessler is still performing original music under The Godz, although it’s not as “far out.” A new album is expected to come out this summer.

Sitting outside Larry’s Record Shop, Kessler’s appointment-only Randallstown record shop four doors from his house, he recounted how the band purposefully stood in the way of its own progress, played to audiences who were on LSD and generally freaked people out.

“We did a lot of [sounds of] chickens and goats, deer, whatever, that could fit into our thing,” he said “We put 20 musicians together and have them play instruments they weren’t used to playing. If you played saxophone, we’d make you play piano.”

Although the band never quite achieved notoriety playing in Greenwich Village with folk bands, The Godz are considered seminal in noise-rock and are celebrated influences by indie rock pioneers Sonic Youth and a host of other bands. They even sold some records in later years.

It’s been quite a journey for someone who at least had a shot at a classical music career. Kessler said he was a child violin prodigy at age 5, playing in quartets and going to music school around that age.

“Of course, I hated practicing, and I wanted to go out and play,” he said.

Other than a school show-and-tell-style performance, he put the instrument away and gave up music until rock ’n’ roll — the earliest iterations from Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and the like — came along in his teens and showed him music wasn’t just for old people.

“That changed my whole perspective, more or less, of music,” he said.

Kessler met his bandmates — guitarist Jim McCarthy and drummer Paul Thornton — while working at the very first Sam Goody store in New York, where he started in 1964. They would go on to form The Godz with auto harpist Jay Dillon.

From Sam Goody, Kessler got a job at ESP-Disk, a label that has released music by free jazz pioneers Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, vulgar folk-rockers The Fugs, poet Allen Ginsberg, psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and more.

“I wasn’t good at anything per se, but in that field it seemed like that was my thing, and it always has been,” he said.

Kessler recalls how ESP-Disk’s founder Bernard Stollman was angry upon finding out Kessler was a musician since “musicians didn’t work for record companies,” he said. But Kessler still convinced him to come watch The Godz rehearse.

“We played this song that we had called ‘White Cat Heat’ and it was just meowing; playing and meowing on a level that no one would have ever thought humans would do,” he said, “and he started hysterically laughing and said ‘OK, you caught me. I like it.’

“He wanted something that didn’t sound like anything before,” Kessler said. “He would have signed Yoko [Ono] before John Lennon.”

The band’s first album, “Contact High with The Godz,” came out in 1966. They would record two more albums before breaking up in 1968.

Kessler said they were “geared for not being successful” with their non-political but anti-establishment attitude, which certainly applied to the music business. McCarthy incensed a publisher whose resume included early Beatles songs. A woman who claimed she told The Rolling Stones to dress funky told The Godz to wear robes. They didn’t. Advice to get a lead guitar player was also ignored.

“We were obstinate, and anytime anybody wanted to do us any good, somehow we rejected it,” Kessler said.

Although the band did play some big shows in its time alongside bands such as The Mothers of Invention, The Rascals, The Ronettes and The Fugs, they all still worked jobs, as their band never achieved commercial success.

Years later, in 1971, legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs wrote about the band in Creem magazine, and sang the highest praises for their music, which he acknowledged had infantile beginnings.

“[The Godz] are a pure test of one of the supreme musical traditions of rock ’n’ roll: the process by which a musical band can evolve from beginnings of almost insulting illiteracy to wind up several albums later romping and stomping deft as champs,” Bangs wrote.

The band reunited and made a fourth album in 1973.

Kessler landed back in Baltimore, for good, in 1975 with his wife, Claudette, who he met in New York.

Kessler opened his own store, the Music Outlet, in South Baltimore on Light Street and sold instruments and used records, which he had bought in bulk at flea markets. A second store opened in Highlandtown. While it was tough to survive in the record business, Kessler said arcade games, and later New Kids on the Block merchandise propelled his business.

The stores would close in the early-’90s. Two years ago, he opened his shop in Randallstown, which houses thousands of records.

All this time, Kessler continued to write music. He currently releases music through Baltimore-based Manta Ray Records and performs under the name The Godz.

“It does have a distinct flavor. It definitely has Larry’s trademark on it, [but] it’s more commercial,” said Mike Diamond, who runs Manta Ray and plays bass in the band. “I like Larry’s songwriting. He really strips bare his soul. He really speaks from the heart with his songwriting.”

Pikesville resident Rick Sambuco, who has been playing guitar with Kessler for about five years, found the songs to be very melodic, even the older stuff.

“Although the songs were very noisy and sort of confrontational, they were good lyrically and they were good melodically,” he said. “You can hum them, you can sing them, and that doesn’t take away anything or make them any less rock ’n’ roll.”

The band heads to New York in July, which will mark Kessler’s first time playing there in 40 years. A new Godz album, “The End of Order,” featuring the current band, should be out midsummer.

“It’s another way to keep myself going. Not too many 73-year-old guys out there are playing in bands,” Kessler said. And these days, he seems to be getting along with the audience. “I like playing music. I like the reaction of people, which I never liked back in the day because they were always reacting like ‘eh!’ but of course I found that to be fun. So my theories have changed.”

Larry’s Record Shop is located at 10742 Liberty Road in Randallstown. Visit facebook.com/LarrysRecordShop.


Champ Status Bleakney chosen as Sun’s Female Athlete of the Year

Jen Bleakney

Jen Bleakney

Talk with Jennifer Bleakney for five minutes and you would have no idea she is a state champion field hockey athlete, a track and field star or a potential member of the US Women’s Under 21 National Team.

Bleakney, a senior at Atholton High School in Columbia, is a soft-spoken athlete who tries to avoid the spotlight when it shines her way.

“She does not mention anything about herself,” her grandmother Judy Frank said. “She’s very modest. Her friends don’t even know she’s in the paper half the time.”

Bleakney was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Baltimore Sun three weeks ago after leading Atholton High School’s field hockey team to a state championship in 2012, and then she won three competitions at this year’s Howard County indoor track and field championships among other accomplishments. She was honored May 27 at a luncheon with the award’s other finalists. (Loyola Blakefield’s Ryan Conrad was named Male Athlete of the Year.)

“I was truly shocked that I was selected,” said Bleakney, who last week was named  The Sun’s All-Metro girls Track and Field Performer of the Year.

When asked how she prepares for each match, Bleakney said she enjoys listening to music because it calms her down, but for the most part she loves the competition.

“I just get super excited about playing,” she said.

Bleakney said she is not afraid of a challenge, and that applies both on and off the field.

“I’m just a very confrontational person,” she said. “If I have a problem, I just kind of face it.”

In Bleakney’s four years, she has become close with all of her teammates through a series of experiences that included the state championship.

“We had worked really hard that entire season, and we were kind of the underdogs that season,” she said
of her championship sophomore season. “Any team sport just really brings you close to who you’re with and you form really good relationships.”

Bleakney also plays on the West Chester Eagles club field hockey team in Pennsylvania. For the last three years Bleakney has traveled with the Eagles during the season to play teams in New Zealand and China. Her mother, Debbie, says this has been a great opportunity for her daughter to grow.

“They were in a very native part of China, three hours from Shanghai,” she said and added that one of the team’s coaches speaks Chinese and acted as the translator.

“The girls really had to learn the culture because they couldn’t talk to them on a daily basis,” she said.

Debbie Bleakney added that between all of her daughter’s sports, she has had very little time for anything else outside of school.

“She’s gotten to learn what it’s like to give something up,” she said.

Frank called her granddaughter a “real team player” and said Bleakney is the only member of the family with athletic ability.

“We don’t know where it came from,” she said.

Danny Stern, a family friend, said he met Bleakney’s family when he and his wife moved to Baltimore 47 years ago.

Stern and Jennifer’s grandfather, Fred, worked at the Social Security Administration together and shared a carpool. “That’s how we became friends, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Stern said he attended Bleakney’s bat mitzvah as well as that of her siblings. He too did not envision her becoming a top-flight athlete.

“When she emerged as this super athlete it was very surprising,” he said.

Bleakney has committed to Syracuse University, where she will study special education, a passion that dates back to her days of being in a mixed pre-school classroom with special needs students.

“I think from an early age just being in that environment just kind of inspired me,” she said.

A busy summer lies ahead for Bleakney. She travels to Lancaster, Pa., June 22 through 26 for the Young Women’s National Championship, where she will be one of 135 athletes competing for the U.S. Women’s Under 21 National Team. Next month, she heads to Syracuse to begin training. She said she is really excited, having visited the campus several times.

She said, “The first time I visited there I just fell in love with the school.”


Beth Tfiloh Hosts Howie Mandel

Howie Mandel meets Beth Tfiloh families in a private meet-and-greet before the show. (Justin Katz)

Howie Mandel meets Beth Tfiloh families in a private meet-and-greet before the show.
(Justin Katz)

Howie Mandel, judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” and host of “Deal or No Deal,” took the spotlight on June 11 at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s 2015 Spotlight fundraiser.

Performing in the sanctuary, which Mandel admitted was a strange feeling, allowed him to take advantage of the heritage and background he shared with the audience and resulted in many crowd-pleasing jokes.

The Jewish comedian began his road to fame at a small comedy club, Yuk-Yuk’s in Toronto, where he was featured and billed as “a wild and crazy borderline psychotic.”

“How did they know?” Mandel said to ABC News in a 2009 interview.

Several years ago, Mandel went public with his mysophobia, an irrational fear of germs, which has controlled his life personally and publically. As the host of “Deal or No Deal,” he always greets guests with a fist bump or hug but never a handshake.

Mandel authored a book, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me,” where he went into detail about how he’s battled a fear of germs since he was a child, so much so, he refuses to shake hands with anyone unless he is wearing latex gloves.

“Handrails are my worst enemy,” Mandel said to ABC News.

Although he greeted families before the June 11 show with fist bumps, when Mandel got on stage he was noticeably relaxed and willing to touch the handrails near the bimah.

In “America’s Got Talent” Season 10, Mandel allowed himself to be hypnotized by a contestant who managed to convince him to shake hands with his fellow judges, Heidi Klum, Mel B. and Howard Stern. Although he didn’t know what had happened in the moment, he later stated he felt betrayed, and the contestant did not cure him.

Mandel still battles his mysophobia but jokes and speaks publically about it.

At one point, an audience member suggested Mandel to take a look behind the Torah ark curtain.

“No, I can’t do that! I’d have to give you all an aliyah,” Mandel replied. “When the rabbi gets the Torah, he has you open the door, and you say three prayers, and you lift the Torah. Aliyah is Hebrew for the rabbi doesn’t do [jack].”


Off the Mark Obama’s latest wooing of Jews not working, poll suggests

President Obama speaking at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Obama speaking at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2015.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — It’s early days for the White House’s latest charm offensive among American Jews, but a new poll suggests that the wooing effort is having little effect.

The poll, published June 10 by J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that generally backs President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies, shows Obama stuck at the same mid-50s approval ratings he was registering in April, when U.S.-Israel tensions were prominently in the news.

Jim Gerstein, whose GBA Strategies conducted the poll, suggested that Obama and his supporters face an environment among Jews that has been shaped largely by the president’s critics.

“The balance of criticism against the president on issues related to Israel has far outweighed the statements of support for the president, certainly among the organizations that have the largest reach,” Gerstein said.

The 56 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama scored in the GBA poll is still about 10 points higher than the national average. It’s also not the first time he has scored in the 50s among Jews. Obama’s numbers among voting-age Jewish Americans have fluctuated throughout his seven years in office.

This poll, however, follows a high profile and intensive effort by the administration to reassure American Jews that he has the best interests of Israel and Jews worldwide at heart.

The White House launched the outreach in April after weeks of public tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the emerging Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from the Republican leadership to address Congress in March, and remarks by the Israeli leader during his reelection campaign thatappeared to reject a two-state solution and denigrate Arab-Israeli voters, further irked the White House.

Last week’s poll, conducted between May 31 and June 3 among 1,000 Jewish adults, showed a gain of just 2 points — well within the 3.1 percent margin of error — over an April 10 Gallup poll that showed Obama with a 54 percent approval rating among American Jews.

The latest numbers come after Obama gave interviews to two prominent Jewish journalists — The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — in which he discussed his closeness to Israel, and another with a leading Israeli television journalist, Ilana Dayan. He marked Jewish American Heritage Month with an impassioned speech on May 22 at the Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue here.

The president’s top aides have made sure to address virtually every major Jewish conference in recent weeks. Most recently, Jacob Lew, the treasury secretary, endured boos at the annual conference organized by The Jerusalem Post — a gathering notable in the past for attracting Obama’s most acerbic critics.

The theme of Obama’s messaging is that he sees Israel as a key strategic ally, and also has an emotional attachment to the country and the Jewish people.

“To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating,” Obama said in the speech at the synagogue.

“The example of Israel and its values was inspiring,” he said. “So when I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object, and I object forcefully.”

Obama bristles when he is told he is not reaching Israelis and Jews on the gut level.

“Well, the people here think I’m a pretty good hugger,” he told Dayan after she revealed to him that a confidant of his had told her that Obama is “not a hugger.”

Over the years, the White House has pushed back against perceptions that Obama is cool on Israel, noting that the levels of defense assistance and cooperation between the countries are unprecedented and casting disagreements over Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and the Iran nuclear talks as tactical, not strategic.

Still, the president’s critics in the right-wing pro-Israel community have found traction with a narrative built on real and perceived gaps in the relationship.

Some of the criticisms have been grounded in fact, including the Obama administration’s decision to keep details of the emerging Iran deal from Israel, in part because it believed that the Israelis were leaking the details to media.

But others are more fable, such as the claim that in 2010, Obama thanked six nations assisting Haiti following the earthquake there but did not mention Israel. Obama incurred the wrath of groups like the Zionist Organization of America over Haiti, even though the president’s statement in that case was made before
Israeli relief crews landed in the country. Nevertheless, the idea that Obama deliberately snubbed Israel’s Haiti relief has persisted, and reportedly is making an appearance in former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s forthcoming account of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The narrative of Obama’s ill intent has appeared to help shape perceptions among Jewish-Americans.

While 57 percent of respondents in the J Street poll agreed that Obama “has repeatedly demonstrated his support for the state and the people of Israel” and he has “led unprecedented military and security cooperation between the United States and Israel,” a substantial 43 percent agreed that he “unfairly undermines Israel’s interests and does not sufficiently support the Jewish state” and “has gone too far in his criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his criticism sends the wrong message to Israel’s enemies.”

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said the numbers were strong and it was unrealistic to expect a change in attitudes so soon.

“President Obama is doing substantially better in the Jewish community than he is in the public at large,” Mellman said in an interview, noting the gap between the 56 percent approval rating the president scores among Jews and the 45 percent on average among the wider American public. “It’s unreasonable to expect the Adas speech would have much impact.”

Mark McNulty, the spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that has advanced the narrative that Obama cares little about Israel, said the poll showed that Jewish-Americans needed more than rhetoric.

“A charm offensive is not going to do anything to paper over the wounds that have developed over the last six years,” he said.

No More Than Talking J Street U, Hillel leadership meet in D.C.

Members of J Street U’s National Student Board walked away “disappointed” after a lengthy on-the-record meeting with representatives from Hillel International.

Four student board members of J Street U, which is affiliated with the liberal pro-Israel organization J Street, accompanied by J Street U Director Sarah Turbow, sat down with Hillel International’s CEO Eric Fingerhut; that organization’s board chair, Sidney Pertnoy, and other representatives at a four-and-a-half-hour meeting on June 10 at Hillel’s headquarters on 8th Street in downtown Washington.

It was a markedly different reception from the last time J Street U members stood before the Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center. In March, after Fingerhut cancelled a scheduled talk at J Street’s annual conference over objections to the inclusion of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, several hundred of the estimated 1,100 student attendees marched from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to Hillel headquarters, where they delivered letters requesting a meeting with Fingerhut.

J Street U students participating in a protest against Hillel International on the sidelines of the J Street conference in Washington, D.C., in March. (Photos Moshe Zusman)

J Street U students participating in a protest against Hillel International on the sidelines of the J Street conference in Washington, D.C., in March.
(Photos Moshe Zusman)

Less than 24 hours after the protest, Fingerhut responded to Benjy Cannon, president of J Street U, in a message, writing, “I would be happy to arrange an on-the-record meeting between the J Street U National Student Board and members of the Hillel International Board of Directors.”

Though Fingerhut did not address the J Street U conference attendees, representatives from campus Hillels were present at the conference, a point acknowledged by both organizations.

According to Turbow, at the long anticipated sit-down, the board members of both organizations introduced themselves to each other, Hillel gave insights to its strategic plan and Cannon sought to dispel myths about J Street U and progressive students on campus.

“Then, we dove into a conversation about the items that were on the agenda,” said Turbow.

As outlined in an email credited to Cannon, which was sent out to J Street supporters Monday evening, the student board members’ agenda boiled down to a request to be put in touch with some of Hillel’s donors and an opportunity to “educate” Hillel staff at Hillel International’s summer training institute. J Street U also extended an invitation to Fingerhut to address its own 125-student Summer Leadership Institute.

“Though Hillel was open to considering all of these ideas, I am disappointed to report that we ultimately did not leave the meeting with any concrete commitments from them,” wrote Cannon. “Given the events in March, the J Street U National Board was especially surprised that Mr. Fingerhut did not take us up on our invitation to attend SLI. It is still hard to understand why speaking publicly to over one hundred pro-Israel student leaders would not be a Hillel priority.”

According to a source present at the meeting, both organizations reached an understanding that Hillel would be given several weeks to review the commitments J Street U continues to seek.

Cannon’s email ran counter to that agreement, the source, speaking on background, stated.

Hillel International spokesman Matthew Berger said in a statement, “At the request of J Street U, Hillel International’s lay and professional leadership met with J Street U’s leaders for a wide-ranging conversation that lasted several hours. The discussion covered every topic that the J Street U leaders raised. We will continue to work with them, as we do with other organizations that engage Jewish students on campus.”

Catie Stewart, the Northeast representative to J Street U’s national student board, said the organization wanted more from Hillel than just a conversation.

“They were kind of hoping to take the opportunity to get to know J Street U a little better [and] we were kind of hoping for a conversation that would further the relationship, which isn’t to say the conversation wasn’t productive,” said Stewart, who graduated from Brandeis University this spring. “I think that, unfortunately, we didn’t leave the meeting with any kind of commitment to action, which I thought would be a no-brainer at this point.”


A Matter of Conversion Targeting modern Orthodox rabbi, Israeli rabbinate draws battle line

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a  30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the Jewish settlement of Efrat conducts the Pidyon HaBen ceremony for a
30-day-old first-born son in Efrat, West Bank last month.
(Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

TEL AVIV — There’s no shortage of Israelis who want to reform the office of the Chief Rabbinate.

Ranging from advocates of religion-state separation to leaders of Israel’s non-Orthodox movements to newspaper columnists, some want to end the Rabbinate’s monopoly over the country’s religious services; others want to dissolve it entirely.

But this week, the Rabbinate appears to have targeted a leader whose critique of Israel’s religious status quo is more subtle. Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, has been summoned to a hearing before the Rabbinate next month where he believes his job will be challenged.

Unlike many of the Rabbinate’s critics, Riskin is Orthodox, supports the Rabbinate in its current form and operates within the bounds of Orthodox Jewish law, or halachah. But he has called on the Rabbinate to condone his relatively progressive policies, especially regarding conversion and ordination of women.

“I’m very much in favor of the Chief Rabbinate, but there has to be a certain degree of pluralism for the rabbis,” said Riskin, who draws a salary from the Rabbinate. “It’s important for the Chief Rabbinate to contain within itself a number of different halachic ways.”

The Chief Rabbinical Council, the Rabbinate’s governing body, summoned Riskin to a June 29 hearing to discuss his reappointment as rabbi of Efrat, a town he co-founded in 1983. A spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry, Daniel Bar, said the hearing is part of a process all municipal rabbis age 75 or older must undergo in order to review their health. Riskin is 75.

But Riskin believes the Rabbinate may use the hearing as a pretext to dismiss him.

An American immigrant originally from New York, Riskin supports a government decision from last November that allowed Israel’s municipal rabbis to perform state-sanctioned conversions. For years preceding the decision, Riskin had performed conversions privately. The Rabbinate has come out publicly against the government decision and has yet to recognize Riskin’s conversions.

“I remain very optimistic that the Chief Rabbinate will understand that we’re facing a time bomb with this problem of the Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Riskin said, referring to Israeli immigrants from the Soviet Union who do not qualify as Jewish according to traditional Jewish law. “We can do a wonderful job converting the children as well as the adults in a warm and welcoming fashion.”

Since he received rabbinic ordination more than 50 years ago, Riskin has been a leader in pushing the limits of Jewish law within the modern Orthodox community. He took over Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue in 1964, transforming it into a modern Orthodox hub focused on outreach. Two decades later, he moved to Israel and co-founded Efrat, today an 8,000-person bedroom community near Jerusalem with a mixed religious-secular population.

Riskin’s network of educational institutions, Ohr Torah Stone, runs modern Orthodox schools from junior high through graduate programs. The network includes the first school to train women as advocates in Israeli rabbinical courts, as well as Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s Jewish studies college in Jerusalem.

In addition to conversion, Riskin has been an outspoken advocate of women’s Torah study. He created a five-year program to train women as Jewish legal authorities on par with rabbis. In February, he appointed Jennie Rosenfeld, who will graduate the program next year, as Efrat’s first female “manhiga ruhanit,” or spiritual leader.

“There’s a moral conviction that he has to his vision of Judaism, an imperative that he feels in bringing that to the world,” said Rosenfeld.

Riskin insists that his conversion process, while more welcoming to converts than the Rabbinate’s, is still done according to Jewish law. That could be part of the Rabbinate’s problem, says Rabbi David Stav, head of the modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar, who says the Rabbinate views halachic dissent as a challenge greater even than the corruption scandals that have plagued the Rabbinate.

“They won’t remove a rabbi from his position because they saw him break Shabbat or because he’s suspected in some case,” said Stav, who ran unsuccessfully as a reformist candidate for chief rabbi last year. “But a rabbi suspected, God forbid, of conversions different than those accepted in the Chief Rabbinate?” Stav said sardonically, “That’s a reason to take him out.”

Riskin’s allies have closed ranks behind him following the Rabbinate’s summons. Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu political party and former Israeli foreign minister, weighed in on Riskin’s behalf. From America, liberal Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss and Shmuel Herzfeld sent a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer protesting the summons.

In an email, the Rabbinical Council of America’s executive vice president, Rabbi Mark Dratch, said, “While the RCA does not agree with every action of the Chief Rabbinate, we support the Chief Rabbinate as the official religious body of Israel. We are certain that, together with Rabbi Riskin, they will find a way to support his continued work as Chief Rabbi of Efrat.”

Efrat’s local government council passed a unanimous resolution Monday calling on the Rabbinate to reappoint Riskin. Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, an Israeli modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform, is organizing a public demonstration of support for Riskin in late June.

If the Rabbinate dismisses Riskin, Tzohar will stop cooperating with the Rabbinate, Stav said.

“I ask myself a lot, why do I still support this institution?” Stav said. “I still want to do everything for this institution to improve and succeed, but not at any price.”

Riskin has remained defiant, saying that he will continue as Efrat’s chief rabbi regardless of the Chief Rabbinate’s decision. But he hopes the Rabbinate will recognize that his positions, while innovative, fall well within the spectrum of Jewish law.

“Throughout Jewish history, especially regarding conversion, there have been two schools — the lenient school and the more stringent school,” he said. “The people of Israel are crying out for the more lenient school.”

Jews Make Booze Father’s Day event includes whiskey history and tasting

061915_fathersFathers across the greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., region will have a chance to relax while also learning about the history of Jewish involvement in the American whiskey making process.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland will be hosting a lecture on Sunday by author Reid Mitenbuler, who wrote the recently released “Bourbon
Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” The event begins at 6 p.m. and includes a tasting of various bourbons.

Trillion Attwood, programs manager at the museum, said they were inspired by the exhibit “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History” at the National Archives Museum.

“We wanted to do something interesting that would appeal to fathers of adult children,” said Attwood.

The day will begin at 2 p.m. with a free tour of the exhibit at the archives in Washington, followed by the JMM lecture and tasting in Baltimore.
Registered guests can take a bus between the two locations.

Attwood said the museum has experimented over the years with more interactive exhibits that have included pickle- and olive oil-making programs. In 2013 the museum celebrated Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent’s bar mitzvah to honor Jewish artists that have been involved in the comic book industry.

“Here obviously we’re going for a much more adult family audience,” she said. “It’s something fun but different.”

Museum Executive Director Marvin Pinkert will lead the tour at the National Archives, where he served as director for 11 years before coming to the Jewish Museum in 2012. He said it made sense to have a special event now with the “A-Mazing Mendes Cohen” exhibit having just ended and the next exhibit beginning next month.

Pinkert said Jewish-German immigrants were among the first to play a role in America’s alcohol industry before Prohibition went into effect in 1920.

“One-third of all revenue once came from alcohol before prohibition,” said Pinkert, adding that Jewish-Germans were heavily involved in the whiskey business whereas other immigrant groups had taken to the beer industry.

As tour guide, Pinkert will regale participants with stories of colorful characters of the time, including Izzy Einstein — a federal police officer who “used his unassuming looks” to crack down on alcohol possession during the early years of Prohibition.

In addition to the alcohol exhibit, Pinkert’s tour will include a bonus stop to view the Magna Carta, the transformative English political document whose 800th birthday was last week. The charter made official the concepts of government accountability and the protection of an individual’s rights.

“Since I played a role in getting the Magna Carta back on display, I thought it would be a nice addition,” he said.

Pinkert explained that the original document contained references that singled out Jews, who, he said, were essentially slaves to King John of England. In the original version clauses 10 and 11 forgive any debts owed to Jews. Those clauses were not included in the newer 1297 version, which is on display at the archives.

Even though the two exhibits are from different periods, Pinkert said, they are related in the sense that they both deal with issues of levying taxes.

“The whole purpose of the Magna Carta from the king’s point of view was to raise taxes,” he said. “The reason for the government’s involvement in whiskey is for the purpose of taxes.”