Work for Jewish Unity

In light of a letter to the editor (“Your Say…,” July 4), rather than argue each point, I would like to make some observations.

All of the Chabad rabbis I have encountered express a love of their fellow Jew. I do not detect a judgmental attitude, but rather have heard, for example from Rabbi Labkowski in Frederick, “Here at Chabad, we’re all Jews, no labels.” I see Chabad emissaries selflessly devoting their lives to serving the Jewish people. I see a Chabad website that talks about praying and doing mitzvot for the protection of Israel, including asking men to be sure to put on tefillin each morning, as the Rebbe had asked in 1967 so that Hashem would grant victory to Israel in the Six Day War. We Jews are so outnumbered and have so many enemies; we need to accept our differences, but emphasize what we have in common.

Brian M. Parker
Littlestown, Pa.

Lighting a Spark

080114_schlaff_barbara-_weinberg-debbiThis summer, thousands of children and teens are discovering the joy of being Jewish, as they swim, climb, jump, run and sing their way through the hundreds of Jewish camps across the country.

Amid the craft projects and color wars, they are immersed in Jewish experiences that happen so organically at camp that the campers may hardly even realize they are learning something. But learn they do. Just listen to the blessings these children sing when they return home. Eachreflects the flavor of the camp they attended and is the tune that willresonate in the campers’ heads well into their adulthood.

Research has shown that young Jews exposed to Jewish summer camp are more likely to feel connected to their Jewish identity as adults and engage with their community. A study of the long-term impact of Jewish summer camp conducted by the Found-ation for Jewish Camp indicated that campers come home from summer camp with an increased inclination to practice Jewish behaviors in their lives, from lighting Shabbat candles to using Jewish websites to appreciating the importance of being Jewish.

In addition, they are more likely to value and seek out the experience of Jewish community. The immersive experience of living in a vibrant Jewish community at camp seeps into the campers’ souls and stays with them for a lifetime.

As such, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has established a Center for Jewish Camping to encourage parents to consider Jewish summer camps for their children and help them find the right camp for their needs.  Additionally, the center works closely with the national Foundation for Jewish Camp office to keep abreast of the latest and cutting-edge camp opportunities regarding affordability and incentive initiatives being launched.

Nurturing the spark of Jewish identity that is ignited around the campfire at Jewish camps is very much in keeping with The Associated’s mission, vision and values. The Associated is investing in children and teens today to ensure that these young people will help lead and sustain our community in the future.

There are hundreds of Jewish camps across the country, ranging from general day and overnight camps to specialty camps offering arts or sports programs to camps for children with special needs. Each offers the traditional summer camp experience coupled with the unique celebration of Jewish traditions.

Jewish camping provides a passion for Judaism that is unlike any other outlet these young people may experience. As campers, they are creating memories and forging friendships that can last a lifetime. Camp counselors and song leaders may be inspired to become rabbis and cantors. And every camp will also tell you of summertime couples who are now married and raising children together.

That is all part of the lore of Jewish summer camp and why so many families embrace this tradition for their children. While camp is still in session this year, it is the perfect time to visit camps in this area to see what options await your children next summer. Witnessing firsthand the spirit that permeates a Jewish summer camp is surely the best way to discover how Jewish camp can impact your family.

Barbara Schlaff and Debbi Weinberg are co-chairs of The Associated’s Center for Jewish Camping Advisory Committee. Learn more about Jewish summer camps at

Against anti-Semitism, self-defense is no offense

080114_cohen_benThe debate about whether Jews have a future in Europe has once again surfaced, as Israel’s Operation Protective Edge has gained momentum and the deadly fighting with Hamas rages on.

The two issues are connected for a simple reason: In mid-July, a large number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Paris decided to attack a synagogue in the French capital, thereby demonstrating that these days, aspiring pogromists are more likely to wear a Palestinian keffiyeh than a swastika armband.

I had originally intended to add my own views on whether Europe’s Jews should stay where they are or make aliyah to Israel. But while I was sifting through the various news articles concerning the attack in Paris, I came across an alternative version of that episode that persuaded me to change my focus.

In this tendentious narrative — embraced by the left-wing anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss and the right-wing British Daily Mail tabloid alike — the violence was in fact provoked by Jewish extremists on the scene. According to Mondoweiss, the French branch of the Jewish Defense League and its allies initiated the clashes “in support of Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign that has thus far claimed the lives of almost 200 Palestinians.”

What isn’t in doubt is that a mob of violent anti-Semites tried to storm the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue in central Paris. Equally, there is no doubt that a group of brave young Jews associated with Betar, the Jewish Defense League and the SPCJ, the official defense arm of the French Jewish community, repelled the attempted pogrom through a show of physical force. Writing in Commentary magazine, my friend, Michel Gurfinkiel, noted that “older Jewish men and women, some in their late 40s or early 50s, fought back as well.”

Hence, there is a question that is more pressing than whether Jews should leave Europe, and it’s this one: Should we take more responsibility for the defense of our community and its property, even if that means we land on the wrong side of the law?

There are many reasons why we should avoid such an outcome, some of them credible, others less so. In America, Jewish advocacy revolves around gala fundraising dinners, conferences and photo opportunities with foreign leaders. Throwing tables, chairs, kicks and punches at anti-Semitic thugs isn’t quite our style.

But what happens when you have demonstrators chanting in Arabic, as they did in Paris, “Itbah al Yahud!” (“Death to the Jews!”)? How do we respond when some politicians, as was the case in France, claim that we should expect such attacks if we turn our synagogues into adjuncts of the State of Israel?

In those circumstances, I think, we have to fight back. We shouldn’t provoke violence, but we should be ready to defend ourselves against attacks, particularly when the police fail to do their job.

Used sparingly and when necessary, self-defense is no offense. And if it contributes to the authorities taking pre-emptive action against anti-Semitic demonstrations, then so much the better.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and other publications

A Jewish Community of Grace, Dignity

062113_Etan_MintzIn mid-July, hundreds of Muslim protesters stormed the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue in central Paris, chanting, “Death to the Jews,” as hundreds of men, women and children inside prayed for peace. After making contact with the synagogue’s president to express our concern, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue and I were invited to spend Shabbat there and share words of Torah and support.

The dangers in France are very real. Peaceful houses of worship have become targets. Families are anxious to walk the streets as visibly Jewish, and more and more see that their only option is to emigrate. We were concerned but also greatly inspired by a community that acts with such grace, dignity and unity.

We were told to wear caps instead of kippot, and we arrived at shul with more than 40 riot police standing guard. The protests had been so violent and uncontrollable that French President François Hollande had issued a citywide ban on Muslim demonstrations for July 19, which went largely ignored. No doubt, Jewish life in France is under siege.

For Jews in France now, it’s not a matter of if they will emigrate but when. In another 50 years, in all likelihood, there no longer will be a French Jewish community as we know it. Community leaders have been preparing their members, young and old, with the skills necessary to ease into Israeli professional life. With escalating anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the future of European Jewish life as a whole is in question.

There is a real danger worldwide that anti-Zionism is being used as an excuse for outright anti-Semitism and Jew hatred. Even if the protestors strongly disagree with Israel’s actions in Gaza, why attack a house of worship?  Why attack Jews who are not Israel Defense Forces soldiers, not Israeli and who live thousands of miles from the conflict?  Make no mistake: There is an inextricable link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. When a synagogue can be targeted while holding a peaceful prayer service, it is an attack not only on Israel, but also on all synagogues and Jewry worldwide. And it is an attack on all houses of worship and people of all faiths. It is as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls described them: anti-Semites who hide their “hatred of the Jew behind an appearance of anti-Zionism and the hatred of Israel.”

What irony. The very protestors who delegitimize Israel’s right to exist prove exactly the need for the Jewish state.  Israel did not arise in a vacuum but in the aftermath of the annihilation of more than two-thirds of European Jewry.  A fundamental core of Zionism is the need for a safe haven for Jews. As the Muslim population in France continues to expand and anti-Semitism rages uncontrollably, French Jews are recognizing more than ever their need to exercise their right of return.

Even as it is threatened, the community we experienced is beautiful and rich — one that understands the unity of the people of Israel, that we are all one and connected at the core.  We embraced our French brethren, we danced, and we sang — and we cried on each other’s shoulders.  Some of the police, when hearing the song and dance, came into the synagogue to make sure that everything was all right. Wow, they said, what a remarkable people who respond in such a way.

Ashrei Yisrael, U’mi K’amchaYisrael.

Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue.

Saperstein for Religious Freedom

On Monday, the State Department issued its annual religious freedom report. The results were sobering: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” the report said. “In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.”

The State Department added Turkmenistan to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” which includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan, as states which routinely violate religious freedoms. At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry also cited anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe and a 2013 poll that revealed that anti-Semitism had led about half the Jews in some European countries to consider emigrating as among the worldwide symptoms of religious intolerance.

The report’s release came hours after President Obama announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, filling a position that has been vacant since October. Rabbi Saperstein, who was a longtime head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is highly qualified for the position, which involves monitoring and promoting religious freedom around the world.

As ambassador for religious freedom, Rabbi Saperstein will have his work cut out for him. In addition to the obvious need to address religious persecution around the world, the new ambassador will have to work hard to convince the U.S. government to put teeth and money behind its support for international religious freedom.

If confirmed, Saperstein would be the first non-Christian in the position, which was created in 1998. That historic accomplishment will be reason for communal pride, even as we note that service by Jews in the top levels of government is no longer an anomaly. Indeed, Rabbi Saperstein is more likely to draw scrutiny for his liberal politics than for being a Jew.

Because of Rabbi Saperstein’s sensitivity to religious freedom, his advocacy for religious rights and his credibility as a man of religious faith, we urge the Senate to confirm him quickly.

We’ve Seen This Before

French Jews fighting pro-Palestinian rioters on the Paris street where the Synagogue de la Roquette is located, July 13, 2013.  (YouTube)

French Jews fighting pro-Palestinian rioters on the Paris street where the Synagogue de la Roquette is located, July 13, 2013. (YouTube)

The scourge of anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in Europe. And a troubling number of people aren’t even pretending anymore. Gone are the days of the false explanation that “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m just anti-Zionist.” Instead, the haters are clear: They hate Jews.

Case in point: The sign in a Brussels café is written in two languages. In Turkish it reads, “Dogs are allowed in this establishment, but Jews are not under any circumstances.” The French translation next to it replaced “Jews” with the word “Zionists.” And no one seems terribly embarrassed.

Following the recent outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, anti-Israel protesters in Paris didn’t march on the Israeli embassy. Instead, they surrounded a synagogue, where they chanted “Death to the Jews” while the members of the congregation were locked down inside. Days later, in a Paris suburb dubbed “Little Jerusalem,” a kosher grocery and a Jewish-owned pharmacy were torched by protesters who were incensed by Israel’s actions. “Anti-Semitism today is hiding behind anti-Zionism,” Paris Rabbi Salomon Malka told The New York Times, “and hate speech has become uninhibited.”

While it may be true that anti-Semitic agitation and violence in Europe have increased sharply since the Gaza hostilities began, the current round of Mideast fighting is hardly the cause of Muslim and neo-Nazi violence in Europe. The killing of three at a Jewish Museum in Brussels earlier this year and the 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse both occurred long before the current hostilities between Hamas and Israel.

So where are the governmental leaders? And what happened to law enforcement? While it is somewhat encouraging that French President Francois Hollande decried the hate and promised that he would not allow places of worship to be threatened, is that really enough? Saying the words without forceful enforcement of the law raises real questions about the level of governmental commitment to religious freedom and rule of law.

Let’s be clear. Chants to kill Jews are not manifestations of free speech. They are frightening calls to genocide that are reminiscent of a pre-World War II Europe that is chilling. Offenders should be arrested and prosecuted. And political leaders need to step forward with more than words to address the rising problem.

Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky recently observed that “we are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” We hope he is wrong. But unless European leadership does something to stem the tide of hate, discrimination and growing anti-Semitism, it is only a matter of time until European Jews will leave of their own accord or be forced to leave under pressure.

We have seen this movie before. And we didn’t like the ending.

Going It Alone

runyan_josh_otBack in February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned of the consequences facing Israel if the American-led peace talks between the Jewish state and its Palestinian neighbors fell apart. He alluded to the growing strength of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and worried that should peace fail, Israel would find itself isolated from the rest of the world.

“Today’s status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” he said at the time. “You see for Israel there is an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it, there is talk of boycott and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?”

As anyone who has been conscious of world events since that time knows, the peace talks collapsed shortly after the Palestinian Authority, with whom the Israelis had been negotiating, entered into a unity government with Hamas, the terrorist group that “governs” the Gaza Strip. Shortly thereafter, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by suspected Hamas operatives in the West Bank; a Palestinian teenager was murdered in an apparent revenge attack by Israeli youths; Hamas renewed its rocket barrage of Israel; and the Jewish state launched Operation Protective Edge, a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas’ offensive capabilities and a network of tunnels the group has dug under the Gaza border with Israel.

Kerry warned of economic and political isolation. What Israel got — through no choice or fault of its own — was terror and bloodshed. And if news reports of conversations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are to be believed, it appears that in addition to the blood and the bombs, Israel, having lost the support of the United States to continue to invoke its right to self-defense, now finds itself as isolated as ever.

But to say that Israel has no friends in the world would be to lie. The fact of the matter is, twice as many Americans, according to the results of a Pew Research Poll released Monday, blame Hamas rather than Israel for the current crisis. Half of those polled say that Israel’s response to the rockets and the tunnels, despite the fact that vastly more Palestinians have been killed — more than 1,000 versus more than 50 on the Israeli side — is “about right” or has “not gone far enough.”

Even more, Baltimore’s and other Jewish communities around the world have rallied on behalf of Israel and, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, immigration to the Jewish state continues.

The problem isn’t that Israel doesn’t have friends, it’s that many of the friends it has continue to bemoan the lack of international support behind Israel’s defense. If there’s anything the current crisis and the many wars Israel has fought since its founding in 1948 indicate it’s that sometimes, Israel and the Jewish people that support it must go it alone.


A Communal Responsibility

runyan_josh_otThree decades ago, faith communities across the Southwestern United States, seeing as their moral duty to protect the downtrodden and vulnerable from what they saw as an almost certain death sentence, decided to break the law and harbor illegal immigrants who had arrived from Central America.

Moved by a sense of humanity and an anti-establishment rebellious streak that flows through the blood of many whose cause is social justice, these brave souls, in some cases, forced social change by demanding that the United States take responsibility for the less fortunate drawn to its borders. Today, amid headlines proclaiming ever-increasing intolerance — including here in Maryland — toward children whose only crime is listening to the false promises of smugglers and cheating death in the hope of a better future, Jewish groups in Arizona and New Mexico are heeding the call and doing their part to help the unaccompanied minors who are once again flocking across the southern border.

Some of these good Samaritans are mindful of the failure of the United States to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, such as the turning back of the MS St. Louis and its 937 German Jewish refugees. And, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, groups such as the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona — like the churches and synagogues of 30 years ago — once again see it as their moral duty to help those suffering during a humanitarian crisis. As one organizer tells reporter Heather Norris in this week’s cover story, given their history of being “strangers in a strange land,” Jews should be at the forefront of the immigrant cause.

He has a point, and regardless of where you stand in the specific case of 57,000 Central Americans now awaiting their fate and what to do with them from an immigration policy point of view — 60 percent of those who took part in the JT’s online poll two weeks ago advocated deporting them quickly — you can’t help but feel that we all bear some responsibility to protect these children’s lives.

This sense of societal and communal responsibility is what is motivating Israeli citizens to send food and clothes to the tens of thousands of soldiers who are putting themselves in harm’s way to protect civilians on both sides from the actions of terrorists. It is the same sense of responsibility that likely motivated the Israeli army to open a field hospital for Gaza residents caught in the crossfire. And it is the same responsibility whose absence is manifested in the hateful demonstrations that recently set streets in Paris aflame.

Whether migrant child, Arab farmer or Israeli father, each and every human being deserves a life free from fear. That is ultimately the reason why Hamas must be vanquished and the hateful ideology it espouses will end in failure. Make no mistake, just like those who place water bottles in the Arizona desert, Israel now finds itself in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is characterizing as an existential war because of the children.


A Welcome Tribute

Thank you for recognizing the passing of a great explorer and innovative leader of the modern Jewish world — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (“Crossing Boundaries,” July 11). In the early 1980s I attended a Shabbaton he conducted at the Sufi Center in Boston. I had read a book or two he had written and felt moved to meet him.

Within moments he bridged my fascination with Eastern spirituality to the intrinsic and deep spirituality of Judaism. Through that bridge
he set forth a path for many Jewish seekers to re-examine and experience Judaism for spiritual nourishment.

This was his greatest gift for me, and he kept evolving and kept exploring and creating, and mostly he kept giving of his depth of knowledge,
wisdom and wonder.

The Jewish Renewal movement may be small, yet its ripples have made their way into more traditional Judaism and other faiths.

While some sneer or smirk at Reb Zalman’s unique ways and his legacy, I know the Jewish world is far, far better for his time with us.

Harvey W. Cohen
Owings Mills

What It Means to be No. 1

For many Jews who are concerned about rising anti-Semitism in Europe and attacks on Israel by Hamas rockets, a recently released survey from the Pew Research and Public Life Project may be confusing. Add the fact that the survey’s conclusions appear to conflict with our own perceptions about how others view Jews, and you understand the mixed reactions that have been expressed to the finding that Jews are America’s favorite religious group.

The new Pew survey is titled: “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups.” And in it, Jews came out on top.

Asked to rate groups on a “warmth feeling” scale of zero to 100, with 50 being where cool feelings turn to warm, survey takers gave Jews a mean rating of 63, just ahead of Catholics (62) and Evangelicals (61). Even when you subtract the high scores that Jews give themselves, the rating is virtually the same.

The report is particularly interesting, however, since it adds a dimension to the much-discussed 2013 Pew Report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which focuses in part on how Jews view themselves. That 2013 report found that 94 percent of U.S. Jews (including 97 percent of what Pew called “Jews by religion” and 83 percent of “Jews of no religion”) are proud to be Jewish, suggesting that even those without strong religious and community ties are comfortable with their Jewish selves in America. And now it appears that we are not just comfortable with ourselves, but that others are very comfortable with us, as well.

Many 2014 respondents (54 percent) also reported that they do not think there is a lot of discrimination against U.S. Jews. According to those respondents, there are large numbers of other minorities — particularly gays, lesbians, Muslims and African-Americans — who face more discrimination than Jews.

So what are we to make of these good feelings? Frankly, we’re not sure.

The new report raises a lot of questions. For example, what does it really mean to be America’s most popular religious group? Is popularity a fad, and are Jews just the flavor of the month? Or has America truly gotten comfortable with Jews? And how that does all this warmth fit with the Jewish self-conception of being an oppressed and harried people?

More important, what brought about the change? Fifty years ago, Jews were much less visible and vocal in American society, yet anti-Semitism was prevalent and institutionalized. How did things change so dramatically in so short a time? One theory, expressed by an online commentator, is that although Jews were not accepted, they have been able to blend into society much easier than other minorities.

We are not so sure. But whatever the reason for the somewhat surprising survey results, it is fair to say that being the most favored religion is something new for the Chosen People.