Not So Accurate

Your article on Attman’s Deli was very interesting (“It All Started With A Deli,” Oct. 25). I wish I could share your enthusiasm. Last April 9, when my order came, I was told by the cashier that under no circumstances could I eat there; when I asked for my money back, I was approached very aggressively by the manager and another employee. … It was not the proper way to treat a customer. You can write all the books you want, but if they’re not accurate, what good are they?

Michael S. Rodels

Keep Investigating

Thank you for “Judaism Behind Bars” (Oct. 25). Please do some further investigative reporting for your readers about the terrible miscarriage of justice in Elsa Newman’s continuing incarceration. I am a Quaker and have been following this case and Elsa’s unjust conviction for years. Please use the power of the press to speak the truth.

Nancy Jo Steetle

In Times Of Crisis

Thank you for publishing the important article about the often-neglected story of Jews who are incarcerated in U.S. prisons (“Judaism Behind Bars,” Oct. 25). If I may add to the conversation, I wish to highlight a major issue that seems to have been overlooked in the article. The issue of proselytizing in the prison setting is one that we at Jews for Judaism have increasingly been made aware of over the years through letters written to us by Jewish prisoners. Since 1983, as the Jewish community’s leading response to the multimillion-dollar campaigns of deceptive Christian proselytizing waged to specifically target Jews for conversion, we have received hundreds of letters from Jewish prisoners requesting help in dealing with the relentless proselytizing efforts that inmates are being confronted with.

In a recent letter, the prisoner, who also leads a Jewish study group, expressed: “The hardest thing for me to do is to be forced to defend Judaism against the attacks of these Christian proselytizers.” Our response to these Jewish prisoners has always been to empower them with knowledge and to provide them with useful educational materials, especially our well-known “The Jewish Response to Missionaries: Counter-Missionary Handbook.” Knowing that people often turn to religion in times of crisis, it is critical for the Jewish community to understand that this low point in one’s life is the precise moment that spiritual predators seek to take advantage of. Being that prisoners are a true “captive audience,” we must not forget their extreme vulnerability to missionaries in prison and [we must not] allow their Jewish souls to be overtaken along with their physical freedom.

Ruth Guggenheim
Executive Director
Jews for Judaism

Reason To Celebrate

Your article “Family-Owned Business Celebrates 45 Years” (Oct. 25) is welcome during an era when shoppers seek traditional proprietors. Last summer, I wanted to add sleeves to a sleeveless dress so I enrolled in a sewing class at the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts. The instructor, talented designer Ella Pritsker, encouraged students to browse for couture fabrics and [to experience the] helpful service at the fabric shop on Falls Road.

Hannah Strauss

Why I Choose To Be A Soldier Instead Of A Student

It was like something out of a comedy sketch. I stood at the front of the classroom, nervous, and launched into the Hebrew-language presentation I had prepared for that day’s lesson. I say launched, but really it was closer to a sputtering. A stammering verbal “balagan” riddled with grammatical mistakes and laced with “Baltimorese” undertones.

My classmates at the mechina, a 10-month pre-army preparatory program in which classes are peer led, were all Israeli. Even though they weren’t yet enlisted, clearly they had already honed a take-no-prisoners attitude. Unable to contain themselves, they fell about laughing at the pathetic attempts of their American peer to speak Hebrew.

My year at the mechina was a most difficult endeavour, but it was also most rewarding.

After completing a year with Young Judaea, I knew I wanted to make Israel my home. I also knew that being in the Israeli army would help me assimilate.

I had a good life in the United States and was already accepted into college (with scholarships). But I knew that if I didn’t take the plunge now, later on I might be too old for the army or I might build connections in America. My grandparents were olim too. In the 1970s they uprooted from America to establish Neve Ilan, a collective village a few miles from Jerusalem. I was inspired.

At 10, I became a Young Judaea camp addict. I would count the days until camp each school year. Those summers made up the sum of my connection to Judaism. My Baltimore family had a mild affiliation to the Reconstructionist movement. I did not go to a Jewish school, and neither did I have many Jewish friends —  other than those from Young Judaea.

I eventually became director of youth education for Young Judaea Mazkirut, which led to me spend my gap year in Israel as a volunteer. I tutored Ethiopians and used my culinary know-how to open a soup kitchen in South Tel Aviv. Yet still, something was missing. Somehow it wasn’t enough for me to pat myself on the back for having gotten through the year so that I could check off the “Israel experience” box. I wanted the Israel experience to be my life experience. And that was when I decided I would enlist with the Israeli Defense Forces.

I was told that the best way to get prepared for the army was to join a mechina. But there, our days were long. I was the only American; no one had heard of Baltimore.

But slowly, the classmates at the mechina — the same ones who mocked my Hebrew — became my adopted family. On free Shabbats, they took me into their homes when I had nowhere else to go. At the end, I knew I was ready to enlist in the army. Getting a top and challenging position involved a set of grueling tests and interviews. I made it.

Last week, I formally became a soldier in the IDF. There’s a sense of triumph here. I fought to come to Israel, to learn Hebrew, to immerse in the culture and get into the army.

My Israel experience has become my life experience.

CLTC Is The Place For Me

Who would have thought that the best summer of my life could have taken place in Mukwonago, Wisconsin?  CLTC (Chapter Leadership Training Conference) is one of BBYO’s summer program opportunities, where I spent 12 amazing days learning about how to become a Jewish leader in my chapter and in my Jewish community as a whole.

BBYO is a youth organization for Jewish teens all around the world. In Baltimore, I participate in events with a group of girls who belong to the chapter Achot BBG #2383. Outside of that, BBYO also gives you many chances to meet teens from all over the country. One of those ways is summer programs. With so many from which to choose, I found myself faced with a tough decision. Luckily, I made the right choice by picking CLTC.

My favorite part was the optional Shacharit morning services. At first, I was reluctant to attend. I’ve participated in similar services at summer camps in the past, but to my surprise, the CLTC Shacharit was completely different. My friends and I would sing “Oseh Shalom” at the top of our lungs, and by the end of the session I was even brave enough to teach my favorite “Adon Olam” tunes to an audience of more than 50.

Not only did CLTC solidify my connection to Judaism, it also taught me leadership skills that I use every day to improve my chapter at home. I learned how to lead chapter meetings, encourage Israel advocacy, plan bonding programs and organize fund-raisers, and everything in between. The whole experience was invaluable; it’s enabled me to take my BBYO career further. I was elected president of my chapter, and I’m on an international globalization committee.

I’ve gone to Jewish summer camp for five years, but I would trade all of that for just one summer at CLTC. Not only did I learn leadership, but I also gained friends who I talk to every single day. San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, you name it — I met great people from all over the country.

I would recommend CLTC to anyone, but if you’re looking for a different summer experience, BBYO offers many other programs too. Do you want to go to Israel to learn prayers on top of Masada? Do you want to meet teens from Bulgaria and help strengthen their Jewish community? Do you want to do service projects all over the U.S. in cities such as Boston, Chicago and Washington? BBYO has a summer program for all of those things.

If you are a Jewish teen interested in having the summer of your life, you should check out the BBYO’s summer programs. There will be an information session at the JCC for teens and their families on Nov. 17. I hope to see you there.

Melanie Weiskopf is a student at Park School.

Iran Sanctions Revisited

When it comes to Iran, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says that no deal is better than a bad deal. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

When it comes to Iran, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says that no deal is better than a bad deal. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke out forcefully against a nuclear agreement with Iran three times on Sunday — at the Sunday Israeli Cabinet meeting, on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” and at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which was meeting in Jerusalem.

“What is being proposed now is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, he told some 3,500 representatives of the Jewish federations. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled; not one. Iran gets to keep tons of low enriched uranium.”

By the time of Netanyahu’s remarks, the talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) had adjourned without an agreement. The two sides will meet again Nov. 20, and that may have been Netanyahu’s reason for continuing his denunciations and continuing to refer to an agreement in present-tense terms.

Whatever his motivation to speak out so forcefully, Netanyahu is right to do so. The Iranian nuclear crisis is ongoing. In its apparent willingness to ease sanctions if Iran agrees to a temporary halt to its nuclear program, the West seems to have forgotten why the sanctions were imposed in the first place. The sanctions exist not to bring Iran to the negotiating table. The sanctions were put in place and were escalated in order to force Iran to give up its nuclear program and to dismantle its developed nuclear capabilities. Anything less than that will be the “bad deal” that Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. will not accept.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee agreed with this position when they refused a White House request to suspend lobbying for new sanctions on Iran while negotiations were taking place. “There will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts” to advance the sanctions, AIPAC said in a statement.

Three weeks ago in this space we wrote: “It is properly up to Iran to establish facts that result in the easing or removal of sanctions. But there is no point in easing sanctions before those claims are proved. Why ease up on a successful effort before it achieves results?”

Nothing appears to have happened over the past several weeks to suggest a different course. The steps Iran must take are clear: It must dismantle and destroy its nuclear program. Only then should the West consider the lifting of sanctions. Anything less is not just a bad deal — it is no deal, at all.

>> See related story, “Analysis: The Global Jewish Shuk.” <<

Anti-Semitism Is Alive And Well

110113_Jaffe-MaayanAnti-Semitism is real.

I am tired of pretending that it isn’t.

Maybe because I wrote last week about Kristallnacht and recounted the chilling history of Nazi Germany. Maybe because this week I investigated Greek anti-Semitism and the way anti-Jewish sentiment is strikingly ingrained in the Greek community.

Maybe that is why this topic seems powerful to me — a topic that doesn’t seem to get a lot of buzz in the general media.

I am afraid because no one wants to talk about the fact that anti-Semitism, which we think belongs to the past, has somehow survived. (Sometimes it now takes the form of anti-Israel sentiment.)

Anti-Semitism is alive and well. It’s covert in America. It’s becoming increasingly less covert throughout the rest of the world.

In Manchester, England, I am told, Jewish day schools are surrounded by razor wire, with bomb-proof windows and security bars and iron gates. Is this really how Jews need to protect their schools in modern Britain?

There is no choice.

Remember the horrific events of the Toulouse shooting in France in 2012 that resulted in the killing of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school?

A friend from France recently told me he takes his yarmulke off and puts it in his pocket when he goes out for a walk.

When the Pew Survey of American Jews was published, one obvious revelation (if you could call it that) was that young Jews are increasingly trying to integrate and assimilate into American culture. I believe that the more we do that, the more we try to be liked, the more we forget who we are or hide who we are, the more likely we will be targets of anti-Semitism; no one fears a Jewish reprisal.

And what I am seeing reported as one-off anti-Semitic or isolated incidents are becoming increasingly consistent, with uncomfortable echoes of 1930s Germany.

In this week’s JT, we feature an unsettling story about longtime math teacher Dr. Bert Miller who allegedly was called a ‘dirty, smelly Jew’ by a colleague at his Baltimore County school. We also include a New York Times report about a Russian Jewish immigrant food service employee who won in court after being the target of anti-Semitic slurs for years.

Anti-Semitism is the driving force in the call for the destruction of the Jewish state and the killing of Jews. We need to recognize that, to learn from the past.

In America, we are fortunate not to have experienced (or even presently experience) the kind of threats that Jews in Europe and the Middle East have faced and are facing. But we have to recognize what is happening in some parts of the world and stand up and speak out against it. We have to be waztchful even in the United States. We have to gain a better sense of the magnitude of the problem, and we have to be willing — eager, almost — to fight it.

No problem is solved by ignoring it.

If the safeness of America fools us into believing that a Holocaust couldn’t happen again, I am scared. And I don’t think admitting that fear makes me reactionary or alarmist.

Just Google “Jews are evil.” There are about 28,300,000 hits.

In all of Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise. If people don’t notice, it is because they don’t want to. If the media doesn’t report it, it is because it thinks no one cares.

Chanukah, which starts this year on Nov. 27, celebrates the triumph of faith and courage when a band of Israelites stood up for its right to be Jewish.

Remember. Do not forget.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief

Taking Responsibility

2013-axler-craigThe iconic comic strip “Family Circus” has told the story of the Keane family (two exasperated parents with four exasperating children) for the last 53 years. My favorite character has always been the invisible, gremlin-like character named “Not Me.” Whenever anything is broken or messy, the child confronted with the question,”Who did this?” is likely to answer, “Not me!” Of course, in real life, there is no invisible gremlin running around making the messes we seek to disown.

While “Family Circus” has been telling this story for more than 50 years, the Torah presents a much older version of this response in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. Jacob is returning to the land of Canaan, having fled after stealing the birthright from Esau. Now a man with a large family, the successful shepherd is coming home with abundant blessing and wealth. However, he is also coming home to confront his past.

Until this point, Jacob has been in the habit of disowning responsibility for his actions. Trading the birthright for a bowl of soup? Tricking his father into giving him the firstborn blessing? In his dealings with his father-in-law, Laban, he has not always been honest or transparent. He’s been holding to the “Not me!” defense.

Now, returning to the land of Canaan, encountering his brother, Esau, he must answer for past behavior. He is now alone on the banks of the Yabbok River, having secured his wives and children on the other side. There, in the darkest of nights, “someone wrestled with him until the break of day.” In every generation, commentators have contended with this provocative statement. How can he be both “alone” and wrestle with “someone/a man?”

Among the most meaningful interpretations is that Jacob wrestles with himself through that long night. Stricken with anxiety at the prospect of coming face-to-face with his brother, at returning to the place where he is reminded of his past deceptions, Jacob has to answer an internal question: Who am I? In childhood and adolescence, it was easy for Jacob to deny responsibility for his actions. But now, having grown into an adult (a husband, a father), he is confronted with the reality of his past. Filled with guilt and regret, he must now find a way forward — a better, more honest way.

As the sun rises on Jacob, his name is changed, and he discovers that better, more honest truth — the name Israel. To struggle … to demand honesty … to prevail. Jacob wrestles with himself in order to become the adult he needs to be, the responsible and responsive adult. He is left after the encounter with a limp, torn at the thigh, wounded. However, the physical wound is a reminder of a spiritual victory. In transforming from Jacob into Israel, he has moved forward into adulthood. It is Jacob’s embrace of responsibility that makes him Israel. This kind of a victory does not come free, and he will continue to bear the wound of the struggle.

While the rest of the Torah will bounce between calling him both Jacob and Israel, it is of note to remember the encounter that makes us B’nei Yisrael, the descendants of that struggle that led from childhood to maturity.

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.

Analysis: The Global Jewish Shuk

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

PM Netanyahu at the Opening Plenary greeting attendees (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

It was a shuk — a marketplace — of ideas. Attendees heard new and familiar voices. There was an abundance of give and take.

At the 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which ran from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12 in Jerusalem, participants had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the most important issues facing the Jewish state and the Jewish people. They learned, they were challenged, and judging from the buzz in the hallways and the smiles on the shuttles, North America’s top Jewish communal leaders and professionals were refreshed and renewed.

The messages: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh , all Jews are responsible for one another. This is a challenging time, but a time of great global Jewish opportunity.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the challenges that face us,” said Jerry Silverman, JFNA president and chief executive officer. “But the biggest challenge is something that I believe we take for granted until it is too late, and that is the idea that we are best when we stand together – as a single community, as one nation.”
A clear call to action: Unite.

A difficult appeal, judging by the dialogue and debate at the GA, which was branded “The Global Jewish Shuk: A Marketplace of Dialogue and Debate.”

Unlike a traditional general assembly, with dozens of sessions focused on solicitation techniques, storytelling and community study data mining (although a handful of these sessions did exist), the 2013 GA on the one hand, focused on Diaspora-Israel relations, on the challenges of a maturing Jewish state and on the need to celebrate Israel’s successes . On the other, there was much talk about Iran, the peace process and Israeli security.


Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says Israel’s security is his first priority. (Photo vy AG for JFNA)

Speakers ranged in stature from the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset members with and without portfolios (Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, MK Nachman Shai, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, MK Aliza Lavie and others) to leading Israeli CEOs, journalists and activists. The more than 3,000 participants unpacked what it means to be a Jew living in Israel versus a Jew living in the Diaspora, and they deliberated about ways in which the two contingencies can live with – and learn and grow from — each other. Talks tackled issues such as civil marriage in the Jewish state, making a place for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and the need for increased Israeli philanthropy.

Some speakers urged Diaspora Jews to lobby and help move the Israeli agenda forward. Others called on American Jews to support the state but to leave the politics and the policies to those who live on the land.

“I am disturbed by Jews who live abroad and don’t have a connection to Israel,” said Ziv Shilon, a 25-year-old captain in the Israel Defense Forces. “Think right. Think left. But for Heaven’s sake, think! … Even if you don’t live here physically, live here in your mind and your soul.”

“With a 71 percent intermarriage rate among the non-Orthodox, the Jewish community in North America has a lot of work to do, and they should do it before they decide what we should do here. There has always been a policy that Jews outside of Israel do not mix into Israeli politics—right or left, more or less religious,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, chief rabbi of Dimona.

All speakers called on Israeli and Diaspora Jews to talk more, and more often. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro spoke about his focus on people-to-people bonds as the “undergird for bilateral relations” and said he hopes to build new and better opportunities for exchanges.

“Our work here in Israel is not over, but it is changing,” said the JFNA’s chair of the board of trustees, Michael Siegal.


Defining Identity

The Pew Research Center survey on U.S. Jews was the elephant– or maybe the large, purple gorilla – in the room, in that North American Jewish leaders are focused today on the study’s indication that Jewish non-Orthodox young people are not affiliating, are intermarrying and think the Holocaust and Jewish humor better defines who they are than synagogue life or religious rituals.

But what was striking during the conference was how quickly it became apparent that the struggles for self-definition, the push for a more pluralistic and individualistic Jewish identity, even within the confines of the open U.S. society, were not that dissimilar from the struggles of many Jews in Israel. And that the Israeli way of relating to Judaism may be similar to the growing cultural (as opposed to religious) affiliation of many young secular North American Jews.

Calls by leaders such as MK Shelly Yacimovich, chairwoman of the Labor Party, for a civil agenda, for support for freedom of religion and worship for all sects of Judaism, for a government that supports civil marriage and gay rights (including gay marriage) were met with thunderous applause. (In 2012, the non-Orthodox Jewish community was among the most vocal contingencies in the State of Maryland lobbying for Question 6, which was also called the Maryland same-sex marriage referendum.)


Participants enjoy Israeli food before the opening plenary (Photo by AG for JFNA)

Statements by top leaders such as Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush, that “the more committed halachic Jews need to understand that pushing religion down the throats of Israelis endears Judaism to no one” nearly echoed the sentiments of young American Jews who sat on a panel about engagement.

“Young adults want Judaism like their music. They want access to everyone, and they want to make their own playlist,” said Rachel Hodes, planning associate in the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York.

“The Pew study confirms there is not one Jewish identity, there are Jewish identities. Regardless of all these different names that I have for myself [Sephardi, white Jew, Israeli, American], one thing that unites all of them is the fact that I am Jewish. … You can define in different ways and still be Jewish,” said Oren Okhovat, an intern at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In a talk titled “It’s Different Here: Is Jewish Identity in Israel Distinct from Diaspora Jewish Identity?” secular Israeli Jews expressed that they see the Bible as their inspiration but create a Judaism for themselves that resonates with them in 2013.

“I take inspiration from these stories [in the Bible], said Bella Alexandrov, director of Tor Hamidbar. “I don’t ask myself if it happened or if it didn’t happen. I take it as it is, and when I want to do something with it, I create from it a ritual to which I have a connection. It is not a source of authority, but of inspiration.”

“Judaism means history and heritage and family and a Jewish calendar and school system,” said MK Nitzan Horowitz in a separate session. “I see myself not less Jewish [than the rabbis] … even though I am secular. I feel Jewish, and I am 100 percent Jewish.”

The story of Jewish life in Israel, as speakers stood up and expressed at the end of the identity session, is best grasped through its people. And in Israel, while the news reports show a society of black and white, as one participant indicated, “There isn’t one kind of Judaism, one option; everyone can find [his or her] own place.”