February 1, 2013
Many years ago, David Frost had a weekly television show entitled “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was), a humorous and informative review of the news, much in the spirit of “The Daily Show.” Each year, I share with you “TWTJYTW,” reviewing serious and funny events that took place within American Jewish life over the past year.
There are so many topics from which to choose, so I’ll just describe some that are well known and others that have fallen “below the radar.”
In political news, the Jewish vote for President Obama was approximately 70%, as Democrats continued to attract the majority of Jewish voters, despite inroads made by Republicans, especially in New York with Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews. In the new Congress, there are 22 Jews in the House and 10 in the Senate.
Surprisingly, by the close of 2012, no Jewish candidate had filed to run for mayor of New York City in 2013 – a rarity, given that a majority of New York mayors have been Jewish since Abe Beame. (Further north, Michael Appelbaum became the first Jewish mayor of Montreal.)
Incredibly, tiny Delaware now has a Jewish Governor and Lieutenant Governor (Jack Markell and Matthew Denn respectively) and Markell is the only Jewish governor in the United States.
In 2012, the dynamic Democratic National Committee Chair was Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and the stirring opening speech at the Democratic National Convention was given by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO), who began by saying: “My grandparents were immigrants. I am Jewish. I am gay. I am a father.”
In Florida, a “kosher salsa” alliance of Jews and Puerto Ricans returned Alan Grayson to Congress. Although Cubans vote Republican in Florida, the other Latino groups trend Democratic.
Among those receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year were Bob Dylan (marking his 50th anniversary in show business), Israeli President Shimon Peres and (posthumously) Jan Karski who fought in the Polish underground in WWII.
The combination of too easily accessible guns and not accessible enough mental health services led to several tragic crimes last year. Towards the end of Hanukkah, 20 schoolchildren and 8 adults were murdered in Newtown, CT. The first funeral was a Jewish one for 6-year-old Noah Pozner. The town’s memorial service, the night before, was quite moving, pairing clergy of various traditions who offered prayers before President Obama spoke. It was a reminder that, in respect to religious pluralism, America is unique.
American Jews still tragically being held in captivity around the world included Warren Weinstein in Pakistan (by al Qaeda), Alan Gross in Cuba, Robert Levinson in Iran and Jacob Ostreicher in Bolivia. All were accused of espionage and have appealed to the American government and the Jewish community to do more to fulfill the traditional mitzvah of “pidyon shvuyim” (freeing captives).
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the conviction of American spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard was marked last year. Many in our government, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have been afraid to let him go, lest he be treated like a hero in Israel. In addition, there is opposition by some Jews in the defense and intelligence agencies of the United States, who are still angry that, because of Pollard, they fell under suspicion. On the other hand, some former National Security advisors, including President Reagan’s Bud McFarlane, favor Pollard’s release.
Jewish pot activist Mason Tvert steered the November legalization campaign in Colorado to victory, becoming one of marijuana’s most famous proponents along with Ethan Nadelmann, son of a rabbi.
In interfaith news, Mormons apologized, once again, for continuing their posthumous baptism of Jews, including Simon Wiesenthal’s parents, relatives of Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank and Daniel Pearl in violation of a 1995 agreement with the Jewish community. (In addition, they baptized President Obama’s mother.)
Anti-abortion activists in Wichita, Kansas announced plans to build a full-size replica of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, co-opting its original meaning.
MEJDI, the Middle East Justice and Development Initiative, founded by two Jews (one a rabbi) and a Palestinian columnist, began taking Americans of all faiths to Israel and the West Bank with Israeli and Palestinian tour guides, at every stop, to share their divergent narratives, as a way of understanding the complexity of co-existence and to promote peace.
A Pew Research Study entitled “Faith On the Move” found that Jews are the most internationally migratory of the world’s religious groups with 35% of us – 3.6 million – residing in countries in which we weren’t born. Only 5% of Christians – the second largest group – fell into that category.
In American Jewish community news, two new studies, run independently, have found that there are between 6.4 and 6.6 million Jews in the United States, representing 1.8% of the population. Our numbers have gone up, but our percentage of the American population has decreased because our birthrate is 1.3 vs. approximately two children per couple for most Americans, with a larger birthrate among various immigrant groups.
Another (controversial) study found that, while Orthodoxy is the choice of only 5-10% of American Jewry, in the various boroughs of New York City, the percentage of Jews who are Orthodox may be much higher and 25% are poor. In the greater metropolitan area, there are 1.54 million Jews (1.1 in New York City), and it’s the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel. While the non-Orthodox birthrate is low, there are seven children per family for Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews. The growth of Orthodoxy has lots of implications, including the need for more money raised by liberal Jews for the welfare needs of Orthodox Jews, as well as the growth of more Republican voters in New York because Orthodox Jews generally vote for conservatives. The study is controversial because, while the Orthodox vote against government welfare, they aggressively accept it and even strive for a culture of “self-impoverishment” in order to study full time. The survey summarized the change in New York Jewry as “more Tevye, less Seinfeld.”
There was still more controversy in the New York Orthodox community. In Brooklyn, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, a rare advocate for victims of child sexual abuse, was attacked, with bleach thrown in his face by Satmar Hasidim, because he accused one of their rabbis of the crime of child abuse (a continuing problem in the yeshiva world – both the crime and covering it up). In addition, four ultra-Orthodox Jews were charged, by the Brooklyn D.A., for attempting to silence an accuser of a sexual abuser with a $500,000 bribe, again against a prominent Satmar Hasid indicted on 88 counts of sexual misconduct. (The D.A. said that the intimidation of witnesses in the ultra-Orthodox community is worse than in the world of organized crime!)
There are also many in the legal community who suspect corruption in how Orthodox yeshivot have received Pell Grants. Among religious colleges of all faiths (e.g. Oral Roberts University), 6 of the top 10 grants went to Orthodox colleges (the largest for $10.5 million). Many are affiliated with Chabad, with few students in residence, many students in Israel, low graduation rates, most courses online and a high default rate. The bigger question, raised by The Forward, a national Jewish newspaper, was whether these federal funds should even go to parochial education, overseas students and schools with high dropout rates.
In lighter news, an ultra-Orthodox rally at Mets CitiField warned of the “dangers of the Internet,” even though the event had a Twitter account and an email address, and the rally was live-streamed! A safe new website, www.Kosherstarbucks.com, tells traditional Jews what they can consume at Starbucks (mocha drizzle – yes; caramel – no!) Also, according to the owner of koshersextoys.com (!), the Orthodox community was into “Fifty Shades of Grey” before it became an American bestseller.
The 90th anniversary of the first Bat Mitzvah in history, that of Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein), daughter of Reconstructionist founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was celebrated with an exhibit in New York, just 10 blocks from where the service originally took place (at Kaplan’s synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism). This exhibit, which will travel the country, documents the feminist awakening in Judaism that Kaplan inspired.
In Conservative (Jewish) news, realizing that 81% of Jews support gay marriage (vs. 50% of the general American population) and, after six years of discussion, the movement allowed its rabbis to perform gay weddings and provided two ceremonies – one traditional and one not – for rabbis to use. Neither, however, allows kiddushin – presenting partners with rings! While the Conservative movement has tried to be more inclusive over the last few decades to gays, women and the intermarried, it always seems to fall short by thwarting its progressive impulse with a desire to appease the Orthodox (which won’t accept Conservative Jews any more than they accept Reform and Reconstructionist Jews).
According to various studies, the Reform and Conservative movements have lost a great number of members over the last few decades (Reconstructionism has held its own), not to Orthodoxy, but to “lower barrier” Jewish events and organizations (such as Jewish Film Festivals). Clearly, there’s a message here for all Jewish religious movements to be more inclusive, diverse and accepting. Also, denominationalism has given way to “finding the most interesting synagogue” and therefore national organizations are in trouble.
Surprisingly, some of the greatest successes have happened outside of major communities. “Yiddish Farm” was launched last summer in Goshen, New York (a town named after the fertile area farmed by Joseph’s family in Egypt) for the dual purpose of sustainable agriculture and Yiddish immersion. (In 1938, there were 100,000 Jewish farmers in the United States from Vineland, NJ, to Petaluma, CA and many were part of ideological American collective kibbutzim preparing some Jews for aliyah.)
Atlanta, which is the 11th largest Jewish community in the United States with 120,000 Jews, now has the second largest Jewish Film Festival in the nation attended by 26,000 people (not only Jews) and a large Jewish Music Festival. Its Jewish Book Fair is considered the premier literary event in the South. (The Atlanta JCC, however, was criticized last year for cancelling a talk by author Peter Beinart on his controversial book “The Crisis of Zionism.”)
Many young Jews have found innovative outlets for their creativity. Among the most unusual, Jewish African-American teenager Drew Lovejoy became an Irish dance champion, and 10-year old Naomi Kuttin of Fairlawn, NJ was named the “Strongest Girl In The World.” She weighs 99 lbs., lifts 215 lbs. and presses weights every day but Shabbat. In a recent competition in Texas, she beat women decades older.
In international sports news, at the London Olympics, gold medalist Aly Raisman warmed Jewish hearts around the world when she performed her gymnastics routine to “Hava Nagila.” (A documentary film was completed in 2012 for 2013 release on the history of the song that has been sung by a diverse group of artists including Harry Belafonte, Chubby Checker, Alan Sherman and the Muppets.) Ms. Raisman dedicated her medals to the slain Israeli athletes from the Munich Olympics 40 years earlier. (Sadly, the Olympics Council refused a moment of silence in their memory.) Other American Jewish Olympians included Irvine’s Jason Lezak (swimming), Julie Zetlin (rhythmic gymnastics), Steven Gluckstein (trampoline), Tim Morehouse (fencing), Anthony Ervin (sprint swimming), Mark Mendelblatt (sailing), Merrill Moses (water polo) and David Banks (rowing).
In other sports news, American Jewish hockey player Evan Kaufmann (whose relatives died in the Shoah) was one of the few Jews to play for Germany in international sports since the Holocaust. In baseball, Kevin Youkilis was traded by the Red Sox to the Yankees where he’ll find very receptive New York fans.
In my next blog post, I’ll continue with economic and cultural news that affected Jews and Judaism in 2012. Stay tuned!
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis