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Supreme Court strikes down New York’s COVID restrictions on synagogues

Thu, 2020-11-26 14:39

(JTA) — The Supreme Court blocked government restrictions on houses of worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a late night ruling Wednesday.

Deciding two cases at once — one brought by Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization representing and advocating for haredi Orthodox Jews, and one brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn — the court ruled that restrictions placed on areas with high COVID test positivity rates unfairly discriminated against houses of worship.

Both petitions were brought when parts of Brooklyn were made into “red zones” under a plan implemented last month. In red zones, houses of worship are only allowed to have up to 10 people attending services at once, regardless of the capacity of the space. In orange zones, where restrictions are slightly less strict than in red zones, services are capped at 25 attendees. While nonessential businesses were shuttered in red zones, those that were allowed to remain open were not subject to the same capacity limits as houses of worship.

The decision, which split 5-4, was the first in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative justice who was confirmed last month, gave the conservatives a majority. The conservative justices were convinced by the argument that pandemic restrictions should not be stricter for religious institutions than for secular ones.

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.

The liberal justices argued that the restrictions did not constitute religious discrimination, with Chief Justice John Roberts noting that it would be “a significant matter” to overturn restrictions meant to safeguard public health during a pandemic.

Agudath Israel brought its case to the court after the same petition was struck down by a federal judge in New York. But this was not the only case where Orthodox groups have argued that pandemic restrictions on worship were unconstitutional.

Earlier this year, three Orthodox men and two Catholic priests sued New York officials over limitations on attendance at synagogue services that were imposed at the beginning of the pandemic, arguing that restrictions should not be stricter for houses of worship than for other gathering places, like businesses. The judge in that case blocked the state from enforcing the stricter rules on houses of worship.

An Orthodox organization representing summer camps tried suing the state over its restrictions on camp this summer, also arguing that the restrictions constituted religious discrimination. (The camp operators group has ties to Agudath Israel.) The judge ruled against the camp operators, saying the religious discrimination argument was not compelling.

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Six weeks ago, Facebook announced a ban on Holocaust denial. It’s still easy to find.

Wed, 2020-11-25 23:38

(JTA) — As of Wednesday afternoon, one of the first results in a Facebook search for “Holohoax” — a term popular with Holocaust deniers — was a post decrying “Zionist White Jewish Supremacist Child murdering Apartheid State, Talmudic Satanic Holohoax promoters.”

Right below it was a video, posted by a group with more than 6,000 followers, captioned “Research: Holohoax and Jew world order.”

These results showed up six weeks after Facebook announced that it was banning Holocaust denial and distortion across its platforms, including Instagram.

When it made the announcement, the company pledged that it would direct users to resources that provide credible information about the Holocaust. Those resources have yet to appear on the site.

In contrast, similar resources do appear on searches for the QAnon conspiracy theory, which Facebook announced it would ban approximately one week before announcing the ban on Holocaust denial. And QAnon groups appear to have been removed after that announcement.

It’s not just “Holohoax.” A page for the Institute for Historical Review, a Holocaust-denying organization masquerading as an academic center, is active and has more than 1,000 likes as of Wednesday afternoon. A recent post on the page links to an article titled, “Israel’s power is unlimited.” A post from earlier this month laments the “great loss of life and terrible suffering endured by the German people during the Second World War.”

A box on the side of that page labeled “Related Pages” directs users to several pages that either deny the Holocaust or spew blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Institute for Historical Review group and its related pages were first reported by the tech publication The Markup.

One, with 531 likes, is called “Goy Lives Matter” and features a stream of blatantly anti-Semitic posts and links. One example is a link to a website purporting to give information about the “The Jewish Ethnic Cleansing Of Europeans.” “Goy,” a Hebrew term that means non-Jew, has been appropriated by white supremacists.

Another far more popular page, with more than 11,000 likes, is called “Open Borders for Israel,” a trolling phrase that has become a slogan among white supremacists. The slogan implies that Jews are hypocritical because white supremacists believe Jews are trying to flood America with non-white immigrants, but Israel does not have a liberal immigration policy.

A version of the page’s logo includes Pepe the Frog, a cartoon appropriated by white supremacists. One of its posts is a meme featuring a visibly Jewish man saying “America is a nation of immigrants” and then, when someone asks him why Israel doesn’t absorb refugees, responding, “You’re being antisemitic.” Another post featuring a picture of Harvey Weinstein saying, “Israel won’t need to open its borders to the world to let Weinstein in. It only lets Jews in.”

The pages and posts — and others like them — show that more than a month after it pledged to remove content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, Facebook has yet to do so. The persistence of Holocaust denial on Facebook underscores the challenge social media giants face as they try to fulfil recent pledges to root out hate and misinformation from their platforms.

Spokespeople for Facebook, as well as a Jewish organization that’s working with it on these issues, say the social media giant is working hard to implement the policy. But they caution that it will take more time to refine artificial intelligence tools and create training materials for human moderators that can assist in recognizing Holocaust denial.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company catches the vast majority of hate speech on the platform. The spokesperson told JTA that the company has 15,000 people reviewing content to monitor for hate speech and other violations. According to the company’s data, Facebook detects 95% of hate speech posts before users report them. And another recent report by the company says that from July to September, hate speech accounted for only 10 or 11 out of every 10,000 times someone viewed content on Facebook. (Given the billions of users Facebook has, that still results in a potentially enormous number of people viewing hate speech.)

“Detecting hate speech is not only a difficult challenge, it’s an evolving one,” the spokesperson wrote. “A new piece of hate speech might not resemble previous examples because it references a new trend or some new news story. We’ve built new tools so they can scale to future challenges as well as present ones. With more flexible and adaptive [artificial intelligence], we’re confident we can continue to make real progress.”

The spokesperson said the company has no further information on when or how it will direct users to credible external materials about the Holocaust. Facebook likewise said it would not detail its training materials or criteria for determining what constitutes Holocaust denial, out of concern that that would allow bigots to “game the system.” Facebook’s “Community Standards” likewise do not specify what counts as Holocaust denial or distortion.

Facebook has been more active on enforcing at least one other recently announced policy. On October 6, six days before it banned Holocaust denial, Facebook banned groups and pages promoting QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic overtones. Just 15 days later, the company announced that it had put links in place to credible information that users now see when they search for QAnon. No such links exist, as of yet, regarding Holocaust denial.

That Facebook is banning Holocaust denial at all is itself a major shift. Two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg told the tech publication Recode that he saw Holocaust denial as a lack of knowledge as opposed to an intentional expression of anti-Semitism. “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” he said.

Zuckerberg’s statement sparked an outcry among Holocaust scholars. Earlier this year, a coalition of civil rights groups led by the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP organized a boycott of Facebook ads that grew to include more than 1,000 companies.

Now, in the face of that activism as well as studies showing that anti-Semitism is rising while knowledge of the Holocaust is decreasing, Facebook has done an about-face. The company ‘now views Holocaust denial as willful anti-Semitism. And before announcing the ban on Holocaust denial, Facebook said it had banned more than 250 white supremacist groups.

“Denying the Holocaust is not just getting your facts wrong,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, said in a video interview last month with the World Jewish Congress. “We know that Holocaust denial is used as a way to actually attack and stoke hatred against Jewish people.”

Yfat Barak-Cheney, an official at the World Jewish Congress who has worked closely with Facebook on the Holocaust denial policy, said she believes the company is sincere about banning Holocaust denial. She expects the policy to be fleshed out, at the soonest, in a few months, and says her organization is in near-daily consultation with Facebook about it.

“I think it’s a bit early to make these reports and look into this,” said Barak-Cheney, the World Jewish Congress’ director of international affairs. “The announcement is there. It’s not something they are trying to avoid doing. They are very serious about it. They’re definitely dedicating resources to it.”

As the election season heated up earlier this year and public pressure mounted on tech companies to confront hate and misinformation, several large social media sites announced bans on conspiracy theories or different forms of bigotry.

Earlier in the year, along with banning QAnon, Facebook also said it was cracking down on other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. TikTok banned white supremacist content in October. YouTube banned QAnon in October as well. In response to the stepped-up action against hate groups, many far-right activists moved their center of activity to Telegram, an encrypted messaging and social media app, and more recently to Parler, which bills itself as a social network without restrictions on speech.

In October, Twitter also said it would be banning Holocaust denial — though two weeks later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told a Senate hearing, regarding Holocaust denial, that “we don’t have a policy against that type of misleading information.”

And Facebook’s policies don’t always result in blocking haters from the site. According to a recent report by two groups that monitor extremism, Facebook and Instagram “directly host neo-Nazi networks with over 80,000 followers,” some of whom use the site to see merchandise. After the report was covered in the Guardian, Facebook said it removed the neo-Nazis.

“For too long Facebook has chosen to respond to hate on their platform only when there is enough public outcry over it,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted about the report. “Case in point: Facebook knowingly hosted this neo-Nazi network for years.”

But Barak-Cheney said that the problem was one she expected Facebook to tackle. While she doubts that Facebook will be able to detect all Holocaust denial, she expects the platform to find and prohibit “most of it.”

“It’s hard to detect, and it changes all the time,” she said. “All of it is going to be hard, but it’s not going to be a static policy.”

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James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president and Jewish philanthropist, dies at 86

Wed, 2020-11-25 23:19

(JTA) — James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president and philanthropist who helped shepherd Israel’s exit from the Gaza Strip, has died at 86.

Wolfensohn died Wednesday at his Manhattan home, media said, of pneumonia. His wife of 59 years, Elaine, died in August.

Wolfensohn, who was born and raised in Australia, was an investment banker whose philanthropic endeavors had included turning around the fortunes of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center when in the 1990s he began lobbying to be president of the World Bank.

President Bill Clinton named him to the post in 1995 — the U.S. president has naming prerogatives — and his ten-year term was marked by his focus on partnership, rather than patronage, with the developing world. Instead of a disciplinarian, he made the institution a counselor and aide to developing economies. He ended the bank’s practice of tolerating corruption.

“We must rebalance our world to give everyone the chance for life that is secure,” Wolfensohn said in a 2003 speech to the bank and its sister lending institution, the International Monetary Fund, “with a right to expression, equal rights for women, rights for the disabled and disadvantaged, the right to a clean environment, the right to learn, the right to development.”

Always on the lookout to do good, his next venture was not as successful. President George W. Bush named Wolfensohn as the envoy to the Gaza Strip of the Quartet, the grouping of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union guiding the Middle East peace process.

Wolfensohn shepherded Israel’s exit from Gaza in 2005, a process rife with miscalucalations that led to the victory of Hamas in 2007 elections and permanent tensions on the border.

Symbolic of the enterprise’s failure was the fate of greenhouses tended by Israeli settlers. When Wolfensohn learned the settlers planned to smash the greenhouses on their way out, he raised $14 million, including $500,000 of his own money, to salvage them for use by Palestinians.

Much to the consternation of Palestinian leaders, whose police were understaffed, underpaid and underequipped, local Palestinians looted the greenhouses. What truly doomed the enterprise, however, according to Wolfensohn, were Israeli restrictions on the export of produce from Gaza.

Wolfensohn was his entire life also devoted to Jewish giving. The family foundation he set up, administered by his children, gave to a broad array of Jewish causes across denominations. At the time of a JTA profile of Wolfensohn in 2005, the foundation’s beneficiaries included an Orthodox environmental advocacy group and a Reconstructionist gender studies center. He and his wife were active in the Conservative movement.

In 2006, he seeded money for perfect reproductions of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah that would be sold in part to help sustain the tiny Bosnian Jewish community.

His activism stemmed from his youth; his parents helped bring to Australia Jewish refugees from Europe. He was radicalized, he said, by the poverty he encountered in Africa and Asia as an air conditioning salesman. He eventually joined investment banks in London and then in New York. “The inequity was so striking that I could hardly absorb what was in front of me,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in his 2010 autobiography, “A Global Life.”

Wolfensohn, notably self-deprecating, described himself as driven more than naturally intelligent. He said he learned from his mistakes. He made the Australian Olympics fencing team in time for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. He had won two matches and was on his way to winning a third, when his opponent, during a break, distracted him with an offer: He would set up Wolfensohn with an Israeli swimmer.

“Fencing is a little like chess,” Wolfensohn wrote in his autobiography. “You must project a few moves ahead and outthink your opponent.”

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Trump pardons Michael Flynn, whose lies to FBI included one about Israel

Wed, 2020-11-25 21:47

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Donald Trump pardoned Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, including about a conversation he had with a Russian diplomat about Israel.

“It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon,” Trump said Wednesday on Twitter. “Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!”

Trump, whose pardons have mostly been for friends and supporters — including at least one, Roger Stone, implicated in wrongdoing during the 2016 election — is believed to be planning a slew of pardons of associates before he leaves office in January, when Joe Biden becomes president.

With the backing of the Trump administration, Flynn for months has been contesting the guilty plea he entered in December 2017 for lying about conversations he had during the transition between the Trump and Obama administrations. He lied twice about conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016.

In a January 2017 interview with FBI agents after he had become national security adviser, Flynn lied about asking Kislyak for reassurances that Russia would not retaliate for sanctions that Obama had imposed for Russian interference in the U.S. elections, and about his request that Russia delay a United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that would condemn Israel for its settlement activity.

Russia did not comply with the request. The Obama administration allowed through the resolution but did not vote for it. A long enough delay might have allowed the new Trump administration to veto the resolution, an action that Israel’s government had sought.

A number of liberal groups had sought to block Flynn’s hiring, noting the retired general’s past bigoted statements about Muslims. During the 2016 campaign, Flynn had retweeted a claim that blamed Jews for the leak of material embarrassing to Democrats. He later apologized.

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Longtime human rights activist Irwin Cotler named as Canada’s first envoy in anti-Semitism fight

Wed, 2020-11-25 21:44

(JTA) — Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and a human rights activist, is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s choice as his nation’s first envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

Cotler, a lawyer who belongs to Trudeau’s Liberal Party, has long been a leading figure in human rights advocacy. He has worked for a number of prisoners of conscience including Nelson Mandela, who went on to lead South Africa; Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident leader; Natan Sharansky, the prisoner in a Soviet gulag who went on to become an Israeli Cabinet minister and the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel; and Jacobo Timerman, the Jewish author and one-time prisoner of the Argentine junta.

He has also served as a Parliament member for a Montreal district.

“As Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, Irwin Cotler will use his vast knowledge and experience to promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research as we continue working with partners in Canada and around the world to fight against hate and intolerance,” Trudeau said Wednesday in a statement. “Because antisemitism has no place in Canada – or anywhere else.”

The statement said Cotler would work with government ministers to inform on policy and programming.

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Diego Maradona’s death spurs tribute from fellow Argentine and namesake Diego Schwartzman

Wed, 2020-11-25 21:22

(JTA) — Soccer legend Diego Maradona died Wednesday in his Buenos Aires home after suffering a heart attack, spurring tributes from around the sports world, including from Diego Schwartzman, the Jewish tennis star who was named for his fellow Argentine.

On Instagram, Schwartzman posted a video of Maradona, writing in Spanish, “I love you forever.” The tribute included “D10S,” or “dios,” the Spanish word for God — a nickname given to Maradona, who is revered in Argentina. Schwartzman also wrote in a second post that he is crying constantly and, in Spanish, “My name is Diego because of you.”

"I think 98% of my name, Diego, is because of Maradona."@dieschwartzman pic.twitter.com/a9UqrpxszZ

— ATP Tour (@atptour) November 25, 2020

“He comes from Argentina, so wherever we go, everyone knows Argentina thanks to Maradona! This is the reason why I have the first name, Diego,” Schwartzman said earlier in November. During the Paris Masters tournament, he wrote a tribute to his hero, signing “#FuerzaDiego” on a TV camera following a second-round win.

Maradona famously stood at 5-foot-5. Schwartzman, though listed at 5-7, is likely shorter.

“I have a good relationship with Maradona,” Schwartzman, who entered the top 10 of the world rankings this year for the first time, once said. “He says what he feels and he keeps it ‘real.’ What you see is what you get with Maradona. He’s an asset to all Argentinian athletes. He’s got a sense of humor, too. Before, he’d say ‘hey Dieguito [little Diego], say hello to big Diego.’ When I reached the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open [in 2017], he told me I no longer go by Dieguito. From that point on, I’m also big Diego.”

Maradona as captain led Argentina in several friendly matches against Israel typically played as the final tune-up before the World Cup. In 1986, Maradona scored twice in a 7-2 victory in Ramat Gan for a squad that went on to win the World Cup. Four years later, Maradona scored a goal in a 2-1 win; that team lost in the World Cup finals to Germany.

Argentina tuned up for the 1994 World Cup with a 3-0 victory over Israel. Maradona met Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin during the team’s stay in Israel.

Decades later, Maradona gave his shirt signed as a present to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was criticized by relatives of  the AMIA Jewish center bombing’s victims. Iran was believed to be behind the 1994 attack, which killed 85 and wounded hundreds.

Maradona also made pro-Palestinian statements and expressed his admiration to the rogue leaders of Venezuela, Cuba and Iran.

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Montreal Jewish nursing home hit hard by COVID infections in 2nd wave

Wed, 2020-11-25 17:44

MONTREAL (JTA) — A prominent Jewish nursing home in Montreal has seen dozens of residents and staffers infected by COVID-19 amid the second wave of the pandemic to hit Quebec.

The virus has struck 40 residents and 22 staff members at the 600-bed Maimonides Geriatric Centre — the second highest number of cases among nursing homes in Quebec, according to data provided by the province.

The public facility, in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Cote St. Luc, is suffering from acute staff shortages, the English language daily The Gazette reported Tuesday, obliging family members and hired companions to pitch in.

The situation, similar to what occurred during the original onslaught of COVID-19 in the spring, might be spiraling out of control, some family members fear, according to The Gazette.

Residents’ families sent a letter with their concerns Monday to Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube noting that the smaller staff is forced to move between “hot” and “cold” zones at Maimonides.

Joyce Shanks, whose 81-year-old father lives there, said that “more than 10% of the population is infected already and we are just at the beginning of the second wave.”

In a note sent Monday to residents’ families, the facility confirmed that four residents have died and 50 have been infected since the second wave began, including seven that have since recovered.

In the spring, Maimonides also had one of the highest levels of COVID infections among nursing homes in Quebec.

The province’s regional Integrated Health and Social Services University Network oversees the facility.

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22% of hate crimes in Europe in 2019 were against Jews, report shows

Wed, 2020-11-25 17:28

(JTA) — Anti-Semitic incidents accounted for 22% of hate crimes recorded last year in the pan-European region, though Jews comprise less than 1% of the population there.

The data on hate crimes comes from a report about 5,954 incidents recorded in Europe, Russia and Central Asia by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODHIR, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, ODHIR said in its annual report published last week. The report is based on data transmitted by governments and watchdog groups.

Of the total incidents, 1,311 were anti-Semitic, according to the the report titled “2019 Hate Crime Data.”

Anti-Semitism was the category with the second-largest number of incidents after the 2,371 incidents in the more general Racism and Xenophobia category.

Those targeted for their gender or sexual orientation (1,277 cases) made up the third-highest group, followed by Christians (573) and Muslims (507).

In one anti-Semitic incident recorded in the report, a woman had her hair and hat pulled violently from behind while speaking Hebrew on the bus in Berlin, Germany. In another, an Iraqi Muslim man wearing a kippah and carrying several concealed knives was intercepted by guards attempting to enter an Antwerp synagogue in June. The man had used anti-Semitic insults at Jews before the incident.

The report said its figures are not definitive and may in fact be lower than the number of hate crimes committed or recorded in Europe.

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Thanksgiving was established during an American crisis. Then and now, Judaism teaches us to be grateful.

Wed, 2020-11-25 16:43

(JTA) — How do you celebrate Thanksgiving during a pandemic? 

The medical, financial, social and emotional challenges, coupled with the stresses we are experiencing within civil society, have made this a hard time to focus on our blessings. How can we express gratitude at a time of such difficulty?

Somehow we must. Our country is not in perfect shape, and our lives are at times unrecognizable. But we have much to be grateful for, and it’s quintessentially American — and Jewish — to express our gratitude amid hard times.   

Thanksgiving was declared an American holiday by President Lincoln in 1863, while the Civil War was raging. His essential message was that during difficult times, we must not lose sight of the good. In his proclamation, Lincoln emphasized that the year had “been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

While he noted that the ongoing Civil War was one “of unequalled magnitude and severity,” Lincoln found solace in the fact that “peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.” The 16th president also recognized that these realities were “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, Who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy,” concluding that they should be recognized as such “solemnly, reverently, and gratefully … with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

We’ve lost so many lives this year, and the devastation continues as we enter a second wave of the pandemic. And yet, reassuring reports of multiple successes in the development of safe and effective vaccines have brought renewed hope that the end of this pandemic may be in sight. This development should move all of us to give thanks to God and pray for the fulfillment of this hope.  

As Jews, we are always charged with a core mission to feel and express gratitude and thanksgiving. It is in our very name. The term “Jew” is a translation of the Hebrew word “yehudi,” meaning “from the kingdom of Judah.” Judah — deriving from a Hebrew term for gratitude — was named as such by his mother, Leah, as an expression of her gratitude for his birth. While the names of her previous three sons (Reuven, Shimon and Levi) all made reference to her ongoing struggle for the love and attention of her husband, Jacob, here she shifted from focusing on what she was missing to a focus on what she had: “This time I will give thanks to God, and so she called his name Judah.” (Genesis 29:35

We carry that name, and so we must carry on Leah’s legacy of gratitude. Even as difficult challenges surround us, we have much to be grateful for. 

Our tradition transforms our matriarch Leah’s expression of gratitude about specific circumstances into a prayer of thanks for all times in our Amidah prayer, which is recited three times a day. In the Modim blessing, we express our gratitude “for our lives that are entrusted in your hand, and for our souls that are in your safekeeping, and for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good deeds that are with us at all times.”

Often that expression of thanks comes after a tearful and troubled prayer focused on desperate and intense personal needs. Yet our tradition asks us to wipe away the tears of sorrow and shift to expressions of gratitude.

While we are experiencing hard times, as we approach this year’s celebration of Thanksgiving, I’m trying to take the time to recognize the blessings in my own life, to identify what I have to be thankful for and express that thanks to God. That, more than anything else, will make this year’s scaled-down celebrations exceptionally meaningful. 

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There’s a hunger crisis in America. Jews must push our leaders to act.

Wed, 2020-11-25 16:14

(JTA) — This week, families around the country will celebrate Thanksgiving amid a new and devastating reality. While our celebrations might look and feel different than other years, many of us will likely recall our blessings in new ways as well. Food on the table will have heightened meaning, as we know that millions of Americans are struggling to feed themselves and their families every day.

Eight months into the pandemic, we are witnessing a true crisis of food insecurity. Lines for emergency food distribution stretch long and tens of millions are unemployed. Women, racial minorities and those who were struggling long before the pandemic are disproportionately suffering.

As Americans and as Jews, it is our responsibility to act. Specifically, we must demand that our leaders in government respond to growing hunger with the wisdom, compassion and urgency that this moment demands. We urgently need new legislation that will help tens of millions of Americans put food on the table. The stakes have never been higher.

COVID-19 has revealed just how many Americans are living at the edge of poverty. Before the pandemic, nearly 40 million were facing hunger. At Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, we now expect that number has doubled, particularly given skyrocketing unemployment rates and shocking reports about the increased need for food. The past nine months have revealed that millions of Americans are falling through the cracks of our federal government’s nutrition safety net — assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps — in part due to stringent eligibility requirements and cumbersome applications. 

Hunger is often hidden, silent and overlooked. Nobody talks about the shame that comes with not knowing if you can feed your children their next meal, eating canned goods because it’s cheaper than fresh food or drinking water to make yourself feel full.

My organization Mazon does our best to change that, sharing the stories of people like Rhonda, who reminds us that “it’s not normal to eat once a day, but if you’re struggling, that’s the only thing you can do.” And the experience of people like Charles, who shared that “there are times towards the end of the month when all I can afford to eat for days at a time is bread and milk.” And the stories of children like John, who says that “If I am hungry in school, I can’t focus a lot and I don’t understand the lesson.”

So many people, in the richest country in the world, face the indignity of hunger. But charities alone cannot change the situation — our government must do its part, too.

The robust network of food pantries, soup kitchens and mobile sites operating across the country today was created to supplement government assistance programs, not replace them. Charitable programs were never intended to meet the needs of all those facing hunger. They are neither structured nor funded adequately to meet the scope of hunger we are witnessing today. Even before the pandemic, the federal government spent hundreds of billions of dollars per year on food programs — that only provided people with about $1.40 per meal, or $4.20 a day, for food. The largest food charity in the country, Feeding America, has a total annual budget of $2 billion — hardly enough to match the resources of the federal government. Now the charitable food sector has become overstretched, and some food pantries are closing due to COVID-19. Clearly, only the federal government has the resources and structure to meet today’s needs.

SNAP is our country’s most effective defense against hunger. It provides modest yet vital cash assistance to anyone who meets its income and asset eligibility limits. SNAP dollars are often spent in local communities, stimulating the economy and supporting businesses throughout the food chain. In fact, economists estimate that during a recession, every SNAP dollar generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.

In recent years, support for SNAP has become political and partisan. During a recent conversation I had with my friend Rep. Jim McGovern, he reflected on this unfortunate shift.

“We were on the way to tackling the issue of hunger in this country. Then for some reason it became unfashionable to help people who were struggling to put food on the table,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Rather than finding ways to help them, we started finding ways to blame them. All these false narratives began to emerge that unfortunately undercut a lot of the work that was done in a bipartisan way.”

In the past two years, since Congress finalized and President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, we have witnessed the Department of Agriculture trying to undercut the bipartisan decision to preserve SNAP. Time and again, the agency has issued regulatory orders to limit the flexibility of states and drastically restrict benefits for people who do not fit a certain ideological narrative. These administrative attacks could not possibly be more out of touch with the realities of struggling Americans. 

The new administration, Congress and every policymaker must do what is necessary to ensure that all Americans can feed themselves and their families. A COVID-19 relief bill that prioritizes boosting SNAP for all who need it cannot wait. 

People cannot eat ideology or rhetoric. We must not stand by silently while political gridlock leaves the most vulnerable without the help they need.

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Jewish educator’s name removed from prestigious medical award due to his racist and sexist views

Wed, 2020-11-25 15:41

(JTA) — The name of a Jewish educator called the “father” of modern medical education is being removed from a prestigious award because of the racist and sexist views espoused in his work.

The Abraham Flexner Award had been given for more than 60 years by the American Association of Medical Colleges to a person or group that advanced medical education. The award honored Flexner, a Jewish educator at the turn of the 20th century who wrote a report revolutionizing medical schools in the United States.

In 1910, in what became known as the Flexner Report, he wrote that medical schools should raise their admissions standards, follow the scientific method and receive oversight from state boards. He proposed a model, still in wide use today, of two years of medical education followed by two years of clinical training.

But the standards recommended by Flexner led to the closure of a broad swath of schools, including most of those that educated Black people and women. This led to disproportionately low numbers of Black doctors, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, as well as barriers to women advancing in medicine.

The Flexner report also contained racist and sexist statements. He wrote that women “show a decreasing inclination to enter” medical school and have “obvious limitations. Black people, he wrote, should be “sanitarians” rather than doctors and should focus on preventing disease in white people.

The award will now be called the AAMC Award for Excellence in Medical Education, the group announced at its annual meeting this month.

“Just as we recognize the positive impact that Flexner had on modern medical education, we also can no longer ignore the negative repercussions of Flexner’s words and work,” said Alison Whelan, the association’s chief medical education officer.

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Sweden pleads for the life of Iranian-Swedish physician set to be executed in Iran for spying for Israel

Tue, 2020-11-24 22:22

(JTA) — The Swedish foreign minister pleaded with Iran to spare the life of a Swedish-Iranian physician who was convicted on charges that he was spying for Israel, saying they were trumped up.

“Sweden condemns the death penalty and is working to ensure that the verdict against Ahmadreza Djalali is not enforced,” Ann Linde said Tuesday on Twitter, adding that she had spoken to her Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.

Djalali, a renowned emergency medicine physician, was visiting Iran in 2016 when he was arrested. He was charged with, among other things, spying for Israel.

The doctor has told human rights groups that his confessions in 2017 were extracted by torture and threats against his family. He also said the charges were retaliation for refusing to spy for Iran.

Djalali told his wife that he was moved in recent days to a different prison to prepare him for execution.

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Columbus Jewish couple say they were victims of anti-Semitic hate crime by their neighbor

Tue, 2020-11-24 22:09

(JTA) — A Jewish couple in Columbus say their neighbor yelled anti-Semitic threats at them and threw rocks through their window on the day that Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election.

Federal, state and county authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime, according to the local ABC affiliate.

Nick and Tiffany Kinney say that on the night of Nov. 7, when media outlets called the election for Biden, their neighbor approached them, spat on them and said he was “tired of us liberals,” then said “horrible things about Hitler, it’s no wonder Hitler burned our people, he knows we are Jewish,” Nick Kinney told ABC-6.

According to Tiffany Kinney, the neighbor said, “I’ll put a bullet through your head like Hitler.”

The couple believe the neighbor then threw the rocks that shattered their door and window.

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Dianne Feinstein will step down as top Democrat on Senate Judiciary Committee

Tue, 2020-11-24 21:59

(JTA) — Dianne Feinstein, the veteran Jewish senator from California, plans to step down from her role as the top Democrat on the powerful Judiciary Committee.

“California is a huge state confronting two existential threats — wildfire and drought — that are only getting worse with climate change. In the next Congress, I plan to increase my attention on those two crucial issues,” Feinstein, 87, said in a statement reported by the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “I also believe that defeating COVID-19, combating climate change and protecting access to health care are critical national priorities that require even more concentration.”

Feinstein, for years an influential Democrat, particularly in the national security sphere, would not seek a top position on any committee, the newspaper said.

The 87-year-old lawmaker had come under fire from other Democrats for her friendly questioning of Amy Coney Barrett during the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation hearings last month. Feinstein opposed the nomination because President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rushed the conservative Barrett through trying to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Jewish justice and liberal icon who died in September, ahead of the presidential election.

With two Senate races in Georgia yet to be decided, Democrats have a shot at taking the Senate, which would mean Feinstein is giving up her chance to again chair a committee. Feinstein chaired the Intelligence Committee the last time Democrats were in the majority, until 2015.

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‘Who’s not going to go?’: NY Hasidic Jews continue to hold large weddings despite COVID rules

Tue, 2020-11-24 21:38

(JTA) — After one massive wedding that was scaled back under pressure and another that went off in secret, one of the most important leaders of the Satmar Hasidic community delivered a speech that amounted to a declaration of war.

“We endured three difficult weeks. Indeed, the school administrators — not only here but also in other places — very nearly capitulated, because it is exceedingly difficult to do battle with the government. It takes enormous amounts of energy,” Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, leader of a Satmar faction based in Kiryas Joel, New York, said in the speech, which was printed on flyers posted in Brooklyn’s Borough Park earlier this month.

It continued: “And thank God, we remained unified. We won’t surrender. We won’t close down. And indeed, we didn’t close down, neither the boys’ schools, nor the girls’ schools, nor the yeshivas. Neither the large ones nor the small ones. Everything proceeded as usual. God came to our aid, and the authorities realized they were dealing with a stubborn people.”

This week, the New York Post reported about a Satmar wedding — of one of Teitelbaum’s grandsons — that was organized and held in secret earlier this month in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with thousands in attendance. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the plans “totally deceitful” and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the synagogue that hosted the wedding would be fined $15,000. (De Blasio told the Post on Tuesday that New York was a “big city” in explaining why the city didn’t catch on to the wedding.)

As they were making their comments, last-minute planning was unfolding for another wedding, this time in Kiryas Joel. Reporters for The Daily Beast observed people coming in and out of the wedding hall on Monday night, with workers bringing in pallets of bottled water. The Post reported Tuesday that the state police were investigating the wedding.

Even with all the attention they have drawn over the past several days, the weddings are not an anomaly in the Hasidic community despite being in clear violation of the state’s rules against large gatherings during the pandemic. Weddings have been happening in Brooklyn for months — with precautions such as covering windows with paper and guards at the doors in case an inspector shows up to keep them from being detected. 

Members of the Hasidic community say the weddings aren’t likely to stop, in part because cases are not translating into the large number of hospitalizations and deaths seen in the spring. Also the push to stop them is coming from outsiders.

“I don’t think the government can do much, to be honest,” said Meyer Labin, a Hasidic writer who grew up in the Williamsburg Satmar community.

Some critics say the lack of secular education in the Hasidic community is to blame.

In fact, Rabbi Teitelbaum himself linked the defiance of COVID rules with the ongoing fight against government attempts to increase secular education in yeshivas in his speech, which was given at a post-wedding celebration following the secret Williamsburg wedding earlier this month.

“They want to change the education of our sons and daughters, God forbid,” the Satmar leader said, adding that “we will not capitulate and we will not change! We are not going to change.

“We will say it again and again: Klal Yisroel will take no orders, or anything of the sort, whatever form it might take, whatever will come,” he said, insisting that the Satmar education system would remain the same, with minimal secular education.

Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, an organization advocating for secular education in yeshivas, called the speech evidence that leaders of the community “believe they are above the law.”

“When someone tells you who they are, believe them. If there was ever any doubt as to how the Hasidic leaders feel about government regulations, here is the proof,” Moster said.

Hasidic life has never been conducive to staying home. For the large families common in Hasidic communities, keeping children home from school is not practical in cramped New York City apartments, particularly without tablets and computers to keep them occupied. Much of the life is in communal spaces like schools and synagogues, making social distancing all but impossible. And the increasing influence of pro-Trump media has seeded skepticism of the coronavirus.

Residents of Hasidic Williamsburg have largely returned to pre-pandemic life, as seen on Sept. 29, 2020. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson)

But in the case of the continued large weddings and lack of compliance with interventions as simple as mask wearing, community leaders are playing a crucial role in encouraging defiance, according to some Hasidim.

“They take the lead from their rebbe, so if their rebbe isn’t walking around with their mask, they’re not going to think it’s important,” an administrator of a health clinic in Williamsburg said.

At the large Williamsburg wedding held in secret, the groom was one of the top Satmar rabbi’s grandsons.

“Who’s not going to go?” the clinic administrator asked.

New York state has banned large gatherings like weddings throughout the pandemic. But the scrutiny of gatherings increased in Brooklyn in the past several months as COVID cases ticked upward in the borough, including in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods.

As the COVID test positivity rates increased in Borough Park and Midwood in October, Cuomo created a new system meant to target “micro-clusters” of COVID cases. That system included new color-coded zones, with the heaviest restrictions in red zones, where schools and nonessential businesses would be shut down and synagogue capacity severely limited, and less stringent restrictions in orange and yellow zones.

The Williamsburg administrator said there had been a decrease in patients coming in for COVID testing at her clinic over the past two months. She wasn’t certain why, but said “it did seem to coincide with when the schools in Borough Park and Midwood were closed and when they threatened to close the schools in Williamsburg.”

Even though Borough Park and Midwood were kept in the red zones for several weeks, some yeshivas remained open in a repeat of what happened in the spring, when students attended classes in synagogue basements or entered school buildings through side doors to avoid detection.

Testing efforts, too, seemed to be oriented toward lowering the positivity rate with a singular goal in mind: to keep the schools and synagogues open.

Flyers circulated in Williamsburg warning that no one should be tested. Others, however, called on healthy people, especially those who had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, to be tested to drive down the positivity rate.

Blimi Marcus, a nurse practitioner who lives in Borough Park, said the testing strategies appeared to be more about averting government restrictions than public health.

In October, she said, there were efforts to test community members in large numbers to drive down the positivity rates, as those rates were being used as the metric to determine whether an area would remain a red or orange zone, keeping schools closed.

Orthodox Jewish men exit a yeshiva in Borough Park, Sept. 29 2020. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson)

Marcus believes those who are sick are still avoiding testing now. She said she often gets texts from community members with low oxygen levels who are trying to avoid being hospitalized.

“When the effort is to keep cases down in the community, no one wants to be the one that changes the narrative,” she said.

But Marcus said the community shouldn’t continue to hold weddings and expect schools to stay open.

“If you want to have your cake and eat it, too, you need to implement some changes,” she said.

But those who grew up in the community have little hope for change at this point.

Sam Katz, a research fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who was raised in the Borough Park Satmar community, frequently talks to family members in the neighborhood about the pandemic. Katz said the fact that they haven’t seen “the other shoe drop” in the form of another wave of hospitalizations and deaths has made it hard to convince people to take the threat of the virus seriously anymore.

“Tell me who’s dying, give me a name, give me a name,” he said they ask him.

“For some reason, the impact of April and May didn’t translate to a cautiousness and a fear of the virus, it translated to ‘we’ve been through it.’ I don’t know the psychology of that.”

While it’s hard to know how many real cases there are if people won’t be tested, the clinic administrator in Williamsburg said she had not seen any noticeable spike in cases in the weeks since the massive wedding there. And there is the possibility that a majority of the guests already had COVID, making it unlikely that they would be infected again.

“A lot of them probably do have some type of immunity,” the administrator said of the men who likely attended. She said some 80% of men aged 18-55 who have been tested for antibodies at her clinic tested positive, indicating a previous infection.

“COVID becomes less scary for you when 80% of the people you know had it,” the Hasidic writer Labin said. “Everybody they know had it already. They forget about the people who died.”

He added: “People who died don’t have a voice anymore.”

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Suzanne Belling, former JTA correspondent and South African Jewish leader, dies at 72

Tue, 2020-11-24 20:42

(JTA) — Suzanne Belling, a former Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent and longtime writer and editor for Jewish publications in South Africa, has died.

Belling died Nov. 12 in Pretoria. She was 72.

Raised in Cape Town, Belling’s interest in journalism began in high school, when she wrote a column for the Cape Times. She later became an intern at the paper.

She later became the Cape Town correspondent and regional editor for the South Africa Jewish Times. In 1994, she moved to Johannesburg to become the newspaper’s editor.

Belling was also a regular contributor to JTA between 1997 and 2013, and was the founding editor of the Johannesburg Jewish Voice.

Belling went on to occupy a series of professional and lay positions within the South Africa Jewish community, serving as executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies for six years.

In a statement posted to Facebook on Nov. 13, the board recalled Belling’s leadership during the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The conference devolved into a frenzied battle over whether to censure Israel in the final declaration, prompting both Israel and the United States to leave in protest.

“As well as her writing and organizational skills, Suzanne had great social skills and a compassionate heart and was involved in every aspect of the board’s work,” the statement said. “She took a special interest in the Jews in remote country districts and initiated regular visits to country communities.”

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Seth Rich’s parents, Fox News settle over false claim he was killed for leaking damaging information in 2016 election

Tue, 2020-11-24 20:40

(JTA) — Fox News and the parents of Seth Rich, the Jewish Democratic National Committee staffer killed near his Washington, D.C., home in 2016, settled the family’s lawsuit over a story that intimated he was killed for leaking damaging information about Democrats.

Joel and Mary Rich said they were “pleased with the settlement of this matter and sincerely hope that the media will take genuine caution in the future,” a number of outlets media reported Tuesday.

The conditions of the settlement and any payment were not revealed.

“We are pleased with the resolution of the claims and hope this enables Mr. and Mrs. Rich to find a small degree of peace and solace moving forward,” Fox News said.

The settlement comes as the family was set to depose Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, top Fox News hosts who peddled the falsehood.

The Riches sued Fox and a number of others involved in posting the story, which Fox eventually retracted, for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” A federal judge dismissed the suit two years ago, but an appellate court returned it to the lower court.

Rich, 27, a Nebraska native, was shot dead while walking home before dawn on July 10, 2016. Police have speculated that he was the victim of a robbery gone awry. Rich’s body was found about a block from his home with his wallet, watch and cellphone still in his possession. His murder remains unsolved.

His death sparked several conspiracy theories falsely suggesting that he was targeted by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign because he had leaked damaging emails.

A defamation lawsuit by Rich’s brother against individuals who peddle the conspiracy theory remains outstanding.

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2021 Grammy Awards: All the Jewish nominees, from Haim to an orchestral ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ adaptation

Tue, 2020-11-24 19:58

(JTA) — This year’s Grammy Awards will almost certainly be different from past years, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But despite the lack of details surrounding the ceremony, it’s still taking place, and as usual, several Jewish artists made the nominations list, which was announced Tuesday.

Ranging all the way from the sister rock band Haim to comedian Tiffany Haddish, these are the Jewish artists who made the biggest impact on the recording industry this year.

The big awards

The Haim sisters, from left, Danielle, Este and Alana, at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif., Feb. 9, 2020. (Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Leading the way are the Jewish Haim sisters — Alana, Danielle, and Este — who are nominated for album of the year for “Women in Music Pt. III,” and for best rock performance for their song “The Steps.” The album, which is their third, was released in June to rave reviews.

Jack Antonoff — the Jewish musician who has become a go-to producer for some of the industry’s biggest pop stars and often wears a Star of David in public — is up for producer of the year, for his recent work with Taylor Swift, The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), FKA Twigs and Sia. He received another nod for his work on Taylor Swift’s album “folkore.”

Also nominated for producer of the year is Jewish musician Dan Auerbach, the frontman for the rock band The Black Keys, for his work on music by CeeLo Green, Early James, Marcus King and others. His father is of Polish Jewish heritage.

Breakout Jewish rapper Doja Cat (real name Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini) had a standout 2020 after going viral on TikTok and is nominated for best new artist. Her hit song “Say So” also received a nomination for best solo pop performance. She was born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish South African father in California.

Jewish comedians, of course

Tiffany Haddish performs in her Netflix stand-up special “Black Mitzvah.” (Netflix)

Two Jewish comedians are up for best comedy album: Jerry Seinfeld for “23 Hours to Kill” and Tiffany Haddish for “Black Mitzvah.” Haddish celebrated her bat mitzvah on the same day the Netflix special premiered.

“When I came up with the concept for my special,” Haddish explained to Alma, “I was trying to figure out a way to tell my truth, my experiences in life, and also maybe open other people’s eyes to the fact that in African American culture, there is nothing that says, ‘Okay, you’re officially a woman,’ or, ‘You’re officially a man.’ There’s no ceremony. There’s no rite of passage.”

Musicals and movies

A scene from the London production of “The Prince of Egypt.” (Tristram Kenton)

Stephen Schwartz’s West End adaptation of “The Prince of Egypt” received a nod for best musical theater album. The recording was released shortly before Passover, fitting for a production that tells the tale of Moses and the Exodus story.

“A lot of times you put stuff out there and don’t know how it’s being received. So if people have found something inspiring or comforting, there’s just no greater gift a writer can ask for,” Schwartz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Schwartz will be competing against a Jewish superstar pair: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The new off-Broadway cast recording of composer Menken and lyricist Ashman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” was also recognized in the musical category. The two of them also worked on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Ashman passed away in 1991 at age 40.

In the film soundtrack category, Jewish composer Thomas Newman received a nomination for his score for “1917.” If he wins, this would be Newman’s seventh Grammy. “Jojo Rabbit,” the Taika Waititi-led Holocaust satire, received a nomination in best compilation soundtrack.

For best music film, Spike Jonze’s “Beastie Boys Story” received a nomination. It’s a documentary that premiered on Apple TV earlier this year telling the tale of the pioneering rap group — whose three members were all Jewish. Jonze, known for directing the movies “Her” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” is also Jewish.

And while superstar Beyoncé is not Jewish her visual film “Black Is King,” which adapts the story of Moses, also received a nomination in that category.

An orchestral Anne Frank adaptation

Nominated for best classical compendium is an orchestral adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” narrated by Isabel Leonard and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Thomas produced the work back in 1990 with the help of Audrey Hepburn, who originally read Frank’s words in performance.

Israeli cellist Matt Haimovitz is also in this classical compendium category, for “Woolf, L.P.: Fire And Flood.” His last nomination was a decade ago, in 2010.

Other notable nominations

Drake at the Los Angeles premiere of the HBO series “Euphoria,” June 4, 2019. (Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

Black Jewish rapper Drake added three Grammy nominations to his long list of accolades — for best music video, for the accompaniment to the track “Life Is Good,” and for best melodic rap performance and best rap song for “Laugh Now, Cry Later.”

Leonard Cohen, who passed away in 2016, received a posthumous nomination for best folk album for “Thanks for the Dance.” The record, his fifteenth and final studio album, was finished by Cohen’s son Adam.

The Grammys are set to air on Jan. 31 on CBS, hosted by Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show.”

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Tony Blinken, accepting Biden’s secretary of state nomination, notes Jewish roots

Tue, 2020-11-24 19:46

(JTA) — Tony Blinken vividly described his stepfather’s Holocaust-era rescue in accepting President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination to be secretary of state on Tuesday.

Blinken also noted other Jewish ancestors who were refugees near the outset of his acceptance speech in Wilmington, Delaware.

The remarks served to signal the incoming administration’s commitment to reverse two signature policies of Donald Trump’s presidency: drawing down America’s profile overseas and drastically cutting refugee intake.

“For my family, as for so many generations of Americans, America has literally been the last best hope on earth,” Blinken said. “My grandfather, Maurice Blinken, fled pogroms in Russia and made a new life in America. His son, my father Donald Blinken, served in the Air Force during World War II and then as a U.S. ambassador. He is my role model and hero.

“His wife, Vera Blinken, fled communist Hungary as a young girl and helped future generations of refugees come to America. My mother, Judith Pisar, builds bridges between America and the world through the arts and culture. She is my greatest champion.”

His mother’s second husband was a Holocaust survivor, author and memoirist.

“And my late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was one of 900 children in his school in Bialystok, Poland, but the only one to survive the Holocaust after four years in concentration camps,” Blinken said.

“At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the Bavarian woods. From his hiding place, he heard the rumbling sound of a tank. Instead of an Iron Cross, he saw a five-pointed White Star. He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African-American GI looked down at him. He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God Bless America. The GI lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom. That’s who we are.”

At the same ceremony, Biden introduced his designated national security Cabinet, including Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban-born Jew he nominated to be Homeland Security secretary.

Mayorkas, whose mother was a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, in his acceptance remarks spoke of his parents’ flight from communist Cuba.

“My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism,” he said. “They cherished our democracy and were intensely proud to become United States citizens.”

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David Dinkins, NYC’s first Black mayor who was embattled by Crown Heights riots, dies at 93

Tue, 2020-11-24 17:31

(JTA) — David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City, died at age 93 on Monday, nearly three decades after losing a reelection bid in part over his response to riots in a Black and Hasidic Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Dinkins was born in Trenton, New Jersey and entered New York City politics after graduating law school, according to The New York Times. Elected in 1989 as New York City was enduring high levels of crime and interracial strife, Dinkins promised to bring healing and reconciliation to the city. But a series of violent acts raised pressure on him, which came to a head in 1991 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

That August, a car in the motorcade of Chabad Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, accidentally struck and killed a Black 7-year-old named Gavin Cato. Hours later, amid outrage over Cato’s death, a group of Black men in the neighborhood murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, a Lubavitch rabbinical student. The deaths touched off days of rioting in the neighborhood in which more than 200 people were injured and more than 150 arrested.

Critics charged that Dinkins restrained the police, allowing rioters to harm Crown Heights’ Jews. The criticism followed Dinkins for years after the riots and was the subject of an investigation by New York state as well as a federal class action suit filed by members of the Crown Heights Jewish community.

The suit alleged that Dinkins allowed rioters to “vent their rage over [Cato’s death] at the expense of the lives and property of Jews and other non-blacks present in the Crown Heights community.” It also alleged that city officials gave tacit approval to the “murderous, anti-Semitic rampage which engulfed the Brooklyn community of Crown Heights for four days.”

On a 1993 visit to Israel, Dinkins met protests, and Avi Weiss, the outspoken New York City Orthodox rabbi and activist, charged him with “allowing a pogrom.”

The criticism did not subside even as Dinkins defended his actions and continued to engage with the Jewish community. He had visited Rosenbaum on his deathbed and had urged calm, and denied that he had restrained police. He attributed the criticism to his race.

“There is not a single shred of evidence that I held the [New York Police Department] back — and there never will be,” Dinkins said in a speech at the Jewish Theological Seminary more than a year after the riots. “And every time this utterly false charge is repeated, the social fabric of our city tears just a little bit more. It must stop. It’s got to stop.”

He said some of his critics “see everything through an ethnic prism.”

But the response to the riots contributed to Dinkins’ election loss to Rudy Giuliani in 1993. In three Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhoods — Crown Heights, Williamsburg and Borough Park — approximately 97% of voters backed Giuliani.

Dinkins died in his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His wife of 67 years died in October; they are survived by two children.

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