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TikTok becomes latest social network to crack down on anti-Semitism ahead of the election

Thu, 2020-10-22 15:51

(JTA) — Following the lead of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the video platform TikTok announced that it is expanding the range of hate content that it will ban from the network.

The move comes less than two weeks ahead of the American election and amid official warnings of potential violence by extremist groups during and after the vote. It also comes following complaints that TikTok users were demeaning the Holocaust by portraying themselves as concentration camp inmates in videos.

TikTok said in a blog post Wednesday that it already bans Holocaust denial and works to remove neo-Nazi and white supremacist content. Now it will remove posts advocating similar ideologies like white nationalism, male supremacy and “white genocide theory,” which falsely claims that there is a conspiracy to eliminate white populations with a flood of immigrants.

The site also said it would ban “misinformation about notable Jewish individuals and families who are used as proxies to spread anti-Semitism.” It did not specify names, but figures such as George Soros and the Rothschild family are common avatars for anti-Semitism. The site also said it will ban anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ content.

In recent weeks, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced steps to ban Holocaust denial, hate groups and posts advocating QAnon, a growing conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic overtones. The measures come following campaigns by activists charging that the platforms were not doing enough to combat hate.

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4 Jews are running for Senate in 2020 — including 2 who could help turn it blue. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Thu, 2020-10-22 15:42

(JTA) — Four Jewish candidates are among those vying for 35 open Senate seats this year — and two of them are seen as contenders to convert Republican-held seats to Democratic.

All of the Jewish Senate candidates are Democrats or supported by the Democratic Party. (Ten of the 43 Jews in the running for House of Representatives slots are Republicans.) They include a doctor who has killed a bear, a scientist who makes a mean matzoh ball soup, a son of a former vice presidential candidate and a star of the anti-Trump resistance on the campaign trail.

Here’s what you need to know about their backgrounds, big issues, backers and chances of winning in November.

Al Gross, Alaska

Al Gross, as seen in a campaign video, which also shows him on a fishing boat and in camouflaged hunting gear. (Screen shot from YouTube)

Background: An Independent who has been endorsed by the Democratic party, Gross, 58, is a Jewish doctor with a frontier resume. He was born after an avalanche, works as a commercial fisherman and killed a bear (in self-defense!). He also has a connection to Israel: Cooper Boyar, a J Street official, says that Gross jokes that he may be the only person who spent his year after high school fishing in the Norwegian Sea and then on a kibbutz in Israel.

Big issue: Health care reform. Gross’s issues page on his campaign website is called “prescriptions” and he lists health care first, saying he wants to ensure that insurers cannot deny coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions. He also wants Medicare to be able to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs for seniors.

Backers: With the prospect of turning an Alaska Senate seat blue, many liberal Jewish PACs have supported Gross’ campaign. They include Bend the Arc Jewish Action, DMFI PAC, J Street and JDCA. Those PACs are part of what helped Gross amass a $9 million war chest going into the campaign’s final weeks, a tremendous sum in Alaska’s media market.

Odds: Alaska is widely expected to back President Donald Trump, as it did in 2016. But after initially trailing Dan Sullivan, the incumbent Republican, in the polls, Gross has been neck and neck since August. With Sullivan dealing with a scandal over his involvement in a mining project that is unpopular among Alaskans, Gross’ chances of pulling off an upset in a red state appear to be growing.

Matt Lieberman, Georgia

Matt Lieberman, who is running for Senate in Georgia as a Democrat, poses in Atlanta, Nov. 22, 2019. (Ron Kampeas)

Background: You probably know Lieberman because of his dad, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was the first Jew to feature on a presidential ticket when Al Gore chose him as his running mate. Matt Lieberman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last year that there’s no point in running from his father’s name recognition, so he embraces it. But you might also know the 53-year-old because it was revealed recently that he self-published a novel in which a Jewish protagonist, who bears more than passing resemblance to himself, befriends an aged racist who believes he owns a Black slave.

Big issue: Healthcare. He wants to add to the Affordable Care Act a public option, which would allow states to set up a not-for-profit health care insurer to encourage competitive prices from private insurers. This is especially notable because his father is the reason the Affordable Care Act lacks a public option: Democrats dropped it to keep Joe Lieberman, an adamant centrist, on board in 2010 so the act could pass.

Backers: We couldn’t track down any notable PACs backing Lieberman, probably because Democrats wish Lieberman weren’t running. The seat is open because incumbent Republican Johnny Isakson retired last year due to illness. Twenty people are vying for the spot in an “open primary” featuring both Democrats and Republicans. Four of them register in the polls: Kelly Loeffler, appointed temporarily to the spot; a firebrand pro-Trump congressman, Doug Collins; Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor who is running as a Democrat; and Lieberman. Democrats, including a slate of prominent Jewish Democrats in the state, are pressing Lieberman to quit so he doesn’t suck enough votes away from Warnock to keep him from entering the runoff, which will take place in January (and could hand the Senate to Democrats). Lieberman has not dropped out, but the noise has died down as his numbers have dropped — perhaps because of the controversy — and Warnock is taking the lead, guaranteeing him a spot in the runoff.

Odds: About as strong as you’d expect, given the race. Lieberman’s chances recede with each poll.

Jon Ossoff, Georgia

Jon Ossoff seen after voting early at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Oct. 15, 2020. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Background: Now 33, Ossoff was one of the first faces of the “resistance” when he ran for the first open congressional seat following Trump’s election, in a special election in Georgia’s suburbs, once solidly red. He attracted millions of dollars from around the country, making the race the most expensive congressional battle in U.S. history. Ossoff came close but did not win the seat. He’s been working as the CEO of a company that makes investigative documentaries, but his main gig has been readying another bid for office, this time against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. (Yes, both of Georgia’s Senate seats are open this year.)

Ossoff accused Perdue’s campaign of anti-Semitism in July when it ran a Facebook ad depicting Ossoff with an elongated nose. Perdue removed the ad and denied bigoted intent. But that rang a little hollow this month when he mocked Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’s first name at a Trump rally. Ossoff noticed.

Big issue: Healthcare. Ossoff wants to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act.

Backers: Ossoff’s endorsements list reads like a who’s who of progressive politics, from a slew of Jewish PACs to former president Barack Obama, who tends to weigh in on tight races. Ossoff’s most notable endorsement may be John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights hero, whom Ossoff interned for in high school. Lewis filmed an ad for Ossoff in May, just months before he died. Pro-Israel America and NORPAC, two conservative Jewish PACs, are backing Perdue.

Odds: Polls have Ossoff and Perdue neck and neck.

Merav Ben-David, Wyoming

Merav Ben-David, a University of Wyoming professor, in a campaign video. (Screen shot from YouTube)

Background: A professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, Ben-David, 61, is vying against Cynthia Lummis, the state’s single member of the House, a Republican, to fill a spot vacated by a Republican who is retiring. Born and raised in Israel, Ben-David became a US citizen in 2009 and is a fixture in Wyoming’s small Jewish community. “We have a vibrant community here in Laramie, and we celebrate all the holidays,” Ben-David told JTA. “In effect, more often than not, I’m in charge of making the matzo balls.”

Big issue: The environment. Ben-David told the JTA that the coronavirus pandemic reinforces her message about weaning the state off of fossil fuels mining. (Her slogan is “Futureproof Wyoming”). “I think there is a chance and this year, if you think about it, is especially strange,” she said. “With COVID-19 [there is a] realization that we need to pay more attention to science.”

Endorsements: Jewish groups haven’t weighed in on Ben-David. (She’s openly critical of Israel’s current leadership, which might make things complicated.) But Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, backs her, as does Friends of the Earth Action, an environmental PAC.

Odds: Wyoming is widely considered the reddest state in the country. The Economist gives Ben-David a less than 1 in 20 chance of winning.

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‘The Great British Baking Show’ has a Jewish dessert problem

Thu, 2020-10-22 14:15

This article originally appeared in The Nosher.

What is going on with “The Great British Baking Show”?! For the past two weeks of its eighth season, it has featured a Jewish baked good, and I am not complaining. Well, not entirely. Last week: a true abomination in the form of rainbow bagels. And this past week: chocolate babka.

Jewish baked goods have been featured several times on “The Great British Baking Show”: challah in season five, which they called a plaited loaf (outrageous); and bagels last week, which they also didn’t reference as being Jewish, though, of course, they are. So I appreciated that this was the first time they actually referenced that babka is Jewish in origin.

Over here at The Nosher, we are kind of experts in babka. After all (humble brag), I did write a book that featured an entire chapter about how to make babka. But I digress.

A brief recap: Babka is a sweet, enriched, yeasted dough hailing from Eastern Europe. Jews brought it to America, making it popular. Traditionally, American babkas are either chocolate or cinnamon. In fact the chocolate vs. cinnamon babka debate featured prominently on a beloved episode of “Seinfeld.”

Babka has exploded in the U.S. and around the world over the last seven or so years, ever since Breads Bakery revived the yeasted cake, dusting it off for a new generation and helping inspire bakers and bloggers around the world to embrace the cake, adding their own spins. It is a very visual dessert, with a coveted signature swirl that’s basically made for Instagram-worthy food porn.

A babka from Breads Bakery (Courtesy)

Unlike the bagel challenge, which had some egregious recipe errors, I didn’t take issue with the recipe itself. The challenge was to create a chocolate and hazelnut babka glazed with a sugar syrup at the end (true to a good babka recipe).

But the technique was all wrong. An enriched babka dough should be left to rise before filling and shaping. And since an enriched dough is made with butter, milk, and eggs, it can be on the heavier side, weighed down by all that (delicious) fat. The dough should rise again after being shaped to give it air and ensure it’s not too dense.

I was particularly surprised that none of the bakers were familiar with babka, since it has gained such widespread internet renown; you can see beautiful swirled babka in every flavor variety from around the world with a quick Google or Instagram search.

Consequently, the shaping seemed to challenge them the most, having no visual reference. The #1 mistake: rolling out the dough too long, making it impossible to fit into the pan.

Despite some shaping challenges, most of the bakers’ babka looked pretty good in the end. They may not all have had that perfect swirl, but they were gooey and chocolaty, and that’s the most important part in my book.

Perhaps the most insulting moment of the episode: Prue’s comment that the babka on the show was much better than the variety she had tasted in New York City. Hmm.

One person on Twitter called “The Great British Baking Show” babka “goyishe.” I will neither defend nor support that comment, though I will assert there are just some foods New York City has perfected: pizza, bagels and babka, to name just a few. Paul and Prue, let me officially invite you to come taste the wonders New York City can offer.

And in case you missed it, the best comment of the entire episode came from newish host Matt Lucas, who suggested to one of the bakers that maybe the babka “will get bigger if you stroke it.” I’ll have to try that sometime.

If you fancy making your own babka right about now, try one of our favorite recipes from this list. On your marks, get set, bake! 

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Everything I learned from quarantining with my Holocaust survivor grandmother

Thu, 2020-10-22 14:07

This article originally appeared in Alma.

A woman I quarantined with inadvertently shamed me on a regular basis. As strange March rolled into tragic April which rolled into tragic and strange May, she found ways of keeping herself occupied that were both maddeningly self-enriching and deeply sophisticated.

Though we are related, our approach to quarantine was different. As she watched the French film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and the French series “The Bureau,” both sans subtitles, there was no limit to how depraved a show on Bravo might be — it didn’t matter, I’d gleefully watch it. She played bridge on her iPad each afternoon — lessons and tournaments in which she competed for cash; I debased my education by learning about the ins and outs of the TikTok “Hype House.”

Where my social Zooms petered out as the spring festered, she remained invited everywhere: into people’s living rooms for birthdays, bat mitzvahs, even the occasional bris. As ambulances ravaged our home city, New York, and death tolls mounted, we both turned to food. I’d botch Alison Roman recipes by day and by night, smother cream cheese frosting onto cinnamon buns and then lick it off the spoon. She’d slow cook ratatouille and regularly remind me that she drinks at least nine glasses of water by 6 p.m. Infuriatingly, she did online yoga, kept up her skincare routine, and wore swaths of flattering lipstick.

Even seeing no one, her style could be described as uptown-doyenne-takes-a-day-trip-to-Brooklyn-galleries. She wore sweatpants, yes, but they were somehow chic paired with sumptuous cream cashmeres, well-ironed button-down Oxfords, and several different pairs of festive Birkenstocks. It was a good day if I wore a bra, or better, something that I didn’t wear the day before.

This woman was, of course, my octogenarian grandmother — we call her Oma — who, for a variety of reasons, my husband and I found ourselves quarantining with from mid-March to July.

She didn’t mean to shame me; she was just better prepared to live in a “Cool Zone” of history  — as in a “period in history that’s super cool to read about, but much less cool to live through.” Oma is no stranger to “cool zones”: She was born a Jew in Arad, Romania in 1934, where her family narrowly side-skirted the Nazis and then had to flee from the Soviets in 1947 on foot and horse to Belgium. There she met my grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

Fast forward seven decades, two children, six grandchildren and widowhood; my grandmother is now a bona fide New Yorker. And like any New Yorker with taste and an independent streak, she has her preferences: her favorite butcher and shoe cobbler, her favorite companion for the symphony and art house movie, her favorite walking route around Central Park and mille-feuille.

She made fierce friendships with people of all ages and enjoyed hosting in her apartment, foisting chicken soup, braised veal and her hatred of Donald Trump onto her guests. Like all of us, she would lose this freedom and independence in quarantine; unlike us, she didn’t have the assumption of many decades of her life to regain it, a hard truth we watched her reconcile with.

But she didn’t succumb to gloom. She had the constitution of a survivor, a word that takes on another meaning when paired with the historical circumstances of her life. Interestingly, throughout our childhood, it was my grandfather’s story we focused more on, perhaps because it was gendered or simply because his story — tragic, sprawling, epic — fit better into the well-known Holocaust narratives than my grandmother’s. And indeed, it is common to define a “Holocaust survivor” as someone who endured concentration camps as my grandfather did. Compared to my grandfather, Oma’s story seemed almost privileged: Her parents and sibling lived. (Of course, privilege is extraordinarily relative in this context.)

As we grew older, however, we learned more and more about my grandmother’s story. And even putting aside the insane and difficult details of her displacement, the fact of being a Jew living in Europe at that time by definition makes her a survivor in my opinion — which is to say she survived.

In a different life, I like to imagine Oma would have made an excellent diplomat or foreign dignitary. She is a language savant, with a breadth developed by a preternatural giftedness but also by necessity of the different countries she has lived in. Oma speaks eight languages: English, French, German, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, Hebrew and Yiddish. One quarantine dinner, when all we wanted to talk about was “the numbers,” Cuomo, and PPE on repeat, trying to understand what the hell was going on, Oma wanted to discuss language — and particularly, how pitiful it was that us (Americans) could barely speak two. This needling, in the time of COVID-19, was refreshing.

Another time, she gently suggested my husband shave his beard and less gently suggested that I might brush my hair once in a while. She did not understand my droopy bright sweatpants or the tie-dye trend, as if she could alone predict the fallacy in the idea that sorbet colors all bleeding together onto a T-shirt could negate the thousands, then tens of thousands, and now hundreds of thousands of people who have died.

We shared one crucial thing in common: We couldn’t believe we were living through this. A little over two months into it, shortly after George Floyd was murdered and protests erupted across the country, she looked at me and said, “This may be the craziest thing I’ve ever lived through.” After what she’d been through, it was surprising to hear, yet another example of how relative privilege is. But it was also strangely validating to hear someone with so much perspective, who has lived so much life, express that none of this was close to normal.

Though not normally highly sentimental, another thing she said was, “I’m so happy I got to know you.” Though we had been close my whole life, we gained a new understanding that comes with living with one another, observing each other’s patterns and rhythms up close without a place to go or anything to do, under the specter of a global health crisis. I got to know her, too, and I know in many ways, her life-must-go-on, Jewish survivor ethos carried me through.

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Arab-Israeli travel blogger Nas Daily denies report that is a tool of Israeli government propaganda

Thu, 2020-10-22 13:46

(JTA) — Arab-Israeli travel blogger Nuseir Yassin denied that he receives support from the Israeli government to spread pro-Israel propaganda.

In a video posted Tuesday on his Facebook page, Nas Daily, which has more than 17 million followers on the social network, Yassin said that the satellite news network Al Jazeera had falsely portrayed him as trying to “make Israel look good” using tools provided by the Israeli government. Yassin described the report as “fake news” and denied that his Nas Academy educational program works with the Israeli government.

“In the past month, there was a coordinated Fake News campaign against Nas Daily accusing us of things that are factually incorrect,” Yassin said in the video.

Yassin, who grew up in Israel but moved to Singapore last year, has gained millions of social media followers through his travel videos. He has previously been the target of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which called for a boycott of Nas Academy.

In the video, the Yassin also accuses the Qatari state-owned news network of altering its coverage in English to be more progressive than its Arabic-language coverage. He referenced an Arabic-language video in which two journalists seemed question the Holocaust. The journalists were later suspended. He also referred to claims by activists that the network ignores LGBTQ issues in its Arabic-language coverage.

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A 35-year-old Jewish deli in Denver has closed amid the pandemic’s pressure on restaurants

Thu, 2020-10-22 13:19

(JTA) — A 35-year-old family-owned Jewish deli in Denver has closed, seven months after the pandemic began pummeling restaurants.

Zaidy’s Deli, located in Cherry Creek, a neighborhood that is home to many of Denver’s Jewish institutions, announced its decision in a Facebook post Wednesday night.

“We’ve hosted many life-cycle events, your son’s Bris, your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and we’ve celebrated love by catering your weddings. We’ve remembered and mourned those you’ve lost and provided sustenance for your Shiva. And we’ve loved every moment,” wrote Gerald and Jason Rudolfsky, the father-and-son team behind Zaidy’s.

“It’s with a heavy heart that we’ve made the decision to stop compromising the integrity and quality of our renowned Jewish comfort food in order to stay open, no matter how much we wish we could,” they added, before thanking Denver’s Jewish community and others who had shown support for the beleaguered deli.

The Facebook post drew more than 100 comments from locals describing their favorite Zaidy’s meals and memories, including one who said Zaidy’s offered “by far the best Jewish deli food in town.” Denver, with about 90,000 Jews in the metro area, boasts several delis, including two that are kosher.

Among the many restaurants to fold during the pandemic have been several kosher restaurants in New York City and Seattle’s only certified kosher dining option, a vegan Chinese restaurant called Bamboo Garden.

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Europe’s Jewish population is as low as it was 1,000 years ago. And the future doesn’t look bright.

Wed, 2020-10-21 22:59

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — Jews’ share of the population of Europe is as low now as it was 1,000 years ago and is declining even further, according to a landmark new demographic study.

The study published Wednesday by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research found 1.3 million people who describe themselves as Jewish in continental Europe, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Russia.

That figure has declined by nearly 60% since 1970, when there were 3.2 million Jews in the same area, wrote the report’s authors, Daniel Staetsky and Sergio DellaPergola.

That decline, which follows the death of about 6 million European Jews in the Holocaust, owes mostly to the emigration of more than 1.5 million people following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, their data shows.

But Western Europe, too, has lost 8.5% of its Jewish population since 1970. It is home to just over a million Jews today compared to 1,112,000 in 1970. 

In particular, the Jewish community of Germany is in a “terminal” state because more than 40% of its 118,000 Jews are above the age of 65, whereas less than 10% are under 15, the study says. This reality, which exists also in Russia and Ukraine, “foreshadows high death rates and unavoidable future population decline,” according to the study.

The project is arguably the most comprehensive survey of Jewish demographics ever completed in Europe, more far-reaching than a 2018 European Union survey — although the new survey uses some information from the 2018 EU project. It is also based on official census data and figures provided by individual Jewish communities, which are often organized into organizations with official membership tallies.

“The proportion of Jews residing in Europe is about the same as it was at the time of the first Jewish global population account conducted by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish medieval traveler, in 1170,” the authors wrote.

EU flags seen in Brussels, Sept. 24, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. The Berlaymont building is the headquarters of the European Commission. (Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

The study also notes that there are an additional 2.8 million people in Europe today who are entitled to immigrate to Israel based on their ancestral Jewish roots — at least one Jewish grandparent — but who are not necessarily Jewish themselves or identify as such.   

The demographics of European Jewry would have been “totally different” without the impact of the Holocaust, DellaPergola told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview about the report. “But that was 75 years ago, and some of the trends we’re seeing today, which are driving the decline, have little to do with the genocide,” he added.

Among those trends is an increasing intermarriage rate and a decline in the reproduction rate of Jewish couples, which is part of the broader drop in birthrate throughout Europe in recent decades. 

Jews in Europe had grown to constitute 83% of world Jewry in 1900. They now account for merely 9% of the total number of Jews worldwide, according to the study. 

The new report’s figures diverge significantly from membership numbers provided by organizations such as the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, which are often cited in research and reporting.

The European Jewish Congress’ website speaks of 1,929,650 Jews in Europe today – nearly 33% more than the number arrived at in the new report. The World Jewish Congress counts 1,438,000 Jews in Europe.

France, which has the second largest Jewish diaspora population after the United States, is responsible for much of the decline In Western Europe. France currently has 449,000 Jews compared to 530,000 in 1970, according to the report, and since 2000 alone, 51,455 French Jews have moved to Israel, by far more than any other Western European nation. Belgium is at a very distant second, with 2,571 making that move.

Protesters against anti-Semitism participate in a rally at Republique square in Paris, Feb. 19, 2019. (AFP/Getty Images)

At the current rate of decline, Canada — which according to the World Jewish Congress currently has about 391,000 Jews — will soon overtake France as home of the world’s second largest Jewish diaspora community behind the United States, DellaPergola said. 

The well-documented reasons for the French Jewish exodus include economic opportunity and fear about anti-Semitism.

“France today is a place where a history teacher can get beheaded on the street,” DellaPergola said, noting a suspected Islamist’s alleged actions near Paris on Friday. “Of course many Jews, including French ones, find Canada more hospitable.”

The report also shows that Turkey, which used to have 39,000 Jews in 1970, now has only 14,600 of them. That drop is the product of a low reproductive rate and a high emigration rate amid what many local Jews call the rise of government-supported anti-Semitism.

Turkey is not alone: “Low fertility is characteristic of Jews in Europe, with the exception of those countries possessing large populations of strictly Orthodox Jews. Intermarriage, operating on the back of low fertility, complements the picture – these two factors in combination create a situation where the reproductive capacity of many European Jewish populations is low and conducive to future numerical decline,” the report states. 

Intermarriage rates are lowest in Belgium, where just 14% of Jews are estimated to be married to non-Jews. They are highest in Poland, where the equivalent proportion is 76%. The figure was 24% in the United Kingdom, 31% in France and above 50% in Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

The report’s findings on Germany are remarkable because it had seen an influx of about 200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union following its collapse in 1990. That wave, as well as the immigration of about 10,000 Israelis, had revitalized German Jewry. But the newcomers have failed to change the community’s demographic trajectory because many of them and their children intermarried, stopped considering themselves Jewish, emigrated elsewhere or died, the study shows.

There are some exceptions to the picture of decline, and all are occurring in countries where the Jewish community has a large Orthodox contingent.

The Jewish populations of Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, all with sizeable strictly Orthodox communities, “may be growing, or at least, not declining,” according to the report, which is based on official census data, community figures and the 2018 EU survey.

In Belgium, where more than half of the country’s 29,000 Jews are Orthodox, 43% Jewish households have at least four children, the study shows. In the Netherlands, where Orthodox Jews make up only a tiny minority of that country’s similarly-sized Jewish community, only about 18% of families have that many children.

Antwerp has a large population of haredi Orthodox Jews. (Alexander Stein/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Still, Belgium is seeing what some Jewish community leaders there are calling a “silent exodus,” which is marked by the sale of former synagogues and the closure of Jewish educational institutions in Brussels.

In the United Kingdom, the Jewish minority has declined by 25% from 1970, down to 295,000 members, the study said. But the community is displaying potential for growth, as 33% of its households have at least four children. (For comparison, that figure is 26% in Germany and France, 25% in Hungary and 21% Denmark.)

The report’s findings on the number of Israelis living in Europe are also surprising, and they contradict estimates that there are tens of thousands of them living in Berlin alone. The survey claims there are only about 70,000 Israel-born individuals living on the entire continent, with more than half residing in the United Kingdom (18,000), Germany (10,000), France (9,000) and the Netherlands (6,000).

Still, Israelis have been a stabilizing force for the Jewish communities of countries with very small Jewish communities — for example, they account for over 40% of all Jews in Norway, Finland and Slovenia; 20–30% in Spain, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands; and over 10% in Luxembourg.

Overall, though, the declining trend reshaping European Jewry is not likely to be reversed, according to the study.

“Only under exceptional circumstances do demographic trends radically modify their course,” the authors wrote. But, they added, “such modifications have actually occurred more than once in European Jewish demography during the last hundred years alone.”

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Northwestern University president spars over anti-Semitism with activist group and professors

Wed, 2020-10-21 21:31

(JTA) — Was a left-wing activist group being anti-Semitic when it called Northwestern University’s Jewish president “piggy Morty”?

The president, Morton Schapiro, said it could be. The activist group said it was not.

The ensuing debate has divided Northwestern’s campus just north of Chicago this week, with the school’s Hillel offering students the opportunity to reflect on the incident virtually in small groups Wednesday.

The activist group, called NU Community Not Cops, chanted “piggy Morty” outside Schapiro’s home over the weekend, according to an open letter Schapiro wrote on Monday. The group is calling for the abolition of the Northwestern University Police Department as part of a racial justice campaign.

Schapiro wrote that while he recognizes “the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups,” he opposes disbanding the police and “condemn[s], in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters.”

He noted the chant in particular.

“Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting ‘f— you Morty’ and ‘piggy Morty,'” he wrote. “The latter comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable, and I ask them to consider how their parents and siblings would feel if a group came to their homes in the middle of the night to wake up their families with such vile and personal attacks.”

Associating Jews with pigs is a centuries-old anti-Semitic trope traditionally called the “Judensau,” a type of image that depicted Jews engaging in obscene acts with pigs.

In the context of anti-police protests in the United States, however, “pig” is commonly used as a derogatory term for police. The activist group wrote in a statement that it was using the term in that context, though it wrote, “Regardless of our intent, we apologize to our Jewish community, to individuals both inside and outside of the campaign who may have been harmed by language utilized at the protest.”

But the statement also emphasized the group’s opposition to Zionism and Israel, something Schapiro did not reference in his own letter and which was not a focus of the protest. While left-wing groups generally say anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism, mainstream Jewish organizations and anti-Semitism watchdogs caution that there is often significant overlap between the two, while Jewish groups on the right tend to treat them as one and the same.

The group wrote it condemns anti-Semitism, then included “Zionism” among a list of other ideologies it opposes.

“Because of the pervasive myths of colonialism and white supremacy, we find ourselves having to repeat: anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,” the group’s statement said. “We continue to stand in solidarity with Palestinian liberation by our shared virtue of abolition.”

The university’s Department of African American Studies also excoriated Schapiro’s letter in its own open letter, writing that he did not take concerns of racism and police violence seriously, and that he displayed “sour, small and moribund leadership.”

“[I]t is difficult to conceive of the level of ignorance, narcissism, or disingenuousness that would have to be present for you to personalize students referencing ‘pigs’ as an antisemitic slur, rather than to understand these students’ anger as a product of nightmarish experiences that you — as an adult who in fact wields a great deal of power — bear substantial responsibility to address,” the letter stated.

The debate has roiled the campus, where many students have convened even though most classes are taking place only online because of the pandemic. In a Facebook post Tuesday, the Hillel wrote that the discussion of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism “can evoke strong emotions among our students and community, including fear, uncertainty, frustration, tension, and concern” and offered two chances to convene by Zoom with the campus rabbi.

“Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, we are here for you,” the post said. “And, whenever there are concerns about racism and antisemitism on campus, we are here for you.”

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Jewish aide to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti takes leave amid sexual misconduct allegations

Wed, 2020-10-21 20:44

(JTA) — Rick Jacobs, a top aide to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said he is taking a leave of absence amid sexual misconduct allegations.

Jacobs, who served as Garcetti’s chief of staff until 2017 and currently serves as a senior political adviser, announced the leave on Tuesday though he did not address the allegations, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“I don’t want this to be a distraction. Therefore, I will take a leave from my non-profit work and my volunteer political work with the mayor,” Jacobs said.

Over the summer, a Los Angeles police officer who served as Garcetti’s body guard said he was harassed by Jacobs and that Garcetti witnessed but did not stop the behavior. On Monday, journalist Yashar Ali also accused Jacobs of forcibly kissing him repeatedly. The Times also said that two other men said they had been touched or harassed by Jacobs.

On Tuesday, Garcetti, who had previously stood by his aide, released a statement saying he takes “seriously all allegations of harassment” and that Jacobs had taken a leave.

Both Jacobs and Garcetti are Jewish; Garcetti’s aide is not also the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, with whom he shares the same name.

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My two homes — Israel and the US — feel like they’re in collapse. What do I do next?

Wed, 2020-10-21 20:36

A version of this piece originally appeared on the author’s blog and was reprinted with permission.

(JTA) — Last month, I filled out a request for an absentee ballot for the U.S. presidential election. At the top of the form it had two relevant options — I am a U.S. citizen living outside the country, and I intend to return; and I am a U.S. citizen living outside the country, and my return is uncertain. Both of these have been true for almost two decades.

I’ve spent the last 17 years split between the United States and Israel — and for the first time, I’m not sure I want to be in either place.

Back in March, a few weeks into Israel’s first lockdown, I was feeling fortunate about riding out the pandemic in Israel. As terrifying as the whole situation was, I had confidence that the country could go on a war footing, come together and stop at nothing to defeat this enemy. 

A lot can change in seven months. 

By the start of the High Holidays in late September, Israel had the world’s highest per capita rate of infections, and we’ve been averaging more than one death per hour for weeks now. A new nationwide lockdown is in place, and while they originally said it would last only three weeks, there’s no reason to believe it won’t last much, much longer. If my kids go back to school at all before January I’ll consider it a victory.

Just as the pandemic has revealed America’s failures, it has done the same for Israel, including in ways that are painfully similar to the U.S. — a lack of planning or decisive action even after we knew what we were facing (between the end of the first lockdown and the launch of the second, there was an absolute failure to develop any track and trace system, to name just one failure); the elevation of cronies and the demonization of qualified public servants; a growing embrace of conspiracy theories and a leader who rejects personal responsibility for the failures. 

But the U.S. and Israel are failing in their own unique ways.

In Israel, the epidemic has laid bare our struggling, overtaxed public health care system (we have 3.0 hospital beds per 1k people, well below the OECD average of 4.5), our failure to carry out long-term strategic planning and our corrupt political system which for over a decade has revolved around the political career of one man.

It has — again — highlighted the prime minister’s knack for thriving in chaos and sowing internal discord, shifting the battle from one against a deadly virus to one between those who want to gather in closed synagogues and yeshivas and those who want to demonstrate against the government. Like always, it has also meant turning everyone against the media and the left.

Realizing all of this comes with great grief. The feeling is no longer fear, it is despair and anger. It is the hopelessness of not really seeing an end in sight, and having no faith in our leaders to get us there. It is the furious realization that all that time was squandered and that as a nation we will still refuse to take any proactive steps that could have political costs for Netanyahu.

There is also an awareness that no matter how much you’re following the rules, countless people everywhere around you are flaunting them. And they hardly make much sense to begin with.

It’s now up to each person to take care of themselves and their family, and it didn’t need to be this way. 

This isn’t what I was looking for when I moved to Israel the first time in 2002, or three years ago when we moved back after a stint back in my home state of Texas. 

Many new Israelis – especially journalists like myself – come here looking for a life-less-ordinary, to travel the region and beyond, to be part of history in the making in the Middle East, or at least to write for a living and have fun while doing it. But whatever you did for a living, there was the joy of living in Tel Aviv in your 20s, spending countless nights in a club, a sherut, a park bench or a bar – like one of those people adrift in the background of a certain Evyatar Banai video.

That joy has been sapped now, and it’s unclear to me when and how it can ever return. In Israel, there is chaos. The pandemic is completely out of control, the acrimony in the politics is worse than at any point since I’ve lived here, the economy is in a free fall, the cost of living is sky high and always will be, and unlike in my 20s, I no longer have a grasp on the youthful idea that things will or can actually be better here. 

Meanwhile, I hear friends in the U.S. talking about leaving the country, and while some people made remarks like that back when Bush won reelection in 2004, this time it seems more serious. I also think they’re rational, and they’re thinking practically, not just emotionally. 

I’ve spent the past 17 or so years with a foot in two worlds – here and there. If I’m here I compare everything to there, and vice versa. But when both of your countries are in collapse, what can you do? What happens when neither feels like a great option anymore?

Lately, I’ve thought more and more that maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way. It’s not Israel or the U.S., it’s whichever one vs. somewhere else, a third country. It’s the idea that maybe it doesn’t have to be a choice between two countries in deep peril. 

I have no idea what this third country could be, though my wife and daughters are Canadian citizens and that would probably make the most sense. For now at least, I’ve found comfort and a new daydream to get lost in, hammering out the details of the “Third State Solution.” 

When I think about being an immigrant, and the way (conservative) people talk about immigrants in the States, it doesn’t really sit right. There is this approach that there are bad immigrants and good immigrants who “contribute to society.” In other words, we judge them on the net benefit they have brought to their adopted country. 

I never saw it like this. I feel that Israel was good for me, that the country gave me more than I gave back, and it’s an experience I would wish upon any immigrant to the States. 

This country gave me a career, my family, and a million life-changing experiences I would have never had anywhere else. 

But someday I’d like to stop repaying the debt.

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After rent hike, Holocaust museum in Latvia could close

Wed, 2020-10-21 20:26

(JTA) — The Riga Ghetto Museum, one of the Latvian capital’s three Holocaust museums, is facing possible closure after the city’s government decided to begin charging it about $12,000 in rent per month.

The museum’s previous 10-year lease, which expired this year, did not charge any rent.

The city has also reclaimed part of the land that the museum had been originally given, according to the head of the institution that runs the museum.

The museum will decide whether or not it can accept the terms of the new lease by Oct. 27.

“We cannot accept that in our country money is worth more than the memory of our ancestors,” Shamir Association head Rabbi Menachem Barkahan said in a statement on Wednesday.

German Nazis and collaborators murdered about 70,000 Jews who had lived in Latvia. The Riga Ghetto, similar to the Warsaw Ghetto, refers to areas of the city where Jews were forced by Nazis to live during the Holocaust.

The Ghetto Museum, which opened in 2010, is located near the border of the historical neighborhood and features a “memorial wall carries over 70,000 names of Latvian Jews who fell victims to the Holocaust and about 25,000 names of Jews from other European countries who were brought to Riga to be murdered.”

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Some Orthodox areas of NY see COVID rules relaxed, but not Brooklyn neighborhoods that protested

Wed, 2020-10-21 20:15

(JTA) — Some Orthodox neighborhoods classified as “red zones” by the state of New York due to their high COVID-19 test positivity rates in recent weeks will soon be allowed to reopen schools and nonessential businesses.

But the areas of Brooklyn where Orthodox Jews have staged protests against the restrictions imposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo still have so many new cases that that will remain red, Cuomo announced Wednesday.

Cuomo instituted the color-coded zones earlier this month after he criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to impose new restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus based on ZIP codes with higher test positivity rates.

The zone in Queens which included large Orthodox communities in Kew Garden Hills, Forest Hills and Far Rockaway, will be reclassified as a yellow zone, with businesses allowed to reopen as soon as Thursday and schools allowed to reopen Monday. In Kew Garden Hills and Forest Hills, the test positivity rate decreased from 4.1% to 2.5% and in Far Rockaway the rate decreased from 3.2% to 1.8% in the last seven days.

The rate has also decreased in the red zones in Brooklyn and Orthodox areas just north of New York City, but not by enough to meet Cuomo’s standards for relaxing restrictions. In Brooklyn, the positivity rate decreased from 7.7% in the last week of September to 5.5% during the last week. In Rockland County just north of New York City, the rate decreased from 13.1% to 4.8% and in Orange County from a jaw-dropping 34.2% to 4.2%.

Though schools in the red zones must remain closed, some yeshivas in Brooklyn have reopened in spite of the rules prohibiting schools from operating just as they did in the spring.

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Reprisal of Simon Wiesenthal play streams online

Wed, 2020-10-21 16:18

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — It is indicative of the reverence still held for Simon Wiesenthal, who hunted some 1,100 war criminals to the ends of the earth, that a play on his life can now be viewed simultaneously all over the globe.

In keeping with the times, the play, economically titled “Wiesenthal,” is digitally available anywhere in the world until Oct. 28.

Reviving the play is the Wallis Theatre in Beverly Hills, which presented a live version of the play in 2015, written and performed by Tom Dugan. He is reprising the role in the current revival.

“My father was a World War II veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. Although I’m an Irish Catholic, I married a Jewish woman, and now we are raising two beautiful Jewish boys, so Simon Wiesenthal’s message of tolerance has a deep resonance for me,” Dugan said. “Wiesenthal was not only a Jewish hero, he fought for the rights of all Holocaust victims, including Soviet, Polish, Gypsy and homosexual victims as well.”

Following the war, during which he survived five concentration camps, Wiesenthal founded and headed the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna and dedicated his life to the search for and legal prosecution of Nazi criminals and the preservation of Holocaust memory and education.

Tickets to view the streamed version of the play anywhere in the world are on sale at $50 per household and can be purchased at www.The Wallis.org/Wiesenthal.

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In Argentina, a Jewish businessman starts a kosher meat price war

Wed, 2020-10-21 15:33

BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — The Jewish owner of a large Argentine hypermarket chain has started selling kosher meat for far less than competitors this month, claiming that the country’s kosher supervision industry has artificially driven up costs for consumers.

Roberto Goldfarb, the founder and CEO of Diarco, first announced his intentions in a call in May with El Lazo, a Jewish youth center associated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement. On the call he called the kosher supervision industry a “mafia” that cons buyers and charges more than necessary “with excess of weight, fat, bones.”

“I can sell a kilo of asado [a traditional Argentinian meat cut used in barbecuing] for 290 pesos and then someone comes to tell me that the price for the kosher asado has to be 800 pesos … I’m not going to accept that,” he said.

Earlier this month, Diarco stores began selling kosher meat for several hundred pesos less than the usual prices seen around the country. Goldfarb said some farmers have stopped working with him over the price decrease.

On Monday, Clarin, Argentina’s largest news site, chronicled the quarrel and quoted both Goldfarb and rabbis involved in the kosher supervision of meat.

Samuel Levin, a rabbi who works with the Gorina supervision group, said “I work with 30 people, 10 ‘shochatim,’ who are specialists. That’s why you pay.”

The Latin American Rabbinical Seminary based in Buenos Aires released a statement last week titled “Kosher means suitable, not expensive.” The statement was also signed by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

“In recent decades, a brutal overpriced business has been generated in Argentina, in flagrant violation of Jewish Law and reasonable practices, based on the industry of rabbinical supervision of food. Rabbis have made people hostage of their ‘halachic’ decisions, and together with some businessmen they have created a mafia in the provision and price of Kosher food,” the statement reads.

Without mentioning Diarco, the statement ends saying that on behalf of both institutions, “We support and encourage any new initiative that, within the framework of Jewish Law, seeks to end abuses and help people.”

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French chief rabbi praises government’s crackdown on radical Islam

Wed, 2020-10-21 15:10

(JTA) — French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia praised his government’s crackdown on radical Islamists, writing in an op-ed that it makes clear that “things are changing — belatedly, but all the same.”

Korsia’s op-ed Wednesday in Le Figaro followed news that the French Interior Ministry has dissolved a Hamas front group as part of a slew of actions prompted by the Oct. 16 beheading of a history teacher near Paris. The teacher, Samuel Paty, had been killed by a Muslim refugee from Chechenya after showing his students the same caricatures of the prophet Mohammed that had prompted a deadly assault on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in 2015.

“There are no lone wolves … [and] there is no auto-indoctrination,” Korsia wrote. “On the contrary: The spirit of those made-in-France terrorists is part of an elevation of heroes, an affinity for horror, a glorification guaranteed by a multinational of fanatics. That is what’s being targeted.”

The Hamas front, Collectif Cheikh Yassine, was named for one of the founders of Hamas who was killed in an Israeli strike in 2004.  Several suspected Islamists have also been arrested by French authorities and at least one mosque was temporarily shuttered.

Even before Paty’s murder, French President Emmanuel Macron had announced a plan that he called an “attack on Islamist separatism,” and which aimed to ban underground Muslim schools among other venues of Islamist indoctrination that Macron said endanger the integrity of the republic.

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A New York Times op-ed tried to elevate Black women, but it failed to address Louis Farrakhan’s bigotry

Wed, 2020-10-21 15:06

(JTA) — Like many others, I quickly saw that something important was missing from the New York Times op-ed this week about the 25th anniversary of the Million Man March.

The piece, by Natalie Hopkinson, a professor at Howard University, highlighted the behind-the-scenes roles played by Black women like Cora Masters Barry and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. As the piece notes, hundreds of thousands of previously unregistered Black men were registered to vote, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Barry and others.

But while the piece achieved its goal of rewriting the Million Man March story to include new voices, it also contained a shocking omission. Itfails to mention — or even scratch the surface of — the serial bigotry of the march’s main organizer: Louis Farrakhan, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam.

The op-ed does note that Farrakhan needed the help of Barry and other women to massage his messaging around the march, which was viewed, as the writer points out, as “exclusionary and sexist.” And while that may be true, it does not even begin to qualify as a passing glance at the record of bigotry that belongs to Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.

If you were to only read Hopkinson’s account of Farrakhan and the 1995 march, you most likely would walk away with a lukewarm impression of the man. But as with any narrative around a monumental historical event or person, it is necessary — at minimum — to be willing to acknowledge the significant negative or uncomfortable aspects surrounding such leaders, so readers are able to glean a clearer picture of what is true. This is where Hopkinson, and The New York Times, dropped the ball completely.

So let’s set the record straight.

Louis Farrakhan, who is 87 years old, has been trafficking in hate, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny since long before the Million Man March in 1995 and continues to do so today.

In February of 1995, eight months prior to the march, Farrakhan suggested that it was Jews who got America into World War II and that “international bankers,” an anti-Semitic dog whistle, financed both sides of the war effort.

In recent years, Farrakhan has embarked on a wide-ranging campaign specifically targeting the Jewish community, a campaign that has featured some of the most hateful speeches of his tenure as head of the Nation of Islam.

He has alleged that Jews are messengers from Satan, sent to attack the messiah. He has stated that the Jewish people were responsible for the slave trade and that they conspire to control the government, the media and Hollywood, as well as various black individuals and organizations. He has likened Jews to vermin and termites, using the kind of dehumanizing slander pioneered by Nazi Germany. Indeed, in an October 2018 speech marking the 23rd anniversary of the Million Man March, Farrakhan told his followers, “When they talk about Farrakhan, call me a hater, you know how they do — call me an anti-Semite. Stop it, I’m anti-termite!”

Farrakhan does not limit his bigotry to Jewish people. He has referred to the LGBTQ+ community as “degenerative crap,” described homosexuality as having been created by Satan and used scripture to justify the demonization of gay and lesbian people. In 2009 he said, “You think you know Jesus Christ?… If you knew him, why is there so much drunkenness, so much drugs, so much fornication, so much adultery, so much homosexuality, so much lesbianism, so much murder, so much crime?”

There are plenty more examples of Farrakhan’s bigotry, and they are not hard to find.

Even as we still mourn the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, we should remember that Lewis declined the opportunity to speak at the March. He wrote in Newsweek that he could not “overlook past statements by Louis Farrakhan — and others associated with the Nation of Islam – which are divisive and bigoted.” Lewis said that the march was “fatally undermined by its chief sponsor.”

In running this piece, the Times is guilty of the sin of omission. They failed to make clear that Farrakhan is an avowed bigot, one who may draw applause in some quarters but who has been rejected in mainstream circles for decades because of his unapologetic prejudice. Running this piece without any mention of his history only further legitimizes an anti-Semite and hateful figure. In short, excusing his intolerance by overlooking it makes it more acceptable for other leaders to hold such dangerous views.

We can speak fondly of, remember and celebrate landmark historical moments. But it is irresponsible and inexcusable to ignore hatred hiding in plain sight, particularly considering the context. As The New York Times itself has reported, anti-Semitic incidents surged in 2019, reaching a 40-year high. And the tri-state area from which the New York Times draws its legitimacy experienced some of the worst anti-Jewish acts in recent memory, including a wave of assaults in Brooklyn; a shooting in Jersey City, New Jersey, that left three people dead in a kosher supermarket; and a stabbing in Monsey, New York, that injured four and left a rabbi in a coma who later succumbed to his wounds.

Every day, we witness attempts to rewrite, revise or soften the most difficult aspects of American history. In recent years, The New York Times admirably has sought to use its platform and voice to right these wrongs. And yet that is why this op-ed, one that falls so dramatically short of their own standards, demands not just a robust correction but an internal investigation to ensure it never happens again.

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German auction house under fire again for selling Hitler papers

Wed, 2020-10-21 14:46

(JTA) — Less than a year after it spurred widespread Jewish condemnation for selling Nazi memorabilia, a Munich auction house is selling several manuscripts written by Adolf Hitler.

The European Jewish Association blasted Hermann Historica on Tuesday over the several Hitler papers it has on the block for Friday. Many are notes written before infamous speeches the Nazi leader gave in the 1930s.

“It defies logic, decency and humanity for the very same auction house that came under fire less than a year ago for selling disgusting lots of Nazi memorabilia that they should do so again,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the Brussels-based association, said in a statement. “I cannot get my head around the sheer irresponsibility and insensitivity, in such a febrile climate, of selling items such as the ramblings of the world’s biggest killer of Jews to the highest bidder.”

Last November, the house auctioned 10 items that belonged to Hitler, including a top hat, and other Nazi memorabilia, such as a silver-plated copy of “Mein Kampf” that once belonged to senior Nazi Hermann Goering. A Lebanese-Swiss businessman bought all the items and donated them to Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, an international organization that raises funds for Israel.

The EJA statement says the organization has since been lobbying European lawmakers to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia.

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Some queer Jews are finding meaning in the laws of family purity, traditionally observed by married Orthodox couples

Wed, 2020-10-21 11:00

(JTA) — Like many observant Jewish women, Sandy Tapnack visits the mikvah at the end of her period in observance of the laws of family purity.

There, she cleans herself thoroughly before immersing in the ritual bath three times while an attendant watches in a practice that Jewish women have followed for thousands of years to ready themselves to reunite physically with their husbands.

But unlike most mikvah users, the spouse waiting for Tapnack at home is a woman — a fact that leaves the 36-year-old attorney nervous during her visits to the Orthodox bath near her home.

“There’s kind of a fear. What if the mikvah lady knew? What if the receptionist who is taking the payment [knew]?” Tapnack said. “That’s the core feeling that comes up. Do I really belong here? Do these people think that I belong here? And I guess at the most personal level, do I really believe that I belong here?”

Tapnack is part of a small but growing group of queer Jews who are adapting the the laws of family purity for their own marriages, even though the rules are all about unions between a man and a woman. Since little guidance exists for those not in a heterosexual marriage, many are relying on informal networks and conversations to explore how the practice fits their relationships.

“[There’s] real movement among folks who may not have seen themselves in the tradition to say, ‘I’m going to find myself in the tradition and if I’m not there I’m going to put myself there,’” said Laynie Soloman, a nonbinary Jew who works as director of national learning for Svara, a queer yeshiva based in Chicago.

Tapnack did not always envision herself as a mikvah user. “Growing up in a Modern Orthodox environment with no gay peers to look up to, it didn’t even sort of occur to me that any aspects of taharat hamishpacha would be relevant in the context of a gay family,” she said, using the Hebrew phrase for the laws of ritual purity.

But when she and her wife, Leana, began discussing the Jewish practices they wanted to incorporate in their family before their 2018 wedding, they realized family purity had something to offer.

“Increasingly as we discussed some of the less technical aspects of it and more about the meaning behind some of the rules, I thought, ‘Actually this should be relevant to us,’” Tapnack recalled.

Along with keeping kosher and Shabbat, adherence to the laws of family purity is considered a pillar of observant Jewish life. In fact, Jewish law calls for new communities to build ritual baths before a synagogue — and amid the coronavirus pandemic many communities have kept mikvahs open for monthly immersions even as synagogues remained closed.

The laws can be traced back to the book of Leviticus, where God commands the Israelites on a number of sources of impurity. Menstruating women are deemed “unclean” for seven days and any man who has sex with her is also deemed “unclean.” Rabbinic law modified the practice so that a woman needs to count an additional seven “clean” days after the end of menstruation before she can immerse in the mikvah and resume relations with her husband. That means most heterosexual couples who adhere to the practice can be intimate for roughly two weeks out of the month. Many couples sleep in separate beds and avoid casual touching and flirtation during niddah.

Despite synagogue closures during the pandemic, mikvahs such as this one in the West Bank settlement of Efrat have stayed open for women’s monthly immersions. (David Vaaknin for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Tapnacks found that different aspects of the practice resonated with them as they discussed the topic with Sarah Mulhern, the nondenominational rabbi who would go on to officiate their wedding. Both found meaning in the idea of having a ritual to mark the passage of time, while Sandy also found that having times where sex was off limits was beneficial for her relationship. After consulting with Mulhern, they devised a practice that includes both of them immersing after their cycles and observing a one-week rather than two-week period of niddah.

Mulhern — who received rabbinic ordination from both the nondenominational Hebrew College and Daniel Landes, a progressive Orthodox rabbi based in Jerusalem — has counseled dozens of queer couples on the laws of niddah.

“The people who are coming to me are people who just generally are living a life where they think that halacha has what to say about the core aspects of being human and the basic building blocks of their life and just generally they don’t think that’s incompatible with their queerness,” Mulhern said, using the Hebrew word for Jewish law. “So there’s some level in which it makes sense to say, ‘If halacha has something to say to me as a Jew and as a human and as a queer person about how to regulate my eating and how to regulate the timing of my day … why wouldn’t it have something to say about my sex life?’”

Little formal guidance exists for queer couples interested in observing niddah and unlike the Tapnacks, some couples do not have access to a queer-friendly rabbi who is versed in the laws, since the practice is mainly observed by Orthodox Jews.

“The main challenge that I’ve heard is that very few rabbinic or religious leaders have been that willing to take this seriously… People have a hard time being taken seriously when they want to consider keeping some version or semblance of this particular mitzvah,” said Miryam Kabakov, the executive director of Eshel, an organization for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews.

Soloman, the nonbinary Jew who works at Svara, recalls being dismissed when asking about mikvah usage.

“When I first started thinking about having a niddah practice in my life, I asked someone about it and what I should do and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it doesn’t apply to you,’” recalled Soloman.

Since then, Soloman has become a resource for others in a similar situation, answering questions from dozens of queer and trans Jews who are interested in learning more about niddah and how it relates to them.

“For as long as there have been queer folks, people have been thinking about this topic, but I think that often this kind of oral Torah exists in the underground,” they said. “There’s a moment now where those underground practices are being shared and are being asked more widely.”

Some of those questions have to do with how to apply laws created for a couple where only one person is menstruating to one where both are. Unless both partners’ periods start on the same day, they would end up observing a period longer than two weeks where they could not be intimate — and in some cases could last the whole month. To avoid this, many queer couples observe only the shorter period of niddah outlined in the bible.

“In general, I advise couples both who menstruate who want to have a niddah practice to do a seven-day niddah practice as opposed to a two-week niddah practice, so they can be niddah around each of their periods of menstruation, but still, like the rhythm that the rabbis are imagining, be sexually available to each other roughly half the time,” said Mulhern, the rabbi who counseled the Tapnacks.

The handful of queer couples that Nechama Barash, an Orthodox teacher who instructs brides-to-be on niddah and other topics related to married life, has counseled have chosen to observe a shorter period of niddah.

“One of the things I often point out is that this is not really a halachic conversation because halacha does not recognize same-sex marriage in the way that it recognizes heterosexual marriage and it doesn’t really recognize same-sex sexuality,” said Barash, who is a faculty member at Pardes, a nondenominational yeshiva in Jerusalem. “So they’re incorporating elements of the halachic structure into essentially a non-halachic relationship but what they’re looking for and what I found they’re interested in is achieving kedusha, is achieving some sort of boundary, separateness in their relationship with one another and with God.”

Barash acknowledges that her working with queer couples may raise eyebrows in the Orthodox world.

“There are those within Orthodoxy that will say ‘You can’t apply a concept like kedusha into a non-halachic relationship,’” she said, using the Hebrew word for holiness. “It’s not my call to make. I teach Torah, I teach Talmud, I teach halacha, I teach Jewish values, and my students can choose to incorporate and apply it into their lives to give their lives more meaning and I certainly applaud that.”

The Orthodox world lags behind non-Orthodox movements in LGBTQ acceptance. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Though many Orthodox communities — particularly those in the Modern Orthodox world — have become more tolerant towards LGBTQ people in recent years, same-sex relationships remain taboo. The vast majority of Orthodox rabbis do not perform same-sex weddings and it is not rare for rabbis to advocate for gay people to remain celibate or for families to send children to conversion therapy.

Those types of attitudes mean that observant gay Jews often feel uncomfortable visiting Orthodox mikvahs. Though some cities with large Jewish populations have pluralistic or non-Orthodox mikvahs, many people only have access to an Orthodox option.

One 27-year-old woman in Chicago, who asked her name not be used for privacy reasons, has on multiple occasions when visiting Orthodox mikvahs attempted to hide the fact that her partner is a woman. One time while traveling to Paris, she and her partner told the mikvah attendants that they were friends.

“We had to lie, obviously. We had to pull out the very [religious-looking] clothing and I turned around a ring so it looked like a wedding ring, things like that,” she said. “And I felt bad about lying because these women would probably be horrified if they knew what they were doing. We told them we were American friends and we were traveling together with our husbands.”

Some queer Jews are finding ways to transform the observance of niddah in ways that depart from halachic convention altogether. Rabbi Becky Silverstein, a transgender and genderqueer rabbi based in Boston, has had around 20 queer people approach him with questions on mikvah usage and in 2018, he taught a six-session class on the topic at Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah outside Boston.

Silverstein has “a menu of ideas” for people who are looking for alternate ways of marking their cycle. That can include reciting an existing blessing or writing a new one to mark menstruation and changing the way they interact with their partner to create more distance.

“There’s all sorts of ways to create rituals that are about celebrating one’s body, that are about seeing one’s menstrual cycle as a powerful reminder of the process of creation,” Silverstein said. “Thinking through what it might mean in covenanted relationships to observe a period of separation, all of these questions are really powerful questions on their own, and I would say for a lot of people observing niddah is not the answer.”

Yet for others the power lies in finding a way to participate in a practice that for thousands of years have defined Jewish home life.

“In terms of the ways that we were raised, observant Jewish families have mikvah as part of just the way that they function generally,” said Leana Tapnack. “Even though ‘This is what everyone does,’ isn’t usually compelling to me. I did have to mourn a considerable number of dreams when I came to terms with my gay identity and as I’ve became more confident in my ability to manage both being gay, being queer and being religious on my own terms, it feels like why should I mourn things that I don’t need to mourn, things that I can reclaim, things that I can own?”

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Judge Amy Barrett helped me protect public menorahs. I know she’ll help defend religious liberty for all.

Tue, 2020-10-20 22:09

(JTA) — President Trump seeks to replace Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a devout Catholic from Indiana. Some might worry that this would diminish the Court’s understanding or compassion for Jews in America. They may wonder whether the new Justice has ever met or had any contact with Jews. But having worked with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, I have seen her defend the rights of Jewish Americans firsthand.

As a young lawyer after her clerkship with Justice Antonin Scalia, Barrett was an associate in a law firm of which I am the sole surviving name partner – Miller Cassidy Larroca and Lewin. The firm merged in 2001 – shortly before Barrett returned to teach at Notre Dame – with Baker Botts. (Although invited to do so, I did not join Baker Botts. My daughter Alyza and I formed Lewin & Lewin instead.) 

Our firm attracted the cream of young lawyers because of our exciting case docket and because we gave them front-line courtroom opportunities in real-life cutting-edge cases. Supreme Court law clerks vied for associate slots in our firm even after wealthy large law firms began dangling obscenely gargantuan signing bonuses to attract them to the drudgery of young associate labors.

Our firm was distinctly non-political. Jack Miller, the firm’s founder, was a Republican who had been an Assistant Attorney General in the Robert Kennedy Department of Justice. I was — and continue to be — a registered Democrat who has also voted Republican. I was abroad when Bush v. Gore was being litigated, but two of our partners supervised Amy Barrett’s work in Florida assisting the Republican side.

Amy Barrett worked with me in 1999 and 2000 on behalf of Hasidic clients. I had — and continue to have — an ongoing battle with authorities in cities, towns and villages across the country that attempt to hinder or prevent the display of Hanukkah menorahs on public property by Chabad followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (No one contests the right to display menorahs on private property, and no Jewish group other than Chabad-Lubavitch, to my knowledge, has tried to erect and display large menorahs on central public locations.)

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1989, in a case that I argued, that such a display in front of Pittsburgh’s City Hall was constitutional, and we then won full-court en banc victories in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Nonetheless, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Jersey City’s display of a menorah and a nativity scene in federal court. Chabad, represented pro bono by our firm, came into that case as a friend-of-the-court, and Richard Garnett, Amy Barrett’s colleague at Notre Dame (then a fledgling lawyer and now a highly respected professor), argued successfully in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that the display was constitutionally permissible. (The court’s majority opinion was written by then-Circuit Judge Samuel Alito)

Amy Barrett joined the firm at about the time we won the Jersey City case, and she enlisted in my menorah team. She also worked intensively with me in another major litigation that exposed her to the Hasidic community. After four residents of the Hasidic community of New Square were found guilty of federal fraud charges, the leader of the community – the “Skverer Rebbe” – asked me to represent them in a professional capacity. I undertook that task, drafting appeal briefs for all the defendants. Amy was a central player on our team, and my records reflect meetings with her and legal memoranda she wrote.

I presented oral argument in that appeal in May 2000. I can’t recall whether Amy came to New York for that occasion, but other counsel remember that she was there. We lost the appeals in August 2000. Then, to our surprise, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of the Skverer defendants as he left the White House in January 2001. (A criminal investigation into whether Hillary Clinton and the Skverer Rebbe had made an illicit bargain when she visited him during her 2000 campaign for election to be senator from New York was closed with no criminal charge in June 2002 by then Republican United States Attorney James Comey.)

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated for a Supreme Court seat in 1993, I was visited by FBI agents doing a background check. I asked them why I had been chosen for this distinction, since I knew her only from several random meetings. They replied that the sole Jewish associations on her resume were affiliation with the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (I was then president of its American section) and the American Jewish Congress. She was not then a member of any synagogue or other nominally Jewish group.

Justice Ginsburg deserves great credit for being proudly Jewish after she took her Supreme Court seat. (I was called by her office to instruct them how to affix a mezuzah to the door of her chambers.) Her successor’s religious conviction may not be Jewish, but understanding of, and sympathy for, traditional Jews is an important part of her history.

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Hadassah and other groups block right-wing takeover of top World Zionist Congress positions

Tue, 2020-10-20 21:49

(JTA) — A coalition of Jewish groups including the likes of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith International has temporarily blocked a plan by Orthodox and right-wing parties to take over top positions throughout the World Zionist Congress, the Jewish National Fund and other crucial groups that spend $1 billion annually on international Jewish causes.

Under the plan reported this week in Israeli media, the Likud and Orthodox parties of the World Zionist Congress would have reserved for themselves top positions at these groups, including the Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal.

On Tuesday, Sheila Katz, the National Council of Jewish Women CEO and a member of the Hatikvah slate in the Congress, said on Twitter that legacy groups including Hadassah, Naamat, Maccabi, B’nai B’rith International, the Women’s International Zionist Organization and Emunah stepped in to delay the vote on the right-wing plan until Thursday to renegotiate how the professional leadership will be selected.

The top positions have until now been filled in consultation with all constituent bodies, allowing liberal groups a say on spending related to religious pluralism in Israel, minority communities in the country and settlement activity in the West Bank.

The right-wing coalition believed it had a chance to take sole control of WZO spending because of its strong showing in this year’s election of the U.S. portion of the World Zionist Congress.

The liberal groups who stood to be disenfranchised include affiliates of left-leaning Israeli parties, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Hatikvah, a slate of prominent U.S. liberal Zionists.

They pressed a cadre of legacy Zionist groups that rarely participate in the partisan political fray to step up and vote to keep the takeover from taking place. Many of these groups share donors and members with the liberal groups.

This year’s World Zionist Congress is taking place online because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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