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Rabbi Art Green (still) believes Hasidic ideas are key to a vibrant modern Judaism

Fri, 2020-10-16 19:43

(JTA) — Rabbi Art Green is a scholar of worldwide renown, the author of dozens of books, one of the world’s leading experts on Hasidic Judaism and perhaps the only person ever to lead two different American rabbinical schools. Currently, he serves as rector of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

But he’s also a self-described seeker, preoccupied for decades now with crafting a Jewish spiritual vocabulary that can speak to modern Jews living in liberal Western societies. At 79, Green believes that vocabulary can be found in neo-Hasidism, an updated version of practices associated with the Jewish revivalist movement that swept Eastern Europe in the 17th century.

In January, Stanford University Press will publish “The Light of the Eyes,” Green’s translation of a series of Torah discourses by Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, an 18th-century Hasidic master also known as the Me’or Aynayim. Later this month, Green will be offering his first public class on Zoom based on the book.

Green spoke with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in August about his forthcoming book, how Hasidic Jews became conservatives and the spiritual wisdom necessary to cope with a roiling political environment.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: I feel like every conversation that I have now needs to begin with a five- or 10-minute session on how we’re all holding up. So: How are you holding up?

Green: So, I’m holding up. I live alone. I’m a widower, my wife’s gone three years now. And doing this alone is not completely easy. You know, I did most of it in Israel. I went to Israel for the winter and I wound up staying six months because of the corona. From Israel, I was teaching five days a week on Zoom, and that kept me going. Coming back to America was somewhat hard because people here are palpably more scared than people there. I had gotten into this for several months without feeling a lot of fear, and suddenly I felt people really frightened. And I’m sort of having to come to terms — not so much with my fear, but with their fear. I think I’m more afraid of Trump stealing the election right now than I am afraid of dying of COVID.

We’ll come back to Trump in a bit. But I wonder, since these sorts of ultimate questions are on so many people’s minds right now, if you can talk a bit about what is on yours. You’re 79 and have been active and teaching in the Jewish world for over five decades. Are you thinking about your legacy? What’s driving your work today?

Of course, I’m thinking about legacy. I’m going to turn 80 this year. How can you not think about legacy? But the last 10 years have been a very interesting period. When I turned 70, I saw the biblical verse staring me in the face that says: “The days of our lives are 70.” I said to myself, what else do you still want to get done while you can? And the answer was a whole lot. These have been the most productive 10 years of my life. In terms of writing and thinking, and producing and creating, I would say this has been a very big decade for me. And I hope I have another one.

At some point early in my career I looked around and said, “Is there going to be a Jewish future? Is there anybody who’s going to read this stuff that I’m writing about the Jewish past? We have to write something that will help create a future.” And around that point, I left the university for the first time and went to a rabbinical school. And that move was also a shift from just writing scholarship to writing theology and saying, what kind of Jewish language would be meaningful to people in the West? And that’s still the question: How do we create a Jewish religious language that is compelling, that is intellectually honest, and that is meaningful to people. To keep this to keep this great tradition alive and creative in the age in which we live. And that’s still a question I’m still writing around in various ways.

At the risk of reducing a lifetime of work to a single word, your answer seems to be: Hasidism.

I was saved for Judaism by discovering Hasidism. I discovered early Hasidic thought when I was 20 years old. Somebody gave me an essay by Hillel Zeitlin about Hasidic thought and I said, “This will be my religious language the rest of my life.” And I have been trying to retool Hasidism in some ways. How does this work in an age when we believe in evolution and we believe the planet is 13 billion years old and all kinds of other things that the people who wrote these texts didn’t believe? We do not check our intellectual baggage at the door when we come to Judaism. So how do we find meaning in premodern texts?

I’m not a person who believes that the premodern tradition became outdated in 1780 or 1800, and now we just work as modern or postmodern Jews. I live in a very deep living connection to premodern Jewish authors. I spend all my time reading kabbalistic and Hasidic sources. But at the same time, I do ask these very contemporary questions about them.

What is there specifically in this tradition that you think answers the modern Jewish quest for meaning?

There is a combination of abstract thought and religious passion that can live together. Some people think that religious passion only works if you have an entirely personal relationship to an entirely personal God. Somebody you talk to, somebody you have a relationship very much like the relationship of a parent or a king or a friend. And the Hasidic masters created a kind of abstract Jewish theology, based on Kabbalah but simplified, made accessible. And you understand God not as something other, but something of which you are a part, of which we are all a part. There’s a kind of universal embrace of divinity that underlies Hasidism. At the same time, there’s intimacy and there’s passion.

One of those Hasidic masters is the subject of a book of yours that will be coming out in a few months — “The Light of the Eyes,” or Me’or Aynayim in Hebrew, a translation of a Hasidic work by the Chernobyl rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky. What attracts you to this work in particular?

I love the Me’or Aynayim. It’s a different face of Hasidism than people see today. People who look at Hasidism today experience three kinds of Hasidism. There’s Chabad, which is very much worldly, messianically oriented. Do more mitzvahs and that will bring the redemption closer. There’s Breslov, which is also redemption-centered — have faith in me, have faith in Rebbe Nachman and he will save you. And then there’s Satmar, which is Hasidism as traditionalism. Do it exactly the same way as they did it in the 18th century.

The kind of Hasidism of [the founder of the Hasidic movement] the Baal Shem Tov, which is loving and gentle and forgiving and world-embracing, that kind of Hasidism has somehow gotten lost. And the Me’or Aynayim is one of its best spokesmen. So I want to use the Me’or Aynayim in some ways to bring that gentle kind of Hasidism back into the world. You can serve God in everything you do, you find sparks of holiness everywhere, all of life is about seeking out divinity wherever you find it and raising it up and making it one again.

The Me’or Aynayim is not an ascetic. He’s a very earthy guy and really believed that holiness was to be found everywhere. And if you punish yourself, you were denying God because God is in everything — all your thoughts and all your deeds. Within the 18th-century Jewish context, he was a kind of free-spirited person, which isn’t to say that he was careless about the law at all. But it was a love of life and a love of normal earthy human beings that motivated him, and in trying to find a spirituality that would work for such people.

I suspect many people will not recognize this brand of Hasidism.

Hasidism went through very big changes. It began as a movement of radical innovation. And remember the Hasidim were condemned by the great rabbis in the 18th century. They were persecuted. But by the turn of the 19th century, the rabbis and the Hasidim both looked around and they saw a much more dangerous enemy on the horizon: modernity or haskalah [Jewish enlightenment]. And the rabbis and the Hasidim made peace with one another to fight this common enemy called the modern world.

The Hasidim were thrilled by that because they would not be persecuted anymore. They agreed to be the tip of the spear in the battle against haskalah. And that’s when Hasidism moved from being a movement of radical rebirth and renewal to an ultraconservative force. And Chernobyl was right there with the rest of them. By the second generation of Chernobyl, they’re already turning far to the right and becoming very different. Some of the spirit is still alive. You can still see it in a farbrengen [Hasidic gathering], the spontaneity and the charisma. There’s still a radiance about Hasidism that I think plain old-fashioned Litvishe [haredi Orthodox] Judaism doesn’t have. But that radiance is very much reined in by this ultra-tight concern with praxis.

That kind of extremism was very far from the Baal Shem Tov and the Me’or Aynayim. These were people who wanted an intense spiritual life. At the same time, they wanted to raise families and therefore have to support those families and live in this world. And so it’s a very worldly kind of spirituality for people who want both. And since I’m one of those people, I have fallen in love with it, as you can tell. And this is about sharing that love.

Do you think most modern Jews today are looking for an intense spiritual life?

No, of course not. That’s why I created rabbinical schools, because I believe in finding people who are serious about it. They will go out, they will have to beat their heads against a wall and find a couple of people in each of those congregations who also take it seriously. What I have to say is not for everybody, but there are lots of seekers among Jews. I love and I’m heartbroken by the huge number of Jewish seekers who have turned elsewhere. Some of the very best books on spirituality in the past 50 years have been written by Buddhists with names like Kornfeld and Salzberg and Boorstein. I feel a great sadness about those people. I don’t blame them in the slightest. It’s not their fault. It’s our fault as Jewish educators that here were such profound seekers. And they couldn’t find anything interesting or attractive in Judaism. That’s our failure.

Liberal Jewish leaders have been banging their heads against this problem for a long time. What’s the answer?

We will be in the future, I believe, a much smaller community. I look around to the grandchildren of my first cousins, most of whom are no longer Jews. And that’s even on the more traditional side of the family. My father’s side of the family, who were pretty secular, they’re almost completely gone. And I think so I think we are a shrinking community.

On the other hand, I think there will remain a core in the liberal community who care about learning, who care about Jewish knowledge, more than people did before. Now getting those learners also to engage in a regular praxis is not completely easy. Getting people to do things in a really disciplined way, in a regular way, a daily sacred practice, whether it’s called davening or meditation, it’s hard. It’s hard to get people to make commitments. Outside the haredi community, even in the Modern Orthodox world, everybody knows I’m choosing to do this. You could get off an airplane in another city and go do whatever you want, eat whatever you want, and so on, without anybody knowing. It’s all a matter of personal discipline. And I think spiritual life does need regularity and discipline. I’ve become a pretty steadily observant Jew after many years of ambivalence about it. But convincing people to take on that discipline — you can only do that retail, not wholesale. I can’t do it by any arguments that will convince people in a book. That’s why rabbis are involved in the retail business. And Jews have been good at retail for a long time.

But it will be small groups. I continue writing because I know that people are still reading it. But if you ask me if what I have to say is going to save all of Jews and bring everybody back? No, I don’t have such pretenses.

Let’s turn to politics for a moment. We’re in a moment now when politics seems to suffuse every part of our culture. You’re not an apolitical person — recently you published a response to Peter Beinart’s call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this time when the political divide is so wide that it extends even to what the warring factions accept as truth, how can we reconcile the spiritual impulse toward unity with the need for political action in an ever more fractious culture?

One has to be careful about those narrow spaces and remember that the people on the other side of the argument also need love and also deserve to be loved. And some of them are in those places we consider ridiculous because they need love. Even the president of the United States sometimes that can happen to. And I’m not saying he’s easy to love, but we Jews have learned for a long time that sometimes we have neighbors who are very hard to love.

A core piece of Torah for me is the controversy of Rabbi Akiva and his friend Ben Azzai about klal gadol ba-Torah, what’s the most basic rule of Torah? Rabbi Akiva said the most basic rule of Torah is love your neighbor as yourself. And Ben Azzai said, I know something bigger than that. And that is when God created human beings, he created the male and female each one in his image. The image of God, tzelem Elohim, is the most basic principle.

I think their argument is about two things. I think Ben Azzai is saying to Akiva, watch out. Love your neighbor as yourself can be narrowed. It can mean only your Jewish neighbor, only your frum neighbor, only your Satmar neighbor. When you see it goes back to God creating humans in God’s image, that of necessity includes everybody.

But also, love is a very hard thing to demand. We Jews know what it is to have lousy neighbors, and they’re not always very lovable. But even if you can’t love them, treat them as though they are created in God’s image. Every human being deserves to be treated like that, even the ones I find unlovable. So I’m a Ben Azzai guy.

Listen, I don’t believe in a God who governs history and makes that war happen and cures cancer. That’s not my kind of God. But if I look around at the world, I see that just at the moment when the world is recovering from this terrible blow of colonialism, the Jews, after suffering a blow where a third of the Jews are slaughtered, get put in this position where, in order to survive, they wind up establishing a state that much of the world sees as neocolonial. Is that not a moment where you say this is where our tradition is being challenged? Of course, we’re not colonialists, because we have no other country to go back to. But this challenge, to be involved in the most intractable of ethnic conflicts when the whole world needs to learn how to solve ethnic conflicts, maybe we were put there for some reason. I don’t want to say an act of God did this to us, but maybe there is some meaning in the fact that we are in this situation. And that’s our spiritual task, to figure it out, to figure out how to be human and how to treat the other as human in a situation that’s so hard and painful and fraught.

Is there an American analogue to that?

There is a vision of America that some of the founding fathers had and it was a rather beautiful vision. I think life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not completely far from tzelem elohim. And that has to be extended to as many people as you can. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness didn’t count women, it didn’t count Black people. Tzelem elohim didn’t count gay people. And because they weren’t treated like tzelem elohim, we delegitimized their love lives so much that their love lives became compulsive and ugly and and underground. That the whole gay and lesbian community has rediscovered marriage and partnership and loving relationships is such a magnificent thing to behold in our age. And that’s because they were accorded decency. Look how much they leapt into it.

How do we extend this to more people? Yes, it means immigrants. I think we have to have immigration laws. I’m not a wide open borders person. I believe in national entities. But treating people like human beings and not putting children in cages — that’s pretty basic humanity to me. These are not just liberal values, these are Jewish values. It’s not that I’m adjusting Judaism to liberalism as I’m adjusting Judaism to a deeper Judaism. And if Ben Azzai tells me that tzelem elohim is the very basis of the Torah, then I have to say if some other part of the Torah doesn’t confirm tzelem elohim for as many people as possible in as many moments as possible, it has to be reinterpreted in terms of tzelem elohim, because that’s the klal gadol, that’s the most basic rule.

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In Hungary, the left and the far right have united to defeat Viktor Orban. He says Jewish groups are giving them a pass on anti-Semitism.

Fri, 2020-10-16 19:05

(JTA) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s most prominent nationalist and anti-immigrant leaders, has often faced accusations that he is too soft on far-right anti-Semitism.

But now, in an unusual reversal, Orban is trying to level that same accusation at the country’s largest Jewish group, Mazsihisz.

Orban recently criticized Mazsihisz, a nonpartisan federation of Jewish communities and groups, for not speaking out loudly enough against the candidacy of Laszlo Biro, a member of the far-right Jobbik party who narrowly lost a bid for a parliamentary seat on Sunday and has a history of making anti-Semitic statements. 

Orban called the Mazsihisz reaction to Biro’s campaign “indecisive and weak,” the news site Mandiner reported Wednesday. Mazsihisz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the allegation was false, and that they had called out Biro’s remarks on Jews months ago.

Biro has written on social media that Orthodox Jewish tourists may be giving his dog fleas. In another post, he called for “disconnecting Jewish usury bank capital from the economy,” and in another he called Budapest “Judapest.”

Mazsihisz “did and does condemn Laszlo Biro’s remarks,” the group reiterated to JTA in a statement this week.

The unprecedented exchange reflects Orban’s growing willingness to make partisan use of Hungarian Jewry as an unexpected alliance threatens his Fidesz party’s grip on power.

Last year, liberal parties, including the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Democratic Coalition, agreed to form a bloc with Jobbik — a party accused of abetting racism and anti-Semitism in its past, and whose vice president in 2013 called for making a list of all Hungarian Jews — to mount a serious challenge to Orban and Fidesz. Since then, the left-wing parties have urged their supporters to vote for Jobbik candidates where they were likeliest to win, and vice versa.

Although Biro is a well-known member of Jobbik, a party that the World Jewish Congress has called neo-Nazi, he was the agreed-upon candidate in a special election this week of all the opposition parties, including the center-left Hungarian Socialist Party, which has many Jewish voters and members.

The alliance strategy has helped the opposition narrowly unseat Fidesz from the office of the mayor of Budapest and wrestle from its hands 10 additional mayoral posts in large cities. But so far it has been more of a symbolic blow and has done little to shake the constitutional supermajority that Fidesz, which has been in power under Orban since 2010, has in parliament.

However, this week’s election results show that the alliance could be closer to having a bigger impact.

The vote Sunday was held for a seat in the national parliament representing the northeastern city of Szerencs. The city’s previous representative in parliament, Ferenc Koncz of Orban’s Fidesz party, died in a vehicular accident in July.

His daughter, Zsófia Koncz, defeated Biro to keep the seat with Fidesz, but very narrowly, with 51% of the vote. If Koncz had lost, Fidesz’s coalition would have lost its two-thirds supermajority in parliament, which gives the party wide powers, including the ability to make constitutional changes.

During the decade that Orban has been in power, critics have alleged that he has pursued increasingly authoritarian, xenophobic and nationalist policies — among them a public campaign targeting George Soros, the Hungary-born Jewish billionaire and Holocaust survivor who funds left-leaning causes in his native country and features in many international anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The Soros campaign, as well as Orban’s insistence on erecting a statue that critics say whitewashes Hungary’s collaboration in the Holocaust, has caused Mazsihisz to warn that Orban risks fomenting anti-Semitic hatred and Holocaust revisionism.

But not all of Hungary’s Jewish groups share that criticism. EMIH, a Chabad-affiliated federation of Jewish communities, has rejected much of Mazsihisz’s criticism, defending the government’s anti-immigration policy and dismissing allegations that its anti-Soros campaign is anti-Semitic.

Mazsihisz has hit back at EMIH, claiming that it is beholden to the government and biased toward Fidesz because it receives funds and buildings from it. (Mazsihisz also receives millions of dollars in state subsidies from Orban’s government.)

The two Jewish federations are also split on the Biro controversy.

Mazsihisz’s response “has been weak,” Shlomo Koves, the head of EMIH, told JTA. 

“They have not only not spoken out against Jobbik and Biro in strong terms, but some of their representatives have personally participated in Jobbik election campaign events in the past. Unfortunately a group of lay leaders have seized this respectful community [and] hold their own political benefit before the Jewish interest,” he said.

Debate over the left-Jobbik alliance erupted in 2018 when a local Jewish leader affiliated with Mazsihisz, Miklós Erdélyi, publicly endorsed a Jobbik candidate, Attila Kiss, running for election in the southern municipality of Hódmez?vásárhely. Mazsihisz distanced itself from Erdélyi’s endorsement.

In response to criticism it has received over the Biro affair, Mazsihisz emphasized it is a nonpartisan religious organization. It also cited news reports from August that it says proves it has been vocal about Biro’s anti-Semitism.

Mazsihsz President Andras Heisler ”does not intend to get involved with party politics,” the group said. It also thanked the Orban government for its financial support of Jewish institutions throughout Hungary.

Hungarian Jews’ relative “physical and religious safety is definitely thanks to the Hungarian government, which univocally condemns anti-Semitic phenomena and consequently stands by the State of Israel,” Mazsihisz said.

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Israel begins to lift lockdown restrictions as tensions over enforcement mount

Fri, 2020-10-16 18:08

(JTA) — Israel’s “coronavirus cabinet” decided Thursday that the country is ready to begin lifting some of the strict lockdown restrictions designed to bring down an alarming second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Starting Sunday, Israelis can travel farther than a kilometer from their homes, The Times of Israel reported. Beaches, national parks, preschools, day care centers, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount will all reopen for visitors. Gatherings of up to 10 people indoors and up to 20 people outdoors will also be permitted.

But those plans will be scrapped if Israel’s daily new case rate rises above 2,000 between now and Sunday. The case rate has more of less fluctuated around that figure over the past two weeks, with spikes in both directions. On Sept. 30, according to public data, Israel recorded over 9,000 new cases — the equivalent of over 300,000 new cases in the U.S.

Earlier this week, Israel’s Health Ministry recommended easing the lockdown over a period of four months to avoid the chaos of this past summer, when the country moved to reopen in a decision that politicians of all persuasions agreed came too soon. Israel’s health minister acknowledged the risks involved in reopening on Thursday — particularly for preschools.

“We are very worried about a possible rise of infections in preschools,” Yuli Edestein said.

As the reopening deliberations were taking place, footage of police dragging a bleeding man out of an Orthodox wedding in a West Bank settlement riled the public and government officials.

The video uploaded to Twitter depicts a scene of chaos: attendees screaming, people lying on the ground and a man being led out of a house by police, his face covered in blood.

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According to the police, as reported by the Guardian, wedding guests began throwing bottles of olive oil at the officers as they broke into the home to disperse the crowd, who were violating current coronavirus protocols. The man who was bleeding was the brother of the bride, and police say he slipped on some of the oil, fell and cut his face on a shattered bottle.

Government officials who saw the footage called for an investigation, which is now underway. Even Aryeh Deri, the haredi Orthodox interior minister who has begged the religious community to socially distance, said the police had gone too far. He tweeted: “There is no reason in the world for police to break in with rifles in hand and harm people.”

Over the course of the pandemic, many in Israel have accused haredi Orthodox communities of flouting government rules that have restricted public prayer and other gatherings. The country’s former health minister, Yaakov Litzman, who is haredi Orthodox, resigned after catching the virus, and critics alleged he had participated in large prayer groups that his government had outlawed.

Many haredi Orthodox communities still have the country’s highest infection rates.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg to get a statue in her native Brooklyn

Fri, 2020-10-16 16:17

(JTA) — The late Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is getting her own statue in her native Brooklyn.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo named the members of a commission this week that would oversee the installation of a statue honoring Ginsburg, who died last month.

Cuomo said in a statement that the statue would be somewhere in Brooklyn, the New York City borough where she grew up.

“Her legacy as a jurist, professor, lawyer and scholar will endure for generations and we are honored to erect a permanent statue in memory of Justice Ginsburg,” Cuomo said. “Lord knows she deserves it.”

The New York Times reported Thursday that there are a number of other initiatives to honor Ginsburg, including a bronze statue to be erected next year at a Brooklyn development. New York City last month named a municipal building in Brooklyn for Ginsburg.

Among the 19 people Cuomo named to the commission are Ginsburg’s daughter and two granddaughters; Irin Carmon, the Jewish journalist and Ginsburg biographer who helped make popular Ginsburg’s late-in-life sobriquet, “Notorious RBG”; Nina Rotenberg, the Jewish NPR judiciary reporter who was a close friend of Ginsburg’s; and a number of her former clerks.

Cuomo also named five honorary members of the commission, including Hillary Clinton, Ginsburg’s colleague on the Supreme Court bench Sonia Sotomayor, and Gloria Steinem, the pioneering Jewish feminist.

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British journalist leaves BBC after discovery that he backed allegedly anti-Semitic rapper

Fri, 2020-10-16 15:24

(JTA) — A journalist resigned from the BBC after a British Jewish paper revealed he had defended a rapper accused of anti-Semitism.

Nimesh Thaker, who worked at BBC World News until this this week, used an anonymous Twitter account to defend the rapper Wiley, who made a number of statements on Twitter this summer deemed anti-Semitic.

After a Jewish radio host named Emma Barnett referenced Wiley’s remarks in speaking about her family’s Holocaust history, Thaker wrote that she was “using the same old antisemitism excuse whenever people criticize Israel.”

The Jewish Chronicle of London last month traced the account back to Thaler.

Over the summer, Wiley tweeted: “I don’t care about Hitler, I care about black people” and “There are 2 sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish & #KKK but being in business for 20 years you start to undestand [sic] why.” He later apologized for the statements, but then made new ones deemed anti-Semitic.

Thaker had used his anonymous Twitter account to defend Jeremy Corbyn, the previous Labour party leader who has been describes as an anti-Semite by the current and previous chief rabbis of Britain.

The BBC declined to comment on Thaker, The Chronicle reported.

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German fraternity where Jewish member was assaulted has far-right ties, officials say

Fri, 2020-10-16 15:16

(JTA) — German government officials said that a university fraternity where a Jewish member was assaulted and pelted with coins has ties to far-right movements.

The interior ministry of the western German state of Baden-Württemberg on Tuesday published its findings about an August assault at the Fraternity of Normannia in Heidelberg, the seat of Germany’s oldest university. The fraternity has suspended activities at its house pending an inquiry.

According to the ministry, the fraternity, which was founded in 1890, is linked to the Identitarian movement, a far-right political movement active in many European countries.

The ministry began probing the fraternity after a 25-year-old member complained to police that he was assaulted by several young men at the fraternity house who whipped him with belts and threw coins in his face after learning he was Jewish. Some of the students were visiting from outside Hidelberg, the Rhein Neckar Zeitung reported.

In a statement last month, fraternity chairman Gunnar Heydrich denied that his body had any far-right affiliations or anti-Semitic policies.

“The Normannia fraternity cooperates fully with the authorities, whose investigations are not directed against the Normannia fraternity but against individual persons,” he wrote. “If the allegations against any of its members are substantiated, the Normannia fraternity will also draw appropriate conclusions internally. Anti-Semitism and violent attacks are incompatible with the fraternity idea.”

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Adelsons spend $75 million on anti-Biden PAC in push for Trump

Fri, 2020-10-16 15:09

(JTA) — In a late bid to boost President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson reportedly gave $75 million to a political action committee running ads targeting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Politico on Thursday quoted someone close to the Preserve America PAC who said the bulk of the $84 million that the PAC has brought in since its creation at the end of August came from the Adelsons.

Sheldon Adelson is a Las Vegas-based casino magnate who along with his wife are major givers to Jewish and pro-Israel causes as well as to medical research.

The PAC is spending the money on negative ads in swing states, Politico reported. Also giving to the PAC is Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot founder who is a powerhouse in Atlanta’s Jewish community. Marcus gave $5 million dollars, the report said.

The Adelsons last month indicated they were ready to pour another $50 million into efforts to preserve Republican control of the White House and the Senate.

Trump is trailing Biden in the polls and in fund-raising ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

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To avoid the charge of anti-Semitism, New York needs to make its COVID crackdown standards clearer

Fri, 2020-10-16 14:58

(JTA) — For so many American Jews, the recent clashes between Governor Cuomo and the New York ultra-Orthodox Jewish community over new COVID-19 restrictions (and protests of them) are nothing short of a dangerous embarrassment

It is thus unsurprising that the broader Jewish public largely viewed the raging and rioting against new restrictions as undermining collective Jewish values and credibility in deeply corrosive ways. But the disparate impact of these new restrictions on ultra-Orthodox communities — combined with Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio’s repeated references to noncompliance within those communities — has provoked both growing distrust of the state and, in turn, legal challenge to its new regulations. The impacted communities see these new public health orders as unfairly targeting Jews and thereby suppressing their religious freedom. 

The strategy to address both the growing trust deficit and the ongoing legal challenges is the same. The state must be far more transparent and clear in how it uses numbers and not politics to identify which neighborhoods are being subjected to increased regulation. 

Round one of legal challenges to the new restrictions began last week, when the Agudath Israel filed a federal lawsuit, attempting to stave off synagogue closures in advance of the impending Jewish holidays. The lawsuit, thus far, has not garnered much sympathy. Indeed, Judge Matsumoto, in rejecting the claims of religious discrimination alleged by Agudath Israel, concluded unequivocally that the “balance of equities and the public interest weigh strongly in favor of New York’s mission to protect its citizens from this global pandemic which continues to be of great concern.” The stakes, according to the judge, were simply too great to afford any leeway to houses of worship.

Although the case is still ongoing, the fanfare has largely subsided. Maybe this is as it should be: In the wake of the federal court’s ruling, Jewish leaders have focused efforts on educating and rebuking the impacted communities, reiterating the importance of compliance with health and safety guidelines. 

But like many legal cases, examining the details matters. Governor Cuomo’s executive order — the so-called “Cluster Action Initiative” — seeks to address “hot spots” by identifying areas where there has been an uptick in COVID-19 cases and then imposing greater restrictions to stem the spread of the virus. 

The majority of these hot spots encompass predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities — and imposing restrictions on those communities based upon scientific metrics is certainly not anti-Semitic. Indeed, the state has clearly communicated its commitment that decisions must employ a “science-based approach … to stop any further spread of the virus.”

But while the principle is sound, criticism — and legal challenge — has almost exclusively been based on the manner in which Cuomo identified the hot spots. 

In an opinion denying the Brooklyn diocese constitutional challenge to the new restrictions, federal judge Eric Komtee concluded that “the Governor of New York made remarkably clear that this Order was intended to target a different set of religious institutions,” referencing Cuomo’s CNN interview where he stated “the cluster is a predominantly ultra-Orthodox [Hasidic] community. . . . . the issue is with that ultra Orthodox community.” By contrast, Judge Matsumoto concluded that Cuomo’s statements were “taken selectively out of context,” and did not evidence any form of prohibited discrimination against the Jewish community.

Parsing out Cuomo’s intent may be an impossible task, although his continuing call-outs of religious Jews specifically certainly provides fodder for trying. One can certainly imagine, given the public health stakes, granting him the benefit of the doubt. But maybe more curious than his word choice is the relative opacity of the actual new restrictions — an opacity runs counter to the state’s commitment to making decisions based upon public health metrics. 

Cuomo’s executive order is quite clear that “red zones,” “orange zones” and “yellow zones” will be subject to heightened restrictions, including significant limitations on houses of worship. But the executive order is silent on how the state identifies which neighborhoods fall into these color-coded categories. 

Early last week, it sounded like Cuomo planned to impose the new restrictions on zip codes with the highest positivity rates. But as the week progressed, Cuomo made it clear that clusters would be drawn “not by zip code, not by census tract … it’s only by the numbers.”

The problem is that the state has not made clear exactly what that means. What benchmark metrics — that is, what numbers — over what geographic area constitutes a cluster subject to the new regulations?

Consider, as a contrast, California’s current regulations. In California, counties are placed in a color-coded tier based upon an adjusted case rate and positivity rate. The state is quite clear what benchmarks a county needs to hit before the state will loosen COVID-19 health restrictions. New York, however, has not provided analogous rules in its official documents or statements; they do not appear in Cuomo’s executive order, nor in the state’s briefing in federal court. This failure certainly makes it hard to determine whether the state is applying the same restrictions to other neighborhoods that it is applying to predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. 

Failure to apply these same restrictions to all neighborhoods with comparable positivity rates — to engage in something akin to religious gerrymandering — would raise serious concerns as to whether the state is singling out particular Jewish communities for discriminatory treatment.

The state’s lack of clear metrics is not evidence that the state has targeted Jewish communities. But if the state is going to be successful in its attempt to convince the impacted Jewish communities that they are getting a fair shake — that decisions are being made based on numbers and not politics — then it has to do a better job explaining what those numbers are and how its “science-based” decision-making works.

Ultimately, these new restrictions do not exist in a vacuum. They come on the heels of a summer where Mayor de Blasio unnecessarily politicized COVID-19 restrictions. As I’ve expressed previously, in choosing to justify the disparate treatment of racial justice protests and houses of worship on political grounds — and not on far more reasonable public health grounds — De Blasio cemented in the minds of many faith communities that ongoing COVID-19 regulations were not just about health and safety. Those missteps have already served as grounds for a federal court to strike down some of New York’s public health guidelines — a consequence that puts all New Yorkers at risk. 

Undoing the damage of these early missteps will require the state to go above and beyond when it formulates new restrictions, especially those that disparately disadvantage religious communities. There is no room any more for ambiguity. Ambiguity only feeds into a festering narrative of distrust. Indeed, if the state is unable to convince faith communities that its restrictions are intended to protect them instead of punish them, it is hard to see how it will be successful in securing compliance.

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‘It’s totally irresponsible:’ How New York Jews feel watching the unrest in Borough Park

Fri, 2020-10-16 14:44

(JTA) — When he looks at the protests rocking the Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, Matt Nosanchuk is conflicted.

He’s anxious that COVID-19 rates will continue to spike in the neighborhood, threatening to plunge the whole city into a second wave. He’s worried that the images and statistics out of the neighborhood will lead to a wave of anti-Semitism against the city’s most visible Jews. And he’s also angry at those Jews for, in his view, disregarding one of his religion’s most fundamental values.

“It makes me feel sad, it makes me feel angry, that fellow Jews in the name of Judaism would be taking positions that are so anathema to the core Jewish value of saving life,” said Nosanchuk, a former Jewish liaison for Barack Obama and the founder of the New York Jewish Agenda, a liberal advocacy group.

He added, “We have to be vigilant in how we defend and describe these measures so that we’re not feeding into anti-Semitic tropes and attitudes or dog whistles. There are ways to describe that the rules have to apply to all of us across the board.”

Nosanchuck’s group has organized an open letter, signed largely by non-Orthodox rabbis, in support of the recent public health restrictions on Borough Park. Earlier in the pandemic, the group organized another letter signed by a range of Jewish public figures excoriating Mayor Bill de Blasio for singling out the Jewish community for condemnation.

Now, as Borough Park experiences a second wave of the virus, and hundreds of Orthodox men gather in the streets for raucous protests, at times physically attacking their perceived opponents, New York Jews outside the neighborhood look on with a mix of horror, apprehension and concern.

Heshy Tischler, leader of the Borough Park protests against new restrictions on synagogues and yeshivas, returned home after being charged with inciting a riot. (Screenshot from WhatsApp)

They know that Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews, like all minority groups, are not uniform — many are observing public health guidelines even as a vocal faction opposes them. They fear that some of them will fall victim to hate crimes. And they feel shame and embarrassment that a group of the city’s most readily identifiable Jews are acting in contravention to the rules that most New Yorkers are at least trying to follow. That includes haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews.

“Many, many members of haredi communities everywhere believe that it’s totally irresponsible,” said Shani Bechhofer, a haredi educator in Rockland County, New York, which also has a large Orthodox population and is experiencing a spike in infections. “There is widespread embarrassment. I feel very sad that so many people believe irrational, dangerous notions, and I don’t know where the messaging comes from.”

Of course, Bechhofer said, she knows the source of some of the opposition to the restrictions: support for Donald Trump, or for Heshy Tischler, a local demagogue following the president’s lead in disparaging social distancing guidelines. She worries that Tischler’s rabble-rousing will not only spread the virus but also lead to a wave of anti-Semitic attacks.

“I’m afraid that people are tragically going to get themselves and others sick,” she said. “And I’m also very concerned about an anti-Semitic backlash against this public high-risk behavior. I don’t understand what makes people like this Tischler guy think that he has the right to endanger everybody for his moment of fame or whatever it is. It’s a damaging narrative and it’s inherently wrong.”

Bechhofer and others noted that support for Trump wasn’t the only factor contributing to low levels of mask-wearing and compliance with the restrictions. Because the virus hit the haredi community hard earlier in the year, some Orthodox Jews believe — without scientific justification — their communities have herd immunity. In addition, in a community with deep respect for religious leaders, not all prominent rabbis have pushed mask-wearing.

Reports of haredi Jews being accosted in Brooklyn have circulated on social media in recent days. Last week, an Orthodox man was assaulted on the Coney Island boardwalk. This week, there were two more reports of Orthodox Jews being verbally harassed. A recent video that made the rounds on social media appears to show an Orthodox man speaking on a cellphone without a mask, far from other people, when someone yells at him, “Put your f***ing mask on! Put your mask on! There’s COVID cases, hurry up, put it on!”

Women wear masks while shopping in Borough Park on Sept. 29. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson)

For some, the incidents bring back painful memories of the wave of attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and greater New York City last year, which included two lethal anti-Semitic attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, New York.

An NYPD spokesperson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Wednesday that, year to date, 2020 has seen half as many anti-Semitic attacks as the same period of 2019, though that includes a period of several months when people were hardly going outside, making anti-Semitic street harassment less likely. Local Jewish activists are worried that, now that people are outside and animosity is rising against Orthodox Jews, the attacks will resume.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who lives in Manhattan and signed the letter organized by Nosanchuk in support of the recent public health measures, called the neighborhood’s recent protests a “hillul Hashem,” or desecration of God’s name, a term that denotes public behavior by Jews that reflects poorly on all Jews. She says she’s already seen messages on her neighborhood Facebook groups that recall age-old stereotypes about Jews spreading disease.

“Images of Jews attacking other Jews and protesting public health, at a gut level, it’s just embarrassing,” said Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a liberal rabbinic human rights organization. “There’s a fear that anybody who has any anti-Semitic inclinations is going to look at that and make all sorts of assumptions about Jews. This is especially terrifying in a context in which haredi Jews have been attacked on the street on a fairly regular basis.”

Jacobs as well as others said that the key in discussing the Borough Park protests was not to generalize the protesters’ conduct to implicate all haredi Jews. Steven Auerbach, a Jewish epidemiologist who recently worked for the city helping hospitals manage the COVID-19 crisis, said there are plenty of communities across the country where people are behaving similarly to residents of Borough Park.

“No community is monolithic,” he said. “We should never talk about ‘the haredi community’ or ‘the Orthodox community’ or ‘the Hasidic community.’ It’s always made up of individuals and there is always some diversity of opinion in any community. We’ve seen it with pro-mask people from within the community being attacked. Even in the most Republican districts, there’s usually a third of people who vote Democratic. Same here. There are always individuals with a different opinion.”

That’s why, when Auerbach looks at the scenes in Borough Park, he does not view it in Jewish terms. To him, it’s one of several densely populated communities that suffered high death rates early in the pandemic and, like many such communities in the United States, now has a vocal group rebelling against the rules.

“I do not view this as, ‘Oh, those ultra-Orthodox crazies,'” he said. “Even at the gut level I don’t. As a public health doctor, I see it as the same thing as what’s going on in many communities, with too many people — not everybody — listening to false information.”

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San Diego rabbi, Orthodox Brooklyn man assaulted in separate incidents

Fri, 2020-10-16 14:26

(JTA) — A rabbi was assaulted outside of his synagogue in San Diego and an Orthodox man was beaten on the street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.

The San Diego incident occurred on Oct. 10 and was the latest in a series of escalating acts of harassment against congregants of the Shiviti Congregation, Rabbi Yonatan Halevy told San Diego’s 10 News.

Halevy was the victim of the latest incident, in which a teenager riding a bicycle hit him on the head and yelled a racial slur at him outside the synagogue in University City, a large residential and commercial district next to the University of California’s San Diego campus.

In Williamsburg, video footage posted to Twitter on Thursday night showed a man in Orthodox Jewish garb approached from behind by individuals who begin hitting and kicking him. The assailants left the scene within seconds of the assault.

The Twitter account that posted the video, Williamsburg News, said the incident had occurred near the intersection of Throop Avenue and Bartlett Street and that police and local Jewish community groups had responded.

SHOCKING VIDEO: @WspuShomrim @NYPD90Pct and @hatzalah are on scene at Throop Ave & Bartlett St after a Hasidic jew was assaulted with injuries to the face by 3 perps that came from the back and fled. pic.twitter.com/p0PTziwR2T

— WILLIAMSBURG NEWS (@WMSBG) October 16, 2020

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British Supreme Court permits Orthodox housing associations to decline non-Jewish applicants

Fri, 2020-10-16 14:16

(JTA) — Orthodox Jewish housing associations in the United Kingdom may continue to restrict residency to Orthodox Jews, Britain’s highest court ruled.

In a ruling Friday, the court determined that the London Borough of Hackney had acted lawfully in declining to refer a non-Jewish mother’s housing application to the Agudas Israel Housing Association, the Jewish News of London reported. The association is a public charity that operates hundreds of low-cost rental properties in North London.

The woman’s lawyers had argued the borough’s refusal constituted discrimination on the basis of religion. But the housing association’s lawyers countered that reserving housing for Orthodox families is crucial to alleviating housing shortages facing the community.

Lower courts had accepted the association’s argument that the policy was a legitimate means of addressing a genuine social need. A panel of five judges on the high court unanimously agreed.

The Jewish housing association called the court’s decision a “landmark ruling.”

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Donald Trump denounces white supremacy, but not QAnon

Fri, 2020-10-16 01:33

(JTA) — Under fire for his past equivocations on white supremacy, President Donald Trump denounced the phenomenon in a town hall but claimed to be ignorant of QAnon.

“I denounce white supremacy,” Trump said Thursday in an exchange with the NBC moderator, Savannah Guthrie. “What’s your next question?”

Trump showed exasperation at the question, saying he has denounced the phenomenon multiple times. Guthrie said he had in the past “hesitated,” noting that in his debate two weeks ago with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, he told an extremist right-wing group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by” when he was asked to denounce white supremacists.

“You always start off with that question, you didn’t ask Joe Biden whether or not he denounces Antifa,” Trump said, referring to a loosely affiliated movement of left-wing groups that sometimes use violence.

Trump declined however to denounce QAnon, a movement that peddles a conspiracy theory that accuses Democrats of running pedophile rings and sees Trump as a secret savior. In some iterations, QAnon enthusiasts advance anti-Semitic slanders.

“I hate to say that I know nothing about it,” Trump said. “I do know they are very much against pedophilia.”

Guthrie pressed Trump, describing the group’s delusions. Trump would not accept her description.

“What I do hear about it, is they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” Trump said.

Trump was to have debated Biden on Thursday but pulled put when the debate commission changed the format to a virtual debate after Trump contracted the coronavirus.

Instead, NBC broadcast a Trump town hall from Miami, and ABC broadcast a Biden town hall from Philadelphia.

One of Biden’s questioners, a Trump voter named Mark Hoffman, asked Biden why he would not praise Trump’s foreign policy successes, including the recent normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which Hoffman called a “modern miracle.”

Biden said Trump’s foreign policy was diminishing America’s profile. “We’re more isolated in the world than we have ever been,” Biden said, but added: “I do compliment the President on the deal with Israel recently. But, you know, if you take a look, we’re not very well trusted around the world.”

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Self-described ‘skinhead’ pleads guilty to trying to blow up a Colorado synagogue

Fri, 2020-10-16 01:21

(JTA) — A man who plotted to blow up a synagogue in Colorado has pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes and explosives charges.

Richard Holzer, a self-described “skinhead” and former Ku Klux Klan member who used Facebook to promote white supremacy, was arrested last November for plotting to blow up a 100-year-old synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado. The synagogue, Temple Emanuel, has 35 member families.

Holzer was arrested after plotting with a man he thought was a co-conspirator but who was actually an FBI agent. Holzer had previously attempted to poison the synagogue’s water supply with arsenic.

“This is the most important work that we can do – protecting our communities by stopping an attack before it occurred,” said Colorado US Attorney Jason Dunn in a statement.

A Department of Homeland Security report released this month concluded that white supremacists pose the biggest domestic terror threat in the United States.

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Orthodox support for Trump is skyrocketing, survey finds

Thu, 2020-10-15 22:09

(JTA) — A new poll shows overwhelming support for President Donald Trump among Orthodox Jews.

The poll, published Wednesday by Ami Magazine, found that 83% of Orthodox respondents plan to vote for Trump in the upcoming election, while just 13% plan to vote for Joe Biden. Those numbers represent a dramatic increase from a 2017 poll by the American Jewish Committee which found that 54% of Orthodox Jews had voted for Trump in 2016.

The Ami poll, which was conducted over the past month by an unnamed firm, also found low support among Orthodox Jews for public health restrictions due to COVID-19.

The survey includes 1,000 respondents and has a 3.1% margin of error.

The poll’s numbers put Orthodox Jews politically out of step with American Jews overall, the vast majority of whom oppose Trump and generally vote in large numbers for Democratic candidates. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only 27% of American Jews plan to vote for Trump, as opposed to 70% for Biden. Those numbers are statistically equivalent to the 71% of Jews who voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, according to Pew.

Orthodox Jews have trended right over the past few decades, voting increasingly for Republican presidential candidates starting with George W. Bush. They tend to view Republicans as more pro-Israel than Democrats and accord more with Republican views of religious freedom.

The Ami poll places Orthodox support for Trump at a higher level than any other other religious group in the United States. The Pew survey found that the highest level of support for Trump came from Evangelical Christians, with 78% saying they planned to vote for the president. Pew did not report a result for Orthodox Jews.

The Ami poll also found that haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews are far likelier to vote for Trump than Modern Orthodox Jews. A stunning 95% of haredi Jews said they plan to vote for Trump, as opposed to 56% of Modern Orthodox Jews.

The poll found that Trump has shed some Modern Orthodox support since last year, when Ami found that 70% of Modern Orthodox respondents approved of the job he was doing. The margin of error for Modern Orthodox Jews in the 2020 poll was approximately 4.8%.

The poll also found that Orthodox Jews support public health restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19 far less than Americans as a whole. A majority of Orthodox respondents, 58%, believe that government health regulations are excessive or unnecessary, or that the virus poses no threat at all. Only 32% said that the threat is real and that government guidelines, should be followed, and only 18% of haredi respondents.

While not directly comparable, an August poll shows that a large majority of Americans supports a mask mandate.

The Ami poll was published following days of unrest in Borough Park over recently imposed public heath restrictions aimed at responding to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood.

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The Tell: In 2020, making votes count is radical

Thu, 2020-10-15 21:19

(JTA) — “We want to make sure that every vote is counted,” Melanie Roth Gorelick told me this week for a story I wrote about Jewish organizations preparing for elections on Nov. 3.

In the year 2020, that’s become a radical statement.

Gorelick is the vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.

In my decades of covering the U.S. Jewish community, the JCPA is the body most driven by consensus. Its annual resolutions, when they come, have been worked for months through the sausage maker of local and national Jewish community politics, left, right and center. Occasionally the process results in statements bland to the point of meaninglessness.

In other words, I don’t expect a senior JCPA official to go radical in an interview, but Gorelick’s statement — innocuous in a normative election — was radical, for two reasons.

First, if you’re for counting all votes, you’re by default placing yourself in opposition to President Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party. As I note in the story, the areas of focus for nonpartisan Jewish get-out-the-vote efforts run up against Trumpian resistance in almost every instance: the striking of eligible voters from the rolls, the shuttering of polling stations, disinformation about mail-in voting, calls on partisan watchers to loom over polling stations, and Trump’s insistence that the election is declared the night of Nov. 3.

Second, Gorelick does not modify “vote” with Jewish. All votes matter. Federations and community relations councils across the country are educating their Jewish communities about how to vote on Election Day, as they have in previous cycles. But this year, with an intensity I have not seen in the past, a number of Jewish organizations are dedicated to getting out to vote sectors that they say are disenfranchised, among them people of color. 

Read more here on Jews on voting rights. My colleague Ben Sales wrote about how Jewish security officials are on the alert for right-wing violence on election day.


Northern exposure: Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigns after a sexcapade ends with an anti-Semitic meltdown. Speaking of Jews in Alaska (and who doesn’t), Al Gross, who is running for the Senate, is the Jewish doctor with a grizzly backstory. He also outraised and is polling even with the Republican incumbent, who this week became embroiled in a scandal of his own.

None too bright supremacists: My colleague Emily Burack talks to Talia Lavin (a JTA alum!) about Lavin’s book chronicling her infiltration of the virtual world of white supremacists, “Culture Warlords.” Burack extracts from Lavin maybe the most memorable line I’ve read about exposing bigots: “It was the most absurd backstory in the world and this guy was just so horny or whatever that he fell for it.”

Fleshing Heshy: Heshy Tischler, the Brooklyn rabble-rouser who cornered Jewish Insider’s Jacob Kornbluh is at once not all he seems (he represents no concrete constituency) and more than he seems (he’s done time). My colleague Shira Hanau finds out what makes Heshy run.

Who let the dog whistles out? My colleague Ben Sales analyzes Mitch McConnell’s mockery of New Yorkers, and Clarence Thomas’s wife extends the Soros conspiracies to the entire Soros clan.

Taking her Q: U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, one of two viable Republicans running for an open Senate seat in Georgia, on Thursday enthusiastically accepted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a House candidate who has dabbled in QAnon, which peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The Republican Jewish Coalition supported Greene’s opponent in her primary; I asked Matt Brooks, the RJC director, whether Loeffler’s Greene new deal would get her GOP opponent, Rep. Doug Collins, the RJC endorsement. He told me the RJC is staying out of this race. 

Denver Riggleman, the Virginia Republican bested this year in a primary by an anti-gay-rights opponent (Riggleman officiated at a same-sex marriage), is using his last few months in office to warn his fellow Republicans about the dangers posed by QAnon and its adherents. Speaking about the Loeffler endorsement, Riggleman told CNN, “If you’re a public servant, you have to make sure the facts are there before you tweet. If it’s insane, you probably shouldn’t tweet it.” (The RJC also went to battle for Riggleman in his primary.) “For people like me it’s harder and harder to find a home in the GOP,” Riggleman said.


A flag for the QAnon conspiracy theory is flown with other right wing flags during a pro-Trump rally on October 11, 2020 in Ronkonkoma, New York. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

At The New York Times, Katrin Bennhold examines how the QAnon myth has found a troubling home on Germany’s far-right.


Melissa Braunstein, a Washington-based writer, discovers a potent ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.


Share your thoughts on The Tell, or suggest a topic for us. Connect with Ron Kampeas on Twitter at @kampeas or email him at thetell@jta.org.

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Jewish security officials have a message for election day: Be prepared for violence

Thu, 2020-10-15 21:14

(JTA) — On Thursday, the FBI had a message for Jewish institutions across the country: Prepare for the possibility of violence on election day.

That was the main takeaway from a webinar hosted Thursday afternoon by the Secure Community Network, which coordinates security for Jewish institutions across the country.

Current and former federal officials told the Jewish leaders in attendance that, as of now, there are no known threats to Jewish institutions on Election Day. But Jews should still prepare for the possibility of violence on Nov. 3 or afterward.

“We have not identified any specific threats relative to domestic violent extremists or international terrorist organizations,” said Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. But he added, “The nation remains poised for potential volatility, in regard to not only the election but I think just a lot of things that are going on in the country.”

Shivers said that in addition to its usual election monitoring activities, the FBI is establishing a national command post specifically to address potential civil unrest.

The webinar was hosted specifically for the hundreds of Jewish institutions — like synagogues, schools, or community centers — that either serve as polling places or are located near them. Less than three weeks from election day, federal and state officials have been warning of a rising tide of extremism that could crest into a wave of violence, especially if there’s an ambiguous result or if the preferred candidate of right-wing extremist groups, President Donald Trump, appears to be losing.

Over the past several years, and in particular since the shooting in Pittsburgh, synagogues across the country have taken steps to increase their security through armed guards, cameras or other measures. Synagogues were particularly vigilant when (during non-pandemic times) their buildings would be crowded for the most important services of the year.

Brad Orsini, who served as the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s director of security during and after the 2018 synagogue shooting there, said that in terms of the potential threat, Jewish institutions should view Nov. 3 with the same degree of seriousness as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Treat this election season like the High Holidays,” said Orsini, who now serves as the Secure Community Network’s senior national security advisor. “Although we have no credible threats, we know the temperature of the country right now. We need to prepare as if something bad could occur.”

John Cohen, the former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, said the current environment is one in which extremists may “seek to disrupt the election or use the election season as an opportunity to incite violence.”

“Some who are running for office today have incorporated into their political playbook a spread of conspiracy theories and divisive narratives, from their perspective to aid their political opportunity, but can also have the effect of inspiring destructive or violent behavior,” he said.

Cohen described a “multi-year rise in violent extremist violence,” that includes an increase in hate crimes and other criminal activity by white supremacists and anti-government extremists.

“I can’t think of a time since 9-11 where I have had more concern about security issues associated with polling sites or the election generally,” he said. “There’s a segment of America who view this election as ‘rigged’ or at risk of being stolen, prompting calls in conspiracy and extremist circles for poll watchers and even violence both during the election and after the voting has concluded.”

Orsini said Jewish institutions need to take concrete actions before Election Day to prepare for the possibility of unrest if they’re near polling stations.

“If you’re not a polling station and some type of civil unrest occurs, we need to be prepared to close our building, shutter our facility if something bad happens,” he said. “We want to have a plan, that if we have to quickly shut down, that we do so.”

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says he is being treated for cancer

Thu, 2020-10-15 20:31

(JTA) — Former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced he has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment.

In a statement posted to his Twitter feed Thursday afternoon, Sacks’ office said he had been “recently diagnosed” with an unspecified cancer and hoped to return to work “as soon as possible.”

“He remains positive and upbeat and will now spend a period of time focused on the treatment he is receiving from his excellent medical team,” the statement said. “He is looking forward to returning to his work as soon as possible.”

Attached is a statement from the Office of Rabbi Sacks. A text version can be read on the thread below. pic.twitter.com/cNUYKDDdQr

— Rabbi Sacks (@rabbisacks) October 15, 2020

Sacks, 72, has been treated for cancer twice before, in his 30s and again in his 50s, a fact that wasn’t widely known until it was disclosed in a 2012 book.

Sacks served as chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth from 1991 until 2013 and is among the most prominent expositors of Orthodox Judaism in the world, having authored dozens of books addressing contemporary spiritual and moral issues. A translation and commentary on a Jewish prayer book that he wrote has become enormously popular worldwide. His most recent book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” came out last month.

RELATED: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on cancel culture, restoring morality and Israel’s missed opportunities

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Hear me out: Hummus pizza is actually delicious

Thu, 2020-10-15 19:57

This article originally appeared in The Nosher.

When we think of pizza, most of us think of a combination of marinara sauce, melty cheese and crispy crust. But not all pies need to include these ingredients. Enter: hummus pizza.

Yes, it exists, and it’s kind of awesome.

This innovation often includes the usual trappings of a Mediterranean veggie pizza, like olives, a rainbow of vegetables and doughy crust. But instead of adding cheese and sauce, you use hummus as a substitute. In other words, hummus pizza may look less like a traditional Italian American slice and more like an open-faced pita.

Sounds weird? Maybe. But if you’ve ever tried salad pizza or other pizza varieties that add toppings after the dough has been baked, you’ll know that great pizza can sometimes exist outside of the conventional trappings of cheese or sauce.

Vegan chef Tabitha Brown loves how hummus takes the place of cheese, suggesting red pepper hummus for extra flavor. Brown’s recipe also includes pineapple pieces for a sweet twist! Check out her recipe for hummus flatbread pizza here.

Vegan Heaven shares an example of hummus pizza with a similar Mediterranean flair, topping the pizza dough and hummus layer with “spinach, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and red onion.” The author also includes her recipe for a yummy homemade pizza crust.

But not all hummus pizza is vegan. This veggie pizza recipe from allrecipes.com uses hummus only as a substitute for typical marinara sauce. While the recipe includes a sprinkling of cheese, you can always substitute vegan cheese or leave off the cheese entirely.

I’m all about Slim G’s take (@videomeals), which includes spinach and a fried egg, and looks a little like shakshuka.

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Hummus, spinach and egg pizza ————————————————— 1- Pre-heat over to 200C (400F) 2- Start cooking about 2-3 handfuls of spinach with a about 2 tablespoons of water 3- On whole wheat tortilla spread hummus, then add the cooked spinach, some mozzarella cheese and place it in the oven for about 5-8 minutes 4- Start cooking 2 eggs and season with salt and pepper 5- When done serve the pizza with egg on top. NOTES: I just bought a garlic hummus from the store. Makes about 2 pizzas Approx. Macros: Per pizza Kcal:295 Carbs:29g Fat:15g Protein:16g ————————————————— Pizza de espinaca, huevo y humus ————————————————— 1-Pre calienta el horno a 200 C (400 F) 2-Comienza a cocinar alrededor de 2-3 puñados de espinacas con 2 cucharadas de agua 3- En una tortilla integral esparce humus, después agrega la espinaca cocida, algo de queso mozzarella y ponla en el horno por 5-8 minutos 4-Comienza a cocinar 2 huevos y sazona con sal y pimienta 5- Cuando este lista sirva la pizza con huevo encima. NOTAS: Yo compre humus de ajo en la tienda. Se hacen 2 porciones Macronutrientes aproximados por pizza Kcal:295 Carbs:29g Grasa:15g Proteína:16g ————————————————— YOUTUBE: www.youtube.com/sgeransar FACEBOOK: facebook.com/videomealsonline GOOGLE: plus.google.com/+Videomealsonline TWITTER: twitter.com/videomeals PINTEREST: pinterest.com/videomeals WEB: www.videomealsonline.com

A post shared by Slim G, NYC (@videomeals) on Nov 24, 2014 at 8:26am PST

Although I was initially skeptical of the idea of hummus pizza, I am starting it to see it as a beautiful example of the mix of America’s myriad food traditions. Because sharing food is so integral to sharing culture, this mix of Middle Eastern and European traditions is a perfect example of the sought after “melting pot” of American cultures. With globalization comes hummus pizza. And I’m here for it.

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In a repeat of the spring, yeshivas in Brooklyn are operating despite school closure mandate

Thu, 2020-10-15 16:14

(JTA) — Schools in New York’s “red zones,” or the areas identified by New York State as COVID hotspots, are supposed to be closed right now as the state and city governments try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in those areas.

But in the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park, at the center of Brooklyn’s red zone, that’s not actually the case, according to people who live and send their children to school there.

The defiance of rules meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus — which local leaders had vowed — sets the stage for yet another clash between the community and city and state authorities over the handling of the pandemic. It is also fueling an ongoing conflict between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over how aggressively to enforce COVID rules.

And it means that many children who actually live in the hotspots are in school, while children who attend public schools located inside them but live in areas with relatively low infection rates are not.

Back in May and June, some Hasidic yeshivas quietly reopened despite rules keeping schools in all of New York closed. That pattern repeated itself this week when yeshivas in Borough Park reopened immediately after the Sukkot holiday, even though Cuomo had ordered schools in the area to remain closed.

Just as in May and June, some of the Jewish schools are deploying stealthy techniques to disguise the fact that they’re operating. But some say the community’s schools have reopened without attempting to hide it at all, with school buses driving around the neighborhood picking up and dropping off children at area schools as though nothing had happened.

In an innovation, some schools are claiming to be child care centers, which reopened with restrictions in New York in July and were not affected by last week’s closure order. De Blasio said Thursday that ambiguity over whether that is allowed has impeded his administration’s efforts to enforce the closure orders — though Cuomo said Wednesday that such a switch is clearly not permitted.

“Child care facilities can operate, but they have to be licensed child care facilities and then they have to be inspected to make sure they’re following the rules,” Cuomo said. “A school is not a child care facility, and you fool no one by saying, ‘Oh no, they’re not walking into a school, they’re walking into a child care facility.’ Maybe you can fool some people, but you can’t fool the State of New York.”

It’s not just schools that are defying the rules. A photo circulated on WhatsApp Tuesday showing a sign posted to the front of a business in Borough Park. “We are closed!” the sign said, listing a phone number for appointments and pickup. But in Yiddish, the sign gave another message: Enter through the side door.

One father whose children attend several Orthodox schools in Borough Park said students are given a short window of time in the morning to arrive at school and in the afternoon to leave, apparently to minimize the amount of time students are seen entering and exiting the building. When inspectors arrived at one school, the father said, students were brought to one part of the building while the inspectors were shown the parts of the building that were empty.

A teacher at a girls’ school in Borough Park said the school was saying it could operate as a daycare center, even though it enrolled older students and was continuing its regular instructional program. She said few precautions are being taken within the building to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“No one wears masks in the building, and not only is there no social distancing, but there is what anyone would call overcrowding under normal circumstances,” she said, though she added that students are told to wear a mask on a necklace around their neck in case of an inspection.

The teacher lamented the lesson that the defiance sends to students. “They are raising an entire generation to believe that they are above the law, and that illegality can be embraced and all you must do is outsmart the non-believers who aren’t as smart or holy as us. This is not the Jewish way,” she said.

Officials at New York City’s health department did not respond to repeated questions Tuesday and Wednesday about how many inspections had been conducted and what they had found.

Scrutiny appears unwelcome. On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd gathered in front of a yeshiva in Borough Park and tried to block a journalist from speaking with people at the scene. “Get the fake news out of there,” one man can be heard yelling in a video of the scene posted to Instagram by BoroPark24, a local news outlet. “You anti-Semites, get out! We don’t need you here!” yelled another man in the video.

Heshy Tischler, the leader of last week’s protests against new COVID restrictions in Borough Park who was charged with inciting a riot and unlawful imprisonment after he led a mob in surrounding another journalist at a protest last week, arrived on the scene a few minutes later to cheers.

One parent in the neighborhood told Gothamist that the presumed lack of enforcement meant the schools felt they could get away with it.

“It doesn’t look like the government is planning to do any enforcement, so they’re not too worried,” the parent, whose six children were back in school, told the New York City news website. “It’s not like the mayor or governor don’t know what’s going on. They don’t want to do anything about it.”

But on Wednesday, Cuomo signaled that he was serious about imposing consequences on schools that violate the closure order. During a press conference, he threatened to withhold funding from schools that operate in violation of the orders. (Private schools receive state funding to support an array of services, but they are not fully state-funded.)

“For the schools that have been identified as violating the closure order, they will be served today with a notice mandating they close, and we are withholding funding from those schools and we’re withholding funding until the matter is resolved to our satisfaction,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “We do not know at this time when that will be, but we are commencing withholding funding against those schools.”

Cuomo suggested — without explicitly saying it — that de Blasio and other local leaders might be soft-pedaling enforcement of the closure orders for political reasons.

“The enforcement from the local governments is very uneven especially when it’s politically sensitive. And that’s what we’re running into with a lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful, don’t kid yourself,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

In the Brooklyn red zone, which encompasses a number of Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in South Brooklyn, the positivity rate for Oct. 13 was 6.43%, according to the governor’s office. In New York City, schools across the city automatically close if the rolling 7-day average COVID test positivity rate exceeds 3%.

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Israel and Lebanon are negotiating a non-security issue for the first time in 30 years

Thu, 2020-10-15 16:01

(JTA) — Israeli and Lebanese officials began direct negotiations over their respective maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea, marking the first time the two nations have consulted over a non-security issue in decades.

Officials from both sides, who met Wednesday in Naquora, a Lebanese town near the border with Israel, stressed that the discussions were not a step towards a normalization of relations, The New York Times reported. Two of Israel’s Arab neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have recently signed peace deals with Israel, opening the door for full diplomatic relations and increased trade and tourism.

Lebanon and Israel are technically still at war, having never signed an official peace treaty after decades of conflict beginning right after Israel’s founding. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is one of the region’s main violent aggressors against Israel.

“We’re not talking about peace talks or negotiations over normalization, but rather about the attempt to solve a technical-economic problem that for a decade has been preventing us from developing natural resources in the sea for the benefit of the people of the region,” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Monday, according to The Times of Israel.

At stake in the talks, which are being mediated by the United Nations and the United States, is a zone of over 300 square miles full of natural gas that is claimed by both countries. Lebanon hopes an agreement could help its ailing economy, which has one of the highest GDP-to-debt ratios in the world.

The next meeting in the process is scheduled for Oct. 28.

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