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New program for Jews of color aims to diversify Jewish organizations

Tue, 2020-10-13 21:41

(JTA) — Two Jewish organizations have launched a career development program for Jews of color in an effort to diversify the Jewish organizational landscape.

The Jews of Color Initiative, a San Francisco-based organization formerly known as the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, and UpStart, an Oakland-based group that works with Jewish entrepreneurs and leaders, announced the launch of the program on Monday with an inaugural class of eight young Jews of color.

As part of a six-week program, participants aged 18-25 are paired with Jewish organizations and will participate in leadership development programs.

“Leadership of Jewish community organizations today simply does not reflect the diversity of the Jewish community itself,” Angel Alvarez-Mapp, director of program and operations at the Jews of Color Initiative, said in a statement. “To change this, we need to support people and nurture their professional growth at the earliest stages of their careers. We are excited to work with UpStart to pursue this vision.”

Studies suggest that 6-15 percent of the American Jewish community are people of color, though definitions of who is included under that term vary. Though Jewish organizations have begun paying attention to diversity in their ranks, particularly in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Jews of color continue to be few and far between in Jewish organizations, especially in leadership roles. In June, three Jewish activists of color organized an open letter calling on Jewish organizations to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement and set specific benchmarks to increase diversity.

“Our vision of Jewish communities as thriving hubs of innovation relies on bold leadership on a systemic level–and we see that leadership falling short of empowering the full diversity of our communities,” said Danielle Natelson, a design strategist at UpStart.

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‘We are at war’: Meet Heshy Tischler, the Borough Park agitator aiming for New York City Council

Tue, 2020-10-13 20:17

Editor’s note: This story was produced in partnership with New York Magazine. Since it was published Oct. 9, Tischler was arrested Sunday evening and charged with inciting a riot and unlawful imprisonment in connection with an incident at a protest last Wednesday night when Tischler and a mob of followers surrounded Jacob Kornbluh, a journalist and member of the Hasidic community who has been outspoken about the need to wear masks and follow social distancing. Tischler was released Monday night and addressed a crowd of his supporters who gathered in front of his home. “We’re going to continue our fight,” he said Monday.

On a sunny afternoon in June, Heshy Tischler showed up at Williamsburg’s Middleton Playground with bolt cutters. The local playgrounds had been closed for months, and because the peak of the pandemic had passed — although it was hardly over, and risk remained substantial — the large families of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods were frustrated. Videos showing lively playgrounds in other neighborhoods were circulating in Orthodox WhatsApp chats, and the prospect of a summer without sleepaway camps loomed. Tischler had been at protests calling on the governor to open summer camps for weeks, going so far as calling it “the Heshy Movement.” Now he was taking matters into his own hands.

Cheers rose as the lock and chain fell away. “Come on in, guys,” he said, in his trademark voice — Jackie Gleason by way of Moe from “The Simpsons” — as boys in yarmulkes and girls in long dresses milled around him. One man chanted: Hesh-y! Hesh-y! The next day, local elected officials — State Senator Simcha Felder, State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, City Councilman Kalman Yeger — were standing by Tischler’s side, opening up playground after playground in defiance of the mayor’s orders intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. They even posed on a swing set, Tischler standing behind the city councilman and state assemblyman, ready to give them a push. The brazen act of civil disobedience, amplified by the fact that Tischler himself did not wear a mask, resonated far beyond Brooklyn. Ted Cruz tweeted “Bravo.”

He had unlocked more than a playground. He was now well on his way to folk-hero status among the youth of Borough Park, who, as the neighborhood stepped up its refusal to abide by the restrictions that Andrew Cuomo announced to stem new COVID outbreaks, would become Tischler’s army, following him into battle against the governor, the media and members of his own community. This week, it all blew up in the streets, leaving a lot of people in his community appalled. “He’s an opportunist,” Yosef Rapaport, a publicist and podcast host who lives in Borough Park, said. “Every community has its crazy hotheads, and those people are attracted to him.”

“I’m willing to give my life for it,” Tischler told me on Wednesday, of his fight to keep the yeshivas and synagogues open and the governor out of his neighborhood. “I will not stand idly by while they’re doing lies. And I will stand before the holy maker and tell him that I tried my best to fight this. Because these people are lying.” 

It’s all part of the Heshy show — the neverending stream of videos Tischler posts to his Instagram and Twitter feeds and which make the rounds in Orthodox WhatsApp groups that tell the story of Tischler’s ascent to hero status in young Borough Park. They were also promotional material for “The Just Enough Heshy Show,” Tischler’s radio program that airs Wednesday evenings, as he reminds his Instagram followers in most of the videos he posts. The real-life show and the radio show are one.

To the Orthodox Jewish residents of Borough Park, Tischler is their own Donald Trump. To those mothers and children who looked longingly at that playground until he stepped in, he’s the big guy— literally — speaking up for the little guy who feels powerless and alienated. To virtually everyone else, he’s a boor who whips up deadly behavior, one who puts his followers at risk of illness and death in order to further his ambitions. In the months following the playground event, he would threaten Cuomo that “if you touch my boy Trump, I’m going to put you over my knee, Cuomo, and smack you around like a little girl when you cry”; call Mayor Bill de Blasio an “idiot” (and sometimes “the fuhrer”); call Chirlane McCray, de Blasio’s wife, a “retard woman,” as well as an unclear epithet that was variously heard as racist or merely insulting. Earlier this week, he ginned up a mob to corner an Orthodox reporter, Jacob Kornbluh, calling him an informer.

An Orthodox man walks through Borough Park wearing a mask on Sept. 29, 2020. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson)

Community members and those who grew up there and left declined to comment on Tischler on the record, some worried that giving him attention would only encourage him, others worrying that he’d come after them if they spoke out. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson declined to comment on Tischler’s behavior, although he retweeted condemnations of the attacks on Kornbluh. So did State Senator Brad Hoylman at first: “Our personal belief is that this kind of extremism is inflamed by attention and we’d prefer not to contribute to it,” his spokesperson said on Thursday. But Hoylman later changed his mind, calling for the Brooklyn district attorney to investigate the violence at Wednesday’s night’s protest, and saying of Tischler: “I don’t know the man personally, and I don’t know how much support he truly has among his neighbors. He does not speak for all.” Added Rapaport, “We need to avoid embarrassing people, but he embarrasses himself. I have no compunction denouncing his violence. He is responsible for instigating it and creating an uncontrollable scene.” For a lot of New Yorkers, this was the week they got more than enough Heshy.

The playground episode in June marked the beginning of his rise from an ex-convict and radio host to leader of an anti-lockdown protest movement that would rock the city and draw the bewildered attention of the mayor, the governor, and just about every other resident of the city who wondered what on earth was going on in haredi Orthodox Brooklyn.

Although he’s a longtime Borough Park resident, Tischler himself is something of an outsider. In a community where most men wear a black suit every day, he stands out in his untucked, wrinkled white shirt, his signature press pass (really an advertisement for the radio show) slung around the collar. Unlike most of his Hasidic neighbors, he has a television at home, where he watches Fox News (his wife prefers CNN, which he hates). And unlike the established leaders of his community who operate through conventional channels, scheduling meetings with the mayor and governor and issuing measured statements, Tischler is unencumbered by all that, insulting politicians whenever he pleases. Even his detractors admit that he cares for his community, volunteering to pack boxes of food for the poor, visiting the sick in hospitals, making time to help formerly incarcerated residents find jobs. He gets calls from people in the community all the time: “Please try to refine your speaking, please wear a suit. Heshy, please try to use proper language,” he says they tell him. He answers to no one. 

Except in 2013, when a judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison for immigration fraud. Tischler and 11 co-conspirators had been charged with extracting fees from thousands of undocumented immigrants to pretend to employ them at jobs that didn’t exist. (“I love Trump but I still don’t agree with him on immigration,” Tischler says now. “I believe this country should be open to everyone.”) “It is clear in the case of Mr. Tischler that there is a wide disconnect between his acts of religious charity and his views about the need to conform to the laws of civil society,” said the judge, Naomi Reice Buchwald, according to a sentencing document. “Not only did he commit the crimes charged as well as an earlier immigration fraud, but he has built up literally pages and pages of debts and judgments that are recited in the presentence report which can only be understood as reflecting a dismissive view of the obligations of a civil society and perhaps worse.” He did his time in Otisville, an Orange County prison known for accommodating Orthodox Jewish practice.

Six years later, the obligations of a civil society have, in most people’s view, expanded to include mask-wearing and social distancing, the two changes that public health experts say make the most difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But inside Borough Park — where many believed the community reached herd immunity months ago, where the influence of right-wing media is strong, and where highly social habits run counter to distancing directives—those practices have relatively few adherents. By mid-May, the community had largely resumed normal life, with its synagogues and yeshivas that defined pre-pandemic daily routines reopened.

This presented a dilemma for the neighborhood’s political leadership. First, they fruitlessly exhorted residents to comply with the city’s public health rules. Then, they sought to get New York State’s overnight camps, extensions of the community’s education system, opened for the summer — and fell short there, too. By late summer, those leaders, previously prominent in the community response to the pandemic, had mostly vanished from the front lines. Into the void stepped Tischler, telling his followers that the city’s case numbers were spurious (“Their testing results are lies!” he said Wednesday); posting video of himself from a large outdoor wedding even after those very gatherings were blamed for rising COVID cases in August; and vowing not to let Cuomo crack down on Borough Park. “You’re not coming into my neighborhood, we’re going to do whatever we want,” Tischler said to Cuomo in the wedding video, guests mingling and violin music in the background.

Young men sell the four species for Sukkot in Borough Park on Sept. 29. (Daniel Moritz-Rabson)

“The Brooklyn Jewish community has had a void of leadership, it has a lot of frustrated residents who would like to see an active response to the declarations by the governor and the mayor,” Nachum Segal, an Orthodox radio host, told me. “So a guy like this comes along and says a lot of the things a lot of people are thinking and the things that are frustrating people, he’s going to get attention.”

The ultimate frustration was thrust onto the neighborhood a week ago at the beginning of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival. After an uptick in new COVID cases in late September, city and state officials had seemed to race to close businesses and, in an ultimate affront, limit synagogue attendance in response to rising COVID infections in the area. “One of the prime places of mass gatherings are houses of worship. I understand it’s a sensitive topic, but that is the truth,” Cuomo said at a press conference Tuesday.

Normally during Sukkot, when school is closed, thousands of teenagers fill the streets of Borough Park, roaming up and down 13th Avenue in front of kosher ice cream shops and bookstores selling religious texts. What would normally be a boisterous crowd in search of a concert or dance party this year turned into a ready-made assembly for protest. Depending on whom you ask, what happened over the course of the next two nights either ended Tischler’s rise or propelled it to another plane.

On Tuesday, the boys and young men burned a pile of face masks in the middle of the street. They blocked city buses from moving through the neighborhood. And Tischler, grabbing a megaphone told the crowd: “You are my soldiers! We are at war!” Angered by outside scrutiny, they chased a photographer away. Around 2 a.m., a community member taking video was chased and beaten. He was Berish Getz, the brother of Mordy Getz, a businessman who had spoken out in favor of mask wearing and social distancing back in April and been labeled a “moser — one who informs on his fellow Jews to the authorities. Some Jewish legal texts suggest that a moser is subject to the death penalty, making it a particularly menacing designation.

The next day, Wednesday, Tischler weaponized the label further. In a video taken in front of a cemetery and posted to Instagram Wednesday, he called Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider and himself a member of the Hasidic community in Borough Park, a “moser” and a “rat.” The night before, Kornbluh had texted Tischler and asked him to apologize to the community for inciting violence. When Kornbluh showed up to Wednesday night’s protest, Tischler cornered him against a brick wall, summoning a large crowd to surround him. “You’re a moser,” Tischler screamed in Kornbluh’s face. “Everybody scream moser!” Apart from the Jewish music and dancing, it was a scene very much like a Trump rally, from the TRUMP 2020 flags that protestors carried to the ease with which they could be turned against the media.

That was unsurprising to some who have watched the community’s attitudes shift in a way that dovetails with the country’s. “The community is driven and guided by a combination of paranoia and a desire for full personal autonomy while excluding outsiders, outsider point of view, and that which makes them uncomfortable. Trump validates a lot of their attitudes,” said Menashe Shapiro, a political consultant. “Trump is the cocaine, Tischler is one of the dealers (as are super-right-wing radio, blogs and podcasts). The community are the addicts.”

The violence at both protests was condemned widely by elected officials from former state assemblyman Dov Hikind  — “I’m ashamed of what happened,” he said of Tuesday’s protest — to de Blasio, who said about Wednesday’s incident, “It’s absolutely unacceptable, disgusting, really.” Tischler wouldn’t take responsibility for it. In fact, he wouldn’t even admit it happened.

“There was no violence,” he told me on Thursday afternoon. “If there would have been violence, there would have been somebody arrested.” (Kornbluh says he was punched and kicked, and there’s video showing someone trying to hit Getz on Tuesday night with a traffic cone.) In an Instagram video that same day, Tischler announced that he had put on a suit and presented himself at the 66th Precinct for arrest, only to be told he was not under investigation. 

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

But on Friday, rumors swirled in Brooklyn’s Orthodox community that Tischler would step back from public life. Some said he was considering dropping out of his run for city council before he’d even officially launched his campaign. In a phone call Friday afternoon, Tischler said he’d never even considered dropping out. If anything, he doubled down: “Whatever you’ve seen me do, you’re going to see bigger and better things,” he said. “I’m going after the governor and the mayor personally now. There’ll be so much, he’s not going to be able to control this city. He’s not going to know what hit him,” Tischler said. “You just wait for round two.”

And shortly after that, he posted yet another video to social media announcing that he would be arrested at 10 a.m. Monday at the 66th precinct in Borough Park. “I’ll be taken in for inciting a riot,” he announced directly to the camera, in a rambling speech. He said he would plead not guilty, called Kornbluh a “very terrible bad man,” and apologized to Chirlane McCray. “Heshy Tischler here will be walking into jail with Pastor McCaul” — a local minister who called for Tischler’s arrest on Thursday — “and a lawyer and turning himself in and I’m very upset about this … I’m hoping that I can be out for the ‘Just Enough Heshy’ show at 9 o’clock Wednesday night.” 

Even after all that, he seems to believe that this week is his ticket not back to jail but to City Hall. Three years ago, Tischler ran for City Council and, in a three-way race, drew just 670 votes out of nearly 17,000 cast. Now that Chaim Deutsch, the city councilman representing a host of Orthodox neighborhoods in South Brooklyn in District 48, is term limited, Tischler thinks he can win that seat. “It would be like bringing Trump in, something refreshing,” said Soya Radin, a longtime Borough Park resident who is Tischler’s radio co-host. “So we wouldn’t have the same people regurgitating, I’m going to make changes, I’m going to do this and then not doing it.”

Political insiders aren’t so sure. “I think the community would be deeply disserved because I don’t think any of his colleagues would take him seriously,” said Mark Botnick, a former advisor to Michael Bloomberg. “You need someone who can work with people and not just be a rabble-rouser.”

And, again like Trump, he knows exactly how to call attention to himself. He’s been getting so much press, he bragged to me, “that I don’t even have to spend any money … They never actually started listening to me until you guys started giving me the promotion, since the parks.”

Could he pull it off? On his home turf of Instagram, Tischler has earned a host of new critics, and it’s unclear whether he could win the support of local leaders or rabbis. But Borough Park mothers won’t soon forget how Tischler fought for their right to send their children to the playground — the hyperlocal, pandemic version, perhaps, of universal prekindergarten. “Kids absolutely idolize him, worship him,” said Rayne Lunger, a local mother. And it’s hard to discount the throngs of young men, many of voting age, following him through the streets, willing to wave any flag and shout any slogan for the man who promises to keep the yeshivas and synagogues open.

“I wouldn’t say he has a shot,” Kornbluh said, hours before Tischler turned the mob on him. “But Trump also didn’t have a shot.” 

The post ‘We are at war’: Meet Heshy Tischler, the Borough Park agitator aiming for New York City Council appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

A Jewish author used a World War II image for his book on Sweden’s Nazi collaboration. A museum sued him.

Tue, 2020-10-13 20:16

(JTA) — A new book about Sweden’s collaboration with Nazi Germany has prompted controversy and a lawsuit against the book’s Jewish author from one of the country’s World War II museums.

But the lawsuit, which got thrown out of court Friday, wasn’t even about book’s subject, which in Sweden has been out in the open for decades.

Instead, Aron Flam was sued over copyright ownership of a cartoon tiger that he used on the cover of his recently published book “This Is a Swedish Tiger.”

In Sweden, the tiger image was used in a propaganda campaign during World War II to discourage Swedes from saying things or take actions that would have jeopardized Sweden’s neutral status — in Swedish, the word “tiger” also means silence. The image on the cover of Flam’s book has the tiger wearing a Nazi armband with a black swastika, although the original image bears none of these symbols.

The tiger symbol is owned by the Emergency Preparedness Museum, which includes exhibits from Sweden’s preparations for the war.

The ruling Friday by the Patent and Market Court of Stockholm District Court said Flam did not violate the private museum’s copyrights because he used the symbol to parody it,  according to the SVT broadcaster. Flam told SVT the ruling came as a “great relief.”

Earlier this year, the book sold through two print runs before Swedish police confiscated 2,000 copies as the lawsuit started.

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Heavy rain reveals remains from Romanian Jewish cemetery destroyed by fascists

Tue, 2020-10-13 19:51

(JTA) — Heavy rainfall in northeastern Romania exposed an underground chamber full of headstones from a Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943.

The cave was exposed last week at Tatarasi Park in the city of Iasi, which is near the site where allies of the Nazis stole thousands of headstones from the ancient Ciurchi Street Jewish Cemetery.

The downpour caused the ceiling of the cache to collapse, exposing fragments from dozens of ornate headstones. The oldest documented graves in the cemetery date to 1467, historian Adrian Cioflancc wrote on Facebook Sunday.

The cemetery, which had more than 20,000 graves, was razed on orders from Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime prime minister. The Jews of Bucharest were allowed to move thousands of bodies to another cemetery, but thousands more were desecrated. The headstones removed were used as construction material on orders from Iasi’s mayor, Constantin Ifrim.

In 1941, Iasi was the site of one of the most infamous pogroms of the Holocaust, in which about 15,000 Jews died.

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This iconic Italian market in NYC has an unexpected Jewish history

Tue, 2020-10-13 19:18

This piece originally appeared in The Nosher.

(JTA) — Teitel Brothers, the 105-year-old Italian provisions store on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, is not Italian at all. In fact, Teitels is the only existing store in the Bronx’s Little Italy — the real Little Italy — with Jewish roots.

Arthur Avenue is a gem in New York City’s cultural and culinary crown. It’s authentically Italian with your selection of paneterie, pasticcerie, salumerie and pescherie — food stores that specialize in one type of product: bread, pastry, meat and fish. As customers bustle through stores you can even hear the Italian “Buona giornata!” Have a good day! 

At the corner of Arthur Avenue and 186th Street, also named Teitel Brothers Avenue, is the eponymous store. Outside is an eye-catching, colorful display of pastas, olive oils and the best-priced Rao’s tomato sauce in all of New York City. If you don’t look down, which is easy to do when taking in the hanging prosciutto di Parma above and the olive bar to your right, you will miss the Jewish history right below your feet. At the entrance to the store is a Star of David mosaic.

I sat down with Eddie Teitel, one of three brothers who runs the family owned shop with their father, Gilbert, to find out how Jewish immigrants from Austria built a successful Italian grocery store. 

Unlike most Jewish immigrants who assimilated to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Jacob and Morris Teitel, tailors from Austria, arrived in 1912 and headed north to the Italian neighborhood of Arthur Avenue. In 1915, they opened Teitel Brothers, importing high quality provisions from a country they had never visited. Jacob and Morris learned to speak Italian before they spoke English. 

In the 1930s, as fascism and anti-Semitism continued to rise in Europe, the Teitel Brother’s landlord warned them, “If people knew you were Jews, nobody would shop here.” A week later, they installed the Star of David mosaic so everyone who crossed the threshold knew they were Jews. “It took a lot of courage to do something like that,” Eddie remarked.

While Teitel Brothers was not the only Jewish merchant on Arthur Avenue, it is the only Jewish store in the neighborhood that exists today. Why did Teitel outlive the other Jewish stores? According to Eddie, “We’re the first ones here in the morning. We start at a quarter to five and we work hard. We’re one of the last stores to close up and we have a great product.”

(Courtesy Teitel Brothers)

It’s true. Teitels is the Wonka factory of Italian provisions. Two thousand products mask the walls of the 900-square foot corner store. In Teitels’ 105 year history, much of their inventory has remained constant, but if their customers want something they don’t have, they will order it. For example, as more immigrants from Albania and Yugoslavia have moved to the neighborhood, Teitels has added feta and phyllo dough to their shelves.

Eddie is the first Teitel in the third-generation business to visit Italy. Every other year, he attends the Food Show in Modena, takes tours of olive oil factories in Spoleto and sees where their Romano cheese is made in Nepi. 

Before Eddie traveled to Italy, one way Teitels would find new products was through salesmen. Eddie tells a story of a persistent salesman whose cousin from Sicily made a delicious olive oil. Eddie and his brothers liked the olive oil so much that when their uncle passed away, they bought the exclusive rights and named it “Don Luigi” in his honor. In 2001, The New York Times praised the Don Luigi extra virgin olive oil as being “the perfect expression” of Sicilian olives and “a bargain worth seeking out.” After the article was published, Teitels sold out in three days.

When Eddie travels to Italy, he brings back the best of Italian provisions, and also the European hospitality, which he describes as “second to none.” It helps that Eddie has known many of his customers since he was 10 years old, when he started helping his father in the shop. 

View this post on Instagram

So many choices #olives #green #siclianolives #italianmixed

A post shared by Teitel Brothers Bronx, NY (@teitel_brothers_since_1915) on May 26, 2020 at 1:49pm PDT

Each generation of Teitels have brought something new. The first generation opened the store. The second opened the wholesale business. When the third generation took over, there was one truck and now there are eight. Jean, the oldest brother who was a merchant marine, applies his discipline to keep their warehouse across the street in order. Michael, the middle brother and a chef of 35 years, loves to share recipes with people who come in.

As for the next generation? Eddie’s son, who was recently bar mitzvahed, helps in the store on the weekends. Before he joins the family business full-time, his father will make sure he has a college education. 

This past February, Teitel Brothers was honored by the New York City Department of Small Businesses as one of 10 century-old establishments across the five boroughs that have proven to be a permanent neighborhood fixture between 1878 and 1920, along with the famous appetizing spot, Russ & Daughters

Teitel Brothers is more than a store. It is a glimpse into the history of Jewish New Yorkers, the discrimination they faced, and their resistance to such hate — all preserved in cans of tomato sauce, aged salami, and an almost century-old mosaic.

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The man behind the Faces of COVID Twitter account wants to help America face its grief

Tue, 2020-10-13 19:14

(JTA) — When Alex Goldstein first set out to memorialize Americans who died of COVID-19, he was overwhelmed by the vastness of the task ahead.

That was in March, when fewer than 8,000 Americans had died in the pandemic. Now, more than 200,000 deaths later, Goldstein is still tackling the Sisyphean task of documenting the human toll of the pandemic, on his seven-month-old Twitter account, Faces of COVID.

Every night before he lies down, and then every morning when he gets up, Goldstein spends several hours scouring the internet for new stories to share. In 240-character narratives, he shares poignant snapshots of the lives lost along with stories from local newspapers, obituaries and photographs sent by family members.

Think of it as a Portraits of Grief, the New York Times’ post-9/11 memorial project, for the pandemic era — but with the built-in shiva gathering that social media enables. That’s by design, said Goldstein, the founder of a public relations firm who sits on the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston.

“Judaism is intentional about creating space for mourning and about not hiding from the pain but facing it directly,” Goldstein said. “I feel that in this project. I feel that every day.”

Goldstein crossed the 3,000-story threshold this month, just as he also passed 80,000 followers — many fueled, he said, by a desire to transcend the increasing politicization of the virus. As the project has matured, Goldstein has branched out: He recently raised funds to produce videos showcasing first responders and educators who have died, and this week, in honor of Indigenous People’s Day, he spent a day highlighting Native Americans who died of the virus.

We spoke to Goldstein about what has surprised him about Faces of COVID, the stories that have stuck with him and how he manages to have hope. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: What prompted you to start this account, and how have you approached it?

Goldstein: At the outset of the pandemic I was experiencing what a lot of people were experiencing: As these scary and overwhelming statistics started coming our way, I needed a way to humanize the level of loss that was happening out there. It was just for my own catharsis at first, but I quickly realized that others felt the same way.

I started on my personal Twitter account, but I decided I needed to create a space that was a little more accessible. In the third week of March I had the idea to launch Faces of COVID —  that happened to be when both Boston and New York were both getting really slammed. It was really scary outside the four walls of my house and this was a way to humanize the trauma that was happening out there. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for seven full months. I never thought at the outset we would be in September and still be losing a thousand people a day. It’s really grim.

I devote my last hour or two each night and the first hour or two in the morning to sourcing these stories. I do a pretty robust scan of local news outlets: That’s the first place I’m looking for vetted strong sourcing, and it’s also an opportunity to uplift local journalism, which is a passion of mine. I also look for families that self-identify in an obituary that they wrote. The last source and unfortunately a more frequent source over the last few months is people who reach out directly.

I call it the responsibility of memory. What these people are asking for more than ever is to create a space where other people, beyond the isolation of their own mourning, have an opportunity to cry alongside them — even if it is virtual, and even if they are strangers.

What has surprised you most about the project and how it has been received?

The purpose initially was to help people who had not lost someone connect in an intimate way with the abstract statistics. I did not anticipate it would be a meaningful place for people who lost someone to find a space for communal grieving. That has only become apparent as the platform has grown.

A good example was an obituary sent by a woman about her uncle in Tennessee. The obituary talks about how the light of his life was his nieces. Since I shared it and then the nieces shared it, there has been this cascade of strangers who are replying to them. Maybe in a different context — not a pandemic, where we’re able to have the typical rituals of mourning — this wouldn’t be needed. But now, this may be the most condolence calls they’ve received. We’re giving people the opportunity to acknowledge just how awful this is and how somebody who meant something to a whole lot of people is gone now and this hurts all of us.

We loved our uncle so damn much. https://t.co/DCyLozW25W

— Liz (@liz_901) October 6, 2020

People are sharing these intimate and vulnerable moments — and there is no scarier place to be vulnerable and share hard things than on social media, which is so unpredictable and has so much potential to be toxic. I’m sure this will boomerang on me, but what has really surprised me is that to this point, the toxicity that has come to define social media and Twitter in particular has been almost completely absent.

I don’t know if that’s because people have a certain reverence or they just haven’t found us yet and the trolls are doing other things. I see the deniers on social media, but there’s almost nothing on our responses. Less than 1% are suggesting that it was a hoax or these people died of something else. We just don’t see it. I don’t know what to attribute it to but it surprises me every day.

In your career and personal life, you’re very Jewishly involved. What do you see as the relationship between your Judaism and this project?

I grew up very much engrained in Boston’s vibrant Jewish community. I went to Temple Emanuel, I was bar mitzvahed there, I went to Brandeis for undergrad, so I have always felt deeply connected both as a Jew but also to the community at large. I’m on the board of JCRC (the Jewish Community Relations Council).

One thing I always found powerful about Judaism and our tradition is the way in which we approach grieving and mourning, which is not to say, “They’re in a better place,” but to interface in an intimate way with the pain and grief in the moment, with what it feels like to lose somebody, to say it’s OK to be angry and to cry and to scream.

I lost a good friend a couple of years back and after she passed away I talked to a rabbi I am close to — Bill Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline — and one of the things he reminded me is that Judaism is intentional about creating space for mourning and about not hiding from the pain but facing it directly. I feel that in this project. I feel that every day. Part of the responsibility I feel is to make these stories visceral and real because that is not only a more compassionate and empathetic way to deal with a crisis like this, but I think it’s also what forces us to ask hard questions about what was inevitable and what wasn’t.

Many of the stories we’ve shared are people in the Jewish community, whether from the Orthodox communities in Brooklyn or Monsey (New York) that were hit so hard in the earliest days to communities that are small but mighty like Columbia, South Carolina. I think about this couple, David and Muriel Cohen, who lived in a Jewish nursing home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. David liberated a concentration camp in Germany and he and his wife died within days of each other of COVID. It was one of those stories that puts your heart in your throat — you say to yourself, how badly have we let these people down? These people are heroes of this country and they were just swept away by a virus that, while we didn’t understand it, we knew it was coming. I think about them a lot. I think about the Holocaust survivors — to survive that experience and then to be let down so horribly — you get my point.

DAVID, 102, & MURIEL, 97, COHEN, of Longmedow, MA, passed away on the same day. David was a WW2 veteran, & a liberator of the Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany. They were at each other's side until the end. #MemorialDayWeekend

Via @emilysweeneyhttps://t.co/rb9lbzeBpq

— FacesOfCOVID (@FacesOfCOVID) May 25, 2020

Are there other stories that have stuck with you?

Absolutely. This is someone who reached out directly to us — her name is Carol Ackerman, and her father Stanley died. I was reading what she sent and I felt like I knew him. He was a 70-something Jewish grandfather who was living in Florida. He was supposed to go on a family trip to Israel this spring that didn’t happen. He was an immigrants rights advocate and lawyer in New York for years and he just had this awesome story. I thought: I would have loved this guy. We would have hit it off and talked for hours. His daughter is an EMT and in part because of Faces of COVID has started to be more outspoken. I think about her and her dad a lot.

One of the reasons that this is so powerful is that you see yourself and your family and your friends in these stories. You don’t have to know the people to know them.

Stanley reminds me a lot of my dad. He is a lawyer who cares deeply about civil rights and he’s of the same age. My dad is very sick, and one of his wishes was for a family trip to Israel, so I brought him on a trip last year. When Carol told me that her dad wanted to go to Israel I immediately thought of that experience.

STANLEY TEICH, 80, died of COVID-19 on April 10.

A champion of immigrant rights, he retired as a teacher at 55 to attend law school & helped hundreds through his immigration law practice. His family misses him everyday.

Submitted to @facesofcovid by his daughter, Carol. pic.twitter.com/OqpqAGMppJ

— FacesOfCOVID (@FacesOfCOVID) August 16, 2020

It’s a very common response: “My mom was a third-grade teacher also.” “My dad was about to celebrate his 70th birthday, too.” It allows us to make their struggle our struggle. And that’s how I think it should be. We are a community, and part of that means that when one of us is hurting all of us are hurting. Hopefully the stories help people think of that at a time when the notion of empathy seems to have leached out of our discourse completely.

What are your takeaways after doing this for seven months, particularly amid the rapid current growth you’re seeing?

There are a number of news outlets and efforts that are trying to chronicle some piece of this — educators, or medical professionals, or people in a specific city. I haven’t seen anything also that tries to wrap around the entire scope — about how this is literally in every corner of our lives, and how the types of people we are losing is reflective of our country. These people are rural and in cities, old and young, people with medical issues and people who were healthy. That reflects the nature of this virus — it is indiscriminate in many ways, except that it has disproportionately affected Black and brown communities across the country, which is not what you would see if you read the obituary page. The history of this moment is being written right now and the volume of stories we share helps to make sure it’s written accurately.

But this isn’t a scientific process: We’ve only shared a little over 1% of the total. Still, you start to get a feel scrolling through of just how expansive and overwhelming the loss is and how there’s every type of story you could imagine. It’s emblematic of the country.

I genuinely see this effort as being also about accountability. We have made so many grievous errors, so many of them intentional, in terms of the federal responses, and every one of these stories begs the question of whether this person had to die or whether their death was preventable.

When you have the highest office in the country deliberately distorting and putting out misinformation — I think Faces of COVID is also a source of truth about who this virus impacts, which is everybody. It’s not just the flu, it’s not going to go away, and we have responsibility to each other to keep each other safe.

What makes me hopeful — and I’m getting a little emotional here — is what happened this week, when I tweeted out just a couple of words: Why do you follow Faces of COVID? We got nearly 1,000 responses, and they will restore your faith in this country if you read them. They show an army of empathetic souls who will not allow people to feel like they are on their own right now and that gives me a lot of hope.

Because the memory work is what we keep us away from the numbing effects of mere numbers. Because we need to mourn collectively. https://t.co/9XDX0YZ2FT

— Professor Beagle (@Sirma_Bilge) October 5, 2020

There are millions of people in this country who genuinely care about their neighbors and their neighbors’ futures. They may not be the loudest megaphone but they are there.

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Argentine Football Association adopts IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

Tue, 2020-10-13 18:48

BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — The Argentine Football Association adopted the definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance last Thursday. The AFA governs all soccer activity in Argentina.

A day earlier, the University of Buenos Aires, the country’s most prestigious university, did the same.

“We consider extremely important that UBA and AFA have adopted the definition of anti-Semitism. In the case of soccer, there are lots of precedents of concrete discrimination by religion and by nationality, among others, and this decision represents a tool to fight against hate in our main sport,” Victor Garelic, vice president of the Argentine Jewish political umbrella organization DAIA told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The IHRA definition calls anti-Semitism “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” that is “directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” But it also includes “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination … by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour,” and “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

The parts of the definition that include have come under fire in recent years, as some critics have said it stifles the free speech of protesters and activists.

Argentina’s soccer culture has had its share of anti-Semitism controversies in recent years. Fans of the Atlanta team chanted in 2018 about “killing the Jews to make soap,” likely a reference to the unsubstantiated claim that Nazis made soap out of dead Jewish bodies. Earlier this year, a player made an anti-Semitic gesture while leaving the field during.a game.

The University of Buenos Aires, which is about to turn 200 years old, has more than 300,000 students spread out into several different schools. Five Nobel laureates and 16 Argentine presidents are among its graduates.

“The adoption of the IHRA definition by UBA will be a beacon for other universities across the entire continent and serve as a bulwark against intolerance and incitement to hatred,” stated Shimon Samuels, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations.

Since 2002, Argentina has been the only Latin American member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The country’s foreign affairs ministry adopted the IHRA definition in 2018.

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Brazilian man with infamous swastika pool expelled from his political party

Tue, 2020-10-13 17:10

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — History professor Wandercy Pugliesi first made headlines in 2014, when it was discovered that he had an enormous swastika tiled into his backyard pool in rural southern Brazil.

Pugliesi, 58, named his son Adolf, and police seized a trove of Nazi-related materials from him in 1994.

Now he is back in the news after attempting to run for a seat on his local town council. The Liberal Party that he is affiliated with kicked him out last week, “for not ideologically agreeing with the affiliate.”

Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, praised the removal. The local state Jewish federation’s president called Pugliesi “execrable and regrettable.”

“Brazil sent troops to fight Nazism and fascism. It is absurd that there are people who try to make this type of thing flourish,” Sergio Iokilevitc, president of the Associacao Israelita Catarinense, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Pugliesi lives in Brazil’s state of Santa Catarina, which is home to many German immigrants and their descendants and has been the stage for several neo-Nazi incidents.

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70% of Jews plan to vote Biden, similar to 2016 election, study finds

Tue, 2020-10-13 16:55

(JTA) — The Jewish vote in the upcoming presidential election is going to be basically the same as it has been since 2012, a new study found.

A survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted earlier this month and published Tuesday, found that 70% of American Jews plan to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden, while 27% plan to vote for President Donald Trump.

If those numbers bear out, they will be nearly identical to the Jewish result in 2016, when Pew found that Hillary Clinton won 71% of the Jewish vote to Trump’s 25%. In 2012, the numbers were slightly higher for the Republican candidate: Barack Obama won 69% of the Jewish vote while Mitt Romney won 30%.

The margin of error for Jewish respondents on the Pew survey is quite large, at 9.6%, which means that the result is statistically similar to the Jewish vote in previous elections.

The poll is a blow to Jewish Republican hopes that Trump’s record in office — including recognizing Israeli territorial claims, brokering peace between Israel and two Arab states and pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement — could shift the vote in his favor.

The Pew poll also found that 35% of Jewish Americans approve of the job Trump has done in office, similar to his 38% approval rating among Americans overall.

Overall, Pew found that 52% of Americans overall prefer Biden while 42% prefer Trump. Large majorities of Jews, Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants and religiously unaffiliated voters support Biden. Most white Christians, including the vast majority of white evangelicals, support Trump.

 

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Chabad rabbi sworn in as National Guard chaplain in Colorado

Tue, 2020-10-13 13:59

(JTA) — A Chabad rabbi was sworn in as a chaplain in the Colorado Army National Guard.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, the Chabad director at Colorado State University and a faculty member at the university for the past 15 years, was sworn in Oct. 2 by Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who donned a yarmulke for the occasion.

Gorelik, 44, told the Intermountain Jewish News that he was inspired to enlist by generations of his family who served in militaries including Russia, Australia and the United States. He also decided to enlist due to the rise in anti-Semitism in recent years.

Gorelik will be the first Jewish chaplain in Colorado’s Army National Guard in at least 20 years,  Lt. Col. David Nagel, who oversees the program, told the Coloradoan.

Gorelik has gone through three months of basic training and shed many pounds in order to enlist, according to the IJN.

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Melbourne residents confront haredi Orthodox Jews allegedly meeting during lockdown

Tue, 2020-10-13 13:56

(JTA) — Angry residents of Melbourne, Australia, confronted a group of haredi Orthodox Jews who appeared to be violating coronavirus lockdown regulations.

A group of Jews who are believed to be part of the Satmar Hasidic group were filmed leaving the Adass Israel School in south Melbourne on Saturday night, the Daily Mail Australia reported.

In videos posted online, residents can be heard shouting at the group and telling them that they were violating the lockdown regulations. In one video, a Jewish man appears to chase a man who was filming the scene.

“These people are breaking corona rules and they’re trying to attack me … they’re trying to attack me,” the cameraman said as he ran.

Victoria state police told the Daily Mail Australia that no breaches of the coronavirus lockdown rules were violated.

Melbourne is under a strict coronavirus lockdown that limits gatherings to five people from two households. Residents are instructed to remain within a three-mile radius of their homes and to only venture outside for exercise, food shopping, work, school, and caregiving.

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Tik Tok removes channel of Jewish extremist group Lehava

Tue, 2020-10-13 13:46

(JTA) — The video-sharing social network Tik Tok removed the channel of Lehava, a far-right Israeli group that opposes Jewish-Arab coexistence and gay relationships.

The group is led by Benzi Gopstein, who was banned from running in Israeli elections last year as head of the right-wing Jewish Power party due to anti-Arab statements considered incitement to racism.

Tik Tok first took down three of Lehava’s videos and then completely removed the channel after receiving complaints about its content. The channel was permanently blocked over “repeated violations of our community conduct regulations,” Tik Tok said in a statement, according to the Lehava website.

Gopstein told Israel National News that his attorneys are “checking into” filing a lawsuit against Tik Tok.

“You can find every evil on Tik Tok, but somebody who talks a little about Judaism and about not assimilating – this, Tik Tok decided to close,” Gopstein said.

Lehava also has been banned from Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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American Jewish Congress taps former Bernie Sanders Jewish outreach director as executive director

Tue, 2020-10-13 13:38

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The American Jewish Congress hired the former director of Jewish outreach for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to be its executive director.

Joel Rubin will be the advocacy group’s first Washington-based director in a decade. Once a venerable advocate for civil rights, the group fell on hard times because of the 2008 recession and because it was among the groups defrauded by disgraced financier Bernie Madoff. In recent years it has existed mainly as an outlet for Jack Rosen, an investor and prominent pro-Israel political donor who had been harshly critical of Sanders.

“Sanders’s recent comments on conditioning military aid to Israel represents a radical and dangerous departure from the bipartisan consensus – one that is supported by an overwhelming number of our fellow Americans,” Rosen wrote last December in a Jerusalem Post op-ed.

A former congressional staffer and top State Department official, Rubin is steeped in the liberal wing of the pro-Israel movement and is one of the founders of J Street, the liberal Middle East lobby. In a statement, Rosen suggested that a progressive like Rubin would reach younger Jews likely to be as exercised by social justice issues as they are by Israel.

“The Jewish community is facing significant risks right now, including to the safety of our community, the delegitimization of Israel, and the rising tide of global hate that affects us all, Rosen said. “At the same time, momentous domestic challenges, such as racial injustice, have not been effectively addressed.”

Rubin said he was excited to be “helping this great American Jewish institution to both confront the new challenges of our time and shape the Jewish voice of tomorrow.”

Rosen, who gives mostly to Democrats in congressional races, has backed Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in the past, shifting nimbly from support for Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and then to Barack Obama. In the current cycle, he has backed moderate Democrats, including the party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

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UK fashion magazine fires diversity editor following Holocaust jokes

Tue, 2020-10-13 13:31

(JTA) — The British edition of the fashion magazine Grazia fired an editor who made remarks she later acknowledged were anti-Semitic.

A spokesperson for Bauer Media, the publisher of the Italian magazine’s UK edition, said Stephanie Yeboah “will no longer be writing as a contributing editor of Grazia” following “an internal review,” the Daily Mail reported on Saturday

Yeboah, 31, on Thursday apologized for statements she made on Twitter about Jews and the Holocaust.

“To plead ignorance is no excuse, I should have known better than to make these kind of comments about events which remain a source of unimaginable trauma for the Jewish community,” Yeboah said in a statement.

“In these tweets, I made very ignorant and antisemitic comments about the Jewish community,” she added.

In one of the tweets, Yeboah wrote: “AUSCHWITZ Gas Chamber Music LMAO SMH.”

In another, she wrote: “Every Jew has an attic, but not every attic has Jews.”

She has also written that the attention paid to Holocaust remembrance eclipses crimes committed against “brown people.”

Yeboah joined Grazia last month to promote diversity and inclusion.

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Home after being charged with inciting a riot, Heshy Tischler condemns violence but vows to keep fighting

Tue, 2020-10-13 03:17

(JTA) — Just one day after his arrest for inciting a riot, Heshy Tischler, the leader of Orthodox Brooklyn’s protests against new restrictions to stem new COVID cases, was out of jail and addressing a small crowd in front of his Borough Park home.

“I don’t condone violence, I do not want anyone to be violent,” he said, addressing the crowd over a sound system from his front steps. “I want everyone to enjoy us, what we’re going to do. We’re going to continue our fight.”

The short speech came after a tumultuous few days for Tischler and his supporters. After he led a mob of protesters in cornering Jacob Kornbluh, a political reporter at Jewish Insider and a member of the Hasidic community in Borough Park, at a protest last Wednesday, Tischler announced Friday afternoon that he would be arrested Monday morning. But on Sunday night, police officers arrested him at his home. The Brooklyn District Attorney charged Tischler with inciting a riot and unlawful imprisonment in connection to the incident with Kornbluh. He was released without bail.

Also on Sunday night, Tischler’s supporters gathered outside Kornbluh’s home, yelling the word “moser,” Hebrew for informant. Some Jewish legal texts say a “moser” is liable to the death penalty, making it a threatening designation. Kornbluh had been called a “moser” back in April after speaking out about the need to wear masks and observe social distancing.

Tischler has emerged as the leader of a protest movement, largely composed of young men on a Sukkot vacation from yeshiva that could extend for weeks if the governor keeps schools closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, that is pushing back against restrictions imposed on synagogues and yeshivas. Frustrated by the restrictions placed on Orthodox neighborhoods like Borough Park and with the lack of results achieved by the neighborhood’s elected leaders, Tischler, a bombastic radio host and ex-convict, has become the de facto leader of the restless Borough Park youth. (Read our profile, produced in partnership with New York Magazine, for more background.)

Upon his arrival at his home Monday evening, Tischler thanked his supporters as well as those who he said had fought for his release. He included Dov Hikind, a former state assemblyman who represented Borough Park, among those who worked for his release. Hikind told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week that he condemned the violence at a protest last Tuesday night. “I’m ashamed of what happened,” he said, though he did not condemn Tischler by name.

Some of Tischler’s supporters called for more protests Monday night, but the rainy weather was a deterrent to others. Messages were forwarded on WhatsApp encouraging Tischler’s fans to come to his house in a show of support. “Let’s show our support do the only man fighting for us,” one man posted a video to Whatsapp.

In a video of Tischler as he arrived home Monday night, he said he would not condone violence.

“I want to thank all my supporters, I want to tell everyone again, no violence whatsoever and I want everyone to thank you for everything you’ve done for me and all your prayers,” he said.

But Tischler did not appear to be toning down his rhetoric, according to a video of him addressing the small crowd in front of his house Monday night. Tischler went after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, two of his favorite targets.

“We’re going to beat Mayor de Blasio, we’re going to knock that Cuomo out, we’re not going to let him get re-elected,” he said, before plugging his own campaign for City Council.

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In Mexico City, the enormous Deportivo center brought the country’s Jews together. The pandemic has separated them.

Tue, 2020-10-13 02:19

MEXICO CITY (JTA) — Mexico City’s biggest Jewish community center, the Centro Deportivo Israelita, is more like a sprawling country club.

It houses, among other things, a full-size Olympic swimming pool, another 25-meter covered pool, dozens of tennis courts, multiple basketball courts, fronton courts (for playing Basque pelota sports), other paddle courts, a 200-person theater, two full-sized soccer fields, a baseball field, men and women’s saunas, a Yiddish and Hebrew library, a hair salon and a restaurant.

On a recent visit, the normally filled premises were eerily quiet. The restaurant — in pre-COVID times packed with children running around all afternoon, shouting at each other and over their parents, who are spreading the latest community gossip — was completely empty at lunchtime. By the nearby pool, the library’s attendant — a woman who has worked there for decades — was pushing a cart full of books.

“If a member can’t go into the library, the library goes to you!” said Isaac Podbilewicz, the Deportivo’s director, as he watched the cart with a laugh from a restaurant table, referencing how COVID-19 had temporarily shuttered the library.

Most of the outdoor infrastructure is open, while indoor spaces — bathrooms, theaters and other rooms, only about 30% of the entire club — have been closed during the pandemic. The Deportivo, as it is colloquially called, has also developed an app with which members can reserve a pool lane, or a machine in the gym, so as to not overcrowd the space.

But most have stayed away, wary of the contagious virus and heeding warnings from Jewish leaders. For 89-year-old Maia Wajsfeld, who became one of the center’s first members after it opened in the 1950s, it has been “the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

“I would give my life for the Deportivo,” she said on the phone, from quarantine. “The Deportivo is my life.”

With 18,000 members, the Deportivo is arguably the most important Jewish institution in the country, bringing together the country’s separate insular communities to socialize, unify and strengthen their Jewish identity. Coming from over 20 different countries, the Jews of Mexico are sharply divided, by their ancestral places of origin and their religious customs: Ashkenazi and Sephardic; Jews from Aleppo and Jews from Damascus; Orthodox and Conservative.

A view of one of the Deportivo’s now-empty pools. (Alan Grabinsky)

The vast majority of the country’s 50,000 or so Jews live in the capital city, which fans out for about 573 square miles, more than New York City. Each community has its own network of synagogues, schools and community centers, often only a 15-minute drive from most member’s homes. Most of the communities tilt towards the Orthodox end of the religious spectrum; there are only two active Conservative synagogues, and no institutionalized Reform services take place in the city.

In this highly fragmented space, the Deportivo prides itself on being “La casa de todos” (“The house of everyone”). Historically, it has been a secular space, and one of its most visited days is Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. More recently, though, coinciding with a larger communal trend towards religiosity, it has opened a small synagogue and hosts daily prayers, much to the dismay of many of its more secular Ashkenazi founding members.

In the 1950s, the Deportivo was established on what was back then a cow-ridden pasture in the outskirts of Mexico City. During the earlier days, being a member was equivalent to being an active part of the Jewish community. In the 60s and 70s, it was akin to a Catskill resort in the Borscht Belt, of the kind depicted in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — a place to see and be seen, for flirting, and for entire families to hang out together.

“Back then, the Jewish communities were even more divided than they are now,” said Wajsfeld, who was present at the ceremony when the center’s first stone was laid. “It was the first time that all the communities came together.”

It was in the Deportivo’s Muro Curvo, a mythical curved wall that has been torn down to make way for a four-story building, where Majsfeld’s son, who is Ashkenazi, met his future wife, a Syrian Jew from the Monte Sinai community (the Damascus clan) in the mid-70s.

Another highlight of the space is a massive mural created by Fanny Rabel, a student of the famed painter Diego Rivera. Painted in 1957, it reads from right to left in Hebrew and tells the Jewish story, from biblical times to the birth of the State of Israel, passing through the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. It includes images of Einstein, Shalom Aleichem, and Freud metaphorically meeting Moses and Abraham. The ballroom where it’s located, known as “Salon Mural,” used to host delicious and popular Sunday buffet brunches, as well as Mexican presidents and Mexico City mayors. A fair share of Israeli leaders have also dined in it over the years, such as Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres and, most recently, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Each year, the Deportivo also organizes the Aviv dance festival, a massive event drawing thousands of young people from across Latin America for a week-long Israeli dance competition. Last year, it hosted the Pan-American Maccabiah Games, drawing people from across the globe and receiving up to 10,000 people in a single day.

Since the 1990s, though, membership has been steadily declining by 3% each year, according to Podbilewicz. The trend coincides with a migration of Jews from central neighborhoods like Polanco and Condesa to the suburbs of Interlomas, Herradura and Bosques de Reforma. Most of the communal infrastructure followed and today many Jews currently live in all-inclusive buildings which offer many of the amenities found at the Deportivo.

“Before the 80s, being a member of the Deportivo was a matter of belonging to the Jewish community,” Podbilewicz said. “Now it’s still important, but no longer wholly a matter of identity.”

A view of the main lawn in 1964. (Courtesy of the Centro Deportivo Israelita archive)

The institution has adapted, creating a smaller branch closer to the region where most people live, which has a pool, a gym and multi-purpose rooms. It has also opened another large complex — an actual country club — located in the outskirts of the city, in the town of Tepoztlan.

The Deportivo was in the midst of celebrating its 70th anniversary, a year-long celebration starting in October last year, when the pandemic struck. The slowdown of activity and restricted entry has been a strain on the community. And with more than 80,000 official COVID-19 deaths, Mexico is among the countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 virus.

Yet Mexico’s Jewish community has remained relatively unscathed, thanks in part to draconian measures imposed by the community’s umbrella governing board — the Jewish Central Committee — in Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers. (In contrast, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been criticized for not wearing a mask in public and for taking a lax approach to the virus. Lockdown measures have been unevenly applied throughout the country.) As of early this week, close to 2,000 Mexican Jews have been infected and 21 have died, according to Tribuna Israelita, the community’s main communication channel.

While the Jewish community remains on lockdown — schools are closed and reservations are needed for synagogue services, which cap at 30% capacity — only the Deportivo remains open.

The staff has shrunk from 600 to 420 and, before COVID-19, 2,000 people visited every day. Now the number has gone down to 100, according to Podbilewicz. Until recently, entry was banned to anyone over the age of 65, precisely the generation who lived through the Deportivo’s golden age. During weekdays, a caravan of buses used to pick up dozens of elderly members; in the mornings, they could be seen engaged in book clubs in the library, playing domino on the outdoor tables, swimming and eating. An average of 350 elderly people visited the space every day.

Olga Zepeda, who ran the center’s Beyahad elderly program for seven years, said that the lack of access has caused a huge vacuum in these people’s lives. Before the pandemic, they would run into “long lost friends” from the Jewish community at the Deportivo, and “it was beautiful,” she said in an interview.

The thing that has perhaps best captured how crucial the Deportivo has been to Mexico City’s Jews is a video that was part of a recent internal fundraising campaign. As part of the thank you gesture for donating, members received commemorative bottles containing water — from the center’s pool.

“We will send to your home a liter of a liquid with which you’ve been in contact with since you were little,” member Aby Stern, grandson of one of the center’s founders, says in the video, while gesturing towards the pool.

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‘Jew’ isn’t a derogatory term. So why do so many people avoid saying it?

Mon, 2020-10-12 23:01

This story originally ran in the Washington Post

As Jews around the world prepared for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, President Trump wished his “Jewish brothers and sisters” a happy holiday.

In 2019, he extended a version of the same greeting to “those observing Rosh Hashanah.” In 2018, it was “Jewish people.” In 2017, it was “Jewish families.”

With one exception, a word was missing from the texts of all four annual greetings: “Jews.”

The syntax speaks to a strange phenomenon: People often seem to be afraid of using the word “Jew,” a word that, simply, describes the people they’re talking about.

Discomfort with the word “Jew” exists across the political spectrum. In 2015, a Democratic official chastised Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, for a campaign sign he advertised reading “Jew for Rand.” Recent articles about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on CNNUSA Today and elsewhere described her as “the first Jewish person” to lie in state. (Notably, Jewish newspapers felt fine calling Ginsburg the “first Jew” to be given the honor.)

Why such aversion? “Jew” is not a slur. It is a descriptor most Jews will use without a moment’s thought. It’s just who we are. Derived from the Hebrew word “Yehuda,” the name of the foremost of the 12 tribes of Ancient Israel, it’s a cognate of the Hebrew word “yehudi,” which means Jew or Jewish.

Of course, for as long as anti-Semitism has existed, people have used the word “Jew” as a pejorative. The most famous example is Nazi Germany, which made Jews wear yellow stars bearing the word “Jude,” German for “Jew.” William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and other writers have called characters “Jews” — without meaning it as a compliment. As a verb, rather than a noun, it’s more obviously fraught: The phrase “to Jew down” unfortunately persists in some corners as a bigoted synonym for aggressively bargaining or cheating, based on the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews are cheap.

Plenty of people, particularly non-Jews, avoid the word “Jew” for that reason, says Sarah Bunin Benor, who researches American Jewish language. “Many people assume that it’s a slur because they know that Jews are historically a stigmatized group, so they’re concerned about using it because they don’t want to sound offensive,” she said.

Jews were also once reticent to use the word “Jew” in describing themselves. Early generations of American Jews, sensitive to how non-Jews could think the word was a slur, opted instead for “Hebrew” or “Israelite” when they named their organizations. Those words harked back to a biblical heritage Christians could appreciate, says Eric Goldstein, a historian of American Jews.

That’s why the country’s first association of Reform synagogues was initially called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and why Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded the American Israelite, the oldest English-language Jewish weekly newspaper in America (which is still running). The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, established in 1881, helped waves of Eastern European Jews settle in the United States. The American government used the word “Hebrew” as a way to identify Jewish soldiers as late as the 1940s.

The dynamic shifted after the Holocaust, when, Goldstein says, when Jews worried “Hebrew” sounded too much like a racial category (and “Israelite” felt antiquated). Many postwar Jews were eager to assimilate into White America, and the 1955 book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” by Jewish author Will Herberg, argued that Jews should be seen as another religious group with equal claim to America, rather than as a different race or ethnicity.

Still, the word “Jew” does feel different from, and somehow more powerful than, “Jewish.” “Jewish” is an adjective, one of many that could describe someone who may also be American, tall, athletic or anything else. “Jew” is not that. It’s an identity, something that speaks to the core of a person.

At the Jewish day school I attended growing up, my teachers used to ask my classmates and me whether we were “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews.” If someone said they were an “American Jew,” it implied their Judaism was most important. “American,” in this case, was the modifier, while “Jew” was who they really were.

Of course, like other words that describe a minority, “Jew” can still be used offensively today if it’s intended to denigrate someone or to advance anti-Jewish stereotypes. A good tell, said Benor, is if the word “Jew,” a noun, is used as an adjective or a verb. Anti-Semites, for example, may refer to a “Jew banker” or use the expression “Jew down.”

But “Jewish” can be used in anti-Semitic ways pretty easily, as well. Thomas Lopez-Pierre, an unsuccessful candidate for New York City Council, told me in 2017 that a cabal of “greedy Jewish landlords” was working with Israel to ethnically cleanse Harlem of people of color and that their misdeeds were being covered up by the Jewish media. In case it wasn’t clear, that’s a whole smorgasbord of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.

If we avoid saying “Jew” because anti-Semites might use it, we’re giving them veto power over a word that has defined us, in one language after another, for millennia. In fact, experts say, anti-Semites need not use the words “Jew” or “Jewish” at all to attack Jews. People who study hatred of Jews are now keeping an eye on QAnon, the growing pro-Trump conspiracy theory accusing powerful globalist elites of kidnapping children, abusing them and harvesting their blood.

Few QAnon posts include the word “Jew,” but the theory is based on age-old anti-Semitic tropes that rich Jews control the world and kill non-Jewish kids for their blood, a canard known as the “blood libel.” Putting all of those ideas together means that “even without mentioning Jews, you can definitely get that kind of implicit anti-Semitic message,” Magda Teter, who wrote a book about the blood libel, told me.

Anti-Semitism doesn’t hinge on using the word “Jew.” And the word “Jew” has neither a positive nor a negative connotation. As long as you’re not saying anything hateful, feel free to call me a Jew.

If you don’t believe me, take it from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a 1996 essay, she wrote, “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew.”

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French-Jewish singer Enrico Macias says he’ll leave France for Israel if Le Pen becomes president

Mon, 2020-10-12 22:41

(JTA) — Enrico Macias, a well-known French-Jewish singer, said he would immigrate to Israel if the far-right politician Marine Le Pen is elected president in 2022.

Le Pen, leader of the National Rally party, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that Macias’ pledge is “a good additional reason” to vote for her, adding a winking emoji.  The Union of Jewish students in France, or UEJF, called her tweet anti-Semitic.

The exchange began after Macias, an 81-year-old Algeria-born performer who is one of French Jewry’s best-known personalities, told Radio J on Sunday that he would make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel, if Le Pen wins.

“I’m not staying,” he said when asked if he would leave. “I don’t know where I’d go, but Israel in any case is the only place for a Jew living in the world could hope for. ‘Cause when we were persecuted, it was Auschwitz. Now it’s Israel. Fortunately, we have Israel.”

Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded National Rally, is a convicted Holocaust denier, and Marine kicked him out of the party. His daughter has insisted she does not share his anti-Semitic beliefs, but the party, which has a strong anti-immigrant stance, has been dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism.

The UEJF, which is widely seen as left-leaning, wrote on Twitter: “Drive away your nature, it comes galloping back. Once an anti-Semite, always an anti-Semite.”

A recent national poll suggests that Marine Le Pen has broadened her base of support following a historical success in the 2017 elections, in which she advanced to a second round runoff against Emmanuel Macron.

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Decades before Gal Gadot, Elizabeth Taylor fell into controversy playing Cleopatra as a Jewish actress

Mon, 2020-10-12 22:30

(JTA) — After Israeli actress Gal Gadot announced this weekend that she would play the legendary Egyptian queen in a blockbuster movie, it didn’t take long for the calls of cultural appropriation to start on social media.

One tweet in particular, which said Gadot is “stealing” the role from Arab actresses, started a robust debate. Some users pointed out that Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian — as a Ptolemaic ruler, she was descended from a Macedonian father, and historians don’t know the ethnicity of her mother.

This is hardly the first time in recent memory when the ability of Jews to play non-Jewish roles has come into question. It’s also not the first time that a Jewish movie star playing the Egyptian ruler has caused controversy.

The most famous Cleopatra film was released in 1963 and starred Elizabeth Taylor. The film was hugely expensive for the time — Taylor was reportedly the first actress to get paid $1 million for a role — and hugely successful, even though it was plagued by rumors of Taylor’s affair with co-star Richard Burton and all kinds of other on-set drama.

Taylor had converted to Judaism a few years earlier, before her marriage to singer Eddie Fisher, and had become outspokenly supportive of Israel. At the time, Egypt saw Israel as its enemy and banned any kind of relations with Jews and Israelis. So when the film first came out, Egypt banned the film.

Elizabeth Taylor seen alongside her co-star Richard Burton in the 1963 film. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But the ordeal, which has a happy ending of sorts, actually started before the film was released, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s archives show. Here’s a quick timeline of Taylor’s Jewish Cleopatra story.

  • In 1959, Taylor made her Zionist support public in a big way, buying $100,000 of Israel bonds at a fundraiser dinner in Los Angeles with her new husband Fisher (who bought $10,000 himself). She had already finished her conversion with a big ceremony at Hollywood’s Temple Israel and spoken to the press about her love of Judaism. She was not converting for her husband, she made clear — she claimed she had admired the religion “for a long time.”
  • Taylor’s big Israel bonds purchase made waves in the Arab world, and not long after, JTA reported that the U.S. State Department had received some startling news: The United Arab Republic — what was then a unified state consisting of Egypt and Syria — “officially banned all motion pictures” featuring Taylor.
  • Filming for “Cleopatra” took place in 1962, mostly in Rome, but the crew planned to film some shots in Egypt, for authenticity’s sake. But Taylor was banned from even entering the country, so the crew didn’t travel to Egypt. Still, JTA noted at the time: “Officially, Miss Taylor’s movies have been on the Egyptian blacklist for a long time. However, some of her films are shown occasionally in Egypt, and receive enthusiastic support from Egyptian audiences.”
  • “Cleopatra” ended up doing just fine — it was released in 1963, became the most financially successful movie of the year and won four Academy Awards in 1964. Furthermore, Egyptian officials enjoyed it so much that they removed Taylor from the travel blacklist. As JTA reported: “The officials decided the film was good publicity for Egypt which is mentioned 122 times in the movie.”

If you’re curious, Taylor’s pro-Israel activism continued for decades, and JTA covered it:

She and Burton, who became one of her several husbands, helped raise close to a million dollars for Israel at a 1967 fundraiser; later in 1967, she canceled a trip to a film festival in Moscow in “opposition to the Soviet diplomatic offensive against Israel”; Taylor and Burton made headlines by visiting Israel in 1975; Taylor joined in a telegram defending Israel that was sent by 60 prominent women, including Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, to the head of the U.N. in 1975; in 1983, Taylor attempted a “one-woman peace effort,” as JTA wrote at the time, visiting both Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in Jerusalem and Lebanon President Amin Gemayel in Beirut as the countries tried to strike a peace treaty after the previous year’s war.

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Israeli Orthodox leader: Judaism does not forbid same-sex couples from building a family

Mon, 2020-10-12 20:48

(JTA) — A prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi said that Jewish law does not forbid LGBTQ people from building a family.

Rabbi Benny Lau made the statement as part of a set of guidelines for observant LGBTQ Jews and their families released Saturday evening under the heading “It is Not Good for Man to be Alone.” The guidelines, published on Lau’s Facebook page, seek to reconcile a desire to welcome LGBTQ Jews into Jewish communities within the constraints of religious law.

According to Lau, Jewish law “does not forbid members of the LGBTQ community from raising children and building a family,” though he acknowledges that Jewish legal issues may arise for couples who use surrogacy or a sperm donor in order to have children.

Lau also discouraged family members of LGBTQ Jews from encouraging conversion therapy, a debunked practice that seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation.

The rabbi said those attracted to members of the same sex should not attempt to enter heterosexual marriage if they are repulsed by their partner. And he affirmed that LGBTQ couples and their children should be full members of the community and that their dignity should not be harmed.

He emphasized that the guidelines are not meant as a ruling on matters of Jewish law, but are aimed at finding ways for LGBTQ Jews to manage their family lives within religious communities.

Lau is affiliated with Israel’s Religious Zionist camp, an Orthodox movement that is more integrated into Israeli society than the haredi Orthodox community. In the the past, he has drawn ire from some in his community for his progressive positions on a range of issues, including LGBTQ acceptance.

Like the Modern Orthodox community in the United States, Israel’s Religious Zionist community has struggled in recent years with the tension between the Torah’s prohibition on homosexual relationships and the increased acceptance of LGBTQ people in the secular world. The guidelines are significant because of Lau’s prominence and because few Orthodox rabbis have been willing to speak out in favor of LGBTQ acceptance.

Lau’s guidelines address the issue of same-sex weddings, for which he says there is no “no acceptable solution” with a Jewish religious framework. Still, he said the impulse to marry and have one’s relationship publicly affirmed is “understandable” and should not be ignored. Creating an alternative ceremony that does not attempt to “imitate” a traditional Jewish wedding may reduce the reluctance of religious family members to participate, he said.

Lau was previously the rabbi of the Ramban synagogue, a prominent Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem. He is the nephew of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and the cousin of David Lau, the current chief rabbi. His brother, Amichai Lau-Lavie, is an openly gay rabbi living in New York.

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