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Updated: 34 min 29 sec ago

Netflix releases Israeli period drama ‘Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

36 min 28 sec ago

(JTA) — As of today, Netflix viewers can watch “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” a period drama that follows a family of Spanish Sephardic Jews living in Jerusalem through different decades of the early 20th century.

The first 10 episodes were made available on Friday, and a second batch of 10 episodes will be released on July 29.

The series, which won 4 Israeli TV Academy Awards this year after debuting there last summer, stars Israeli heartthrob Michael Aloni — of “Shtisel” and “When Heroes Fly” fame — and is based on a book of the same name first translated into English in 2016. It is produced by Israel’s Yes Studios — which was behind the Orthodox family drama “Shtisel” and the IDF thriller “Fauda” — and is being touted as one of Israeli TV’s most expensive and ambitious projects yet. Its English Netflix version is dubbed.

The story flips back and forth between decades, from the Ottoman Empire era to the days of the British Mandate of Palestine, which eventually becomes the state of Israel. The series showcases Judeo-Spanish traditions and chronicles the dynamics of pre-state Jerusalem, including tensions between its Jewish, Arab and Christian residents — with dialogue in Hebrew, English, Arabic and even Ladino, a rarity in Israeli TV.

The plot involves the Armoza family, whose men seem cursed to marry women they don’t love. 

Aloni and fellow cast members were quick to sign on based on the success and quality of Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel, they told audience members at a recent event at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center in New York City. Aloni said he read the book in less than two days and cried while reading it; Swell Ariel Or, who plays Aloni’s daughter in the show, said she read the book in two hours. 

The post Netflix releases Israeli period drama ‘Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

A new podcast chronicles the little-known stories of boxers from the Holocaust era

40 min 14 sec ago

(JTA) — In the early 1930s, Victor Perez was on top of the world.

The Tunisian Jewish boxer, who fought under the ring name “Young Perez,” became the World Flyweight Champion in 1931 and 1932 after moving from Tunis to Paris. He became a bonafide celebrity, dating famous French actress Mireille Balin (who would later go on to date Nazis). 

But like millions of others, Perez’s story took a dark turn as the Nazi campaign progressed. In September 1943, Perez was detained and transported to the Monowitz subcamp of Auschwitz, the same labor camp where authors Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel were held.

While at Monowitz, Perez was forced to box other inmates to entertain the SS officers. The winner would receive extra food; the loser would be killed. Perez was ultimately murdered during a 1945 death march.

That story is just the first episode of “Holocaust Histories,” a new podcast by Jonathan Bonder, a 36-year-old Ontario native and sound designer whose credits include Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 2015 film “Pound of Flesh” among other movies, shorts and commercials. 

“Holocaust Histories” is a new biweekly podcast featuring boxers from the Holocaust era. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Bonder)

Bonder envisions each season of “Holocaust Histories,” which is serialized and debuted last week, will focus on a different theme. Season one focuses on professional boxers from across the globe whose careers were cut short by the Holocaust.

There are hundreds of films about the Holocaust, not to mention countless books and television series. But in terms of Holocaust history podcasts, Bonder found the available content underwhelming. 

“There’s hundreds and hundreds of true crime podcasts, comedy, sports,” Bonder told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “And I thought to have something that was needed right now, which is the education of the Holocaust — if someone like me wanted to find a podcast about the Holocaust, they would be disappointed, like I was.”

And given his background, Bonder was also motivated to make better use of the audio setting to elevate the storytelling.

“A lot of podcasts, they’re telling the story and they just blanket it with either a music soundtrack or a series of drums,” he said. “I thought it is missing a big opportunity, which is to make it more cinematic. If you can do that, then it’s going to be more entertaining, and if it’s more entertaining then ultimately it will be more educational. The message will get across better.”

It all started when Bonder learned about famous boxer and Holocaust survivor Harry Haft, the subject of HBO’s “The Survivor.” Haft’s story stuck with him, and when Bonder later learned about other Jewish boxers from the era, “I kind of just got obsessed with these individual stories,” he said.

Bonder began researching every Holocaust boxer he could find. Some, he said, only had a single sentence in a book or article and little else. The people he ultimately chose to highlight were those with well-documented, yet little-known, stories.

“I don’t think enough people know about a lot of these people’s stories, like I didn’t,” Bonder said. “I’m Jewish, I am a sports fanatic, and I didn’t know about this.”

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Bonder said he chose to begin the series with Perez’s story because it contained the most general information about the Holocaust. It also illustrates an underappreciated component of many of these boxers’ stories, he added: their genuine athletic ability.

“What’s also not stressed enough is that these individuals were amazing boxers,” Bonder said. “Once the Holocaust comes, it kind of gets forgotten. Once that tragedy struck, their lives were just flipped upside down.”

By beginning the series in Tunisia, Bonder also accomplishes one of his main goals: of telling geographically diverse stories beyond the Eastern European Jewish narrative.

“It’s surprising to learn about the Jewish history of places that you didn’t really know about,” Bonder said. “We all think about Germany when we think about the Holocaust and the history. A lot of us have relatives from Eastern Europe, or different places within Europe. But then once you get outside of that Eastern Europe and that central Jewish hub of Europe, then to me it’s really fascinating.”

This coming week, listeners will be transported to Italy to learn about Pacifico Di Consiglio, a Jewish teenage boxer who actively sought out Nazis to fight on the streets of Rome.

Only one episode into season one, Bonder said the reception has been his favorite part of the experience. 

“I’ve heard back from Holocaust museums and a few organizations, and when they write you some heartfelt messages, they’re not just robotic replies, it’s really nice,” he said. “It’s a big positive to get a good reception from the Jewish community.”

“Holocaust Histories” creator Jonathan Bonder. (Courtesy)

Bonder is donating a portion of the money he raises to various Holocaust education organizations, beginning with the USC Shoah Foundation. After his initial goal of $4,000 is reached — 20% of which will go to the charity — he will select a new organization.

Supporting these organizations, many of which have served as crucial sources of information for Bonder’s research, is an added bonus. But right now, Bonder’s focus is on getting the word out. 

“Every listener helps,” he said. “It started at no listeners, we got a few, and now hopefully on to the next few.”

The post A new podcast chronicles the little-known stories of boxers from the Holocaust era appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

A Jewish leader is not ‘just a man with a beard,’ women rabbis tell NYC Mayor Adams

Thu, 2022-05-19 20:35

(New York Jewish Week) — New York City Mayor Eric Adams met with 55 women rabbis and cantors Thursday in what one of the rabbis called a “productive and respectful” discussion on issues that included combating antisemitism, climate change, homelessness, closing Rikers Island, healthcare, affordable housing and more.

The clergy sought the meeting earlier this week out of concern that the Orthodox Jews Adams regularly consults don’t represent the political or religious diversity of the city’s Jewish community.

At a press conference following the 45-minute meeting at City Hall, however, Adams said the women clergy raised the same concerns he’s heard from the Orthodox community.

“They want safe streets,” Adams said. “They want to be able to have housing. They want to make sure their children are educated. They are concerned about the environment. There may be different ways in [of] accomplishing that, but we all want to get to the same destination.” 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams meets with 55 women rabbis and cantors at City Hall, May 19, 2022. (Gilli Getz)

Noting that it’s not always easy to “come together,” Adams said that “we have to start communicating and talking, and I’m going to do that.” 

“I’ve been criticized for meeting with those who are diametrically opposed to what I believe, but I’m going to continue to do this,” he said. “This is just the beginning.” 

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an organizer of the meeting along with the New York Jewish Agenda and Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, said the meeting was important to show Adams that not every rabbi or Jewish leader is “a man with a beard.” 

“They are all different,” Kleinbaum, who has led her LGBTQ synagogue in Manhattan since 1992. “They are people of color. They are lesbian, bisexual and transgender.” 

“He listened to us,” Timoner said after the meeting, which she called “productive and respectful.” “He was taking notes. He was asking questions for clarification. He was clearly asking us to partner with him.” 

Kleinbaum, who has worked with City Hall for decades as a rabbi, said that the mayor was “sincere about building relationships.” 

“It was not an adversarial conversation,” Kleinbaum said. “We were there to start a relationship. That’s the important thing.” 

Rabbi @rtimoner said that this is the largest and first ever meeting of women rabbis and cantors with a mayor of NYC.

“This is the face of Jewish leadership in New York City,” Timoner said. pic.twitter.com/dgD7Ot8aIV

— Jacob Henry (@jhenrynews) May 19, 2022

Timoner told the New York Jewish Week that the meeting was not about pushing Adams on particular issues, but instead on starting a relationship. “It’s important for him to hear the deep concerns of most New Yorkers,” Timoner said. “We represent that. We are second to no man, we are the actual faces of Jewish leadership in New York.” 

“In particular,” she added, “the concern was that his administration was only consulting haredi [Orthodox] leaders, as if they spoke for the whole community.”

The women in attendance represented a cross-section of Jewish denominations, as well as all five boroughs of the city. Among them were Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the Jewish human rights group T’ruah, Rabbanit Bracha Jaffee of Hebrew Institute of Rverdale-The Bayit and trans activist and rabbi Abby Stein.

Adams had broad support from the haredi Orthodox community during his campaign for mayor due to his tough-on-crime policies and the relationships he had built over the years as Brooklyn borough president. At least three Orthodox Jews have been appointed to the Adams administration’s senior staff.

And yet, the majority of American Jews have consistently identified with the Democratic Party in recent years, while the Orthodox minority has leaned Republican. In the New York area, the large haredi Orthodox community often courts ties with and supports sympathetic Democrats.

Adams, who has tacked between progressive and conservative positions since taking office in January, won his election despite losing Manhattan, on average New York’s most liberal borough.

The post A Jewish leader is not ‘just a man with a beard,’ women rabbis tell NYC Mayor Adams appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Overturning Roe would be an unconscionable infringement on the religious freedom of Orthodox Jews

Thu, 2022-05-19 18:34

(JTA) — As Orthodox rabbis, we are devastated by the news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. If this happens, states will be free to pass laws to prohibit or strictly limit abortion, and approximately 25 of them are prepared to do so or already have. Such legislation would impact the lives of tens of millions of women.

It would also be an unconscionable infringement on the religious freedom of Orthodox Jews.

A strategy of the anti-choice camp is to claim that women make the decisions to terminate a pregnancy for trivial reasons. That is the opposite of our experience. A few years ago, one of us was approached by a pregnant woman whose husband had a history of erratic and violent behavior. She herself had just learned that the fetus she was carrying had a severe congenital birth defect and she did not believe that she had the capacity to care for such a child. Carrying out the pregnancy would wreak havoc on her delicate and compromised family situation. She was deeply conflicted about which decision was the right one. Had Jewish law offered her no choice — as she had initially believed — it would have robbed her of any moral or religious agency. No wonder, then, that she felt trapped and helpless.

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This changed when she was presented with the fact that, according to some Jewish decisors, abortion was an option in her case, for reasons we’ll explain. She was able to own her agency, to grapple with the competing ethical and religious mandates, to consult with a halachic (Jewish legal) authority and to give weight to her own and family’s well-being.

The final choice she made isn’t what is relevant here. It is that she was empowered to make it.

We believe that halacha is binding and that protecting human life is one of its highest values. Our commitment to halacha is not contradicted by our pro-choice beliefs but expressed by them. We have seen how many false assumptions exist when it comes to Orthodoxy’s approach to questions of when life begins or what a woman’s autonomy entails. So we are writing together — as two leaders of Orthodox seminaries — to clarify misconceptions and to challenge those who claim that there is one “authentic” Jewish way at this personal decision.

The Orthodox position on abortion is not the same as that of the Catholic Church. In fact, there is no one “Orthodox position” on abortion. Jewish law is rarely, if ever, univocal on issues. Its beauty and power lie in its decentralization and in the multiplicity of opinions articulated by those who interpret it.

When it comes to abortion, the opinions run the gamut, from those who see the fetus as merely a part of the mother’s body to those who rule that abortion is tantamount to murder. The status of the fetus might also be quite different depending on the stage of development, whether first, second or third trimester, with an increasingly shrinking range of justifying circumstances as the fetus becomes more fully developed.

It would be wrong to characterize any of these positions as either pro-life or pro-choice. Jewish law is not so simple.

As distinct from much of the contemporary “either/or” discourse around abortion, Jewish law embraces a “both/and” approach. There is both a mandate to protect life, even a future life, and, at the same time, a religious obligation to protect the health and psychic well-being of every human being. Because a fetus is not seen as a full life, these two mandates exist in an ongoing tension.

Halacha embraces the complexity and messiness of our lives and rejects simplistic, prepackaged answers. Orthodox women grappling with the question of whether to have an abortion will be guided by their consciences and their faith and consult with a religious advisor to guide them regarding Torah values and ethical and religious-legal obligations.

To deny women the right to choose is to assume that they cannot be responsible to give this consequential decision the full weight that it deserves. It is to infantilize women, to exhibit a lack of trust in them to be responsible moral agents. And in the case of women committed to Jewish law, it is to rob them of the ability to be true not only to the dictates of their conscience, but to their faith as well.

If the Supreme Court removes the protections of Roe v. Wade and states adopt legislation that limits or eliminates a woman’s right to choose, we and our co-religionists will be effectively barred from acting in accordance with our religious beliefs and from being guided by our moral compass. Taking away choices about one’s pregnancy undermines central values of Jewish law: engaging a range of options, bringing to bear competing Torah values, and owning the complexity of one’s reality.

The post Overturning Roe would be an unconscionable infringement on the religious freedom of Orthodox Jews appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

After 48 years in a Chelsea loft, a renowned Judaica artist says goodbye to NYC

Thu, 2022-05-19 17:44

(New York Jewish Week) — The sculptor David Klass recently surveyed his 4,200-square-foot Chelsea loft, which has nearly 12-foot ceilings and is filled with blow torches and other welding tools, busts, reliefs and lots of finished sculptures, including a life-size metal horse with wings. He has filled up practically every inch of his live-work space, and now artist was pondering an unpleasant question: How does it feel to be moving?

“Terrible,” the soft-spoken 81-year-old replied before quickly adding that there was one upside to vacating the premises. He was getting out of a building that had become “infested with lawyers and stock market people.”

It is here in Chelsea that Klass has been making Jewish liturgical art for 48 years. His Torah arks, eternal lights, menorahs, trees of life and custom signage grace synagogues across  the U.S. He has also done numerous projects with Levin/Brown & Associates, an architecture firm based in Owings Mills, Maryland that has designed 160 synagogues. In 2003, the large ark he created for Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore won an award for religious arts and liturgical furnishings from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art & Architecture, a group attached to the American Institute of Architects.

“David is the consummate metal artist,” said Mark Levin, co-founder of the firm. “David can do anything you ask. He’s made a significant contribution to Judaic art and to the Jewish world. He has left an indelible mark on the Jewish diaspora.”

But now he is bidding farewell to a city he can no longer afford. and plans to relocate to upstate New York or New Jersey, hopefully someplace within 90 minutes of Manhattan, and carry on his work there. It’s a bittersweet exodus.

“I’m acknowledging the fact that I’m getting older and my physical abilities are not what they used to be,” Klass told the New York Jewish Week. “I need to do smaller projects. I’m not doing 12-foot ark doors [any more] and no trees of life.”

Klass has called Chelsea home since 1976. When he first arrived in the neighborhood, now a mecca for shoppers and high-end gallery hoppers, Chelsea was “the Wild West,” he said. Billy’s Topless Bar occupied the corner of 24th Street and Sixth Avenue and a portable bordello that was run out of a van made stops on his block. One of the neighbors in his building was armed with “various weaponry,” he recalled. 

Two of the works in David Klass’ Chelsea loft were inspired in part by the building’s previous life as a stable for horses. (Jon Kalish)

In the 1980s, the parking lots on Sixth Avenue sprouted flea markets every weekend. By the 2000s, they were all  converted into high-rise luxury apartments. Klass said he’s not going to miss the neighborhood.

His building was built as a stable for draft horses in the 19th century, and its legacy lives on in the life-size horses he created in 1990 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor division. The sculptor shelled out $100 an hour to have a live horse from a midtown stable to  model for the sculpture in his studio. The horse was inside his ground-floor loft for a total of 30 hours.

The Met cast two copies of the finished work, which are currently used to display Japanese and Chinese armor trappings.

His more typical work includes hammered brass lamps that morph into trees, flames or sun rays, and ark doors and menorahs of richly textured brass, bronze and copper with glass accents.

But the pandemic has been economically painful for his art business. “For two years, I wasn’t getting any inquiries for work,” he lamented. “Nobody was contacting me.”

He now senses that people are going back to synagogue, because inquiries for new commissions have started to roll in.

David Klass’ Chelsea home includes a full welding shop. (Jon Kalish)

“But I have to tell people we’re relocating and we haven’t set up [my new studio] yet and they say, ‘Well, we can’t wait,’” Klass said.

Klass and his wife Naomi do not have an enviable task. They need to move a complete welding shop and numerous sculptures out of the cavernous loft by mid-July. The job includes transporting an unfinished sculpture in the form of a six-foot-tall, 3,500-lb. block of marble currently residing in their backyard. They hope to lighten the load with a moving sale on weekends. Passersby to their West 24th Street loft have been coming in to check out sculpture tools, art supplies and furniture.

In addition to art commissions, Klass does small welding jobs. His career as a fabricator began at an early age: As a kid growing up in East Paterson, New Jersey, he built treehouses. Later, he took a welding class in college in order to rebuild his Austin-Healey sports car. Today Klass is considered a master welder. 

After graduating from Pratt Institute, he worked as an assistant to the sculptor Hans van de Bovenkamp, who asked him to finish an eternal light for Ben Ari Arts, a Lower East Side Judaica store that closed in 2014. It took an eternity, it seemed, for van de Bovenkamp to finish the lamp, a symbol meant to hang above the ark in a synagogue. When Klass delivered the piece to Ben Ari Arts, the owner reportedly complained that van de Bovenkamp “never delivers on time.” The owner asked Klass if he’d like to start making Jewish religious objects for the store. Klass agreed and his career in Judaica was off and running.

One of his favorite art works is a Holocaust memorial he created for the Jewish Community Center of Rochester, New York. The 10-foot tall sculpture made of copper and brass is accompanied by the Hebrew word “zachor” (remember) on the building wall behind it. The memorial consists of a six-branch menorah whose base is surrounded by barbed wire. On Yom Hashoah , or Holocaust Remembrance Day, the menorah’s four-inch cups are filled with oil and big flames flicker during the memorial ceremony.

Klass is also fond of an eternal flame he made for Santa Clara Synagogue in Cuba. The glass and brass piece has been admired by other shuls who request that Klass make a version for them.

“I must have made a dozen or more of them in different sizes, with different colored glass,” he said.

David Klass’ mezuzahs show his facility both with glass and metalwork. (Jon Kalish)

Klass is part of a prominent Jewish family. Hisuncles Sholom, Anshel and Leibel Klass were all ordained Orthodox rabbis who founded the Jewish Press, the conservative tabloid that serves New York City’s Orthodox community. Sholom Klass, who died in 2000, wrote a three-volume work on Jewish law titled “Responsa of Modern Judaism.” But Klass’ father, Sol, though an active Zionist, left observant Judaism.

Klass’ grandfather did not take kindly to those who left “the derech” – the Orthodox path — and guilt-tripped his grandson big time when he did. Although Klass’ wedding with Naomi took place at an Orthodox synagogue in Chelsea, he describes his wife as less observant than he is — she has no desire to observe Hanukkah. So, yes: The artist who makes high-end, one-of-a-kind menorahs that sell for more than $1,000 doesn’t light candles on the Festival of Lights.

“Do I have any feelings of guilt about coming from a rather prominent Jewish family that has lots of rabbis and is quite active in their faith?” he asked. “Yeah, somewhat. But I feel that [my liturgical art] fulfills that mission.”

Klass was adamant, however, that his work isn’t a spiritual calling.

“I don’t have that connection,” he insisted.

He paused for a moment and conceded that, sometimes, he talks to God.

The post After 48 years in a Chelsea loft, a renowned Judaica artist says goodbye to NYC appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Remembering Rabbi Steven Sager, a ‘leader, mentor, poet’ in North Carolina and beyond

Thu, 2022-05-19 15:20

(JTA) — When his local Jewish magazine asked Rabbi Nick Renner earlier this year to explain how he decided to become a rabbi, he immediately attributed the decision to his hometown rabbi, Steven Sager.

Sager had gone to bat for him during his parents’ bitter custody dispute, then had nurtured his nascent love of Torah by quoting ancient texts and “Star Wars” scripts alike. Renner ultimately enrolled at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College because Sager had studied there.

“He helped me figure out who I was and who I wanted to be,” Renner wrote.

So when Sager died Sunday at 71, after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer, Renner got in his car and drove south from his home in Wilmington, Delaware. He would read a poem by Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet beloved by Sager, at his rabbi’s funeral.

“He was a father figure to me at a time when I didn’t have one,” Renner said Monday from somewhere along I-95, en route to Durham, North Carolina, where Sager led the Conservative Beth-El Synagogue for 32 years.

I called Renner — Nick — because I went to Hebrew school with him. Rabbi Sager was my childhood rabbi, too, and I was puzzling over my role in marking his death.

Rabbi Steven Sager makes kiddush during the wedding of Philissa Cramer and Benjamin Resnick in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, Oct. 10, 2010. (Courtesy)

Of course I felt deep personal sadness. Rabbi Sager married my parents, in one of his first weddings after coming to Beth El. Thirty-one years later, he was one of two rabbis to join me and my husband under our chuppah, too. Along the way, he was my first model of a congregational rabbi and, through his unusual practice of engaging in a public conversation with each new bar and bat mitzvah, he provided an early example of what it looks like to take children seriously. As a rabbi’s wife and a mother, I draw upon those lessons all the time, in ways large and small.

But I wasn’t just thinking about myself. I edit a global news organization that regularly publishes obituaries. Was Rabbi Sager a story?

By any traditional definition, maybe not. Born in 1951 in Maryland, Sager was active in Jewish youth groups and attended the University of Maryland and RRC before taking his post at Beth El in 1978. There he worked for more than three decades, teaching countless classes, giving countless sermons, pressing countless copies of the book “Voices of Wisdom” into the hands of countless 13-year-olds — always telling stories, but never making himself one.

But one thing a Reconstructionist rabbi at a Conservative synagogue will reliably teach is that traditions can evolve. And in the last two years, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has tried out new approaches to obituaries, in keeping with the ethos that Jewish journalism only matters when it’s in conversation with the full range of experiences in the communities we cover. We experimented with one-line obituaries to capture the magnitude of pandemic losses; with heart-felt remembrances of quirky personalities; and with collections of stories about rank-and-file Jews whose deaths mattered deeply to the people close to them.

I asked Renner what role he thinks obituaries play for Jews in a world where local newspapers are in decline and new approaches to mourning, including Zoom shivas and social media tributes, are on the rise.

“Oh, it is everything,” he told me. “What we do in hesped, Jewish eulogy, is tell someone’s story, it’s at the core of why we say zichrono livracha, may their memory be a blessing. … An obituary is a delivery mechanism for making one’s memory into a blessing.”

He added, “You didn’t ask this, but I’ll answer it: Why highlight some backwater rabbi in a national publication? There’s a richness and a beauty to Jewish life that we don’t always see in the discourse. … For Jews who live in these communities, [an obituary] is the fabric of their life well lived, and on some level a commentary on the meaning of what it means to be Jewish.”

And so what is the story JTA should tell about Rabbi Steven Sager?

“He wasn’t one of those rabbis who was a quasi-celebrity figure. That wasn’t Steve and that wasn’t something that he chased down,” Renner said. “He was an excellent rabbi who made a difference to a lot of people.”

Sager made a difference to people like Ashley Klapper Pressman, who also grew up at Beth El and now works as the executive director of Jewish Volunteer Connection in Baltimore.

“For those of you who remember JVC’s long-ago motto ‘go forth and do small things,’ you can thank Rabbi Sager,” she wrote on Facebook. “If you’ve ever heard me say, ‘Is that midrash or folk tale true? Well, if it’s not, it ought to be,’ you can thank Rabbi Sager. … If you’ve heard me talk about how Judaism is and can be part of a relevant and meaningful part of our lives today, you can thank Rabbi Sager.”

To people like Shula Bernard, who spoke at the funeral about how Sager empowered her to lead her congregation in prayer after growing up in an Orthodox community where that was not the norm, and Anna Carson DeWitt, a photographer who grew up at Beth El and not too long ago captured a picture of Bernard and Sager, among others, during the havdalah ritual that ends Neilah, the last service of Yom Kippur, when the window to make pleas to God closes for the year.

Rabbi Steven Sager, second from right, joins his community during the havdalah service after Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur in 2017. (Courtesy Anna Carson-DeWitt)

“How powerful it was to grow up with a rabbi who was so open to being led by others, particularly by women,” Carson DeWitt told me.

To rabbis all over the world who learned with and from Rabbi Sager, whether informally; through his long-term relationship with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; or with Sicha, a mentoring and education initiative he launched in his retirement,

“Steve was my mentor during my days in the Triangle both intellectually and professionally,” said Rabbi Jon Pearlman, who led a congregation in nearby Raleigh in the 1990s and now works in Pittsburgh. “Steve was a creative genius and was always raising new readings of poetry and midrash. Steve was the first to teach me how to build community through ritual. His teaching powerfully influenced my approach to my rabbinate.”

To Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago, where I was surprised to discover when I first visited after meeting my husband, who grew up there, that Rabbi Sager was a recurring character through Ed and Stacey Hamburg, his best friends since their teen days as United Synagogue Youth leaders.

“I always knew that only when one of us died would our friendship end, but I never imagined it would happen this way,” Ed Hamburg said at Sager’s funeral Tuesday, which I watched alongside hundreds of people in the Beth El diaspora by Zoom. “I always thought that Steve would optimize his remarkable abilities as a rabbi, teacher, poet and scholar to deliver his usual and customary most fabulous eulogy at my funeral. Instead, I’m here speaking to you at his, figuring out how to accept the fact that he will no longer be an active participant in my life.”

To new friends including Eliana Light, a Jewish musician who moved to Durham during the pandemic and found that learning with Rabbi Sager was a highlight of her new home.

“No matter where I travel, there is someone who will respond to ‘I live in Durham, North Carolina’ with ‘Oh, Rabbi Steve Sager!’, a big smile, a deep sigh and a story about how much he meant as a mentor, teacher, colleague or friend,” Light told me.

“Rabbi Sager was deeply in love with Jewish text, with Jewish language, with the Jewish people, and invited those around him to fall in love too,” added Light, who spoke with Sager about liturgy in two episodes of her podcast that she reissued after his death. “More than any one text or piece of wisdom, it was his presence that will stay with me most, his sacred gift of being truly present in the moment with whoever he was with. I was honored to share even a few of those moments with him.”

Rabbi Steven Sager with his wife Sabina at Beth El Synagogue in January 2018. (Courtesy Anna Carson DeWitt)

To Rivka Miriam, the Israeli poet, who was bound to Rabbi Sager by his passion for the Hebrew language, poetry and his beloved Jerusalem, where, he would often say, the prophet Elijah can be found in unexpected places. An effort is afoot to preserve Sager’s pioneering translation work in a book.

“Steve was a beautiful and deep human being,” Miriam wrote. “I generally do not believe in translation, especially translation of poetry. It seems to me that every language has an inner secret that cannot be transposed into another vessel. Yet, when Steve translated my poems I had a different feeling — I felt he entered an inner layer, one that lies beneath any language, a layer carrying a hidden code. My poems are very Hebrew, yet that very Hebrew stayed in Steve’s translations. He came to them from within them with love, sensitivity and courage. I bitterly mourn his passing.”

To Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Beth El’s current rabbi, whose close relationship with his predecessor was unusual in a field where transitions can be tense. During the funeral, Greyber consoled Rabbi Sager’s family — Sabina, his wife of five decades; his children Ariele, Jacob and Noah; their spouses and children — and described his astonishment at how Sager experienced his illness as an opportunity for revelation and awe and to experience what Sager called “a conspiracy of chesed,” or kindness.

After losing a close friend as a young adult, Greyber wrote a book about his journey through grief. When I spoke to him on Wednesday, he was thinking about what this next stage of that journey, without Beth El’s emeritus rabbi at his side, will sound like.

“In a very lonely profession he was the harmony in my ears,” Greyber said about Rabbi Sager. “When I started out my eulogy by singing ‘Naar Hayiti,’ I heard his harmonies over and under mine. I love singing in harmony. … Where’s that going to come from now? I don’t want to spend the next 20 years of my rabbinate not harmonizing.”

To the clergy and parishioners of Trinity Baptist Church, where Sager forged a special bond; to the Muslim scholar of interfaith relations Abdullah Antelpi, who told me, “I often felt the presence of God in his presence”; and to his students at Duke Divinity School, who will carry Sager’s inspiration in their work as Christian leaders.

Rabbi Steven Sager, left, with his successor at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, Rabbi Daniel Greyber. (Courtesy Greyber)

“The rabbi’s course was integral in expanding our imagination,” Bri Higa, a Duke student who took two classes with Sager over the last year. “He had such a gift with words: He could take you all the way out into the aether and then bring you back, and you felt like you had a souvenir from the outer universe. A lot of mystics can go there, but he could take you there, and give you the skills to take yourself there.”

To people like my parents, who met at the reception welcoming Rabbi Sager to Beth El; on Tuesday, my father was one of the final members of the chevra kadisha, the burial society, to sit with Sager’s body in the hours before he was buried. And to my husband, in whose voice from the pulpit someone familiar with Sager’s could easily hear echoes.

To the congregants of Beth El, past, present and future, who will forever raise their hands during the Torah service because Rabbi Sager embraced questions, even when the answers might remain out of reach.

And to so many more.

“He was a rabbi, teacher, scholar, student, leader, mentor, poet, writer, linguist, counselor, confidant, and colleague; an athlete, musician, singer, and storyteller,” said an obituary written by Sager’s family and distributed by Beth El in the hours after his death. “He was a son, husband, father, grandfather, brother, and uncle, and his friendships were beyond count.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Nick Renner took the bimah at Beth El to read from the namesake poem of Amichai’s final collection, “Open Closed Open.”

“Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.”

May the memory of Rabbi Steve Sager be a blessing. And may we find a way to honor the memories of all of who shape the contemporary Jewish experience, each in their own way.

The post Remembering Rabbi Steven Sager, a ‘leader, mentor, poet’ in North Carolina and beyond appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

At Polish clinic for Ukraine refugees, Hadassah’s doctors dispense medicine and expertise

Thu, 2022-05-19 14:19

After Russian shelling intensified last month and a rocket exploded close to the Zhytomyr home of Nina, 76, she fled for Ukraine’s Polish border. When she arrived several days later after a long trip by car with other Zhytomyr residents, Nina was experiencing severe back pain.

She was directed to the Przemy?l Humanitarian Aid Center, a repurposed shopping mall near the Medyka border crossing in southeastern Poland, where doctors from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Organization, one of Israel’s leading hospitals, have been running the medical clinic since March. There, she received treatment by doctors and Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking nurses who had volunteered to go to Poland as part of Hadassah’s ongoing Ukraine relief effort.  

Nina was far from alone.

At what felt like the last possible minute, Elena escaped Kharkiv, Ukraine, with her 13-year-old twins and her autistic 15-year-old son, Daniel, who cannot speak. Janna, 77, who ran from the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, contracted a severe case of pneumonia during her three-day road trip to Lviv. When Lviv itself came under air attack, the main hospital there discharged Janna and evacuated her to Poland.

All these refugees ended up at Hadassah’s clinic. 

“My grandfather’s cousin perished in Bialystok, not far away from where we were,” Rivka Brooks, director of pediatrics at Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, said in an interview from Poland. “Imagine seeing the same Polish scenery and women standing with one suitcase 80 years after the Holocaust, when no one was there for us. You can’t not feel emotional about it.”

Brooks, 52, is among dozens of Hadassah doctors and nurses — both Jews and Arabs — who have volunteered over the last two and a half months for the humanitarian mission, a collaboration among the Hadassah Medical Organization, which operates two hospitals in Jerusalem; the New York-based Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which is funding the effort; and Hadassah International, the organization’s global fundraising arm. 

Dr. Yoram Weiss, acting director-general of the Jerusalem medical center and the person who designed and oversees the Ukraine program, said Hadassah began sending medical teams to the Polish border in early March. Now on its 10th mission, Hadassah already has treated more than 10,000 refugees and plans to maintain its presence in Poland at least through early June.

“It seems the numbers are decreasing, but we’re being very careful because as hostilities increase there’s a possibility we’ll end up seeing more refugees,” said Weiss, 63, an anesthesiologist who spent eight years running Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus and the last seven months as HMO’s acting director-general. “At least for the next month, we’ll continue to offer our services.”

Most of those services consist of stabilizing patients with urgent health problems, like cancer and heart disease; treating refugees for gastrointestinal issues resulting from poor nutrition during the journey from Ukraine; and providing medications left behind in the rush to evacuate cities under attack. 

In addition to running the medical clinic at the Przemy?l refugee center, Hadassah doctors and nurses are treating children at a second refugee center in nearby Korczowa, Poland, and, in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), triaging trauma patients at the border. In addition, Hadassah sent trauma experts to train their Polish counterparts at the Medical University of Lublin, a regional trauma center about 125 miles to the north, in how to handle major traumatic injuries and mass casualty situations. 

“Unlike other organizations, our physicians do not come independently, but as a group — four physicians, including two pediatricians, four nurses and an administrator,” Weiss said. “All are volunteers, and sometimes we have more people who want to go than we can accommodate.”

David “Dush” Barashi, Hadassah’s head medical clown, has been one of the medical center’s volunteers, putting sick and often anxious children at ease with his pranks and silliness. It was Dush who noticed a fragile 8-year-old boy and gently convinced him and his mother to come to the clinic, where the boy received a thorough check-up.

“The amount of respect we have gained with the WHO [World Health Organization], Médecins Sans Frontières and the Polish Red Cross is really amazing,” Weiss said. “They look at Hadassah and our impact on treating refugees, and they see us as an example of how things should have been done.”

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has been supportive. JFNA president Eric Fingerhut visited the Hadassah border clinic and JFNA has given Hadassah two grants to support the humanitarian mission.

Brooks, the pediatrician, who volunteered in Poland from March 28 to April 9, said the most common conditions she encountered were anxiety, high blood pressure, abdominal pain and food poisoning.

Among her patients: a child with cystic fibrosis, a 16-year-old with severe frostbite in her toes, and a multiple sclerosis patient who had forgotten to pack her pills in the rush to flee the Russian bombs.

“It’s very upsetting to see people who fled their country with only a suitcase,” said Brooks, 52. “It’s only women; you hardly see any men.” Men were required to stay behind to fight. “And it took me five days to suddenly notice that the children are very quiet and subdued.”

Ahmad Naama, a senior emergency room physician at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus, is one of several Arab doctors who have joined their Jewish colleagues to care for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. 

Dr. Ahmad Naama, a senior ER physician at Hadassah, at the medical center’s border clinic in Poland. (Jorge Diener)

“With my 11 years of knowledge and experience in the ER, I was sure there was something I could offer,” the 37-year-old trauma specialist said when asked why he volunteered for the mission. “I even took an ultrasound machine with me and used it in a few cases. One was for a pregnant woman concerned about her baby. Another was an 80-year-old lady who had fluid in her lungs. We sent her to the hospital, which more or less saved her life.”

During Naama’s stint at the Przemy?l aid center in mid-April, he often saw 150 to 200 patients a day.

“Most of the refugees were close to the areas being bombed and they left. Others were hidden underground for a week or two,” said Naama, who lives in Jerusalem. “They usually leave their medicines behind, and they arrive very stressed, vomiting and with diarrhea — especially the kids, because they were on buses and they’re dizzy and nauseous.”

The ER doctor recalled a boy of 7 — the same age as his son — who couldn’t even urinate because he was so emotionally and physically exhausted.

“It’s very sad what’s happening. This is 2022, and unfortunately, history always repeats itself,” he said. “Ordinary people came to our camp with a small bag, not even a suitcase. They left everything behind and it’s a matter of survival. It’s a disaster.” 

Ruven Gelfond, 51, head nurse for orthopedic surgery at Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus, already had taken part in missions to Ethiopia, Haiti and the Philippines before traveling to Poland. His logistics expertise and knowledge of both Ukrainian and Russian were crucial in organizing donated medical supplies and distributing locally sourced medications.

“We weren’t doing heroic surgery as in Haiti, but our help was critical, and our ability to make quick diagnoses saved lives,” said Gelfond, recalling how one patient developed dangerous bedsores after one month in a damp cellar and another suffered a burst appendix. “Many patients were in severe emotional distress. We provided a modicum of hope in a sea of despair.” 

Rhoda Smolow is national president of Hadassah’s American operation, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which has more than 300,000 members and supporters and is funding the medical relief effort in Poland.

“I’ve always been exceptionally proud of what our hospitals do, not only for Israeli citizens but for the world,” Smolow said. “We believe that when there is a crisis, we need to act — and act we did.”

“This is an effort that speaks out to the world. My heart breaks for these people,” Smolow said. “We’ve shown the world what can be done in these situations, and the fact is that years ago no one did this for us. So we hope others will act the way we are acting now.”

The post At Polish clinic for Ukraine refugees, Hadassah’s doctors dispense medicine and expertise appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Broadway’s new ‘Evan Hansen’ is an Asian-American Jew

Thu, 2022-05-19 14:10

This article first appeared on Hey Alma.

In a different world, Asian Jewish actor Zachary Noah Piser would’ve become an Olympic swimmer.

“Before the age where everyone started growing, I was like, becoming an Olympic swimmer is my journey. This is my path like 100%,” Zachary told me when we spoke recently. “And then as soon as everyone started hitting puberty, I was like, OK, I cannot be an Olympic swimmer because I am three feet shorter than most Olympic swimmers.”

Instead, Zachary found an equally incredible path: he has taken over the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway full-time, becoming the first Asian American actor to do so. Before this, Zachary was an original cast member of the international premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen” in Canada.

I had the opportunity to chat with Zachary over Zoom about feeling Evan Hansen at a molecular level and being “Jasian,” or Jewish Asian — a term he jokingly asserts he coined.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

So could you tell me about your Jewish background and identity? How do your Jewish and Asian identities intersect, if at all?

ZP: So I grew up in California, in the Bay Area, in a conservative Jewish household. My dad is Jewish with Lithuanian roots, and my mom is an immigrant from China. She grew up atheist, but she actually converted to Judaism before she had me. So I am a certifiable Jew, bar mitzvahed and everything. As a kid, I went to Hebrew day school during the week at Temple Beth Abraham, which I’m still connected to. My rabbi is actually coming to my opening night, so I’m very close to that community in Oakland. And then on the weekends, I would go to Chinese school, where I learned basic Mandarin, simplified, traditional, all that kind of stuff.

Even though there is a large Asian population [in the Bay Area], I think if you had asked 12-year-old, 13-year-old Zach how he identified, I think I actually probably would have said that I identified more Jewish than I did Asian-American. And then somewhere around high school, I really kind of took on the term that I coined — well, I don’t know if I coined it, but I think I did — Jasian: Jewish Asian. In high school, I really adopted that identity and really started to love how that felt.

In terms of how they intersect, I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways. First is, of course, food. Everything revolves around food when you’re Asian and when you’re Jewish, which is great. And then family is also huge for both. In Asian culture, a lot of families have grandparents and parents and kids all living under the same roof. And similarly with Jews — if someone says the phrase “family reunion,” everyone’s there in a heartbeat. A perfect example of that is when I first took over the role first, in the beginning of the year, my entire Jewish family all came, just like that. Oh, and the idea of tikkun olam, saving the world or healing the world, that feeling is echoed in some ways in the Asian culture, at least in how I grew up.

Thank you for sharing that. Also, I have to ask, was your bar mitzvah Broadway-themed? 

Oh, my God. No. It’s so funny you ask because I was the worst theater kid. I did not think that I could do theater, and I didn’t realize that I wanted to do theater until like the end of high school. But then I had my first actual theatrical experience in high school. I played Jean Valjean, of course, in “Les Mis,” and I was like, Oh my God, this is like the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And I really changed my whole trajectory in terms of school towards doing theater. But I wasn’t ready to dive into a conservatory.

Anyway, the theme was swimming. I wish I could go back to my 13 year-old self and just be like, what are you thinking? The party gifts were like, towels. I was like, what? Who would do this? There were balloons that looked like bubbles… it was so much, but it was fun. It was a blast.

“I was the worst theater kid,” Piser said. (Matthew Murphy)

That’s so fun. So turning to Evan Hansen, how have you been preparing to take on that role full-time?

So I’ll start by saying that I think there’s always more to learn and to discover, especially with a role of this size. When I perform, I’m never like, Oh, I totally understand this character. It’s always a process, at least for me. And that’s kind of who I am, always wanting to continue that work and never just be content. Because I’ve been in the orbit of the show, in and out of the pandemic, for three years, it is in so many ways in my body on a molecular level. Which is a really lovely feeling.

But to prepare for fully taking over the role, it’s a lot of self-care. (Which, I will say, I’m terrible at.) So for me, that means exercising, relaxing, steaming, stretching, going to voice lessons and going to therapy; all of these things are really important for the upkeep of my total body. In some ways, my granola-Berkeley-feeling comes out when I talk about it, like: My body’s a temple. But I’m not always that way. I do things that some singers will be like, you did what?!

This role is very demanding, so it’s really about treating your body and mind and brain and voice as well as you can — I have been in communication with other Evans of “Evan Hansen past,” and that’s the overwhelming sense I get from their advice. And, it also helps knowing that [Broadway actors are] not robots, and sometimes it’s not going to be exactly how you want it to be or you might not be feeling the best. So knowing when it’s also right to take a day off, whether it’s a physical day, a mental health day, whatever that is.

Yeah, it’s interesting you bring up self-care, because I think one of the things I was struck most by during your performance is that you’re crying for the majority of the show. How do you re-energize from that? And does that weigh on you?

When I was first learning the show in Toronto, at the international production, I would finish one show and be like, I am ready for an eight-year summer. How does anyone do this? And the truth is that the more that you do it, [the more] it becomes a little bit easier to access those emotions, and to comprehend and digest those really difficult things. Maybe it’s just because, in some ways, it is a muscle — not the act of crying or generating tears, but the act of getting yourself to that place emotionally where you are in the story becomes something that is more easily attainable organically, instead of feeling like you have to force something. That’s been my experience, at least.

There are also many shows where I’m feeling all these emotions, but maybe there aren’t water drops coming out of my eyes. As long as I feel that I am earnestly and emotionally in that moment, that’s the most important thing to me.

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That definitely comes across in your performance. So right now, antisemitism and anti-Asian violence are on the rise. What does it mean to be giving representation to both of your communities on such a (literally) big stage? 

Yeah, the rising antisemitic and anti-Asian sentiments and violence do weigh on me. And it’s less about me and worrying about my specific safety; I think about the other people in my life that I am worried about. I feel like I should be contacting them and saying, are you okay? Do you feel safe? Those kinds of things. Which makes me sad that I even just have to think about it in that way, but it’s the stone-cold truth of where we are currently.

But in that same vein, I think I am just so honored to be able to represent all my intersecting communities in this show, a show that was originally written for an all-white cast, and it just so happens that I am Asian and Jewish, and I’m able to play this role. So especially now, when being a Jew and/or being Asian feels like you have a target on your back, it means everything to me to be able to give some kind of voice to those communities.

I love how much Asian-Jewish representation there is with “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway right now, because assistant director Miranda Cornell and cast member Nathan Levy are also Asian Jews. Do you feel that community presence?

Oh my gosh, yes. I have met only three or four Asian Jews, so meeting more of them, on a personal level, it makes me feel so good and warm and fuzzy inside.

On an industry level, it also makes me more excited and hopeful that there will be ripple effects to open more doors for people with so many intersecting identities that also happen to magically overlap with mine. Because that also means that people who have those intersecting identities — who maybe aren’t initially included in the original intent of the show — are capable of sharing and telling the story. I hope that becomes clear: Just because [a show] is written a certain way or was originated by certain people who identify a certain way doesn’t mean that it can’t include other people who do not identify in those ways to tell those stories. And I think that’s the weightier understanding of it. But both of those feelings are really special.

It’s interesting you bring up that anyone from any background can come into these roles, because Evan is written as a very relatable teenage boy for an American audience. He’s white, presumably not Jewish and he’s straight. Since that identity is very much not yours, how do you relate to him?

That’s a great question and it’s honestly hilarious, because in fact, I am not straight or white, and I am Jewish.

At the end of the day, “Dear Evan Hansen” is really just about a young man who feels like an outsider. As the song says, “on the outside always looking in,” you know, “waving through a window,” and that’s a sentiment I relate to so hard. In middle school, I was that chubby Asian kid who had a really hard time making friends. And so usually the thoughts that I have before I enter the stage are trying to recall 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-year-old Zachary going through those emotions. How did that Zachary approach the day? How did he overcome that day? How did he make it through? And that’s really how I find my way into him every single day.

I saw the publication “Jewcy” called “Dear Evan Hansen” “the latest Jewish non-Jewish musical.” Do you feel there’s Jewishness to the show?

I don’t think it’s a show about Jews, or what it means to be Jewish. But I think it certainly makes room to include the Jewish community. The character of Jared Kleinman talks about going to camp, presumably a Jewish camp, and hooking up with a girl from Israel. He talks about bar mitzvah money, Rosh Hashanah — all of those moments create space so that Jews can absolutely exist in that world. So I don’t think [“Dear Evan Hansen”] is about that, but I think the exciting thing is that it doesn’t exclude [Jewishness].

There’s no reason that the character of Alana couldn’t be Jewish, and there’s no reason why the Murphys couldn’t be Jewish. There’s no reason that any of those characters couldn’t have that as part of their character development if they wanted to. If it is that actor’s identity, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be brought to the table. I mean, you can’t change lines and be like, “Hi, I’m Jewish,” you know? You can’t do that. But there’s nothing that I think excludes that development if you want to bring that to the stage.

(Matthew Murphy)

Definitely. In terms of more literal identities, there have been quite a few different actors who portrayed Evan Hansen on Broadway. So I’m curious what you feel you bring to him, or how you interpret him? And how do you want the audience to see Evan? 

Because this character is so well-known, the most important thing to me about Evan is that he’s still relatable — that to the young folks in the audience, to the adults, to the parents of the kids, his anxiety, while palpable and maybe off-putting and uncomfortable both for the audience and for the characters on stage, is still something that everyone can understand and feel in their own body, so it doesn’t feel like what they’re watching is so far removed from what’s organically possible for them.

And also, what’s really important to me with Evan is that on the outside he can look like someone who is just really, really upset with his circumstances and is always focusing on his own struggle. But my understanding and portrayal of him is that he is actually an optimist. He is constantly craving connection with others, with his mom, with the Murphys, with Zoe, with Connor, with Jared and with Alana. He’s not a kid who has given up. He’s a person who is always looking to connect and hoping that this next time, someone will actually wave back at him. I think that is so crucial in the development of his character and how his journey goes throughout the show.

Do you have a sense of how long you’ll be playing Evan Hansen full-time?

I will be in this role through the summer.

I think the thing that’s so amazing about doing this role full-time, knowing my history with the show, is that it’s such a beautiful way for my experience to culminate. It’s so incredible. It’s such a gift in so many ways to be able to take on this role. And I’m so excited to really, fully step into the role and take full ownership of it with its ups and downs, which are par for the course. I’m just really, really thrilled for the opportunity.

Exciting! And just one more question. “Dear Evan Hansen” tackles online spaces and how the internet can affect our mental health and emotions. Is there anything you want to say to Hey Alma’s online Jewish community, which has a lot of young Jews and Jews of color?

In “Dear Evan Hansen,” we depict the magnitude of social media and its influence, and how that can be overwhelming — which definitely rings true for me sometimes. And on that, I think that if anyone else is feeling that way, it’s OK. It’s very OK to put your phone down and take that space. And it’s important to use social media for your own needs, and to question how it serves you.

But I’d also like to share one of my favorite things about “Dear Evan Hansen.” Evan goes through a very tumultuous journey for the two hours and 45 minutes we see him on stage. But I hope the biggest takeaway from the show, besides being able to create space to talk about mental health, is that no matter how deep, how dark, how alone you feel, there is always hope for a better tomorrow. All of us just went through, and are continuing to go through, an insane time with the pandemic and everything that’s going on in the world, internationally and domestically. And whenever I’m feeling that weight on my shoulders, I just remember Evan’s mantra at the very end of the show. The last words he says are that he’ll keep going until he sees the sun.

So at the end of the day, I hope what this story imbues in the audience is a sense of hope that it will get better, whatever you’re going through, and that you should look forward to the next day — especially for the young Jewish and young Asian Jewish communities out there that are really not feeling seen, or feeling scared to be seen.

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Mayor Adams to meet with 55 women rabbis who are concerned he’s only hearing from Orthodox Jews

Thu, 2022-05-19 12:26

(New York Jewish Week) — New York City Mayor Eric Adams is meeting with 55 Jewish women clergy on Thursday who are concerned he is only getting advice on Jewish affairs from the mostly conservative-leaning Orthodox communities of New York City.

“We are a diverse and pluralistic community, and we want to introduce him to some of our people’s key leaders,” Rachel Timoner, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, told the New York Jewish Week.

Timoner is the author of an email obtained by the New York Jewish Week, which was sent to dozens of people who will be attending the meeting. It outlines the goals and talking points of the upcoming discussion. Timoner confirmed to the New York Jewish Week in a separate email that the “meeting is happening.”  

In the group email, Timoner said that this will be “the largest, and perhaps the first meeting of Jewish women and female-identified clergy with a New York City mayor ever.” 

The attendees of the meeting represent movements from all boroughs, including three seminaries, and more than 20 synagogues, schools and communal organizations.  

Timoner added the goal of Thursday’s meeting is for the mayor to see “that the vast majority of New York’s Jews are liberal and progressive.” 

“In particular, the concern was that his administration was only consulting haredi leaders, as if they spoke for the whole community,” Timoner said.  

Timoner already has a relationship with Adams. She gave the invocation speech at a commemoration of the mayor’s first 100 days in office, where she brought up issues like housing, homelessness and budget squabbles.  

Watch Rabbi Rachel Timoner’s invocation ?@NYCMayor? Eric Adams’ speech marking his first 100 Days in office. Rachel, a NYJA Board Member and Co-Founder, did us proud today with her powerful and prayerful remarks! @rtimoner ?@CBEBK? ?@bradlander? pic.twitter.com/UJlbE8lETy

— New York Jewish Agenda (@NYJewishAgenda) April 26, 2022

Adams had broad support from the haredi Orthodox community during his campaign for mayor due to his tough-on-crime policies and the relationships he had built over the years as Brooklyn borough president. He counts Joel Eisdorfer, a Hasidic Jew and political activist, as a senior advisor — one of three Orthodox Jews appointed to the Adams administration’s senior staff.

The majority of American Jews have consistently identified with the Democratic Party in recent years, while the Orthodox minority has leaned Republican. In the New York area, the large haredi Orthodox community often courts ties with and supports sympathetic Democrats.  

Timoner said the meeting is a result of advocacy by the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive Jewish group founded in 2020.

“New York Jewish Agenda exists, among other reasons, to achieve recognition by elected officials of the pluralistic, diverse Jewish community of New York, making the case that the majority of Jews in New York are liberal or progressive and often have a different set of priorities than do our haredi brothers or right-leaning siblings,” Timoner said.  

Timoner said that they will discuss a handful of issues at the meeting, including combatting antisemitism and hate violence, climate change, affordable housing, closing Rikers Island and health care, including mental health and abortion access.

Timoner added at the end of the email, “Thank you all so much again for agreeing to participate in this meeting.  I know it will make quite a statement to the mayor and expand his understanding of the Jewish people of New York.” 

Adams did not respond to request for comment.

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Amar’e Stoudemire clarifies why he’s leaving his Brooklyn Nets job: Shabbat observance issues

Wed, 2022-05-18 23:18

(JTA) — Former basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire raised some eyebrows when he disclosed last week that he is leaving the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets after two seasons as a player development assistant coach. His comments about how the situation surrounding notoriously unvaccinated star player Kyrie Irving hurt the team’s chemistry made headlines, and some speculated that Stoudemire’s relationship with the Nets might have soured over time.

But on Wednesday, Stoudemire aimed to set the record straight in a video on his Instagram page: the real reason he is leaving the job is because it has interfered with his Shabbat observance.

Stoudemire, a former NBA All-Star who has steadily grown more religious over the past decade and formally converted to Judaism while living in Israel in 2020, said that he told Nets coach Steve Nash that he has not been able to “grow in the coaching space because I don’t work on Shabbat.”

“Coaching is such a grind, and it requires you to be there full time,” he added. “The Nets organization want people who can be there full time, and I totally understand that. Therefore it was a mutual understanding.”

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Stoudemire also talked about Kyrie Irving’s religiosity and activism; the Nets guard has become an observant Muslim in recent years and has spoken out about racism in the United States.

“Criticizing Kyrie — why would I criticize someone who’s [the same] as I am? I also fast during the NBA season, for Yom Kippur,” he said. “I’m also a guy who’s an activist who speaks about African-American communities and so forth.”

Stoudemire played for the New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns and, from 2016 to 2019, he played for the Israeli team Hapoel Jerusalem, of which he is still part owner, and later for Maccabi Tel Aviv. His well-documented conversion and embrace of Judaism — which has included everything from Orthodox Torah study to starting a kosher wine line to looking for a “shidduch,” or Jewish match — was the subject of an episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

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‘Plunder,’ Menachem Kaiser’s memoir about reclaiming his family’s Polish home, wins Sami Rohr prize

Wed, 2022-05-18 22:17

(JTA) – The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, an annual award that comes with $100,000, this year went to Menachem Kaiser for his nonfiction book “Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.”

In his debut book, Kaiser recounts his efforts to use the Polish legal system to reclaim ownership of a building that belonged to his grandfather prior to the Holocaust. The book also details a community of Nazi treasure hunters in Eastern Europe, whom Kaiser joins up with as part of an effort to learn more about his own family history.

In an interview with the New York Jewish Week, Kaiser said that writing the book didn’t bring him any closer to his grandfather. But he found that the story of the treasure hunters resonated with his own search for a valuable lost past.

The Rohr prize, named after the Jewish philanthropist and distributed in partnership with the National Library of Israel, is handed out in alternating years to fiction and nonfiction authors. Among this year’s finalists were Ethiopian Jewish journalist Danny Adeno Abebe and his translator Eylon Levy for “From Africa to Zion,” a memoir of Abebe’s family’s migration to Israel. Ayala Fader was another finalist, for “Hidden Heretics,” a study of haredi Orthodox Jews who lead secret double lives online.

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Chad restores full diplomatic relations with Israel

Wed, 2022-05-18 22:04

(JTA) — Israel has an ambassador to Chad for the first time in 50 years, adding to Israel’s growing ties to African countries.

Ben Bourgel, who serves as a nonresident ambassador to several African countries, added Chad to his list on Tuesday when he presented his credentials to Chad’s president, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno.

Several African nations whose leaders had friendly relations with Israel severed those ties in the 1970s, following pressure by Arab nations. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritized restoring diplomatic ties with many of them, and he met with Chad’s former president, Idriss Déby Itno, in 2018.

Déby Itno was killed last year by rebel militants and replaced by his son, Mahamat.

Chad, whose surface area is roughly twice that of Texas, has around 16 million inhabitants, and the average annual salary is about $760, according to World Bank statistics. Its government is widely seen as a dictatorship.

The Israeli ambassador and his team “will work to strengthen the cooperation between the two countries in areas of common interest such as climate change, agriculture, water management and health,” the Israeli embassy in Dakar, Senegal, wrote on Twitter about Bourgel’s accreditation.

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Punta del Este, Uruguay, is one of South America’s ritziest resort cities. Its Jewish population has doubled during the pandemic.

Wed, 2022-05-18 21:31

PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay (JTA) — The upscale Uruguayan coastal resort city of Punta del Este checks a lot of boxes for 18-year-old Argentine Sofia Grosz: gorgeous beaches, vibrant nightlife, a hub for many of her Jewish school friends from Buenos Aires.

“Coming here, it’s almost a tradition in our family,” said Grosz, who belongs to the famed Hacoaj Jewish sport and community center back home and graduated from a Jewish high school last year.

She’s not alone — Punta del Este has long been a haven for tens of thousands of Jews, many of them Argentines, each summer (which ended recently in the southern hemisphere).  

In addition to the ritzy beach attractions — people like Mark Zuckerberg, Ralph Lauren and Shakira have vacationed here — the city’s laidback mood, natural beauty and low crime rate has been a selling point to Latin American Jews for decades. Jewish developers, whose presence can be traced back to Argentine businessman Mauricio Litman, who founded the Cantegrill Country Club in 1950, were also heavily involved in the city’s physical growth. The Cantegrill still stands, full of Jews who play golf or cards, and now there are things like a Jewish film festival and a local kosher pizza restaurant, opened in 2012 by Levi Shemtov, nephew of the well-known Washington, D.C.-based rabbi of the same name.

But for many Jewish families, the city located about two hours east of the capital Montevideo is changing from summer getaway to year-round home: its permanent Jewish population has doubled from around 300 families to 600 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Punta del Este sits on the southern coast of Uruguay. (Dikobraziy/Getty Images)

The trend isn’t stopping anytime soon, said Fabian Schamis, executive director of the local Comunidad Israelita de Punta del Este, or CIPEMU, a Jewish communal organization that was created in 2005 and now boasts over 1,500 year-round members who take part in its cultural programming and “Shabbat on the beach” nights. The Jewish influx during the summer is estimated at around 40,000.

Most of the new permanent residents are from Argentina, where the pandemic has raged, and where a mix of growing inflation, devaluation of the national currency and high tax rates had contributed to a recession in recent years. 

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“Since 2020 we have been receiving a massive influx of people, almost 100% from Argentina,” Schamis told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We are talking of residents, not tourists. The pandemic also accelerated certain dissatisfaction that Argentines had for political reasons, economics, insecurity and other reasons [in their own country], and they chose to move here to Punta del Este, where we have an oasis in all these aspects.” 

The city’s first fully kosher restaurant is named Brooklyn. (Juan Melamed)

Increased school options have added to the attraction, local Jews say. There is no Jewish day school, but Jewish students are changing the makeup of the rest of the city’s schools, such as the International College (IC) Punta del Este — which opened in 2018 and is owned by Rolando Rozenblum, a current CIPEMU board member and former president.

The international K-12 school had over 600 students this year from 28 countries, including the United States. Rozenblum says the student body is about 10% Jewish. CIPEMU says it will do a demographic study this year to obtain more precise Jewish community numbers.

CIPEMU holds Shabbat events on the beach. (CIPEMU)

Rozenblum, a businessman and community leader, is also involved in another noteworthy local institution: the first Trump tower in South America, which after nearly a decade of setbacks is set to open in August. Rozenblum bought an apartment in the tower and is helping its local developers — the Trump organization only licensed its name for use and is not involved in the project’s logistics — prepare for its opening. 

The tower includes 160 apartments that cost around $5,000 per square meter, and includes an indoor tennis court designed by Argentine Jewish player Martin Jaite, a former top-10 pro. Around 60% of the buyers are Argentines, and the rest are from Uruguay, Brazil, Europe and the United States. 

“The Trump name is still an important global real estate brand,” Rozenblum said. “We need for developers to start to build this type of high-level building also prepared for the winter, not only focused on the amenities for the summer. That is the next step.”

Argentines have been flocking for years to Uruguay, whose center-right president Luis Lacalle Pou, in power since March 2020, is leading a more free and pro-market government. Uruguay offered new residents a 10-year “tax holiday,” and some tourists simply decided not to leave when COVID first locked them in place.

A view of the first building with the Trump name in South America, in Punta del Este. (Courtesy of Trump Tower Punta del Este)

“This movement is reasonable and follows the migratory and investment trends towards Uruguay, a country that we see with very good eyes for Jews to settle in,” Ariel Stofenmacher, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, told JTA in December 2020, in announcing the institution’s expansion to Uruguay

Punta del Este now has three synagogues — two are Sephardic Orthodox and one is affiliated with the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement. As an example of how the city brings together a mix of Argentine, Brazilian and Uruguayan Jews, the prominent Brazilian Safra banking family helped to build a temple here, which, during the summer, is attended mostly by Argentines.

“Now I can proudly say that if you come from a big Jewish city like Buenos Aires to this little tiny beach town, you can keep your Jewish flame glowing,” Rozenblum said.

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2 years after she was picked to lead JTS, Shuly Rubin Schwartz inaugurated as first woman chancellor

Wed, 2022-05-18 18:56

(JTA) — Shuly Rubin Schwartz began her work as the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary nearly two years ago. But it wasn’t until this week that the Conservative movement flagship formally celebrated Schwartz’s appointment, which made her the first woman to lead the 136-year-old seminary.

In a speech delivered Tuesday at the seminary’s Manhattan home, the historian and former JTS provost remarked on her own Conservative Jewish upbringing and the inspiration of her mother — an executive director of a Jewish children’s services agency — and emphasized studies showing that “fewer Jews are building rich, sustaining Jewish lives bound up with the Jewish story, Jewish practice and learning, and helping Jews in need.”

To address this, she said JTS would expand its cultural programming, both in person and virtually.

“My goal is to offer a nuanced educational approach that prepares future leaders to share Judaism’s riches and inspires them to effect needed change,” she said. “In addition, I want to expand our program offerings to the wider community by developing flexible learning opportunities both in-house and online. I see JTS as a vibrant hub for teaching, learning and dialogue that models public discourse across ideological and religious spectra.”

It’s been a transformational time for JTS, which includes an undergraduate college, education school and seminary and operates many affiliated initiatives. In March, the seminary named Rabbi Ayelet Cohen as the first woman to head its rabbinical school. Schwartz’s inauguration also served as the official unveiling of its newly renovated campus, completed just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The renovation includes a revamped but smaller library, an upgraded residence hall and a 200-seat state-of-the-art auditorium and performance space, where Tuesday’s ceremony took place.

The Conservative movement, representing a centrist approach between Orthodoxy and Reform, was once the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, but Reform now claims more followers. A 2021 Pew survey found that for every respondent who joined Conservative Judaism, nearly three people who were raised in the movement have left it.

In December the movement also warned synagogues that there weren’t enough Conservative rabbis to fill a growing number of pulpit openings. A wave of retirements announced during the pandemic played a role, but the seminary is also ordaining fewer clergy than in years past, and fewer of those being ordained are choosing pulpit positions.

Schwartz succeeds Arnold Eisen, who was the second non-rabbi to hold the position of chancellor of the seminary. She is the eighth chancellor in the school’s history, joining the ranks of such prominent Jewish thought leaders as Solomon Schechter and Louis Finkelstein.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer offered pre-recorded remarks via video, calling JTS an institution filled with the “light of wisdom and understanding” and calling its educators “beacons of light.” 

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, who is Jewish; City Council member Shaun Abreu, who represents JTS’s district; and other civic leaders attended the seminary.

Prior to serving as provost at JTS, Schwartz was for 25 years dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies, JTS’s undergraduate dual-degree program with Barnard College and Columbia University. In her speech, she noted that her maternal grandfather graduated from JTS’s Teachers Institute.

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Sacha Baron Cohen to helm ‘Chelm,’ an HBO cartoon about the shtetl of fools

Wed, 2022-05-18 16:30

(JTA) – Imagine a village full of Borats, and you’re close to realizing the absurdity of Chelm.

The real-life Polish shtetl, a popular subject of Jewish folklore and Yiddish authors including Isaac Bachevis Singer, took on a mythic identity as a village of fools: a land populated and governed entirely by idiots, who solve problems in hilarious counterintuitive fashion.

Now Chelm is getting the screen treatment, headlined by an appropriate figure: the British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat character may be the closest thing modern popular culture has to a Chelm-like figure.

Cohen will develop the animated special “Chelm: The Smartest Place on Earth” for HBO Max alongside Mike Judge and Greg Daniels, known for “King of the Hill,” and Michael Koman, a former writer on “Nathan For You” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Cohen will also narrate the special.

The HBO Max press release indicates that the show will be geared towards younger audiences, marking a departure from most of Cohen’s adult-oriented humor. 

“This unique project will breathe new, hysterical life into the nonsensical Chelmic wisdom that originated from this imaginary city of folks who aren’t quite the sharpest tools in the shed,” Amy Friedman, head of kids and family programming at HBO parent company Warner Bros., said in the release.

The shtetl special does not have a release date yet.

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NYC’s Celebrate Israel Parade returns with a push for wider community involvement

Wed, 2022-05-18 16:12

(New York Jewish Week) — After a two-year COVID-imposed hiatus, New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade returns Sunday following a push by organizers to recruit marchers representing the “vast mosaic of the American Jewish community in the New York metropolitan area.”

In their messaging and an oped signed by five prominent rabbis from the three major denominations, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which has run the parade since 2011, is hoping for an event that reflects a wider swath of pro-Israel New Yorkers than in years past.

“We encourage people from all different movements, different political perspectives and different parts of the Jewish community to come together on this day and put aside divisions and say that we are united in support of Israel,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president and CEO of the New York JCRC. 

The push is in part a response to criticism that an event that once represented a broad cross-section of New York’s synagogues, Jewish institutions and schools has, in more recent years, drawn delegations largely from Jewish day schools, most of them Orthodox, and professional pro-Israel groups. 

Howard Pollack, the parade’s director, said the effort has paid off.

“There will be more than 200 groups marching this year, including groups that have never marched before and that are coming from all over the Jewish spectrum,” he said, adding that several Black churches in Brooklyn, along with some Jewish groups, will be marching for the first time.

“The parade will show the incredible beauty and diversity of the New York Jewish community,” Taylor said. “Jewish day schools, Holocaust survivors, Jewish war veterans and Jewish youth organizations are all coming together to say we are back and coming together as a community.”

Among the Jewish groups marching is Romemu, a Jewish progressive egalitarian community founded on the Upper West Side by Rabbi David Ingber in 2006.

“In light of what has been happening in Israel in the last couple of months, it is important for us to show solidarity with the people of Israel and to express our pride in being privileged to have a State of Israel,” Ingber said, referring to a string of deadly attacks in Israeli cities.

A delegation from Yeshivah of Flatbush marches on Fifth Avenue in the Celebrate Israel Parade, June 2, 2019. (Courtesy JCRC-NY)

Also marching will be members of New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive advocacy group founded in 2020.

Matt Nosanchuk, president of NYJA and a former resident of Washington, D.C., said it will be his first time marching in the parade. His organization will be displaying its banner and marching with a contingent from the Upper West Side.

“As an organization we are supportive of Israel and of a just, negotiated resolution of the conflict, as well as an end of the occupation,” Nosanchuk said. “There is complexity surrounding the parade and having this be an inclusive parade [for those with all political views] opens it to all who want to express solidarity with Israel. I commend the parade organizers for wanting to be inclusive and doing outreach to all. They made a genuine effort to do that and I appreciate it.”

Some 40,000 marchers are expected at the parade, which has been called the world’s largest expression of solidarity with the Jewish state outside of Israel and has been held since 1965. This year’s theme is “Together Again.” The parade is usually held the first Sunday in June, but it was pushed back one week in order not to conflict with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year on the evening of Saturday, June 4. 

The rabbis’ oped about the parade alludes to the political and religious divisions that often play out in the American Jewish conversation about Israel

“Events like this bridge the divide between us,” the rabbis write. “It’s a chance for us to gather as Jews and walk arm in arm, showing the world that our community stands together as one — united in our present, our future and our past.”

The statement was signed by Rabbis Angela Buchdahl of the Reform Central Synagogue, Rachel Ain of the Conservative Sutton Place Synagogue, Elliot Cosgrove of the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue, Steven Exler of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.

(Read the full statement here.)

Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of JCRC Long Island, also sounded the diversity theme, noting that all five JCCs on Long Island, as well as Commonpoint Queens in Little Neck, will march together. The Long Island cluster will include the area’s Solomon Schechter day schools, nine Nassau County synagogues and other Long Island Jewish organizations. 

There will be 23 floats this year, 13 bands, three dance troupes, six trucks displaying billboards from such groups as #EndJewHatred, as well as a host of political leaders, including Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams. There will also be a contingent from the Israeli government. The grand marshall is Harley Lippman, CEO of the outsourcing firm Genesis10 and a booster of the cooperation agreements between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors.  

The marchers will include Simha and Leah Goldin, whose son, Hadar, an Israeli soldier, was shot and dragged into a tunnel by Hamas gunmen during the 2014 Gaza War. They will be marching to draw attention to the fact that Hamas refuses to release his remains to Israel.

The parade does set parameters for marchers, with rules saying all groups must “identify with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish People,” and “must oppose, not fund, nor advocate for the global Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel.”

That would exclude groups on the left who support BDS or consider themselves anti-Zionist, and haredi Orthodox movements who are theologically opposed to a political Jewish state. A contingent from Neturei Karta, an extremist anti-Zionist haredi Orthodox group, frequently pickets the parade and joins the pro-Palestinian protesters who often show up along the route.

Taylor also noted the parade would serve as a counter to reports of an unprecedented increase in antisemitic incidents in the past year.

Perlmutter said that despite those incidents, the parade is a way to demonstrate that “we are not going to hide, but rather be proud of who we are and that we want to celebrate Israel and the Jewish community. Unfortunately, hate is alive and well in our state, county and the world. That being said, we must stand up to it and when there is reason to celebrate, we must. We are looking forward to being back on Fifth Avenue this year.”

JCRC-NY’s Celebrate Israel Parade is Sunday, May 22 from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. along Fifth Avenue.

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Why the Celebrate Israel Parade matters

Wed, 2022-05-18 16:11

“Behold, how good it is for siblings to dwell together in unity.” — Psalm 133

(New York Jewish Week) — As rabbis we cover a broad swath of the American Jewish community. From Reform to Conservative to Orthodox, our denominations differ and our congregations may appear worlds apart, but we are all Jews and we remain united in our support of Israel. Parades, with all of the spectacle and ceremony they evoke, are an opportunity for us to show that we joyously stand together as cross-denominational rabbis, as American Jews, and as New Yorkers. 

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade has taken place in New York City since 1965. For 2022 the parade theme is “Together Again,” something we are truly grateful for. We encourage you to join us; to march, to witness the hope and connection that defines our commitment to the State of Israel. Together we will form a spectacular mosaic, inclusive of different religious movements, political persuasions, ages, genders, ethnicities, and faith communities.

Spiritually, emotionally, physically — the past few years have been hard on all of us. We’ve been unable to hug our loved ones, travel for seders, or see smiling faces line Fifth Avenue as we march uptown with pride. Just as we all started to settle back into a sense of normalcy, antisemitic violence began to break out here and a new wave of terror began in Israel. We are left with a sense of fear and unease. It’s exactly this backdrop that makes it more important than ever before for us to come together as one Jewish community, proud and unafraid, for the first in-person Celebrate Israel Parade since 2019.

Events like this bridge the divide between us, whether political, religious, or cultural. It’s a chance for us to gather as Jews and walk arm in arm, showing the world that our community stands together as one — united in our present, our future, and our past. 

Rabbi Rachel Ain, Sutton Place Synagogue
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Central Synagogue
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Park Avenue Synagogue
Rabbi Steven Exler, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit 
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun

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A movie about kidnapped Italian Jew Edgardo Mortara is moving forward without Steven Spielberg

Wed, 2022-05-18 15:57

(JTA) – For years, Steven Spielberg intended to direct a movie about Edgardo Mortara, a 19th-century Italian Jew who was kidnapped by the Catholic Church and raised Christian, eventually becoming a priest, while his Jewish family lobbied to free him. 

But Spielberg is no longer making the film after having trouble casting the role of the young Mortara. Instead, viewers’ best chance to see Mortara’s story onscreen will now be via a separate Italian production helmed by director Marco Bellochio (“The Traitor”), who shared details about his take on the material at the Cannes Film Festival.

Spielberg’s version would have been based on the book “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” by Jewish historian David Kertzer, and was to have starred Mark Rylance, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner. Oscar Isaac was at one point attached to the project as well. Bellochio suggested to Variety that the project stalled because Spielberg was reluctant to make a movie that would have cast Jewish-Catholic relations in a negative light.

“My impression is it was a political problem,” he said. “This story, even though it’s set 170 years ago, can be perceived as re-igniting the conflict between Jews and Catholics at a time when they are seeking peace, not conflict. And Spielberg has such a great stature in the Jewish world.”

Bellochio’s film, to be called “The Conversion,” will not be based on Kertzer’s book but instead on first-hand historical documents. It will be financed by Italian production companies and is scheduled to start shooting next month.

Spielberg’s next film will focus on an entirely different Jewish family: his own. “The Fabelmans” — an autobiographical drama about the director’s own childhood also written by Tony Kushner and starring Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams and Paul Dano — is scheduled for a Thanksgiving release.

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Ben Platt to play Jewish lynching victim Leo Frank in a revival of Broadway musical ‘Parade’

Wed, 2022-05-18 15:46

(JTA) – Broadway’s Jewish golden boy is set to play one of the most infamous victims of antisemitism in American history.

“Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt will star as Leo Frank in a new revival of the 1998 Broadway musical “Parade,” a dramatization of Frank’s 1915 lynching at the hands of a gang of white Southerners. The show will have a limited run Nov. 1-6 at the New York City Center as its annual gala presentation.

Frank was a pencil factory manager in Atlanta who was tried and sentenced to death, on specious evidence, of assaulting and murdering a teenaged factory worker in 1913. The case of “Little Mary Phagan” became national tabloid fodder as, unusually for the time, an all-white jury accepted the testimony of a Black man who identified Frank as the perpetrator and portrayed him as a sexual pervert. Numerous elements of the trial had antisemitic connotations, including the fact that one jury member was overheard saying, “I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”

The story had many dramatic twists and turns. Frank made numerous appeals to higher courts, all of which were rejected, but the governor of Georgia unexpectedly commuted his sentence to life in prison. Then a mob of men, several of whom would go on to become prominent politicians in the state, broke into the prison hospital where Frank was held and lynched him in Marietta, Georgia — Phagan’s hometown. 

Frank’s case was cited in 1913, the year of his trial, in the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.

An effort to posthumously pardon Frank in the 1980s based on new evidence ultimately proved unsuccessful, but in 2019 the local district attorney announced he would formally reopen the case in an effort to clear his name. Some followers of the case, including descendants of Phagan, continue to believe in Frank’s guilt. His story is also chronicled in author Steve Oney’s 2003 book “And The Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.”

The new production of “Parade” promises it will be “a true-crime version” of the musical, which was originally written by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry (whose great-uncle owned the pencil factory where Frank worked). Director Michael Arden, who was raised Southern Baptist and attended an Episcopal school, also helmed an acclaimed 2016 revival of “Spring Awakening” performed simultaneously by deaf and hearing actors. The new production will incorporate real-life photographs from the Frank trial.

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Madison Cawthorn loses primary, but another Trump-backed candidate will battle Josh Shapiro in PA governor’s race

Wed, 2022-05-18 15:06

(JTA) — Madison Cawthorn, the first-term Republican congressman whose scandals included a pilgrimage to Hitler’s mountain retreat and past efforts to converts Jews to Christianity, will leave Congress after losing the Republican primary in his North Carolina district Tuesday.

Cawthorn’s defeat was one of several Tuesday for candidates who represent the far-right wing of the Republican party, including a high-profile one in Idaho who had the backing of former President Donald Trump. But most Trump endorsees did prevail Tuesday, signaling that the battle for the future of the party continues.

Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janet McGeachin — who has multiple far-right associations and spoke to white nationalists as she recruited a local rabbi for an antisemitism task force — fell short in her bid to challenge incumbent Gov. Brad Little in the GOP primary there.

Trump’s pick for Republican candidate to fill a vacant Senate seat in Pennsylvania, the celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz, faces a recount in the primary there because of his narrow vote margin over a more traditional Republican, a former hedge fund executive named David McCormick.

Also in Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro won the Democratic primary for governor unopposed. Shapiro has already effectively launched his general election campaign and has embraced his Jewish identity in his first ads. His Republican opponent will be Douglas Mastriano, who has repeated Trump’s false claims that Trump won the 2020 election; he got Trump’s endorsement and prevailed in the Republican primary there Tuesday.

Trump endorsed Cawthorn last year during the first-term congressman’s visit to Mar-a-Lago and asked voters this week to give the candidate “a second chance.” But Cawthorn’s tenure was dogged by scandal and fighting with others in his party that led the state’s Republican leadership to back efforts to unseat him.

Cawthorn had upset Jews in North Carolina’s 11th District, many of whom hoped that his troubles could allow a Democrat to be elected in the historically Republican district, which was redrawn this year. Instead, Republican Chuck Edwards, a businessman and Trump supporter, is seen as highly likely to defeat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a minister and LGBTQ activist who is the Democratic candidate on November’s ballot.

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