There’s something about Thanksgiving

Tis the season for interfaith get-togethers.

Around Thanksgiving, numerous local groups pull together people from different faiths for a few prayers and snacks. You usually get mostly mainline Protestants and Jews, with a smattering of Catholics and Orthodox Christians and a Muslim or two.

At least that’s the mix in the NY burbs.

The Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee will hold its regular Thanksgiving Diversity Breakfast on Thursday at Manhattanville College. This is a unique event, as participants will take turns reading aloud from a special “reader” written by the AJC, which tells the story of how immigrants from many cultures come to the U.S. to share our special freedoms.

I’ve been to several of the breakfasts and it can be a moving experience.

This year, the breakfast will honor Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson of Temple Beth-El of Northern Westchester and Reverend Paul S. Briggs of the Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, both of whom are very active in interfaith work in their community.

The Peekskill Area Pastors Association will host an inter-religious service next Sunday (Nov. 22) at 5 p.m. at the St. Columbanus Church, 122 Oregon Road, in Cortlandt Manor.

And there will be many others (which I’m sure I will hear about after I post this).

American Jews heavily ‘just Jewish,’ Democrat and pessimistic on peace

The American Jewish Committee’s Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion is out.

Here’s how American Jews ID themselves Jewishly: “Just Jewish,” 36%: Reform, 27%; Conservative, 24%; Orthodox, 9%; Reconstructionist, 2%; “not sure” (you always have them), 1%.

You have to figure that those Just Jewish folks make up a large part of the 50% of American Jews who do not belong to synagogues.

On the question of “How important would you say being Jewish is in your own life?,” the responses broke down like this: Very, 51%; Fairly, 33%; Not Very, 15%; and Not Sure, 1%.

How close do American Jews feel to Israel?: Very close, 28%; Fairly close, 41%; Fairly distant, 22%; Very distant, 8%; Not sure, 1%.

And how do the Jews break down politically:? Democrat, 53%; Independent, 30%; Republican, 16%; Not sure, 1%.

And on the Middle East…

“Do you think there will or will not come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace?”

Will, 43%; Will not, 51%, Not sure, 6%.

And get this:

“Would you support or oppose Israel taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?”

Support, 66%; Oppose, 28%; Not sure, 5%.

Oh, those Jewish divisions

The different movements within Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — can be at odds on so many things.

I sometimes wonder if the divisions may, at some point, overwhelm what holds the Jewish world together.

The Westchester chapter of the American Jewish Committee apparently wonders the same thing. It will present a program — “Does our unity still outweigh our divisions?” — tomorrow (April 30) at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains.

The 7:30 p.m. program is open to the public, but space is limited. To attend, call 914-948-5585 or email

The panelists representing the four teams:

In the Reconstructionist corner, Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains.

For the Reform, Kol Ami’s own Rabbi Shira Milgrom.

Batting for the Conservatives, Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck.

And standing in for the Orthodox, Rabbi David Israel of the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford.

The referee (moderator) will be Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC’s associate director of contemporary Jewish life.

The Jewish philanthropist who can’t stand all those Jewish groups

My FaithBeat column on Saturday was about the Madoff fall-out for the Jewish community.

On Thursday evening, I attended a very provocative panel discussion about Madoff at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in NYC. One of the panelists was the always interesting Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who has a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it estate in Bedford (that’s him feeding one of his ringed tailed lemur monkeys).

Steinhardt made a killing as a hedge fund manager before dedicating his time (and much of his money) to securing the Jewish future — as he sees fit. He was a founder, for instance, of Birthright Israel, the program that sends Jewish teens to Israel as a way to bring out their Jewishness.

He likes to do things his way. Steinhardt is very critical of Jewish communal groups, including many that have been at the heart of Jewish life for a long time.

On Thursday, he used some typically harsh language to describe some of these groups. I didn’t get into it in my column, as I wanted to focus on the question of whether the Madoff scandal will inflame anti-Semitism (the main point of the program). Also, Steinhardt has been saying this stuff for a long time.

But a report in the NYT included this:

Naming names, he called a handful of Jewish agencies “lousy, miserable, corrupt organizations”; he said contributors were “just plain stupid,” for giving them money. “They spend $150 million for about 18 anti-Semitic incidents per year,” he said.

As a result, I’ve gotten several inquiries asking me which names he named. So here goes:

He called the Jewish philanthropic world, in general, “miserable, archaic and unattractive.” Of Jewish groups, he said “So many of them do so little.”

He called the Jewish Agency “a lousy, corrupt agency.”

He belittled the Federation system, saying that there was no reason that Jews should funnel their philanthropic dollars through an outdated institution.

As he has in the past, Steinhardt hammered at the “Jewish defense” organizations. He said that there was no reason to have the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They’re the ones, he said, who spend the $150 million.

I wrote a lengthy profile of Steinhardt in 2004 (which seems to have disappeared from LoHud) and he said the same stuff. He told me then: “It’s a bloody shame. In a perfect world, we would have the luxury of studying the nuances of anti-Semitism. We don’t have the luxury to waste this money.”

At the time, I talked to David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, who responded:

I admire people who put their money where their mouth is, and Michael Steinhardt has done very important things for the Jewish community, no question. At the same time, he has blind spots and refuses to acknowledge them. Remove the AJC from the equation and who will stand with the Argentine Jewish community? Who will stand with the French Jewish community as it faces anti-Semitic attacks? Who will defend Israel? Who will engage a rapidly changing America with a dwindling Jewish population? Michael Steinhardt needs to listen to the views of others who are no less committed to Jewish well-being than he.

Steinhardt disagreed then. Apparently, he still does.

American Jews (except for the Orthodox) favor Obama

Americans Jews favor Obama over McCain by 57% to 30% (with 13% undecided), according to the American Jewish Committee’s just-released Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion.

obama-kah2.JPGObama has the support of 59% of Conservative Jews, 62% of Reform Jews, 61% of “Just Jewish” Jews — but only a paltry 13% of Orthodox Jews.

On the question of which “one issue would you most like the candidates for president to discuss,” 54% of American Jews answered “economy,” 11 “health care,” 6 “war in Iraq,” 5 “energy” and “terrorism,” 3 “Israel,” 2 “immigration,” “education,” “taxes,” and “social security,” and 1% “Supreme Court nominations.”

And, 56% of American Jews do NOT think “there will come a time when Israel and its Arab neighbors will be able to settle their differences and live in peace.” 38% think peace will be achieved.

Vatican promises an unchanging relationship with the Jewish people

The vastly improved relations between Catholics and Jews since Vatican II will not be affected by the controversial “conversion of Jews” prayer in the Latin Good Friday liturgy.

This is the message of a statement released today from the Vatican. It comes, of course, only weeks before Pope Benedict will meet with Jewish leaders in Washington and visit Park East Synagogue in New York City. (The photo is of Rabbi Arthur Schneier at the synagogue.)

A revised version of the prayer took out language referring to the “blindness” of the Jews, but still prays that Jews will recognize Jesus and that “all Israel may be saved.”

The Vatican statement includes this:

The Holy See wishes to reassure that the new formulation of the prayer, which modifies certain expressions of the 1962 Missal, in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church’s regard for the Jews, which has evolved from the basis of the Second Vatican Council.

tjndc5-5jfldxodr9g1i5vqgomy_layout.jpgVatican watcher John Allen notes:

(As a bit of insider baseball, it’s interesting to note that the Vatican clearly wanted this statement to be perceived as coming from the very highest level, representing the personal will of the pope – hence it was issued by the Secretariat of State, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even though it arguably addresses a matter of Catholic teaching. It’s a small but telling sign of the ascendancy of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, who has successfully consolidated a remarkable degree of power and visibility in his office.)

The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen tells Catholic News Service:

I think it contains a very important implicit statement — which I would have been happier to see made explicit — that if one accepts (the Vatican II document) ‘Nostra Aetate,’ then they must demonstrate esteem for Judaism, which precludes proselytism.

But the ADL’s Abe Foxman just issued this statement:

On this issue the Vatican has taken two steps forward and three steps backward. It is reassuring that the Catholic Church remains committed to the ideals of Nostra Aetate and to an approach toward relations with the Jewish people based on cordiality and mutual respect.

Yet it is troubling that the statement still does not specifically say that the Catholic Church is opposed to proselytizing Jews. While they say it does not change Nostra Aetate, the statement does not go far enough to allay concerns about how the message of this prayer will be understood by the people in the pews. The Latin prayer is still out there, and stands by itself, and unless this statement will be read along with the prayer, it will not repair or mitigate the impact of the words of the prayer itself, with its call for Jews to recognize Jesus as the savior of all men and its hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.’

The impact of those words is undeniable, and we wish the Vatican had explicitly rejected calls to conversion or to proselytizing Jews.

A Jewish perspective on a Catholic prayer (about the Jews)

If you want to hear the Jewish perspective on the somewhat controversial Catholic prayer for converting Jews that is part of the Latin liturgy for Good Friday, now you can…

david-rosen-homepage-portrait.jpgThe American Jewish Committee has posted a video of Rabbi David Rosen, the highly regarded and dapper director of the AJC’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, explaining the Jewish view on the prayer.

You can watch it here.

It is a measured account, from the Jewish perspective, of the history of the prayer and how Jews feel as Good Friday nears.

He says that a recently revised version of the prayer is “not derogatory” toward Jews, but is still disappointing because “it still asks Jews to find the fullness of salvation in faith in Jesus.”

Rosen calls the whole issue a “glitch” in Catholic/Jewish relations, and insists that the Jewish community mostly wants the Catholic Church to explain that its feelings toward the Jewish people have not changed.

“We’re not in the business of telling the Catholic Church what to pray,” he says. (Clearly, some Catholics will say this is exactly what he’s trying to do.)

It is important to note that few Catholics will actually participate in a Latin liturgy on Good Friday. The vast majority will be part of a post-Vatican II liturgy that only gently refers to the Jewish people.

Rosen is a heavy hitter here, as he is also chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultation, which generally represents other Jewish groups in interfaith talks.

A LATE ADD: Whispers in the Loggia notes that:

(Cardinal Walter) Kasper also announced that a “delegation from Jerusalem” would come to the Vatican later this month in light of the continuing controversy over the 1962 Missal’s recently revised prayer for the conversion of the Jewish people. Underscoring the importance of the session, the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB will lead the Vatican group at the discussion.