A host of Jewish courses/conferences coming to Westchester

Jewish programming galore:

1. First off, the Westchester Jewish Council (formerly the Westchester Jewish Conference) is now running the Westchester Adult Jewish Education Project — 10-week courses on Jewish topics that are offered around the county.

Three tri-mesters between now and next June will offer classes on subjects like “Survey of Jewish-German history,” “Women’s Inclusion in Modern Judaism,” “Jewish Short Stories,” “Leviticus,” “The Rise of Zionism,” “Introduction to Jewish Mysticism,” “Israel: Conflicts and Contradictions,” “Why We Pray What We Pray” and more.

Good stuff.

I can’t find a single listing for all the courses on the WJC website, but you can look them up individually on the website calendar or contact Nina Lubin at waje@wjcouncil.org.

2. On Saturday, Nov. 13, the WJC and the Westchester Board of Rabbis will offer 30 different courses taught by 30 different Westchester rabbis on ONE NIGHT at Temple Israel Center of White Plains. It’s the “Chevruta-Night of Jewish Learning and Celebration.”

According to a release: “After 2 rounds of 45 minute classes, we will gather for a “Beit Cafe/Coffee House” featuring the music of the “Moody Jews” accompanied by the best kosher Chinese food, sushi, and drink you can find.  The event will take place at Temple Israel Center of White Plains with registration beginning at 7:00 pm.  The cost is $20 per person before Oct 31 and $25 thereafter.  Registration details will be announced next week.  Stay tuned and plan on attending with your friends (adults only please).”

The Moody Jews!

If I get more details, I’ll pass them along.

3. Also at Temple Israel Center, UJA-Federation of New York’s Westchester branch will bring together congregational leaders next Sunday (Oct. 24) to talk about…sharing resources.

If government can do it (well, talk about it), why not synagogues? Times are tough for everyone.

The goal of the SYNERGY program is to maximize resources. It will be interesting to see what congregational leaders come up with.

4. Finally, the WJC is also sponsoring a program on Oct. 21 about how Jewish families can measure support for Israel (or lack thereof) on college campuses when going through the college selection process.

According to a release: “The workshop is not designed to steer students towards or away from any particular school nor will the workshop evaluate the Israel tone of any one school.  Rather it will help students and their parents learn how to evaluate the school’s position and general tone towards Israel as part of the increasingly complex college selection process.”

The workshop will be at 7 p.m. at at the Solomon Schechter School in Hartsdale. Details are HERE.

Rabbi Bruce Cohen dead at 65

I wrote recently about the declining health of Rabbi Bruce Cohen, a longtime White Plains resident who founded and ran the peace group Interns for Peace.

He died this morning at his home.

Cohen was a unique guy. I first wrote about him in 2000, when I learned a bit about Interns for Peace.

He was something of a dreamer, a guy who believed that peace between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis could be achieved with a little work.

Emphasis on a little work.

His thing was to skip all the talking and get together to do something. The “interns” trained by his group were taught to bring people together to work on simple (or not so simple) projects: road safety, community gardens, etc.

If people could stand and work side by side, they could learn to talk, he said.

He told me in 2000: “Jews and Arabs disagree and probably will until the end of time. ‘ We do not teach people that we are all the same and think the same and have the same political platforms. We say that even though we are different culturally – and we might not like aspects of each other – we can still coexist and respect one another.”

I visited the home of Bruce and his wife, Karen, a few weeks ago. The leaders of Interns for Peace had come to their White Plains home to plan for the future of the group and even to expand its vision.

The end was near for Cohen.

He became ill a year ago with sternum bone cancer. After treatments failed to work, he chose to finish his days at home while caring for Interns for Peace as best he could.

A memorial service for him will be held at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains on Nov. 7.

Christian Zionists pledge ‘I am an Israeli’

A big pro-Israel crowd recently came to the Washington, D.C., convention center to listen to people like Joe Lieberman and to promise their eternal devotion to the Holy Land.

But they weren’t Jews.

They were…Christian Zionists.

A colorful report on WeeklyStandard.com notes that Charlie Daniels played Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) on his fiddle at the big Christians United for Israel bash. The evangelical Christian group is led by the San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee.

The Standard quotes Hagee:

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The Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a Zionist text. To read and understand the Bible is to accept the reality that the Jewish people are not living where they chose but where God chose. There is a real estate contract recorded in the Bible with the boundaries of Israel, given as clearly as the human tongue can express. And the land is God’s gift to the Jewish people. That’s not political. It is the will of the sovereign and eternal God.

*****

The article — by Jennifer Rubin, contributing editor to the conservative Jewish journal Commentary — focuses on Christian Zionists’ political support for Israel, especially at this tenuous time for Israeli support in general. One leader is quoted as saying that it would be a tragedy if “one of the two parties ceased to be pro-Israel.”

Rubin also lets them explain their historical ties to the Jewish people. It’s the Judeo part in Judeo-Christian, one fellow says.

Hagee says he understands if many Jews don’t trust them because of a history of Christian anti-Semitism. One pastor, who does Hispanic outreach for the group, says outright that they are not trying to convert Jews — an usual statement from an evangelical about any group of non-Christians.

The story avoids the question of whether Christian Zionists support Israel because of a much-discussed belief that the Jews must be united in Israel before Jesus can return. Maybe this was a starting point in drawing certain evangelicals to Israel before they discovered other commonalities? Who knows?

Regardless, at one point in D.C., 4,000 Christians stood and chanted “I am an Israeli.”

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew — especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel — but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But — there’s always a but — it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate — the religious establishment — is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:

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The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.

*****

Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:

*****

Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.

Jewish blogosphere debating article on American Jewish/Israeli divide

Most people don’t read the New York Review of Books and other pointy-headed journals, in which Ivy League-educated “intellectuals” argue with one another over the issues of the day.

You might want to know, however, about a growing debate (at least in the blogosphere) about a recent article in the lefty NYRB by Peter Beinart. It was called “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”

The point of the article was that many — most? — American Jews feel a growing disconnect with Israel over Israel’s policies/behavior/attitude toward the Palestinians and that the American Jewish establishment, which defends Israel at every turn, is out of touch with what is happening.

Beinart, currently a writer at The Daily Beast, is former editor of The New Republic, the venerable liberal/centrist journal that has long been a strong defender of all things Israeli.

Beinart writes:

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Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.

*****

I was going to gather a sampling of opinion on Beinart’s strong words. But the Capital J blog of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has already done so today, putting a lot more time into the effort than I could have.

So I’m going to link to them HERE and offer a sampling of opinions that JTA collected.

The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier: “Beinart’s pseudo-courageous article is an anthology of xenophobic quotations by Israeli hawks and anguished quotations by Israeli doves: familiar stuff. I stand with the anguish, and have said so many times in these pages. But liberal Zionism must be as much Zionism as liberalism, and I do not see that the depredations of the settlers and their political sponsors relieve one of the obligation to include Palestinian behavior prominently among the causes of the conflict…”

Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas: “American Jews will not “abandon” Israel per se, but their perceptions of Israel, the majority of which were forged after the watershed year of 1967, may very well impel them to a redefinition of relations.”

Conservative writer David Frum: “These liberals cannot understand why Israel would build a border fence, or invade Lebanon and Gaza, or lose interest in a peace deal with the Palestinians. They don’t know enough or care enough about Israel’s security predicaments to investigate the reasons for these Israeli actions. They are satisfied with the explanation that Israelis used to be nice people, but have now become not nice people.”

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “…the essay’s placement, in the New York Review of Books, the one-stop shopping source for bien-pensant anti-Israelism, is semi-tragic. If Beinart’s goal is to talk to the great mass of American Jews who support the institutions of American Jewry but who are troubled by certain trends in Israeli politics, this is not the way to do it.”

Obama meets with Jewish leaders, talks Mid East and health care

President Obama met yesterday with Jewish leaders at the White House.

According to the White House:

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The President met with more than a dozen leaders from the Jewish community today for approximately 45 minutes. They had a substantive discussion, ranging from Middle East peace efforts and Iran, to reforming our health care system and policies to address global hunger. The President reiterated his unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, and reiterated his commitment to working to achieve Middle East peace.

*****

Participants at the meeting were:

Alan Solow, Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Lee Rosenberg, President-elect, AIPAC

David Victor, President, AIPAC

Malcolm Honlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Abraham Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League

Jason Isaacson, Director of Government and International Affairs, American Jewish Committee

Nancy Ratzan, President, National Council of Jewish Women

Kathy Manning, Chair, Executive Committee, United Jewish Communities

Andrea Weinstein, Chair, Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Marla Gilson, Washington Director, Hadassah

Stephen Savitsky, President, Orthodox Union

Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

Ira Forman, Chief Executive Officer, National Jewish Democratic Council

Debra DeLee, President and CEO, Americans for Peace Now

Jeremy Ben Ami, Executive Director, J STREET


At Israel’s 60th, an ‘evolving’ relationship with U.S. Jews

Is the American Jewish connection with Israel slowly weakening, particularly among the young?

This has been a common conclusion from academics and pollsters in recent years.

As Israel reaches its 60th birthday, The Washington Post looks at the “evolving” relationship between American Jews and Israel.

“My guess is we’re seeing a tightening of the core, the core being well-committed but the periphery less so,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, dean of Hebrew Union College, the premiere seminary for Reform Judaism.

tjndc5-5bhx4qvlo2b1hwed26jw_layout.jpgAnecdotally, the New York Jewish community remains as steadfast as ever when it comes to emphasizing the American Jewish link to Israel. Support for Israel may be less passionate among young adults, but nothing brings the overall Jewish community together (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular) than Israel, particularly when things are not going well.

The picture is from a big rally for Israel at Temple Israel Center of White Plains in 2006, during the war with Hezbollah. About 1,400 people came out with a few days notice.