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January 17, 2017 / 19 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘American Jewish’

Israelis, U.S. Jews Differ Dramatically On Obama

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

   Have American Jews abandoned Israel in favor of President Obama? This is a central question in the minds of Israelis today.


   In a poll of Israeli Jews conducted in mid-June by the Jerusalem Post, a mere 6 percent of respondents said they view Obama as pro-Israel. In stark contrast, a Gallup tracking poll in early May showed that 79 percent of American Jews support the president.


   These numbers seem to tell us that U.S. Jews have indeed parted company with the Jewish state.


   No American president has ever been viewed as similarly ill disposed toward Israel by Israelis. With only 6 percent seeing the administration as friendly, it is apparent that distrust of Obama is not a partisan issue in Israel. It spans the spectrum from far left to right, from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular. But with his 79-percent approval rating among U.S. Jews, it is clear the American Jewish community is quite sympathetically inclined toward Obama.


   Appearances of course can be deceptive. And it is worth taking a closer look at the numbers to understand what they tell us about American Jewish sentiments regarding Obama and Israel. First, however, we should consider what it is about Obama that makes nearly all Israeli Jews view him as an adversary.


   The Jerusalem Post poll showed a massive divergence between Israeli Jews and Obama on the issue of Jewish building beyond the 1949 armistice line. The Obama administration has refused to budge in its hard-line demand that Israel end all Jewish building in north, south, and east Jerusalem as well as in Judea and Samaria.


   For its part, the Netanyahu government has refused to bow to this demand. Seventy percent of Israeli Jews support the Netanyahu government’s handling of the issue with the Obama administration and 69 percent oppose a freeze on Jewish building.


   Beyond Obama’s agitation on the issue of Jewish construction, Israelis are dismayed by what they perceive as the generally hostile approach he has adopted in dealing with the Jewish state. This approach was nowhere more in evidence than in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4.


   It wasn’t just Obama’s comparison of Palestinian terrorism to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the American civil rights movement and antebellum slave rebellions that set people off. There was also Obama’s inference that Israel owes its legitimacy to the Holocaust.


   It is that claim – Obama repeated it during his visit to Buchenwald – which forms the basis of the Islamic narrative against Israel. It argues that Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East, and that the only thing keeping Israel in place is European guilt about Auschwitz. Not only do Israelis of all political stripes reject this as factually false, they recognize it is inherently anti-Semitic because it ignores and negates 3,500 years of Jewish history in the land of Israel.


   With Israeli distrust of Obama so apparent, and so easily explained, two questions arise: How has Obama managed to maintain American Jewish support despite his unprecedented unpopularity in Israel? And what is the likelihood that when push comes to shove, American Jews will stand with Israel against the president they so admire?


   Obama’s great success in maintaining support among American Jews owes much to the fact that most American Jews do not pick up the same messages from Obama’s statements as do Israeli Jews. Whereas Israeli Jews recognize that it is morally obscene, strategically suicidal and historically inaccurate to suggest that Israel has no rights to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and that Jews have no right to live there, American Jews do not intuitively understand this to be the case. Consequently, while Israeli Jews recognize Obama’s calls for a total freeze in Jewish construction in these areas as inherently hostile, most American Jews do not.


   Beyond this, for the past 15 years, Holocaust education – more so than Zionist education or Jewish religious education – has become the hallmark of American Jewish identity. As a consequence, American Jews may not see anything objectionable in Obama’s inference that Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust.


   If the divergence in U.S. Jewish and Israeli attitudes toward Obama is simply a consequence of a lack of American Jewish awareness of the significance of Obama’s positions and policies for Israel, then the disparity in views can be easily remedied by a sustained issues awareness campaign by Israel and by American Jewish organizations. For many of Israel’s core American Jewish supporters, such a campaign would no doubt go a long way in energizing them to challenge the administration on its positions vis-?-vis Israel.


   But there are other factors at work. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2008 survey of American Jews, some 67 percent of American Jews feel close to Israel. These numbers, while high, are not significantly higher than similar support levels among the general U.S. population. (A survey of general American sentiment toward Israel conducted this month by the Israel Project shows that support for Israel has dropped by 20 percent in the past nine months – from 69 to 49 percent. Presumably, Jewish American support for Israel has also experienced a drop.)


   More significantly, the AJC survey showed that in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential elections, only three percent of American Jews said a candidate’s position on Israel was the most important issue for them. Indeed, according to survey after survey of American Jewish opinion over the past decade, U.S. Jewish support for Israel, while widespread, is not particularly deep. This sentiment lends to the conclusion that American Jews will not abandon or temper their support for Obama simply because he is perceived as being hostile to Israel.


   The picture, then, is a mixed bag. Support for Israel against Obama will likely rise as a consequence of a sustained educational campaign among American Jews about the issues in dispute and their importance for Israel’s security and national well-being. But even in that event, it is unclear how dramatic the shift would be. Given the shallowness of U.S. Jewish support for Israel, no doubt many American Jews will not care enough to reassess their positions on either Israel or Obama.


   The one bit of encouraging news in all this is the persistence of support for Israel relative to Palestinians among rank and file Americans. Palestinians are supported by a mere five percent of Americans.


   No doubt it is this disparity that is motivating leading Democratic politicians – most recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey – to publicly distance themselves from the administration’s Mideast policies.


   If U.S. Jewish leaders and pro-Israel activists can educate just a fraction of the American Jewish community, and motivate them to stand with Israel in a significant way against administration pressure, this will likely motivate still more lawmakers and politicians from both parties to maintain support for Israel against the administration. Certainly it will help convince Israelis we haven’t been abandoned by American Jewry. And that in itself would be no mean achievement.



   Caroline Glick is senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post. Her Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the last week of each month. Her book “The Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad,” is available at Amazon.com.

Caroline B. Glick

Extraordinary Jews

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

           Over the past few years I have given lectures to Jewish communities all over the United States and Canada. More often than not – particularly in the U.S. – these lectures have taken place in small cities and towns. And more often than not, the people who invited me to their communities did not work for major Jewish organizations. Instead they worked for small organizations — often tiny organizations – with no more than a handful of committed members. Yet working alone, they have arguably each done more to bring pro-Israel voices to their communities than the major Jewish organization combined.  


For instance, in 2007 I was invited to Detroit by the Zionist Organization of America’s local office. That office was actually one person – a small businessman named Mark Segel who runs the ZOA office in his spare time. In 2008 I was invited to Fresno, California by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Last year the Fresno RJC amounted to two people – a frog farmer named Stuart Weil and an obstetrician named Linda Halderman. And this month an organization called the Committee for Truth and Justice brought me to Milwaukee. The group has two members – Ivan Lang and Nancy Weiss-McQuide.


In all of these cases, the individuals who invited me organized every aspect of my visit. They not only ordered my tickets and raised money for my appearances, they solicited media interviews, meetings with local politicians and Jewish machers. They advertised my community lectures, and worked to guarantee high attendance. They approached both major and minor Jewish and non-Jewish organizations to seek co-sponsorship for the events and encouraged Jewish students from local universities to attend.


In all these cases, inviting me to speak was not a one-time effort for the activists who brought me to their towns. I was just one of dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish pro-Israel, anti-jihadist speakers they have brought to their communities in recent years.


These Jewish activists from around the U.S. receive no payment for their efforts. They also receive scant thanks from their fellow Jews for the work they do. When they have asked local offices of major American Jewish organizations like the Federation, the JCRCs or AIPAC to co-sponsor their events, more often than not their requests have been rejected or ignored. On the rare occasions where major Jewish groups have agreed to co-sponsor their events, that co-sponsorship has involved no significant financial support for their efforts.


When I asked Segel of the Detroit ZOA why he works so hard, he explained that he does it for his son. He wants to make sure his child understands why Israel is a great country, and that there are things worth defending, no matter how hard it can be. Other activists have given similar responses, or just shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “Well, someone has to do it.”


There are two reasons why these stories ought to be of interest for American Jews. First, they show that individuals can make an enormous difference in their communities even when they operate outside the framework of the organized Jewish community. People like Segel, Halderman, Weil, Weiss-McQuide and Lang are consummate activists and natural leaders. They do not allow others to tell them what to do and whom to listen to.


These men and women are part of a growing army of individual Jews throughout the U.S. who are moved to act by their conviction that Israel must be defended against the expanding alliance of the international Left and the forces of global jihad. They believe that by defending Israel they are also defending the U.S., whose national security is directly linked to Israel’s ability to survive and prosper.


Their willingness to devote their time and effort to the increasingly lonely task of defending Israel makes them all extraordinary Jews.


And this brings us to the second reason that efforts by men and women like Weil, Segel, Halderman, Lang and Weiss-McQuide are noteworthy. All of these people and thousands of like-minded Jewish activists throughout the U.S. are moved to act by their sense that Israel and Israel’s alliance with America are not being effectively defended by the organized Jewish community.


Today Israel faces an existential threat from Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This threat is exacerbated by the weakening of America’s commitment to Israel’s defense under the Obama administration. It is also made worse by the organized Jewish community’s unwillingness to defend Israel from a hostile Democratic administration.


The long-term trends impacting Israel’s relations with American Jews are similarly bleak. The coming generation of American Jewish leaders has been indoctrinated at American universities to believe that Zionism is a form of racism rather than the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and one of the most successful and most justified revolutionary movements in human history. The Joseph Liebermans, Mort Zuckermans and Malcolm Hoenleins of tomorrow have been taught that Israel isn’t worth defending.


It is against this darkening backdrop, as Israel celebrates its 61st birthday this week, that the importance of the work of lone American Zionist activists must be celebrated. More likely than not, it will be due to the commitment of individual Jewish American activists like Segel, Weil, Halderman, Weiss-McQuide and Lang and small-time donors who support them – whether they operate within larger organizational frameworks or through personal websites, synagogues and small organizations – that American Jewry’s support for Israel will be cultivated and maintained.


And it will be due to their grass-roots community activism that new pro-Israel coalitions with likeminded non-Jewish Americans will be nurtured.


Caroline Glick is deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. Her Jewish Press-exclusive column, which usually appears the last week of each month, is being featured this week due to a scheduling conflict. Her book “The Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad,” is available at Amazon.com.

Caroline B. Glick

American Jewish Indifference

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Apparently Israel is no longer a voting issue for most American Jews.

Seventy-eight percent of American Jewish voters cast their ballots for Senator Barack Obama on November 4. Obama, who boasted the most liberal voting record in the Senate, has never distinguished himself as a firm supporter of Israel and opposed the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment that called on the State Department to place Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on its list of international terrorist organizations.

Obama counts no deeply committed Zionists among his close associates. Men and women like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Samantha Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski, William Ayers, Robert Malley and Rashid Khalidi were all people Obama turned to for advice, guidance and support in his early years in politics and as a U.S. senator considering a run for the White House. His “pro-Israel” advisers — mainly late pick-ups as the presidential race progressed — included no ardent Zionists to oppose the voices of his anti-Israel advisors. Instead, Obama turned to Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer to advise him on the Middle East. These men, like his designated White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have views of Israel that are indistinguishable from the positions of Israel’s post-Zionist Meretz party.

During the course of the campaign, Obama gained notoriety for his hard left promises to appease U.S. foes like Iran, largely at the expense of U.S. allies like Israel. It could have been presumed that his expressed willingness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have raised red flags throughout the American Jewish community.

After all, given the failure of the now five-year-old European-U.S. attempt to appease Iran into ending its nuclear weapons program, it is apparent that a direct U.S. presidential dialogue with Ahmadinejad will be perceived by Iran as a green light to complete its nuclear weapons program.

But American Jewish voters were only too happy to believe Obama’s unconvincing attenuations of his pledge to hold talks with Ahmadinejad without preconditions.  American Jews were also eager to accept his unconvincing disavowals of his association with the likes of Wright, Power, Khalidi, Malley and Brzezinski.

Obama is now signaling his support for the so-called Saudi Peace Plan, first released in 2002, which calls for Israel to essentially destroy itself in exchange for its Arab neighbors establishing “normal” relations with it.

The Saudi plan calls for Israel to remove itself completely to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines and accept millions of foreign-born, hostile Arabs as full citizens as part of the so-called right of return of the descendants of Arabs who left Israel in 1948.

The fact that the Saudi initiative — even if Israel were to commit national suicide by taking such steps — limits the relations the Arabs would have with the rump bi-national state to “normal” rather than “peaceful” shows clearly that far from being a peace plan,  it is a blueprint for Israel’s destruction.

In light of all of this, it is apparent that by voting for Obama, four-fifths of American Jews voted for a candidate more openly hostile to the U.S.-Israel alliance than any other major-party presidential candidate in the past generation.

One might argue that American Jews were simply unaware of Obama’s actual views on Israel. It is true, after all, that the U.S. media worked overtime throughout the campaign defending and hiding Obama’s longstanding connections to haters of the U.S.

But despite the media effort to conceal or explain away difficult truths about Obama’s character, concerned American Jewish voters had access to the facts. Any number of alternative media outlets provided a steady stream of information about Obama’s associations with Israel bashers.

More than anything else, the willingness of American Jews to believe Obama is pro-Israel shows they simply didn’t care that much. If they had cared, they would have scrutinized Obama’s alarming connections at least as carefully as they attacked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for her anti-abortion views. They would have wondered what it means that Obama spent twenty years of his life in the pews of a deeply anti-Semitic church at least as much as they wondered about a Jews for Jesus preacher who once spoke at Palin’s church.

There are several possible and complementary explanations for American Jewry’s apparent indifference to Israel’s fate.

High assimilation rates cause many American Jews to feel more attachment to non-Jewish causes than to Jewish causes. At the same time, the watering-down of Jewish teachings in various Jewish communities and the replacement of Jewish law and traditions with amorphous and trendy concepts of “social justice” and multiculturalism have engendered a basic ignorance of the exceptional significance and beauty of Judaism among a large portion of American Jews.

Then there is the leadership crisis affecting world Jewry. Weak and uninspiring Israeli leaders and weak and uninspiring American Jewish leaders have failed to assert and explain the connection between Israel’s security and the wellbeing of the American Jewish community. Whereas until the 1980s it went without saying for most American Jews that their fortunes were directly tied to Israel’s security, today the unity of Jewish fate has been lost on ever widening circles of American Jews.

To all of this must be added the unique self-perception of American Jewry. The American Jewish community is the only community in Jewish history that refused to view itself as an exile community. Even before the American Revolution, Jewish settlers in the New World viewed America as a permanent home.

As a consequence, on a philosophical level American Jews have always held Israel and Zionism at arm’s length. They could support Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews from other countries, but they couldn’t support Israel as the permanent and irreplaceable homeland for all Jews without revoking the foundational belief of their American Jewish identity.

Today Israel is threatened with annihilation and the U.S. Jewish community is suffering from more blatant and organized anti-Semitic attacks than it has seen in the past fifty years. But during this year’s presidential campaign, the basic truth that the security of all Jews is dependent on the security of Israel was no match for the full consequences of failed leadership, assimilation and the basic American Jewish desire to reject the singularity of Jewish destiny.

Israel’s next government will be called on to defend Israel against Iran and its Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese proxies, And it will be called to act at a time when the U.S. is led by an Obama administration pledged to appease these forces. Israel will have to rally all of its supporters in the U.S. to its side in order to stand up for its survival.

In light of the American Jewish vote, it is an open question whether Israel will receive the help of its American Jewish brethren in its hour of need.

Caroline Glick is deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post. Her Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the last week of each month. Her new book, “The Shackled Warrior: Israel and the Global Jihad,” is available at Amazon.com.

Caroline B. Glick

Financially Strapped Jewish Elite Auctioning Their Masterpieces In Israel

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

In an effort to stave off financial disaster, an elite group of economically- challenged American Jewish businessmen, investment firms and private individuals have put some of their most prized art collectibles up for sale via Israel’s Matsart auction house.

Several of the sellers have reportedly been decimated by the sub-prime real estate market and Wall Street crises.

On Sunday, November 30, hundreds of local art aficionados will flock to Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where Matsart will unveil 52 renowned paintings – including works from Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Ludwig Blum – for sale to the public. The auction, to be telecast worldwide via the artonline.co.il website, is expected to raise millions of dollars for Matsart’s clients. The auction also has a tzedakah component, as 10 percent of the proceeds will be donated to outreach organizations across Israel.

A Matsart spokesperson told The Jewish Press, “Some of the consignors are looking to raise capital for the daily running of their businesses, as well as to have access to hard cash to capitalize on possible investment opportunities. Some other businessmen and private individuals are preparing for the worst by requesting that monies from the sale of their artworks be placed in their private Israeli shekel bank accounts.”



The famous Camille Pissarro painting that will be auctioned off in Jerusalem this weekend


From an art collector’s perspective, the availability of rare masterpieces that had been off the market for years is a much hoped for opportunity for those who can afford them. “Some of the masterpieces are being offered for the very first time, and Israel is known as a great venue for art collectors from around the world,” added the Matsart spokesperson.

Matsart Auctioneers and Appraisers was established in 2006 as the outcome of a merger between Ramat Gan-based Matsa and the Lucien Krief Gallery in Jerusalem. The company holds at least three art auctions per year, showcasing over 1,000 artworks. Matsart has over 7,800 collectors and investors worldwide who receive their fine art catalogs, with nearly half of the potential buyers residing in North America.

According to Matsart, both the Picasso and Pissarro paintings are expected to fetch well over a million dollars apiece for their consignors. However, no one can gauge the exact selling price within the unpredictable bidding process. Nevertheless, the earned monies will be used to prevent several unnamed prominent members of the American Jewish community from falling into a financial abyss.

Steve K. Walz

Is It Creepy To Remember Someone Else’s Tragedy?

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

 The Memory Thief

U.S., 2008, 95 minutes

Seventh Art Releasing




There is perhaps a paradox afoot in conventional American Jewish views on Holocaust memory. For the most part, our society ridicules people who allow a movie or an article in a newspaper to completely change their lives, yet we expect our programs on the Holocaust to solicit exactly these responses in people who are either willfully or involuntarily ignorant of World War II. Thus, we demand that people let go of themselves and their preconceived notions enough to internalize the horrifying reality of the Holocaust, but we also ask them to display restraint so that they do not go mad. You are a monster if it does not affect you, we effectively say, but if you let it get to you too much, there is something wrong with you.


Such is the tragedy of Lukas (Mark Webber), the anti-heroic protagonist of Gil Kofman’s “The Memory Thief.” Lukas, a non-Jew, is a forlorn tollbooth collector, who has the Holocaust literally dumped in his lap when a neo-Nazi throws Mein Kampf at him from the back of a pickup truck. Lukas seems to know only enough about Hitler to manage yelling an obscenity at the young man as the truck drives away, but he starts reading the well-worn book anyway. Though he has observed that he can go an entire day without touching another person’s hand and that the people who drive through the toll do not even look at him, Lukas has a second chance encounter, thanks to his new reading material.



Mark Webber as Lukas in Gil Kofman’s THE MEMORY THIEF, opening May 9, 2008. All photo credits: Seventh Art Releasing.



Zvi Birnbaum (Allan Rich), a clean-shaven man with a hat and suspenders, notices the book as he waits for his change with his wife (June Claman) and begins yelling at Lukas in Yiddish. He asks Lukas if he is Jewish, and after Lukas avoids the question, he begs that Lukas sell him the book (“$10 is a bargain for the pleasure of burning such garbage!”).

Though he seems otherwise timid and passive, Lukas assures Birnbaum that he does not believe in book burning, since burning Hitler’s book would lead down the road to burning the Koran and the Bible, and would end only with burning people. “Where are the lines when burnings are involved?” he wonders.


“You go to school?” demands Birnbaum. “Part time,” Lukas answers.


Birnbaum rolls up his sleeve and displays the numbers tattooed on his arm. “Auschwitz, eh” − Birnbaum says, disgusted − “full time!”



Mark Webber as Lukas.



The meeting makes enough of an impression on Lukas that when Birnbaum again drives up to his booth − proudly telling Lukas he has chosen him rather than another booth − Lukas remembers the number on his arm. For this, Birnbaum gives him a tape with his testimony on it. That night, Lukas watches the tape in his grungy apartment on his old television set and is mesmerized.


He keeps waiting for Birnbaum to drive up again, but soon sees an obituary for the survivor in the newspaper. He attends Birnbaum’s funeral and there falls in love with the Jewish medical student Mira (Rachel Miner), who tries to throw him out when she learns he is not Jewish. Only when he produces the tape he wants to return does Mira accept that her tragedy can also be his tragedy, and she agrees to meet Lukas again.


The two develop a weird relationship in which Lukas’ attraction for Mira seems to grow as quickly as her concern for his sanity and obsession with all things Holocaust-related. Lukas applies for and obtains a part-time position at the Holocaust Archive. After he is asked in the interview by Mr. Freeman (Peter Jacobson), “Are you Jewish?” Lukas counters, “What do you think?”



Lukas (Mark Webber) surveys the testimonials of Holocaust survivors.



“Good,” says Freeman, falling for the bait. “It’s not required for the job. It’s just we find that it works better that way.”


Lukas soon tires of transcribing interviews and badgers Freeman to let him conduct his own interviews. Freeman, far more interested in the services of a transcriber, tells Lukas he can observe an interview by the pro, Tom (Mitch Whitfield), as long as he sits tight and shuts up. Lukas, of course, cannot do this and quits his job as he is being fired for stealing the equipment to conduct an unauthorized recording of the testimony of Mira’s father Mr. Zweig (Jerry Adler).


With no more Holocaust-related job, Lukas fills his apartment with televisions so he can watch many testimonies together; he plasters his walls with Holocaust pictures, starts buying lottery cards based on the numbers he sees on the survivors’ arms, and even shaves his head, tattoos a number on his arm, and starts wearing a yellow star sewn on the inside of his suit jacket. He has placed a mezuzah on the doorway to his tollbooth, and added a sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.”


Lukas’ own troubles further escalate; it becomes clear that the woman he calls mother and visits in the hospital is not his mother at all (he has no memories of his childhood), and he starts stalking a filmmaker, perhaps a stand-in for Steven Spielberg, who has shot a Holocaust film. But the tragedy of Lukas’ story reveals quite a lot more that is at stake.


Why does Lukas strike us as such a scary person? Surely, he was a person who was predisposed to this sort of memory stealing to begin with, evidenced by his regular visits to a woman who is not his mother. But on the other hand, is Lukas not the ideal person who every Jewish organization aspires to recruit as a member? He has a “Jewish” experience and decides to become completely engaged. He invests time, effort, and money into his newfound relationship with Judaism, becomes an ambassador for Holocaust memory, and even starts keeping kosher and praying. Shouldn’t Jewish Community Centers and synagogues starving for membership salivate at this sort of interest?



Mark Webber as the Holocaust-obsessed Lukas.



The “oversized pink elephant” in the room of course, is the fact that Lukas is not Jewish. Gil Kofman’s film reveals how much of a tribalistic thing Holocaust memory has become. We want non-Jews, especially, to learn about the Holocaust, yet we have trouble letting them be the masters of their own immersion plans, so worried are we, that they might depart from our already in-place institutional models.


The tragedy of Lukas is not just of a man going insane and living out the Holocaust memory in his own life; it is also about a man genuinely trying to care about the Holocaust and to sustain the memories and testimonies of the survivors, but he has no avenue by which to do so, except through insanity. In the absence of real world solutions and true partners, Lukas solves the problem in his head and through imaginary people.


Surely “The Memory Thief” is a work of fiction − or perhaps a so-called creative non-fiction, as the story has real testimonies embedded throughout; but often it takes a work of fiction to point us toward larger truths. Kofman’s movie is just that sort.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Menachem Wecker

Title: Getting Our Groove Back – How to Energize American Jewry

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

         Scott Shay is the co-founder of Jewish Youth Connection, chair of UJA Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal and a successful businessman. His 2007 book, Getting Our Groove BackHow To Energize American Jewry contains sharp insights, nearly flawless objectivity and some terrific advice.


         Shay identifies critical problems in present-day American Jewish life: a dwindling sense of importance of Jewish identity evidenced in rising intermarriage rates and decreasing synagogue and Jewish school enrollments; poor parental role models who refrain from substantive involvement in Jewish affairs, inconsistent standards for conversion to Judaism; diverse categorizations of Jewish identity when it exists (Reform, Reconstructionist, variations of Orthodoxy); poor educational standards that don’t inspire K-12 students, and the cognitive dissonance that results from donations by allegedly Jewish charities to non-Jewish (sometimes anti-Jewish) causes. These and other factors cited in the book undermine potential Jewish identification and unity. Shay supports his eloquent assertions and conclusions with relevant statistics.


         Shay offers intelligently-considered solutions to the problems identified in this 304-page hardcover book: inspirational trips to Israel, better educational standards for adults and children plus increased pay for attracting superb teachers, involved clergy who go camping with the kehillah or participate in youth groups, increased birth rates, a cessation of spending on causes unrelated to Jewish interests, organized protests regarding media misrepresentation of Jewish realities, and other good ideas.


         But some of his advice falls flat. Recommending to non-Orthodox streams of Jewish life to standardize their conversion processes and definitions of “Who is a Jew” or to reinvent their bloated bureaucracies into cohesive “mini-movements” while promoting kashrut, matrilineal descent and other activities that these organizations reject is wishful thinking. Non-Orthodox movements will likely resist the imperative to re-define themselves out of existence!


         The author missed some significance in the opening quotes of Chapter One and on the last page of his book. They are from Talmud (Bava Batra 7a): “The community is Israel’s rampart” and the oft-quoted “The day is short/The task is great/It is not up to you/To complete the work/Yet you cannot concede it/All beginnings are hard/If not now, when?”


         They’re predicated on accepting G-d as the One Who Determines the Rules in Life. Unless that premise is absorbed by and acted upon by all Jews, the collective American Jewish groove will continue grinding down like the gears on the book’s cover. Perhaps the author can include inspirational insights about optimal Jewish identification and activity by Rabbi Y. B. Soloveitchik, z”l, Chassidic commentators, past and present, plus other inspirational sources, in updates of his present book.


         Getting Our Groove Back – How To Energize American Jewry still deserves close reading and follow-up. Social scientists, clergy, Federation officials and anyone interested in the thriving success of American Jewry (parents included) should study its pages closely. Enacting suggestions consistent with the supreme premise of Judaism (G-d rules, you comply) can result in quantum improvements to Jewish life and collective Jewish insight. They’re excellent starting points for increasing successes in proudly identifying, and thriving, as Jews.


         Yocheved Golani is the author of “It’s MY Crisis! And I’ll Cry if I Need To: A Life Book that Helps You to Dry Your Tears and to Cope with a Medical Challenge” (Booklocker, USA).

Yocheved Golani

Isaac Leeser: Architect of Traditional Judaism in America

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Who was the one person most responsible for perpetuating traditional Judaism in 19th century America? The indisputable answer: Isaac Leeser.

Leeser translated both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic versions of the siddur as well as the Tanach into English. In 1843 he started The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, the first Jewish periodical published in America. He founded the Jewish Publication Society of America, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, and Maimonides College.

He also vigorously opposed the Reform movement, doing his utmost to convince American Jews that the religion of their fathers could and should be practiced in the New World. In short, during his lifetime he was in the forefront of everything related to traditional Judaism in America.

Who was this unique and strong advocate for Orthodoxy?

Isaac Leeser was born on December 12, 1806, in the tiny rural village of Neuenkirchen near Rehine, Westphalia in Prussia into a family of humble means. His father died in 1820, when Isaac was fourteen. After attending a traditional cheder as a boy, Isaac studied at the gymnasium (university) of Munster, where he obtained a secular education. In addition, he studied some Gemara with private tutors. But his Jewish education was not particularly substantial, and he readily admitted he was not a great Talmudist. Indeed, he once wrote, “[I] had not the best opportunities of acquiring [Jewish] knowledge.”

Apparently feeling that there was little opportunity for his success in Germany, he accepted his maternal Uncle Zalma Rehine’s invitation to immigrate to America. Rehine, a respected and prosperous merchant who ran a dry goods business in Richmond, Virginia, promised Isaac a good life in America. As a result, Leeser arrived in Richmond on May 5, 1824, and spent the next five years in his uncle’s employ. He quickly became acclimatized to life in America and within a few years was thoroughly Americanized.

Career as a Chazzan

Leeser did more than just work for his uncle while he resided in Richmond. He mastered the Sephardic mode of worship, which was then used in all synagogues in America. He also assisted the chazzan of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Shalome, Isaac B. Seixas, in the congregation’s Sabbath and day school.

He interacted with Jacob Mordecai, the parnas (president) of the congregation, as well as with the foremost Torah scholar in America at the time, Israel Baer Kursheedt, who was then residing with his family in Richmond. (See “Jacob Mordecai: Pioneer In Women’s Education,”  http://www.jewishpress.com/page.do/19310/Glimpses_Into_American_Jewish_History_%28Part_18%29.html  and “America’s First Torah Scholar: Israel Baer Kursheedt,” also at www.jewishpress.com).

In 1828 Joseph Wolff, a well-known apostate and missionary, published a scurrilous article about Judaism in the London Quarterly Review. The article came to the attention of Leeser, and he decided “that its circulating without a reply would be extremely injurious to the interest of my brethren in this country.”

“Without assistance, he wrote a fiery reply to Wolff’s article. He began his essay by defending Jewish honor. He systematically reviewed Jewish history, Talmudic literature, and the socioeconomic progress of the Jewish people since the Enlightenment. He also went on the attack. ‘How can any man then have the audacity to style our religion a false one,’ Leeser challenged his readers, ‘without at the same time admitting that he does not believe the sacred truths of the Bible.'” (Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism by Lance J. Sussman, Wayne State University Press, 1995.)

Leeser’s writings on this issue brought him to the attention of the American Jewish community. Therefore, when Jacob Mordecai recommended him for the vacant position of chazzan at Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, Leeser soon found himself living in Philadelphia and serving the congregation.

More Than a Chazzan

Leeser served as Congregation Mikveh Israel’s chazzan from 1829 until 1850. His career there was stormy. Given his unflattering appearance and abrasive personality, it is not surprising that he did not enjoy friendly relations with the members of the synagogue. He was often embroiled in battles with the congregants regarding his remuneration and contracts.

Despite this, Leeser enhanced the traditional role of chazzan far beyond what it had been in the past. In most synagogues the chazzan led the prayers and instructed the members’ children in the rudiments of Judaism. Leeser felt that, given the sad state of Judaism in America at the time, there was considerably more that he should and could do. Over the years he embarked on a broad spectrum of activities until he emerged as the leader and spokesman of traditional Judaism in America.

“Leeser,” wrote Yosef Goldman in Hebrew Printing in America, 17351926, “was the most outstanding figure in the movement to strengthen Jewish life in America. His activity on behalf of Judaism spanned almost the entire second period of Jewish immigration and the allied publishing, and he may be credited with assuring the survival of Judaism in America while the community expanded from a few thousand individuals living in the major coastal cities to about 200,000 living in cities and towns across the country.

“Although Leeser lived in Philadelphia for most of his life, he was not a local leader; all of America was his field of operation, and communities from all over the country turned to him for help and guidance. Unlike any other contemporary Jewish clergyman in America (or in Europe), Leeser contributed to every aspect and stage of a Jew’s life, from childhood to old age.”

Pioneer Preacher

Lesser felt his role as chazzan at Mikveh Israel required more than simply leading the prayers at services and teaching the congregants’ children. He considered it his obligation to educate his congregants in a manner that would improve their commitment to Judaism. As a result, shortly after he assumed his duties as chazzan, he introduced the then-radical innovation of regularly delivering a sermon during services on Shabbos morning.

While some appreciated his sermons, most of the congregational leaders felt that they were not necessary. His preaching was a point of contention for a long time, and it took thirteen years before the board of Mikveh Israel formally sanctioned his work as a preacher.


Most of Leeser’s endeavors on behalf of Yiddishkeit were tied to the writing and publishing of a wide variety of books and seforim. Many of these publications were “firsts,” for both American and worldwide Jewry.

“Leeser realized that the Bible in its original language was incomprehensible to most Jews in America, and he was disturbed that they were compelled to rely on the Christological translation of the King James Version.” (Goldman, Hebrew Printing in America, 1735-1926.)

His translation of the Chumash into English was published in 1845. It took him seven years to complete this task. His Pentateuch included the Hebrew text, an English translation on facing pages, as well as the haftorot together with a translation. Given that the Jewish community in England was much older and better organized than the one in America, one would have expected that someone in England would have been the first to accomplish this momentous task. However, the Jews of England used the King James Version until Leeser’s translation appeared.

In 1848 Leeser published a complete Hebrew Bible (Chumash, Neviim and Ketuvim) with pointed text and cantillation. His magnum opus, an English translation of the entire Bible, appeared in 1853. This work remained in use in some American synagogues into the 21st century, despite the appearance of many other translations in the years after Leeser’s.

The Occident

In 1843 Leeser began publishing The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, described as “A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Diffusion of Knowledge on Jewish Literature and Religion.”

The first general Jewish periodical in America, The Occident dealt with a broad array of subjects, including sermons by Leeser and others; obituaries; scholarly research; theology; spiritual poetry; domestic and foreign news of Jewish interest; book reviews; resolutions adopted by congregations and organizations throughout America; and even juvenile literature. (Issues of the Occident published between 1843 and 1851 are available at www.jewish-history.com/Occident/.)

“The Occident . . . reshaped Leeser’s career. Until 1843, he had functioned primarily as a hazzan-preacher and writer. By 1840 he had emerged as [a] religious leader of national consequence but still had no organizational support or direct means of communication to the masses of American Jews. The appearance of his journal changed all that.” (Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism.)

“The Occident’s pioneering status, its continuity (particularly during six years when there were no other American Jewish journals) and its broad subject content make it invaluable ‘not only as an intellectual biography of its editor but [as] the most important record of American Jewish life in the middle decades of the 19th century.’ ” (Goldman, Hebrew Printing in America, 1735-1926.)

Jewish Education

Leeser was a strong proponent of Jewish education. “Perhaps his most cherished dream was to develop a Jewish day school system that would use modem pedagogical methods to provide its students with comprehensive Jewish and general educations both. The traditional heder and yeshiva were, in Leeser’s opinion, totally out of place in America.

“On the other hand, public schools, which took root in American society during the course of Leeser’s career, were, in his opinion, inimical to Jewish interests. He maintained that public schools weakened Jewish identity and undermined Jewish religious convictions. For Leeser, modern Jewish day schools were essential to the future of Judaism in America.” (Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism.)

Few Jewish parents agreed with him, however, and his attempts to start a Jewish day school in Philadelphia were short-lived and met with failure. In increasing numbers, Jewish children were sent to public schools to receive their general education. The result was that Jewish education was reduced to a few supplementary hours a week. Given the natural cultural adaptation and integration into mainstream American society that this approach fostered, it is little wonder that so many Jewish children grew up without solid ties to the faith of their ancestors.

Realizing that some Jewish education is better than none, Leeser fully supported the Jewish Sunday School movement that began in Philadelphia in 1838. He hoped that by focusing its curriculum on the doctrines of Judaism and the Bible, Sunday Schools would be able provide a satisfactory minimum amount of Jewish knowledge.

Leeser understood that American Jewry needed to train its own religious leaders. Therefore, in 1867 he was instrumental in the founding of Maimonides College in Philadelphia. This, too, was an idea far ahead of its time. Enrollment was minimal, and the school collapsed several years after Leeser’s death in 1868. Nonetheless, Maimonides College established the basic model for rabbinic education in the United States. Many of Maimonides’s supporters subsequently helped found the (originally Orthodox) Jewish Theological Seminary in 1887.

* * *

The spectrum of Isaac Leeser’s activities involved more than preaching, publishing, and education. He had a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden. He was instrumental in the founding of a Jewish foster home and a Jewish hospital in Philadelphia and organized the city’s Jewish relief work.

Leeser was a difficult man to whom people were not naturally attracted. Often he was defensive and argumentative, and his homely physical appearance did not endear him to others. He never married and basically lived a hard, lonely life. He had little more than his work on behalf of American Jewry.

Nonetheless, in the words of his biographer Sussman, “Isaac Leeser was a remarkable human being. He was indefatigable in his drive to make Judaism flourish in the United States. He taught American Jews that they could be leaders in the wider Jewish world.

“He managed to influence the development of nearly every aspect of Jacksonian and antebellum Jewish life in the United states to the point where Henry Samuel Morais’s observation that ‘the history of American Judaism and that of Isaac Leeser are one and the same’ cannot be dismissed as hyperbole but is, in a very significant way, an accurate assessment of the American Jewish experience from the day Leeser first led a religious service at Mikveh Israel in 1829 to his death in Philadelphia in 1868.”

Leeser was in the forefront of everything Jewish in America during the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is difficult to find another Jewish leader in history who can rival Leeser for the sheer breadth of his activities.

He believed that America was a place where Jews and Judaism could flourish, and that an exciting Orthodoxy could be created here. Where many others saw only gloom and doom, he saw hope and success. He was certain that the laxity in Jewish religious practice so prevalent during the nineteenth century could be overcome if American Jews would only develop the proper organizations to meet the challenges of the times.

Today, fortunately for us, we see how right he was. His efforts helped lay the foundations for the vibrant Orthodox communities that presently exist throughout the United States. Observant Jewry owes Isaac Leeser a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His regular feature, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History,” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/isaac-leeser-architect-of-traditional-judaism-in-america/2007/06/20/

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