Gerald Tulchinsky: Has Canadian Jewish Congress forgotten its roots?

Source: Toronto Star, 5-23-09

PHOTO FROM CANADIAN JEWISH CONGRESS CHARITIES COMMITTEE NATIONAL ARCHIVES Delegates at the first Canadian Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in March 1919. The umbrella organization will be celebrating its 90th anniversary next weekend.

Founded in 1919 with the intention of helping a persecuted minority, the Canadian Jewish Congress has monitored and fought discrimination across the country, including signs posted in the late 1930s that told Jews they were “not allowed” or “scram while the going is good.”

Critics say Canadian Jewish Congress has clout in top circles, but not in community. The outsiders are now the establishment.

Founded in 1919 as a place where a persecuted minority, barred from the halls of power, could find strength in collective action, the Canadian Jewish Congress has evolved over the years into the epitome of political power.

Its 90th anniversary celebration next weekend is evidence enough of that.

“We have a brand name that is the most significant ethnocultural organization in Canada,” boasts CJC chief executive Bernie Farber. “If you go outside and say, Canadian Jewish Congress, people know the name.”

The name certainly resonates in the halls of power.

In fact, not many groups can attract a political lineup like the CJC has for its 90th anniversary plenary and celebration May 31, including Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and the NDP’s Jack Layton. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also expected to be there to collect a human rights award.

But can the CJC, as it approaches the 100-year mark, maintain its direct line to the most powerful people in the country?

Some, like historian Gerald Tulchinsky, are not so sure, saying the group is failing to resonate among increasing numbers of the Jewish community – particularly the young and those who question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“The Canadian Jewish community is much more divided than it was 60, 70 or 90 years ago,” says Tulchinsky, a professor at Queen’s University and author of several books on Jewish history in Canada.

But for the time being, few politicians would dare ignore an organization like the CJC, which Farber says has more clout in the halls of power than most minority groups even though it represents only 360,000 people across the country.

“We have come to a point in the 21st century where at least in the halls of government, and I think very much in the mainstream of Canadian life, we are viewed as part and parcel of Canadian polity,” Farber says.

That influence, Farber says, comes from a willingness to speak out on human rights issues affecting all minorities, not just the Jewish community.

The CJC, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations across Canada, also gets strength by being a forum for discussion within the Jewish community, where differences are hammered out so that a united Jewish voice can be presented.

“We can be a community of 360,000 opinions, but Congress is the table where all those opinions have been able to come together over 90 years,” Farber says.

In recent years, however, that table has proved too small for the disparate voices within the Jewish community – especially when it comes to Middle East politics, an issue on which the CJC tends to take a hard line.

“They seem to be spending more time in relation to Israel than in relation to anything else,” says Abraham Arnold, who has been active in the CJC for more than 50 years. Arnold, a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Jewish community and human rights work, laments what he sees as the evolution of the group from a messy grassroots organization to a “top-down” group that does not encourage the same level of debate he remembers from past, raucous plenary meetings.

While obviously gaining in influence in the halls of power by putting forward an increasingly strong and singular voice, Arnold says, such gains come at the cost of waning influence at the grassroots level and an increasingly tenuous connection to its roots. “They wanted to be more than a Zionist organization in 1919,” he says.

Toronto artist Reena Katz has noticed a similar shift, one that has thrown the 33-year-old into the middle of a controversy.

Two weeks ago, the Koffler Centre for the Arts, affiliated to the CJC as an agency of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, withdrew its association with Katz’s latest exhibit because of her association with Israeli Apartheid Week, an international movement opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“I’ve been blacklisted,” says Katz, who uses her art to explore historic Jewish culture in Toronto.

Her father, retired librarian Bernard Katz, says his daughter’s experiences are only the latest in a recent history of the CJC becoming more resistant to opposing voices.

Katz agrees with his daughter that the CJC “has become the establishment,” pointing out that its most prominent members are not activists and agitators, but business people and philanthropists.

Tulchinsky says that while the founding purpose of the CJC was to help Jews in other countries and Jewish immigrants to Canada, it has in recent years concentrated more and more on Mideast politics.

“Back in the old days, the congress had a very, very strong concern for alleviating the distress of Jews in Eastern Europe,” he says. “Now, their focus is very heavily on Israel, where Jews who are under distress are to go.”

Dr. Richard Hull publishes latest book on Jews in African history

Dr. Richard Hull Historian Publishes latest book on Jews in African history Jews and Judaism in African History

Source: Straus News, 5-22-09

Professor Richard W. Hull, Ph.D., recently authored his latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History,” available in paperback and hardcover at Baby Grand Bookstore in downtown Warwick. Photo by Roger Gavan

Warwick resident Richard W. Hull, Ph.D., recently announced the publication of his latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History.”

Many Warwick residents know Hull as the town’s official historian and author of several books on local history. However, for many years Hull has served as professor of African history at New York University where he received four awards for teaching excellence. He was also the recipient of the Orange County Revered Citizen Award, a United Nations Distinguished Citizen Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship.

In recent years Professor Hull has taught a graduate seminar at NYU on “Jews in Africa since Classical Antiquity.”

His latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History,” is a concise yet comprehensive study of the contributions of Africans of Jewish ancestry to the development of the continent, from antiquity to the present.

Hull’s research project began some 15 years ago and took him to numerous libraries in England, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“I realized that although Jews were a minority, they played significant roles in African history hugely disproportionate to their numbers,” said Hull. “I decided to write this book because Jews have been largely left out of the major works in African history despite their significance.”

His narrative begins with the Israelites in ancient Egypt and North Africa and later explores the foundations of the Beth Israel communities of Ethiopia and the “lost tribe” of Lemba in southern Africa.

Hull also examines the role of Jews and conversos in the launching of the Atlantic slave trade along with the Jewish intelligentsia of early Morocco. Another chapter is devoted to Jews in South Africa and their participation in that county’s economic and cultural development.

“Jews and Judaism in African History,” is published by Markus Wiener Publishers of Princeton. It is available in paperback and hardcover at Baby Grand Bookstore in downtown Warwick.

Jonathan Sarna: Jewish agencies forced to downsize

Madoff, economy have big impact

Source: Boston Globe, 5-22-09

Jewish organizations in Boston and beyond are going through a significant downsizing as a result of a combination of the down economy and the Madoff scandal. Combined Jewish Philanthropies, an umbrella organization that helps finance several hundred local Jewish groups, gave preliminary approval yesterday to a 15 percent cut in the amount it will distribute next year. The organization had already cut its budget by 15 percent, laid off about 10 percent of its workforce, and imposed a 7 percent pay cut on senior managers and a one-week furlough for everyone making over $45,000.

The Reform Jewish movement plans to close its regional office in Needham next week. The Bureau of Jewish Education, in Newton, is debating whether to close after Combined Jewish Philanthropies cut 80 percent of its funding. Multiple organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to Hebrew College to Facing History and Ourselves, have laid off small numbers of workers, and many others have trimmed salaries, benefits, or programs.

“The American Jewish community has probably lost 30 percent of its wealth, and we have no idea how to cut the costs of the Jewish community by 30 percent,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

Sarna said that across the nation, there are unusual signs of the impact: In addition to widespread cutbacks, a few Jewish organizations are merging with non-Jewish organizations, and some Jewish community centers are closing.

“It’s a very tough time, and we’re at the stage now where everybody is defending their turf,” he said.

Opinions differ about whether the Jewish community, which has over the last decades established and funded an extraordinarily diverse network of schools, synagogues, and community organizations, is going through a major shakeout or a temporary belt-tightening….

Baltimore Hebrew University: Set to merge with Towson University next month

As one door closes for Baltimore Hebrew, another opens

Jewish institution set to merge with Towson University next month

Source: Baltimore Sun, 5-21-09

Megan Goldsmith is approaching her graduation from Baltimore Hebrew University with mixed emotions.

The 25-year-old Pikesville woman talks about the joy of completing her master’s degree in Jewish communal service, the honor of having been selected by her classmates to deliver the student commencement address, and the anticipation of her new career.

But she speaks also of nostalgia. With state officials expected to approve the integration of Baltimore Hebrew into Towson University next month, she and 14 fellow degree recipients Thursday night are likely to be the final class to graduate from an institution long at the center of local Jewish cultural and intellectual life.

“There’s been so many different people that have gone through that building,” says Goldsmith, who was inspired to apply to the school in part by a series of mentors who held BHU degrees. “It’s really sad that it’s ending. I mean, it’s been around for 90 years.”

Around Baltimore Hebrew University Around Baltimore Hebrew University Photos

The mood is bittersweet these days at Baltimore Hebrew, which was founded in 1919 to train teachers for local Jewish schools, and grew with the community to offer master’s degrees and doctorates. A high school from the 1930s through the 1980s graduated thousands of students.

But declining enrollments and rising costs made it increasingly difficult for the institution on Park Heights Avenue to remain independent, so its sole donor, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Greater Baltimore, directed administrators to find a new model.

They agreed to the Towson merger earlier this year. With approval by the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the University System of Maryland Board of Regents expected next month, the new Baltimore Hebrew Institute will open on the campus of the larger public university in the fall. Professors and degree programs will be dispersed among several departments and schools…..

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

GUESTVIEW: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

Source: Reuters, 5-19-09

The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.


(Photo: Muslim sheikh and Jewish rabbi address interfaith meeting in Brussels, 4 Jan 2005/Thierry Roge)

Jewish-Muslim engagement in an international context is inevitably more than interreligious dialogue. Muslim representatives, for the most part, do not come from countries that have a separation of mosque and state. Practically speaking, these dialogues are a form of second-tier diplomacy. In the United States, this is made apparent by fact the State Department sponsors Muslim visitors through its Foreign Leadership Visitor Program.

Under the aegis of the State Department, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS, where I teach) has welcomed imams from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Imam Shamsi Ali of the 96th Street Mosque in New York has brought the heads of the Indonesian Muslim community to visit JTS. I have been privileged to visit Muslim colleagues in Cairo (2004), in Doha (2005) and Madrid (2008), the latter for the first Saudi Arabian interreligious dialogue, sponsored by King Abdullah and hosted by Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

abdullah-and-visotzky-2As a representative of Judaism at these dialogues, I am often called upon to represent and/or defend the state of Israel. It has been my personal practice as a rabbi participating in such international dialogues to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry either directly or indirectly in advance of my participation, so that I have the opportunity to hear their views on these conferences (which may not have invited any Israeli representatives). This sometimes leads me to feeling conflicted personally, when our views may diverge.

(Photo: Rabbi Visotzky and King Abdullah in Madrid, July 2009)

Jews reacted to September 11th and its aftermath in complicated ways. I recall giving a public address in lower Manhattan on the first anniversary of the tragedy in which I suggested “we all live in Jerusalem now.” To me, the horror America experienced echoed the terror Israelis know daily. As a Jewish American, it is important to me to represent and advance Israel. On the other hand, my own dismay at the Israeli government’s overreaction in Gaza earlier this year and my personal disapproval of the impediments that the “settler movement” has created to a two-state solution have been a part of what pushes me to participate in international Jewish-Muslim dialogue. I do so in order to help, in whatever small way I am able, to move Israel and the Palestinians toward a mutually agreeable accord. I am, however, not naïve about the apparent intractability of the problem and the chasm between the narratives on each side in the dispute.

I also believe there is a genuine Jewish imperative for dialogue with our Muslim colleagues. From a religious perspective, we share much in common. For the past five years, I have represented the JTS in a variety of dialogue and social-action projects with the Muslim community in the U.S. as well as abroad. Locally, we joined with members of New York City’s 96th Street Mosque for dialogue, exchanged mosque and synagogue visits and worked side-by-side in a soup kitchen run by a local Presbyterian Church.

New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom HeneghanNationally, JTS has joined with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on a number of projects, including matching Conservative synagogues with local mosques for dialogue. We have also surveyed the 1,200 Conservative Rabbis in the United States both to see what Jewish-Muslim projects they are engaged in and to encourage other congregations to participate.

(Photo: New York Islamic Cultural Center, 23 April 2008/Tom Heneghan)

Personally, as an American who disagrees with Bush-era policies, I want to demonstrate that there are U.S. citizens who are respectful of and eager to dialogue with Islam, despite that administration’s Manichaean world-view. One hopes that the more open face of the Obama administration toward the Muslim world is a harbinger for more productive dialogue and encounter.

Of late, there has been a marked increase on the part of Muslim, particularly Arab Muslim moderate countries, for interreligious engagement. This can be attributed to the horrific events of September 11th, to a reaction to the Bush declarations against so-called “Islamo-fascism” and the perceived “clash of civilizations,” and as a response to Islamic extremism. It may also be a reaction to the influences of radical Islamic elements in Iran. But we must recognize that the move toward interreligious dialogue is also a genuine Islamic sentiment toward engagement with the “other,” particularly “religions of the Book.”

In the end, it is incumbent upon Islam to deal with its violent religious radicals, much as it is equally incumbent upon Judaism to deal with its violent religious radicals. For those of us who consider ourselves moderates or progressives, it is a religious obligation to continue the Jewish-Muslim engagement on the local, national, and international levels.

(For a fuller account of the JTS participation in Jewish-Muslim engagement, see the inaugural issue of The Journal of InterReligious Dialogue, )

Sanford Gutman: History Professor to Retire

History Professor Sanford Gutman to Retire

History Professor Sanford Gutman to RetireSource: SUNY Cortland, 5-20-09

Sanford Gutman of Ithaca, N.Y., who has served on the SUNY Cortland faculty for 37 years, will retire on Aug. 31. He has earned the designation of professor emeritus of history.

Gutman, who grew up in Detroit, Mich., focused on history as an undergraduate at Wayne State University and earned his master of arts and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan, specializing in modern European history.

He joined SUNY Cortland’s History Department in 1972 as an instructor after teaching for two years at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Gutman was promoted to assistant professor in 1976, associate professor in 1982 and professor in 1988. He also has been a visiting professor of modern Jewish history at Cornell University, Ithaca College and Syracuse University.

For much of his first 15 years at Cortland, Gutman taught European and French history and helped prepare secondary social studies teachers in the History Department’s Professional Semester. An invitation from his department chair in 1979 to teach a course in Modern Jewish History led to his growing interest in that subject and the decision to add to his teaching repertoire that course and related ones on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust. To that end, in 1986 Gutman attended the Yad Vashem Summer Institute on Teaching the Holocaust and in 1991 was an invited seminar participant in the University Teaching of Anti-Semitism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem…..

Jeffrey Gurock: America’s Unorthodox Orthodox Jews

America’s Unorthodox Orthodox Jews: A Conversation With Professor Jeffrey Gurock

Source: The Jewish Press, 5-20-09

He put on tefillin every day. He was rarely absent from shul. He ate only Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock: Book Coverkosher. But during the busy season in the garment industry, this Bronx Jew who grew up in the first half of the 20th century worked on Shabbat. Can such a person be considered an Orthodox Jew? Today many Jews would answer “no.” However, this gentleman and many others like him appear in a new book, Orthodox Jews in America, which examines the many shades of American Orthodoxy over the past 350 years. The book’s author, Jeffrey Gurock, has written and edited 14 other works, is a former associate editor of American Jewish History, and currently is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. The Jewish Press recently interviewed him about his book.

The Jewish Press: Your book, devoted to American Jewish Orthodoxy, includes Jews who work on Shabbat. In what sense is someone who works on Shabbat Orthodox? Gurock: He’s Orthodox in the sense that he understands what the requirements of halacha are. This individual is very guilty about his inability to observe Shabbat, but there are certain basic economic exigencies that force him to work to support his family.

Some would argue that working on Shabbat makes a person, a priori, not Orthodox. Obviously people are entitled to their opinion, but no one observes all the mitzvot. What makes someone Orthodox is his understanding that one is required to observe the mitzvot. Someone could be a Reform Jew and observe many of the mitzvot, but he’s not Orthodox because this is a personal decision he makes not based upon a belief in a halachic tradition.

People growing up today don’t realize how prevalent this type of Orthodoxy was, especially pre-World War II and while the Blue Laws were still in effect. Fortunately today American Jews are more affluent and they’re in an America that’s far more accepting of them. When I teach undergraduates and talk about this phenomenon [of Orthodox Jews being less than fully observant] they look at me like this is a strange world. And then I say, “Go home and if you’re privileged to have grandparents who are living, ask them about this Orthodox life.” And they come back and [their grandparents] all have stories – either about themselves or about the person who sat next to them in shul who had this type of difficulty.

Can you talk about America’s first rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Rice? He comes from Bavaria in 1840, arrives in Baltimore, and discovers a community where many of the members are not particularly observant. It’s a very big problem for him. As a European rabbi, his first approach is to take a highly resistant, exclusionary approach toward his congregants. So he says he will not let anyone have an aliyah if he is mechalel Shabbos b’farhesya [publicly desecrating Shabbat]. But then he changes the rule and says you can get an aliyah, but the congregation shouldn’t say amen to the brachah. And eventually he just gives up. He ends up leaving the rabbinate because he’s just uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable with the state of religious observance in America. Yes, it’s a very different environment than Europe. But Europe is also changing. There’s a stereotype that all our ancestors in Eastern Europe were frum, and then they came to America and they threw it all overboard. My point is, number one, people don’t throw everything overboard; they maintain plenty. And two, Eastern Europe during that time period is far from 100 percent observant. You have radicals [who become ritually unobservant] and then you have [ordinary] people who are beginning to observe less than they did in the past.

You have some interesting information in the book about kosher and non-kosher methods of shaving. Can you share? There is a graphic in the book of an advertisement in 1932 for the first electric razor that reads, “A new invention to prevent a transgression.” So here’s an example of how the ability to be shomer mitzvot is enhanced by modern technology. My grandfather, who I’m named after, used a stinking depilatory. But when the electric razor comes along you can look like other Americans without either stinking up your apartment or violating the tradition. But just to show you the nuances involved, at the same time that [people are using depilatories and the new electric shaver], the Jewish Forum, an Orthodox newspaper closely connected to the OU, has ads for regular Schick razors. Now that doesn’t mean the OU endorsed it, but advertisers are obviously serving a constituency. If no one was buying those shavers, they wouldn’t be advertising.

What happens to American Orthodoxy after World War II? A decline numerically in the numbers of people who identify with Orthodoxy, but those who have remained become more observant than any prior generation before them. Also the influx into America of Jews who for a variety of reasons did not come here until after the Shoah adds a great deal of vitality and strictness to Orthodox behavior.

In one of your previous books, Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports, you examine this new, stricter American Orthodoxy through the controversy surrounding yeshivas – such as Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin – playing in Orthodox basketball leagues that allowed girls to attend games and sometimes featured cheerleading squads and post-game dances. Can you elaborate?

[These yeshivas were concerned with] elevating the athletes to a status in the yeshiva that they didn’t want. They wanted the star of the yeshiva to be the scholar or rebbe, not the coach or athlete. Another problem for the yeshivas was that the whole environment of sports was a very secular one. So Chaim Berlin had a team and it dropped out. Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem had a team and then it dropped out. Torah Vodaath had a surreptitious team and then [Rabbi Gedalia Schorr] squelched it. And yet in the early ’60s [these yeshivas formed] a league called the Mesifta High School Athletic Association. [The administrations of these yeshivas basically said] that you can have a league but you’re not going to have dances after the games and you’re not going to have girls at the games. In its own right, this was a degree of accommodation.

What happened to this league? In the mid ’60s it just died. There wasn’t a moment in time when someone said, “Don’t play.” It just drifted away.

Looking forward, what trends do you see taking place in the Orthodox community? I’m going to duck that question. I have enough trouble understanding the past. I don’t want to predict the future.

Obama declares Jewish American Heritage Month

Source: JTA, 5-13-09

President Obama declared May to be Jewish American Heritage Month.

In a proclamation signed Tuesday, Obama writes that the Jewish American tradition “exemplifies the strength of the American immigrant tradition” and that “the focus on preserving traditions is a notable characteristic of Jewish culture.” “Jewish Americans have immeasurably enriched our Nation,” the proclamation states. “Unyielding in the face of hardship and tenacious in following their dreams, Jewish Americans have surmounted the challenges that every immigrant group faces and have made unparalleled contributions.” “Among the greatest contributions of the Jewish American community,” it continues, “is the example they have set for all Americans. They have demonstrated that Americans can choose to maintain cultural traditions while honoring the principles and beliefs that bind them together as Americans. Jewish-American history demonstrates how America’s diversity enriches and strengthens us all.”

This is the fourth year a U.S. president has proclaimed May as Jewish American Heritage Month. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, spearheaded by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schutz (D-Fla.), passed resolutions urging that the month honor the contributions of Jewish Americans to the United States.

Rafael Medoff: The 70th anniversary of the British White Paper

Source: Jerusalem Post, 5-14-09

Chaim Weizmann called it “a death sentence for the Jewish people.” David Ben-Gurion said it was “the greatest betrayal perpetrated by the government of a civilized people in our generation.” Seventy years ago this week, England declared a new policy for Palestine: Jewish immigration would be restricted to just 15,000 annually for the next five years, and after that would be permitted only with the agreement of Palestine’s Arabs.

Britain tried to limit Jewish... Britain tried to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and set out to stop ships, such as the Exodus, from arriving.
Photo: Courtesy

Just six months after the Kristallnacht pogrom, with German Jews desperately seeking a haven and country after country shutting its doors, the British closed off the one land that offered the hope of refuge.

Weizmann rushed to London to plead his case before prime minister Neville Chamberlain. “The prime minister sat before me like a marble statue; his expressionless eyes were fixed on me, but he never said a word,” Weizmann later recalled. “I got no response. He was bent on appeasement of the Arabs and nothing could change his course.” Well, maybe not quite nothing.

The British were, after all, in a particularly vulnerable position in May 1939. Two months earlier, Hitler had completed his dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, leaving the Munich agreement in tatters. War with England seemed inevitable. “London was in such dire need of American support,” the historian Selig Adler has noted, “that a strong dissent from Washington would have probably forced a British reversal” of the White Paper…..

Lee Shai Weissbach: “Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History” at the University of Scranton

Source: Wilkes Barre Times-Leader, PA, 5-12-09

May 14: 2009: Lee Shai Weissbach, Ph.D., professor of history at the University of Louisville, Ky., will discuss “Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History” at the University of Scranton’s Weinberg Institute of Judaic Studies’ spring lecture Thursday at 8 p.m. in the Ann and Leo Moskovitz Theater of the Patrick and Margaret DeNaples Center, Mulberry Street.