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Why A Ramah Counselor Spoke-Out About the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters Last Week

Nov17

by: Sylvie Rosen on November 17th, 2017 | 7 Comments »

Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters
Protest of the Occupation at Ramah Headquarters. Image courtesy of author.

Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up at Ramah. Without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Ramah is a holy community, a Kehilah Kedoshah, as we say. This summer, when a fire burned down our main building, people posted on Facebook, donated money, and reached out to me individually. I felt supported by the entire National Ramah movement.

But where is that same support, community, and strength in our conversations, actions, and education on Israel/Palestine? Although Ramah changes me and lifts me up in so many ways, it fails me every year in one way: by perpetuating lies about the Occupation.

Not once, in my combined ten years at Ramah in the Berkshires and Ramah in the Rockies, did anyone mention the Occupation. We don’t talk about it because we want to pretend it doesn’t exist every summer.

In my three summers on staff, none of our programming ever attempted to address the Occupation. Instead, on Yom Israel in 2016, staff instructed campers to build mock settlements as a fun competition that demonstrated how Jews built Israel from nothing. No one mentioned that people lived on that land before. In our dining tent, we have a map from The Nachshon Project showing where all the famous Biblical characters lived in Israel/Palestine — stealthily laying claim to the idea that only Jews have a historic right to the land. We have maps of Israel across the camp to emulate the Israel Trail, but not one of them outlines the Green Line. This past summer, during our staff training session on Israel, we talked about our feelings and relationship to Israel, but never about the Occupation. The unspoken agreement about the Occupation was: it’s complicated, difficult, and not appropriate for a summer camp.

This is an educational and moral disaster.

Rabbi Cohen responded in Haaretz to our campaign the day of the Speak-Out and Teach-In I participated in last week: “We [Ramah and IfNotNow] don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation.”

But if that is true, then the attempts made have been at best inconsistent and inadequate. In the past I’ve made excuses for Ramah because I want it to be the leader in the American-Jewish community that it claims to be. I told myself that the rest of the work Ramah does outweighs these issues. I was scared to disagree with the place is so central to my identity.

But I can’t maintain this lie anymore, which is why I went to the Speak-Out and Teach-In outside the National Ramah Commission last Tuesday. I joined because I want to see systemic change, and I know our community can do better than individual private meetings that superficially deal with this issue. We have to hold Ramah accountable and we can’t do that in a private setting. We want change for this summer, and we need public support for that. This is why we have invited Rabbi Cohen, to a public forum to talk with alumni and members of the Jewish community.

When I return to Ramah this summer along with 11,000 other people, I want our work and community to truly be holy, Kedoshah, by truthfully and thoughtfully educating campers and staff about the realities of the occupation.

I also want to address how we should educate campers and staff on the Occupation this summer. We must acknowledge the reality that millions of Palestinians live under Israeli military rule. IfNotNow has compiled a list of some resources we can use to teach campers and staff how to think critically about Israel. But this is just a start, it shows that this kind of education is possible and that other Jewish educators are doing it.  We need to upend the idea that Israel education and all Jewish education cannot include discussions about the Occupation. For those at Ramah who are professional Jewish educators, addressing the Occupation is as part of their job as teaching campers how to lead shabbat services — and we must hold them responsible for that.

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Sylvie Rosen is an IfNotNow member and Ramah camp counselor.

This Week’s Torah Portion

Nov7

by: 2017-2018 T'ruah Israel Fellows on November 7th, 2017 | 5 Comments »

Note from Rabbi Lerner:

This week’s Torah portion to be read this Saturday in synagogues around the world tells of Abraham bargaining for a place to buy his wife Sarah. He finally succeeds in purchasing the spot which is now identified as the cave of machpelah in the center of Hebron. It became a holy site for Jews some 2200 years ago, and many Jews went on pilgramage to that site until the Roman imperialists forced Jews out of much of what the Romans named Palestine. When, some 1300 years ago, Muslims conquered the Holy Land, they constructed a mosque on top of this cave, and that became a holy site for Muslims as well who also believed that they, through Ishmael (Abraham’s first son, though not through his wife Sara but from her handmaiden Hagar) were descendents of Abraham. After the 1967 “Six Days War” Israel conquered the West Bank, a group called Gush Emunim, composed mostly of religious fanatics who believed that Jews had “the right” all of the West Bank and Gaza (and some even thinking that God had “given us” all the territory to the Euprhates river in Iraq) settled first nearby Hebron, then in Hebron next to the mosque where they could have immediate access to the supposed graves of our ancestors.They began displacing Arabs living near the cave and this caused friction between the over 100,000 Muslims who lived in this large West Bank city and the settlers. In 1994 a settler entered the mosque and murdered some 19 Muslims at prayer. In response, Israel sent in IDF (Israeli army) to protect the settlers from the anger of the (unarmed) Palestinians, and as more settler arrived and more Palestinians were displaced, anger grew, and so did the presence of the Israeli army, shutting down streets in central Hebron till it felt to many more like a prison than like the center of one of the biggest Palestinian cities.

Below is a note I received from a group of young people studying in Israel this year as the Truah Israel Fellows with the interdenominational organization Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights of which I am a member.  Please read it to understand better why Palestinians are so outraged at the Occupation.

– Rabbi Michael Lerner

 

A d’var Torah for Parashat Chayei Sarah by the 2017-2018 T’ruah Israel Fellows

 

Visiting Hebron, one of the first impressions that hits like a sucker-punch to the stomach is of a ghost town. Streets once bustling with thousands of Palestinians are now traversed almost exclusively by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Freedom of movement is squashed. Palestinian doors are welded shut and porches are caged in, ostensibly to protect them from the 800 settlers living in their midst. It’s hard to fathom what life is like when you cannot go out of your front door. This is occupation at its starkest.

But after this shock subsides, a more insidious, creeping form of occupation starts to draw one’s attention. Wherever we travel in the rest of Israel, we see street signs in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It’s a recognition of Arabic’s status as an official language and a nod to the kind of coexistence that, at least in theory, Israel strives for. But here in Hebron, a lot of work has gone into painting a different picture.

Here, the street names are in Hebrew and English. No Arabic. Road signs point to Jerusalem and the settlement of Neve Samuel but not to any of the Palestinian neighborhoods or villages. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to cloak the occupation, to erase anyone’s connection to this place but the Jews’.

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Where Were You When Rabin Was Shot?

Nov2

by: Ethan Gologor on November 2nd, 2017 | 1 Comment »

As with those other infamous shots in the 60s that resound in our memories, frozen by the singular import of the tragic occasion, I have no trouble recalling the moment I learned of Rabin’s assassination. I was in the middle of teaching a three-hour introductory psychology class at my college in Crown Heights. We were just returning from our ten-minute break when one of my African-American students asked if I had heard. “Heard what?” “That Rabin had been shot.” For a minute, I didn’t understand. The ease with which his name emerged must have surprised me. Had the whole world really kept up? Did everyone, regardless of background or context, have at their fingertips the names of Peres, Shamir, Begin, Sharon, Dayan? And why was he making such a point of telling me? Did he somehow know that I’d have more than an average, passing interest?

Yes, I knew very well the name of Rabin. As the descendant of generations of Jews born in Jerusalem, as an adolescent who couldn’t help feeling a special kinship, even with Eva Marie Saint, after seeing Exodus, as a groom who took his marriage vows under a chupah on the beaches of Eilat, I took pride in many of his accomplishments. And while the well-celebrated peace efforts of his last two years seem to have vanished with him, I refer to those dramas that now seem so long ago–exploits of the Palmach before the country was formed, the efficient surgical strikes of an unparalleled air force, manifestations of prototypically Hebrew ethics, which originated somewhere between Genesis and Deuteronomy and which were continually on display between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, between Sinai and Golan, between dawn and dusk on six days in June in 1967. The generals who always led the charge across threatening territories, loaded with land mines. The precision bombing of the oil tankards, without an enemy life taken. The courage and ingenuity of the Entebbe invasion. Rabin, often the mastermind, symbolized the resolve by which the state of Israel was born and the care by which its values were nurtured. And even when he fell temporarily from grace with–scandal of scandals!–an attempt to preserve a few real dollars outside of his country that regularly devoured savings with 50 per cent inflation a year, I felt for him. Give of yourself but also take care of yourself. The shrewd coup where nobody really gets hurt. A victimless crime. How can I save a little here? (On my first trip to Israel, a well-to-do sabra asked my companion, as we were disembarking, if she’d mind wearing the mink she’d bought abroad till we all cleared customs. It would save her a few dollars. I liked that too.) However patriotic one is, the tax collector–well, that’s something else.

But while my personal history is known hardly to anyone, word of my “ethnicity,” as all my Jamaican and Trinidadian and Nigerian students are used to referring to it, had apparently gotten around. Without my becoming aware of it, I had become the campus Jew. Without applying for the position, I had become the authority, the arbiter, the representative on matters Jewish. (As the years went by, I would become in charge of bringing the menorah to the winter holiday table and certifying the authenticity of the latkes that somehow would find their place, adjacent to the collard greens and sweet potato pie and goat curry.) And however awkward I felt to be so chosen, I couldn’t help but appreciate the genuineness of the offer. When that three-hour class was over, three staff members, one African, one African-American and one Caribbean added their expressions of sympathy. And with those, I actually began to feel simultaneously as Jewish and as at home in this almost totally black environment as I ever had. They knew, they identified, they shared. We’ve had our own many centuries of this, thank you, so we all recognize the pain of sudden and violent and senseless death.

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Islam and anti-Semitism?

Oct25

by: Junaid Jahangir on October 25th, 2017 | No Comments »

Muslims must address ancient texts usurped for anti-Semitism.

 

I came across a swastika and a “Death to Israel” sign in my latest visit to Pakistan. This is not news to me, as I have heard Friday sermons depicting the yahud (Jews) as our enemies. I have also witnessed online comments by some Pakistanis that Hitler did not complete his job.

I was reminded of these observations as I read the Toronto Star article on the Toronto Imam, Ayman Elkasrawy, who was accused of preaching hate against Jews. The article shows that Elkasrawy’s Arabic prayer was mistranslated and that he did not intend for the annihilation of the Jewish community.

Going beyond mere apology, he visited a synagogue and learned about anti-racism, human rights laws, and human rights in Canada. He reached out to Bernie Farber, former head of a Jewish advocacy group.

Based on his interaction, Farber, who spent his life tackling anti-Semitism, expressed: “I really saw a young man who felt beaten down for something that he didn’t quite understand.”

This is concerning because there would be many others like Elkasrawy who do not intend hate but who reference ancient texts we have inherited that depict Jews in a negative light.

The ongoing situation in Israel and Palestine only compounds the issue as these texts are resuscitated to vent anger and frustration.

I am not sure if there is a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue. For a vast majority of Jews, Zionism means having a homeland of their own. Muslims view Zionism through the lens of colonialism.

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Feud Resolution or Escalation

Oct8

by: Edwin Black on October 8th, 2017 | Comments Off

This article is the fifth in a series. Click here for part one, part two, part three, or part four.

At about 5 AM on September 20, 2017, before the sun rose over the Boston skyline, Gilad Skolnick tumbled out of bed. He hadn’t slept much the night before—the sheer excitement of starting a major new phase of his life weighed on his mind. He dressed and then, as usual, stopped at the gym as the first order of business. By 8:30 AM, Skolnick had tucked his white shirt into his khaki pants, emerged from the gym filled with anticipation, and made his way to 70 Saint Stephen Street—Northeastern University Hillel [NEU Hillel].

Before he arrived that day to assume his post as the newly hired executive director, Skolnick knew that NEU Hillel had started a firestorm in the Jewish and campus community. The 33-year-old former director of campus programming at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the pro-Israel media watchdog group known as CAMERA, was accustomed to controversy. But this was something beyond that.

Weeks earlier, NEU Hillel had gained national media and collegiate attention as the local chapter that had vociferously rebelled against Hillel International over what NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman termed “an inquisition” of interference, retaliation, threats, and strong-arm tactics. Goldman loudly blamed Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut and his senior staff. Fingerhut and other Hillel International personalities have either denied, or refused to answer various allegations.

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Accusations of Intimidation in Boston

Oct1

by: Edwin Black on October 1st, 2017 | Comments Off

This article is the fourth in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When one speaks to Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, one hears a quiet voice speaking carefully and thoughtfully. Managing thousands of interconnected programs at more than 500 independent local Hillels, walking a tightrope between a spectrum of Jewish political and religious persuasions – all vying for primacy at the nation’s Jewish campus outposts, Fingerhut is accustomed to organizational tension and finding middle ground.

But when he had to answer open allegations that he and Hillel International were engaged in strong-arm tactics to dominate and control independent Hillels and their boards, it struck him deeply. The accusations included bullying, intimidation, threats of defamation suits, interference, whisper campaigns, and retaliation against critics that could include punishing innocent staffers.

Moreover, the charges were not whispered among a few disgruntled local Hillel personalities or partner organizations. They were being broadcast to hundreds of local Hillel directors, officials and their boards in open letters and emails calling for the removal of Fingerhut, demanding a cessation of what was termed “intimidation tactics.” The continuing J’Accuse comes from Sheldon Goldman, board chairman of the local Hillel at Northeastern Campus (NEU) in Boston.

Goldman says he has witnessed for more than a year what he called an administrative “inquisition” undermining NEU Hillel operations and staff.

After months of disagreement between NEU Hillel and Hillel International, things came to a head in December 2016. A dedicated NEU Hillel staffer was notified she would be receiving a prestigious Hillel International award for excellence at the Hillel International General Assembly in Orlando. But then the award was mysteriously withdrawn. After numerous protests, the award was ultimately bestowed upon her last March in Washington D.C. at the AIPAC Policy Conference. But that incident last December 2016 became the back-breaking straw that resulted in the chapter’s well-regarded director, Arinne Braverman, to resign on the spot in Orlando.

When Goldman tried to replace Braverman with a carefully-curated Israeli Hillel staffer, Hillel International only deepened the chasm between them, reminding Goldman that he could not hire a replacement without Eric Fingerhut’s personal involvement and approval, per a pre-existing procedure.

In a series of widely-distributed emails and letters, Goldman denounced Hillel International and Fingerhut for “fear-based tactics.” One such email decried, “Eric Fingerhut’s attempts to discredit me within the Boston community … and his threats of a defamation suit against me. These actions,” the missive continued, “shed further light on his character and are reasons why I believe he must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

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Hillel at the Crossroads: NEU Hillel Protests “Fear-Based Tactics”

Sep24

by: Edwin Black on September 24th, 2017 | Comments Off

This article is the third in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Sheldon Goldman was hesitant and uncertain about what to do next.

As board chairman of the Northeastern University (NEU) Hillel, Goldman had witnessed what he termed an administrative “inquisition” by Hillel International against his chapter, programs and staff. The chargeswere denied by Hillel International. But Goldmanhad reached his limit.

Goldman had come to the NEU chapter years ago, as a parent of a daughter at the school. He haddonated$36,000 per yearinpersonal funds and had led fundraising drives to buttress the NEU chapter’s programs, its physicalbuildingand its future sustainability.

In a January 14, 2017, letter to Hillel International board chair Tina Price, Goldman recited the following accomplishments:”We received an offer from the Northeastern University to become a University affiliate–with the University offering to fund the annual organizational budget. We have built bridges with University departments, faculty and student groups and organized successful campaigns to defeat BDS resolutions … three timesin two years. We neutralized the SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] organization that was creating an environment of harassment and intimidation for Jewish students.”

Still, NEU Hillel’s relations withHillel Internationalhad been raw for a long time, says Goldman. Matters came to a climax after NEU Hillel’s Israel Fellow,who was slated to receive aprestigious award at theHillel International General Assembly held in Orlando, Florida, in December 2016, saw the honor mysteriously withdrawn, according to Goldman. While still at the Orlando assembly, NEU Hillel executive director Arinne Braverman decided to resign over what she called “politics.”

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Hillel at the Crossroads: How Things Broke Down in Boston

Sep17

by: Edwin Black on September 17th, 2017 | Comments Off

This article is the second in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Northeastern University Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman is incensed at the treatment that his Hillel chapter has received at the hands of Hillel International, and he lays the blame squarely on the organization’s CEO — Eric Fingerhut.

In an August 18, 2017, email, Goldman insisted that Fingerhut “must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough, as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”

In a recent interview on the subject, Goldman invoked Isaac Newton, who famously said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, continued Goldman, “Hillel International is not looking for giants. Instead, [CEO] Eric Fingerhut is looking for pygmies.”

Goldman has emerged as the nation’s single most vocal and antagonistic critic of Hillel International and Fingerhut. As such, Goldman is now focusing attention on the sometimes-contentious relationship between Hillel International and some of its 550 local affiliates, most of which are independently-incorporated foundations.

What are Hillel International’s rights and duties — and limits — when it comes to improving Jewish campus life? This question may well be decided at Northeastern University (NEU).

The troubles between NEU Hillel and Hillel International go back years, and cover a gamut of disputes — from conflicts over the kosher kitchen, to problems with NEU’s building, to interpersonal friction. The incidents also include NEU Hillel’s 2016 purge of student leaders whom the local board thought were disruptive and bullying other Jewish students — only to find that International was not supportive of that effort.

But things took a decidedly toxic turn late last year, when — according to Goldman — a beloved Israel Fellow at NEU Hillel was denied the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award.

Boundary Crossers: New Book Explores Jewish Spiritual Leaders in Non-Jewish Religions

Sep15

by: Matthew Gindin on September 15th, 2017 | Comments Off

When a Quaker becomes a Buddhist lama, or a Hindu becomes a Muslim Imam, the story is clearly one of conversion. When a Jew becomes a Wiccan priestess or a Catholic monk, the story is not so cut and dry. The nearly unique nature of Jewish identity-nearly, but not entirely, consider what happens if a Cherokee woman becomes a Buddhist nun- raises questions.

According to general views and to the Jewish tradition itself, the person remains a Jew. According to the Jewish religion, they remain bound by Jewish religious law and are simply in violation of it when they, say, leave an offering for the Great God Pan or eat a roast Ham at a Church dinner.

This unique set of cultural truths sets the backdrop for Allan Levin’s recent book Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. In this diverse book, which manages admirably to combine probing intelligence with a lack of judgmentalism, Levin interviews sixteen Jews who are leaders in other spiritual traditions. Levin himself grew up a non-religious Jew who became active in the radical left and then seriously pursued personal enlightenment, first with a neo-tantric community and then with First Nations spirituality, before returning to find meaning again in his Jewish identity and traditional Jewish values (although not Orthodox ones in his case).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It is a path trodden by many Jews after the Holocaust and the ascendancy of modernist, conformist Judaism left younger Jews without spiritual leadership or an alternative Jewish culture willing to be an escape from the cultural-political mainstream.

What sets Levin apart is his quest to follow up on the trajectories of his contemporaries who have settled in other religious traditionsHis list includes heavyweights like Krishna Das (the most popular yogic chant master alive, a ubiquitous presence in Yoga classes from Berkeley to Kensington Market); Sharon Salzberg (a founding teacher in the American Vipassana/Mindfulness movement); Starhawk (perhaps the most important crafter of feminist/politically engaged neo-paganism) and Ken Cohen (modern master of Chinese spirituality and Qigong who has had an outsize influence on western Daoism). Aside from those luminaries Levin also interviews a Catholic Priest, a Vedantic Nondualist, a Sufi, a Sikh, a Medicine Man, and others.

The fascinating roster Levin has gathered only brings to mind all the other names he could have included: Bhikkhu Bodhi (founder of Buddhist Global Relief and a leading English language scholar of Theravadin Buddhism), Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeild and John Kabat-Zinn (all pioneers in the Buddhist- inspired Mindfulness movement) and Norman Fischer (former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and leading interpreter of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West), or Jewish Buddhist teacher Jay Michaelson (a frequent contributor to the Forward), for example, and the list goes on and on. 

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Hillel at the Crossroads: Who’s Responsible for Hillel?

Sep10

by: Edwin Black on September 10th, 2017 | 10 Comments »

This article is the first in a series. It originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut stands at the window of his curved corner office at the organization’s Washington, DC headquarters, he looks down on a streetscape dominated by Chinatown and its Friendship Arch. But Fingerhut’s domain extends far beyond anything the eye can see — to the four corners of North America, and beyond.

With 550 North American campus affiliates and 56 affiliates overseas, Hillel International is arguably one of America’s largest and most far-reaching Jewish organizations, dwarfing a combination of other major Jewish groups.

From its humble roots in 1920 at Texas A&M University, and then its formal creation in 1923 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Hillel has risen to become the tip of the spear in the battle for Jewry’s future. That battle is now being waged at the frontline of the conflagration — the college campus, where the fractal of antisemitism and anti-Zionism morphs daily.

The name Hillel stands for one thing: the next generation. Yet, the organization, which sports a $126.4 million-dollar budget and is staffed by approximately 1,000 employees, is greatly misunderstood.

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