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Conservative Movement Plans Liberal Tinkering

United Synagogue head also discusses ‘Lost’ ad

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The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—the umbrella association comprising over 700 Conservative congregations in North America—today announced a reorganization designed to prioritize consistency across congregations and to strengthen the organization’s youth and young-adult initiatives by grouping them into a single department. The group also announced a 10 percent central staff cut. Both the reorganization, which will be finalized at a board meeting Sunday night, as well as the cuts were prompted by a “perilous” financial situation, according to a press release.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s new head, candidly told us that his group’s finances were adversely affected by both the economy and “by the credibility issue.” He continued: “I think [United Synagogue]’s been ineffective in the last several years at meeting the needs of our congregations, who are our stakeholders.” (As the rabbi at Philadelphia’s Adath Israel until about two months ago, Wernick said, he had helpful perspective here.) The goal of the reorganization is not to redefine Conservative Judaism, according to Wernick, but rather to more effectively and consistently uphold traditional Conservative values. “It’s about a commitment to Jewish ritual practice and Jewish study, via classical means, overlaid with modern scholarship,” Wernick explained. “Ultimately, the expression of that is in vibrant centers of Jewish living and learning.”

Since the Conservative movement lies directly on the fault-line between tradition and assimilation, we also asked Wernick how he felt about that controversial Israeli ad which implied that Jews who did not feel a connection to Israel and who intermarry are “lost” (the ad was pulled yesterday). “Every time I hear about those suggestions, I think they’re just silly, and they represent a point of view that is out of touch with reality,” he told us. “I’m glad the ad was pulled. My thought process is that probably my colleagues in the Conservative movement and other movements spoke quite passionately against it, and hopefully they played a role in getting it pulled.”

Hasid Sets Sight on Dancing World Record

Chabad telethon to feature six-hour number

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IfI you’re from Los Angeles, you know September is the time of year when the image of a dancing Hasid appears on streetlamp banners all over the Westside, reminding viewers that the single most successful Chabad outreach initiative (and fundraiser) ever invented is just around the corner: the annual To Life! Telethon. It’s just like the Jerry Lewis’s, but with more famous people—at some point or another, everyone who’s anyone in Hollywood has turned up to dance, sing, or just crack jokes, including Jon Voight, Bob Dylan, and the entire cast of Friends (that’s like two more famous people right there!).

This year, though, they’re trying something a little different. Yossi Cunin, the head of Chabad’s Beverly Hills outpost, plans to try for a Guinness World Record at this Sunday’s broadcast: the longest ever recorded Hasidic dance. To prepare, the 36-year-old has been training with Dave Honig, best known as the co-author of LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout. So far, Cunin hasn’t achieved the rap star’s chiseled physique, but he has lost about 100 pounds, partly by running up and down stairs at Dodger Stadium with weights strapped to his back. (We’re pretty sure that wasn’t in the book.) Cunin told the L.A. Jewish Journal that he’s expecting to dance nonstop for six hours, to demonstrate “joy in the extreme.” Maybe Honig can brand it as the Goin’ Back to Cali workout?


Chabad Rabbi Trains for Dance-a-thon
[Jewish Journal]

Jewish Leaders Hit the Hill

Lobbying Congress for tougher sanctions on Iran

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Three hundred Jewish community leaders are set to meet today with congressmen from both parties as well as an Obama staffer to discuss U.S. policy vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to lobby for stricter sanctions against Iran. This confab, which is part of the National Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Iran, comes after nine rabbinical and synagogue organizations issued a joint statement calling on American Jews to “make Iran a matter of the highest urgency.” Economic penalties, they hope, will serve as a “vehicle” toward stopping the mullahs’ atomic ambitions. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are slated to attend.

Jewish Leaders Converging on D.C. for Advocacy Day on Iran [JTA]

J Street Debuts in ‘Times Magazine’

Left-leaning Israel lobby group is generational shift, James Traub says

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J Street, the year-old progressive “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobbying group, has its official coming-out party in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Writer James Traub paints a sharp contrast between J Street ‘s upstart team of “netroots”-savvy whiz kids, led by Jeremy Ben-Ami, and the staid leadership of the old-guard Jewish organizations—the Conference of Presidents, the Zionist Organization of America, and, yes, AIPAC—who, in Traub’s characterization, spend their time hanging out at evangelical Christian rallies and ruing the end of the Bush Administration. Ben-Ami, Traub writes, has arrived “at a propitious moment”—a time when many liberal Jews, energized by the Obama campaign and unimpressed by the failure of the neoconservatives to ink a peace deal, are ready to try Obama’s get-tough approach on settlements and the two-state solution. “One these issues, which pose a difficult quandary for the mainstream groups, J Street knows exactly where it stands,” Traub writes.

There was, of course, a time, in the early 1980s, when AIPAC, at least, was run by left-leaning progressives—people like Tom Dine, a veteran of Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign—but Traub seems to be suggesting that what’s going on is generational, more than anything else. M.J. Rosenberg, another veteran of AIPAC, told Traub that “all the old Jewish people in senior-citizen homes speaking Yiddish are dying, and they’re being replaced by 60-year-old Woodstock types.” But Rosenberg—who cheerfully blogged this morning that the Times story “heralds a new day”—missed the mark by about thirty years. The real shift, Traub writes, is from the moment of people like the Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein and the Zionist Organization’s Morton Klein, both born in Europe amid the wreckage of the Holocaust, to that of people like Ben-Ami, whose great-grandparents helped found Tel Aviv, who handed out leaflets for Carter as a teenager, and whose office is filled with thirty-something Jews who are intermarried and “all doing Buddhist seders.” As with the Cubans in Florida, who have outgrown their exile mentality, Traub argues, J Street believes American Jews no longer need to be “in thrall to the older generation” when it comes to the Middle East.

But it seems to us that there’s really something even deeper going on—not so much a shift in opinion, but a shift away from the idea that American Jews should, or even could, arrive at something like a unified opinion on Israel. Traub draws a distinction between the fortresslike offices of AIPAC and most other major Jewish groups and those of J Street, which he describes as glassy and airy and open. Last week, J Street announced that it had hired Hadar Susskind, an Israeli-born, American-raised veteran of both the IDF and the Hill, to be its new director of policy. In this week’s Forward, Susskind writes: “It’s time for all of us who grew up loving Israel and praying for peace to stop letting the mythical notion that American Jews speak with a single voice keep us from supporting Israel’s security and future by calling for peace.”

The New Israel Lobby [NYTM]

Israeli Loves Nadal, Kisses Him

PDA at U.S. open

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Did everyone catch Rafael Nadal getting kissed by an adoring fan following his victory Tuesday night at the U.S. Open? (If you didn’t, you can watch it below.) Turns out the kisser—whom Nadal laughed off, though the security guards who carted him away were not smiling—is an Israeli named Noam Aorta who lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens, not too far from Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site of the smooch. “In my country, kissing a man is no big deal,” he reportedly told police. Really? Has Aorta stumbled upon the solution to the Palestinian question—interfaith kissing? There’s only one way to find out …

Kissing Mandit Tells Nadal: I Love You [NYP]

Today on Tablet

Jews on liberal Jews, artsy ‘ritual’, wild honey pie

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Tablet Magazine collects five Jewish thinkers to answer the question embodied in the title of Norman Podhoretz’s new book: why are Jews liberals? Karen Rosenberg reviews “Reinventing Ritual,” the fall exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum; a slideshow accompanies. To prepare you for Rosh Hashanah, Mimi Sheraton looks at the history of honey and shares her honey cake recipe. We can’t promise there won’t be even more recipes throughout the day on The Scroll.

Daybreak: Bibi in Moscow

Plus Spain on Syria and how to stop an Iranian bomb

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• A Russian newspaper confirmed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow Monday. It went on to speculate that the secret visit indicated an imminent Israeli attack on Iran. [JPost]
• The Spanish Foreign Minister—his country hosted the original talks that led to the Oslo accord—reported that Syrian President Bashar Assad wants to talk peace. [Haaretz]
• American Jewish leaders will converge on Washington, D.C., today to push for an Iran sanctions bill. [JPost]
• A former Mossad chief said on a radio program that only a military attack can stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. [Haaretz]
• Israel-affilited group Masa, which runs programs for foreign Jews to live and study in Israel, pulled its controversial “Lost” ad. [Haaretz]

Sundown: An Undivided Yerushalayim

Plus Chávez and Ban Ki-moon on Israel, and more

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• Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz wants solely Hebrew place-names—Yerushalayim, Natzrat (Nazareth), Kesariya (Caeserea)—to appear on road signs, rather than the current Hebrew, Arabic, and English. An op-ed opposes this, noting that one in five Israeli citizens are Arabs who call Jerusalem, for example, “al-Quds.” [IHT]
• Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has been accused of cultivating a climate hostile to Jews, told a French newspaper that Israel is “openly” killing Palestinians, and asked, “Do you remember the last Israeli aggression against Gaza? What is that about, if not genocide?” [JTA]
• United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized the announced construction of new houses in West Bank settlements: “Such actions and all settlement activity are contrary to international law and the roadmap.” [Ynet]
• Drake is a rising hip-hop star out of Toronto. He has guested on tracks with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and others. His album, on Lil’ Wayne’s label, is due out next year. Oh, and he’s Jewish. [Jewish Week]
• Britain appointed a rabbi as its first-ever Jewish military chaplain. An estimated 200 British soldiers are Jews. [Ynet]
• Please don’t forget to call Tablet’s special atonement hotline—718-360-4836—to tell us (anonymously, of course) what you will be repenting for on this Yom Kippur. We can’t forgive you, but we can make repenting more fun. [Tablet]

Did NYC Candidate Publish Anti-Gay Ad to Attract Satmars?

Ad ran in Yiddish paper, candidate denies placing it

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In an only-in-Brooklyn turn of events, a kerfuffle has broken out over whether a liberal Jewish city council candidate placed an ad in an ultra-Orthodox Yiddish newspaper representing himself as anti-gay. It all started on August 20, when the paper Der Blatt—affiliated with the Satmar hasidic sect, which includes an important bloc of voters in the district—ran an advertisement for conservative Catholic candidate John Heyer claiming that Heyer agreed with the community’s position on “abominations”—toyves, in Yiddish, or homosexuality. A week later, the paper ran a very similar ad for liberal, Jewish, pro-gay marriage candidate Brad Lander that says Lander “stands clearly against the various abominations and immoral laws that are a major issue in these elections.”

After that, the story changes depending on whom you ask. The editor of Der Blatt, Alexander Deutsch, told Tablet—via our columnist Eddy Portnoy, a professor of Yiddish at Rutgers University—that, after being contacted by Lander’s Satmar-community liaison Rabbi Yitzhok Fleischer, he “received copy for a paid advertisement and put it in just like any other ad.” Fleischer, he said, “bought the advertisement in the name of the Lander campaign,” and thus Der Blatt sent the campaign a bill (which is now floating around the internet).

Lander, however, told Tablet—as he has been telling reporters since the story broke—that Fleischer (who’s listed as a prominent supporter on the campaign’s website) never contacted the campaign about placing such an ad, and, moreover, that Fleischer himself merely provided Der Blatt with pictures of Lander and didn’t dictate the copy. “Everything suggests that [Der Blatt] just wrote it,” Lander said. So, in this version of events, Der Blatt—or someone trying embarrass Lander—made up the ad, then sent the bill to the Lander campaign.

Regardless of what actually happened, Lander, considered the front-runner in the race, has taken a hit from it. The Stonewall Democrats, a political club supporting a (gay) Lander opponent took the opportunity to argue that this is “not the first time Brad Lander has courted homophobes.” Josh Skaller, yet another candidate in the race, told Tablet in a jibe at his opponent, “If you’re not trying to cut corners, you don’t get yourself into trouble.”

‘Abomination’ Ad Strikes at Core of Heyder-Lander Battle for Borough Park [City Hall]
The Toeivah Continues: Brad Lander icht Nisht a Mensch (aka Lander Slanders) [Room Eight]

Museum Lists Most Influential New Yorkers

And a quarter of them are Jews

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Remember the line in Annie Hall where Woody says he hears people calling his hometown Jew York? Fact is, Jews have made a special contribution to New York City, to the point that New York’s very identity seems wrapped up with that of the Jews. So it’s unsurprising that of the 400 people whom the Museum of the City of New York recently listed as the folks “who have helped define New York City for the past 400 years,” many belong or belonged to the Tribe—96 members, or 24 percent, by our count (give or take a Jew).

The Times’s City Room blog asks who was left off the list. From the Jewish perspective, we think it conspicuous that none of those great mid-20th-century thinkers, who were so tied up with New York that they became known as the New York Intellectuals, appears. These men and women were brilliant and immensely influential in their day, particularly regarding how others see New York and  howNew York sees itself; and the significant majority of them were Jewish. So, City Room, that’s our answer.

The New York City 400 [Museum of the City of New York]
Who are the Most Influential New Yorkers? [City Room]

A Palestinian Peace Accord

Between Fatah and Hamas, that is

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Could a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah be on the horizon? Sources close to Hamas told Haaretz yesterday that the Islamist group is willing to engage in a “reconciliation accord” with its political rival. That accord will be signed before the end of 2009. Also on the table for negotiation is incorporating Hamas militants into the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which are currently controlled by Fatah, incorporating Hamas representatives into PLO institutions, releasing Hamas backers from P.A. prisons in the West Bank, and creating a unity government pledged to “respect” if not quite adhere to the tenets of the Oslo Accords.

A Hamas delegation is due to arrive in Cairo Tuesday, on the heels of several high-profile visits to the city by the group’s leader Khalid Meshal. This announcement of intra-Palestinian reconciliation was timed to coincide with imminent release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who has spent more than four years in a Hamas prison, and comes about a week before P.A. President and Fatah head Mahoud Abbas is set to meet with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu as a preliminary to peace talks.

Hamas, Fatah Set to Reconcile by 2010 [Haaretz]

Christmas Without Jesus?

Not if California ballot measure makes it on the ballot

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Not bad enough that California’s ridiculous initiative-and-referendum system can essentially bankrupt the state? Turns out it might do this, too: Put on the ballot the question of whether Christmas carols should be compulsory in public school assemblies. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews notes on his New America Foundation blog that a brother-and-sister pair named David Joseph and Merry Susan Hyatt (yes, she really spells her name like that) filed a draft ballot initiative yesterday that would force the state’s public elementary and secondary schools “to provide opportunities to its pupils for listening to or performing Christmas music at an appropriate time of year.” Merry Hyatt, a teacher, told Mathews she felt an initiative was necessary in case schools were avoiding carols in winter holiday programs because they were nervous about criticism. “We were having Christmas without Jesus,” she added, rather succinctly.

Hyatt said she plans to canvass churches for support, since she doesn’t have the $2 million it usually costs to collect enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot. But we can’t really see this one making it past the old church-state separation hurdle, even though the “Freedom to Present Christmas Music in Public School Classrooms or Assemblies” measure includes a provision requiring schools to give parents who prefer their Christmases light on the Jesus—not just Jews, of course, but Muslims, and atheists, and all kinds of other folks—an opt-out notice. Because, you know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take kids out of school in order to put the Jesus back in December.

Taking that Christmas Spirit to the People [Blockbuster Democracy Blog]

Army Archerd Dies

Longtime ‘Variety’ columnist prompted Michael Jackson to change anti-Semitic lyric

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Archerd with his wife, Selma, in 2007.(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI)

Legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd died yesterday after a 50-year career at the paper. He broke the news that Rock Hudson was being treated for AIDS in 1985, told colleagues he fought alongside Herman Wouk in World War II (providing the novelist inspiration for a character in the Pulitzer-winning novel The Caine Mutiny), and, most importantly (for those still grieving over Michael Jackson), was the catalyst for the King of Pop’s rewriting parts of his 1995 song “They Don’t Care About Us,” which originally included the controversial lyrics “Jew me/Sue me.” According to Variety, Archerd wrote a column criticizing the song, and Jackson telephoned him to inform him he would change it.

Obit: Variety Columnist Army Archerd [Variety]

The Messiah Comes From the East

Sephardic rabbi predicts Sephardic savior

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Rabbi Ovadia.(Ynet.com)

Moses Maimonides famously believed that the Messiah will come, “though he may tarry.” But Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-religious Shas political party, has gone the Rambam one better: the Messiah, it turns out, not only will come, but will be Sephardic. “We cannot determine that we were correct until the Messiah comes and will make us one people,” Yosef told his weekly Saturday night class. “Only the Messiah can do this.… When Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will rise up in the revival of the dead, what will they say? They will start to say they were from Halabim, from Aleppo.” (Yosef, who once was Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi, himself hails from Basra, Iraq.) Once the Messiah comes, Yosef went on to predict, Ashkenazim will adopt Sephardic customs—which is good news for those who have always wanted to eat rice during Passover.

Rabbi Ovadia: Messiah Will Rule Sephardic-Style [Ynet]

Today on Tablet

Talmud for sale, hear the music, vote Democratic

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Allison Hoffman reports on 85-year-old Jack Lunzer’s efforts to sell his extensive collection of Judaica, including a flawless copy of the first-ever printed Talmud, to the Library of Congress. The weekly Vox Tablet podcast features Israeli-born world-music musician and educator Oran Etkin. Columnist Seth Lipsky considers Norman Podhoretz’s new Why Are Jews Liberals? in light of his own political trajectory. Why Do Jews Read The Scroll? Find out, all day, here at The Scroll.

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