Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

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Center Field: Why do they hate us?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-2-10 

Amid media frenzy surrounding Yemen letter bombs most ignored the terrorists’ intended victims. Alas, Jews being targeted is not news.

The news that Islamist terrorists sent letter bombs to two Chicago-area synagogues should have stirred worldwide outrage, not just hysteria. Amid the ensuing media frenzy, as video seminars detailed how cargo is shipped and who the suspected Yemeni terrorists are, most journalists ignored the terrorists’ intended victims. Alas, Jews being targeted is not news. Once again we have to wonder, why do they hate us – and why does the hatred often invite indifference? Yes, I know, “they” hating “us,” is the language of paranoids, xenophobes, the illiberal, the intolerant. We are supposed to be more polite, more sanitized and more self-critical, wondering what we did to bring this plague upon ourselves.

I confess, I hate writing these kinds of columns. I detest this topic. I was raised with the post-Auschwitz covenant; anti-Semitism was supposed to be buried in the ashes of Auschwitz by the world’s retroactive remorse when there was nothing left to do but say “sorry” and feebly promise “Never Again.”

But “Never Again” has become “I am not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist,” as history reshuffles the deck once again.

There is a “they” and an “us,” actually, two “theys” and two “us-es.”

The first, obvious “they” is the Islamists fueling an anti- Semitic, anti-American, anti-Western nihilist movement addicted to terrorism.

In a recent Newsweek column Hayri Abaza and Soner Cagaptay clarified the issues which are often purposely obscured. “The Left is wrongly defending Islamism – an extremist and at times violent ideology – which it confuses with the common person’s Islam,” they write, “while the Right is often wrongly attacking the Muslim faith, which it confuses with Islamism.”

Islamists are not reacting to the Ground Zero mosque controversy or settlement expansion. They are fighting a global, millennialist jihad rooted in their perverted understanding of their religion, and counting time in centuries.

They still mourn Spain’s fall to the Christians, and the Crusaders’ rise; they use the Palestinian issue and fleeting controversies as modern fig leafs to seduce today’s useful idiots.

SURPRISINGLY, IT works. Herein emerges the second “they.” Many opinion leaders in the West somehow justify terrorists targeting Jews and Israelis. Alleged “crimes” against the Palestinians offer excuses for multiple abuses; when Jews and Israelis are involved, terrorism is graded on a curve and the world’s outrage dulls.

The crimes of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in England generated more horror than the bus and café bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Al-Qaida is considered beyond the diplomatic pale, yet more and more Westerners are making nice with Hizbullah in Lebanon while pressuring Israel to negotiate with Hamas. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University, his desire to wipe out the Jewish state triggered minimal outrage, but his claim that Iran had no homosexuals alienated his audience.

Too many of the “chattering classes” and cultural elites in the West today soft-pedal the Islamist problem. A surprisingly seductive combination of post-colonial, post-imperial white guilt mixed with liberal condescension has dulled the moral senses. A racist cult of white American terrorists would trigger much more outrage. The logical rage against Islamist anti-Semitism is further diluted, festering in Apologia Alley, at the fog-inducing intersection where Western self-hatred and traditional Jew hatred meet.

Again, I hate writing this but the second “they” are the Islamists’ fellow travelers, the carriers of the West’s anti- Semitism gene.

They are the ones who single out Israel, making it “the Jew” among nations while excusing the far worse crimes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. They are the ones at UNESCO who can decide the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are not shared properties reflecting Jews’ and Muslims’ common cultural heritage, but should be exclusively Palestinian. And they are the ones who will downplay the anti-Semitic intent when a synagogue in Chicago is targeted or an El Al waiting area in Los Angeles is attacked.

This blind spot regarding Jewish oppression offers an odd echo of the reporting during the 1940s. Then, reporters described Hitler’s victims as civilians not Jews, while ghettoizing the coverage of the few anti-Hitler protests by labeling them Jewish protests, which were more easily ignored.

If the double “they” is the Islamists and their fellow travelers – the two “us-es” are Westerners and Jews. Yes, Westerners have been targeted. But Jews are doubly targeted, as Westerners and Jews. In yet another bizarre twist, while many anti-Semites have long rejected Jews for not being Western enough, part of the Islamist revulsion rejects Jews as the ultimate Westerners.

It is easy, in such a world, to turn bitter. In the classic documentary Shoah, a kibbutznik who survived the Warsaw Ghetto and seems perfectly normal stops, stares at the camera and barks: “If you could lick my heart, you would be poisoned.”

Our challenge is to let only the haters be poisoned by their own hatred. If living well is the best revenge for people who grew up in dysfunctional families, the same advice applies to an embattled people living in a dysfunctional world. We must defend ourselves, our people, our homeland, our values, our Western civilization, as intensely as possible. But we cannot forget our capacity to love, enjoy, hope and dream.

Let our enemies marinate in their own poison. We need to move on, without ignoring them but without being defined by them either. With apologies to Rabbi Hillel: If I do not defend myself, who am I? But if I only defend myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

The writer is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

giltroy@gmail.com

Center Field: This Hanukkah let’s teach our childen how to give

by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Monday Dec 22, 2008

Jews are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. The world seems to have gone mad. Islamic extremists declare war on the West, yet many Westerners, especially in Europe and Canada, deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. Iran threatens to destroy the United States and Israel while striving to go nuclear, yet the world appeases – and continues funding the regime by remaining addicted to oil. Palestinians declare a war of terror on Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad rain missiles on Sderot and the western Negev, yet too many, including Israelis and Jews, are quicker to blame Israel, the victim, than the terrorist perpetrators.

On the domestic front, the market meltdown wiped out billions of dollars. Then, just as we were bracing for a lengthy recession, news of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme hit. Not only did this brigand rob close friends and business associates of their hard-earned wealth, but while posing as a charitable man himself, he stole billions of holy charity dollars, devastating the Jewish community.

It is precisely during such bleak moments that we are compelled to celebrate. Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current troubles in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.

Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Precisely now, during this time of crisis, we should be rededicating ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the “oy.” Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.

While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In that spirit, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.

At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of “freedom” resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.

As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.

In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.

Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become “Festivals of Consumption,” in the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.

Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?

The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.

This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:

On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War, and most especially the embattled citizens of Sderot, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hizbullah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot and the western Negev. We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. Right now, we should focus our efforts on helping out the people of Sderot. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through the Sderot Media Center.

Also, support Camp Koby, a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims.

On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Gilad Shalit, honoring his heroism and that of his family. More than 900 days ago, Gilad Shalit, a 20-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza. His pain – and his families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until he comes home – and we have not done enough for him. His family shares a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Buy Gilad’s book “When The Fish and the Shark first Met.” Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit  http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html or add your wishes to http://giladshalit.blogspot.com/

On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel, who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but even before the global financial crisis began there was far too much poverty in Israel. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever. We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel’s Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools.

On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, Hadassah continues to modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli “Red Cross”) serves all people in Israel under trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. To honor their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa [in Hebrew] as well, as part of the rebuilding effort, which continues.

On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to taking back the night, to undoing some of the evil that was done this year. We can through our good deeds exorcise some of the bad deeds that have been done.  In that spirit, visit the website of the Chais Family Foundation, which was wiped out by Bernard Madoff’s financial scheme. Marvel at all its good works, and pick one cause the Foundation supported for your family to support, to mitigate the harm. Alternatively, to remember the good people the Islamic terrorists in Mumbai killed, support your local Chabad house showing that we, too, will target them, but with love.

On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. In the Diaspora and in Israel, if we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees. This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better.  More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering and to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season. Wherever we stand on the War in Iraq, we should all stand united in support of the American troops, those idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include donating Frequent Flyer Miles so troops on leave can fly home for free ; buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free.  Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others’ inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader in this, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving.

On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.

The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely. Together, our collective lights can defeat the forces of darkness.

For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: “What did you get last night?” This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: “What did you give?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, which was just re-released in an expanded and updated edition.

Mumbai “Blowback” – terrorists miscalculated again

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-10-08

Islamist terrorists are no doubt celebrating the Mumbai mayhem, convinced they triumphed somehow by turning luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish community center into killing fields. And in the media’s pathological patter – shaping too many Westerners- defensive defeatism – talk of the “militants'” “successful operation” feeds these triumphalist delusions. In fact, once again, the terrorists miscalculated. Their depraved actions triggered another “blowback.” India’s three days of terror boosted George W. Bush‘s legacy, strengthened Barack Obama‘s fortitude in combating terrorism, embarrassed  many Indian Muslims, highlighted the ugliness of Islamist anti-Semitism and triggered worldwide sympathy for the victims. Strangers united to mourn the spiritually-inclined American father and daughter shot in a hotel, the altruistic Montreal doctor and social worker slain on vacation, the lovely Lubavitch Jewish couple murdered in their outreach center, and the dozens of good citizens of India who suffered the most from these thugs.

Suddenly, following these attacks, the terrorists’ least favorite president, George W. Bush is seeing the first uptick in his standing in months. Many people are noting one of the great anomalies of Bush’s administration. Perhaps his greatest achievement is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must acknowledge albeit grudgingly that he deserves credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.  Subsequent atrocities in London , Madrid , Bali, Jerusalem , and now Mumbai – among many others – suggest that the terrorists kept trying.

In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that as of this writing all of North America has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that at least some of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

President-elect Barack Obama‘s decisions to keep Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State reflect Obama’s own realization that the terrorist threat is serious. So far, the apologetic appeasers who occasionally advised him during the campaign have not joined his official family. As one of the two Senators from New York State when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a deep, heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, the videotape al Qaida recently released, wherein one of their leaders used an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but clearly caught Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, illustrated that this nasty problem is not disappearing – and that an underlying, obnoxious ideology unites these murderers who strike at Westerners, Jews, and democrats wherever possible.

The fact that in a sea of tragic stories, the siege of Mumbai’s Chabad Lubavitch house stood out also helped thwart the Islamist terrorists’ goals. These terrorists seek to isolate Jews, to make others recoil from Jews in fear. But the slaughter of simple, defenseless, idealistic, giving people targeted because they were Jewish triggered a massive outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel , Chabad, and Jews. That Islamist ideology is equally intolerant of a black president, of Jewish do-gooders, of Western tourists, makes the lines in the sand very clear. Those of us appalled by these acts – and, make no mistake about it, in the terrorists’ sights — must rally together. We should not only be united when we are being hunted by maniacs who have caught us by surprise; we must unite to eradicate this evil, putting minor differences aside to meet this great moral challenge.

As the civilized world rises up and repudiates these acts, Muslims must share the outrage. These Islamist terrorists claim they are performing their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-democratic acts in the name of Islam. By contrast, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan , wrote a poignant article in Tuesday’s New York Times denouncing the terrorists and noting that he is a victim too – terrorists murdered his wife last year. In India , Muslims have asserted their Indian nationalism – and their humanity – by refusing to bury the terrorists in Muslim ceremonies and condemning the killers’ brutality. If hundreds of millions more Muslims stood up in outrage, embraced Moshe the two-year-old son of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the murdered Chabad couple, repudiated  the terrorists for trying to hijack their religion – and whenever possible spit these people out from their communities, the Islamist terrorist problem would disappear.

We have, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan mourned in a different context, defined deviancy down. We have grown too accustomed to the racist rantings of al Qaida brigands, to the murderous rampages of Islamist terrorists, and to the silent and thus implied consent of too many of their co-religionists. The eloquence of President Zardari, the outrage of the Mumbai Muslims, are balanced out by the cant of so many others who scream “Islamophobia” anytime someone condemns Islamist terrorism or notes Muslim complicity in anti-semitism, racism or sectarian violence. These Mumbai massacres pose another moral challenge to all of us, those who are targeted and those who are standing idly by. Now is the opportunity to rise up, to mourn those martyred, repudiate the murderers, then take individual and collective responsibility to ensure that this will be the long-awaited, long-overdue turning point in the war against terror.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel , Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book is “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”

Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Center Field: Say No to Rabbis for Obama

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-17-08

Now that the American election is over and this will not seem to be a partisan attack, it is time to ask whether it was appropriate for hundreds of rabbis to launch an unprecedented organization, “Rabbis for Obama.” The organization’s founding letter, which over four hundred rabbis signed, said: “We join together as rabbis who believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate of the United States, and we do so in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”

This initiative constituted a clear attempt to give a rabbinic hechsher – stamp of approval — to Barack Obama. There is nothing wrong with a rabbi, as an American citizen, choosing to endorse a candidate. But there is something unseemly about rabbis pooling their theological and spiritual authority as rabbis to boost a particular politician.

For starters, this kind of politicking seems remarkably insensitive to congregants who may support a rival candidate. Congregations hire rabbis for their pastoral skills not for their political stands. For rabbis to join together, as spiritual leaders, in the service of a politician is to try transferring authority granted by congregants in one realm into another realm. Taking this kind of stand with other rabbis seems to risk importing political conflict from the streets into the synagogue.

Usually when rabbis, professors, and corporate leaders sign advocacy advertisements, they put in the boilerplate admonition that the institutional affiliation is for identification purposes. This posture is a constructive charade. It at least acknowledges the questions of propriety surrounding the action and attempts to defend the institution and all its members from being defined by its leader’s actions. Rabbis for Obama did the opposite, trying to build credibility based on the collective power all these rabbis derived from their institutions and their congregants. Like it or not, they implicated their congregants in their actions.

It is difficult to see the issue clearly, especially now, with Obamania in full swing. Undoubtedly, these rabbis are feeling vindicated, heroic – and happily anticipating invitations to four, maybe even eight, annual White House Chanukkah parties.

But what if 400 rabbis had come out in favor of California’s Proposition 8, advancing the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage? Theologically, the rabbis would have been on stronger ground, considering that the Bible actually addresses questions of homosexuality (but has nothing to say about Barack Obama’s strengths or weaknesses). And what if most of those rabbis had been ministering to overwhelmingly liberal congregations or congregations filled with gay couples? If offended congregants tried firing any of these rabbis against gay marriage would any of the Rabbis for Obama have been willing to defend them?

I know of a congregation which fired its rabbi when she opposed gays’ ordination in the Conservative movement. Members of the congregation felt blindsided because the rabbi had not informed them beforehand of the stand she was going to take. And the congregants were particularly distressed because the rabbi’s opposition created an insurmountable barrier between her, as a theological leader, and a lesbian couple in the congregation.

This is not a free speech issue. The rabbis could have joined a Jews for Obama or Citizens for Obama group with no questions asked. This is, however, a separation of church and state issue. While separation of church and state, constitutionally, only refers to avoiding government support or control of particular religions, American Jews have been in the forefront of the movement to insulate politics from religion as much as possible. It is particularly hypocritical for liberal Jews, who have spent years railing against Evangelical Christians who blur the line between church and state, to now indulge in the same conceit, deploying God in the service of political power.

In fact, Rabbis for Obama clarifies what most liberals mean when they object to religion intruding on politics – they usually mean religion advancing the wrong political positions. Liberals appalled by the right-wing Moral Majority in 1980, did not criticize the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., for so brilliantly applying his spiritual powers to advance the Civil Rights revolution. King obviously did a world of good, and would not have been as effective as just a social activist. But the perpetual abuse of rabbinic authority for cheap political gains in Israel offers proof that, acknowledging the King exception, it is best for rabbis to be a bit more discrete when playing politics.

In our cynical but careerist world, the credibility we derive from our professional standing is a potent yet fragile commodity. At a time when so many congregants are among what we could call the Jewishly vulnerable – not as solid in their identities as their parents and grandparents were – rabbis have to be particularly careful to preserve their authority. With all due respect to the historic nature of the 2008 election, and Barack Obama’s undeniable charismatic appeal, it seems a shame that hundreds of leading American rabbis chose to set this kind of precedent. American Jewish leaders need all the credibility they can muster – and they need to focus their energies as much as they can on the many Jewish issues bewitching the community, leaving politics for their leisure hours without muddying their professional, spiritual, pursuits.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Montreal. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today,  his latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.