Looking back on 5774: a dramatic, turbulent year

It was a particularly tumultuous year for Israel and the world Jewish community, bracketed on both ends by violence in the Middle East — from last fall’s insistent focus on keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, to this summer’s bloody war with Hamas. In between were deaths – notably Ariel Sharon, Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – and scandals, with Ehud Olmert going to prison and more than one prominent rabbi accused of child abuse.

The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement gained ground, with several American professional organizations passing anti-Israel resolutions, and opposition to Israeli policy in Gaza spilled over into anti-Semitic hate in major European cities. On the lighter side, Janet Yellen was appointed head of the Federal Reserve, Larry Ellison was named the richest Jew in America, Israeli actress Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman, and Sarah Silverman memorably received an Emmy for her comedy. All in all, it was another history-changing year for the record books.


September 2013

The United States and Russia reach a deal to rid Syria of its arsenal of chemical weapons, as Jewish groups suspend their efforts lobbying for U.S. strikes against Damascus.

Larry Ellison creative commons

William Rapfogel, the ousted leader of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, is arrested on charges of grand larceny and money laundering. Investigators later say the scheme involving Rapfogel netted $9 million in illicit funds, including $3 million for Rapfogel himself. Rapfogel pleads guilty the following April and is sent to prison in July for 3 1/2 to 10 years.

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama says the U.S. focus in the Middle East will be on advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The Foundation for Jewish Culture, a 53-year-old organization dedicated to promoting Jewish culture and the arts, announces it is closing.

Larry Ellison, CEO of the technology company Oracle, is ranked as the richest Jew in the United States, according to the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans, which puts Ellison at No. 3. Other Jews in the top 20 are Michael Bloomberg (No. 10, $31 billion), Sheldon Adelson (11, $28.5 billion), Sergey Brin (14, $24.4 billion), George Soros (19, $20 billion) and Mark Zuckerberg (20, $19 billion).

Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes the first Supreme Court justice to preside over a same-sex marriage, the wedding ceremony of Michael Kaiser and John Roberts.


October 2013

A landmark study of U.S. Jews by the Pew Research Center finds the Jewish intermarriage rate has risen to 58 percent, and that among the 22 percent of American Jews who describe themselves as having no religion, two-thirds are not raising their children as Jews. The survey also estimates the Jewish population at 6.8 million, about the same estimate arrived at by Brandeis University researchers analyzing 350 separate population studies.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a pan-European intergovernmental organization, overwhelmingly passes a resolution calling male ritual circumcision a “violation of the physical integrity of children” and putting it in the same class as female genital mutilation. Israeli President Shimon Peres joins the chorus of voices protesting the decision. In November, the group’s leader assures Jews that the council does not seek to ban Jewish ritual circumcision.

Benjamin Netanyahu jta-getty images kobi gideon

A day after meeting with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the U.N. General Assembly that Israel is ready to go it alone against Iran should it come close to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli sage who founded the Sephardic Orthodox Shas political party and exercised major influence on Jewish law, dies at age 93.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is named the first recipient of the Genesis Prize, a $1 million award for a renowned professional capable of inspiring young Jews. The prize is funded by a consortium of Jewish philanthropists from the former Soviet Union.

Israeli-born Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California and Stanford University professor Michael Levitt are among the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Israeli forces discover a “terror tunnel” running 1.5 miles from the Gaza Strip to a kibbutz near the border. The tunnel is full of explosives and ends near an Israeli kindergarten.

Janet Yellen, who was active in the Bay Area Jewish community when her husband, George Akerlof, taught at U.C. Berkeley and Yellen was president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, is named head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, becoming the third Jewish central banker in a row and the first woman to hold the post.


November 2013

Semen Domnitser, the former Claims Conference employee found guilty of leading a $57 million fraud scheme at the Holocaust restitution organization, is sentenced to eight years in prison. The scheme entails falsifying applications to two funds established by the German government to make restitution payments to Holocaust survivors.

In a survey of 5,847 European Jews, nearly one-third say they “seriously considered emigrating” from Europe because of anti-Semitism.

German authorities begin taking steps to identify the provenance of more than 1,400 works of Holocaust-era art found in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt.

Forty families belonging to the haredi Orthodox extremist group Lev Tahor consider fleeing their Quebec homes out of fears that Canadian welfare authorities are poised to seize their children.

The United States and a coalition of world powers reach a six-month agreement with Iran to curb the country’s nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief while negotiations for a final settlement on Iran’s nuclear program are conducted. Netanyahu pans the deal as a “historic mistake.” The deal goes into effect on Jan. 20, 2014.


December 2013

Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress and former Miss Israel, is cast as Wonder Woman in the upcoming film “Batman vs. Superman.”

Swarthmore’s Hillel chapter becomes the first to join the so-called Open Hillel movement, which challenges Hillel International’s guidelines prohibiting partnerships with groups it deems hostile toward Israel. Hillel boards at Vassar and Wesleyan universities soon follow suit.

The Union for Reform Judaism announces at its biennial conference in San Diego that it has sold off half of its headquarters in New York and is investing $1 million from the proceeds to overhaul the movement’s youth programming.

American Studies Association members endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. The controversial decision comes after months of debate and prompts several American schools to withdraw from the association in protest and dozens more to condemn the move.

Jacob Ostreicher, a New York businessman held in Bolivia since 2011, returns to the United States, in part thanks to efforts by Bay Area–connected actor Sean Penn. Ostreicher was managing a rice-growing venture in Bolivia when he was arrested on suspicion of money laundering and accused of doing business with drug dealers.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association becomes the third U.S. academic body in less than a year to recommend that its members boycott Israeli universities.

After being pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is released from prison and leaves Russia, where he spent 10 years behind bars.

Philanthropist Edgar Bronfman dies in New York at 84. An heir to the Seagram’s beverage fortune, Bronfman was a longtime advocate on behalf of Jewish causes, serving as the head of the World Jewish Congress and financing many efforts to strengthen Jewish identity.

Amid a public debate in France over an allegedly anti-Semitic gesture called the quenelle, the French media publish a photo of a man making the gesture outside the Toulouse school where four Jews were murdered in 2012. Several French cities later announce they have banned performances by the comedian who popularized the salute, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala.


January 2014

Brooklyn Hassidic real estate developer Menachem Stark is kidnapped, his lifeless body later found in a dumpster. The New York Post provokes outrage among many religious Jews with a cover calling him a slumlord and a headline asking, “Who didn’t want him dead?” Months later, a construction worker is arrested for the killing.

Ariel Sharon

Ariel Sharon, the controversial warrior-turned-statesman who served as Israel’s prime minister from 2001 until 2006 when he was rendered comatose by a stroke, dies at age 85.

The Israeli government announces plans to invest more than $1 billion over the next 20 years to strengthen the Jewish identity of diaspora Jews, particularly young Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel reaches an agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America to automatically accept letters from RCA members vouching for the Jewish status of Israeli immigrants. The agreement follows a temporary suspension by the Chief Rabbinate in accepting such letters from at least one well-known RCA member, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y.

Two Modern Orthodox high schools in New York stir controversy with decisions to allow girls to lay tefillin.

Scarlett Johansson

Actress Scarlett Johansson comes under criticism for serving as a spokeswoman for the Israeli company SodaStream, which has facilities in the West Bank. Johansson, who is Jewish, stands by SodaStream and resigns as a global ambassador for the British-based charity Oxfam, saying she and Oxfam have “a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

A federal judge tosses out a $380 million sexual abuse lawsuit filed against Yeshiva University in New York City by 34 former students of its high school for boys, ruling that the statute of limitations had expired. The suit alleged that the university ignored warnings of assault by two faculty members between 1969 and 1989.

Longtime California Rep. Henry Waxman retires. Waxman represented the 33rd District in Los Angeles County since 1975 and was considered the dean of Jewish lawmakers.


February 2014

The government of Spain approves a bill to facilitate the naturalization of Sephardic Jews of Spanish descent.

JDC’s Alena Druzhynina (white helmet) walks through Kiev’s Independence Square with food for Jewish client. courtesy jdc

Staff at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem go on strike as the hospital, facing a huge deficit, teeters on the edge of bankruptcy and fails to pay its workers.

Abraham Foxman announces he is stepping down as national director of the Anti-Defamation League after 27 years. Foxman, a child survivor of the Holocaust and one of the highest-profile American Jewish leaders, says he will leave the post in July 2015.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, top the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the top 50 U.S. donors to charitable causes in 2013. In December, the couple gives 18 million shares of Facebook stock, valued at more than $970 million, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the 110-year-old Holocaust survivor and concert pianist whose life is the subject of a documentary that a week later would win an Oscar, dies in London.

The Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, in eastern Ukraine, is firebombed, sustaining minor damage. The attack comes amid growing turmoil in Ukraine following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.


March 2014

AIPAC leaders emphasize bipartisanship and mutual respect at the group’s annual policy conference in Washington. The conference follows a bruising period in which the pro-Israel lobby had championed a new Iran sanctions bill, only to back down when it becomes clear the bill lacked the necessary support from the White House and congressional Democrats to pass.

David Hellman, a New York personal trainer, pleads guilty to using violent means to force recalcitrant husbands to give their wives a Jewish writ of divorce, or get. Hellman, who faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, is one of 10 men arrested in October 2013 in an FBI sting operation.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is found guilty of accepting bribes in the corruption case involving the Holyland real estate development in Jerusalem. Olmert, who is convicted of receiving about $150,000 in bribes through his brother, Yossi, becomes the first former Israeli prime minister to be convicted of taking a bribe. The crime carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.


April 2014

Casino magnate and conservative backer Sheldon Adelson buys another Israeli newspaper, Makor Rishon. He now owns several of Israel’s major right-wing media outlets and two of the country’s four major newspapers.

Rabbis have their heads shaved in Chicago for cancer research. jta-julie pelc adler

Mobilized by the death of Samuel Sommers — the 8-year-old son of Rabbi Phyllis and Michael Sommers whose struggle with leukemia was documented on a popular blog called Superman Sam — 73 rabbis shave their heads to raise $600,000 for pediatric cancer research.

American Jewish contractor Alan Gross goes on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment in a Cuban jail and the lack of American assistance. Later in the year, in ailing health and with no prospect of release, Gross bids goodbye to his family during a prison visit.

White supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller, 73, kills a man and his grandson outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and then shoots to death a woman at a Jewish assisted-living facility a few blocks away. None of the victims are Jewish.

After weeks of near breakdowns in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel suspends all negotiations after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party signs a unity accord with Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. President Obama responds by saying it may be time for a pause in Middle East peacemaking. Kerry later expresses regret for saying that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid” state or a non-Jewish one if the two-state solution is not implemented. U.S. negotiators blame Israel for the talks’ collapse.

Gennady Kernes, the Jewish mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is shot in a suspected assassination attempt, leaving him in critical condition. The shooting comes amid growing violence between Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists in eastern Ukraine and forces loyal to the new Ukrainian government in Kiev. Kernes is airlifted to Israel for treatment.

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling with V. Stiviano in 2013 jta-getty images-ronald martinez

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejects J Street’s bid for membership. J Street, the liberal Washington group that lobbies for increased American pressure to bring about a Mideast peace deal, lost its bid for membership in the main communal group on foreign policy issues by a vote of 22-17, with three abstentions. J Street needed the support of two-thirds of the conference’s 51 members to gain admission.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million after being caught on tape making racist comments to his girlfriend. He is heard saying that his views reflect the way the world works, and as evidence he says that black Jews in Israel “are just treated like dogs.” His girlfriend is heard countering that as a Jew, Sterling should know better than to advocate discrimination, citing the Holocaust as an example of where racism can lead.

An arm of the private equity firm Bain Capital purchases the Manischewitz Company, the iconic producer of kosher packaged goods, for an undisclosed sum. According to the New York Times, the new owners are expected to promote kosher as an indication of quality food rather than just a religious designation.

Genealogical research reveals that the late archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, technically was Jewish. O’Connor’s mother, Dorothy Gumple O’Connor, was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism before she met and married O’Connor’s father.


May 2014

An Anti-Defamation League anti-Semitism survey finds “deeply anti-Semitic views” are held by 26 percent of 53,000 people polled in 102 countries and territories covering approximately 86 percent of the world’s population. Critics say the survey’s 11 questions are not accurate gauges of anti-Semitism.

Silent vigil outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium on May 25 after an unidentified gunman kills four jta-cnaan liphshiz

Maccabi Tel Aviv wins the Euroleague basketball championship by beating favored Real Madrid, 98-86, in overtime.

Novelist Philip Roth receives an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Though today he is considered one of the greatest living American writers, Roth caused outrage early in his career with his stinging portrayals of Jewish life. In 2012, Roth announced he was retiring.

The Jewish community of Sharon, Mass., is shocked as the rabbi of Temple Israel, Barry Starr, resigns amid allegations that he used synagogue discretionary funds to pay about $480,000 in hush money to an extortionist to hide a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male. Starr apologizes to the congregation in an email.

Far-right parties, including Greece’s Golden Dawn, make gains in European Parliament elections.

The European Union says it has banned the import of poultry and eggs produced in West Bank settlements.

A gunman kills four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. Several days later, Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French national of Algerian origin, is arrested in connection with the attack.

Pope Francis travels to Israel and the West Bank, visiting the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and the West Bank security barrier, among other sites.


June 2014

Former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of the Likud Party is elected president of Israel, defeating Meir Sheetrit of Hatnua in a 63-53 runoff vote. Rivlin formally succeeds Shimon Peres and becomes Israel’s 10th president in late July.

Israeli President Shimon Peres comforts a woman who lost a soldier in the Gaza war. jta-mark neiman/gpo

Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House of Representatives and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history, is upset in the Republican primary for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District by a tea party challenger. Dave Brat, an economics professor, wins handily after attacking Cantor for drifting from conservative principles. Days later, Cantor resigns his post as majority leader.

Three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, are kidnapped in the West Bank from a hitchhiking post. Israel responds with three weeks of intensive searches, including mass arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank and the rearrest of dozens of Palestinians released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. Three weeks on, Israeli authorities find the teens’ bodies and announce that they were believed to have been killed the night they were kidnapped. The incident sparks the revenge killing by Jews of an Arab teen, riots and a surge of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces responds by launching Operation Protective Edge — Israel’s deadliest foray into Gaza since its 2005 withdrawal — on July 8.

Israel announces that the suspect in the April 14 shooting death of Israeli Police Superintendent Baruch Mizrachi is Ziad Awad, a West Bank Palestinian released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes 310-303 to divest from three American companies that do business with Israeli security services in the West Bank. Heath Rada, the moderator of the assembly, says it’s not a “reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers,” but Jewish leaders say it will have a “devastating impact” on their relations with the church.


July 2014

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, which sought to introduce more music, dance and meditation into prayer and Jewish life, dies in Boulder, Colo., at age 89.

The July funeral of a fallen Israeli soldier creative commons

Israel launches its third major Gaza operation in six years. Dubbed Operation Protective Edge, the campaign begins with 10 days of intensive airstrikes in Gaza. After several failed cease-fire attempts, a ground invasion of Gaza follows. Hamas fires thousands of rockets into Israel, striking as far away as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and a Haifa suburb. Israel comes under heavy criticism for attacks that kill children, strike U.N. facilities and damage civil infrastructure. Israel blames Hamas for using civilians as human shields and schools, hospitals and U.N. facilities as weapons depots.

A riot outside a French synagogue is one of several incidents related to the Gaza war that threaten Jews in Europe. The riot by Palestinian sympathizers outside the Synagogue de la Roquette in central Paris traps some 200 people inside the building. A street brawl ensues between the rioters and dozens of Jewish men who arrived to defend the synagogue.

Most foreign airlines suspend flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv after a Hamas-fired missile strikes nearby. The suspensions, prompted by a flight ban issued by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, end within three days.

Iran and the major powers, led by the United States, agree to extend negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program for another four months, citing progress in a number of areas. But the potential deal breaker remains: Iran does not want to reduce its number of centrifuges, and the world powers say they won’t accept Iran maintaining its existing capacity for uranium enrichment.


August 2014

Thousands of Jews flee violence in eastern Ukraine. Many are housed in temporary shelters set up by the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and Chabad. Hundreds are set to make aliyah to Israel.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Chicago in July jta-scott olson-getty images

Opposition to Israeli military actions in Gaza continue, spilling over into anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. Protesters shout “Jews to the gas” at rallies in Germany and “slaughter the Jews” in Belgium. Rampaging mobs attack Jewish-owned stores in Paris. Women are beaten in Amsterdam for flying the Israeli flag. Young men drive through a Jewish neighborhood in Manchester, England, shouting “Heil Hitler.” Teenagers board a bus in Australia, filled with Jewish children ages 5 to 12, and threaten to “cut their throats.”

The Chabad house reopens in Mumbai, India, six years after it closed in November 2008 when a Pakistan-based terror group targeted the Chabad center, murdering Chabad emissaries Gabriel and Rivky Holtzberg and three Jewish visitors .

Israel and the Palestinians agree to a truce on Aug. 26, ending seven weeks of bloody conflict. The parties agree to meet later in the year to negotiate outstanding issues, including Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s coast, construction of a seaport and airport in Gaza, and Israel’s release of Hamas prisoners.