people in kippot embrace during a memorial event
Members and supporters of the Jewish community hug at a candlelight vigil in front of the White House for the victims of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Andrew Cabbalero-Reynolds-AFP-Getty Images)

Defying hate; choosing not to circumcise; our print redesign is ‘clunky’

We are here, and we will go on

I never met them. But I know them.

The 11 Jews murdered as they worshipped at Tree of Life congregation near Pittsburgh could be found in any synagogue, including my own: the former congregational president, the lay leader, the man with the famously dry wit, the shofar blower; the people everybody loved and could depend on.

It could have been any of us. And in a sense, it was.

An attack on one Jew is an attack on all Jews. Thanks to the recent normalization of hate in this country, I don’t expect this incident to be the last. But we will not yield to fear. We will not change who we are, go underground or submit to terror. In our long history, we have faced down tyrants, fanatics, demagogues and random haters, and we are still here. We will continue to live and worship as Jews, as we have for thousands of years.

There will be vigils, prayer gatherings, and (no doubt) heightened security. There will be difficult times ahead for the survivors — actually, for all of us — and walking-on-eggshells Hebrew-school sessions. There will be speeches and resolutions. There will be grief and anger and, yes, some fear. But we will go on.

We will go on. Because this is what we do.

Neal Ross Attinson

Tree of Life saved my life

In 1981, seven American Jews from Pittsburgh, including several members of Tree of Life congregation in Squirrel Hill, clandestinely visited me, then a Jewish refusenik, in Moscow. They came on a mission to the USSR to help those Soviet Jews who were trying to emigrate (as well as Pentecostalists stuck at the time in the American Embassy in Moscow). They managed to meet with 41 refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad.

That visit was followed by many more like it, including a group that included the future mayor of Pittsburgh, Sophie Masloff. For the next six years, the Pittsburgh Seven, as they became nicknamed, brought back stories of hope and despair and tirelessly advocated on my behalf as well as on behalf of thousands of others like myself, until I was finally allowed to leave my anti-Semitic motherland behind.

In May 1987, I was invited to the bimah of the Tree of Life synagogue to speak to the congregation about the plight of many other refuseniks still behind the Iron Curtain, to thank the Jewish community of Pittsburgh for their support, and to accept a resolution of the Pittsburgh City Council naming May 31, 1987, as a day in my honor in the city of Pittsburgh.

Thirty-one years later, I attended Sabbath services at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco to join in reading the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 Jews killed by an anti-Semite in that very synagogue in Pittsburgh. What a terrible irony.

Dear Pittsburghers, once you wished me strength. It is my turn today to wish you strength and healing.

Sonia Melnikova-Raich (née Melnikova-Eichenwald)
San Francisco

Redirecting anger over Pittsburgh

The aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre is a time for mourning, reflection and consideration of how to prevent such horrors in the future. It is not a time to accuse President Trump and his supporters of direct responsibility for the attack, as three recent letter writers have done.

First, the shooter Robert Bowers was an anti-Trump fanatic. Moreover, anti-Semitic mass shootings are not new. We should remember the armed attacks at the JCC in Los Angeles in 1999 and at the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006.

Other attacks against religious institutions have also occurred. White supremacist Dylann Roof attacked African American worshippers in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. Possibly in revenge, Sudanese immigrant (and practicing Christian) Emanuel Samson attacked parishioners at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in the Nashville area in 2017.

That said, Yonkel Goldstein and Martin Perlmutter were perfectly justified in criticizing President Trump’s initial failure to explicitly condemn the anti-Semitism of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017.

Clarity here is essential, particularly for those of us who generally support President Trump and his policies. But the president’s critics should also direct some of their ire toward Antifa, whose masked thugs routinely commit acts of violence and intimidation against those with whom they disagree.

Steve Astrachan
Pleasant Hill

Hugging my kids, defying hate

On Oct. 27, I brought my children to synagogue for Hebrew school. I stayed for the first hour, during which they sang songs and participated in a Torah service. I beamed with pride as my children ascended to the bimah, helped say the prayers before and after the Torah reading, held the rollers during the reading, and helped dress the Torah afterward. The week’s portion was Vayera, in which Sarah learns that she and Abraham are to become parents in their old age. Sarah laughs, inspiring the name of her son, Isaac. It’s one of the Torah’s most lighthearted moments.

After I left, I learned of the massacre of Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The first report said four people were killed. Then eight. The toll later reached 11 dead and six wounded.

It was jarring: one moment, reading about laughter while watching my children participate in traditions uniting them with generations past, present and future; the next, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible murder of human beings solely and specifically because they were Jews.

I wandered aimlessly before returning to the synagogue. I asked the security guard, whom I often talked with, if she knew what had happened. She nodded. We hugged, both knowing that had the gunman attacked here and had she tried to stop him, she would be dead.

When I picked up my children, I hugged them as tightly as I could and kissed them as tears streamed down my cheeks. My son laughed, blissfully unaware of the tragedy and believing that I was crying with happiness because he had had a very good day at school. Then we joined my children’s classes to say the brachot over the wine/grape juice and challah, defiantly maintaining Jewish traditions even in the shadow of murderous anti-Semitic hate.

Stephen A. Silver
San Francisco

Federation response to fires

On behalf of lay and professional partners working with the Federations’ North Bay Wildfire Relief and Recovery Task Force, I want to expand on J.’s Oct. 18 editorial titled “One year later, the North Bay fires still hurt” by sharing the breadth and depth of the Federation’s response and deployment of funds.

Our initial approach included organizing volunteers, providing emergency financial assistance and collecting Judaica items for distribution to families who had suffered the loss of their homes and possessions. A task force from both the S.F.-based and East Bay Federations subsequently collaborated on a grantmaking strategy to strengthen local Jewish community organizations and support programs to facilitate trauma recovery.

Together, our two Federations mobilized over $1.4 million to assist in recovery efforts, including $800,000 contributed by 1,300 individual donors to the North Bay Wildfire Emergency Fund, and additional direct support to organizations by donor-advised fund holders and the S.F.-based Federation’s Endowment Fund.

To date, we have granted funds to every synagogue and Chabad in Sonoma and Napa counties, the JCC of Sonoma County, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Jewish Free Clinic and IsraAid. Additionally, scholarships have been provided for children from the region to attend Jewish overnight camps, day camps, preschool, and Israel programs. Direct grants were also made to URJ Camp Newman for operational support during their transitional period.

With housing being the greatest ongoing need, the Federation is now partnering with Habitat for Humanity to organize Jewish volunteers to rebuild homes, leveraging the Federations’ financial support and human capital for the good of the entire community.

We want our supporters to know that their generosity made a meaningful and considerable impact and that their donations are thoughtfully allocated to a variety of activities and organizations — all driven by a strategic approach to addressing short-term relief and continued long-term recovery.

Howard Zack

Choosing not to circumcise

I was pleased to read Dawn Kepler’s column about the woman whose pregnant daughter intends not to circumcise her son. I agree that this choice is the parents’ rather than that of anyone else in the family or community.

Why are some Jewish parents choosing not to circumcise? For one thing, they may not buy into American medical arguments in favor of circumcision. Urinary tract infections, for example, can be treated with antibiotics rather than surgery. Condoms can and should be used for prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

In other cases, families decide that “matching Dad” is not a good reason to subject the baby to unnecessary surgery on the most sensitive part of his body. Moreover, some parents research the issue and learn that the foreskin — as examined by pathologists in the lab — is comprised of erogenous tissue. Sexual pleasure may thus be diminished by its removal.

As for the ritual and/or spiritual aspects of circumcision, some parents can’t connect with God if they feel they are doing something unethical. They prefer a ceremony that reflects their authentic spiritual selves.

Young parents facing the circumcision decision should be aware that most Reform synagogues, JCCs and other progressive Jewish institutions welcome families opting out of circumcision. Thus, an intact (uncircumcised) boy not looking like other Jewish boys is not the big deal it once may have been. Especially in the Bay Area, many Jewish and interfaith families are choosing brit shalom (covenant of peace) ceremonies rather than the traditional brit milah (covenant of circumcision).

Lisa Braver Moss

A scourge on free speech

Gil Stein believes that Canary Mission does “noble work,” and their “transparent and documented” blacklist “expos[es]… bigoted professors.” Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of individuals on the list are students, not professors. Whereas professors have already landed a job, why should the views of enthusiastic young college students be used against them in a hiring situation? The Canary Mission blacklist says “Yes, you have free speech, but if I disagree with you, I will impede your later professional life.”

Canary Mission defines any person or group that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel as hating Israel and Jews. Although many BDS supporters are anti-Zionist and some are also avowed anti-Semites, many others love Israel and Jews; they simply believe that Israel would be stronger and more defensible if the West Bank was not occupied by Israel.

Before supporting Canary Mission’s activities, consider these two cases: Lara Alqasem, the Hebrew University postgraduate candidate, was held at Ben Gurion Airport for over a week because her Canary Mission file showed that she had been president of her campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. This group supports BDS, but Alqasem herself did not. She was allowed into Israel only after a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court, which agreed that “denying entry to foreign students based on political beliefs or ethnic heritage is an attack on academic freedom.” The progressive Zionist author Peter Beinart was not allowed to enter Israel to attend his niece’s bat mitzvah until he enlisted the aid of a renowned Israeli human rights lawyer.

Canary Mission’s blacklist stifles free speech on campus; furthermore, their dossiers are being used uncritically by Israeli security forces. I hope Mr. Stein agrees that the tools that we use to confront anti-Zionists and anti-Semites should, first of all, accurately distinguish our friends from our foes; sadly, Canary Mission does not do that. Secondly, our approach to argument and confrontation should always embrace the cherished constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Todd P. Silverstein
San Rafael

Both sides have to listen

On Nov. 10, after a communal Havdalah, our synagogue Peninsula Sinai Congregation hosted two representatives from the Roots group based in the West Bank, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian Shadi Abu Awwad. They talked about the group’s mission of bringing the two sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to a point of mutual respect and understanding.

Both of them have emphasized the sincere intention of the Roots participants to listen and absorb the other’s point of view. In the concluding remarks, PSC’s Rabbi Corey Helfand stressed the art and need of listening, and not just mentally preparing for the argument with the other side. All in all, the evening was informative and educational.

What surprised me afterward was finding on the Roots website a list of Schlesinger and Awwad’s 18 engagements, between Nov. 1 and Nov. 18, here in the United States. Most were in Hillels at different universities and synagogues. The rest were at various Jewish organizations, two with the peace and justice programs, plus one church. No mosque, nor any of multiple Muslim student groups on campuses, wanted to hear what this peace initiative is all about.

Even the infamous Students for Justice in Palestine apparently didn’t express any desire to learn about this daring effort to bring justice into the Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation. And this is truly sad.

If Muslims and Arabs and their supporters in America, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, can’t bring themselves to learn about the Roots story, how can one expect that it will succeed there, at the flashpoints of the conflict?

Vladimir Kaplan
San Mateo

Whom to blame for anti-Semitism

The recently released ADL report on the surge in incidence of anti-Semitic events in the USA from 2015 to March 2017 is less than comprehensive, for it only discusses a limited period.

Some analysts have suggested that this rise was singularly due to “hate speech” espoused by President (and candidate) Donald Trump. The ADL reported a year-total of anti-Semitic events of 942 (in 2015); 1,266 (in 2016); and 541 through March 2017. This 2¼ years of data hardly allows for any generalization.

The ADL also released a report of anti-Semitic events in the USA during 2013-2014. In this report, the number of anti-Semitic events reported was 751 (in 2013); and 912 in 2014 (a 21 percent increase).

The 2014 calendar year was notably marked by the shooting attack at two Jewish institutional buildings in Overland Park, Kansas, carried out by a white supremacist who admitted in a jailhouse interview that he wanted to target and kill Jews. Some suggested that such events were triggered by the demeaning manner in which President Obama treated Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had to enter the White House via a side door and not through the front entrance, as is the standard entry point for international dignitaries.

Anti-Semitism, oft called the world’s oldest hatred, has no place in our world, which espouses multiculturalism. Yet its presence — as with all types of hatred — survives throughout history, as a way to blame “the other” (i.e., Jews) for one’s own failings. Suggesting that either major USA political party espouses such hatred is a sad hatred unto itself.

Fred Korr

Hey, J.: What have you done?

What have you done with the J.? The new typeface is unreadable; the new layout and design is clunky.

You had a perfectly fine design before. It already looked contemporary and, most importantly, it was easy to read.

We need J. more than ever in this unsettling time for our Jewish community. So please, return to your previous, more harmonious design — or, at the very least, change the typeface to something more readable.

Malka Weitman

J. Readers

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