The surprise Senate race in New Jersey, made necessary by the sudden death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg last week, provides a window into the Jewish relationship with non-Jews that demands to be remedied.
Frontrunner Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor, is extremely popular in Jewish circles and is getting significant support from the Jewish community. But it was not always so.
I met Cory Booker 20 years ago, when he was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford University and I was the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary there. Although he was not Jewish we began studying Torah together almost daily, and I slowly brought him into greater contact with the campus’ Jewish community.
“And He gave them a charge concerning the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 6:13) What was the charge? Says the midrash, “God said to [Moses and Aaron]: My children are obstinate, bad-tempered and troublesome. In assuming leadership over them, expect them to curse you and even stone you.” For more than two decades, my late wife, the journalist Marilyn Cohen Henry, dedicated herself to providing the most accurate and honest reports possible on all matters involving restitution and compensation for the victims of the Shoah. The victims, she said, deserved no less than the whole truth, without embellishment or “political spin.”
She so completely immersed herself in the complicated international morass of laws and regulations and agreements that organizations and governments alike sought her counsel and advice, as attested at her memorial service by a former ambassador of Israel and a former United States ambassador to Germany who became the State Department’s point man on restitution matters.
She also often was asked to speak on these issues, especially at the height of the Swiss bank and insurance battles of the mid-1990s. Marilyn declined fees, asking instead for a social worker to be present at her talks. The survivors in the audience, she explained, were certain to become agitated. A professional was needed to help get them through it.
“Agitated” may be too soft a word to describe how Shoah survivors react to these issues. Every discussion of them brings forth visceral emotional responses from survivors.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day
The reports regarding the Swiss banks and the European insurance companies sent their reactions into overdrive. What made it worse were the exaggerated and often unfounded claims by supposed Jewish leaders and petty politicians who put self-promotion ahead of concerns for the victims.
Now it is happening again. A complex, well-buried 17-year scheme to defraud the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is being used by some in the media and organizational worlds for personal aggrandizement, with no regard for what this may be doing to the survivors, nearly all of whom are in their final years.
That this violates Judaism’s laws of bad speech (lashon hara) and slanderous statements (motzei shem ra) is clear. It is also morally reprehensible.
Equally violative of halachah and morally reprehensible is what is being done to the reputations of two men who deserve better from the Jewish world.
The two men are Rabbi Israel Miller of blessed memory and Saul Kagan. Miller was president of the Claims Conference from 1982 until his passing in 2002. He also chaired its board and its executive during that time, meaning that he, not current chairman Julius Berman, was the “chairman” who allegedly withheld information about the fraud. Kagan spent 47 years at the organization, first as its executive director, then as its executive vice president. He retired at the end of the 1990s, but nevertheless put in long days working for the organization for many years after that. The complicated fraud scheme began under his and Miller’s watch.
Miller was a chaplain in the Army Air Corps during World War II. One of his precious memories following the war was marching in his army uniform at rallies urging the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine.
A congregational rabbi for most of his adult life (at the Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center in the Bronx), his résumé attests to his dedication to his people. He chaired the American Zionist Council, the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, the Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of the National Jewish Welfare Board, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
When the founding president of the Claims Conference, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, died in 1982, Miller was the logical choice to succeed him.
Kagan, of course, already was there.
A Lithuanian emigre, Kagan joined the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor. In Germany, as he once explained to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter, he “encountered many Jewish and non-Jewish slaves along the roads. I came across survivors of all kinds.”
Kagan dedicated the rest of his life to seeking “a measure of justice” for the Nazis’ Jewish victims.
The Claims Conference run by Miller and Kagan was a Spartan operation. They were there to help make the lives of survivors a bit easier, not build an empire for themselves. They eschewed publicity as they doggedly pursued every possible approach to gaining more desperately needed funds for survivors; the money they collected in the name of the victims was meant for those victims.
They achieved an extraordinary record, yet they often were vilified by survivor groups who believed the pie was exclusively theirs to carve up, and by other Jewish leaders, who could not match their successes and so chose to second-guess their labors instead.
Miller became gravely ill in late 2001, about the time the anonymous first letter appeared; he would die in May 2002. His illness, however, did not stop him from working for as long as he could from his home in Jerusalem on Claims Conference business, including arranging for a successor, and creating a more efficient leadership scheme by dividing his position into three separate ones.
Kagan, as noted, often put in long hours every day on Claims Conference business long after he retired. He still is involved at 91.
Since 2009, the Claims Conference has put into place new procedures to prevent a recurrence of such fraud schemes. It has cooperated fully with the Justice Department and FBI in their investigations. Everything that could be done has been done. No good can be served by the renewed attacks.
The leaks, misstatements, and bad reporting are hurting survivors in their final years. They also are eating away at the reputations of two great men and the organization they shepherded for decades. And it is all being done to score publicity points.
Is there no shame left in the Jewish world?
Gil Karu, an accomplished chef and restaurant manager, was 47 years old when he suddenly collapsed and died without any apparent cause.
The Karu family is a highly respected and successful family. There were four equally respected and successful sons. Now, unexpectedly and tragically, there were just three.
Gil was well known to my family, as he had been the chef at my 85th birthday party. His sudden and totally unexpected death was a great shock to us, the Karu family, and to their wide array of close friends.
Recently, a diner in an upscale kosher eatery in the metropolitan area asked for a side order of steamed broccoli to go with the main course, a salmon dish.
The waiter came back a few minutes later with the salmon, but not the broccoli. When asked where the side dish was, he apologized and said he would return with it in a moment.
He returned almost immediately. “We’re sorry,” he said, “but we’ve run out of broccoli.”
A few minutes later, the restaurant owner inquired if the diner was enjoying the meal. Said the disappointed diner, “I would have enjoyed it more if I could have gotten the steamed broccoli I ordered. How can you run out of broccoli?”
Last week’s column by colleague and brother Shammai Engelmayer brought me joy, not just because he’s rejoining the Jewish Standard as a columnist, as I and so many others had urged him, but because Shammai and I share one great passion: Jewish values. We both believe that Jewish values have the capacity to bring healing to a world that sorely needs it.
On June 4, at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, my organization, This World: The Jewish Values Network, together with Rambam Hospital in Israel, is hosting a dinner honoring those who most promote Jewish values in the culture. The honorees are not all Jewish, and one need not be a Jew to absorb and promote the light the Jewish people have shared with the world.
Truth regardless of consequences
Foremost among the honorees is Elie Wiesel, the world’s most celebrated Jewish personality, whom we are honoring as “Champion of Jewish Spirit.” Here is where Judaism differs so much from Christianity. The latter looks at evil and has a simple response. It results from Lucifer, a fallen angel. Christianity is profoundly dualistic, dividing the world into competing forces of good and evil. The Nazis went over to the dark side. God was not at Auschwitz and therefore bears no responsibility for the mass murder perpetrated there. But the devil was present, and we must reject him fully and love God.
”Over the years, in this space, I have angered people, I have hurt them, perhaps inadvertently I even maligned some of them. I chose to close my eyes to their truths, to their certainties. I chose only to see the ‘right way,’ which meant my way….
“Not everything I ever wrote was wrong, not every opinion I ever held was incorrect….If I can learn to write without the columnist’s conceit, and if people still believe there is some value in what I have to say, perhaps I will return to this space some day.”
Next week, in a monumental achievement, about 1,000 volunteers from Norpac, a pro-Israel group based in North Jersey, will get on buses to Washington to lobby nearly every member of Congress and senator to support Israel.
Until recently, the case could be made that pro-Israel groups’ most important goal was to get lawmakers to vote for aid to Israel. But with the Israeli economy now regularly growing more than 5 percent each year, and with Israel ranking 16th among 187 world nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, American money is no longer as vital.
I recall the difficult days of the Yom Kippur War.
We lived in a modest neighborhood. While I was visiting my friend, his father, who worked as a tailor, walked into his house and told the family that he had just put their life savings — $20,000 — into Israel bonds. It was an important moment for me, seeing firsthand the commitment of an American Jew toward Israel in its moment of need.
In case you are thinking of passing on NORPAC’s mission to Washington this year, let’s outline some of the issues. The Arab Spring has come to mean a more aggressive Egypt; it means an unstable Syria with chemical and biologic weapons; it means Jordan, the next country likely to fall to the Muslim Brotherhood, causing mischief along Israel’s Eastern border; it means serious weapons from Libya and Syria falling into the hands of terrorists.
The case for stronger action on Iran’s WMD program is more compelling each day. The first four targets for this brutal theocracy are Tel Aviv, New York, Washington, and Riyadh. Iran’s mullahs wish to do to the Jews in 12 minutes what Hitler did in 12 years.
We have an opportunity to help to do something about this. On May 8, you can join NORPAC on its annual mission to meet with Congress and influence our most powerful federal leaders to stand by Israel, and to help Israel defend herself against the existential threats that emanate from all sides.
NORPAC’s members are going to outline this existential threat to both America and Israel to our national leaders. Let me illustrate the effectiveness of our advocacy. In 2011, the NORPAC mission to Washington was particularly important because Congress was in budget negotiations. The recession was deep, and the foreign aid package, which we had generally thought to be an “easy ask,” was in jeopardy. NORPAC was in Washington advocating for $3 billion in foreign aid and a new system, then in development, called the Iron Dome.
It was the day of the 2011 NORPAC mission when congressional leaders first advised the pro-Israel community that Israel would get the full aid package despite budget problems. However, we also were told that the outlook for Iron Dome funding looked grim. Nonetheless, the 1,000 NORPAC members continued to advocate for funding for the then experimental anti-missile system.
I stayed late for my last meeting to see my friend Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). To my surprise, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Republican caucus chairman, who was well respected among the fiscal conservatives, came out of the voting chamber to meet me together with Senator Ayotte. Senator Thune reassured me of the full funding for foreign aid to Israel but said that as an experimental system, the Iron Dome was too expensive at this time.
I gave the senator warm regards from my mother, who was too weak to join us that year. He remembered her well from other years. I told him of basketball advice my father gave me when I was young: “Short and Jewish — shoot from the outside.” I explained that the engineers in Israel were particularly good at this technology, that this is their outside shot, and that we all would benefit from a worthwhile investment even in these pressing times. The senator, a 6-foot 5-inch basketball player, chuckled at the story. And in a surprising turnaround he pledged his support for the program.
It was min hashamyim — by the grace of God — that NORPAC was in Washington that critical day of budget decisions, NORPAC members in each of over 450 meetings advocated for this little-known program, and the tide was turned. By day’s end, it was clear that Congress’ feeling about the Iron Dome program was palpably favorable.
Those of us who were on that NORPAC mission saw the fruits of our labors during last year’s war with Gaza, as the Iron Dome program kept missiles from raining on Tel Aviv and enabled Israel to avoid a ground war.
The oversized role that a few determined and committed people can play in our nation is astounding. Going down to Washington with NORPAC is a leveraged way of making yourself heard. Over the years, our members have made compelling cases. They have been key players in promoting legislative initiatives. This year, we will have about 475 meetings planned for small NORPAC groups.
A sincere citizen advocate in Washington is far more compelling than the most sophisticated lobbyist. Each of you who attends the mission has more influence than the 10,000 who stay at home.
Time and again, members of Congress have told us that the NORPAC mission was their best meeting of the year, that it was an eye opener, or that the NORPAC meeting changed their vote.
So if you cannot spare the cash, spare the time. Give one day to Israel. Give May 8, 2013, to Israel. You can do much more for Israel on May 8 than you can for your clients, patients, employers, employees, or customers. May 8 is the one day when you will do the most good to promote US-Israel relations, and be effective doing your part for the survival of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people.
While it takes special courage and determination to put the family’s life savings in a country during wartime, as Americans have done repeatedly during Israel’s wars, and it takes a special character to stand at the front lines, like those fallen we recently honored during Yom Hazikaron, we must do our part as well.
Please join us for one day to do something only American Jews can. Come meet with our national leaders and participate in ensuring the continuing miracle of our generation, the survival of the State of Israel.
You can join the NORPAC mission by going to norpac.net or calling 201-788-5133.