During his visit to China this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled that the city of Shanghai was “one of the few places that opened its gates” to Jews fleeing Hitler.
Officials of the Chinese Communist government, standing nearby, beamed with pleasure at the expectation that people all over the world would read how their regime rescued Jews.
But is it true?
As the prime minister noted, the port city of Shanghai was a haven for many European Jewish refugees during the Hitler years, at a time when most other countries, including the United States, closed their doors to all but a fortunate few. It is important to note that much of China was under Japanese military occupation from 1931 until 1945, and immigration to Shanghai was controlled by the Japanese government, not the Chinese. The Japanese, hoping to improve their relations with the U.S. and the American Jewish community, permitted about 20,000 German and Austrian Jews to settle in Shanghai during the 1930s.
For more than half a century, rosh chodesh Sivan, the start of the Jewish month of Sivan, has evoked mixed emotions in me.
On the one hand, it heralds the arrival of Shavuot, with its rejoicing at the re-enactment of Sinai; on the other, it marks the yahrzeit of my beloved bubbe, Breineh (Becky) Didovsky Green. Intertwined with communal joy, the excitement at approaching Sinai — and the cathartic effect of making blintzes — is the personal sorrow for the loss of the grandparent whom I knew best and longest, who lived with us in the Roxbury section of Boston and was my constant childhood companion.
There is a custom of staying up all night on the eve of Shavuot.
The traditional rabbinic explanation for this custom is that God found the children of Israel asleep on the morning of the day when they were set to receive the Torah. A proof text for this claim is Exodus 19.16: “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
As I enter the final months of my three-year term as president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, I want to share some thoughts with you.
I am grateful for the years of service and leadership positions I have held, as they made me deeply aware of the dynamic that is the Jewish community. I have experienced first-hand the unique energy of engagement from community members and activists, who give freely of their time, talents, resources, and efforts to improve the lives of others. I have sensed the compassion these caring people feel for the concerns of those with whom we share our life experiences.
It’s time to replace programmatic model of Jewish affiliation
LOS ANGELES — It’s that time of year, the time when Jewish institutions pull out their 2013-14 calendars and fill them with events.
Many of the programs are very good, with clever names and slick marketing: Jews and Brews, for young federation leadership; L’mazeltov, for expectant parents; Torah and Tacos, for synagogue members who favor a certain southwestern cuisine with their Bible study.
And yet, after all this well-meaning effort, membership in synagogues and JCCs is declining, federation campaigns are flat, and a generation of young Jewish adults is in no hurry to affiliate. The 20th century model of programmatic engagement is not working.
FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. — Judaism is designed to be a person’s operating system, the platform on which other areas of one’s life functions.
But for many Jews, religious practice sits on a shelf alongside theater subscriptions, gym memberships, and soccer practice, relegated to one of many offerings from which we can choose.
The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous.
It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people are likely to suffer the agonizing effects of the chemical.
CAIRO — My first visit to Egypt was eight years ago. My guide was Carmen Weinstein, the head of Egypt’s Jewish community. On a hot September day, we drove through the usual chaotic traffic with our driver to visit 10 synagogues.
I am the son of American Jews, the grandchild of Jews from Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia, and I knew little about the history of Jewish life in Egypt. But the synagogues tell that story.
Together, the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, the stately Shaar Hashamaim on Adly Street, the soaring interior of the Karaite synagogue, the Italianate Vitali Madjar synagogue in Heliopolis, the modest synagogue in upscale Maadi built to lure prosperous Jewish residents to the new suburb, and the Maimonides yeshivah and synagogue, a rubble-strewn, roofless building at the time, reflect the rich and diverse religious life that once was Egyptian Jewry.
Nearly all the buildings were empty and unused. In some places, a caretaker living in or near the synagogue let us in and escorted us through. Carmen gave each a few pounds and some disapproving words about the conditions, although it was obvious that they had done their best to clean in advance of our visit.
It was evident then, and would become clearer on my many subsequent visits, that Carmen’s mission was to preserve this Jewish heritage of Egypt.
To an outsider like me, this seemed to be an impossible task. What could anyone expect with a Jewish community that had dwindled to a few dozen, a government that was at best indifferent, and an Egyptian Jewish diaspora that had grown increasingly distant?
We have the experience in Eastern Europe to compare — synagogues abandoned and in disrepair, or turned into factories or theaters or meeting halls after Nazi occupation and communist nationalization. This is the normal fate of synagogues when Jews disappear. Everybody knows that.
But not Carmen. And that was the reason for her success. She didn’t know that this couldn’t be done.
She brought as many of these synagogues as she could under the protection of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and pressed it to make repairs. She simply assumed that each building deserved to be protected, preserved, and ultimately restored. She had little patience for anyone who disagreed.
On each of my visits, we would go together to the Cultural Ministry or the Antiquities Council. Carmen focused on the repairs that were needed and the work to be done. Usually we left with promises.
Those promises were not empty. Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, where Carmen’s funeral took place on April 18, was repaired and restored in time for the 100th anniversary of its dedication. A small exhibition space was built opposite Ben Ezra to tell the story of the Genizah documents that were discovered here. And in the most elaborate project to date, the Maimonides yeshivah was fully restored and the adjacent synagogue completely rebuilt.
As I learned from Carmen and other Egyptian Jews, the 12th century Maimonides building was considered a place of miracles — the sick and infirm would spend the night there and be healed. But the biggest miracle in our lifetime was its restoration and dedication two years ago.
One of the greatest challenges Carmen faced was the Bassatine Cemetery, where more than 20,000 squatters were living on the historic Jewish site. Carmen valiantly fought off further encroachment, building walls and imploring authorities to prevent the looting of memorial stones and the dumping of trash that had become commonplace. In her more optimistic moments she planted trees and flowering shrubs. Carmen took special care of her mother’s grave there, and frequently visited it.
Last month we went, at my request, to Bassatine. Conditions clearly had deteriorated. Walls had been removed, originally to facilitate construction of sewage drains from the squatters’ dwellings. But that work never was completed. Sewage water now flows freely, submerging several acres. The place is open to trash, looters, and grazing animals.
I walked through the cemetery until I came to Carmen’s mother’s gravesite. The shrubs that had been planted were uprooted and gone. The facing stones were stolen. Saddest of all, the enclosure to the grave itself had been cemented shut. She no longer would be able to visit, but at least no one would be able to do more damage.
“I never come here any more,” she told me, and I understood why. She now has made one final trip.
We say, in the spirit of Jewish tradition, Yehi zichronah l’vrachah, “May her memory be a blessing.”
If we redouble our efforts to preserve and protect the Jewish heritage of Egypt, if we prevent the further desecration of Bassatine, if we secure the support of friends and allies in this work even in these difficult economic and political times in Egypt, Carmen’s memory indeed will be a blessing.
JTA Wire Service