It’s always good to have people around who either participated in historical events, or who know people that did so and are willing to share the information. David Bedein, founder and director of the Center for Near East Policy Research, noted that this past week marked the 50th anniversary of the seminal march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which galvanized the issue of civil rights and transformed it into a national moral concern.
Bedein acknowledged that it may be hard for some people to recall, but there were times in the very recent history of the Jews and of people with African roots when both were considered sub-human. It was for this reason that a contingent of rabbis was proud to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.
Only a few of those rabbis are still here today to tell the story. One of them is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who has lived in Israel since 1983 and is the dean of Ohr Torah Educational Institutions as well as chief rabbi of Efrat.
In 1965 he was the young Steven Riskin, only recently ordained at Yeshiva University and the rabbi of the fledgling but highly popular Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City.
When Bedein asked Riskin about the most vivid memories he had of marching with King and the message he learned from him, Riskin replied: “Dr. Martin Luther King believed very profoundly in democracy, but he believed in democracy which understood, No. 1, freedom of speech and No. 2, the rights of a minority. And he understood that the right of a minority was the most important check and balance such a democracy has. To that end, the minority has the right to adopt a strategy of passive resistance.
“If only a few people were to resist and only a few were willing to go to jail, then obviously it would not make such an impact; if many people did, it would make a greater impact. And if close to a majority of people were to do it, then obviously the government would have to rethink its entire policy.”
The sweetest experience for Riskin was when many African Americans came over and asked about his beanie.
“I had to explain about the kippa, my head covering, in a way that would make sense. And I said the beanie is a freedom cap, and that we Jews believe in freedom and that we emerged from a slave race, that God told Pharaoh we should be freed from Egyptian domination.”
Riskin explained that Jews wear a head covering as a freedom cap.
The concept of a freedom cap spread like wildfire, and the African Americans asked where they could get one.
When the marchers began passing Jewish communities in the South, Riskin asked for kippot, and thousands of the marchers started wearing them with great pride – calling them freedom caps. The headgear received a lot of media attention, which was particularly exciting to the young rabbi who had coined the freedom cap title.
Indeed, when the US Consulate in Jerusalem organized an exhibition in memory of King only a few years ago, the US consular press attaché mounted press clippings of the freedom caps that a young Riskin had distributed en route to Montgomery.
The writer of this column, on her first trip abroad from her native Australia, happened to be in London when King was visiting with his wife, Coretta, and worked her way to the front of the crowd when he was walking down the street – and was rewarded with the opportunity to shake his hand.
■ WITH REGARD to Australia, this columnist returned from a visit to her hometown of Melbourne last week.
The visit coincided with that of journalist and public speaker Melanie Phillips, who was on her third down-under lecture tour and was a Shabbat guest of Shloimi and Shyrla Werdiger, who host almost every visiting dignitary from Israel and the Jewish world. Shloimi is the president of the United Israel Appeal, and is the first UIA president in Melbourne to belong to the ultra-Orthodox camp.
He is a leading figure in Chabad. His late grandfather Rabbi Zalman Serebransky was one of the pioneers of Chabad in Australia, and his parents, Nathan and Nechama Werdiger, are well-known for both their hospitality and philanthropy. In fact, all the Werdiger siblings continue the hospitable and philanthropic example set by their parents.
Last week, members of the Werdiger family hosted Riskin, a frequent visitor to Australia. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy was also in Australia last week.
Shloimi Werdiger’s younger brother David will be in Israel next week to attend the Jewish Funders International Conference at the Tel Aviv Hilton, and his sister Michelle Feiglin, her husband Yitzhok and one of their sons, Zalman, will be in Israel for Passover to catch up with numerous relatives who live here.
Among the other Australian representatives at the Jewish Funders Conference will be Sam Lipski, executive director of the Pratt Foundation, which supports manifold causes in Israel and is closely involved with the Park of the Australian Soldier in Beersheba – which was inaugurated in April 2008 and commemorates the Australian and New Zealand military victory over Turkish forces in the October 1917 Battle of Beersheba. The Pratt Foundation is also involved in the establishment of the ANZAC Museum in Beersheba, which will be dedicated to Australian and New Zealand forces assigned to fight in this part of the world during the First and Second World Wars.
Jeanne Pratt, who established the Pratt Foundation together with her late husband, Richard Pratt, was in Israel last year to present the first prize in the prestigious Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. A great lover and supporter of the arts, she chairs The Production Company, which she launched in 1999 as a notfor- profit theater company that stages three musical productions a year at the Melbourne Arts Center. The idea is to provide professional opportunities for local artists.
Each season is launched at her palatial home Raheen, a breathtakingly beautiful, historic 19th-century mansion, the first part of which was built in 1870, with an extension added in 1884. The property was purchased by the Catholic Church in 1917 and became the official residence of the Catholic archbishop. Pratt and her husband, who was one of the original investors in The Jerusalem Report, now a sister publication of The Jerusalem Post, purchased Raheen in 1981, restored it and also added to it.
A doorway and a tiny corridor separate the 19th-century period pieces from the ultra-modern 20th-century décor, which comprises the Pratt family’s private residence. The mezuza at the front door was affixed by Baron Immanuel Jakobovits, the late chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.
Pratt invites many people from the entertainment community to attend the new season’s Production Company launch, which includes performances by the stars of the shows; this year’s productions include West Side Story, Nice Work if You Can Get It and Jerry’s Girls. The performances were top-notch, though to be honest, the tour of the premises – where the walls feature paintings by Australia’s leading artists – was more exciting.
Among the Israelis who have visited Raheen are Shimon Peres, who has been there twice, Ehud Barak and Moshe Katsav.
Jeanne Pratt will celebrate her 79th birthday this year with symphony concerts in Melbourne, New York and Tel Aviv. While it’s not certain she will visit Israel next year, she is likely to attend the 100th-anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Beersheba, to be held in the Park of the Australian Soldier at the end of October 2017.
■ AMONG THE people from Israel, the US and elsewhere who will be attending and hosting events at the Jewish Funders Network Conference will be Judith Yovel Recanati, Gandyr Foundation; Georgette Bennett, Polonsky Foundation; Elah Alkalay, Josh Arnow, Arnow Family Fund; Virginia Bayer; Tony Felzen; Joanna Landau; Evi Musher; Shula Mozes; Orni Petruschka; Mark Reisbaum, San Francisco Jewish Community Federation & Endowment Fund; Rafi Rone, Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff, Family Charitable Funds; Brenda Bodenheimer Zlatin, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation; and many others.
Some 14 years ago, the Post ran a column under the heading of “Cornucopia,” inspired by the number of donor plaques on buildings of the Hadassah University Medical Center and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
If all the donor plaques on structures throughout the country were laid end to end, they would extend far beyond Israel’s northern and southern borders.
The generosity of world Jewry as well as a number of Christian friends of Israel is beyond belief.
While Israel takes great pride in her achievements since 1948, at least half of what has been accomplished would not exist without the largesse of which Israel has been the beneficiary. It’s a very sobering thought.
■ RUSS IAN-SPEAKING Jews from all the countries of the former Soviet Union can be found throughout the Jewish world and beyond, but not all of them integrate well into Jewish life – primarily because they have no background in Jewish education and culture.
Under the Communist regime, most Jews were cut off from their heritage and had nothing beyond a vague sense of Jewish identity to pass on to their offspring.
Realizing how critical this situation was in terms of assimilation and Jewish continuity, Chaim Chesler, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, founded Limmud FSU. Chesler completed his high school studies at Kfar Haro’eh yeshiva and was a Bnei Akiva youth emissary in the UK; studied sociology and political science at Bar-Ilan University, where he became active in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and the freeing of Jews in Yemen and Syria; and went on to become deputy chairman of the Young Leadership Department of the World Zionist Organization.
In that capacity he was also active in Operation Moses, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
In 1986 he was appointed executive director of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry, and worked to raise global awareness of the fact that Soviet Jews were being denied the right to leave and emigrate to Israel. In 1993 Chesler was appointed head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation to the FSU, where he remained for four years. In that period, his delegation succeeded in sending more than quarter of a million people to Israel.
In 1996, Chesler was appointed information ambassador at-large to fund-raising organizations focusing on the Jewish Agency’s operations in the FSU. A year later, he was appointed co-chairman of the Immigration and Absorption Committee of the Jewish Agency, and in 1999 was appointed treasurer of the Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
Regardless of his positions with the Jewish Agency and WZO, Chesler’s heart was essentially with the Jews of the FSU, for whom he set up a variety of projects, the most important and enduring being Limmud FSU – which has taken him to many parts of the world in his quest to bring young, Russian-speaking Jews closer to their religious and cultural heritage. The ongoing journey has taken him as far north as Russia itself and as far south as Australia, where he is right now.
More than 400 participants attended the inaugural Limmud FSU events in Sydney and Melbourne, which were held in conjunction with the Zionist Federation of Australia. The opening gala in Sydney was attended by 150 participants, with another 250 arriving at a resort area near Melbourne for a two-day festival dubbed Kultura – rejoicing in Jewish identity, history and culture in an inclusive, pluralistic and egalitarian celebration of contemporary Jewish life.
Victorian parliamentarian David Southwick, a prominent member of the Melbourne Jewish community, opened the Melbourne event by expressing pride in the fact that this was the first Limmud FSU festival to take place in Australia, and said it would enrich the Jewish community of Victoria and strengthen ties between the Australian Jewish community and Israel.
The variety of events included an exhibition of paintings by well-known artist Yosl Bergner, 94, who grew up in Poland, lived in Australia where he studied art from 1937 to 1948, moved to Israel with the founding of the state, and resides in Tel Aviv. Culinary expert Gil Hovav – who is the great-grandson of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, pioneer of the modern Hebrew language – has become a Limmud FSU regular, and accompanied Chesler down under.
Also delighting the crowd was jazz virtuoso Leon Ptashka.
Many of the participants enjoyed the Limmud experience so much they said they couldn’t wait for the next one. There are some 30,000 Russian- speaking Jews in Australia, and strenuous efforts have been made by Australian Jewish organizations to include them in their activities. Not all have grown up without knowledge of Judaism; among the early Russian immigrants to Australia were members of Chabad, who were nearly all native Russian speakers, and whose outreach programs in later years embraced those new Australians from the FSU who were interested in discovering their Jewish roots.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Danny Lamm said, “It is essential to engage the Russian-speaking members of the Australian Jewish community in the life of the broader Jewish community, because their inclusion can be of great significance – just as the arrival of over 1 million Russian speakers to Israel has proved to be a vital element in the building of the state and its future.”
Ron Weiser, president of the Zionist Federation of New South Wales, said that following the success of the country’s initial Limmud FSU happening this year, he and everyone else connected with it were looking forward with great anticipation to next year’s festival.
■ JUST THRE months shy of her 30th birthday, supermodel Bar Refaeli finally quashed speculation and rumors as to whether she and live-in partner Adi Ezra were going to formalize their relationship. Refaeli and Ezra have been a couple for the past two years, but she has consistently denied they were getting married.
Close friends and relatives surmised it was merely a matter of time – and they were right. Ezra popped the question last week while they were on vacation. He was reasonable certain of an affirmative reply, and had already purchased the engagement ring.
It will not be a first marriage for Refaeli, who was previously married at 18 in order to avoid army service.
At that time she married family friend Ari Weinstein, who was then 41; they divorced after she received her exemption from the IDF. Later, she had a five-year on-and-off romance with Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is 11 years her senior, and who even came to Israel to be with her.
Ezra, at 41, is 12 years her senior. It would seem that Refaeli has a preference for older men.
Ezra, for his part, went out with several models before finding his soulmate.
A date for the wedding has yet to be announced.
■ JERUSALEM IS generally referred to as the city of peace, but Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich prefers to believe that his city – the capital of the Negev – is the peaceful metropolis in question. In the course of his address at the launch this week of the Lauder Employment Center, which though dealing with the whole of the Negev is located in Beersheba, Danilovich reminded his audience that the first peace agreement in the Land of Israel was sealed in Beersheba – between Abraham the Patriarch and King Melchizedek.
International businessman and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, who is president of the LEC and has been planning such a project for years, was almost under siege as people lined up to be photographed with him. The launch ceremony was attended by mayors from all over the Negev, as well as by Jewish National Fund leaders from across the US.
■ IT’S HARD to say who threw the best Purim party of the year, but the many who attended the Purim bash at the Peres Center for Peace – co-hosted by Israel’s ninth president Peres and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai – attracted a huge crowd, including several foreign diplomats. Among them were the ambassadors of Italy and France, Francesco Maria Talo and Patrick Maisonnave; EU delegation head Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen; diplomats from many embassies; opinion-makers; and a huge representation from the arts and the entertainment industry.
Huldai came as a two-gun cowboy; many of the non-Jewish guests got into the spirit of the festival and came in fancy dress. Peres wore a colorful lei around his neck, though at one stage he also donned a tall blue-andwhite top hat that looked as if it had been made out of the national flag. He claimed his “costume” was that of the optimistic citizen, telling his guests that optimism is not a one-occasion affair and that they should be optimistic all the time – because the future belongs to them.
There was a contest for the best costume, and special entertainment was provided by singer Achinoam Nini.
■ WHILE ISRAELI women are complaining they still receive unequal pay for equal work, are subjected to discrimination in the selection of executive board members and are not properly represented in the Knesset and on city councils, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN Ron Prosor has declared he is proud to represent a country where women hold key positions in every area of society.
Really? Well, it’s true there has been one woman prime minister; two women have served as foreign minister; one woman has served as justice minister; two women have held the position of education minister; and women have served in less than a handful of other ministerial positions.
There has never been a women defense minister or finance minister.
A woman has never served as IDF chief of staff, and only two women have served as heads of universities.
In other words it’s all still very token representation, though things are improving in the world of finance – given that the governor of the Bank of Israel is a woman and the managers of a couple of major banks are women.
But in many respects there are still few cracks, let alone breaks, in the glass ceiling.
This week, approximately 10,000 people from around the world are convening in New York City to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Today, March 11, as part of the two-week summit, the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN will host an event titled, “Education – The Power Behind Empowering Women.”
Noted Israeli actress and director Hana Azoulay Hasfari will attend to screen parts of her film Orange People, and speak about the widespread problem of underage marriages. This issue is very close to her heart because her own mother married for the first time at age 12; according to Azoulay Hasfari, her mother bore painful memories of that experience until her death.
Azoulay Hasfari said that the fact that her film was chosen to help address the subject of underage marriage proves the power and importance of art. She voiced her excitement and gratitude to the State of Israel and to Prosor, for the opportunity to raise this important issue on the international stage.
“I strongly disagree with the whitewashing of the term ‘child marriages.’ It is a criminal act. I hope that my words will encourage global representatives to vote in favor of strict international legislation to rid this phenomenon from the world,” she asserted.
Other topics tabled for discussion include Israel’s contributions to advancing women’s leadership in developing countries. Foreign Ministry representative Hava Karrie will highlight some of Israel’s key achievements.
Jean Judes, executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro, will also be in attendance to discuss the challenges of women with disabilities and the educational tools available to assist them in overcoming those challenges.
Prosor declared his pride in the fact that the majority of the members of his delegation to the UN are women, and said: “A society that empowers women is a strong and healthy society. I believe it is important to use every opportunity to empower women – both in Israel and throughout the world.”[email protected]