Of synagogues and the communities they serve

More often than not, dignitaries who visit Beit Hatfutsot are presented with some kind of souvenir of their visit which is a very emotional experience for them.

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES in a selfie with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES in a selfie with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
More often than not, dignitaries who visit Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, are presented with some kind of souvenir of their visit – sometimes a family tree – which is a very emotional experience for them.
In the case of Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it was the other way around. Hoenlein, the son of German-Jewish immigrants to the US, came to Beit Hatfutsot to present Dr. Meir Schwartz’s book, Pogrom Night 1938: A Memorial to the Destroyed Synagogues of Germany, a two-volume work documenting 1,500 German synagogues that were burned on Kristallnacht in November 1938.
Hoenlein followed Schwartz throughout his research and assisted in the book’s publication, largely because of his own family history. His father, Efraim, a graduate of the Wurzburg Rabbinical Seminary, managed to escape to the US in 1940 where he was reunited with Hoenlein’s mother, who had fled three years earlier.
Hoenlein became involved with the book project from its inception, not only because of his family background but also due to the pronounced importance of documenting this dark chapter in German- Jewish history, and in recognition of the contribution of his own family to the reconstruction of the synagogue in the town of Ermreuth.
This past May, a special event was held in the US Congress to mark the book’s publication.
The launch was held in the presence of representatives of the Foreign Committees of the US Congress and of the German Parliament, as well as representatives of the Jewish leadership in the US.
Hoenlein, who frequently travels between the US and Israel, came on this occasion to present the book not only to Beit Hatfutsot, but also to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is known to be a history buff – a genetic factor that he inherited from his late father, Benzion, who was a professional, world-renowned historian.
The book is indeed a labor of love and commitment to memorializing a once-glorious past. Schwartz, who spent more than 15 years researching the contents of the book, has faithfully documented the events of Kristallnacht, including tales about the synagogues and the communities they served. In this he was greatly encouraged by Hoenlein, who wanted the world to know not just how the Jews of Germany died during the Holocaust, but how they lived before, during and after it.
It was a natural choice for him, he said, to present the book to Beit Hatfutsot, which though not an academic institution, documents and tells the story of the Jewish people.
Standing alongside the model of the Worms Synagogue, founded in 1034 and burned together with so many other synagogues in Germany on Kristallnacht, Hoenlein commented that history is about the future, not about the past.
“Beit Hatfutsot is home to the world-famous collection of synagogue models,” said museum CEO Dan Tadmor.
“We have learned that every synagogue tells the story of a community, whether it still exists or not. This extensive book brings back to life not only 1,500 synagogues, but 1,500 Jewish communities.”
While in Israel on this occasion, Hoenlein also attended the American Independence Day reception hosted by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher, and the gala opening of the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria.
■ WHILE ON the subject of destroyed synagogues, one was recently restored in what is among the most unlikely of places – Beirut. The Magen Abraham Synagogue in downtown Beirut was built in 1925, and in its heyday was one of 16 synagogues in Lebanon’s capital. The synagogue was seriously damaged during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, with additional damage inadvertently caused by an Israeli bombardment during the First Lebanon War.
Magen Abraham is the main Jewish house of prayer in Beirut, and was once in the heart of the city’s Jewish Quarter.
Although Lebanon’s Jewish community has diminished greatly over the years, with the majority of its Jewish expatriates now living in France as well as other parts of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and of course Israel, there are still several dozen Jewish families living in Lebanon.
The Jews of Lebanon are among the country’s 17 recognized faiths, and live there relatively undisturbed. Restoration and renovation of the ruined synagogue began in 2009 with the blessing of the Lebanese government, local planning authorities and even Hezbollah, whose leaders said they had nothing against Jews and their quarrel was with Israel. The $2 million restoration project was funded by Lebanese Jews living in London, Geneva, Milan and New York. Indirect aid also came from Israel, whose Lebanese expatriates are the only ones who will be unable to visit Magen Abraham.
Among the Israelis who view the synagogue with nostalgia is former ambassador to Egypt Itzhak Levanon, who was born in Beirut, spent his childhood there and had his bar mitzva at Magen Abraham.
He is the son of Mossad agent Shula Kushak-Cohen, a Jerusalem-born Lebanese socialite who was arrested for spying for Israel.
Cohen, an agent from 1947 to 1961, was instrumental in enabling hundreds of Syrian and Iraqi Jews to make their way from Lebanon to Israel. She found numerous escape routes for them by land, sea and air, and persuaded Lebanese officials to work for Israeli intelligence. She was the fourth of 12 siblings, and was married off at age 16 to a man 20 years her senior.
Her life as a spy for Israel began by accident, when she overheard a few peddlers talking about some Syrian military activity. She passed the information on to the Hagana and was recruited soon after. Following her arrest in August 1961, Cohen was originally sentenced to be hung, but the court decided to be lenient in view of the fact that she was a mother of seven children, commuting the sentence to 20 years of hard labor.
In July 1953 she appealed the severity of her sentence, and as a result had it reduced to seven years.
After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was holding several Lebanese citizens and entered into an exchange agreement whereby they were returned to Lebanon, and Cohen and two other Israelis were returned to Israel. She crossed the border at Rosh Hanikra and the rest of her family flew to Nicosia, and from there to Israel. In April 2007, she was given the honor of lighting one of the Independence Day beacons.
For her son Levanon, there was a particular honor in being appointed Israel’s ambassador to Egypt. His maternal grandfather, Meir Arazi Cohen, had been born in Egypt to a wealthy Jewish family – so in a sense, his stay in Egypt was a return to roots.
■ ALTHOUGH THE Waldorf Astoria, the new jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s hotel industry, has been operating for more than two months, quite a number of the 700 people who attended the spectacular official opening this week were taking their first steps into luxury on an international scale.
Luxury means different things to different people.
Certainly few Jews and no Israelis would be happy about being served paper-thin cucumber sandwiches at Buckingham Palace. Extravagance to Jews is not only a matter of external surroundings, but internal consumption.
We’re a people that likes to eat – and the chefs at the Waldorf Astoria certainly catered to that need. Food islands with a sumptuous array of fish, meat and vegetable dishes lined the walls most of the way around the Palace Grand Ballroom, and the food was not only plentiful but decidedly pleasant to the palate.
In a sense, it was a showcase for anyone who might be planning a wedding or a bar mitzva. So much to taste – though most people did more than just taste. The lamb chops, which had particular appeal for the writer of this column due to her Australian background, were the softest and most succulent she had eaten outside of the land of her birth.
Naturally, the Reichmann family which owns the hotel was well-represented, and the near-finished product was indeed a credit to the vision of the late Paul Reichmann, who died last October – when much of the renovation work on what was initially the stunning Palace Hotel had been completed.
The overall guest list went from three year olds to nonagenarians, and the dress code went from super-casual to ultra-formal. The kashrut standards were impeccable.
How could one tell? By watching what the large number of haredi guests put on their plates.
A conversation piece for anyone who went into the business section was the meeting rooms named for the Twelve Tribes. Shimon and Reuven are next to each other, symbolizing not only the sons of Jacob and the scattered remnants of the Children of Israel, but also the outgoing and incoming presidents of Israel.
Not all the guests were Jewish.
Prominent among the non-Jews was a small delegation from the Greek Patriarchate, headed by Greek Patriarch Theophilos III, who has struck up a warm friendship with Simon Vincent, president of Europe, Middle East and Africa, and executive vice president of Hilton Worldwide.
The two spent quite a long time in conversation.
After welcoming the guests, Waldorf Astoria general manager Guy Klaiman stood back for the screening of greetings by general managers of Waldorf Astoria hotels around the world, who welcomed the Jerusalem hotel to the family. John Vanderslice, global head of Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts, was on-hand in the flesh. He reminded everyone present that the Jerusalem facility, in its original incarnation, had opened as a deluxe hotel even before the Waldorf Astoria Park Avenue, the second hotel in the chain, which was opened in October 1931 and was then the tallest and largest hotel in the world.
Oded Lifshitz, Hilton Worldwide’s area vice president for the UK and Israel, and one of the greatest Israeli success stories in the international hotel business, has never visited Jerusalem as frequently while rising in the Hilton ranks. A native son of Jerusalem, he went from the original Jerusalem Hilton to the Tel Aviv Hilton, then to the Sydney Hilton. He was subsequently stationed in Japan, where as the Tokyo-based vice president of Hilton international operations he was responsible for Japan, Korea and Micronesia. Currently headquartered in the UK, he frequently commutes between England and Israel, and of course heads for Jerusalem and a breath of home.
Another Hilton veteran who worked with Lifshitz in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is Motti Verses, head of public relations for Hilton hotels in Israel.
Verses will soon become immersed in the planning of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the Tel Aviv Hilton, which will mark its jubilee in September 2015.
For Charley Levine, who is responsible for international public relations for the Waldorf Astoria, and his wife, Shelly, a successful real estate agent, the grand opening of the hotel was an extension of their 40th wedding anniversary celebration. The couple had taken time out of their high-pressure professions to go to China, and had returned only that afternoon.
Others mingling in the huge ballroom included retired diplomat Gideon Meir; Pamela and Abba Claman of Jerusalem’s Old City, whose lives are largely dedicated to the IDF soldiers they host regularly in their beautiful home; Bonnie and Alan Cohen of David’s Village, who are both students and patrons of Aish HaTorah and provide scholarships for students at Aish and its sister facility for women, EYAHT; travel agent Yossi Weiss; Thai Ambassador Jukr Boon-long and his wife, Kamolrat; Scrabble champion Pamela Loval and her husband, Werner, who in addition to being one of Jerusalem’s most successful real estate agents, pioneered many projects in the city; and Nitzan Chen, head of the Government Press Office.
Entertainment was provided by David D’Or, who started off with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song he sang last year for US President Barack Obama, then veered into “Jerusalem of Gold” and wound up with “Caruso,” the song written by Lucio Dalla and made famous by Luciano Pavarotti. D’Or was followed by highly talented klezmer violinist Sanya Kroitor, who had the crowd clapping along with his spirited performance.
■ THE HEARTS of the nation and those who live among us have been torn in many directions in recent weeks. The intensified barrage of rockets from Gaza aimed at cities, towns, kibbutzim and moshavim in the South, and the call from many quarters for tough retaliation, brings with it the fear of yet another war – with more death and maiming on both sides of the border. Yet not to respond is unthinkable, when so many Israelis are being targeted.
Even though the damage has been more to property than to people, none of us can tell the extent of another’s trauma. The residents of Sderot, which has been the main recipient of Gazan missiles, have shown remarkable stoicism, but how much longer must they live in an aura of fear? With the shadow of grief at the murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gil- Ad Shaer still hanging heavily over the nation came the shocking revelation that Jews were responsible for the cruel murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Before the identities of his inhumane killers were known, US Ambassador Shapiro, at the Fourth of July reception he hosted a day early, dwelt momentarily on all four murders at the outset of his remarks, and announced that as a sign of respect to the nation in mourning there would be no fireworks this year.
Shapiro began his address on a somber note, saying that a mother should never have to mourn the death of her son, nor a nation bury her children. Shapiro advocated resisting the urge to channel pain and anguish into violence and retribution. He assured the hundreds of guests crowded onto his lawn that “the American people stand with the people of Israel in their time of mourning,” but then made the point that “it is an American and an Israeli trait, even in the midst of sorrow, to find cause to celebrate and move forward.”
And so the evening continued with mutual platitudes. It had been preceded by some great music provided by two jazz bands – one from the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, the other the US Air Force Afterburner Rock Band – and amazing renditions of the national anthems by Cantor Tamar Havilio and Ori Shakiv.
Earlier in the evening, a giant video screen enabled anyone who was interested to witness the arrival of guests as they shook hands or hugged Shapiro and his wife, Julie, and subsequently posed for photos with them before coming out to join the throng.
There seemed to be fewer government ministers than in previous years, but spotted among the faces in the crowd were former ambassadors to the US Itamar Rabinovich and Michael Oren; mega-philanthropists Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson; IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz and his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi; MKs Amram Mitzna and Meir Sheetrit; Indian restaurateurs Reena and Vinod Pushkarna; Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom; former Foreign Ministry chiefs of protocol Mordechai Palzur and Yitzhak Eldan, who has just been elected to the board of governors of the Jewish Agency; US Reps. from Florida Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican) and Ted Deutch (Democrat); hi-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi; Rabbi Michael Melchior, a leading international figure in interfaith dialogue; Ruti Wasserman-Lande, deputy director-general for international affairs at the Union of Local Authorities; Israel Museum Director James Snyder; and many others.
The invitation gave guests the option of business or casual attire and while many men sweltered in business suits, Mitzna and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz opted for sports shirts sans jacket and tie. Shimon Peres was appearing for the last time at an American Independence Day reception in the role of president, though he will undoubtedly be invited again every year for the rest of his life. He will also be making a similar adieu next week at the Bastille Day reception hosted by French Ambassador Patrick Maisonneuve.
At the American reception, Peres said he has known 10 sitting US presidents, from John F. Kennedy onwards. His personal acquaintance with the presidents of France is almost on par, but time-wise goes back even further, starting with Charles de Gaulle – though his greatest personal friendship was with François Mitterrand, who once delayed having surgery because Peres was coming to dinner.
Both Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu heaped praise on Shapiro, describing him as an excellent ambassador.
Indeed, because of his fluency in Hebrew and Arabic and his well-rounded Jewish education – including the ability to read from the Torah – Shapiro fits comfortably into any sector of society in Israel, and there were many video clips of his travels throughout the country that proved the extent to which he has integrated into all strata of society.
Peres, as he tends to do on such occasions, dwelt on what America has given the world and talked a little about history, causing Netanyahu to remark: “President Peres, when you talk about history, you need to add that you are a part of that history.”
■ BESTSELLING ISRAELI author Amos Oz is somehow overlooked time and again by the jury of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but he is highly valued by the American Association of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev – which has established the Amos Oz Initiative for Literature and Culture.
Oz, who in addition to all his other roles is a professor emeritus at BGU, has lived for many years in Arad. The multi-year program for the initiative, made possible by funding provided by Toni and Stuart B. Young of Wilmington, Delaware, will enrich the community’s engagement in literature and culture while providing a forum for discussion and learning with students and faculty, to strengthen and educate communities and development towns in southern Israel.
“I am a writer, and I believe literature is a great way to communicate and better understand what makes a society function,” said Toni Young. “We’ve always wanted to do more for the people of Arad, and we believe the Amos Oz Initiative will help the city while also promoting BGU’s Hebrew literature program.”
The initiative will include an annual conference on literature and culture in Arad, research prizes and additional programming to foster a greater connection between BGU and the Arad community.
BGU’s Department of Hebrew Literature and Heksherim: The Research Institute for the Study of Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture will implement the programs.
[email protected]