Grapevine July 21, 2021: Who owns a religion?

Movers and shakers in Israeli society

FRENCH PARLIAMENTARY delegation at an iron dome site in the south (photo credit: HANAN BAR ASSOULINE)
FRENCH PARLIAMENTARY delegation at an iron dome site in the south
(photo credit: HANAN BAR ASSOULINE)
Shortly before Tisha Be’av a delegation of Rabbinical Assembly leaders of the Conservative-Masorti Movement, including leaders from other Conservative institutions such as United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Mercaz USA, Masorti Israel, Masorti Foundation, and Masorti/Mercaz Olami, met with President Isaac Herzog, and spoke of their shared connection with movement institutions, the hope of greater success for the Masorti Movement in Israel and the strengthening of religious pluralism.
That hope was somehow dashed at the Western Wall on Saturday night, the eve of Tisha Be’av, when religious extremists tried to prevent an egalitarian service conducted by Conservative and Reform Jews.
The delegation that met with Herzog included: Heidi Schneider, board chairwoman of the Masorti Foundation; Sophie Fellman Rafalovitz, president of Masorti Israel; Ashira Konigsburg, chief operating officer of the Rabbinical Assembly; Ned Gladstein, president of USCJ; Gideon Aronoff, executive director of Masorti Israel; Sarrae G. Crane, executive director of Mercaz USA; Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; Rakefet Ginsberg, executive director of Masorti Israel; Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive officer of the Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ; Mauricio Balter, executive director of Masorti Olami and Mercaz Olami; Shuly Rubin Schwartz, chancellor of JTS; Tehila Reuben, deputy director of Masorti Olami and Mercaz Olami; Stewart L. Vogel, president of the Rabbinical Assembly; Yizhar Hess, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization; and Mikie Goldstein, president of Rabbinical Assembly, Israel region.
The delegation also met with a number of MKs and ministers at the Knesset to advocate for religious pluralism. During these meetings the members heard an inside take on the status of the new government from legislators of both the coalition and the opposition.
■ HERZOG SENT a message of condolence to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stating that he agreed with him that the challenge of global warming, which contributed to the calamity, which has cost so many lives in Germany and other parts of Europe, “requires us all to make a special effort.”
■ AMBASSADOR TO Germany Jeremy Issacharoff, who was among the first to tweet condolences to the German government and people, wrote: “Deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and the reports of missing persons in Nordrhein Westfalen, Rhineland Pfalz and Saarland as a result of torrential rain and flooding. Our profound condolences to the families of the victims.”
German Ambassador Susanne Wasum-Rainer tweeted how moved she was by the many expressions of solidarity and numerous offers of help.

■ LIKUD MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat flew to America last week to lobby against the proposed reopening in Jerusalem of the American Consulate-General, which served as the diplomatic representative to the Palestinians until it was closed by former US president Donald Trump when the US Embassy was transferred to Jerusalem in 2018.
International lawyer Alan Baker, who is director of the international law program at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry and a former ambassador to Canada, contends that if the Americans want to have a consulate-general serving the Palestinians, it should be in Ramallah.
The Americans have many offices all over the place, and one suspects that the main objection to the reopening of the consulate-general on Agron Street may be because its address is in what is technically west Jerusalem.
When the writer of this column received her first American visa in her Israeli passport, she didn’t have to go to Tel Aviv where the embassy was then located. There was a consular office in the vicinity of the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, which served both Palestinians and Israelis. That area and its immediate surrounds is almost entirely Arab. One has to cross the broad main road to reach the Jewish area of Mea She’arim.
The website of the US Embassy contains details of the history of the building that housed the American Consulate-General on Agron Street.
“President John Tyler appointed the first US consul to Jerusalem in 1844. A permanent consular presence was established in 1857, in a building just inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. That building today houses the Swedish Christian Study Center.
“The mission moved to a second site on Prophets’ Street, a few blocks outside the Old City, in the late 19th century, before relocating in 1912 to the current location on 18 Agron Road, one of several locations the embassy uses in Jerusalem.
“The building on 18 Agron Road was built in 1868 by the German Lutheran missionary Ferdinand Vester, whose family and associates built many of the Arab-style homes in Jerusalem (particularly in the nearby German Colony), as well as what is now the American Colony Hotel. The building was one of the first houses constructed outside the Old City walls, built at the same time that Moses Montefiore founded the housing area of Yemin Moshe outside the Old City.
“The United States bought the property in the 1930s. Since then, this building and the many US diplomats who have lived here over the years have borne witness to historic events in a city that is not only home to hundreds of thousands of Jerusalemites from various ethnic and religious backgrounds but is sacred to billions more throughout the world.
“In 2006, the US government expanded its presence on Agron Road with a lease of an adjacent building for its administrative and public affairs offices. The building, a monastery of the Congregation of the Mission, also known as the Lazarists, was built in the 1860s and still houses a small group of Lazarist clergy.
“The walls of both buildings on Agron Road are built of the distinctive Red Slayeb stone typical of many of Jerusalem’s historic buildings. Roman arch windows and doorways add to their architectural beauty.”
■ UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Minister of State for Water and Food Security Mariam Al Mheiri truly made the most of her visit to Israel last week. It was a genuine study tour for her, during which she met academics, diplomats, agronomists, scientists and more. In conjunction with the Foreign Ministry and the HaShomer HaChadash association, she visited the Arava Regional Council and was hosted by its chairman, Meir Tzur, with whom she discussed collaborative research into food, water and innovative agricultural development using the latest technologies.
Yoel Zilberman, founder and CEO of HaShomer HaChadash, welcomed the growing partnerships between the UAE and Israel, saying that they would not only pave the way for global food security, but would inspire a new technologically savvy generation to strive for even greater agricultural achievements.
In the course of the visit, the minister and her entourage also toured the Adam V’Adama agricultural school which is under the aegis of HaShomer HaChadash. She enjoyed talking to the students, and was pleasantly surprised to learn how many of them had long yearned for careers in agriculture, either as farmers in the field or as researchers. She was also introduced to HaShomer’s SunDo app which links farmers to field volunteers and also provides solutions for what to do with surplus produce rather than destroy it.
Following her meeting with Israeli students, the minister was introduced to foreign students who are studying at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, which is located in the Central Arava Regional Council in the south of the country, close to the Jordanian border. They told her about what they’re doing in R & D and how it will be helpful to them after they return to their home countries.
■ ANOTHER AREA in which the UAE is interested in cooperating with Israel is in space exploration and travel. Last week, a delegation of G42, headed by Talal M. Al Kaissi, vice president of the company’s space program, came to Israel to meet with government officials and senior personnel engaged in one way or another in SpaceIL’s Beresheet 2 project, including chairman and mega philanthropist Morris Kahn, who believes in the old maxim of if at first you don’t succeed – try, try again.
Kahn, whose name is associated with numerous scientific, technological, medical and nature projects in Israel, is the key investor in SpaceIL, which in 2019 hoped to land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon. Even though the spacecraft crashed on the moon, the mission was seen as a success, in that the spacecraft reached its destination. Somewhat disappointed but undeterred, Kahn and his colleagues opted for another attempt, which is scheduled for 2024, with a huge technological and monetary injection from G42. In other words, the now accelerated project will be a joint Israeli-UAE venture.
Talal Al Kaissi spent two years at the UAE Space Agency as an adviser to the director-general on strategic projects. One of his core duties was supporting the activation of the UAE Space Agency investment promotion plan, and the development of a holistic national space economy with an emphasis on attracting space start-ups and investments to the UAE. He also provided strategic support to both the Policy & Regulatory Directorate, as well as Space Missions Management Directorate, and serves as the UAE representative to the World Economic Forum Council on Space Technology. Prior to joining the Space Agency, he spent nine years at the UAE Embassy in Washington as senior adviser for commercial affairs at the UAE Trade & Commercial Office and also led US/UAE space affairs.
■ COMPANIES AND individuals are increasingly joining the race to the moon to establish permanent infrastructure on the lunar surface. One of the main challenges is the extraordinary cost of sending anything from earth to the moon. Among the most sought-after materials to be used in cislunar space is oxygen, mainly to refuel rockets and spacecrafts, as it constitutes over 70% of the propellant weight. It is believed in several scientific circles that being able to produce oxygen on the moon is a principal key to sustaining the expansion of humanity beyond earth.
It is with this belief that Israeli start-up Helios, backed by the Israel Space Agency at the Science and Technology Ministry, plans to join Japan-based ispace’s second and third missions to the lunar surface to demonstrate its technology to produce oxygen and metals.
According Helios’s co-founder and CEO, Jonathan Geifman, “The technology we are developing is part of the value chain that enables the establishment of permanent bases away from earth. In order not to have to endlessly transport equipment to the lunar station and causing life outside of earth to operate under restrictive constraints, we need to look at things through the prism of infrastructure that can produce materials from natural resources.”
Japanese Ambassador Mizushima Koichi, hosted a signing ceremony between the Israeli and Japanese companies to establish the initial agreement, in the form of two memoranda of understandings, in which ispace may deliver Helios’s technology to the lunar surface on board ispace’s lander by the end of 2023 and mid-2024.
Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, said, “Utilizing the resources on the moon is the natural conclusion, and would lead to large economic impact for a cislunar ecosystem and eventually the sustainability of the earth.
■ A HEARTWARMING notice in the weekly newsletter of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagles Rock in Los Angeles, California, reads:
“If you or someone you know needs financial assistance due to Covid-related difficulties, the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has given us a grant through their Nourishment Fund to provide support during this time. The funds are for food, rent, medical bills and similar items. For a confidential discussion, please email”
UTJ MK Meir Porush, who last month compared Reform Jews to pigs, might be interested in another item in the newsletter, which states:
“The Amidah is one of the most central prayers in Judaism – recited by Jews across the world at least three times per day for millennia – yet many of us have not taken the time to carefully wade through this complex series of prayers. On July 24, we will have our inaugural TBI community led class taught by TBI board member and ritual and adult education committee cochair, Griffen Thorne, who will explore the history of the Amidah, its rituals, and the overall structure of the Amidah and its individual prayers. For TBI members of all levels of experience with the Amidah, this will be a course you won’t want to miss.
“The symbolic starting date of the course is between Tisha Be’av, which commemorates how destructive baseless hatred can be, and Tu Be’av, the festival of love.”
Hopefully, Porush will get the message
■ VETERAN ACTOR, comedian and singer Shlomo Baraba is entering a new phase in his career. Beginning this week, Baraba is starring in the Yiddishpiel production Heimishe Mainses (Homely Stories) – meaning they’re not sophisticated but are simple yet amusing anecdotes that emanate from the lives of the less affluent members of society.
Baraba will be talking and singing in Yiddish, something he’s never done before, though he did grow up in a Yiddish-speaking household, so the language is not entirely alien to him.
The show is something in the nature of a Yiddish cabaret, and will bring a flood of passing emotions to audiences. Currently in its running-in phase, the show, written and edited by Kobi Luria, costars Chen Bar and Hilit Deitsch Shani, who work well with Baraba. The Asner brothers are responsible for direction and musical arrangements.
The show officially premiers in August, and will be accompanied by Hebrew and Russian translations, illuminated above the stage.
Baraba’s grandfather, in whose memory he was named, was chief rabbi of Lodz, Poland, but his father was totally secular. By appearing in the Yiddishpiel production, Baraba is somehow trying to be a bridge between the two.
■ IT’S NOT unusual for theater folk to perform in two or more different productions during the same season. Between his Yiddishpiel appearances, Baraba and Moni Moshonov, with whom he appeared in the successful comeback of Zehu Ze! are currently performing in The Comedians at the Haifa Theater and are already discussing future productions.
Life is not fair. Actors can keep working for the whole of their lives, if their minds and bodies are up to it. Judges can keep working till age 70. But people in their late 50s and early 60s who lost their jobs during the pandemic are considered unemployable because they are “too old.” Experience and ability apparently count for nothing. Moshonov, by the way, will celebrate his 70th birthday on August 18.
■ WHILE YIDDISHPIEL seems to be going from strength to strength, Yung Yidish, which is arguably the keeper of Israel’s largest collection of Yiddish books, newspapers, manuscripts, sheet music, recordings, et al., is in danger of losing its home at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.
There has long been talk of destroying the building, which is regarded by many as an architectural travesty. The old central bus station down the road apiece had become overcrowded. It functioned from 1941 to 1993, serving both local and intercity bus routes, but as new cities and towns sprung up with accompanying new bus routes, the single story terminal could not accommodate so many additions. The eight story terminal that replaced it has floors that are completely empty and in every respect a waste of space. It also has a sprawling intercity floor on which there are no attendants at the information counter, and passengers seeking a particular bus have no one in authority to ask where to find it.
In the midst of all this are ethnic beauty parlors, as well as food and clothing stores serving the needs of migrant workers who live in the area.
In addition, on the fifth floor in studio 5008 in the artists’ compound, Mendy Cahan, the founder of Yung Yidish, and CEO Eli Benedict, together with numerous young volunteers who have developed a yearning for mama loshen, have created not only a library and a Yiddish cabaret theater but also what looks like a segment of a shtetl. It’s not just the furniture and the furnishings. It’s the general ambience, which Cahan introduced when he first launched Yung Yidish in a Jerusalem cellar a few doors away from the former premises of The Jerusalem Post in the capital’s Romema neighborhood. His concerts were always accompanied by a glass of schnapps, a piece of herring, a bowl of cholent, a pickled cucumber, and other traditional delicacies, which all contributed to the shtetl atmosphere. Not only that, but the regulars included ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jews who had moved away from Orthodoxy, but who still had a strong feeling for Yiddish. They all mingled without rancor in the crowded confines of the cellar, along w
ith secular people, and didn’t block their ears to the sound of a woman singing.
But the cellar was definitely too small to hold everything that Cahan collected from deceased estates, or from offspring of people who could no longer read. The offspring, knowing what Yiddish literature meant to their parents, couldn’t bear to throw out the books and the yellowing newspapers, so they called Cahan, who happily took everything that was offered. When the opportunity presented itself to move to larger premises in Tel Aviv, Cahan jumped at the chance because he had so much stuff in storage that he wanted to bring out to the light of day – and eventually he did – in numerous bookcases and on tables. Among the thousands of books that he has collected are some priceless volumes which are more than 100 years old. Cahan doesn’t know where he would go if the bus station is eventually destroyed.
Meanwhile, Benedict has mounted a petition to save Yiddish, and stands in places like Habimah Square and the square leading to the Tel Aviv Museum to get people to sign it. The Tel Aviv Museum has empty space in its corridors, and perhaps it could house Yung Yidish for approximately five years, until new permanent premises can be found. It would be a good location, because the museum is adjacent to the Beit Ariela Public Library and archives. Perhaps some off-the-wall tycoon would see fit to build a Yiddish cabaret and culture hotel, with nightly performances of Yiddish songs and theater.
It’s been said before and bears repeating. Yiddish is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s in revival mode, and is in need of just a little help from its friends.
■ IT APPEARS that of the veteran broadcasters who were targeted for removal from the program lineup on KAN, historian Yitzhak Noy was given a reprieve and is still on the air, possibly because of his somewhat eccentric, unique style of broadcasting. Back on air with a nostalgia program about anything and everything related to the 1950s is another veteran, Menachem Perry, 75, who has not lost any of the zest of his younger days.
■ BONA FIDE tourists may still be hesitant about coming to Israel, but official delegations apparently have no such qualms. Hot on the heels of a diplomatic delegation whose members have been posted to Washington or to the United Nations in New York is a delegation of approximately 40 French parliamentarians, who arrived in Israel as part of an initiative from nonprofit, nonpartisan organization ELNET, in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry.
Representing a broad political spectrum, the delegation is meeting with Israel’s new political leadership to discuss Israel-France relations and the mutual interests of Europe and Israel.
In addition to exchanging views with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett early this week, the delegation visited the South, where it received a security briefing on the site of the Iron Dome and met with Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi and local residents, who spoke of what it is like to live under constant threat of terrorism and missiles.
■ FORMER AUSTRALIAN ambassador Dave Sharma, who is now a Liberal parliamentarian, and Josh Burns, who is a Labor parliamentarian who happens to be Jewish, last week participated in a Zoom conference of the Interparliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.
Sharma, who fell in love with Israel during his posting here, continued to maintain contact with Zionist organizations and the Jewish community in general following his return to Australia, and has been an outspoken advocate for Israel.
Among the other participants in the conference was Canadian Minister of Parliament Anthony Housefather, who later said at a press conference: “I have never in my lifetime seen the levels of antisemitism as I have in recent weeks. I used to think that hate online was just another form of hate,” he continued. “I’ve learned through this task force it’s not just a form of hate, but a form of disinformation – a unique type of disinformation we need to combat.”