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Monday, July 18, 2016

Natchez tricentennial focus of SJHS annual conference

B'nai Israel, Natchez

This year, Natchez is celebrating its 300th birthday, and as part of the celebration the Southern Jewish Historical Society will hold its annual convention in Natchez, “Jews in the Southern Hinterland.”

The conference will be Nov. 4 to 6, starting in Jackson with an optional tour to Vicksburg and Port Gibson. A tour bus will leave Jackson at 9 a.m. for Anshe Chesed and the Jewish cemetery in Vicksburg, followed by lunch at the B’nai B’rith Literary Club building.

The group will then head to Natchez, stopping in Port Gibson to visit the historic Moorish-style Gemiluth Chassed building. A non-touring bus will leave the Jackson airport for Natchez at 1 p.m.

At 3:15 p.m., there will be a welcome event at Temple B’nai Israel in Natchez, with a history of the community given by Teri Tillman and Jennifer Stollman.

After dinner at Rolling River Bistro, there will be Shabbat services at B’nai Israel, led by Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Robin Amer will give the keynote address, “Growing Up with the Last Jews of Natchez.”

There will be a series of panel discussions on Nov. 5, starting with “Standing on Ceremony: Jews and Gentiles in the South.”

“Acts of God: Responding to Epidemics and Disasters in Southern Jewish Communities” will discuss Yellow Fever, the flooding of Bayou Sara, La., and Marlene Trestman’s research on the children who lived at the New Orleans Jewish Orphans Home from 1856 to 1946.

Lunch will be at Carriage Hall, with Steve Whitfield speaking on “Jews Against the Ku Klux Klan,” with an introduction by Macy Hart.

The afternoon discussion will be on “Family History and Jews in the South.” After a membership meeting, there will be optional Natchez tours, including a Jewish Natchez tour with Tillman and Mimi Miller, visiting the Jewish cemetery, Under the Bluff, and historic homes that used to belong to Jewish merchants.

Other tours include the William Johnson House, Grady Photography Collection at First Presbyterian Church, Longwood Home and Melrose Plantation.

On Nov. 6, the opening discussion will be “Southern Synagogues and the Gentile World,” followed by “Diaries and Memoirs from the Jewish South” moderated by Dale Rosengarten and Adam Meyer.

The buses will depart for Jackson at 12:30 p.m.

Accommodations are available on Nov. 3 at the Hilton Jackson, and during the conference at the Natchez Grand Hotel.

Registration information is available here.

Natchez tricentennial focus of SJHS annual conference

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Birmingham's connection to Yaacov Agam on display

Mazel Tov Rainbow, 1993, from the private collection of James Altherr and Perry Umphrey

Birmingham’s relationship to famed Israeli artist Yaacov Agam is explored in an exhibit currently on display at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

“Yaacov Agam: Metamorphic” features over 30 small works by Agam, entirely from private collections in the Birmingham area. The exhibition highlights works spanning multiple decades with a strong emphasis on Agam’s popular Agamograph technique, which utilizes lenticular printing to create different images in a single artwork when viewed from multiple angles.

Agam visited Birmingham last summer to sign “Complex Vision,” his work on the front of the Callahan Eye Hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, just blocks from AEIVA. Originally installed in 1976, “Complex Vision” was disassembled in 2014 for a year-long restoration project.

The AEIVA exhibit will be displayed through Aug. 20. It is curated by John Fields, and supported in part by Judy and Hal Abroms and AEIVA members.

Birmingham's connection to Yaacov Agam on display

Friday, July 1, 2016

Indicted Iberia Parish Sheriff apparently makes anti-Semitic threats regarding Jewish prosecutor

Sheriff Louis Ackal (photo from Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office)

The Sheriff of Iberia Parish in Southern Louisiana reportedly was taped making anti-Semitic threats regarding a federal prosecutor assigned to a case against him.

Sheriff Louis Ackal was charged on March 9 with “civil rights violations arising out of the beatings of five pre-trial detainees at the Iberia Parish Jail (IPJ) on April 29, 2011,” according to Department of Justice filings.

“The indictment alleges that Ackal and (Lieutenant Colonel Gerald) Savoy conspired with each other and with other officers to assault five inmates… and that members of the conspiracy failed to intervene and stop the assaults.”

On June 9, the Department of Justice indicted Ackal and two others with civil rights violations in the beatings of two men. It charged him “with one count of conspiracy against rights for conspiring in the spring of 2014 to assault a man who had been arrested on battery charges for allegedly assaulting one of Ackal’s relatives.”

Nine other former Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office employees have entered guilty pleas in related cases.

According to court documents filed on June 29, Ackal apparently referred to Mark Blumberg, a Justice Department lawyer from Washington who met with Ackal, a “sorry son-of-a-bitch Jew bastard” and said Blumberg had threatened to throw him “to a federal pen” if he did not cooperate.

In a secretly-recorded conversation referenced in the filing, Ackal recalled mention of a possible deal for information by saying he told prosecutors the only thing he would give them was to “f-ing shoot you right between your g-d-ed Jewish eyes, look-like-opossum bastard.”

The meeting with prosecutors took place before the March 9 indictment. The recorded conversations were apparently provided by an “unsolicited informant” and are thought to be from mid-March. The tapes were turned over in late April.

The transcripts led to the Department of Justice seeking more limits on Ackal while he awaits trial. Currently, the only major condition is that he not possess a firearm.

Ackal faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine for each violation. The trial is scheduled to start on Oct. 31.

As of July 1, Ackal’s attorney, John McLindon, said he had not received a copy of the recordings and would not comment until he does, but is curious as to their origin.

Indicted Iberia Parish Sheriff apparently makes anti-Semitic threats regarding Jewish prosecutor

Thursday, June 30, 2016

After cemetery disagreement, City of Birmingham passes funds for Holocaust memorial

A 2014 preliminary sketch for Birmingham's planned Holocaust memorial

A routine funding request before the Birmingham City Council regarding a planned Holocaust memorial in Birmingham passed unanimously on June 28 — but the week before was anything but routine when the item first came up.

The item before the Council called for a $45,500 allocation, transferred from the Mayor’s Office, Professional Fees for Youth Services budget to a non-departmental capital improvement fund, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016.

The memorial is being planned by the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center for a “small pocket park” along 19th Street between Third Avenue North and the alley to the north. A BHEC fundraising campaign is planned to raise the estimated $550,000 cost privately; the city funding was to remove existing structures and clear the site.

The city’s Design Review Committee reviewed and approved a conceptual design for the memorial in 2014. It has a “Make a Change” theme with a walkway from the Fountain of Change, a floating granite sphere, to a focal art piece. A sculptural wall along a pathway between the two will have educational panels on the effects of prejudice and stories of heroism.

According to City Council records from June 28, the Council’s delay from June 21 was “so that Councilors could gain a full understanding of the funding source for this project and obtain information on the non-profit organization that is responsible for overseeing it.”

At the June 21 meeting, after the item was introduced, Councilor Sheila Tyson questioned if the memorial was “for dead people,” because she had tried to get city funding for Shadow Lawn cemetery and was told that was not permitted. “I thought we couldn’t give money to Shadow Lawn. What’s the difference?… Dead is dead.”

Tyson then said the money she wanted to go to Shadow Lawn was going to a non-profit, and “Shadow Lawn is doing the same thing they’re doing.”

Shadow Lawn, an African-American cemetery, is located just south of Elmwood Cemetery and is in Tyson’s district. It dates back to the 1930s and has over 100 Civil War veterans, and Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather. The cemetery went bankrupt in 2000, and a non-profit association took over in 2005. For years, Tyson has sought city assistance for the cemetery.

At the meeting, Tyson erroneously referred to Shadow Lawn as the oldest cemetery in the city, the state and even the nation at different points during her questioning.

Thomas Bentley, a deputy city attorney whose parents are buried at Shadow Lawn, said “the distinction is based not upon the fact that there are memorials in Shadow Lawn and this is a memorial, the distinction may be based upon Shadow Lawn is an entity of the transaction of private business whereas this type of memorial is what the courts call government speak, it’s an expression of the city about remembering something.”

Assistant City Attorney Jim Stanley called the memorial an economic development project. “Other cities have these types of memorials and are listed as tourist attractions.”

Tyson said she did not see a difference between Shadow Lawn and the planned Holocaust memorial, then said “I see the difference now… but I am going to leave that right there.”

Councilor Lashunda Scales then started her remarks by saying “I know the difference. The difference is the haves and the have nots. I understand.”

Scales asked whether the site would be a Holocaust memorial or a cemetery. When asking why the funds were coming from youth services, she said “I respect my Jewish brothers and sisters. We share a similar story” but said teaching the city’s youth about their past, through visits to places like Arlington and the Civil Rights Institute, is a priority. “I don’t have a problem remembering my Jewish brothers and sisters. I have a problem when we don’t remember our own, and we get the results we do.”

Councilor Valerie Abbott asked about the unfinished Sept. 11 memorial and whether it was in the same place. The Sept. 11 memorial is in the second half of the block, north of the planned space for the Holocaust memorial.

Councilor Steven Hoyt suggested the city provide a memorial at the entrance to Shadow Lawn, which would be permissible for the city to do.

The proposal was tabled for a week so more information could be gathered as to the rationale for the funding shift, and to get more information on BHEC. Scales said she would like to see who “this non-profit has on the board because this will be very telling.”

The BHEC was “surprised and disappointed” by the misunderstandings at the June 21 meeting.

In a statement, BHEC Executive Director Rebecca Dobrinski said the memorial would teach the universal lessons of the consequences of prejudice and hate. “That is the lesson of the Holocaust,” and one which ties into the nearby Civil Rights District.

In the days that followed, members of the Jewish community quietly reached out to members of the Council to answer questions, and the item passed unanimously on June 28.

In the days after the June 21 meeting, Tyson especially took umbrage at a column in the Birmingham News by John Archibald, accusing her of playing the race card and demeaning the Holocaust with the “dead is dead” comment, which was in the headline.

As a “retired, disabled veteran of the U.S. Army,” Tyson said she was “drilled to understand that we were not trained and deployed to take lives, but instead to protect life, and freedom, and justice.” With that, “when it is made to appear that I do not understand scope and tragedy of the Holocaust, I became angry” and felt a need to “set the record straight.”

She noted the Holocaust was “a man-made atrocity of unimaginable proportions,” but her question was about “how and why do we choose whom we memorialize, Shadow Lawn Memorial or the Holocaust Memorial?” She added, “I support both.”

Her intent is not to compare human suffering,” she said, but “here in America — and especially, the Deep South, both home to centuries of slavery and suffering, it remains a mystery to me why we do not publicly recognize our own sin of slavery in the same ways we seek to do for the actions of others.”

Shadow Lawn “is the final resting place of some who survived slavery, and others who struggled through Jim Crow and the regularity of terrorist bombings of homes and churches — dozens of which happened in this City alone,” she said. For years the city legal department has “shooed away” her requests for Shadow Lawn.

Because of that, “I will be clear: I support the use of public funds for the Holocaust memorial. However, I will only vote to allocate these funds when we are provided with clear guidance about the law pertaining to funding memorials,” she said.

Her response was given between the June 21 and June 28 meetings.

According to Mark Kelly, publisher of Weld for Birmingham, the Birmingham News refused to print Tyson’s response unless Tyson rewrote it to say she had “misstated her case” and not “transfer blame” to Archibald or the Birmingham News.

Scales did not respond to a request from SJL for comments.

After cemetery disagreement, City of Birmingham passes funds for Holocaust memorial

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New Orleans NCJW applauds court ruling on Texas abortion laws

The New Orleans Section of the National Council of Jewish Women applauded the June 27 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas law that was “designed to close abortion clinics” and spoke of its ramifications for Louisiana.

In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the 5-3 ruling struck down a provision that required all abortion providers to obtain local hospital admitting privileges. A similar law was passed in Louisiana in 2014, but it was blocked by a federal judge.

In late February, the Fifth Circuit granted an emergency request by Louisiana’s Attorney General to overrule the lower court, allowing the law to take effect, and leaving only two clinics open, each with only one provider meeting the requirements. The same week in March that it heard oral arguments in the Texas case, the Supreme Court stepped in to block Louisiana’s law, allowing clinics to reopen.

The Louisiana admitting privileges law remains enjoined as a result of the Supreme Court’s action, but the parties will need to brief and argue the merits of the case to the Fifth Circuit Court as the facts in the Louisiana case are unique, but Section leaders are hopeful the ruling will lead to Louisiana’s law being overturned.

“The Supreme Court strongly affirmed that a woman deserves compassion, respect, and dignity in making her own health decisions without barriers imposed by politicians with a religious agenda,” stated Michelle Erenberg, Louisiana Policy Advocate for NCJW. “The ruling is an important first step in dismantling medically unnecessary laws designed to make it harder for women end a pregnancy, but Louisiana’s lawmakers are likely to continue to promote policies that assert one religious point of view over the right of women to make their health decisions based on her own faith and in consultation with her doctor.”

The Louisiana legislature passed several new laws this session that will affect abortion access, from tripling the state-imposed waiting period to banning the most common and safest second-trimester procedure. Reproductive rights advocates testified that these laws were likely to face costly court challenges, but, even with the state budget crisis, legislators were not deterred.

"National Council of Jewish Women, in New Orleans and across the country advocates for the well being of women, children and families. Our advocacy includes ensuring women have access to reproductive health care, including the ability to access a safe and legal abortion. The Supreme Court ruling is a landmark decision for women in Texas, Louisiana and across the nation," said Susan Kierr, president of the NCJW Greater New Orleans Section.

New Orleans NCJW applauds court ruling on Texas abortion laws

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bigger Numbers, High Involvement for Birmingham Jewish Community

After a couple decades of figuring that Birmingham’s Jewish community numbered around 5,300, a newly-released study estimates the area’s Jewish population at 6,300, with 2,600 Jewish households.

A Jewish household was defined as any household where at least one adult identifies as Jewish.

In 2014, Birmingham’s Jewish agencies and congregations started the process that led to the study, developing a combined file of household information from all organizations, and the survey itself.

The file was completed in October 2015, and the survey took place in November and December 2015. Results were released to the public in late June.

Aside from the population figure, the study came up with numerous surprises. While it is often assumed that a large proportion of people in the Birmingham Jewish community are natives, the study found that only 21 percent of the households are headed by a lifelong Birmingham resident, and another 18 percent are from other parts of the state.

Seven percent of Birmingham’s Jews were born outside the United States. Of the 54 percent born in the United States but outside Alabama, 36 percent have been in Birmingham fewer than 10 years.

There were three clear divisions in responses by age, but in most cases it was the oldest and youngest respondents — ages 50 and above, and ages 20 to 39 — that demonstrated the highest levels of Jewish involvement, with lower levels among ages 40 to 49.

Three-fourths of those surveyed are married or partnered, with 66 percent having a Jewish spouse or partner, 19 percent married or partnered to a Christian, and 12 percent to someone who is non-religious.

In households with children, 79 percent are being raised Jewish and 10 percent are raised part-Jewish and part-other. Eighty-six percent receive some formal Jewish education, though just 16 percent are in the Jewish Day School.

It is estimated that 74 percent of Birmingham Jewish households have a synagogue or temple membership, with 40 percent attending services at least once a month.

The study showed that 90 percent of the community can be found in 14 zip codes, almost entirely Over the Mountain. Over half continue to reside in three zip codes that have been home to the bulk of the community for decades — the Mountain Brook zip codes of 35223 and 35213, labeled “Birmingham’s Jewish Legacy” in the study, and 35243.

The next highest figure is further out Highway 280, in zip code 35242, “Transplants with Jewish Heritage.” That is followed by areas of Birmingham’s Southside, “Young Jewish Adults,” and Irondale and Homewood. The Vestavia and Hoover areas are listed as “Next Generation Jewish Families,” including the 35243 zip code that includes parts of Mountain Brook and Vestavia.

Eighty-nine percent of those who identify as Jewish consider themselves Jewish religiously, 5 percent say they are non-religious. Three percent say they are Jewish and another religion, 3 percent say they are another religion. Five percent say they converted to Judaism.

Ninety-six percent said they are proud to be Jewish, and 88 percent have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Affiliation with Jewish organizations and having Jewish friends were important to 78 percent, but just 24 percent say it is important to live in a Jewish neighborhood, and 17 percent keep some level of kashrut in their homes.

Attachment to Israel is high in Birmingham, with 85 percent saying they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. Two-thirds of Birmingham Jews have been to Israel or were born there, with 8 percent having visited more than 10 times.

In a question clearly aimed at assessing community social priorities, the most pressing needs were counseling for a family member and help with mental illness in the home or family. Major future needs are in-home care for an aging family member and a long-term residential setting for a family member.

Six percent are primary caregivers for someone else in the community, while 2 percent are primary caregivers for someone outside the Birmingham area.

Compared to the 2013 Pew Study of Jewish Americans, Birmingham Jews are more likely to identify being Jewish by religion, “consistent with higher levels of religious identity in the South,” much more likely to have a graduate-level degree, live in the suburbs and have an attachment to Israel.

Birmingham Jews are less intermarried than the national average — 34 percent, versus 44 percent nationally, but slightly less likely to be raising children as Jewish.

Synagogue affiliation in Birmingham is twice the national average, and affiliation with other Jewish organizations is four times the national average.

Freeform responses included frustration by newcomers on an inability to penetrate what is seen as a tight-knit, “cliquish” community, and a perception of preference given to heavy-hitters in the community.

Competition among institutions for scarce resources, “turf wars” and questions of institutional ability to adapt to rapid change in the Jewish world also were raised. Collaborative Jewish learning opportunities were urged.

The entire study can be viewed online here.

Bigger Numbers, High Involvement for Birmingham Jewish Community

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Rosh Ha'Ayin-NOLA Relationship Shines at P2G 20th Kickoff

Jason Marsalis, Matt Lemmler and Martin Masakowski perform in Rosh Ha’Ayin

Rosh Ha’Ayin and its partnership with New Orleans had the opportunity to shine before the world in April, as Partnership2Gether started its 20th anniversary Israel mission with a jazz party and dinner by New Orleans chefs in Israel’s self-declared city of music.

The Partnership2Gether Mega-Event began on April 4, with about 43 communities from around the world participating.

Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans Executive Director Michael Weil said P2G is “the grandchild of Project Renewal,” which began in the late 1970s by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Under Project Renewal, neglected development towns in Israel were paired with Jewish communities around the world in an effort to spark revitalization.

Rosh Ha’Ayin was also paired with Birmingham under Project Renewal, the two now have a formal sister city relationship.

Weil said P2G is more of a “people to people approach” in bringing Israelis together with members of Jewish communities around the world.

About 600 attended the opening party, held outside the Rosh Ha’Ayin Music Conservatory. Jason Marsalis, Matt Lemmler and Martin Masakowski headlined the concert, while the chefs on the trip were Zachary Engel, chef de cuisine of Shaya, and Chris Lusk, executive chef of the soon-to-reopen Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel.

In 2014, Lemmler was one of the musicians for Music Over Sirens benefit in New Orleans for the emergency campaign for Israel during the Gaza operation.

After the long flight to Israel, Engel and Lusk headed straight to Rosh Ha’Ayin, where a large tent was set up outside the Conservatory for them to prepare New Orleans and Israeli specialties.

“It was kind of wild — you are dazed from the plane and you have all this food to cook, the time is flying by and you become conscious again” as the crowds come in to be fed, Engel said.

The menu included New Orleans dishes, such as gumbo and jambalaya, and Israeli standards.

Weil said “people didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to get on the buses.”

Lis Kahn credited “our very strong and very hard-working partners in Rosh Ha’Ayin who worked very hard to make sure we had it” there.

For the next three days, the mission toured partnership communities from Nahariya and Bet Shean to Ashkelon. While Kahn said they like to think of the New Orleans-Rosh Ha’Ayin partnership as the best in existence, on the mission they did see “there are many others that have great relationships and do many things.”

Ana Gershanik, on her first trip to Israel in 17 years and traveling with her son, Esteban, on his first visit, said the country seemed “much more sophisticated” than 17 years earlier.

She said they visited “Keshet Eilon Music Center in Kibbutz Eilon, devoted to training young violinists, and Kibbutz Ga’aton, with a fantastic Contemporary Dance Company that travels around the world; Galilee Medical Center with Israel’s first Underground Emergency Department; a school in Kiryat Gat where we danced and interacted with the children; the Etgarim organization for children and adults with disabilities; a community garden for Ethiopian families and Moshav Netiv Ha’asarah, 400 meters from Gaza where we pasted colorful mosaic pieces embedded with our personal prayers at the decorated wall surrounding the Moshav.”

The closing event was at the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, with Peres and Natan Sharansky.

While the Federation group traveled the country, the New Orleans chefs and musicians stayed in Rosh Ha’Ayin for home hospitality and did workshops and classes.

The musicians also participated in the Fifth Annual Shared Sound Festival on April 5 and 6, an annual New Orleans jazz festival held in Rosh Ha’Ayin.

Kahn said the festival “has been very well attended” over the years. The P2G opening ceremony “was a natural outgrowth” of it and “it worked out really well.”

The musicians played at the Schneider children’s hospital cancer ward in Petach Tikvah and held sessions at Begin High School and the music conservatory in Rosh Ha’Ayin. Lemmler referenced the universal language of music, and observed that “They seem to know a lot of the New Orleans tunes we were doing.”

While the concerts were great, Lemmler said “it’s really playing with kids and for kids, and for sick children, that’s always uplifting for us.”

The chefs held a cuisine workshop for young adults in Rosh Ha’Ayin, among other classes.

On the evening of April 7, after the P2G mission was over, the groups reunited in Rosh Ha’Ayin and the Federation delegation also had home hospitality.
The next day they had a special tour of Tel Aviv, including a “graffiti tour” of the southern part of the city.

For Shabbat dinner on April 8, numerous Rosh Ha’Ayin families brought dishes for a huge potluck festival in the garden of the Katzir family, as the chefs were told to take the evening off.

For Engel, observing Shabbat that way was a special treat. Growing up the son of a rabbi, he went to services every weekend, but with his duties at Shaya rarely gets that experience.

The New Orleans musicians were joined by locals as the dinner went well past midnight.

On April 9, the group went to Nazareth, where a highlight was going to a field kitchen set up in the forest, and preparing a meal there. “We even made fresh pita out in the wild,” Weil said.

The next day there was a Jerusalem trip, then the musicians played at Shalbul, a Tel Aviv club, that night.

Lemmler said the chance to have home hospitality “was a beautiful experience… our host families were incredibly gracious and loving.”

Engel also said the best part of the trip was staying in homes during their time in Rosh Ha’Ayin. The musicians were housed with families involved in local music, while he stayed with a Yemenite family and had the opportunity to experience Yemenite cuisine “organically” from people who have been doing it their entire lives.

“Since I started cooking Israeli food, the Yemenite cuisine is a huge draw for me because it has been so isolated” and hasn’t made it into the Israeli mainstream. There are relatively few Yemenite restaurants, most people experience it as home cooking.

He mentioned that Shaya has some Yemenite influences on its menu, and “they were so impressed that traditional Yemenite food was on the menu of our restaurant in New Orleans.”

While there, he learned how to make kubana, a traditional Yemenite bread, and bought the proper pans for it. When he gets some time to perfect it, “our pastry chef and I are going to start working on it as an additional bread service” at Shaya.

The family he stayed with is one of seven siblings. On Friday, he went to their mothers’ house, where she still makes a full Shabbat complement for all of her children’s homes, starting early in the morning. “Eighty years old and making food for multiple generations,” he commented.

During the final four days of touring, he visited numerous markets and loaded up on authentic spices, so much that he had to borrow a suitcase to bring back “super high-quality stuff we hadn’t seen before.” The moment he got back to Shaya, “we started tweaking recipes.”

He also enjoyed watching Lusk discover the various Israeli flavors for the first time. “Watching him fall in love with Israel was the second most rewarding aspect” of the trip, Engel said.

As the trip marked the first 20 years of P2G, it was also time to look forward to evolving the relationships.

Kahn said they will work with the New Orleans young leadership group to develop the partnership, and “with that in mind we are having a lawyer exchange.” They are also looking at a start-up and entrepreneurial exchange, as the music and food aspects are “so well engrained now. Rosh Ha’Ayin people know the musicians here, they can pretty well do it.”

Robert Witrock, who has been involved in the New Orleans-Rosh Ha’Ayin partnership since 2009, said he hopes to see wider participation from individuals in the New Orleans Jewish community, and greater exploration of Rosh Ha’Ayin’s Yemenite heritage.

Through P2G, Witrock said, “Israeli participants over the last 20 years have really gotten to make life-long American friends and see American life uniquely, especially Jewish-American life. Israeli women have seen for their first time women going up to the bima for aliyot, some ending up in tears at the pluralistic opportunities afforded women here in America. At the same time the partnerships have given Jewish Americans to see how diverse Israeli life is.”

Gershanik said the trip “was the best way to visit Israel and get acquainted with each aspect of the life there. It was a moving experience for my son’s first trip to the Holy Land.”

Weil called the trip “a great mixture of the things we’re known for — food and music, with the great feeling of people to people, old friendships and new friendships.”

“We play very beautiful music together. And we eat well together,” Kahn said.

Reflecting on the Shabbat potluck dinner, Engel spoke of the Yemenite cuisine, the wine and Arak, the musicians jamming on the back porch with everyone who could play music or sing joining in, until all hours of the night. “There’s something very Israeli about that. It’s also very New Orleans. You feel at home in both respects.”

Rosh Ha'Ayin-NOLA Relationship Shines at P2G 20th Kickoff

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Abe Berkowitz inducted into Ala. Lawyers Hall of Fame

On May 6, Abe Berkowitz was inducted into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building in Montgomery.

Berkowitz is remembered as one of Birmingham’s earliest progressive activists, promoting both economic expansion and social justice throughout his career. A child of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was born in Meridian. The family ultimately settled in Birmingham, where his father ran a small retail business.

Berkowitz received his law degree in 1928 before reaching the age of 21 and began practicing immediately after the Alabama Legislature removed age restrictions.

He was an outspoken opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and sought to establish equality under the law, with frequent letters to local newspapers. He supported an anti-masking bill that was aimed at the Klan, and opposed Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor.

In a speech at Miles College, he recounted two incidents from 1913, when he was in first grade, that shaped him — the railroading of Leo Frank in Georgia for the murder of a girl and his father urging him to write a letter to Georgia’s governor on his behalf; and how he cried after seeing a trusted caretaker of his humiliate a young black girl who was on her way to the store by using the n-word at her.

Son Richard Berkowitz spoke at the ceremony, He said his father earned the recognition “because he was willing, along with others, to speak out when doing so was not popular, but that was who he was.”

In the midst of the city’s racial turmoil in 1962, Berkowitz was a leading member of the Birmingham Bar Committee that recommended a change in the form of Birmingham’s city government from its three-member Commission to a Mayor-Council system, organizing a surprise petition drive. The vote was successful, bouncing Connor from office.

A passionate Zionist, Berkowitz spearheaded the famous 1943 Alabama resolution that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, working with Rep. Sid Smyer and Sen. James Simpson.

Alabama Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker, in announcing the induction during Knesset Deputy Speaker Hilik Bar’s visit to Montgomery in April, noted that “Simpson was Bull Connor’s attorney, and Simpson wrote some of the segregation resolutions. Berkowitz was on the other side — but those two could come together on the important issue of Israel.”

Berkowitz was also asked to be in the secretive Sonneborn Institute, a group of 17 Americans who met with David Ben-Gurion in New York and then fanned out across the country on clandestine efforts to aid the Jewish fighters working toward Israel’s independence.

In his book “In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama’s Jews, the Second World War and the Holocaust,” Dan Puckett notes that Berkowitz organized Birmingham’s Zionists. “They raised funds and ‘collected all manner of goods from truck loads of helmets to a contribution of 3,000 forks from Isadore Mazer.’ Mark Elovitz notes that ‘the Kimerling family lent a truck with a driver to the cause. The truck was loaded with tires and the tires’ inner-tubes were stuffed with guns and pistols and shipped to New York to see that the ‘cargo’ would not be apprehended’.”

In 1967, Israel awarded Berkowitz the Israeli Freedom Medal “because of his services to the ZOA and Israel.”

Berkowitz also helped establish the Birmingham Bar Association Aid Trust, which set up a fund for lawyers in distress and for which he served as a trustee for more than 30 years.

Richard Berkowitz said he thinks his father, who died in 1985, “would be saddened to see how we have regressed in terms of black-white relationships, and the radicalization of campus life, because dad was a great admirer of Hugo Black ‘s views on free speech” and helped Black’s son become a prominent labor attorney.

Also inducted were Reuben Chapman, Martin Leigh Harrison, Holland McTyeire Smith and Frank Edward Spain. Each inductee must have been deceased at least two years at the time of their selection. The first class was inducted in 2004; there are now 55 members.

“Each of these inductees has played a pivotal role in the history and legacy that we as attorneys leave behind,” said Alabama State Bar President Lee H. Copeland of Copeland, Franco, Screws & Gill of Montgomery. “It’s an honor to pay tribute to their lives and the work they did.”

Abe Berkowitz inducted into Ala. Lawyers Hall of Fame

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Final services set for Pine Bluff, McGehee congregations

The most recent Anshe Emeth building in Pine Bluff is now a nursing school.


Two Jewish communities in Arkansas are closing the doors for good on their synagogues this month, as final services will be held in Pine Bluff for Anshe Emeth on June 11 and for Meir Chayim in McGehee on June 17.

The Pine Bluff service will be at First Presbyterian Church, where the congregation has met in the chapel since 2003. Following the 10 a.m. service there will be a luncheon at Pine Bluff Country Club.

The Meir Chayim service will be at 7:15 p.m., with an oneg following.

Rabbi Eugene Levy, who retired as rabbi of B’nai Israel in Little Rock in 2011, has been visiting the two congregations in recent years and will officiate the final services.

Levy has been visiting Pine Bluff monthly for services for three years, except for this past High Holy Days. “I decided to be a congregant for the first time in 47 years” and visited family. Having a grandchild born on Kol Nidre night in California was also part of the decision.

He has been visiting McGehee every other month to lead services.

In both cases, past members, rabbis and student rabbis have been invited, and each congregation is expecting about 50 to 100 in attendance.

Levy said the communities don’t have the numbers or resources to keep the congregations going. “There are no young families,” he said, relating a common story in smaller Southern communities.

Many of the first generation of Jews in these towns became “the landed gentry,” ones who had stores, property and businesses, and the resources to build congregations. Within a couple of generations, the children and grandchildren were becoming professionals and moving to larger communities.

By the 1960s and 1970s, Levy said, few were coming back home after college, and there weren’t new people coming in. “Forty years ago, Pine Bluff had 200 families, now they have eight.” McGehee went from 50 to three or four now.

When Levy arrived in Little Rock in 1987, after the High Holidays he was urged to visit Pine Bluff. When he arrived, Rabbi Leslie Sertes, the last full-time rabbi at Anshe Emeth, was packing up his office, an odd time of year to do so. “He told me they just had the last class of the Sunday School, the last two confirmands” that May. “When that happens, if nobody is coming in… it’s just a matter of time.”

The Anshe Emeth members decided last year that this would be their final year.

Both congregations have been working with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which works with smaller communities that know they will eventually need to close the doors in developing “legacy plans,” Noah Levine said.

Levine said both congregations were well on their way to closing when he got involved. He urges congregations to make these decisions while there is still a “viable board” and institutional memory. His role, he said, is as an “honest broker” to help congregations make the best decision for their situation, and help them know they are not alone.

The Jewish community in Pine Bluff dates back to the 1840s, and by 1855 there were roughly 10 Jewish families in the area, mostly merchants like Isaac Altschul.

Many of the local Jews served in the Confederacy, then after the Union captured the area, Jewish families hosted Jewish soldiers from the north.

After the war, Pine Bluff grew, as did the Jewish community. Anshe Emeth was established in 1866, and numerous other Jewish organizations were soon established.

Many in the Jewish community became cotton planters, including Sol Franklin, who planned to resettle 200 Jews from Romania as sharecroppers. The plan was never implemented.

By 1905 there were 425 Jews in Pine Bluff, which became the second-largest Jewish community in the state. L.E. Goldsmith and Simon Bloom served as mayor, and local state legislator Sam Levine was outspoken against segregationist opposition to Supreme Court rulings.

Meyer Solmson became editor of the local paper and was threatened by a local man who he had criticized in an article. Solmson wound up killing the man in self defense. He later moved to New York and became managing editor of Variety.

Another well-known Pine Bluff journalist is Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg, a nationally syndicated columnist now with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He recently wrote a column about the final Seder at Anshe Emeth.

“Some of us can still remember the little neo-Victorian temple in downtown Pine Bluff with all its nooks and crannies, wooden ceilings and floors, and the tucked-away rooms on the side where I taught at least a couple of generations of Sunday School students,” Greenberg wrote.

Anshe Emeth was the first synagogue officially chartered in Arkansas, beating Little Rock’s B’nai Israel by five days. While Anshe Emeth is closing on its 150th anniversary, B’nai Israel just celebrated its 150th anniversary as the largest Jewish congregation in the state.

In 1867, the first Anshe Emeth building was completed, and in 1873 the congregation joined the Reform movement.

In 1902, a larger building was erected as the congregation exceeded 130 families. Newcomers from Eastern Europe established an Orthodox congregation, B’nai Israel, in 1907. When immigration was stopped in the 1920s, that sapped the smaller congregation’s strength, and as the newcomers assimilated into the community, more wound up at Anshe Emeth.

At Anshe Emeth, controversy over changes made by Rabbi Leonard Rothstein, who had previously been in Alexandria, La., led to a split in 1921 as 58 members left to form Temple Israel, the community’s third congregation. Rothstein left in 1923, and Temple Israel’s rabbi left the next year. With the two smaller congregations struggling and both without rabbis, they reunited in 1925.

B’nai Israel disbanded in 1950, but even with Anshe Chesed being the only congregation left, its numbers also started to decline. In 1961 a lot was purchased for a smaller building closer to where the members lived, and when the new building was completed there were about 85 members.

In the mid-1980s, when the last full-time rabbi left, the Jewish population was 175, down from over 450 in 1960. In 2003, the Anshe Chesed building was sold to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, which turned it into a nursing school. Since then, the congregation has met at First Presbyterian Church.

Levy said the service on June 11 will not be a desanctification of the building, as it is borrowed space in a church, but a desanctification of the congregation. A yahrzeit candle will be lit at the beginning of the service, the Torah will be carried through the congregation one last time, the mezuzah on the chapel taken down and the key will be presented to the minister.

At the service, all of the names of members who have died from the last 148 years will be read. “We feel we need to do that,” Levy said.

The Torah is being sent to a congregation in Guatemala through the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Levine said the yahrzeit plaques will be relocated to House of Israel in Hot Springs, archival documents have been sent to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and congregants are arranging for perpetual care of the cemetery.

For most congregations that close, “that is the number one concern, that they have enough money set aside as an endowment” to keep the cemetery maintained.


McGehee closing

In addition to McGehee, Meir Chayim served Dumas, 20 miles away. Gus Waterman was the first Jew to move to the timber town of Dumas, in 1879, and became the town’s first mayor. His son founded the University of Arkansas Law School. The Dante family established a department store, and later a garment manufacturing plant. Son-in-law B.J. Tanenbaum started the United Dollar Store, which grew to 200 stores before being sold to Dollar General.

Jerry Tanenbaum has become very involved internationally in the Reform movement, including as founding chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union North America, and was long-time chairman of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp.

McGehee got a later start, blooming as a higher-ground refuge after the great flood of 1927. Many Jews from flooded-out Arkansas City moved their stores to McGehee, while others were in the cotton business. Many Jewish merchants were seen as reviving the area after the flood by assisting farmers with obtaining supplies when banks refused to issue loans.

By the 1940s, there were over 120 families in the area, Rose Ann Naron said. They had met informally in homes for years, then in St. Paul Episcopal Church, but decided it was time to start a congregation that would serve several towns.

Rabbi Morris Clark from Pine Bluff had been leading services, but World War II gas rationing ended those trips.

During a B’nai B’rith meeting in 1946, David Meyer proposed the formation of Beth Chayim. The name was changed soon after to honor a member of the Jewish community who had died in action in Italy during World War II, Herbert M. Abowitz, whose Hebrew name was Meir Chayim.

The congregation affiliated with the Reform movement and started fundraising throughout the region for a building. Much of the lumber came from trees on members’ property, and the Gothic-style building was completed in 1947.

“The sanctuary was designed to seat 150 people on red velour theater type seats,” Naron said. A Sunday School wing, recreational hall and kitchen were also in the building.

The sanctuary has 10 identical stained-glass windows. A Ten Commandments tablet flanked by lions of Judah was placed over the ark, it had formerly been at Temple B’nai Sholom of Bastrop, La., which closed in 1923 and was demolished in 1939.

The Ten Commandments on the front of the building came from the 1872 building of Temple Beth El Emeth in Camden, one of the first four congregations in Arkansas. It closed in 1927.

In 2005, a Torah from Meir Chayim was loaned to Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins, Col., where Rabbi Debra Kassoff, who had been the traveling rabbi for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, had been visiting rabbi. The loan was arranged by Linda and Lester Pincus of Dermott, cousins of Or Hadash member Patzi Goldberg.

The Meir Chayim building is now on the market, with a list price of $57,000. According to Sims Realty, the sale is pending.

The June 17 service will desanctify the building. As the congregation is used to Friday night Torah readings, there will be a reading, after which the Torah will be presented to the congregants who dedicated it.

Shabbat and yahrzeit candles will be lit, and the names of all deceased members will be read, just as in Pine Bluff. All of the yahrzeit lights will be turned off, and the eternal light will be removed.

Levy said these will be physical acts of closure and finality.

Naron said many of the Judaic items are going to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica and to the ISJL for a future museum.

Revenue from the building’s sale will go to a scholarship fund so Arkansas children can attend Jacobs Camp “in Meir Chayim Temple’s name, so our legacy can continue,” Naron said.


These congregations will join two others in Arkansas that have recently closed their doors.

In Texarkana, Mount Sinai Congregation held its final service on May 16, 2014, then the remaining members decided in May 2015 to sell the building. They published a memory book, with “The Congregation That Helped Grow Rabbis” in the front, referring to the numerous rabbis and student rabbis that have served the congregation since the 1890s.

Mount Sinai, formed around 1885, purchased a former Episcopal church building, which burned in 1892 when a neighboring grocery caught fire. A new building was dedicated in 1894, and by 1917 there were 50 member families.

Mount Sinai was an off-and-on member of the Reform movement, but in the 1930s also hosted a small number of Orthodox families for a minyan on Saturday mornings, with Reform members helping them reach the required 10. During World War II the congregation hosted many Jewish soldiers from nearby bases, and the community grew after the war.

A new building was dedicated in 1949, two blocks into Texas from the state line, and through the 1980s membership continued to be around 40 families. But by 2015 there were only six or seven families remaining.

The congregation’s Judaica has been offered to the families who dedicated the various pieces.

Phil Bishop of Curt Green and Company said the property is still on the market with a list price of $139,000 for the 6,000-square-foot building. Over the past year they have “had several ‘lookers’ and have one couple still interested in converting it to residential for their family.”

El Dorado’s community started as the town experienced an oil boom in 1922. By 1927 there were 124 Jews with short-lived Orthodox and Reform congregations. The oil business went bust during the Great Depression, but the economy picked back up after World War II and Temple Beth Israel was formed with the encouragement of the Arkansas Jewish Assembly.

The Beth Israel building was completed in 1955. The congregation was never large enough for a full-time rabbi, and by the 1980s there were just six Jewish families remaining.

Rachel Myers, museum and special projects coordinator at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, said the El Dorado congregation has been inactive for years but has been letting the local Mennonite community use the building.

Last year, the remaining handful of El Dorado’s Jews officially deeded the building to the Mennonites and moved the remaining Judaica out, bringing it to Jackson for future use in the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience and in active congregations in the region.

Final services set for Pine Bluff, McGehee congregations

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Led by ADL, a new hate crimes coalition forms in NOLA

The Anti-Defamation League announced on May 9 that a broad coalition of local organizations in Louisiana that have agreed to join as coalition partners in ADL’s 50 States Against Hate initiative.

ADL’s 50 States Against Hate is a nation-wide initiative involving a wide-range of national coalition partners that aims to strengthen state hate crimes laws and introduce them where they do not currently exist; provide enhanced training for law enforcement personnel on hate crimes identification, response, and reporting; improve data collection and reporting; and educate communities on effective responses to hate violence.

The founding members of the New Orleans Hate Crimes Coalition ae: The Advocacy Center, Committee for a Better New Orleans, The Episcopal Church, Forum for Equality, The Human Relations Commission of the City of New Orleans, Human Rights Campaign, Jewish Community Relations Council, National Council of Jewish Women, National Organization for Women, New Orleans Bar Association, Tulane University, and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.

“This broad coalition intentionally represents a spectrum of constituents and actors,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, regional director of the ADL in New Orleans.

“The diversity of our coalition partners emphasizes the stand that New Orleanians want to take against hatred and bigotry,” adds Keith Twitchell, executive director of Committee for a Better New Orleans.

According to the FBI, one hate crime occurs on average every 90 minutes in the United States. There were 5,479 hate crimes in 2014, the last year of available hate crimes data. Reporting varies tremendously state-to-state.

“Louisiana actually has a pretty good Hate Crimes statute currently that covers many categories of bias intent,” said Helena Henderson, executive director of the New Orleans Bar Association.

“But our reporting is in drastic need of improvement: we only had nine hate crimes reported in Louisiana in 2014, four of which were in New Orleans. States and cities of comparable size had about 20 times that many,” added Dr. Allison Padilla-Goodman, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

With support of the coalition, the ADL has been training law enforcement across the region. On May 3, ADL trained almost 100 officers, including the Command staff, of NOPD. On May 4, ADL co-hosted a seminar on hate crimes with the FBI and Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge for area law enforcement and district attorneys. These trainings will continue on a regular basis, as well as ADL’s community outreach about hate crimes.

Led by ADL, a new hate crimes coalition forms in NOLA

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Reimer to succeed Cohn at NOLA's Temple Sinai

A "gut reaction" by Rabbi Matthew Reimer has led to his being named the new rabbi at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, effective July 1. He succeeds Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, who has led Louisiana’s largest Jewish congregation since 1987 and will become the emeritus rabbi.

Reimer, 41, said that when he decided to apply for the position, he had never been to New Orleans, but knew it has "a great reputation, great culture."

A native of West Orange, N.J., Reimer was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2007. He was a music major at Vassar, then spent a year in Israel after graduation, studying, traveling and working as a musician.

He also has been the high school and youth program director at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.

Before being ordained, he was rabbinic intern for two years at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, focusing on outreach to Jews in their 20s and 30s.
From 2008 to 2013 he was assistant rabbi and then associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J. In 2014 he became interim rabbi at Port Jewish Center in Port Washington, N.Y. Most recently, he has been rabbi of the Shul of New York, a “shul without walls” that is all-inclusive and emphasizing spiritual growth and compassion.

Because his entire life has been in the New York/New Jersey area or Israel, he said that he and his wife were committed to geography playing a role in where he would apply, rather than just applying anywhere. When he saw that Temple Sinai had an opportunity, he approached her "and asked, what do you think?"

After a Skype interview, he came to New Orleans for a long weekend and "really got a taste of how vibrant the city is and the community is."

He sensed that New Orleanians "are so incredibly proud of their city and so civically minded to making the city what they want it to be," and showed "what it meant to not only live in a place but live with a place and feel a sense of responsibility for a place." That sense was a huge attraction.

Reimer is prepared for the transition of moving to a new region and in leading a congregation that has not had a rabbinic change since 1987. One area of emphasis, he said, is "creating opportunities for young people... to really feel a sense of ownership of their Jewish journeys."

While assistant rabbi of the New Jersey congregation, in 2010 he launched a monthly musical Shabbat service in Manhattan to follow those from that community who had moved to the “big city,” especially those in their 20s and 30s who were not otherwise engaged in the community.

A lot of the outreach to younger Jews "can take place outside the walls of the traditional synagogue, but the traditional synagogue can create those opportunities for them."

He also looks to build upon the social action and outreach work that Cohn has done for the last 30 years at Temple Sinai.

Reimer was on the editorial committee for Behrman House’s Siddur Mah Tov, a family-friendly siddur aimed especially at ages 5 to 10, and available in Reform and Conservative editions.

In 2003, he was a quarterback on the Israel National Flag Football team that came in second at the Flag en Champagne tournament in France, knocking off the U.S. team that was the world champion. The Israeli team fell to Pygargues, France, in the finals.

Reimer’s wife, Leah, is an anesthesiologist and they have four young daughters.

Temple Sinai held a Golden Gala honoring Cohn on May 21, at which it was announced that Reimer would be the new rabbi. The 700-family congregation's membership officially approved the hire on May 27.

Reimer to succeed Cohn at NOLA's Temple Sinai

Friday, May 27, 2016

New Chavurah, Kehillat Shalom, to start in B'ham next month

Unity Congregation on Birmingham's Southside will be hosting Kehillat Shalom.

A new Chavurah has formed in Birmingham and plans to start holding weekly Shabbat services next month.

Kehillat Shalom is an entirely lay-led group that had its first organizational meeting on May 23, to get a sense from the 20 in attendance as to what they want to see in the group.

Barry Ivker said this is part of a national trend of smaller groups that are more close-knit, informal and flexible than traditional congregations.

The group’s Facebook page defines a chavurah as “a small group of like-minded Jews who assemble for the purposes of facilitating Shabbat and holiday prayer services, sharing communal experiences such as lifecycle events, and Jewish learning.”

The group’s mission “is to be a congenial group that meets for worship, celebrating Jewish holidays in a ‘traditional’ Conservative manner, friendship, support and shmoozing.” It will be egalitarian.

The group has a Torah on loan, is seeking a second Torah, and received chumashim and prayer books from a congregation in New Hampshire and Shir Chadash in Metairie, among other sources. Kehillat Shalom officially incorporated on May 27.

The group is renting space on a monthly basis at Unity Congregation on Highland Avenue, and will hold services Saturdays at 10 a.m. The first official service will be on June 18, though some are planning a service on June 11 to work out the kinks.

Fred Benjamin said the sanctuary, which holds about 125, is non-denominational, with no religious symbolism of any kind. Even the stained glass window is abstract.

At the initial meeting, the group considered four locations. Jacob Halpern attended to offer space at Beth-El, the city’s established Conservative congregation. Halpern, Beth-El vice president, said Beth-El “has reached out to those in our community considering other options for Jewish practice. We have offered space to allow multiple groups within our congregation to practice as they would like within the broad tent of Conservative Judaism.”

Most of those involved in the chavurah have been active at Beth-El and were vocally opposed to recent controversial personnel moves at the congregation. But Fran Ivker noted that the chavurah concept has been discussed among them for several years.

The group's name comes from a desire to get together in an atmosphere of peace, and they emphasize they are putting any past issues aside and looking forward in a positive manner.

Barry Ivker said this is not a new synagogue, nor are they trying to set up a congregation to compete with anyone else.

They stated that participants in the chavurah are welcome to continue membership and involvement in the community’s other religious institutions.

The chavurah will offer programming according to the wishes of the group. “People can openly express their feelings, then we vote,” Fran Ivker said.

Barry Ivker said there has been some interest expressed in Bar/Bat Mitzvah training, for example.

Benjamin added, “it’s in the very formative stage and open to suggestions.”

They will not prepare food at Unity, because the kitchen is not kosher, but plan to have potluck lunches following services.

“We’re looking forward to getting started,” Benjamin said.

New Chavurah, Kehillat Shalom, to start in B'ham next month

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Alabama anti-BDS bill signed into law

Knesset Member Hilik Bar honored Alabama Sen. Arthur Orr at the Alabama-Israel Task Force Leadership Gala near Decatur on April 9 (photo courtesy AITF).


As Israel started its national memorial day on the evening of May 10 for the 23,477 who have died in defense of the Jewish state since 1860, a signing ceremony in Montgomery demonstrated Alabama’s continuing commitment to Israel.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed SB81 into law during the afternoon of May 10. The measure prevents Alabama governmental entities from entering into contracts with companies that participate in boycotts against individuals, entities or nations with whom Alabama enjoys “open trade.” Though Israel is not specifically mentioned, the bill is part of a national effort against the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that seeks to isolate Israel economically, culturally and academically.

Alabama becomes the eighth state to sign such a measure into law. Iowa became the seventh, on April 28. About 20 states have been considering similar legislation this year.

Introduced by Sen. Arthur Orr from the Decatur area, the bill passed the Alabama Senate 30-0 on April 7, an hour before Israel’s Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Hilik Bar, addressed a joint session of the Legislature.

Bar said the Alabama Legislature’s message is “You boycott Israel, we boycott you. And that’s a very brave thing to do.”

The House passed the bill on April 28 — the middle of Passover — by an 84-5 vote, and it was sent to Bentley on May 3.

John Buhler, co-chair of the Alabama-Israel Task Force, has been working with legislators on the bills. He said it is “very timely and appropriate to be signed on the very eve of the two-day memorial and celebration of Israel's Remembrance Day and Israel's Independence Day.”

Earlier in the session, the Legislature unanimously passed a joint resolution specifically condemning the BDS movement and reaffirming support for Israel. Orr introduced Senate Joint Resolution on Feb. 2, and the House passed it on Feb. 9.

“Alabama's elected representatives who defend the inalienable right to free speech understand that the goals and activities of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement in this state are harmful to the State's relationships with Alabama's Jewish citizens, our friend and ally Israel and have a deleterious impact on the academic and educational environment,” the resolution stated.

Alabama has a long history of support for Israel, starting with a 1943 resolution that passed the Legislature unanimously, urging the establishment of a Jewish state five years before Israel’s independence. That measure was the first such statement of support from a government in the United States.

In 2006, Governor Bob Riley declared "Stand With Israel Day" in Alabama. The Legislature also passed resolutions of support for Israel during conflicts in 2001, 2012 and 2013.

"Alabama has proved for more than 70 years that our support is unwavering," Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey said. "As the first state in the country to call for the establishment of the State of Israel, Alabama stands committed to the existence and establishment of the democratic state in the Middle East."

In April 2015, Tennessee became the first state to formally condemn BDS, by a combined 123-1 vote between the two houses. The effort was spearheaded by Laurie Cardoza-Moore, founder of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a Christian pro-Israel group. She worked with Christian and Jewish groups to promote the bill, which was seen as a template for other states to follow.

Georgia and Florida have also passed bills barring contracts with those who boycott Israel. In Florida, the state will create a list of companies that support boycotts of Israel and also prohibit state pension funds from being invested in companies that follow the BDS movement.

Legislators in Georgia and Florida reported strong and vocal opposition from BDS proponents, but the anti-BDS initiatives had strong support among their colleagues.

“BDS is discrimination cloaked in the language of human rights, but at its core, the effort to single out Israel is anti-Semitism, plain and simple,” said The Israel Project CEO Josh Block. “I congratulate the people of Alabama, their legislators and their governor, for seeing through this dangerous ruse and standing strongly with the Jewish state against misguided efforts to attack and delegitimize America’s closest ally in the Middle East.”

Alabama anti-BDS bill signed into law

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn: “This is where I was really called” to be

The first time Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn looked out from the pulpit of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, the vast historic sanctuary was empty.

It was 1979 when Cohn, the rabbi at Beth Israel in Macon, Ga., was visiting New Orleans for the wedding of a congregant’s son who had gone to the Tulane School of Medicine. “I had known of the historic significance and uniqueness of Temple Sinai” and wanted to see it while he was in town.

He was “drawn to it as a major congregation in the history of our movement” and “practices and attitudes I thought could well match up with my own.”

Melanie Feldman brought him to tour Sinai, where he thought “this was the place I needed to be.” While on the pulpit, he turned to his wife, Andrea, and said “if we ever get a chance, I want to come here.”

In 1987, he said, “our wish came true.”

Now, 29 years later, Cohn is describing his time at Temple Sinai as “a complete and comfortable fit.” This summer he is stepping down as senior rabbi at Temple Sinai — but he’s not going away.

“I love being a rabbi and I think I can be very useful,” so he will continue to be active in community work on behalf of Temple Sinai, look for teaching and preaching opportunities and be available for life-cycle events. He will also maintain a dialogue with his successor as a resource so the new rabbi “will have a clear understanding of how we have come to be who we are as a congregation” as the new rabbi leads Temple Sinai in the 21st century.

“I’ve wanted to be there for the person who follows me. It’s what you do when you love something,” he said.

Naturally, when a new rabbi arrives there will be some changes and a time of adjustment. He also wants to help the congregation adjust to someone new, who will have new ideas. “No one expects a clone of Cohn,” he said.

Cohn reflected that when he arrived, he felt there were some changes that needed to be made, “but I appreciated where they were.” The congregational leadership “knew they needed to make some changes,” and some of today’s leaders “have the same thought” now.

“Fresh leadership, fresh energy” often brings changes that hadn’t been considered before, he said.

A native of Baltimore, Cohn graduated from the University of Cincinnati, then was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1974. He later received a Doctor of Ministry degree from St. Paul School of Theology.

He started as an assistant rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, followed by his pulpit in Macon from 1976 to 1979, the New Reform Temple in Kansas City and Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh before moving to New Orleans.

In addition to the historic orientation of the congregation, he was also attracted by how the congregants were “so decent.”

Working with Cantor Joel Colman for 17 years “has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life,” he said. “We’ve accomplished things together we’d never imagined we would be able to do.”

Temple Sinai is regarded as a liberal congregation. With the backdrop of today’s societal fight over same-sex marriage, Cohn has officiated at such unions. It was very early in his tenure that he delivered a sermon entitled “Adam and Steve.” As sermon titles are displayed on the marquee outside, “it stopped traffic on St. Charles Avenue,” he said.

Even before Cohn arrived, the congregation was known for its inclusion of interfaith couples, long before even fellow Reform congregations did. “We did not have any ambivalence or uncertainty over officiating at interfaith marriages,” though not under every circumstance. The previous two rabbis officiated interfaith weddings, “so I wasn’t anything new.”

“We have integrated interfaith married couples completely into the life of the congregation,” Cohn said. At Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, the non-Jewish grandparents take part in the generational passing of the Torah. “Somewhere along the line, they were cooperative. They helped make the marriage work” and should be recognized for enabling the raising of Jewish children.

In the greater community, he points with pride to the Holocaust memorial at Woldenberg Park on the riverfront, which he spearheaded over several years until it was built. “I’m very proud of it,” he said, noting that it draws a “remarkable” 700,000 viewers per year.

Cohn was also founding chairman of the City Human Relations Committee, which has been involved in numerous highly-charged issues over the years.

The committee was active in moving the Liberty Monument, which had been in the neutral ground on Canal Street. The 1891 monument’s origin was to honor white supremacy in the state, though by 1993 other inscriptions had been added. Today, the monument is between a parking deck and floodwall, away from the crowds.

Reflecting on today’s battle over Confederate monuments in the city, Cohn said “we really anticipated the moving of the monuments 20-some years ago.”

He also faced down Klan leader David Duke at a city council meeting.

As with anyone who has been in New Orleans more than a few years, Katrina was a major event in Cohn’s rabbinate. Much has changed, he said, “fortunately a lot of it for the better.”

He considers the 18 years he was in New Orleans before Katrina to be “in preparation for dealing with the challenge.”

That was “a time of bonding with people at a depth that was just unexpected and uncommon,” he said. The spirit of working together across congregations and organizations continues.

Now, he is looking forward to the celebration of New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018, having recently been appointed by the mayor to be the Jewish community representative on the tricentennial’s cultural diversity committee.

Cohn said the Jewish community needs to find a way to “appropriately celebrate the role New Orleans has played in the life of the Jewish community, and that the Jewish community has played in New Orleans. And it’s more than Judah Touro.”

Temple Sinai’s Gala on May 21 will be honoring Cohn for his 29 years of service to the congregation. There will be a patron party at 6:30 p.m., followed by dinner and cocktails at 7:15 p.m., special presentations and a silent auction. The event is black tie optional. Tickets are $150, or $75 for those under 35 years of age. Patron levels start at $275.

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn: “This is where I was really called” to be

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Events in region celebrate Israel's 68th birthday



In mid-May, several communities in the region will have celebrations for Israel’s 68th birthday.

In New Orleans, there will be a community-wide Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel memorial day, service led by members of the Jewish Clergy Council of New Orleans on May 11 at 6:30 p.m., followed by an Israel Independence celebration at 7 p.m.

The celebration will include a dessert reception and performance of “Israel Story — Live!” Using a combination of radio-style storytelling, live art, music, singing, video, and other multimedia magic, the show provides an intimate glimpse of modern Israeli life. “Israel Story” is an Israeli radio show inspired by the slice-of-life stories featured on “This American Life.”

The evening is free and open to the community.

The Jewish Federation of Central Alabama will hold a regional ISRAELfest68, showcasing Israeli life, culture and spirit. The event will be on May 15 at the Wynlakes Golf and Country Club in Montgomery from 5 to 8 p.m.

The event will feature a variety of traditional Middle Eastern food, a salute to outstanding leaders dedicated to Israel, special guest speakers, a silent auction, an 8-foot replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, craft activities and dancing for the kids, merchandise, door prizes and more.

At the center of the celebration is live entertainment by Shimon Smith, a leading Israeli singer and former emissary to Israel who served in central Alabama, as well as a performance by Israeli stand-up comedian Yuval Haklat.

Tickets for ISRAELfest 68 are $18 for adults and free for children under 13.

There will also be an Israel Memorial Day commemoration at Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayem in Montgomery on May 10 at 7 p.m.

Birmingham Celebrates Israel will be at the Levite Jewish Community Center on May 15 at noon. There will be Israeli food available for purchase, a kids’ zone with games and rides, music and a bike parade. There will also be Israeli and Jewish products for sale, a Western Wall replica for placing a message, Israeli football, cotton candy, and much more. Admission is free.

Also, Israeli radio and television personality Amit Farkash, whose song “Millions of Stars” became identified with the Second Lebanon War, will be the guest speaker at an Israel Memorial Day event in Birmingham.

The Birmingham Jewish Federation is co-hosting the event at the Levite Jewish Community Center on May 11 at 7 p.m. The program is open to the community.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War. Captain Tom Farkash, brother of Amit Farkash, was killed in a helicopter crash during the war. The song was composed by a friend of his, and she sang it for the first time at her brother’s funeral. It quickly became famous in Israel.

Amit Farkash played the lead role in Israel’s version of “High School Musical” and co-starred on the television series “Split.” She is now portraying Dana in the series “The Nerd Club.”

In Mobile, there will be an Israel Independence Day celebration on May 15 at 5:30 p.m. at Ahavas Chesed. After an Israeli Memorial Day ceremony, there will be a "South Meets Israel" celebration with a Mediterranean dinner and a Jazz band. Reservations are $8 for adults, $5 for children.

Huntsville will have a celebration at Temple B'nai Sholom on May 22 from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with a picnic lunch at noon.

On May 15, Baton Rouge Hadassah will celebrate Israel Independence Day at B’nai Israel at 6 p.m., with food, dance and a film about Jerusalem.

Pensacola’s Israel celebration will be on May 15 at 12:15 p.m. at B'nai Israel. A memorial service at 11:30 a.m. will precede the festival.

Events in region celebrate Israel's 68th birthday

Monday, May 2, 2016

Theresienstadt children's opera "Brundibar" coming to World War II Museum

The New Orleans Opera and the National World War II Museum are collaborating on a production of Hans Krasa’s Holocaust-era children’s opera “Brundibar,” but it will involve far more than the three performances this month.

“Brundibar” was performed 55 times in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Holocaust, after which Krasa and just about all of the other participants were deported to Auschwitz and killed.

The only remaining survivor from the production, Ela Weissberger, will visit New Orleans for the productions and a series of educational events. She played “cat” in all 55 performances. She “will not only relate her personal story of struggle and survival, but also her casting as the role of the cat in Brundibar, and what the staging of this opera around the world means to her today.”

Also coming to New Orleans will be the Butterfly Project, which is making 1.5 million ceramic butterflies to memorialize the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered by the Nazis.

The local production came about through a meeting between New Orleans Opera and the World War II Museum to brainstorm collaborative projects, musical performances that would further the museum’s mission of accentuating all aspects of World War II.

During the meeting, the planned pavilion that will focus on the Holocaust was mentioned, which led Opera Conductor Robert Lyall to reflect on a couple of productions that are Holocaust-related and which could be done at the museum.

They wanted it to be done somewhere around Holocaust Remembrance Day, which would be after the Opera’s season concluded and before the end of the school year.

As the Opera and the museum started discussing “Brundibar,” they consulted with many in the Jewish community, especially Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn and Cantor Joel Colman of Temple Sinai, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the Jewish Endowment Foundation.

For the opera company, this is a smaller-scale production without drawing national opera figures. Instead, the cast is students from the New Orleans area. Tryouts were held at Temple Sinai in January.

“We decided early on to make it an interfaith production,” Lyall said. “It wouldn’t be exclusively Jewish or exclusively non-Jewish kids.”

Originally composed in 1939 for the children of the Jewish orphanage in Prague, the show premiered in a cramped attic theater in Theresienstadt on Sept. 23, 1943, to an audience of prisoners, camp leaders, and Swedish Red Cross workers who were monitoring conditions at the camp.

The story itself is about a fatherless sister and brother. Their mother is ill, and the doctor tells them she needs milk to recover. But they have no money. They decide to sing in the marketplace to raise the needed money. But the evil organ grinder Brundibár chases them away.
However, with the help of a fearless sparrow, keen cat and wise dog, and the children of the town, they are able to chase Brundibár away, and sing in the market square.

While the Nazis used the show as a propaganda tool in portraying a model camp, the Jewish viewers equated Hitler with Brundibar.

Lyall said it is important to take what can be simply viewed as a charming children’s story and put it in its context and significance for audiences.

After 75 years, he said, it is an amazing set of circumstances that enables the show to be performed at all.

The performances will be preceded by a 15-minute short opera, “Friedl,” about Friedl Brandeis, who was “largely responsible” for the large amount of children’s art that came out of Theresienstadt.

Lyall explained that education and art were forbidden at the camp, but Brandeis persevered. The work was written for the Los Angeles Opera before a 2013 run of “Brundibar.”

Brandeis hid a large amount of artwork in suitcases, which emerged again after the war. The 5,000 pieces of art were “how much she could cram into a couple of suitcases.”

Of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived.

Lyall said the local production will use the original dialogue instead of more recent attempts to make it more grand. Likewise, a recent version by Louisiana native Tony Kushner isn’t being used because of changes in the story.

“I’m respecting the original text and the original intent of how it was presented” in the camp, Lyall said.

There will be a series of events in conjunction with the performances.

Temple Sinai will host the Butterfly Project’s “Not the Last Butterfly” documentary film on May 12 at 7 p.m. There will be a reception, butterfly painting and discussion with the filmmaker.

The Butterfly Project was formed in 2006 at San Diego Jewish Academy, partly inspired by the Paper Clips project of Whitwell, Tenn. Over 200 communities worldwide have participated in the project, which will use the 1.5 million ceramic butterflies as inspiration worldwide, for Holocaust education and anti-bullying initiatives.

Schools around the world can dial into a Webinar with Weissberger, “Testimony from Theresienstadt: Ela Weissberger and her Story of Survival” on May 13 at noon.

All audiences are welcome to view and participate. The museum says the webinar is ideal for grades 5 to 8. Upon registering, teachers will receive curriculum materials related to the program.

Weissberger will be at the 6:15 p.m. Shabbat service on May 13 at Temple Sinai.

On May 14, the Butterfly Project will have a family workshop at the WWII Museum at 2 p.m. Children ages 8 to 12 are invited to design ceramic butterflies with Weissberger, who will also glaze one of the butterflies.

Each of the butterflies made at the museum will be incorporated into a temporary public display. Advance registration is required, and one adult per three children must attend. Participants are invited to attend the “Brundibár” dress rehearsal directly following the workshop.

There is no charge to participate, but space is very limited. Regular museum admission charges will apply to those who want to spend the day at the museum.

The “Brundibar” performances will be May 14 at 7:30 p.m., and May 15 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for children.

The Boeing Center includes restored warbirds hanging from the ceiling. Those were the planes being piloted by U.S. forces during the opera’s original run at Theresienstadt.

In 1998, J. Greg Thomas, a teacher in rural Alabama, did a tour of “Brundibar” with an entirely non-Jewish cast and using their original accents to show the universal message.

The tour performed in October 1998 in Nashville, as special guests of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission’s annual Holocaust Conference for High School students, with Weissberger in attendance.

In 2014, children and adults from Ars Nova School of the Arts in Huntsville performed “Brundibar” during “Voices from Terezin” at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church. Weissberger introduced those performances as well.

Theresienstadt children's opera "Brundibar" coming to World War II Museum