Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Donaldsonville museum hosts special Baton Rouge screening of "Rosenwald"

Chandra Lester, Kathe Hambrick-Jackson and Darryl Gissel were in the Louisiana delegation to the first Rosenwald Schools conference, held in Tuskegee in 2012 (SJL file).


“Rosenwald,” a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner, will have its premiere in New York in August, but there will be a chance to preview it in Louisiana next month.

The River Road African History Museum in Donaldsonville will host a free screening of the documentary on June 2 at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge. The free 7 p.m. screening will include a discussion led by retired Louisiana State University Professor Thomas Durant on the lasting social impact of the Rosenwald Schools and their relevance in enhancing schools and communities today. Reservations can be made here.

“Rosenwald” is the story of Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school but rose to become the president of Sears. Influenced by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, this Jewish philanthropist joined forces with African-American communities in the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 schools in rural areas during the early part of the 20th century.

Rosenwald put up seed money to build these schools using standardized designs, as long as the local community took an active role, whether through fundraising or participating in the building process. With desegregation in the 1960s, most of the buildings fell into disuse, and today few remain. There is an active campaign to restore those that are left into educational facilities or community centers.

For the River Road museum, which recently had to cut its hours for the first time while grappling with a funding shortfall, the film is particularly significant.

Museum Director Kathe Hambrick-Jackson learned years ago that the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, also called the Romeville School, was slated to be torn down by the St. James Parish school board. Because it was “the cornerstone for educating African American children in St. James Parish” from the 1930s to the 1960s, she got the board to donate it to the museum in 1996.

Only after moving the building to Donaldsonville did she realize that it was a Rosenwald School, one of the few remaining in Louisiana. In 2013, the museum was able to start renovations on it and held a dedication with the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington as guest speaker.

The museum is just two blocks from Donaldsonville’s Jewish cemetery and three blocks from the Ace Hardware store that now occupies what was Bikur Cholim Synagogue.

The first Rosenwald school in Louisiana was constructed in 1916. Almost 400 were built in Louisiana by 1932, and by then one in four rural black schools in the state was a Rosenwald. The Romeville School was built in 1931.

Currently, only two other remaining Rosenwalds have been identified in Louisiana, including one in Plaisance, in St. Landry Parish.

After the New York premiere, “Rosenwald” will open in major markets. A September screening is scheduled for Birmingham. Before its release, it is scheduled at major Jewish film festivals and at the 106th NAACP national convention in July. Rosenwald was an early supporter of the NAACP. Kempner and Julian Bond will make a presentation after the screening.

“Rosenwald” won the 2015 Lipscomb Ecumenical Prize at the Nashville Film Festival, which is awarded to directors who have succeeded in portraying actions or human experiences sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social values.

The film will also screen at the National Trust for Historical Preservations' Rosenwald School Annual Meeting in Durham, N.C. in June. Once home to the largest number of Rosenwald Schools, North Carolina is rich with Rosenwald School restoration and rehabilitation activities.

The first Rosenwald School conference was held at Tuskegee University in Alabama in 2012.

Rosenwald awarded fellowship grants to a who's who of African-American intellectuals and artists including: Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, the father and uncle of civil rights leader Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage along with Woody Guthrie.

The list of prominent alumni and educators who attended the Rosenwald Schools include the ancestors of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Tony Award winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Anita Hill and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Kosher Creole" co-author Mildred Covert remembered

Wherever Jews have gone, Jewish cooking has become infused with local influences. In Louisiana, where the predominant ingredients are shellfish and pork, that can be a daunting challenge.

Mildred Covert, who died on May 10 at the age of 88, showed it was not an impossible mix.

With co-author Sylvia Gerson, Covert wrote four cookbooks — the “Kosher Cajun Cookbook,” “Kosher Creole Cookbook,” “Kosher Southern-Style” and “A Kid’s Kosher Cooking Cruise.”

A New Orleans native, Covert learned homemaking and cooking from her grandmother. With her strong Jewish background and love of New Orleans, she quickly experimented with melding the two worlds.

Covert and Gerson wrote the Creole book first, after repeated requests from friends for their recipes. It came out in 1982, followed by the Cajun cookbook in 1987 and Southern-style in 1993. The kid’s book came out in 1997, using recipes for kosher snacks and meals as part of the story of Hannah and Herschel, twins who sail up the Mississippi River with their grandmother.

The books were illustrated by Gerson’s son, Alan.

Maintaining a kosher home, Covert’s grandmother supervised Pearl Jones, who the family employed as a nanny, cook and housekeeper for 40 years. African-American and Jewish cooking fused in that kitchen.

Covert wrote about experiencing Yom Kippur break-the-fasts that started with Coca-Cola, then continued with fried chicken and brisket for meat meals, or Creole cream cheese and cheese grits with pickled herring and kugel if the meal was dairy.

Covert married a man who did not come from a kosher home, and after a failed attempt at red beans and rice by Covert, she decided to keep a kosher home, but quickly had to adapt recipes for some of her husband’s New Orleans-style favorites, such as gumbo without shrimp.

Covert introduced the greater New Orleans community to the concept of kosher cooking through her freelance columns in the Times-Picayune, weaving Jewish and culinary stories. She called her style of cooking “Creosher,” which was expanded back out to Kosher Creole by the cookbook publisher.

The Newcomb College Center for Research on Women honored her in 2004 for her work in defining how modern, observant Jews adapted their cooking methods to enjoy traditional southeast Louisiana cooking. As a local model and actress, she appeared in commercial work and as a guest star in the pilot episode of “Memphis Beat.”

She donated her papers to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s Culinary Library and Archive in 2013.

Aside from her writing, Covert was president of the Sisterhood at Beth Israel and was active on the Chevra Kadisha. She also was active in New Orleans Hadassah, the Jewish Community Center, Tulane/Newcomb Alumni Association and the Louisiana Arts and Crafts Council.

She is survived by her three children, Golda Spiers (Wayne) of Slidell, Susan Seiden (Jan) of Miami and Martin Covert (Cecile) of New Orleans. She is also survived by grandchildren Adam Stross (Michele), Sarah Covert (Seth Knudsen), Jeffrey Seiden (Brenna) and Maggie Covert (Tim LeBlanc), along with two great-grandchildren, Aaron and Shaya Stross. Also surviving are her sister, Celia Katz, and her brother, Abe Daniel Lubritz. She was the half-sister of the late Ennis Kops.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Jewish groups post strong GiveNOLA results

The New Orleans Jewish community tripled its participation in this year’s GiveNOLA Day, paced by a stunning performance by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.

The second annual GiveNOLA Day was held on May 5, a 24-hour online fundraiser involving about 550 non-profits in the area. The minimum donation is $10. All donations made on that day give the nonprofits the opportunity to earn lagniappe dollars, awards and hourly prizes.

Awards include most money raised, most unique donors and randomly-drawn $1,000 hourly prizes. Donations to the Lagniappe Fund will be distributed to all agencies in proportion to what they raised on May 5.

Overall, the 10 Jewish organizations that participated raised $137,981. Last year, six Jewish organizations participated.

The Federation had set a goal of $50,000 after raising $20,670 last year. This year the Federation raised $89,110 from 147 donors. Last year’s total came from 151 donors.

Because they were third overall in funds raised, the Federation will receive a $3,000 bonus.

Morton Katz, president of the Federation, called the day “wildly successful.” He and incoming president Eddie Soll each sponsored a Power Hour, matching up to $1,000 of donations during a particular hour.

Perhaps even more surprising than the Federation result was the total achieved by the Jewish Endowment Foundation. When midnight struck, JEF had exactly $18,000 from 35 donors. Last year, JEF raised $10,451 from 40 donors.

Jewish Family Service raised $10,255 from 96 donors, up from last year’s $3,544 from 78 donors. Jewish Children’s Regional Service raised $6,972 from 62 donors, up from 70 gifts totaling $5,814 last year.

The New Orleans Jewish Community Center raised $4,240, up slightly from last year’s $4,020 despite the number of donors dropping from 97 to 59.

AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps topped the newcomers, with 46 donors for $3,096. The National Council of Jewish Women raised $2,414 from 25 donors, up from last year’s $1,672 from 31 donors.

The Anti-Defamation League raised $2,327 from 39 donors, Hadassah brought in $1,067 from 18 donors and the Northshore Jewish Congregation raised $510 from 12 donors.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art repeated as top fundraiser, with $223,840 from 152 gifts. Last year they raised $101,285 from 147 donors.

Team Gleason once again topped the day in most donors, with 1,068, raising $55.281. Last year they had 631 donors for $42,864.

In all, GiveNOLA Day raised $4.083 million through 34,539 gifts. It was part of a national effort, Give Local America, which had 120 communities participating, with 9,000 nonprofits raising over $68 million.

Northwest Louisiana had Give for Good Day, raising $1.74 million.

Next year’s Give Local Day nationally will be May 3.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fans of Friedmann's "Too Jewish" will want to open "Do Not Open"

Many novels have a disclaimer that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

With Patty Friedmann’s “Too Jewish” trilogy, not so much.

The New Orleans author releases the final installment of the trilogy, “Do Not Open for 50 Years” with a launch party at Garden District Book Shop on May 14 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

She said the series is “unabashedly autobiographical” in dealing with parents who have a complicated relationship and her growing up feeling like an outsider in the New Orleans Jewish community.

The trilogy’s roots came after Hurricane Katrina, when Julie Smith was developing an anthology of short stories, “New Orleans Noir.” She asked Friedmann for a story, but Friedmann protested that dark fiction was not her genre.

After Smith continued to urge her to expand her repertoire, she started to think of what would be the darkest place in New Orleans, and she came up with Newman School, which she had attended. “I wrote a story about mean girls, and it turned out to be the most dark story in the collection,” she said. The story was “Two-Story Brick Houses.”

Smith saw the story as the launch point for a novel, but instead of carrying the story forward from the 1960s, she carried it backwards.

“The girl in the story had a father who was a Holocaust survivor, so I went back into his history… that became ‘Too Jewish’,” she said. She called it “the story I was probably put on Earth to write.”

Friedmann’s father was a Holocaust survivor who had escaped Nazi Germany, leaving his mother behind. He wound up in New Orleans, married to a fifth-generation assimilated native.

“Too Jewish” was her way of saying “look what you did to him.” Her father grew up in an observant family in Europe, then wound up in New Orleans attending Temple Sinai, where “I don’t think anyone knew Hebrew. He had to push aside all of his upbringing to fit in.”

Between his traditional upbringing and having his education cut off at the eighth grade by the Nazi regime, “his in-laws definitely thought he was unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, she did a presentation several years ago at Temple Sinai, which she marveled had changed quite a bit since her father’s time. “Everybody was really sweet to me,” she said.

Reaction to the books from some of her mother’s family was “we love you anyway.”

She felt that in “Too Jewish” she was going to say everything she had to say. “I got a lot out of my system with that book.” Her 1991 work “The Exact Image of Mother” became “Too Jewish: The Next Generation,” the second part of the trilogy, then “Do Not Open” “let me deal a little bit more with the father and a lot more with the mother.”

In “Too Jewish,” the mother was sympathetic, having grown up “spoiled to the point of being beaten down by it.” She was loyal to her husband — but as soon as her husband died, “she winds up back in the thrall of her parents” and goes back to being self-centered.

She calls it “an unusual Holocaust story. Here is a man who escaped one form of prejudice only to learn of prejudice that comes from his own people in the mid-century Deep South.”

As the books continue, there is also the exploration of a daughter who comes from “that sort of mixed marriage” who is also “an outcast in school,” where most of the Jewish kids go to Sunday School each weekend and view the few kids who go to the Conservative congregation and have Bat Mitzvahs to be less Jewish.

“Do Not Open” is set in recent times, as the daughter, Darby, has become a bestselling New Orleans author by writing about the tragedy of her father’s life.

The title comes from her father’s wishes to shield her from oral histories he did before his death in the early 1960s.

In “Do Not Open,” she feels ambivalence as her mother is missing after Katrina, her daughter returns from evacuating to Florida, bringing back a boyfriend who goes against everything Darby stands for in the second book.

While she struggles to get back on her feet after the storm, long-lost high school classmates resurface and want to reunite, despite their role in the death of Darby’s father decades earlier.

She is quick to explain one controversial passage in the new novel, where Darby slams the comparison of Hurricane Katrina to the Holocaust.

“I’m not making that comparison,” Friedmann said, but she has “personal autobiographical material that gives me a certain understanding” of a parallel.

Her father had left his mother behind in Europe because she did not want to believe what was happening, and he wrestled with survivor’s guilt. When Katrina hit, “I wouldn’t leave” but she sent her son — who was named for her father — to Houston, where he “cried for a week” until she was rescued.

After that, “for the first time I understood the whole mechanism of the relationship between my father and his mother,” she said. If she could speak to her father now, she would tell him that “a mother doesn’t think of anything but her son getting away safely, so you can forgive yourself” for leaving.

“There is no real analogy between the two large catastrophies,” she said, “but on the personal level there is that small connection.”

Friedmann is also the author of “Too Smart to be Rich,” “Odds,“ “Taken Away,” “No Takebacks,” “Pick-Up Line,” “A Little Bit Ruined: Eleanor Rushing Meets Hurricane Katrina” and “Secondhand Smoke.” Another recent novel, “Through The Windshield: An Extremely Dark Comedy” comes with a money-back offer if readers find it too disturbing.

In 2011 “Taken Away” was a finalist for Book of the Year for small presses. In 2001–2002, she was writer-in-residence at Tulane University.

She said “Do Not Open” closes out the story of Darby, “unless I want to live another 30 years, which I haven’t figured out yet.”


Monday, May 4, 2015

New Orleans' Alon Shaya wins James Beard Award

When a culinary tour of Israel for this summer was announced recently, New Orleans Chef Alon Shaya said it would be a chance for people to tour Israel with James Beard Award winners — then quickly noted it was the other three chefs on the tour who are the James Beard winners.

Make it four for four.

A change of venue for the James Beard Awards to Chicago served as the charm for Shaya as he was named Best Chef South this evening. He has been a nominee for the previous three years and a finalist for the previous two.

Shaya opened his self-named Israeli restaurant, Shaya, in New Orleans earlier this year after being executive chef and co-owner at Domenica and Pizza Domenica. In 2012 he was named Chef of the Year by New Orleans magazine.

At the award ceremony, Shaya said he was “totally not prepared to make a speech.” He thanked New Orleans for embracing him. “I’m an Israeli who grew up in Philly who is cooking food in New Orleans, and somehow that all comes together and tastes good.”

He noted that no chef gets to that level without a lot of assistance, and he thanked “the team we have at Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya,” the “300 employees that make those restaurants tick every day… none of this could ever happen without all the hard work, dedication and passion.”

He also thanked his wife, Emily, for her support, and John Besh and Octavio Mantilla who “have been huge parts of my career and my growth.”

After his name was announced and Shaya made his way to the stage, the announcer suggested “don’t get between this chef and his extra-virgin olive oil.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

Shoals communities establish sister city ties with Beth-El, Israel

North Alabama Friends of Israel took part in last summer's pro-Israel rallies in Huntsville during the Gaza operation.


The four cities that make up Alabama’s Shoals area are entering into a sister city relationship with Beit El, Israel.

Over the last five weeks, the cities of Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals approved resolutions recognizing the relationship.

In the Shoals area, Beit El will be referred to as Beth-El, the way the ancient community is spelled in most English translations of the Bible.

Located just north of Ramallah and 20 miles north of Jerusalem, Beth-El is a town of 6,000 built next to the ruins of Biblical Beit El, which is presumed to be the place where Jacob had his famous dream of a ladder to heaven and uttered the verse that became the “Mah Norah Hamakom Hazeh” (“How full of awe is this place”) prayer.

It was there that God made four promises to Jacob, including the continuity of the Jewish people, eternal claim to the land of Israel, and that the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel.

The town is also home to the Arutz Sheva news service, and a boutique winery whose vineyards are on terraces that date back to Second Temple times. There is also an olive oil factory in a cave, with production dating back to the First Temple.

Debra Barnes explained that the North Alabama Friends of Israel had been discussing the establishment of a relationship with an Israeli city for years. The process started moving forward in June 2014, when Mona Allen of Killen was visiting Israel. During a visit to Beth-El, city representative Judy Simon asked Allen “Have you ever thought about making us your sister city?”

Allen, a native of New Bethel, located just south of Tuscumbia, also spent three weeks in Israel last March as a Sar El volunteer with the Israel Defense Forces.

A committee of eight members in the Shoals area worked with Beth-El Mayor Shai Alon to move the process forward. The mayors of the four cities asked the Shoals Chamber of Commerce to be the point organization to work on the request, under the leadership of Chamber President Steve Holt.

Beth-El sent a video introducing the community, narrated by Simon and Arutz Sheva representative Baruch Gordon. After several meetings, the mayors presented resolutions at their respective council meetings.

Sheffield became the first community to approve the relationship, at a March 23 City Council meeting.

Florence finished the process on April 21 with a unanimous vote.

The resolution noted that many from the Shoals area had traveled to Israel, and referenced the 1943 resolution of the Alabama Legislature calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in its ancient homeland.

The Shoals Beth-El Sister City Commission will be set up “to encourage cooperation among the five cities and to facilitate the sharing of expertise by involving appropriate individuals, groups and businesses in developing cultural, educational, technical and commercial exchanges.”

Simon suggested that the first initiative should be an e-pal program among children in the communities, as many sister cities have.

Barnes said plans are being formed to bring a small delegation from Beth-El to the Shoals area, and a trip for Shoals leaders to Israel is being planned for October.

A cultural event for the Shoals area is also being proposed, “where we can all learn more about the agriculture, commerce, art and music of Israel,” Barnes said.

The partnership is the second in Alabama with a community in the territories outside the pre-1967 border. Mobile has a sister city relationship with Ariel, a community that is also the focus of JR Israel, a leadership development organization based in Birmingham. Almost all sister city relationships with Israel are with communities inside the pre-1967 border. Birmingham's sister city, Rosh Ha'Ayin, is just inside the Green Line.

Barnes explained they were looking to be “Biblically correct” instead of politically correct, especially because of the promise made to Jacob at that spot.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Florida ZBT shut down after incident with veterans at Panama City Beach

The Zeta Beta Tau fraternity chapter at the University of Florida was shut down on April 28 after allegations of misconduct toward wounded combat veterans in Panama City Beach.

About 60 veterans were attending the Warrior Beach Retreat and staying at the Laketown Wharf in Panama City Beach.

The ZBT members were attending their spring formal on April 17 when some members started yelling at the veterans, spitting at them, throwing beer bottles and tearing flags off of their cars. There are also allegations that fraternity members urinated on American flags.

While police were called, no police report was filed and the hotel management was allowed to remedy the situation, which they did by kicking out the fraternity.

Initial reports included allegations against ZBT members from Emory University, who were also at the formal. The Emory chapter, which suspended all activities on April 23, issued a statement saying that none of its members participated and they were “shocked to learn of the atrocious acts” from that evening.

After the investigation, Emory ZBT stated, “We have found no evidence that members of our fraternity were involved. If information implicating any member of our organization arises, we will hold those individuals fully accountable.” The university also said it had investigated and did not find evidence of involvement by Emory students, but would also hold any such student accountable if there is any evidence.

Nevertheless, a veteran’s group is organizing a protest against Emory ZBT on May 5.

The Florida chapter was already on probation for hazing last fall. After receiving information about the incident, the university charged the fraternity with obscene behavior, public drunkenness, causing physical or other harm, theft and property damage.

The fraternity has been renting the former Sigma Phi Epsilon house, which had been closed in 2013 after misconduct allegations. Because of death threats, campus police have been posted at the house.

The university and national ZBT worked together to decide on closing the chapter.

In a statement announcing the closure, ZBT International said “In the course of dual investigations, ZBT and the University of Florida have found additional evidence of behavior from some members that falls well below the standards of both organizations. While investigators have not yet found conclusive evidence regarding some of the more egregious allegations, it is clear that students made irresponsible decisions and behaved in ways that are unacceptable and disrespectful.”

ZBT International Fraternity President Matthew J. Rubins said “We are absolutely disgusted by the accusations that have been made regarding the behavior of members of this chapter. ZBT has a long history of serving our country, with brothers currently serving in all ranks of the military.”

He added, “ZBT will work diligently to demonstrate that the alleged behavior of a few does not represent the values of the many.”
ZBT International has hired an independent investigator to determine what happened.

Warrior Beach Retreat Founder Linda Cope said the incident was “very disheartening” but she was proud that the veterans “kept their cool” despite the provocations. She added that the fraternity members clearly had too much to drink, contributing to the incident.

The Panama City Beach Police Department has since stated they will conduct a criminal investigation against fraternity members.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said he was “saddened and disappointed by the reported mistreatment and disrespect of our military veterans. Our university has always honored, and will always honor, the service of veterans.”

The vice president of student affairs, Dave Kratzer, promised the university would work “quickly and appropriately” to respond to the incident. Kratzer is a retired U.S. Army general and combat veteran.

He noted that the “actions of a very few people” have “cast a very negative light” on the university.

ZBT International Executive Director Laurence Bolotin said the international group has reached out to Warrior Beach Retreat to make amends, and that ZBT will turn this into an educational opportunity. As hundreds of ZBT alumni are veterans, the fraternity will turn to them to lend “their knowledge and expertise to the education of ZBT brothers. We believe they have much to teach all of us about leadership, accountability and service.”

Many members have also expressed a desire to make amends and “better reflect our fraternity’s values and our gratitude for those who have served our country.” The first step will be using an upcoming day of service to work with veterans’ organizations. “We intend to make it an annual event,” Bolotin said.

Dermer in Birmingham: Our ancestors would have traded for our problems

Reverend Arthur Price of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham explains some history of the 1963 bombing to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Consul General Opher Aviran on April 29.


While news from the Middle East may be full of woe and conflict, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer took his time in Birmingham to urge people to step back and look at Israel in a different light — instead of pessimistically viewing the glass as “one-sixteenth empty.”

“Our ancestors would have given anything to trade their problems for ours,” Dermer said.

He said some Jews take Israel for granted because “if you’re younger than 75 you don’t remember what the world was like without Israel.”

During his April 28 talk at Temple Beth-El to a crowd of about 300, Dermer described the three gifts Israel has given to the Jewish people — the right of self-defense, a place of refuge and a sovereign voice in world affairs.

After 100 generations of wandering minority status subject to the whims of others, only three generations have had “the privilege to live at a time when there is a sovereign Jewish state.”

Dermer noted that Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was wrong about one thing. He felt the establishment of a Jewish state would end anti-Semitism because Jews were a minority everywhere and a majority nowhere.

Today, Dermer noted, some think anti-Semitism is a result of the Jewish state’s existence — a century ago the rallying cry for anti-Semites was “Jews, go to Palestine” while today it is “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

The old hatred of Jews has simply been turned toward the Jewish state, he explained.

The difference is that today, the Jewish people have the ability to defend against that hatred, he said. A world without Israel meant Jews were eternal victims. A world with Israel shows Jews refuse to be victims.

“Most peoples could not take a punch” like the Holocaust, losing one-third of their population. “The Jewish people have risen like a phoenix from the ashes and rebuilt their national life.”

Likewise, today nobody has to ask where a Jew facing anti-Semitism could go. “Unlike the past we don’t worry about whether this or that country will deign to take Jews in.”

That is also a benefit to Jews who choose not to move to Israel. “Appreciate what that choice means to you,” Dermer said. “You live in America because you want to, not because you have to.”

He said America’s greatest gift to the Jews is the hyphen between Jewish-American. “Throughout our history we have had to make a choice. You could be fully committed to your faith or you could be part of the broader society. In America a Jew could be a full partner.”

In discussing the Jewish voice in world affairs, he mentioned the recent controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, where he laid out opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran.

Before Israel, Dermer said, Jews had to remain silent. He stated that no Jew speaks for all Jews, no prime minister speaks for all Israelis and no American president speaks for all Americans.

But, Dermer noted, the Israeli prime minister is “the leader of the one and only Jewish state,” which gives all Jews the right of immigration and citizenship. Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress was “a decision to speak up for the Jewish people and the Jewish state at a critical time.”

All peace-loving countries have a stake in keeping Iran from joining the nuclear club, he said, but Israel “has a special stake.”

Israel isn’t at the table for the 5 plus 1 talks with Iran, but 20 years ago when similar talks were going on with North Korea, the two nations with the biggest stake — Japan and South Korea — were.

While the controversy over Netanyahu’s remarks was framed in terms of him versus the White House, Dermer said Netanyahu spoke up “not out of disrespect” for President Barack Obama. “Israel speaks up because we have a moral obligation to speak against a country that threatens the survival of Israel.”

Israel has a “deep respect” for Obama, “for things he has done, some known, some less known and some that will never be known.”

Israel never wants to become a partisan issue, Dermer stated. “I am supremely confident our relationship will weather the current disagreement between our two governments,” and there have been worse disagreements in the past.

The U.S.-Israel relationship will grow even stronger in the years ahead, especially because of shared security challenges.

That said, Dermer stated the “very bad deal” being discussed with Iran virtually guarantees it will become a nuclear state. It will “trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would make nuclear terror a clear and present danger.” If Iran behaves for a few years it can join the nuclear club unconditionally, without any change in behavior.

Freeing up tens of billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets will be used “not to build new medical centers in Tehran but to finance terror proxies around the Middle East.”

It isn’t just Israel that opposes the deal. “When Israelis and Arabs are on the same page, pay attention. That’s the ultimate no-spin zone.”

Israel does hope for a diplomatic solution, because if there is a military confrontation Israel would be the one paying the high price. But “we didn’t come back from the dead to let a bunch of ayatollahs wipe us out.”

The world is seeing the collapse of a 100-year order in the Middle East, carved out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Now, Dermer said, “militant Islam is charging into the void.”

At a reception before his talk, Dermer told supporters of the Birmingham Jewish Federation that he is a faithful reader of the Federation’s Update, a daily email newsletter, and has often shared items with Netanyahu.

“What you do here in Birmingham is really remarkable,” he said. Noting how the community stays informed and engaged, Dermer said “communities like this are part of the backbone of support for Israel.”

Dermer’s visit was announced and coordinated in less than two weeks, and Birmingham Jewish Federation Executive Director Richard Friedman, who originated Update, was already scheduled to be out of the country.

Dermer, a Miami Beach native, detailed extensive ties to Alabama, from a brother who attended Cumberland School of Law to a cousin who is a surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to a grandfather who played football at Alabama in the 1940s. “The first football pads I got were the ones he wore at Bama,” he said.

He added that he became a quarterback for Israel’s national football team, where he discovered that the key to becoming a great Jewish athlete is to play against fellow Jews.

He also mentioned how he was influenced as a student by Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and King was a hero of his.

On April 29, he met with Mayor William Bell and then visited Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and placed a wreath at the spot where a Klan bomb exploded on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four girls.

He then went to Montgomery to visit the civil rights memorial before meeting with Governor Robert Bentley, where they discussed the Iron Bowl and Iron Dome, and further Alabama-Israel missile defense cooperation.