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Annual Chabad rabbis’ conference spotlights rise in Jewish engagement as attendees mourn Israel’s dead

(New York Jewish Week) – This year’s conference of Chabad emissaries featured the same highlights that have anchored the past annual gatherings of the Hasidic movement’s rabbis from across the globe. 

The thousands of rabbis sat for a panoramic picture in front of the movement’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights. On Friday morning, they visited the grave of their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Queens. And on Sunday, as they do every year, they gathered for a massive banquet at a convention center in New Jersey. 

But this year much of the conference, planned months ago, had to change on short notice following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war against the terror group in Gaza — down to the time and guest list of Sunday’s gala. The movement’s 1,400 emissaries in Israel tuned in to the meal remotely, and it was moved from the evening to 12:30 p.m. in order to accommodate the time difference. 

“We understand the magnitude of the moment and it’s our time to prove to ourselves and to the world that we live and believe,” said Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev Pizem of Chabad of Sderot, an embattled Israeli city on the border with Gaza. Pizem and other Chabad rabbis from the city appeared in a video showing destruction in the city’s streets and the rabbis collecting donations and visiting troops. 

“When everything is fine, it’s easy to believe in God. When do we stand the test? When there’s a difficulty, an enormous difficulty,” he said. “Now is the test.”

The gala, which drew 6,500 people this year and is generally meant to be an uplifting celebration of Chabad’s Orthodox Jewish outreach work across the globe, included mournful elements within the festive atmosphere. It featured psalms for the victims of the attack and hostages, whose names scrolled on a screen as the Biblical verses were read aloud by Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot. The Israeli emissaries, related their experiences on the ground in the past month; they gathered in Jerusalem during the dinner in New Jersey.

“We are davening for your release every day,” Helfgot said regarding the hostages, as the screens showed photos of the captives. At least one soldier from the movement was killed in the Oct. 7 attack, and some Chabad members from Brooklyn flew to Israel to serve in their reserve units after the war started.

But alongside the grief, the Chabad representatives, known as shluchim, who hailed from college campuses in North America to the Australian outback, reported an outpouring of Jewish engagement since Oct. 7. According to a survey by that garnered responses from 211 of the movement’s rabbis, 86% reported increased attendance since Oct. 7. The rabbis also overwhelmingly said community members had increased personal religious practice, felt “scared” and felt a stronger connection to other Jews, to Israel and to their own Jewish identity.

“We’ve seen the community has grown more together than ever before. So many people are asking, ‘What can we do?’” said Yossi Swued, rabbi at the Chabad of Western University in Ontario, Canada. “I feel like the whole world is shaking, everyone wants to do something. I think everyone should tap into that.”

The Chabad conference annual gala, in Edison, New Jersey, November 12, 2023. (Luke Tress)

The gala retained its joyful atmosphere: The elaborate event featured multi-colored lights coordinated to music and videos; smoke machines; crane-mounted cameras sweeping over the crowd; musical performances and speeches by Chabad representatives about their local communities. This week’s conference was for the men, while a parallel event for women emissaries will be held in February.

The meal grew especially lively during the traditional “roll call” that announces the numbers of emissaries in each country and again toward the end of the event when the entire room, almost entirely men, gets up to dance in circles. The rabbis swirled around inside a vast hall, hands on each other’s shoulders, as music blasted and colored lights flickered across the crowd. A group hoisted a table in the air, pumping the platform up and down while two men danced on top, waving Israeli flags, and others stood on chairs nearby to film the festivities.

Chabad says there are 5,813 families serving as emissaries in more than 100 countries around the world, from hundreds in places like the United States and France to lone representatives in locales such as Zambia. That reach has put the emissaries on the forefront of the global reaction to the Hamas attack and subsequent surge in antisemitism, both in areas with significant Jewish populations and those without. The emissaries said Jews approached them after the attack to get mezuzahs for their homes, attend services for the first time or study Torah.

Rabbi Menachem Aron, who serves rural Australia, said a Jewish man contacted him to request a new pair of tefillin after the attack, since the phylacteries were not available in the remote region where he lives.

“He’s 16 hours north of Perth, absolute middle of nowhere, but he knows that he can stay connected even during these times,” Aron said, adding that Australian Jews were grappling with antisemitism in both the city and more remote regions.

“We’re angry but we’re not scared,” he said. “People want to increase their Judaism. They want to put on tefillin, they want to light the Shabbat candles.”

Rabbi Aryeh Long of Camarillo, California, called the moment an “awakening” in his community. A man who lives near his Chabad center had never attended services before Oct. 7, but now comes in every day to pray. The man is an Israel Defense Forces veteran who served in the 1967 Six Day War and in recent weeks started doing volunteer guard duty at the Chabad preschool, Long said. 

In El Paso, Texas, Rabbi Levi Greenberg said he received a call days after the attack from a local woman, who said, “Rabbi, I want to put up mezuzahs in my house. How quickly can we do it?”

“I ran over with some mezuzahs and right away we put them up,” he said. “People want to be more connected.”

The post Annual Chabad rabbis’ conference spotlights rise in Jewish engagement as attendees mourn Israel’s dead appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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MIT partially suspends students who occupied building for pro-Palestinian ‘die-in’

(JTA) – The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will suspend a handful of students from “non-academic” activities after they participated in a recent pro-Palestinian “die-in.”

The decision was announced in a Nov. 9 letter from MIT President Sally Kornbluth, who did not specify how many students will be suspended. The protest, which occurred that day, was put on by a campus group known as the Coalition Against Apartheid. The action was taken because “a line had been crossed” in the protesters’ occupation of a university building, Kornbluth wrote.

“Today’s protest – which became disruptive, loud and sustained through the morning hours – was organized and conducted in defiance” of guidelines the university had issued to the students ahead of time, wote Kornbluth, who was appointed president of MIT last year, on Thursday. 

The episode is the latest example of a university taking concrete action against anti-Israel activism on its campus. It comes after Columbia University and Brandeis University announced suspensions of pro-Palestinian student groups surrounding their opposition to Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Columbia suspended the groups, including Jewish anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace, for violating school policy. Brandeis said it suspended Students for Justice in Palestine because the group “‘openly supports Hamas,” which the United State designates as a terror group.

The war has enflamed tensions on campuses nationwide and led to increased fears of antisemitism. The Florida state university system has also been ordered to ban all SJP chapters at its schools, and major donors and politicians have applied additional pressure to schools to take more determined action against anti-Israel activity.

The Coalition Against Apartheid had held the “die-in” in MIT’s main entrance to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza; pro-Israel counterprotesters also showed up. Administrators had warned the students that they could not use the entrance or disrupt research as part of their protest. Many students left after the school said they could be “subject to suspension,” but some did not, Kornbluth wrote.

The school is prohibiting the students from attending “non-academic campus activities” while keeping them enrolled at the school. Administrators stopped short of suspending students outright because of “serious concerns about collateral consequences for the students, such as visa issues,” Kornbluth wrote. 

The president added that MIT’s investigation into the protest, including individual actions taken by both protesters and counter-protesters, would continue. Kornbluth said that members of a counterprotest may also have violated MIT policies and did not specify the viewpoints of the suspended students. Photos of the protest taken by the student newspaper, The Tech, show students setting up displays in the building with both Israeli and Palestinian flags

MIT Hillel’s director did not immediately respond to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment.

In an open letter shared on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, by Israeli MIT professor Retsef Levi, a group calling itself the MIT Israel Alliance criticized administration for not outright suspending the offending students. The group claimed that Jewish and Israeli students had been physically prevented from attending classes and that members of the pro-Palestinian group had harassed Jewish MIT staff in their offices. 

“They have shown that actions against Jews at MIT do not have consequences,” the letter states.

The post MIT partially suspends students who occupied building for pro-Palestinian ‘die-in’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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As Europe’s Jews see a new era of antisemitism, governments struggle over how to respond

(JTA) — In synagogues, schools and ordinary streets across Europe, Jews are voicing a similar refrain: They live in a different world from the one they knew before Oct. 7.

That’s not only because Hamas’ attacks in southern Israel killed the most Jewish civilians in one day since the Holocaust. Across Europe, the rate of antisemitic incidents has fueled an atmosphere of fear and motivated some to conceal their Jewish identity.

European governments have made it a point to protect their countries’ Jews from antisemitism in recent decades. The fruits of those efforts are seen in the increased security at Jewish institutions across the continent and the continued public statements by Western leaders meant to call out and condemn hatred against Jews.

But there is a new wrinkle to that arc: a clear, tortured confusion in European governments and police departments about how to distinguish between anger against Israel and antisemitism, between the right to assemble at pro-Palestinian rallies and the crime of hate speech. The debate was punctuated on Monday by the firing of British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who made a series of divisive remarks about pro-Palestinian demonstrators last week.

A new era?

Over a month into the bloody aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israeli towns and Israel’s bombardment and siege of the Gaza Strip, antisemitism is soaring far from the scene of the conflict.

France has registered over 1,000 antisemitic acts since Oct. 7, exceeding in weeks the number recorded over the past year, according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. The Community Security Trust, a group that tracks antisemitism in Britain, has reported 1,205 incidents in that time frame — the highest total in a 35-day period since it began recording offenses in 1984. And in Germany, the federal agency RIAS verified 202 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7-15, up 240% from the same week last year.

The incidents run the gamut: Assaults, threats to Jews and Jewish businesses, damage to Jewish property, hate mail and online abuse.

On Nov. 4, a Jewish woman in Lyon was stabbed in the stomach at her home, while a swastika was found graffitied on her door. French prosecutors have also opened a probe into a viral video that showed a group of youths chanting on the Paris metro: “Fuck the Jews and fuck your mother, long live Palestine, we are Nazis and proud of it.”

Meanwhile, Berlin police are investigating two Molotov cocktails thrown at the Kahal Adass Jisroel synagogue, along with multiple Stars of David marked on apartment buildings. The Oct. 27 cover of the German magazine Der Spiegel, one of the most widely circulated news magazines in Europe, read “Wir Haben Angst” (“We are scared”). One of the four German Jews pictured on the cover is 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Ivar Buterfas-Frankenthal.

Marina Chernivsky is the founder and director of OFEK, a Berlin counseling center that specializes in antisemitic violence and discrimination. The group has struggled to manage a 12-fold increase in requests for psychological counseling since Oct. 7, she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In just three weeks, OFEK received 390 requests; its previous record was 370 in an entire year.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Chernivsky. “It’s just one indicator of the situation now, because it’s a very high barrier to decide to call an institution and tell the story and also ask for support. It’s not easy and many people do not do it.”

London police received reports of 657 antisemitic and 230 Islamophobic incidents between Oct.1 and Nov. 1, a significant jump in both categories. On Nov. 2, staff at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library — the world’s oldest Holocaust library and research center — found graffiti that read “Gaza” across their building’s sign.

In Italy’s capital, four Holocaust memorial plaques were found blackened with a torch and spray paint last week. The bronze blocks, called “pietre d’inciampo” or “stumbling stones” in Rome, are embedded on the sidewalk in front of apartment buildings where Jews were rounded up from the Nazi-occupied city and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. They show the names of the Jews who lived there and the dates when they were born, deported and murdered.

Milan officials are also investigating dozens of antisemitic incidents, including death threats graffitied in a hospital, a bakery and a nightclub. At a recent Milan rally, some protestors chanted, “Open the borders so we can kill the Zionists.”

Spain and Portugal have seen their share of synagogue graffiti, too. In Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast, a group of protestors gathered in front of a synagogue and burned an Israeli flag.

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto, Portugal, was hit with graffiti tied to the Israel-Hamas conflict, Oct. 11, 2023. (CIP)

In the Netherlands, the number of antisemitic incidents reported to a leading Dutch-Jewish watchdog is up 818% from the monthly average of the past three years. This figure only includes interpersonal incidents, such as threats, verbal and physical abuse and direct messages, not general antisemitic statements on social media.

“We see lots of incidents at schools, where Jewish or Israeli kids are being attacked because of what’s going on in Israel and Gaza,” CIDI director Naomi Mestrum told JTA. “One kid was threatened with a knife and hit with a bottle, while the other kids were swearing, ‘kankerjood’ — in Dutch, that means ‘cancer Jew.’”

The Dutch Jewish Weekly changed its delivery packaging from transparent plastic to an anonymous white envelope after Oct. 7, according to editor-in-chief Esther Voet, because subscribers were anxious about their neighbors finding out they were Jewish. Their requests follow a pattern of fear among Jews taking measures to hide their identity in Europe, from removing or camouflaging their mezuzahs to taking off their kippahs in public and avoiding speaking Hebrew on the street. One Syrian Jewish refugee in the Netherlands told JTA he no longer sleeps in his own apartment after his window was defaced with a swastika.

Although antisemitism typically flares in Europe when there is fighting in Israel and the Palestinian territories, tracking groups in France, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands all report that European Jews are living in a new landscape.

“We’ve never seen this before, both this increase in numbers and the threatening types of incidents,” CIDI researcher and policy advisor Hans Wallage told JTA. “I also hear from the Jewish community that they’ve never experienced this before, and they’re very afraid and anxious for the future.”

The free speech debate

In the face of this crescendo, European governments have been conflicted over how to crack down on antisemitism without inhibiting free speech.

In France, Darmanin attempted to impose a blanket ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations, declaring them “likely to generate disturbances to public order.” Vincent Brengarth, a lawyer for the Palestine Action Committee, called this order a “serious attack on freedom of expression.” The ban has since been overturned by France’s top administrative court, although local authorities can still block protests on a case-by-case basis.

London’s Metropolitan police have been open about their difficulty in determining which protest chants are lawful and which could incite violence. In a bulletin on Oct. 20, they discussed the popular chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which has various interpretations. Some activists say it means that Palestinians should be free of Israeli occupation, with rights and dignity equal to Israelis. Critics, including Israeli leaders and Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, say the chant calls for a Palestinian entity that has eliminated Jews and Israelis between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

“While we can envisage scenarios where chanting these words could be unlawful, such as outside a synagogue or Jewish school, or directly at a Jewish person or group intended to intimidate, it is likely that its use in a wider protest setting… would not be an offense and would not result in arrests,” said the Metropolitan police.

Police officers arrest a pro-Palestinian protester during the demonstration in Piccadilly Circus in London, Nov. 4, 2023. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the British government is divided. Ahead of a massive pro-Palestinian rally in London on Saturday, Suella Braverman wrote an op-ed calling the protestors “hate marchers” and accusing the police of being overly lenient with them. In a letter to senior police officers last month, the former home secretary argued that waving a Palestinian flag and chanting “From the river to the sea” should both be considered as possible criminal offenses.

Britain’s Labour party, just a few years removed from a longstanding antisemitism scandal, is similarly divided. Party leader Keir Starmer has shown a zero-tolerance policy for anything he sees as approaching hate speech against Jews. Labour parliament member Andy McDonald was suspended, pending an investigation, after the party alleged that he made “deeply offensive” comments at a rally on Oct. 29. He said in the speech: “We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.”

Although Germany’s constitution protects freedom of expression, opinion and assembly, various local authorities have imposed bans on pro-Palestinian protests — including Hamburg, the second-largest city. In some places, resistance to these orders has led to clashes between protestors and riot police. Berlin’s education senator Katharina Guenther-Wuensch has allowed schools to ban the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity, along with the phrase “Free Palestine.”

Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has said he believes that protest bans are “definitely justified” to prevent “anti-Israel, aggressive and antisemitic” actions.

But some vocal opponents of the protest bans are Jews. In an open letter published in the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung and the New York-based magazine N+1, over 100 Jewish artists, writers and scholars in Germany said the suppression of pro-Palestinian rallies did not make them feel safer.

The group noted the surge in violent intimidation against German Jews and expressed fear that “the atmosphere in Germany has become more dangerous — for Jews and Muslims alike — than at any time in the nation’s recent history.” However, they denounced bans on nonviolent protest, saying these restrictions often come with brutality to immigrants and minorities and can escalate instead of preventing violence.

“As Jews, we reject this pretext for racist violence and express full solidarity with our Arab, Muslim, and particularly our Palestinian neighbors,” said the letter. “What frightens us is the prevailing atmosphere of racism and xenophobia in Germany, hand in hand with a constraining and paternalistic philo-Semitism. We reject in particular the conflation of anti-Semitism and any criticism of the state of Israel.”

The post As Europe’s Jews see a new era of antisemitism, governments struggle over how to respond appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Public school board now investigating a Peel Region principal’s social media post disputing a rise in antisemitism

The principal of a Peel Region public school will not be at work while the school board investigates a social media post that appears to dismiss or distort reports of rising antisemitism in the Greater Toronto Area. Peel District School Board (PDSB) officials confirmed that Rich Ward, the principal of Tribune Drive Public School in […]

The post Public school board now investigating a Peel Region principal’s social media post disputing a rise in antisemitism appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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