(JTA) — Every few years I put out a call asking what people will be reading in preparation for the High Holidays, and usually one book tops the list: “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation,” by the late Rabbi Alan Lew.
Published 20 years ago this month, “This Is Real” is an attempt by Lew, a Conservative rabbi trained in Buddhist practice, to get perhaps jaded readers to see the period that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot as a time for deep spiritual introspection — or, as he writes, a time to “move from self-hatred to self-forgiveness, from anger to healing, from hard-heartedness to brokenheartedness.”
If that sounds like the gospel of “self-care,” you’re not far off. Lew, who died in 2009 at age 65, came of age during the self-actualization movement, a serious attempt by psychologists to get people to live up to values that transcend their desire for wealth and status. By the time cosmetics companies, crystal sellers and lifestyle influencers took hold of the concept, it was derided as selfishness disguised as a spiritual journey.
But Lew’s book grounds concepts of “self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness and spiritual evolution” in normative Judaism. “This Is Real” never strays far from a traditional Judaism that saw the period of prayer, reflection and repentance surrounding the holidays as a time for a moral wake-up call.
That hybrid of the traditional and the much-maligned “New Age” continues to appeal to readers. Jewish educator Joshua Ladon, writing in the 2020 anthology “The New Jewish Canon,” calls the book “the handbook for American Jewish High Holiday survival,” comparing its influence to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s mega-bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Synagogues host book groups to discuss the book in the run-up to the holidays; the book’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, issued a paperback version only in 2018, suggesting its hardcover sales had remained strong for 15 years.
Ilana Sandberg, a rabbinical student at JTS, recommended Lew’s book last month in a video for the seminary.
She first read the book in the fall of 2020 as she was preparing to lead High Holiday services at Brandeis Hillel for the first time as the rabbinic intern, and considers the late author her “spiritual hevruta,” or study partner, in the lead-up to the holidays. The book, Sandberg says, is about “accepting this idea that we are ever-changing beings and there really is a possibility for change, for renewal as we go through the cycle of the year.”
Lew was spiritual leader at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom from 1991 to 2005. Raised in Brooklyn and New York’s Westchester County, he was underwhelmed by the suburban Judaism of the 1950s and ’60s and, like many Jewish seekers of his era, turned to Zen Buddhism — at one point considering becoming a lay priest.
“It was in a Buddhist monastery, meditating, that I realized who I really am. I am a Jew,” he wrote in “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi,” a memoir he co-wrote in 2001 with his wife, Sherril Jaffe. “A Jew can use the practice of meditation to illuminate his or her Jewish soul.”
A poet and sometime bus driver, Lew was 38 when he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the training ground for Conservative rabbis. In 2000, he founded Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center housed at his synagogue.
In “This Is Real,” he writes about the meditative aspects of High Holiday prayer. “When we sit in meditation with other people, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, thinking thoughts in the same rhythms and patterns, we experience our connection to each other in a very immediate way,” he writes.
But Lew’s version of the High Holidays is hardly passive or even gentle: Preparing for the holidays, as he suggests in the title, is hard and daunting work. The dreamlike opening sequence describes the “journey” of the High Holiday period as “fraught with meaning and dread.”
Ladon wrote that Lew’s book represents “the possibility of American Judaism, full of vitality and transcending boundaries.” Perhaps because of, or even in spite of this, it was mostly non-Orthodox Jews who replied to my recent social media post asking about their attachment to “This Is Real.”
“I’m really moved by the way that Lew takes the traditional images of the Holidays — the wake-up call of the shofar, the books of life, death and the undecided, the opening of the gates — and retells them in a way that they speak directly to my personal existential discomfort,” wrote Jonah Mendelsohn, an actor and writer who has been reading the book with fellow members of SAJ, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan. “The book has me facing my own insecurity and self-judgment in a way that isn’t always comfortable, but pushes me to change.”
Karen Paul, a fundraising consultant and former executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation, said a friend gave her a copy of the book the year her husband died from glioblastoma.
“Lew’s comforting and relatable stories were precisely the roadmap I needed to begin to reshape my future,” she told me. “My favorite parable in the book is the day that the rabbi had to be on one side of the park for a [funeral] and the other side of the park for a birth. This is the dialectic of life, which, if we listen for it, applies to all that we do.”
Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt of the Reform Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires in North Adams, Massachusetts, recommends the book for “folks who might not self-identify as seekers, but who are interested in approaching the holidays in a deeper or more informed way.”
“When I first read it, it changed how I experience this two-month window of time, and I love opening that up for those whom I serve,” she wrote me. “How can we harness this season to fuel our inner work so that we can emerge ready to grow and become and try again?”
But she, like others, notes that “This Is Real” isn’t without his flaws. She suggests that Lew “had some blind spots, notably around gender.” (Last year, Jewish blogger Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz criticized his “heterosexual, male” handling of the sexual dynamics in Ki Tetze, the Torah portion that includes instructions for soldiers taking women captives as “wives.”)
The book also has admiring references to Rudy Giuliani — the New York City mayor turned RICO defendant — and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach — the songwriter who faced posthumous allegations of sexual misconduct — that read differently than they did 20 years ago.
Barenblatt suggests pairing his book with a “contemporary and feminist text” such as Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s recent book “On Repentance and Repair.”
Lew’s style — he glides between poetry and memoir, allegory and darshanut, or Torah commentary — isn’t for everyone. Many prefer Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s anthology “Days of Awe,” first published in English in 1948, a collection of mostly primary texts related to the High Holidays. Philip Goodman’s various anthologies for the Jewish Publication Society take a similar approach. The 1999 essay collection, “Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates is a corrective to books that ignore the central place of women in the liturgy.
Many of these books seem intended for readers who are looking for inspiration in synagogue when their attention begins to flag. Lew invites you to read his book as a coherent narrative of a nearly three-month process from destruction (Tisha B’Av) to joy (Sukkot).
But for some readers, it is also a book to be dipped into and sipped from.
“I have never finished this book,” Pittsburgh Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman admitted last month in a column recommending books for the High Holidays. “I read four or five pages. I stop and ponder over the meaning of existence and God and human growth and obligation and fallibility. Lew is poetic and instructive and guru-esque but also deeply personal; you feel you know him. The book’s title is perfect, and yet the book really will prepare you for the High Holidays, even if you, like me, never actually finish reading it. One might argue that this book, if properly read, is never finished.”
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Elon Musk, in live chat with right-leaning Jews, insists antisemitism isn’t a problem on X
(JTA) – Elon Musk called himself “aspirationally Jewish,” waffled on a prominent rabbi’s invitation to visit Auschwitz, and insisted that claims of rising antisemitism on his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, were “absurd.”
The billionaire tech mogul added that antisemitic posts should not be deplatformed, but should instead be met with “counterpoints.” He said that antisemites who aren’t presented with other views online are “just going to be hidden antisemites, and that’s not going to do. That’s perhaps worse.”
As an example, Musk cited Kanye West, whom he reinstated on X after the rapper’s antisemitic tirade got him banned last year.
Those statements and more were made during a friendly forum on Thursday featuring Musk and a lineup of Jewish men, most of them avowed conservatives, addressing antisemitism on X under his watch.
Hosted by the politically conservative Orthodox Jewish pundit Ben Shapiro and his publication The Daily Wire, the nearly two-hour chat was titled “X, anti-Semitism, Faith and Free Speech.” It came days after a call from more than 120 Jewish activists, most of them progressive, for advertisers and app stores to drop the platform, and in the wake of a series of attacks from Musk on the Anti-Defamation League. Musk blames an ad boycott spearheaded by the ADL for the site’s revenue loss, and has threatened to sue the antisemitism watchdog for billions of dollars. He has also amplified antisemitic accounts on X that have joined in condemning the group.
Musk has previously denied being antisemitic. On Thursday, he went further, saying, “in some respects I think I am Jewish, basically,” owing to what he said was his large proportion of Jewish friends.
“They use the X platform and I’m like, ‘Do you guys see anything?’ And they’re like, ‘Nope,’” he said.
He also insisted that “multiple third parties” have verified that hate speech has declined on the platform since his acquisition but did not share what those sources were.
Musk also defended himself from accusations of antisemitism, noting that Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of him hadn’t turned up any evidence of it. “He’s a pretty smart guy,” Musk said of Isaacson. “He might have figured it out if I was antisemitic.”
At another point in the call, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Chabad-affiliated chair of the European Jewish Association, asked Musk if he would visit the Auschwitz death camp alongside an upcoming mission of European rabbis.
At first Musk rejected the invite, saying, “I’m very well aware of the Holocaust and Auschwitz and Dachau and whatnot, and all the things that happened that were terrible. So this is not certainly new information for me. So I don’t need to visit Auschwitz to understand. I get it.”
After Margolin pressed the issue, Musk responded, “I will seriously consider it,” before later adding that he could swing by after a visit to a factory he owns in Berlin.
“Consider it a tentative yes,” he subsequently said. He also apologized for not responding to a petition from Jewish leaders worldwide to push X to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, a widely adopted document that has attracted controversy for defining some forms of Israel criticism as antisemitic. Musk said he hadn’t known about the petition.
At another point, Musk said that one of the main lessons he has taken away from learning about the Nazi era is that “Hitler and the Nazis were extremely censorious. … The Nazis loved censorship, big time.”
The call provided a small window into how Musk does seek to address hate speech on X. In addition to his comments on deplatforming and “counterpoints,” he framed the question of limiting hate speech as a largely economic one, rather than a moral one. “If we just hammer people with hate, they’re going to leave the platform,” he said. He made a similar statement in a recent live chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He also dodged a question from Shapiro about whether he would demonetize or reduce the reach of accounts that spout antisemitism, although later in the call, he did hint that X might begin experimenting with “freedom of speech, but not reach” — which would mean that X would reduce the visibility of hateful accounts.
Musk also would not commit to a request from former Israeli politician and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky to limit anti-Zionist speech on the platform, saying, “I think there is some value to not being draconian.”
The nine Jews on Thursday’s call were all male, and mostly on the right-leaning end of the political spectrum. They included former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz, who represented former President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial and has also often described himself as a liberal; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has acted as a rabbi-to-the-stars and once ran for Congress as a Republican.
One woman who had been scheduled to participate, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s new envoy for combating antisemitism, was not audible when called upon. Moderators attributed her absence, and that of one other participant, to technical difficulties.
Shapiro and other speakers on the call paid Musk a series of compliments on what they said were his positive views of Jewish people and his modeling of Jewish values — including the commandment to have large families. Musk has fathered more than 10 children via his ex-wife, Justine Wilson; his ex-girlfriend, Grimes; and Shivon Zilis, an executive at one of his companies for whom he was a sperm donor. Dershowitz noted that his son is also named Elon.
Boteach even told Musk he could “take credit” for “peace in the Middle East” if Israel and Saudi Arabia reach a normalization agreement, predicting that Musk’s electric car company Tesla would reduce the Saudis’ oil wealth and push them to come to the diplomatic table.
The participants on the call also agreed with Musk that the ADL shouldn’t be the sole voice speaking for Jews. Shapiro challenged the group’s reports that hate speech on X has risen since Musk’s takeover, saying his own experiences with antisemitism have declined.
“Of late they’ve become significantly more partisan in their progressive politics, to say the least,” Shapiro said, saying that Musk “happens to be right on the merits here” and calling his threat to sue the group for defamation “pretty funny.”
In response to a comment from another participant, Rabbi Ari Lamm, that the ADL controversy is “a distraction from the conversation serious Jewish people of all backgrounds should be having,” Musk said, “They definitely have impact on advertisers, I’ll tell you that.”
Tt other times Musk displayed a level of comfort with conspiracy theories on his platform, saying, “I think we’re running out of conspiracy theories that didn’t turn out to be true.”
Musk gave himself a positive grade, on the whole, when it came to fighting antisemitism on X.
“Overall I think things are actually pretty good, but I’m not saying they’re perfect. And we want to work to make them better,” he said. He added, “My entire life story is, in fact, pro-Semitic.”
“I think my values do match that of the Jewish people,” he said at another point. “Knowledge, reading, understanding, debating, these are all Jewish values and I very much agree with those.”
Musk’s conversation Thursday came less than 24 hours after X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, addressed his feud with the ADL at a tech conference in Dana Point, California. According to reports from the conference, Yaccarino noted her own dialogue with ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who she said “continues to question the progress as it relates to antisemitism.” She added, “It is disappointing that there is not equal time given to all the progress.”
In a discussion about Musk’s threats to sue the ADL, according to Axios, Yaccarino said, “I wish that would be different. We’re looking into that.” She later added, “Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to speak their opinion, no matter who they are, including Elon.” Shortly afterward, she reportedly left the stage abruptly.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety who was fired after a dispute with Musk over the site’s approach to moderating hate speech, also appeared at the conference.Roth, who is Jewish, said hate speech had gotten worse on the platform under Musk’s ownership.
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A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial.
(JTA) — Earlier this year, a British Jewish nonprofit received a call from a young couple in the city of Brest, Belarus, who had just purchased a fixer-upper house and needed some help with a difficult situation: Their basement was built from old Jewish gravestones.
Jewish groups — including the nonprofit The Together Plan and its American arm, the Jewish Tapestry Project, founded to aid Belarusian Jewry — have been receiving such calls for nearly two decades from residents of Brest who have collectively discovered thousands of Jewish headstones in their city’s construction. All of the headstones come from a historic cemetery that was destroyed during and after the Holocaust.
Today, an athletic complex sits on the site of the cemetery, which once contained tens of thousands of graves. But by the end of next year, The Together Plan expects to complete a memorial to the cemetery. It is also in the process of organizing and cataloging more than 3,200 remnants of the cemetery’s headstones, which were used after World War II in construction projects throughout the city.
“Currently there’s nothing there to say it’s a cemetery,” Debra Brunner, CEO and co-founder of The Together Plan, the group leading the project, told CNN.
Before World War II, Brest — also known as Brest-Litovsk, or Brisk to the Jewish community that lived there — was home to more than 20,000 Jews and was a center of Jewish culture and study. But when the city was liberated after the Holocaust, only about 10 Jews remained there. Today, it has a total population of more than 300,000.
The Nazis also destroyed the city’s Jewish cemetery in part by selling half of its headstones. In the decades following the war, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and construction materials were hard to find, the gravestones became the foundations of homes, supermarkets, garden walks and cellars. In some cases, the Hebrew lettering on the stones was chiseled away.
The memorial will be erected on what was once a corner of the cemetery, some distance away from the sports complex. It will be made from broken pieces of the headstones that have been recovered over the past two decades and will feature a black granite plaque with text in Russian, Hebrew and English. The area surrounding the memorial will be covered with trees, grass and wildflowers.
Jewish cemetery preservation has been at times a contentious issue in Belarus. As recently as 2017, a Belarusian court approved a plan to construct a luxury apartment building on top of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Gomel, near the country’s borders with Ukraine and Russia. The Brest municipality has pledged to maintain the upkeep of its city’s memorial but did not provide any funds directly to the project. It is being led by the Together Plan and the Jewish Tapestry Project and supported by the Religious Jewish Union of Belarus, the Illuminate Foundation and the charitable Belarus-based organization Dialog.
“Jews have always honored the memory of their ancestors,” Boris Bruk, chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community of Brest, said in a campaign video for the project. “And as there is no cemetery, we wanted to have a memorial sign, or a memorial place which would tell our descendants that their ancestors lie at this place, the people who lived, worked and prayed in this city.”
In 2004, residents, construction companies and homeowners with properties paved with headstones began making phone calls to Regina Simonenko, the head of the Brest Holocaust Foundation and museum, wanting to return them. In 2011, the municipality of Brest approved the construction of a memorial using the headstones. The Together Plan joined the project in 2014 and has been fielding the calls since then.
Apart from 1,287 remnants with writing, another 2,000 to 2,500 headstone fragments without any writing have been collected and stored in a warehouse, where they have been photographed, cataloged and added to a searchable database.
The memorial is being designed by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, who plans to build two arcs opposite each other that each feature some of the headstones. According to his website, Goldberg “sees his work as a fusion between sculpture, landscape, and the built environment.”
“It isn’t a cemetery,” he told CNN. “They are all facing in different directions as if they are having a conversation with each other.”
He added, “One rabbi that we have consulted has described it as being about life rather than about death.”
Goldberg has a connection to Brest, too, which led to his work on the memorial. His family had taken in a Holocaust survivor, the late Jack Grynberg, when Grynberg came to the United States following the war. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of Grynberg’s relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Grynberg was one of only a few Jewish residents of Brest to survive.
In 1997, Grynberg and his son Stephen traveled to Brest together. Stephen Grynberg is a filmmaker who has done work for the Shoah Foundation and was the one who recommended Goldberg as the memorial’s designer. The younger Grynberg is also donating a third of the memorial’s estimated $325,000 cost.
“In 1997 there were no signs of the cemetery,” Stephen Grynberg told CNN. “We were taken there and our guide said, ‘This is where the cemetery was.’ Like so many things with the Holocaust, you can’t really understand them, you just have these complicated visceral feelings.”
He added, “I was just trying to compute the idea of them bulldozing a cemetery and building on it. That was the empty feeling I had.”
Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says
(JTA) — Authorities in Peru have arrested a 33-year-old man who the FBI has charged with making a string of bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish institutions, including synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.
Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos made more than 150 threats, mostly by email, against synagogues, hospitals, school districts and other institutions in five states between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, according to the FBI’s complaint against him, which was unsealed Thursday. Nunez Santos was arrested in Lima on Tuesday, according to the FBI.
The FBI says Nunez Santos, who is Peruvian, embarked on the bomb threat spree after asking teen girls to send him pornographic pictures of themselves and being rejected. He is also being charged with crimes related to those requests, the FBI said.
Some of the emailed threats included phone numbers to contact. Those phone numbers, the FBI said, belonged to the teen girls who had rejected or cut off contact with him.
The tally of threats in the complaint reflect only some of those that have been reported by synagogues or their local police departments in the last few months. None of the threats have been credible.
After Rosh Hashanah, which began on the evening of Sept. 15, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted a total of 71 threats against Jewish institutions in 14 states since July 21. But the ADL, an antisemitism watchdog, cautioned that the real number may be even higher: Some communities, it said, had chosen not to disclose the threats they received, in part to avoid gratifying whoever was issuing them.
The bomb threats targeting synagogues have, in many cases, led to congregations being evacuated in the middle of prayer services so that police can conduct a sweep of the building. In addition, the threats included in the complaint resulted in thousands of schoolchildren evacuating their schools; a lockdown of a hospital; and flight delays, according to the FBI.
The FBI and antisemitism watchdogs did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional people might have been responsible for the recent wave of bomb threats. The threats in the complaint were made to institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, and Alaska, according to the FBI, but evacuations were reported in several other states including several in New Jersey on Rosh Hashanah.
The complaint includes an example of a complaint received by a synagogue in Westchester County, New York, on Sept. 17, the second day of the holiday. “I placed multiple bombs inside the Jewish Center,” the threat said. “The bombs I placed in the building will blow up in a few hours. Many people will lay in a pool of blood.”
At the time, the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee emailed synagogues in the county saying that local police and the council’s own security official had investigated the email and others received in the area that day and deemed them non-credible. The committee emphasized that all threats needed to be investigated, a warning that came after months of recurring fake threats.
Using data tied to the emails, and by investigating the included phone numbers, law enforcement agents were able to trace the emailed threats to Nunez Santos, who works as a web developer.
The five charges that Nunez Santos faces, if he is convicted, carry the potential of significant prison time. The charges of conveying hoaxes and communicating threats across state lines carry maximum sentences of five years in prison. The charges related to child pornography and exploitation carry much harsher penalties.
“Not only did Santos allegedly email hundreds of hoax bomb threats terrorizing schools, hospitals, and houses of worship, he also perversely tried to sextort innocent teenage girls. His actions wasted limited law enforcement resources, put first responders in unnecessary danger, and victimized children,” the FBI’s assistant director in charge, James Smith, said in a statement. “The FBI will not tolerate anyone who seeks to induce fear in our communities, and we will do whatever it takes to put the perpetrators of such actions behind bars, regardless of their location.”
This is not the first time false bomb threats have been called into a series of Jewish institutions. More than 100 such threats were called into Jewish community centers in the early months of 2017 — most of which, it was later discovered, came from a teen in Israel. In 2020, dozens of JCCs received a separate series of emailed bomb threats.
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