(JTA) — As a child growing up in the Chabad hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Chana Raskin was immersed in a male soundscape. Her father brought her with him to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, where men would sing the melodies, passed from generation to generation, known as nigunim. Those sonic memories tap into family tradition and a spiritual community beyond herself. Yet these sounds were missing from her adult experience of conventional Orthodoxy. Following a minor traumatic brain injury, Raskin began a personal healing journey and found comfort in these melodies.
During this process, she felt the need to share her knowledge with women who, like her, did not have access to the restorative communal potential of the nigun. The often wordless songs are traditionally sung exclusively by men, and are central to the synagogue experience — itself a primarily male domain in the Orthodox tradition.
“A few years into his journey, during a particularly dark week in December 2017, three different women reached out to me about bringing women together to sing,” Raskin recalls in an essay. “I remember thinking: Yes. (Pause, breath.) Yes, let’s do it.”
The result was the RAZA circle and the the album “Kapelya,” the first recording of hasidic nigunim performed exclusively by women. On Thursday, Aug. 10, Raskin and the RAZA ensemble will have their premiere in New York City at the JCC Manhattan to celebrate “Kapelya,” which was released in February.
Produced by Hadar’s Rising Song Records, “Kapelya” is a collaboration among Raskin, women artists from non-Orthodox Jewish backgrounds and the musician Joey Weisenberg, the founder and director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. With this project, Raskin proposes a new meaning and aesthetic for hasidic nigunim. She breaks many barriers, exploding audience expectations of these traditional melodies and using them as a vehicle to transcend gender divisions, Jewish denominations and musical genres.
Although the album contains only women’s voices, contrary to convention, Raskin did not label it, nor her performances, as gender specific, contrary to the norm in the Orthodox female art scene I researched for my forthcoming book, “For Women and Girls Only” (NYU Press, 2024). She wanted the music to be available to anyone who wanted to connect with it.
The nigunim that the RAZA ensemble recorded and will perform belong to Chabad-Lubavitch’s sacred soundscape. While they can be sung, separately, by both genders, nigunim are associated with men because of their centrality to their collective spiritual practice. These old Jewish melodies have come to exemplify masculinity, tradition, mysticism and ecstasy, all elements of hasidism’s roots.
Because of the religious injunctions of tzniut (sexual modesty) and kol isha (prohibiting Orthodox men from hearing women singing), hasidic women traditionally sing in still more strictly gender-segregated spaces, only for other women. They have developed a distinctive soundscape, different from that of their male counterparts, and one in which nigunim have not played a major spiritual role.
In this context, women performing and recording nigunim for a mixed audience is both an innovation and a provocation.
While the media coverage of the album’s release emphasized the innovation of “giving voice to women,” I argue that by celebrating the voice of women in the male tradition of nigunim, Raskin’s project transcends both gender boundaries and the divide between Orthodox and liberal Judaism. At the concert, even if women lead on-stage, all genders and denominations can participate in belonging to Jewishness through sound infused with spirituality, healing and tradition. To emphasize the spiritual aspect of the project, the album’s booklet offers a short description of the origin and meaning of each nigun, a dedication and transliterations and translations of the prayers. The project puts hasidic music in the hands of women and bridges the divide between Orthodox and liberal Jews, who can meet in a shared domain of song, representing both rebellion and connection.
The album’s originality resides both in the new meanings it gives to hasidic music, and in the novel aesthetic it provides for nigunim. Listeners are treated to collective improvisation and refined vocal and instrumental arrangements, accompanied by instruments or sung a capella. The album surprises in its vocal and instrumental colors, with percussion, guitar, flute, cello, shruti box, kaval, mandolin and octave mandolin. With these unusual instruments, the performers create unique relations with place, time and sound unprecedented in the nigun genre.
The success of RAZA Circle’s album (Thursday’s show is sold out) points to the growing number of North American Jews, both observant and secular, who are searching for new ways to connect with Jewish tradition, prayer and spirituality while transcending conventional norms, expectations, and processes in their very different circles. This project showcases not only women’s voices, but the yearning of both Jewish men and women for opportunities to satisfy their thirst for community, something that their respective religious authorities have failed to provide.
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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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Biden expands Civil Rights Act protections at 8 cabinet departments to include antisemitism
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration is aiming to counter antisemitic discrimination in federally-funded transit systems, housing, food programs and other areas — one of the most major actions the White House has taken since it unveiled a far-reaching strategy to combat antisemitism in May.
On Thursday, the administration announced that it is instructing eight cabinet departments to extend civil rights protections to victims of antisemitism and other forms of religious bigotry. The decision marks a broad expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In addition, the administration is launching a listening tour of schools and colleges this fall to hear from Jewish students about hostility on campus, which Jewish groups say often comes from the anti-Israel left. Last week, an LGBTQ student group at Rice University cut ties with Hillel over its support for Israel, and in a separate incident, the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was vandalized.
Thursday’s launch of the listening tour in San Francisco will include a meeting between the deputy secretary of education and representatives of the city’s Hillel chapter.
“The Biden-Harris Administration will continue to lead a robust, whole-of-society effort to combat antisemitism and discrimination in all its insidious forms,” a White House official said in an e-mailed statement. The four-page release was the most comprehensive accounting to date of how the antisemitism strategy has been implemented since May. Biden set a deadline of May 2024 for the strategy to be implemented across the executive branch.
The announcement includes a comprehensive list of initiatives already taken under the antisemitism strategy. It also comes the same day as President Joe Biden is set to deliver a speech in Phoenix at the McCain Institute, named for the late Republican senator, that will warn of threats of democracy from the far-right and former President Donald Trump.
Under the 1964 act’s Title VI, which the White House release cites, any program or activity receiving federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The White House statement said that staff at the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Treasury, and Transportation will be told the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of religious bias.
The initiative is a substantial expansion of initiatives by the Obama and Trump administrations to extend the Civil Rights Act’s protections to Jews through the Education Department. An executive order signed by Trump led to a series of federal complaints alleging that Jewish and Zionist students faced hostile campus environments.
Staff will be trained “to respond to this kind of discrimination, engage with entities that are prohibited from discriminating in these ways to explain their legal responsibilities, and inform communities of their rights to be free from such discrimination and how to file complaints,” said the release. Fact sheets on the topic will be available in Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Punjabi, and other languages.
Examples of how the expansion would work, the release said, include “shielding people from harassment or discrimination on transit systems funded by the Department of Transportation; in housing funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; or in U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded food programs.”
In recent years, Jewish watchdog groups have recorded a spike in antisemitic attacks in public places, targeting people who wear outwardly Jewish symbols or clothing. Muslim and Jewish groups have also long advocated — with some success — for making kosher and halal food available through relief programs.
Jewish groups have, for decades, sought the act’s protections, but have been frustrated by the difficulty of resolving constitutional guardrails around the separation of church and state. The Obama and Trump Education Department directives worked around that issue by defining Jews not simply as a faith but as a group defined in part through ancestry, and also as a group perceived by bigots as being a race — cateogires that fall under Title VI’s purview.
As part of the launch of the listening tour of Jewish students, Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten will meet with Jewish students, teachers and community leaders at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, followed by a closed session with Hillel-affiliated students from the Bay Area about campus antisemitism.
The emphasis on allegations of campus antisemitism may address concerns by some Jewish organizations that the Biden administration was not as focused on combating antisemitism from the left as it was on antisemitism from the right, and that it is not addressing antisemitism in the context of anti-Israel activism.
In addition to the expansion of Title VI and the listening tour, the White House statement mentioned a list of actions the administration has taken as part of the strategy on antisemitism. Those include delivering information and training to Jewish and other communities on securing their buildings and their computer systems in the face of threats, and bringing together law enforcement agencies and religious communities targeted by violence. Federal officials are also training National Park Service staff on stopping and preventing antisemitic harassment.
The White House is providing information to religious communities on their rights to build houses of worship, an issue that continues to dog Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities thwarted by local authorities. Alongside those measures, the administration is informing members of religious minorities of their rights to religious accommodation in the workplace and is educating medical students, professionals and chaplains on religious discrimination in health care settings. In addition, an exhibit on how the United States reacted to the Holocaust is touring libraries across the country.
In November, a planned Agriculture Department summit of religious leaders in Omaha will “assess the state of antisemitism, highlight effective strategies to counter antisemitism, and build solidarity across faiths.”
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