PITTSBURGH (JTA) — “If I have chance, will continue war,” appeared in a scrawl on a notepad, projected onto large TV screens in the courtroom.
The image showed a note taken by a psychiatrist in early June as he assessed Robert Bowers, the man who murdered 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
The psychiatrist, George Corvin, was working for Bowers lawyers, in an attempt to demonstrate that the gunman is mentally ill and so should not receive the death penalty. His testimony is part of the final phase of Bowers’ trial, in which the gunman, who was convicted last month, will be sentenced either to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Corvin is not the first to note during Bowers’ trial that the gunman has persisted in his deeply held antisemitic beliefs in the years since the massacre. But his testimony on Friday offered unsettling insights into what is going on in Bowers’ head as he sits impassively, watching the testimony of those whose lives he devastated.
Corvin, who met with Bowers 10 times in May and June, said Bowers saw the trial as getting out his message that Jews are a menace.
“Did he tell you he likes hearing the evidence?” U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan asked him.
“Yes,” Corvin said. “I think he likes hearing the evidence so he knows other people can hear the evidence.”
Olshan asked Corvin to explain another notation from the June 3 interview, “I’m upset I still have record of antisemitic act for five years.”
Bowers wanted others to emulate him, Corvin explained, and was disappointed that his mass killing still stands as the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history.
“He hoped the act would bring attention to what he, quote, ‘knows,’ so more people would be inspired to protect God’s kingdom,” Corvin said.
Bowers took some relief in the mass killing of dozens of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand months after his own crime, Corvin said, by an Australian who shared his theories of a Jewish plot to “replace” whites. “That person gets it,” Corvin said, describing what Bowers said.
Bowers believes that Jews are the instrument of Satan, Corvin said, and that they are assisting in the entry of immigrants of color into the United States to kill white people, which will trigger the End of Days.
Corvin’s testimony Thursday and his cross-examination on Friday replayed an argument that has been core to his sentencing: Is his antisemitism a function of schizophrenic delusion, or is it simply one man’s manifestation of the conspiracy theories that have for millennia been deployed to justify the persecution of Jews?
The jury has rejected the idea that Bowers’ beliefs were rooted in illness twice, in the first phase of the trial establishing Bowers’ guilt, and in the second phase, to determine whether his crimes met the threshold to merit the death penalty. Now they are deciding whether Bowers deserves the death penalty.
The defense is arguing that what they say is Bowers’ mental illness should be a factor mitigating against the death penalty. If a single juror among the five men and seven women rejects the death penalty, Bowers, 51, will automatically be sentenced to life without parole.
Corvin, a Raleigh, North Carolina, psychiatrist who speaks with a thick Southern accent, has proven the most resilient defense expert in the face of the prosecution’s insistence that Bowers is not schizophrenic. He acknowledged that Bowers’ arguments about Jews are commonplace but said that they were underpinned by his delusional belief that God had chosen him to carry out the massacre.
“People on Gab who hate Jews came to the right conclusion but for the wrong reasons,” Corvin said, describing Bowers’ outlook, referring to the social media site that is a haven for extremism, and where Bowers posted his thoughts about Jews.
“If you hold all of this together,” he said of his cumulative interviews with Bowers, “this is the result of mental illness. He believes he is saving lives. He would do so again if God told him to do so.”
“If the walls” of his prison “will collapse and if God wants to him to die in the conflagration, he will do it,” Corvin said.
Corvin wrapped his jabs at the prosecution’s arguments in self-deprecation. When Olshan noted that Corvin had only three published articles on his resume, Corvin acknowledged the paucity of research, and even added that none of the three was of much consequence.
But he added that he would trust the testimony of a psychiatrist who was practiced in taking patients, as he is, than one who focused only on research, referring to the prosecution’s experts. He mocked a prosecution expert, Park Dietz, for talking too much in his sessions with Bowers.
“The best way to” find out why someone committed a crime “is to keep your mouth shut, gently redirect, probe for details and keep your mouth shut,” he said.
He also told Judy Clark, the lead defense lawyer, that Bowers admired the prosecution lawyers more than he did his own defense team.
“He is happier with what they are doing than honestly what you are doing,” he told Clark. “He knows they want him to die but what’s more important is that they are distributing his message, the ‘truth.’”
Bowers has betrayed nothing during the trial, which began on April 24, seated at the second seat on the left at the long table on the left side of the courtroom. Not through three weeks of jury selection, not through the two weeks of the trial to establish guilt, not at his June 16 conviction, not on July 13 when the jurors decided his crimes merited the death penalty, and not since then as they consider whether he deserves death.
Bowers was convicted on 63 counts in connection with the attack, 22 of them eligible for the death penalty. The victims were Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. They worshiped at three congregations housed in the building at the time: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light.
Bowers, always clad in a dark sweater — sometimes navy blue, other times slate gray — and a collared light-blue shirt — never looks at the jury or the witnesses; the one exception was when he stood to receive his guilty verdict, and then it was for just a few seconds, heeding Judge Robert Colville’s instruction.
As he has with other defense experts, Olshan sought to undercut Corvin by questioning his expertise on antisemitism and extremism. Corvin knew his extremists — he said he has testified in Ku Klux Klan relate cases — but flubbed one reference, which Olshan, who is Jewish, seized upon.
The reference came during an interview when Corvin asked Bowers about his post on Gab, just prior to carrying out the massacre, “Screw the optics, I’m going in.”
“Forgot last line enjoy the Shoah,” the notation said. Olshan asked Corvin to explain. Corvin said Bowers regretted not adding the line to the Gab post.
What does “Shoah” mean? Olshan asked Corvin.
“It’s intended to be a derogatory slur against Jews,” Corvin said.
Shoah is the Hebrew word for catastrophe and is used as a synonym for the Holocaust, when the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews in Europe. “Do you know it’s a reference to the Holocaust?” Olshan said, sounding slightly stunned.
“I didn’t know that,” Corvin said.
Closing arguments are expected Tuesday and Wednesday, with a decision about Bowers’ fate coming soon after that.
A queer Israeli textile artist’s Lavender Diaspora sukkah explores identity in Brooklyn
The sukkah, created by queer textile artist Hilla Shapira, was unharmed: Its light purple walls were made of ripstop, a lightweight and water-resistant fabric. Its soft and pillowy decorations — which included Jewish symbols like hamsas as well as depictions of the four species — were made of dacron, a durable, polyester batting that held up in the deluge as well.
Shapira said the project — titled Lavender Diaspora — was meant to channel her identities as a queer person who grew up in a religious household in Israel, and also as an immigrant in the United States, where she studied art in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn.
“I try to find parallel relationships between what it is to be queer and Jewish, and to be a person from Israel,” Shapira, 33, told the New York Jewish Week. “It’s especially relevant when we’re talking about Sukkot, which is a holiday that the Jewish people were celebrating in the in-between space, between Egypt and Israel — they were on the way somewhere, but in something that is temporary and stuck in this kind of forever nomadism.”
Speaking at a Shabbat dinner hosted by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life, the Brooklyn-based organization that commissioned the sukkah, Shapira said she had designed her structure to celebrate communities that find themselves on the outskirts of society.
She was speaking on the first night of Sukkot, the weeklong holiday in which Jews build a temporary structure called a sukkah, meant to commemorate in part the structures that the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert from Egypt to Israel. Throughout the holiday, which ends at sundown on Saturday, Jews eat, pray and even sleep in the sukkah.
The Neighborhood has partnered with 12 other Jewish communities and organizations to celebrate and host events in the unique sukkah, including Romemu Brooklyn, Lab/Shul, Jews of Color Initiative and the Prospect Heights Shul.
“We were really excited to think about not just a sukkah as an art object, but really also as a place to bring different communities and groups of people together in this temporary structure,” Rebecca Guber, the founding director of The Neighborhood, told the New York Jewish Week.
“We also thought about what were some different perspectives that we could bring into this stuff,” she added. “We wanted something that brings in young families, that would be comfortable if you’re a more observant Jew and that also feels kind of wild.”
Located in the courtyard of Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Prospect Heights, students will use the sukkah for their meals and programming during the day. In the evenings and on the weekend, The Neighborhood will use the sukkah for its own programming, which includes the launch of a Sukkot zine in partnership with Ayin Press, a family-friendly music jam, a dance event and more.
As a queer woman who grew up in an Orthodox home in Israel — as well as an immigrant to the United States — Shapira said she’s often searched for a sense of belonging. “The sukkah I tried to create is a space that is offering an alternative, or making a suggestion for a communal space for all the ‘shoulders’ of society,” she said.
Lavender, the color of the walls of the sukkah, is a symbol of LGBTQ resistance and activism. The other half of the title, Diaspora, refers to both the dispersion of the Jewish people as well as the feeling of marginalization experienced by Jews, LBGTQ people and other minorities — the sukkah is meant to be a temporary space that alleviates that feeling.
The Neighborhood is a community hub that primarily partners with other Jewish organizations to create innovative Jewish cultural and spiritual events for Jewish life. The Lavender Diaspora sukkah was funded by UJA-Federation New York. (UJA-Federation is also a funder of 70 Faces Media, the parent company of the New York Jewish Week.)
“What really resonates for us is the way that this sukkah welcomes everyone in — whatever position you feel you occupy in the Jewish community — maybe some people feel like insiders, other feel like outsiders, we really hope this can be a place where many different people can feel welcomed, and that their perspectives and identities are being honored,” Guber said.
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Displaced by ethnic violence, India’s Bnei Menashe Jews construct sukkahs nonetheless
(JTA) — The temporary shelters that Jews erect during the holiday of Sukkot are meant in part to recall a time when Jews had nowhere permanent to live. In Northeast India, that symbolism is heavy with additional meaning this year.
That’s because large numbers of Bnei Menashe, the Jewish community that lives there, have fled their homes in the state of Manipur since ethnic unrest broke out in early May.
According to the Israeli organization Shavei Israel, about 2,000 people from the Jewish community have been displaced. A different nonprofit that works with the community, Degel Menashe, cites a smaller number, 700.
But either way, the community has been ravaged, with three locations that have been home to large numbers of Bnei Menashe decimated in the violence. Synagogues and homes have burned to the ground, and the number of displaced people has only grown with time.
Now, as the conflict enters its sixth month, what many believed would be temporary displacements in the Manipur hills or the neighboring state of Mizoram are becoming permanent.
“Despite these challenging times for the Bnei Menashe and even in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, they have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honor of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, which helps “lost tribe” communities return to Israel.
Shavei Israel distributed pictures showing members of the community constructing sukkahs out of bamboo. Their efforts come as their own safety in their areas where they live is in question — or already compromised.
“[For] the Bnei Menashe and the rest of the people who have left Imphal, I don’t think there is any chance of them returning back because there is no security,” said Isaac Thangjom, the Israel-based director of Degel Menashe, which assists Bnei Menashe communities in Israel and India, referring to Manipur’s capital city. “If you ask me honestly, the separation is complete.”
The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of a “lost tribe” group, tracing their origins to the Israelite tribe of Menasseh. In 2005, a chief rabbi of Israel affirmed their identity as a “lost tribe” group with historic Jewish ties, but researchers have not found sufficient evidence to back the claim. Bnei Menashe Jews began immigrating to Israel in the 1990s, and because of their “lost tribe” status, they all undergo formal Orthodox conversions upon arrival. Around 5,000 remain in the states of Manipur and Mizoram today, and about 5,000 have already immigrated to Israel.
Many have struggled to gain entry into Israel over the past two decades, and they are now asking the Jewish state to expedite the immigration process to help them escape the violence.
Israeli authorities have yet to comment publicly about the situation and did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israel has recently been seeking to advance its relations with India.
Conflict erupted in May when tribal groups in Manipur launched a protest against the ethnic majority Meitei’s demand for Scheduled Tribe status, which is traditionally reserved for minority tribes. The Bnei Menashe Jews belong to the minority Kuki tribe.
The Kukis (about 16% of the population and majority Christian) say the Meiteis (53% and majority Hindu) already have outsized privilege and political representation in Manipur.
According to local reports, unofficial “but very real” borders have been drawn between what have become Kuki and Meitei areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been criticized for failing to control the situation. In August, opposition lawmakers called for a no-confidence vote over Modi’s handling of the situation, but it was easily defeated.
Some 190 people have died in the conflict since May, according to local media, including at least one Bnei Menashe community member. Over 60,000 are displaced.
Several other Bnei Menashe Jews are hospitalized with injuries, according to Shavei Israel.
In the face of displacement, the Bnei Menashe Jews have remained religiously observant, even as some fled with nothing more than their prayer books and the clothes on their backs, a Mizoram Jewish community member told JTA in June.
“It was so sudden,” said Ariella Haokip, a Bnei Menashe community member taking shelter in Thingdawl, Mizoram. “Funds were sent to us to buy special items for Rosh Hashanah and now for Sukkot. In spite of our misery, it is comforting to think that we are remembered.”
Some are currently staying at government shelters, others at schools and homes of other community members, or rented homes paid for by nonprofit groups. In Thingdawl, Mizoram, one young member has begun organizing Hebrew classes for displaced members, said Thangjom.
Both Shavei Israel and Degel Menashe have been working since May to provide continued support to the Bnei Menashe Jews through donations of food, mattresses, mosquito nets, infant formula, medicines and other necessities. Both organizations have arranged shelters for displaced families. Additional financial support has poured in from Jewish and Christian organizations in the United States and Israel.
For some, the High Holiday season also represents a new beginning, as Degel Menashe races to construct homes for several Bnei Menashe families. Lalam Hangshing, chairman of the Bnei Menashe Council-India, donated a piece of land of about 200 acres in Churachandpur on which nine homes are being constructed.
“It was hoped that it could be ready by Rosh Hashanah but there were some unforeseen delays and challenges,” said Thangjom. “Each family will be allotted a piece of land to grow or raise something of their choice so that it can be a source of livelihood for them.”
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Alice Shalvi pioneered religious feminism in Israel. Everyone else is still catching up.
(JTA) — I first met Alice Shalvi, the mother of religious feminism in Israel, in the mid-1990s during a meeting of ICAR, the International Coalition of Agunah Rights, a coalition that she founded to advocate for women denied a religious divorce by their husbands. She was in her early 70s at the time, and had been fighting for agunah rights for 20 years.
I was in my mid-20s, and new to the cause. I was there as co-chair of Mavoi Satum, which a group of us founded in 1995. This coalition was meant to be advancing systemic solutions to this awful problem. But, of course, we were stuck. As stuck then as we are now.
At one point in the meeting, Professor Shalvi started to cry. “I am 72 years old. I have been talking about this for so long,” she said, “and nothing is changing.” She was crying because the suffering of women didn’t seem to matter to our people. Then she turned to me and said, “It’s up to you and your generation to fix this.”
At the time, I felt her passing the mantle, and I didn’t want to let her down. But I’m sure I did. At least on this front. On others, too, despite our best efforts.
Shalvi, who died Monday morning in Israel at age 96, fought crucial fights decades before the rest of the world caught up with her, before the religious community had any kind of language for what she was doing, before there was any kind of feminist movement to speak of in Israel.
She pioneered feminist ideas in Israel in the early 1970s when there were only a handful of women doing such work — Marcia Freedman, Naomi Chazan and a few others. And she was the only one coming from the religious world, and able to see the need and potential for change before everyone else.
Starting in 1975, Shalvi began running the Pelech School for Haredi Girls, a religious feminist school, before Orthodox feminism existed as a movement — before Women of the Wall, before women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, years before Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Kolech, Israel’s Religious Women’s Forum, existed, before anyone even dared to put the words “feminist” and “religious” together in a sentence. Before even the Conservative movement had women rabbis. Everyone else is still catching up.
She also worked in the non-religious arena, creating, in 1984, the first feminist lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, which still pioneers on many fronts.
She also dared to work on issues of peace, taking positions that were considered pas nisht, or “unsuitable,” in the religious world — and for the most part still are. She dared to see Palestinians, especially Palestinian women, as equal human beings. This was not a position that religious Israelis, or Israelis in general, were comfortable with. It’s still an uphill battle. She spoke and acted from a place of humanity first.
And she could remarkably work on a multitude of fronts, all at once, including education, academia, advocacy, politics and peace.
Alice Hildegard Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, on Oct. 16, 1926. She, her mother and brother joined their father in London in 1934, and she later earned degrees in literature and social work. She immigrated to Israel in 1949, taught at Hebrew University and led efforts to create an English department at Ben-Gurion University. Denied the deanship because she was a woman, she mobilized female faculty members in protest.
Professor Shalvi was my formal mentor when I was on the Jerusalem Fellows, a program in Jewish education. We would meet regularly and talk about feminism, politics, religion and Israel. It was a privilege to spend those hours in one-on-one conversations. Prof. Shalvi always talked to me with complete honesty, passion and belief in what she was working for. She entrusted me with her vision, and made me feel like she believed that I would hold it for her and continue to birth it in the world.
By the time changes started to take place in Orthodoxy for women — evidenced by Shira Hadasha, a Jerusalem congregation dedicated to halachah (Jewish law) and feminism, and Orthodox women in clergy roles — she had already moved on to the Conservative movement, serving as rector of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school and seminary associated with the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. She needed to go where her vision was valued and welcomed and celebrated, instead of where everything was a fight. She was highly criticized for that decision and was treated by some as a sort of traitor to the Orthodox feminist cause. But she deserved to be in a place that supported her and brought her comfort and respect, and she had earned that right.
She offered words of support for me when I took a similar leap and enrolled in Reform rabbinical school. Even though I am no longer in rabbinical school and do not associate with the Reform movement in any meaningful way, I do not regret the decision to step away from an Orthodox version of feminism and try on other hats. She inspired me and so many others to take leaps, be courageous, live from the heart and ignore the haters.
I am so glad that she found her well-deserved place in the world, and that she received many well-deserved honors and accolades along the way, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize in 1991 for teaching Talmud to girls and insisting that Pelech alumnae serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019 a National Jewish Book Award for her memoir, “Never a Native.”
She left an incredible legacy of activism that has birthed generations of change agents in Israel.
I have often thought over the years that I wanted to be Alice Shalvi when I grew up. I loved her unstoppable courage, her ability to wear many hats, her resilience in standing up to the haters and naysayers, and her constant belief that she could make a difference. I’ve tried to follow that kind of path, though I have not had nearly the kind of strength and fortitude — and successes — that she had. But her personality and vision continue to have a permanent resting place in my heart. And I will continue to endeavor to carry her torch in this world.
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