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Remembering Misha Avramoff, a champion of Jewish education and New York’s poor

(JTA) — When my friend and teacher Misha Avramoff died one year ago at age 83, few in the Jewish media took note of his passing.

It was a glaring omission of someone whose pioneering work with the Jewish poor — as the co-director of Project Ezra, a grassroots organization serving the Jewish elderly on the Lower East Side — and whose innovative teaching in Jewish supplemental high schools was chronicled and celebrated during his lifetime. 

I was a student in one of those high schools whose life, like many, was influenced by his dedication to justice and the Jewish people. We usually perform the act of hesped, speaking words of eulogy, at the time of death when memory is immediate and feelings are raw, but we also typically stop kaddish at 11 months and arrive at the first yahrzeit with a new perspective. After a year that has seen renewed antisemitism, with many Jews feeling isolated and confused, the positive example of his life seems newly relevant.

Sharing his story at an unconventional time is appropriate for Misha, whose life defied many conventions. He worked with the poor and with the privileged. He was deeply ambivalent about the organized Jewish community while serving with love the full spectrum of the Jewish world: observant, secular, Zionist, Yekke, ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi, assimilated, Bundist. I once watched Misha talk to a Karaite watchmaker — in Ladino — at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and receive an embrace and an invitation to dinner. I attribute this to his open and welcoming nature, informed by a personal history I will summarize briefly.

Menashe Gabriel Avramoff was born in Sophia, Bulgaria, in 1939. The experience of Bulgarian Jews during World War II is unique. The community suffered persecution and relocations during the war but was spared mass deportation and extermination, with the tragic exception of Jews in the regions of Thrace, Piro and Macedonia. Misha’s reluctance to call himself a survivor would become significant when he worked with German and Polish refugees at Project Ezra. His experience is explored as part of the 2021 documentary “A Question of Survival” about the Bulgarian Jewish community in wartime.

When the Communist government came to power, Misha’s family joined an estimated 95% of Bulgaria’s Jews, the majority secular and Zionist, in moving to Israel. He liked Israel and felt at home there, adding Hebrew to the languages he had spoken in Sophia: Ladino with his family, French at his Catholic school and Bulgarian on the street. His father, who had attended university in Vienna, may also have passed on familiarity with German. In 1954, when Misha was turning 16 and his sister Adele was 10, his father moved them to the United States. Misha would later travel to Jewish communities all over the world, but from that time forward, New York was home base. 

At first, Misha had trouble finding his way. There were high school years spent at the movies, working odd jobs to earn pocket money and help his family, and diligently not attending classes. He was expelled from one high school for truancy and helped a second earn a soccer championship — two facts that, when selectively disclosed, would impress his conscientious and college-focused students. Although he lived in New York longer than any other location, he never lost his accent when speaking English. It seemed almost a point of pride and provided a whiff of mystery and charm. It also anchored him as an outsider and acted like a passport to the two groups he focused on professionally, also outsiders of sorts: seniors and adolescents.

Misha began his work with adolescents as a youth group leader while earning a degree from Columbia University. He began his work with seniors following graduation, when civil rights leaders adopted a separatist ideology and many Jewish volunteers refocused on the Jewish community, where there was growing recognition of need. 

These included the small group of Yeshiva University graduates who in 1973 started Project Ezra, where Misha would find his way. Writing in the Village Voice in 1972, Paul Cowan compared the poverty on the Lower East Side to notoriously poor regions he had seen elsewhere in the United States, including the deep South and inner cities. His essay “Jews Without Money, Revisited” is both tender rendition and social indictment. “Most people think of the Jewish immigration as the most spectacularly successful one in American history, but the 50-year journey from the shtetl to the Space Age left many casualties in its wake,” wrote Cowan. 

Gabriel and Victoria Avramoff pose with their son Misha and newborn daughter Adela, 1944-1945, in Bulgaria. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Misha Avramoff)

This is around the time that Misha entered my life, when he added the Judah Nadich Hebrew High School at Park Avenue Synagogue to his teaching schedule. He would start his work days on the Lower East Side and end them on the Upper East Side, condensing the 50-year journey Cowan describes into something like 50 minutes. It is facile to say Misha worked with the Jewish past and the Jewish future; I am not sure he saw them as distinct. Fostering relationships is what mattered most to him. Personal encounters were the antidote to loneliness, ignorance and many forms of prejudice. They mitigated effects of poverty and countered what he saw as the sterility of Jewish institutions. He wanted his seniors to know they were not forgotten and his students to experience the authenticity of a Lower East Side where kosher food was then easier to find than vegan soft serve or seaweed-infused gin. This was both a matter of hesed — loving-kindness — and of Jewish survival. 

His work at Ezra included a remarkable partnership with Rabbi Joseph Singer, a pillar of the religiously observant Lower East Side who was descended from the brother-in-law of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In interviews, Misha described himself as an anti-poverty worker, a vocation he liked to contrast, somewhat unfairly, with social work. He was drawing from Great Society terminology and also from Rabbi Singer, who taught about “poverty of the pocketbook” and “poverty of the spirit.” Misha spoke at Singer’s funeral in 2006.

For decades, Misha’s life followed a comfortable rhythm. He worked at Ezra, taught at supplementary Jewish high schools in New York City and on Long Island, and spent summers traveling the globe with his beloved wife Jacky. There were career highlights. He pushed Ezra in 1983 to become the first American Jewish organization to host a German volunteer through Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. Since Ezra’s seniors included Holocaust survivors, this move was bold and eased by the trust they had in Misha. His recognition by the Covenant Foundation with their excellence in Jewish education award followed in 1995

Even as funding models for social services changed, Misha persisted in raising money personally, declining offers of support from institutional donors like UJA-Federation that were, in his words, “monolithic” and “removed amcha, the people, our people” from the imperative of tzedakah. (UJA-Federation addresses poverty through its support of at least 11 agencies in the city.)

Following the economic downturn of 2008, the Ezra board proposed a merger with Selfhelp Community Services, a large agency with a different culture and strategic priorities. Although the merger stopped at the 11th hour, things were not the same after that and Misha painfully eased himself out of Ezra in the early 2010s. 

Since Misha’s death last Jan. 18, many concerns of his life seem newly relevant. Jewish poverty has been revisited and highlighted on the communal agenda by organizations like TEN: Together Ending Need. Rabbi Rachel Isaacs writes about the Jewish class divide, much as Anne G. Wolfe and Paul Cowan did in the past, focusing on disparities between Jewish life in small towns and urban centers. 

And since Oct. 7, other things about American Jewish life recall the early 1970s. There is again a kind of Jewish awakening in reaction to events in American life and Israel, and some Jews are feeling abandoned by fellow-travelers in social justice work. At such times, vigilance can take the form of militance and also creative experimentation. Misha’s life is an example of the second.

“When Stokely Carmichael advised whites to quit [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and to organize their own communities,” Jack Newfeld wrote in the Village Voice in 1979, when he listed Misha on his annual Honor Roll, “Misha took him at his word.” 

Misha dedicated his life to the Jewish world, combining the work of social service with social action. His pursuit of justice sharpened the caring work of Ezra and his dedication to individuals softened the hard edge of activism. These and other qualities were highlighted at his funeral on Jan. 19, 2023, attended by family, friends, students and colleagues of decades. Some work for organizations whose funding Misha declined, and he had embraced them all with a large and welcoming smile. 

He is survived by his wife Jacqueline Gutwirth, son Carmi Gutwirth Avramoff, niece Gabrielle Brechner (Daniel Fine) and grand-nephews Harry and Asher.

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Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities

An American flag waves outside the US Department of Justice Building in Washington, US, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

US federal authorities have charged, and a grand jury has indicted, a foreign national with planning a mass casualty attack against Jews and other minorities in New York on New Year’s Eve.

The United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York reported that a grand jury indicted Georgian national Michail Chkhikvishvili with soliciting hate crimes and acts of mass violence.

Chkhikvishvili is reportedly the leader of a group called the “Maniac Murder Cult,” a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group.

Specifically, he was recruiting people to carry out arson and bombing attacks — as well as attacks aimed at Jewish and other minority children, according to US officials.

The US Attorney’s Office explained that the “planned New Year’s Eve attack involved Santa Claus handing out poisoned candy to racial minorities as well as distributing poisoned candy to Jewish children in Brooklyn.”

There were more than 450,000 Jews who lived in Brooklyn as of May 2024. Many neighborhoods are known to be predominantly Hasidic.

Authorities found out about the plot when Chkhikvishvili solicited an undercover law enforcement official to be involved in the attack.

He “sought to recruit others to commit violent attacks and killings in furtherance of his Neo-Nazi ideologies,” US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace said in a statement. “We will not hesitate to find and prosecute those who threaten the safety and freedoms of all members of our community, including members of minority communities, no matter where in the world these criminals might be hiding.”

FBI New York Acting Assistant Director Christie Curtis lauded law enforcement for stopping the attack before it could ever take place.

“The swift disruption of this individual, accused of allegedly plotting violent attacks in New York, sends a clear message: we will use every resource in our power to ensure the safety of the American people,” she said. “The men and women who work on this task force day in and day out exemplify true service to our community, demonstrating unwavering commitment in thwarting those who seek to harm our citizens and our way of life.”

The plot comes amid a wave of antisemitic attacks that ramped up in America and around the world after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, amid the ensuing war in Gaza.

Earlier this month, an observant Jew was sucker punched and beaten in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. The alleged attacker subsequently expressed his motive, saying “They’re [the Jews] the cause of all our wars,” and “We know who you are! We know the lies that you’ve told, that you have stolen the place of the true children of Israel.”

He was charged with assault and a hate crime.

In December, the FBI said there had been a 60 percent spike in antisemitic hate crime investigations since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Then, in April, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the probes into antisemitic crimes tripled in the months following Oct. 7.

“Between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30 of this year, we opened over three times more anti-Jewish hate crime investigations than in the four months before Oct. 7,” he explained.

Last year, the FBI found that 63 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were directed against Jews.

The post Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities first appeared on

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RNC Spotlights Campus Antisemitism as Elise Stefanik Teases ‘Bombshell’ Findings From US Congressional Probe

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled ‘Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

US lawmakers are preparing to release later this year a trove of new “bombshell” information revealing the extent to which antisemitism has been allowed to flourish on university campuses across the country, according to a high-ranking Republican.

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) spoke with political pundit and podcast host Megyn Kelly about the efforts of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to investigate surging antisemitism, including anti-Jewish bias, on college campuses. While reminiscing over last December’s congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in which each campus leader proclaimed that calls for a genocide of Jews may not violate school rules depending on “the context” — Stefanik revealed that the committee has obtained new documents shedding light on anti-Jewish hate at elite universities.

“This is pervasive in higher-ed. We have worked on this investigation, and if you think the hearing was bad, Megyn, we’re going to have to talk about all the documents that have been turned over because of our subpoena,” Stefanik said. “We’ll put out a report later this year. That’s even more bombshell material in there. It’s a disgrace what’s happening at these universities.”

Antisemitism has exploded at universities since the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, amid the ensuing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Over the past several months, the committee has rigorously investigated antisemitism at America’s most prestigious universities. The panel recently unearthed and exposed text message exchanges between Columbia University deans which revealed the campus leaders mocking Jewish students as “privileged.” The lawmakers also alleged, based on their investigation, that Harvard University has engaged in a “pattern of inaction” in response to campus antisemitism.

Stefanik spoke to Kelly at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Republicans are gathering this week to nominate their 2024 presidential candidate. The issue of campus antisemitism has been a key issue highlighted at the RNC.

On Wednesday night, Shabbos Kestenbaum, a recent Harvard graduate suing his alma mater over its alleged failure to protect Jewish students, took the RNC main stage and delivered an impassioned speech on campus antisemitism. Kestenbaum said that the surge of unchecked antisemitism on Harvard’s campus in the months following Oct. 7 left him disillusioned with progressives, prompting his move to the political right. 

“After Oct. 7, the world finally saw what I and so many Jewish students across this country experienced almost every day,” he told the RNC crowd. 

“My problem with Harvard is not its liberalism, but its illiberalism. Too often, students at Harvard are taught not how to think, but what to think. I found myself immersed in a culture that is anti-Western, that is anti American, and that is antisemitic,” Kestenbaum said. 

Kestenbaum implored the crowd to support the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

“Sadly the far-left wing tide of antisemitism is rising,” Kestenbaum said. “But tonight, tonight we fight back. I am proud to support President Trump’s policies to expel foreign students who violate our laws, harass our Jewish classmates, and desecrate our freedoms … let’s elect a president who recognizes that although Harvard and the Ivy Leagues have long abandoned the United States of America, the Jewish people never will.”

Anti-Israel protests have ravaged college campuses across the United States in the months following Oct. 7. Students at prominent universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT have participated in demonstrations chanting slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!” Progressive student organizations have also openly banned “Zionists,” forcing Jewish students to choose between supporting Israel and maintaining their social network. Campus demonstrators have also openly cheered Hamas and in some cases threatened or committed violence against Jewish students.

Jewish donors and alumni have condemned university administrators over their unwillingness to shut down demonstrations. As a result, many of them have pulled funding and vowed not to allow their children to enroll at their alma maters.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots NFL team, has ceased donating to Columbia University, citing “virulent hate” against Jews on campus.  Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania. The MIT Jewish Alumni Alliance urged Jewish graduates and allies to protest campus antisemitism by lowering their annual donation amount to $1.

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Pro-Israel Group Calls on US Justice Department to Apply ‘KKK Laws’ to Pro-Hamas Demonstrations

Pro-Hamas demonstrators at Columbia University in New York City, US, April 29, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

StandWithUs (SWU), a Jewish civil rights group based in California, is imploring the US Justice Department to crack down on masked protests at Columbia University by enforcing legal statues which are widely referred to as the “KKK Laws,” citing a hostile environment at the school in which pro-Hamas demonstrators who have harassed and assaulted Jewish students continuously evade justice by concealing their identities.

Dating back to the administration of former US President Ulysses S. Grant, the so-called “KKK Laws” empower the federal government to prosecute those who engage in activities which violate the civil rights of protected groups, as the Ku Klux Klan did across the US South during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting and living as free citizens. StandWithUs alleges that five anti-Zionist groups — most notably Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — currently operating on Columbia University’s campus have perpetrated similar abuses in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which guarantees all students, regardless of race or ethnic background, has the right to a safe learning environment.

The most obvious parallel between their conduct and the KKK’s, StandWithUs noted, is an inveterate shrouding of their members’ faces with masks and keffiyehs, the traditional headscarf worn by Palestinians that has become known as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Images and footage of the practice have been widely circulated online, and it has rendered identifying the protesters — many of whom have chanted antisemitic slogans, vandalized school property, and threatened to harm Jewish students and faculty during a weeks-long demonstration between April and May — virtually impossible.

Additionally, the groups — which also include Within Our Lifetime (WOL), Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Columbia University Apartheid, Columbia School of Social Work 4 Palestine (CSSW4P), and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FJP) — have proclaimed their intention to purge Columbia’s campus of Zionists, a category which includes an overwhelming majority of Jews in the US and around the world. Their rhetoric, StandWithUs added, is unlike any uttered in the US since demonstrations against school integration in the 1950s.

“We hope the Department of Justice (DOJ) will take this opportunity to restore justice on Columbia University’s campuses and hold bad actors responsible for violating federal laws,” Yael Lerman, director of the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, said on Wednesday. “Columbia President Shafik’s concession that Columbia is a hostile environment for Jewish students in violation of Title VI reflects a critical need for the current administration to take decisive action at Columbia.”

Lerman added, “We urge the DOJ to investigate the school’s failure to prevent groups and individuals on its campus from joining forces and depriving Jewish students of their civil rights, a failure that runs afoul of the KKK laws.”

SWU’s letter — sent to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department on Wednesday — comes amid an ongoing lawsuit the organization’s Legal Center for Justice (SCLJ) filed against Columbia University in February over its alleged failure to prevent and respond to an explosion of anti-Jewish hate incidents which have occurred on the campus since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, an event the protesters cheered and defended as an act of decolonization inspired by the ideas of far-left political philosophers such as Frantz Fanon.

SWU amended its complaint against Columbia in June, adding 45 students as plaintiffs and over “230 pages of allegations.” Meanwhile, the accusations which surfaced following the group’s first filing have already stained Columbia’s reputation.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews,” “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” Columbia protesters chanted on campus grounds after Oct. 7, violating the school’s code of conduct but never facing consequences for doing so, the complaint alleges. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

The protesters later reinforced their rhetoric with violence, the complaint adds. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another allegedly attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen. Following the incidents, pleas for help went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held its demonstrations.

The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were purportedly forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events while no one explained the inconsistency.

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, who took office in July 2023, recently attempted to assuage concerns that Columbia has become a sanctuary for antisemites after it was revealed that five high-level administrators participated in a group-chat in which ideas that “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes” were exchanged. She fired none of the administrators, however, which has led to calls for her to resign from office.

“We will launch a vigorous program of antisemitism and antidiscrimination [sic] training for faculty and staff this fall, with related training for students under the auspices of university life,” Shafik said in statement. “Columbia’s leadership team recognizes this as an important moment to implement changes that will build a stronger institution as a result. I know that you all share this commitment.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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