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The world is on fire — but it is also full of light

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

(JTA) — Abraham saw a world that was burning. A vivid midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27) recounts the story of how the Jewish patriarch first encountered God. Abraham saw the world as a bira doleket, a flaming tower, and demanded indignantly, “Is there no one in charge?!” At this, God shows his face and admits, “I am the one in charge.” Thus begins Abraham’s relationship with the divine.

Like Abraham before us, we too gaze out at a burning world. Our eyes have taken in so much devastation and horror. In the last few weeks we have all been witness to many burning buildings. We too cry out that no one is in charge. We too long for God to show up and take some ownership of the situation.

This midrash paints a picture of divine relationship that emerges from a place of shock and indignation. God shows up in the world because Abraham demands it. The world without God’s presence is untenable, it will burn itself out. Abraham won’t let that happen. He holds God accountable, reminding God that the ruler of the universe needs to act like it.

Abraham understands that the world needs God, and so he devotes the rest of his life to being an agent of God’s blessing. Rather than blame God for the fire, or step aside and let God put it out, Abraham works on God’s behalf. The medieval sage Rashi allows us to listen in, edxplaining that God is essentially telling Abraham: “Blessings are entrusted to you … from now on you shall bless whomever you wish.” Abraham becomes the bestower of divine blessing. He spreads these blessings throughout the world.

In response to the pain and suffering of the past few weeks, we all long to be blessed. We long to be safe, to be at peace, to feel joy. And maybe even more so, we long for the ability to bless others. We desperately want to care for each other, to keep those around us safe. And we wish, like Abraham, that we could bestow blessings throughout the world. There is so much pain, so many fires in need of divine attention. With Abraham as our model, we must each strive to be bestowers of divine blessing.

There is another common, but opposite way to read this midrash about Abrahm’s encounter with the burning building. The Hebrew word doleket can be translated not only as “aflame,” but also as “aglow.” It is possible that this midrash is teaching us to find God not by looking directly at the parts of our world that burn, but by focusing our attention on the parts luminescent with beauty and wonder. In this reading, Abraham is the master of mindfulness. He is the first to notice divine blessing manifest in the world and offer God credit.

In his writings, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches this midrash both ways — sometimes giving voice to our pain and outrage, and at others to our wonder and beauty. To get through this moment in Jewish history, we are going to need both. The fires raging right now may be too overwhelming to expect to find God in them. But while we cannot ignore the pain and fear, we will be overwhelmed if we only look at the burning buildings. We need to balance our moral outrage with looking for the beauty of God’s world. Whether through prayer and mitzvot, through art and song, through family and community, or wherever you find beauty, remember — this world that is on fire is also aglow with light.

The post The world is on fire — but it is also full of light appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Jewish actors Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell to join ‘Cabaret’ revival on Broadway

(New York Jewish Week) – The forthcoming Broadway revival of the iconic musical “Cabaret” has added two Jewish actors to its star-studded cast.

Steven Skybell will join the highly anticipated production as Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor who courts a younger German woman in 1929 and 1930. Bebe Neuwirth will play that character, boardinghouse owner Fräulein Schneider.

Skybell and Neuwirth, whose casting was announced on Thursday morning, will join previously announced cast members Eddie Redmayne, who will play the Master of Ceremonies, Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles and Ato Blankson-Wood as Clifford Bradshaw. Previews for the revival, which is titled “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club,” are set to begin April 1, 2024, at the August Wilson Theater on West 52nd Street. 

Both Skybell and Neuwirth are known for Jewish roles. Skybell may be best known for playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” as well as Lazar Wolf in the 2016 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Neuwirth, meanwhile, is famous for her role as Lilith Sternin, the highly educated, on-again, off-again romantic partner of Frasier Crane in the sitcoms “Cheers” and “Frasier.” 

Skybell and Neuwirth last performed together in 2012 for an Off-Broadway production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“In these times of increased antisemitism, I am proud and privileged to play the Jewish role of ‘Herr Schultz’ in ‘Cabaret,’” Skybell, who stars in “Amid Falling Walls,” a musical from the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene that opens in New York on Nov. 20, told Deadline. “It’s important to tell stories like ‘Cabaret,’ which is, of course, massively entertaining, but also sheds a light on this moment in history, when fascism and intolerance nearly overcame the Jewish people and the world at large.”

The original production of “Cabaret,” about the hedonistic antics at a Berlin nightclub during the Nazis’ rise to power, opened in 1966 at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, with music and lyrics created by Jewish duo John Kander and Fred Ebb. The show won eight Tony Awards in 1967, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for Joel Grey, who originated the role of the Master of Ceremonies — decades later, Grey would direct Skybell in the Yiddish version of “Fiddler.”

The revival, “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club,” is based on a West End production which has been playing in London since 2021. The new production emphasizes a Jewish subplot — the love story between Herr Schultz in Fräulein Schneider — which was nominally present in many productions of the stage musical and entirely absent from the 1972 film. The London Jewish Chronicle called the relationship between the Jewish fruit seller and the non-Jewish boarding house owner “the emotional heart of the story, and its moral core” in a 2022 review of the show.

The 2024 Broadway production will be directed by Rebecca Frecknall, who also directed the West End version.

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An LA charter school housed at a synagogue taught 1st-graders about ‘the genocide of Palestine’

(JTA) – A Los Angeles charter school and the synagogue that rents it space are in turmoil after two first-grade teachers at the school held lessons about “the genocide of Palestine.”

One of the teachers also complained on social media about Israeli flags on the campus of the synagogue, Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.

The incidents have raised concern among parents at both the charter school, named Citizens of the World-East Valley, and the Conservative synagogue, which operates a preschool on the same campus. The school says it has commissioned a third-party investigation and the synagogue says it has gotten assurances from the school about “swift measures to address the situation, including the removal of the involved teachers.“

Neither institution responded to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s requests for comment. 

“Many of you have rightfully expressed concern about the situation at the CWC,” Adat Ari El’s senior rabbi, Brian Schuldenfrei, told synagogue members by email on Thursday. “I will be issuing a public statement … during a press conference tomorrow making our position clear.”

The saga comes amid widespread tensions following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, and Israel’s ensuing war on the Palestinian terror group in Gaza. Critics of Israel, as well as its supporters, have marched in major cities around the world. Pro-Palestinian groups have held protests and sit-ins in a range of public spaces and issued statements calling for a ceasefire. In Los Angeles this week, a Jewish man died after a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester at a rally, and a brawl broke out surrounding a local screening of footage from Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians

The situation at Citizens of the World-East Valley reveals that debate over the war is cropping up not only in college quads, corporate boardrooms and the halls of Congress, but even in classes of the country’s youngest students. The controversy at the charter school began when first-grade teachers taught about the conflict in their classrooms, then documented their lessons in social media posts and emails. 

“I did a lesson on the genocide in Palestine today w my first graders who give me hell 90% of every day but were really into this convo and series of activities,” one teacher, who used the class’s math period for the lesson, wrote on Instagram in a private post that JTA reviewed.

The teacher added, “I started by telling them that we weren’t gonna do math at the usual time bc sometimes there are big things in the world that need our attention and we need to interrupt our usual routines to make space to learn and talk about what’s happening.” 

A photo of a worksheet titled “What do humans need to live?” showed students writing their own response, with their first names clearly visible.

“I asked them what they already knew about what’s happening (they knew a lot and had questions) and I drew a little map of the occupied territories of Palestine,” another post from the same teacher says. “Then they organically started coming up w ideas for what could happen (my fav was a kid who was like “what if they just give the land back to Palestine and find somewhere else to live?”)” The teacher ended the post with a heart emoji.

These posts were amplified on the social network X Thursday by Dave Rubin, a conservative Jewish TV pundit with more than 1 million followers who called them “absolutely insane.”

On social media, the teacher also expressed disgust with several Israeli flags the synagogue had placed around the campus after Oct. 7, when Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 people hostage. The teacher posted a photo of the campus and accompanied it with a vomit emoji.

Another first-grade teacher sent an email to parents explaining the thinking behind her class’s recent lesson on “what’s been happening in Gaza and Israel.”  She said she had held the lesson “because I want kids to know the importance of using their voices to stand up for people and non-human beings anytime they are being mistreated,” according to an email reviewed by JTA.

“I teach as though anyone from any oppressed group could be in our community because everyone deserves to feel safe,” the teacher continued, adding, “I always frame it in an age-appropriate way and through a lens of equity and being a kind and loving human.”

Similar to the first teacher, the second described a lesson that began with “what all humans need to live joyful, safe lives,” which led the teacher to tell her students “that a lot of people aren’t safe and aren’t having those needs met right now.” The students also read a children’s book entitled “Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story,” published last year by the Palestinian author and artist Malak Mattar and set during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. She also described asking her students what they already knew about the region, due to her desire to have the lessons be “child-led.”

“They knew quite a bit collectively,” the teacher said. “I made sure to only teach facts and to be honest about things I didn’t know.” She concluded, “The kids were very engaged in our lesson and we will be continuing these discussions in class. I am honored to have the opportunity to learn from and with your kids and their brilliant young minds.”

Attempts by JTA to contact the two teachers through a variety of pathways were unsuccessful. 

According to the California Department of Education, the charter school, which is publicly funded and privately operated, enrolls around 300 students from prekindergarten to second grade. More than 50% of its student body is white, with another 23% Hispanic or Latino. The charter school enrolls some Jewish children whose families belong to the synagogue.

Some of those parents raised the issue with synagogue leaders after some of their children came home from school upset about Israel’s actions in Gaza, according to a parent from the synagogue preschool who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Parents were also concerned about the teacher posting a picture of the campus online, said the preschool parent, who expressed newfound security concerns about sharing space with the charter school. 

“Even if it’s not a violent attack, even if it’s just verbal, I don’t want my preschooler to even hear anything negative about Jews,” the parent said.

In a Nov. 7 email to congregants, Schuldenfrei and the synagogue’s executive director, Eric Nicastro, wrote that they had “taken action” with the charter school’s administration “and they have assured us that they are actively investigating and taking swift measures to address the situation, including the removal of the involved teachers.”

The synagogue leaders also said they had alerted their security team to the teacher who had posted an image of their campus on social media.

“We want to make it clear that we will not tolerate antisemitism in any form, anywhere, and certainly not within our own community,” Nicastro and Schuldenfrei wrote, adding, “Together, we can ensure that Adat Ari El remains a place of love, respect, and understanding.”

The charter school principal, Hye-Won Gehring, sent her own email to parents on Nov. 7 that was co-signed by Melissa Kaplan, the executive director of the charter network, which operates five schools around Los Angeles. This location serves students through second grade.

“Recently, we were made aware of concerns circulating among parent groups that teacher(s) have been discussing issues related to Israel and Gaza with students and have been posting content on social media that has raised concerns for many in our community,” the administrators wrote.

They said they had set aside many of their responsibilities to tackle the turmoil at the school and announced their intention to “partner with a third-party investigator” to scrutinize the situation, including potentially by interviewing students with parental consent. 

Calling the situation “challenging” and noting that it has caused “pain and distress,” they concluded, “We are confident that we can move forward and come out stronger as a diverse community of CWC families and students.”

The unusual space-sharing arrangement between the synagogue and the charter school began in 2021, when the new outpost of an existing charter network began renting space the synagogue had previously used for its own elementary school, which closed that year. Adat Ari El’s early childhood center is separated from the charter school by a fence.

“Adat Ari El is a Jewish congregation but all CWC activities on campus will be secular, consistent with our philosophy and model,” the school announced on social media at the time, saying about its arrangement, “We could not imagine a better place to start CWC East Valley.”

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Ryan Lavarnway played with Team Israel one week before Oct. 7. Now he’s speaking out to support Jews.

(JTA) — On Sept. 30, Ryan Lavarnway and Team Israel took the field in the Czech Republic to battle the host country for fifth place at the 2023 European Baseball Championship. Israel lost 5-1 and finished sixth in the biennial tournament.

One week later, some of Lavarnway’s teammates were hastily called into active duty by the Israel Defense Forces in the wake of Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 that killed and injured thousands.

“It’s crazy to see people that I was playing a game with, doing the thing I love with, then be activated and on the frontlines of this conflict,” Lavarnway told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone interview.

Lavarnway, 36, was a journeyman catcher in the MLB, playing for eight different teams over 10 years. He played for Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier and tournament, the 2020 Summer Olympics and the 2023 WBC. He obtained Israeli citizenship prior to the Olympics and recently wrote a children’s book about his experience.

Though Lavarnway officially retired from the MLB earlier this year, he was named captain of Team Israel ahead of the European tournament, which Israel is scheduled to host in 2025. He said he is undecided about playing for Israel in the future.

But even as his on-field presence is up in the air, Lavarnway has become a go-to speaker at pro-Israel events on college campuses and for Jewish organizations around the country.

Lavarnway will appear at two upcoming Israel solidarity events with the Jewish National Fund-USA, an organization that advocates for American support for Israel. The group has also helped support Israel’s burgeoning baseball program, including by funding a portion of the team’s Olympics expenses and by helping build new baseball fields in Israel. Lavarnway will speak at JNF’s Global Conference for Israel in Denver at the end of November and at another event in Chicago in December.

According to a JNF spokesperson, the two events will “serve as an opportunity for supporters of Israel to unite as a community during Israel’s darkest days, while also learning about the organization’s emergency aid efforts providing housing, food, clothing, and more to thousands of displaced and traumatized families.”

“Anything that I can do to help people feel like they’re not alone and to give them an excuse to to distract themselves or free themselves from drowning in it even for a short while, I feel like that is a positive role I can play without trying to know what the right answer or the right thing to say is,” Lavarnway said.

Lavarnway grew up with a Jewish mother and Catholic father and said that he got closer to his Jewish faith in high school. But he told JTA he “didn’t feel a huge connection to my Judaism, to any religion, to the community at all” until playing for Team Israel — an experience that many of the team’s American Jewish players went through.

He said he has lost sleep over the war in Israel and is especially disheartened by the rise of antisemitism and misleading information that has circulated online since the violence began.

“The biggest thing that our Israeli native counterparts keep asking is to help spread the truth, because there’s so much misinformation out there,” Lavarnway said. “So many people are hearing things that stem from propaganda from the terrorist group, that we just want people to understand what’s really happening.”

Instead of getting involved in debates over Israel’s military response or other political issues, Lavarnway said his main focus is on supporting Jews.

“Being the captain of the Team Israel national team puts me in a position where I feel a responsibility to stand up and speak out,” he said. “As a baseball player, I don’t know the right answer. I don’t know the right thing to say. I don’t know that there is a right thing to say, and I don’t know that there is an answer, but what I’ve taken my role and my responsibility to do is just try to help people in the community not feel isolated and alone, and try to spread hope and positivity where I can.”

Lavarnway said athletes have a critical role to play in supporting fans during difficult times — and he commended some of his fellow Jewish baseball players for recent acts of solidarity, like a video he was part of from a large group of Jewish baseball players calling on fans to stand up for Israel.

“I think athletes have the unique ability to be visible in a strictly positive and supportive way,” he said. “We’re not politicians, we’re not members of the military. People are not looking for us or to us for the right answer. If anything, they’re looking to us for representation and for role models. And that is what Alex Bregman did. That is what Ian Kinsler did. That is what Kevin Youkilis is doing. It’s helping people feel like they’re not alone, and that there’s hope.”

Last week, Lavarnway participated in a video put together by Hillel International and a number of other Jewish organizations, with the goal of sending support to Jewish college students amid a spike in antisemitism on campuses. (Lavarnway speaks around the 43:30 mark.)

“I think that we need community more than ever right now,” Lavarnway told JTA. “I got many messages through my social media channels from college students that just said, ‘Thank you for helping me not feel like I’m alone.’”

Plenty of non-Jewish athletes have spoken out, too, including NBA stars LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma, the latter being a teammate of the league’s lone Israeli, Deni Avdija. Lavarnway said those messages of support go a long way.

“I think the Jewish community has taken a lot of pride for a very long time in supporting other cultures, other ethnicities, other oppressed minorities,” he said. “And right now, Jewish people need that support back. So when other people that are not Jewish offer that support or reach out a hand in a time where it feels like there’s not a lot of people doing that, it speaks volumes.”

The former big leaguer is no stranger to the role sports can play in the face of tragedy. Lavarnway was a key member of the 2013 Boston Red Sox that won the World Series just months after the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds.

“What I learned after the Boston bombings and playing for that 2013 Boston Red Sox team that embodied ‘Boston Strong,’ was by playing a game and by doing what we had always done and what we loved, we gave people a sense of normalcy for three hours,” Lavarnway said. “Unfortunately Team Israel is not playing baseball right now to offer that solution, but when I speak in public, or I speak at conventions or gatherings, my hope is to give people 45 minutes where we don’t have to feel like we’re drowning in this right now.”

The post Ryan Lavarnway played with Team Israel one week before Oct. 7. Now he’s speaking out to support Jews. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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