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‘Unorthodox’ author Deborah Feldman is a lightning rod in Germany’s debate about criticizing Israel

(JTA) — The TV series “Unorthodox” took the world by storm in 2020. Now, recent comments about Israel by the story’s Berlin-based Jewish heroine, author Deborah Feldman, have created a storm of another kind.

Feldman, 37, a dual American-German citizen, rose to fame through her story of fleeing the Satmar Hasidic community of Brooklyn to the welcoming streets of Berlin. She is now making the rounds of German and British media, unabashedly criticizing Israel’s war against Hamas and taking umbrage at what she considers Germany’s misguided support for the Jewish state.

Her pet peeve: German eagerness “to lecture us on how any criticism of Israel is antisemitic.” On a recent talking heads TV program on the broadcaster ZDF, German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said “Israel has the right to defend itself and Germany has the obligation to stand by Israel.”

“Israel must also adhere to international law and do everything in its power to protect civilians,” he said. “But Israel’s task is almost impossible since Hamas hides behind civilians.”

With Habeck listening remotely on a big screen behind her, Feldman, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from Hungary, told him she was “appalled” that Jews are “selectively protected” in Germany. Though antisemitism is on the rise, she said, “sometimes empty synagogues” get police protection while other places where Jews gather — such as kosher restaurants or Jewish museums — have to take care of themselves. JTA has not confirmed this, and Feldman and her attorney have not responded to JTA requests for comment.

Feldman has garnered support from some, derision from others. The controversy hits a raw nerve in Germany, where criticism of Israel has been subject to intense scrutiny for decades after World War II. But there has long been a growing thirst for Jewish voices to break the supposed taboos.

Most Jews in Germany rush to Israel’s side in times of crisis, whether or not they like the country’s government and its policies towards the Palestinians. German politicians and mainstream Jewish organizations, such as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, usually dismiss voices like Feldman’s as an annoying fringe phenomenon — but Jewish leadership has become increasingly uncomfortable with the dynamic.

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Berlin-based American Jewish scholar Susan Neiman decried Germany’s “silencing of critical Jewish voices,” including Feldman’s.

Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum foundation in Berlin, noted that several venues had canceled events promoting Feldman’s new book, “Judenfetisch” (“Jew Fetish”), which argues that German guilt over the Holocaust has distorted its relationship to Jews and Israel. Neiman also said the Chabad Lubavitch movement in Berlin is “suing Feldman to take the book off the shelves.” JTA has learned that Chabad won its suit on Nov. 1 over a false allegation related to state funding for Ukrainian-Jewish refugees in Berlin. Books on the shelves of shops can stay where they are, but the offending material will be removed from future editions, said Chabad’s attorney Nathan Gelbart.

Some book tour events may have been canceled, but Feldman, who moved to Berlin in 2014, has still been getting plenty of publicity, noted writer Mirna Funk — “more than any of us,” said Funk. The German-born Jewish novelist and journalist recently shared the Arik Brauer Journalism Prize from the Vienna-based Middle East think tank Mena-Watch for writing on the Middle East, with Israeli-German psychologist and author Ahmad Mansour.

“Deborah has no idea about Jews in Germany and no idea about Israel, but since Oct. 7 German media has dragged her onto many TV shows and quoted her in many newspapers,” Funk said in an Instagram post.

Author Mirna Funk, shown in 2020, thinks that Feldman is getting more air time than German-born Jews. (Gerald Matzka/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“The woman comes from an anti-Zionist sect in Brooklyn and is considered a representative of Germany’s Jewish community,” Funk wrote. “It’s slowly getting to the point where I can only stand it all if I can beam myself 15 years or so into the future and look back on this time, after the nightmare is over.”

Though German foreign policy has been overall very supportive of Israel, popular support for the Jewish state has waned steadily since the 1960s. Politics reflects that shift, with increasing government criticism of Israel’s settlement policy over the years. Germany no longer automatically stands up for Israel in European Union and United Nations forums.

Sacha Stawski, president and founder of the Frankfurt-based pro-Israel initiative Honestly Concerned, agreed that there is a distinct popular appetite for Jewish Israel critics.

“People like Deborah Feldman have made a business model out of being anti-Zionist, and being outspoken Israel haters,” Stawski told JTA.

Such critics are “well-received guests on all the major talk shows,” he said. “For somebody like Feldman to claim that people are trying to shut her up and that she’s not able to raise her voice is the greatest bullshit I have ever heard.”

Feldman and Neiman also are among the more than 100 signatories to a recent open letter in N+1 magazine from Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals in Germany, condemning what they describe as an indiscriminate crackdown on voices critical of Israel. The letter was also published in German in the left-wing daily Tageszeitung.

The letter was the brainchild of American writer Alex Cocotas, 36, who moved to Germany eight years ago after living in Israel for a couple of years. It started as a text message to a handful of friends who, like him, were “horrified about what was happening in Israel, but also about what was happening here in Germany as well,” he told JTA.

What triggered the action was a government ban on certain statements and symbols at pro-Palestinian demonstrations following Oct. 7. After participants in one Berlin rally celebrated the brutal attack, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the group that called for the rally would be banned. Schools in Berlin were told they could also bar the wearing of the Palestinian flag, keffiyeh headscarves and other pro-Palestinian symbols.

It was such broad measures that the open letter targeted. While condemning the Hamas attack, the writers said the banning of “public gatherings with presumed Palestinian sympathies” — including those called by Jews — serves to “suppress legitimate nonviolent political expression that may include criticisms of Israel.”

Cocotas said that despite his efforts to reach the mainstream Jewish community in Germany,  most of the signatories were American or Israeli Jews living here.

In laws shaped by the post-war reckoning with its National Socialist past, Germany bars Holocaust denial and the use of Nazi slogans and symbols. Germany also has formally accepted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which includes the denial of Israel’s right to exist as a form of antisemitic hate speech.

“In the U.S. you can deny the Holocaust in public, and you will not be prosecuted,” said Cocotas, adding that he recognized the differences between German and American laws. But “I don’t consider ‘Free Palestine’ to be an antisemitic statement. It should be protected speech.”

His concerns  echo those of Germany’s commissioner on antisemitism and Jewish life, Felix Klein, who recently told the Guardian newspaper that the broad restriction of protests was “worrying,”  because “demonstrating is a basic right.”

“It’s unfortunate that it’s a very small group of Hamas supporters and people that are hating Israel that cause all this trouble,” Klein said.

Another American transplant to Berlin, William Glucroft, told JTA that he believes the restrictions are deeply problematic. “As a writer and journalist, I can only be for unfettered access to public expression,” Glucroft, who signed the open letter, told JTA in an email. “As a Jew, my safety and well-being are only thanks to democratic ideals of equal protection and rule of law. That has to be there for everyone.”

“Germany’s understanding of its history leads it to think it owes something to Israel, a country that did not exist” during the Third Reich, he continued. Germany itself “blurs the line between Jews and Israel, which endangers Jews and by the IHRA definition that Germany itself endorses, is antisemitic.”

Micki Weinberg, founder of the Berlin based SHIUR Jewish learning project, also received the open letter. But he declined to sign.

“I completely understand one’s interest to have empathy with the Palestinians — and I do — but that doesn’t mean ignoring attacks on Jews and denigrating a legitimate fear,” he told JTA by text message.

“If the letter simply acknowledged the real risk of antisemitism within Islamist and pro-Palestinian/Anti-Israel groups and asked for a separation between legitimate pro-Palestinian demos and antisemitic pro-Palestinian demos, then that would be fine.”

Funk, who calls both Berlin and Tel Aviv home, said she was surprised to find the name of an Israeli friend among the signatories.

“I texted him after I saw his name on the list: ‘What the f— are you doing?’ There is a huge disconnect between the established Jewish community in Germany and the Israelis,” she said. “They simply don’t understand Germany.”

“I would not sign, because Palestinians are not suppressed,” she said, noting that there are 5.5 million Muslims in Germany and about 100,000 registered members of Jewish communities.

“They are not being silenced,” said Funk. “They are demonstrating on the streets every f—ing day for Gaza. So I don’t know what they are talking about.”

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Biden Ends Faltering Reelection Campaign, Backs Harris as Nominee

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator Kamala Harris after the conclusion of the 2020 Democratic US presidential debate in Houston, Texas, Sept. 12, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Mike Blake.

U.S. President Joe Biden dropped his faltering reelection bid on Sunday, amid intensifying opposition within his own Democratic Party, and endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris to replace him as the party’s candidate against Republican Donald Trump.

Biden, 81, in a post on X, said he will remain in his role as president and commander-in-chief until his term ends in January 2025 and will address the nation this week. He has not been seen in public since testing positive for COVID-19 last week and isolating at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

“While it has been my intention to seek reelection, I believe it is in the best interest of my party and the country for me to stand down and to focus solely on fulfilling my duties as President for the remainder of my term,” Biden wrote.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said the American people will hear from the party on next steps and the path forward for the nomination process soon. It was the first time in more than a half-century that an incumbent U.S. president gave up his party’s nomination.

Biden‘s campaign had been on the ropes since a halting June 27 debate against former President Trump, 78, in which the incumbent at times struggled to finish his thoughts.

Opposition from within his party gained steam over the past week with 36 congressional Democrats – more than one in eight – publicly calling on him to end his campaign.

Lawmakers said they feared he could cost them not only the White House but also the chance to control either chamber of Congress next year, which would leave Democrats with no meaningful grasp on power in Washington.

That stood in sharp contrast to what played out in the Republican Party last week, when members united around Trump and his running mate U.S. Senator J.D. Vance, 39.

Harris, 59, would become the first Black woman to run at the top of a major-party ticket in the country’s history.

Trump told CNN on Sunday that he believed Harris would be easier to defeat.

Biden had a last-minute change of heart, said a source familiar with the matter. The president told allies that as of Saturday night he planned to stay in the race before changing his mind on Sunday afternoon.

“Last night the message was proceed with everything, full speed ahead,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. “At around 1:45 p.m. today: the president told his senior team that he had changed his mind.”

Biden announced his decision on social media within minutes.

It was unclear whether other senior Democrats would challenge Harris for the party’s nomination – she was widely seen as the pick for many party officials – or whether the party itself would choose to open the field for nominations.

Public opinion polling shows that Harris performs no worse than Biden against Trump.

In a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, Harris and Trump were tied with 44% support each in a July 15-16 Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted immediately after the July 13 assassination attempt on Trump. Trump led Biden 43% to 41% in that same poll, though the 2 percentage point difference was not meaningful considering the poll’s 3-point margin of error.


Congressional Republicans argued that Biden should resign the office immediately, which would turn the White House over to Harris and put House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, next in line in succession.

“If he’s incapable of running for president, how is he capable of governing right now? I mean, there is five months left in this administration. It’s a real concern, and it’s a danger to the country,” Johnson told CNN on Sunday before Biden‘s announcement.

Johnson in a separate interview on ABC signaled that Republicans would likely try to mount legal challenges to Democrats’ move to replace Biden on the ballot.

Biden‘s announcement follows a wave of public and private pressure from Democratic lawmakers and party officials to quit the race after his shockingly poor debate.

His troubles took the public spotlight away from Trump’s performance, in which he made a string of false statements, and trained it instead on questions surrounding Biden‘s fitness for another four-year term.

His gaffes at a NATO summit – invoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name when he meant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and calling Harris “Vice President Trump” -further stoked anxieties.


Biden‘s historic move – the first sitting president to give up his party’s nomination for reelection since President Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War in March 1968 – leaves his replacement with less than four months to wage a campaign.

If Harris emerges as the nominee, the move would represent an unprecedented gamble by the Democratic Party: its first Black and Asian American woman to run for the White House in a country that has elected one Black president and never a woman president in more than two centuries.

Biden was the oldest U.S. president ever elected when he beat Trump in 2020. During that campaign, Biden described himself as a bridge to the next generation of Democratic leaders. Some interpreted that to mean he would serve one term, a transitional figure who beat Trump and brought his party back to power.

But he set his sights on a second term in the belief that he was the only Democrat who could beat Trump again amid questions about Harris’s experience and popularity. In recent times, though, his advanced age began to show through more. His gait became stilted and his childhood stutter occasionally returned.

His team had hoped a strong performance at the June 27 debate would ease concerns over his age. It did the opposite: a Reuters/Ipsos poll after the debate showed that about 40% of Democrats thought he should quit the race.

Donors began to revolt and supporters of Harris began to coalesce around her. Top Democrats, including former House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime ally, told Biden he cannot win the election.

Biden‘s departure sets up a stark new contrast, between the Democrats’ presumptive new nominee, Harris, a former prosecutor, and Trump who is two decades her senior and faces two outstanding criminal prosecutions related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election result. He is due to be sentenced in New York in September on a conviction for trying to cover up a hush-money payment to a porn star.


Earlier this year, facing little opposition, Biden easily won the Democratic primary race to pick its presidential candidate, despite voter concerns about his age and health.

His staunch support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza eroded support among some in his own party, particularly young, progressive Democrats and voters of color, who make up an essential part of the Democratic base.

Many Black voters say Biden has not done enough for them, and enthusiasm among Democrats overall for a second Biden term had been low. Even before the debate with Trump, Biden was trailing the Republican in some national polls and in the battleground states he would have needed to win to prevail on Nov. 5.

Harris was tasked with reaching out to those voters in recent months.

During the primary race, Biden accumulated more than 3,600 delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held in Chicago in August. That was almost double the 1,976 needed to win the party’s nomination.

Unless the Democratic Party changes the rules, delegates pledged to Biden would enter the convention “uncommitted,” leaving them to vote on his successor.

Democrats also have a system of “superdelegates,” unpledged senior party officials and elected leaders whose support is limited on the first ballot but who could play a decisive role in subsequent rounds.

Biden beat Trump in 2020 by winning in the key battleground states, including tight races in Pennsylvania and Georgia. At a national level, he bested Trump by more than 7 million votes, capturing 51.3% of the popular vote to Trump’s 46.8%.

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An ‘Abject, Squalid, Shameless’ Debate at the Oxford Union

Oxford University students in formal academic dress, c. 2006. Photo: Flickr/James

JNS.orgIn an era dominated by social media and defined by short attention spans, it’s striking that longer, more involved debates hosted by elite institutions still matter.

The Oxford Union—a debating society created at Oxford University in the 1820s, immodestly billing itself as “the most prestigious debating society in the world”—is one of those institutions. During its forthcoming Michaelmas term, which covers the winter months, the Union is planning a debate on the motion: “This house recognizes that Israel is an apartheid state responsible for genocide.”

One of the proposed speakers at the debate is my good friend Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who teaches in the politics department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In 2002, Steinberg founded the Israeli watchdog NGO Monitor, which has since played an invaluable role in analyzing and exposing the role of non-governmental organizations in the war against Israel on the propaganda and legal fronts. The Oxford Union rightly assessed that Steinberg would be an ideal speaker to defend Israel’s reputation and duly sent him an invite.

An invitation to speak at the Oxford Union is commonly regarded in academic and media circles as a great honor and an affirmation of one’s expertise in a particular subject area.

Indeed, the invitation to Steinberg was dripping with the kind of self-importance that makes Oxford and Cambridge Universities the continual butt of dismissive jokes among the acerbically humorous, class-obsessed British. It ran through a list of speakers to have graced its hall over the past two centuries, including three U.S. presidents, the late Queen Elizabeth II, the Dalai Lama and the radical African-American advocate Malcolm X.

For good measure, the invitation highlighted two debates from the past century to entice Steinberg. One was from 1933, the year Hitler came to power and the Union shamefully voted in favor of the motion: “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The other was from 1962—five years before Israel unified Jerusalem and conquered Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War—when the Union debated the contention that the “creation of the State of Israel is one of the mistakes of the century.”

Despite his impressive credentials, Steinberg is a modest man who can be relied upon to do the right thing. He sent the Union a response that ripped the premises of their proposed debate to shreds. Addressing the reference in the invitation letter to the infamous 1933 debate as an example of the Union’s “tradition of confronting the boldest questions of our time,” he observed: “That tradition is also described as exploiting the Oxford Union as a platform for crude political propaganda. The histories of this event highlight the fact that the debate took place shortly after Hitler became the German leader and the Nazis launched the actions and laws targeting the Jewish population. Winston Churchill described the Union’s behavior in 1933 as an ‘abject, squalid, shameless avowal. … It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.’”

Churchill’s condemnation applies no less to the topic on which Steinberg was invited to debate.

“The gratuitous labels of ‘apartheid’ and ‘genocide’ add to this edifice, and some might conclude that the leaders and members of the Oxford Union seek to repeat and reinforce the travesties of 1933 and 1962,” he wrote.

Steinberg then dealt with the frankly libelous claims of “apartheid” and “genocide” against Israel, highlighting the historical context and moral significance of both these terms.

Regarding “apartheid,” Steinberg correctly reminded the debate organizers that this term originally appeared in relation to Israel as a result of intensive Soviet propaganda efforts during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to strip the Jewish state of its legitimacy, with Moscow lobbing words like “Nazi” and “racist” into the brew as well.

On the invocation of genocide, Steinberg noted that this term—applicable to the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians during World War I, the Holocaust of six million Jews during World War II and more recent events of mass killing and systemic abuse in Cambodia, Rwanda and Myanmar/Burma—was now being distorted to “delegitimize responses to military aggression, asymmetric warfare and atrocities directed at civilian populations, such as committed by Hamas and its allies.”

Part of the problem here is that while the team at the Oxford Union is gushingly proud of the debate topics covered during that institution’s long existence, they appear to be less familiar with the underlying substance.

Had they examined the examples of genocide cited above, they might have noticed a common pattern: In every case, regimes targeted minorities simply based on their identity. In Pol Pot’s Cambodia, even wearing glasses marked one out as a candidate for death, because a pair of specs was seen as evidence of a bourgeois education. These regimes then used killing methods like mass executions and concentration camps to eliminate those they targeted.

Both before and during the killings, the victim groups were dehumanized in regime propaganda. The Nazis depicted Jews as “rats” and the Hutu killing mobs in Rwanda referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” Victim groups were at best poorly armed, at worst utterly defenseless, in the face of their killers.

Similarly, those who invoke the word “apartheid” in the context of Israel have little idea of what that system involved or the discredited racist ideology it was based upon. For most of the 20th century in South Africa, the Black population that comprises 90% of the country was subjected to humiliating restrictions in every aspect of their lives, along with the denial of suffrage.

While South African apartheid was unique, there are some ironic parallels visible in the Middle East—but not in Israel. In Syria and Bahrain, to take just two examples, unelected, heavily armed minorities engage in brutal rule over the majorities, as was the case in South Africa. In Qatar, less than 10% of the population are full citizens. Everyone else, including the vast reservoir of migrant labor toiling in conditions of slavery, is seen as a lesser being, deemed unfit to even enter the gleaming shopping malls and hotels built with their own sweat. In Iran, women and religious minorities suffer from discrimination rooted in the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of the Quran and other religious texts.

All of this is ignored because it contradicts the dogma that Israel lies at the root of all the conflicts in the Middle East and, in increasing numbers of fevered minds, the world. The Oxford Union is no less guilty of sacralizing this dogma than is some idiot on Instagram posting an Israeli flag juxtaposed with a Nazi swastika.

As Steinberg suggested at the end of his reply, if the Oxford Union is really serious about upholding its tradition of bold debates that pull no punches, it should consider the motion: “This house recognizes that its own history of Jew-hatred in different forms is fundamentally immoral and offers its apologies.”

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Home or Synagogue?

A 1539 representation of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

JNS.orgHow ironic that some of our most famous synagogue prayers should have come from the mouth of one of our mortal enemies. In Balak, this week’s parsha, the heathen prophet Balaam attempts to put a lethal curse on the Israelites, only to be frustrated by God. Every time he tried to curse us out of his vile mouth came the most beautiful blessings and praises of Israel. Perhaps none are more famous than “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael“—“How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel.”

In his commentary, Rashi shares two interpretations of this verse. In the first, he says that Balaam was referring to the Jewish homes and the modesty the people demonstrated in their town planning. The doorways were designed so they did not face each other and thus protected the privacy and modesty of family life. In his second interpretation, Rashi explains that tents and dwellings also refer to our Sanctuaries and Temples of old—namely Shilo and Jerusalem.

In the Torah, a sequence is important and instructive. That Rashi first mentions the Jewish home and only afterward the Temple tells us something: First comes the Jewish home, and then the synagogue.

What are our priorities? What is primary and what is secondary?

Far be it from me to diminish the importance of my own profession as a congregational rabbi in a synagogue, but the truth must be told and I’ve said this in my own shul many times over the years:

We cannot depend on the synagogue for Jewish continuity. Neither can we rely on our Jewish day schools, for that matter.

Too many parents today have abdicated their role as educators to the school and the shul.

Our teachers’ biggest complaint is that parents do not support their educational endeavors. All too often there is a dichotomy, even a conflict, between the home and the school. Parents and teachers are frequently at loggerheads and our children are getting mixed messages. When the teacher encourages a student to engage in a Jewish practice, he may hear his parents telling him to ignore it because they are not comfortable with that practice.

Some parents have gone to shocking and disgraceful lengths, even criticizing and condemning the teacher to their children. I once heard of a boy who told his teacher point blank, “My father said you are a total jerk!” Actually, it was much worse, but I can’t repeat it here!

Kids may well forget what their teacher or rabbi said, but it is far more likely for them to remember what their mother and father taught them.

“In our house, we don’t do that.” “In our family, we do it this way.” Parental messages leave far more lasting impressions on children. A child’s own house and his own family traditions tend to count for much more than a school or synagogue routine.

The rabbi or teacher may teach or preach about Shabbat or Kashrut, but if parents tell their children that it isn’t that important, it is unlikely the child will buck family tradition.

Of course, parents should never be dismissive of what teachers tell their children at school or what the rabbi tells them in shul. But the reality is that the home and family value system will be far more important in raising the next generation than the shul or school.

Just consider how much of Jewish life is observed at home and how much is practiced in shul.

In shul we pray with a minyan, perhaps we attend a shiur or adult education. We may be called upon to assist with communal welfare or volunteer to visit the sick, etc.

But at home, we keep Shabbat weekly and the Yom Tov festivals throughout the year. We keep kosher, put up mezuzahs, practice hospitality by inviting guests, work at our shalom bayit to keep the peace in the home and much more.

Not only does charity start at home, but Judaism starts at home too!

I was at a rabbinic conference some years ago when one of the rabbis asked the eminent guest speaker, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, about the solution to the contemporary problem of “kids at risk”—children of religious parents who go off the path and leave their religious lifestyle. Rav Kamenetsky gave a two-word answer that sent a shudder through the audience: “Shalom bayit!”

The sad reality is that when parents are not ad idem between themselves, it rubs off on the children and they look elsewhere for role models.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it is entirely accurate to say, “The home is the factory of the Jewish nation!”

Once upon a time, the Jewish home was the envy of the non-Jewish world. I remember back in the 1970s and 1980s, several young women who were winners of Miss South Africa beauty pageants converted to Judaism. Interestingly, when interviewed by the press and asked why, they each gave the same answer: They shared their experiences with their Jewish friends and particularly the Friday night dinners and quality family time spent around the Shabbat table as something they truly appreciated and wished for themselves.

Let us restore the Jewish home to its primacy and we will safeguard Jewish continuity.

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