Welcome to the Tribe Csanad Szegedi

Hungarian politician Csanad Szegedi would likely have stayed out of the media spotlight in the U.S. were it not for a recent revelation about his past. Szegedi, according to articles in the AP and Wall Street Journal, was a proud member of a far-right wing political party in Hungary that wasn’t shy about its wanton antisemitism. Szegedi’s party often complained about the “Jewishness” of other politicians and referred to Israelis as “lice-infested, dirty murderers.”

That in and of itself isn’t very newsworthy as antisemitism is still alive and well in Europe. What is newsworthy is the detail about his own history that Szegedi learned recently. He is the Jewish grandchild of Holocaust survivors. As Dave Pell, creator of NextDraft, wrote: “Mazel Tov, you idiot.”

After discovering his Jewish roots last December and going public about the discovery earlier this summer, the Hungarian politician met Hungary’s chief orthodox rabbi. Szegedi revealed this in an interview earlier this summer. The head of Jobbik, the far-right party with which Szegedi affliates, commemorated the 130th anniversary of the Tiszaeszlar blood libel, seen as one of the first anti-Semitic events in modern-era Hungary.

Szeged promised to step down from all party positions but hold on to his seat in the European Parliament. This story could end well however since Szegedi has promised to visit Auschwitz, where his grandmother had been held by Nazi soldiers. Perhaps, he’ll make the transformation of being an anti-Semite to helping to educate his Hungarian people about Judaism and the lessons of the Holocaust.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rap Videos Okay in Synagogue But Not Politicians

It is often said that politics and religion make strange bedfellows. Strange or not, it is important to remember that politics and religion are bedfellows in just about every nation in the world (some more than others).

I’ve noticed that in the United States, where we have a supposed separation of Church and State, it is often the synagogues that are the only ones concerned about such a separation. I hear rabbis and synagogue leaders express concern about keeping politics out of the congregation because it could jeopardize the institution’s 501(c)3 tax exempt status. While these rabbis are worrying about their nonprofit status, the local churches are allowing political candidates to deliver stump speeches from the pulpit and many churches are notorious for outright endorsing candidates.
Synagogues have always had politicians address the congregation, but in recent years as the American Jewish community has become more politically polarized it has become more commonplace. While this used to occur without incident or at least with only minor dissent, there is now a guarantee of backlash from congregants and lay leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s speaking engagement at a Miami temple was cancelled

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, will speak this evening at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. The congresswoman is speaking at the annual meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. There hasn’t been any public opposition to Wasserman Schultz’s appearance, but this event is for a communal organization and is not connected to the synagogue.

That was not the case in Miami last week. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was slated to speak at Temple Israel on Friday night, but the day before her appearance was canceled. According to the Miami Herald, the debate about whether the chair of the DNC should be allowed to speak in shul pitted a prominent Republican donor against a prominent supporter of the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, the temple’s president Ben Kuehne decided to cancel Wasserman Schultz’s presentation, but that didn’t stop Stanley Tate from resigning. Tate is a past president of the congregation and a major donor to the Republican party who is the co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Miami-Dade County. Kuehne, the current president, is an attorney who was retained by the Gore campaign back in 2000 during the recount.
What’s interesting is that this is not the first time I’ve written about Miami’s Temple Israel on this blog. In fact, just last month I mentioned Temple Israel as the congregation where Drake’s bar mitzvah music video was filmed. I wonder if either Ben Kuehne or Stanley Tate has heard the lyrics in Drake’s song that was performed on the bimah of their beloved congregation. I would think that would be more offensive than Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking about the U.S.-Israel relationship on that same bimah on a Friday evening.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance at a Boca shul this month was met with protests

In his explanation to Temple Israel congregants about the cancelled Debbie Wasserman Schultz event, synagogue president Ben Kuehne cited security concerns rather than Tate’s opposition. He also included a video of the protest at Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke there on May 10. 
Having heard Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on several occasions (including at a small gathering at a private home last November and at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C. in March), I can honestly say that when she speaks about the U.S.-Israel relationship it is not a political speech. Her support of Israel is unquestionable and I’m sure that had Temple Israel’s leadership asked her not to speak about divisive domestic political issues she would have complied.

So, for Temple Israel in Miami it looks like some of their members are fine with vulgar and misogynistic rap lyrics sung from their bimah, but they’re not okay with a well-respected Jewish member of Congress speaking from their pulpit about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Natan Sharansky and Soviet Jewry: A Look Back

Tuesday was the fourth time I heard Natan Sharansky speak. The second time I heard the former Prisoner of Zion speak was at Adat Shalom Synagogue not long after my bar mitzvah. I was still wearing the silver bracelet with the name of my bar mitzvah twin from the Soviet Union. The last two times I heard Sharansky speak were at an AIPAC lunch for rabbis in D.C. in 2008 and at this week’s Foundation for Jewish Camp conference in New Jersey. None of those three speeches even remotely compared to the first time I heard him speak.

Natan Sharansky speaks at the 2012 Foundation for Jewish Camp Leaders Assembly

It was Sunday, December 6, 1987. I was a 6th grade Jewish day school student and traveled with my mother aboard a chartered flight from Detroit to Washington. The late David Hermelin led the plane in singing for the entirety of the flight. Our Detroit delegation filled two planes and we were among the throngs of people who congregated on the National Mall to call for immediate mass emigration for Jewish refuseniks out of the Soviet Union.

Wearing a cheap white painter’s hat that read “Let My People Go” and eating my bagel and lox breakfast donated by Detroit philanthropist and supermarket owner Paul Borman, I marched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building singing “Hinei Mah Tov.” I remember hearing Vice President George Bush and Elie Wiesel speak. But the moment I will never forget is when Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky came to the dais to address his 250,000 supporters. It was impossible to decipher exactly what he was saying in his broken English, but I knew that he had spent years in prison and was now a free man on a mission. I remembered singing the words to the Safam song at my 5th grade Zimriyah, “They call me Anatoly. In prison I did lie. My little window looked out on the Russian sky.”

With Natan Sharansky in 2008

On Tuesday, as I listened to him speak about the immense growth of Jewish camping in the Former Soviet Union, I was taken aback by how far Sharansky has come since that cold December Sunday in 1987. Within 25 years, he has not only transitioned from the life of a prisoner to a free man, but he has seen and done so much. He made aliyah to Israel on the day he left his Soviet prison cell and then became the de facto leader of the Russian immigrant community in Israel, winning election to the Knesset after forming the Yisrael BaAliyah party. He published his memoirs, defeated Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, and is now the Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

It is truly remarkable how Sharansky has ascended to leadership in a quarter century, but it is part of the larger story about Russian Jewry. It is a success story. There are large, successful Russian Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the United States (and in the FSU and Germany). There are campus Hillels throughout the FSU, Jewish summer camps are at full capacity in Russia and Ukraine with Jewish campers who learn they are Jewish only days before camp begins. Jewish synagogues of all denominations and community centers have sprung up everywhere in the FSU. There are Russian Jews who are leading the world in the sciences, in business and in medicine. Without a Russian Jew, we would have no Google (Sergei Brin) or PayPal.com (Max Levchin). Five Russian Jews have won a Nobel Prize since 1990. Yuri Foreman is a boxing world champion. There have been Russian Jews in the National Hockey League (Max Birbraer) and in the National Football League (Igor Olshansky). Their story is nothing short of miraculous.

With Natan Sharansky in 2012

Jewish students who graduated college last spring were born after the fall of Communism. They have no memory of the fight for Soviet Jewry. They don’t know about bar mitzvah twinning with Russian teens or the stories of smuggling Jewish books and matzah into the Soviet Union. They don’t know about adding a fifth question on Passover asking when will all Jews be free or leaving an empty seat at the Seder for the Soviet Jews who couldn’t celebrate the holiday.

As I sat listening to Natan Sharansky on Tuesday, a friend and I reminisced about writing letters to President Reagan on behalf of our Soviet Refusenik brothers and to our Russian pen pals who weren’t allowed to learn Hebrew or sing Jewish songs. Twenty five years after that memorable march for Soviet Jewry in Washington, it is imperative we keep telling that story and I am grateful to Natan Sharansky for keeping his story alive after these many years.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Chuck Schumer Had Leon Panetta Say Shema

All of the speeches at the AIPAC Policy Conference during the past few days went according to script. Every U.S. politician who addressed the 13,000 in attendance weighed in on the threat of a nuclear Iran, enumerated their party’s accomplishments in defending Israel, and reiterated their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there was one surprise.

On the final morning of the AIPAC conference, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discussed his close personal friendship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the family dinners they have shared (“We talk, we argue, we eat… we are family”). He also recalled accompanying President Bill Clinton to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Panetta also disclosed that the first congratulations he received after the successful capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan were from his buddies in the Israeli Mossad.

And then Secretary Panetta mentioned the little known fact that he and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York were once roommates when they both served in the House during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That wasn’t the surprise though since Schumer has, on several occasions, reminisced about rooming with Panetta and other congressmen in a shared house. The surprising tidbit came when Panetta shared that he and Schumer bunked together in the living room of the house and before bed each night Schumer would get Panetta to say the Bedtime Shema.

Panetta deadpanned toward the end of his speech, “Each night before we went to bed he made me say the Shema… but I probably just said a Hail Mary!”

I was never aware that there is a custom of Jews getting non-Jews to say the Shema. I wrote about Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun getting him in the habit of reciting the Shema before each concert and now this. I’m curious to know which other non-Jews out there are saying the Shema. This might just become a trend.

Here’s video of Chuck Schumer reminiscing about his former roommate Leon Panetta:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Israeli Bandage and Gabby Giffords

The highlight of the AIPAC Policy Conference so far has been the exhibit on Israeli technological innovation in the AIPAC Village. The bottom floor of the Washington Convention Center, called AIPAC Village, is where D.C.’s annual auto show is held so it is the perfect location to display the America-Israel Racing’s NASCAR race car, an electric car from Shai Agassi’s Better Place, and an Israeli tank. However, the best thing that I saw in that exhibit was the first meeting between two men.

I happened to witness the first encounter between Bernard Bar-Natan and Daniel Hernandez. Both of these men contributed to the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh — saving a life. Bar-Natan is responsible for developing the “Israeli Bandage” that was used to save Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ life after the assassination attempt that almost killed her. Daniel Hernandez had only been Rep. Giffords’ intern for five days on the day of the tragic incident. Hernandez had the good sense to wrap Giffords’ wounds with makeshift bandages until the paramedics arrived on the scene.

With Daniel Hernandez and Bernard Bar-Natan, CEO of FirstCare

When Bernard Bar-Natan was training to become a military medic in the mid-80’s he noticed that some of the bandages they were using in the Israeli Army to stop bleeding were manufactured during World War II or even before. He began working on new bandages that would have a pressure bar built into the bandage itself. In the early 90’s Bar-Natan was part of a technology incubator program in Jerusalem with a government grant allowing him to develop the bandage. Today, Bar-Natan’s startup company, First Care Products in Lod, Israel, produces over 2 million bandages a year.

The Israeli Bandage helps stem blood loss, prevents infection and allows non-medically trained soldiers to stabilize a wound. American emergency management and law enforcement teams also use the Israeli Bandage. After the Israeli Bandage was used to stop Gabby Giffords’ bleeding, Dr. Katherine Hiller, an emergency physician at the University of Arizona Medical Center remarked, “Without this care, it would have definitely been a different situation.”

This bandage is just one example of how Israeli innovation is saving lives. While I haven’t had the honor to ever meet Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in person, I felt truly privileged yesterday to meet two of the men responsible for her still being alive today. Watching them meet each other was a remarkable moment and one that I won’t soon forget.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Barack Obamulke Yarmulke

There is much discussion about “The Jewish Vote” in the ongoing presidential race. While “Jews for George” made headlines during the 2004 campaign and more Jews than expected voted for McCain in 2008, in the 2012 election the political pundits are already predicting a large shift among Jewish voters, who historically have voted overwhelmingly Democrat.

Aside from polling numbers, another way to determine how the Jewish vote is shaping up will be from yarmulke sales. In the past few presidential elections the nominees from both major parties have had their name and logo embroidered on suede yarmulkes (or kippahs) as one more way for supporters to promote their candidate.

Already, yarmulkes featuring President Obama’s re-election campaign logo are being offered for sale on the Web. The Obama Yarmulkes were famously known as “Obamulkes” when they first appeared in 2007. The ivory suede yarmulkes with the 2012 Obama re-election logo are available for pre-order online or in person at J. Levine Books & Judaica in NYC. Of course, it is being emphasized that these kippahs are made in the USA as it would be scandalous if they were made anywhere else. The yarmulkes are selling for $9 each at Obamulkes.com (with a $5 shipping charge). No doubt they’ll be on the heads of many Obama supporters at the upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center in early March and on college campuses around the country.

Matthew Walters, the creator of the Obamulkes, isn’t naive. He knows that there will be many Jews who aren’t fans of the president and won’t like seeing the Obama re-election campaign logo featured on a Jewish religious item. But he offers a different perspective: “As a Jewish American who’s also a vocal supporter of President Obama, I see the Obamulke yarmulke as a unique conversation starter. With so much at stake at the ballot box in 2012, there’s a real value in wearing your politics on your sleeve — or in this case, keppe (Yiddish for head),” he explains.

During the 2008 campaign, more than 1,500 Obamulkes were delivered to Jewish supporters all around the country, but the most memorable recipient turned out to be Barack Obama himself. “In November 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama came to New York to give an historic speech at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,” Walters remembers. “I had a chance to meet him, so I handed him one of our 2008 Obamulkes. He laughed and showed it to his Secret Service guys. I think he got a little kick out of it.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Newt Gingrich’s Robo Call Not Kosher

Mitt Romney managed to win the Florida primary today despite Newt Gingrich’s attempt to convince Florida’s Jewish population that Romney forced Holocaust survivors to eat non-kosher food.

Gingrich’s Robocall emanated from a 2003 veto that Mitt Romney cast while he was governor of Massachusetts for denying $600,000 in additional funds for poor Jewish nursing-home residents to receive kosher meals. Last week, the the New York Post reported that Romney prevented the funding of $5 per day because he thought it would “unnecessarily” lead to an “increased rate for nursing facilities.” (Eventually, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved an amendment to restore the funding for the Jewish nursing home facilities.)

What is funny is that four days ago Zach Silberman wrote on JTA.org about Romney’s 2003 veto leading to kosher meal cuts for poor nursing-home seniors and concluded with this question: “Will Romney opponents try to make hay of the story in a state loaded with elderly Jewish voters?” The answer was: Of course they will.

Here is the text of Newt Gingrich’s Robocall:

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes. Holocaust survivors, who for the first time, were forced to eat non-kosher, because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher. Where is Mitt Romney’s compassion for our seniors? Tuesday you can end Mitt Romney’s hypocrisy on religious freedom, with a vote for Newt Gingrich. Paid for by Newt 2012.

Here’s Newt Gingrich’s Robocall:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jack Lew, Obama’s New Chief of Staff is Shomer Shabbat

Will President Barack Obama’s new Chief of Staff answer the President’s phone call on Shabbat? It would appear that the answer to that question will be yes (even though he’s Shomer Shabbos).

Obama’s pick to succeed William Daley as his Chief of Staff is Jack Lew. Lew is currently a senior administration official who has served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Jack Lew is a practicing Orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. He has been an active member of both Congregation Beth Sholom of Potomac, Maryland and the Riverdale Jewish Center the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) in New York.

Jack Lew, a Sabbath Observant Jew, will become Obama’s third Chief of Staff
While serving as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bill Clinton administration, Lew received a phone call from the president. He decided to take it and later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

President Obama’s first Chief of Staff was Rahm Emanuel who now serves as Mayor of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel considers himself to be a Conservative Jew and is not Shomer Shabbat — Sabbath observant. (Emanuel attends both the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Synagogue and the Conservative-affiliated Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.) That makes Jack Lew the first Sabbath observant holder of the Chief of Staff office (Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein was an observant Jew but was not Shomer Shabbat).

The transition from Daley to Lew is set to take place at the end of this month.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Obama’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

President Barack Obama gave what even he described as a “Bar Mitzvah speech” at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial on Friday afternoon. Love him or hate him, the President gave an impressive speech that earned him no less than 70 rounds of applause.

In the speech, he not only defended his administration’s record on Israel, but claimed that, “no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”

Telling the audience that his daughter Malia has been on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit, he took his daughter’s advice and gave a D’var Torah about this week’s Torah portion. Obama’s message focused on the Hebrew word “Hineini” (I Am Here) saying that like Joseph from the Torah, he is here and ready to take on challenges even if he can’t predict them all. He also dropped some other Hebrew words, but didn’t pronounce all of them well. He struggled to pronounce the term “Tikkun Olam” but fared better with other words and received a rousing ovation when he wished the audience a “Shabbat Shalom.”

Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” came with the acknowledgement that he knew it was still a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath. He said, “Even though it is a few hours early, I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom.” His former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (or any other Jewish adviser for that matter) could have informed him that we Jews start wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom” as much as 24 hours prior to the actual Shabbat. My sense is that Obama knows this and his statement was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the criticism he received for hosting the White House Hanukkah party two weeks before the actual holiday.

Who knows if “Hineini” will replace “Hope” as Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, but here are some Obama Hineini t-shirts and products just in case (available online).

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rick Perry Video Uses Aaron Copland Music

My video parody of Rick Perry’s “Strong” campaign ad on YouTube has been attracting a lot of attention with about 4,500 likes and under 100 dislikes, including close to 650 comments. It has been featured in USA Today, Daily Kos, Jewish Journal, JTA, Forward, Jewcy, and Spiegel Online (German).

There have been many video parodies of Rick Perry’s campaign ad turning it into a meme on the Web. But I’ve noticed that the best way to mock Rick Perry and his homophobic, “war on religion”-paranoid message is to do nothing. The video mocks itself.

When I was choosing the background music for my video parody with the video’s editor Adam Luger we tried to come as close as possible to the background music in the original Rick Perry commercial. However, we were unable to determine who composed the music. Well, it now appears that the joke’s on Rick Perry because that background music was inspired by none other than Aaron Copland. Jewish? Check! Gay? Flaming! Member of the Communist Party? You betcha!

Paul Schied writing in the Harvard Political Review first reported that the music heard in the background of Rick Perry’s “Strong” ad was composed by Aaron Copland, a prominent composer who was Jewish, outwardly gay, and a member of the Communist Party. It turns out that Schied’s music majoring roommate detected the Copland composed music. It turns out that the music was inspired by Aaron Copland, but is actually a “cheap knock-off of sorts of Copland’s Appalachian Spring according to The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.”

The background music in Rick Perry’s ad was inspired  by composer Aaron  Copland who was gay.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, Rick Perry’s campaign ad (which was originally created for the Iowa television market but quickly went viral on YouTube) has him proclaiming that it’s wrong for gays to serve openly in the military when kids can’t celebrate Christmas in school, but has him wearing a jacket that looks like the one worn by Heath Ledger in the gay romance movie “Brokeback Mountain” and features background music inspired by a gay, Jewish composer. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Here’s my video response:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller