(JTA) – A prominent rabbi whose outspoken criticism of Israel became too divisive for his congregation announced this week that he is resigning his pulpit.
Brant Rosen, rabbi at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., made the announcement Tuesday. Aside from his pulpit position, which he has held for 17 years, Rosen is also the founder and co-chair of the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that promotes boycotts of Israel and has been listed by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top 10 anti-Israel organizations in the United States.
Rosen said the synagogue board did not force him to step down; rather, the decision was driven by his concern for his own and the congregation’s well-being.
“It’s become clear to me very recently that the atmosphere in the congregation is becoming more divisive,” Rosen told JTA this week. “It’s clear that I am the lightning rod for that division, so I made the decision about 10 days ago to step down.”
Rosen’s departure, and the turmoil that led to it, highlight the deep and emotional fissures in the American Jewish community over Israel and its conflict over the Palestinians. The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation highlights diversity and progressive values, and its board consistently had backed Rosen’s right to speak his mind on the Middle East, according to Rosen and board president David Tabak.
But Rosen’s controversial outspokenness began to destroy the community.
Frustrated by Israel’s Gaza campaign in 2008, Operation Cast Lead, Rosen began publicizing his strident criticism of Israel and strong support for the Palestinians in late 2008 on his personal blog, Shalom Rav.
“We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass,” he wrote. “What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza is an outrage.”
Rosen subsequently became co-chair of the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace. The organization has made strident criticism of Israel its focus, promoting the BDS campaign to use boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel; heckling Israeli officials in public speeches and organizing anti-Israel demonstrations in numerous U.S. cities during this summer’s Gaza war.
At his shul Rosen was careful mostly to separate his activism on Israel from his role as the congregation’s rabbi, according to Tabak, rarely speaking about the issue from the pulpit.
But his advocacy polarized many members, with some openly hostile to Rosen’s point of view and others vigorously supportive of it. That polarization and the arguments that grew out of it began to destroy the community’s cohesion, Tabak said.
“The dichotomy of opinion did not bother me — even the strenuous adherence to these beliefs did not bother me,” Tabak told JTA. “What I found really disturbing is that a very warm and welcoming and accepting congregation really did have schisms developing.”
The congregation struggled to bridge the divides by encouraging members to organize events, but those, too, quickly broke down into a left-right divide. Some 20 members of the congregation accompanied Rosen on a trip to visit Palestinian activists in the West Bank. Others, including longtime members, began to circulate letters and emails criticizing Rosen. Some left the congregation altogether, citing Rosen’s views on Israel as the cause.
Throughout, the board stood behind Rosen.
Then, in June, Rosen traveled to Detroit with members of Jewish Voice for Peace to encourage the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to pass a resolution on divesting from three companies that do business with Israeli security services in the West Bank. When the conflict in Gaza began, he marched in pro-Palestinian solidarity rallies in Chicago.
Those were, Rosen says, “the final straws.” Yet another letter circulated, this one accusing Rosen of neglecting his duties to the congregation. Rosen said the emotional toll, and the awareness of the pain his views were causing members, became too much.
“I didn’t feel I could give my all to my job anymore,” he said.
“I don’t know that he would have lasted anywhere near as long as he did at any other congregation,” said Joseph Aaron, editor and publisher of the Chicago Jewish News. “I think it says something good about the synagogue, because for a very long time they allowed him to espouse points of view that most synagogues wouldn’t have tolerated.”
Rosen will remain at his congregation for another six months. He said he plans to move professionally into activism rather than seeking another pulpit. The congregation is searching for another rabbi and relaunching its Israel programming with a greater emphasis on balance, Tabak said. It will take a wider view of Israel beyond politics to include culture, history and face-to-face interaction.
The rabbi’s departure is both painful and therapeutic, Tabak added.
“For the congregation, in some ways it is good in the sense that it gives us a chance to repair some of the relationships that have split here in the past,” Tabak said. “In other ways, he’s been with us for 17 years. He bat-mitzvahed my eldest daughter, but he won’t be available for the youngest. He’s been a fixture of our lives.”
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(JTA) — Former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is joining a Wall Street investment bank as vice-chairman and managing director.
Cantor, 51, who served as the Republican congressman for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, also will be elected to the board of directors of the global investment bank, Moelis & Company, the bank announced Tuesday.
Cantor will be based in the bank’s New York office and is scheduled to open an office in Washington.
“Eric has proven himself to be a pro-business advocate and one who will enhance our boardroom discussions with CEOs and senior management as we help them navigate their most important strategic decisions,” Ken Moelis, chairman and CEO of Moelis & Company, said in a statement.
After a career in the Virginia legislature, Cantor was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 and was made chief deputy whip just two years later, before his 40th birthday.
Cantor, who was the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, was as majority leader the most senior Jewish lawmaker in U.S. history and had ambitions of becoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Little-known college professor, David Brat Cantor, who had the national backing of the insurgent Tea Party movement, defeated Cantor in the primary in June. Brat accused Cantor of betraying conservative principles on spending, debt and immigration.
Cantor stepped down from his position as House majority leader and from his congressional seat on Aug. 18.
by Cantor Ellen Dreskin
I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute…
Debbie and I spent the entire weekend together, beginning our friendship of 35 years. We sang together at early CAJE (Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education) conferences, where I experienced my first all-night kumsitz (song session). Debbie sang at my wedding, and I was honored to be on stage with her at Carnegie Hall – not once, but twice. In 1998, she was responsible for bringing me onto the faculty of Hava Nashira, and I was delighted to teach with her and learn from her every time we were together.
I believe that Debbie’s unique influence on NFTY and camp had as much to do with function as with form. Debbie, whose music was deeply influenced by the Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as by the religious leanings of Shlomo Carlebach, was among the first to insist (and she did insist) that worship is of no use without worshipers’ very personal connection to the act of prayer. She wanted to know what camp songleaders thought they were doing up there at the front of the room, particularly as it related to worship and creating community. It was not only her compositions, but also her command of the room or the friendship circle or the bimah that drew people in. Both her music and her presence served as a model for all who came after her. To Debbie, singing itself was a means to an end. Community, inclusion, relevance, spirit – these were her goals, and the very same ones that have always been consistent with the vision of NFTY the URJ’s summer camps.
In addition to being a terrific friend, Debbie was a tough mentor along the way. Fluent in Hebrew, she frequently engaged young composers in conversation, making sure they had thought long and hard about the words they were setting to music. She had little tolerance for young songleaders whose egos were evident when they were in front of a group. I think that young people flocked to her because of her rebellious spirit and her strength of character. Even if one was occasionally bruised by her frank evaluation or her honest critique, one could never argue with her ability to make a person reflect on, and refine, compositions and skills. Although Debbie did not need you to live up to her expectations, she did want you to live up to the expectations of the liturgy – and the task at hand. I believe that teenagers and campers were attracted to her high level of integrity, and sought to model it in their own teaching and performances.
Debbie’s strength of character, her genuine concern for the well-being of each individual, and her faith in the ability of Jewish liturgy and ritual to change the world, all made her a force to be reckoned with. Her influence was so much more than her compositions. Her very being changed the face of Judaism forever. To have known her, and to have worked, studied, and prayed together with her always will be a blessing to me and to so many others.
Cantor Ellen Dreskin is the coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York.
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LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The music that packs the Skirball Cultural Center’s stately courtyard – Yiddish tango – is a hybrid twice over.
On the tango side, it is a blend of African-born rhythms and a potpourri of European music styles. On the Yiddish side, it combines mournful liturgical melodies with folk songs.
Tango, too, is famous for its sensual dance, while Yiddish music is rooted in the festive freylekhs of traditional wedding bands.
In combination, the two prove irresistible, as the concert crowd stands and sways to the tangled rhythms.
For Gustavo Bulgach, 47, band leader of Yiddish Tango Club — the star attraction at the Skirball on Aug. 21 — the music is also a reminder of his childhood in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and ’80s. Born to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bulgach grew up in Argentina learning Jewish folk music at the feet of his grandfather, a passionate music lover, and in the synagogue founded by his grandfather.
At the same time, he says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”
Bulgach is far from the first to combine Jewish music and tango in a heady combination. Tango music was born in late 19th-century Argentina in communities of newly arrived European immigrants, many of them Jews.
As Jewish musicians learned to play in the increasingly popular style, they added their own musical and linguistic flourishes — not only joining major tango orchestras, but also composing new tangos in Yiddish. Max Zalkind , for one, composed both in Yiddish (“Odesa Mama”) and Spanish (“Mi Quinta in Castelar”).
At the same time, as tango music became an international sensation, the genre swept across Eastern Europe. Records and music journals filtered into cities and shtetls and created a new tango style even in places never visited by touring Argentine orchestras.
For example, as Lloica Czackis, a musician who has researched the history of Yiddish tango, noted in an article written for the website of World ORT, Poland “quickly became one of the capitals of European tango at a time when most of its musicians, both in the classical and popular scenes, were Jewish.”
The result was a pre-World War II profusion of Yiddish tango in Argentina, Eastern Europe and even America, as Yiddish-speaking Jews joined in the tango craze and made it their own.
The Holocaust also created its own grim chapter in the history of Yiddish tango, as the Nazis encouraged concentration camp orchestras, or lagernkapellen, to play tangos, which they considered less encouraging of rebellion than American jazz. Indeed, as Czackis notes, Paul Celan’s famous poem on the concentration camps, “Death Fugue,” was originally titled “Death Tango.”
Bulgach’s own renditions of Yiddish tango draw on these traditions and, at the same time, offer a fresh take on the genre. In some cases, Yiddish Tango Club plays traditional klezmer songs but with elements of tango, such as using the Argentine bandoneon rather than an accordion.
In other instances, Bulgach combines tunes and rhythms from both genres more freely, as in his self-composed “Librescu Tango.” And in other pieces still, the combination is already inherent in the music — for example, Bulgach notes that legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla often said his favorite 3-3-2 rhythm was influenced by the Jewish music Piazzolla heard as a child in Brooklyn.
Jewish tango music also has experienced something of a revival. Bulgach says it has become common practice at Jewish concerts in Argentina for the musicians to perform an old Yiddish tango as part of the repertoire. At the same time, documentaries and concerts of Jewish tango music have sprung up across the United States, and Jewish tango music has even reappeared in Eastern Europe, repeating the patterns of nearly a century ago.
Above all, though, Bulgach says tango is more about a feeling than a specific harmony or rhythm.
“To me, the tango is like the blues,” he says. “It’s an attitude. It’s darkly lit. It’s ecstatic. It’s out of control.”
Likewise, in both tango and klezmer, Bulgach says the test of success is whether people are inspired to get up and dance.
By the end of the Yiddish Tango Club concert, the Skirball courtyard is crowded with dancers joyously swept up by the spirit of Yiddish tango. A few dance expert tangos in pairs, while most bop and bounce informally to the music.
As the evening comes to a close, Bulgach leads the band and his audience in a tango-ized version of “Hatikvah,” turning the anthem of hope into a lilting, dance-like melody.
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