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Winter 2023

Table of Contents

When Anti-Semitism Hits Home: How Hate Hurts Kids

By Beryl Lieff Benderly

Riding home from Hebrew school, an 11-year-old we’ll call Josh proudly showed his mother a clever Hanukkah-themed drawing he had made in class. But when she pulled to a stop at a supermarket, he flipped the picture face-down on the seat. He didn’t want passersby to see that they were Jewish, he explained.

Josh had not personally experienced any anti-Semitic incidents, but, as a member of a generation raised on active shooter trainings, he has no trouble imagining violence. And, like Jews of all ages, he has heard of attacks happening around him—at schools and other places in his metropolitan suburb with its sizeable Jewish population, and in other towns and cities. Beyond what’s on the news, a classmate we’ll call Noah had confided about anti-Semitic insults and threats from a non-Jewish student—and known bully—at their public middle school. Noah decided to avoid the worse trouble that he foresaw from reporting his experience to school authorities.

“Very scary and disturbing” incidents, both in the wider community and in schools, have shaken Jewish students, says Eliana Joftus, who, before graduating in June, was head of the Jewish Student Union at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, an area that experienced nine events at various schools in a single week in February. On a Friday night two days after her group sponsored an educational session on anti-Semitism, someone spray-painted “Jews not welcome” on the school’s main sign, Joftus said. “Thankfully, it was found and removed by Saturday morning” and “very few people saw it.” Via social media, however, “everyone knew by Saturday midday, and it was very, very scary for everyone.” Additional distress struck when two students traveling on a bus to a debate event bombarded Jewish members of Walt Whitman’s team with “very, very threatening, awful” comments about “how they wanted, like, to kill all Jews…It was just very disgusting,” Joftus said.

Photo: Ted Eytan

Another high school in the same county closed its outdoor facilities after four anti-Semitic events, for “the safety of our students, staff, and community,” the school’s principal wrote in a letter to families. A total of 18 of 65 anti-Semitic incidents in the county in 2022 happened on school grounds.

In the Cherry Creek school district near Denver, Colorado, middle school students who had just viewed a video about the Holocaust marked their arms and legs with swastikas. Local resident Rikki Mor posted about the incident on Facebook. In less than 24 hours she said she received more than 60 online responses and that over one-third of them were reporting anti-Semitic incidents, she wrote to the local school superintendent in an open letter co-signed by more than 250 others. Because of “constant” harassment, Mor wrote in the letter, one mother “has told her children not to tell anyone they are Jewish…. [I]n 2023…12-, 13- and 16-year-olds are scared to say they are Jewish!”

A crowd assembles in solidarity at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, after the school entrance sign was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti in December 2022.
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Landsman

With reported anti-Semitic incidents at the highest level the Anti-Defamation League has ever recorded—up 49% in K–12 schools in 2022, after nearly doubling in 2021—and with unreported cases perhaps rising even faster, kids across the country are clearly feeling the impact. What is it doing to them?

There appears to have been no recent research into the effects of anti-Semitic experiences on young Jewish children. But in 2015 the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy published a number of papers, including one titled, “I Don’t Know Why They Hate Us—I Don’t Think We Did Anything Bad to Them.”

The author, Nora Gold, formerly associate professor of social work at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, followed 16 Jewish girls in Toronto from age
10 through 12, checking in each year on their feelings about themselves, their Jewishness, and their experiences with anti-Jewish incidents, both personal and in the wider community.

Extrapolating from this fragmentary information and from general knowledge about child development and trauma, does, however, provide some clues about how the current situation is affecting Jewish kids.

Depending on severity and circumstances, kids’ reactions to anti-Semitic events and reports can be “strong” and include “fear, anxiety, worry, confusion, and anger,” along with “thoughts that the world is no longer safe” and struggles “to make sense of what happened,” notes the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Reports on local incidents made one Toronto girl “a little afraid of people who are not Jewish.” Another recounted how a woman attacking with kicks and epithets a kippah-wearing Orthodox boy on a bus made the girl glad she doesn’t have to wear anything revealing her Jewishness. “I don’t point out that I’m a Jewish person,” she said. “If someone doesn’t ask me, I’m not going to…tell.” A 12-year-old offered a more sophisticated explanation: “[S]ometimes [anti-Semites] have their own personal problems. I don’t know what their problems would be, but…they stereotype. They think that all Jews are bad….”  Overall, half the girls “rated their lives lower than they would have otherwise because of anti-Semitism,” Gold wrote.

Testing identity

As children and teens form and experiment with identities, hate speech and attacks can strongly influence that process and their concepts of how the world sees them, suggests psychologist Ryan DeLapp, director of the Racial, Ethnic, And Cultural Healing (REACH) Program at The Ross Center in New York. REACH focuses on the cultural stress impacting children and adults of color, which it defines as “uncomfortable emotional responses caused by a person, situation, or institution that expresses negative judgments or beliefs about someone, or that mistreats someone because of their identity (for example: race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, age, ability level, etc.).” 

Such experiences evoke feelings of being “unwelcome, unsafe or as if you don’t belong within your surroundings…making it difficult to see a sense of love towards one’s own cultural background,” DeLapp writes. Especially relevant to young Jews these days is REACH’s concept of identity distress, which includes “struggling to have pride in your identity, experiencing self-doubt or low confidence because of your identity, or changing how you act or think of yourself because of other’s opinions about your identity.”  Gold, for example, found “some evidence of internalized anti-Semitism.” “Sometimes I feel like I want to be Christian” for fear of “people killing Jews because they’re Jewish,” one Toronto girl said.

Young people’s “Jewish choices today are being shaped in the face of rising anti-Semitism,” says Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, senior director of Knowledge, Ideas and Learning at The Jewish Education Project in New York. Her 2022 book “#antisemitism: Coming of Age during the Resurgence of Hate” explores the attitudes of older teens and young adults. Not every “Jewish young person is a victim of anti-Semitism or even necessarily internalizes that they are being impacted by it,” she said in an interview. “But by and large…broad strokes are being made in a climate of rising anti-Semitism, of threat of physical violence, of verbal harassment, [of] steeply increased online anti-Semitism.” As a result, many young people decide not to “present Jewish,” except in “Jewish space.”

But,Vinokor-Meinrath says, others think “the exact opposite, that they want to wear a Jewish star and do so despite seeing that ‘the climate is telling me not to.’ Both of those—the choice to or the choice not to—are in response to this uptick in anti-Semitism.”

Doing something

Zack Singerman of Washington, D.C., was 13 when the murderous 2018 attack on his grandmother’s Pittsburgh synagogue, Tree of Life Congregation, riveted national attention. “I realized that I needed to do something,” he said, “I didn’t want to live in a world, and I don’t want my kids in the future to live in a world, with raging anti-Semitism and to be scared to go to shul.” He decided to bring teens together in a summit on anti-Semitism to learn “what it is, how to fight it, how to recognize it.” 

When then New York Times writer Bari Weiss spoke at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington about her 2019 book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” Zack attended and asked if she would also speak at his event. She agreed, and he organized some 200 local teens to attend the meeting planned for late March 2020—the very week the world closed down for COVID-19. Postponed and moved to Zoom, the summit happened online later that year, Zack recalls. He also created the website, which fights anti-Semitism and promotes tikkun olam (repairing the world). It includes 35 “Learn from Leaders” interviews with teachers, government officials, business leaders and others about “what it means to be Jewish,” plus “Hear our voices” statements by young people and other resources.

How individuals react to anti-Semitism differs, Vinokor-Meinrath emphasizes, with much appearing to depend on personal factors like identity, personality, support and social circumstances. Toronto study author Gold calls for much more research on larger samples of Jewish children, including those of both sexes and from different countries. “It will also be valuable,” she adds, “in the future to compare the anti-Semitic experiences of Jewish children with the ways that non-Jewish children experience other forms of oppression, for example racism.”

Activist and blogger Zachary Singerman, whose website, focuses on fighting anti-Semitism and instilling a sense of Jewish pride in boys and girls his own age.
Photo: Courtesy of Zachary Singerman
Children wearing Pittsburgh Steelers “Stronger Than Hate” sweatshirts at the November 2018 Rally for Peace and Memorial to the Victims of the Tree of Life Congregation shootings.
Photo: of Governor Tom Wolf

Unlike Zack, “the majority of kids and teens will go underground with their Judaism, which makes them less likely to be engaged Jews, less likely to go to places where they would meet other Jewish people,” says Deborah Gilboa, a family physician who studies and writes on resilience. “That disenfranchises them. That gives them the message that it’s risky to be Jewish.” This matters because the more children absorb this, “the fewer Jews we will have in this country.”

Social media also poses an increasing threat as children grow older. “Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all come to recognize there is no longer a legitimate way to say there’s a bifurcation between online and real life,” says Vinokor-Meinrath. In former generations, a child bullied and harassed at school could go home and ignore the hate and fear, and not have them on a cell phone “literally in your hand all day, sleeping next to you on your pillow.”

But if social media can isolate, the support of the important adults in children’s lives and of non-Jewish allies can help them build resilience, confidence, pride and healing, says Gilboa, herself a member of Tree of Life synagogue. The Pittsburgh community around the devastated congregation—literally, and proudly, Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, home of the beloved TV show and its late namesake—along with influential others in the city, rallied around their Jewish neighbors with signs, statements, memorials, demonstrations, donations and personal connections, says Gilboa. Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers’ now-deceased widow, “who never appeared at public events after his death, came out,” she recalls. The Pittsburgh Steelers altered their logo to include a Magen David and the words “Stronger than Hate.”

For young people who double down on their Jewishness, the experience of anti-Semitism can strengthen their Jewish identity and commitments. But for those who take their Jewishness underground, among the emerging adults whom Vinokor-Meinrath studied, “we already see that affiliation is looking different.” The long-term consequences of today’s anti-Semitic trauma, both for young people and the Jewish community, are as yet far from clear.

Students Tackle Issue of Modern Anti-Semitism with 2023 None Shall Be Afraid Essay Contest

In the age of social media, anti-Semitism online has reached unprecedented levels. In one study,  more than 10 percent of all tweets about Jews or Israel contained anti-Semitic language. To counter this trend, B’nai B’rith International invited college students for the second consecutive year to enter the None Shall Be Afraid Essay Contest.

A panel of judges from B’nai B’rith International evaluated the essays, telling how the entrants propose to tackle rising anti-Semitism on the internet. The top three winners were awarded scholarships of $2,500, $1,000, and $500, respectively.

B’nai B’rith created the contest to keep a focus on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in our society today. None Shall Be Afraid was inspired by the 1790 letter from George Washington to the congregants of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, where he quoted Micah 4:4, “Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Amit Sapir, the first-place winner, is a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida. In his essay, published below, he draws from personal experiences to remain optimistic.

Second place winner is Ella Eason, 18, University of California–Santa Cruz, Class of 2025. In her essay, Eason discusses how anti-Zionism can morph into anti-Semitism. She highlights the importance of incorporating Jewish history into education to counteract anti-Semitism online.

Sophia Chertog, 18, Nova Southeastern University, Class of 2027, won third place with her essay. Inspired by her internship for a state senator, she created an online site promoting inclusion of all religions and backgrounds, with the goal of amplifying unheard voices online.

To learn more about B’nai B’rith’s None Shall Be Afraid initiative, visit our section on Combating Anti-Semitism on our website,

Winning Essay by Amit Sapir
University of Florida, Senior

As my foot slid into the gravel of the railroad tracks, my mind boggled with emotions. Confusion overran anger, anger constructing anxiety. August of 2019. Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland. Seventy-five years prior, my ancestors stood in my footsteps. Yet, unlike myself, they would never step outside of those gates.

It was just eight years ago when laughter filled the air as I paraded down the streets of Jerusalem on my 13th birthday to be crowned “bar mitzvah majesty.” As I sang before the Western Wall kingdom, Your Majesty noticed a Frenchman waving his Israeli flag, displaying love for our Judaic performance. For such chivalry I repaid my fellow knight with a formal salutation of a high-five. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that I found out that this nameless knight had been the victim of an anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Paris. Social media and news outlets shared the unspeakable truth that the terrorist entered a kosher deli, and this French Jew that I met only months prior jumped in the line of fire to save other Jewish customers shopping for Shabbat dinner. He had come to Israel for the first time when we crossed paths, and the few seconds of unconditional love and joy he displayed for my bar mitzvah has always had a special place in my heart.

Panic struck within the kingdom I always expected to harbor such stability and celebration. I feared the light of hope was lost, contemplating whether anything has changed in how the world thought of Jews.

After reading a book after my bar mitzvah called “All the Light We Cannot See,” anger and confusion from Poland resurfaced. I was mad at the author for making me empathetic toward a Nazi. For portraying the Germans in a positive light of innocence. For forgetting to mention the suffering and havoc of Jews. But I realized the truth later on: The novel is the symbol of good conforming to wrong, the virtuous obedient to evil. The reality was that despite the Holocaust’s immorality, the light of hope was brightened when contrasted against conformity and obedience, two fatal flaws of human civilization.

Amit Sapir
Age: 21
Senior, University of Florida
Expected Graduation: 2024

The light of hope. I’m inspired by the resonating message: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Throughout history, the Jewish people maintained their sense of optimism. Yet, there are many opportunities for pessimism to seep through the openings and undermine the mentality we’ve developed for a lifetime. Anti-Semitism was one of them. The idea of hostility and prejudice against a community I always found loving and selfless had the potential of extinguishing that light of hope. My perspective is exemplified in my commitment to ensuring that everyone continues to sparkle with light in their eyes, never giving up on aspirations for hope and sanguinity among all people.

Our social media-driven world provides a duality in establishing a society reflective of brightness and the light of hope.

The idea that social media have revolutionized the power of perspective can be both advantageous yet misleading; therefore, it’s the power of the moral to shine bright in factual determination despite the dark. Anti-Semitism can be countered through the interconnected reliance of social media in the dissemination of validity and strength for pro-Judaic initiatives. We treasure the idea of universal communication, especially when the Jewish people once faced adversity and hardship through the propaganda of the Nazi Party. The evil desire for racial superiority, as spurred by the eugenics movement of the 20th century, must be constantly retaliated through the voice of justice, resonating through the intricate beauty of networking and intertwined communication systems of the modern era.

We’re given the opportunity of life to spread brightness into the eyes of others before our time comes to close them forever. I’m grateful for this blessing of sight and light, especially by staying optimistic in how our common humanity can reconcile our diversity. Challenging life’s meaning is the truest expression of the state of being human. Our diversity harmonizes through an understanding of how conformity and obedience to authority can dismantle that humanity through hate. It’s about making sure society moves forward to eliminate that hate to create our version of the perfect race: the human race, one that runs on love. Whether bringing a Jewish perspective to the social media community, encouraging unity through our diversity, or living the life my ancestors or the Frenchman should have been given, I remain determined to be the light the world cannot yet see.

Pray Tell

Congregations Rely on Both Innovative and Traditional Approaches to Worship

By Jeff Weintraub

On a Shabbat morning last spring, I was one of two prayer leaders who launched the service at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, with the traditional Ma Tovu prayer. Instead of simply vocalizing it with one of several age-old melodies, as many might in other American synagogues, I was both singing and playing guitar to a melody co-composed only a few years ago by Josh Warshawsky, whose modern and catchy liturgical music has lately been adopted by a growing number of American synagogues.

We similarly offered up several psalms and prayers with a mixture of familiar ancient Nusach, or traditional musical modes that correspond to segments of various services, and—with instruments—melodies from other modern composers. We also drew on tunes from two Israeli influences—the singer Yosef Karduner and the group Nava Tehilah—as well as a setting by the Philadelphia-based Joey Weisenberg, who leads Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, an incubator of emerging young Jewish musicians like himself.

It’s an approach much different from some of the synagogues a short distance away. At the Modern Orthodox Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland, congregants recite the entire text of an Ashkenazi-style (or traditional Eastern European-inflected) service in Hebrew, without instrumental accompaniment, which they avoid on Shabbat and major holidays. And unlike the service at Adat Shalom, which pauses for frequent insights and explication of the text, prayer at Kemp Mill is “efficient,” as Rabbi Brahm Weinberg describes it. The service moves, he says, “at a fairly robust clip to make sure it doesn’t feel overly long or taxing for people when they come.”

Not far from Kemp Mill, Ohr Kodesh, a Conservative-affiliated synagogue in Chevy Chase, Maryland, covers much the same liturgical real estate, with similar choreography—standing up, sitting down and bowing at prescribed times—and including chanted music. But Ohr Kodesh has no mechitzah, or separation between men and women, who equally share the duties of prayer leading and Torah reading. And like some Conservative synagogues, it also uses electrically powered sound and web-streaming systems that are off limits at Orthodox synagogues.

Tradition, tradition: 19th century artist Maurycy Gottlieb’s famed “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” focuses on individual responses to worship.
Photo: Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv

According to a Pew Research Center survey, as of 2020, about 8% of Jews in the United States said they attend some kind of prayer service monthly, and 12% report that they attend weekly or more often.

Those who do attend might be part of Reform-affiliated synagogues, which rely more heavily on English, responsive readings and music. Or they might participate in the sort of service associated with Jewish Renewal, an emerging segment of the community that offers a mixture of mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative prayer practices. Others might be attracted to pray at a place like the Open Temple in Venice, California, an unaffiliated incubator of new approaches to engaging Jews that has featured, among other offerings, a “Kayak Shabbat” on the Venice canals, where members float on kayaks alongside their leader, Rabbi Lori Shapiro.

Worshippers at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, participate in Shabbatons, weekend-long events intended to illuminate and deepen the significance of the Sabbath through the exploration of prayers and their meaning.
Photo: © 2023 Audrey Rothstein Photography—All Rights Reserved
Rabbi Lori Shapiro conducts services at The Open Temple in Venice, California. Its social media encourages congregants to: “Feel Your Fury. Let Your Passions Penetrate. Express.” Rabbi Lori asks us to “Unmask Our Souls.”
Photo: The Open Temple

All this speaks to one of the hard-to-miss features of the entire American Jewish prayer landscape: The variety is vast—arguably more so than in any other Jewish community in the world, where the Orthodox-style service is most common.

Much of the difference is, of course, driven by theological distinctions among the movements. But it’s not hard to notice that the prayer experiences at synagogues even within the same movement can look and feel much different. That’s the result, perhaps, of the unique history and lay and clergy personalities that make up a particular synagogue or prayer group. 

The American Jewish prayer landscape got this way, argues Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, in large part because of this country’s unique commitment to separation of religion and state. 

Hoffman, who, until his recent retirement, taught Jewish liturgy for nearly 50 years on the faculty at Hebrew Union College in New York, notes that because of the strict separation between religion and government in the U.S. “it meant that the church, as it were, has been free to experiment more than in most other countries.” Religious groups in the U.S., he adds, “learned how to compete for people’s attention and identity. Hence, religion in America is rather specialized in innovation.”

The other and perhaps even more notable hallmark of Jewish prayer observance in the U.S., Hoffman says, is prayer’s relationship with the personal identity of individual Jews. It shapes them, tells them what is important or what it means to be Jewish.

Mirele Goldsmith of Bethesda, Maryland, for instance, says that when she recites various Jewish blessings and liturgical poetry that express wonderment about and gratitude for the world around her, it reinforces her commitment as a national leader in the Jewish environmental advocacy movement. Parts of the Shema, the centerpiece Jewish prayer that expresses God’s singularity, she points out, “talk about the connection between our ethical behavior and the condition of nature, that if we don’t behave ethically, the earth will suffer. That speaks directly to my work in this field.”

Hoffman notes that, just as prayer can shape us, the opposite is also at work. Worship in the American context has changed over time in part because it can reflect how American Jews view themselves. “Consequently,” he says, “worship tends to vary with the people attending it.”

For two decades, Rabbi David Lyon has been senior rabbi at the Reform-affiliated Beth Israel Congregation in Houston, where he is keenly conscious of, and plays a role in shaping, the forces of change. “I’m always taking the pulse of the congregation,” he says. “In the past, my predecessor had the good fortune of waiting every five to 10 years for change to happen. That change is happening now every three to five years and more likely three years than five. So, we’re trying to keep pace.”

Lyon has ushered in rituals that are standard in more traditional settings, such as: a hakafah, or Torah procession; lay recitation of aliyot, or Torah blessings; and the calling out of chatimot or concluding lines of prayers and liturgical poetry. A growing number of members, he says, feel comfortable wearing ceremonial garb such as kippot and tallitot, a big departure for a century-and-a-half-old synagogue that long stood firmly as classical Reform.

Immersing themselves in the beauty of the natural world, “kayakers” at The Open Temple’s shabbats are invited to enter the realm of the spirit; it’s an experience that the Temple describes as: “Ma’ariv…the mixing of light and darkness. The sun sets and the Divine Palate [sic] reveals itself in the sky. As the colors blend, darkness envelops the sky. Our prayers lead us through this process. Music, Enchantment and Stirring of the Souls.”
Photo: Kelly Fogel/The Open Temple

Likewise, as egalitarianism has arguably become more prominent in the personal identities of many American Jews over the last few decades, it has been absorbed into the liturgy of the community’s more “progressive” segments of Judaism.

They allow—indeed, encourage—women to participate in all aspects of the service and insert a mention of Judaism’s ancient matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service. The Reconstructionist movement leaves out references suggesting that Jews are the chosen people—as in the traditional version of the Aleynu prayer, which praises God for not making us “like the other nations of the world.” Also, most progressive worship practices give no special status or prayer responsibility to descendants of the Cohanim, or high priests, as is common in more traditional settings.

In every context of American Jewish prayer, there is music, whether it is Nusach, older and well-established melodies—like the one most commonly used for the Shema that was composed by Viennese Cantor Solomon Sulzer in 1830—or some of the new settings that are emerging from the recent burst of younger musicians.

Music cannot fully express the emotional and spiritual grandeur of Jewish liturgical poetry or the solemn philosophical underpinnings of, say, penitential Yom Kippur prayers. But, considering that, according to the Pew survey, about 13% of American Jews claim to understand Hebrew, it can help them find a connection to prayer and to Jewish tradition that might otherwise be out of reach. 

One of the most recent changes for American synagogues—one that may prove to be permanent and, in many ways, profound—is the shift to Zoom-powered prayer services that were driven and perfected out of necessity by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Many synagogues appear to be making online access to services a standard feature, bringing prayer and more to those who cannot show up in person (especially distant relatives who can’t make the trip in for a shiva or bar or bat mitzvah).

At Adat Shalom, a twice-weekly, mostly traditional morning minyan that took root on Zoom during COVID-19 shutdowns seemed likely to continue with a core of about 15 participants. One prayer community—whose creator, Rabbi Mark Novak, calls a “Zoom-agogue”—meets entirely online and includes people from many time zones.

It’s impossible to predict the future of the American Jewish prayer landscape, but Hoffman, the recently retired faculty member from Hebrew Union College in New York, believes that relative to times past, “we’re in a healthy era of creative engagement,” which could bode well for Jewish prayer practice in the years and decades to come.

“I think that the more creativity, the healthier the engagement,” he adds. “The richer will be the prayer life of people, the more spirituality people will find, and the deeper and denser their sense of what Judaism can be.”

Jewish Dogs Coming of Age: The Rise of the Bark Mitzvah

By Jennifer Lovy

David Best had been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs, but he had no children of his own to kvell (gush) over when they reached the coveted age of 13. However, this CEO and founder of The Doctor’s Channel did have a dog, a Jack Russell Terrier named Elvis.

And what better way to mark his pet’s coming of age than to throw a “Bark Mitzvah”? So, when Elvis reached a year and seven months, (13 in dog years) that’s what Best did, inviting more than 100 guests to the dog’s lavish bash, including famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. It cost him $10,000, and, to hear him tell it, it was worth every penny.

“I’ve never been married. There’s no wife, there are no kids. All my other friends have families,” says Best, 70. “I went to their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and weddings. I’ve never done any of that. So, when you say $10,000 for a dog, no, it’s $10,000 for your friends and family.”

What would he do with a fountain pen? In Elvis’ Bark Mitzvah video, four-legged well-wishers crowd the bima to congratulate him and his family, including Mike Banks (left), and David Best, who paid for the festive, upbeat bash.
Photo: David Best

Elvis, who died in 2022 at 16-and-a-half years old, had a celebration in 2007 mirroring that of a 13-year-old boy.

A Bark Mitzvah celebration was held at Sammy’s Roumanian, a then-popular Jewish steakhouse in Manhattan that Best frequented and described as dog friendly. When this dining institution closed during the pandemic, Food & Wine ran an article with the headline “RIP Sammy’s Roumanian, Where Every Night Was a Bar Mitzvah.”

There, Best screened a pre-recorded ceremony showing Elvis “reading” Hebrew text in what’s meant to look like a synagogue. It can still be found on his company’s website. Another video shows Elvis barking his D’var Torah (a talk about the torah portion of the week), with an on-screen “translation” of the speech.

As with almost every kid’s bar mitzvah, the party honored loved ones in a candle-lighting ceremony and a montage. And yes, the pooch sat perched on a cushion while guests hoisted him up and down during the hora.

In 2014, The Fiscal Times listed a Bark Mitzvah as one of “10 pricey pet splurges you won’t believe.” A search for “Jewish dog” on the popular craft site Etsy yields thousands of items. There are books on Amazon with titles like “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” and “Alfie’s Bark Mitzvah.”

Social media pages, like Mazel Pups, are devoted to Jewish dogs and their owners. A little white Coton de Tuléar named Shayna Maydele (Beautiful Girl) is dubbed by The New York Jewish Week as “possibly the most Jewish dog in New York.” The adorable pooch has more Instagram followers than the average human.

Recent scholarship has revealed that dogs have played a part in Jewish life over the centuries. Can the black dog depicted in this 15th century prayer book from Eastern Europe have a symbolic meaning that may have added to the reader’s understanding of the text?
Anon: Illuminated Siddur of the Rabbi of Ruzhin. Ashkenazic script. Brown, red and green ink, tempera, gold and silver leaf on parchment. Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Ardon Bar-Hama. Digital photography funded by George S. Blumenthal, New York.

Dogs in the Bible: Not a Good Look

What would the ancient Israelites say if they knew that Jewish families were throwing elaborate Bark Mitzvah celebrations for their dogs costing upwards of $10,000 and spending millions of dollars on Jewish dog products such as kippahs, matzah-ball squeaky toys, apparel and more?

There are 69 million dogs in the United States. At any given moment, a vast majority of these canines are carelessly lounging on the couch, having their bellies rubbed, or being lavished with the love and attention of an adoring owner. Yet, in biblical times, canines didn’t have it so good. They weren’t considered man’s best friend or looked upon favorably in the Bible and other Jewish texts.

While there aren’t any prohibitions against having dogs as pets, some Judaic references describe them as undesirable and unclean animals. In Deuteronomy, for example, dogs seemed to be equated with prostitution. In Psalms, they were described as beasts that maul humans. The Talmud and other writings referred to dogs as dangerous animals and their owners as cursed.

Our modern-day love of dogs is an international sentiment, and Israel is no exception. In 2016, Tel Aviv announced it was the friendliest dog city in the world and claimed the most dogs per capita. DOGTV, the first television channel designed exclusively for dogs, originated in this vibrant Israeli city.

Many Israelis are familiar with “Azeet, Paratrooper Dog,” a book published in 1969 and subsequently made into a movie. The famous story, written by a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, is about a heroic German Shepherd trained to assist soldiers in military operations.

However, not everyone in Israel shares an appreciation for pups. In 2019, the rabbis in Elad, a city of around 46,000 residents, mostly Haredi, signed an edict banning them.

“We have heard and have seen that lately, a serious phenomenon has spread in our city Elad, in which young boys and children walk around publicly with dogs. This is strictly forbidden, as explained in the Talmud and by the Rambam, anyone raising a dog is accursed and especially in our city where many women and children are afraid of dogs,” the decree states.

Outside the Bible, perspectives on where a dog fits into Jewish life vary depending on the text, interpretation and time period. In the book “A Jew’s Best Friend? The Image of the Dog Throughout Jewish History,” editors Phillip Ackerman-Lieberman and Rakefet Zalashik published a collection of scholarly articles about the relationship between Jews and dogs in various Jewish communities during different periods. 

“We actually found evidence that Jews and dogs connected and sometimes even had important relationships,” says Lieberman, an associate professor of Jewish studies and chair of the Department of Classics at Vanderbilt University.

“We’re not saying it was positive,” says Zalashik, a researcher at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University. “We’re saying it was more complex than we previously understood, and there were times that dogs had a favorable image among Jews.” 

One example Lieberman and Zalashik noted was the discovery of mass graves of dogs and puppies in Ashkelon, dating back 2,500 years. It’s hypothesized that the animals were sacrificed at the temple, which Zalashik says is significant because it shows that dogs were a part of society. “You don’t sacrifice something which is rare or not in your surroundings,” she says.

So how did two Jewish scholars end up publishing a book on the historical relationship between Jews and dogs?

When Lieberman and Zalashik were each doing post-doctorate work at New York University, they shared an office and a love of dogs. But one of their colleagues, Hasia Diner, a noted Jewish scholar, thought differently. She was raised with the idea that when you see a dog, you cross the street, Lieberman recalls.

“It is not that I had any problem with the fact that they loved dogs,” Diner says. “But I had been so inculcated by my parents with an aversion to dogs which I could not outgrow.”

“She (Diner) would say, ‘You know, Jews and dogs are not a thing,’ and Rakefet and I were like, ‘Actually, Jews and dogs are a thing, and we’re going to show you.’ So, we wrote this book,” Lieberman says.

These authors say they found evidence in “the shadows of daily life” that there often was a strong relationship between Jews and dogs. Lieberman cites situations like the dog burial in Ashkelon, the story of Azeet and evidence that dogs were part of the lives of urbanized Jews in the medieval Islamic city.

The Canaan Dog from Israel, a breed that resembles the animals buried at Ashkelon.

A Jewish Dog’s Coming of Age

In 1958, a Beverly Hills couple threw the first publicized Bark Mitzvah. Not surprisingly, it was a lavish affair. The headlines remained relatively quiet on the topic for decades until the idea gained popularity among Jewish dog lovers, who were hosting everything from over-the-top parties to quiet family gatherings. The surge in popularity created a large market for Jewish-themed canine apparel, toys, treats and more.

Hosting an animal celebration for an important Jewish custom does have its share of critics. In 1997, Charles A. Kroloff, a reform rabbi, penned a letter to the editor of The New York Times describing the practice as “nothing less than a desecration of a cherished Jewish tradition” that “degrades some of the central principles of Jewish life.” He also wrote, “I enjoy a good time as much as the next person. But not at the expense of religious traditions that need strengthening, not desecrating.”

Giving new meaning to the phrase “kosher dog,” Manhattan’s own proudly Jewish “Beautiful Girl” lives on the Upper East Side with her friend Heidi Silverstone. Both love to dress up for the holidays. Photo: Heidi D. Silverstone

Recognizing the importance animals play in Jewish life, spiritual leaders are finding respectful ways to incorporate dogs and their owners into pet-friendly rituals and events. For example, some have developed prayers to mourn a pet instead of saying kaddish, and some synagogues and temples host pet-friendly Shabbat services and ceremonies to bless pets.

Six years ago, Rabbi Steve Gross started what would become an annual Bark Mitzvah celebration at the Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism. He says the idea of hosting an event to bring the community together around a shared interest in dogs came from his congregants’ desires to honor their pets and seeing the blessings of pets during special church services.

“This tradition isn’t foreign to Judaism. We love, honor and respect our pets, so why not celebrate them together as a community,” says Gross, a cat owner who jokes about doing a “Purr-im” event.

The event typically draws about 50 pet vendors, adoption agencies and a few hundred participants from the congregation, neighboring community and, of course, the dogs. 

Gross says he occasionally gets pushback from others, who claim he’s mocking an important lifecycle event. But the rabbi explains that the gathering isn’t meant to mark a lifecycle event for the pet. Its purpose, he says, is to celebrate animals as God’s work of creation and acknowledge our obligation to care for our pets.

“It’s a little bit sad that I can get more people to the Bark Mitzvah than I can to Shabbat services on Friday night,” says Gross. “We have a little bit of Torah, a little bit of teaching, a little bit of mitzvah and a little bit of food. It’s everything good about Judaism. It’s just centered around our dogs.”

Even Lieberman, a Modern Orthodox Jew, jumped on the bandwagon when Caleb, his Portuguese Waterdog, turned 13.

Lieberman first thought the idea was “campy and silly,” but then decided it was a good idea to celebrate his aging dog and turn the celebration into a fundraiser for the Israel Guide Dog Center. They had a small party where Caleb enjoyed a homemade peanut butter cake.

His co-author, Zalashik, will not participate in such a celebration for her 12-year-old Border Collie. The first time Zalashik heard about a Bark Mitzvah, she thought it was a joke but then realized it was a phenomenon that never caught on in Israel.

“Even though I think the Bark Mitzvah is kind of silly,” Lieberman admits, “I’m glad that there is the desire to incorporate into Jewish ritual that tight relationship that the Jews have with dogs and the flexibility of Judaism to accommodate and recognize that relationship.”

Israel’s Small Domari Community: Struggling but Striving to Succeed

By Michele Chabin

Sarah Ibrahim has big dreams. The 16-year-old Jerusalem high schooler hopes to go to college to study engineering. That’s a big goal for a girl whose father, a taxi driver, can read just a little, and whose mother is illiterate.

In Ibrahim’s tiny, insular Domari (or Roma) community in the eastern part of Jerusalem, many children drop out of school after sixth grade in order to work and help support their families. Almost none graduate from high school.

Franklin Sargunaraj, a Ben Gurion University master’s student studying the Domari, says the once nomadic “Dom people” originated from the Indian subcontinent. Unlike their Europe-bound Romani counterparts, the Domari moved to the Middle East and North Africa. They came to Jerusalem as early as 1187 C.E. and now number an estimated 1,000 to 2,000. They often refer to themselves as “Gypsies,” a term they do not consider derogatory.

Coupled with low community expectations, teenage marriage, a high birth rate and discrimination from both Jews and Arabs, this lack of education perpetuates the same cycle of grinding poverty experienced by Domari/Roma communities around the world.

Despite these roadblocks, the community is making some quiet strides.

Sarah Ibrahim, a young member of Jerusalem's Domari community, hopes to go to college one day. Most Domari children don't finish high school. Photo: Linda Gradstein

Some of the city’s Domari children are staying in school longer than they used to, thanks largely to the efforts of Amoun Sleem.

Born and raised in Jerusalem’s Old City, first under Jordanian occupation and then Israeli rule, Sleem was one of nine children in a loving but desperately poor Domari family. Her father encouraged her to attend the local Arab school provided she sold postcards to tourists and handed over the income for the family’s needs.

From an early age, Sleem was aware of the significant social and economic gaps that existed among the Domari and Arab and Jewish communities in Jerusalem. Her entire family lived in one large room, lacking the money to build internal walls.

Although Jerusalem’s Domari speak Arabic and practice Islam, their Arab neighbors have never accepted them, she says.

Believed to have migrated from India, the Domari were frequently mentioned in the notebooks and diaries of travelers who visited pre-state Israel in the 19th century. Photo: Prints and drawings division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

“Even though I was a good child, I could not escape the discrimination against me for being a Gypsy,” Sleem wrote in her 2014 memoir, “A Gypsy Dreaming in Jerusalem.” “I would always be considered a rotten child, from a rotten community.” 

In fifth grade, a teacher called her “a flea in the world who must be annihilated.” While Sleem was devastated, the experience fueled her determination to complete her education and to help other Domari children do the same.

“It lit a fire in me, to empower our people and to teach others about our lives and traditions,” says Sleem, who established the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem in 1999, and the Domari Community Centre in 2005.

For Sleem, the term “Gypsy” isn’t a slur. The word “Nawar,” the Arabic term for nomadic tribes, is derogatory.

When they migrated to Jerusalem in the 12th century C.E., Sargunaraj, of Ben Gurion University, says of the Domari, they “probably worked as blacksmiths for Turkish Emir Nūr al-Dīn Mahmūd Zengī who, alongside Egyptian Sultan Salah-al-Din, defeated the Crusaders.” 

Over the centuries, the populations in the region came to rely on the Domari for iron work, menial labor and entertainment, but never embraced them. A millennium later, they remain outsiders to both Arabs and Jews.   

“To this day, we are in-between,” Sleem says.

Jerusalem’s Domari are scattered between the Old City, some Arab villages and the Shuafat refugee camp, all in the eastern part of Jerusalem. They wear the same types of clothes and speak the same Arabic as their Muslim Arab neighbors.

Despite this, “Palestinian society doesn’t treat us equally,” Sleem says. “If there’s a fight between a Palestinian boy and an innocent Gypsy boy, everyone will support the Palestinian against the Gypsy. It happens often.”

The same is true of Israelis, Sleem says. When an Israeli border policewoman allegedly shoved a Domari girl, the daughter of the mukhtar (community leader), in front of several witnesses, the Israeli government intervened and sided with the police officer, she relates.

Although Israel offered citizenship to the Domari after it captured the eastern side of the city in 1967, only about a third accepted it, Sargunaraj says, largely due to fears of angering their Arab neighbors. The Domari citizens do receive some services, including crucial job placement and housing assistance.

The Jerusalem Municipality “offers no special programs” to the Domari, said Udi Shaham, Jerusalem Municipality spokesman. However, he said, “They are entitled to the same services that all residents receive.” Nonetheless, Sleem says, Domari do not get equal treatment.

But whatever gaps in services may exist depending on where people reside in Jerusalem, including the areas where the Domari mostly live, the disparities have created a need and an opportunity for others to step in.

Sleem’s Domari Community Centre fills the gaps when it can.

It provides literacy courses to adults and children (about 40% of the women have little or no formal education), as well as vital after-school tutoring to encourage kids to stay in school longer. Women have taken professional courses in hairdressing, catering and small business development.

Deeply troubled by her community's disconnect from its heritage, Amoun Sleem founded the Domari Community Centre in Jerusalem in 2005. The center offers empowerment courses and tutoring, and hosts visitors. Photo: Michele Chabin

The center’s arts and crafts collective sells the women’s handicrafts and is completing a second Domari cookbook.

The center is also a space fostering cultural pride and preservation, where community elders teach the Domari language and traditions to the younger generations, who have largely assimilated into the majority Arab culture.

To raise awareness about the community, the center hosts a program where tourists can learn about the culture while dining on traditional Domari food.

On a sunny spring day, Ansam Hamad, a teacher dressed in a cream-colored hijab, works with two seventh-grade boys who are struggling to get through an Arabic worksheet.

On a table in the room, freshly picked grape leaves are drying. The Arabic and English alphabets are on the wall.

Hamad, who teaches English, Arabic, math, history and geography, says that some of her Domari students are in high school, but their academic and reading levels are on par with elementary school students.

“Many of their parents are illiterate so they can’t help them with their schoolwork,” Hamad says.

Sarah Ibrahim can relate.

Wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, her hair tied in two neat braids, the teenager has been coming to the center since kindergarten.

“I get help with my homework, especially in math, Arabic and science. I used to have a lot of trouble with science because my teacher was bad,” she says. “I also paint here, whenever I want, and the center gives me all my school supplies.”

The center has given Ibrahim more than tutoring help. It has given her pride in her heritage.

“I am Domari and it’s a good thing to be different and have a unique, beautiful culture. Some kids at school used to bully me because I am Domari, but Amoun said I should ignore them. So, I do.”

B’nai B’rith met with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

As Israel continues to defend itself against the most horrific attack in its history, a B’nai B’rith International delegation met with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Oct.11.

B’nai B’rith leaders expressed the urgency of protecting Israel’s diverse population from Hamas terrorists, who are guilty of mass atrocities, unprecedented since the Holocaust. These include over 1,300 murders and the kidnapping and torture of approximately 150 military and civilian hostages, among them children and infants.

In an extended Oct. 11 meeting with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres arranged by the organization’s U.N. Affairs Office, B’nai B’rith decried the brutal murders of Israelis in their homes and villages by Hamas and underscored the urgency of freeing all civilian and military hostages. From left: B’nai B’rith Executive Board member Stewart Cahn; Director of U.N. and Intercommunal Affairs David Michaels; CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin; Guterres; President Seth J. Riklin; U.N. Affairs Vice Chair Jeffrey Harari.

180th Anniversary and Israel Solidarity Event

B’nai B’rith International hosted a reception Oct. 12 at the Consulate General of Germany in New York City to stand in firm solidarity with Israel amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

In the face of continuous terror and loss of innocent lives, B’nai B’rith is resolutely committed to condemning the actions of Hamas, facilitating emergency aid and standing by Israel’s side in its right to self-defense—sentiments that were all echoed by leaders and speakers during the reception.

The reception to support Israel in the face of unimaginable terror inflicted by Hamas, which fell during the same time as our 180-year anniversary, also commemorated B’nai B’rith’s service and advocacy to the world for nearly two centuries.

Photo Credits: Steven Berkowitz

In opening remarks, CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin addressed the ongoing war in Israel and its devastation on both the Israeli people and the Jewish community. “We have been anticipating this birthday all year,” Mariaschin said. “But it’s impossible to focus on celebrating while Israel is at war…75 years after the founding of the world’s only Jewish state, Israel’s existence is threatened as never before.” Mariaschin noted B’nai B’rith’s strong ties to Israel, including its role in cementing American support during its establishment as a nation-state and its efforts to raise emergency funds in support of Israel during the ongoing conflict.
Ambassador Gilad Erdan, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, expressed his gratitude to B’nai B’rith and all the allies who are standing up for Israel during this time of crisis. “The gut wrenching stories we are hearing are too hard to bear,” Erdan said. “The magnitude of this tragedy is beyond comprehension.” Emphasizing the necessity to “eliminate Hamas’ terror capability,” not as an act of revenge, but to prevent further tragedies, Erdan stressed the global implications of Hamas’ genocidal ideology and underscored the importance of countering distorted statements from U.N. officials.
B’nai B’rith President Seth J. Riklin reflected on B’nai B’rith’s rich history, advocacy and ceaseless commitment to a more secure Jewish future. “Our legacy is etched in the founding of hospitals, libraries, community centers and orphanages, which all served as guiding lights of care, education and progress in their time,” Riklin said. “Our legacy is rooted in recognizing societal needs and taking action to improve the lives of the less fortunate.”
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, condemned the barbaric actions of Hamas and emphasized the Biden administration’s shoulder to shoulder solidarity with Israel, recognizing B’nai B’rith’s leadership in fighting anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism. “We come together at moments of heartbreak and horror,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Our partnership has never been more vital than it is today.”
Consul General of Germany David Gill, who hosted the reception, affirmed Germany’s unwavering solidarity with Israel, emphasizing, “Germany shares your grief, your pain, your consternation about the inhumane brutality. Security of Israel is and will remain at the top of the Federal Republic of Germany.” Gill also noted B’nai B’rith’s long history of advocating for German Jews.
Erdan (right), with B’nai B’rith Director of U.N. and Intercommunal Affairs David Michaels, remains confident in Israel’s ability to defend itself, “because we know that we can count on our dear friends and allies to support us all along the way.”
Mariaschin (left) and Riklin (right) with a representative from the office of Mayor of New York City Eric Adams. Adams’ proclamation recognized B’nai B’rith’s years of service in New York and beyond.

President Joe Biden’s Oct. 13, 2023, letter to B’nai B’rith honors the organization’s legacy “that we all share an obligation to ensure that hate can have no safe harbor in America and to protect the sacred ideals enshrined in our Constitution: religious freedom, equality, dignity, and respect.”