By Rachel Chasin
“It’s not just housing, it’s a vibrant community that we’re a part of ,” said Janel Doughten, B’nai B’rith International associate director of the Center for Senior Services, describing the B’nai B’rith Conference on Senior Housing.
For more than 35 years, the B’nai B’rith International’s Center for Senior Services has convened a conference on managing the organization’s senior housing facilities. Last year was no exception, as housing management professionals and members of the facilities’ board of directors gathered in Houston for three days in November.
Attendees took part in workshops and panels and learned from their peers what it takes to run a senior residence efficiently.
B’nai B’rith launched its senior housing program in 1968. In September 1971, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), B’nai B’rith opened its first low-income senior housing facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Now the B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network comprises 38 buildings in 28 communities across the United States and serves more than 8,000 people. These housing communities are open to any senior, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation.
The conference included a panel on “Assessing the Effectiveness of Management and the Board of Directors,” moderated by Mark D. Olshan, director of the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services. Other sessions were devoted to the 2016 presidential election and the future of affordable housing. In addition, Nancy McIlhaney, director of compliance for the Austin-based Southwest Housing Compliance Corp., briefed managers on how to comply with HUD regulations.
Participants also toured two Houston-area B’nai B’rith-sponsored housing properties, Pasadena Interfaith Manor and Goldberg B’nai B’rith Towers. This allowed board directors and housing management staff to see how different buildings are run. Attendees interacted with residents and toured some of the apartments.
At Pasadena Interfaith Manor, residents are allowed to have pets in their apartments. However, management can limit the number, size and type. Conference attendees learned how Pasadena’s on-site staff worked with its board of directors to raise money to buy dog strollers for its residents. Now, residents don’t have to walk their halls worrying that a loose dog might bite them. Those less mobile are finding it easier to use strollers for their dogs, as it provides them with more stability walking down halls.
The use of these strollers also eliminated dog-related accidents. While the use of a dog walking stroller isn’t required, most residents have taken advantage of it.
Doughten said she enjoys helping make a difference in residents’ lives.
“The residents are the most important thing, and we all have the same ultimate goal—how do we make this work for [the residents], how do we keep them living independently and living longer independently?” Doughten said. “That’s why I do everything I do, because of them.”
By Sam Seifman
“It was just a bunch of Jewish guys who realized they had Christmas off and nothing to celebrate, so they decided to do something useful,” said Achim/Gate City Lodge Financial Secretary Harry Lutz, describing the beginnings of the Pinch Hitter Program in Atlanta.
It started with just 18 volunteers working at one hospital. Today, every Christmas, 200-250 volunteers staff three hospitals and six assisted living facilities in the area.
The lodge, which has 90 members, also participates in other community service programs like “Unto Every Person There Is a Name,” in which participants read the names of Holocaust victims, and “B’nai B’rith Cares for Kids,” in which toys are collected and given to hospitals, police departments and fire departments to distribute to sick children or children facing a trauma.
“We have a unique group of people keeping this lodge alive. I’m committed to it as long as we’ve got people willing to do it,” said lodge President Karen Kahn Weinberg.
Achim lodge isn’t the only one. All over the country, B’nai B’rith lodges are dedicated to strengthening their communities through service.
Justice Unit #5207 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is a different breed. Its 150 members comprise practicing attorneys, judges and legal support and vendors. Members offer seminars on social justice, give legal aid to the community, provide backpacks and school supplies for Family Central Inc., an early learning training center, and fund scholarships to Nova Southeastern University.
“When you involve lawyers and judges and you get the plaintiff and defense bar to come together, both promoting tikkun olam, you end up with a lot of people willing to help,” says lodge President Scott Knapp.
It also joins with the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network, Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and the Heroes to Heroes Foundation to send soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to Israel for spiritual healing. Members recently attended a Marlins game with foster children from Jewish Adoption and Foster Care Options.
The Isador Garsek Lodge in Dallas/Fort Worth, founded in 1876, boasts 85 members. Harry Kahn, a man who survived Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, recently resigned the presidency for health reasons. Rich Hollander, his interim replacement, can’t wait for his return.
“I let him know that, for me, this is a temporary gig,” he said.
From Jan. 8 to March 2, the lodge helped host an exhibit, “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” The exhibit, curated by the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, has toured the nation and been seen by thousands of visitors. At the opening gala for the exhibit at Congregation Ahavath Sholom, in Fort Worth, Tex., the lodge provided hot dogs, peanuts, knishes, pastrami sliders and American pies.
“We’re Jews, so we got to eat,” Hollander joked.
This Christmas, the lodge held a “Beautiful Feast” where it fed 300 needy people. Much as with the Achim/Gate City Lodge, it was also a way to help Christian communities on their day off. The lodge provided food and delivered 121 gift bags. For children, the bags contained toys, and for adults, the bags contained necessary toiletries.
In addition to their Christmas dinner, volunteers help provide Thanksgiving and Passover meals to seniors, in conjunction with Mollie & Max Barnett Apartments/Tarrant County B’nai B’rith Apartments. The residence is part the B’nai B’rith Senior Housing Network, which consists of 38 buildings in 28 communities. The network includes more than 4,000 apartment units and serves more than 8,000 people.
By Sienna Girgenti
Why do we light a candle for each night of Chanukah? As Hillel once said, I’ma’alin b’kodesh, to increase the sacred: Every act we perform should increase holiness in the world. We add a candle each night to bring more and more light into our communities and into our consciousness. Each year, the B’nai B’rith Cuban Jewish Relief Project endeavors to achieve just that, leading missions of B’nai B’rith members and friends to expand our collective Jewish consciousness to embrace even the smallest of Jewish communities in Cuba.
During the week of Chanukah, the project led its final mission of the 2016 calendar year. With B’nai B’rith President Gary P. Saltzman making his first such journey, the group of 18 from across the United States visited seven different communities between Havana and the central provinces of Cuba. Saltzman’s was the second visit by a sitting B’nai B’rith president to Cuba in as many years.
The group began its journey on the second night of Chanukah, attending the holiday party at the Patronato community center in Havana. Hundreds of congregants gathered in the sanctuary, along with visitors from groups like our own, to share in candle lighting, prayers and presentations by the youth group, rikudim (Israeli folk dance) troupes and the choir.
“The Chanukah party was a wonderful exposition of the congregation’s strength,” Saltzman recalled. “It was an impressive way to kick off our week-long mission.”
Overflowing with hundreds of pounds of donations, the mission distributed medicines, medical devices, clothing and other needed items throughout the week. Many of the items brought to Cuba on B’nai B’rith missions are simply inaccessible on the island. Families may search in vain for months to acquire certain basic necessities. This mission had the opportunity to deliver a much needed wheelchair to 92 year-old Dr. Zoila Camps.
“The importance of this project is evidenced not only by those individuals whose lives we touch,” Saltzman said. “The critical support of B’nai B’rith and our missions serves also to illuminate their conviction. The survival of the Jewish community in Cuba is a testament to their passion and resolve.”
B’nai B’rith’s objectives include connecting Cuban Jews to the greater Diaspora to strengthen global partnerships and empower future generations. Daisy Bernal, president of the Javaia Jewish community in Sancti Spiritus, was moved by the group’s visit.
“Our community works day by day to preserve our roots so that our youth commit themselves to the future of Judaism in Cuba,” Bernal said. “For us, the true miracle of Chanukah is to have your group visit our community. We receive very few visitors. The most recent group to visit us in Sancti Spiritus was your own last Chanukah.” She humbly thanked Saltzman and the delegation for traveling the two hours by bus to spend the afternoon with her community.
Everyone knows the story of the miracle that is the sum and substance of Chanukah: the miracle of the small cruse of pure oil that should have been enough only for one day but instead burned for eight. Fewer know of the great miracle that is the strength and continuity of the Jewish community of Cuba. Despite the odds, the small but passionate Jewish community continues to flourish.
By Cheryl Kempler
Bunting draped the impressive building in celebration of its opening day, Jan. 1, 1892. Two years had passed since the doors were shut at Castle Garden, an outmoded and overcrowded facility in Lower Manhattan that had served for more than 35 years as the gateway to America for 8 million immigrants.
Ellis Island in New York Harbor had been selected as the site for the new immigration processing center, a monumental, 3-floor structure, operated by the federal government. Its central “Great Hall,” where those who had landed waited to be examined by health inspectors who cleared their release, could accommodate several thousand at any one time. The building also contained dormitories, a dining hall and a railroad ticket office. Commenting on the ephemeral nature of its Georgia Pine construction (indeed, all the structures on the Ellis Island campus burned in 1897 and had to be replaced), The New York Times declared: “Judging from the constant and ever increasing invasion of foreign born to these shores, the Old World will be drained of its superfluous population before the building has outlived its usefulness.”
For the Jews who had escaped the violent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and Russia, it was the culmination of a land and sea journey that had taken more than two months. For years to come, they would recount the story of the anxiety, elation and hope they experienced on Ellis Island to their sons and daughters. In their minds, these few hours symbolized the passage from their old life to their rebirth in “The Golden Land.”
At about the same time and in the same city, another celebration was in the planning stages. B’nai B’rith’s Executive Committee was setting the wheels in motion for its 50-year golden anniversary, to be observed during 1893. Fifty years earlier, a group of young German Jewish men recognized that their fellow immigrants needed to understand the conventions of American life. Meeting in a café on Manhattan’s East Side, they formed B’nai B’rith New York Lodge #1, a fraternity whose efforts were intended to provide support and education, and to improve conditions in their own “Kleindeutschland” community.
Inspired by Judaism’s ethical values, “The Order” would grow and spread beyond the neighborhood, increasing the nature of its mission as Jewish men joined the lodges, to become an internationally recognized philanthropy, honored in the United States, Europe and Asia. Successful businessmen, merchants, physicians, attorneys and clergy were among more than 30,000 B’nai B’rith members who built and ran some of the first public libraries, orphanages, hospitals and homes for the aged, and who contributed to causes like disaster relief, helping people of all faiths. Noting the public pageantry typically displayed during the B’nai B’rith conventions, a New York Times reporter could rhetorically ask, “Where else could a foreign born group burst the bounds of a Ghetto, [and] cross the tracks to parade up Fifth Avenue in the bright afternoon sunshine?”
Turning Their Attention to Newer Arrivals
Despite their half century of contributions to improving the quality of life in the United States, B’nai B’rith’s assimilated and prosperous German Jewish members had yet to turn their attention to the new wave of immigrants, ever increasing since 1880, who now suffered in the dank and overcrowded tenements of a ghetto far from those they had known in their homelands, and mere blocks from their organization’s birthplace. As assimilated Jews, Ben Brit (B’nai B’rith members) had reason to fear the undermining of their prestige and place in American life, which might be threatened by the poverty, physical appearance and religious customs of the new arrivals from eastern Europe.
Over the course of a decade, two B’nai B’rith presidents would foster relationships between B’nai B’rith and the refugees from eastern Europe, forging a lasting connection that coincided with new and hands-on approaches to improve their condition. Bringing B’nai B’rith into the modern era, these activities would spur both a revival of the organization and a rededication and restoration of its original, community-based mission.
First elected in 1857, President Julius Bien took a stand during the golden anniversary year, urging lodge members to reach out to the immigrants’ children, capable of adapting to, and participating in, American life and customs. Transformed through “the Order” itself, they would acquire skills needed to qualify as the next generation of Ben Brit. Decrying the lack of support for charities serving the immigrant, Bien urged members: “It should be our aim to elevate, teach and train them. Prejudices must be overcome, time spent and energy expended.” Looking back to the circumstances existing in 1843, when B’nai B’rith was founded, the president conveyed that the B’nai B’rith fraternity would become the means to their success. At the 50-year anniversary, Bien underscored his message:
“The great number of refugees from the east of Europe, with strange habits, primitive views and bearing the marks of … the oppressor, must be transformed into citizens of orderly manners, correct conduct … it must be impressed upon them that liberty is not license, and that the safeguards of society cannot be assailed with impunity. [As in 1843], a similar work is before us, on a much larger scale.”
Helping the new arrivals would improve the situation for all American Jews, but B’nai B’rith did not make immediate and radical change. That year, however, initiated a first: The organization of Concordia lodge in downtown Manhattan, made up not of German Jews but men who were described as “Russian Hebrews, young men of superior intelligence and good education who have a full comprehension of the vast benefit (from the association with B’nai B’rith) which must accrue to that class of our recent immigrants.” The lodge was in operation for more than six years. One of its first projects was a recital of Russian piano music for the residents of the B’nai B’rith Home for the Aged in Yonkers.
Taking Bien’s sentiments to heart, B’nai B’rith members in two large cities launched educational programs. The Chicago lodges set up a night school where instructors taught female immigrants how to become dressmakers. By far, the largest initiative was the highly successful B’nai B’rith School for Manual Training in Philadelphia, opened in early 1895, whose enrollment of 65 foreign-born students was immediately at capacity; a waiting list of 400 accrued. A few years later, the city lent its support to the school as well.
The New Century Brings Changes
When Bien retired in 1900, Texas-born Leo N. Levi, a successful young attorney practicing in New York, succeeded him as president. There, he had become involved with the immigrant cause during the late 1880s. After his election, he faced another massive rise in the immigrant population when thousands of Jews were forced to leave Romania during a time of increased persecution. In the United States, antipathy to their swelling populace was on the rise.
Inspired by modern concepts of education, self-help and social work, Levi looked beyond the squalid streets and tenements, perceiving that “in a few years we shall see on this continent … Jewry enriching the world with its virtues and its genius … Immigrants of all nationalities and who are now the backbone of American citizenship came in practically the same conditions of financial poverty as the majority of the immigrants now come. Their constant ambition has been to be worthy of the privileges they are enjoying—regarding this land of opportunity as the promised land of the prophets.”
That year, Levi “set the stone moving …” in extending support to “the communities from the threatened destruction of hate and religious intolerance … Let the Order rise to the need of the great emergency.” As lodge members throughout the country procured jobs for more than 3,000 Romanian men, B’nai B’rith took the lead among other Jewish organizations in moving them out of the Lower East Side to areas throughout the United States. “The B’nai B’rith is to be congratulated on finally entering a larger field of communal activity, a … decided advance,” proclaimed American Hebrew, which served as a means of “interesting members beyond the confines of The Order.” As a consequence, new lodges were forming for the first time in several years.
B’nai B’rith’s New York Committee on Immigration and Social Work next responded with a plan for “betterment of conditions on the Lower East Side” by establishing its presence there. Opened in 1902, B’nai B’rith’s 106 Forsythe Street headquarters was equipped with classrooms for the teaching of English and vocational skills, as well as a library and a social hall; an employment bureau was later in operation. Welcomed as members of the new “Justice” and “Rumania” lodges, men from the neighborhood met on the third floor; three more immigrant lodges were later formed. On Sundays, Levi divided his time between B’nai B’rith’s East 58th Street building and the downtown offices.
Over the next years, B’nai B’rith’s Committee for Intellectual Advancement led services and organized clubs at the de Hirsch Home for immigrant girls on 13th Street. Among other accomplishments of B’nai B’rith was the procurement of the services of Dr. Von Mueller, an eminent Austrian orthopedic surgeon, who operated pro bono on poor Christian and Jewish children living on the Lower East Side during one of his visits to New York.
Behind the scenes, leaders actively campaigned to keep the “golden door” open, rallying support from important Jews and Christians alike against restrictive legislation. After Levi’s sudden death in 1904, his successor, elder statesman and attorney Simon Wolf, acted as B’nai B’rith’s Washington liaison, fighting for the cause in his newspaper articles and as a witness before Congress, and by extending free legal aid. Lodge brothers served as volunteers at Ellis Island, where they provided legal assistance to individuals and reported on the center’s conditions. In 1915, B’nai B’rith’s leaders interceded with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to veto the proposed Burnett Immigration Bill, whose stringent literacy test and increased “head tax”—a mandatory fee imposed on those arriving in the United States—was intended to bar many from entering.
True to Bien’s and Levi’s visions, the contributions of the next generation of Jewish Americans in the arts, humanities and sciences would immeasurably enhance life. Their impact continues. Those who participated as members of B’nai B’rith would transform the organization, paving the way for the harder work and greater accomplishments of the first half of the 20th century.
By Sam Seifman
MC Serch, born Michael Berrin, hails from Far Rockaway, in Queens, N.Y. Serch grew up surrounded by hip-hop but living in a conservative Jewish household. With a local cantor as a mentor, he had dreams of being one himself. He combined his two worlds, going to schul on Friday and Saturday while also playing basketball and listening to rap on Shabbat.
His rabbi saw him playing with friends, many of whom were African American. Serch was called into his office the next day.
“Michael, I had such high hopes for you,” his rabbi said.
The rabbi lamented Serch’s choice in friends, using a derogatory Yiddish word for African American.
“You’re supposed to teach? You’re supposed to educate?” Serch replied, frustrated.
Distraught, he turned down a scholarship from the St. Louis School of Music, where he planned to train to become a cantor. Instead, he became a professional rapper—something he had been doing as a hobby since he was a teenager. He converted to Islam—remaining in the religion for the next four years. He later converted back to Judaism after moving in with a Christian-agnostic girlfriend. One Christmas, she wanted to put up a tree and he felt the need for his background to be represented. So, they also lit menorah candles.
Serch’s story is emblematic of hip-hop’s roots—starting from rebelliousness and reaching success as a performer and promoter of rappers in the ’80s and ’90s.
Or as the Canadian Jewish black rap superstar Drake, puts it, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” Drake was born Aubrey Drake Graham. His father is African American, and he was raised by his Jewish mother and bar mitzvahed.
Drake and other rappers fall under the category of “Hip-hop,” a subculture that also encompasses disc jockeys, graffiti artists and break dancers. It is said to have originated in 1973, in the Bronx, at a party hosted by Jamaican-born Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell.
As hip-hop grew, it diversified beyond African American artists and fans to include Jews as well. The breakout Jewish rap stars were the Beastie Boys, made up of Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The group achieved notoriety and toured with Madonna in 1985. In 1987, their album “License to Ill” went platinum, selling a million copies. In total, they have recorded seven platinum albums and have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2012, Adam Yauch died of salivary gland cancer, and he was so esteemed that a park was named for him in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
When Serch was younger, some of his African American friends converted to Islam. This prompted him to ask them questions about it, to which they would reply, “Why are you always searching for answers?”
So they called him “Search.” It was changed to “Serch” when he was buying a customized belt buckle and found out that it cost $20 less leaving out the “a.”
When he decided to go professional, his mother, Roz Berrin, was supportive. She sang as Linda Paige in the Borscht Belt. However, Serch admits, she wasn’t too familiar with rap.
“She thought I was going to be a gift wrapper,” he said.
Serch achieved some success in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, partially because he was very active in “battle rap” (two rappers verbally attacking each other) scene—a consistent theme among rap’s outsiders. After releasing two albums through independent labels, he was signed by Lyor Cohen (also Jewish) and Russell Simmons, working for Rush Productions. Later, these two became major producers in hip-hop and founders of Def Jam Records, one of the most successful rap labels. Producing artists like the Beastie Boys and Kanye West. They agreed to pay for his demo.
Serch teamed up with rapper Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich to form 3rd Bass in 1987. Before breaking up in 1992, they released three albums, two of which went gold, selling at least 500,000 copies.
Serch went solo that year, releasing the album “Return of the Product,” which reached 103 on Billboard’s “Top 200 Albums.” He also started Serchlite Productions, producing the album “Illmatic” by Nas, which ranked 11th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Debut Albums of All Time.”
Serch and Cohen join a long line of Jewish producers. Rick Rubin, another Jewish Def Jam co-founder, worked with big names like Jay Z, Kanye West and Eminem. In 2007, Time Magazine ranked him number eight on its “Most Influential” list.
Richard Wolf was part of the production team for Serch’s album “Return of the Product.” “Serch was a very confident artist who had definite ideas of what he wanted,” Wolf said. Wolf’s mother was French and his father was Belgian, both of them refugees from the Holocaust and dedicated to music education. In the 1980s, he was drawn to hip-hop, listening to it as people performed on the streets of Manhattan.
“It had the rebelliousness and lyricism of early folk rock,” he said.
In the late ’70s, Wolf started as a solo artist, recording a folk rock album his freshman year of college in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He then became a staff writer at Warner/Chappell Music. While there, he also wrote theme songs, including for the Rodney Dangerfield film “Back to School” and “Karate Kid II.”
In 1989, Wolf and Epic Mazur (his former intern) opened Wolf and Epic. They produced for the rap group Bell Biv Devoe, including its album “Poison,” which sold 3.5 million albums.
In 1998, Wolf started his own company called The Producer’s Lab. Since then, he has written and produced music for some of television’s biggest shows, including: “America’s Next Top Model,” “NCIS,” “The Good Wife,” “Static Shock” and “Fox Sports.”
He also teaches a course called “Music, Media and Culture” at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music; it covers how music related to different art forms and, of course, the evolution of hip-hop.
“Being Jewish has been a deeply engrained part of my life, my parents having escaped Nazi Germany,” Wolf said. “Jewish culture has an emphasis on the mystical music is how you connect with the divine. I didn’t choose music, music chose me.”
Modern Day Rappers
Drake is one of the biggest names in rap. But there are other well-known Jewish performers, such as Mac Miller, Asher Roth and Matisyahu, a former Hasidic Jew whose music often involves religious topics.
Much like Serch, Soul Khan (Noah Weston) gained notoriety through battle rap. His name became recognizable in Brooklyn and his YouTube videos have hundreds of thousands of hits—the lyrics are brutal.
In his battle with fellow rapper QP, he said, “I saw a video of your son. I thought something didn’t look right. You’re the only one under the sun who your son don’t look like.”
Khan started rapping as a hobby at 13 in the late ’90s. He was raised in a secular Jewish household in Los Angeles but was both bar mitzvahed and confirmed. “Judaism affects my outlook on the world—certainly my sense of humor,” Khan said.
When he was a child, his mother would play Paul Robeson records, including songs sung in Yiddish, introducing the idea of crossing cultural boundaries through music.
While he is an established member of the rap community, Khan seems to feel like a guest.
“Hopefully it’s not appropriation on my part because I always want to acknowledge the culture,” he said. “I recognize that rap is an African American art form …”
“Because the American Jewish experience started as much more marginalized, it connected them to other communities,” he added.
Today, Khan no longer battle raps, focusing on his studio work. Since 2010, he has recorded seven albums, including a few songs with Jewish references, like his track “Minyan” on his album “Soul Like Khan.”
“Rabbi Darkside,” born Samuel Sellers, got into rap through ’60s protest music, which he listened to at Jewish summer camp. Darkside transitioned to rap as a teenager, thanks to rap group Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It,” which used as its background the rock legend Lou Reed’s ’70s hit “Walk on the Wild Side.”
In Buffalo, he was one of the only Jews among his friends, who gave him his stage name. As a teen, Darkside spent his bar mitzvah money on a stereo record player. He would listen to it and transcribe lyrics.
“I’m sure in my heart and my subconscious, there is something in my writing influenced by my upbringing,” Darkside said.
Very few of his songs have Jewish themes. From time to time, his music comes with a political message, like his song “Malala,” inspired by 19-year-old female education activist Malala Yousafzai. The lyrics include: “And on Pakistani buses and in schools for every child, in the face of vitriol violence in place of spiteful alliance, there is spiritual highness that can transcend foes and faux.”
He also understands that his Judaism is, in a way, inescapable. He has faced anti-Semitic slurs while on tour in rural Czech Republic. He’s also seen it in his other gig, as a professor at the New School in New York. There he teaches “Hip-Hop Skills and Science,” where students rap at the beginning of every class. Recently, however, swastikas have been drawn on the walls of his students’ dormitories, to him a disturbing development unrelated to rap but still hitting home.
“It’s become an interesting moment for me in terms of my Jewish identity right now,” he says.
Doron Lev, or “Ugly Braine,” was born in Miami to Israeli parents. His mother was Hassidic and taught classes at Hillel before she passed away in 1998. His father lived on a secular kibbutz and currently owns his own auto shop.
“My name was very strange, and I remember feeling like an immigrant,” Lev recalls.
Lev was influenced by hip-hop in the fourth grade, listening to Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” In sixth grade, he started writing lyrics.
But his primary interest was being a drummer, not only in hip-hop but jazz and salsa as well. He started as a rapper while drumming for funk bands, freestyling between songs. Today, he still drums and raps.
Lev recorded the song “Take a Walk in the Desert” with Rabbi Darkside and has performed at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre in Tel Aviv. He is planning another trip this year to Israel, where he hopes to help achieve peace through music. He knows Palestinian rappers and hopes to collaborate with them.
“I know one man can’t fix [the conflict], but I just want to do my part,” Lev said.
His roommate is an Egyptian rapper. Their fathers fought on opposite sides of the 1967 Six-Day War—and adore their sons’ friendship.
In January, he released his album “Watching Shadows,” featuring Rabbi Darkside.
“No matter how strict or tough my dad was as an Israeli, he always had a sense of humor,” Lev said. “It’s part of who we are. Rap music has that element to it. It doesn’t always have to be funny, but, with Jews, there is always some kind of entertainment element.”
By Kenneth D. Ackerman
Leon Trotsky never considered himself Jewish in any religious sense. He never wrote Yiddish, didn’t keep kosher and never entered a synagogue. Neither of his two wives, and none of his four children were Jewish. He was raised on a farm, not in a shtetl (Yiddish for small town). He didn’t hide his Jewishness. He spoke out eloquently against pogroms and anti-Jewish oppression, often at great personal risk. But when asked, he normally gave his religion as “socialist” or “internationalist.”
Still, when he landed in New York City on Sunday morning, Jan. 14, 1917, both the New York Times and Tribune—two of six newspapers that covered his arrival—stressed Trotsky’s identity as a “Jewish” writer editing “Jewish” journals in Russia and France. Over a million Jews lived in New York at that point, more than any other city on Earth. In New York, his Jewishness would stand out, like it or not.
Trotsky spent 10 weeks in New York in early 1917, just before returning home to Russia to help lead the Bolshevik Revolution, an event that would catapult him to global fame. The Bolshevik/Communist state he helped launch would last 73 years, and Trotsky would serve as its foreign affairs commissar and leader of its Red Army in a bloody three-year civil war, making him second in stature to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. His shaggy black hair, sharp eyes, pointed beard and glasses would make him recognizable around the world.
But his time in power would be brief. Forced out in the mid-1920s, Trotsky would spend his last 12 years in exile before being murdered by an agent of dictator Joseph Stalin in Mexico. Today, 76 years after his death and 26 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, all his books remain in print and Trotskyist political candidates still compete in dozens of countries.
The New York Trotsky found in 1917 was a busy, freewheeling place unique in the world. World War I had engulfed Europe since 1914, a catastrophe that already had killed over 10 million soldiers and civilians. But America had stayed out, growing rich selling weapons to warring countries. Instead, New York was enjoying a golden age of music, theater, finance and politics, luxuries unthinkable in wartime Paris, London, Vienna or Berlin.
New York then was an international city in a way barely recognizable today. After six decades of record immigration, it had bulging neighborhoods with the aromas and sounds of foreign countries. Almost 2 million New Yorkers in 1917 came from across the ocean.
Jews made up the bulk of the Eastern Europeans, concentrated in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side. They still mostly spoke Yiddish, read their own newspapers, ate their own kosher food and practiced their own religion.
Forward with the Forward
The Yiddish-language newspaper, Forward, sold more than 200,000 copies each day in 1917, a circulation rivaling that of the New York Times. Second Avenue below Tenth Street belonged to the Yiddish theaters and popular Yiddish cafes.
Trotsky had come to New York as a refugee, expelled from five countries for his rabblerousing politics. In Russia, his home, czarist police had arrested him twice, each time exiling him to Siberia. Each time, Trotsky escaped. Since the outbreak of World War I, Austria, Germany, France and Spain had expelled him too.
But America was different. Still neutral, it had not yet imposed wartime crackdowns on dissent and had barely started tracking potential subversives or spies. Trotsky, to American eyes, looked like any other hardship case, just like thousands of others who filled the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan.
Trotsky did not live on the Lower East Side. He settled his family into a three-bedroom apartment in the Bronx at 1522 Vyse Avenue, near Crotona Park. By day, he helped edit a small Russian-language tabloid called Novy Mir from its basement office at 77 Saint Marks Place, in lower Manhattan. He rode the subway, enjoyed the movies (Charlie Chaplin and Molly Pickford were the rage) and sent his sons to public school in the Bronx.
But Trotsky too was, indeed, different. He jumped on the freedoms he found in New York to immerse himself in politics. Here, his extremism quickly separated him from most Jews in this new country, even those who shared his socialism.
The great issue dominating early 1917 was whether America should drop its neutrality and enter the World War. Just two weeks after Trotsky’s arrival, on January 31, 1917, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping, prompting President Woodrow Wilson to sever diplomatic relations. Most Americans now supported mobilization, but New York remained a hotbed of dissent, particularly among immigrant Jews.
Trotsky jumped right in, writing dozens of articles and giving over 30 speeches at venues including Cooper Union and Beethoven Hall. For socialists like him, the issue was easy. Why, they argued, should workers in France, Germany or anyplace else fight each other when their common enemy was the capitalists? Loyalty to country meant nothing to an “internationalist” like Trotsky.
Most Russian Jews had come fleeing oppression: pogroms, murders, harassment, bans against attending universities, owning land or even living in most cities. Now, with Russia (which still included Poland and Ukraine) allied with Britain and France, they saw American entry into the War as helping the czar.
But most Jews had a different reason to oppose the War: They had grown to admire their new home. Life here was harsh, but they appreciated the country as a place with real freedoms and opportunities where immigrants could enjoy respect and build a future. This split over patriotism would reach a breaking point on March 1, 1917, with an event decisive in America’s decision finally to enter the war: the disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram.
The Zimmermann Telegram was a cable from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann offering Mexico a reward if it joined the fight on Germany’s side: the return of Texas, California and other lands seized by the United States after the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. The idea posed a direct threat to the American heartland and sparked outrage across the country.
At the Forward, still staunchly socialist, the managing editor that day was B. Charney Vladeck, a Russian who had served two prison terms under the czar before fleeing to America in 1908. Unlike Trotsky, Vladeck had become enamored of his new country. He described how, visiting Philadelphia, he “prayed silently and without a hat in front of Independence Hall.” In America, he wrote, “for the first time I felt free to explore the world as I want to see it … I don’t love it only as an artist for its colors, but as a citizen feeling that it is mine.”
When Vladeck saw the Zimmermann Telegram cross his desk, he was appalled. He took pen to paper and wrote a headline in Yiddish: “Can this be so that Germany is actually performing such an idiotic diplomatic schtick?” He continued: “Every inhabitant of the country would fight to the last drop of blood to protect the great American republic against the monarchies of Europe and Asia and their allies.”
Trotsky, seeing Vladeck’s article, erupted. Here was the Forward, the most widely read socialist daily voice in America, suddenly endorsing war, even encouraging young men to enlist. Trotsky decided to demand an explanation from the man who held ultimate control over the Forward, its founder and chief editor, Abraham Cahan.
He stormed out of his office on Saint Marks Place, traversed the crowded lower East Side to the Forward building on East Broadway, found Cahan’s office, and barged in. By all accounts, the exchange quickly degenerated, voices shrill, faces red and tempers lost. Abraham Cahan, 20 years older than Trotsky, took considerable pride, not just as editor of the Forward but as a founder of American socialism and an accomplished member of the literati in his own right, author of the acclaimed English-language novel “The Rise of David Levinsky.” And who was this Leon Trotsky, a newcomer editor of a puny Russian tabloid, to tell him, Abraham Cahan, how to run his newspaper? To question his managing editor? To question his socialism?
Trotsky asked Cahan about the Vladeck story, and Cahan told him that, yes, he had seen it, he had approved it and it was now the official policy of the Forward. At that, Trotsky told Cahan that he would never again write for the Forward and demanded that Cahan return a draft article he had submitted a few days earlier.
The confrontation lasted just long enough to burn bridges. Trotsky marched back to his desk at Novy Mir and, over the next three weeks, wrote five articles for Novy Mir blasting Abraham Cahan and his newspaper. He accused Cahan of being an autocrat, out of touch, encamped in his 10-story building, and insisted he be expelled from the party.
But for Cahan too, the exchange marked a turning point. Cahan would be one of the first major American socialists to denounce the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Russia. When Moscow sympathizers tried to pressure him to soften his criticisms, he declared, “I would rather see the Forward go under than weaken the struggle against the communists.”
Bronx Man Makes His Mark
Amid all this turmoil, it came as a shock when news reached New York on Thursday, March 15, that food riots in Petrograd, Russia, had escalated into full-scale rebellion, forcing the hated czar, Nicholas II, to abdicate. Ceremonies erupted worldwide, none more intense than on the Jewish Lower East Side. Trotsky had not seen his homeland for over a decade; it was time to return. In dozens of speeches all over the city, he made his intentions clear: to reach Petrograd, join the resistance, help topple the provisional government, take Russia out of the War and create socialism.
That November, when news reached New York of the Bolshevik revolution with Trotsky’s name in the headlines, locals all agreed on one thing: “TROTSKY, NOW IN KERENSKY’S PLACE, ONCE LIVED HERE,” headlined the New York World. “TROTSKY IN EXILE LIVED IN THE BRONX,” echoed the New York Times. Most direct was the Bronx Home News, which announced simply: “BRONX MAN LEADS RUSSIAN REVOLUTION.” The implication: Only a New Yorker could have pulled off this job.
Trotsky returned the compliment. For 10 weeks in 1917, the city offered him and his family freedom, comfort, security, friends and celebrity, a taste of what they later would call “the American dream.” Trotsky carried American ideas back to Russia for his new Soviet state: the movies, science and culture.
“To have Bolshevism shod in the American way” with technology, math, efficient factories, stated Trotsky. “There is our task!” Writing in later years that, in the future, “all the problems of our planet will be decided upon American soil.”
By Michelle Chabon
On Oct. 13, 2015, Micah Lakin Avni was in an important business meeting in Tel Aviv when his mother called his cellphone.
Avni’s mother relayed how terrorists had committed an attack in Armon Hanatziv, her Jerusalem neighborhood, and that she hadn’t yet heard from Avni’s father, Richard Lakin. (Avni, his son’s last name, is the Hebrew version of Lakin.)
Avni rushed to Jerusalem, calling area hospitals along the way. Finally, a nurse at Hadassah Medical Center told him his 76-year-old father was critically wounded and in surgery. Two weeks later, he succumbed to his injuries.
Lakin, a former elementary school principal in Connecticut who moved to Israel in 1984, had been repeatedly shot and stabbed on a public bus by two Hamas-affiliated men from adjoining Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. It was one of the first of dozens of terror attacks perpetrated by Palestinians as young as 13 from the eastern part of Jerusalem and the West Bank starting in September 2015 through well into 2016.
Many of these attacks were allegedly fueled by lies—spread on social media and in the mosques—that Israel was planning to deny Muslims access to the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. The allegation that social media companies aren’t doing nearly enough to stop the spread of cyberterrorism and anti-Semitism—and may in fact be abetting them—has spurred Avni and others, including victims of Islamic terror attacks in Paris and Orlando, to file lawsuits against Facebook. They hope that the threat of potentially huge financial payouts will pressure Facebook and other companies to block hate messages and content.
While watching his father’s condition deteriorate, Avni said, “I sat there thinking, ‘How did this happen? What makes two 20-year-old Palestinians from middle-class families do something so horrific? What’s causing the pace and growth of terrorism so quickly around the world and in Israel?’”
During one of his marathon internet searches on various social media platforms, Avni came across a “horrific” reenactment of the attack in which his father was murdered. “That video went completely viral, and its purpose was to encourage others to carry out similar attacks,” he said. Determined to act, Avni contacted Shurat HaDin, an Israeli law center that represents terror victims and their families. Since 2000, the center has collected more than $200 million of the $2 billion various courts have awarded its clients.
Avni became one of the 20,000 petitioners who sued Facebook in a landmark Oct. 26, 2015, lawsuit filed by Shurat HaDin. That suit, known as Cohen v. Facebook, sought an injunction against the company that would require it to monitor and prevent terrorist incitement against Jews and Israelis.
As the wave of terror intensified, reaction to false rumors about access to the Al Aqsa mosque increased. Shurat HaDin sensed it would have an even stronger case against Facebook if American citizens sued the company. In July 2016, it filed a $1 billion lawsuit, Force v. Facebook, on behalf of Taylor Force, an American Christian murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Israel, and on behalf of Lakin and four other families of terror victims.
The suit, which the court has joined to Cohen v. Facebook, alleges that Facebook has violated the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by “knowingly” providing material support and resources to Hamas. This support has boosted the terror group’s ability to “recruit, radicalize, instruct terrorists, raise funds, create fear and carry out attacks,” the suit alleges.
Facebook has denied the allegations and sought dismissal of the lawsuits. As this issue went to press, a hearing has been scheduled for March 1.
Facebook did not respond to repeated inquiries from B’nai B’rith Magazine related to Shurat HaDin’s two lawsuits and this article. However, in January, the company took down more than 100 pages linked to Hamas, the governing authority in the Gaza Strip that the United States government has termed a terrorist organization.
The Anti-Terrorism Act has made it possible for U.S. citizens who were victims of terror attacks, or their bereaved families, to sue governments like Libya and Iran that fund, arm and give refuge to terror groups. Four of the five victims in this instance were dual American-Israeli citizens.
But anti-terrorism suits aimed at social media are new, and it remains to be seen whether courts will hold Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube or Instagram responsible for content they disseminate but do not generate. “Facebook has zero tolerance for terrorism,” its attorney said in court filings.
In what may have been an important precedent, in August 2016, U.S. District Judge William Orrick dismissed a suit filed against Twitter by families of contractors murdered in an ISIS terror attack in Jordan.
The judge said the company could not be held responsible for aiding terrorism under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” He also cited lack of evidence that the attackers were radicalized by images they saw on Twitter.
Internet providers and social media companies insist the act absolves them, the “messengers,” of any responsibility for the content they disseminate.
Digital Hate Happens
But cyberterrorism is just one example of the many types of hate spread via social media platforms against Jews and others.
“The level of online anti-Semitism over the past few years has been more than we’ve ever seen before,” said Oren Segal, who directs the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Center on Extremism. “Extremists are specifically targeting various communities, including the Jewish community and Jewish journalists.”
An October 2016 report by the ADL’s Task Force on Harassment and Journalism detected a “disturbing upswing” in online anti-Semitic abuse driven in large part by “rhetoric in the 2016 presidential campaign.”
From August 2015 and July 2016, the watchdog identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets overall, more than 19,000 of them directed at Jewish journalists.
Sixty-eight percent of these tweets were sent from 1,600 Twitter accounts, out of 313 million existing Twitter accounts. Those 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets had 10 billion views, so they “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language—particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements—on a massive scale,” according to the task force.
Gabriel Weimann, a Haifa University expert in cyber-terrorism, believes it is important to distinguish between cyberterror and other forms of cyber-hate.
While cyber-shaming and cyberbullying can have extreme consequences, including suicide, he said, “very often the intent isn’t to cause physical harm.” The aim of cyberterrorism, in contrast, is 100 percent violent.
Weimann said young Palestinians who participated in the most recent wave of attacks tended to be “very active” on social media platforms and became “very radicalized” by what they saw. The videos showed who should be targeted with a knife: Israeli police, soldiers, settlers and other identifiably Jewish targets. Viewers were also instructed on the best time of day to kill and which body part is most vulnerable to attack. “There were even videos showing what kind of knife or machete to use,” Weimann said.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, Shurat HaDin’s founder and the driving force behind the Facebook suits, says Facebook and other social media platforms are a terror cell’s favorite tool.
For the past few years, she alleged, “Facebook has connected those who incite to kill Jews with those who want to do so.” Terror groups, she said, “are using it to raise funds, to connect and to reach out to potential members. Facebook is letting them freely, openly, knowingly use its platform to aid and abet terrorism.”
The fact that users, not the social media companies, are funding terrorists or inciting violence “does not eliminate their responsibility,” Darshan-Leitner said.
Asked whether her plaintiffs would drop their $1 billion suit if Facebook agreed to take steps to police itself, she said, “No. Facebook must pay damages. The only thing these megacompanies know is business. If they get hit in their pocketbook, they will reconsider their actions and change them, much like the banks did,” referring to successful lawsuits filed against banks that allegedly aided and abetted terror groups.
“The only thing that moved banks to make sure the money in their possession was terror free and not transfer money to terrorists were the billion-dollar lawsuits filed against them. Money is the oxygen of terrorism,” Darshan-Leitner said.
A Call to Action
Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president and chief executive officer of B’nai B’rith, said, “There needs to be a Manhattan Project to confront the many threats that have grown out of the internet, which has provided a new way to convey hatred, terrorism and incitement.”
Mariaschin envisions a joint effort between B’nai B’rith, which has status at both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and others committed to the fight against cyberterror and cyberhate, including anti-Semitism.
“The challenges are great, the opportunities are there, and the next step is for us to either initiate or join existing efforts,” he said.
Richard Heideman, who served as international president of B’nai B’rith from 1998 to 2002 and is a partner in the law firm Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik, believes, “Holding supporters of terror accountable in U.S. courts is an essential tool in seeking justice.” Heideman’s firm has filed several successful lawsuits on behalf of Israeli and other terror victims.
One of those suits, which sought compensation from the Libyan government for its supportive role in the 1985 hijacking of an Egypt Air flight and the targeted killings of American and Israeli passengers, “helped bring Muammar Gaddafi and Libya to reach an agreement with the U.S. in 2008 that resulted in Libya coming off the State Department’s terror list,” Heideman said. That agreement included a $1.5 billion payment to victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.
The Free Speech Dilemma
Some free speech advocates believe litigating against Facebook, Twitter and others to force them into policing themselves would ultimately lead to censorship.
“If Facebook were responsible for the legality of everything you or I or others say on Facebook, it would be tremendously expensive and a great disincentive to provide an open platform,” Daphne Keller, director of Intermediary Liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told Bloomberg News. “And it would give them every reason to take down too much speech, to take down perfectly legal speech to avoid risk to themselves.
Yair Rosenberg, a writer for the Jewish magazine Tablet, is one of the 10 Jewish journalists most targeted by anti-Semites on Twitter, according to the ADL. Though he believes social media companies “have an obligation to try to weed out abusive behavior and harassment on their platforms,” he does not think they should be censoring non-abusive content, no matter how repugnant.
“Besides this being impractical when it comes to millions of tweets or posts, it also seems troubling to empower giant corporations to police what constitutes an acceptable opinion on the internet,” Rosenberg said. “The best answer to hateful speech online is better counter-speech from the majority of non-hateful users—a bottom-up response, rather than top-down.”
Rosenberg said those who identify or experience online cyber-hate can report abusive accounts and work to draw attention to them in publicity campaigns, to ensure the companies are taking them seriously. “But again, I’d distinguish between abusive behavior on a social media platform and non-abusive but hateful content.”
The journalist is skeptical that lawsuits like Avni’s will succeed, “at least in America, given our First Amendment, and I don’t think they’re the best way to fight this sort of problem, either. Censoring bigotry doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it easier to ignore, until it has unignorable consequences. I’d rather that society face up to this material head-on,” Rosenberg said.
However, in a clear bid to preempt these and future lawsuits and potentially huge payouts if they lose what promise to be several court cases, on Dec. 5, 2016, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube announced they are “coming together” to curb the spread of terrorist content online.
“There is no place for content that promotes terrorism on our hosted consumer services,” they said in a joint statement. “When alerted, we take swift action against this kind of content in accordance with our respective policies.”
The companies vowed to create a shared industry database of “hashes”—unique digital “fingerprints”—“for violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos or images that we have removed from our services.”
By sharing this information with one another, they said that they hope to identify and remove “the most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos”—content most likely to violate their respective companies’ content policies.
Following the huge backlash against Facebook for sharing fake news stories during the presidential campaign, in mid-December the company said it will try to identify such stories with the assistance of five fact-checking organizations and through reader feedback.
Lakin’s son Avni insists that if Facebook can create a system to flag fake news, it can identify and block terror-related content.
“Its algorithms advertise to you and they monitor everything going on. They target you based on that information. They block child pornography and they can do the same with terror. For years, they chose to ignore that Hamas was operating an entire campaign on Facebook,” Avni asserted. “And they make money in the process.”
The December 2016 lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter and Google by the victims of the terrorist attack in Orlando also accuses the providers of “profiting from postings through advertising revenue.”
By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
This past August, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia and once again to connect with its vibrant, active Jewish community.
I was invited by the Gandel Foundation, in cooperation with Australia’s B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), to deliver its annual oration in both Melbourne and Sydney. My topic: “The Evil of Modern Anti-Semitism and the Forces Behind It,” a subject very much on our minds, as we’ve seen over the past decade a tremendous rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on a global scale.
I was warmly welcomed in both cities by leaders of the Jewish community, including our own B’nai B’rith leadership. Sincere thanks go to my colleague, Dvir Abramovich, chair of the ADC, who organized my entire visit. A special tip of the hat goes to Janice Huppert, James Altman and Anna Marks of B’nai B’rith Australia, who hosted events, and to Morris Tobias, the District 21 president, who, though on vacation at the time, kept in touch with me during the duration of my stay Down Under.
I’m especially grateful to the benefactors of the Gandel Foundation, John and Pauline Gandel, for both their hospitality and their devotion to the community and to the State of Israel. When we speak about international Jewish leadership, the Gandels are indeed among its pillars.
The Australian Jewish community numbers about 150,000. In Melbourne, we stayed in the St. Kilda neighborhood, the center of the city’s Jewish life, with synagogues, as well as kosher bakeries, cafes and butchers, all within walking distance. Sydney’s Jewish population is slightly larger than Melbourne’s and has the same intensity and variety of community activity.
In Melbourne, I addressed students at two Jewish day schools, Mt. Scopus Memorial College and Bialik College. I found a close identification with Israel among the young people I met. We also toured the Holocaust Museum and Research Center, accompanied by both the director and a Holocaust survivor. It is an impressive institution, highlighting not only the tragic events of the Shoah, but also the relatively large community of survivors who located in the city after the war.
Abramovich also arranged a series of meetings with a number of Australian political figures. The country has been a stalwart friend of Israel under a succession of governments. I was privileged to meet with two former prime ministers—Bob Hawke and John Howard—who both vocally supported free emigration for Soviet Jews and maintained excellent relations with Israel.
Indeed, in 2006, B’nai B’rith International presented Howard with its Presidential Gold Medallion at a ceremony at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
I was especially fortunate to have spent time with Michael Danby, a member of the national parliament, and with David Southwick, who sits in the Victoria (the state that includes Melbourne) parliament, and colleagues of theirs, with whom we discussed a wide range of issues. I also had the chance to tour the magnificent Victoria Parliament House, whose initial construction dates to the 1850s.
The ADC does tremendously important work fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and works to advance interreligious relations. It enjoys tremendous respect both inside and outside the community, evident to me by the high level and varied meetings and programs in which I participated.
So, too, for our local B’nai B’rith, which is deeply involved in programs that touch so many, including seniors and Holocaust survivors. We’re proud that they are a vital part of our B’nai B’rith family.
Australia is a beautiful country that, perhaps, is reflected in the exceedingly warm hospitality we experienced and in the friendship of so many to Israel and the Jewish people. I was reminded once again, as well, of the Hebrew phrase Kol Yisrael Chaverim, “All of Israel are friends” as I went from meeting to meeting. Thousands of miles may separate us, but being Jewish and supporting Israel are a state of mind that transcends borders.
I left the country thinking of the young people at the day schools in Melbourne. When I asked how many had already been to Israel, most hands shot up. They are the future of Australian Jewry—and ours. We returned hopeful—and encouraged.
By Gary P. Saltzman
President, B’nai B’rith International
The United Nations was established on a grand and admirable foundation. The founding charter notes that the U.N. is, among other things, determined “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” The charter also reads that to achieve its goals it will aim “to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”
Sadly, when it comes to Israel, that foundation has crumbled.
Just a few months ago, I, along with B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin, led a B’nai B’rith International delegation to the United Nations for intense meetings with presidents, foreign ministers and other government leaders gathered in New York for the opening of the 71st General Assembly. For decades, B’nai B’rith has hosted meetings on the sidelines of the opening, to talk about issues important to Israel and the Jewish people and to promote global human rights.
Our dozens of meetings evoke a wide array of responses. We leave some with a positive feeling that we got our point across. And from others, we leave dismayed at the continuing clinging to a different and separate standard for Israel. We argue the points of the obvious lack of fairness toward Israel across the U.N. system, and we talk about the peace process, instilling the fact that it takes two parties to move forward, how both need to come without preconditions and how there needs to be an acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. We remind leaders that the Palestinian leadership has refused, for years, to do this bare minimum.
The varied outcomes of the meetings are often head-spinning and head-scratching. We have met with leaders who talk in positive and colorful terms about their country’s relationship with Israel and with deep respect for Israel’s business and agricultural acumen and its important and groundbreaking advances in medicine and technology.
After leaving that meeting, our next one might include a leader who will say outright that Israel is a success, yes, but as such, it should be held to a higher standard.
These reactions we know long and well. B’nai B’rith has been active at the U.N. from its very founding at the San Francisco conference and accredited as a non-government organization since 1947.
During our meetings, you won’t be surprised to know that Iran is always on the agenda. We caution leaders that while the latest agreement may be putting only a temporary lid on Tehran’s development of nuclear capacity, which is concerning enough, it has diminished neither the country's global terror interests and activities, nor its leadership’s continual call for the destruction of Israel. These issues need to be acknowledged and addressed by the United Nations.
Global anti-Semitism is growing, particularly in Europe. About 10,000 Jews immigrated to Israel last year from Western Europe, an all-time high. Additionally, more and more European Jews say they do not feel safe openly practicing their religion. It is well within the U.N.’s portfolio to serve as a watchdog and to call for the elimination of the unacceptable scourge of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is a crucial component of Israel’s treatment at the United Nations.
B’nai B’rith has long called for a common, globally accepted definition of anti-Semitism. In September, at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw, Poland, we urged the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism that would then be disseminated globally, to educate world leaders, journalists and students about the impact of the incessant demonization of Jews and Israel.
With a great sense of gravity and humility, we pursue as an organizational mission universal human rights, as well as fair treatment, recognition and respect for Israel. The U.N. should ensure a fair opportunity for each nation to have security and safety, no matter where it is.
Our role is to help monitor the U.N. and educate and encourage the world body to carry out its mission fairly across the community of nations.
Our presence provides a vital counterpoint to what now seems like systemic anti-Israel bias. At a minimum, B’nai B’rith adds a voice too often missing from the conversation.
Our presence is truly needed. Not just at U.N. headquarters in New York, but at numerous U.N. offices around the world, such as in Geneva, the home of the astoundingly anti-Israel U.N. Human Rights Council, and in Paris, the home of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
We work tirelessly and globally on U.N. issues. We reach out to countries across Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa on their votes at the U.N. in New York, Geneva, Paris and elsewhere regarding Israel-related voting matters.
I would argue we need to become even more engaged at the U.N. as the world is becoming ever more difficult and polarized. So, we encourage you to join us, speaking out against the inconsistencies at the U.N. and to move the U.N. back to the principles that we witnessed from the start. With your support, we can continue to lead the way in our advocacy role, being as effective as we can be.
Visit us at https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/bbi-donate or call our development office at 800-573-9057.
By Rachel Goldberg
No matter what we call it, we all monitor our cost of living, from rent to transportation, from health care to home heating oil. While some prices may go down, the trend is generally up. If we are lucky, our jobs have built-in cost-of-living adjustments, or regular raises to maintain our buying power. We all hope to be doing at least as well this year as last, and that means, one way or another, we want our income adjusted for inflation in the cost of living.
This is particularly important for the elderly, one third of whom rely almost exclusively on Social Security for their income. Social Security replaces a portion of pre-retirement earnings, so we already know that retiring solely or primarily on these benefits can mean a drop not only in income but in standard of living.
Someone making an average annual middle income salary of $46,000 would receive a yearly Social Security benefit of about $18,000, or about 40 percent of former income. For a high-wage worker with average lifetime wages of $112,000, the annual benefit is around $29,000, replacing 26 percent of prior income. In order to prevent further erosion in the buying power and standard of living for people who heavily rely on Social Security Congress instituted automatic cost of living adjustments, or COLA in 1973.
But how the COLA is determined is imperfect and controversial. You see, the U.S. Department of Labor uses the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which uses several different ways to measure the cost of living. Are consumers paying more for the same items this year as last? Which expenses are rising the most? The least? All those questions and answers are built into the different indices developed at the Department of Labor, and how they are weighted matters a great deal. Currently, Social Security, Veterans benefits and most other federal programs for low income people and the elderly that rely on the CPI use what’s called the CPI-W. This is a catchy little nickname for the CPI for “Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers.” There would be no problem if spending by retired older adults and people collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSI) payments, along with those very low-income people collecting SSI and veterans collecting VA benefits, matched those of urban and clerical workers. But they don’t.
The urban wage earners and clerical workers said to be represented by the CPI-W make up only about 23 percent of the U.S. population. Social Security beneficiaries are generally not among them. Urban wage earners spend more on things like daily transportation and work clothes. Most retirees have lower incomes and spend a higher percentage on things like health care, housing and utilities. So, the CPI-W inaccurately estimates and usually underestimates the cost of living for older people, and how it varies from year to year.
The Missing COLA
Last year, while health care costs (including Medicare deductibles) continued to rise for older adults, there was no Social Security COLA increase. For 2017, it will be .3 percent, boosting the average monthly payment by about $4. Thus, because the COLA formula is inappropriate for older people, the buying power of someone relying on Social Security can decline over time. This is particularly troubling because many other retirement accounts, like 401ks, can eventually run out of funds. So, the older you are, the more you rely on Social Security, and the actual value of your benefit has declined based on how the COLA is measured.
Unfortunately, over the last decade the only serious discussion of changing the Social Security COLA calculation has revolved around producing a lower percentage adjustment and another less accurate measurement of what Social Security recipients actually spend. Advocates for the elderly have so far successfully fought this so-called “chained CPI” formula. But future success is not guaranteed, because reducing COLAs not only erodes benefits, it also saves the government money. So, pressure will continue to go this route, despite its assumptions about the flexibility of an urban consumer’s spending that don’t apply to retirees who must pay for non-negotiable items like housing and medical care, rather than clothing, leisure and even transportation.
So, the bipartisan but misguided attempts to make the COLA formulation worse have failed.
But there is another option. Since 1987, the Labor Department has calculated an “experimental” CPI based on the spending patterns of older adults. It’s called CPI-E, for Consumer Price Index for the Elderly-Experimental. For years, advocates have supported this approach without success. But the tide may be turning. There are currently several bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that would switch Social Security (and other programs for low-income and/or elderly people) to the CPI-E or to another measure focused on actual cost patterns. One bill would simply tie the COLA automatically to measures of medical inflation, which is one of the main drivers in the actual cost of living for elderly and disabled people.
Linking Solvency and Adequacy
A decade ago, the talk was all about how we could cut benefits to keep Social Security “solvent,” from running out of funds. But, in the last few years politicians have begun to understand that solvency and adequacy of benefits are inextricably linked—and that making the program solvent by cutting benefits and thereby impoverishing our elders would be no victory. So, as we tackle long-term solvency and adequacy together, tying benefits to beneficiaries’ actual cost of living is just one piece. There are other ways to improve the adequacy of Social Security benefits that are becoming integral parts of conversations on solvency, and that is as it should be.
Had we been using the CPI-E since its conception nearly 30 years ago, an individual collecting benefits the entire time, perhaps an elderly single person or widow with few other resources, would be receiving about 15 percent more each month. For low or moderate-income retirees, that could mean the difference between just making rent and paying rent while also buying groceries and prescription drugs and while keeping up with utility bills.
Because of their complexity, these issues don’t lend themselves to quick sound bites. But the COLA matters. It’s important to make sure Social Security benefits maintain their value for the people who have earned them through a lifetime of hard work and economic contributions.
Rachel Goldberg, who holds a doctorate in political science, is the B’nai B’rith director of aging policy.
We are sad to say this is Rachel Goldberg’s last column for B’nai B’rith Magazine. She has contributed to the magazine for 13 years as the B’nai B’rith International director of aging policy but is leaving for a wonderful opportunity at AARP. Her must-read columns have offered vital insights into all manner of aging issues. We wish her well. This column will continue. Please watch this space in your spring issue.