Rabbi: ‘Divine Intervention’ Played a Role

Front Seat: Reporter Helen Thomas (center) questions President Obama during a press conference on May 27.
Getty Images
Front Seat: Reporter Helen Thomas (center) questions President Obama during a press conference on May 27.

By Laurie Stern and Alex Weisler

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

An e-mail inbox flooded with hate mail and death threats might force some people to consider a career change, but Rabbi David Nesenoff sees it as an opportunity.

Nesenoff, of Stony Brook, N.Y., was caught in a media whirlwind after capturing on video longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas telling Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and go “home” to Poland and Germany. Thomas, 89, abruptly retired as a columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain shortly after the comments were made public on YouTube and on Nesenoff’s website, rabbiLIVE.com.

Now, given a media spotlight — however brief — that he attributes to divine intervention, Nesenoff is on a mission to fight those who view Israel as something separate from Jewish identity.

“This concept… that there’s no connection between Israel and the children of Israel… now they’re coming out openly and saying it,” Nesenoff told the Forward in a June 11 interview. “It goes beyond anti-Semitic. It is anti-God, because anybody that believes in God, no matter which philosophy… believes in books and liturgy and literature that contain Jews as the children of Israel. That’s why this thing has blown up so big, because [Thomas] and the people that support her have broken into the very rock and the foundation of all religion and all philosophy.”

Nesenoff is nothing if not voluble. Educated at Yeshiva University as an undergraduate before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary, Nesenoff was the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Smithtown on Long Island until just two months ago.

Nesenoff said the Conservative synagogue he led has been in dire fiscal straits for the past year. He had accepted a half-salary deal but left the Smithtown congregation on May 1 after being told that Beth Sholom would be unable to pay even that.

“We can argue over whether it was mismanagement or the economic times,” he said. “That’s a separate story. We had to part ways.”

Shafer Zysman, the synagogue’s executive vice president, said that Beth Sholom was unwilling to comment on the circumstances of Nesenoff’s departure but that the congregation’s finances were in order.

“We generally do not discuss internal synagogue policy and issues,” said Zysman, who will become the synagogue’s president in two weeks. “The synagogue is looking bright. The congregation is very focused, determined and it looks like we’re going to be in a very good light, so you can read between the lines however you’d like,” he said.

Nesenoff said his “congregation” is now the world or anyone who will listen.

Married and a father of two, Nesenoff describes himself as “creative.” Besides his website, he has pursued filmmaking and composing Jewish music.

Nesenoff’s creativity was what prompted the interview with Thomas. He was on the grounds to create “Israel Breathes,” a compilation of filmed interviews in which Nesenoff asked attendees of the May 27 Jewish Heritage Month celebration to share their thoughts on Israel. He approached Thomas after he spotted her on the White House lawn.

Nesenoff maintained that it was simply his presence at a Jewish heritage event, not his interview with Thomas, that provoked thousands of people to e-mail him. His 17-year-old son, Adam Nesenoff, and his friend Daniel Landau, who were at the White House with him, have been sifting through the e-mails and press requests as they come in.

Despite the influx of anti-Semitic e-mails — full of comments like “The Holocaust never happened” and “Death to Israel” — Nesenoff said there has also been an outpouring of love from people who support him. He said he even received an apology letter from one man who had originally sent him hate mail.

“Hashem has his hand in everything,” Nesenoff said. “We received an e-mail of teshuvah [repentance] and [the author] wrote what I consider to be a sincere apology. We took his hate mail down [from the website].”

Still, Nesenoff said the experience has made him more aware of an anti-Semitic voice in the United States. “I don’t know if it’s mainstream, but I know there’s a stream,” he said.

Once the story of Thomas’s comments broke, Nesenoff came under scrutiny for appearing in a video depicting a man of Mexican descent pretending to give a weather forecast while a bearded rabbi in a black hat and coat stands nearby.

The four-and-a-half-minute video, titled “Holy Weather,” features Nesenoff dressed as “Father Julio Ramirez,” an outsize caricature of a Mexican priest. The rabbi makes statements that fuel stereotypes, painting Mexican laborers as dishwashers. He speaks in an exaggerated rasp of a Mexican accent, saying, among other things: “The last time I saw a map like that I was in an immigration office with three gringos down on the Mexican border, you know, right near New Mexico.” Fractured Spanish pops up from time to time, as when Nesenoff says the rabbi’s tendency to get better assignments is “no mucho bueno picnic.”

Though some critics used the skit as ammunition to portray him as a hypocrite and a racist, Nesenoff said he was dressed up because it was Purim.

“I really believe God has a sense of humor,” he said. “No one knows it’s Purim, because these people don’t know what Purim is. It first upset me, but I will tell you that Hashem did this so I can get a little more airtime to talk about Israel. Who knew that that would be something that would divert attention from the anti-Semites?”

Contact Laurie Stern at stern@forward.com and Alex Weisler at weisler@forward.com






Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.