The sanctuary of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue was packed for the March 18 celebration of Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s 50th anniversary as the leader of the congregation. Israel’s consul general, Ido Aharoni, a congregant, quipped, “I was born when you were installed.” He went on to praise the rabbi as “integral to the Jewish life of the city… a builder of bridges. He is a compass for spiritual solidarity and ethnic conflict resolution.” Dubbing Schneier “a legendary New Yorker,” New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli described him as “a rabbi of the human family. I don’t pay dues, but I count myself a member of your congregation.” New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver noted Schneier’s “wisdom, leadership and reaching out to the community.” Former New York City mayor Ed Koch recalled: “I, too, believe in the power of God and you and me. When I was in the hospital and Arthur came to see me, he told me, ‘Say after me: Heal me and I shall be healed.’ [John] Cardinal O’Connor came half an hour later and said to me, ‘If you like, I’ll pray with you in Hebrew.’” Koch chuckled and said, “I told him, ‘It’s already been taken care of, [but] can you do it in Latin?’”
“So the pope was here,” said Rabbi Schneier’s daughter Karen Dresbach, a reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Park East Synagogue in 2008. “You’ve met with kings and queens and changed the world history and hung out with singer/musician Bono [at the synagogue in 2010]…. You made me farina for breakfast, and are the father who crawled on the floor with his grandchildren…. You are my life compass, my own personal GPS.”
A teary-eyed Schneier responded to the accolades with: “God bless America! I want to thank this blessed land of ours.” He then asked all Holocaust survivors to stand up. “What motivates my life is to help God transform this imperfect world,” he said, ending his address by citing the wish his mother had for him when he was a young man: “You must become president of America!”
Video-recorded congratulations came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former president Bill Clinton and former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Guests included Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis; Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and public relations legend Howard Rubenstein and his wife, Amy Rubenstein. Schneier family members present included wife Elisabeth Schneier and son Marc Schneier, rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue.
Ami Nahshon, international president and CEO of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, greeted the audience at the March 15 “Two Voices, One Vision: Noa and Mira in Concert for Coexistence” concert, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, and declared: “This is the largest Abraham Fund Initiative event ever. I offer a special welcome to ambassadors and senior members of U.N. delegations who represent 12 countries in Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East and Australia. We chose the name ‘Two Voices, One Vision’ to reflect our vision for Israel: an Israel that learns to weave together the very different histories, narratives and cultures of both its Jewish majority and its native-born Palestinian Arab minority.”
The concert starred Israel’s pop singers Noa (Achinoam Nini), an Israeli of Yemenite background, and Mira Awad, a Palestinian Arab citizen of Israel. Stars of Israeli television, they appeared together at Moscow’s 2009 Eurovision Song Contest. Awad, a superb vocalist who also performed on flute and guitar, told the audience about the “frustration of opening doors between Jews and Palestinians.” In Arabic she sang about an acrobat who has no safety net. She also performed a lament about wearing a burka. Equally amazing on drums, Noa, an international concert and recording artist, blew the audience away with her rendition of “I Don’t Know!” She was assisted by Gadi Seri, music director and percussionist extraordinaire; guitarists Gil Dor and Shay Alon, and Gil Zohar on piano, bass and flute. The audience clamored for more.
Noa sang during the 1995 peace rally in Tel Aviv, where, moments later, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. She was also the first Israeli artist ever to perform at the Vatican, where she sang for Pope John Paul II in 1994
“If you follow [Israel] on CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera… the word on the street is, it’s a little tense,” artist Kehinde Wiley told the multigenerational, multiethnic audience that packed the ballroom of New York’s Jewish Museum on March 15. The crowd had gathered for a conversation about Wiley’s “The World Stage: Israel,” Wiley’s portraiture exhibit currently on display at the museum. Wearing a white suit with large white polka dots on a black background, Wiley sat on a chair in front of a huge slide projection of his canvas “Solomon Mashash.” Pop culture authority and a “Today” contributor Lola Ogunnaike interviewed him. Wiley mused: “And I was kind of prepared for that level…. I had this dream about going to Israel. I wanted the specifics and I did not have them. Actually, let’s not be entirely disloyal to the experience. There were people bomb-checking cars, but there were also moments of absolute release.”
Wiley explained: “Before I got on the ground, I did research about Judaica…. I love the decorative feel…. What is interesting is that I got a lot of discos and club owners to give me access, allowing me to set up my camera. A lot of my work is made from photos. And then I go back to my studio and paint from that. My paintings will never give you Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. They will give you what it felt like to me to be in that room at that point of time…. To experience what it feels like to be on the streets of Tel Aviv in the 21st century…. To see myriad bodies, colors, hues and ethnicities in one room…. Israel is more like a gray hue than a black/white issue. It was more about an immigrant Gan Eden [Garden of Eden].” Wiley said, “In order to explain why I do all this, all this work is self-portraiture. I started out painting people who look like me.”
After the talk, Wiley was besieged by fans — some in hip-hop garb — as he autographed books and skateboards (on sale at the museum’s gift shop) that replicated images of two of his subjects — Alios Itzhak and Mahmud Abu Razak.