November 26, 2010

Abandoning the Ezra Vision

I was pleased to read your article about Project Ezra and Misha Avramoff, my friend and colleague at Project Ezra for almost 30 years (Old-School Jewish Activist Faces the Future as Project Ezra Prepares for Merger, November 12 issue).

The article, however, missed the central part of the story. It did not consider what made Project Ezra unique at its inception — what created its ethos and vitality. It was indeed unique: a participatory democracy in which all staff served as co-directors, earned the same salary, raised the budget, and served on the board. Project Ezra, from its inception, chose to focus on a small, vulnerable, elderly Jewish population on the Lower East Side.

Years ago, Martin Buber referred to the kibbutz movement as “an experiment that did not fail.” The same can be said of Project Ezra; we were an experiment in growing an inclusive and cooperative community in which tzedakah was lived every day. And we did not fail.

It saddens me to have to say goodbye to the Project Ezra community, where I loved to live and work. It saddens me greatly to read that the current board of directors feels that it was in Ezra’s interest to merge at this point, inaccurately citing finances as their reason for seeking a merger with Selfhelp Community Services. With more than a million dollars in the bank, two years of its budget fully funded, and an infrastructure that has withstood past challenges, we could surely withstand future challenges. In fact, Project Ezra is remarkably strong, and its finances are not the reason for the changes that the Board has initiated. The real reason for the change is that dreams end and the board has chosen to say goodbye to the vision we once shared: of community, commitment and tzedakah. The merger is an abandonment of that vision.

Jewish College Students Need Protection

I’m sure the Jewish students at University of California at Davis — where in recent years there have been a rash of swastikas, a vandalized sukkah, and nasty anti-Israel events that included anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery — would be astonished to learn that David Biale, the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at UCD, thinks Jewish students don’t deserve the same basic protections and civil rights as other ethnic minorities, because “the Jews are a group with power” (according to Federal Civil Rights Policy Expanded To Protect Jewish College Students, in the November 12 issue).

Few Jewish students on the UCD campus would recognize such a description of them. In fact, if they were asked for their own opinion of the newly proposed Title VI provisions, it’s virtually certain that the overwhelming majority of Jewish students would embrace them.

Those students who have knowledge of the Holocaust would find it painfully ironic that Biale’s professorship is named after Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish Jew with a doctorate in history, who spent the years prior to his murder by the Nazis documenting how a once-thriving Jewish community was slaughtered by the Nazis, and who desperately tried to help and protect his fellow Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. The situation of our students does not resemble that of the Polish Jews whose stories Ringelblum recorded, but, then, we don’t want it to ever become even remotely like that situation.

As a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz, I have been deeply concerned about the growing threat to Jewish students at the University of California and involved in efforts to combat the problem. Under the auspices of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, this summer I co-convened a two-week scholarly workshop on contemporary anti-Semitism in higher education. The workshop participants recently issued a statement detailing the scope of anti-Semitism on college campuses across North America and offering recommendations for addressing the problem, including by ensuring that Jewish students are fully protected under federal anti-discrimination law. The statement can be viewed here.

Affording Jewish students normal civil rights protections through Title VI legislation is a wholly good development and should not be disparaged.

Get to Know Us

Your front-page story on the recent staffing changes at the Anti-Defamation League got it wrong on so many levels that our agency’s work seemed barely recognizable (As Some Retire From ADL, Will Abe Be Next?, November 5).

As just one example, while we proudly advocate for Israel, we devote significantly more resources to fighting anti-Semitism, monitoring extremists, working with law enforcement agencies, defending religious freedom, and teaching primary and secondary students to appreciate our diverse society. And, as we learned of a new security threat against Jewish communal institutions from foreign terrorists, ADL was on the front lines working in communities across the country to provide access to security experts and resources.

While one can disagree with ADL on the issues, our mission remains valid and we continue to provide a vital service to the Jewish community and to society.

Rally to Restore Sanity, Part II

The eye-opening Forward piece, All Conversions Now Under Review in Israel as Crisis Escalates, in the November 3 issue, leaves me bewildered that Israel’s great majority of rational-minded Jews are being fairly silent on this issue.

Is there any public outrage?

It would be thrilling to see Israelis demanding an end to the religious monopoly of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) over all other Jewish denominations. If there is an Israeli equivalent to Jon Stewart, who can organize a massive rally in Tel Aviv to demand sanity against these mullahs, please don’t be shy. Israel needs you!

Otherwise, I’ll continue to shudder in amazement if my own Jewishness requires a medieval Jewish seal of approval if I chose to move there.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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November 26, 2010

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