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Meet the Jazz-Playing, Erotica-Writing Rabbi Who Planned a Synagogue Trip to Arafat’s Grave

A Conservative rabbi in Austin, Texas, has become the flashpoint of a controvery over a proposed congregational trip to Israel that would have included a visit to the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

It all started when Rabbi Neil Blumofe, 45, sent out a tentative itinerary for a planned 15-day trip to Israel in 2017 for members of Congregation Agudas Achim. The trip is organized by Mejdi Tours, a company that uses both Israeli and Palestinian guides on their tours to create a “dual narrative approach.” Proposed in the draft: a 20-minute visit to the West Bank to see Arafat’s tomb.

When Richard Brook, 56, a long-time congregant, saw the itinerary, he was shocked. “To me, it’s no different than were you to travel to Germany to pay your respects at Adolf Hitler’s tomb, if one existed,” he wrote in a letter to his rabbi.

The outraged Brook then started an online campaign calling for the resignation of Blumofe and alleging that the rabbi was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. His appeal got picked up by right-wing blogs, and was widely shared on Facebook, including by a Tea Party politician who supports Donald Trump. Public letters called Blumofe a supporter of terrorism and anti-Semitism.

So far, the only real consequence of the ongoing controversy was the rescheduling of the trip – minus the visit to the gravesite. The congregation itself says it stands behind their rabbi, who sees himself as the victim of slander. The whole incident was “spun with a treacherous, defaming narrative,” Blumofe told the Forward.

Here’s seven facts about the rabbi who went a bit viral.

  • Blumofe is a classically-trained pianist and jazz composer. He hosts a weekly radio show highlighting great jazz artists for the NPR affiliate KUT and regularly participates in their “Views and Brews”-festival.

  • Blumofe’s jazz recordings are available on iTunes. Before becoming Agudas Achim’s rabbi, Blumofe was the congregation’s cantor.

  • The rabbi teaches both Jewish Studies and Jazz Studies at St. Edwards University.

  • He also writes his own blog and has published several stories on Jewrotica, an online community that describes itself both as a “hub for Jewish sexual expression” as well as a sex-ed resource for the Jewish community.

  • Jay Rubin, the CEO of the local Jewish federation described Blumofe as “a healer and community builder deeply connected personally, professionally and politically to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” in the Jewish Week.

  • Blumofe has been heavily involved in interfaith activities. He had planned to invite Israel-critical Christian clergy to the now controversial trip. His hope was that “new relationships could be fostered and fresh paths made,” he told the Times of Israel.

  • The rabbi travels to Israel with members of his community every two years. Each year has a different theme: “2013 was an investigation of the Holy Cities (Safed, Hebron, Jerusalem); 2015 included a tour of Israel’s borders — including an important visit touring the work JNF has done in Sederot,” Blumofe told the Forward. This summer’s trip was meant to explore Israel in the context of the larger region.

Lilly Maier is a news intern at the Forward. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @lillymmaier.

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