October 22, 2004
Outreach to Emigrés
I read with great interest the first installment of the Forward’s series on Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (“After 25 Years, Soviet Emigrés Still Strangers,” October 15). I look forward to reading the final two articles in this series.
I hope that they strike a more balanced picture of the situation of Jewish émigrés in the United States. Certainly as relative newcomers to a new country, Jewish émigrés face many of the same struggles that other groups do, such as learning a new language, identifying with their new communities, finding new jobs and job skills, and making better lives for their children.
It is simply not true, however, to state that only one national Jewish agency has a high-level staffer reaching out to the Russian-speaking Jewish community. Here at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, we have a senior director of Russian outreach and communication who reports directly to me, and who supervises five others. Moreover, we have regional directors specifically working with Russian-speaking organizations throughout the country.
Through our local Russian émigré organizations program, known as Loreo, HIAS has become a major partner of Russian-speaking Jews, helping them promote their social and political goals. Through Loreo, which was created in 2001, we prepare material, participate and support national events, help in leadership development and have created an informational clearinghouse for grass-roots organizations and for the community at large. More than 60 grass-roots Russian-speaking émigré organizations have been formed in the United States in the last 10 years, and we now have partnerships with more than 30 major émigré organizations in cities throughout the United States.
In 2002, Loreo was awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to help represent a unified voice for the Russian-speaking population. Through the Loreo network, Russian-speaking refugees obtain the information and skills they need to achieve social and civic integration into their new country and their new communities. The initiative includes project coordinators in New York and three regions across America, a special Loreo Web site to help link communities via the Internet, a newsletter for member organizations, and a “how-to” civic engagement and ethnic leadership manual to help members maximize their efforts.
Additionally, we are the only Jewish organization with our own national Russian-language television program. In 2003 we produced 52 episodes of our own weekly, 30-minute call-in radio show, “HIAS Answers.” The show features in-depth discussions on legislation, acculturation and other subjects of interest to the émigré community. We also continue to produce and host two biweekly Russian-language television shows, broadcast via satellite and cable to 40 cities across the country and reaching hundreds of thousands of households.
Russian Jewry, just as other foreign-born Jews who now live in the United States, are a significant segment of the American Jewish population. They are an important part of our future strength as a Jewish community. As we celebrate our 350th anniversary in America, it is important to bear in mind that just as native- born Jews have found their ways to express their Jewishness individually over time, so, too, will the hundreds of thousands of Jewish newcomers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Collectively, we are all committed to the mitzvah of all Jews are responsible for each other.
President and CEO
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
New York, N.Y.
Value of Real Service
I was surprised to learn from opinion writer Ruth Messinger that in America, the “system is irretrievably broken and cannot realistically continue to function as it is” (“In Time of War, A Call To Serve Civil Society and Country,” October 15).
If Messinger is referring to our all-volunteer armed services, I believe she is absolutely mistaken. Since 2001, the active duty branches of our armed forces have met their recruiting goals. The Army National Guard has not met goals, but for reasons having nothing to do with the system being broken.
The primary source of National Guard recruits is the group of individuals who leave active duty. Because we are at war, there are fewer people leaving active duty than there were prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Second, the main attraction of serving in the National Guard, namely, its part-time nature, is no longer present,because of extensive utilization of National Guard units in the war on terrorism — which is how it should be. Guardsmen and reservists are trained and paid for that purpose. I should know, as a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Regarding the value of the volunteer programs that Messinger supports, I have doubts. I do not agree that the federal government needs additional programs for volunteer service. It would be far better to have private organizations continue to run the types of programs she wants the federal government to establish. The federal government’s proper duty is our common defense, not paying local volunteers to solve local problems.
We should be strengthening our existing programs, especially our ROTC and its affiliated programs. It is time that universities such as Harvard stop resisting re-establishment of ROTC on campus and resume support for its students’ professional development and leadership skills.
If Messinger wants to see a truly dramatic effect, she would do well to speak with some of our Jewish cadets and midshipmen attending West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. Rather than a one-week commitment, they have undertaken a most-difficult four-year course of study, not to mention five years of active duty. These young men and women, and their fellow students in ROTC programs nationwide, are truly the best and brightest our community has to offer our country.
Revisit Jesus’ ‘Claim’
I take issue with arts writer Bernard Avishai’s statement that the crucial question of “The Passion” is the probity of a community that questions “one man’s claim to divinity” (“Mel Gibson and the Demise of Enlightened Skepticism,” October 8).
Jesus, as a monotheistic Jew, made no claim to divinity. At most he may have thought himself an adopted son of his Father in heaven, perhaps through a transformative experience of the Spirit during his baptism. Some of his earliest Jewish followers, such as the Ebionites, emphasized God’s oneness, Jesus’ role as a human — not divine — prophet and the potential adoptionism of everyone via indwelling of the Spirit.
Jesus’ divinity is a creation of Hellenistic church councils. It is not part of the original Jewish proclamation about “the Son of David.” Therefore, if rejection of Jesus’ divinity is the crux issue surrounding his “Passion,” this issue involves not Jesus’ claim about himself, but rather the Hellenized Church’s claims about him.
The issue is not “one man’s claim to divinity,” but rather one religious organization’s claim that its founder was divine.
I agree with Bernard Avishai that “a community’s refusal to accept any man’s claim to divinity is to its credit” — provided the refusal is based upon the democratic ideals he espouses, which include free inquiry without violent suppression.
Avishai seems to have an aversion to the objective existence of truth. He expects Jews and Americans to take offense to “Passion” director Mel Gibson’s statement: “It is true, as the Bible says, He came unto His own and His own received Him not.”
I’m at a loss as to which part of the statement is offensive. “It is true” — does not the Jewish community reject Jesus’ claims to divinity? “As the Bible says” — is it not written by John, a Jewish follower of Jesus, in his gospel (John 1:11)? Is the offense with objective, historical truth, or is it with a person who dares to state it? How does this further enlightenment?
Certainly many atrocities have been committed in the name of Christ. Avishai believes they “would have made the Jesus of the Gospels think twice about the example he was inadvertently setting.” What example? Was Jesus condoning violence by suffering a violent death with understanding and forgiveness toward the perpetrators?
Danger of Divestment
The willingness of religious groups to join the divestment and boycott campaign against Israel has serious legal implications (“Jewish Groups Scramble To Head Off Divestment Push,” October 1). More than a year ago, the Zionist Organization of America began raising the issue of the growing divestment and boycott campaign against Israel with the U.S. Department of Commerce as a potential violation of the federal anti-boycott laws. The department has not responded.
We applaud the 13 members of Congress, led by Reps. Jim Saxton and Rob Andrews, for demanding action, and expect that the Department of Commerce will either enforce the anti-boycott laws as mandated or explain why — despite the plain language of the laws — they do not apply.
There is no question that the Arab League boycott is alive and well, and that this foreign boycott is not authorized by our government. Part of the strategy of the divestment and boycott campaign is to furnish information about companies that do business in or with Israel, and to advocate that these companies be boycotted. This conduct supports the Arab boycott, it falls squarely within the prohibitions set forth in the federal anti-boycott laws, and thus it should be stopped.
Director, Center for Law & Justice
Zionist Organization of America
New York, N.Y.