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September 10, 2004

Dumbing Down Identity

I was taken by Bethamie Horowitz’s August 27 opinion column (“The Dumbing Down of Communal Identity”).

It has always seemed obvious to me that the one key aspect of Jewish identity has to be its meaning, as assessed individually. If I am Jewish because to me Judaism teaches religious truths about the world that impel me into the world, then I might make certain adjustments, as with the rabbi who watches baseball on the Sabbath. If I hold a view of Judaism that demands full uncompromising fealty to the tradition because I believe that is the path to salvation, then I will hold a different, more insular view. To be critical of one and to approve of the other already betrays the likely view of Judaism of the author.

The largest problem we face, however, is those who hold no view of Judaism, or, perhaps better, hold to a view of Judaism that denies its innate value: It’s not important to them. These unaffiliated individuals are the ones who exercise the minds of many of those obsessed with the decline in Jewish numbers. I certainly agree that we can and should point these folks in a wide variety of directions, even directions with which we do not much agree.

Rabbi Phil Cohen

Hamilton, Ontario

Like the baseball-loving rabbi mentioned by opinion columnist Bethamie Horowitz, a little compatibility with general society shouldn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things.

As a Jew living in Germany, I have often experienced conflicts with friends and relatives from my native Israel, who refuse to see the sense of “when in Rome…” when visiting or living in a foreign country.

I used to work with a religious elderly gentleman from Jerusalem, who had lived for 15 years in Stuttgart. Every Sabbath he went by foot to synagogue, though he was far from healthy. He observed all the Jewish holidays. He was active and deeply respected in the Jewish communities in and outside of Stuttgart, the German city where I now live. He wrote books documenting Jewish cemeteries. Through his work, he performed the sacred mitzvah of saving the names of tens of thousands of Jewish people from oblivion, working right up to the day before his death.

He had a mezuzah on his door — not on the outside, but on the inside. His explanation was that some people might do him mischief because they didn’t know what a mezuzah was, and others because they did. Did that make him a bad Jew? “Yes,” my Israeli relatives cried. “A mezuzah inside the door? He can’t possibly really have been religious.”

It goes without saying that religion should be practiced freely, always and everywhere, provided you don’t harm anyone. But the sad reality is that it’s not such a free world, after all. By not budging from your principles, you might may isolate and just possibly endanger yourself. The world isn’t completely against us, but there are some realities to face.

You aren’t any worse a Jew for not being holier than the Pope — or in this case, the baseball-loving rabbi.

Anat Helman

Stuttgart, Germany

Courageous Dialogue

Thank you for a very insightful article on a subject sadly ignored by the larger media (“Dialogue With Moderate Muslims Urged,” September 3). It takes courage for average Americans to look past hate and rhetoric to reach out, but when they do its just one more reason I am proud to be an American of Arab heritage and the Muslim faith.

Omar Masry

Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Foxman’s Words Ironic

I wonder if Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, appreciates the irony of his condemnation of the FBI for conducting surveillance on a Pentagon analyst and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials based on what he apparently considers slim evidence of wrongdoing (“Groups Rally to Lobby’s Side as FBI Intensifies Israeli Espionage Probe,” September 3).

Foxman was one of the Jewish community’s strongest supporters of government measures that gave the FBI the power to do just that — specifically, the surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and the relaxed Justice Department surveillance guidelines.

Foxman wrote in a June 7, 2002, opinion article in this newspaper that the guidelines were necessary to “recalibrate the balance by giving law enforcement the ability to investigate potential threats to national security without having to meet specific criteria beforehand” (“Just Counter-terrorism”).

Does Foxman believe that those “specific criteria” — also known as evidence — should still hamper law enforcement when it is supporters of Israel, rather than Muslim and Arab Americans, who are suspected of endangering our national security? The intellectual and moral bankruptcy of such a position does not speak well of the Jewish community’s leading civil-rights organization.

Michael Weiner

Los Angeles, Calif.

Ivan’s Fortunate Genes

I was somewhat disappointed that the mother of the flamboyant and charitable banking heir Ivan Wilzig was not mentioned even once in an August 27 article (“Hamptons Host Parties for Peace”). As one who had the pleasure of meeting his mother, Naomi Wilzig, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I can see from whom Ivan inherited his artistic vein, originality and charitable nature, as well as his quest for peace.

Naomi wrote and published “The Suffering Survivor,” a beautiful and deeply moving poem with photographs by Gideon Araten. It was obviously dedicated to her now-late husband, who came out of the Holocaust a

mensch in the fullest sense of the word. She also has an extensive art collection from all over the world.

What a fortunate man Ivan is, to have the genes of such two great and beautiful people.

Hans Cherney

Kensington, Md.

Lauder’s Work in Poland

Having just completed three years of service as the director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Poland, I read with great interest the August 27 article “Letter From Krakow” (“New Generation of Polish Jews Insists on Future in Their Land”).

Many of the young families and individuals we were privileged to work with were among the “blond-haired, blue-eyed” people asking the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” — which is indeed, as the Forward reports, a complicated question in Poland today. It seemed to me, though, that a dimension of the story was missing: the 15 years and untold resources that Ronald Lauder has invested in the future of Polish Jews.

Poland boasts two Lauder schools, one in Warsaw and the other in Wroclaw, that are trying to provide a future for the new generation of Polish Jews. Most of the families who send their kids to these schools are those with Jewish ancestry that has only recently come to light.

As the question of lineage is such a thorny one, the Lauder Foundation has maintained and staffed a genealogy institute for more than a decade at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, which has reunited families and helped hundreds reclaim their Jewish background. The Lauder office in Krakow has just published the first Hebrew-Polish Siddur in a century — the old one, which we used in Xerox copy form, contained a “Mi Shebeirach” prayer for the welfare of the czar and his family — and has published a number of essential Judaic texts in Polish with extensive commentary during the past five years. And our summer and winter camps serve hundreds of teens, families and their extended families, giving them a forum to discuss what their future as Jews might look like, and giving them some additional tools to make that future a reality.

Rabbi Joseph Kanofsky

Toronto, Ontario

Helping Struggling Kids

I want to applaud the Forward for spotlighting Matan and the wonderful work they do (“Program Offers a Gift to Struggling Kids,” August 13). The work Matan does is extraordinary, and as a member of their board and someone who might have benefited from there services earlier in my life, I applaud and support the ambition of Matan to go national.

I do, however, take acceptation to the Forward’s implication that Matan is the only game in town, or that there is no organization advocating for Jewish special education on a national level. In 1983, the Yachad division of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities began running social and educational programs for Jewish children with developmental and leaning disabilities. Today, there are more than 35 Yachad chapters in Jewish communities across the United States and Canada, from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, N.Y., to Omaha, Neb..

In addition, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities continues to advocate for individuals with disabilities in state capitols around the country and in Washington. The council was at the forefront of the recent fight to reauthorize and expand landmark national special-education legislation.

While nothing should take away from the great job that Matan is doing, the work of others in the field should not be ignored.

Jason Lieberman

Director, Government and Community Relations

The National Jewish Council for Disabilities

New York, N.Y.

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