September 21st, 2016

The Sharps: American Righteous Among the Nations

New documentary by Ken Burns tells the story of a minister and his wife who save Jewish lives in the Shoah


(JTA) — In 1940, as he was being transported to safety in the lower deck of a ship, the Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger asked Waitstill Sharp why the American Unitarian minister had bothered to rescue him from the Nazis.

Sharp and his wife, Martha, had spent much of the previous two years smuggling Jews out of Nazi-controlled territory. Saving people from persecution, the clergyman told Feuchtwanger, was what any able person should do.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp departing New York Harbor for Prague in 1939. (Photo courtesy of Sharp Family Archives).

Martha and Waitstill Sharp departing New York Harbor for Prague in 1939. (Photo: Courtesy of Sharp Family Archives).

“I think something frightful, in addition to what has befallen Europe, is going to befall now,” Sharp later recalled saying. “I’m not a saint. I’m just as capable of the sins of human nature as anyone else. But I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit.”

It’s an intimate moment in Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, a documentary co-directed by the renowned filmmaker Ken Burns that takes a highly personal look at the American Christian couple who left a quiet life in New England, traveled to Nazi-occupied Europe and smuggled hundreds of Jews to safety.

The movie, which relies on written recollections of the Sharps (Waitstill is voiced by Tom Hanks), archival footage, and interviews with survivors and historians, premiered Sept. 20 on PBS. It will also be screened for press at the White House next week, followed by a panel discussion on the current refugee crisis.

Defying the Nazis is a change of pace for Burns, a director best known for sweeping documentaries on broad topics — see: Civil War, Jazz or Baseball. But when confronting the Holocaust’s enormity, Burns said the best approach was to focus on narrow, resonant stories like that of the Sharps rather than statistics that can mask the pain of mass atrocity.

“The number six million has become rather opaque,” Burns told JTA by phone from his office in New Hampshire. “We just say it, and it lacks dimension and specificity. Here you have a story of two people who saved a few hundred people on the edges of that Holocaust.”

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September 21st, 2016

A call for change at the Twin Cities Jewish Federations

We call for a task force from a demographically diverse cross-section of Jewish citizens from across the Twin Cities to come together and explore fresh opportunities

To the leadership of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Federations:

Inspired by the words of the renowned sage and scholar Hillel, who said, “If not now, when?” (Mishnah Avot 1:14), we, the undersigned members of the Twin Cities Jewish community, ask leadership of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Jewish Federations, for the good of the whole community, to defer their respective search processes for a new, permanent CEO for the necessary time it takes to seriously and fully consider new possibilities in a changed landscape.

This is a pivotal moment in our Twin Cities’ Jewish history. With both Federations’ CEO positions open, we have a unique opportunity, and obligation, to take a renewed look beyond our ever more porous city borders and develop new solutions to strengthen Twin Cities Jewish life as well as Jewish life overseas.

Building on the soon-to-be-published research and recommendations of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Cooperation Panel (an outcome of the St. Paul Community Planning Process listening sessions), we call for a task force from a demographically diverse cross-section of Jewish citizens (Federation donors and non-donors) from across the Twin Cities to come together and explore fresh opportunities.

While we cannot predict the conclusions of a task force ahead of time, we do know:

  • All Jews are responsible for one another. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh. (Talmud Shavuot 39A); this is the rallying cry of both federations to give generously to help Jews here and abroad. In today’s Twin Cities, Jews reside in St. Paul and work in Bloomington. They live in Minneapolis and daven in Mendota Heights. The current boundaries of Federated participation and giving seem fluid and artificial in this day and age. We should be focused on strengthening our Jewish community as a whole.
  • We have the potential to build an even more welcoming, cohesive and appealing Jewish community for prospective residents, and one that will retain more of our young people, for college and after graduation.
  • We want to explore more fully how a bi-city effort could open the door for new donors to feel they are contributing to an innovative organization built for the future, while continuing to support the vital programs and services of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
  • We want local Jews to consider a possible new umbrella structure for Federation activities that supports all Twin Cities Jews, and respects and highlights the cultural differences and strengths of greater Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  • Depending on the results of this task force, the CEO search process could look different than it does today; hence the prudence of postponing the permanent CEO search.

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September 21st, 2016

Editorial: Simcha in London

There is one more Bat Mitzva notice for this edition of the newspaper:

Ariel Specktor, daughter of Jonathan Specktor and Alessia Kosagowsky and sister of Oliver, was called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzva on Saturday, Sept. 10 at Maidenhead Synagogue, in Maidenhead, United Kingdom. Ariel is the granddaughter of Franca Kosagowsky, of Rome, Italy, and the late Nicola Kosagowsky, and the late Anna and Harold Specktor.

Proud uncle, me, and proud aunt, Maj-Britt Syse, traveled from Minneapolis for the family simcha. Also on hand were Ariel’s aunt, Stacy Finkelstein, from Plymouth, and her great-aunt, Lorrie Stelzer, from Los Angeles, an intrepid traveler.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Ariel was an exemplary Bat Mitzva. (I really enjoy listening to her speak, with a mellifluous British accent.) She read from the Torah parsha Shoftim, which contains, among other things, a sort of environmental message in the commandment against destroying fruit trees in warfare: “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.”

(I’ve often wondered how the Jewish settlers in the wild West Bank can square their destruction of Palestinian olive trees with their ostensible observance of the mitzvot, especially this commandment.)

During Saturday morning services, the environmental message was expanded upon by the Reform shul’s rabbi, Jonathan Romain, who is widely known for his writing in British newspapers (The Times, Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle), and as the author of many books. In 2004, Romain received the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), for his pioneering work in helping mixed-faith couples, a theme in his book Till Faith Us Do Part, according to his bio on the synagogue’s website.

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September 21st, 2016

As Israel and the U.S. drift apart

Our Separate Ways: The struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israeli Alliance, by Dana Allin and Steven Simon, PublicAffairs, 284 pages, $26.99.

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Demographic and political changes are pushing Israel and the United States apart, say Dana Allin and Steven Simon, and they suggest dramatic, perhaps impossible action to try to reverse the trend.

The authors “worry that many Americans and Israelis are in denial about those changes,” and that estrangement from Israel “would poison American discourse far into the future.”


Bad blood between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government “is a symptom, not the cause of serious underlying problems,” they say, and the U.S.-Israeli alliance is “at risk of being fundamentally transformed by long-term trends in both countries that will be impossible to stop and difficult to manage.”

The authors say “Israel is moving right while America moves gently but perceptively left,” calling Israel’s transformation partly demographic and partly “the grimly logical response to its tragic predicament and formation over a century of war.”

America’s leftward movement doesn’t necessarily mean hostility to Israel, but it could create expectations “that Israel could be unwilling, or even unable, to meet.”

Allin and Simon contrast young Israelis’ growing interest in religion – and religious nationalism — and young Americans’ increasing disinterest in religion. That includes young Jews, whose low affiliation and high intermarriage rates further distance them from Jewish focus and diminish Jewish political clout.

The authors quote Hillary Clinton, writing that American boomers’ children don’t “remember our shared past … didn’t see Israel in a fight for survival again and again,” and that young Israelis “didn’t see the United States broker peace at Camp David or … stand behind Israel when it was attacked.”

Also negative are a growing change in American’s image of Israel from “courageous and humane warrior kibbutzniks … to religious settlers of occupied territory,” and increased U.S. political polarization, with Israel’s strongest support moving to the Republican Party, a worrisome diminution of historical bipartisan support.

Neither sensationalist nor outrageous, Our Separate Ways likely won’t get the high readership its excellence deserves. Clear but tightly packed, it provides serious, attention-holding analysis of the moral and emotional link between the two nations and why this link is fraying.

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September 21st, 2016

Mark Wilf thinks big with new stadium and philanthropy

Vikings co-owner has helped raise $30 million since early 2015 to benefit the National Holocaust Survivors Initiative


MINNEAPOLIS (JTA) — Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer stepped up to an 800-pound gjallarhorn and exhaled with all he had to launch the festivities  that officially inaugurated the team’s $1.1 billion stadium.

Music lovers would have found the deep, uneven sound revolting, but the Nordic instrument is plenty melodic in inspiring Vikings’ partisans.

The team’s owner, Mark Wilf, 54, offered a Jewish take on the gigantic horn.

Mark Wilf, a co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings, at the team’s gigantic Nordic horn in its new $1.1 billion stadium. (Photo by Hillel Kuttler).

Mark Wilf, a co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings, at the team’s gigantic Nordic horn in its new $1.1 billion stadium. (Photo: Hillel Kuttler).

“When we first bought the team, a rabbi in St. Paul said, ‘You realize that the horns on the helmet are shofars.’ I kind of chuckle about that sometimes,” Wilf, sitting 50 feet from the newly installed horn, said in an interview with JTA 24 hours before the stadium’s dedication last month.

“It’s something the fans bond around: The Vikings are coming! There’s something — I don’t want to say sacred, but really special — about a football game-day experience.”

Wilf would know. He and his brother Zygi, 66, along with several other relatives, bought the National Football League franchise in 2005 and attend all the games, home and away. The brothers fly in from New Jersey, where they run the family’s real estate business.

And as kids, they attended New York Giants’ games with their father, Joseph, a Holocaust survivor from Poland — as is their mother, Elizabeth, who is in her late 80s. Less than two weeks after the stadium’s dedication, Joseph Wilf, a founder of one of the country’s largest real estate development companies and a major philanthropist, died at 91.

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September 12th, 2016

Worst good idea ever

Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, by Masha Gessen, Nextbook/Schocken, 170 pages, $26.

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Birobidzhan, the USSR’s failed “Jewish Autonomous Region,” once shone brightly enough to attract funds from American Jewish charities.

But while its Yiddish-culture enthusiasts exulted over the idea of the first Jewish homeland since the exile, Birobidzhan was doubly cursed: badly placed and in a nation ruled by an anti-Semitic, increasingly paranoid tyrant.


Initially, “it had seemed, to some, as logical a solution to the Jewish question as the United States or Canada,” says Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen in her fascinating Where the Jews Aren’t. Birobidzhan “was perhaps the worst good idea ever,” despite its rational premise.

In the Bolshevik state, “the Russian empire would be reconstituted as a federation of national autonomies,” including one for the Jews, she says. But the Jews’ 14,800 square miles were north of Manchuria — 950 miles from Tokyo, but 3,750 miles from Moscow, and even farther from the czarist Pale of Settlement where most Russian Jews lived in towns and cities.

Those who went to Birobidzhan, and “the dissolution of their dream, in its cruel absurdity, can be read as the quintessence of the story of the Jews in Russia,” Gessen says.

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