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A Scandalous Theory of Defense and Herschel Grynszpan

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistance and restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the pages of history. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

At the age of 17, as a refugee from Nazi Germany living illegally in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan saw the world in 1938 as a dire and dangerous place, a perception that he shared with all of his fellow Jews. Unlike them, however, he was capable of imagining the atrocities that the Germans would be willing to carry out in the next few years, and he resolved to call attention to the plight of the Jews by assassinating a Nazi diplomat. That’s the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright).

“I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest,” he wrote to his parents in a confessional postcard that he was unable to mail before his arrest, “and this I intend to do.”

Herschel is not the only young Jew who showed more vision and more courage than his elders in those terrible times. After all, it was the youthful activists of the Bund and the Zionist movement, both left and right, who banded together in the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw and elsewhere while some older and supposedly wiser members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans in drafting the deportation lists. (To be sure, young people can be impulsive and even reckless — we have seen yet more evidence of this fact in recent headlines — but we should not deny that sometimes a hotheaded boy can be right.)

Yet it is the young ghetto fighters who are remembered, honored and celebrated, while Herschel Grynszpan is almost wholly ignored.

More than one reason can be cited to explain why Grynszpan has been derogated, diminished and sometimes entirely left out of the history of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. In my book, I explore all of the rumor and speculation that has attached itself to the Grynszpan case, including a catalogue of conspiracy theories, some focusing on the Jews and some on the Nazis, which have been offered to explain his exploits. (Hannah Arendt embraced one of the more bizarre theories in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) One reason, however, stands out.

At a crucial moment in the Grynszpan case, when the boy was awaiting his murder trial in Paris, Herschel’s attorney made a remarkable proposal to his client. The French were fearful of war with Germany, he pointed out, and no jury would dare to acquit him of the crime if they believed that he had murdered a Nazi diplomat as a gesture of protest against the Third Reich. But what if his motive was something more intimate? What if the Nazi diplomat whom he killed was a sexual predator who had seduced and then abandoned him? If so, the attorney suggested, the jury might be persuaded to regard the whole affair as case as a crime passionelle rather than a political assassination.

Grynszpan rejected the scandalous theory of defense and insisted on justifying his crime as a legitimate act of protest against Nazi mistreatment of the Jewish people. The idea was abandoned by his attorney, who dismissed Herschel as “that absurd little Jew,” but not by Herschel himself. Once in Germany custody, utterly alone in a Gestapo cell, he saw a single way to frustrate Hitler’s plan for a show trial. If put on trial, he courageously told his interrogators, he would testify that he murdered the Nazi diplomat as an act of revenge against a homosexual predator who had ruined and betrayed him.

Here was Herschel’s single greatest act of courage and vision. He understood that the Nazis hated homosexuals as much as they hated Jews, and he recognized that they would not stage a show trial if he were to sully the honor of the Third Reich by characterizing his victim as a gay man. The decision was made by Hitler himself after he had been warned of Herschel’s intentions by the trial planners, and the elaborate script that had been prepared for the Grynszpan trial was shelved. Herschel had sabotaged the Nazi plans for a propaganda coup, but he also managed to cast a shadow over his own motives. “I guarantee you, if everything about Grynszpan’s case was the same, except that he slept with Anne Frank,” wrote journalist Jonathan Marks in the New York Jewish Week in 2010, “there’d be floats in his honor at the Salute to Israel Parade.”

No hard historical evidence supports the allegation that he had been seduced and abandoned by the man he assassinated. Indeed, we do not know with certainty whether or not Herschel was gay at all. But it is beyond serious debate that the explosive issue of sexual orientation that he injected into the case while in German custody cast a pall over his exploits. The Nazis were hardly the only homophobes, then or now, and his avowed sexual orientation may help us understand why he is treated so coolly even in Jewish circles.

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

Philip Roth: Celebration of a Career

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Permalink

by Alan Cooper

With the 2013 publication of its final (eighth and ninth) volumes of Philip Roth’s collected works, The Library of America (LoA) has reprinted every word of Roth’s thirty-one books, twenty-eight of them works of fiction. There will be no more Roth books. These hand-hold­able volumes “printed on light-weight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age” have preserved Roth for the ages. It remains to be seen what, if anything, can guarantee a Roth readership.

This completion of the LoA project coincides with Roth’s eightieth birthday and with his growing conviction that the fiction-reading public is dwindling in the face of electronic quick fixes, perhaps consigning the traditional novel to a footnote in literary history. Roth has announced his retirement from the writing of fiction, echoing yet again what has been for him a triggering precept, Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Roth’s public and his readership (not always the same thing) have re­sponded with due celebration and wishful disbelief.

Critical revaluations and predictions are popping up in print. Which are the great novels, which the merely good—or wonderfully good—and do the shortened works of his last five productive years match up to his standards? After fifty-four years of pounding it out, is he now tired? lonely? losing it? entitled to a life away from the keyboard? or to some celebration? He has authorized a biography and chosen the biographer. He has attended the naming of a street after him in his native Newark, NJ and the plaquing of his childhood home as a city landmark. Hundreds of people have taken bus tours of his Weequahic neighborhood to see, and hear rehearsed, the places and events of his novels. Two documen­tary films have been made about his life and works. Speculations are abuzz—perhaps there will be another full-length novel, about a man who un-retires; perhaps a Nobel Prize will top the dozen or so major awards already bestowed upon him; perhaps the Swedes will drop their anti-Semitism!

But at an eightieth birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, where an overflow audience heard praises of his astonishing talent by world- renowned authors and scholars and a moving response by Roth on the importance, especially to a writer, of mining life’s small moments and of accepting the finality of death, it became clear that his shutting down owes to the convergences of time. Other speakers stood, Roth sat. He walked with a bit of a shuffle, but his handshake was firm and his eye engaging.

In recent interviews Roth has acknowledged he gets tired, he has a medical history, he has sometimes felt lonely; yet he has a personal life about which he remains silent (it’s none of our business), and an irrepressible sense of humor. During his years as a writer he sometimes felt the panic of being between books, of not knowing what his next subject would be, of awaiting some thought or memory that could raise a question that writing might explore. He let the fiction come from the imagination at work during the writing, concentrating on the passage at hand and trusting that somehow it would suggest itself into plot, setting, character. Sometimes it did not. Any success might have had to await the rewriting. Authorship took time. Other claimants on that time might have been easily resented. His books were his children; his child­hood got relived in his books.

It was a Jewish childhood; it has been a secular Jewish life. Alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s statement, “Jews are to history as Eskimos are to snow[.]” or Nathan’s discomfort in a church, where every symbol posited destruction of Jews, or the fictive Roth’s calling his fictive alter-ego “Moshe Pipick” (not to be expected from a John Updike) reflect a sensibility that has chronicled the Jewish experience in America from a humanist point of view. In his Newark Museum response, Roth read a seven-page reminiscence by his Mickey Sabbath: the gravestone mes­sages of Jews—the “beloved” fathers, husbands, sons, friends. “The beloved are comfortably dead,’ he quipped warmly and softly, and then quoted Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” In an older Jewish context “…man lieth down and rises not;/Till the heavens be no more, they shall not wake,/ or be roused out of their sleep” (Job, 14:12). Good company for a Jewish humanist. Readers owe it to themselves to reread Philip Roth.

Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.

Restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the Pages of History

Tuesday, May 07, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistance and Herschel GrynszpanHe will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), is the biography of a 17-year-old boy who sought to write himself into history but, ironically, has been almost wholly ignored in the scholarship of World War II and the Holocaust.

Herschel achieved a brief moment of fame in 1938, when he entered the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat. Indeed, his deed was the focus of a media frenzy, and one famous American journalist, columnist and broadcast Dorothy Thompson organized a defense committee that hired a famous French attorney to represent him in the courts. No less a world-historical figure than Leon Trotsky wrote about the case for the newspapers, and English composer Michael Tippett was inspired to write an oratorio about Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, the world press moved on from coverage of the Grynszpan case, and he disappeared into a Gestapo prison cell after the German invasion of France. Significantly, “the Jew Grynszpan,” as the Nazis invariably called him, was well known to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler was eager to mount a show trial that would justify the mass murder of the Jews by focusing on the armed resistance of one Jew. For Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, the Grynszpan case was not less than an obsession.

But Herschel himself, no longer represented by famous lawyers or championed by celebrated columnists, was forced to find his own to foil Hitler and his henchmen. As I explore in my book, and will revisit in my next blog, the scandalous sexual secret that he revealed to his German interrogators — Adolf Eichmann among them — succeeded in convincing Hitler to postpone the show trial, but it also explains why Herschel Grynszpan is not embraced as the Jewish hero he sought to be.

Today, the world is divided into a large number of people who have never heard of Herschel Grynszpan, and a much smaller number who recall his name and deed, although even these people rarely know the whole story or the real story. My mission in writing The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan has been to restore the 17-year-old boy to the pages of history. Ironically, that’s exactly where he aspired to put himself when he took up arms against Nazi Germany in a symbolic act of violence in Paris in 1938.

Hitler knew Grynszpan by name. So did Goebbels and Eichmann. And so should we.

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

Machismo: How The Macho Male Identifies With Wildlife Animals

Tuesday, May 07, 2013 | Permalink

Helène Aylon is an Activist Artist whose work has been shown in MoMA, the Whitney and the Warhol museums. Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press, is called Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Remember the bedtime story about the sly wolf propped up in Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s bed? Little boys must have cringed in fear then, but for some in adolescent years, the big bad wolf became the persona of the big bad guy who is tickled "pink" scaring females and making them uneasy. In the fifties, it was a common practice for street guys to give their jocular "wolf calls" at the sight of a pretty girl walking by; the girl would pretend not to hear the obscene “wolf call” hastening away, as the guys chuckled

At how they were put at their “dis-ease” - the late Mary Daly's term for the disease of machismo.)

Then there’s the bull, forced to provide the cruelest theater, the bullfight. Picasso's self-portraits as a bull are lusting – he’s the stud goading the bull to fight; he is half bull charging crazily within the spotlight.

The cockfight is a spectator sport that sets up two cocks to fight each other viciously. The cock is regarded by the macho mindset as the aggressive fowl amid the flurry of mother hens and ducklings. But in reality, the cock is merely a rooster that heralds a new morning much as the Robin Red Breast heralds the spring. The poor cock - not only because of the cockfights; it is the cock’s misfortune to be bestowed with the perverse honor of having male genitals linked to its name.

In juxtaposition to the identification with animals that the macho male perceives as savage beasts, his projections onto domestic animals reveal his misogyny. If a macho male does not like a woman's face, he calls her a dog. If she can answer back, she's a bitch. If he can't handle her pregnant body, she's a cow. If she's an elder, she's an old crow. If she's young, she's a chick. And for his pleasure, she may become a Playboy Bunny or land in a cathouse.

Yes, the sick fantasies of machismo – the conniving, plundering, killing and ruling are projected onto the mystical animals and birds in the natural world. After all, male entitlement is a given, prescribed in the bible: “Let man have dominion of his skies with its inhabitants, the earth with its inhabitants.” There is no other recourse for humanity except to leap over the decaying abyss of machismo to land on new terrain – a newborn feminized universe like the first Paradise – that is, until Cain killed Abel. And let’s bring back the 80s slogan when we called for a nuclear freeze, chanting, “take the toys away from the boys.”

Read more about Helène Aylon here.

Asaf Schurr on Writing a Rooster

Monday, May 06, 2013 | Permalink
We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Asaf Schurr discusses how he came to write his novel Motti.

So: there's this story of that emperor who wanted a picture of a rooster, and of the master artist he hired to paint it. And of how that master just spent a whole year in the court, rejoicing and dining and taking long walks and whatever it is you do in courts (at least when you're the emperor's guest and not part of the help). Eventu­ally the emperor got sick and tired of it all, which is completely understandable, and walked straight up to the artist's quarters (one might guess the whole court was terrified by his frightful, angry stride), knocked on the door and demanded, "Where's my rooster, damn it!"

At which the artist just nodded, grabbed a quilt and a piece of paper that lay nearby, and in one fell swoop drew the most wonderful rooster anyone had ever seen (the most wonderful painting of a rooster, at least. For it was a kingdom known for its attractive roosters). And the emperor was understandably surprised, and he said, "What the hell? This only took like three seconds! What were you doing here for a whole year?!"

The artist went over to the inner room's door, and he opened it, and inside were hun­dreds and hundreds of paintings of hundreds and hundreds of roosters.

And that's how I wanted to write this book. Aiming at this one clean stroke. Or rather, aiming at becoming that specific person who could paint that specific rooster. Writing a book that you can love the same way you love a person (as my editor, Oded Wolkstein, said. What he meant was, loving the defects just as much. Loving it like one loves one's child, especially in these moments when you catch a glimpse of these parts of yourself you're ashamed of or impatient with, but seen in him or her are both unbearable and endearing).

So I wanted to paint a rooster that's beautiful and damaged, partial but all there. I wanted to make an object. Complete and distinct, almost spatial in nature, like a physical work of art (and probably just as pretentious).

But I can't paint worth a damn. So I wrote me a rooster feather by feather, and kept at it until it spread its wings. Naturally, it can't actually fly. It can't even lay an egg. All it does is wake you up at odd hours. But that's literature for you.

Asaf Schurr was born in Jerusalem in 1976 and has a BA in philosophy and theater from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At present he is a translator and writes literary reviews for the Hebrew press. Schurr has received the Bernstein Prize (2007), the Minister of Culture Prize (2007) for Amram, and the Prime Minister's Prize for Motti (2008).

Jonathan Kirsch on the Question of Jewish Resistance and Herschel Grynszpan

Monday, May 06, 2013 | Permalink

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at His most recent book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris, was published under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Last month, shortly before the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, my wife, Ann, and I took a tour of Terezín, the fortress near Prague where more than 100,000 Jewish men, women and children were briefly held by the Germans and their accomplices in a transit camp before being sent on to the death factories and the killing fields.

Our local guide felt it appropriate to tell us that the Jews in their tens of thousands were guarded only by 22 SS men.

The guide was dead wrong. “[B]y the end of 1941, [Terezín] housed some 7,000 German soldiers and Czech civilians,” writes Saul Friedländer in The Years of Extermination, the second volume of his masterwork, Nazi Germany and the Jews. But the subtext of the guide’s remark is not different from the question that Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner asked the survivors who appeared as witnesses at the Eichmann trial: Why did you not fight back?

A good deal of Holocaust scholarship, in fact, has been devoted to showing that the Jews did fight back in greater numbers and more various ways than our guide at Terezín was willing to admit. Yehuda Bauer has adopted the word Amidah, a reference to the “standing prayer” that is the centerpiece of the synagogue service, to honor the Jews who “stood up” against the Germans and their collaborators, some with “cold” weapons like sticks and stones, some with “hot” weapons like guns and bombs, some by smuggling food and medicine, and some by teaching a few words of Hebrew to the children before their lives were taken from them.

The question of Jewish resistance is sore point for me, too. When I set out to tell the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old boy who was among the earliest Jews to engage in an act of armed protest against Nazi Germany, I was both saddened and puzzled at the way he had been wholly written out of history, and as much by the Jewish community as by the rest of the world. At a time when the Jewish world was terrorized by the Nazis, Herschel sought to call the world’s attention to their plight, but he was shunned at the time and forgotten afterwards.

Why, then, is Herschel Grynszpan not celebrated as the hero he fully intended to be? “To bring the attention of the world to what was being done to the Jews was an act of resistance,” Prof. Friedländer told me in an interview. “Why Herschel Grynszpan has been overlooked, even if his act had unfortunate consequences, is strange and baffling.”

That’s precisely the question I sought to answer in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright). And it’s a question I will explore in my subsequent postings as a guest blogger for the Jewish Book Council.

As it turns out, I found a few clues to the mystery in Herschel’s scandalous life story, and I look forward to sharing them with you.

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

In Our Time: Book Covers from R. B. Kitaj’s Personal Library

Friday, May 03, 2013 | Permalink

by Jackie Anzaroot

The Jewish Museum has opened a new exhibit titled R. B. Kitaj: Personal Library featuring the work of R. B. Kitaj, famed Jewish American artist and poet (1932 – 2007). The exhibit, which opened April 5th and will be on view until August 11th, features 33 screenprints that are exact reproductions of select book covers from Kitaj’s own personal library. The collection, titled In Our Time, dates from 1969 and, stylistically, draws upon the influences of the Pop and Readymade artistic movements.

Kitaj, a lover of books with eclectic tastes, was himself a poet and author as well as an artist. In 1989 he published the First Diasporist Manifesto, a short book that combines prose, poetry and art to describe how the Jewish diaspora has affected his outlook on art and himself as an artist. Kitaj later followed up the first manifesto with the Second Diasporist Manifesto in 2007, the same year that he committed suicide at the age of 74. Kitaj’s brilliant melding of styles—Pop and Readymade—in his featured art collection was a trend that followed the artist throughout most of his career and is evidently mirrored in the hybridization of rhetoric styles in his literary work. The artist’s tendency to stylistically hybridize both his artistic and literary work is also a reflection of his identity as self-described “diasporist” Jew.

The gallery at The Jewish Museum is an intriguing exhibition and is certainly representational of all the cultural bounty that can come out of being a diasporist. The collection serves not only as a tribute to his beloved library, but also as a reproduction of Kitaj’s personal mementos from his various journeys—both cultural and physical—into different places, schools of thought and philosophies. The screenprints of book covers come from a wide of array of genres and Kitaj’s love of poetry can be seen in his inclusion of one book of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry and in his a reproduction of a cover of one of the volumes of transition, a literary journal that once featured greats such as William Carlos Williams and James Joyce. Some oddities have also been included, such as a cover of an annual budget report for the city of Burbank, year 1968 - 1969, a military intelligence bulletin from 1944, and a medical and public health technical manual. The artist’s interest in Holocaust studies can also be seen in one cover that bears the title, “The Jewish Question” and belonged to a collection of anti-semitic articles published by Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, during prewar America, and in another titled We Have Not Forgotten.

As a whole this collection is not overtly Jewish. But there’s a level subtext that suggests a celebration of the artist as both a Jew and cultural observer. There’s the suggestion that it was, in fact, Kitaj’s feelings of Jewish diaspora, of not-belonging to any particular nation and not being attached to any one school or culture, that allowed him to pick his way through different movements, adopt different traditions and assimilate them into his own unique Jewish identity.

Jackie Anzaroot is a graduate of Brooklyn College with degrees in English and Linguistics. She has held internships at Simon & Schuster and is currently interning at the Jewish Book Council.

New Reviews

Friday, May 03, 2013 | Permalink
This week's Jewish Book Council reviews:


An Interview with Naomi Alderman

Friday, May 03, 2013 | Permalink
by Ada Brunstein

Naomi Alderman was a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and is a Sami Rohr Prize Literary Institute fellow. Her most recent book, The Liars' Gospel, was published by Little, Brown and Company. Win a copy of The Liars' Gospel here.

Ada Brunstein: What made you want to write this book?

Naomi Alderman: I first thought of the idea for this book about twenty years ago when I was sixteen or so. I was studying both Hebrew and Latin at the same time which gives you two quite interesting perspectives on the same period. And my Hebrew teacher was telling me that there were references to Jesus in some of the ancient Jewish texts of the period. And I said ‘Oh somebody should write a book about this,’ and she said, ‘no no no they shouldn’t; no one should write a book about the Jewish Jesus.’ And of course that kind of strong reaction will make it stick in your mind.

And then it was this idea that would recur to me every Easter when there would be all sorts of things on the BBC about Jesus and Easter and it would just be so simplistic as an understanding of what was going on at the time: there are nasty high priests who did nasty things and Jesus died. It’s so much more complicated than that.

AB: How did you choose the characters you chose for these four gos­pels from among all the characters in Jesus’s life?

NA: They are the ones who spoke to me.

I would have loved to have gotten something out of Mary Magdalene but I couldn’t make her say anything to me.

I suppose the high priest definitely chose himself because that character seemed so neglected and I think he’s my favorite of the four because it just feels like a perspective that I haven’t ever seen.

Barabbas was definitely the last one for me to choose and for a long time I wasn’t sure he was right, but as I thought about it he got more and more right.

Judas also I think basically chose himself. I was very interested in whether I could portray him as somebody who was incredibly sincere in his various beliefs rather than again a pantomime villain character, a blaggard.

AB: Your portrayal of Judas is indeed more nuanced than the way we usually see Judas portrayed. Can you say more about how that charac­ter evolved?

NA: In fact the character note for Judas I got directly from the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest gospel. This is what you get in the story of how that happened: You have two things juxtaposed right next to each other. There’s the story of how they go to Bethany, or Beith Anya, and this woman comes and pours perfume on Jesus’s head. In Mark it says one of the disciples said ‘why did you let her do that? The perfume could’ve been sold and money could’ve been given to the poor.’ And Jesus gives a really terrible answer. He says ‘why wouldn’t I let her do it? I will not be with you for too much longer, but the poor will always be with you.’ It’s a terrible answer. And then the very next line is ‘and then Judas went to betray him.’ And reading that as a novelist I thought well, ‘one of the disciples,’ that seems like it was obviously Judas and that was obviously his reason. And once you have that as the reason —because that’s quite a challenging question to which Jesus gives an evidently awful answer—that’s the basic note of that character.

Incidentally John, which was written much much later evidently came to the same conclusion as me. So he goes, ‘Judas said why did you let her do it, the perfume could’ve been sold and the money given to the poor.’ And then John adds another bit saying that Judas only asked this because he wanted to steal the money and keep it for himself.’ And you go ‘John, boytchik, you know you’re making that up. You saw what I saw in there which is that if you’re following a man who gives that answer then you can have a reason to feel like you have already been betrayed.’ This is the character note for Judas. He’s a man who betrays but he also feels he’s been betrayed.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson on Cutting-Edge Work in the Jewish Community

Thursday, May 02, 2013 | Permalink
Dr. Ron Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. His most recent book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), is now available. Earlier this week, he wrote about the future of Jewish institutions in the twenty-first century. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In Relational Judaism, I report six case studies of organizations and individuals doing cutting-edge work in creating relational communities. Chabad is numero uno. Their first – and most important – “secret” of success: a warm welcome to everyone they meet and an invitation to share a meal, usually in the rabbi’s home and usually within five minutes of the first personal encounter. They practice what I have called “radical hospitality,” a passionate commitment to learning about each and every person they meet. Google “Chabad” and inevitably you will see results that include “no membership fees” and “free Hebrew school.” The truth is that Chabad is not “free.” What they have done is to turn the membership model upside down: instead of asking for dues upfront and then serving the members, Chabad offers hospitality and programming first and then aggressively asks for money. The vast majority of their funding comes from those grateful for their relationship with the Chabad rabbi and his family, almost always non-Orthodox Jews. Does it work? Estimates suggest Chabad raises well north of $1 billion annually.

Hillel is pioneering a relationship-based outreach effort called “Senior Jewish Educator/Campus Entrepreneur Initiative.” College sophomores and juniors are offered stipends and training to reach out to their circles of friends on campus who would rarely be caught inside a Hillel House. They are coached and taught by a full-time senior Jewish educator who also commits the time to reach 160 disengaged Jewish students annually.

Congregation-based community organizing is a strategy to surface concerns among congregants by conducting one-on-one conversations around questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” The conversation itself is a relational engagement experience that some synagogues use to mobilize social justice actions, but just as importantly leads to better connectedness among the membership.

There are several well-known efforts to engage the next generation of young Jewish professionals, among them Moishe House, NEXT (follow up with Birthright alumni), Jconnect in Seattle, and Next Dor – an initiative of Synagogue 3000 to place “engagement rabbis” and community organizers working from but outside mainstream synagogues to connect with young Jews ages 21-40.

No doubt that the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have enabled many to create and support relationships among friends and family. Jewish organizations are just beginning to marshal the power of these platforms for building online communities and for encouraging face-to-face communities.

Finally, it turns out the best fundraisers in the Jewish community all agree that relationships are at the heart of securing funding. For Relational Judaism, I interviewed the best of the best, among them Abraham Foxman, John Ruskay, David Ellenson, Arnold Eisen, Jerry Silverman and Esther Netter.

I believe the time has come for us to shift the paradigm of engagement from programmatic to relational. The goal is to build relationships with what I identify as “Nine Levels of Relationship” with the Jewish experience. The strategies are outlined in “Twelve Principles of Relational Engagement.” The six case studies prove that it is possible, that we can revive and strengthen our communal organizations if we put people first and then program for them. It is time for a Relational Judaism.

Check in with Ron at and find additional JBC-reviewed titles by him here.