👋 Good Wednesday morning!
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday that President Joe Biden will speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “soon,” adding that Netanyahu will be the first leader in the region to receive a call.
Psaki also said the U.S. will “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, adding that Biden will eventually speak with “the president’s counterpart” King Salman, and not Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman.
At a CNN town hall in Wisconsin last night, Biden told a questioner: “I understand a little bit of Yiddish,” with host Anderson Cooper chiming in: “It would be a shanda if you didn’t.”
Secretary of State Tony Blinken said yesterday that “the path to diplomacy is open right now” with Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal, but declined to say if any direct talks had begun.
This morning, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Tehran wants to see “action not words” from the other parties to the agreement in order to restart talks.
Join Jewish Insider, A Wider Bridge and the Jewish Book Council at 8 p.m. ET today for the North American launch of Ben Freeman’s book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People.
Clubhouse, the Jewish community’s new hallway chatter
Clubhouse, a new audio-only social networking app, is quickly becoming the digital version of the Jewish conference circuit hallway. With in-person meetups on hold due to the novel coronavirus and Zoom broadcasts often taking on a formal nature, Jewish conference regulars had been searching for a digital duplicate of the informal conversations that are often the main draw of the offline gatherings. For Jewish Insider, Ryan Torok spoke to a range of Clubhouse members about their experiences.
Conference circuit: William Daroff, who joined the app in February, likened his Clubhouse experiences to life before the pandemic, when the affable CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations routinely turned out to large, well-attended conferences. “To some extent it is like walking through the hallways of a Jewish conference because you’ll run into somebody and [think] ‘It’s been a long time since I connected with that person,’ and you can jump into a private room with them, or you can be in a public room with them and talk about issues that are engaging,” he said.
Connecting: Rachel Sumekh, the founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger and a frequent speaker on the Jewish conference circuit, concurred. “Jumping into a Clubhouse room, especially smaller ones, is reminiscent of sitting in the conference hotel lobby with one friend and friends slowly calling over others who walk by,” said Sumekh. “You really do meet new people.” For those seeking something specifically Jewish, at any given time there may be a discussion on combating antisemitism, Kabbalistic weekly wisdom, the Iranian-Jewish community or weekly Torah studies led by rabbis including David Wolpe of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple and Adam Mintz of New York’s Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim.
Exclusive party: New users must be invited by an existing user, a level of exclusivity that social media influencer Nicole Behnam said is part of the app’s draw. “Now there is a pandemic, and there are no longer parties happening. Clubhouse is the party, and people want to be included,” she said. “You have to be invited to the party. If someone invited you to the app, now you are included.” Since joining the app in November, Behnam has amassed a following of more than 44,000 users. “I am very bold, and my personality shines on there,” Behnam said during a recent phone interview. “On Instagram, I can’t showcase my personality.”
Torah talk: Wolpe has been using the app to hold weekly Torah conversations on Thursday evenings, and he likes the fact that he can listen in on sessions while, say, going on a walk in his neighborhood. “The wonderful thing about Clubhouse that is not true about Zoom is you can walk, listen to it, speak on it, [and] can go to any room in the house,” the rabbi said. “The fact people are not seeing you is a tremendous advantage.” Fellow Angeleno Charlotte Broukhim expressed excitement about an upcoming live Megillah reading on Clubhouse on the evening of Purim. “In the Jewish community there have been such incredible discussions that haven’t necessarily taken place in more formal settings,” she said. “To have [those opportunities] at a large scale, with Jews from around the world, is special.”Read more here.
From Motor City to the Holy Land
Real estate developer Philip Kafka’s bold but unconventional vision for reimagining urban spaces has earned him commercial, critical and career success with headline-grabbing and acclaimed projects in Detroit. But now Kafka, founder of the Prince Concepts real estate firm, is looking to expand his cultural and spiritual horizons — in Israel. “I just applied for my Israeli citizenship,” Kafka told Jewish Insider’s Amy Spiro in a recent interview. “I want to start spending more time in Israel, and this is the time to do it.”
Background: The 34-year-old Texas native is no stranger to new adventures. Born in Dallas to a father from Brooklyn and a mother from the Lone Star State, Kafka studied philosophy at Northwestern University, and pursued a brief professional tennis career. He built his own billboard business in New York, and then sold it five years later to focus his efforts on Detroit. Kafka credits his parents for imbuing him with an entrepreneurial spirit. “They gave me confidence and endowed me with a sense of fearlessness, so to speak,” he said. “Everything I felt like I needed to know I was learning from my parents. And they were always great role models to me.”
Building up: Starting with a restaurant that opened in 2016, Kafka has expanded his Detroit footprint immensely over the past five years, implementing more than a dozen projects, largely focused around the Core City neighborhood. “It was fundamentally what anybody in real estate would tell you not to do,” he said. “There was nothing around me, there was no market… there were just no people. I bought this totally empty area, and I bought three old industrial buildings and I got four acres of land,” he recounted. And several years later, he said, “I have 20 acres of land over here, I renovated all these old industrial buildings. I’ve got restaurants, coffee shops, all the startup businesses are moving into my buildings over here. I built an awesome housing project, which has won a ton of awards.”
Hut life: Kafka has never been afraid to think out of the box — or in this case, the house. One of his earliest and most iconic Detroit projects is True North, a residential neighborhood made up entirely of Quonset huts: eye-catching semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated steel and based on an old military design. “I knew they were fast and cheap to build,” he said, “but I also knew that we could build them tall and wide, with no columns in the middle, and make a great quality space.” The prefab structure, he said, meant he could “create a great quality apartment for a low cost,” and design “museum-quality spaces to live in.”
Aliyah bound: But as Kafka’s professional success has grown, he found himself searching for more meaning. In Detroit, he said, “I’m not surrounded by a ton of Jewish people. And as I get older and as — thank God — I have more success and I achieve more fulfillment in my professional life, I realize how limited that is,” Kafka added. “I want to get closer to the spiritual world, and that’s our religion, and Israel, I feel, is very close to that source.” Kafka hopes to eventually split his time 50/50 between Detroit and Israel. But his plans in the Holy Land are focused more on the personal and less on the professional. “I’m a creative person so I’ll always come and find ways to work,” he said. “But I’m not going to look for my primary source of income to come from Israel… I want to really get to know the market,” he said. “I don’t have to hit the ground running. I want to take time to really figure out what I would want to do there.”
Manhattan DA candidate Lucy Lang unveils new plan to end hate crimes
Lucy Lang, a Democratic candidate for Manhattan district attorney, will unveil a new plan today to address rising incidents of hate crimes across New York City. “As hate crimes continue to rise to record highs, the next Manhattan DA must send a strong message: hate has no home in New York City,” Lang told Jewish Insider’s Matthew Kassel. “My great-grandparents escaped antisemitic and political persecution in Hungary to come to New York City — and as the next Manhattan district attorney, I’ll fight to break the cycle of targeted hate that has harmed so many in our communities.”
Road map: The plan, shared exclusively with JI before being released on Wednesday, rests on six bullet points that Lang believes will eradicate hate crimes against Jews, Asian-Americans and other groups. If elected, Lang says she will designate a team of assistant district attorneys exclusively focused on hate crimes and that she will work to encourage vulnerable community members, often distrustful of law enforcement, to report such incidents. Other goals include a plan to require that staffers undergo “trauma-informed cultural humility training” as well as a broader ambition to approach hate crimes in a holistic and potentially less punitive manner.
Addressing antisemitism: Lang, a 39-year-old former assistant district attorney for Manhattan who most recently served as the executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, consulted with Jewish nonprofit organizations in New York as she wrote the plan. In recent years, New York has seen an uptick in hate crimes including antisemitic graffiti and violent attacks on members of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community. “The Jewish community has been the target of hate crimes for generations,” Lang told JI, “and prosecutors have a unique role and responsibility to root out hate at its core.”
360-degree view: Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, suggested that Lang’s plan is in keeping with a broader and more empathetic view of the criminal justice system. “Lucy’s plan is a product of her deep listening to marginalized communities, experts in the field, victims and perpetrators,” said Kula, who has worked closely with Lang on restorative justice issues, “and her substantive understanding of the power of the DA’s office and its obligation to stop hate crimes.”
The field: Lang is competing in a crowded field to replace longtime Democratic incumbent Cyrus Vance, Jr., who is not expected to run for reelection. Other candidates in the race include Alvin Bragg, who vowed to JI last month that he would revamp what he views as an understaffed hate crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who was part of a New York State Bar Association task force that released a report on domestic terrorism and hate crimes last year. She told JI in a July interview that she would “robustly” investigate such incidents as DA. The primary is scheduled for June 22.
Dallas Jewish community weathers deadly winter storm
Texans are facing a brutal winter storm that has frozen equipment at energy facilities across the country and shut off power to millions in the state, leaving residents struggling to stay warm in an area of the country that, this week, is colder than parts of Alaska. “Everything comes in threes,” Mariam Shpeen Feist, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, told Jewish Insider’s Melissa Weiss Tuesday afternoon. First, she explained, was a 2019 tornado that destroyed the federation’s building and homes of members of the Jewish community. Six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, paralyzing the country’s economy and infrastructure. Now, the cold has arrived.
Banding together: “Because [of] the pandemic, the federation organized what was called a health crisis management team,” Feist told JI. “So we have the infrastructure. [On Monday], we were all so much in shock that today we started working on who’s open, who can be a warming center, what do we have, what’s happening. We’re just all trying to coordinate with each other to make sure that people are safe… So synagogues are really banding together, where they’re not opening as much as they’re finding family, congregants who will take in other congregants or other Jewish congregants of other synagogues. We’re just all trying to band together to get through this.”
Feeding the hungry: “Right now, for example, today, one of the kosher restaurants and grocery stores [Kosher Palate] organized free food at two different spots in South Dallas,” said Feist. “So we’re working with them, the Dallas Jewish community, the federation and the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, to help fund those meals for the next two days. Because within two days, we should be in better condition. We’ll reconvene in 48 hours, but Saturday, it’s supposed to be 67 [degrees] and sunny here. So hopefully, we won’t be in the position that we’re in right now… But there are people that really have nothing to eat.”
Humbling: Feist told JI that the Dallas community is “in so much shock that right now we’re trying to take care of our own community before we start to realize what’s going on everywhere else. So I’ve been in touch with [the director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston]. But unlike when Houston had a flood and we were able to deliver 30,000 kosher meals, you know, we can’t help, we’re in the same boat. And like when we had the tornado, they were the first ones to call to say, ‘What do you need?’ We’re both in the same boat now… It’s very humbling to think that this is how a number of Americans live. It’s humbling to know that I’m lucky I have a roof over my head and I have food. So we worry about getting through the night, but so do millions of Americans every night, every day. We continue to count our blessings.”
🗳️ Parallel Politics: In The Associated Press, Laurie Kellman explores how the upcoming Israeli national election in some ways “echoes” the recent U.S. presidential race, with “a referendum on the divisive personality at the top” as well as questions over “his stewardship of a nation brutalized by COVID-19.” [AP]
👨🏿🍳 Living History: In Zagat, Anna Rahmanan interviews Michael Twitty, a Black Jewish chef, author and food historian who is working on a new book about his background titled Kosher Soul. “I could write a cutesy book about Black Jewish food and make it very kitschy because that is how a lot of people read African-American Jewish life, unfortunately,” he said. “But at a time when there are deep divides, a proper conversation is critical.” [Zagat]
🎼 Sour Notes: New York Times reporter Michael Powell dives deep into the controversy surrounding an obscure musicology journal led by a Jewish professor in Texas, and devoted to the work of Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in 1935, and who has been recently accused of virulent racism that informed his music writings. [NYTimes]
Around the Web
💉 Jab Journey: The first shipment of 2,000 COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza is on its way from the West Bank after Israel approved the transfer today.
🏦 Staying Strong: Israel’s economy contracted 2.4% last year, a smaller decline than expected, owing to the strength of its tech and consumer sectors.
🛫 Runway Ready: El Al raised $77 million yesterday in a sale of options on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, in order to meet the conditions of a state-backed loan to the struggling airline.
🧑💼 Sitting Out: Hanan Ashrawi will not be running in the upcoming Palestinian elections, and said she instead plans to mentor young politicians.
✈️ Arming Up: Israel is seeking to purchase additional F-35 fighter jets and KC-46 refueling planes from the United States.
🚔 Held Up: U.S. customs officials reportedly detained hundreds of people with ties to Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories following the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last year.
🚨 Red Alert: A new Pentagon report details the extent of white supremacist infiltration in the the U.S. military and the failure of officials to counter the threat.
🖥️ Startup Nation: Cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks acquired Bridgecrew, an Israeli-based startup.
💵 Big Backers: U.S.-Israeli firm Personetics, which provides analytics for banks and financial services companies, raised $75 million in a private funding round.
🎶 Expanding: Len Blavatnik’s Warner Music Group is buying a minority stake in Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal’s Rotana Music.
🚫 Toy Trouble: Toymaker Hasbro is scrapping an action figure of Gina Carano’s character from “The Mandalorian,” after the actress was fired for posts deemed antisemitic.
👚 Call it a Comeback: Bargain department store chain Century 21 is plotting a comeback under the control of its founders, the Gindi family, following its bankruptcy last year.
👩 Shortlist: CNN exec Allison Gollust, who previously served as communications director to N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is rumored to be the top candidate to replace Jeff Zucker when he steps down as the network’s head.
📚 Book Shelf: The New York Times reviews The Ravine by Wendy Lower, who investigated the identities of the figures in a 1941 photo of Jews being massacred in Miropol, Ukraine.
💼 Transition: Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker is rejoining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
🕯️ Remembering: Dr. Bernard Lown, who invented the first defibrillator and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-nuclear war activism, died at 99. New York real estate developer Steven Goodstein died at 81.
Gif of the Day
Israeli singer Omer Adam released a new single this week, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” ahead of the release of his new album, The 8, which drops today.
Former treasurer of Massachusetts and former president of AIPAC, Steven Grossman turns 75…
Executive director of HUC-JIR’s American Jewish Archives and professor of Reform Jewish history at HUC-JIR, Gary Phillip Zola turns 69… One of the most popular Israeli basketball players of all time, Miki Berkovich turns 67… Owner of Lynn’s Photography, Lynn Katz Danzig turns 67… Israel’s minister of the interior and minister of the development of the Negev and Galilee, Aryeh Deri turns 62… Partner in the DC office of Kirkland & Ellis specializing in international trade and national security, Ivan A. Schlager turns 60… Rabbi of Khal Ahavas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek in Baltimore and kashrus administrator at the Star-K, Rabbi Dovid Heber turns 57… Filmmaker of big-budget action films including Transformers, Michael Benjamin Bay turns 56… Executive director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute, Betsy Fischer Martin turns 51… SVP of news at McClatchy, Kristin Roberts turns 46… Executive director of the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life (the Columbia/Barnard Hillel), Brian Cohen turns 43… Israeli actress and winner of the Miss World beauty pageant in 1998, she has since become Orthodox and completed law school, Linor Abargil turns 41… Actor and filmmaker, Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns 40… Senior counselor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Samantha Vinograd turns 38… Senior multi-platform editor for CNN Politics, Dianna Heitz turns 37… Professional ice hockey defenseman for the NHL’s New York Rangers, Adam Fox turns 23… Miriam Schulman…