👋 Good Monday morning!
A New York Times article over the weekend drew criticism for its framing of Orthodox Jews in a story about efforts to secure pardons during the Trump administration. The article noted that27 of the 238 pardons and commutations granted by former President Donald Trump had ties to either Aleph or Tzedek, two Jewish criminal justice organizations.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the article’s focus on the religious observance of some of those referenced in the story, and referenced previous Times stories that also needlessly highlighted the Orthodox community. “[W]hy are Orthodox Jews still singled out, almost as if they were a reasonable target for prejudice? Why is it OK for reporters to focus again and again to call out the level of observance of these groups? It has no bearing on the story and must stop.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) will oppose Colin Kahl’s nomination for the top policy posting at the Pentagon, narrowing Kahl’s pathway to confirmation.Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who remains undecided, will likely determine Kahl’s fate.
Five of the candidates running for New York City mayor are speaking at a forum this evening hosted by Yeshiva University’s Political Action Club and Dunner Political Science Society. Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, NYC Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Ray McGuire and Andrew Yang will all address the virtual event.
In Texas special election, a congressman’s widow fights for his seat
In early February, Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX), who was entering his second term in the House of Representatives, became the first sitting member of Congress to die from COVID-19 complications. Wright’s death kicked off a stampede of candidates — including his widow, longtime local GOP operative Susan Wright, who is considered to be the favorite in the crowded field — hoping to fill his Dallas-area seat representing the state’s sixth congressional district. Jewish Insider’s Marc Rod spoke with Wright and four other candidates who may have a shot at the seat.
Stepping up: Wright told JI that in her late husband’s last days, he, as well as their friends, encouraged her to run for his seat, and she seeks to honor her husband’s service. “I really admired his commitment to his constituents. I admired his style. He was a statesman and I want to continue that,” Wright said. She added that her experience as a congressional spouse has given her unique insights into how Congress operates, and that she and her husband were “pretty much the same ideologically.”
On the issues: Wright, whose husband served on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. needs to strictly enforce sanctions against the Iranian regime to force Iran to come to the negotiating table, and argued that Iran continued to expand its nuclear program despite the deal. She also wants the U.S. to remain at the table facilitating talks for a two-state solution, and added that she sees the Abraham Accords as a “perfect roadmap” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “That is positive progress towards peace, that uses diplomacy and not violence,” she said. “The Abraham Accords initiated a new chapter of Mideast peace, and I would encourage the current administration to follow that same pattern.”
Wide field: Nearly two dozen candidates — 11 Republicans, 10 Democrats and two independents — have announced their candidacy for the May 1 special election. For any candidate to win outright on May 1, they’ll have to gain more than 50% of the vote in the all-party, all-candidate election, which analysts see as unlikely given the wide field. Should no candidate clear 50%, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face each other in a runoff later this year.
Runoff rumblings: Heading into May 1, analysts are primarily working to determine who are the most likely candidates to advance to a runoff. “The real focus here is not so much on who’s going to finish first, but who’s going to finish first and second,” Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, told JI. “The most likely scenario is that one of the two candidates in the runoff will be Susan Wright.” He added that Wright is likely to win if she makes the runoff. Jones and other political analysts believe that another Republican, potentially State Rep. Jake Ellzey or former Department of Health and Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison, could also make the runoff if Democrats fail to unify sufficiently by May 1.
Across the aisle: On the Democratic side, political organizer and former journalist Jana Lynne Sanchez, who was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the seat, and Lydia Bean, an author and sociology professor who has previously run for state office within the district, are the top contenders, according to Jones. Shawn Lassitier, a former teacher from outside the district, is also running, with endorsements from local education officials.
Elsewhere: In Louisiana on Saturday, Julia Letlow won a special congressional election in the 5th district to replace her husband, Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, who died of COVID-19 before he could take office. In the state’s 2nd district, State Sens. Troy Carter and Karen Carter Peterson advanced to an April 24 runoff vote.
Can anyone replace Netanyahu?
Israelis head to the polls tomorrow for the fourth national election in two years — amid concerns that a fifth could follow closely behind. Why is this election different from all other elections? Jewish Insider’s Amy Spiro examines how we got here — and what’s to come.
Politically adroit: In every national vote over the past 12 years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to emerge, if not victorious, then close enough to hold on to power. Even after an indictment on corruption charges, months of nationwide protests over Netanyahu’s rule and the immense challenges of COVID-19, Netanyahu’s Likud Party is still leading in the latest polls. “In politics, nice guys finish last,” veteran Jerusalem Post political correspondent Gil Hoffman told JI on Sunday. Netanyahu “has proven himself to be politically adroit enough to withstand any challenge,” he added. “Netanyahu has left plenty of legitimate leaders in the dust.”
Challenge from the right: Over the past decade, Isaac Herzog, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have sought to oust Netanyahu from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, to no avail. This time around, Netanyahu faces not just a challenge from a familiar foe — Lapid — but also from two well-known figures on the Israeli right, who are both former allies: Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope. “Bottom line, Israel is more and more leaning to the right wing these days,” said longtime Haaretz correspondent Noa Landau. And while the political landscape has shifted from a year ago, “as long as Netanyahu is the strongest right-wing leader, it wouldn’t help if Sa’ar or Bennett are trying to challenge him on the right… It’s not about which party gets more votes, it’s about building a coalition.”
Disadvantage: With the forces working to oust Netanyahu appearing increasingly splintered, such an effort seems less and less likely. Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, all eyes will quickly turn to the parties’ meetings with President Reuven Rivlin set to begin during Passover, when each faction will recommend a candidate for prime minister; Rivlin will then determine who will get the first shot at forming a government. But this election, Netanyahu came in “with a great disadvantage, because he lost his political bloc and he lost Donald Trump,” said Hoffman. Unlike the past three votes, Netanyahu doesn’t have “a close friend in the White House willing to campaign for him.”
Anybody’s guess: Netanyahu won’t be around forever, and one day — perhaps even soon — another candidate will take control of Israel’s government. With the final polls indicating an even split between the two political camps — the pro-Bibi camp and the anti-Bibi one — even Israel’s top political analysts are wholly unsure how things will play out. “It’s about who is going to assemble the [coalition] puzzle, not necessarily about who gets more votes,” said Landau. “If you look at the bigger picture, it’s pretty complicated compared to other rounds of elections… it’s not that clear.” Hoffman noted that while much of the world has lost interest in Israel’s repeated rounds of voting, this week’s vote is “the most unpredictable election in Israel’s history.”
One last time: Thousands of Israelis took to the streets in nationwide protests against Netanyahu on Saturday night, capping off nine months of consecutive protests against his rule.
Luxury Passover programs are hoping to woo COVID-weary Jews. It’s working
Next year in Jerusalem. Last year on Zoom. This year — vaccination proof or negative test in hand — in Miami.This year, several dozen luxury Passover retreats are operating around the U.S., roughly a quarter of the number that normally run in a typical year but more than the zero in operation last year. Industry insiders told Jewish Insider’s Gabby Deutch how the getaways will look different this year, and why thousands of people are still signing up.
Back to normal: Some people see Passover 2021 as the first opportunity for a full, in-person Jewish celebration in more than a year. “Purim [in 2020] was the last holiday before everything shut down literally overnight,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish HaTorah, “and, I think at that time, everyone was saying, by Pesach, by Shavuot, then it was by Rosh Hashanah [that things will reopen] — that’s how we divvy up our years, totally based on holidays, so just the ability to be with people is nice.” Burg will be a scholar-in-residence at a Passover retreat in West Palm Beach that requires either proof of vaccination or a negative test within three days of arriving. Burg intends to focus his talks and discussions on reconnecting to Judaism after a difficult year of isolation. “Because everyone’s so spread out and split up,” he said, “we want to come together and really refocus on Jewish spirituality.”
Whole new world: The all-inclusive getaways — which can cost up to $11,000 per person — offer a week of kosher food, entertainment and activities. “Everything about the whole landscape [this year] is different in terms of how we operate,” said Avi Lasko, president of Lasko Getaways, a travel company that this year is operating three Passover programs in Miami and Orlando. Many programs, like those in parts of Europe where lockdowns remain in effect, are not able to operate at all, while certain American companies are forgoing programming this year. Some retreats have moved location from states with more restrictions to states with less. There is at least one entirely new program this year, in a location that could never have hosted a Passover retreat in the past: Dubai, which has seen a huge increase in Jewish and Israeli visitors since the Abraham Accords were signed last year.
History lesson: The luxury Passover hotel industry has grown exponentially in the past decade, although its roots date back to the Catskills resorts popular in the mid-20th century. Due in part to discrimination — and the difficulty of finding kosher food — Jews have long traveled en masse, and the Catskills provided a close, convenient option for people from New York City looking to get away. But with the rise of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s, people began to travel to farther-flung destinations. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if you wanted to go on vacation and have kosher food, you would either have to schlep it with you,” or opt for foil-wrapped frozen Glatt kosher meals, said Raphi Bloom, the co-owner of Totally Jewish Travel, a website that serves as a directory for Jewish travel companies and programs around the world. “As people’s demands got greater and as the ease of transporting the food around the world got greater, travel companies started to offer kosher tours.”
Meet the ‘greatest hits of Jewish thought’ — the Haggadah
Fifteen years ago, Mark Gerson, the co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah and African Mission Healthcare, was invited by a friend for the unexpected combination of a cigar and Haggadah study session. Apprehensive to believe the Passover manual required more of his attention, Gerson agreed to join what seemed more an excuse for a cigar than an illuminating discussion. To his surprise, the evening jumpstarted an obsession with the Haggadah. “It is nothing less than the greatest hits of Jewish thought,” Gerson told Jewish Insider’s Sam Zieve Cohenin a recent interview wedged between virtual book tour appearances for his latest title, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.
JI: Passover is probably the most popular holiday in Judaism, why is that? Is it for the same reasons the Haggadah is the “greatest hits of Jewish thought”?
Gerson:I don’t know because I don’t think most people recognize the Haggadah as the greatest hits of Jewish thought. If people go through it quickly and basically treat it like a dinner program — literally, the book you get to before you can get to the meal — we’re not going to see this ‘greatest hits of Jewish thought,’ and we’re not going to get very much out of it. Just the fact that it is completely loaded with Jewish wisdom, perfectly oriented, to help us live happier, better and more meaningful lives in the year to come — it’s the best book ever written word for word, but if you treat it like a dinner program we’re not going to see it that way. Alternatively, if we think that the obligation of the Seder is to get through the entire Haggadah, we’re going to have a similarly bad experience, because we’re not going to be able to really stop and contemplate the existential lessons and the life-altering meanings that come out of basically every passage.
JI: Why do you think it’s so significant that the Haggadah and the Seder are so full of questions?
Gerson:That’s such a deep and fundamental question, and it gets to the essence of Judaism. The fundamental characteristic that all children share all over the world and all throughout history is curiosity, and every parent knows that when a child is two or three years old what that child will say about 20 to 25 times an hour… And so Moses — he’s a genius psychologist — identified the curiosity of children. He heard those 20 to 25 ‘whys,’ and he said, ‘That is what I will build the future of the Jewish people on, on the questioning of their children.’ These are all basing education on the question. The idea of using education at all as a means for perpetuation is totally radical. Because if one generation takes it off, the whole previous chain is broken.
JI: After a full year of the COVID pandemic, what new understanding do you bring to the Seder?
Gerson: Exodus 12 has this very strange but deeply instructive passage which says that there can be no leftovers at the Seder meal. Why are leftovers un-kosher for Passover? You can have leftovers any other time, but not after a Seder meal. It explains that if one household is too small to consume a lamb by itself, it must invite another household. Now we know from Josephus and modern science that it took approximately 15-20 to consume a lamb, meaning every household is too small to consume a lamb. So we begin this fundamental night of Jewish peoplehood — the great new year of the Jewish people — in the act of giving and sharing the spirit of hospitality. And that’s why we set big Seders, because it tells us to in the Bible. We couldn’t do that last year, and we really can’t do that this year.
📺 Coming Soon: In The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz spotlights the third-season return of Israeli runaway TV hit “Shtisel,” which features a haredi family living in Jerusalem. “No character flatters viewers’ sense of secular superiority by leaving the faith for good. There is an aesthetic ethics to the skirting of clichés about religious life, one that the show itself subtly comments on.” [NewYorker]
📜 Letter from the Past: In The Daily Beast, Candida Moss explores the insights archeologists have learned from the recent discovery of dozens of Dead Sea Scroll fragments found in the “Cave of Horror” in southern Israel. The fragments, written in Greek, “are the literary legacy of a small band of Jewish rebels who starved to death there in the second century C.E.” [DailyBeast]
🗳️ Parallel Polls: New York Times correspondents Patrick Kingsley and Adam Rasgon highlight the differences in the upcoming Israeli and Palestinian elections, as Israelis grow sick of repeat votes while Palestinians have been waiting more than a decade. “The Israelis are sick and tired of going to elections four times in two years — but we haven’t had elections in 15 years,” said University of Gaza political scientist Mkhaimar Abusada. [NYTimes]
Around the Web
🛑 Slow Down: Saudi and Qatari officials denied over the weekend that their countries were moving toward normalization with Israel.
🤝 Introductions: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met yesterday with Tor Wennesland, the U.N.’s new special envoy for the Middle East peace process.
⛔ Punishment: Israel confiscated the VIP border pass of Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki after he met with the lead International Criminal Court prosecutor.
☢️ No Rush: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that Tehran is in “no hurry” to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
👩🏫 Teacher Trouble: An Israeli court upheld a school’s right to block a teaching assistant, who refused to prove she’d been vaccinated or tested for COVID-19, from working.
📈 Big Deal: The Israel-based startup ironSource is going public in a SPAC merger deal that values the company at $11.1 billion.
🖼️ Museum Mensch: Renowned artist Gerhard Richter is donating a series of paintings addressing the Holocaust to a new art museum under construction in Berlin.
✍️ United Against Hate: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and ADL President Jonathan Greenblatt co-authored an opinion piece in solidarity with the Asian community.
🧸 Back in Business: WHP Global CEO Yehuda Shmidman, whose company acquired Toys R Us, intends to reopen some stores ahead of this year’s holiday season.
💰 Shifting Values: Jonathan Gray, the Blackstone COO and “heir-apparent” to CEO Stephen Schwarzman, is guiding the company in a shift to pursuing major growth.
🎭 Yada, Yada, Yada: Brooklyn Rabbi Sam Reinstein has written a Seinfeld Haggadah, relating portions of the Seder to specific moments and characters in the sitcom.
💉 Staying Healthy: More than 130 Holocaust survivors in Chicago have been vaccinated as part of a joint effort by Agudath Israel of Illinois, Hatzalah Chicago and The Chicago Center Refuah 311.
🏀 Mazel Tov: The New York Times spotlighted the wedding of Ilya Hoffman and Christiana Barkley, the daughter of former NBA player Charles Barkley, who, despite his concerns, was lifted in a chair and “had a blast.
Song of the Day
Israeli singer Eden Ben-Zaken has released a new single, “The Girls Have Arrived.”
Professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, E.D. Hirsch turns 93… Composer and lyricist, winner of eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Sondheim turns 91… Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, William Shatner turns 90… Twice elected as mayor of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad turns 81… Dentist in Norwalk, Conn., Murray Bruckel, DDS turns 76… Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Eric Roth turns 76… Israeli viola player and teacher, Rivka Golani turns 75… Senior principal at Neuberger, Quinn, Gielen, Rubin & Gibber, Isaac M. Neuberger turns 74… Lead political anchor for CNN, Wolf Blitzer turns 73… Mike Orkin turns 72…Owner of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, Jeffrey N. Vinik turns 62… Orthodox Jewish singer, Avraham Fried turns 62… Former corporate secretary and general counsel at Hertz Corporation, J. Jeffrey Zimmerman turns 62… Author and defense correspondent who has covered the Middle East, Arieh O’Sullivan turns 60…
A philanthropy correspondent at Jewish Insider, Debra Nussbaum Cohen… Head of real estate at Mansueto Office, Ari Glass turns 52… Managing director of Mercury Public Affairs, Jonathan Greenspun turns 50… Senior vice president at HCA Healthcare, Jeff E. Cohen turns 50… Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Neomi Rao turns 48… Internet influencers and pizza reviewer as the founder of Barstool Sports, David Portnoy turns 44… Visual editor, shooter and photo trainer at The City, Ben Fractenberg turns 42… Author and senior advisor at both Fenway Strategies and Emerson Collective, Adam Perecman Frankel turns 40… Founder and CEO of Glossier, Emily Weiss turns 36… Director of the Yehi Ohr program at Jewish Community Services of South Florida, Zisa Levin turns 35… Retired MLB first baseman who starred for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Isaac Benjamin “Ike” Davis turns 34… Communications director for U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), Sarah Alice Frank Feldman turns 33… Energy and environment reporter at the Washington Examiner, Joshua Adam Siegel turns 31… Director of the Dan David Prize, Charlotte Hallé… Deputy director at the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, James Sorene… Beatrice Stein…