A large bipartisan contingent of House members is calling to double funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) for a second year to $360 million for the 2022 fiscal year, citing a “lethal threat to faith-based communities.”
A letter obtained by Jewish Insider, which was signed by 145 members of the House — approximately a third of the chamber — shows broad House support for increasing funding to the Department of Homeland Security grant program, which provides funding for nonprofits and faith-based organizations to improve their security programs. The letter was led by Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and John Katko (R-NY), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and lays out in stark language the threats facing the Jewish community and Congress’s need to stay vigilant.
Last year, the House approved $360 million in funding for the program for the 2021 fiscal year — quadrupled from $90 million for 2020 — but the Senate initially approved only $90 million. The two chambers ultimately compromised at $180 million.
“The rise of domestic extremism is a threat to every community in our entire country. It is one of the challenges of our time. Increasing this funding is essential to protecting our neighbors and houses of worship, especially synagogues and Jewish community centers,” Pascrell told JI. “The terrible growth of antisemitic incidents and violence is an outrage, and I am leading my colleagues to secure this support to keep our Jewish neighbors safe. The need is unfortunately out there, and I am fighting in Congress to meet it.”
The letter, addressed to Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Homeland Security, specifically requests $180 million for each of two NSGP sub-funds, the Urban Area Security Initiative NSGP and the State Homeland Security Grant Program NSGP.
“Today’s threat environment provides a compelling public interest in protecting against attacks on the nonprofit sector that would disrupt the vital health, human, social, cultural, religious, and other humanitarian services and practices they provide to communities, and which threaten the lives and well-being of millions of Americans who operate, utilize, live, and work in proximity to them,” the letter reads.
The letter highlights assessments from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security about the pressing threat from domestic extremists and foreign terrorist organizations — particularly to the Jewish community. It notes that the FBI and other agencies have noted that domestic violent extremists “will continue to pose a lethal threat to faith-based communities, particularly the Jewish community,” while warning that Iran “could act directly or enlist the cooperation of its proxies,” including Hezbollah, to attack “U.S.-based Jewish individuals and interests.”
Demand for NSGP grants has typically far outstripped funding availability, a trend which is expected to continue this year despite the funding increase. Grant awards for 2021 have not yet been announced.
The letter is signed by a broad spectrum of members of Congress, including progressive Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) as well as conservative Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Steve Stivers (R-OH).
In the Senate, progress on considering NSGP funding for 2022 appears to be moving more slowly. When contacted by JI last week, senators from both parties who had been particularly vocal in favor of increased NSGP funding in the past declined to provide specific funding targets for the coming year, but emphasized their commitment to the program.
“Just as I have for years, I will be leading the fight for critical [fiscal year 2022] Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) funding again this year after securing a historic high of $180 million last year due to increased threats against the Jewish community,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told JI last week. “The recent antisemitic attacks in Riverdale and across the country are concerning, and warrant a strong response from legislators. I will always stand with and fight for the safety of Jewish people. No one should fear for their lives because of how they worship and who they are.”
The $360 million funding target has received support from a range of Jewish groups lobbying on the issue, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America.
On Saturday, voters in Texas’s 6th congressional district in the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth area will narrow down the field of nearly two dozen candidates vying to replace Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX), who died of COVID-19 in early February. With such a large field in the special election, a final resolution to the race is not likely on Saturday, and a runoff between the top two finishers is all but assured.
On Monday, former President Trump shook up the race with a last-minute endorsement of Susan Wright, a local GOP operative and the widow of the late congressman, a major blow to former Health and Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison. Trump ramped up his involvement later in the week with a virtual town hall for Wright’s campaign on Thursday. Harrison, who had been seen as a strong Republican competitor, has played up his role in the Trump administration in an effort to attract the former president’s supporters.
Trump’s endorsement of Wright was also a further blow to Dan Rodimer, a former World Wrestling Entertainment performer. Rodimer, already largely a sideshow in this race, had been boasting that he received Trump’s support in a 2020 congressional race in Nevada’s 3rd congressional district.
On Wednesday, the conservative Club for Growth also formally lent its muscle to Wright’s campaign, announcing it was endorsing her and launching a radio ad touting Trump’s endorsement. The group had already been involved in the race, running attack ads against Republican State Rep. Jake Ellzey, who is also in the race.
It’s unclear, however, how much of an impact this last-minute push for Wright will actually have on the race, due in part to the large number of people who cast their ballots before early voting ended on Tuesday. The early votes are expected to constitute a majority of the total vote in the election — potentially up to 75% of the overall ballots, according to Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University.
Even so, argued Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, Trump’s endorsement will likely prove to be a boon to Wright on election day.
“Republican voters tend to like to vote on election day. Republicans tend to bank a lower share of their vote in the early voting than Democrats do,” he said. “An endorsement this late in the game on the Republican side is more helpful than it would have been on the Democratic side.”
Although several GOP candidates in the race were actively vying for Trump’s attention and support, local analysts say the former president’s endorsement is likely more reflective of the fact that Wright has been seen as a serious contender rather than of political dynamics within the race or the Republican Party.
“Trump is very concerned that his batting average be as high as possible,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at SMU. “Trump would not be reluctant to endorse the person he already thought was going to win. So it wouldn’t be the endorsement that put Susan Wright over the top. It would be Trump’s recognition that she was likely to be the Republican nominee and you pick up an easy win.”
Wilson added, “The presence of the widow of the deceased congressman potentially blunts and muddies a little bit this sort of Trump versus anti-Trump factional dispute within the Republican Party.”
Rep. Wright only served one full term in Congress, having succeeded longtime Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX).
Polling in the race has been mostly consistent, showing Wright and Democratic organizer and former journalist Jana Lynne Sanchez several percentage points ahead of the rest of the pack. But with so many candidates and relatively low margins, local experts remain somewhat divided over how Saturday’s results will pan out.
“There will be a June runoff. There is no doubt about that. The doubt is primarily related to who is in that runoff competing against Susan Wright,” Jones said. To avoid a runoff, a candidate needs to garner 50% of the vote.
Jones envisions three potential runoff opponents for Wright — Sanchez, Ellzey and Democratic nonprofit leader and educator Shawn Lassiter. Wilson sees Lydia Bean, an author and sociology professor, as a stronger candidate than Lassiter. In any scenario, Wright is likely to emerge victorious following the runoff.
Each of the candidates falls largely within the mainstream of their parties — Wright, Sanchez and Bean all told JI in March that COVID-19 relief would be among their top issues. Ellzey is focused on border security, the Biden administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and a planned high-speed rail project through the district. According to her campaign site, Lassiter will focus on issues like COVID-19 recovery, expanding Medicare, improving schools and reforming the immigration system.
Ahead of Trump’s endorsement, Harrison had picked up steam using his significant fundraising war chest — he raised nearly $650,000 as of early April. He was also the only candidate in the race running campaign advertisements on television.
“The Trump last-minute endorsement of Wright really took the wind out of Harris’s sails because any attempt to claim he was the true Trump candidate… evaporated once President Trump endorsed Wright,” Jones said.
Ellzey was also buoyed by strong fundraising — more than $500,00 total, plus strong support from the Republican establishment in his home county. Republicans, including Club for Growth and Wright’s campaign, have sought to cast him as an anti-Trumper — a distinction that might ultimately prove to be a boon to Ellzey in a potential runoff.
“The Wright campaign is very worried about getting in a runoff with Ellzey because Wright herself is not a particularly strong candidate.” Jones said. “In a head-to-head race, I think their belief is that Ellzey is a better quality candidate… In a runoff, he would be able to get a lot of Republican votes, but then some Democrats would vote for him simply because he wasn’t Wright.”
Jillson is more pessimistic about Ellzey’s chances, particularly without Trump’s support.
“Most Republicans take Trump very seriously,” he said. “I don’t think that leaves enough Republican voters who might appreciate that little bit of independence [from Trump] that you see from Ellzey enough to make it competitive.”
Wilson added that most Democrats would likely stay home for a two-Republican runoff race, rather than turning out to vote for Ellzey in sufficient numbers to boost him over Wright.
Wright’s fundraising operation has been comparatively weak. She raised $286,000, placing her sixth in total fundraising. Her biggest strengths have been local name recognition and connections — she’s been involved in local politics for a long time, separately from her husband’s congressional service — and the traditional advantage of being the widow of a deceased representative, according to Texas politicos.
On the Democratic side, Sanchez has been working to lock down enough of the Democratic vote to propel her into a runoff. According to Jones, Lassiter, who is Black, may be the biggest Democratic threat to Sanchez’s shot at a runoff slot should she secure the majority of the Black vote in the district. Lassiter also outraised Sanchez by more than $30,000.
“About one-fifth of the voters in [the district] are African American, and [Lassiter is] the one viable African-American candidate,” Jones said. “If she can ramp up African-American turnout and get most of that vote, then that could propel her into the runoff.”
Wilson is more skeptical of such a scenario. He believes that a strong showing among Black voters for Lassiter would not be sufficient to make the runoff, but could potentially help launch Ellzey ahead of Sanchez and into the runoff.
Wilson sees Bean as the greatest threat to Sanchez from the Democratic side, and Sanchez’s attacks on Bean may reflect that she shares a similar view.
“I think Sanchez believes she competes for votes with Bean, whereas Lassiter’s threat to Sanchez is that she overwhelmingly mobilizes African Americans to turnout and vote for her, so you don’t want to attack her because that’s just going to draw attention to her,” Jones said. “Sanchez is worried about Bean drawing off a sufficiently large number of her voters such that Ellzey or Lassiter is able to leapfrog her and get into the runoff against Wright.”
Should a Democrat make the runoff, they’re likely to be able to put up a good fight in the district, which has been trending increasingly towards Democrats in recent years. However it remains majority-Republican, and it’s likely that most of this maneuvering will be largely moot.
“I think it remains the case that the grieving widow is the most likely candidate to emerge at the end of the day — that Susan Wright would have to be regarded as a favorite to win the seat,” Wilson said.
Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, a small group of friends in New York and Israel were hanging out on Zoom, discussing the daunting prospect of dating in lockdown.
The product of their conversation was CoronaCrush, a private Facebook group for Jewish singles looking to couple up in quarantine. It took off. Within a week or so, CoronaCrush had attracted some 2,600 members from around the globe, a digital repository of hopeful personal ads posted in an uncertain time. A month later, users saw the addition of a virtual speed-dating service and then a matchmaking component, seeded with funding from American donors.
Now a registered nonprofit, CoronaCrush boasts around 20,000 members, with a matchmaking database of nearly 8,000 users who are “looking to get married,” according to Ian Mark, a CoronaCrush co-founder who lives in Jerusalem. “We set it up because it was meant to be serious dating,” Mark told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.
Maybe there would even be some engagements, the founders thought. “We thought three would be cool just because it’s a classic number,” said Ben Lang, another co-founder. “If you help three people get engaged you go to heaven, that whole thing.”
The current tally, however, has far exceeded his expectations. There are currently seven couples who first met on CoronaCrush and have since gotten engaged, according to Lang, who suspects the number may be even higher because some couples likely haven’t made their engagements public. “Seven is a lot more than we thought,” Lang said.
“There have been sooooo many engagements!” Bracha Katsof, who helped create the group, added delightedly in a WhatsApp exchange from Tel Aviv. “It’s crazy to me that a year ago these people weren’t connected at all,” she said, “and they were willing to take a risk to put themselves out there online in order to meet someone. And it worked!”
JI spoke with three engaged couples about how they came to find love in an age of isolation. Here are their stories.
Anglos in Israel
Daniella Cohen, a 27-year-old grant writer at the Jewish Agency for Israel, wasn’t getting her hopes up about finding a partner when she began scrolling through CoronaCrush while confined to her Jerusalem apartment last year. But it was an amusing diversion nonetheless. “It was very humorous to read the posts,” she said recently. “It was something to entertain us.”
Until it was more than that. She happened upon a post from Betzalel Silver, a 34-year-old software developer living about an hour’s drive away in Givat Shmuel. “This group was really interesting,” said Silver, who grew up in Israel but whose parents made aliyah from New York. He felt like he could find, as he joked, “a good Anglo girl,” referring to a native English speaker in Israel.
Cohen, who made aliyah nine years ago from South Africa, was attracted to Silver’s humor, “liked” his post and sent him a private message, which went directly to his spam folder. Silver, however, saw the “like,” and fired off a note of his own. “I didn’t realize that she’d messaged me first,” he recalled.
No matter. After messaging on Facebook, they talked on the phone and soon agreed to meet in a Jerusalem park in late May. The scene, in retrospect, was almost too auspicious. “There were like three other proposals happening there and a renewing of vows under this chuppa,” Cohen told JI. “It was very special.”
The couple had good chemistry and made each other laugh. It also helped that they had similar religious and cultural backgrounds. Though Silver was born in Israel, “he’s very much Anglo because of his family,” said Cohen. “It was really nice for me in that we have a common language.”
The hard part was maintaining the relationship as they navigated a series of lockdowns, but they made it work. “We had to keep seeing each other,” Silver said, “and we took a lot of risks just driving back and forth.”
“It was really a great time to have this relationship in our lives,” said Silver, who was unemployed for the first three months of the pandemic but found a reason to stay positive when he met Cohen. “We were so bummed out being in our apartments all day and all week.”
“We had to spend a lot of time indoors,” Cohen said. “We got to know each other more through that.”
They got engaged in February. “I wanted to keep it as much a secret as I could,” said Silver, who proposed at a wine-tasting and then ushered his new fiancée to a surprise engagement party at which some family members were waiting. “It was really beautiful,” Cohen said. “He wrote me a song.”
“I’m going to sing it also at the wedding in two months,” said Silver.
Crossing the border
Sivan Bokobza, a 26-year-old phlebotomist in Cedarhurst, N.Y., likewise had relatively low expectations when she joined CoronaCrush. As an intermittent Facebook user, she had forgotten all about the group until a friend who was also on CoronaCrush drew her back in a couple of months into the pandemic. “She’s like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is so your type. Can I message him for you?’” Bokobza told JI. “I was like, ‘Uh, sure, I guess.’”
Lior Ohayon, 28 and living in Toronto as an e-commerce professional, was the guy. “I just texted her and then ended up talking for around two months,” he said. They bonded over their shared Sephardic heritage and had the same religious values. It also didn’t hurt that they were both unintimidated by the pandemic, and Ohayon flew to New York last July so they could meet for the first time.
Whether they would connect as well in person as they did on the phone was a separate, though ultimately unfounded, concern. “I was definitely nervous about that,” said Bokobza. “At the beginning, I was definitely way more shy than I am now. But there really wasn’t a dramatic difference. It wasn’t like, ‘Whoa, this is not what it’s like on the phone.’ We were both pretty much ourselves the whole time.”
“We connected instantly,” said Ohayon, who spent three days in New York. “The first time we met I pretty much just asked her to be my girlfriend.”
In doing so, Ohayon said, he was breaking a long-held pledge that he would never date someone from New York. “I don’t like the city,” he said. “It’s funny how it turned that around.”
Things progressed quickly from there. Ohayon went back to New York every few weeks or so from Toronto, or they would meet in Los Angeles and Miami, observing Shabbat at local Chabad houses. In November, Bokobza, who had been restricted from traveling to Canada because of the pandemic, earned an exemption and flew to Toronto to meet Ohayon’s family.
“When I met his friends and family it became more serious and real, and I got to see more of him and understand him more,” Bokobza said, adding that it was a “pivotal moment” in their relationship when he met her family as well.
In January, Ohayon relocated to Tulum, Mexico, where he set up a temporary office and planned to propose, having secreted a ring from New York without Bokobza’s notice. “I was throwing her off,” he said.
In March, Bokobza flew to Tulum, where, after dinner one Sunday night, Ohayon ushered her up to a romantic lookout beside a pool, at the bottom of which were arrayed a series of stones asking her to marry him. Ohayon, who had hidden the ring in a tote bag stuffed with jeans, had arranged for a covert photographer to capture the moment. Their friends came later for a party.
“I did not expect to get engaged during this,” Ohayon told JI, adding that they are planning to get married in August, likely in New York, and considering moving to Miami.
Bokobza agreed: “I could have never predicted that I would meet a stranger on Facebook during a pandemic in a group made to bring strangers together during a pandemic.”
Tennessee for two
Drew Feldman, 30, and Danielle Lavey, 28, had been talking via Zoom for about a month after connecting on CoronaCrush when they decided to meet in person. Feldman, a filmmaker who was living in Dallas at the time, flew to Lavey’s home in Knoxville, Tenn., got a COVID test and decided that he had made the right decision risking his health to meet the woman he now knew he would marry. After a few trips back and forth, he stayed put. “I moved here to date Danielle more seriously and then stuck around,” Feldman said.
“It was pretty clear that this was something very serious from very early on,” said Lavey, who works as a healthcare consultant and believes that the pandemic brought them closer together. “It just made time for us to really get to know each other.”
“I was moving a lot and traveling a lot for a variety of projects, which personally made it challenging to date, and the pandemic actually forced me to slow down and kind of stay put for a little bit,” Feldman added. “It’s been amazing. I’ve worked in one place for longer, in this pandemic, than I have in the last probably decade of my life, in terms of moving around. So I think it created a space and ability to have the time and opening to get to know Danielle more deeply.”
Soon enough, they were discussing getting engaged, but Feldman surprised her with a backyard movie screening at which he aired a short film, now available on Facebook, about their relationship, and asked Lavey to marry him. “We had a mazel tov over Zoom afterwards,” she said.
The wedding, which they described as a COVID-safe ceremony in the Smoky Mountains, is scheduled for May 6. It has been difficult to coordinate, not least because Knoxville has few kosher food options. They were forced to find catering in Atlanta.
“All the time we had to date, and the fun and the romance of our time before, has quickly been hidden by all the wedding planning,” Feldman said. “Lately, it’s just been work, work, work. I think we’re both very excited to have the wedding and move past the wedding planning and get back to just getting to spend time with each other.”
Not that the wedding won’t be special. “We’re having an Orthodox wedding with a bluegrass band that’s from Dolly Parton’s hometown,” said Lavey. “We’re probably going to be the first to do that.”
During the address to a joint session of Congress, Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP Pool
President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., look on.
In a speech to a mostly empty House of Representatives chamber, President Joe Biden spoke at length about what he sees as his accomplishments in the first 100 days of his administration and elaborated on his goals and initiatives for the coming year.
Biden’s speech largely focused on his signature proposals — the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan and coronavirus relief efforts — but touched on a broad range of issues facing the nation.
In particular, the president highlighted white nationalist terrorism as the most pressing security threat to American citizens. Biden, defending his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, said that the threat of terrorism has evolved.
“We won’t ignore what our own intelligence agencies have determined — the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today is from white supremacist terrorism,” Biden said. “White supremacy is terrorism and we will not ignore that.”
Biden’s speech only mentioned Iran once, in passing, as his administration’s efforts to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal remain ongoing.
“On Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs that present a serious threat to America’s security and world security — we will be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries through diplomacy and stern deterrence,” Biden said.
Immediate reactions to the speech were predictably partisan: Democratic lawmakers largely praised Biden’s address and his initiatives, while Republicans were generally critical of the president’s sweeping plans for federal spending.
One notable exception was freshman Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), who expressed concerns about Biden’s immigration policies. Arizona — a swing state — is on the frontlines of the ongoing migrant surge at the border, and Kelly faces reelection in 2022.
“While I share President Biden’s urgency in fixing our broken immigration system, what I didn’t hear tonight was a plan to address the immediate crisis at the border, and I will continue holding this administration accountable,” Kelly said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), another critical centrist vote necessary to pass Biden’s agenda, largely dodged questions from reporters about the massive spending packages that took center stage in Biden’s address, saying he hadn’t seen the full plans yet.
“The bottom line is he has to be able to pay for it, we have to look at the payfors,” Manchin said.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who Republicans selected to deliver the GOP’s response to Biden, grabbed attention for pushing back on Biden’s characterizations of racial issues and divides within the U.S., and closed his remarks by reciting a blessing from Numbers 6:25. Scott said the prayer had “really helped me through this past year of COVID.”
Reactions from the Jewish community touched on a range of subjects from the speech.
“We were thrilled that President Biden prioritized the COVID-19 Hate Crime Act, which included the NO HATE Act as part of addressing the increase of hate-motivated attacks and we hope that the House passes this legislation soon,” Elana Broitman, the Jewish Federations of North America’s senior vice president for public affairs, told JI after the speech. “And, of course, the emphasis on infrastructure should include funding for the social service sector which the Jewish community has heavily invested in over the years.”
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, praised Biden’s plans for programs supporting children and families.
“Judaism teaches that safeguarding economic stability and supporting those in need are fundamental obligations of tzedek, or justice,” Pesner said in a statement. “We welcome the significant investments proposed in the American Families Plan to address the scourge of economic inequality and uplift millions of poor and middle-class Americans — especially People of Color, who experience disproportionate obstacles to prosperity due to systemic racism embedded in our nation for generations.”
Wednesday’s joint session address was like no other in recent memory. The chamber, usually filled with members of Congress, their families and cabinet members, was largely empty, with most seats blocked off for social distancing. The Capitol Building also remains ringed by a security fence and National Guard troops, a reminder of the violent insurrection during the last joint session of Congress, on January 6.
The 200 members of Congress who did secure coveted tickets to the event included House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH) and Rick Scott (R-FL).
After the speech, Malliotakis was spotted chatting with Biden on the floor, and handing him a business card. Portman was also seen talking to Biden following the speech, as was Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) — a former sheriff — who said he wanted to work with Biden on police reform issues.
Ahead of the speech, Biden fist-bumped House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY). He also extended an olive branch to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) with an unscripted line praising McConnell for naming a cancer research bill after Biden’s son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt joined Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast” hosts Jarrod Bernstein and Rich Goldberg this week to discuss antisemitism, online hate and the ADL’s new report on antisemitic incidents in 2020.
By the numbers: “Our 25 offices around the country collect this data all year long,” said Greenblatt of the new ADL report on 2020, issued this week. “And it’s submitted to us directly by victims or synagogues or schools or law enforcement officials. We might hear a media report and then we check up on it. We verify every incident that we report. So it’s all very credible, bulletproof data.” Greenblatt said the report shows that despite the COVID lockdown in 2020, “we still saw the third-highest total of antisemitic incidents we’ve ever tracked at ADL.” The ADL CEO said the organization was surprised by the figures, because it expected antisemitism to drop last year “dramatically, because no one was on a college campus. Offices were closed. Schools were shuttered. People weren’t going to worship in synagogues.”
On IHRA: Greenblatt weighed in on the controversy over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, and the proliferation of other definitions, which he called a “great example of a tempest in a teapot.” The IHRA definition, he said, “was an intellectually honest and objective and scholarly effort to develop a consensus definition.” ADL adopted the IHRA definition in 2018, Greenblatt said, but he doesn’t believe it should be used “as a piece of policy… it’s intended to inform a process, not to be a process.” The ADL CEO added that he therefore views efforts to create new definitions to be “a real waste of time.”
Misplaced efforts: Greenblatt noted that he had personally expressed his opposition to a letter being circulated by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) encouraging Secretary of State Tony Blinken to consider alternative definitions to that of the IHRA. “I don’t think we need any new definitions,” he recalled telling her in a recent conversation. “I wish Congresswoman Schakowsky — who I like very much, she’s an excellent legislator — and all of these other individuals would take their energy and channel it toward actually addressing antisemitism itself, because that’s where we really need help.”
Lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word? “Tachlis. It translates roughly to like, ‘What’s the meat of the issue? What’s the real deal? So I like that a lot. Because I always want to try to talk tachlis with people. And just, like, cut to the chase.” Favorite Jewish food?Ashkenazi: Matzah brei. Mizrahi: Gondi Tehrani.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is endorsing former federal prosecutor Alvin Bragg in the jam-packed race for Manhattan district attorney.
“He is the only candidate who’s got both the policy experience and the executive experience to run a very large criminal justice organization,” Nadler said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “Lots of people can have good intentions, but this is a massive organization and you have to have shown that you can run a massive organization. He’s really the only one who has.”
Before Bragg entered the race, he worked as New York’s chief deputy attorney general from 2017 to 2018, where some of his most notable cases included suing Harvey Weinstein and the Trump administration. Previously, he served in the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, among other roles.
Nadler, a 15-term congressman who represents a district covering most of Manhattan’s West Side as well as parts of South Brooklyn, said he spoke with each of the eight candidates vying to succeed Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., who is not seeking reelection. Bragg’s extensive resume and progressive policy agenda, he said, ultimately won him over.
“He’s pushed to make the office the progressive leader it should be in criminal justice reform,” Nadler said, adding that Bragg had “taken the lead” on “refusing to criminalize poverty and ending racial disparities, on demanding justice for survivors of sexual assault, on making incarceration a measure of last resort.”
“It’s extraordinarily meaningful for me personally to earn the support of someone with his track record for impacting justice,” Bragg said of Nadler’s endorsement, citing the congressman’s recent introduction of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed in the House last month.
Bragg, 47, said he spoke with Nadler a couple of times as the congressman was weighing his endorsement.
“We talked about substantive issues, about work that I’ve done, legislation that he’s worked on, ideas for reform in the future,” Bragg told JI. “It was a very engaging, probing, substantive conversation about my background, but really just about ideas for reform and how we can make the changes that we so desperately need in our system.”
Bragg, whom one expert has characterized as a pragmatic progressive, vows to reduce mass incarceration, deprioritize prosecuting low-level crimes, establish an independent unit for police accountability and revamp the DA’s hate crimes unit, among other goals.
Born and raised in Harlem, Bragg was wrongly held at gunpoint by the police a number of times, early experiences that influenced his decision to become a lawyer. He attended Harvard University, where he was president of the Black Students Association, and is now a visiting professor at New York Law School. He lives in Harlem with his wife and two children.
Along with Nadler’s endorsement, Bragg has earned the backing of former Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), former New York Gov. David Paterson and Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Earlier this month, Bragg earned the support of Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University whose endorsements are viewed as a stamp of approval in progressive circles. On Tuesday, Bragg was endorsed by four members of the Central Park Five.
With no available public polling, the race remains something of a black box, but Bragg believes his campaign is gaining momentum as the June 22 primary approaches. “Our message is resonating,” he said.
Over vociferous Republican opposition, the Senate confirmed Colin Kahl as under secretary of defense for policy Tuesday evening, bringing to an end the pitched battle over one of President Joe Biden’s most divisive nominees.
Kahl, who was confirmed by a party-line vote of 49-44, faced a slow path to confirmation amid unanimous GOP opposition and uncertain supportfrom keycentrist Democrats. Republican opponents primarily cited Kahl’s history of tweets harshly criticizing Republican lawmakers and his support for the Iran nuclear deal as central concerns. Most recently, several Republicans accused Kahl of leaking classified information and called for his confirmation to be delayed until the FBI investigates.
Republican absences on Tuesday averted the need for Vice President Kamala Harris to break what otherwise would likely have been a tie vote on Kahl, as she did last week on a procedural vote to advance his nomination.
During the pre-vote debate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivered a fiery speech in opposition to the nomination.
“I have come to believe Colin Kahl’s judgment is irreparably marred by obsessive animosity towards Israel. I can think of no other way to explain his years of consistently wrong views regarding the Middle East,” Cruz argued. “I challenge my Democratic colleagues to explain one simple thing: what other explanation, other than animosity to the world’s only Jewish state, could possibly account for all of these staggeringly wrong judgments?”
Kahl’s commentary on Twitter included “a pernicious antisemitic conspiracy theory — a blood libel,” Cruz added. The senator claimed that Kahl is “virulently anti-Israel” and said that Senate Democrats’ support for Kahl indicated that they are not true supporters of Israel.
“You cannot vote to confirm a rabid anti-Israel conspiracy theory-tweeting radical to the number-three position in the Department of Defense and then claim you are a reliable friend of Israel,” Cruz said, pounding his hand on his podium. “He has a lifelong obsession with and antipathy to the State of Israel and he’s demonstrated a willingness to endanger Israeli lives and American lives to advance that hostility.”
The Democratic reaction to Kahl’s confirmation was muted. None of the Senate Democrats contacted by Jewish Insider, including all of the Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, immediately responded to requests for comment on Kahl’s confirmation, nor issued public statements.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who noted that he has supported the administration’s other Pentagon nominees, also spoke out against Kahl on the floor prior to the vote, describing him as a “political hack” and “partisan internet troll” lacking the “temperament” and “judgment” for the position.
“I believe that he has the potential to be a liability to our national security and our defense and not to be viewed favorably by the men and women he is supposed to lead,” Sullivan said.
Following the vote, some of Kahl’s GOP opponents pledged to attempt to work productively with him in his new position at the Pentagon.
“I vow to work in good faith with Dr. Kahl and his team, as I do with every Senate-confirmed official at the Department of Defense. In turn, I hope Dr. Kahl intends to do the same — to work closely with all members of the Senate, not just the ones with a ‘D’ next to their name,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said in a statement. “I hope his apology before the committee was sincere and that he approaches this job with better judgment, commitment to bipartisanship and respect than he’s demonstrated so far.”
Others were less magnanimous. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who led the effort to launch an FBI investigation into Kahl, lambasted both Kahl and Senate Democrats.
“All of my Democrat colleagues have chosen to jeopardize our national security and place Colin Kahl, a known leaker of classified information, as the Pentagon’s third highest-ranking civilian,” Hagerty said. “Instead of simply waiting for the FBI investigation, Senate Democrats, with the help of the vice president last week, chose to force a nominee through whose judgment and temperament are unfit for the job. I fear this is a sad victory for America’s adversaries around the world.”
Malka refused to let cerebral palsy limit her life ambitions. Shira battled bulimia and metastatic cancer to finally reach a place of self-acceptance. Aviva is working to break the stigma of bipolar disorder. Lucie struggled to find a support system after converting from Catholicism to Judaism in France. Zehava never felt like she fit in anywhere until she settled in Israel with her interracial Chabad family.
For four years, Shira Lankin Sheps, 33, has been telling the stories of Jewish women and their unique struggles and challenges via social media, through The Layers Project. Now, in a new book from Koren Publishers, titled Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women, Lankin Sheps spotlights 34 women from around the globe and tells their own unique, deeply personal and oftentimes painful stories. The book arrived on shelves in North America earlier this month, and will be released in Israel in the coming weeks.
“I think as women, there are just such unrealistic expectations that society places on us and such unrealistic expectations that we place on ourselves,” Lankin Sheps told Jewish Insider during a recent interview at a cafe in north Jerusalem. Jewish women in particular, and observant Jewish women even more so, often feel an extra burden to be the perfect wife, mother, career woman, chef, chauffeur and everything in between, she said. And if any one of those layers shift out of place, it can upend your sense of self.
“Anything that prohibits you, or is a barrier to being all the things that are expected of you, or that you’ve been acculturated or raised to expect of yourself, is incredibly painful and can be shameful,” Lankin Sheps suggested.
The mom and trained social worker first set off on this journey after her own personal struggle — one she kept quiet for a long time. For an extended period, she suffered from an undiagnosed chronic illness that left her largely bed-bound, and unable to work or care for her family. But she hid her sickness from most of her friends.
“I was very ashamed, but it was so dumb,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just sick,” she recalled. “At a certain point, I realized that the shame was killing me faster than the illness.”
Lankin Sheps opened up about her experience in a blog post, and the reactions came flooding in. “I got a really huge influx of support,” she said, “that was very surprising to me.”
While she wasn’t well enough to begin working as a social worker, Lankin Sheps started to pick up photography. But soon she felt a yearning to undertake a project imbued with greater meaning. She issued a call looking for women who were interested in opening up about their challenges, their struggles and the stigmas that come along with them.
“Twenty women messaged me in the first hour,” she recalled. At first she was shocked that so many women were willing to be so open and vulnerable on the internet. “And then I stopped being surprised. And I started to get it.”
For four years, Lankin Sheps has told the stories of women facing infertility, depression, anxiety, cancer, terrorism, racism, divorce, abuse, widowhood, eating disorders, grief and countless other challenges. In a series of photos accompanying Facebook and Instagram posts — and more recently on her online magazine — she delves into some of the most painful details of women’s lives, telling each story in a style reminiscent of that made famous by Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton.
And she chooses her subjects — who generally approach her — with great caution.
“The people who I choose to work with are people that want to be activists for their cause,” she said. “It is really very, very difficult to be so emotionally vulnerable online.”
Lankin Sheps works carefully with each woman to ensure they are ready to come forward and be fully public with their stories. She speaks with each woman often for hours, and travels to photograph them in their own spaces, where they feel most comfortable and free. Her photographs are intended to showcase the women at their most comfortable, at ease with themselves and their stories.
“It’s a very careful process to ensure that people are ready and healthy,” she said. While she is not currently a practicing social worker, “all my clinical skills are at play every single day,” she added. “This is clinical work. It’s communal work, it’s writing for social change. And it’s very intentional and specific.”
The book — and the magazine — was written in consultation with Rachel Hercman, a practicing psychotherapist based in Manhattan. “She carried the load with me,” said Lankin Sheps. “Her insights were integral to the process.”
In 2018, a year and a half into her Layers Project journey, Lankin Sheps and her family moved from New Jersey to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. Within a few days of her aliya, she was approached about turning the project into a book. After a few bumps along the way, she signed a deal with Koren Publishers to photograph and tell the stories of dozens of women living in Israel.
And she selected each profile for the book with great care. Though she and Koren initially agreed on 25, she felt strongly that these 34 women all needed to be included. “I wanted to make sure that there were women from all over the world featured,” she said. “These women are immigrants and they’re refugees, very few of them are sabras. I really wanted to capture the immigrant experience.”
Photographing, writing and editing the book — which was delayed and updated due to COVID-19 — was an intense experience for Lankin Sheps. But she is immensely proud of the final product.
“It’s going to leave you feeling broken and whole and inspired and sad and joyful — and moved,” she said, noting that she dropped early copies off with friends along with a box of tissues.
When she first started out, Lankin Sheps said, a lot of the issues she chronicled were not nearly as common on social media as they are today.
“The landscape of social media is radically different today than when we first started,” she said. “Social media was a highlight reel. It was just the best of the best. It was just your perfect, filtered happy moments. That’s what it was back then; it was really toxic.”
But the posts she began sharing that talked about women’s fears, struggles and journeys received near-unanimous support from those who read them. The community that sprung up around the Layers Project was supportive, empathetic and energized.
And while she doesn’t shy away from tough topics, Lankin Sheps says she is cautious and considered in her approach.
“I think that social justice writing or social change writing has to be done from the inside,” she said. “I know my community, and it requires a really slow moving of the dial; you have to just keep moving the line forward really slowly. You have to keep gaining trust, you have to keep having those really important conversations, you have to keep resonating with them. And you have to do it in a way that’s healthy for the community — that they’re ready for it.”
Lankin Sheps estimates that about 80% of her regular readers online are women. But she is optimistic that a greater number of men will take an interest in the stories and in the book.
“I really think it’s tremendously important for men to care about our issues,” she said, “and want us to come to the table and want to listen to what we have to say and what hurts us and what heals us.”
With the book finally out in the world, Lankin Sheps is thinking about her next project, and dabbling in writing fiction for the first time. After all, she said, the profiles in the book and in the Layers Project are not her own stories or told in her voice.
“These stories are not my own words,” she said. “It’s their voices, their words. I’m just there to shape it, to photograph it, to give it context and to put it out into the world.”