(JTA) —The following reviews the highlights in North America from the Jewish year 5780

September 2019

New York City names Deborah Lauter, formerly of the Anti-Defamation League, to head its new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. The creation of the office follows a report showing a sixty-four percent rise in hate crimes in the city in the first months of 2019, with attacks on Jews nearly doubling to one hundred ten from fifty-eight over the same period the year before. 

Employees of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette donate their Pulitzer Prize money to the Tree of Life synagogue, where a gunman killed eleven worshippers in 2018. The newspaper won the prize in April for its coverage of the synagogue shooting. Executive Editor Keith Burris presented a fifteen thousand dollar check to the synagogue’s rabbi and president, saying the newspaper feels “bound to you and your congregations – by memory and duty.”

Robert Frank, the influential photographer best known for his groundbreaking book “The Americans,” dies at 94. The son of a German refugee from the Nazis, Frank grew up in Switzerland during World War II and the threat of Nazism impacted his understanding of oppression, according to an obituary in The New York Times.

Purdue Pharma files for bankruptcy as part of a twelve billion dollar settlement of multiple lawsuits alleging the company fueled an epidemic of opioid addiction in the United States by continuing to market the painkiller Oxycontin even as it became clear the drug was not safe. The settlement also removed the company from the control of the Sackler family, at one point the thirteenth richest family in the United States and a major funder of Jewish causes, including the medical school at Tel Aviv University, which bears the family name, and the Jewish Museum in New York. 

A fire destroyed Adas Israel Synagogue in Duluth, Minnesota, a Modern Orthodox congregation established in the late 1800s. A homeless man, who had taken shelter in an alcove outside the building, later pleaded guilty to negligent fire charges. Police did not consider the fire to be motivated by hate. 

October 2019

The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion installs former political science professor Andrew Rehfeld as its tenth president. Rehfeld, the first non-rabbi to lead the movement’s rabbinical school, succeeds Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died in a plane crash in 2018. 

New York Democrat Nita Lowey, one of the most influential Jewish lawmakers and a pro-Israel stalwart, announces she will not seek re-election to Congress. Lowey, 82, was the first woman to chair the Appropriations Committee, the lower chamber’s most powerful committee.

The New York Police Department reports that the number of hate crimes against Jews in the city rose to one hundred sixty eight from one hundred eight in the same period the year before. The NYPD report was released weeks before the American Jewish Committee announced the results of a survey of American Jews which found that nearly nine in 10 believed anti-Semitism to be a problem in the United States, with nearly seventy-five percent disapproving of President Donald Trump’s handling of the matter. The telephone survey of approximately a thousand three hundred Jewish adults had a margin of error of 4.2 percent.

The Pittsburgh synagogue where eleven worshippers were killed in October 2018 announces that the building will reopen as a center for Jewish life. The vision for the Tree of Life facility is to create a space for Jewish worship, education, social engagement and exhibition statement. The idea was announced just days before the one-year anniversary of the attack, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. 

Harold Bloom, the influential literary critic born to a Yiddish-speaking family of Orthodox Jewish immigrants, dies at 89. A member of the faculty at Yale University since 1955, Bloom was a fierce defender of the Western literary canon, as well as the author of dozens of books. 

A new population study estimates that the American Jewish population has grown ten percent in the last seven years, to seven and a half million. The study, based on an analysis of data from approximately a hundred and fifty independent surveys by researchers at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute, also found that the American Jewish community is mostly liberal, college educated and overwhelmingly white. 

November 2019

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Jewish National Security Council staffer whose firsthand knowledge of a phone call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine made him a key figure in the House impeachment inquiry of the president, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee. Vindman, who emigrated from Ukraine to the United States as a child, pushed back forcefully against attacks on his loyalty to the United States. 

Breaking with decades of U.S. government policy, the Trump administration says it will no longer regard West Bank Jewish settlement as illegal. In a news conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the American position would now be that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements is not per se inconsistent with international law.”

The FBI’s annual hate crimes report says that hate crimes against American Jews decreased eleven percent overall in 2018, but Jews were again the victims of a majority of hate crimes based on religion. The 2018 Hate Crimes Statistics Report found that of 1,419 incidents of hate, Jews were targeted in 835 of them, or about fifty-eight percent of the total. 

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen described the major social media networks as “the greatest propaganda machine in history” in a speech marking his receipt of an international leadership award from the Anti-Defamation League. Cohen spent much of his 15-minute speech specifically criticizing Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg for failing to police inaccurate political advertising on the platform. 

Several major Jewish groups — including the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism and the rabbinical associations of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements — call on the Trump administration to fire adviser Stephen Miller for promoting hate speech. The call came weeks after the publication of hundreds of emails from Miller that contained racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

December 2019

An assailant wielding a machete enters a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York and stabs multiple people in the midst of a Hanukkah party. The attacker, Grafton Thomas, is arrested within hours and found to have journals with references to Adolf Hitler. One of the victims, Josef Neumann, dies of his wounds three months later. 

Three people are killed in a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. After killing a police officer in a nearby park, the two shooters drove to the JC Kosher Supermarket and killed the store’s owner, an employee and a customer. Both attackers died in a shootout with police. 

Richard Alpert, the world-renowned spiritual teacher better known as Ram Dass, dies at 88. Born into a prominent Jewish family in suburban Boston — his father, George, helped found Brandeis University — Alpert was fired from the faculty of Harvard University along with Timothy Leary for their experiments with the hallucinogen LSD. Alpert subsequently traveled to India and returned as a white-robed spiritual teacher. 

Two Jewish lawmakers lead the proceedings as the House of Representatives votes to impeach President Donald Trump. Democrats Adam Schiff of California and Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairmen of the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees respectively, led the investigation of the president that led the House to adopt two articles of impeachment against the president. Trump is the third president in American history to be impeached, but was ultimately acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate. 


January 2020

An estimated twenty-five thousand people march in New York City in a rally against rising anti-Semitism. The rally, attended by the state’s most senior political leaders, including the governor and both U.S. senators, comes following a spate of attacks on Jews, including a stabbing attack at a rabbi’s home and a shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey as well as a stream of verbal and physical assaults on Jews in areas of Brooklyn with large Orthodox populations. The rally’s slogan was “No hate, no fear.” 

President Donald Trump unveils his much-awaited Middle East peace plan at a news conference at the White House attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under the terms of the hundred and eighty one page plan developed by Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, Israel would extend its laws to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinians would establish an autonomous state in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Over ninety thousand people mark the completion of the seven and a half year cycle of Talmud study known as Daf Yomi at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Another few thousands watched the event by video hookup from the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. The event, organized by Agudath Israel of America, was the thirteenth completion of the cycle that began for the first time in 1923.

Philissa Cramer is named editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, succeeding Andy Silow-Carroll, left over the summer to take the same post at The New York Jewish Week. Cramer is a co-founder and editor at large of the award-winning education news organization Chalkbeat.

David Stern, who in three decades as NBA commissioner guided the league from financial distress to become a multibillion-dollar global enterprise, dies at 77. Stern had undergone emergency surgery for a brain hemorrhage in mid-December after collapsing at a New York City restaurant. He served as commissioner of the National Basketball Association from 1984 to 2014. 

Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose blockbuster 1994 memoir “Prozac Nation” detailed her struggles with antidepressants, dies at 52 after a five-year fight with breast cancer. Born and raised in New York City, Wurtzel attended the Modern Orthodox Ramaz School before earning degrees from Harvard University and Yale Law School.

February 2020

Members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations make the first official visit by an American Jewish organization to Saudi Arabia since 1994. The four-day visit included meetings with senior Saudi officials focused on countering terrorism and regional instability. A number of the conference’s constituent organizations chose not to attend, including all its Reform movement members.

Kirk Douglas, the legendary actor born Issur Danielovitch to a junk dealer in upstate New York, dies at 103. Douglas starred in eighty-seven films over the course of his career and won an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1996. He drew closer to Judaism in his later years. 

March 2020

Synagogues and Jewish day schools across the country shut down as the coronavirus pandemic begins to take hold in the United States. In New Jersey, a rabbinical group issued a series of unprecedented directives, shuttering synagogues, banning Shabbat meals and ordering mourners to grieve alone at home. In Westchester County, New York, an outbreak traced to one Jewish attorney led to the creation of a one-mile containment zone centered around the Young Israel of New Rochelle. And for the first time ever, the headquarters of the Chabad Hasidic movement in Brooklyn is closed. 

William Helmreich, a sociologist who penned more than a dozen books and was an expert on Orthodox Jewry, dies of Covid-19 at 74. A longtime professor at City College, Helmreich was the author of the seminal 1982 book “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry.”

The leaders of six major American Orthodox Jewish groups called on their members to follow social distancing rules after days of reports of continued large gatherings in some haredi Orthodox communities. “We have heretofore urged not only full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, but have gone beyond those pronouncements in urging our communities to remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions,” said the statement, signed by the heads of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Young Israel, the Lakewood Vaad, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Eight major Jewish organizations form an emergency coalition to respond jointly to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Jewish Federations of North America led the coalition that also includes Hillel International, the JCC Association of North America, and the Jewish youth group BBYO. Jewish organizations braced for painful layoffs and fundraising challenges brought on by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual AIPAC policy conference opens in Washington with an appeal for bipartisanship as two leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — decline to attend. Other Democratic hopefuls did address the conference, including former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed attendees by video. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also addressed the conference.

Disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein is sentenced to 23 years in prison after being found guilty on two counts of rape and sexual assault. Weinstein had been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women over decades, accusations that helped galvanize the #MeToo movement. 

April 2020

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio draws fierce criticism for singling out “the Jewish community” in a trio of tweets responding to a funeral that drew hundreds of Orthodox Jews into the streets of Brooklyn in violation of social distancing guidelines. Critics, Anti-Defamation League chief Jason Greenblatt among them, said it was outrageous to generalize about the city’s Jewish community when the majority were abiding by public health directives. 

Thirty-two residents of two Jewish senior living facilities in Massachusetts die from the coronavirus. Eleven residents of three Chelsea Jewish Life Care locations in greater Boston, and twenty-one residents at JGS Lifecare in the Springfield suburb of Longmeadow, have died of the virus. 

The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, dies of the coronavirus at 89. A leader in the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America and the head of its rabbinic governing body, Perlow was the most prominent of a number of leading Orthodox rabbis to succumb to the virus. 

Canada’s flagship national Jewish newspaper, the Canadian Jewish News, announces it will shut down after sixty years due to economic pressures intensified by the coronavirus. “Unfortunately, we too have become a victim of Covid-19,” president Elizabeth Wolfe said in a statement.

The Reform movement becomes the first Jewish denomination to announce it is shuttering its summer camp network due to the coronavirus along with all of its Israel trips and in-person youth activity. The decision, which affects fifteen overnight camps serving some ten thousand campers, marks the first time in over seventy years that the movement is suspending its camping programs. 

An eighty million dollar fund forms to provide relief to Jewish organizations hurting from the coronavirus pandemic as part of a major ramping up of the Jewish philanthropic response to the crisis. Formed by the Jewish Federations of North America and eight other large Jewish foundations, the fund offers grants and short-term loans to meet immediate payroll and operational needs. Separately, UJA-Federation of New York says it is providing over forty-five million dollars in support to vulnerable New Yorkers and Jewish organizations. The new funding comes as growing numbers of Jewish organizations announce employee layoffs and furloughs due to the pandemic.

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Canada rises to a record high for the fourth consecutive year. The League for Human Rights, a division of of B’nai Brith Canada, recorded more than two thousand two hundred anti-Semitic incidents in its 2019 Annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, an eight percent increase over the 2,041 incidents recorded the previous year. The number of vandalism incidents dropped to a hundred eighty two from two hundred twenty-one, but violent incidents, including assault, rose to fouteen from eleven.

May 2020

Jerry Stiller, the longtime Jewish comic and father of actor Ben Stiller, dies at 92 of natural causes. He was best known for playing the belligerent Frank Costanza on the sitcom “Seinfeld.” Stiller married actress Anne Meara and joked about their interfaith marriage in his comedy routines. Meara, who grew up Roman Catholic, later converted to Judaism. 

The Conservative movement moves to allow streaming on Shabbat and Jewish holidays in a temporary ruling during what it calls an “unprecedented time.” Though many Conservative congregations had already been streaming services since the beginning of the pandemic, the ruling gave an official stamp of approval to the practice, though it came with a number of caveats. 

Orthodox rabbis spar over whether to hold in-person services amid the pandemic. Though some local rabbinical groups decide to shutter their synagogues, some congregants organized outdoor services anyway. Other communities hosted prayers with added safeguards.

Facing economic challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Jewish organizations lay off or furlough significant portions of their staffs. Among the organizations that made deep cuts are JCCs around the country, the Jewish Federations of North America, Hillel International and organizations affiliated with the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

President Donald Trump says he will override governors to allow the reopening of houses of worship that had been forced shut amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Reform movement responded by saying it would follow medical advice on how and when to reopen its synagogues. Many rabbis across the country elected to hold services virtually rather than risk contributing to the spread of the pandemic.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the prolific author and Modern Orthodox rabbi who headed Yeshiva University for nearly three decades, dies at the age of 92, a month after his wife died of Covid-19. As president and chancellor of the university, Lamm helped rescue the institution from the financial brink in the late 1970s and rebuild it in the decades that followed into the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.

Jewish organizations issue statements of solidarity with protestors who are expressing outrage over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Some called for concrete action to combat racism and police brutality.

June 2020

The national reckoning over race gives rise to new energy around Juneteenth in Jewish communities. The holiday, which arose to commemorate the day Black people enslaved in Texas learned they had been freed and has become widely celebrated among Black Americans, coincided with Shabbat in 2020, leading to new rituals and prayers designed for the moment.

For Orthodox Jews, the racial justice protests present a dilemma, as many seek to demonstrate support for police in general even while expressing opposition to police brutality and solidarity with Black Americans. The more politically conservative sector of American Jewry also makes a point of condemning looting that accompanied some protests and criticizing the fact that protests are permitted at a time when health restrictions bar large religious services.

The Anti-Defamation League, in conjunction with the NAACP and other groups, calls for a month-long boycott of Facebook advertising purchases to pressure the social media giant to curb hate and disinformation on its platform. ““Could they protect and support Black users? Could they call out Holocaust denial as hate? Could they help get out the vote?” reads an ad in the Los Angeles Times kicking off the campaign. “They absolutely could. But they are actively choosing not to do so.”

With anxiety about disease and crime in the United States high, interest in moving to Israel appears to be on the rise among American Jews. The immigration support group Nefesh B’Nefesh reports the highest number of initiated applications since its founding, with more than nine hundred applications started in the first half of June compared to four hundred in the entire month the previous year.

Carl Reiner, the comedy legend, dies in Los Angeles at 98. His death comes days after posing with his daughter Annie and longtime friend Mel Brooks in Black Lives Matter shirts and seventy years after his first television appearance, which kicked off a long and varied career in show business.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz is tapped to become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, becoming the first woman and only the second non-rabbi to lead the Conservative movement’s flagship institution. 

July 2020

A group of women in the entertainment industry who sued Harvey Weinstein over sexual misconduct allegations reach a nineteen million dollar settlement with the disgraced Jewish movie mogul. Attorneys for the women called the settlement unfair, saying that Weinstein does not have to accept responsibility for his actions and that it will prevent women from filing individual lawsuits against him.

Amid racial justice protests around the country, Jewish organizations release statements and take concrete steps to fight racism and highlight the voices of Jews of color. Some organizations hire Jews of color in public roles or announce diversity programs. Activists laud the changes while also pointing out that they had largely been ignored for decades.

August 2020

The United States announces that it has brokered a deal for the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations with Israel, making it the first Arab nation to do so in decades. In exchange, Israel agrees to delay annexation of parts of the West Bank. 

Joe Biden chooses Kamala Harris to be his running mate, solidifying the Democratic ticket around mainstream pro-Israel positions. Harris’ Jewish husband and the Yiddish-infused nickname that her stepchildren call her endear her to many Jewish voters. 

Six hundred Jewish groups release a statement in the New York Times expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement comes on the eve of the release of a platform that makes no mention of Israel. The group’s 2016 platform had accused Israel of genocide. 

Joe Biden closes the Democratic National Convention by calling attention to the hate on display at a far-right rally in 2017 where neo-Nazis and white nationalists famously chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Biden specifically calls out anti-Semitism in his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the end of a convention where several Jewish elected officials appeared.

American Jews brace for a High Holiday season marked by continuing challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Some synagogues, mostly Orthodox, gear up for socially distanced in-person services, while others prepare for their first-ever virtual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. “This is services, but this is not shul,” said Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., using the Yiddish word for synagogue. “Shul means everyone is together in the space, davening together, and this is not that.”


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