Jewish Year in Review: 2009

Cutbacks, scandals, and hope.

Thinking about the past is something we Jews like to do. We devote the entire month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar year, to heshbon hanefesh–taking stock of our lives–and reflecting on the year gone by. But reconsidering the past can always be interesting and instructive. Why limit it to Elul?
2009 year in review
In December 2009, with the secular year coming to a close, as well as the culmination of the first decade of the 21st century, it seems a fitting time to engage in some collective heshbon hanefesh. As has been our tradition for the past four years, the editorial team at MyJewishLearning convened to review the most important Jewish stories of the outgoing year.

Here are the top headlines we chose (in no particular order).

No More Money

The ongoing global economic crisis forced Jewish organizations across the country to slash budgets and lay off staff. In January, Hadassah eliminated a quarter of its staff. The Jewish Federation system suffered in the spring, when large cities such as New York and Atlanta eliminated 11% and 19% of their staff respectively. Other important non-profits, such as the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Professional Leaders Project, shut their doors altogether.

These discouraging economic times also brought about new thinking on efficiency. “Merger” was the buzzword of the year, as leaders of both the Reform and Conservative movements for the first time ever admitted publicly that they might be better off with fewer congregations. Numerous synagogues, as well as Jewish organizations (such as BBYO and Panim; Storahtelling and 14th Street Y of New York) successfully came together this year. JFL Media (one of MyJewishLearning’s original producers) spun off all its projects and shut its doors, in its own words “sunsetting” the organization so that it could best fulfill its mission.

The Federation system also rebounded in the latter half of the year. Jerry Silverman, previously head of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), was named the new CEO of the United Jewish Communities (UJC). Silverman, who transformed FJC by raising tens of millions of new money for summer camping, quickly worked to rebrand UJC into The Jewish Federations of North America. At the General Assembly held in November, many attendees reported a sense of invigoration and excitement around the new direction of the Federation system. But it remains to be seen if the new leadership can change the downward trend in giving. 

Syrian Jewish Scandal

The mood is not quite as upbeat in the Syrian Jewish community of New York-New Jersey. During the summer, five prominent New Jersey Syrian rabbis were arrested and charged with money laundering, bankruptcy fraud, bank fraud, and trafficking in counterfeit goods. The July 23 sting operation resulted from information gathered from Solomon Dwek, who himself was facing charges of bank fraud when he became an undercover government informant.

The rabbis charged are accused of using tzedakah funds to launder money for Dwek. In addition to the Syrian rabbis, a Brooklyn man named Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum was arrested on related charges and also charged with acting as an organ broker.

As news of the scandal spread through the Jewish community, shock and shame were the predominant reactions. There have been no further public developments into the money laundering trial, but Jews all over the world are waiting to see how this plays out.

Hope for Gilad Shalit

While scandal was a divisive force this year, a different kind of crisis brought the Jewish community together. In October, after three and a half years of virtual silence, the Israeli government received a video from Hamas of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was captured in June 2006 and has since been held in a jail in Gaza. The video, which was broadcast on Israeli television and has received wide circulation on YouTube, gave Jews in Israel and around the world hope for Shalit’s safe return.

Although numerous attempts have been made to secure a deal with Hamas, new developments as of December 2009 suggest that Shalit’s release could be imminent. However, Shalit will not return home without a heavy price for Israel. In exchange for Shalit, Hamas is asking for the release of over 1,000 prisoners, including some high profile terrorists.

Since his kidnapping, Shalit’s supporters have found creative and meaningful ways to express their solidarity. On August 26, 2009, Gilad Shalit’s 23rd birthday, the Tweet 4 Shalit campaign aimed to remind the world of Gilad Shalit as well as condemn Hamas for its violation of the Geneva Convention, and human rights in general. The campaign was a success; Twitter users drove Shalit’s name to the second highest trend on Twitter for that day. 

J Street

J Street is also trying to get American Jews to become more involved in Israel, and in 2009 rose as a serious player in Washington politics.

Formed last year in time for the presidential election, J Street calls itself the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group. In its view, the best way to achieve peace and security in Israel and the Middle East is to lobby Washington to push strongly for a two-state solution. J Street supports “diplomatic solutions over military ones,” even if that means questioning policies of the government of Israel, including Israel’s incursion into Gaza in January 2009.

A crucial sign of J Street’s rising influence was a September feature in the New York Times Magazine, called “The New Israel Lobby.” Then, in late October, J Street held its first advocacy conference, with over 1000 attendees; mainstream media covering and blogging the entire conference; and a keynote address by American National Security Advisor Jim Jones.

While the J Street conference was, for the most part, seen as a success, the organization has received little support from the Israeli government. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, declined an invitation to the conference, and in December 2009, referred to J Street as “significantly out of the mainstream.”

It will be interesting to see which direction J Street moves in 2010, and whether it can affect AIPAC’s stronghold on pro-Israel lobbying.

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