It’s list-making time, and this year I begin a new one — the top Jewish-making news stories. Here are my picks for 2015:
1. Anti-Semitic attacks escalate across Europe.
In January an Islamic terrorist killed four Jews inside a Paris kosher market, and in February a terrorist killed a synagogue guard in Copenhagen. The number of French Jews moving to Israel grew during the year.
2. American Jews divide over Iran.
In March Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected Israel’s prime minister. Earlier that month, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress on the dangers of the proposed Iran nuclear agreement. In September, despite Netanyahu’s opposition, a multinational accord was approved, but the public debate on the issue created rancor within the American Jewish community.
3. The BDS campaign gathers force.
In June, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ approved a resolution calling for the denomination to divest and boycott certain companies doing business with Israel. Critics charged the UCC and other boycott, divestment and sanction proponents were one-sided because they avoided any condemnation of the so-called Islamic State’s often murderous persecution of Middle East Christians and other religious minorities, the slaughter of innocents in the Syrian civil war, and other horrific human rights abuses in the region.
Following the BDS vote, UCC President John Dorhauer, questioned “if the benefits of our divesting from those companies is equal in cost to the relationships that we have with people who are critical to our movement towards justice.”
4. Jewish women in Israel make strides to achieve religious equality.
The “Women of the (Western) Wall” organization continued the fight for the right of women at Judaism’s holiest site to read from the Torah scroll, sing and pray, wear religious garments, and exercise other rights granted to men. Despite opposition from many Orthodox Jewish leaders, progress continues to be made, albeit slowly. (In the U.S., Rachelle David of Syosset, N.Y., was the first female graduate of an Orthodox yeshiva to become a cadet at West Point.)
5. Yeshiva University’s fiscal crisis deepens.
The New York City institution, the educational flagship for Orthodox Judaism, faced a nearly $600 million debt that threatened its existence. In March, the faculty adopted a no-confidence vote reflecting dissatisfaction with President Richard Joel’s leadership, but the university board of trustees voted to support him. The faculty of the all-male YU was merged with the faculty of the university’s all-female Stern College.
6. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders launches a Democratic presidential campaign.
Although Sanders, Independent Vermont senator, is a self-professed “secular Jew,” and is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, for many people he is the political personification of the strong Jewish religious commitment to social justice concerns.
7. Spain atones for the Inquisition.
The country granted citizenship to 4,302 Jews whose ancestors in 1492 were forced to flee Spain rather than convert to Catholicism or burn at the stake. It is estimated that 200,000 Jews lived in Spain then; today their descendants number 3.5 million people.
8. Catholics and Jews marked the 50th anniversary of ‘Nostra Aetate.’
The declaration, Latin for “In Our Time,” was approved at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, setting in motion a half-century of greatly improved relations between Catholics and Jews.
At year’s end, a new Vatican statement asserted the Catholic Church “neither conducts nor supports” conversion efforts directed at Jews who, the document affirmed, do not require conversion to Christianity to gain spiritual salvation. The Vatican also pledged to combat anti-Semitism. In October, Pope Francis declared: “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism.”
9. Two prominent rabbis charged with sexual impropriety.
In Washington, D.C., Barry Freundel began a six-year prison sentence for 52 counts of voyeurism, including videos, of naked women immersed in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. In New York City, Jonathan Rosenblatt was accused of inviting boys from his congregation to join him in a sauna. Rosenblatt’s synagogue board voted 34-8 to fire him, but the board chairman and president overrode the action.
10. Leonard Nimoy and Oliver Sacks pass on.
Other notable 2015 deaths included Novelist E.L. Doctorow; Weavers folk singer Ronnie Gilbert; former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon; Major League Hall of Famer Al Rosen; Hungarian-born World War II American Medal of Honor recipient and Holocaust survivor Tibor Rubin; neurologist Oliver Sacks; former Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff; historian Robert Wistrich, and my rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Walter Zanger.
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