Face the reality of the ‘evil empire’

Dan Pine’s article on Berkeley professor Barbara Epstein’s book “The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943” (“The ghetto nobody knows,” Aug. 22) tells me that the book is totally misguided. First, it is false to claim that “large circles of Byelorussians were willing to help” Jews. My family managed to escape from Minsk on June 24, 1941, but my wife’s entire family was murdered in the ghetto. Upon return from evacuation, Jews encountered rampant anti-Semitism everywhere: in schools, colleges, workplaces, neighborhoods, etc.

Epstein’s idea about “good” communists is a pure fantasy. Of course, there were examples of courageous people, but that was a rare exception. And this brings me to my second point.

People who dared help the Jews followed their human conscience, not the idiotic communist utopia, which had brought upon them the infamous gulag with “disappearance” and imprisonment of the best and brightest in all spheres of life: science, culture, industry, military, agriculture. I can understand that Stalin’s propaganda, up until his death in 1953, managed to attract ardent devotees. But after the access to archives and eyewitnesses’ accounts, it is about time for everybody, including even Berkeley professors, to face the reality of the “evil empire” and its ideology.

Vladimir Kaplan | San Mateo

Not very sportsmanlike

Once again, the International Olympic Committee has indulged anti-Israel bigotry at the Olympic Games.

On Aug. 9, Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei withdrew from a 100-meter breaststroke preliminary heat rather than compete against Israeli swimmer Tom Beeri. The IOC is required by its own rules to sanction the Iranians for such unsportsmanlike conduct, but cravenly, the IOC declined to act.

Notably, a similar thing happened four years ago in Athens, when Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili disqualified himself rather than compete against Israel’s Udi Vaks.

Moreover, the IOC once again boycotted Israel’s quadrennial commemoration of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The Olympics are supposed to embody the ideal of sportsmanship in athletic competition. American swimmers Dara Torres and Jason Lezak and gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin will be remembered as much for the class and sportsmanship they displayed in Beijing as for their medal-winning efforts.

But when Iran refuses to allow its athletes to compete against Israelis, or when Israel asks the world to remember for a moment the Olympics’ most devastating tragedy, the IOC prefers to bury its head and indulge hatred.

Stephen A. Silver | San Francisco

Twin synagogues

In his letter on Aug. 29, Paul Tandler repeats the common error that Congregation Emanu-El is the oldest synagogue in San Francisco. In fact, according to Fred Rosenbaum’s meticulously researched “Visions of Reform,” Congregation Sherith Israel and Congregation Emanu-El were founded the same week in April 1851 after a meeting to establish a single synagogue foundered on a dispute between Jews from Bavaria and Jews from Posen over the hiring of a schochet.

San Francisco’s two “oldest synagogues” share more than a common birth date. They also share a vision of a vibrant Reform Judaism and of service to the Jewish community of San Francisco. Please come worship with us and experience what 157 years of dynamic Judaism feels like.

David Newman | San Francisco

Congregation Sherith Israel

immediate past president

Full story on Georgia

The JTA article “Will Russia cheat on Israel with Syria?” (Aug. 29) could leave U.S. readers with an incomplete picture of Russia’s motives in any change of policy toward Syria. Such change, your correspondent writes, would result from “Russia’s military successes in Georgia earlier this month.”

This is partly correct. But as any regular reader of the Israeli press knows, Israel was an active participant with the U.S. in preparations for Georgia’s initial attack against Russian citizens within the territory of Ossetia.

According to both Ha’aretz and the Associated Press, Israel and its private military contractors recently provided weapons and advance training in “urban warfare” to the Georgian military. In the opening days of the conflict, I read front-page stories in Ha’aretz online quoting Israeli military trainers who lamented the fate of their students in Georgia as the Russia military mauled Georgian forces. The Jerusalem Post reports that “Georgia’s defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, is a former Israeli who is fluent in Hebrew, and is said to have contributed to military cooperation.”

Including similar context would give your readers a more accurate picture of the unfolding situation of Russian policies toward a state that borders Israel.

Edwin Bradley | San Francisco

Daven ‘n’ roll

I just read your article on Beth Sholom (“Inside the ‘watermelon,'” Aug. 29). I was a member at Beth Sholom until my departure from San Francisco in December 2000. I have not been back since Beth Sholom was torn down for the new building. It will be a test of my sensibility when I stand on 14th and Clement.

I also read John King’s article a few weeks ago. I was trying to convey to my friends in Milwaukee the dramatic change. After seeing the image of the new Beth Sholom, we were jokingly wondering if the sanctuary can roll back and forth to assist in the process of davening … speed it up and everyone will pray faster.

Howard Berliant | Shorewood, Wis.

Hillel ‘demoralizing’

It was difficult promoting a pro-Israel agenda when I was an activist at Cal, but the attitude of the current Hillel staff is demoralizing to the students I know at UCB presently.

Dan Rosen’s letter (“Hillel of the people,” Aug. 22) is disingenuous and whitewashes the offensive features of Hillel’s behavior. The students on campus who care about Israel had to suffer through a Cinco de Mayo-themed party on Yom HaZikaron, a solemn day that does not engender levity. The “moment of silence” to which Rosen refers was a concession that came about after considerable wrangling between the Hillel staff and students offended by the callous attitude of Hillel. Likewise, again despite student protest, Hillel held a student appreciation gala on Erev Yom HaShoah.

Hillel needs to get its house in order or the community will have to do so.

Dr. Ealon Joelson | Palo Alto

Crème de la crème

Bravo for your editorial and article on Ernie Weiner’s retirement from the American Jewish Committee (“Exiting the ring,” Aug. 15). You captured the essence of this remarkable individual.

Ernie is truly one-of-a-kind. For nearly four decades, AJCommittee has been lucky to benefit from his wisdom, experience, tenacity and savoir-faire. (Ernie loves the occasional French word!) In that span, he has made countless friends for the Jewish people in the Bay Area and beyond. He does so with empathy for others, with legendary smarts, wit and charm, and with an exceptional ability to communicate the Jewish narrative, including the case for Israel.

It’s impossible to summarize such a rich professional life in a few words. Suffice it to say that America, Israel and the Jewish people, and the universal causes of human freedom and dignity, have been advanced by his round-the-clock efforts. We owe Ernie a debt of gratitude for an exceptional record of achievement.

And if there were an Olympic competition for menschlekeit — Ernie’s love of French is only exceeded by his passion for Yiddish — Ernie would win the gold hands-down.

Thanks, Ernie, for a job well done. And thanks, Shirley, for sharing your beloved spouse with AJCommittee all these years.

David A. Harris | New York

American Jewish Committee

executive director

Closer, not cult-like

When I was recently visiting my parents in Northern California, I read the Aug. 15 letter comparing Aish HaTorah to a cult. I did not attend Aish HaTorah, but rather Ohr Somayach, a similar yeshiva, for one summer. Was I a member of a cult? Am I now cut off from my family? Did I sign away all my money?

Two or three times a year, my wife and I fly with our four young children across the country so my children can spend holidays and quality time with their non-shomer mitzvot grandparents. And what do my parents do? They go to great expense, time and energy to kasher their kitchen and purchase kosher food. On Shabbos they alter their lifestyle so that my children can enjoy Shabbos.

Is this what happens to a member of a cult? Or is it the manifestation of kivud av v’em, honoring your father and mother? Did Ohr Somayach bring me closer to my parents or drive me away from them? In my dining room is a picture of my father holding my older daughter during his first visit to an Orthodox synagogue on Purim. That picture answers the questions perfectly.

David Green | Baltimore

Boost McCain, attack Iran

Most pollsters agree that on international matters voters of both parties are more comfortable with John McCain instead of Barack Obama.

Most people also understand there is a genuine need to do something about Iran’s nuclear threat and its intent to “wipe Israel off the map.”

Those who have a keen understanding of how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thinks know he is convinced he has been divinely chosen to hasten the return of the mahdi, the hidden imam. He thinks this will happen by confronting Israel, the United States and all “infidels,” which will facilitate their annihilation.

Israel cannot afford to allow an attack, which has many people thinking Israel will have to launch a preemptive strike on Iran.

Now the rub.

Should Israel decide a strike against Iran is necessary, the way they could influence U.S. elections would be to strike in the days leading up to the election.

Since most voters are more comfortable with McCain on international matters, it’s very likely a strike by Israel on Iran just prior to the election would provide a boost for McCain.

Dan Calic | San Ramon

A true supporter

Natan Sharansky is wrong! Barack Obama is definitely a supporter of Israel (“Sharansky: Obama a risk,” Aug. 8).

Sen. John McCain would be a disaster for the USA and is no more a supporter of Israel than is Barack Obama.

Sarah Wolfe | Palo Alto

A cruel waste

As a Jew, I’m embarrassed that some members of my religion participate in kapporos, the High Holy Days ritual in which Orthodox/Chassidic Jews swing terrified chickens over their heads in order to transfer their sins to the birds. The poor chickens are then killed and thousands of them are thrown away every year — even though kapporos organizers claim that the animals’ flesh is given to the poor.

This barbaric ritual is not mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud. It is wasteful and unsanitary, and flies in the face of the Jewish commandments mandating compassion and respect for animals. It would be more humane — and in keeping with Jewish principles — to donate money to the poor as a symbolic sacrifice. That’s a custom all Jews could be proud of. n

Rina Deych | Brooklyn, N.Y.