Jewish activist banned from Yom Kippur services
By Ali Moossavi -- The Arab American
"What does that mean, 'self-hating Jew?,' " Henry
Herskovitz asked rhetorically. Yom Kippur, for religious Jews,
is a time for reflection and Herskovitz was pondering what
Reform Judaism Rabbi Robert Levy called him.
"Do I hate myself? Do I hate Jewish people? Do I hate Henny
Youngman? No, I love Henny Youngman, I love Mel Brooks. Rodney
Dangerfield's a Jew. So, all these comedians are Jews, I
identify with them."
Levy - of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor - called
Herskovitz a "self-hating Jew" because of the Ann Arbor
resident's newfound anti-Zionist stance and his insistence on
addressing the different congregations about the Israeli
occupation. The response he has received from the Ann Arbor
Jewish community has been stiff resistance, prompting weekly
protest vigils by Herskovitz outside Conservative congregation
Temple Beth Israel and earning the wrath of his religious
A new line was drawn recently in this war of wills. After
applying to buy a ticket to attend Yom Kippur services at Beth
Israel, Herskovitz received a letter stating outright that
he's not welcome there.
"If you are interested in having a more positive
relationship with our congregation, a meaningful first step
would be for you to end your practice of picketing outside a
synagogue." The letter - which misspelled his last name and
was signed by Executive Director Elliot Sorkin - contained the
terms "mutual respect" and "meaningful dialogue," terms that
Herskovitz found "immature."
"Are we dealing with issues here?" he said over the phone.
"Or, are we dealing with little boys in a sandbox, saying, 'If
you're not going to do what I want, I'm going to take my ball
and go home'?"
According to Beth Israel president Edward D'Angelo, it's
the vigils of Herskovitz's group, Jewish Witnesses for Peace
and Friends, that are at issue.
"What he and people who think this might be a good idea
need to understand is that they're not promoting dialogue,
they are sabotaging any dialogue because they're throwing up
barriers to it," he said.
Rabbi Levy was more blunt.
"I think what they're doing is awful. They are so bad, so
wrong, I mean people are just trying to go and praise God and
pray for things they need and to thank God for the blessings
they've had," he said.
Welcome to Palestine
It all began in the Balata refugee camp. It was there that
Herskovitz witnessed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank
for the first time. "I thought I had a natural human interest
story for the Jewish community because a member of the Jewish
community - like me - went over there and asserted my Judaism
to a gang of Palestinians and they didn't kill me. I went to
all three rabbis of all three congregations in Ann Arbor and I
went to the Jewish Community Center, and they all closed their
doors to me."
Herskovitz's first stop was Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Goldstein,
whom he described as a "Jewish fundamentalist," because he
showed Herskovitz a map of Israel that ranged from the Nile
River in the east to the Euphrates as its western border.
Rabbi Levy's refusal to open his congregation to Herskovitz
prompted him to examine Levy's own political worldview, which
he found almost as disturbing as Goldstein's.
"It really bothers him that these people - meaning
Palestinians - would jangle the keys to their homes as if to
say, 'I have the right to go back.' He would tease them, in
front of me, jangling the keys. He says, 'I don't get that.
That doesn't impress me that they're shaking their keys in
front of the cameras.'
"I was kind of speechless, because denying someone the
right to go back to the home they still have the key to, I
think, is a very powerful statement and he thought it was to
be ridiculed," Herskovitz said.
Rabbi Levy insists that it's Herskovitz's tactics - and not
his politics - which disturb him.
"Our congregation does a lot of peace work," he said and he
went on to relate his side of the story.
At around the same time that Herskovitz approached Beth
Emeth, "we had another young man who had also been to Jenin
with the International Solidarity Committee to speak to our
congregation," named Aaron Levitt.
"He brought a slide show and spoke from the heart and
people listened very carefully," Levy said, adding, "and my
congregation is actually fairly involved in a lot of different
Rabbi Levy insisted that his main problem with JWFP is its
chosen tactic of protesting outside a synagogue. When pressed
about Herskovitz's politics, however, Levy's problem with him
appeared to be deeper.
"I don't think Henry brings peace, I think Henry brings ego
and other things. It's not about peace."
When asked if Herskovitz will ever be allowed back into
Beth Emeth, even if he changed his tactics and politics, Rabbi
Levy's response was blunt.
"Hell would freeze over before he would get a podium in my
Herskovitz is equally blunt.
"He's got a sense of humor in there somewhere, but it's
wrapped in a racist fašade that I want no part of," he said.
Edward D'Angelo is more diplomatic when it comes to his
feelings regarding Herskovitz and his group. He insists that
his congregation is open to dialogue on the Israel-Palestine
conflict and says the possibility for Herskovitz's return to
the congregation still exists. But his feelings on the subject
of the weekly protests are the same as that of Rabbi Levy's.
"What's unfortunate about this is rather than generate
productive dialogue or topics that are difficult, even for
well-informed people on different sides of the issue, it just
creates, really a harassment situation for worshippers," he
Herskovitz says that he talked to Beth Israel's rabbi,
Robert Dobrusin, about doing his PowerPoint presentation for
the whole congregation. Neither D'Angelo nor Herskovitz made
it clear whether Rabbi Dobrusin was instrumental in the
synagogue's refusal, but D'Angelo is adamant that the
congregation itself is united in opposition to JWFP.
"They are appalled at his behavior," he stated
"I've always said he's (Dobrusin) a decent man and I stand
by that," said Herskovitz. Rabbi Dobrusin wasn't available for
If there's one thing D'Angelo and Herskovitz can agree on,
it's that the issue is bigger than this particular dispute.
For D'Angelo, a civil atmosphere must prevail before
dialogue can occur.
"The issue is, when you have a difficult subject, when you
have parties who have seriously different perspectives on a
matter, how does a community or how do people in a community
go about having a meaningful conversation about it?"
Says Herskovitz: "I think that their actions say that they
are very juvenile people ... I can go to Beth Emeth when hell
freezes over and I can't go - even with hell freezing over -
to Beth Israel. I'll find a synagogue to go pray at on Friday
nights, it just won't be in Ann Arbor."