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Jewish activist banned from Yom Kippur services

By Ali Moossavi   --  The Arab American News  --

"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 peers.

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 groups."

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 synagogue."

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.


Open dialogue

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 said.

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 unequivocally.

"I've always said he's (Dobrusin) a decent man and I stand by that," said Herskovitz. Rabbi Dobrusin wasn't available for comment.

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."