“No deal is better than a bad deal!” That was Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s pronouncement on the interim deal hammered out in Geneva to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But the complexity and thorniness of that issue could hold for any of the stories that will likely resonate in 2014. As 2013 comes to a close, Jews in New York and nationally are looking at Iran; at the governing coalition in Israel — will it address the haredi dilemma?; at Jewish security in Europe; at the peace process; and at nothing less than the present and future of America’s Jews in light of new demographic data.
Of course, there are mikvehs in New York. The city is filled with ritual baths serving its many observant Jewish communities. What the city doesn’t offer is a bath along the lines of Mayyim Hayyim in the Boston area, which was the brainchild of “Red Tent” author Anita Diamant. She dreamed of an aesthetically appealing “community mikveh” that would expand the definition of immersion to mean a ritual that could mark any passage.
Jeffrey Yoskowitz is definitely a young Jewish leader to watch; it’s just sometimes hard to figure out exactly which Yoskowitz you’re watching. Recently returned home from Sweden, where he spoke at the Limmud Jewish education conference, Yoskowitz is a polymath in the Brooklyn mold. He’s a writer, researcher, pickler and social entrepreneur, a kosher foodie educated at Solomon Schechter schools in New Jersey who has never tasted pork — yet is writing a book about the pork industry in Israel. Yes, it’s non-fiction. Yoskowitz, 29, has been studying the industry since 2007, when he received a fellowship to do so after graduating from Brown University.
Modern Orthodox advocates trumpet a “revival” of daring intellectual excitement and halachic experimentation. Literacy is high. Intermarriage is low. But growth is dwarfed by the booming demographics in the yeshivish and chasidic worlds. Just one chasidic girls’ school (Beis Ruchel) in Brooklyn has 15 first grades, about as many as all the Modern Orthodox first grades in Manhattan, Riverdale, and Westchester combined. Haredi yeshivas will ordain scores of rabbis in 2014; liberal Yeshivat Chovevei Torah will ordain only two rabbis.
Who would have expected The Jewish Museum to host an avant-garde fashion show during the Performa festival or invite Lena Dunham to host a Purim party at the Park Avenue Armory? The 109-year-old institution — led by its new director, Claudia Gould — has been shaking things up and increasing its relevance. The shift in exhibitions and programming has been alienating to more than a few longtime members who feel they do not connect with the roster. For its part, the museum is showing that it is trying to reach a greater balance by continuing to offer familiar names such as Chagall, albeit in a new light. It continues to offer mainstay family programs and daytime lectures.
For many Catholics, Pope Francis is a cleansing breath of fresh air. In a short nine months since taking over at the Vatican, he has reset the Church, putting a strong focus on tolerance, simplicity and helping the poor. For Jews, he’s the pope with a rebbe. The pope has maintained a longtime friendship with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka (the two wrote a book together, the 2010 “On Heaven and Earth”); that fact was hailed by Jewish leaders when he was tapped for pope as a sign that the Jewish-Catholic relationship would continue on solid ground.
Israelites would grumble that Moses was a terrible skipper, but Joshua had an easier time following him than Brad Ausmus will have following legendary Jim Leyland as manager of the Detroit Tigers. Including interim fill-ins, Ausmus will be Major League Baseball’s fifth Jewish manager (Lipman Pike, Andy Cohen, Norm Sherry, Jeff Newman) going back to 1871, when in the dawn’s early light of baseball, Pike was player-manager of the Troy Haymakers, and later the Hartford Dark Blues and Cincinnati Reds. (Lou Boudreau was among a few managers with one Jewish parent, but the family considered itself Christian).
He’s taken his share of lumps over the years (too slow to integrate Russian speakers into the federation world; too timid in standing up for a film festival highlighting the daily lives of Arab Israelis). But overall, UJA-Federation of New York CEO John Ruskay, the most respected federation exec in the country, has had an excellent 14-year run at the helm of the mega-charity. He initiated and championed the idea of a “caring community” and, though the philanthropic winds were against him, he was a vigorous defender of the notion of centralized giving. As boutique giving became the rage he pivoted adroitly, arguing that it was actually countercultural (cool, even) to support the agencies that did all the heavy lifting. But he also took some chances and funded numerous incubator-type projects, from Bikurim to the irreverent Heeb magazine.
Two decades ago, June 12, 1994, after years of messianic crescendo, controversy and genial outreach, the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, breathed his last. Like Joe Hill or Elijah, the rebbe became one of those characters that some say never really died, either literally or figuratively. The debate within Chabad over his messianism has become somewhat muted with the years, as the passage of time does its dulling. But one thing is beyond dispute: The rebbe is having one heck of an afterlife.