Will Israel make it to the World Cup?

On a lighter note, as a diversion from all the more serious news in the world, today Israel’s national soccer (or “football”) team faces off against Portugal in a qualifying game for the 2014 World Cup. You may be wondering: Does Israel have any chance of advancing to the World Cup?

Short answer: Yes, but the odds are slim.

Long answer: The last (and first) time Israel went to the World Cup was 1970, when it lost one game and tied two. Even though Israel is in the Middle East (aka “West Asia”), for soccer purposes it competes as part of the Union of European Football Associations.

With two games left to play in the current round of the qualification, Israel is in third place in its group, behind Russia and Portugal. At the end of the day, the first-place team in each group automatically goes to the World Cup, and the second-place team has a chance to fight over a limited number of additional spots against the other second-place teams. Third prize is you’re fired.

What would it take for Israel to jump into first or second place? At minimum, Israel has to win today against Portugal, and win its final game next week against Northern Ireland.

But that’s not enough – it depends what happens in Portugal’s last game (against Luxembourg), and Russia’s two games (against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan).

  • If Portugal loses to Luxembourg, and Russia loses both its games: Israel is tied for 1st with Russia. Ties are broken by the total goal difference for all games, and Israel is currently behind Russia by 6, so Israel needs to score high to make it into 1st. Otherwise Israel ends up in 2nd, and still has a chance.
  • If Portugal loses to Luxembourg, and Russia wins or ties either game: Israel finishes in 2nd.
  • If Portugal ties with Luxembourg, and Russia loses both games: There is a 3-way tie for 1st, settled by total goal difference. Israel is currently behind Russia by 6, and behind Portugal by 3.
  • If Portugal ties with Luxembourg, and Russia wins or ties either game: Israel is tied for 2nd with Portugal.
  • If Portugal beats Luxembourg, and Russia loses both games: Israel is tied for 2nd with Russia.
  • If anything else happens: Goodbye, Israel. Better luck in 2018.

Israel’s neighbors Jordan and Egypt are also still in the running (to represent Asia and Africa, respectively), so if everything aligns, it could end up being a block party. But one thing is certain: next week, Israelis across the political spectrum will be cheering for Luxembourg.

Notes on the Pew survey

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

The Pew Research survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released yesterday, has received a lot of attention in both the Jewish and the mainstream media. I don’t have anything more to add about the results themselves; many pages have already been written in the last 48 hours. But after reading both the data and some of the spin, I have several comments about what we can and can’t conclude from the data.

1) Orthodox Retention

There has been discussion of the retention rates among various age cohorts of Orthodox Jews, i.e. what percentage of Jews raised as Orthodox currently identify as Orthodox. This percentage is significantly higher among the younger age cohorts than among the older cohorts, leading some to conclude that the Orthodox world is more effective at retention at the present time than in the past.

This conclusion is not supported by the data. Let us consider an alternate hypothesis: The attrition rate of Orthodox Jews has remained constant over time. What results would we expect from this hypothesis? The percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who currently identify as Orthodox should decrease with increasing age (since older people have had more time to leave Orthodoxy), and this is in fact what we see in the data. But we can be more precise in our predictions from this model: The percentage should decay exponentially.

To test this, I fit the numbers to an exponential curve. I made the following assumptions and simplifications (which were quick-and-dirty, but you can try it yourself with different assumptions): I assumed that 100% of Orthodox-raised Jews identified as Orthodox at age 18 (and all attrition occurred after this). I collapsed each age range (e.g. 18-29) to a single data point at the center of the age range. For the highest age group (65+), I assumed it went up to 90.

The result was that the data fit the exponential very closely (R2 = 0.9932), with an attrition rate of about 2.4% per year:

Of course we can’t conclude that there has in fact been a steady rate of attrition either! My point is just that this would be consistent with the data. There are many possibilities – it would also be consistent with the data that everyone who leaves Orthodoxy leaves during their 20s (which would mean that the attrition rate is in fact much lower for the current 20somethings). There’s just no way to determine from these data (which only provide a snapshot of the present time) which model is correct, without data from past generations.

2) Denominational Identification
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Response to H’zon

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

I hope everyone had a great New Year of the Trees! Several days ago, the Jewish environmental organization H’zon put up (and sent to their email list) a blog post defending their practice of incorrectly referring to the holiday as “Tu B’Shvat”. (h/t to commenter Joel for “H’zon”.)

A review of why this is incorrect: In Hebrew, a word may not begin with two shevas. (A sheva is the vowel that looks like a colon underneath the letter; depending on context, it is pronounced either not at all or like the English schwa.) Therefore, if one of the prefixes b-, k-, or l- is placed on a word beginning with a sheva, the prefix letter gets a chirik (the “ee” vowel, represented by a single dot under the letter) instead of a sheva. For example, the name of the month of Sh’vat (uniquely among all the Hebrew months) begins with a sheva, so when the prefix B- is attached to the month, you get Bishvat (or BiShvat or biShvat or Bi-Shvat or BeeShvat — however you want to write it).

To be clear, this is a Hebrew grammar issue; it is NOT a transliteration issue. The issue has nothing to do with the choice of which English characters are used to represent each Hebrew letter and vowel — the same issue would come up in vocalized Hebrew, in which בִּשְׁבָט is correct and בְּשְׁבָט is incorrect. (In unvocalized Hebrew, of course, the difference is invisible.) As a parallel, suppose your organization sent out an email (in English) around the new year (the tree one or any other one) saying “Shanah tov!” If someone then responded “Actually, it should be ‘shanah tovah’, since ‘shanah’ is a feminine noun, so it should take a feminine adjective”, you wouldn’t reply “Hey, you’re entitled to your preference, but there’s no right or wrong way to transliterate Hebrew into English characters.” It should be obvious that such a reply would be a non sequitur, since noun-adjective agreement is obviously unrelated to transliteration – nothing would be different if the email had been in Hebrew and said שנה טוב, and then was corrected to שנה טובה.

In short, anyone who says this is a transliteration dispute either doesn’t understand the issue (and should defer to those who do) or is intentionally obfuscating.

With that in mind, here’s the story so far:

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post, “The War on Tu Bishvat”, enumerating and responding to the top five rationalizations for “B’Shvat”/”B’Shevat”, and explaining why they are without merit, followed by a second blog post, “Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame”, which laid out who was on each side of the issue. I then had some unfortunate online interactions with H’zon, during which one of their staffers acted unprofessionally, and I wrote it up in a third blog post, “Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame”.

If you haven’t read those three blog posts (or even if you have), read them now before proceeding further.
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January Madness results!

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

The final Knesset election results are in! (This guide may help if you can’t remember which party is which.)

  1. Likud Beiteinu 31
  2. Yesh Atid 19
  3. Labor 15
  4. Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) 12
  5. Shas 11
  6. United Torah Judaism 7
  7. Hatenua 6
  8. Meretz 6
  9. United Arab List – Ta’al 4
  10. Hadash 4
  11. Balad 3
  12. Kadima 2
  13. Otzma Leyisrael
  14. Am Shalem
  15. Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf)
  16. Koach Lehashpia
  17. Eretz Hadasha
  18. Hayisraelim
  19. Greens
  20. Dor Bonei Haaretz
  21. Chaim Bechavod
  22. Da’am – Workers Party
  23. Tzedek Hevrati
  24. Achim Anachnu (We Are Brothers)
  25. Pirates
  26. Kulanu Haverim Na Nach
  27. Economics Party
  28. Mitkademet Liberalit Democratit (Leeder)
  29. Or (Light)
  30. Brit Olam
  31. Hatikva Leshinui
  32. Moreshet Avot

(“But wait!” you say. “This is only 32 parties! I thought there were 34!” That’s right. The breakaway haredi party Netzach dropped out last week, having resolved its differences with United Torah Judaism. Atid Echad (One Future) also dropped out two days before the election – apparently pornography wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list of issues in this election.)

So first of all, congratulations to everyone who participated in January Madness 2013! Given how unpredictable Israeli elections can be, it takes a lot of courage to make a prediction and put it out there in public. No one correctly predicted all 120 Knesset seats, but everyone got some of them right.

But even more so, congratulations to the winners!!! Both Lev Polinsky in New York NY and Eyal in Israel correctly predicted 112 of the 120 Knesset seats. (While no one predicted that Yesh Atid would win 19 seats, Lev Polinsky came the closest, with 15.)

So we had to go to tiebreakers. On the first tiebreaker (which party that doesn’t make it into the Knesset will come closest?), Lev Polinsky guessed Am Shalem and Eyal guessed the Greens. Since neither picked the right-wing Otzma Leyisrael (instead, both of them incorrectly predicted that Otzma Leyisrael would win Knesset seats), we go to the second tiebreaker (which party will come in last place?). Again, no exact matches: Lev Polinsky picked Kulanu Haverim, and Eyal picked Eretz Hadasha. So now we go back to the first tiebreaker. Since Am Shalem (2nd place among the parties that didn’t make it in) did better than the Greens (7th place), Eyal wins second place, and Lev Polinsky is the 2013 January Madness champion!

Here is a message from our champion (who also wins a copy of the Comic Torah):

I am thrilled to have won, and I will print and display my winner’s certificate proudly alongside my HRH Assassin winner’s certificate – also won under BZ’s supervision. I hope he gets a job as the head of the Multi-State Lottery Association soon.

I enjoyed having an excuse to learn about all the marginal Israeli parties, like Kadima. I look forward to repeating this exercise in a few months.

Finally, I have been negligent in making my suggested contribution, so if people want to make suggestions for places to contribute in the comments, I am all ears.

And a message from our runner-up, who also wins a copy of Ghettoblaster:

I was really surprised to win. All i did was look at Wikipedia’s list of predictions, and basically used that. I changed it a bit, adding a bit to the right, which might explain why i missed 8. But i still never expected to get 93⅓%!

They had a warning that it might not add up to 120 seats, so to check, i wrote a short program to prepare it for addition – replace whitespace with +; then i pasted into Google. I’m actually a pretty good programmer; i created typeint.com and the associated projects from scratch; and i also host a forum for programmers at coders-shed.com. Speaking of TypeINT, i’m sure that some readers have needed to type in Hebrew, but were unsure how to. TypeR, by TypeINT is the perfect solution.

I hope that the 19th Kenneset proves some early predictions wrong and doesn’t end a disaster.

Finally, honorable mention goes to everyone who got the tiebreaker questions right. On the first tiebreaker question, congratulations to James Bier in Tucson AZ, David in Philadelphia, David Meyer in College Park MD, Mike Schultz in Karmiel, Tzemah, and Eliana in DC, all of whom picked Otzma Leyisrael as the top party not to make it over the threshold. On the second question, congratulations to David W. Eisen in Bet Shemesh and Ethan Tucker in Bronx NY, who predicted that Moreshet Avot would come in last. (I never could figure out what Moreshet Avot’s story was, and apparently neither could anyone else, except for 461 voters.) And since we didn’t get the news about the two parties dropping out in time to remove them from the contest entrance form, we’ll also give honorable mention to James Bier in Tucson AZ (again) and Itamar Landau in Jerusalem, both of whom picked One Future to come in last place (since one could argue that 0 is less than 461). (The most popular choice for this question was the Pirate Party. They weren’t even in the bottom seven! The lesson is never underestimate pirates.)

Thanks for playing, everyone! The next Knesset election will be Tuesday, November 7, 2017 (yes, that’s also Election Day in US jurisdictions that hold elections in odd-numbered years), unless elections are called earlier than that (which they almost certainly will).

Thanksgivukkah FAQ

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

As many of you know by now, November 28, 2013, will be both (American) Thanksgiving and the 1st day of Chanukah! The possibilities are endless: deep-fried turkey; latkes with cranberry sauce and gravy; pumpkin sufganiot; I’m sure you have more in mind. This week an article by Jonathan Mizrahi on this calendar issue has been making the rounds. It has some excellent graphs illustrating both the rarity of Thanksgivukkah in our present era and the long-term drift of the calendar that will make Thanksgivukkah impossible in the future, but it somewhat overstates its primary claim that Chanukah and Thanksgiving are “a once in eternity overlap”. This FAQ answers some questions that this article has inspired in various other forums, and corrects a few nuances.

Many thanks to Stephen P. Morse for creating an excellent tool to answer calendar questions quickly (though if he’s reading this, I’d love to see the capability of going beyond 9999 CE, and of distinguishing between Adar and Adar I), and to Remy Landau for providing the raw data on the Rosh Hashanah drift (though if he’s reading this, what’s with the popup ads?).

If you have questions that aren’t answered here, we’ll try to answer them in the comments (and if there are a lot, we’ll put together a sequel).

1. What is causing the long-term drift in the calendar?

You’ll notice from Mizrahi’s graph that the Jewish holidays shift significantly from one year to the next (like seasonal variations in the weather), but also (on average) slowly drift later over long time periods (like climate change). The year-to-year shifts are because the Hebrew calendar is primarily a lunar calendar, and 12 lunar months are approximately 354 days – much shorter than the solar year of ~365.25 days. Without any correction, the Jewish holidays would continue to move ~11 days earlier every year. (This is what happens with the Islamic calendar, in which every year is 12 lunar months without exception, so over several decades the Muslim holidays traverse the entire solar year.) In order to keep the Jewish holidays roughly aligned with the solar year (so that Pesach is always in spring, etc.), an month is added every few years, so Jewish “leap years” have 13 lunar months instead. As the Greek astronomer Meton discovered, 235 lunar months (=19*12 + 7) are approximately equal to 19 solar years, so if we put the calendar on a 19-year cycle, and add an extra month to 7 out of every 19 years, it mostly works out.

BUT NOT EXACTLY. 235 lunar months add up to 6939 days 16 hours 595 parts. (In Jewish calendar math, “parts” are the basic subdivisions of an hour, instead of minutes and seconds. There are 1080 parts in an hour, so 595 parts is about 33 minutes.) In the Gregorian calendar, 19 solar years (on average) are 6939 days 14 hours 626 parts. That’s about a 2-hour difference. So the Jewish holidays (on average) shift about 2 hours later during each 19-year cycle, which adds up to a full day every 231 years.

2. Is this an issue of Julian vs. Gregorian calendars?

Not really. 19 Julian years (on average) are 6939 days 18 hours. So if the Gregorian calendar is closest to the actual solar year, the Jewish calendar is doing better than the Julian calendar at approximating it (but still not well enough). (Think of it this way: By definition, the Julian calendar deviates from the Gregorian calendar by 3 days every 400 years. The Jewish calendar deviates by slightly less than 2 days in the same time period.)

3. But there’s some mechanism in place to correct this drift before it gets out of hand, right?

Nope. If no action is taken, the Jewish calendar will continue to drift later and later, until Pesach is in summer, Rosh Hashanah is in winter, etc. And it’s not clear how any action could be taken, since there’s no Jewish pope or Sanhedrin or any sort of body empowered to act on behalf of the whole Jewish people. But on the bright side, (as Mizrahi mentions) if we wait tens of thousands of years, we’ll loop all the way around to where we started.

The Catholics do have a pope, and so even though Easter is on a similar 19-year cycle, they’ve instituted corrections to keep it from drifting. Easter and Pesach usually coincide, but in the years when they’re a month apart instead, let’s just say it’s not Easter’s fault.
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January Madness: Guide to the Parties

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Have you entered the January Madness pool yet? Once again, here is a guide to the 34 parties running in the election, with links to their websites if we can find them (English if available, otherwise Hebrew if available, otherwise Arabic if available). In addition, here are the lists of candidates running on each party list, in Hebrew (complete), English (incomplete), and Arabic (incomplete).

Parties represented in the current Knesset:

  • Am Shalem: The name of the party (“Whole Nation”) is a play on the name of the founder, MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem, who was elected as an MK from Shas, but broke with party orthodoxy (as it were) on issues such as conversion and whether haredi men should work for a living, and started his own faction. Am Shalem “seeks to unite all Jews and restore moderate Judaism to Israel”, and to integrate haredim into the workforce and the army.
  • Habayit Hayehudi: After an aborted attempt in the last election, the far-right National Union and the former Mafdal (National Religious Party) have succeeded this time around in forming a combined party. At the top of the joint list is newcomer Naftali Bennett: high-tech millionaire, son of American immigrants, and former head of the settler movement. Bennett’s positions have attracted controversy, including saying he would refuse military orders to evacuate settlements, and proposing the annexation of Area C (the parts of the West Bank where the settlements are located).
  • Hadash – Democratic Front for Peace and Equality: This left-wing Arab-Jewish party, which includes the Israeli Communist Party, is led once again by MK Mohammed Barakeh. Hadash has supported a two-state solution since before it was popular.
  • Hatenua: After former Kadima head and opposition leader Tzipi Livni lost the Kadima leadership election to Shaul Mofaz, she resigned from the Knesset. Now she’s back with a new centrist party, “The Movement”, and has recruited 7 of her former Kadima colleagues in the Knesset. As Kadima’s 2009 candidate for prime minister, Livni has put together an impressive list of fellow also-rans: in the #2 spot is 2003 Labor candidate Amram Mitzna, and in #3 is 2006 Labor candidate Amir Peretz. Hatenua has also joined forces with the Green Movement (whose leader, Alon Tal, is #13 on the list), which ran a joint list with Meimad in 2009 (but Meimad is not running in this year’s election).
  • Israel Labor Party: In the 2009 election, Labor (the center-left party going back to the beginning of the state) hit a historic low, winning only 13 seats. And then it got even smaller: Party leader (and Defense Minister) MK Ehud Barak wanted to stay part of the Netanyahu government, and the majority of the party didn’t, so Barak and 4 other MKs formed a breakaway party, Atzma’ut (Independence), reducing the Labor faction to 8. (Barak has announced his retirement from politics, and Atzma’ut is not running in this election.) Labor is now trying to rebound, with new leadership (MK Shelly Yachimovich) and a focus on domestic issues. Labor’s candidate list includes some notable new faces: At #8 is Stav Shaffir, organizer of the tent protests, and at #27 is Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform movement.
  • Kadima: This centrist party, led at the time by Tzipi Livni, actually won the largest number of seats (28) in the 2009 election, but was unable to pull together 60 seats to form a coalition, so Netanyahu got to form the coalition and become prime minister instead, and Kadima has been leading the opposition. Kadima is now led by MK Shaul Mofaz, and has been splintered, with some of its members leaving for Hatenua and elsewhere.
  • Likud Yisrael Beiteinu: The Likud, led by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and its lead coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu, led by MK Avigdor Lieberman, have combined to form a right-wing superparty. Lieberman recently resigned as Foreign Minister after being indicted for fraud and breach of trust, but he remains at #2 on the party list for the election. The superparty hopes to remain in power for the next Knesset, and Netanyahu hopes to be reelected for a third term as Prime Minister, unprecedented since Ben-Gurion.
  • Meretz – Israel’s Left: The leftmost majority-Jewish party in the Knesset, Meretz has been shrinking in recent elections. In this election, Meretz will be led for the first time by MK Zahava Gal-On, who has been active in working against human trafficking. A number of distinguished Israelis are in symbolic positions on the Meretz list, such as writer A.B. Yehoshua in the 109th spot.
  • National Democratic Assembly (Balad): One of the two major Arab parties. Once again it is led by MK Jamal Zahalka, who took over after party founder Azmi Bishara fled the country. But the candidate who has been attracting more attention is #2 candidate MK Hanin Zoabi (the first woman elected to Knesset from an Arab party), who participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and was banned by the Central Elections Committee from running in the election, but was reinstated by the Supreme Court.
  • Otzma Leyisrael: Not everyone in the National Union went along with the Habayit Hayehudi merger. Two MKs stayed behind and started their own (also far-right) faction: the secular Jabotinskyite MK Arieh Eldad and the Kahanist MK Michael Ben-Ari. Also on the list, at #3, is Baruch Marzel, former leader of the banned Kach party.
  • ShasM: This Sephardi haredi party often wins enough seats to make or break coalitions. Longtime leader MK Eli Yishai is at the top of the list once again, but the big news this year is that former leader Aryeh Deri has returned to politics (after serving time for bribery) and is running at #2. (Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef is the party’s spiritual leader, but doesn’t run in the elections.)
  • United Arab List (Ra’am) – Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al) – Arab Democratic Party (Mada): One of the two main Arab parties, made up of multiple factions, including the southern faction of the Islamic Movement, where party leader MK Ibrahim Sarsur comes from. Another faction is the Arab Democratic Party, led by MK Taleb el-Sana (running at #5). Ta’al is MK Ahmad Tibi’s operation (Tibi is in the #2 spot), and has allied with Balad and Hadash in the past.
  • United Torah Judaism: Despite haredi population growth, the main Ashkenazi haredi party’s representation in the Knesset has remained remarkably stable. It is led once again by MK Yaakov Litzman, who represents the Agudat Yisrael faction and the Ger Hasidim. At #2 is MK Moshe Gafni, representing the Degel Hatorah faction and the B’nei B’rak yeshivish crowd.

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January Madness 2013!!!

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Now that January is here, and the Israeli election is just a few weeks away, it’s time for… JANUARY MADNESS!!!! You may recall March Madness from 2006, or February Madness from 2009. Now, Jewschool and Mah Rabu are excited to announce our third Israeli elections prediction pool!

Both the 2006 and 2009 pools were won by graduates of Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School. Will the streak continue, or will the rest of the world start to catch up? The answer is in your hands.

How to Enter: Go to the January Madness link and put in your predictions for how many seats each of the 34 parties will win. All predictions must be non-negative integers (0 is allowed), and your predictions must add up to 120. Entrance is free, but there is a suggested donation of $10 to the organization of your choice dedicated to making Israel the best it can be. Israeli citizens are encouraged to vote in the actual election as well.

Prizes: The winner gets a copy of The Comic Torah, which one Jewschool contributor has called “the perfect match for the zany lunacy and unbridled blood lust of today’s Israeli politics”. Second place gets a copy of Ghettoblaster by So Called, because the Yiddish Hip-Hop Accordion Party wouldn’t be out of place in the Knesset elections.

The Rules (for the real election): The 34 parties have submitted ordered lists of candidates. Here are the full lists in Hebrew, and partial lists in English. On election day (January 22), Israeli citizens will go to polling places in and near Israel, and vote for a party (not for individual candidates). All parties that win at least 2% of the vote will win seats in the Knesset, proportional to their share of the vote. For example, suppose the Pirate Party wins 1% of the vote, One Future wins 33%, and Kulanu Haverim wins 66%. Then the Pirate Party wins no seats in the Knesset (since it was below the 2% threshold), and the other parties will proportionally split the 120 Knesset seats: One Future gets 40 seats (so the top 40 candidates on its list are elected), and Kulanu Haverim gets 80 seats. If vacancies arise later in the term, there are no special elections – the next candidate on the party’s list (e.g. #81 on the Kulanu Haverim list) enters the Knesset. It is mathematically possible for all 34 parties to win seats in the Knesset, but experts say it is unlikely.

The Rules (for the January Madness pool): The deadline to enter is Monday, January 21, 2013, at 11:59 pm Israel Standard Time (4:59 pm EST). When the final election results are published, each entry will receive a score based on how many Knesset seats were predicted correctly. For example, suppose the results are as in the above example (Kulanu Haverim 80, One Future 40). I predicted 60 seats for One Future, 50 for Kulanu Haverim, and 10 for Da’am Workers Party. Then my score is 90, since I correctly predicted 40 seats for One Future and 50 seats for Kulanu Haverim.

Ties will be broken based on two tiebreaker questions:
1) Of the parties that do NOT win seats in the Knesset, which will come closest?
2) Which party will get the FEWEST votes?

The tiebreakers will be resolved in this order: exact match on question 1; exact match on question 2; closest on question 1 (if you picked a party that DOES win seats, you’re out of consideration for this one); closest on question 2.

In the coming weeks, we’ll put up a post with a handy guide to all the parties, and links to their websites.

If you have other questions, post them in the comments. Good luck!!!!

Everyone out there trying to make a difference in your communities…

Here’s another great job opportunity in the Washington DC area! Jews United For Justice (JUFJ), DC’s local Jewish social justice organization, is hiring a Community Organizer (and yes, the position has actual responsibilities). JUFJ mobilizes the DC-area Jewish community to stand with our allies in other communities to work for social change that makes the region better for everyone. (You read about JUFJ in these pages a few months ago, when it ran a successful campaign to make the DC income tax more progressive, led by upper income earners saying “Please tax me!”)

The new full-time community organizer’s first project will be to lead a social justice campaign in Montgomery County, Maryland, along with a team of volunteer leaders. The full job description is after the jump.
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Israel on Two Wheels


This is another guest post by Oren Hirsch, an urban planner and avid cyclist currently living and working in Jerusalem and riding throughout the country wherever and whenever he can. He has ridden to Eilat on the Arava Institute/Hazon Israel Ride twice, in 2009 and 2011.

On your last trip to Israel, how did you get around primarily? If you came with a group, you were probably on a chartered bus. If you were on your own, you probably relied on Egged and Israel Railways, or if you were a bit more adventurous and willing to discover your inner Israeli driver, you took to the roads in a rental car (let’s admit it, we’ve all wanted to drive in a country where we can honk and flash our high beams at other cars as much as we want while never signaling or following the speed limit). And regardless of whether you were with a group or not, you probably walked extensively in cities such as Jerusalem, Tzfat, and Tel Aviv. But on your next trip (or first trip, if you have yet to come here), consider using a different form of transportation for some of the time, because it might allow you to see Israel from a totally different perspective.

Cycling in Israel is becoming more popular, among both locals and tourists. Tel Aviv has over 100 kilometers of “bike lanes” and a municipal bikesharing program. Certain roads are so popular with riders on the weekend that there are large signs along these roads warning drivers to be alert and mindful that bicyclists are likely to be present. El Al even allows passengers to bring along their bike for free. However, this isn’t to say that biking in Israel is as easy as it would be in, say, the Netherlands. Israeli drivers must be contended with, there isn’t much bike infrastructure in urban areas other than Tel Aviv, and even the Tel Aviv bike infrastructure would be considered to be unimpressive compared to what exists in many American and European cities. But don’t let these sorts of issues deter you from having a bicycle adventure on your next trip here. Here are some of the advantages and incentives to biking instead of taking buses or driving:
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Jerusalem, Jerusalem

As many readers know, the U.S. State Department’s longstanding official policy is to refer to Jerusalem (both East and West) as just “Jerusalem”, and not “Jerusalem, Israel” or “Jerusalem, Palestine” or anything else. Thus, for example, there is the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, in contrast to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, the U.S. Consulate in Toronto, Canada, etc. The idea here is to avoid taking a public stance on the status of Jerusalem before a final agreement is reached, and thereby to avoid inflaming either side.

But this situation may not last forever. Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zivotofsky v. Clinton (aka M.B.Z. v. Clinton), a case that raises the Jerusalem issue as well as deeper constitutional issues about the separation of powers (and let’s face it, the Jerusalem issue isn’t important enough on its own to reach the Supreme Court).
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#OccupytheMinyanConference

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

This past weekend, the great city of Washington DC played host to Mechon Hadar’s fourth (approximately sesquiannual) Minyan Conference. Unlike the previous conferences, this one wasn’t called the Independent Minyan Conference (at least not exclusively). This wasn’t because the 10-1/2-year-old Kehilat Hadar is no longer an “independent minyan” by some definitions; it’s because the conference broadened its reach to other lay-led minyanim that are affiliated with larger institutions, such as synagogues and Hillels.

I was there representing Minyan Segulah (on the DC/Maryland border), and it was a great opportunity to network with organizers of other minyanim from San Francisco to London, discuss issues facing our communities, and yadda yadda yadda.

But I wanted to share one highlight. The prayer options on Friday night and Saturday morning included 5 local minyanim (including Segulah). For Shabbat mincha, there were two options at the conference location: a traditional egalitarian minyan downstairs, and a partnership minyan upstairs. Then during se’udah shelishit, they announced the same two options for ma’ariv. Some participants stood up and made another announcement: “We were also thinking about doing something alternative. If you’re interested, come to [location].” Multiple people shouted out “What is it?” They responded “Come to [location] and help figure it out.”

On the basis of no information beyond “something alternative”, 43 people showed up (out of around 120 participants).

As one might have expected from the announcement, there wasn’t a specific plan. A substantial fraction of the ~15 minutes allotted for ma’ariv was spent discussing what we should do. We also sang several niggunim (one of which had been taught at a session earlier that day, another of which was taught right then), and someone talked about transitioning from Shabbat into the week, and someone else connected Parshat Lech Lecha to her own recent experiences. And then it was time to join the rest of the group for havdalah.

A few of us were debriefing afterwards, and we agreed that this had been “Occupy the Minyan Conference”: get the people on board first, and the specific policy proposals come later. The significance of this event wasn’t the content, but the fact that so many people were attracted to it. There was a visible feeling of “We are the 36%”, and the excitement that we all knew from going to the first meeting of a new minyan, and a sense of empowered Judaism (two people spoke this gathering into being, and it was so). I don’t know what the larger message is (beyond the obvious – that anyone trying to generalize about the independent minyan organizer population (and, kal vachomer, the independent minyan participant population), by ascribing to them a particular religious outlook and style of practice, is being lazy and missing the mark). But it was a reminder not to let anything get stale.

Sweep!

So far, Nobel week 2011 has been Good For The Jews, with Jewish scientists among the winners in 3 out of 3 prizes. Following Beutler and Steinman on Monday in Medicine, and Perlmutter and Riess yesterday in Physics, today’s winner in Chemistry is the Israeli materials scientist Dan Shechtman of the Technion. This is Israel’s second chemistry prize in 3 years; Shechtman follows Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute, who won in 2009 for her work on the structure of the ribosome.

What did Shechtman win for? He revolutionized the field of crystallography by discovering quasicrystals, crystals whose atoms form a pattern that never repeats. The story of the discovery is pretty amazing; I recommend reading the whole thing from the Nobel website.

An excerpt:

When Shechtman told scientists about his discovery, he was faced with complete opposition, and some colleagues even resorted to ridicule. … The head of the laboratory gave him a textbook of crystallography and suggested he should read it. Shechtman, of course, already knew what it said but trusted his experiments more than the textbook. All the commotion finally led his boss to ask him to leave the research group, as Schechtman himself recalled later. The situation had become too embarrassing.

In the coming days, we’ll see whether the sweep holds up for Literature, Peace, and Economics.

Filed under Israel, Science

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Brooklyn is not expanding!

Mazal tov to Saul Perlmutter (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), Brian Schmidt (Australian National University), and Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University; Space Telescope Science Institute) for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating!

Apart from the Woody Allen clip, why is this story on Jewschool? Because Perlmutter and Riess are both Jewish! They are the first Jews to be awarded a Nobel Prize since… yesterday, when Bruce Beutler and Ralph Steinman z”l won the Nobel Prize in Medicine (along with Jules Hoffmann) for their work in immunology. They are also the first Jewish physics laureates since Roy Glauber in 2005.
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Reform surrender

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

Happy 5772! Another year, another blog post I don’t really want to write. But I’m writing it anyway, because who else will? Criticizing the Reform movement on its own terms (as opposed to either not criticizing it, or judging it by external standards) is a lonely beat.

An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts.
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Two amazing Jewish social justice opportunities in Washington DC

Here are two spectacular opportunities to get involved with justice work through Jews United For Justice, DC’s local Jewish social justice organization.

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Are you age ~25-35 and interested in learning about Jewish social justice activism? The Jeremiah Fellowship is a transformative 9-month program combining a thoughtful exploration of progressive Judaism with training in effective social justice activism and education on local DC justice issues. Fellows gather on alternating Wednesday nights for skills training, conversation about Jewish values, and intimate conversations with each other and with local activists, organizers, scholars, and rabbis. In the words of one of last year’s Fellows, Jeremiah “was beyond awesome. Transformative! Inspiring! Young D.C.-area Jews interested in social justice: apply!”

Read more about the program here and download an application here. Applications are due Monday, August 22, although earlier applications are encouraged.

Can’t apply yourself this year? Invite your friends and colleagues and pass the word on!

Email jeremiah at jufj.org or call 202-408-1423 x2 with any questions.

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Are you age 21-26 and looking for a full-time job in DC? Come work with Jews United for Justice and help make the Washington region more equal and just by organizing the Jewish community to support workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and key safety net programs that benefit the most vulnerable in our community. This unique opportunity is offered through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, and combines stipended full-time work with group living and weekly opportunities to learn about ways to make change in the world and the Jewish connection to social justice.
Candidates must be able to start in DC by August 28 to participate in AVODAH orientation.

Read more about the job and apply!

Judgment Day November 14?

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

So the world didn’t end yesterday. To be fair, they weren’t actually predicting the end of the world until October 21, at the conclusion of five months of torment for those of us left behind. Yesterday was supposed to be only Judgment Day. But that didn’t happen either.

Of course this is all nonsense, but we can check their math and see whether it is at least internally consistent nonsense.

Let’s start with the year:
According to the tract explaining the calculations, the world was created in 11,013 “BC”, so we are now in the year 13,023 from creation. (It’s one less than you think because there was no year zero; 1 BCE was followed immediately by 1 CE.) The biblical flood occurred in the year 4990 “BC”, 6023 years after creation. God says in Genesis 7:4 that the flood will come in 7 days, and since one day to God is like 1000 years to us (they cite a New Testament verse for this, but we have the same idea in Psalm 90:4), this means the world will be destroyed 7000 years later, which comes out to 2011 CE.

I was baffled at how they arrived at this year count in the first place. According to the Jewish calendar, we are now in the year 5771 from creation, and the flood took place in the year 1656 from creation (4115 years ago, or 2105 BCE). While the exact count of the number of years from “creation” is somewhat controversial (particularly at the interface between biblical chronology and real history), counting the years in Genesis from creation to the flood is very easy, since we have a detailed list of how long each ancestor lived before the next generation was born. Assuming they’re reading the same Bible (and I just checked the King James and the numbers are the same), it’s hard to see how the totals could be off by so much. At first glance I thought they were just applying the same principle that 1 day to God is 1000 years to us, so the six days of creation would add an extra 5999 years (subtract one because, according to the rabbis, humans were created on Rosh Hashanah of the year 2, so creation began on 25 Elul of the year 1). But that can’t be it, because the time from the end of creation to the flood has to be much more than 24 years.

So I did some googling and it turns out that they get this chronology based on a general principle that a generation is a lifespan, so in these biblical genealogies, we can assume that the son was born in the year that the father died. For example, since Genesis 5:11 says that Enosh lived 905 years, they ascertain that the time from Enosh’s birth to his son Kenan’s birth was 905 years. Thus they completely disregard the explicit statements in Genesis 5:9-10 that Enosh lived for 90 years and then fathered Kenan, and then lived 815 years after that. By this method, they arrive at a stretched-out chronology. If they hadn’t done this, then the 7000-year anniversary of the flood wouldn’t take place until 4896 CE, so the end would be far from nigh.
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Tax me!

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

In the District of Columbia, the highest income tax bracket begins at $40,000. You read that right: a person making $40,000/year and a person making $40,000,000/year are taxed at the same marginal rate.

Like many states across the country, DC is in a budget crunch this year because the recession leads to both lower tax revenues and higher demand for safety-net services. As a result, DC’s social safety net is at risk. Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed budget makes the tax brackets ever so slightly more progressive, with an additional 0.4% tax on income above $200,000. This is a trivial increase for high-income earners (millionaires would owe another $3200 per year), and still would not prevent cuts to the safety set, but it is a step in the right direction. Yet some Councilmembers are opposing even this minor tax increase.

Enter the Jewish community. As the Washington Jewish Week reports this week, DC’s Jewish community, led by Jews United For Justice, has been at the forefront of efforts to tell the Council that the people of DC really wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes in exchange for a better city to live in. (91% of people in the affluent Wards 2 and 3 support a tax increase.)

The article also includes an obligatory quote from a (probably Jewish) libertarian representing midat Sedom (“What’s mine is mine”), riddled with factual errors (in addition to what ZT points out in the comments, I don’t think the DC Treasury actually accepts donations — this would run afoul of corruption laws).

Still, most of the Jewish community understands that we all have obligations to our society and to our neighbors. If you live in DC and want to make sure that this perspective wins out, get involved with JUFJ’s efforts.

In defense of autonomy

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

The article making the rounds this week is Rabbi Leon Morris’s oped in the JTA, “Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’”. In past blog posts, I have both agreed and respectfully disagreed with Rabbi Morris; here I’m going to do the latter (from my usual perch as a Reform Jewish expat).

Rabbi Morris’s thesis is “A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have ‘personal choice’ as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever.” And I certainly don’t take issue with those other Jewish values, including “an increased commitment to Jewish study” and “committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts”. Yes, these are needed now more than ever. But I think he’s beating up on a straw man, and basing his argument on two unfounded claims:
1) “Personal choice” is the core principle of Reform Judaism.
2) “Personal choice” is to blame for the Reform movement’s ills.

I’ll address these points one at a time.
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