Even though he grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and has lived in Jerusalem since he and his family made aliya in 1984, Rabbi Jonathan Porath considers himself a “Jersey boy.”
He was born in Atlantic City and served as religious leader at Temple Beth O’r in Clark (now Beth O’r/Beth Torah) from 1975 to 1984. The weekend of Nov. 8-11, he came “home” to the Garden State, serving as scholar-in-residence at the Sacks-Wilner Holocaust Education program at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
Rabbi Daniel Grossman said that Adath Israel was “very pleased that through the generosity of the Sacks-Wilner endowment, we could present several programs with the dynamic and distinguished Rabbi Jonathan Porath. He has been influential in the rescue of Soviet Jews and in the education and inspiration of generations of congregations and clergy.”
A member of the 18th generation of rabbis in his family, Porath recently completed 15 years as a member of the senior staff of the Russian Department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Founder and chair of the Howard Lewis Center for Immigrant Absorption in Jerusalem, he is the author of Jews in Russia: The Last Four Centuries.
Interviewed by phone from San Francisco during his American speaking tour, Porath spoke with NJ Jewish News about his interests, his life in Jerusalem, and some of the topics he focuses on.
NJJN: Your presentations cover a variety of topics, ranging from the Holocaust to seder stories to Jewish family life. Is there an overall theme?
Porath: I am trying to teach Jewish values. It is far more important to me than Jewish facts or information. I am not a professor who gives historical lectures. I try to engage people in Jewish things and Jewish knowledge for Jews and non-Jews.
I tell a story about the last graduation of a Jewish high school in Vienna in May of 1938. They had Jewish flags and state flags, and the state flag was a swastika. The Jewish headmaster stood up and said, “I don’t know what’s happening but I can assure you people will be saying ‘Sh’ma Yisroel’ long after they will be saying ‘Heil Hitler.’”
NJJN: Why do you choose as one of your topics American Jews saving Jews during the Shoa?
Porath: We are familiar with the story that American Jews did not save the Jews of Europe, which is largely true but not totally true. There were a number who were saved by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and others. The Joint helped save Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and Jews who were stranded in Portugal and had no money. Once the war broke out, the American government banned any transfer of funds behind enemy lines. Well, the Jews were behind enemy lines. We know the story of the movie Schindler’s List. Where did the money come from for Oskar Schindler to bribe the Nazis? It came from the Joint.
NJJN: As a Conservative rabbi who lives in Israel, how do you view the impact of the Masorti movement there?
Porath: Masorti is developing congregations. The Schechter Institute is expanding. The Masorti are still trying to reach out to an indigenous Israeli audience. The movement is still based primarily on Americans who have moved to Israel or Israelis who have been to America. It is having successes, but it still has a long way to go.
I think some of the recent outrageous behavior by the Israeli establishment — like arresting Anat Hoffman at the Wall for wearing a tallit and putting her in jail — is the kind of thing that is wonderful encouragement for both the Masorti and the Reform movements.
NJJN: Will governmental changes after the next elections give the non-Orthodox in Israel better footing?
Porath: No. I think Bibi Netanyahu will be prime minster again because there is no competition. At least 25 percent of the electorate is to the right of Bibi and more nationalistic.
NJJN: Do you see any chance of the establishment of a Palestinian state?
Porath: I would love to see it. I have been supporting it for 30 years. But it seems to be very much in the background now because the Arab world is going through such convolutions. Also, the next administration in Washington is going to affect the Israeli perception of support from America. I know there have been many statements that security cooperation has never been greater and that the Iron Dome is an extraordinary creation. But I think when you face an external threat it is hard to rely on outsiders. American Jewry isn’t facing existential threats right now so there is a luxury of doing all kinds of wonderful social things. Israel does not have that luxury.
NJJN: While a recent newspaper story said most American Jews in Israel supported Mitt Romney, a strong majority of Jews in the United States are Democrats. What is your reaction?
Porath: I think voting Democratic is in the DNA of American Jews. Whether or not that is a mistake, that is how it is…. But among the American administrations that have been most difficult for Israel have been Republicans, such as George H.W. Bush. Richard Nixon, who was no friend to the Jews, was an extraordinary supporter of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War for geopolitical reasons because of the Soviets.
Speaking rabbinically, I would say God works in very mysterious ways.