Your Daily Phil: ‘Tragedy tourism’ to Israel’s devastated south

Good Tuesday morning.

In today’s edition of Your Daily Phil, we report on Len Blavatnik’s response to Jonathan Glazer’s controversial Oscars speech and examine the emergence of a macabre “tragedy tourism” to devastated Israeli communities. We feature an opinion piece by Yotam Polizer reflecting on IsraAid’s first-ever domestic humanitarian relief operation, and one by Rabbi Jonah Zinn about the impact of Israel trips on college students in today’s hostile campus climate. Also in this issue: Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Sam Dubin and Sara Fenske Bahat. We’ll start with the Jewish programming at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

As the Israel-Hamas war and raging global antisemitism continue to dominate the news cycle and pop up at major international gatherings since Oct. 7 — from Sundance to the Oscars — the topic was largely ignored by the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, which kicked off on Friday, reports eJewishPhilanthropy’s Esther D. Kustanowitz.

Known as SXSW (or colloquially, “South-By”), the cultural gathering did not feature significant protests or demonstrations of any kind, save for  a small number of foreign bands canceling their appearances to protest one of SXSW’s sponsors, the U.S. Military, for its support of Israel.

But while the the festival — in which filmmakers, musicians and other artists and innovators network, discuss and prognosticate — does not feature Israel-related content, it will include a number of official Jewish events, as well as Shabbat gatherings on the sidelines.

On Saturday, the event “Are You Afraid to Die Alone? Why We Need Community Deathcare,” included Sarit Wishnevski of Kavod v’Nichum, a Jewish organization empowering and training members of a community’s chevra kadisha, a committee that cares for the deceased and comforts the living through Jewish rituals and traditions.

Tuesday’s schedule included “Bearing Witness: The Future of Holocaust Memory Through Immersive Technology,” a panel with two Holocaust survivors, a virtual reality filmmaker and a vice-president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, discussing three new virtual reality films depicting Holocaust experiences. And this Saturday, the festival will feature Flores Market: SXSW Jewish-Latin Market, a seven-hour event representing Jewish and Latin cultures: music from Mazel Tov Kocktail [sic] Hour and Conjunto Los Dos and a market with 40 vendors, including “art, tattoos, wine, food and popups.”

Flavia Weinstein Nestrovski, who lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was at the annual confab to make connections, find new clients and business opportunities and to get a glimpse of the future of marketing and communications. But she was also seeking Jewish content and presence at the festival. So when she found the Tech Tribe #OpenShabbat dinner — and its upwards of 300 guests — Weinstein Nestrovski told eJewishPhilanthropy it felt “like home away from home.”

“I was not expecting the amount of people that were there [at the dinner],” she told eJP. “Since I’m in the Jewish Brazilian community that comes to South-By, for me the biggest thing was to connect with other Jews [and] I got a chance to do it. It made me super happy.”

For Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, whose Tech Tribe — an affiliate of Chabad Young Professionals that creates events for Jews in tech and digital media — has convened this event for 13 years, that is exactly the point.

“Gathering at the Tech Tribe #OpenShabbat meal with hundreds of other Jews in the heart of SXSW has always been a powerful expression of Jewish pride and unity,” Lightstone said. “The importance of centering Shabbat in our lives is more important than ever post-Oct. 7. Shabbat has become a guiding light for so many Jews during this time,  to center their Judaism, and it’s an honor to create a platform for so many.”

Read the full report here.


Blavatnik mum on controversial Oscars speech, but his office stresses: ‘His long-standing support of Israel is unwavering and well-documented’

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer speaks as he accepts the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for his Holocaust film, 'The Zone of Interest,' as producers Jim Wilson (left) and Sir Leonard Blavatnik stand behind him at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 10, 2024.
Writer-director Jonathan Glazer speaks as he accepts the Oscar for Best International Feature Film for his Holocaust film, ‘The Zone of Interest,’ as producers Jim Wilson (left) and Sir Leonard Blavatnik stand behind him at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 10, 2024.

Sir Leonard Blavatnik, the producer, businessman and philanthropist who stood behind “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer as he criticized Israel at Sunday night’s Oscars, is refraining from commenting on the speech, but a spokesperson for his office noted his “long-standing support” for Israel to eJewishPhilanthropy’s Judah Ari Gross.

Is he part of we?: During the speech, Glazer appeared to include Blavatnik in his denunciation of Israel, saying — with Blavatnik and the film’s other producer, Jim Wilson, next to him — that “We stand here as men who refute [sic] their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza — all the victims of this dehumanization.”

No comment: Asked if Blavatnik had been made aware of the speech’s content beforehand and if he shared Glazer’s belief, a spokesperson for the Blavatnik Family Foundation told eJP that the philanthropist “is not commenting on the Oscars but you’re welcome to reflect that he is extremely proud of ‘The Zone of Interest’ and the acclaim it has received. His long-standing support of Israel is unwavering and well-documented.”

Survivors respond: The Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA denounced Glazer for his remarks yesterday, writing in a letter that it is “disgraceful for [him] to presume to speak for the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who were murdered solely because of their Jewish identity.” 


Israeli communities devastated on Oct. 7 draw thousands seeking to bear witness, support victims

A house in Kfar Aza lies in ruins after an attack by Hamas on Oct. 10, 2023.

A macabre type of tourism has defined the trips of many visitors to Israel since Oct. 7. While some struggle with the concept of visiting the sites of the Hamas massacres, wary of invading the privacy of the victims, especially when the grief is still so raw, the act of bearing witness, showing solidarity and support and fundraising are among the key reasons why thousands of people have visited the affected Gaza border communities since security restrictions were lifted for civilians who wish to travel to the area, reports Tamara Zieve in eJewishPhilanthropy’s sister publication Jewish Insider.

What it was like: A Jewish Federations of North America spokesperson told JI that these trips are part of the reason that the umbrella organization has managed to raise over $783 million in emergency fund allocations for Israel, $360 million of which has been allocated to supporting the affected communities, helping provide food, housing, mental health services and special needs. “Those [visiting the Gaza border area] are often significant donors… and also people whose job is to go back and tell their communities what they saw,” the spokesperson said. “So certainly people come and it inspires them to donate but also people go back home to their communities and they can say, ‘I was in Be’eri, this is what it was like, this is the help that they need, this is where the money is going.’ It makes such a difference for people to understand the specifics of it.”

Ammunition for the other war: Mark Medin, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, has led some of these trips, one of which was attended by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last October, just weeks after the Hamas attack. “I think bearing witness and understanding the scope of what happened and having people be able to serve as ambassadors to tell the story, I think is an essential component of diaspora Jewish responsibility right now,” he told JI. “There are two wars going on. There’s a physical war that 9 million Israelis are in the middle of and hundreds of thousands of Israeli young boys and girls, young men and women are fighting on the front lines every day. And [there’s] an information war for the Jewish world that the diaspora Jewish community has to fight as well, in order to help support the physical war that’s happening on the ground.”

Read the full piece here and sign up for Jewish Insider’s Daily Kickoff here.


Sefaria adds Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s writings to its online library

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz. soinkleined/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Sefaria, a free digital library of Jewish texts, has introduced Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz’s commentaries on Tanakh and Mishneh Torah to its collection, reports eJewishPhilanthropy’s Haley Cohen.

Let my people know: The commentaries by Steinsaltz, who was known for making Jewish text more accessible around the globe — and his mantra “let my people know” —  is part of Sefaria’s new Jack Nash and Ludwig Bravmann Collection. The Nash-Bravmann Collection was made possible by a donation to the Steinsaltz Center from the Pershing Square Foundation in honor of Jack Nash and Ludwig (Lou) Bravmann, two Jewish philanthropists who supported Steinsaltz.

The rest is commentary: “Rabbi Steinsaltz actually met with Sefaria’s co-founders over a decade ago and expressed his deep understanding and appreciation for the importance of a free, digital Jewish library, Daniel Septimus, CEO of Sefaria, said in a statement. “To add even more of his commentaries to our library, and to link them with other digital texts, will both deepen and expand the learning experience for anyone who uses Sefaria.”

More to come: “In the coming years, we will add even more of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s texts,” said Sara Wolkenfeld, Sefaria’s chief learning officer. “Upcoming additions to the Collection include commentaries on the Mishnah and the Tanya, among others we’re excited to share with the Sefaria community.”

Happy 10th: Sefaria held an evening gala at the New York Public Library last week to celebrate its 10th anniversary and to fundraise for its $44 million campaign. It was the digital library’s first in-person event since 2017. 


IsraAid CEO: Meeting the needs in Israel requires all of our humanitarian experience

IsraAid staff build the air-conditioned tents that housed the Eshkol Regional Council Field School in Eilat, November 2023.

“After the devastating attacks on Oct. 7, IsraAid, the humanitarian aid organization I lead, was faced with a huge decision. After 22 years of using Israeli humanitarian, technical and mental health expertise abroad, we decided for the first time to launch a large-scale response at home,” writes IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.

Tackling logistical challenges: “With so many organizations on the ground, IsraAid immediately began working to coordinate aid efforts and create technological solutions to ensure that materials, support and people arrived where they were needed most, and to avoid duplicating efforts. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, IsraAid established the Tulcea Humanitarian Logistics Hub in Romania, coordinating aid deliveries throughout the south and east of Ukraine and establishing the first secure aid corridor to that part of the country. During the pandemic, we established a national control room in the Kingdom of Eswatini to manage the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Those experiences taught us how to create computerized systems, like the ‘control room’ we developed for Kibbutz Be’eri, to track volunteers and donations and coordinate between dozens of different organizations.

School’s wartime role: “Another important challenge in Israel has been restoring access to education. IsraAid worked with partners and local authorities to establish field schools for evacuated communities in the first months of the war, because we know how much stability and support a school can bring. In Guatemala, where we work in the rural primarily indigenous region of Alta Verapaz, we learned that schools can be holistic centers for the whole community. In Israel, that experience guided us to help establish schools as quickly as possible to create that communal resource and make sure that psychologists were integrated into school staff.”

Read the full piece here.


Why traveling to Israel now is more important than ever for young adults

Illustrative. Scene from Israel.

“As a parent who worries about the safety of my children, I understand how counterintuitive it may seem for parents to send their children to Israel right now. However, just as we have worked to strengthen our communal security infrastructure in response to the surge in antisemitism, so too must we spiritually fortify our young people,” writes Rabbi Jonah Zinn in an opinion piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.

Front-row seat: “Working with Jewish students every day as executive director of the University of Florida Hillel, I see how the past few months have left many Jewish students feeling isolated and alone. They see videos of Jewish students attacked on other campuses and wonder: Am I next? Should I take down the mezuzah I hung proudly on my dorm room door only months ago? Is it safe to be seen going to Hillel on Friday night? How should I respond in class when the professor or my fellow students speak against Israel? What should I do in the face of protests on campus demonizing Israel and the Jewish people in the most grotesque terms? The pressure of campus life and the ways Jewish students have been targeted, excluded and marginalized has impacted student well-being.”

Transformative perspectives: “When I was recently in Israel with Hillel educators from across the country… [it] was shocking to hear that many [Israelis] were more concerned about the safety of Jewish students on campus than they were about their own safety. Our conversations there reinforced the powerful connection of Jewish peoplehood, one that young people can benefit from experiencing firsthand. My personal experience in Israel also helped me understand that while Israelis are still mourning and struggling with the trauma of Oct. 7, they also insist on regaining a degree of normalcy. It can serve as an example to young Jews in the U.S. who are navigating fears around expressing their Jewish identity publicly. In Israel, they will see people living whole and meaningful lives despite existential threats, which makes these moments of joy even more profound and meaningful.”

Read the full piece here.

Worthy Reads

Do the Right Thing: In an opinion piece in Brown University’s student newspaper The Brown Daily Herald, student Brooke Verschleiser exhorts faculty members and the “silent” majority of the student body to act in response to campus antisemitism. “To professors: your role extends beyond your political positions. Whether you advocate for extreme positions on either side of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, one of your primary responsibilities is to educate and inspire future leaders. This responsibility includes teaching them to condemn violence and to foster an environment that encourages healthy debate and critical thinking. Your leadership, or lack thereof, shapes the future. If you promote an environment that enables hate and drives our community into further division, you have failed in your role as an educator. To the wider Brown community: complacency is not an option. Misinformation, silence and cowardice, manifested in anonymous online posts or masked protestors, have severe consequences. True leadership, exemplified by figures like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., is characterized by openness and bravery. This is a moment to reflect critically on the information we consume and speak out against hate.” [BrownDailyHerald]

Faltering Stars: In The Wall Street Journal, Rory Jones and Carrie Keller-Lynn report on how the presence of Israel’s high-tech leaders on the front lines of the war in Gaza is impacting business at home. “The last email Israeli tech executive Itamar Ben Hemo sent before a bullet ripped through his ribs, diaphragm and intestine was a note to a colleague. Ben Hemo wanted to know how close the startup he founded was to signing on a new client. For weeks, Ben Hemo — an Israeli army reservist who returned to active duty after Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel — had been using breaks in combat to fire up his laptop, messaging investors and working on making his next sales… Tens of thousands of Israelis who work in the country’s vaunted technology sector have been fighting in what is already the longest war since Israel’s foundation in 1948. That is sapping the strength of one of the most important drivers of the national economy. Over the past two decades, economic output has tripled as the tech sector has boomed. The money has turned Tel Aviv into a wealthy city, and meant Israelis, once familiar with economic austerity, became used to expensive cars, celebrity-chef restaurants and holidays abroad. But as Israel’s best and brightest are killed and injured, or just absent during long stretches at the front, their tech businesses back home are struggling.” [WSJ]

Around the Web

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom cut short its visit to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom requested that its chair, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who also serves as the director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, remove his kipa while in public…

A group of more than 70 Maryland rabbis from across the denominational spectrum accused Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) of spreading falsehoods about Israel and stoking “divisions” and “isolat[ing]” Israel and the Jewish community in his state…

Sam Dubin was named interim executive director of Detroit’s JCRC/AJC after Rabbi Asher Lopatin stepped down to become director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, Mich. A nationwide search for a new executive director is under way…

Sara Fenske Bahat, the interim CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, stepped down from her position last week after she faced antisemitic abuse from artists and activists…

The Philadelphia Inquirer examines the latest in Marc Rowan’s ongoing efforts to address antisemitism and other issues at the University of Pennsylvania

Stock and bond prices on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange have been recovering since late October, despite other financial downturns in the Israeli economy…

Binaifer Nowrojee will take over as president of George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in June as its current president Mark Malloch-Brown steps down…

Freed Israeli hostage Mia Schem, who was in the U.S. last week for meetings with officials and to attend the State of the Union address, attended Elton John’s Oscars party on Sunday night, wearing a white dress adorned with a yellow pin to raise awareness about the remaining hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza…

Morielle Lotan and Shay Hershkovitz launched a new $1 million competition to identify and fund technology-driven solutions to antisemitism. The initiative received $250,000 in seed funding from UJA-Federation of New York and other assistance from the Anti-Defamation League and the USC Shoah Foundation

Deborah S. Brant, the interim president and CEO of the Cincinnati Ballethas been appointed to the position on a permanent basis. Brant has served as the board chair of the city’s Mayerson JCC and the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati

The Council for Israel and Jewish Affairs and two Canadian kosher certifiers say new rules have made it “nearly impossible” to continue to produce kosher meat in the country…

Joyce Linde, a philanthropist with close ties to the Boston Symphony Orchestradied last Friday at 80…

Jerome Bernard Makowsky, a mainstay of the Memphis Jewish community and former president of the JCC Association of North Americadied last Thursday just shy of his 90th birthday…

Pic of the Day

Over 50,000 people attend the traditional Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City today, during Chol Hamoed (the intermediary days) of Sukkot.
Courtesy/KKL – JNF Photo Archive

A solidarity delegation from Belgium plants an olive tree on Monday as part of a ceremony to inaugurate a new project in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council in Israel: three therapeutic complexes that will be established in the kibbutzim of Dorot, Ruhama and Bror Hayil, funded by a NIS 700,000 ($193,000) investment by KKL Belgium.

The complexes will be led by professional therapists from various fields, and the treatments available will include music and art therapy, emotional and psychological counseling and alternative medicine.


Annie Liebovitz smiles

Founder and CEO at Miller Strategies, Jeff Miller

Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi… Photographer, musician and author of 15 children’s books, Arlene Weiss Alda… Carol Margolis… U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)… Director, producer and screenwriter, Rob Cohen… Born in Bombay, British sculptor, he won the 2017 Genesis Prize, Sir Anish Kapoor… Pitching coach who has worked for the Yankees, Reds, Braves, Marlins, Cubs and Padres, Larry Rothschild… Past president of AIPAC, he is the founder and CEO of R.A. Cohen & Associates, Robert A. Cohen… Former member of the Knesset for the Likud party, Ayoob Kara… Founder of hedge fund Lone Pine Capital, Stephen Mandel… Sales representative at Paychex, Lynne Blumenthal… Director of constituency engagement at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Diane Saltzman… Senior attorney in the DC office of Squire Patton Boggs, Stacey Grundman… Sportscaster for ESPN and a host of SportsCenter, Steve Levy… Born in Haifa, he served as President of the Central Bank of Brazil and is now president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Ilan Goldfajn… U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)… Chief Washington correspondent for CNN and co-host of the Sunday morning program “State of the Union,” Jacob Paul “Jake” Tapper… Israeli film and television actor, Tzachi Halevy… VP of communications at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, Brian T. Weiss… Founder and publisher of Fleishigs kosher food magazine, Shlomo Klein… Actor and comedian, Samm Levine… Lead public affairs specialist at the Association of American Medical Colleges, Talia Schmidt… Member of Congress (D-NY-15) since 2021, Ritchie Torres… Senior Middle East analyst at Leidos, Aaron Magid… Founder and CEO of Serotonin and co-founder and president of Mojito, Amanda Gutterman Cassatt… CEO and co-founder of Wonder Media Network, Jennifer Manning Kaplan… Figure skater who won the 2016 World Junior championship, he competed for Israel at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Daniel Samohin… Israeli Internet personality, model and singer, Anna Zak