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Special Report from Tbilisi: Liberal Jews start shul amid Orthodox outrage

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‘Make for me a sanctuary’: Amid Orthodox ire, Tbilisi women read Torah for the first time

 

There have been Jews in Georgia — the country, not the state —for 2,600 years. On Shavuot, they marked a major milestone: Women took to the bimah to read from the Torah for the first time ever. Our editor-in-chief, Jodi Rudoren, traveled to Tbilisi to witness the occasion — and to report on an escalating controversy around it.

‘Liberated from fear and hatred and prejudice’: The women were part of the first b’nai mitzvah cohort of the nascent Peace Synagogue, which is part of an ambitious interfaith initiative led by Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, who has spearheaded construction of the world’s first operating conjoined church, mosque and shul. The new synagogue is a radical departure from Tbilisi’s traditional, Orthodox Judaism: Leaders of Tbilisi’s two remaining historic synagogues have strongly objected to the Peace Synagogue’s efforts to introduce liberal, egalitarian prayer.

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Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili is the founder of Tbilisi’s Peace Project. (Eli Deush Krogmann)

‘Practice Judaism as they wish’: It’s not just Tbilisi’s Jewish authorities who object to the Peace Synagogue. Georgian rabbis in Israel have also decried the young institution, and some people involved with the Peace Synagogue have reported troubling harassment. Critics have threatened the jobs of Israel’s ambassador to Georgia and the local Hillel director. But while “the backlash was offensive,” Jodi writes, she “was also dismayed to discover that the rabbi and his recruits had made no outreach efforts to Tbilisi’s established Jewish leaders.”

 

‘I tried it, and just didn’t feel right:’ Some elements of the so-called Peace Project’s immersive model of interfaith practice are unconventional: Jews and Christians prostrated themselves during Muslim prayer services, for example. And it remains unclear if the Peace Synagogue or its neighboring Peace Mosque will be symbolic showpieces or substantive places of worship. The shul has no budget, and the b’nai mitzvah Jodi met have not been back to pray in the sanctuary since. 

ALSO IN THE FORWARD

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Elie Wiesel, left, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Getty)

Elie Wiesel reviewed ‘Oppenheimer’ — and it made him shudder: Combing through our archives for coverage of J. Robert Oppenheimer ahead of the much-anticipated July 21 release of a biopic about him, we found a March 1969 article with a famous byline: Eliezer Wiesel. The article, written in Yiddish and translated by archivist Chana Pollack, is a rare piece of theater criticism from the Nobel laureate on a Broadway play about the physicist. Wiesel was moved by the contradictions of the father of the atom bomb — and by the  performance of actor Joseph Wiseman. The drama “ripped through me and made me hopeful once more about the individual’s struggle,” Wiesel wrote, “and the visions of artists and dreamers.” Read the story ➤

Israel’s first spaceship crashed on the lunar surface. Its second just ran into a more Earthly obstacle: When an Israeli startup launched a dishwasher-sized craft into space in 2019, it aimed to make the Jewish state the fourth nation to land a spaceship on the moon, and the first to do so using private money. The rookie moonshot came nail-bitingly close, inspiring a nation and a round of new funding for a second attempt. But the project’s major donor cut bait this summer, leaving the team with not much time to figure out a backup plan. Read the story ➤

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Elina Svitolina in London at the Wimbledon quarterfinal. (Getty)

Plus …

WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY

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Rep. Ilhan Omar; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Getty)

??  Israel news: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, said “there is no way in hell” she’ll attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of Congress next week … Israel’s former attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, warned that the country is on the “brink of dictatorship” after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the judiciary advanced in the Knesset … Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy revealed on Wednesday that he invited Netanyahu to visit Kyiv, but that the Israeli leader turned down the offer

 

⚖️  The jury in the Tree of Life trial began deliberating Wednesday on whether the man who killed 11 Jews during Shabbat services is mentally fit to be considered for the death penalty. If not, it would mark the end of the trial, and he would be sentenced to prison for life. If so, the trial would move on to the actual life-or-death penalty phase, which would likely take several more weeks. (JTA)

 

A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Wednesday to posting an online manifesto in November that contained threats to attack a synagogue and Jewish people. At the time, the FBI issued a statewide warning, and security was beefed up at schools and shuls (including our editor–in-chief’s). The man faces up to five years in prison. (AP)

 

An external investigation cleared the co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance after accusations of workplace harassment — sort of. The report concluded that the allegations were true, but that they did not constitute any wrongdoing. (JTA)

 

? A congressional committee approved a budget increase – to $2.5 million a year from $1.5 million – for the State Department office of the envoy to combat antisemitism, Amb. Deborah Lipstadt. The full House and then the Senate still have to vote on the increase. (JTA)

 

?  The final film of Ed Asner, the prolific Jewish actor who died in the summer of 2021, is now in theaters. It’s called Tiger Within, and Asner plays a Holocaust survivor who befriends a homeless teenager raised by a Holocaust denier. (JTA)

 

What else we’re reading ➤  Cabaret is returning to Broadway with Eddie Redmayne — and a restored Jewish subplot … Evangelical churches are turning to a Jewish nonprofit to help them have hard conversations … These six Jewish baseball players were just drafted into Major League Baseball.

ON THE CALENDAR

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On this day in history (1930): Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer was born. She is best known for composing “Jerusalem of Gold,” which some see as a kind of second, informal national anthem. Following the 1967 War and Israel’s resulting control of the Old City and East Jerusalem, Shemer added a verse that celebrates the shofar “sounding at the Temple Mount.” 

 

In honor of National French Fry Day, check out our recipe for garlic and herb fries.

Today at 12:15 p.m. ET: Join Laura and me for a live recording of That Jewish News Show. We’ll be chatting with two Reddit moderators about how the social platform has become one of the few online spaces where Jewish conversation is flourishing. Watch here ➤

VIDEO OF THE DAY

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Ever wonder what it would sound like if a Hasidic man sang Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”? See for yourself.

 

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Thanks to PJ Grisar, Gall Sigler and Talya Zax for contributing to today’s newsletter. You can reach the “Forwarding” team at editorial@forward.com.

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