Looking back at 5775

As we head into the New Year, let's pause and reflect on the highlights and low-lights of 5775. Photo courtesy Scout

By Uriel Heilman

NEW YORK (JTA) — As 5775 winds to a close, here’s a look back on the highs and lows (and everything in between) of the year that was.

September 2014

At the annual U.N. General Assembly, President Barack Obama focuses his speech on the ISIS, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likens Iran to ISIS and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blames the West’s blunders for fomenting the terrorists of ISIS. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issues a scathing attack against Israel for its conduct in the summer’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

October 2014

Rabbi Barry Freundel, the longtime spiritual leader of the Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C., is arrested and charged with voyeurism following the discovery of hidden cameras that recorded women undressing in the Orthodox synagogue’s mikvah. The following February, Freundel pleads guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism. The case roils the Orthodox world.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, an ardent political activist who espouses a liberal brand of Orthodoxy, announces his planned retirement from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York. Weiss is the founder of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school for men and Yeshivat Maharat school for female Orthodox clergy.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” — an opera based on the true story of an elderly American Jewish man in a wheelchair killed by terrorists aboard an Italian cruise ship — opens at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York amid protests that the production is anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorists. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and two former New York governors, David Paterson and George Pataki, are among those who protest the New York opening of an opera that had its worldwide debut in 1991.

Chaya Zissel Braun, a 3-month-old American citizen, is killed when a Hamas terrorist crashes a car into a Jerusalem rail station. A second victim, a 22-year-old tourist from Ecuador, dies several days later from injuries sustained in the attack.

Relations between the Obama White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu reach a new low after an anonymous American official calls the Israeli leader a “chickenshit” in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. U.S. officials condemn the remark and Secretary of State John Kerry calls Netanyahu to apologize.

Open Hillel, the movement launched to counter the campus organization’s regulations on Israel programming, holds its first national conference, at Harvard University. The two-day gathering, titled “If Not Now, When?,” draws some 350 participants for a conference aimed at pushing back against Hillel International rules prohibiting programs that feature groups or individuals who “delegitimize” Israel or support the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Jewish state.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, the senior rabbi at a large Conservative congregation in Washington, D.C., announces he is gay. The announcement isreceived positively by the leadership of his synagogue, Adas Israel.

SodaStream, the Israeli at-home seltzer machine company, announces that it will close its West Bank factory and move the facility’s operations to southern Israel in 2015. The company says the move out of the Jewish settlement of Mishor Adumim is unrelated to boycott threats.

The core exhibit of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a more than $100 million complex first conceived over 20 years ago, is inaugurated with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on hand.

November 2014

As Republicans retake the Senate in midterm elections, a state senator from New York’s Long Island, Lee Zeldin, is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the sole Jewish Republican in Congress.

Four Jewish immigrants and a Druze policeman are killed during morning prayer services in a terrorist attack at a Jerusalem synagogue, Bnei Torah Kehillat Yaakov in the Har Nof neighborhood. The victims include Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, the dean of the Torat Moshe Yeshiva and the grandson of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the founder of modern Orthodoxy.

The mayor of Ashkelon is roundly criticized for laying off city Arab workers in the aftermath of the deadly synagogue attack in Jerusalem.

Israel’s Cabinet grants initial passage to a controversial bill that would identify Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, prompting concern at home and among some American Jews that it will prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democracy. Acrimony over the bill sparks a coalition crisis that ends up dissolving the Knesset in early December and sending Israel to early elections scheduled for the following March.

Steven Pruzansky, a New Jersey Orthodox rabbi known for his incendiary rhetoric, is broadly criticized for publishing a blog post saying that Arabs in Israel are an enemy that must be “vanquished.” The post, titled “Dealing with Savages,” draws a strong rebuke from the Orthodox Union, which calls it “anathema to the Jewish religious tradition.”

As the Ebola epidemic spreads in three countries in Africa, IsraAid becomes the sole Israeli or Jewish organization on the ground in the hot zone.

A state monitor slams the East Ramapo Central School District in New York’s Rockland County for giving preferential treatment to Orthodox schoolchildren who do not attend public schools. The school board, which is majority Orthodox, had been under fire for years for allegedly diverting public funds to religious schools.

Jonathan Greenblatt, a former special assistant to President Obama, is named the next national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Greenblatt is slated to replace Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s leader since 1987.

World powers, led by the United States, extend the deadline in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to June 30, 2015, prompting a call by AIPAC for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, additional sanctions are not levied during the negotiations, which last until a deal is struck in early July 2015.

December 2014

France’s parliament, the National Assembly, votes 339-151 to urge the French government to recognize the state of Palestine. The vote follows similar motions passed the previous month by parliaments in Britain and Ireland.

An oil pipeline ruptures near the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, causing a spill that is called one of Israel’s worst environmental disasters.

The United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents more than 13,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other student workers in the University of California system, approves a resolution to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, becoming the first major U.S. labor union to hold a membership vote on Israel and BDS.

The New Republic’s longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, and editor Franklin Foer quit the 100-year-old magazine to protest its new direction under new owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder. The magazine has a long history of Jewish editors and coverage of Jewish issues.

The European Parliament passes a resolution that supports, in principle, recognition of a Palestinian state as part of peace talks with Israel, in a 498-88 vote with 111 abstentions. Meanwhile, the General Court of the European Union annuls Hamas’ inclusion on a blacklist of terrorist groups, saying the 2001 decision was based on press reports and not legal reasoning.

Alan Gross, a Jewish-American contractor for the U.S. government who had spent five years in a Cuban prison for helping connect Cuban Jews to the Internet, is released and returned to the United States as part of a sweeping deal to restore diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana. Gross subsequently thanks the American Jewish community for helping secure his freedom.

Jewish immigration from France to Israel reaches an all-time record of nearly 7,000 in 2014, more than doubling the French aliyah rate in 2013 and far outstripping immigration to Israel from the United States. Overall, immigration to Israel hits a 10-year high in 2014 with approximately 26,500 new immigrants.

The Conservative movement youth group USY votes to relax rules barring teenage board members from dating non-Jews. The change, adopted at the group’s annual convention in Atlanta, affects the 100 or so teen officers who serve on USY’s national board.

President Obama signs the 2014 United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. The law, which unanimously passed the House and Senate, declares Israel a “major strategic partner,” upgrades the value of American weapons stockpiles in Israel and grants the Jewish state improved trade status.

As 2014 draws to a close, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics announces that the country’s population grew by 2 percent in 2014, to 8.3 million. Of them, 74.9 percent are counted as Jews, 20.7 percent as Arabs and 4.3 percent as others.

January 2015

Streit’s announces it is closing its historic, six-story matzah factory on New York’s Lower East Side, where the company produced the Passover staple for 90 years. It will relocate operations to New Jersey.

JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, announces it is merging with MyJewishLearning to create 70 Faces Media. The new organization’s three primary brands — the news and syndication portal JTA.org, the Jewish encyclopedia MyJewishLearning.com and the parenting website Kveller.com — are to remain distinct.

Bess Myerson, the only Jewish woman to win the Miss America pageant, dies at 90. Myerson won the competition in 1945.

Four Jewish men are killed by an Islamic gunman during a hostage siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris two days after a pair of Islamic gunmen storm the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, killing 11. The supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, is killed when police storm the Hyper Cacher market. Almost simultaneously, police kill the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack — brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, who were friends with Coulibaly  — at a printing plant just outside Paris. The events, which prompt a massive anti-terrorism demonstration in Paris, stoke fears of French Jews about their future in the country.

Actor Michael Douglas is named the winner of the Genesis Prize. The $1 million award, given by a consortium of philanthropists from the former Soviet Union, is meant to recognize accomplished Jews who demonstrate commitment to Jewish values.

Alberto Nisman — the indefatigable Argentine prosecutor collecting evidence of culpability in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires — is found shot to death in his apartment, just hours before he is to present evidence to Argentina’s congress that he said implicated his country’s president and Jewish foreign minister in a scheme to cover up Iran’s role in the bombing. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner first calls the death a suicide, then a murder, while protesters hold rallies in Buenos Aires demanding justice in the Nisman case. Months on, the mysterious circumstances surrounding Nisman’s death remain unresolved.

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is arrested on federal corruption charges. One of the state’s most powerful politicians andhigh-profile Orthodox Jews, Silver soon steps down as speaker but retains his Assembly seat while the investigation is ongoing.

House Speaker John Boehner invites Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on Iran’s nuclear program. The move sparks a showdown with the Obama administration, which says the invite breaks protocol by circumventing the White House and is inappropriate, given that the Israeli leader is in the midst of an election campaign. American Jews are deeply divided over whether Netanyahu should speak to Congress over Obama’s objections, and a partisan row over the issue ensues.

The Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, announces plans to sell two dorms, some of its air rights and potentially part of its library building in order to finance an ambitious redevelopment project at its Manhattan campus.

Portugal’s government adopts legislation that offers citizenship to some descendants of Sephardic Jews, making Portugal the second country in the world after Israel to pass a law of return for Jews.

FEGS, a Jewish charity and one of the largest social service agencies in the United States, abruptly shuts down after losing $19.4 million in 2014. The 3,000-employee agency, which is a major beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, had said it served 12,000 people daily in such areas as home care, job training and immigrant services. The news comes just days after another major New York Jewish social services agency, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, announces it is looking to merge or partner with other organizations or perhaps close altogether.

February 2015

Brandeis University President Frederick Lawrence announces he will step down at the end of the academic year. Lawrence led the historically nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored university for five years and was the institution’s eighth president.

Comedian Jon Stewart announces he is leaving “The Daily Show,” the mock news program he anchored for 16 years and built into a political and cultural touchstone.

Europe’s Jewish population is pegged at 1.4 million, down from 2 million in 1991 and 3.2 million in 1960, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Overall, European Jews account for about 10 percent of the world Jewish population, compared to 57 percent in 1939, the eve of the Holocaust.

CBS News reporter Bob Simon, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent who was held captive in Iraq for 40 days while covering the Gulf War in 1991, is killed in a car crash in New York. He was 73.

A gunman attacks the main synagogue in Copenhagen, killing a security guard. The attack comes just hours after a gunman kills one person at a cafe in the city, where a caricaturist who had lampooned Islam was speaking. The attacks are seen as a wake-up call for Danish Jews to the threat of Islamic terrorism. As a gesture of solidarity, Muslims in neighboring Norway form a “peace ring” around an Oslo synagogue.

The Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film goes to “Ida,” a Polish movie about a Catholic novitiate who learns she is the daughter of Jewish parents killed by the Nazis. But Israel’s losing streak at the Oscars continues as “Aya” fails to win for Best Short Film.

More than half of U.S. Jewish college students witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism, an online survey conducted by two professors at Trinity College finds.

In a landmark case, a New York jury orders the PLO and the Palestinian Authority to pay more than $218 million in damages to American victims of six terrorist attacks that took place in Israel between 2002 and 2004 and were attributed to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Hamas. The Palestinian Authority pledges to appeal.

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who portrayed the iconic character Spock on “Star Trek” for over four decades on television and in film, dies at 83. Born in Boston to Yiddish-speaking Orthodox parents, Nimoy had said he derived Spock’s trademark split-finger salute from the priestly blessing that involves a physical approximation of the Hebrew letter “shin.”

March 2015

Amid lingering controversy, Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress to warn of the emerging Iran nuclear deal. Several Jewish lawmakers skip the address. Obama says the speech offers “nothing new,” and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calls it an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

The Reform movement’s rabbinic group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, installs Denise Eger as its first openly gay president.

The Swarthmore Hillel votes to disaffiliate from Hillel International to protest the Jewish campus group’s rules on Israel programming. In 2013, the Pennsylvania college’s Hillel ignited a national debate on Hillel International’s Israel policies, which restrict programs with speakers who support boycotting the Jewish state.

Netanyahu wins a fourth term, his third in a row, as Israel’s prime minister, roundly defeating his main challenger, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union. Netanyahu’s remarks in the days before the election prove highly controversial, as he says a Palestinian state will not be established under his watch and warns on Election Day about Arab-Israelis turning out to vote “in droves.” The comments are condemned in the United States by the Reform and Conservative movements and by President Obama. Netanyahu later apologizes to Israel’s Arabs and insists he still backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Seven children, ages 5 to 16, are killed in a Brooklyn house fire reportedly caused by a malfunctioning Sabbath hot plate. The children’s mother, Gayle Sassoon, and her daughter Tziporah sustain injuries in the blaze but survive; the father was out of town at a religious conference. The children are buried in Israel.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is found guilty of fraud under aggravating circumstances and breach of trust for accepting cash-filled envelopes from U.S. Jewish businessman Morris Talansky and using it for personal gain. Olmert’s lawyers later appeal the verdict in what is known as the “Talansky Affair.”

April 2015

Negotiators for the United States, five other world powers and Iran reach a framework accord for a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program and set June 30 as the deadline for a final, comprehensive deal.

Women of the Wall, a group that promotes women’s religious rights at the Western Wall, for the first time reads from a full-size Torah scrollduring its monthly prayer service at the Kotel, contravening regulations there. The Torah was passed across the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections by male supporters. The following month, police block and arrest a man who attempts to repeat the effort.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a leader of the national religious movement in Israel, a head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank and a prominent modern Orthodox scholar, dies at 81.

The White House acknowledges that a U.S. drone strike in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area in January accidentally killed Warren Weinstein, the Jewish-American government contractor who had been held hostage by al-Qaida since 2011. An Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, who was held captive since 2012, also was killed in the strike on an al-Qaida-linked compound.

The American Jewish Reconstructionist movement is roiled by debate about whether to drop its longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students. Some synagogues threaten to quit the movement if the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College becomes the first of America’s four major Jewish religious denominations to ordain intermarried rabbis; the debate continues.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, announces that he intends to run for the U.S. presidency. A self-described “Democratic socialist,” Sanders, who is running as a Democrat, is considered a long shot to defeat the party’s front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Ethiopian-Israeli protesters clash with police during demonstrations throughout Jerusalem over two attacks against Ethiopian-Israelis by Israeli law enforcement, one of which is captured on video. The attacks spark a national debate about racism in Israel.

May 2015

Ed Miliband, the first Jewish leader of Britain’s Labor Party, fails to become his country’s first Jewish prime minister as the incumbent, David Cameron of the Conservative Party, handily wins reelection and secures 331 of the 650 seats in the Parliament. Miliband resigns immediatelyafter the defeat.

Rabbi Freundel is sentenced to nearly 6 1/2 years in prison — 45 days for each of the 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism. Additional court documents show Freundel also engaged in extramarital sexual encounters.

The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passes a bill providing for its approval of any Iran nuclear deal.

Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the West Bank city of Efrat, is summoned to a hearing by the Chief Rabbinate’s governing body on the future of his position. An Orthodox progressive on women’s issues and conversion, Riskin vows not to go, suspecting the Chief Rabbinate is looking for a pretext to dismiss him. The Rabbinate later backs down and renews Riskin’s position.

Rochelle Shoretz, the founder of the national cancer group Sharsheret after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, dies of the disease at 42.

June 2015

After a lengthy story in The New York Times detailing his habit of inviting young males to join him for naked heart-to-heart talks in the sauna, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in New York asserts he is innocent of any crime but says he regrets if his conduct offended anyone. Congregants at his Orthodox synagogue are divided over whether or not to dismiss him. Rosenblatt eventually rebuffs offers to buy out the remainder of his contract, vowing he will stay on as leader of the shul. In August, the synagogue board announces that Rosenblatt will stay in place.

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a 2002 law allowing U.S. citizens to list Jerusalem as their place of birth. The case was brought by the parents of 12-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky, whose parents sought the passport listing not long after his birth.

Spain’s lower house of Parliament passes a law offering citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews, the result of a 2012 government decision that described the law as compensation for the expulsion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

David Blatt, the first Israeli to serve as head coach of an NBA team, guides the Cleveland Cavaliers to the league finals. Blatt’s club loses to the Golden State Warriors in six games after taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict finds that Israel’s military and Palestinian armed groups committed “serious violations” of international human rights law during their 2014 summer war. While the report accuses both sides of possible war crimes, its findings focus more on what it considers Israeli wrongdoing. Israel, which refused to cooperate with the investigation, slams the outcome.

Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, an Orthodox Jewish nonprofit that purports to help gay men become heterosexual, is found guiltyof violating New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and is ordered to pay $72,000 in damages to three former clients. The plaintiffs said JONAH claimed a success rate it could not prove and used scientifically questionable therapy methods.

Days before the U.S. Supreme Court endorses the right to same-sex marriage, the Public Religion Research Institute finds that American Jews are among the country’s most supportive religious groups of same-sex marriage.

The Pine Bush Central School District in upstate New York agrees to pay nearly $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging widespread anti-Semitic harassment. The 2012 suit by five former and current students was due to go to trial in July.

Israeli parliamentarian Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and before that a respected American-Israeli historian, causes a stir with a new book, “Ally,” suggesting that President Obama purposely damaged U.S.-Israeli relations.

July 2015

Iran and six world powers led by the United States reach a historic agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions. President Obama says the deal cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. Prime Minister Netanyahu calls the deal a “stunning historic mistake.” AIPAC quickly launches an all-out effort to have Congress scuttle the deal.

A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard, Oskar Groening, is sentenced by a German court to four years in prison for his role in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews in the concentration camp.

Theodore Bikel, the actor and folk singer who won fame playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” dies at 91.

The apparent suicide of an ex-Hasid, Faigy Mayer, 30, who jumped to her death from a rooftop bar in Manhattan, prompts intense discussionin the Jewish community about how the Hasidic community treats those who leave it.

A federal parole panel unanimously grants parole to Jonathan Pollard, the civilian U.S. Navy analyst sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. Pollard is to be freed Nov. 20 after serving 30 years of a life sentence. It’s not clear whether Pollard, who became an Israeli citizen during his incarceration, will be able to travel to Israel.

Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox Israeli recently released from prison for an attack at Jerusalem’s 2005 gay pride march, strikes again, stabbing six people at this year’s parade. One victim, 16-year-old Shira Banki, later dies of her wounds.

An arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma kills an 18-month-old Palestinian baby, Ali Saad Dawabsha, and leaves his parents and brother critically injured. Jewish extremists are suspected, prompting handwringing in Israeli circles about Israel’s failure to rein in extremist Jews. Police arrest no suspects in the attack, and several days later the baby’s father dies.

August 2015

Hebrew National runs an ad campaign suggesting that consumers grill up their hot dogs along with bacon, clams and other non-kosher foods. After a JTA report on the subject, the iconic kosher hot dog company pulls the ads, saying, “Our consumers who adhere to a kosher diet are very important to us.”

In the raucous first debate of the Republican presidential race, primary rivals, including front-runner Donald Trump, agree on opposing the Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat and the most influential Jewish voice in the body, Charles Schumer of New York, comes out against the deal favored by President Obama.

American Jewish reggae star Matisyahu is disinvited from a Spanish music festival after rebuffing a demand that he endorse Palestinian statehood. Matisyahu calls the cancellation appalling and offensive, commentators say the conflation of Jews and Israel is anti-Semitic, and festival organizers eventually backtrack, apologize and reinvite Matisyahu to perform, which he does.

J Street U, the campus arm of the left-wing “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group J Street, elects a Muslim student, University of Maryland senior Amna Farooqi, as president.

American Airlines announces it is canceling its flights to Israel, saying its Philadelphia-Israel route has lost $20 million over the last year. In June, El Al inaugurated a new route between Boston and Israel.

Frazier Glenn Miller, the white supremacist who killed three people outside two Jewish facilities in a Kansas City suburb in April 2014, is found guilty of capital murder after less than two hours of jury deliberations. Miller, who had admitted to the killings but pleaded not guilty, represented himself at trial.

September 2015

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., becomes the 34th voice in the U.S. Senate to endorse the Iran nuclear deal, effectively ensuring that Congress cannot overturn it and handing President Obama a major victory.

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