The top 10 news stories in Judaism of 2019

The most important events and trends of the year in Judaism, from the horror of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting to the hope of a burgeoning birth rate in Israel.

A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California, on April 29, 2019. A gunman opened fire two days before as about 100 people were worshipping, exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. One person was killed in the Poway attack. (AP Photo/Greg Bull)

(RNS) — These are the most important events and trends of the year in Jewish life, from the horror of violent anti-Semitism, to the hope of a burgeoning birth rate in Israel.

1. The political stalemate in Israel. After a pair of inconclusive national elections, both Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu, leaders of the two largest political parties, failed to build a viable governing coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. At year’s end, Netanyahu, despite being formally indicted for criminal activities, tenaciously remained in power as prime minister. An unprecedented third election to resolve the deadlock is scheduled for early March 2020.

2. The resurgence of violent anti-Semitism. Nearly 75 years after the end of the Holocaust and World War II, violent acts of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews and Judaism) sharply increased during the year, including fatal hate crime shootings at a San Diego-area synagogue and a Jersey City kosher market and an unsuccessful attempt to kill worshipers on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Halle, Germany. They were but three of the growing number of both physical and verbal attacks on Jews in the U.S. and Europe. In France, 89% of French Jewish students report experiencing anti-Jewish abuse and, since 2003, a dozen people have been murdered in that country for the sole reason that they were Jewish.

Members of the Jewish community walk amid vandalized tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen, west of the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, on Dec. 4, 2019. Regional authorities in eastern France say vandals have scrawled anti-Semitic inscriptions, including swastikas spray-painted in black, on 107 tombs in a Jewish cemetery. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

3. The threat from Iran. Iran’s military and political influence continued to expand in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As a result, Israel currently faces Iranian armed forces on its Golan Heights frontline. In 2019 the Israeli Air Force responded with a sustained series of attacks on Iranian military installations in Syria. Hamas-controlled Gaza remained a tense flashpoint along with the threat posed by the Hezbollah terrorist group located in Lebanon.

4. Anti-Semitism in Britain. Critics of Britain’s Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, charged that he has not simply “tolerated” anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs, but he transformed his party into one that condones Holocaust denial, crude Jewish stereotypes, conspiracy theories that include blaming Israel for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., as well as vocal and online abuse of Jewish Labourites. The United Kingdom’s chief rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the attacks on Jews. In December, Labour, led by Corbyn, suffered its greatest electoral defeat in 80 years.

United Kingdom Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at Downing Street en route to the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo by KGC-254/STAR MAX/IPx 2019

5. Jewish candidates for high office. For the first time in American history, two Jewish candidates, albeit very different in style and policies, are vying for a major party’s presidential nomination: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Jewish political leaders are increasingly being elected to local, state and federal offices. In addition, Colorado and Illinois have Jewish governors, and a Jewish woman is the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.

6. A new Old Testament. Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, published his highly praised English translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. He attempted to capture the rich cadences, poetic nuances and authentic meanings of the ancient texts: an extraordinary literary and spiritual task that took decades to complete.

Robert Alter and his translation of the Hebrew Bible. Alter photo courtesy of UC Berkeley

7. The growth of Chabad. Twenty-five years after the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, 5,067 Chabad rabbinical “emissaries” gathered at the group’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, for an international conference. Schneerson’s influence remains strong and palpable, and “Chabad” (an acronym for the Hebrew words for “wisdom, understanding and knowledge”) has continued to grow in all parts of the world. The movement is represented in all 50 American states and in 108 countries, including China, India, Japan, Laos, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia and Ukraine.

People pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the Queens borough of New York on July 2, 2019. Men and women, young and old, make their way from around the city, the country, and the world to this unassuming site, the burial place of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to pay their respects to the life and teachings of the revered Jewish leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who died twenty-five years ago in June 1994. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

8. The birth rate in Israel. For decades there have been dire warnings about the declining Jewish birth rate in Israel, which, it was alleged, threatened the Jewish majority in the country. But in 2019 the birth rate of Israeli Jewish women during childbearing years was 3.7 children, a 45-year high. That rate is much higher than the average 1.7 rate in the 38 developed countries, including the United States, that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

9. A non-rabbi leads HUC-JIR. Andrew Rehfeld was inaugurated as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the flagship educational institution of Reform/Progressive Judaism, founded in 1875, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York City. Rehfeld is the first non-rabbi to head HUC-JIR that trains rabbis, cantors, communal professionals and other academic leaders.

10. The death of Albert Vorspan. Vorspan magnificently led many efforts for the Union for Reform Judaism for more than 60 years, guiding it on the crucial issues of civil rights and social justice. He was my mentor and beloved friend and will be sorely missed. Other notable deaths include Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Branko Lustig, a Holocaust survivor and movie producer whose “Schindler’s List” and “Gladiator” won Oscars. The year also saw the deaths of philanthropist Barbara Mandel, longtime leader of the National Council of Jewish Women, and Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!