The top Jewish stories of 2020

As for all the world, COVID-19 dominated Jewish life in 2020, but not all the news in the Jewish world was about the virus — and even some events driven by the pandemic were not without a silver lining.

A Jewish man wears a face mask to curb the spread of the coronavirus as he reads from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

(RNS) — In a year dominated by the miseries of COVID-19, not all the news in the Jewish world was about the virus — and even some events driven by the pandemic were not without a silver lining. Herewith, a subjective look at the most important news stories of the year:

Anti-Semitism continues to surge

Seventy-five years after the end of the Holocaust, the continuing upsurge of virulent, often lethal anti-Semitism, especially in the United States and Europe, led all other news for Jews in 2020. The rise of the extremist group the Proud Boys, the spreading influence of the vile QAnon conspiracy that now includes members of the U.S. Congress, and the constant, unfounded anti-Jewish attacks on Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros provided anecdotal evidence that anti-Jewish attacks will again be the most common religious hate crime, as they were in 2019.

Services go remote

Jewish institutions and organizations, but especially synagogues, were compelled to innovate as the virus shut down religious gatherings or greatly restricted them for most of 2020. Dubbed “Congregation Beth Zoom,” the virtual electronic gatherings included weekly Sabbath services, the Passover Seder and many life cycle events, while other celebrations went outdoors, where social distancing and maximum ventilation made gathering safer. In an unexpected twist, shofar lessons became a necessity.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic ran rampant within some Orthodox Jewish groups in the U.S. and Israel. Despite official lockdowns and pleas from various government leaders especially in New York City, many conservative Orthodox Jews gathered in large numbers, often without masks and ignoring sensible social distancing practices. 

Rabbi Shlomo Segal, right, holds his laptop so participants see his daughter Rayna, 8, left, dressed in a white robe and wig as the prophet “Elijah” during a virtual Passover Seder, on April 8, 2020, in New York, in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, as the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing rules continue. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Israel establishes ties with Arab states

Israel made significant gains in the international arena by establishing diplomatic, political, cultural and economic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Oman. Israel also has long-standing peace treaties with neighboring Egypt and Jordan. Engineered in large part by the Trump administration, the pacts with the predominantly Muslim countries seemed to end Arab states’ insistence on the recognition of a Palestinian state before they would deal with Israel.

A Jewish second gentleman

The election of California Sen. Kamala Harris as the next vice president of the United States made history: She’s the first woman, the first African American and the first person of South Asian heritage to claim the position. But her husband, Douglas Emhoff, will break his own new ground as the United States’ first “second gentleman,” and the first Jewish vice presidential (or presidential) spouse. He won’t be the only Jewish presence in the White House, however:  President-elect Joe Biden’s three children all married Jewish people.

Shuly Rubin Schwartz becomes chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary

Schwartz will be the first woman and only the third non-rabbi to hold this important leadership position in Jewish religious and communal life. The flagship institution of the Conservative movement, the Upper Manhattan school has trained rabbis, cantors and educators since its founding in 1886 — including the new chancellor, her grandfather, her parents, husband and son.

Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flag of the United Arab Emirates as the UAE and Israel announced they would be establishing full diplomatic ties, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Aug. 13, 2020. In a nationally broadcast statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the “full and official peace” with the UAE would lead to cooperation in many spheres between the countries and a “wonderful future” for citizens of both countries. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Five Jews win Nobel Prizes

Second only to 2013, when Jews comprised six of the winners of the nine (often shared) prizes, 2020’s Jewish laureates included economist Paul Milgrom and poet Louise GluckHarvey Alter, a winner of the medicine Nobel for his work on hepatitis; and Andrea Ghez and Sir Roger Penrose (who is of Jewish heritage but counts himself an atheist) in physics for their work on black holes in outer space. People of Jewish backgrounds have now won 208 of 900 awarded Nobel Prizes since 1901.

Biden nominees share Jewish heritage

Biden, who has promised to surround himself with appointees who reflect the diversity of America, has named Jews to important positions in his incoming administration, including Anthony Blinken (secretary of state), Janet Yellen (secretary of the treasury), Ron Klain (chief of staff), Dr. Rochelle Walensky (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director), Alejandro Mayorkas (secretary of homeland security) and Jeffrey Zients (COVID-19 “czar”). American Jews voted overwhelmingly — 77% to 21%, according to one poll — for Biden over incumbent Donald Trump in November.  

Notable Jewish deaths

This year we lost some prominent American Jews, most notably perhaps U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who became the first Jew (and first woman) to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, and film star Kirk Douglas. Elsewhere, the Jewish world bid goodbye to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Israeli Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Eva Szekely, who was nearly murdered as a young girl in Hungary during the Holocaust, but later won gold and silver swimming medals for Hungary in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.    

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