A big macher recently dressed down a man of perhaps somewhat smaller stature on a Manhattan sidewalk, admonishing him not to “divide” the Jewish community. In Yiddish, that would be sha shtil! or “stay quiet!”—in shul, as much as in front of the non-Jews.
Ronald Weiner, a past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, was making his way on June 12 toward the New York Historical Society for the JCRC’s annual gala. Near the entrance was CUNY law professor Jeffrey Lax, who has written about the cesspool of anti-Semitism that is CUNY, and the JCRC’s milquetoast approach to it all.
The JCRC-NY—an organization presumably committed to the welfare of all of New York’s Jews, and not just those who want to pump hands at a gala where tickets go for $1,250 apiece—had decided that a good way to tackle Jew-hate at CUNY was to fête someone at the top. The recipient that night of the JCRC’s annual award for public service: CUNY board chairperson William C. Thompson, Jr.
Lax and about a dozen supporters had come out in protest on Central Park West. Weiner made a beeline for Lax. Someone started filming.
“Instead of unifying the Jewish community,” Weiner said, invoking a calamity of epic proportions to describe Lax’s public criticism of the JCRC, “you’re causing schisms. And I take you back to the Second Temple and the behavior of the too extreme [sic].” Sha shtil.
Speaking of the Romans, the venue selected by the JCRC, the New York Historical Society, is an edifice constructed in notable Roman-Eclectic-style. But perhaps more on point were echoes of the archetypal Viennese Jew condescending to the shtetl Jew: Weiner, with his impressive titles and exquisite suit, belittling Lax, who works at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and wears a yarmulke, as he gripped a sign saying “JCRC NY, the Jewish Community of New York Deserves Better Leadership.”
In fact, the arresting scene brought to mind Tom Stoppard’s drama Leopoldstadt, playing just down the street before closing in early July. That production traces the dismal trajectory of assimilated, well-to-do Jews, living in, well, Vienna.
Lax supporter Jan Morrow had turned out because it seemed to her that Thompson should not be the toast of the Jewish world right now, given how he and the board had declined to hold responsible any CUNY adult for the most recent anti-Jewish offense of a law school graduation speech that was rife with anti-Semitic tropes and called for “rage” against “Zionism… around the world.”
Gala-goers mainly were not amenable to Morrow’s message. “Many of them smirked at us,” said Morrow, a clinical psychologist. “One guy turned around at the top [of the stairs] and flashed the finger.”
Weiner’s treatment of Lax didn’t appear much better. “Do you think [the] JCRC is doing a good job?” Lax said, in reference to the JCRC’s responsibility to protect Jews from CUNY’s systemic, anti-Jewish bigotry.
“It depends on the level,” Weiner said, adding, “You’re a street fighter… Listen to me. You’re a street fighter. I know who you are… You’re a publicist… You’re not a serious thinker.”
Said Lax, “I’ve written in law reviews…”
“I don’t give a s—t,” Weiner said. “You’re not a serious thinker on Jewish issues because if you did [sic], you’d care about Jewish unity.”
It got worse. “Do you know that in the 45 senior leadership [positions] at CUNY, there are zero Jews left?” Lax said.
“You know that I know that,” Weiner said. “Where the f—k have you been in all these intervening years, and all that?”
“Excuse me!” Lax said, “I’ve been fighting for eight years! Are you joking?!”
“Well, apparently you’ve not been very effective, have you?” Weiner retorted.
“We’re bringing attention to this,” said Lax, who in 2021 co-founded Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY, or S.A.F.E. CUNY, to push back against anti-Zionism at the school.
Regardless of Weiner’s affability, he is certainly a man in demand. The website of Perelson-Weiner LLP Certified Public Accountants, where Weiner has been chairman and president for 28 years, touts Weiner’s position on the “Executive Committee of the Prince Mohammad Bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurism” in Saudi Arabia. A country which, at the very least, has funneled billions of dollars into anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda disguised as Middle East curricula for our high schools and universities.
In 2022, the JCRC announced a partnership with CUNY to help make it a place where all Jews once again feel welcome. The organization has brought CUNY execs to Israel and the West Bank, and taken anodyne steps, like issuing a statement after the law school speech. But the JCRC’s eagerness to lend its weighty imprimatur to CUNY’s insipid efforts while refusing to play hardball with CUNY officials—and indeed celebrating its very chairperson—make Lax’s labors even harder, if that’s possible. The JCRC has traded advocacy for access. And it is unwilling to acknowledge how that mutually beneficial exchange facilitates more anti-Semitism by gaslighting beleaguered CUNY Jews.
I have never met Weiner or Lax. But viewing the exchange online was enough to get me on a northbound Amtrak train a few weeks later. People like me have grown very, very tired of people like Weiner, telling us to sit down and shut up, lest we cause “schisms” inside the community—or ruin a nice party.
I was shaking a little in the hours running up to 4 p.m., when I figured I should hit the pavement in front of the JCRC office, at 520 8th Avenue, shortly before quitting time. I’d made a large sign: “Truth to Power: JCRC-NY Fails Jews” with the hashtag “#CUNY.”
As I stood there, sign aloft, a man in a yarmulke glanced up and said, loudly, “It’s true.” One young woman with dark hair came out of the building, caught my eye, and gave me a tiny, furtive salute before walking quickly away.
One woman timidly approached. Her son attended CUNY, she said, and at a family function there, the “kosher” meal consisted of sandwiches made from corned beef and cheese— “they were literally stuck together,” she told me.
“Could it have been an accident?” I said, because sabotaging kosher food is so repugnant and shocking—even for CUNY—that I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. “I don’t think so,” she said sadly.
Several hundred people looked up at my sign as they passed. Perhaps a half dozen lingered to chat. But I am here to tell you that one person can change the temperature on any street.
The time has come to show up for each other, by demanding our leaders get aggressive—and ugly, if need be—in fighting for the Jews of Brooklyn, or Manhattan, or wherever Jews need fighting for.
You don’t need a crowd with you. You don’t need an organization behind you. You don’t even need a sign that’s laminated.
All you need is your commitment to justice for Jews, born of your love for Am Yisrael. That, and your bottomless reserves of strength, drawn from two thousand years of degradations, violence, and sha shtil.
Get up, people. We need leaders whose moxie at the very least matches our own.