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Mandela Warmly Welcomed to U.S. by Most American Jewish Leaders

Nelson Mandela was warmly welcomed here Wednesday by a wide spectrum of New Yorkers, including representatives of local and national Jewish groups, who participated wholeheartedly in the festivities.

A shofar was even scheduled to be blown in Mandela’s honor during an ecumenical ceremony Thursday at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, as part of a blessing to be offered by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Diana Aviv, assistant director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said that similarly enthusiastic greetings from Jewish groups are expected as Mandela travels to seven other U.S. cities.

“In a number of cities, the Jewish community relations councils are putting ads in local papers and black papers welcoming Mandela,” said Aviv, who was one of a small group of Jewish leaders who met last month in Cincinnati with another black anti-apartheid leader, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The deputy president of the African National Congress got his initial welcome from the Jewish community as organizational leaders joined those greeting him Wednesday at Kennedy Airport.

On hand for the ceremony were Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress; and Al Vorspan, executive vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

SENSITIVITY TO JEWISH CONCERNS

All of those leaders but Reich met in Geneva with Mandela on June 10, to seek a clarification of his views on Israel. It was after Mandela convinced them of his support for the Jewish state that most mainstream national Jewish groups decided to join in the festivities.

The Zionist Organization of America was believed to be the only national Jewish organization that refused to join the festivities, while other groups, such as Americans for a Safe Israel, declined to take a position on the visit.

Mandela arrived in New York from Toronto, where he and his wife, Winnie, met with Les Scheininger and Moshe Ronen, respectively president and chairman of the National Executive of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

In New York, a dozen U.S. Jewish leaders were to join religious leaders of other faiths in a meeting with Mandela on Thursday morning before an ecumenical service at Riverside Church.

Sources said the religious leaders would be asked to pledge that they will oppose any relaxation of U.S. sanctions against South Africa until it abolishes the apartheid laws and grants full amnesty to all political prisoners.

According to Aviv, who was on the committee planning the Riverside Church ceremony, the number of invitations extended to the Jewish community to participate in the Mandela festivities has been generous.

She said that Mandela’s representatives have made special efforts to avoid stirring up controversy on the Palestinian issue, in order to protect Jewish sensitivities.

“Efforts to include Palestinian children at the Riverside service were rejected, so as to not make it a political event,” Aviv said. “The Jewish community has been given special consideration.”

Despite this, Bronx Rabbi Avraham Weiss chose to protest Mandela’s past statements comparing Israeli policies to South African oppression and his embrace of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

Weiss, who is religious leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in the Bronx, led a vigil Tuesday night outside Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence where Mandela was to stay, and demonstrated Wednesday during the welcoming ceremonies at City Hall.

Aviv said that she was not aware of any similar protests planned for Mandela’s scheduled visits to Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.

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