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Deciphering Torah and ties: Diplomats explore Jewish life

NEW YORK, Jan. 28 (JTA) — More than a dozen people gathered around Jalna Silverstein as she read from the Torah, but they didn’t make a minyan. The attentive crowd listening to the Solomon Schechter High School sophomore on a sunny morning last week were diplomats representing over 30 countries — from Morocco to Bosnia, China to Peru. For many, the visit to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where the high school currently is housed, was their first Jewish religious experience. “Do people here read Yiddish?” asked Polish consul Tomasz Wielgomas as he examined a prayer book opened before him. “Yes, but this is Hebrew,” replied Robert Wander, a member of the American Jewish Committee’s New York chapter, which sponsored the day’s events. The trip to JTS and Columbia University was the local group’s 10th annual diplomatic tour of Jewish New York. This year’s focus was the roots and role of education, both secular and religious, in Jewish life. The tour is designed to promote better understanding of Jewish culture, diversity and domestic concerns among the New York-based foreign diplomatic corps. And the participants eagerly received those efforts. Many of the consuls and ambassadors expressed admiration for the organized Jewish community’s influence in public affairs. And they see New York as the Jewish “power base,” given its large Jewish population and network of Jewish organizations. Others cited personal contacts with Jews in their home countries or professional relationships here that spurred an interest in improving their own Jewish literacy. Understanding even the basics of Judaism — scheduling around Shabbat observance, for example has been “very helpful for my professional life,” said Christoph Schaer, an economic analyst for the Swiss consulate who deals with Jewish officials on Holocaust-era issues. Rizali Wdrakesuma, the Indonesian consul, saw the tour as part of his country’s effort to lay the groundwork for the future. Indonesia, a Muslim country, currently has no diplomatic relationship with Israel, but “we may some day, and that some day might come soon enough,” he said. “Before hand it will only be useful to create an atmosphere of cooperation and understanding” between the Jewish and Indonesian communities on this side of the Pacific, he said. Even those diplomats with no specific dealings with the Jewish community want to forge positive bonds because of the sway they believe Jews hold in politics, commerce and the media. “There are at least 10 Jewish senators, isn’t that what we heard this morning?” asked the Finnish consul general. Maija Lahteenmaki was referring to statistics — actually there are 11 — related to the tour group at a breakfast meeting by Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of communal affairs. “And look at the Clinton administration,” said Lahteenmaki. When asked how he though their Judaism affected the work of the Jewish senators and Cabinet members — such as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman — Lahteenmaki shrugged. But the tour had demonstrated to her that, with its multiple streams of thought — Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist, not to mention secular — the American Jewish community is far from monolithic. The most important thing she learned, she said, was that there are “so many different kinds of Jews.”