Religious Conversion


If you read a lot of gossip columns, you already know about the party at Tina Brown’s apartment on January 14, where The Week magazine gave out its first round of Opinion Awards and served lunch to 80-some, including scores of well-known political and media writers. The guests’ diversity of opinions left the event’s slant open to interpretation. Thus, despite the appearance of A.M. Rosenthal and Thomas L. Friedman, Page Six called the crowd a “cadre of left-wing media heavies.”

It is true that Sid Blumenthal was there, seated next to Tina. But the most charged political moment was when Harry Evans announced that Friedman had won Columnist of the Year and Friedman stepped up to say where he would donate the money. (Each award brings with it $2,000, and the winners had been asked to give the money to the library of their choice.)

“Like all good Jews,” Friedman quipped, “I started my own synagogue. With William Safire. So this is going to the library there.”

Eyebrows began to wiggle, and by the time lunch was over, Friedman’s synagogue was the topic du jour. When Daniel Radosh got home to his blog, he wrote, “What the fuck? . . . Did he really mean they started their own shul? . . . Or was this simply a jokey way of saying [that Friedman would be] laundering the check in order to keep it?”

The next day, The New York Sun’s Knickerbocker column seemed to settle the matter, reporting that Friedman had co-founded Kol Shalom synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland, a “Conservative egalitarian” congregation whose members include Safire and ex-Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. Through a Times spokesperson, Friedman declined to discuss his synagogue, its rabbi, its library, or its mission, saying, “This is my personal business and I’m offended by the questions.”

But Kol Shalom has a rich history. Its rabbi is Jonathan Maltzman, whose previous job, as rabbi of Beth El synagogue in Bethesda, ended in scandal in the spring of 2001. That’s when, according to a series of reports in The Washington Post, Maltzman was accused of using Beth El’s tax-exempt charitable fund for personal gain. Bethesda is an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. Both synagogues in question are affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a denomination that occupies the moderate, middle ground between Reform and Orthodox Jews.

In this country, everyone’s entitled to freedom of worship. But there is something especially freighted about giving journalism award money to a religious library. Note that the other award-winners—Times columnist Paul Krugman, blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, and Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson—donated their cash to less controversial institutions. Krugman’s $2,000 is going to the Brooklyn Public Library, Marshall’s to a prep school he attended in Southern California, and Tomlinson’s to a public library in Charlotte. Presumably, these are places where readers of every political and religious persuasion can find material to inform their opinions.

Which is probably not the case at Friedman’s library of choice. According to the Kol Shalom website, the synagogue seeks “to support and assist” the Conservative Masorti movement in Israel. In a 1997 column, Friedman described Masorti as a “grassroots institute.” Its president Rabbi Ehud Bandel recently told a reporter that his group strives to maintain a middle ground between the extremists in Israel and to preserve the “Zionist dream of an independent, sovereign, Jewish state. . . . Our three basic principles are Zionism, Judaism, and democracy.”

In Israel, religion and politics are inseparable. Orthodox Jews have considerable power, and Reform and Conservative groups fight for leverage. While Friedman does not usually identify his arguments as religious ones, he has exhorted moderate Jews to be as passionate as extremists, and he endorsed the war in Iraq, which he casts as a moral imperative.

Rabbi Maltzman probably has strong political beliefs, too, but he is better known for his bookkeeping habits. In the spring of 2001, Maltzman was the subject of a bitter fight at Congregation Beth El. An internal investigation, made public only when he refused to leave, revealed that of hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to the synagogue’s charity fund, only $20,000 could be documented as having gone to charity. What could be documented was that Maltzman had made about $400,000 worth of ATM withdrawals from the fund, transferred about $230,000 from the fund to his brokerage accounts, spent $7,950 from the fund on his children’s b’nai mitzvahs, and so on.

In April 2001, about the time the scandal surfaced in the Post, Maltzman denied the charges, apologized, and returned $300,000 to the fund. In meetings, he offered explanations such as that the ATM withdrawals went to “needy congregants” and that he sometimes deposited his fees for weddings and funerals into the charitable fund, then transferred equal amounts to his personal accounts. Maltzman’s star rose in May 2001, when he received a vote of confidence from the majority of the congregation. His supporters included Friedman, diplomat Ross, and high-tech entrepreneur Daniel Simpkins, all of whom signed a letter declaring that they believed Maltzman when he said he had not used the funds for personal gain. But the pressure continued, and the rabbi resigned that summer.

In the aftermath, about 100 families left Beth El to form Kol Shalom, which first met at the National 4-H Conference Center for member-led services. Friedman was a founding member, and the board of trustees included Friedman and Simpkins. Maltzman was installed as rabbi in May 2002, and the congregation now holds Friday night services in a first-floor office of a luxury apartment tower in Bethesda. They haven’t built the actual synagogue yet.

Friedman’s religious beliefs are relevant because they shed light on his political ideology, which he espouses with tremendous authority. In a New York Times column published shortly before Yom Kippur 1997, Friedman called on moderate U.S. Jews to give money to Israel “in a very targeted way,” so that it would not end up in the hands of “ultra-Orthodox elements.” In the same column, Friedman wrote that he had recently turned down an invitation to talk about Arab-Israeli affairs to an “American-Israeli educational institution,” because he was required to end his speech “on an uplifting note.”

These days, Friedman routinely bills himself as an optimist. In a recent column addressed to Israeli moderates, he wrote, “We have nothing to lose but our pessimism.” In a speech he gave last fall, he declared, “I am an optimist by nature.” And upon accepting the award last week, he recalled how his editor at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had praised him, saying, “You’re the only optimist we have.”

Asked whether he had ever agreed to give a speech on the condition that he take an optimistic stance, Friedman declined to comment.