Pittsburgh federation head picked to light Independence Day torch for Diaspora

In announcing honor, culture minister lauds Jeff Finkelstein’s efforts to heal Jewish community after synagogue shooting and to raise funds for New Zealand mosque massacre victims

Jeff Finkelstein, center, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, is interviewed several blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018. (AP Photo/ Gene J. Puskar)
Jeff Finkelstein, center, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, is interviewed several blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018. (AP Photo/ Gene J. Puskar)

Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President Jeff Finkelstein will light a torch at Israel’s 71st Independence Day ceremony next month, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev announced on Monday, weeks after reversing her decision to do away with the Diaspora honor.

Finkelstein will light the beacon reserved for a representative of Diaspora Jewry, an honor that was established in 2017, but one that Regev had flirted with dissolving altogether earlier this year.

The announcement was a nod to the massacre suffered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue earlier this year, when a gunman opened fire during Shabbat morning services, in the largest anti-Semitic attack in American history.

Over the past six months, Finkelstein has led the Jewish community’s efforts to cope and rebuild after the attack.

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded six at the Tree Of Life Synagogue, on October 28, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/via JTA)

He also established a fund for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month in New Zealand, where 50 people were killed and over 50 were injured.

“This connection with Jewish roots and emphasis on hope, mutual responsibility and love of humanity has enabled him to lead a unique healing process in Pittsburgh that is a symbol for the entire world,” the culture ministry said in a statement.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 28, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Finkelstein represents “‘the tree of life,’ the growing spirit of brotherhood and human togetherness, and the great soul of our Diaspora brothers and sisters,” Regev said.

“Our standing alongside the families of the victims of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue and alongside the families of the people who were murdered at the mosque in New Zealand is an expression of the overriding principle of the spirit of the Jewish people, encapsulated in ‘love your neighbor as yourself’, the principle of Rabbi Akiva,” Regev continued.

Finkelstein has served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for over a decade, working to unite the various streams of Judaism and to strengthen the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The Ruderman Family Foundation, which had criticized Regev’s decision to do away with the Diaspora torch, congratulated Finkelstein for the honor on Monday.

“Jeff’s leadership in the aftermath of the horrible Tree of Life shooting can serve as an inspiration for other Jewish leaders. The recognition by the Israeli government is an important reminder of the unbreakable bond uniting Israel and the American Jewish community,” it said in a statement.

Last month, the culture minister said she was doing away with the two-year-old tradition of dedicating a torch at the annual Independence Day ceremony to Diaspora Jewry.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein lights a torch in honor of Israel’s 66th Independence Day, on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, May 5, 2014. (Courtesy)

Her decision drew criticism in Israel and abroad. Naftali Bennett, the Diaspora affairs minister, called it “an insult to all the Jewish people.”

Regev eventually reversed her decision. She told the Israel Hayom daily that she reinstated the Diaspora torch after receiving “heartbreaking” pleas from Jewish communities to carry on the tradition.

Regev reserved a torch for a Diaspora Jew at the ceremony starting in 2017, when honorees included Birthright Israel founder Michael Steinhardt (who now faces accusations of sexual harassment) and Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier. Last year, American actress Mayim Bialik was chosen to light a torch, but declined because of her “Big Bang Theory” commitments. Other candidates considered to light the torch included US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz and performer Barbra Streisand. The slot was never filled, and there was no Diaspora representative in the 2018 ceremony.

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