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Fast Talk

Diplomat Dennis Ross and Times columnist Tom Friedman give an annual Yom Kippur seminar at Kol Shalom in Rockville, Md., a synagogue they helped start

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Dennis Ross and Thomas Friedman. (Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; Dennis Ross photo: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images; Friedman photo: World Affairs Council of Philadelphia; details from Maurycy Gottlieb, "Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur," 1878: Wikimedia Commons )

On Saturday afternoon, just after the Yizkor service, Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama’s chief adviser on Middle East affairs, stood in front of his Conservative congregation in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., and made a joke about Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president. Assad, Ross said, always sat to his right when they met, but on one occasion he moved to take a seat on the left. “I asked him, ‘Is this a political statement?’ ” Ross recounted, as he began an hour-long seminar. “And he said, ‘No, stiff neck.’ ”

Ross, as it happened, was standing on the right side of the bimah—really a low stage in a ballroom at a Hilton hotel, appropriately decked out with an ark, flowers, and banners emblazoned with the congregation’s name: Kol Shalom. The podium on the left was occupied by Ross’ fellow congregant, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who grinned at the diplomat’s joke.

Most synagogues try to fill the dead hours between Yom Kippur morning services and the evening shofar blast with some kind of discussion—or, in recent years, yoga or meditation. Synagogues in Washington have the unique advantage of counting among their ranks people who hold what Ross’ wife, Debbie, has somewhat deprecatingly referred to as “the Big Job.” But what sets Kol Shalom apart from the capital’s other influential Jewish institutions is that here Big Job guys aren’t just members: They’re the founders.

Ross and Friedman helped start the congregation 10 years ago this month, along with a handful of families who had been members at Congregation Beth El, in Bethesda, Md. “We wanted a synagogue where there was a lay-professional partnership, where there was a learning congregation,” Marilyn Wind, the founding president and current board chair, explained to me last week. For the first half-year, the roving congregation was entirely lay-led and met in facilities rented from the 4-H Club or from churches—an experience Friedman memorialized in a December 2001 column.

Friedman, who had been at Beth El, joined Kol Shalom at the urging of organizers who were old friends from Des Moines, where Friedman’s wife, Ann, grew up. Debbie Ross explained that for her family, timing was everything. “It started right after September 11, and it was such a scary time,” she said over lunch recently. “No one knew what was going to happen, and this was something we could do, a way to use our own energy and talent to do something positive at that unsettled time.” Dennis Ross, newly in the political wilderness after years spent as President Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, also signed up as a trustee. Other early members included Mitch Caplan, the former CEO of E*Trade, and the late New York Times columnist William Safire.

It was Safire, in fact, who was chiefly responsible for cementing Ross and Friedman’s joint ownership of the Yom Kippur afternoon speaking slot. “In 2004 or 2005, I asked Bill to do it,” Kol Shalom’s rabbi, Jonathan Maltzman, told me when we met over the summer. “I think Dennis and Tom were a little upset, and they said to me, ‘No, we’ll do it every year.’ ” Ross made sure to announce that they plan to continue the tradition next year, after Kol Shalom moves into the new sanctuary it is building in Rockville. “This is our thing, and we’re pretty protective of it,” he told me, with a slightly abashed smile.

It is, as things go, a relatively easy gig for two men who make their livings speaking extemporaneously about Middle East affairs. Both men’s wives, who said they have sweated out writing memorable blessings or the d’var Torah sermons members regularly volunteer to give—Debbie Ross gave last week’s, at the Shabbat service between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—just laughed when asked whether their husbands prepared their talks.

Ross, who was in Beltway-issue shirtsleeves, tie, and khakis and a large blue-and-white Bukhari-style kippah, kicked things off by talking about the Arab Spring. Both a panel of expert advisers convened by the Obama Administration in the summer of 2010 and, more tellingly, a group of Arab dissidents and democracy activists brought to Washington just a few weeks before the revolution began in Tunisia, had failed to anticipate the dramatic events. When his turn came to speak, Friedman—wearing a dark blue suit and satin kippah—pointed out that he’d actually gone on an Israeli television news show a year ago and warned, like Chicken Little, that a storm was brewing in the Arab world. “I said, get out of the West Bank, build the highest wall you can,” said Friedman. “I will personally come and put on the last brick, but there is a storm coming, and you need to get out of their story.” He has been on book tour, and it showed: There was much well-rehearsed talk about the flattening effects of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.

In some ways, they make an odd pair: Ross is a clear and concise speaker but gives off an almost diffident air, whereas Friedman is an experienced showman who lobs regular sound bites, many taken from his columns. (Kol Shalom members who are regular Times op-ed readers may have recalled his unfavorable comparison of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak from a May 24 column.) But Ross and Friedman spoke mostly in parallel, dividing up questions from the audience rather than debating each other—a mark of familiarity as much as a sign of the solemnity of the day. At one point, in response to a question about Netanyahu’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Friedman stepped in to remind the audience that Ross couldn’t say anything controversial: “I’m free to talk, while Dennis isn’t.” The envoy remained pokerfaced, while the crowd, many of whom Ross called on by name, laughed knowingly.

Soon afterward, the two stepped off the stage and went back to chatting with friends about more pressing issues, like the lemon cake Debbie Ross had baked for break fast.

CORRECTION, October 17: Friedman wore a dark blue suit, not a brown one, on Yom Kippur. This article has been corrected.

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Thom Friedman is the foggy pundit who’s first to be wrong about everything he puts to and posits. The ra ra ra sis boom ba one man chorus and carnival barker of packaging and selling the invasion of Iraq just gets sillier with every passing opportunism.

I saw Friedman on Israeli TV spouting cute little Yiddishims like an educated African American who returns to the hood for a visit and talks ghetto. Somebody should clue him in to the fact that a majority of the Jews in Israel actually are refugees from Arab countries (or their descendants) and didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Friedman has no grasp on reality and enjoys no genuine credibility anymore…the only places in which he enjoys as such is amongst the empty suit elites that this article outlined so well.

A good article.

esthermiriam says:

How sweet — no prophetic call out in Rockville to disturb the day!

One sign of why the policy and action on Israel/Palestine in Washington is as tepid and often mistaken as it now is:
with “discussion” of the situation become a long-term career, shared among friends, what else can be expected?

Questioner says:

I’m afraid Ms. Hoffman has missed, or chosen to omit, the more interesting part of the story. Kol Shalom was not started by lay people interested in a more participatory service; it was started by Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman after he was on the verge of being fired for embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from his former congregation where Mr. Friedman and Mr Ross used to belong.

The much more interesting question is: how could two such ostensibly intelligent, sophisticated men continue to trust that their rabbi was set up and fired for no good reason, after the guy admitted to commingling charity funds with his personal investment accounts.

Just google it. . . .

Boring people, boring article, same old, same old. Yawn. Are there any two more self-impressed in the world?

TF’s comment, “get out of the WB and build the biggest walk you can” pretty much sums up my philosophy at this point. I too find him pretty pedantic, but he hasn’t been too wrong lately. We in the US, are busy fighting over universal health care, taxes on the rich, abortion rights and whether mormonism is christianity while the world is eating our lunch.

TFs comment about the biggest wall just shows how wrong he is. How exactly will a wall stop mortars and missiles? Why should a withdrawal from the West Bank end any differently than the withdrawal from Gaza?

“Most synagogues try to fill the dead hours between Yom Kippur morning services and the evening shofar blast with some kind of discussion—or, in recent years, yoga or meditation”.

What ‘dead hours’?

In my (Orthodox) synagogue Yizkor is followed by a beautiful Musaf service which is followed, in turn, by Mincha. If we are lucky we get a 40 to 60 minute break and return for the awesome Ne’ilah service which is the high point and the culmination of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

At the conclusion of Ne’ilah, the shofar is sounded and we say (and sing) L’shana Haba’ah Be’Yerushalayim (Next Year in Jerusalem)!

No dead hours where I daven.

Bill Pearlman says:

It must be hard for Friedman. A guy of his self described brilliance and intellect and he is stuck with us. The Jews. What will he do?

Michal Malk says:

I was in the ‘audience’. How sad that we never get to hear a defender of the Israeli government rather than having to put up ad nauseum, with the egotistical Tom Friedmann whittering on about how bad Netanyahu et al are. (Doesn’t the man have a new or original thought these days? It’s time to bring in some balance – which will certainly make the long hard day more interesting for many of the non acolytes present.

Kol Shalom was founded by friends of a rabbi who had “misappropriated” money from his congregation. The rabbi needed a place to land and his friends (Ross, Friedman, Safire) helped him. This should have been made clear in the article.

Thomas Friedman is mostly right on point regarding the pompous PM…Napoleon, oh I mean Netanyahu, is part caveman and part thug….take your pick of which leadership quality you prefer most.

I know it’s tangential to the purpose of this article, but it deserves to be noted that Kol Shalom’s rabbi is the infamous Jonathan Maltzman, who was exiled from his former synagogue (Beth El, in Bethesda) after a $400,000+ embezzlement scandal. It’s well known in DC Jewish circles that Kol Shalom was founded primarily to serve as a refuge for Maltzman partisans, many of whom clung to him after the Washington Post revealed that the rabbi had gutted a charity “discretionary fund” largely for personal gain (vacations, his kids’ bar mitzvah parties, etc.).

Nice, two veteran observers of the middle east more interested in Debbie’s cake than what is really going on here in the conflict zone.
What is painfully obvious is that they have both bought into the thinking that one can pressure Israel, because she is a democracy and history shows us that Israel can be prodded into making concessions while the Arabs cannot! Thus Israel is told to give back land for the ethereal promise of peace. When we all know that the Arabs do not even offer each other peace.
What is disturbing is that both of these gentlemen are intelligent yet one of them knowing full well of Arab intransigence, piles on in the attempt to paint Israel as the stubborn partner in the talks.
As an Israeli I wake up everyday to what may be news of another attack on one of our many borders shared with our coursins. Could be the Hezbollah, which has no interest in peace, Assad sending Palestinians, by force, to cross the border into Israel, violent demonstrations in the West Bank, rockets from Gaza or terrorist actions emanating from Egypt. Yet Mr. Friedman finds it in his heart to attack Mr. Netanyahu who has to serve a vibrant democracy and provide security for his people.
I suggest both Mr. Friedman and Ross get a bit creative, and point out the fact that the Palestinians to this day have not compromised on any issue. They should also publicly question Pres. Clinton’s claim that Israel’s government is at fault, even though it was Arafat who popped his peace bubble at Camp David and then went to war.
I live three kilometers from the “Green Line”, I have family near Gaza. I do not relish the thought of rocket fire from Baqa al Sharkiya, which would be met with Mr. Friedman’s condemnation of myself and my country for giving back land but not taking in three million so-called refugees.

Isn’t this the same Friedman who thinks autocratic China is just a gee-golly great place? It’s interesting how a man so famous for being wrong about everything is still listened to by anyone.

What’s the deal with these two and what went on at Beth-El? Surely the Smartest Men in the Room ™ had to know something.

Yeah, that would be the same gee golly gosh Thomas Friedman. Here’s some more gee golly gosh for your enlightened edification of Titanic Tom leading the charge into Iraq where US forces were to be met upon their arrival with good home made meals, grateful cheers, and brilliant flags and banners. It all went just the way le grand master pundit predicted no?

Here is his famous “suck on this” speech delivered on the Charlie Rose show.

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Fast Talk

Diplomat Dennis Ross and Times columnist Tom Friedman give an annual Yom Kippur seminar at Kol Shalom in Rockville, Md., a synagogue they helped start

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