Category Archives: Law, Politics & Military

Jews in the World of Law and Politics

Jews of the Week: Bielski Partisans

The Jewish Avengers

Tuvia Bielski

Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987) was born in a small village near what is today Navahrudak, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire). When the German Army occupied the area during World War I, he was called to work for them as an interpreter, since he knew Polish, Russian and Yiddish. After the war, his hometown reverted to Polish rule, and Bielski was drafted to the Polish Army. He finished his service with the rank of corporal, then returned home to work in the family grain mill. When Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, Bielski was called up to fight. His cousin Yehuda Bielski (1909-1994), who had served as an officer in the Polish Army, was called up, too, and was shot in the leg. When SS troops stormed his hospital, he managed to escape. The Poles surrendered shortly after and the Bielski cousins returned to their village. The Nazis arrived there in the summer of 1941 and forced all the Jews into the Navahrudak ghetto. Tuvia, his sister, and three brothers fled to the Naliboki Forest; their parents, and two other brothers, were killed in the ghetto. The wife and baby daughter of his brother, Alexander “Zus” Bielski (1912-1995), were killed as well. In the forest, the Bielski brothers and 13 friends formed a paramilitary group under the command of Tuvia and brother Asael Bielski (1908-1945), launching a guerrilla war campaign against the Nazis. Through a Christian friend, they got a letter out to cousin Yehuda to join them and share his military expertise, which he did after escaping the ghetto.

The Bielski Partisans quickly grew to a force of about 150 fighters, and freed over 1200 Jews (including Jared Kushner’s grandmother) from the ghetto and surrounding villages. They worked to sabotage Nazi plans, destroying 4 bridges, 23 train cars, 32 telegraph lines, and killing nearly 400 soldiers. Their primarily goal, however, was to save lives. (Tuvia’s motto: “I would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers.”) The Bielski Partisans built their entire life in the forest, constructing a school and hospital, bathhouse, bakery, tannery, synagogue, and even a courthouse and jail. The place became known as “Forest Jerusalem”. It had 125 full-time workers who also supplied the Soviet Army and other partisan forces in the area. The Nazis soon placed a 100,000 Reichsmark reward for the capture of Tuvia, and in August of 1943 launched a huge operation in the Naliboki Forest. While they were unable to suppress the Bielskis, they damaged most of their infrastructure, and punished many surrounding villages. The Bielskis ultimately joined forces with the Soviets and helped drive the Nazis out. (Throughout this time, they kept the identity of Yehuda secret, since the Soviets considered Polish officers to be enemies, and would have executed him immediately.) After the region was liberated in the summer of 1944, the Soviets turned on the Bielskis and the brothers fled. Unable to escape, Asael was conscripted to the Soviet Army and died in the Battle of Konigsberg in 1945. Tuvia and Zus, along with younger brother Aron Bielski (b. 1927)—who was only 12 when the war started—made their way to Israel and fought in the new state’s Independence War. Yehuda Bielski was there, too, and was injured in battle yet again. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in the IDF. The Bielskis eventually settled in New York, where they built a successful transportation company with a fleet of taxis and trucks. The story of the Bielski brothers was featured in two books, and a Hollywood film, Defiance, starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia.

Words of the Week

It’s the small acts that you do on a daily basis that turn two people from a “you and I” into an “us”.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Bielski Partisans in the Naliboki Forest

Jew of the Week: James White Jr.

The Inmate Who Transformed Thousands of Lives

James “Sneaky” White Jr.

James A. “Sneaky” White, Jr. (b. 1939) was born in London, England. He was adopted by a Jewish couple from Connecticut as a child, and never knew his biological parents. White grew up in a kosher home, and regularly went to the synagogue. He studied at Texas A&M, then enlisted in the US military where he served for the next decade and rose to the rank of sergeant. White did a tour in Cuba in 1965, followed by four tours in Vietnam as a marine and helicopter pilot. He earned over twenty medals, including three silver stars and a Distinguished Flying Cross for “uncommon courage, bold initiative and selfless devotion to duty at great personal risk.” Once, he ran across a field studded with land mines and emerged unharmed, for which he was given the nickname “Sneaky”. As with many Vietnam veterans, White returned to the US disabled and broke. He made a living working various jobs. In 1975 he met Nancy, the love of his life, and they married several years later. Nancy’s abusive ex-husband threatened the newlyweds, then sexually assaulted a step-daughter. In a fit of rage, White shot and killed the man. He turned himself in to police immediately. Despite suffering from PTSD, White was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He decided to make the most out of his incarceration. White took college courses, subscribed to as many magazines as he could, started studying Torah, became deeply religious, and even published a book. He wanted to help other war veterans who struggled like he did and co-founded a veterans’ support group, as well as a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. After reading about recidivism rates, White decided to start a program to get inmates educated and keep them out of prison. Through his program, over 1500 of his fellow inmates went on to get college degrees. White ran a charity, too (from prison!) and raised over $350,000 for numerous causes. He recently donated his long hair for charity as well. White personally saved the lives of at least two inmates and one guard. He became an inspiration to countless people, and even gave a TEDx talk in 2014 (see here). Over the years, many have tried to get him pardoned and released. The campaign finally succeeded earlier this year when California’s governor intervened, and White was freed on January 21st after some 40 years in prison. In his own words: “I just want people to know that even in prison we can do mitzvahs and do something good for society. Just because a person commits a crime, it doesn’t mean that he or she is no longer a worthy person.”

Words of the Week

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
– Walt Disney

Jew of the Week: Raquel Montoya-Lewis

The First Native American Jew on a Supreme Court

Raquel Montoya-Lewis at her swearing-in ceremony

Raquel Montoya-Lewis (b. 1968) was born in Spain to a Jewish mother from Australia and a Native American father from New Mexico. Because her father worked for the US Air Force, the family travelled a lot when she was young. Yet, they always returned to the Pueblo of Isleta reservation which was their home. Her mother made sure to instill Jewish values and traditions, too. Montoya-Lewis went on to study at the University of New Mexico, and then at the University of Washington School of Law. To gain a deeper understanding of how laws affect societies, she also got a Master’s degree in social work. Although she sought to become a law professor, Montoya-Lewis was invited to preside over a number of trials in Native American communities. Eventually, she became the chief judge of the Lummi nation, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, and the Nooksack Indian tribe, among others. Meanwhile, she taught law at Western Washington University. In 2015 Montoya-Lewis was appointed to the Superior Court of Whatcom County. After being recognized for her exceptional work, she was recommended for Washington State’s Supreme Court. Last month, Montoya-Lewis was officially sworn in. That makes her the first ever Native American tribal member (and first Native American Jew, of course) to hold such a position, and only the second Native in American history to be a state supreme court judge. At her swearing-in ceremony, she invited both a rabbi and a Native American leader to speak. Montoya-Lewis herself said: “I was raised to remember that I come from those who survived. My ancestors on both sides of my family survived genocide, survived institutional boarding schools, survived attempts to eradicate their cultures, and yet as my father reminded me often, ‘we survived’… I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence, and their deep commitment to what is just.”

Words of the Week

The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer… But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

  – Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize-winning physicist