Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO 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 building on Oct. 27, the largest anti-Semitic attack in American history.
Finkelstein is also credited with establishing 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.
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.
Finkelstein has served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for more than a decade.
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.
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 U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz and performer Barbra Streisand. The slot was never filled, and there was no Diaspora representative in the 2018 ceremony. PJC
—Times of Israel staff