|Born||David Floyd Nesenoff
1960 (age 54–55)
|Residence||Stony Brook, Long Island, New York|
|Alma mater||Yeshiva University
Jewish Theological Seminary of America
|Occupation||Rabbi, filmmaker, bias consultant, blogger|
David Floyd Nesenoff (born 1960) is an American rabbi, independent filmmaker, singer/songwriter of contemporary Jewish music, and blogger. His short films have been shown at various festivals including Sundance and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. He has directed a full-length movie and was a principal in a film production company.
In the 1990s, he counseled youths who had committed bias crimes. He came to national attention as an expert and counselor regarding bias crimes, and worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department Justice in the Denny's Restaurant racial discrimination case. Later, he served as an intervention consultant to Mel Gibson when Gibson was accused of anti-semitism.
He gained national attention in June 2010 when he posted to his website a video he had made of opinion columnist Helen Thomas making controversial statements about Israel. Over the next several days, the video went viral, Thomas resigned her job over this, and Nesenoff received what he initially said were over 25,000 pieces of hate mail, including several death threats.
Nesenoff himself has been interviewed and quoted in The New York Times, has written a column published in The Washington Post, and has appeared on Fox News and CNN's Reliable Sources program. He maintains a website, RabbiLIVE.com, which features short videos clips and articles about Israel, interviews with rabbis, and his notable interview of opinion columnist Helen Thomas. He has identified his politics as pro-Israel, and has said he is uncertain whether he will continue to be a liberal and a Democrat.
Early life and education
Nesenoff was born and raised on Long Island, New York, one of four children of Goldie, an art teacher and musician who plays the mandolin in community orchestras, and Norman Nesenoff, an electrical engineer and the founder of CES Industries. At age 14 Nesenoff attended an agricultural high school in Ashkelon, Israel for one year. He attended Yeshiva University as an undergraduate, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for one year when he was in graduate school, and received a master's degree and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
Nesenoff served as a spiritual director and rabbi at various synagogues during his career. He was the rabbi for the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, New York until April 2010 when he was unable to reach a salary agreement with the congregation. Previously he was the director of the East Northport Jewish Center  and in the 1990s he was at the Oyster Bay Jewish Center in Long Island. Nesenoff created Temple Tikvah, Synagogue of Hope, to comfort and inspire people and to help create a sense of community following the September 11 attacks. He conducted non-traditional services which included club musicians, poetry readings, popular music and the showing of one of his short films.
After Holocaust denial literature and KKK posters appeared in Jewish neighborhoods in the mid 1990s, Nesenoff chaired a local anti-bias task force. He created an anti-bias education program for the Nassau County, New York courts, obtaining a state grant and later, private funding through drives at his synagogue. Nesenoff's four session course became part of a court mandated program for teens under 16 who had been convicted of bias crimes. Called TRY, (Tolerance Rehabilitation for Youth), his approach began with getting the offenders angry, pushing their hot buttons, then getting them to discuss their reactions. He also taught leadership skills, emphasizing self-esteem, conflict resolution, tolerance, and the seriousness of the hate crimes. He said that it was important for youth to understand why they committed bias crimes and said that the "reason a kid spray paints a swastika has nothing to do with the historical perspective of the Holocaust". Rather, he said, the hate crimes were the result of the kids "stepping on others to prop themselves up". Nesenoff appeared at the arraignment of two 18-year-old men on felony charges related to painting swastikas and anti-semitic graffiti on a Long Island high school track in 1993. According to The New York Times, he pointed to one of the defendants outside of the courtroom and said, "That's what a Nazi looks like, take a good look". He also taught anti-prejudice classes at local high schools. Remarking about the destruction of a menorah display, Nesenoff said that it is important "'to shine a light' on bias crimes ... 'Make sure people know. We want to yell that it happened.'"
Nesenoff served as consultant on the Denny's Restaurant discrimination case, and later counseled Mel Gibson after Gibson was accused of making anti-semitic remarks and making a movie with anti-semitic overtones. However,according to Nesenoff, Gibson has still not really apologized for what he said and did.
Nesenoff's work with high school students and his work with teens convicted of bias crimes sparked his interest in filmmaking. He saw film as a means to communicate his message, telling The New York Times in 1996 that he looked at "film as a modern-day pulpit". After obtaining partial funding from the state and advertising for volunteer actors, he made a 16-minute black-and-white film, Moving Day, showing the viewpoint and experiences of an elderly woman, a crime victim, a black man, a homeless person, a battered wife and a young girl. The film was used as a teaching aid in New York schools. He later obtained a grant from the state to help him write and direct a film about the consequences of teens' drinking and driving. The result was Inbound Mercy, an 11-minute black-and-white film about the fatal accident of a teenage couple who drink and drive. The Los Angeles Times said the film was realistic and creatively done. It was featured at the 1997 Sundance festival, winning Nesenoff an award for most unlikely filmmaker. The film received a first place Chris Award at the Columbus International Film Festival; it took first place at the Media Awards Competition of the National Council on Family Relations; and it received a Humanitarian Award at the Long Island Film Festival.
Nesenoff made a number of other short films over the years. In 2002 he filmed an inspirational short documentary, A Little Drive, touching on the themes of desperation, hope, 9/11 and the story of Joseph. In 2002, he directed The Wax and the Wicks a 13-minute film about the goings-on at an East Long Island beauty shop that was entered in the Palm Beach International Film Festival, and that won a first place National Telly Award. The film allows the viewer to "eavesdrop on patrons and staff as they give their views on hairstyles, religion, recipes and reactions to 9/11." In 2006, he directed The Cat Experiment, a full length comedy film about abandoned cats which was shown at the 2007 Long Island Film Festival.
In the late 2000s, Nesenoff began sending copies of his holiday sermons to U.S. Jewish troops stationed overseas. He received appreciative letters and came up with the idea of webcasting live services to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and others who could not attend a service in person. In 2008, he set up his website, RabbiLIVE.com for that purpose. After leaving hs position as rabbi, he began looking for a new mission for his website.
Helen Thomas controversy
On May 27, 2010, Nesenoff attended a reception at the White House in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month with his 17-year-old son and his son's 18-year-old friend. Nesenoff had a press pass representing his website, RabbiLIVE.com, and his son had a press pass representing his website, ShmoozePOINT.com. They attended a press conference where Hearst opinion columnist Helen Thomas asked President Obama a question about Afghanistan. Nesenoff then recorded a two minute long interview of Thomas as she was leaving the White House via the North Lawn driveway. Nesenoff posted a one minute long video excerpt of the interview on RabbiLIVE.com on June 4, 2010. During the interview, Thomas made brief remarks about Israel, the Jews and Palestine, that have been described with a variety of labels, including "off the cuff", blunt, and "anti-semitic". Nesenoff said that Thomas was "whisked away by a helper or a page" after making her remarks about "Poland". Another reporter at the scene said Thomas had been shuffling along the driveway on the arm of a third reporter, en route to a taxi that was being hailed to take her home, when the interview occurred.
After the video was posted, Nesenoff was in contact with Hearst Newspapers and discussed whether they should dismiss her. Thomas retired from her job on June 7, 2010 following negative reaction to her remarks heard on the one minute June 4 video. This video was published on numerous websites and had over one million hits on YouTube. On June 8, Nesenoff posted the complete two minute interview which contained no further controversial remarks, and which ended with Thomas telling Nesenoff's son and his son's friend: "All the best to you. Go for journalism, you'll never regret it."
Nesenoff has given dozens of interviews in which he has described his encounter with Thomas. Thomas was reportedly well known as a critic of Israel. Nesenoff told CNN he had not been not aware that Thomas had anti-Semitic views before he interviewed her, and approached her as a supporter. Nesenoff said "When I heard what she said, I was taken aback, confused. I was not expecting it," "I guess I was a little naive about her reporting over the years." In an interview with Haaretz, Nesenoff said he knew Thomas had been critical of Israel in the past, but was surprised at her answer to his simple question. Nesenoff said that Thomas must have known she was speaking to Jews because he, his son, and his son's friend were all wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit and that was another reason why he was shocked by her comments.
Nesenoff has said that he interpreted Thomas' comments as meaning that Jews should get out of Israel and go home to Poland or Germany; countries that had killed, tortured, and expelled Jews. He further described Thomas' comments as "vile, a paradigm of hate talk" to Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. According to Haaretz, he described Thomas as saying "that not only was she opposed to the two-state solution, but that she thought that the Jews should leave Israel and return to the final solution, more or less." Referring to the fact that Thomas had a front row seat at presidential press conferences, Nesenoff told another reporter that: "There's anti-Semitism in the world... And it's sitting a foot from the president."
Nesenoff wrote an op-ed that was published in The Washington Post on June 20, 2010. He said that after attending a press conference in the White House, divine intervention led to his encounter with Helen Thomas. He characterized her answers to his questions as revealing "an ingrown organic hate". He said that "Thomas and a babbling stream in our world and country dictate to Jewish people to "go home to Poland and Germany, " and that her remarks were an attempt to erase his existence as a Jew. Remarking on the fact that he had said "oooh" when in the middle of his questioning of Thomas, Nesenoff said that on the way back from Washington D.C. he realized that he was "already traveling on a road in a post-ooh world." He has said that he believes that Helen Thomas and her supporters "have broken into the very rock and the foundation of all religion and all philosophy" and that he wants to fight people who believe there is no connection between Israel and the Jewish identity.
In the wake of Thomas' resignation, several colleagues remarked that she should have been given a break. Nesenoff responded: "The Washington press corps and the president and her boss at Hearst have found her fit. I don't go up to people and take their pulse before I ask question... I didn't fire her and I didn't hire her. I just asked her a question. And as she's been doing for 60 years, I let people know what she answered."
Critics questioned why Nesenoff waited more than one week to post the interview and suggested that the timing was a political maneuver to divert media attention away from Israel's handling of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Nesenoff replied that the delay happened because his 17-year-old son serves as his webmaster for the blog and was busy with final exams for that week. In later interviews, Nesenoff explained that he was told by a friend who is a reporter at a Jewish publication that his video of Thomas was not a big story. According to Nesenoff, the friend said, "Oh, she's been that way for years, that’s nothing surprising".
In the wake of the Helen Thomas controversy, Nesenoff said that he received 25,000 of pieces of hate mail, including several death threats. He filed a report with the Suffolk County Police, and the department's hate crimes unit launched an investigation. He has said while he was shocked by the volume of the hate mail, he was even more shocked to discover there was a hate media that was accusing him of right-wing ambush journalism and looking for "dirt" in his past. Nesenoff has also remarked that he has received positive emails and invitations for speaking engagements. He will be going on a speaking tour which will include college campuses.
Nesenoff told one interviewer he had no particular political leanings, but that he was pro-Israel. He later said that he had opposed the Iraq War, had voted for Barack Obama, and had considered himself a liberal New York Democrat prior to his interview of Thomas and the ensuing fallout. He stated, "I have to really reevaluate liberal and conservative and really find out where I stand because I think I've been a little blind."
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