Philanthropists | Freedom of Expression

Palm Beach Synagogue’s new Levy lecture series tackles timely topics

PALM BEACH DAILY NEWS   |  January 23, 2023 by Kristina Webb

A new series at the Palm Beach Synagogue is bringing thought-provoking speakers to the island to discuss social and cultural topics.

The Levy Series, sponsored by synagogue members and Palm Beach residents Paul and Karen Levy, begins Wednesday with New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens speaking on cancel culture and the Jewish community. 

The events are free and open to the public, with the entire community encouraged to attend, said Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of Palm Beach Synagogue. 

“We want to have honest, intellectual conversations and thought-provoking ideas to give people knowledge and inspiration to make sure that both our country, and Israel and the Jewish people navigate these challenging times we’re living in in the most optimal way possible,” Scheiner said. 

The Levys sponsored the series after hearing how angry the tone of discourse is in the United States. 

“We really want to get people thinking, and, hopefully, you may listen, and go home and continue the discussion there,” said Paul Levy, who is founder and managing director of private equity firm JLL Partners. He also sits on the board of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is partnering with the Levys and the synagogue to host the speaker series.

The first three speakers on the roster have the depth of knowledge and experience to tackle difficult topics related to freedom of expression and how it relates to Jewish life and the state of Israel, Scheiner said.

Stephens joined the New York Times as an opinion columnist covering foreign policy and domestic politics in 2017, soon after becoming a contributor to NBC News. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2013 while working as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, for his body of work covering politics and policy as “a conservative thinker with a contrarian bent,” according to the cover letter for his entry that year. 

Stephens will be followed by New York Law School professor and former longtime president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen speaking about the First Amendment and antisemitic speech on Feb. 8. The final speaker of the series on March 2 will be Walter Russell Mead, a Bard College professor and Wall Street Journal columnist, speaking about “The Arc of a Covenant,” covering the United States, Israel and the fate of the Jewish people. Each event begins with a reception at 5 p.m. and the presentation at 6.

“We hope people come with a lot of questions,” Paul Levy said. “We have the time to answer them. Our speakers are prepared to field questions.”

The topic of cancel culture is of particular interest to the Jewish community as it deals with societal shifts and growing antisemitism, Scheiner said.

“Different voices are being silenced,” he said. “Sometimes we have to ask ourselves how that plays in with freedom of speech.”

There can be a double standard when it comes to which types of speech are allowed, he said. 

In recent years, ACTA has become very involved in the role of free speech on college campuses, Levy said. “It’s been a major challenge,” he said. “The professors are not free to speak as they wish, or write as they wish or teach as they wish.”

The organization, led by its president and chief executive officer, Michael Poliakoff, has stepped in to advocate, Levy said.

“In a world where people are being canceled just for having a point of view, these people need a spokesman, somebody to defend them,” he said. 

“We know that these issues are new phenomena we’ve never had to deal with before,” Scheiner said. “There’s been a terrible spike in antisemitism in our country and around the world. We want to explore that and ask ourselves, ‘How did we get here, and how do we get to a better place?’” 

The answer, he said, lies in grassroots efforts. He quoted Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

The Levy Series and events like it are important to foster education and discussion, Scheiner said. 

“Our synagogue is unique because it is not just a house of worship,” he said. “It’s a house of study, a house of education, it’s a house of scholarship. We want to share these perspectives, Jew and non-Jew alike. It’s something we’re opening to the community at large because we should all be addressing and pondering these very important events.”

This article originally appeared in the Palm Beach Daily News on January 23, 2023.


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