Congregation Beth Israel’s first president represents synagogue, Jewish community
By Deb Silverthorn
It was a whirlwind 24-hours for Anna Salton Eisen from the time she left her Westlake home on Monday, Feb. 7, until her return the next evening. The in-between hours were spent on airplanes to and from Washington, D.C., to support Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the first special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism with the rank of ambassador, as she testified during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I was gone for a day but so much happened in that time. I represented my family, my congregation and my greater Jewish community,” said Salton Eisen. “And I felt proud to do so.”
Salton Eisen’s heart and spirit are fierce on the subject of antisemitism. Her parents survived the Holocaust, and she is a founder and first founding president of Congregation Beth Israel, which was attacked on Jan. 15 by an Islamist terrorist. She also vividly recalls protesting as a college student in 1977, when 149 people were taken hostage, 100 of them Jewish, at the B’nai B’rith International Headquarters, the Islamic Center of Washington and the Wilson building.
Lipstadt and Salton Eisen’s relationship goes back a generation when Salton Eisen’s father George and Lipstadt communicated by letter and telephone about issues of the Holocaust. Their connection came full-circle when Salton Eisen’s daughter attended Emory University, where Lipstadt is a professor.
Twenty years after Salton Eisen and her father published “The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir,” and just months before the publication of her own “Pillar of Salt: A Daughter’s Life in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” she is both surprised, and not, that these issues are as prevalent as they are.
Salton Eisen had written to Lipstadt after her nomination last summer. After the hostage situation at CBI, she heard from Lipstadt, with an invitation to join her at the hearing. Also joining Lipstadt was Diane D’Costa, a graduate of the University of Virginia, the alma mater of Salton Eisen’s son Aaron, who hid in her room as marchers passed by in Charlottesville; it reminded Salton Eisen of how her own grandmother hid, then escaped, in Poland more than 70 years ago.
“Now, more than ever, we need Deborah Lipstadt’s confirmation and her leadership. We are slowly finding our way forward after the hostage siege but when asked how we will address the rising incidents of antisemitism, I point to her,” said Salton Eisen. “We need the leadership and scholarship she can bring to unify our efforts to battle the growing wave of antisemitism. I am but one voice and I will continue to raise it to ask for her confirmation.”
In her opening testimony, Lipstadt began with a blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, matir asurim — blessed are you G-d, who frees the captives. This blessing was recited by Jews worldwide when we heard of the escape from the Colleyville, Texas, synagogue of the resourceful and incredibly brave captives,” said Lipstadt. “Many of us, fearing the worst, sat suspended over the void with another blessing at the ready, ‘baruch dayan emet — blessed is the merciful judge,’ the blessing Jews traditionally recite upon hearing of a death, particularly an untimely, tragic one.
“Senators, this was no isolated incident. Increasingly, Jews have been singled out for slander, violence and terrorism. Today’s rise in antisemitism is staggering,” said Lipstadt. “It is especially alarming that we witness such a surge less than eight decades after one out of three Jews on earth was murdered. Often, in their long history, Jews have felt abandoned. But then is not now, certainly not in the United States.”
After the hearing, nearly two hours long, Salton Eisen spent time talking with Lipstadt, then Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and finally, in his office, Sen. Ted Cruz. While not committing to supporting Lipstadt, Cruz professed his concern for CBI and other incidents of antisemitism in the state of Texas and around the country.
“It wasn’t the time for him to tell me what he would do but, once she is confirmed — and I believe she will be — I look forward to celebrating,” said Salton Eisen.
Salton Eisen was proud to have been a firsthand witness to the senate confirmation process.
“Being asked to be by Deborah’s side at this historic moment was incredibly meaningful,” said Salton Eisen. “Whatever I can do, wherever I can be, I am here.”