Briefs: Mass Shoah grave discovered in Ukraine; Report: Israel wants to talk with Syria; German Jews

Mass Grave Discovered in Ukraine

The Associated Press reported Tuesday on the discovery in May of a previously unknown mass grave in southern Ukraine that may contain remains of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis. The report says that the finding came by accident, when gas pipelines were being laid in the village of Gvozdavka-1, near Odessa. A concentration camp nearby, established in 1941, was the site of the killing of about 5,000 Jews according to Roman Shvartsman, a spokesman for the area’s Jewish community and the source for the report.

Report: Israel Seeks Syria Talks

Israel reportedly plans to seek U.S. approval for launching secret peace talks with Syria. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, who heads out to Washington this week for routine bilateral strategic talks, will raise the idea of new back-door negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus, Yediot Acharonot reported Monday. According to the newspaper, Mofaz plans to tell Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Syria’s demand for a return of the Golan Heights, and its recent build-up of forces near the territory, warrants asking what it would be willing to give Israel in exchange for a peaceful resolution. Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied the report, which comes amid rising fears of an armed confrontation on the Syrian front.

“The military is prepared for any eventuality on the north, but at the same time, we should not rule out any call for peace by Syria,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Israel’s Army Radio, without elaborating.

UJC Approves Budget, Reorganization

The United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) board of trustees approved a $40.2 million budget for 2007-08, effectively endorsing a plan to reorganize the umbrella organization for North America’s federation system.

The budget, passed Monday at UJC governance meetings in New York, is up from $38.8 million last year.

To pay for the budget increase, the UJC is asking for a 3.7 percent increase in dues from each of its 144 member federations.

The budget includes $2 million to be spent on program changes and a $2.6 million savings from cutting 24 jobs, according to a UJC source. According to the reorganization plan, which was introduced informally in March, the UJC will dissolve its pillar system and form two operating units.

One will be based in Israel and focus on Israel and overseas fund raising and operations. The other will be based in the United States and concentrate on helping the federations increase their donor base and campaigns. The budget also includes a $1.5 million research and development fund for “new strategies.”

The budget “was passed overwhelmingly,” UJC spokesman Glenn Rosenkrantz said. A trustee who asked not to be identified said “there were a number of federations that voted no either on the budget itself or on the dues increase.”

Those federations include Detroit, and Palm Beach and South Palm Beach in Florida.

German Jews Resist Aliyah Body

Leaders of German Jewry say they do not want Israel to encourage more immigration to the Jewish state by expanding the reach of its government body dedicated to promoting aliyah. The leaders said they would even ask for the German government’s help in resisting attempts by Nativ, the Israeli government entity that encourages immigration from the former Soviet Union, to expand its authority to Germany, Ha’aretz reported.

In September, two Nativ officials will begin work in Germany, home to 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews that recently moved there from the former Soviet Union.

Nativ has long wanted to work in Germany, but faced opposition from the Jewish Agency, which does the same work. But now that Nativ is under the control of Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the group will begin running an ulpan and other educational programs in conjunction with the Jewish Agency.

Absorption Minister Ze’ev Boim, who previously oversaw Nativ, did not want the organization to expand because he believed it was unnecessary given the Jewish Agency’s presence. But Lieberman has said publicly that he favors replacing the American-dominated Jewish Agency with Nativ.

Dems Favor Clinton As Envoy

Democratic candidates for president said they would use former President Bill Clinton as a peace envoy. Four hopefuls in Sunday night’s debate on CNN, when asked how they would use Clinton, said envoy would be their preferred choice.

Clinton’s presidency ended with a failed attempt to hammer out a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli final status deal, but negotiators for both sides praised him for coming closer to achieving an agreement than any other broker.

Clinton’s wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel spoke of using Clinton as an envoy in general terms, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson specified his usefulness in the Middle East, among other regions.

“I believe he is needed in the Middle East,” Richardson said. “This administration has not had a Middle East peace envoy as other bipartisan administrations have had. We have serious problems in the Middle East. Our great ally Israel, which I think needs buttressing, right now is less safe than it was when President Bush came in.”

The other candidates in the debate, which took place in New Hampshire, were not asked the question.

Conservative Union Opens to Gay Staff

In a vote June 2, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, representing about 700 Conservative synagogues moved to change its hiring practices, according to a press release. The change applies only to the union itself; Conservative synagogues retain the right to decide independently whether to modify their hiring guidelines or not.

“As a movement that has always integrated our commitment to halachah — Jewish law — with our desire to see the spirit of God in all people, we are glad to be able to take this step,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the organization’s executive vice president.

The decision comes six months after the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians and to allow rabbis to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies. The committee also endorsed a rabbinic opinion upholding the traditional ban on gay rabbis and gay unions.