Briefs: Israel reviews Jerusalem dig; U.S. offers reward for Islamic Jihad leader

Israel Reviews Jerusalem Dig

Israel is pressing ahead with a controversial dig near the Temple Mount but will review plans to build at the site. The Jerusalem Municipality announced Monday that a plan to renovate a pedestrian walkway leading from the Temple Mount’s Mughrabi Gate to the Western Wall Plaza would be put on hold to allow for consultations with police and Muslim authorities.

“This is due to the sensitivity of the plan,” the municipality said in a statement, referring to recent Palestinian rioting sparked by Arab allegations that Israel is trying to undermine the foundations of two major Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount.

But the municipality said excavations in the Western Wall Plaza would continue in order to salvage any archeological artifacts that might be damaged by the planned renovation. Israel has said the dig does not threaten the Muslim shrines and is designed to prevent the pedestrian walkway from collapsing due to weather erosion. Muslim leaders have incited their followers in the past with accusations of Jewish plots to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount.

Holocaust Denier Says He Accosted Wiesel

A Holocaust denier claims he is the one who accosted Elie Wiesel, with the aim of kidnapping him. “Eric Hunt” posted an acknowledgment on ZioPedia, an anti-Semitic Web site, saying he followed Wiesel onto an elevator at San Francisco’s Argent hotel after the author, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor participated in a panel on peace. Wiesel reported such an assault on Feb. 1 and San Francisco police are seeking the assailant.

“After ensuring no women would be traumatized by what I had to do (I had been trailing Wiesel for weeks), I stopped the elevator at the sixth floor,” Hunt wrote. “I pulled Wiesel out of the elevator. I said I wanted to interview him. He protested, grabbed at his chest as if he was having a heart attack. He then screamed HELP! HELP! at the top of his lungs.” Hunt said he let Wiesel go because “he was no use to our worldwide struggle for freedom if he had a heart attack.”

He said he “had planned on either getting Wiesel into my custody, with a cornered Wiesel finally forced to state the truth on videotape, getting arrested or fleeing.”

U.S. Offers Reward for Islamic Jihad Leader

The United States put a bounty on the head of a Palestinian terrorist leader. The State Department this week offered up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Shallah, who is based in Damascus.

Shallah is wanted for complicity in suicide bombings, murder, extortions and money laundering. Responding to the State Department’s announcement, Islamic Jihad said it would attack American targets if Shallah is taken into custody.

The State Department offered a separate bounty for Mohammed Ali Hamadei, a Lebanese Hezbollah member suspected of involvement in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847 that resulted in the murder of a U.S. sailor.

Katsav Complainant Tells All

A woman who accused Israel’s president of raping her gave a full account to a British newspaper. Moshe Katsav’s former secretary, whose name is withheld from publication by law, told Britain’s Sunday Times the president first subjected her to unwanted sexual scrutiny until finally forcing himself on her when she reached up to get a book in his office.

“Maybe I didn’t struggle enough,” she said. “I was shocked. I was thinking, what if people know, what if I don’t have a job.” The complainant — who was described by the newspaper as “Michelle Pfeiffer in Chanel tortoiseshell glasses” — came forward last year, prompting Israel’s attorney general to draft rape charges against Katsav. The Israeli president has denied wrongdoing.

Jewish Groups to Stage Eco-Friendly Conferences

Two Jewish organizations have pledged to offset the carbon produced by their upcoming conferences. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life announced they’ll calculate the amount of carbon produced by their three-day conferences in Washington in late February, and will offset it through reforestation projects. The conferences, which will include nearly 1,000 participants, will limit the amount of carbon they produce through greater energy efficiency and the use of renewables.

“The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is dedicated to doing its part to combat climate change,” said Steve Gutow, the group’s executive director. “Offsetting the carbon emissions from our conference is an easy and effective way to help make a positive difference in our environment.”

The effort, billed as the first of its kind for Jewish groups, will be facilitated by, the country’s leading carbon-offset organization.

Klezmatics Win Grammy Award

The Klezmatics received the Grammy award for Contemporary World Music Album for “Wonder Wheel,” with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, on Sunday in Los Angeles.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Pharmacy under attack after anti-Semitism charges

An anti-Semitic pharmacy in Beverly Hills?

The notion may sound unlikely, but a widely circulated e-mail bearing the subject heading “Druggist won’t do business with ‘Jews or Jew Doctors'” sparked concern and outrage in recent weeks as it landed in hundreds of computer mailboxes across the country. After all, the source — a Jewish woman in Florida — appeared to be without hostile intent, and the allegation, targeting the Wilshire Roxbury Medical Pharmacy at 436 North Roxbury Drive, allegedly had been vetted.

“I verified this information,” one woman wrote as she passed the e-mail on. “Please forward this.”

Many recipients took the request to heart, forwarding the e-mail to friends, family and contacts at Jewish organizations. Others phoned the pharmacy themselves. A local rabbi asked his orthodontist, who works across the street, to investigate. A formal complaint was lodged with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

First, to put rumors to rest, the charge is definitely false. The pharmacist/owner, who preferred not to have his name published, is Jewish, as is his assistant. They cater to Jewish customers as well as Jewish doctors.

But almost as problematic as the allegation itself is the absence of a plausible explanation. What brought this about? Was it, perhaps, the result of a misunderstanding, a vendetta or a joke gone awry? The genesis remains a mystery.

“It’s like something out of Kafka,” said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who investigated the allegation.

Here are the known facts:

On Wednesday, Nov. 1, Sue Hazan, a pharmaceutical representative in Boca Raton, Fla., was making cold-calls to promote a particular medication with a new co-pay plan. The contact information for the Wilshire Roxbury Medical Pharmacy appeared randomly on her computer screen, and she placed a call at 12:21 p.m. Pacific time.

Hazan explained the new plan to the pharmacist, who had answered the phone with the pharmacy’s name and who later identified himself as “Jed Shoohed.” She then mentioned that two doctors in his building had signed on to use the co-pay plan.

“Is that a Jew doctor?” “Shoohed” asked. “We don’t take kindly to Jews around here, and we don’t fill Jew doctors’ prescriptions.”

“But I’m a Jew,” Hazan said.

“That’s good for you, but don’t call my store again if you’re one of them,” he said.

Hazan reported the incident to her boss and also called her daughter, Helene Abramson, in Princeton, N. J. Abramson, who is active in the Jewish community, then contacted people in her Israel support network for advice. On Monday, Nov. 6, she sent out an e-mail to her Israel support network detailing the incident, and that e-mail was quickly forwarded to hundreds of others.

The following Thursday morning, Nov. 9, a Jewish Journal reporter visited the pharmacy and met the pharmacist, who appeared agitated. The pharmacy is a small operation tucked in the corner of a medical building’s wood-paneled lobby. On repeated visits that same afternoon it was virtually empty, except for one customer, the postman, the pharmacist and his assistant. The telephone was ringing almost non-stop.

The pharmacist said he has no idea how or why his pharmacy has come under attack. He confirmed that no one named Jed Shoohed works there, and he denied ever receiving a phone call from Hazan.

“We have no knowledge of this phone call,” he said, refusing to say whether or not he was manning the pharmacy on Nov. 1, when Hazan made the call. He also refused to go on record with any further questions, threatening to sue if a story were to be published. He said he had been referring all inquiries to the Beverly Hills Police Department, where he has filed a report.

According to the pharmacist’s attorney, Grant Carlson, of Beverly Hills, the pharmacist believes he is the target of an unfair and unwarranted attack by someone who doesn’t even know him.

“The person clearly is hysterical and is making things up,” Carlson said.
But Hazan was not the only person on the receiving end of an anti-Semitic comment after calling this pharmacy. Jami Gan, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. and is part of the Israel support network, phoned the pharmacy at 3 p.m. Pacific time on Monday, Nov. 6. She wanted to confirm the e-mail allegation before forwarding it.

Gan asked for “Jed” and was told he was on another line. She explained she was calling to verify the e-mail. The person who answered assured her he knew what she was talking about and told her to go ahead and pass it along, saying that one day she would understand why people like him felt the way they did about people like her.

He also asked, “Are you familiar with Borat?” referring to the anti-Semitic fictional Sacha Baron Cohen character.

Many people in the building report having a cordial relationship with the pharmacist.

The building manager, Kia Saidnia, has known the pharmacist for about six years, since NIC Real Estate Group took over management of the property. He reported that the pharmacist has been renting the same space for at least 15 years, and he said he has never received any complaints about him.

“He gets along with everyone in the building, as far as I know,” Saidnia said.
NIC’s owner confirmed that.

“He’s really nice,” said Hamid Shoohed, who himself is Jewish and whose last name is the same as that used by the mythical pharmacist “Jed.”

Others in the building report a less amicable association. Dr. Larry Kozek, a dentist on the ground floor of the building, confirmed reports that jokes are frequently posted in the pharmacy’s windows, which he described as “weird signs,” although none were in sight on Nov. 9.

The Wiesenthal Center’s Breitbart, who spent about 25 minutes talking with the pharmacist in person, believes the pharmacist is being victimized.

The ADL is also attempting to evaluate the situation, according to the organization’s senior associate director Alison Mayersohn.

But when Mayersohn telephoned the pharmacy on Nov. 9, identifying her ADL affiliation, the speaker, who said his name was “Fred,” referred her to the Beverly Hills Police Department.

“ADL’s tendency is to be very careful,” she said. “Things are not always as they appear.”

Israel, N.Y. Schools Drop Weinberg Suits

Yeshiva University (YU) in New York and a Derech Etz Chaim yeshiva (DEC) in Israel have settled a lawsuit sparked by allegations that a former California rabbi made sexual advances toward students.

The settlement, which allows YU students to get credit for taking classes at DEC, closes one avenue through which to answer 20-year-old questions about whether Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who now lives in Jerusalem’s Old City, might have stepped over the line from a nonconformist educator to an alleged sexual predator.

YU unceremoniously cut ties with DEC last year when allegations arose about about Weinberg’s behavior toward a young man currently in Israel and about Weinberg’s tenure at Kerem, a boarding yeshiva he founded in Santa Clarita in the late 1970s.

Some critics believe YU is overcompensating for historic lapses in the Baruch Lanner case, when Orthodox institutions had for decades covered up his sexual and emotional abuse of teenagers (Lanner’s 2002 conviction for abusing girls in the high school is being appealed).

The dispute between YU and DEC ended earlier this month when the parties agreed to drop a suit and countersuit in Federal Court in Manhattan, where DEC had sued YU in June 2003 for cutting the school out of its Joint Israel Program, which allows YU students to enroll in yeshivas in Israel.

YU countersued DEC for "utterly failing to protect" its students, most of them post-high school students from the United States, from the accused rabbi.

The agreement, which came after a harsh rebuke from the judge when near-settlements failed because of disagreement over wording, drops both suits and states that students can apply for YU credits for their time at DEC. It does not reinstate DEC into the Joint Israel Program, which would allow students already enrolled in YU to take classes at DEC.

YU cut ties to DEC in February 2003 when allegations arose that Weinberg, whom YU claims was a figurehead at DEC, allegedly made sexual advances to boys at Kerem 20 years ago and to a young man in Israel last year. Weinberg denied any wrongdoing, and DEC, which claims its ties to Weinberg were tenuous to begin with, terminated the weekly class Weinberg gave soon after the allegations arose.

While Weinberg had no official role at DEC, his students founded the school, and his sons and many of his students teach there.

The case also went before a panel of rabbis in New York last May. The panel collected testimony from alleged victims, then sent the case to a beit din (rabbinic court) in Jerusalem. The beit din in Israel chose not to pursue the case.

While rumors have circulated that some alleged victims are planning to sue and that Interpol is investigating the matter, no such suits or investigations have been verified — proof, Weinberg supporters say, that he did nothing wrong.

Weinberg has many supporters in Los Angeles, mostly students he mentored in the 1980s at Kerem. Those students are convinced that the allegations against Weinberg are a cruel vendetta against a master educator whose only crime was refusing to conform.

"I believe that Rabbi Weinberg is a good, wholesome person and I do not believe any of the allegations against him," said Rabbi Ari Heir, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who is among a group of community leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere who attended Kerem. "I think that 99 percent of what is going in is that people didn’t like him anyway because he’s an iconoclast, and people in the Orthodox world don’t like an iconoclast."

Heir and others who called The Jewish Journal said that Weinberg was affectionate and physical in his highly personal and effective pedagogical method, but never inappropriate.

Reports in the New York Jewish Week last year paint a different picture, where victims alleged that Weinberg stepped over the line and made clear sexual advances. Most of those allegations are from Kerem students, and one mother alleged that Weinberg behaved inappropriately with her son, who was a student in Israel (not at DEC) last year.

Many were looking to the beit din and to the trial court to either clear or condemn Weinberg’s reputation, but now both those avenues have been closed.

It is not clear whether or where this case will be pursued next.

DEC, meanwhile, hopes to get its program back off the ground. Before the controversy, the yeshiva had about 45 students, a number that dropped precipitously this past year. But Rabbi Aharon Katz, dean and founder of DEC, said with the settlement, students have already started enrolling and he is expecting about 30 boys next year.

Summer of Shame

A lot of people have a lot of questions about the scandal involving the Orthodox Union and Rabbi Baruch Lanner.

Who knew what when, what did they do with the information, and how did the whole thing go on for so long? How is it possible that it took three decades and the public embarrassment of a newspaper article to out Lanner, who allegedly manhandled boys and sexually harassed and molested girls who were in his charge at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the OU’s hugely successful youth movement?

No one wants these questions answered more than OU president Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, who has set up a commission to investigate the charges and come up with recommendations. “I don’t know what the answers are,” says Ganchrow, now in the final six months of a six-year run as president. “People are entitled to know. I’m entitled to know.”

Ganchrow says he was as shocked as anybody by the allegations published in a June 23 article by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week.

“I didn’t know anything about this,” says Ganchrow, a retired colon and rectal surgeon. “I like to believe that had I known, I would have acted. I’m not afraid to act. It’s just sad that I didn’t know.” In fact, Ganchrow admits that just a few years ago he had recommended Lanner – widely acclaimed even by his victims as a powerful and charismatic leader – for the job of national director of NCSY. “Now I know why I was talked out of it,” Ganchrow says.

Rosenblatt’s report and several weeks of follow-up articles detail victims’ accounts of being emotionally, sexually and physically abused by Lanner over a period from the 1970s to today. Lanner, 50, was director of the New Jersey region for many years, then was made NCSY’s director of regions. In addition, he was principal of Hillel, a yeshiva in Deal, N.J., for 15 years.

Named victims accuse Lanner of kicking boys in the groin and fondling and kissing girls, and in one case he is accused of having pulled a knife on a teenaged boy.

His emotional manipulation extended further, and to more people. He is said to have demanded declarations of love and loyalty from his teens, and in one case, where the victim has filed charges in a New Jersey court, he is said to have proposed marriage to a Hillel student.

In his three decades of NCSY leadership, Lanner has trained dozens of advisors and regional directors. Many of the rumors about Lanner have been circulating for years; it was an open secret among many NCSYers to steer clear of Lanner. Several New Jersey chapters had banned him from coming to events. Rosenblatt traced several instances where reports to highers-up in OU and NCSY went nowhere, seemingly halted by a wall of protection around Lanner.

Ganchrow says all of these allegations are being investigated by the commission he appointed just after the article came out. The report is expected to come out in September, before the start of the High Holidays. “The charge that I gave to the commission is when did the OU know, what did it know, who knew it, what did they do with the information, how did it go up the chain of leadership, what did they do with the information?” Ganchrow says.

The OU has retained the Manhattan law firm Debevoise and Plimpton to conduct the hundreds of interviews – from employees to lay leaders to current and former NCSYers – and to produce thousands of pages of documentation.

“The bottom line is I’m determined to let the chips fall as they may,” Ganchrow says. “There is no one – not a lay person, not a senior employee – who is going to be protected.”

The 10-member commission, made up of traditional and observant Jews, four of whom are OU board members, is headed by Richard Joel, an attorney who is president and international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. It includes several lawyers, philanthropists and politicians, a pediatrician who specializes in victims of molestation, psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham Twerski, and Jacob Yellin, a lawyer who is in charge of Disney’s worldwide ethics compliance program.

Ganchrow bristles at accusations that the commission’s report will be anything less than honest and thorough.

The commission members, all of them volunteers, all of them putting in hundreds of hours into a thankless task, “are people of stature,” Ganchrow says. “They are not going to allow their reputations to be sullied by the OU, me or anyone else,” he says.

Ganchrow says he expects the OU to act swiftly on the recommendations, or he and the chairman of the board have publicly stated that they will resign.

Plus, he adds, “the light of the publicity is not going to allow anyone to fudge it.” Ganchrow says he first heard about the extent of the article about 12 hours before it hit the stands, when he was in Washington meeting with the king of Morocco.

Ganchrow, who says he has a good relationship with Rosenblatt, first read the allegations the same day as everyone else.

“I would have been happy if Gary Rosenblatt had picked up the phone and called me a few weeks before and said, ‘I have this story, I’d like to meet with you.'”

He wasn’t interviewed about the charges until two weeks later.

But Ganchrow wants his voice heard now. He was in Los Angeles recently for face to face meetings with supporters, rabbis and lay leaders, giving the facts on what the OU is doing to respond.

“I think it’s very important for people to look me in the eye and see. Body language tells a lot,” says Ganchrow. “People can see that we’re very serious, we’re deeply distressed about what’s going on.” Ganchrow offers a more sympathetic image than has come across in the press thus far. He seems sincerely pained, acutely aware of the gravity of the scandal and willing to approach it with a candor that is both practical and compassionate.

Ganchrow is, of course, somewhat constrained in his comments because of the looming possibility of lawsuits. He also remains completely dedicated to the OU and the good work it does.

“NCSY and the Orthodox Union are not Baruch Lanner,” he said. Rather, he asks people to recognize the many positive programs, such as NCSY’s work with mentally and physically disabled kids; summer programs in the U.S., Israel and Ukraine; successful outreach to thousands of unaffiliated teens; and OU’s public affairs program, synagogue services and kosher certification of 220,000 products.

He says the incident has opened up discussions on every aspect of NCSY. All of the leaders of summer programs, he said, had extra training on harassment and emotional abuse of teens, and the union is working to come up with permanent guidelines to ensure the safety of the 40,000 kids who are involved with NCSY every year.

“I’m a parent, I’m a grandparent,” Ganchrow says. “There is no way I would knowingly, willingly put someone that is a sex molester in contact with children, no matter how good he makes Havdalah.”