Little sign of battle in Egypt’s Sinai region

Egypt poured troops into North Sinai on Thursday in an offensive meant to tackle militants in the Israeli border region, but residents were skeptical, saying they had seen no sign of anyone being killed in what they described as a “haphazard” operation.

The offensive is crucial to maintaining good relations with Israel, which fears Islamist militants based in the increasingly lawless desert region could link up with hardliners in neighboring Gaza to launch attacks on the Jewish state – potentially threatening a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Army commanders said as many as 20 “terrorists” had died in the offensive launched after suspected Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday and drove a stolen armored car into Israel which was then destroyed by Israeli forces.

Hundreds of troops and dozens of military vehicles had reached al-Arish, the main administrative center in North Sinai, security sources said on Thursday.

Armored vehicles, some equipped with machine guns, could then be seen driving out of al-Arish towards the border settlement of Sheikh Zuwaid – which had been targeted by aircraft on Wednesday. The troops saluted passersby and flashed victory signs, or filmed their departure with video cameras.

But residents interviewed later in Shaikh Zuwaid and surrounding villages said they had seen no sign of fighting.

In al Toumah, a village surrounded by olive fields, one witness said he saw troops firing in the air.

“We thought they were chasing someone, but their arms were directed up and we didn’t see who they were fighting with,” the witness, who declined to be named, said. “We couldn’t find any bodies or signs of battle after they left.”

In Shaikh Zuwaid, controlled by Bedouin tribal leaders since police deserted the area last year, life continued as normal, its markets bustling. Witnesses reported a military presence on the outskirts, but no fighting since Wednesday’s air strikes.


Lawlessness has been growing in North Sinai, a region awash with guns and bristling with resentment against Cairo, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February last year.

On Thursday night, thousands of Egyptians protested in Cairo in an area where the funeral of the 16 soldiers killed in the border attack was held on Tuesday, demanding a tougher response to the killings.

“We want death to those who killed our martyrs in Rafah,” one banner said. The crowd closed down a main street, creating a huge traffic jam.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, elected in June, has vowed to restore stability in what the military has billed the biggest offensive in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel.

He has also brushed aside accusations that his background in the Muslim Brotherhood, and ideological affinity with the Islamist Hamas rulers in Gaza, might lead him to take a softer line on militants bent on the destruction of Israel.

Israel has welcomed Egypt’s offensive while continuing to express worries about the deteriorating situation in Sinai, home to anti-Israel militants, Bedouin tribes angered by neglect by Cairo, gun-runners, drug smugglers and al Qaeda sympathizers.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Egypt was acting “to an extent and with a determination that I cannot previously recall”.

“Whether this ends with (their) regained control of Sinai and allows us not to worry as much as we have in the past few months, this I do not know,” he told Israel Radio.

In the region itself, all signs pointed to problems ahead.

In al-Arish, gunmen fired shots towards a police station early on Thursday before running off. That followed attacks on checkpoints in the town on Wednesday.

In al Toumah village, residents said troops had searched fields and raided one house, finding nothing.

Some residents complained the army’s limited actions so far – including Wednesday’s air strikes – seemed indiscriminate.

“We are not against attacking militants, but the pilots have to set their targets properly because we have been subjected to haphazard bombardment which led to the destruction of homes and cars,” said Mohamed Aqil in al-Goura village near Sheikh Zuwaid.

“They said they killed 20 militants, where are they? Show them to us,” said one resident at al Goura.


Morsi on Wednesday fired the region’s governor and Egypt’s intelligence chief in response to public anger over the deaths of the 16 border guards, the deadliest assault on Egyptian security forces in northern Sinai since the 1973 war.

No one has claimed responsibility for the assault which happened during the evening “iftar” meal which breaks the daytime fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

But with wide respect in Egypt for rank-and-file soldiers who are often poorly paid conscripts posted far from their families, public anger has focused on outgoing intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi.

Media outlets had quoted him as saying Egypt had been aware of a threat before the attack “but we never imagined that a Muslim would kill his Muslim brother at iftar”, he said.

Israel says militants based in Sinai and Palestinian hardliners in neighboring Gaza pose a growing threat to its border. It says Palestinians use illegal tunnels to smuggle in guns and travel across to join those on the Egyptian side.

Egypt began work to block the tunnels on Wednesday. It has also closed the Rafah border crossing, drawing an appeal from Ismail Nahiyeh, the head of the Hamas government, to reopen what he called “lifeline” for Gaza.

Residents in al-Arish welcomed the security sweep, seeing it as an opportunity to curb criminality among Bedouin, including those in Sheikh Zuwaid, where many make a living smuggling goods and people through more than 1,000 tunnels into Gaza.

“We want the army to return to the border,” said 45-year-old shopkeeper Hassan Mohamed. “The tunnels have destroyed the lives of people in al-Arish. We want them to hit the Bedouin hard.”

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Sinai, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer in Jerusalem; Writing by Myra MacDonald and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Michael Roddy

State of the Union Aftermath

President Bush signaled the start of a new battle over faith-based health and social service programs in a State of the Union address that included a firm defense of his war in Iraq, a call to make his controversial tax cuts permanent and not a single mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the stalled "road map" for bringing it to an end.

But Bush could face the same problems in selling his new faith-based plans to Congress that led to the gutting of a major initiative last year.

In a speech long on broad principals, short on specifics — especially specifics that would result in new spending — Bush asked Congress to write into law orders he issued opening government contracts to religious service providers.

The president resorted to those orders when Congress removed most of the "charitable choice" provisions from major faith-based legislation, leaving just a collection of tax breaks intended to make it easier for charities to raise money.

Bush said that he has "opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities," and asked lawmakers to "codify this into law, so people of faith can know that the law will never discriminate against them again."

That call was praised by the Orthodox Union (OU), which has supported the administration’s push for faith-based programs.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director, said that faith-based efforts "must be supported, wherever appropriate and possible, by partnerships with the government. And no agency should be excluded from such productive partnerships merely because its members coalesce around a set of religiously inspired principles."

But Jewish church-state groups expressed doubts that Congress will be any more receptive this time around.

"It will be a hard sell," said Michael Lieberman, counsel for the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

He said, provisions of the faith-based executive orders that allow grantees to discriminate on the basis of religion have generated resistance in Congress. And "some of the executive orders set in place a system by which a group can involve participants in worship, in proselytizing, in religious instruction."

The ADL will continue to oppose such proposals, Lieberman said. So will other Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Bush also offered conditional support for a "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment — a top priority for Christian conservative groups. But several of those groups, including the Family Research Council, complained that Bush did not go far enough.

Despite early rumors that he would use the address to announce new Middle East initiatives, the president only referred to the Middle East conflict indirectly, citing Jerusalem in his list of places affected by the terror threat.

But Bush defended his call for democracy in the region, calling it a "realistic goal."

Jewish peace process supporters were unhappy with the lack of new Mideast initiatives. "Combined with a series of other things, this speech signals the administration’s withdrawal from the peace process playing field," said Lewis Roth, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now.

Pressure on Israel Grows After Summit

If you’re confused about this week’s developments in U.S.-Israel diplomacy, don’t worry; you’re not alone.

Only days after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seemed to score a decisive victory in the Battle of the Mideast Summits, reports emerged that the administration is cranking up the pressure against Israel’s controversial security fence, an issue that seemed defused at the summit.

And although the administration was clearly disappointed with the summit performance of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, it seems increasingly sympathetic to Abbas’ claim that he is too weak to dismantle terror groups like Hamas — a key requirement of the administration’s Mideast "road map."

But there’s no paradox here.

In fact, Sharon won a decisive victory in the twin summits, in part because of a Palestinian leader who has not learned the ABCs of managing relations with Washington, while the Israeli veteran has earned a doctorate.

But more recent developments also point to President George W. Bush’s increasingly deft treatment of Israel — a subtle blend of friendship and measured pressure that avoids open clashes and keeps disputes civil and behind closed doors, but which may push the balky government in Jerusalem along the route laid out by the road map.

In the dueling summits, Sharon started with some huge advantages — including a U.S. president who clearly puts Israel on the side of the angels in the all-consuming anti-terror war, a Congress whose leaders are often more hawkish than Sharon himself and rising support among the religious right, a key element in President Bush’s political base.

Sharon also came bearing gifts, including the release of more Palestinian prisoners, eased checkpoints and additional money transfers to the Palestinian Authority — a modest, carefully constructed package that didn’t generate any real trouble within his right-wing government, but offered just enough to keep Washington relatively happy.

Abbas, on the other hand, arrived with a litany of complaints about Israel and almost no concessions of his own.

On the contrary, he infuriated the administration by plainly stating that he will not dismantle the terror groups, a key demand of the road map he claimed to accept. Amazingly, he said he expects these groups will transform themselves into democratic factions within a new Palestinian state, leading many to question his grip on reality.

Nor was that kind of message well-received in Congress where, despite overwhelming pro-Israel sentiment, many lawmakers were willing to give the new Palestinian leader a chance to prove that he isn’t Yasser Arafat.

Abbas came to town with a golden opportunity to bolster U.S.-Palestinian relations and to call Sharon’s bluff on issues such as settlements. But he squandered it through a mixture of weakness, bad advice and diplomatic ineptness, doing little to reinforce Bush’s claim that he is a "man of peace."

Still, by the time Sharon was back home, there were signs the administration was upping the ante on several issues, including the security fence — pressure that may already be forcing Israel to change the route of the controversial barrier and possibly even temporarily halt construction.

There were also indications the State Department will cut new U.S. loan guarantees by the amount spent extending the fence into Palestinian territory.

A number of other lawmakers, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leading Democratic presidential contender, quickly joined the angry chorus, and by Wednesday there were signs the State Department was wavering.

Neither side is confirming the pressure; both are anxious to keep any disagreements out of the public eye — a rare occurrence in U.S.-Israel disputes.

Thus the seeming contradiction: a successful summit for Sharon, but also a steady and subtle rise in pressure from Washington.

The administration remains committed to its road map and to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005; it also remains predisposed to accept Sharon as a partner in the war on terror, while distrusting the old Palestinian leadership and doubting the new can take control.

Still, the White House has concluded that without U.S. pressure, the Sharon government will stall until the road map collapses under its own weight. At the same time, it knows that too strong pressure will prompt a sharp reaction from Israel and an explosive response from Israel’s new best friends here — the religious right and the conservative Republican leadership in Congress.

It’s a friendly, measured kind of pressure — and it’s being matched by a smart, low-key and disciplined response from Israel.

Both sides understand that there is nothing to be gained by conflict; both have reason to question some of the policies of the other, but no reason to doubt its friendship.

And Israel understands that while the administration may be pressing both sides to move forward, there is nothing "even-handed" — a dirty word in the pro-Israel lexicon — about its emerging approach to Israel and the Palestinians.

A ‘Final’ Decision Courts Trouble

A religious court ruled in favor of Chabad of California late last month, awarding it ownership of Marina del Rey properties contested by the Living Judaism Center (LJC), but the ruling has only exacerbated the battle between the two organizations.

The crux of the highly charged dispute centers on which of two rulings — one backing Chabad of California and the other in favor of LJC — is the final one that should be recognized under halacha.

Last January, LJC, known at the time as Chabad of the Marina, filed a civil lawsuit against the Chabad of California in Los Angeles County Superior Court after it tried to break away from Chabad of California. Chabad of the Marina claimed all funds and property.

The Superior Court ordered the case transferred to a beit din (religious court) on July 3 after both sides agreed that the beit din’s arbitration, to be conducted by five rabbis, would be binding and could not be appealed. Approval of the religious tribunal’s decision by the Superior Court would then formalize the action under state law. The Superior Court is expected to act by Feb. 11, 2003

In its Nov. 27 ruling, the beit din said that the transfer of Chabad properties to a non-Chabad entity constituted "a very grave offense and a betrayal of that which is sacred to us." The religious court decided that LJC must transfer ownership of all acquired Chabad properties to Chabad of California, return all funds raised via the use of the name Chabad and pay Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin and Chabad of California $230,000 in legal fees.

However, many in the Chabad community and elsewhere believe that the beit din’s ruling is invalid, because it had issued an earlier ruling on Oct. 23 in favor of LJC. Chabad of California, however, says that no ruling was made prior to the one on Nov. 27.

According to the halachic laws of beit din, once a decision has been issued it cannot be reversed, which means that if for some reason the Oct. 23 decision were to be found valid, the Nov. 27 decision would not be binding.

At this point however, there appears to be no action on the dispute over which is the final decision, with the exception of opinions issued by a religious court and rabbi in Israel, neither of which have any legal standing in the matter, unless the LJC can convince the superior court that they have greater halachic validity than the Nov. 27 decision. As the case stands now, if Chabad of California files the Nov. 27 decision with Superior Court as expected, it will legally take over the properties, which it plans to use to serve the Marina del Rey community.

The disputed Oct. 23 ruling, which took the opposite position, said that properties in question should be transferred to Chabad of the Marina (now known as the Living Judaism Center). It also said that Rabbi Shmulik Naparstek, who was fired as shliach (Chabad emissary) in Marina del Rey, should have a 30-day probation period in which he would remain as shliach and present a claim to the beit din over his dismissal.

Cunin, the head Chabad shliach in California, fired Naparstek in January and claimed ownership of the properties owned by Chabad of the Marina. Chabad of the Marina subsequently changed its corporate name to the Living Judaism Center and filed a complaint against Chabad of California in Superior Court. It alleged wrongful termination of Naparstek and challenged the attempted takeover, claiming LJC had raised a majority of its own funds.

In March, Chabad of California filed a countercomplaint against the center, alleging that Naparstek had conducted unauthorized Chabad activities on Chabad premises and had knowingly violated Cunin’s policy prohibiting banquets at which men and women sit together.

For many in the Chabad community, the dispute has wider implications. Some believe that the issue of Cunin versus Naparstek is evidence of Cunin’s alleged abuse of power in the Chabad community. Others think that Cunin’s actions were well within the rights that the head shliach has over his employees.

Chabad members on both sides of the issue who were contacted by The Journal for comment requested that their names not be used.

Some of those supporting Cunin said they feared a victory for Naparstek could call into question the authority of head shliachs in the more than 50 countries where Chabad is established.

A petition supporting Naparstek and the Oct. 23 judgment is being circulated on the Internet by a group calling itself the Vaad Shel Shluchim L’Maan Ha’Emes VeHasholom (the Emissaries’ Committee for Truth and Peace) and has been signed by emissaries in eight states.

The petition says: "To remain silent in the face of such practice is to lend it validity and G-d forbid, license to be repeated. It is certainly incumbent upon us to speak out when it becomes apparent that the integrity of this [beit din] process is being compromised and/or manipulated."

The wheels for the controversial beit din decision were set in motion last July when the Superior Court approved and ordered both parties to settle their dispute in a beit din, whose decision would be binding and could not appealed.

The beit din chosen was made up of five rabbis. Two were chosen by Cunin: Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky from New York and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira of Florida. Two were chosen by Naparstek: Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Ashkenazi from Kfar Chabad and Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky from Nachalat Har Chabad, both of Israel. One neutral rabbi was chosen by both sides: Rabbi David Moshe Lieberman from Belgium. The arbitration proceedings were held in Miami in October.

According to a letter written by Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky, which was addressed to the three other beit din rabbis and widely disseminated in the Chabad community, a final decision on the case favoring LJC was reached Oct. 23.

"The final decision was written in the rabbis’ handwriting," the letter stated. "And we all signed it without waiting for it to be printed to avoid the onset of pressure, and after a judgment is written and signed, it cannot be changed…."

"After we unanimously agreed, wrote and signed," the letter continued, "Rabbis Bogomilsky and Shapira took the handwritten signed document and said that it was in order to hand it over to the sofer dayan [legal scribe] so as to add the standard introduction that is written at the opening of a psak din [judgment], to type it and translate it into English…."

"When the parties entered before us for the last time," the letter went on to say, "Rabbi Bogomilsky began speaking and said that the beit din had reached a decision regarding the dispute and announced before the parties the second half of the psak din."

The parties involved then reportedly waited for the Oct. 23 decision to be typed and distributed. In the meantime, however, the other three rabbis (Bogomilsky, Shapira and Lieberman) allegedly decided on a new ruling.

In their letter, Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky reportedly stated that the three rabbis told them that they had "changed [their] minds." Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky wrote, "We have considered in depth your [rabbis’] request to change the written version and have decided that the law, which forbids changing, applies to this situation. And also, we found no substantive reason to change that which was agreed and signed upon and thereby make a mockery of the beit din in the eyes of the Jewish nation."

Bogomilsky and Shapira did not return calls from The Jewish Journal for comment on the disputed ruling or letter.

Marshall Grossman is the attorney for Cunin and Chabad of California, and was assisted in the proceedings by associate Seth Gerber. Grossman told The Journal that the Oct. 23 document was not the final decision.

"What the LJC is attempting to do is look back at various preliminary discussions among members of the beit din and say at some point in time, members of the beit din had been looking at various results different to the ultimate decision [on Nov. 27]," Grossman said. "The only decision that counts is the final decision, and that decision is a victory for Chabad of California on every point."

After the Nov. 27 ruling was issued, Rabbi Tzvi Weinman, the rabbinic lawyer acting on behalf of the LJC, filed a case in the Jerusalem Regional Rabbinical Court against the beit din rabbis, alleging that the changed judgment has no validity.

On Dec. 2, the Jerusalem court issued a decision "prohibiting the defendants and the parties to the arbitration from making any use of the decision of 27 November, including submitting it to the civil court for approval, and for it to be given the force of a civil court judgment."

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the former chief rabbi of Israel, also issued an opinion, writing a letter to Ashkenazi and Yaroslavsky. In the letter he said "the document of 27 November has no validity according to the Shulhan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] and is worthless."

Neither the Israeli religious court nor ex-chief rabbi’s opinions have any standing in the California case. But the LJC claims that according to halacha, these opinions need to be dealt with. The LJC is now waiting for the summons from the Jerusalem court to be responded to by Chabad, although it is not clear how this action will be enforced. In the meantime, Chabad reportedly is waiting for the Nov. 27 ruling to be approved in Superior Court.

Grossman, commenting on the Jerusalem pronouncements, said they are of no consequence. "It is regrettable and hypocritical," he said, "that the LJC went searching for a rabbi here and there who would express an opinion on the merits of this dispute, without hearing any of the evidence or testimony."

Chabad community members interviewed by The Journal under the condition that they would not be named, believe that the struggle between Cunin and Naparstek is more about Cunin exercising his power. They said they see Cunin’s actions ultimately hurting Chabad. However, others said that Cunin was well within his rights, and while the dispute is upsetting, it is an anomaly for the movement and would not tarnish Chabad’s reputation in California.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, the director of the Chai Center, a nonprofit outreach organization, and a former Chabad shliach, said that if Chabad of California in ignored the Jerusalem court, it "is going to move Chabad further out of mainstream. If they ignore it, it means they don’t care about the entire Orthodox Jewish world, including Israel, and that makes Chabad a mockery."

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, who worked as a shliach for 18 years before he also resigned because of what he said was "duress" from Cunin, believes the Nov. 27 decision would hurt the institution of shlichus upon which Chabad outreach is based.

Schusterman, who directed the Hebrew Academy of Orange County, said, "It would not portend well for the spirit of shlichus, because shlichus is a movement driven by idealism. When it deteriorates to an exercise of power, when might for its own sake prevails, the soul of shlichus becomes extinguished,"

Grossman denied that Cunin has abused his power. "It is not unusual to find a few detractors who are motivated, whether by jealousy or their own failures, with respect to any person with a position of responsibility," he said. "You can find anyone to make a similar comment about any leading rabbis in this community in any branch of Judaism, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox."

The Final Push

In the final days before the Nov. 5 election, secession supporters are facing a tough battle. The latest public opinion poll shows Valley voters backing Measure F, which would create a separate city, by a narrow margin.

A Los Angeles Times Poll earlier this month found only 42 percent of likely Valley voters in favor of secession. However, a more recent study by Survey USA for KABC-TV found Valley cityhood supported by 58 percent of likely voters in the Valley and 40 percent citywide.

In the past five months since the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) gave its approval to a ballot measure on San Fernando Valley secession, a war of words has been waged between Los Angeles City Hall and secession proponents such as Valley VOTE. Although the polls indicate a likely victory for those in favor of keeping Los Angeles in one piece, the outcome still appears uncertain, according to some observers.

Part of the unusual nature of the secession vote has been the necessity for candidates for office in the proposed Valley city to also promote the split from the city, without which there can be no offices to fill. A group of candidates running in planned Valley council districts formed the organization United Valley Candidates (UVC) to pool resources and ideas for promoting the breakaway effort. Many commented on the difficulties involved in running dual campaigns for office and secession, especially when it was their first bid for elected office. In addition, for Jewish candidates there has been the problem of overcoming the organized Jewish community’s vocal opposition to Measure F.

A group of prominent local rabbis has taken out newspaper ads — including in The Jewish Journal — urging Jewish community members to vote no on secession. Also, the American Jewish Committee recently came out against secession.

In the nonpartisan Valley mayoral race, a Jewish Republican, 48-year-old Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, appears to be the front-runner. He has endorsements from the Daily News and Assemblyman Dario Frommer, giving him a slight edge over his nearest competitor, realtor Mel Wilson.

The Democrat-backed Wilson, 49, is a former professional football player, who has served on the Los Angeles Fire Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. Other mayoral candidates include Marc Strassman, 54, an Internet consultant from Valley Village, and Leonard Shapiro, an 83-year-old newspaper columnist.

A high percentage of those seeking spots on the proposed Valley city council are Jewish. Of this group, Scott Svonkin is running the most conventional campaign. The chief of staff for Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) has received a number of endorsements, even from vocal opponents of secession, such as the county Democratic Party.

Aided by a $103,000 war chest, Svonkin has billboards placed throughout the proposed 14th District, which includes Studio City and parts of Sherman Oaks and Valley Village. In addition, he has sent out mailers and aired television ads that emphasize his experience but make little mention of secession.

Other candidates with less funds have sought creative ways to get their names before the public. Stephanie Spikell, also running for the 14th District seat, enlisted the help of her father, Hy Spikell, and five of his friends at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda to make calls to likely voters in the district.

Fellow council hopeful and UVC member Frank Sheftel, running in the 12th District, has been reaching out to seniors in the final weeks of the campaign, handing out fliers and promotional ballpoint pens at the Jewish Family Service’s Valley Storefront in North Hollywood.

Sheftel reported an encounter with one elderly woman whose experience, he said, typified older residents in the area. “She lives in a seniors apartment complex with 200 people, and they don’t have a polling place, so they all vote absentee,” he said. “She said she had gotten mailers from Jewish organizations saying to vote against it [secession] and she did.”

Sheftel echoed the sentiments of other Jewish candidates when he expressed his dismay at the organized Jewish community’s response to Valley secession.

However, Sheftel said he was not going to lose hope. “This is a David vs. Goliath situation, and as I recall, David came out on top,” he said half-jokingly. “It’s not unprecedented that this could happen.”

“People are not buying what the mayor is putting out,” Sheftel said. “Larry Levine [founder of One Los Angeles, which opposes secession] likes to call the whole thing a ‘scheme.’ It is so offensive but typical of the language [the opposition] is using. Things are getting ugly and going to get uglier.”

Similar complaints can also be heard on the opposition side, with people like former Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler pointing out the folly of secessionists demonizing Mayor James Hahn.

“The biggest mistake made by leaders of the secession movement has been to attack the mayor,” Fiedler said. “Even if secession passes, the Valley is going to be heavily dependent on city services for at least a year, and to attack the mayor instead of talking positively about what they will do themselves is just bad politics.”

Secession foes have continued running their now-familiar roulette-wheel TV ads, depicting secession as “a gamble we can’t afford,” along with similar radio ads ending with the tag line, “The devil is in the details.”

Many Valley residents interviewed by The Journal said that despite the battle waged by One Los Angeles and other unity groups, they planned to vote for the breakaway effort, even if they didn’t fully understand all the ramifications.

“Richard Katz makes some impressive arguments,” noted one woman after attending a debate between the pro-secession Katz and former members of the Los Angeles City Council held Oct. 13 by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance’s Jewish Community Relations Committee.

The fact that people are making up their minds based on one debate they attended or one candidate who knocked on their door worries Fiedler. The former congresswoman, a Republican who served from 1981 to 1987, was a longtime proponent of secession and even worked with Valley VOTE up until a few months ago.

However, she said the LAFCO report outlining the financial and legislative impacts of secession changed her mind. Now she is actively supporting the opposition, even giving a speech against secession at a seniors fair promoted by Hahn.

“It’s going to be a disaster for the Valley,” Fiedler said. “The public doesn’t understand the scope of what secession means.”

“The fact that it will be a municipal city instead of a charter city means that a whole host of laws passed by the City of Los Angeles will not be provided in the new city — things like term limits, a living wage, provisions for a city ethics commission and all other commissions, with the exception of a planning commission,” she said. “We won’t even be able to vote for the city attorney or the city controller, because they will be appointed positions.”

On a positive note, Fiedler said, whether or not secession passes, the movement has brought to light the very real problems within the San Fernando Valley that need to be addressed. On that score, at least, both sides agree.

“There’s going to be a lot of cleanup afterwards, no matter what happens either way,” Sheftel said. “It’s not over on Nov. 5, not by any means.”

In Cantor vs. Rabbi, Synagogue Is Victim

This High Holiday season, leaders of Temple Ner Maarav want people to know that they are still open for business.

Some might have thought otherwise of the Encino synagogue, which was rocked by a battle that divided members between the shul’s rabbi of 19 years and its more recently hired cantor.

But no. Despite a two-year conflict that cost both the rabbi and the cantor their jobs, caused nearly half the members to leave the synagogue and forced the other half to take out a second mortgage on the building, those who remained want to see that the synagogue not only survives but thrives.

Many temples have weathered storms — or failed to — over personality clashes between its leaders. But Ner Maarav’s civil war was particularly bitter, also causing the departure of the religious school and preschool directors along with the rabbi and cantor.

Now with half its original members and some bad memories to overcome, leaders of this 200-member family group are working several creative angles — including hiring a new rabbi and leasing space to a private school — to rebuild the shul.

Unlike some newer synagogues that hope to expand as much as possible, Ner Maarav is not seeking exponential growth. "Our goal is to have about 350 families," said Ian Smith, current Ner Maarav president. "We can’t really cope with more than that."

Temple Ner Maarav had never been a large synagogue. It was founded about 40 years ago when a group of members desiring a smaller congregation broke off from Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). Dubbing itself Temple Maarav, the group eventually merged with Ner Tamid, and, over time, evolved into a mostly senior congregation meeting in a aging building on White Oak Avenue.

At its peak, membership hit about 400 households.

The problems began about four years ago, Smith said. Friction — most say personality clashes — between Rabbi Aaron Kriegel and Cantor Hesh Mayersdorf began building, peaking in 2000 into a full-blown battle that resulted in both men’s dismissals just prior to the High Holidays in 2001. Kriegel eventually landed a position as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ahm in Verona, N.J. (the synagogue his father founded in 1936). Kriegel declined to comment for this story; Mayersdorf confirmed he is seeking another position.

"Still, we kept the temple going," Smith said. "Once we signed the [buyout] agreements with the rabbi and the cantor, we were able to say to the congregation last [High Holidays], ‘The world may be at war, but we at Ner Maarav, for the first time in many years, are at peace.’"

Smith and Maarav have their work cut out for them. They’ve borrowed money to buy out the contracts, "but we will have a balanced budget for the coming year and have stabilized the temple," Smith said.

One of the board’s first tasks was to choose a new rabbi. Synagogue leaders decided to go in an entirely different direction from the traditionally Conservative, somewhat left-leaning Kriegel. In April of this year, Rabbi John Crites-Borak, a convert to Judaism, whose prior careers include working as an air traffic controller in the early 1980s and heading his own public relations firm representing primarily labor unions. Whereas Kriegel was a baby-boomer idealist with a more traditional approach, similar to rabbis like VBS’ Harold Schulweis and the late Melvin Goldstine of Temple Aliyah, Crites-Borak comes across as one of those laid-back-style rabbis who would be as comfortable sitting with the congregation as on the bimah.

Crites-Borak never expected to go into the rabbinate. The idea was first planted in his head during a dinner with author and Rabbi Deborah Orenstein. "The following Shabbat, I went to shul and it was parshat Re’eh, where it says, ‘I set before you today a blessing and a curse.’ We stood for the ‘Aleinu’ and this little girl, she was about 5 or 6, came over and started pulling on my jacket. I looked down and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ And she said, ‘Are you a rabbi?’ And I said no. And she said, ‘You should be a rabbi. You look like a rabbi.’ So I called up to the University of Judaism [UJ] and looked into the program."

Crites-Borak was hired to helm Ner Maarav part time, but already is spending most of his week at the synagogue. What does he consider the greatest challenge facing the congregation? The new rabbi doesn’t mention the financial difficulties nor its struggle to reestablish itself, but a more spiritual concern.

"Ultimately, I asked myself this question: At the end of my days, when I’m standing at the very edge of my grave, what did I want to be able to say about the days of my life?

"The challenge facing the congregants here is the same one that faces Jews everywhere: How do we connect Jewish tradition with everyday life? How do we make sense of Torah, not by what it says about how Jews lived 3,500 years ago, but how we can live in the everyday world?" Crites-Borak said. "That’s my job, to help people reconnect in ways that make sense."

With a rabbi in place, Smith and the board began exploring options for improving their operations. A decision was made to limit the preschool to 15 children and work on building up the religious school until improvements could be made to the dilapidated early childhood center.

Then Ami, a religious school program aimed at Hebrew-speaking children of the Israeli emigres, reached out to the temple for help. The school had operated out of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) for nearly a decade but when the JCCs were faced with financial problems last December, Ami director Shula Klein began looking for a new home for the program. Ner Maarav arranged for Ami to alternate days with its own religious school if Klein would take over as director of both schools, and the families of Ami students would join the synagogue for a nominal fee. Smith said the temple board hopes the Ami families will enjoy being part of Ner Maarav and spread the word to unaffiliated friends.

Another assist arrived in the form of the Sage Academy, a private, nondenominational school run by teachers from the defunct Castlemont School in Tarzana. Sage will rent the temple’s school building during the day, running their programs through the early afternoon after which time the religious school will occupy the building.

Despite the growing population of Jewish families moving into areas like Woodland Hills, Calabasas and Agoura, and competition from nearby VBS, Smith believes Ner Maarav can find a way to fill a niche in the Encino-Sherman Oaks area.

"VBS did a geographic survey of the area, and although a lot of the younger families have moved to the west, there are still a vast number of Jewish families in this area, and because we are not looking to have a 1,700-family congregation, there are enough young people around. We can encourage people to join us if we have the programs," Smith said.

Toward that end, the shul has mailed flyers to 5,000 unaffiliated Jews in the surrounding area with the help of a list provided by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance. In addition, the synagogue is doing outreach to the Jewish Home for the Aging and is looking to create programs with the UJ.

"We don’t want it to be a separate entity, an island of its own, but to go out into the community," Smith said. "We want the community to know we’re here and want to be actively involved."

For more information about Temple Ner Maarav, call (818) 345-7833.

A Portion of Parshat Ki Tisa

Oh boy, do the Israelites slip up this week. They have just received the Ten Commandments, have heard God speak to them and have vowed to do all that God commands them, even if they do not fully understand why they must. Forty days later, they’re dancing around a calf made of melted golden earrings and calling it a god! What happened?

Have you ever had a serious talk with your parents and vowed never to misbehave again? You will never pinch your sister again. You will never miss another homework assignment. The promise you make is a true one, made from the bottom of your heart. Two weeks later, you just can’t take it anymore, and, whoops!

Keeping your promises, especially the important ones, is always an uphill battle. But don’t give up. Wipe the slate clean, and start again.

The Most Dangerous Game

Today I received a phone call from an 18-year-old named Steven. Steven and I were scheduled to meet at Starbucks in a few days, prior to his leaving for U.S. military service. He called to let me know that he could not keep our appointment as the Marine Corps insisted that he report for duty that very evening, two weeks ahead of schedule. I asked him for his Hebrew name (Shlomo Yakar ben Nechama) to add his name to our prayers recited each Shabbos on behalf of the entire American and Israeli Defense Forces.

Steven, I will devote this column to the message I want to share with you. Please read it over again and again till you are home and we can keep our appointment.

This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, opens with Jacob facing an adversary of long ago, his brother Esau. The Torah describes Jacob’s apprehension at meeting this brother, who comes to greet him with 400 armed men ready to battle.

" And Jacob became very frightened and it distressed him."

This fright, says the Midrash, was his fear of being killed. The distress he felt was that he might be compelled to slay others. It was obvious to Jacob that if a battle would ensue, it would be to the death. Jacob faced the tragic dilemma of kill or be killed. He was living The Most Dangerous Game. The great medieval commentator, the Ralbag (Rabbi Levy Ben Gershom), writes that the term "distress" expresses a greater sense of emotion than it does fear. To Jacob, the thought of needing to kill pained him more than the thought of being killed.

This no-win predicament is the sad circumstance our people face whenever we need to raise our weapons in self-defense. Golda Meir summed it up so poignantly when she said, "We can forgive our Arab neighbors for killing our sons, but we can never forgive them for making our sons killers."

This conflict of emotion did not deter Jacob from preparing for the battle at hand, and it should not deter you, Steven. War may be necessary, but it is still war. Killing a sworn enemy may be essential, but it is still killing. This realization, however uncomfortable and paradoxical it may be, must both plague and steel the conscience of your soul.

Steven, if you are sent to defend our country, go forth as Jacob did. Jacob understood that it was his duty to protect his family against all enemies, whoever they may be, and he was prepared to do so. To quote G.K. Chesterton, "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." Steven, let the special love of your mother and father be engraved upon your heart as you face the battles being waged against the freedoms we hold so dear. Each day in Afghanistan, we read of reports of gross abuses by soldiers, both Taliban and Northern Alliance. Each side boasts of their atrocities, holding up artifacts and booty as if they are badges of honor. These men have allowed their souls to be corrupted by the devil called war. It is understandable and at times justified to fight for what one believes in; it is never permitted to be gleeful about it.

Steven, I am proud to know you. I express to you my gratitude for your service, and I offer my prayers for your well-being. May God guard you from all physical danger and return you safely and speedily home. But always remember, Steven, it is your job to guard your soul, that it remain forever fresh and untainted. Like our forefather Jacob, may you be steeled for your mission even as your soul remains forever distressed at the need.