President Donald Trump. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Politico, Trump, Chabad and the new anti-Semitism


Not every day do you wake up to find you run the world. That’s what I discovered reading Politico the day before Passover. According the long article, the key link between Putin and Trump is Chabad. You see, those Chassidim tentacles reach out everywhere. They are the cabal that binds Washington and Moscow. According to Politico, Jewish Russian oligarchs are buddies with Chabad rabbis in Russia who are connected in some convoluted fashion to Jared Kushner and others in the Trump orbit.

For centuries Jews would tremble before Passover, fearing a new blood libel that they were using Christian blood to bake matzahs. This went out style after the Mendel Beilis trial in 1914 in Czarist Russia. Next the Protocols of the Elders of Zion declared the Jews run the world. This too fell out a favor after the Holocaust. Now Politico has created a new version of the old story, only this time it’s not all Jews. The new kind of anti-Semitism is only against those guys in the black hats and the beards, the ultras, or Chassidim. And it’s not just Politico, CNN took a shot at the “ultra-orthodox” in hour long special a day before Passover. The production was so off base that even Israeli’s ultra-left publication, the anti-orthodox Haaretz, lampooned CNN for its bizarre depiction of orthodox Jews.

Politico’s theory is if you follow the connections — built over an abundance of lox and bagels served at a bris in New York, weddings in Mar-a-Lago and meetings in Trump Tower—they all lead to Chabad. To make these connections, Politico creates its own facts, distorting the development of the Jewish communal structure in Russia after the fall of Communism as having been orchestrated by Putin. It fails to reveal that Chabad sustained Judaism during the anti-religious Soviet Regime. Many of its rabbis sent off to Siberia and even death for keeping Judaism alive. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chabad emerged from the underground to continue its leadership. It wasn’t “brought in” by Putin. It was there, serving at a time of great danger, all along.

Politico claims it’s the Chabad connections that cement the bond between Putin and Trump. But why stop there? The article could have revealed the true depth of the Chassidic conspiracy. It didn’t mention the links between Chabad and the Democrats. Former Obama Chief of Staff Jack Lew, an observant Jew, attended the same synagogue that the Kushners do. Bernie Sanders’ closest friend and college roommate is a Chabad Chassid, beard and all. And what about Hollywood? Steven Spielberg dedicated a Chabad synagogue in LA , Beis Bezalel, in memory of his stepfather. His late mother was a member there. Mark Zuckerberg was caught dancing with the Chabad Rabbi at Purim party in Harvard. It’s even the New York Times! Tom Friedman recently attended the wedding of his niece in the Chassidic bastion of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

If Politico had done the most basic fact checking it would have discovered that Chabad is unique amongst major Jewish groups — it never gets involved in politics. While others are busy with press releases on everything from immigration to who should be the US Ambassador to Israel, Chabad never says a word. Not in the US and not in the 90 countries around the world where it has centers. Chabad’s mission is Jewish education, outreach and social service. Its stays out of politics. It does not endorse anyone for any political position, even if it’s just for dog catcher in Iowa.

As a Chabad rabbi, I find Politico’s contentions bittersweet. Over forty years ago when I started as a young campus rabbi, we were viewed as a quaint cultural relic. Liberal Judaism was triumphant, those Chassidim from Brooklyn a bit like a gaggle of Tevyes from Fiddler on the Roof. However, Chabad taught as its central tenet the love of all mankind, the responsibility for Jewish destiny, the return of Jewish scholarship and spirituality as the foundation of Jewish life. Slowly Jews around the world were receptive to that message, and today Chabad is a global phenomenon. With size comes the lies and distortions. This Passover we have learned that not only are we popular, we are the secret cabal between the world powers.

Politico’s article is indicative of the new kind acceptable anti-Semitism. As long as the prejudice is directed at Jews who look very Jewish, live and love Jewish tradition to its fullest, it’s okay to mimic, mock and distort. If Politico has any journalistic integrity it will pull the article and make a public apology. Finally it needs to contact the HR department at the National Inquirer. The writers and editors responsible for this piece of fantasy journalism will fit right in there.


Rabbi David Eliezrie is the author of “The Secret of Chabad-inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement”

A view of Donaldson-Brown Hall at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Over 100 leaflets with hand-drawn swastikas left at Virginia Tech Chabad


More than 100 leaflets with hand-drawn swastikas were found dropped on the front yard of the Chabad Jewish student center at Virginia Tech.

The leaflets were discovered at the student center located across the street from the Blacksburg university on Saturday afternoon by the Chabad’s center co-director, Rabbi Zvi Yaakov Zwiebel.

The incident occurred a day after the Jewish student center announced that Chabad was hosting the renowned Holocaust survivor Rabbi Nissen Mangel for a lecture at Virginia Tech in April. Zwiebel told local media he believes the two are related.

The lecture program is to honor Professor Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who was among the 32 people killed in the 2007 shootings on campus. Librescu blocked the door of his classroom so students could escape through the windows.

In a statement issued after the incident, Zwiebel called the appearance of the leaflets a “disgusting act of hate.” The rabbi said he filed an incident report with the Blacksburg Police Department, which he said was “extremely helpful and professional in their response.”

“This incident is all the more surprising seeing as it is the first such act since Chabad on Campus at Virginia Tech was opened more than eight years ago,” Zwiebel said in the statement. “We appreciate Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands, who quickly tweeted his support for the Jewish community, and we are in touch with the administration as they proactively respond to this incident.”

Sands said in his tweet, “The propagators of hate may be among us, but they are not welcome in our community.”

A rally on campus in support of the Virginia Tech Jewish community is scheduled for Monday evening.

Rabbis Ari Edelkopf, with black beard, and Berel Lazar, right, listen to a speech at a reception of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 9. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Rabbi’s expulsion rattles Russian Jews fearful of Kremlin crackdown


Three years ago, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf and his wife, Chana, worked around the clock for weeks to show off their community and city to the many foreigners in town for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Chabad emissaries from the United States came to the city on Russia’s Black Sea coast in 2002. By the time the Olympics opened, they could offer three synagogues, five information centers and 24/7 kosher catering to thousands of people in the city, which has only 3,000 Jews.

The Edelkopfs were celebrated in the local media for these considerable efforts, which the Kremlin marketed as proof that Russia welcomes minorities — including by inviting a Russian chief rabbi to speak at the opening.

This month, the couple is in the news again but for a different reason: They and their seven children have been ordered to leave Russia after authorities flagged Ari Edelkopf as a threat to national security — a precedent in post-communist Russia that community leaders call false and worrisome, but are unable to prevent.

Occurring amid a broader crackdown on foreign and human rights groups under President Vladimir Putin, the de facto deportation order against the Edelkopfs is to many Russian Jews a sign that despite the Kremlin’s generally favorable attitude to their community, they are not immune to the effects of living in an increasingly authoritarian state. And it is doubly alarming in a country where many Jews have bitter memories of how the communists repressed religious and community life.

The Edelkopfs’ deportation order drew an unusually harsh reaction from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Chabad-affiliated group that has maintained friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Putin.

The order, which included no explanation or concrete accusation, “raises serious concerns for the future of the Jewish communities in the country,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a federation spokesman, told the L’chaim Jewish weekly last week. Gorin is a senior aide to Beral Lazar, the chief rabbi who spoke at the Sochi opening ceremony.

Gorin also called the order “an attempt to establish control” on religious communities in Russia, including the Jewish one, which he said is serviced by some 70 Chabad rabbis, half of whom are foreign.

Many Sochi Jews consider Edelkopf, a Los Angeles native, a popular and beloved spiritual leader with an impeccable record and a close relationship with Lazar. They reacted with dismay and outrage to the deportation order.

“This is absurd,” Rosa Khalilov wrote in one of the hundreds of Facebook messages posted to Edelkopf’s profile, in which he offered updates from his failed legal fight to stay in Russia. “Deportation without proof and thus without proper defense for the accused. I am utterly disappointed.”

Typical of such discussions, comments by Russian speakers abroad tended to be more outspoken than the ones authored domestically.

“Somewhere along the way our country changed without our noticing,” wrote Petr Shersher, a 69-year-old Jewish man from Khabarovsk who lives in the United States. “We’re suddenly not among friends and compatriots but in another brutal and indifferent atmosphere.”

Since the fall of communism in 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — essentially Chabad’s Russia branch, and by far the country’s largest Jewish group — only on a very rare occasion had publicly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the country or the authorities’ tolerance of religious freedoms.

The strong reactions to the Edelkopf edict seem to be less connected to the actual expulsion – at least seven rabbis have been sent packing over the past decade over visa and residence issues — than to the assertion that Edelkopf endangers Russia, a claim the rabbi denies.

“This serious allegation is a negative precedent that we had never seen directed at a rabbi before in Russia, and it is a very, very big problem for us,” Gorin told JTA. “What are they saying? Is he a spy? We can remember very well the times when Jews were last accused of endangering state security,” he added in reference to anti-Semitic persecution under communism.

Behind the expulsion of Edelkopf and the other rabbis, Gorin added, is an attempt by the state to limit the number of foreign clerics living in Russia – an effort that has led to expulsions not only of rabbis but also of imams and Protestant priests.

“It’s not targeting the Jews,” he said.

Alexander Boroda, the president of Gorin’s federation, told Interfax that he was “dismayed” by the expulsion and suggested it was the work of an overzealous official eager “to check off the box” after being ordered to curb immigration.

Boroda also told Interfax that the deportation was not anti-Semitic. He recalled how Putin’s government has facilitated a Jewish revival in Russia — including by returning dozens of buildings; educating to tolerance; adding Jewish holidays to the national calendar, and offering subsidies to Jewish groups. Lazar, who was born in Italy, often contrasts the scarcity of anti-Semitic violence in Russia with its prevalence in France and Great Britain.

The government has also tolerated criticism by the Chabad-led community. Under Lazar and Boroda, the Federation has largely ignored xenophobia against non-Jews but consistently condemned any expression of anti-Semitism — including from within Putin’s party and government.

The federation even spoke out against Russia’s vote in favor of a UNESCO resolution last year that ignores Judaism’s attachment to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Still, the Edelkopf deportation is part of a string of recent incidents in which Jews have suffered the effects of growing authoritarianism in Russia – a country where opposition figures are routinely prosecuted and convicted. Since 2012 the country has slipped in international rankings of free speech and human rights; Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Internet” index slipped recently from “partly free” to “not free.”

Under legislation from 2012, a Jewish charitable group from Ryazan near Moscow was flagged in 2015 by the justice ministry as a “foreign agent” over its funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its reproduction in a newsletter of political op-eds that appeared in the L’chaim Jewish weekly.

Ari Edelkopf and wife Chana in 2009 in Sochi, Russia. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Last year, a court in Sverdlovsk convicted a teacher, Semen Tykman, of inciting hatred among pupils at his Chabad school against Germans and propagating the idea of Jewish superiority. Authorities raided his school and another one in 2015, confiscating textbooks, which some Russian Jews suggested was to create a semblance of equivalence with Russia’s crackdown on radical Islam.

Before that affair, a Russian court in 2013 convicted Ilya Farber, a Jewish village teacher, of corruption in a trial that some Jewish groups dismissed as flawed, in part because the prosecution displayed some anti-Semitic undertones in arguing it.

While the incidents differ in their local contexts in the multiethnic behemoth that is Russia, seen together they demonstrate that the Jewish minority not only thrived under Putin but is feeling the “collateral damage as the government drastically tightens its grip on all areas of life,” according to Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker from Ukraine and a staunch critic of Putin.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, recently named the anti-democratic measures of Putin’s government — along with the halving of the Russian ruble against the dollar amid sanctions and dropping oil prices — as a major catalyst for an increase in immigration to Israel by Russian Jews.

Last year, Russia was Israel’s largest provider of immigrants with some 7,000 newcomers to the Jewish state, or olim – a 10-year high that saw Russia’s Jewish population of roughly 250,000 people lose  2 1/2 percent of its members to Israel.

But to Lazar, Russia’s Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi, the numbers tell a different story, he told JTA last week at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference in London.

“I don’t know if Jews are leaving because of these steps,” he said, referring to limitations on freedom of speech and other liberties in Russia. “But I think it’s a testament to the revival of the community, which has instilled Jewish identity to provide many olim, whereas 15 years ago this phenomenon just didn’t exist.”

Study: Chabad rabbis are counselors of first resort on college campuses


Among their normal responsibilities on college campuses across America, Chabad emissaries organize events, teach Torah and engage students one-on-one in learning sessions. But whether by design or happenstance, these emissaries often are the first line of defense when students face personal crises as well, according to a recent study.

“A life crisis can deepen a relationship when a distraught student turns to their campus rabbi or rebbetzin for help. … We heard stories of emissaries bailing students out of jail for drunk driving, consoling them when a close friend has an illness, or spending time with them when a loved one dies,” noted the authors of “Chabad on Campus,” a study funded by the Hertog Foundation, which offers educational programs for people seeking to influence intellectual, civic and political life.

Chabad houses cater to students on more than 500 campuses via 264 college centers worldwide, up from 35 centers in 2000. In the study, published in September, four Jewish studies researchers spent the better part of 134 pages trying to quantify the impact these houses have on the college students who frequent them. Buried about halfway through it was this curious fact that defies metrics. But it wasn’t news to many Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins reading the document.

“It’s not like I found anything they don’t know,” said Mark I. Rosen, a Brandeis University professor who researches Jewish life and one of the study authors, who presented the results to a group of Jewish professionals at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in December.

Rosen said he wasn’t surprised by the result, either.

“Kids who are away from home, they don’t always want to tell their parents what’s going on,” he said.

Unlike Hillel houses, Chabads are built around the family of the campus emissary, with home cooking and toddlers often scurrying underfoot. The study authors didn’t formally address Hillel, but suggested that the family-like atmosphere of Chabad houses played a part in its attraction for students, giving them a place to bring their personal struggles.

“Some of the individuals we interviewed indicated that the rabbi and rebbetzin had become like family to them,” they wrote.

College campuses are “big, cold, impersonal places, basically,” said Rabbi Dov Wagner, the Chabad emissary at USC.  When you’re around to listen to people, he said, “people wanna have a conversation.”

Wagner has seen students walk into his Craftsman home near campus to seek guidance with issues ranging from eating disorders to a death in the family. When mental health care is the appropriate solution, he refers the students to professional help, but more often students show up with more mundane personal troubles.

“Sometimes it’s a breakup or not getting into a fraternity, which, I laugh and you laugh, but at the moment in a student’s life, it’s a traumatic experience,” he said.

Occasionally, students will show up whom he barely knows at all. A few years ago, a USC student died after falling off a roof during spring break in Mexico. A number of students showed up looking for someone to talk to.

“I barely knew them before,” Wagner said. “They just wanted to come over and talk.”

Sometimes, students will share information with Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins that they’re not comfortable speaking about with anyone else.

“Just this week, I had a meeting with someone who felt comfortable enough to share something with me that he did not share with his therapist of many years,” Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad at UCLA said. “It’s anecdotal, but it happens relatively often.”

In those cases, he said, it’s important to “know our limitations,” he said.

“We’re not mental health professionals, but at the same time, we’re there to help and to be there for those needs,” Gurevich said.

It’s not only rabbis but also their wives who are called on to provide emotional and spiritual support. In cases of sexual assault, for instance, female students sometimes seek out the rebbetzin for support.

Elisa Gurevich, Dovid’s wife, said students sometimes use their home as a safe space after being attacked. Once, she accompanied an undergraduate to file a police report after a rape. And she’s visited students at the psych ward at UCLA more times than she can count, on occasion bringing along one of her older children.

Chabad is sometimes the first point of contact for students experiencing a traumatic event. In an interview, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum of the Rohr Chabad of UC Irvine said a female student recently came to his house after an alleged rape.

“We were the first place she came to,” he said. “She didn’t go back to her dorm room.”

According to the study, informal counseling by Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins plays a part in Chabad’s mission on campus — namely, bringing students closer to their Jewish identities. 

Personal relationships with emissaries are among the most crucial engagement tools Chabad has. So by spending time with students in crisis and strengthening their relationships, emissaries advance the organization’s religious mission.

“One rabbi explained that post-crisis, when students may struggle for understanding, some made ‘amazing spiritual advances,’ ” the study authors wrote. “The relationships that developed played a key role.”

Jews part of interfaith effort helping needy Moroccans at Ramadan


Chabad of Morocco joined a Christian-Jewish fellowship and a local Muslim group in an interfaith effort to provide food at Ramadan for thousands of needy Muslim families in the country.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the Muslim group Mimouna, along with Chabad, teamed to deliver 1,500 boxes of food worth some $60,000 to feed 8,000 needy Muslims in Kenitra, Rabat and Sale on Sunday.

Each box contained traditional Ramadan foods, including dates, tea, lentils, chickpeas and other staples. The first-time partnership built on a pilot project by Chabad that last year provided 250 food packages for 1,300 people.

“We are privileged to help support Moroccans in need celebrate the holy month of Ramadan,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, in a statement. “This inspiring initiative serves as a shining model of bridge-building between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and shows that the world’s faith communities can unite around shared values to make a difference for good.”

During Ramadan, a month of introspection, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.

Chabad ‘welcome centers’ in Rio to offer kosher food, multilingual assistance for Olympics


Chabad will convert its three Rio de Janeiro centers into “welcome centers” for the estimated 40,000 Jewish visitors expected this summer for the Brazil Olympics and Paralympic Games.

The sites in Leblon, Copacabana and Barra will provide kosher food and a prayer minyan, as well as help with other Jewish or general information,  Chabad.org reported. Rabbinical students from New York staffing the centers will welcome guests in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian.

“It is a large premises right in the center of Copacabana,” said Rabbi Ilan Stiefelmann, who is coordinating the facility in Rio’s neighborhood packed with hotels, hostels and tourists from around the world. “It’s really the perfect location for us to be able to greet Jewish visitors.”

The Orthodox group will host an official Shabbat program for the Israeli Paralympics delegation, including providing accommodations for athletes and staff who are Sabbath observant.

During the Olympics, an equivalent service will be provided by the Conservative Temple CJB, where some 300 guests are expected, including Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, the highest-ranking Israeli official expected to attend the games.

“We are preparing for about 500 additional people to join our synagogue each Shabbat” during the games, chief envoy Yehoshua Goldman told Chabad.org.

Goldman and another member of his team were appointed by the Brazilian Olympic Committee as two of the three Jewish chaplains at the Olympic village.

Permission for a kosher food concession stand at the Olympic stadium has not yet been granted by the International Olympic Committee. At the village, there will be no kosher or other special food.

257 new Chabad rabbis gather to celebrate their ordinations


A group of 257 rabbinical school graduates gathered at the Chabad movement’s Rabbinical College of America outside of Morristown, New Jersey.

The rabbis, who received their rabbinic ordinations between 2012 and this year, took part in the celebratory ceremony on Sunday.

This year’s cohort is slightly smaller than its largest ever group of 280, which gathered in 2012.

 

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, spoke on a panel to the Chabad graduates.

Thanks to the outreach efforts of its last rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, during the latter half of the twentieth century, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has grown into one of the largest in Hasidic Judaism. According to Chabad, there are now over 4,400 Chabad-affiliated rabbis stationed in 90 countries around the world. Known for their outreach activities to secular and un-affiliated Jews, the Chabad rabbis and their wives often work as emissaries in far-flung communities with marginal Jewish infrastructure.

This year’s group includes rabbis who speak Portuguese, Russian, French, German, Italian and Swedish.

Russian protesters demand ban on Chabad movement


Demonstrators protesting the allocation of land to the Jewish community in the Russian city of Perm demanded the outlawing of the Chabad movement.

More than 100 people attended the rally near the area that municipal authorities in Perm, which is located 870 miles east of Moscow, designated for transfer without charge to the local Jewish community that is headed by a Chabad rabbi. They sang a song titled “Holy War,” a patriotic tune widely identified with Russia’s fight against Nazi Germany.

Unrest around the Jewish community of Perm has been brewing for years amid accusations made in 2013 that the local Jewish community made unauthorized use of a local theater. Unidentified individuals that year tried to set fire to the local synagogue.

On Saturday, the protesters showed up with signs reading “Chabad out” and “liberate us Russians from Chabad.” One protester held a placard that read “Chabad settlement is over the line: 1547,” an apparent reference to  the decision that year by Ivan the Terrible, a grand prince of Moscow, to ban Jews from entering or living in his kingdom because they “bring about great evil.”

But participants insisted they are protesting against Chabad specifically and not against Jews in general, the Russian news site Ura reported.

Boruch Gorin, a senior Chabad figure and aide to one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, said the 2013 campaign against Chabad in Perm was a thin disguise for anti-Semitism.

“The attempt to present Chabad as one thing and the Jewish community as another is false,” Gorin told JTA.

In Russia, Chabad is the largest Jewish movement with a presence in over 100 cities. Under Vladimir Putin, land has been allocated free of charge to Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith and community organizations, often as restitution of property stolen in Soviet times.

Separately, Putin on Tuesday said that “Russian Jewish organizations are making a substantial contribution in the cause of domestic political stability in Russia, for which we are very grateful” during a meeting in Moscow with Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

On Friday, Lazar urged Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to stamp out anti-Semitism in government, which was a reaction to the April 10 statement on Jews by Vladislav Vikhorev, a candidate for Putin’s United Russia who is running for state lawmaker in the Legislative Assembly of Chelyabinsk Oblast, a federal region located nearly 1,000 miles from Moscow. Lazar credited Putin’s government with doing more than any of its predecessors to curb anti-Semitism.

During a debate in the city of Chelyabinsk, Vikhorev said that Jews in the 1990s were behind a “Jewish revolution that put Russian sovereignty itself on the brink of extinction,” which he said was “a well-planned, well-designed program of destruction of national culture, national education, national production and the national financial system,” according to the news website Apostroph.

North of Paris, a beleaguered Jewish community dares to seder


After three firebombs hit the synagogue of this poor and heavily Muslim suburb of Paris, municipal authorities advised the local Jewish community to lower its profile.

Like dozens of attacks on French synagogues since 2000, the January 2009 incident at the Chabad House of Saint-Denis, which did not result in any injuries, was believed to have been Islamist extremists’ retaliation for Israel’s actions – that year against Hamas in Gaza.

“We were told by the mayor from the Communist Party that it would be prudent if we tone down our activities at least until things calm down in the Middle East,” recalled Yisroel Belinow, who runs the Chabad House here with his wife, Rivky, and his brother, Mendel.

“We had absolutely no intention of complying,” he said.

Instead of laying low, the Belinows that year produced Saint-Denis’ first public community Passover seder, starting an annual tradition. Members of this besieged congregation say it succeeded because it reflects their unity in the face of rising anti-Semitic violence.

Each year since 2009, the Beth Chabad of Saint-Denis — a small building under constant army protection — welcomes about 100 congregants for a group seder dinner. It is led by Belinow, an introverted and soft-spoken man, and his more outgoing and older brother.

“It’s the best answer we could come up with to the attack,” Belinow said.

On the evening of Jan. 11, 2009, assailants ignited and hurled firebombs into the Chabad House kitchen. The fire charred the dining area but failed to catch because of a quick intervention by Mendel Belinow, who was inside the building. Belinow said police found 15 unignited firebombs in parts of the building, including a children’s play corner. No one was convicted in the attack.

“The attack lasted an instant and made an impression for a few weeks. But the seders — they’re now an annual event that’s part of the definition of this community,” Belinow told JTA during a community event last month in Saint-Denis.

Saint-Denis’ 15,000 Jews are all that remains of a community that was halved after the 1980s, when many left for more affluent and safer areas. Jewish emigration from Saint-Denis increased in 2000 amid a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. Gradually estranged from areas where it became unsafe to wear a kippah, the Jews here joined a quiet exodus that has depleted Jewish communities north of Paris.

With 100 guests, attendance at public seders in this drab suburb is relatively high for France. The Chabad House of Toulouse, where 23,000 Jews live, gets similar and even lower attendance, which sometimes leads to the event’s cancellation. And in Nice, where 20,000 Jews live, some 120 local Jews attend the local Chabad House’s public seder, which is being prepared for the fifth consecutive year.

Group seders are less popular in France than elsewhere in Europe because it has a predominantly Sephardic community with “close family ties and a tradition of hospitality,” said Avraham Weill, a Chabad emissary and chief rabbi of Toulouse. “People get invited to family seders, lowering demand for a public one.”

Some of the Saint-Denis seder guests are poor Jews with no family in France, including Mordechai Elbaz, a 60-year-old former dope dealer who lives in a moldy two-room apartment. He plans to attend the seder this year with his only relative – a sister, who is on a visit from Israel.

Other Saint-Denis congregants choose the public seder over a family setting. Caroline Wildbaum, 47, a regular at the Mendels’ Chabad House, has attended Saint-Denis seders with her four children, now aged 15 to 22, since the first year.

“I have a rather large family, so it’s not like I come here not to feel alone,” said Wildbaum, who lives in the nearby suburb of Sarcelles, a municipality known as “little Jerusalem” for its Jewish community of 60,000. “Having a seder here doesn’t subtract from the family atmosphere, it amplifies it.”

She added: “None of Sarcelles’ synagogues offer this feeling of unity and family.”

The Chabad House is now the only synagogue in Saint-Denis, which once boasted four. Drugs are sold openly at a local train station. Young, jobless gang members loiter there. In November, two suspected terrorists were killed here in a police raid on alleged perpetrators and accomplices tied to the terrorist attacks that month in Paris, which killed 130 people.

During the raid, the Jewish community of Saint-Denis went into lockdown for a few days. But true to his institution’s ethos, Mendel Belinow vowed activities would only “increase in volume,” starting with a public lighting of Hanukkah candles the following month.

At the Chabad House, congregants exchange hugs, kisses and back slaps. They call each other by their first names and address one another,  including the rabbis, with the less formal pronoun “tu.” Wildbaum sometimes teases the Brooklyn-born Rivky Belinow by calling her “my sister the princess” while playfully imitating her American accent.

Many credit the Belinows with generating this atmosphere.

“Mendel, with his fiery speeches and warm hugs, sets the tone,” said Ascher Bouaziz, a physician in his 60s who has worked his whole professional life in Saint-Denis. “Yisroel is more reserved. His administrational skills keep the place ticking. And Rivky, her charm and sweetness just melts everyone who meets her. That’s the secret to this place.”

Yet some connect the social cohesion also to the external threats, which are “making Jews seek comfort in a community where members have exceptionally strong ties to one another,” according to Irene Benhamou, a 59-year-old mother of two. “When you are surrounded by people who want to kill you, you find less time for bickering and formalities.”

Her youngest son was threatened with a knife on the street last year in what she said was an anti-Semitic incident. It made her decide to move four months ago to Noisy-le-Grand, an affluent eastern suburb, but she still comes to Saint-Denis for community events.

For Bouaziz, this year’s Saint-Denis seder may be his last. Next year he is planning to join the 20,000 French Jews who have immigrated to Israel since 2014.

“I don’t feel safe here,” he said. “When I retire I want to live where I can wear my kippah without inviting attack and army protection.”

But Yisroel Belinow wryly jokes about the security arrangements at his synagogue.

“At every seder, there’s one extra on top of the guest list,” he said of the prophet Elijah, for whom room is traditionally left at the seder table. “The only difference here is that we have Elijah plus four French Legion soldiers.”

Jewish man who stormed Paris synagogue in jihadist costume not charged


A Jewish man who stormed a suburban Paris synagogue dressed as a jihadist and shouting “God is great” in Arabic was not charged with any crime.

Police called the man, who is in his 40s, to a hearing on Friday, the day after he rushed into the Chabad synagogue in Vincennes wearing a djellaba – a loose-fitting Moroccan robe – and carrying toy Kalashnikov rifles, Le Figaro reported. The incident occurred on Purim, when it is traditional to dress in costume.

“I wanted to lighten the mood, I think I made ​​a big mistake,” he told another Paris-based paper. “Purim is a special party where you can let go and drink. I had an Arab costume with a red and white headscarf and a Kalashnikov. Arriving at the synagogue, I told the soldiers that it was a fake. I laughed with them. I shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,'” a phrase terrorists often use while committing attacks.

The appearance rattled the security guards at the synagogue, according to reports.

The incident occurred two days after suicide bombers affiliated with Islamic State killed at least 35 people in attacks at Brussels Airport and a metro station in the center of the Belgian capital, and nearly a week after three Israelis were killed in an attack in Istanbul after their travel group allegedly was targeted.

Chabad Rebbe’s death certificate on auction block


The death certificate of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — the revered Chabad leader often referred to as “the Rebbe” — is on the auction block.

The official certificate, issued Aug. 2, 1995, and mailed by the New York Department of Health to Schneerson’s niece in Israel, is being auctioned by Virtual Judaica on its website — with 19 bids so far and a current high bid of $1,300. The auction will end on Jan. 19.

Schneerson died on June 12, 1994 at age 92. Because he had no children, his next-of-kin was his niece Dalya Rothman, who lived in Rehovot at the time the death certificate was issued.

According to the listing, the certificate bears “light age staining” and is “creased on folds.” Virtual Judaica lists an estimated price of $1,000-$5,000. The certificate is filled out by hand, in a slanting all-caps writing.

It is not clear whether Schneerson’s niece, or another owner, put the certificate up for auction. Reached on his cell phone Friday, Eli Amsel, who is listed on the Monsey, New York, auction house’s “Contact Us” site, said Virtual Judaica could not disclose who the seller is, but he said the item was “legitimately obtained.”

The item is not the first Rebbe-related document to go to auction, Amsel said, noting that some of his letters also have been sold through Virtual Judaica. He said items connected to Chabad and Schneerson are “very popular” on the site.

Schneerson’s grave, at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York, is visited by thousands of people annually. Following his death, some of his adherents claimed he was the messiah. Chabad, which is best known for sending emissaries all over the world to engage Jews of all backgrounds, has operated without a rebbe since Schneerson died.

The “personal particulars” section of the death certificate includes Schneerson’s address (“770 Eastern Parkway,” the Chabad world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn), birthplace (“Russia”), profession (“clergy”), birthdate (“April 13, 1902”), years of college and post-college education(“5+”) and parents’ names (“Levi Yitzchok Schneerson” and “Chana Yanefsky.”)

It is not clear why the death certificate was issued to Schneerson’s niece more than a year after his death.

Los Angeles mayor, Chabad leaders light menorah at L.A. City Hall


An annual Chabad menorah lighting took place on the afternoon of Dec. 8 at the Spring Street steps of Los Angeles City Hall.

The festive event brought together elected officials and Chabad leaders. Together they lit two candles for the first two nights of Chanukah, which began on Dec. 6, on the Katowitz menorah, a historical object rescued from a Polish synagogue otherwise destroyed during Kristallnacht.

Those in attendance included L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and West Coast Chabad Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin — the two interrupted a moment of dancing to embrace — L.A. City Council members Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, David Ryu and Mitch O'Farrell, Consul General of France in Los Angeles Christophe Lemoine and Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel, L.A. City Controller Mike Feuer, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin and others.

Chanukah is “not just a time we celebrate miracles, we celebrate hope,” Koretz said, appearing between the menorah  and an enlarged frame photograph of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Dancing followed the candle lighting, with attendees joining hands and dancing in a circle, as a keyboardist played Jewish music. Additional music was courtesy of a Chabad children's choir, which performed several Chanukah songs, including “The Dreidel Song” and Maoz Tzur, under the direction of Chabad Rabbi Mendel Duchman.

“Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah,” read a giant banner set up at the event.

Approximately 65 people attended the annual gathering bringing together Chabad rabbis and city leaders. Cunin said it was the 33rd Chabad menorah lighting at City Hall in an interview with the Journal.

In Paris, public Chanukah ceremonies held despite security concerns


Some 6,000 people gathered in Paris under heavy security for the public lighting of a Chanukah menorah at the base of the Eiffel Tower, despite security concerns in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks.

French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia lit the first candle of a 30-foot menorah on Sunday night, the first night of Chanukah, in the Eiffel tower  ceremony attended by French Jewish leaders and government representative and sponsored by Chabad-Lubavitch.

“This year, Chanukah delivers a particularly relevant message,” Rabbi Chaim Schneur Nisenbaum of the Complexe Scolaire Beth Haya Moushka school system in Paris said. “In Paris, we very recently faced terrible attacks … intended to put an end to freedom of mind and opinions. In the historical times of Chanukah, the invaders of the land of Israel, the Greeks, had the same intention. But the Jews did not submit.”

The Eiffel Tower event is one of more than 30 public menorah-lighting celebrations scheduled to take place across the city and in nearly 100 towns nearby. The public gatherings, which had to be approved in advance, are being held under heavy security, according to Chabad.org.

Rumors circulated last week that public menorah lightings would be canceled in light of the state of emergency in Paris initiated after the Nov. 13 coordinated attacks that left at least 130 dead.

Two of the menorah lighting venues of previous years, Republic Square and Bastille Square, both located near the Bataclan theater – the site of one of last month’s attacks – were not approved, Nisenbaum told Chabad.org.

Public Chanukah celebrations in the French city of Marseille will be held indoors this year at the request of public security officials, according to Chabad.org. Marseille has been the location of several violent attacks against Jews in recent months and has a history of attacks on Jews.

The menorah wars


“Shah! Don’t be too Jewish” is how Charles Silberman described the dominant attitude of American Jews in his 1985 classic, “A Certain People.” As part of the march to success during the second half of the 20th-century, Jews subdued the public expression of their Jewish identity, doing everything they could to melt into the surrounding culture. When faced with discrimination in employment and education, tens of thousands dropped Cohen and Levi and adopted American-sounding names to open doors to colleges and jobs. 

This was challenged in the mid-1970s in what became known as the “Menorah Wars.” Chabad emissaries urged on by the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, felt that the time had come for a bold, self-confident Judaism. The first menorah lighting was small, in 1974 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A year later, in San Francisco, Chabad erected a massive menorah in Union Square, drawing about 1,000 to the festive celebration. Reform Rabbi Joseph Asher, leader of San Francisco’s largest congregation, Temple Emanuel, reacted strongly. He publically challenged the menorah in Union Square, sparking a battle that would rage in the Jewish community for 1 1/2 decades. In city after city, Chabad erected Chanukah menorahs. City halls and shopping centers, parks and other public places became the venues for public celebrations. The liberal Jewish establishment reacted with antagonism, arguing that it infringed on the principle of the separation of church and state. Christmas trees and other holiday celebrations had rarely perturbed the alphabet soup of Jewish groups that came out stridently against the menorah celebrations. At first, Jewish leaders tried to persuade and cajole Chabad Shluchim to suspend their celebrations. They escalated their opposition by publicly criticizing Chabad, and even intervened with government authorities to prevent public celebrations. When the Chabad rabbis would not back down, the American Civil Liberties Union, the then-influential American Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups challenged the menorah lightings in court. 

The church-and-state argument was a camouflage for a much deeper issue. The real debate was over Jewish identity in America. For decades, the primary principle had been that Jews should reserve their expression of their religious identity for the synagogue and home. There was fear that a public assertion of identity could create anti-Semitism. On a deeper level, many Jews were insecure about their identity and, as Silberman wrote, “afraid of being too Jewish.” The Rebbe challenged this idea. Saying the United States is a country that ensures the protection of religious rights, and arguing that menorah lightings would inspire many Jews to take pride in their heritage, he advocated a bold, self-confident Judaism. Other issues were at play. As Chabad’s network was beginning to grow, some Jewish leaders wanted to stifle its independence and success. As leaders of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles told a Chabad rabbi in L.A., “We run the Jewish community, not you.”

In my recent book, “The Secret of Chabad,” I recall a conversation with professor Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress in the 1970s, who led the legal challenges to the menorah lightings. A year before his death in 2006, he summed up the debate, and time had changed his perspective. “We believed that we should be a Jew at home and a citizen on the street. The Rebbe’s view was that by being a Jew on the street, we would be a stronger Jew at home. He was right and we were wrong.”  

The participation at the time of tens of thousands in lightings all over the country proved the Jewish establishment was out of touch with the grass roots. The formal end of the Menorah Wars came in 1989, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in support of public menorah lightings. 

Today, public menorah lightings are ubiquitous. Jews have found that America’s pluralistic society enables Jews to live proudly. Things have come a long way: Chabad’s Rabbi Levi Shemtov in Washington, D.C., will be busy kashering the White House kitchen for the annual Chanukah celebration. In the Kremlin and at the Eiffel Tower, as well as at thousands of other locations, Jews will gather to celebrate with pride. Even Temple Emanuel of San Francisco, which decades ago initiated the Menorah Wars, will put on its own public menorah lighting on the fourth night of Chanukah in a shopping mall in the Bay Area.  

Rabbi David Eliezrie is the author of “The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement.”

How this rabbi with ALS uses his disease as a ‘mission to uplift’


Yitzi Hurwitz has plenty of reasons not to have a sense of humor. 

There’s nothing funny about a young, energetic husband, father of seven and rabbi being struck with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the crippling and often fatal neurodegenerative disease best known for afflicting baseball great Lou Gehrig and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, and which has, so far, outmaneuvered scientists searching for a cure. 

So it was surprising, funny and heartwarming when the automated voice of Hurwitz’s Tobii eye-tracking software spoke up, saying, “It could only be Jared,” as soon as this reporter walked into his bedroom for an interview.

Hurwitz, 43, a native Brooklynite, and his wife, Dina, used to serve as the Chabad shluchim (emissaries) in Temecula. They had a small but dedicated congregation, with Hurwitz serving as chazzan and regularly playing guitar at shul get-togethers; he also wrote music in addition to his full-time duties of raising money, growing and supporting his congregation, and raising a family.

But in 2013, everything changed. Not knowing why he was experiencing some unusual and alarming symptoms, such as slurred speech, he sought medical assistance. When doctors eventually diagnosed his ALS, he and Dina knew that would make running their Chabad impossible.

In order to get the best possible medical care, the family left their post in Temecula in summer 2013 and moved to an apartment near Hancock Park in Los Angeles, where he lives now and can receive full-time care while surrounded by a large Jewish community. While he could still make trips to Temecula, though, Hurwitz was able to acquire one last big item for his congregation, raising $45,000 for a scribe to write a Torah for the Chabad of Temecula — its first.

“He said, ‘I know I’m in trouble, and I know it’s going to get bad, but I always wanted to write a sefer Torah for the people of Temecula,’ ” said Shmuel Fogelman, a friend who helps administer the ” target=”_blank”>hurwitzfamilyfund.com

Honk if you like car menorahs


Around this time every year, cars topped with oversized electric menorahs begin to appear on streets of the United States, England and elsewhere.

Of these cities, perhaps the car-mounted menorahs are best suited to Los Angeles, a city known for its automobile-centered lifestyle and its traffic.

L.A.’s Ground Zero for the car-mounted menorahs, an invention of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, is Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, a seminary for approximately 200 Chabad high school students in Hancock Park. This is where the menorahs that roam L.A.’s streets atop cars are assembled every year before the eight-day Festival of Lights, which this year takes place Dec. 6-14.

Minutes before sundown on a recent Friday afternoon, Dovid Chazan, student program director at Yeshiva Ohr Elechonon Chabad, provided this reporter with a tour of a storage room at the school that contained more than a dozen of the large menorahs, each emblazoned with the words “Happy Chanukah from Chabad Lubavitch.” 

The storage room also held stacks of boxes of what Chazan described as “menorah kits.” Each kit contains a small menorah, candles and a dreidel, he said. 

Chazan said the school ordered 5,700 menorah kits this year, and he expects to distribute about 3,000 of them to community members at senior citizen homes, shopping malls and Ralphs grocery stores across L.A. The school mails the remaining kits to other Chabad centers throughout California.

“Chanukah is important because [it commemorates] a time when the Jews were in exile, and still in exile they prevailed,” Chazan, 21, a Crown Heights-based student emissary to Los Angeles, told the Journal, referring to the story of the Maccabees’ military victory over the Seleucid rulers of Judea in ancient times.

He said there are plans for a parade, set to take place in Los Angeles on the evening of Dec. 10, that will include a caravan of 80 menorah-topped cars, including community members who have car menorahs saved from previous years, driving around town. The parade will start at the school’s Hancock Park campus and end in Beverly Hills.

Why does Chabad affix menorahs to car roofs? It represents the fulfillment of the Chanukah mitzvah of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle), according to Santa Monica-based Chabad Rabbi Eli Levitansky. 

“There are two parts of Chanukah: the lighting of the menorah for the home … that’s one mitzvah of Chanukah,” Levitansky said in a phone interview. “There is another element of Chanukah — publicizing the miracle.”

 “We take the message of Chanukah and share it with the entire world. The menorah wasn’t there to light up the temple; it’s rather to share light onto the whole world. The message of the menorah — we put it by the window or the door and we light it during the darkest time of day, to bring light into the world,” Rabbi Shalom Cunin, a nephew of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, said in a phone interview.

He equated darkness with the recent attacks in “France … [and in] Israel.”

When it comes to car menorahs, “each Chabad has their own little shpiel,” Cunin said. He recalled Chabad of the Inland Empire Rabbi Sholom Harlig ordering more than 20 Hummers and mounting menorahs on the vehicles’ roofs for use in past parades.

“They look like Army Hummers. He puts menorahs on them and drives them around,” Cunin said. 

Cunin said young Chabadniks have been driving with car menorahs for at least 20 years. The practice originated in New York City, according to chabad.org. 

Chabad promotes Chanukah publicly in other ways as well. Various local Chabads are planning public menorah lighting ceremonies — including one at Los Angeles City Hall — and Chanukah parties across Los Angeles. 

One of the larger lighting ceremonies will be held at The Original Farmers Market at the Grove, organized by Chabad of the Miracle Mile Area. A “Glow in the Dark Chanukah Grand Party” at Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, one of many Chabad-sponsored parties in L.A., is scheduled for Dec. 6. And Chabad has a partnership with the Ralphs supermarket chain in which 5-foot-tall menorahs will be displayed at approximately 30 stores throughout greater Los Angeles, Cunin said. 

“Ralphs is a place that carries a lot of kosher food these days, and a lot of Jews are found there,” Cunin said.

Although Chabad takes Chanukah, which is a minor holiday compared to Torah-based festivals, seriously, it does so with a commitment to lightheartedness. Come Chanukah, Chabadniks make menorahs out of items ranging from jelly beans to Legos to ice, Cunin said, explaining that, according to Jewish law, menorahs can be made out of any material as long as they are lit with a real flame. Electric menorahs, such as the ones found on cars, are not kosher, according to Jewish law.

A smaller parade of approximately 15 vehicles with car-mounted menorahs will take place in Santa Monica, tentatively scheduled for 11 a.m. Dec. 7, Levitansky said. 

He is excited about it.

“The parade is done because of the same idea of spreading the miracle, of publicizing the miracle,” Levitansky said. “People should be aware of the miracle of Chanukah.”

Reform movement should take a page from Chabad playbook


Charles Bronfman and the other kings, queens, princes, dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies of the American-Jewish community need to wake up to the impressive accomplishments of the passionate, strategic and creative serfs and vassals of Chabad, who serve the Jewish people globally with all their hearts and souls. 

It is outrageous that Mr. Bronfman told the attendees of the Reform movement at its convention two weeks ago to “take back Birthright from Chabad.” Imagine if the tables were turned what kind of indignant outcry there would be by the liberal Jewish world. 

Too bad that Chabad runs circles around the Reform movement and has managed to send thousands of young Jews on your Birthright program. 

There is a reason for this. And it’s not that Chabad is doing something wrong. It’s that the Reform movement and nearly the entire Jewish world aren’t doing something right. And the fault can be attributed to all you funders who claim Jewish royalty.  The Jewish professional world is scared to death of your power and, as a result, doesn’t take the risks that Chabad does. 

Two years ago, I spoke to a packed breakout room at the Rabbinic Assembly of the Reform movement in Long Beach. Following my lecture, leaders of the movement wanted to talk with me about urgent marketing issues. It took them about three months to organize a breakfast in New York. At the breakfast, I explained to them that in order to market effectively these days, they needed to take risk, to think critically, to create big, bold ideas of engagement. Every risk and idea I tossed at them during the breakfast was met with the same stone-faced response: “Our lay leaders and funders would never go for that.” Over and over, I saw the looks of near panic on their faces in response to my ideas. The group couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. 

That evening, I had a meeting with the leaders of Chabad on Campus at Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Seated around the table were about 15 Chabad rabbis working on campuses across America. I explained my same philosophy to them. Every risky, big idea I threw out was continually met with, “How do we do this? How can we make this happen?” They probed and pushed my brain for more and more. They jumped into thinking about implementation. The meeting began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 1:30 a.m. 

As I walked out in the wee hours of the morning, I contrasted my two Jewish meetings that day. The morning one was boring, frightening, paralyzing and lifeless. The evening one was vibrant, pulsing, exciting, passionate and fun. It was a creative person’s dream. I asked myself, “Who is going to win here? Who is going to succeed?” The answer was obvious. 

The Jewish community needs to take a lesson from Chabad. They have become the McDonald’s of the Jewish world. They are everywhere, with Jewish spiritual retail outlets, attracting and engaging the masses, the grass roots, the people — AMCHA. The rabbis live on a shoestring budget and work their brains to exhaustion raising local money for each of their locations and programs. They move their families to the hinterlands — Tashkent, Guangzhou, Caracas — sometimes very dangerous places, to blend in with a Jewish community and build its soul. 

Chabad, through chabad.org, has invested in and cracked the complex digital challenge of social marketing, having created the most visited Jewish website on the planet. In a boiler room at their Crown Heights worldwide headquarters sit about 25 young Brooklyn hipster Lubavitchers, who know more about the digital universe than all the professors and students who surround me at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where I teach. When I am stumped by a social marketing challenge for my clients or students, I call them and gather some of the best practices and insights on all the evolutions of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Periscope. 

Yes, Chabad chases people down with tefillin and they give out lots of tiny Shabbat candles. But they also give out something else: love. As I have told my wife, “God forbid something should happen to us, the next morning there will be 300 Chabad rabbis at our door.” 

I don’t believe in everything Chabad thinks or does. Some of it drives me crazy. I, too, can argue their Orthodoxy, practices and beliefs. But who in the Jewish world isn’t arguing Jewish issues of practice and belief with every other Jew? We don’t dare say in the end, “Take this back from the Reform, Conservative, Sephardic, Persian, Russian or Israeli Jews.” 

To Mr. Bronfman and every other member of self-declared Jewish royalty: 

Chabad doesn’t have a heavy, empowered lay structure. They, too, have mega donors like you. But their rabbis are respected and revered by their donors. The rabbis of Chabad have the ultimate power in the organization. This is a very different construct from the Jewish world that you know. In that Jewish world, where I spent so many years working as a marketing consultant, I witnessed a constant and overwhelming fear and intimidation of many intelligent, savvy, capable professionals who were loath to make themselves vulnerable to donors who had the ultimate say. As a result, that Jewish world doesn’t take enough risks. Professionals are scared of the rebuke of the lay people. They are hesitant to make decisions and take risks and put themselves at the mercy of their committees and funders. It is an unhealthy environment and a construct that keeps the Jewish world back. 

With all the millions of dollars the Jewish community spends on studies each year, they need to study Chabad. And then, different from writing about all those studies in the Jewish press and hauling them out to meetings and conferences, the results of this study need to be implemented. Because Chabad’s successes are undeniable.

Mr. Bronfman, you are simply jealous. And another thing: No one can intimidate Chabad. It will forge ahead with great success no matter what you say about it. 

Gary Wexler is the executive manager of the Third Space Thinking initiative at the USC-Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where he is also the adjunct professor of both advertising and creativity, as well as nonprofit advocacy.

How the world’s longest-running Chabad house survives in Morocco


Raizel Raskin’s office feels like a cluttered museum of Moroccan Jewish heritage. A photo from an old Jewish summer camp lays on the table. Another, of a rabbi meeting Moroccan dignitaries, hangs on the wall. Outside the door is a bookshelf filled with Hasidic tracts translated into Arabic.

But the rest of Chabad’s multistory complex here looks almost abandoned. Once a school bustling with hundreds of Jewish children, the facility today is largely an empty shell, with dust collecting on unused sports equipment and desks sitting disorganized in unused classrooms. Even the portrait of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement’s late leader whose bearded face typically occupies a place of honored prominence in Chabad homes, is peeling off the wall of the foyer.

Crossing the building’s courtyard, Raskin notices a dead bird.

“Every emissary has their own problems,” said Raskin, who moved to Morocco from France with her husband, Yehuda, in 1960. Pointing at the bird, she added, “This is also part of the Morocco experience.”

At 65 years old, the Chabad in Casablanca is the Hasidic movement’s oldest outpost in the world, and one of only two in the Arab world (the other is in Tunis). Chabad’s first emissaries arrived there in 1950, the beta test for what would grow into a global movement of thousands of Chabad rabbis and their wives scattered across six continents.

Volumes of an Arabic translation of a hasidic text at the Chabad outpost in Casablanca. (Ben Sales)Volumes of an Arabic translation of a Hasidic text at the Chabad outpost in Casablanca. Photo by Ben Sales

In its early years, Morocco’s Jewish population numbered 250,000 and Chabad served 5,000 students in schools across the country. But following the establishment of Israel in 1948 and Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, the vast majority emigrated.

Today, Chabad runs classes, weekend programs and a summer camp for the 2,500 Jews who remain. The week before Rosh Hashanah, raw chickens sat on crates ready to be cooked.

Chabad has survived here by keeping a low profile and maintaining good relations with the government. Like other Jewish institutions in Morocco, Chabad’s activities take place mostly behind closed doors. Its main building in Casablanca is unmarked, and a second facility is accessible through a winding alley removed from the street, with little outward identification.

Local rabbis also avoid talking about the Jewish state. Rabbi Levi Banon, who was born in Morocco and returned to run the operation in 2009, says Casablancans are mostly indifferent — or even friendly — toward Jews, though tension does flare during Israel’s frequent military operations. Raskin said that during Israel’s earlier wars, Moroccans would throw stones at Jews.

“Moroccan people are good people,” Banon said. “To them, the most important is the human touch and the human instinct. That’s more important than politics.”

Photos of King Hassan II and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson adorn the wall of the Chabad facility in Casablanca. (Ben Sales)Photos of King Hassan II and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson adorn the wall of the Chabad facility in Casablanca. Photo by Ben Sales

The first Chabad rabbi in Morocco, Michael Lipsker, was dispatched by Schneerson at the behest of his predecessor, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who wanted Chabad to help ensure the country’s long rabbinic tradition wouldn’t be lost.

“The tradition is very strong here — everyone has his own customs, his family’s customs,” said Raskin, whose husband served as the Morocco emissary for more than four decades until his death in 2004. “The previous rebbe said that the Jews of Morocco have a lot to do.”

Chabad has persisted through the years by staying in the good graces of Morocco’s rulers. A photo of King Mohammed VI hangs next to Schneerson’s portrait near the building’s entrance, and Banon says Schneerson kept a correspondence with Mohammed’s father, Hassan II.

Hassan’s United Nations ambassador even visited Schneerson in Brooklyn in 1988.

“You have done much good for the Jews there,” Schneerson told him, before giving him two dollar bills for charity — one for himself, one for the king — a tradition Schneerson maintained with many of his visitors for years.

“There were a few problems, but not from the government,” said Rabbi Shalom Edelman, who has served as a Chabad emissary in Morocco since 1958. “The government was always good to Jews.”

In recent years, Morocco has experienced what the Chabad emissaries describe as a newfound openness to the world. The standard of living has risen and, though Morocco and Israel don’t have formal diplomatic relations, Chabad rabbis can still freely travel between the two countries, an impossibility in the 1960s.

But none of that is likely to result in a resurgence of Jewish life in the country. While Raskin and Edelman are happy so many emigres have moved to Israel, they feel like caretakers for the vestiges of what was once an illustrious community.

“I know they went to Israel, to a safe place I can’t worry about, to a good place for fearing God,” Edelman said. “But for us, it’s harder. We need to fill a space. We educated them and they left, so what we accomplished left.”

Rabbi arrested in Santa Monica on sexual abuse charges


A 39-year-old rabbi was arrested and booked last week in Santa Monica on felony charges of sexual abuse of a child. Rabbi Sholom Doyber Levitansky, a Sherman Oaks resident, turned himself in to the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) on Sept. 30, police said. He’s currently out of jail on $370,000 bail.

Levitansky met his victims while working at the Living Torah Center on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, according to a statement from Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks. The allegations against Levitansky took place from 1998 and 2002, when the two abuse victims were 15 and 16 years old and the rabbi was in his mid-20s.

The Living Torah Center/Chabad has been operating since 1992 and offers a variety of religious and educational services, including preschool and women’s Torah study, according to its website. The instances of alleged sexual abuse were reported in July of this year, and it took about three months to follow up on the information and file a case, SMPD Sgt. Rudy Camarena wrote in an email to the Journal. 

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has now charged Levitansky with five counts of oral copulation of a person under 18 years of age, five counts of sexual penetration by a foreign object of a person under 18, and one count of lewd act upon a child.

Levitansky’s arrest doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Jewish Community Watch (JCW), an organization dedicated to battling child sexual abuse in the Jewish community, added Levitansky to its “Wall of Shame” in February, “due to his alleged sexual abuse of a number of female minors.” The organization’s posting explains that it decided to include the rabbi’s name and photo on the online gallery after undertaking an 18-month investigation into Levitansky that convinced leaders “public exposure was warranted and necessary.”

In March, at an event hosted by Los Angeles Congregation Shaarei Tefila, then-27-year-old Sima Yarmush publicly accused Levitansky of multiple acts of molestation. As the Journal reported at the time, Yarmush said she was 14 when the alleged abuse took place. She described Levitansky as being charming at first, and taking her under his wing. Then she claimed the sexual abuse began, and it wasn’t until Yarmush was 18 and home from a trip to Israel that she decided to speak out about it.

Yarmush reported the alleged abuse to four rabbis in a rabbinical court, she said, but no real punishment came to Levitansky. She said he was sent to therapy and she was sent home. 

On Oct. 7, in response to a request for comment on the arrest, the parents of Yarmush, Rabbi Boruch and Rivka Rabinowitz of the Living Torah Center Chabad in Santa Monica, sent the Journal an email with the following statement: “We are very proud of our daughter Sima Yarmush and are happy that justice may finally prevail. As our daughter mentioned at the Jewish Community Watch event in Los Angeles, held this past March, the past 10 years have been a painful and difficult time for our family. As Sima's parents, and the leaders of Living Torah Center Chabad, we were impacted both by the harm that befell our daughter and the fallout of exposing this crime, when we learned of it. We did so to protect any other youth from potential harm.

“We are very grateful to all those that supported us and stood by us. Similarly, we thank the Santa Monica Police Department and Jewish Community Watch for their fine and valuable work.”

Police have yet to release other details about the Levitansky case because the investigation is ongoing, as is the search for possible additional victims. Levitansky is scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 21 at the Airport Branch Courthouse, district attorney’s spokesperson Jane Robison wrote in an email to the Journal. 

The Santa Monica Police Department urges anyone with additional information to contact Detective Roy Brown at 310-458-8960, Sgt. William Heric at 310-458-8453, or the Watch Commander at 310-458-8427.

Yom Kippur in Bangkok


I was the only American in the room and definitely the most clueless. 

Standing at the back of the makeshift shul for Yom Kippur services in Chabad of Bangkok last year, I attempted to follow along in my all-Hebrew siddur pamphlet while observing other people in the room and trying to peep through the mechitzah just to try to figure out what was going on. 

Although well aware that taking a break from UC Santa Barbara to spend a semester abroad in Thailand meant that my Jewish identity would take a momentary backseat, I had cringed with good old-fashioned Jewish guilt at the thought of entirely snubbing Yom Kippur. No matter how far from home I was, it just didn’t feel right. 

So, having decided to fast and skip class, I set out unaccompanied to observe the Day of Atonement at the local Chabad, despite the hot, humid air that was so wet you could drink it. I took the sticky, sweaty, 20-minute walk up to Khao San Road for, well, I didn’t really know what for. I showed up 45 minutes late and — after a friendly reprimand by the Israeli security guards for my tardiness — found my way upstairs. 

The Chabad of Bangkok’s location is pretty ridiculous, like many things in Thailand. It sits smack in the middle of Khao San Road, which is the beating heart of Bangkok backpackers. Don’t visit if you’re claustrophobic; the streets are buzzing with motorbikes, heavily drinking travelers, people offering you scorpion-on-a-stick snacks, and street vendors selling everything from papaya shakes to pork balls. Just down the street is a restaurant called Shoshana where Thai waitresses who speak much better Hebrew than I do dish up hot pita and shawarma. 

The word “Chabad” itself appears on a two-story building squeezed between a restaurant with a massive aqua-blue Buddha in the back and a 7-Eleven, which in Thailand is more like the lovechild of CVS and Target. The Jewish outpost welcomes you with an intimidating guard post in front and a more inviting kosher Israeli restaurant on the bottom serving overpriced schnitzel and hummus. From what I perceived, the place attracts everyone from wandering Jews and ex-pat Israelis to international students who come for Wi-Fi and a quick breather from fiery Thai food. 

On that hot Yom Kippur day, I was greeted in Hebrew, to which I responded clumsily in my less-than-proficient Hebrew. I couldn’t find — or didn’t know — the right words. Yes, I was American, I admitted, somewhat pathetically. Yes, an American Jew. Yes, studying in Bangkok. 

And with that, I entered a small, simple space with folding chairs and temporary walls delineating a prayer area from the larger hall. Expecting to see some Chabadniks and maybe a few Israelis, I was astonished to find a place overflowing with Jews. There were a good 50-plus adults and small children in a makeshift Chabad synagogue in Bangkok on Yom Kippur! 

They were people like me, and yet not like me. To my left was a Russian high-schooler participating in an exchange program and living with a host family in a small village in Northern Thailand. On my other side was a beautiful, dreadlocked Israeli woman dressed in all hemp who had spent the past two years volunteering in and traveling through India. There were 20 Chabad kids running around, too — far less intimidating partners for practicing my Hebrew in preparation for an upcoming semester studying in Jerusalem. 

Although I lack experience with Chabad-style Judaism (I grew up attending a Conservative shul) and had nothing but my religion in common with anyone else present, the whole event felt unexpectedly natural. It wasn’t necessarily the service itself; it was the beauty of spending a Yom Kippur with strangers from around the world — surrounded by, of all things, the absurdities and wonders of Thai culture on Khao San Road. 

The diversity made me feel part of a larger peoplehood and expanded the sense of Judaism that I grew up with, which extended only from America to Israel. Realizing that I could probably find a Yom Kippur service no matter where I might be in the world made me feel a really beautiful sense of Jewish wholeness.

And just like that, my time in Thailand — something I thought would be a break from anything remotely Jewish — turned into a fresh peek into Jewish life abroad and an unanticipated puncture of my own small bubble of Judaism. Though Hillel at UC Santa Barbara Yom Kippur services are terrific, this alternative experience renewed my sense of belonging to a culture and peoplehood that extends across all seas — and relieved some Jewish guilt in the process. 

Ari Plachta is a senior at UC Santa Barbara from Woodland Hills.

She followed her heart to her true faith


I’m sitting in a plush rocking chair underneath a large painting of Jesus in my grandma’s living room. My grandma is across from me, smiling, her hands linked. Danny Lobell, my fiancé, is next to me.

“So, what’s your background?” she asks Danny.

“I’m Scottish and Jewish,” he answers her.

“Oh, that’s nice. You know, we had some Jewish in our family,” she says, clutching the cross she’s wearing around her neck.

“What was that?” 

“There is some Jewish in our family tree,” she says. 

“Really?”

“Yes. My mom’s family was from Germany.” 

“Back to the Jewish thing. Do you know who was Jewish?”

“I’m not sure,” she says, trailing off. “Kylie, have you been going to church lately? It’s really important to go to church.”

“Um, yeah,” I say.

I try not to feel too guilty. Church could be considered a colloquial term for “place of worship,” right? And I do go to “church.” Every Saturday morning.

I’m four years into my conversion process when I learn that perhaps my maternal family line could actually be Jewish. It’s a little validating — after all, it would explain a lot of things.

My grandma, a devout Catholic, “baptized” my older sisters in her kitchen sink when they were babies. She told me, however, that my baptism “didn’t work.” How does a baptism not work? 

If my soul were actually Jewish, it would also explain why I always hung around the Jewish kids in school and dated only Jews. On more than a few occasions in college, I would feel a wave of depression sweep over me after the sun set on Saturdays. I’d also have recurring nightmares that I was running from the Nazis during the Holocaust. Although it didn’t make any sense at the time, as I look back on my life, more and more eerie examples pop up that indicate I was a Jew.


My grandma, a devout Catholic, “baptized” my older sisters in her kitchen sink when they were babies. She told me, however, that my baptism “didn’t work.” How does a baptism not work?

Like most conversion stories, mine begins with love. My senior year of college, in 2010, I met Danny, a stand-up comedian living in Brooklyn. He had an Orthodox background, but had started to drift away from traditional practice. 

Then he met me. 

One Friday night, he took me to a Chabad outpost that was surrounded by tattoo shops, dive bars and vintage T-shirt stores in the hipster mecca that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn. During dinner, as I was eating a noodle kugel and listening to the rabbi speak, I felt warmth that I had never before experienced. 

In that moment, I knew: There is a higher power. This is the proof. I was no longer an atheist, as I had been since I was 12.

The first step toward becoming a Jew was to give up bacon. Danny said he didn’t want to kiss me after I ate it, so that convinced me pretty quickly to stop eating it. From there, I stopped eating shellfish, then meat and milk together, and then non-kosher meat altogether. We made our kitchen kosher, too.

Although our initial decision was to do a Conservative conversion, I learned that if I wanted universal acceptance, I would have to convert as an Orthodox Jew. I also wanted to make sure I received a good Jewish education, learning as much as possible from the most stringent observers and then deciding how I wanted to live my life. 

It just so happened that we found an Orthodox synagogue, Greenpoint Shul, that was in our neighborhood and led by Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum, a warm and friendly rabbi who worked with converts. We took weekly classes there and worked toward an Orthodox conversion.

This continued for nearly a year when, one day, we decided to pack up and head to sunny Los Angeles to pursue Danny’s career. This meant starting all over again with a new rabbi and a new beit din

Thanks to the Journal, I was able to write the stories of many local converts. It inspired me to get back into my learning and nail down a mikveh date. When a rabbi approached us and invited us to his shul and we finally felt like we had a spiritual home in L.A, it seemed like the perfect time to find a beit din.

I started again with classes early last year. Twelve months later, I was at an Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem, studying halachah and living with Jewish girls from all around the world. It was my first time in Israel, and for four weeks, I learned, explored Jerusalem, and accepted Danny’s marriage proposal, which happened at the Western Wall. 

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see Judaism as a brilliant system of living. The halachah makes so much sense — from the kind way we slaughter animals, to the holidays that unite us, to the laws of family purity, to the focus on life instead of death. 

I now see HaShem everywhere. During the time that I was an atheist, I didn’t believe in a higher power because I never saw miracles. Now everything is a miracle, from the fact that I wake up every day to how I manage to find a parking spot in downtown L.A. with money left on the meter. 

These past few years have been hard, too. There are a lot of politics in conversion, and people do inevitably judge you and how observant you are. As a convert, you are under a microscope much more than people who were born Jewish. It’s a difficult standard to live up to, but so is Torah observance. I’ve learned that nothing good in life is easy. The best stuff is hard, from marriages to raising children to eating healthfully to living in great cities such as New York and L.A. 

Come this July, after my conversion becomes official, I will stand, as a Jew, under the chuppah with the love of my life. So I guess my conversion story ends with love, too. Or maybe it’s just beginning.

Children of Israel, in more ways than one


The week before Passover, Colel Chabad, the charitable arm of the Chabad movement, brought more than 100 Israeli bar mitzvah boys from all over Israel to the Western Wall.

The 13-year-olds, each accompanied by up to 10 friends and relatives, were treated to a day of spirituality and fun that began with a rousing welcome at the Western Wall Plaza and ended with a communal catered banquet to celebrate their milestone.  

The elaborate annual event — held separately for boys and girls on different dates — brings joy to children who have lost one or both of their parents.   

“For young boys approaching their bar mitzvah, the planning and preparation for the coming-of-age ceremony can be very emotionally challenging for both the child and the single parent,” said Rabbi Menachem Traxler, director of Colel Chabad’s volunteer programs. “Traditionally it’s the father who accompanies the boy up to the Torah, and his absence is really felt.”

Traxler also cited the financial challenges faced by single parents who are celebrating a simcha.   

“Often,” he said, “it’s impossible for single-parent households to come up with the money to pay for even the most modest Kiddush or party, and to purchase new clothes for the family, to purchase a pair of tefillin and a tallit.”  

Ultimately, Traxler said, “The idea is that every kid should have the opportunity to experience a bar mitzvah like other kids, despite their tragic loss.”  

Most of the bar and bat mitzvah children were referred to Colel Chabad by municipal social workers, and the organization provides year-round educational and financial assistance through its Widows and Orphans program. Colel Chabad is one of the many Israeli organizations and institutions that sponsor communal b’nai mitzvah ceremonies for some of Israel’s most vulnerable children.

Some, like Boys Town Jerusalem, a school for 900 students from mostly disadvantaged homes, sponsor an annual ceremony and party for its bar mitzvah-aged students.  

“We do it in the dining room and invite guest speakers,” said Shoshana Kory, a public relations associate for Boys Town. “It’s a special and meaningful event for the boys and their families.” 

Prior to the ceremony, Kory said, the students spend part of the year learning about the rights and responsibilities of bar mitzvah-aged boys. 

“A lot of our children come from difficult backgrounds and often they’re not receiving this information at home,” Kory said. “Some come from abused homes and many are in the social welfare system.” 

Like Colel Chabad, Boys Town relies on donations to provide its simcha services. Some of the money comes from b’nai mitzvah kids abroad, who ask friends and family to donate to the school in lieu of gifts at their simchas.


Moti Azoulai (second from right), one of the bar mitzvah boys, lost both of his parents several years ago. His siblings and aunts joined him at a party organized by Colel Chabad.

“Some donate money to buy tefillin. Some come to Israel and celebrate their actual bar mitzvah with our boys,” Kory said. “They feel more connected to Boys Town and to Israel. I feel certain we’ll see them again when they become adults.” 

Several of the school’s donors have made multiyear commitments to fund the cost of tefillin for one or two students, an expense most of the boys’ parents cannot afford ($350 to $1,000 in Israel). 

Nishmat, a women’s educational center in Jerusalem, runs a 12-session bat mitzvah program for Ethiopian-Israeli girls. Most of the participants attend secular schools. The program is primarily run by Nishmat’s adult Ethiopian students, “all graduates of National Service or the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] who are role models for the younger girls,” said Julie Weisman, the organization’s director of public relations. 

At the conclusion of the course, the girls and their families are taken to the Western Wall and then to a catered party co-sponsored by Nishmat, the Ohel Nechama Synagogue (an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem) and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (the governmental entity that oversees all matters concerning the Western Wall). 

Colel Chabad’s pre-Passover bar mitzvah event this year included transportation to and from each boy’s home, a family photo shoot at the Western Wall, and a gala dinner with music and entertainment. Each boy received a gift bag containing a pair of tefillin, a tallit and a necktie.

 When the boys arrived at the Western Wall Plaza they were greeted by Colel Chabad volunteers, some playing musical instruments. Holding tallitot over the boys like a wedding canopy, the volunteers ushered small groups to the wall and to tables bearing Torahs. Each boy received an aliyah as his family looked on.  

The event was bittersweet for Moti Azoulai, one of the orphans. He was 7 years old when his father died in a car accident. Three months later, his mother, who had been battling cancer, died as well.  

“I haven’t been to the Kotel in many years, so I’m feeling a little emotional,” said Moti, whose family traveled four hours for the event. 

Moti’s aunt, Alise Boutboul, who raised Moti and his older sister after their parents died, agreed that the day was “very emotional because Moti’s parents aren’t here to enjoy this milestone.” 

Lali Raiz, the mother of 13-year-old Erel Raiz and his three siblings, traveled to the event from the settlement of Elkana. Six years ago, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack in the army just shy of his 35th birthday. 

“This is wonderful,” Raiz said as she gazed at Erel. “It’s a hug from Chabad, which supports orphaned children in so many ways, all year round.”

Erel said the Chabad celebration coincided with another event he wanted to attend, “but I chose to come here because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll remember this day the rest of my life.”

Some good news coming out of France’s Jewish community: top-ranked schools


When mainstream French media report about Jewish schools, it’s usually not good news.

Sometimes, the reports are about controversies surrounding public funding of such institutions in a country with a strong separation between religion and state.

More often, the news is in the context of security around Jewish schools, which are under heavy protection by police and the army from Islamist fanatics like Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket on Jan. 9; apparently a fender bender resulted in the foiling of his earlier plan to attack a Jewish elementary school.

Last week, however, Jewish schools were in the news in France because they topped two of the annual lists in which French media rank the country’s approximately 4,300 high schools.

The Beth Hanna high school, which is part of France’s Chabad Lubavitch network, clinched the first spot on the list compiled by Le Parisien daily, thanks to a 99-percent success rate among matriculation exams takers and 32 “added value” points, which are determined according to additional criteria like the percentage of students who took the exams; their grade averages and dropout and attendance rates.

In the list compiled by the France Televisions public broadcaster, another Jewish school came out on top: The Lycee Alliance in the Paris suburb of Seine Saint-Denis.

French Jewish media were quick to announce France’s best high school was Jewish, presenting readers with a fresh feather in the communal hat after Patrick Modiano’s winning last year of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But a closer examination of the rankings, known in France as “les palmares des lycees,” shows the title of best high school is not such a straightforward distinction.

First of all, there are at least six reputable lists ranking French high schools, each presenting a very different selection.

The list topped by Alliance, for example, has 99 lower-ranked schools, but Beth Hanna isn’t one of them.

The Le Parisien list, on which Beth Hanna is the top school, also has 100 high schools but not Alliance.

And on the Le Figaro list, neither Jewish school made the top slot, with Beth Hanna ranked in 46 and Alliance at 88.

The variations owe to how the media that compile the lists calculate the many relevant criteria, including the number of students and faculty per class; teaching hours; languages taught and other subjects.

While the title of best high school in France may be debatable, the lists do show that even from under heavy protections that makes them resemble fortresses, French Jewish schools managed to shine last year.

As for Alliance, its naming by France Televisions as France’s best high school came as a surprise to headmistress Dominique Dahan, who told the news site JSSnews.com that it’s the first time her school receives this distinction though its performance has been consistent in recent years. About 40 percent of graduates, she said, pursue medical careers.

But the combination of scholastic excellence and the school’s emphasis on Jewish identity come at a price, she acknowledged.

“Effectively, there is a break with the exterior world on all levels: cultural, social and religious,” she toldJSSnews when asked whether her Jewish school was in fact insulated from French society. The school tries to counterbalance this insularism by involving its students in charity work and cultural excursions to the Louvre and the Paris Opera, Dahan said.

“Ours is a tolerant, open Judaism,” Dahan added, “and we encourage its implementation [as part] of the urban environment.”

Will haredi Orthodox Jews embrace pre-nups that protect women from becoming agunot?


Breaking up, as the classic song notes, is generally hard to do. But in the Orthodox community, divorce can be particularly trying, especially for women.

That’s because intransigent husbands can hold up the process by refusing to give a get, or a religious writ of divorce. In some cases, husbands use the get as a bargaining chip to extract financial settlements in their favor.

While the problem has existed for centuries, the so-called agunah “crisis” — agunah is the term for a woman “chained” to her failed marriage for want of a get — has gotten more attention in recent years with high-profile cases like that of Gital Dodelson, who successfully enlisted the help of the New York Post to put public pressure on her ex, has gotten significantly more attention over the past few years.

Increasingly, advocates for women are seeking to prevent the problem by pushing for religious prenuptial agreements and sponsoring prenuptial and postnuptial “signup parties” for which engaged and married couples.

Up to this point, these “parties” have primarily been a Modern Orthodox phenomenon. But this Sunday, for what is believed to be the first time, haredi Orthodox couples will attend a “Halachic Prenup/Postnup” party in Brooklyn.

Allison Josephs, who runs Jew in the City, a social media organization promoting this weekend’s event, said that the debate over the halachic prenup and postnup documents is “really starting to rumble” through the Chabad community.

“People are looking for an answer,” she said. “I think this could be the beginning of a new era in terms of the agunah crisis.”

For those interested, the signup party will take place at the Chevra Ahavas Yisroel synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Letters to the editor: Running Springs, Mel Brooks and Sun City


We Report, You Decide

Thanks for telling a complicated story so well (“The Rebirth of Running Springs,” Jan. 30). Bravo to the Journal for reporting the facts for all to see. To those who criticize the story, it could have been far more damaging to Chabad by reporting other issues like this in Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s business dealings. But the writer let the facts speak for themselves, without inuendo and implied guilt.

Jim Ruxin via jewishjournal.com

While I’m a big fan of Chabad, this article has soured me toward them. It appears that Chabad purchased a quite expensive campground, stopped making mortgage payments soon thereafter and also stiffed an elderly lady out of her estate. There are more sickening aspects of the article. Cunin and his sidekicks have some chutzpah.

A. Joans, Los Angeles


Necessary Evil

Rob Eshman rightly fears the misuse of drone technology if it gets into the wrong hands  (“Drones, Jews and Morality,” Jan. 30). However, he does not share the pride that small Israel, who has been battling against Islamic terror decades before the rest of the Western world, has been a frontline technological innovator in the fight against today’s evil.  

He does not appreciate the value and purpose of the drone — to minimize not only casualties of our own soldiers, but the innocents on the enemy side as well. 

There is simply no question that if drones did not exist, the percentage of enemy innocents caught in the vicinity of the targeted bad guys would grow exponentially.

Richard Friedman, Culver City


Thank You, Mel!

I want to respond to Danielle Berrin’s wonderful and insightful interview with Mel Brooks (“Shmoozing With Mel,” Jan. 30). A few summers ago, my wife and I were visiting Cordoba, Spain, and while wandering the alleyways, we heard the sounds of Gregorian chants wafting into the street. Following the lovely music, we found ourselves in the Museum of the Inquisition, which consists of several gloomy chambers filled with instruments of torture, accompanied by descriptions of how they were used. 

The only way I could counteract these disturbing images and regain my equilibrium was to replay in my head the “Spanish Inquisition” song from Brooks’ movie “History of the World Part 1,” which is performed in the style of a grandiose Busby Berkeley production.

I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of Inquisition victims, nor, I’m sure, did Brooks. On the contrary, we should all be aware of what happened in order to prevent such a horrific event from occurring again. But we also need to recognize that humor can be a potent remedy for the paralyzing darkness and negativity that can ensue from such encounters.

Joel Stern, Los Angeles

Mel, we love you, but seriously, you must not leave this world before trying our original Hungarian kosher stuffed cabbage. The best in the world, I won’t let you down. Call me!

Balazs Tibor via jewishjournal.com


Bibi Butts in

With typical eloquence, Michael Berenbaum has clearly made the case that Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to address a joint session of Congress is a profound insult and, ultimately, a mistake (“Boehner Invitation to Bibi Signals Congress, White House Showdown,” Jan. 30). Americans of all political persuasions should take offense at the attempts of a foreign prime minister to interfere in American policy matters, Netanyahu clearly intended to stick a thumb in the eye of the president of the United States, and I for one am outraged. I now must work to separate my support for Israel from my disgust with its leader.

Barbara H. Bergen via email


From City of Angels to City in the Sun

Congratulations to Tess Cutler for the wonderful and beautifully written column on her one-month visit to Sun City in Palm Desert (My Life as a Retired Millennial,” Jan. 30). Although she didn’t love the Sun City lifestyle as a 21-year-old, we are here to report that, as seniors who have been residing in Sun City for three years, it is a fabulous community with lots of activities, friends and things to do. When we receive the Jewish Journal delivered to our door, we reconnect with Los Angeles Jewish life and enjoy reading every column. However, we turn the pages first to read the article written by Cutler. Hers are the best!

Sydney and Hale Porter via email


correction

In a Jan. 30 letter to the editor about school endowments (“With Help, Local Schools Grow Their Endowments, Jan. 16), an incorrect title was listed for Arlene Agress. She is the director of the Jim Joseph Foundation High School Affordability Initiative at BJE (Builders of Jewish Education), Los Angeles.

What Chabad needs to do now


It is evident to most Jews who care about the Jewish future that, individual exceptions in every movement notwithstanding, the one successful movement in contemporary Jewish life is Chabad.
 
So, then, what is Chabad to do now?
 
I ask this question because Chabad is entering a new and challenging phase. There are simply not enough Jews in the world to keep opening Chabad Houses at the rate it has in the last 25 years. This is a personal tragedy for the many young Chabad rabbis who ache to become shluchim (emissaries). And it is a tragedy for the larger Jewish world because these Chabad Houses add Jewish vitality wherever they are present.
 
Having spoken at Chabad Houses for decades, and after many discussions with Chabad rabbis, I offer two suggestions.
 
The first is to open many more Chabad Houses at colleges throughout America, Canada and elsewhere in the Western world. Aside from the natural sciences and math, Western universities have become breeding grounds for moral idiots. Attitudes toward Israel are a superb example. The most anti-Israel institution in the West is the university. That alone reveals the broken moral compass of the universities. 
 
As described in my last column, recently I debated at Oxford University. My two adversaries were an Oxford professor and a young Oxford doctoral candidate. Among other factual and moral lies, one or both described Israel as doing to Palestinians what the Nazis had done to the Jews, as an apartheid state, and as launching wars against Hamas, which they depicted as the victim of Israeli aggression. 
 
Those statements are typical of what your children will be taught at college should they take just about any class in Middle East history or international relations. They will be taught that America is an imperialist and racist society. They will be able to get a degree in English at places like UCLA without having taken even one course in Shakespeare. Many students will be drunk a good part of their free time. And they will experience the decadence of a college-approved “sex week,” a week that can feature, as it did at Northwestern University, a naked woman using sex toys in front of a class. 
 
No place needs a Chabad House as much as the university. There is virtually nothing morally or spiritually elevating at these campuses. Chabad could provide both, if it chooses to. That means locating at colleges and being proactively pro-Israel, pro-religion, pro-objective morality, pro-God, pro-the Ten Commandments.
 
My other suggestion is Chabad open houses where are there are few, or even no, Jews.
 
What would Chabad do in such places? It would do what Jews haven’t done in thousands of years, either out of ignorance of the Jewish role in the world or because of anti-Semitism: Spread ethical monotheism. That is the theological term for God-based ethics.
 
The Jews are the Chosen People in order to be God’s messenger. But the Jews are a messenger who forgot his message. 
 
The tragic irony is that Orthodox Jews have forgotten that we have a message for the world. Non-Orthodox Jews are quite busy bringing a message to mankind — not on behalf of Judaism or ethical monotheism, but on behalf of the most dynamic religion in the world for the last hundred years: leftism. These Jews are preoccupied with telling the world that God is not necessary for morality; that Western society should be secular; that carbon emissions will destroy the world; that male and female no longer matter; that the married-father-and-mother family is no longer an ideal; that Israel is morally wrong; that “war is not the answer”; that material inequality is the greatest evil (closely followed by climate change); that no society or culture is better than any other; that fundamentalist Christians and Jews are the moral equivalent of fundamentalist Muslims,  among other left-wing doctrines. 
 
Almost no one is bringing the authentic Jewish message to the world — that there is one God of all people and that this God’s primary demand is that human beings treat each other decently. You don’t need to be Jewish to go to heaven, you just have to live by basic moral laws and recognize that God is behind these moral laws. 
 
Chabad does in fact believe in spreading what is known as the Seven Laws of Noah. From the Chabad “Universal Morality” website: 
 
“When the Lubavitcher Rebbe began speaking about publicizing [the Noahide Laws] as a preparation for a new era, he was reviving an almost lost tradition.”
 
Doing that should be regarded as important as getting Jews to put on tefillin. In order to make a better world — to usher in the Messianic Age, if you will — we have to spread ethical monotheism; to bring the world to the God of the Ten Commandments. And, though it may be seem ironic, nothing will attract alienated Jews as much as seeing religious Jews talk to the world, not just to Jews.
Because no other Jewish group will do it, it is up to Chabad to do so. And in order to achieve that mission, there will never be enough shluchim. 
 
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Letters to the editor: Israel’s nation-state bill, BDS, Chabad, strawberry sufganiyot and more


Not-So-Blurred Lines

Until now, I had not paid much attention to the proposed nation-state identity bill, figuring that it stated the obvious but was being done for emphasis (“Red Lines,” Dec. 5). But in reading this article, I discover that part of the bill is to discontinue Arabic as an official language. Among other things, it makes the Arab population second-class citizens, and as the article says, undermines the message that Israel is a democracy with full rights to all citizens. On what basis can you tell 20 percent of your citizens, who, by the way, are indigenous, that their language can no longer be used in the public sphere? I do not see a compelling reason for this, especially since the Declaration of Independence already declares the country a home for the Jewish people. I cannot think of a more powerful tool right now to hand to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement with which to prove that Israel is an apartheid state. They are experts at PR and will exploit this at every opportunity. 

I admit that reading this article was painful and I was resisting its message about the red flag, but I have to agree that its message is powerful and should be taken very seriously, and I compliment Rob Eshman for sharing this message with us.

Thomas Solomon via jewishjournal.com


The Chabad Way

It is a matter of inclusion with no expectations (“The Chabad Secret, Dec. 5). Recently, the Knesset Synagogue in Israel proclaimed that if you are not a practicing Orthodox Jew, you are not welcome in their synagogue. This would never happen in any Chabad. They recognize that people are people and life is messy. It is a mitzvah to have them in our community.

Steven M. Levy via jewishjournal.com


Made for You and Me

As a born Jewish Black American, I can tell you that during the mid-’60s, my brother and I did a whole lot of walking on Shabbat (Saturday) along the Pico-Fairfax corridor of Los Angeles (“God Gave This Land to Them,” Dec. 5). Israel is our promised ancestral homeland. Period.

Arthur Killum via jewishjournal.com


Safety Net

As a young Jew living in America, I was glad to find this article to inform me of what happened in my home country a few weeks ago (“Fear Thy Neighbor,” Nov. 28). This is an attack that took place when a Jew was at his or her most vulnerable moment. Wrapped in tefillin and ready to pray to their God, these innocent people were ambushed by surprise. It terrifies me to hear that in a place that you feel safe, you could be terrorized in any given moment. This article helped me realize the importance of social media and the Jewish Journal, because you don’t need to be physically in Israel to be terrorized, like the woman in the story said.

Maytal Madmony, Los Angeles


UCLA and the BDS Debate

The recent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions issue at UCLA spotlights a more serious underlying problem, one that goes further than the politics of Israel on campus (“Reframing the BDS Debate at UCLA,” Dec. 5). As Natalie Charney, Eytan Davidovits, Omer Hit, Gil Bar-On and Tammy Rubin explained, the outcome of the vote at the Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC) meeting that night was pre-determined. The reason for this is, unlike other universities and colleges, the UCLA student government is run by a relatively small, 14-member council. 

Once elected, USAC is funded by mandatory fees. Individuals do not have the option of refusing to pay, and most are probably unaware what the fee is for. With this guaranteed budget, most of which is appropriately spent on student cultural activities, councilmembers and commissioners have no incentive to make themselves available to the general student population. 

In some universities (especially abroad), where membership is voluntary, student politicians must persuade individuals to pay their dues — not so at UCLA.

The result is a body that is often neither transparent nor accountable to ordinary students, and easily hijacked by well-organized groups with agendas. This is nothing new — Jewish student activists from Zev Yaroslavsky to those of today have had to work within this system. As the student activists pointed out, there are better ways for USAC to spend its time. UCLA should consider reforming its undergraduate student government to create a wider base of representation, more transparency and more accountability. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the pro-Israel activists were able to collect 2,000 petition signatures in four days speaks volumes.

Miriam Caiden, Los Angeles


Strawberry Blitz

There are other flavors besides strawberry (“Homemade Sufganiyot Brighten Chanukah Celebrations,” Dec. 5)! Where is it written it has to be strawberry? Some people hate strawberry! I’m one of them! I’ve had chocolate sufganiyot and plain sufganiyot, and they are awesome!

Eliot Schickler via jewishjournal.com

And the only state without a Chabad is…


Some 4,200 Chabad rabbis from more than 80 countries are gathering this weekend in New York for the annual conference of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.

In the year since they all last got together to attend workshops, listen to keynote lectures from the likes of former “>class picture” — a “Where’s Waldo of rabbis,” according to a Chabad release — the Jewish outreach organization they represent has put down roots in five new countries and one new state, Mississippi. That brings the number of American states with a permanent Chabad presence to 49.

Which had JTA staffers wondering: Which state is the holdout?

West Virginia? Chabad opened in Morgantown back in 2007

Idaho? They’ve been in Boise for more than a decade.

Montana? Wyoming? Alaska? None of the above.

North Dakota? Well, now you’re getting warmer (or, really, colder).

It’s South Dakota.

So why is the home of Mount Rushmore the sole Chabad-less state in America? Simply put: math. One of the least populous states in the nation — some 844,000 people live there — South Dakota has just 345 Jews, according to the “>Synagogue of the Hills in Rapid City, near the “Old West” town of Deadwood, traces its roots back to the gold rush era, though it was established at its current location in 1957. Some 350 miles to the east, in Sioux Falls, is “>cross-country bike ride organized by the Jewish environmental group Hazon.

It’s been decades since any of these three South Dakota congregations have been large enough to support a full-time rabbi. Already, by the early 1980s, the state’s lone rabbi “>New Voices and the 

Giant Ukraine JCC provides shelter from the storm — in style


Five months into the war that turned him into a refugee in his own country, Jacob Virin has already attended 20 Jewish weddings — including those of his son and two other relatives — at the $100 million JCC of Dnepropetrovsk.

Towering over the skyline of this industrial metropolis, the 22-story Menorah Center is said to be the largest Jewish community center in Europe and a symbol of the remarkable Jewish revival here after decades of communist repression.

But with eastern Ukraine descending into chaos in recent months, the center of late has assumed a new symbolism. With one of its two hotels serving as temporary housing for some of the hundreds of refugees displaced by fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels, and a recent mass wedding for 19 Jewish couples held on its roof terrace, the center has become an emblem of Jewish survival during the current crisis.

“More than any other single complex, the Menorah Center has empowered the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk to better serve as an anchor for Ukrainian Jewry in difficult times and as an engine for Jewish renewal,” said Zelig Brez, the community’s director.

Completed in 2012 with funding from two Jewish oligarchs, the Menorah Center is a leviathan. Its 450,00 square feet of floor space includes a swanky event hall, a synagogue with black marble interior, a large Holocaust museum, luxurious ritual baths for men and women, and several kosher restaurants and cafes.

At night, powerful spotlights illuminate the center’s seven domes, making the large complex on Sholem Aleichem Street look much like its namesake.

“The idea here is also to build a presence, a great beacon of light that tells the Jews of Ukraine: ‘We are here. Come join us. The time for hiding is over,’ ” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the energetic chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk and one of the Chabad movement’s most senior envoys to Ukraine.

During the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in the 1940s, German troops murdered 20,000 Jews in and around Dnepropetrovsk, essentially annihilating the community. Many Jews who escaped eastward returned after the Red Army defeated the Nazis, but the Kremlin’s anti-Semitic and anti-religious ideology kept Jewish life underground here until Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

Following the fall of communism, Dnepropetrovsk emerged as an engine for Jewish life in Ukraine. Some 15 percent of the country’s Jewish population lives here, and the city boasts several unique Jewish amenities, including the only matzah factory in Ukraine and a workshop for ritual scribes. The community’s partnership with Jewish communities in the Boston area is also the object of pride here.

Kaminezki says the Menorah Center is the largest JCC in Europe. Navigating the maze of elevators that services the building’s seven wings, he pops into a gourmet kosher restaurant with heavy cherrywood tables to chat with a donor having lunch.

Before returning to his office, Kaminezki shows off the center’s main passageway, which at lunch hour fills up with a mix of religious Jews and non-Jews, including women in short skirts and high heels who come to visit medical clinics, hair dressers or the bank — all of which rent space in the center.

The vast structure “is meant to accommodate the needs of this growing community not only now but also in the future,” Kaminezki said back at his penthouse office overlooking the Dnepro River.

With such an impressive presence, the Menorah Center has become the Jewish community’s de facto embassy, hosting visits from ambassadors and diplomats, including the U.S. State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy, Ira Foreman, who visited in April.

Non-Jews sometimes refer to the center as the Kolomoisky building — Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire, funded the building with fellow Ukrainian billionaire Gennady Bogolyubov, the president of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk.

A banker who has poured millions into Jewish causes, Kolomoisky has become something of a national hero since making sizable donations to the ill-equipped Ukrainian army in its battle against pro-Russian separatists. In April, Kolomoisky was appointed governor of this strategically crucial region.

Brez, the community director, says he is more concerned with using the Menorah Center to leave a mark on the lives of local Jews than to impress foreigners or non-Jewish locals. So earlier this month, Brez helped arrange the mass wedding on the center’s roof, among them his son’s in-laws. Several of the couples had already wed decades ago but never had a Jewish ceremony.

“The community sheltered us, but also made us a family, right here at the Menorah Center,” said Virin, the editor in chief of the main Jewish paper of Donetsk, the embattled eastern city that has become a flashpoint in the fight between Ukrainian forces and the rebels.

The day after the mass wedding, Brez was back on the roof for the marriage of Baruch and Nastya Moscalenko, who met last year through a Jewish studies program at the Menorah Center. Although her family is secular, Nastya Moscalenko began attending classes at the urging of her friends.

“Baruch is from a more religious background,” she said. “We traveled in different circles, so I don’t think we would’ve met if not for Menorah.”

Kaminezki takes a more historical view of the center’s significance.

Gesturing toward a neglected yard in the building’s shadow, he indicates the spot where secret police agents in 1939 arrested the city’s chief rabbi, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

The younger Schneerson, revered by Chabad devotees all over the world, spent much of his adolescence in Dnepropetrovsk but left for good after his father’s arrest.

“Those who didn’t want the rebbe and other Jews here now have a 22-story building celebrating their tradition,” Kaminezki said. “That’s the story of Ukraine’s Jews.”

 

East meets West for UC Grad at Asian Chabads


Like many newly minted American college graduates, Liad Braude, a 22-year-old UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) alumnus, chose to travel instead of going straight into the workforce. However, unlike his peers who were buying round-the-world tickets, packing for European trips or strapping on their backpacks for budget jaunts through South America, Braude embarked on a road less traveled, opting instead to spend a year volunteering in Chabads across India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

When I caught up with Braude in Hanoi, Vietnam, the bearded young man who stood before me was a world away — both physically and spiritually — from the beer-guzzling Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity boy I had befriended five years before at college. Months ago, when we shared a farewell in Israel, neither of us had any idea where his trip would take him. 

Braude left on a one-way ticket for India hoping to go to the East to further his yoga studies. Born in South Africa and raised in San Diego, he first saw his path diverging from the norm during his junior year at UCSB, when he credits his highly creative roommates, who were “artists, musicians, fire spinners and cooking enthusiasts,” with influencing his overall direction. During that time, he traded in his six-days-a-week gym routine for rigorous yoga-and-meditation training and pursued individual studies in the religious studies department. Raised deeply Jewish, his political science education had taught him to question biases, so he began to look to different philosophies — including Buddhism, Hinduism, North American religions and Islam — for direction. When graduation came, although he had been planning a trip with friends since his freshman year, he instead decided to travel alone to the East. 

“I came to the conclusion that if you believe in something, you have to go for it and not hold back. There would be no saying ‘what if’ later in life,” he said, explaining his decision to leave without a plan or even a cell phone, guided only by faith. 

Not long after Braude arrived in India, he found that the teachings of the ashrams where he was studying could be in opposition to the communal Jewish values with which he was raised. Braude realized he could live a life of seclusion forever, but decided his purpose was to grow spiritually while also helping those around him to grow.

“I was sleeping [for] around five hours a night, eating one vegetarian meal a day and dedicating the rest [of my time] to study, meditation and yoga,” Braude said. “My Eastern religious texts stressed a life of simplicity and separation. My Jewish texts taught me that while we must seek spiritual refinement, the Jewish purpose is to elevate the world around us by being deeply involved in the physical world.”

Braude had explored many different philosophies and faiths but kept finding himself returning to volunteering in Chabad communities. His service grew so much that at one point he was singlehandedly running the Chabad in Rishikesh, India, using his own funds and donations when the Chabad’s rabbi needed to return to Israel. 

Throughout his time in northern India, Braude met with elder spiritual leaders from a wide range of faiths, including priests, gurus, Brahmans, yogis and babas, but also spent his Shabbat dinners at Chabads, together with up to 30 Jews gathered from around the world.

In Sri Lanka, where the Jewish community is very small — Braude estimates that fewer than 15 Jews live in Sri Lanka’s capital city — the Chabad’s primary focus was catering to traveling businessmen and visiting Israeli travelers. Sri Lanka’s only synagogue is in Colombo, and the Chabad, located near the airport, provides rooms and kosher food for those passing through. During Braude’s time there, he helped in various ways, including by teaching the shaliach’s children English and assisting with the culinary needs of the Chabad by making sure all foods were cooked and prepared in accordance with the laws of kashrut. He also described how the Chabad brought a Torah to festivals on the beach for the many Israeli travelers who attended. 

“Young backpackers would come and go constantly, and I was there to make them feel comfortable and answer questions,” Braude said. “When desired, I could also provide short lessons of Judaism or assist in putting on tefillin.”

Vietnam’s Jewish community, in contrast to Sri Lanka’s, is large and well established, especially in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I would open the Chabad every morning at 9 and spend all day overseeing its daily operations,” Braude said. “My overall concern was focused on upholding and assisting the rabbi with the religious aspect of the center, as well as making all feel welcome. Thus, the focus was on kashrut, Torah study, tefillin, communicating with visitors and spiritual guidance at times.”

Braude also spent a lot of time in the kitchen of the Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City, an area renowned for its delicious kosher restaurant and even caters kosher food throughout the country for large tour groups. The bustling, industrious Vietnamese hub drew large crowds during festivals, and Braude said one of his favorite memories of his trip was bartending a shtetl/”Fiddler on the Roof”-themed Purim party at the Chabad, which more than 70 guests attended.

A “Fiddler on the Roof”-themed Purim party at the Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Chabad

“When people ask my favorite place over the course of my year, I explain that I was fortunate enough to be in some of the most amazingly scenic places in the world. Nevertheless, a place is only as good as the people you are surrounded by. Even though Ho Chi Minh is a big, industrious city, I had an incredible family there that made it one of my favorite locations.” 

After a year away, Braude is now back in the U.S., living with his family in San Diego. One of his biggest adjustments since his return has been to move from a highly spiritual and spartan lifestyle to the life of abundance he faces in California.

“The life of an observant Jew, to many, doesn’t match up well with life over here,” he said. “However, this is where I know I am supposed to be for now, and I don’t believe the two have to be in conflict. The Jewish philosophy is to be involved in this world and to infuse godliness within it. I am still in the process, but I intend on fusing the life I had before with my newfound path.”

Although his lifestyle has changed from what he left behind in Santa Barbara, Braude said he is still very much the same passionate soul he has always been.

“I may have a beard and tzitzit now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do all the things I used to do,” he said. “In fact, I quite enjoy the notion that I may be the first observant individual to bless my beer at a certain bar, or do a mikveh at the local beach.”

Although he may still consider pursing ordination as a rabbi, he said he believes how a person lives is more important than a framed paper hanging on the wall.

“My senior quote in high school was Mark Twain’s ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education,’ ” Braude said. “I think that still holds true for me.”