Into the Heart of Chabad


Shabbat begins. I follow Rabbi Reuven Wolf into 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn — Chabad World Headquarters. The prayer space is packed with bearded rabbis in black fedoras. We join a line streaming single-file toward the center of the room. Maximum occupancy by code is probably 350, but there are a thousand inside, and hundreds more arriving by the minute.

I’m here because my friends Rabbi Efraim Mintz and Wolf both invited me, each promising a unique experience. I once witnessed a fan getting trampled by a celebratory mob at a football game. I wonder if I’ve made a good choice.

Physical pressure builds with every step. I trip over someone’s foot and instantly flash back to the trampling, but the guys around me hold me up and carry me forward. It’s too late to turn back. Independent motion is impossible.

We reach the heart of the room. Our bodies sway as waves of energy pass through us. The crowd synchronizes as we chant Psalms, thanking the Eternal One for Shabbat, Torah and life.

We break into a wordless song, a nigun, composed for this very night 40 years ago, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe completed his recovery from a near-fatal heart attack and returned to this room. He created this army of singing, dancing rabbis. They are the teachers and lamplighters he dispatched to the corners of the earth, armed with love, Torah and unshakable faith in their ability to hasten the redemption of humankind.

Though the rebbe died 23 years ago, their work has never slowed. His army returns to Crown Heights in Brooklyn once a year for the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim (emissaries). They reconnect with friends and family, attend workshops and pray.

The soldiers of the rebbe’s army are not just men, but whole families. This week, the dads are in town. In February, the moms, or rebbetzins, will gather for their conference. Reoxygenated in Crown Heights, these families bring the light of Judaism to 100 countries, a number that grows every year.

The weekend culminates in the Sunday night gala. The event’s infrastructure is breathtaking. I recently attended a fundraising gala at the California Science Center and was impressed by scope of that event, which catered to 1,200 guests.

The Chabad gala welcomes 6,500.

The room is vast. Passing through elaborate security measures, we encounter 650 elegantly decorated tables, high-tech lighting, a camera crane, a massive video display nearly 100 yards long, a revolving stage and hot, tasty food for all.

What really sets this night apart, however, are two stories and an unauthorized nigun.

Rabbi Asher Federman of Chabad Virgin Islands shares how consecutive hurricanes crushed his beloved island just before Rosh Hashanah. Everyone was told to evacuate, but some simply couldn’t.

As Rabbi Federman’s large family boarded the last boat off the island, he bent to hug his children goodbye. Someone suggested he leave with them.

His kids immediately protested: “Daddy can’t leave! Who’ll take care of our Yidden? Who will blow the shofar for them on Rosh Hashanah?”

Rabbi Yonasan Abrams shared the story of a 9-year-old boy in San Diego, whose family had come to know the local Chabad emissaries. The boy asked his father if he could bring a Torah scroll home on Simchat Torah.

Without musical accompaniment or visible direction,

our voices rise in a stadium-like chorus of unrestrained joy.

He asked because his mother lay at home, too weak from chemotherapy to attend services. The next day, the Chabad family led a procession of singing and dancing worshippers, with Torah scrolls, to the boy’s home, where his mom celebrated her last Simchat Torah on earth with immense joy.

The boy dedicated his life to sharing that joy with others by becoming a Chabad emissary himself … the rabbi telling us this tale.

The night traditionally ends with singing and dancing, so the occasional outbursts of song around the room are quelled quickly to accommodate the three-hour program of speeches and videos. At one point, however, the rebbe’s recovery nigun spontaneously fills the room and neither the emcees, nor the orchestra, nor the VIPs can stop it. Without musical accompaniment or visible direction, our voices rise in a stadium-like chorus of unrestrained joy.

That’s when I finally grasp that the sea of matching beards, hats and fedoras actually is composed of rule-breaking iconoclasts like me, fueling up to battle soulless secularism with meaning and purpose. And I am all in.


Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist, where a video of the rebbe’s recovery nigun is available.

The surprising history of a one-time Charles Manson house


Fifteen years ago, Chabad of Pacific Palisades set up a summer camp on a sprawling two-acre estate located in Rustic Canyon. Originally, the estate belonged to American humorist Will Rogers, but had since traded hands, boasting an impressive list of tenants- from Rogers, to Dennis Wilson (drummer of the Beach Boys), to the Hormel Family (as in Hormel Food Corp., the manufacturer of Spam).

“The Hormel family owned the property. They lived there for a while, but it was vacant and they graciously allowed us to use it for a summer,” said Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head rabbi of Chabad Pacific Palisades.

 

When Cunin first visited the estate, he couldn’t tell you why, but something felt imbalanced. “In kabbalah,” said Cunin, “there’s both positive and negative energy working together.” So he conducted a spiritual “exorcism” on the property: carried a Torah around the grounds, affixed mezuzahs on the doorposts, and cleansed the space.

This was before he knew the history of the house.

14400 W. Sunset Blvd.  If you Google this address, the first entries that pop up are real estate sites.

But if you scroll down, navigate a little deeper, the history of the house starts to unfold. Steven Gaines, author of “Heroes and Villains,” once described the property as a “palatial log-cabin style house.”

In the spring of 1968, Wilson — the Beach Boys’ drummer — picked up two female hitchhikers on the side of the road and brought them back to his house. Later that night, Charles Manson and the “Family” moved in.

When the Manson Family moved in, Wilson scaled back his lifestyle, traded in his master suite for a modest bedroom. Meanwhile, the Manson members bunked in his spare rooms. At first, the arrangement was great. “I live with 17 girls,” Dennis Wilson bragged during a 1968 interview with Record Mirror. Wilson and the Family were getting on like a big, cultish Brady Bunch. But that ruptured quickly.

Soon, Wilson single-handedly was supporting the cult members, paying for virtually everything, from food to gonorrhea treatments (and there were lots of treatments). Wilson spent more than $100,000 on the Family before he decided enough was enough. So Wilson skipped town, stopped payments on the house and left the Family to face eviction. Manson was livid with Wilson. The members then opted to relocate to Spahn Ranch, a 500-acre property in western L.A. County, a longtime shooting location for Western films that later became the notorious plotting ground for the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders.

When residents vacate a house, each leaves behind a residual fingerprint, something that connects all the tenants, energy swapping from one person to the next. That’s the strange quirk with real estate. It has the ability to connect a patchwork of people: from the satire of Rogers, the cult of Manson, the Spam of Hormel, to the Baal Shem Tov of Chabad.

“Spiritually, there were all kinds of energy going through that property,” said Cunin, decades after Manson and his Family were evicted. “The idea is, when you feel weird negative energy, there is also the potential for positive energy. It is up to us to redirect the energy.”

When Chabad used the house, the property looked like a time capsule, stuck in 1968. The cabin had shag rugs and sickly green walls. Bedrooms were stacked with bunk beds and zebra-print carpet. There was a pool on the premises, filled to the brim with dirt, and probably the most sinister relic left behind was a mannequin in the garden. By then, the mannequin was a fixture of the property. Sporting a lopsided wig and go-go mini skirt, her wooden body splintered from being left outside too long in the elements, not encased in a store window. Frozen in some faraway stare, a commercial smile paired with lidless eyes have witnessed residents, over the years, move in and out.

Eventually, a new family bought the house. “I met them once, but I don’t know their names,” Cunin said.

Ari Zarchi, 7, helping at a distribution center in Guaynilla, Puerto Rico. Photo by Levi Zarchi

Chabad of Puerto Rico Balances Taking Care of the Needy and Itself


Eight weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Rabbi Mendel Zarchi, Chabad’s emissary in San Juan still faces a daily challenge: balancing his organization’s needs with those of the community it supports.

“We were fortunate that our electricity came back on just over a week ago,” he said last week in a telephone interview, “but 65 percent of the island’s residents are still without electricity.”

Zarchi, together with employees and volunteers, heads out each day to deliver food, drink and moral support to some of San Juan’s neediest citizens. “We just hope and pray they receive power quickly because it’s a very difficult reality to live” without it, he said.

Many of the areas Zarchi and his workers visit are also still without a phone signal — or even water. “As long as there’s a need out there, we hope to be able to do our part in being a resource for those who are less fortunate,” he said. “When people are in pain, you respond.”

Yet Chabad is facing its own challenges. The hurricane ripped off a large section of the synagogue’s roof, and extensive water damage has affected the sanctuary, the walls, the ceiling and the shul’s electrical outlets.

“When people are in pain, you respond.” — Rabbi Mendel Zarchi

The damage assessment, delayed for weeks, finally came in at $120,000. With a $50,000 deductible that Chabad must meet, along with a $35,000 bill for a generator that provided power over the past two months, Zarchi admitted that Chabad faces a considerable financial challenge. To date, no repairs have been undertaken, but “it’s a process,” he said. “It’s hard to find people to respond and do tasks on a good day.”

Zarchi said his challenge is to devise a budget to cover the repairs, but fundraising efforts have been stymied in the wake of the hurricane.

Chabad of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Two months after the hurricane, Chabad of Puerto Rico still faces a daily challengeRead the article here: https://jewishjournal.com/news/nation/227490/chabad-puerto-rico-balances-taking-care-needy/

Posted by Jewish Journal on Friday, November 17, 2017

“We’re in a great tourist zone but practically every major hotel in the area is closed,” he said. “Weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs at Chabad have been canceled.” These events typically generate considerable income for Chabad, said Zarchi, who said others in Puerto Rico’s Jewish community also are suffering from closures caused by storm damage.

Still, Zarchi remains optimistic. “It’s about surviving the short term — the next six to eight months — until things get better and tourism returns,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge but we have the belief and the faith we’ll persevere.”

However, he added, “that doesn’t diminish our resolve to go out and help the greater community.” Zarchi said those wishing to support Chabad’s hurricane-relief efforts can donate at chabadpr.com.

Zarchi said he drew strength from the haftarah read on Nov. 4 for parashat Vayeira. It recounts how the prophet Elisha revived the deceased child of the Shunammite woman.

“This woman had faith that she could run to the prophet in the time of her direst need — when her child had already died — and that he would be able to help her,” he said. “To me, the story is about how in dire situations, with our determination and our faith, we can transform reality, make a difference and bring healing to the pain.”

Photo from Facebook

Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Speaks At Princeton Despite Hillel Cancellation


Israel Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was able to speak at Princeton University on Monday even though the campus Hillel canceled the speech in face of pressure.

Hotovely was initially scheduled to speak at Princeton Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL), but Hillel canceled the event after the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) lobbied for the cancellation.

“Hotovely’s work causes irreparable damage to the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” AJP wrote in a letter published in The Daily Princetonian. “She has stated her opposition to a Palestinian state and has made it her mission to expand settlement construction in the West Bank.”

The letter added that the CJL was hosting “a racist speaker” and silencing “progressive voices” in doing so.

Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the CJL, explained in a letter to the Israeli consulate in New York their decision to cancel Hotovely.

“This program will be reviewed by our Israel Advisory Committee and we will refine our procedures to learn from this experience,” wrote Roth. “We look forward to continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”

Hotovely criticized the CJL’s decision in a letter to Roth.

“By canceling this lecture, you are infringing on the fundamental academic freedom of the students,” wrote Hotovely. “You are denying the basic freedom of students to hear different points of views, to question, challenge and think for themselves.”

Hotovely added later on in the letter that Roth was “silencing the voice of Israeli democracy” and stated that “a liberal dictatorship is ruling here.”

Fortunately for Hotovely, Princeton Chabad’s agreed to host her instead and she ended up speaking after all.

The head of Princeton’s Chabad, Rabbi Eitan Webb, introduced Hotovely and said, “We bend over backwards to give free speech to all.”

“Asking difficult questions is a part of listening,” said Webb.

Photo from Public Domain Pictures.

D.C Judge to Request Israel’s Assistance In Dispute with Russia Over Chabad Books


Judge Royce Lamberth, a federal judge of the District of Columbia, will request Israel for their assistance in a dispute with Russia over religious texts.

The dispute involves the Chabad-Lubavitch movement demanding that Russia relinquish a collection of texts that are invaluable to the movement. So far, Russia has refused to hand them over.

According to The National Law Journal, Chabad told Judge Lamberth on Tuesday that Kedem Auction House in Israel was able to a get hold of one of the texts, so they requested that Lamber ask an Israeli court to mandate Kedem to explain how they obtained the book. Lamberth approved their request and issued a legal letter to an Israeli court.

“Chabad has brought to this court’s attention the apparent intention of the Witness, Kedem Auction House Limited of Jerusalem, Israel, to auction a volume that has been identified as part of the Chabad library in Russia’s possession,” the letter reads. “Based on information presented to this Court and found to be credible, the volume is subject to this Court’s previous judgment and order.”

Lamberth also reportedly ruled that the book obtained Kedem shouldn’t be sold.

The texts in question involve a collection of 12,000 books and 25,000 handwritten documents that were stored by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn during World War I, which is why they are known as “the Schneerson collection.” Rabbi Chaim Cunin told Deseret News that these documents feature “notes from rabbis” and “personal thoughts and teachings.”

“The documents include the stories and struggles of people who, in some cases, only exist on these pages,” said Cunin.

The Russians seized half of the Schneerson collection in 1918; the rest were seized years later by the Nazis. In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union got their hands on them.

Chabad first filed a lawsuit against Russia to return the texts in 2004. Russia withdrew from the case in 2009 and has refused to hand them over, claiming that Chabad has no legal claim to it. However, Tablet’s Avital Chizik has written that the Russians are simply afraid of “setting a legal precedent for returning nationalized Soviet property at large.”

Russia’s refusal to hand over texts prompted Lamberth to sanction them $50,000 per day in 2013, which has accumulated to $83.5 million. Chabad argued on Tuesday that the sanctions should be increased to $100,000 per day.

All 100 U.S. senators have called for Russia to release the texts. The Department of Justice has also sided with Chabad, although they are wary of further sanctions that may result in Russia taking retaliatory measures.

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Jewish Groups Step Up to Help in Wake of Las Vegas Shooting


The Oct. 1 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 people dead and 527 wounded, has triggered help from several Jewish groups, in particular the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.

“I don’t think there is any part of this community that is not feeling the impact of these events,” Federation President and CEO Todd Polikoff said hours after the attack. “We’re constantly looking at how we can help the whole community, Jewish and non-Jewish, and deal with what transpired.”

Those efforts have been multifaceted.

“Right now, it’s information-gathering. We’re trying to reach out to members of the community, various synagogues and anyone in our base to let us know that everyone is safe that they know of and if they’re not, what’s the situation,” Polikoff said.

He added that as of the morning after the shooting, he did not know if anyone in the Jewish community had been injured or killed, but there were 22,000 people at the concert, “and we know members of the Jewish community go to these festivals,” he said.

Rabbi Levi Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada said he had spent time with the family of one Jewish victim at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, where 14 patients had died as of Oct. 2. The outdoor Route 91 Harvest music festival began Sept. 29 and concluded on Oct. 1.

Harlig said he visited the hospital after hearing about a Jewish woman from Orange County whose husband had dropped her off at the concert, where she was shot in the neck.

“Thank God [her injury] does not seem to be life-threatening,” he told the Journal.

An estimated 70,000 Jews live in Nevada, with the majority residing in Las Vegas, according to Polikoff.

The Federation leader said the organization has been in contact with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“We’re trying to work with Metro as best as we can,” Polikoff said. “They have a hot-line for people who are looking for family members. We’re trying to drive people to the blood services in town because blood services are greatly needed and we’re trying to be a community partner the best we can.”

The authorities said the gunman, Stephen Paddock, fired his weapon from a room on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel, overlooking the concert, during the performance of headliner Jason Aldean. Paddock began firing at the crowd gathered at the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds at 10:08 p.m., authorities said.

The rapid gunfire sent concertgoers running, while others crouched on the ground and held one another.

As the shooting continued for several minutes, a SWAT team closed in on the shooter’s location. Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said Paddock committed suicide after SWAT officers pinned him down. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Law enforcement, however, said the shooter acted alone.

Polikoff said he was asleep when his Apple Watch buzzed at 1 a.m. with a news notification about the incident. He thought it was his watch alerting him to wake up, as it does every morning at 5 a.m. The news — that 20 people had been killed — stunned him. By the time he got in his car to drive to work, the number had risen to more than 50.

Various members of the Federation staff left the office to donate blood and found long lines, “100 people deep,” he said.

Noa Peri-Jensch, regional director of the Israeli American Council in Las Vegas, said her organization was encouraging people to assist those donating blood.

“The blood centers are packed with donors, so we have decided that instead of blood, we should assist those who are standing in lines to donate blood,” she said. “Members of the Israeli community went out in a big truck to hand out water and food to those in line at the blood centers.”

Anna Rubin, director of media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, which serves the entire region of the southwest United States, including Nevada, told the Journal on Oct. 2 that five Israelis were unaccounted for in the wake of the attack.

“We are monitoring the situation,” Rubin said, explaining that the consulate was notified by the missing individuals’ families. Additional information on the missing Israelis, whose parents are in Israel, was not immediately available. 

Julie Martinez, a mother of two girls, has lived in Las Vegas for eight years. The daughter of an Israeli mother and an American father, Martinez was supposed to go to the concert with a friend but changed her mind at the last minute. Her friend, however, attended.

“My friend went there with her 4-year-old daughter. She called me crying and in shock after she ran from the concert area to the Tropicana hotel,” Martinez said. “That’s how I found out what had happened. They stayed there for five hours until the police let them go back home. The streets were completely empty. No one was allowed to leave. Many people who attended the concert ran as well to the Tropicana. People gave them drinks and helped them out. Everybody was so helpful, she told me.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Jewish organizations, including the Union of Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Los Angeles social justice-oriented congregation IKAR, renewed a call for the enactment of tighter gun control laws.

“There is so much we don’t know yet about this shooting. What does seem clear is that the gunman used at least one fully automatic assault weapon among the 17 weapons, including rifles with scopes, that police found in his hotel room. These are weapons of war, easily accessible in America,” IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous said on Oct. 2 in a statement titled “Enough With Your Thoughts and Prayers. People are Dying.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt echoed Brous’ call for more gun control.

“We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun violence prevention measures,” Greenblatt said.

Polikoff, meanwhile, said at this early juncture, he did not want to focus on the politics of the situation.

“One thing I’m not listening to is anyone who wants to turn this into any sort of political commentary. I don’t think this is the time or place [to say], ‘This wouldn’t have happened if so-and-so were in office,’ ” he said. “We have to worry about the people who were hurt and the families who lost loved ones at this time. I will let everyone else discuss the politics of what they want to discuss. I will focus on people who need help.”

Harlig, the Chabad rabbi, said the shooting shook him up.

“You hear stories about New York, Florida, overseas, and all of a sudden this is our hometown, so it is frightening, but I think the holiday of our rejoicing is coming up, Sukkot, so we will have a double amount of strength to counter the darkness,” he said.   

Harlig expressed confidence that life in Las Vegas will soon — perhaps too quickly — return to normal.

“Unfortunately, people get caught up with the excitement and the glamour here and are quick to forget,” he said. “It might take a day or two, but I think it will go back to normal. Let’s wait for the dust to settle.” 

Additional reporting by Contributing Writer Ayala Or-El

Chabad Rabbi Mendel Zarchi hands out food and water in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was devastated by Hurriance Maria on Sept. 20. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Mendel Zarchi

Rosh Hashanah in the midst of a hurricane


It took three phone calls via WhatsApp to connect with Chabad Rabbi Mendel Zarchi in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A week after Hurricane Maria had torn through the region the day before Rosh Hashanah, Zarchi spoke with the Journal via a “hotspot” — someone else’s phone that had internet connectivity, because his did not. Most of the tiny island territory still was without water or power.

Zarchi’s voice cracked as he talked of living through the night of the storm in the storage room of San Juan’s Chabad House with his wife, Rachel, their 7-year-old-son, Ari, and two other families.

“We experienced a torrent of winds that is unfathomable,” Zarchi said. “When you see windows shaking, hear the winds howling and see a raging river flowing contrary to its natural flow with waves close to 3-feet high, there’s no illusion that this can be conquered. This was God’s force.”

The families were safe in the Chabad structure, which was built 15 months ago and designed to withstand such storms.

Venturing outside the day after the storm, Zarchi said the area looked like a war zone. “The streets were deserted, there was flooding, chaos, downed wires and telephone lines,” and the roof of his home had been torn off, he said.

And yet, it never entered his mind to cancel Rosh Hashanah services.

“At around 3 p.m. [on Erev Rosh Hashanah], the trauma wore off a bit, and the reality set in that it was going to be Rosh Hashanah,” he said.

Zarchi said his first concern was the safety of the community. For those who could make it to synagogue, there would be davening and meals, courtesy of the rebbetzin, made possible by Chabad House’s generator that provided power for cooking and light.

Together with local volunteers, Zarchi made his way to the synagogue. “It was flooded with hundreds of gallons of water, and our roof had been ripped off, but we rolled up our sleeves and opened the doors,” he said. “The brooms were brought out — we had no mops — and the sweeping began. It took about two hours. We barely made it.”

Usually, 50 to 100 people attend High Holy Days services at the Chabad shul. On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, 15 people made it.

“At around 3 p.m. [Erev Rosh Hashanah], the trauma wore off a bit, and the reality set in that it was going to be Rosh Hashanah.” — Rabbi Mendel Zarchi

The next morning, another small group braved the elements to attend services, which were conducted without a cantor. The cantor was stranded in Chicago after his flight was canceled due to hydraulic problems. He missed his alternate flight because it left two hours early to reach Puerto Rico ahead of the hurricane.

Zarchi said his prepared sermon “went out the window. It was about the emotions of the moment, and it didn’t need preparation.”

In his improvised sermon, he spoke of how we seek security in our families, our homes and our businesses. “We want to feel protected, and in a moment we see how vulnerable we are and how we’re dependent on our creator,” he said. “And on the other hand, we don’t control the events around us, but we do control how we respond to them.”

Zarchi told his congregants that when he walked outside at 7 a.m. that first day after the storm, seeing few people, he noticed “one old man bending down and picking leaves out of a drain. He did that for hours. He chose to respond in a selfless way and he made a difference.”

Zarchi also met with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. He said he told her, “We have deep roots in this community, and we will remain to see the rebuilding of this beautiful island.”

Zarchi said the mayor requested that he keep her and the island in his prayers. Zarchi said he promised he would. In return, he asked for the nightly curfew to be lifted for those wanting to attend Kol Nidre services on Erev Yom Kippur. He said she told him, “I’ll send out a tweet immediately, encouraging the Jewish people to go to their synagogues and asking the police to allow them to go pray.”

Throughout the days after the storm, Chabad flew in supplies.

Zarchi said visiting some of the poorest communities was important.

“We bring them food and water, and also a message of hope that they can rebuild and somebody is thinking about them,” he said. “It could take months for government resources to come. I told them, ‘We’re here, we’re thinking about you,’ and it meant so much to them. We can all make a difference. We can all bring some order to the chaos.”

This article has been updated.

A flooded street southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21. Photo by Dave Graham/Reuters

After Hurricane Maria disrupts Rosh Hashanah, Puerto Rico’s Jews vow to ‘start living again’


Rabbi Norman Patz stood on a 13th-floor balcony overlooking the flooded streets, stripped trees and downed power lines of the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It was Sept. 25, the first weekday after Rosh Hashanah, and Patz had no way of communicating with the majority of his congregants at Temple Beth Shalom; Hurricane Maria had knocked out the island’s communication grid.

“The irony of the thing is that we’re here to celebrate the beginning of the new year, and we wish each other a shanah tovah, and this crap is all around us,” he told the Journal, speaking on a cell phone he managed to keep charged thanks to his building’s diesel generator.

The historic hurricane delivered devastating winds and rain that halted the rhythms of normal life on the island, disrupting synagogue services at the holiest point in the Jewish calendar. Some 1,500 Jews live on the island, mostly concentrated in San Juan, forming the largest Jewish community in the Caribbean. 

At Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation, services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah were cancelled. On the second day of the holiday, however, 15 people showed up, according to Patz.

Though some second-floor classrooms at the synagogue flooded due to driving rain, the sanctuary had been spared flooding. But the lack of air conditioning rendered the sanctuary hot and airless — so congregants carried folding chairs across the street and held a service underneath the cover of a drive-through window of a bank.

Click here to donate to Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico

The Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico, in a touristy area of San Juan, took on hundreds of gallons of water, the center’s director Rabbi Mendel Zarchi told Chabad.org.

“The natural flow of water on Rosa Street, where Chabad is located, is toward the north, in the direction of the ocean,” Zarchi said. “At 5:30 a.m., there was a raging river with waves about 3 feet high flowing in the opposite direction, towards the south.”

Emerging from the synagogue, where he took shelter, Zarchi said he encountered “blasted-out windows, toppled utility poles mangled with an overwhelming amount of downed trees [and] smashed cars.”

He said the synagogue still managed to attract a prayer quorum on both days of the holiday.

By Sept. 25, a relief fund had been set up on the center’s website to raise emergency funds for food and water distribution, fuel for Chabad’s generator, repairs to the synagogue building and a 24-hour armed guard to protect the synagogue from looters.

Click here to learn more and donate to Chabads relief fund.

Representatives for the island’s oldest congregation, Shaarey Zedeck Synagogue, could not be reached for a status update, as dialed phone calls met with error messages. But in the hurricane’s wake, the Conservative congregation set up a fund “to aid our Synagogue and vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico,” according to its website.

Click here to donate to Shaarey Zedeck Synagogues relief fund. 

The downed communication network posed a challenge for those hoping to deliver aid.

Patz, who commutes to Puerto Rico from New Jersey to officiate for the High Holy Days, said the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) had reached out with offers of help.

“They’ve offered all kinds of things — personal help, monetary help, anything that we need,” he said. “And I said to all of them, ‘Listen, we can’t assess the needs. We can’t contact people. We don’t know.’”

Hurricane Maria comes as Jewish organizations are still working to meet the needs of the communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. The JFNA is now collecting funds for victims of all the year’s hurricanes, to be distributed as needed.

“We have been actively engaged with the leadership of the Jewish community in Puerto Rico and are working to bring immediate relief resources,” JFNA spokesperson Rebecca Dinar said in an email to the Journal. “We anticipate that the needs of the community will be significant and once we have a clear idea of what those needs are we will determine the best way to support and help them.”

Click here to learn more and donate to JFNAs hurricane relief fund.

Meanwhile, Patz, 79, said he and his wife were stuck walking up and down the 13-story staircase to the apartment loaned to him by a congregant, as the power outage had rendered the elevator useless. “We’re just walking the calories right off,” he said.

He described Puerto Ricans as a resilient community that would inevitably bounce back from the tragedy.

“As we celebrate our new year, we do the best we can,” he said. “The spirit of renewal is the thing that says get up and start living again. And that’s what people here are trying to do.”

High Holy Days 5778 calendar


Erev Rosh Hashanah: Sept. 20
Rosh Hashanah, first day: Sept. 21
Rosh Hashanah, second day: Sept. 22
Kol Nidre: Sept. 29
Yom Kippur: Sept. 30

CHABADS

Los Angeles-area Chabads offering free services to the public during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include Chabad of Beverlywood, (310) 836-6770; Chabad of Century City, (310) 505-2168; Chabad of Miracle Mile, (323) 852-6907; Chabad in Simcha Monica, (310) 829-5620; Chabad of Woodland Hills, (818) 348-5898; Chabad of Studio City, (818) 508-6633; and Chabad of Greater Los Feliz, (323) 660-5177. For more venues, visit chabad.org.

SAN FERNANDO & CONEJO VALLEYS

SHOMREI TORAH SYNAGOGUE

Free services for families and children, featuring a high-energy band, interactive stories and family participation. Rosh Hashanah, first day, ECE-second grade family service, 9:30 a.m.; third-sixth grade family service, 11 a.m. Yom Kippur, ECE-second grade family service, 9:30 a.m.; third-sixth grade family service, 11 a.m. RSVP required. Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.

TEMPLE ADAT ELOHIM

Services for the whole family. Rosh Hashanah, first day, family service, 4 p.m. Yom Kippur,  family service, 3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.

TEMPLE AHAVAT SHALOM

Reform synagogue with services geared toward families with young children, lasting only an hour. Longer services for adults. Services offer opportunities for children and adults to join in traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings. Rosh Hashanah, first day, family service, 8:30 a.m.;  youth program (grades K-6) 10:30 a.m. Kol Nidre, family service, 6 p.m. Yom Kippur, family service, 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. tasnorthridge.org.

TEMPLE JUDEA

The Reform congregation opens its doors to children and their families in the community for Tot High Holy Days services. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 3:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur, 3:15 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com

TEMPLE KOL TIKVAH

The Reform synagogue holds free family services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Erev Rosh Hashanah youth and family service, 5 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day, tot service (0–7 years old), 1:30 p.m. Kol Nidre youth and family service, 5 p.m. Yom Kippur, tot service (0-7 years old), 1:30 p.m. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.

TEMPLE NER SIMCHA

Erev Rosh Hashanah, 7:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day, 9 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day, 9 a.m.; Kol Nidre, 7:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur, 9 a.m. Services at Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. Temple Ner Simcha, 5737 Kanan Road, Unit 176, Agoura Hills. (818) 851-0030. nersimcha.org.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, HOLLYWOOD & THE EASTSIDE

CONGREGATION KOL AMI 

The LGBT congregation welcomes the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. If you are 30 years old or younger, services are free with a suggested (but not required) donation. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996. kol-ami.org.

JEWISH LEARING EXCHANGE

The education center holds an abridged, beginners Rosh Hashanah service, open to everyone, 4:30 p.m. Free. Reservations required. Jewish Learning Exchange, 512 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923. jlela.com.

NASHUVA

Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band’s spiritual community is back and everyone’s invited. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:45 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day, 9:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day, 9 a.m. hike at Temescal Canyon, 10 a.m. service. Kol Nidre, 6:15 p.m. Yom Kippur, 9:30 a.m. Services are free but a suggested donation for attendance is $350 per person; donations help support programs year-round. Reservations required. Founder’s Church of Religious Science, 3281 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles. Temescal Canyon Gateway Park, 15601 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. nashuva.com.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD 

The historic Reform congregation holds free family services (toddlers through second-graders) at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It opens its doors to the general public for the Rosh Hashanah second-day service at 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

THE WESTSIDE

BEIS KNESSES

Free High Holy Days services to anyone interested in participating. No RSVP required. Rosh Hashanah first and second day, and Yom Kippur, 8:45 a.m. Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights (formerly LINK East Shul), 6022 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. linkeastshul.com.

BETH SHIR SHALOM

The progressive Reform synagogue holds free afternoon children’s services for families with children up to age 7. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 2:30 p.m. Yom Kippur, 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Santa Monica High School, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

THE CHAI CENTER

Everyone is welcome to enjoy these services. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:45 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 11 a.m. Kol Nidre, 6:30 p.m. Yom Kippur, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. (“Stump the Rabbi” program). No reservations necessary. Donations encouraged. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 391-7995. chaicenter.org.

HILLEL AT UCLA

Free to all students with a valid school ID. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox services. Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. uclahillel.org.

IKAR

Pray with the progressive egalitarian community. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, second day, 8:30 a.m. Yom Kippur, 2 p.m. and after. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.

LEO BAECK TEMPLE

Rosh Hashanah, first day, and Yom Kippur  children’s service (preschoolers and toddlers), 2 p.m. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.

MISHKON TEPHILO

The Mishkon community welcomes families with children ages 2 to 5 to its Mini-Mishkon Tot service on Sept. 21, 10 a.m. Families with children ages 6 to 12 are welcome at its Family/Youth service, Sept. 21, 10:45 a.m. Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main St., Venice. (310) 392-3029. mishkon.org.

SHOLEM COMMUNITY 

The secular humanistic community holds a free, family-friendly day at the park for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Bring a picnic for your family and a dessert to share! Rosh Hashanah, first day, 11 a.m Yom Kippur, 11 a.m. No reservations necessary. Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills Recreation Center Picnic Area 1, 2551 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. sholem.org.

SHTIBL MINYAN

The traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan welcomes the general public to services. Erev Rosh Hashanah, 6:15 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first and second day, 8:30 a.m. Kol Nidre, 6:15 p.m. Yom Kippur, 8 a.m. Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 916-9820. shtibl.com.

SINAI TEMPLE

The Conservative synagogue opens its doors to the community for a free Erev Rosh Hashanah service, “Rosh Hashanah Live.” Welcome in the New Year with song and story with Rabbi David Wolpe, singer-composer Craig Taubman and Cantor Marcus Feldman. 8 p.m. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE

Free, one-hour family services filled with music and stories provide a kid-friendly introduction to the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, first day, 8:30 a.m. Yom Kippur, 8:30 a.m. Reservations required. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. unisyn.org.

A Charedi Orthodox man participating in the kapparot ritual in Ashdod, Israel. Photo by Dima Vazinovich/Flash90

Animal rights group sues police for not stopping Yom Kippur kapparot ritual


An animal rights group filed a lawsuit against two Southern California police departments for not enforcing animal cruelty laws by halting a pre-Yom Kippur ritual.

The lawsuit filed this week naming both the Irvine and Los Angeles police departments is aimed at stopping Chabad of Irvine’s kapparot ceremony in which a chicken is swung by its legs and then slaughtered. It is the second attempt in recent years by the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League to halt the ceremony.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana says both police departments protect the “illegal killing of animals” by not cracking down on the kapparot ceremonies, the Orange County Register reported.

A lawsuit filed by the group against Chabad in 2015 on the basis of animal cruelty said the chickens are crammed tightly into cages and mishandled, and are disposed of and not used for food.

A federal judge in May dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Virginia-based United Poultry Concerns claiming that the practice violates the state’s unfair competition law.

Kapparot is an ancient practice performed annually by some Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By performing kapparot, one’s sins are said to be symbolically transferred to the chicken as part of the process of atonement ahead of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The meat of the chicken is then donated to charity.

Some Jews perform the ritual using money in place of a chicken.

Property damage is seen at a mobile home park in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 11. Photo by Stephen Yang/Reuters

Hurricane Irma tears through Florida: Here’s how to help


Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston with historic floods, Hurricane Irma tore through Florida, delivering devastating wind and rain and forcing millions to evacuate. Though flooding did not reach the same catastrophic proportions as in Houston, the storm nonetheless left much of Florida’s Jewish population of 655,000 without basic necessities such as food, power and fuel.

Rabbi Levik Dubov of Chabad of O’Town in downtown Orlando spoke with the Journal Sept. 11 as family and friends cooked a meal on a portable stove in his home. Without power, they had to use up as much perishable food as they could before it spoiled.

Dubov said he had spent the morning checking in on friends and community members to make sure they were safe. Across the state, Chabad houses have become de facto storm relief centers.

“If they need food, if they need shelter, if they need fuel, if they need resources, we’re there to help,” Dubov said. “It’s whatever people need, and right now it seems food is the biggest thing.”

Click here to learn more about Chabad’s efforts in Florida and donate.

Chabad was among the Jewish organizations rushing to help communities impacted by Hurricane Irma. 3 On Sept. 11, more than two dozen Chabad houses planned to open their doors to community members in need of a dinner meal.

“People right now, they just want to have a sense of morale, a sense of togetherness,” Dubov said. “Food provides that.”

After Hurricane Harvey, Jewish Federations across the country opened fundraising pages to help storm victims. But as the extent of the damage in Florida became clear, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles extended its fundraising effort to include victims of Hurricane Irma.

Alana Weiner, vice president of media relations and strategy at the Los Angeles Federation, said funds raised through the Federation’s website would go to victims of each hurricane as needed.

Click here to learn more about Federation’s efforts.

Jacob Solomon, CEO of Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said while Jewish communal structures escaped serious damage for the most part, the lack of a functioning power grid posed a serious challenge.

“It looks like there’s relatively little structural damage to communal institutions,” he told the Journal. “The big issue right now is it’s something like 80 percent of Miami-Dade County is without power.”

In Atlanta, home to the closest large Jewish community to Florida, nearly a dozen synagogues opened their doors to Jews fleeing the hurricane.

“We were starting to get inquiries about Irma — two, three, four people asking about coming for Shabbat. We realized this is going to be a real need, and instead of dealing with a one-off, let’s open our community,” Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills, one of the participating synagogues, told JTA.

The synagogues’ efforts were supported by thousands of kosher meals from the Orthodox Union.

Click here to learn more about disaster relief from the Orthodox Union.

A number of Jewish disaster relief organizations in the United States and Israel quickly moved to expand efforts launched in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to include victims in Florida.

Less than two weeks after dispatching an emergency response team to Houston, the volunteer group Israel Rescue Coalition sent 15 medics to help in Florida. Meanwhile, NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster prepared to deploy a team to Florida to help victims recover from storm damage.

Solomon, the CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, said cash donations were preferable to other kinds of aid.

“Walmart and Target and JC Penny have a pretty good distribution system already,” he said. “What we need is the ability to go out and buy what we need when we need it.”

Solomon spoke on the phone Sept. 11 as he decided whether he was going to break a county curfew to go recite the Mourner’s Kaddish with a prayer quorum — he’s mourning the loss of three close relatives in the past year. But as the storm chugged northward towards Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, he struck a note of confidence for Miami, a city that has seen its fair share of nasty storms.

“We’re going to be just fine,” he said. “We know this drill.”

Some of the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin on Sept. 6. Photo by Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma was no match for this mikveh on St. Martin


It was 5 a.m. Wednesday and Hurricane Irma was pounding the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz and his wife, Chana, the Chabad movement’s emissaries there, gathered their five children and hunkered down in an unlikely place: a mikveh.

According to the Chanowitzes, as told on Chabad.org, the ritual bath helped save their lives.

The storm killed at least eight people on St. Martin and a councilman told Reuters that 95 percent of the 34-square-mile island was destroyed. Irma’s winds reached around 180 miles per hour and decimated trees and homes, flinging cars around in its wake.

Even though the Chanowitzes’ Chabad center building was sturdy and built into the side of a mountain, the storm had them rightly terrified. By 4 a.m. Wednesday, the front door of the building had flown off.

“You could hear it; you feel the pressure in your ears,” Moishe Chanowitz said. “I thought the windows would explode at any moment.”

With more wallboards flying away, the Chanowitzes fled to the center of the building and into the mikveh. It’s still under construction but crucially has an outer wall and a door. The family pushed a commercial freezer in front of the door.

The door of the Chabad center in Saint Martin blew off when Hurricane Irma passed through. (Chabad.org/News)

“We have hurricane-proof doors and windows; it’s not like we weren’t prepared,” Chanowitz said. “But this was off the charts. The mikveh saved us.”

Around 10 a.m., the family and hundreds of neighbors finally ventured out into the disheveled landscape. Most had similar stories. One friend told the Chanowitzes he survived by hiding in a closet.

For now, the Chanowitzes, along with the rest of Saint Martin, are left without electricity.

“The damage is unimaginable,” Chanowitz said. “But we’re going to rebuild.”

The Chasidic Chabad movement is known for its outreach around the world and has emissaries in nearly 100 countries.

A rescue helicopter hovers in the background as an elderly woman and her poodle use an air mattress to float above flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey while waiting to be rescued from Scarsdale Boulevard in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 27, 2017. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Hurricane Harvey hits Jewish Houston hard. Here’s how you can help.


Even as Hurricane Harvey continued to soak Southeast Texas with unprecedented floods, the local Jewish community was already planning the relief effort that would kick in now that can be safely distributed.

The storm dumped more than six months’ worth of rain between Aug. 25 and Aug. 27, much of it in areas where Houston’s Jewish community is concentrated, according to Taryn Baranowski, chief marketing officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. She said more than two-thirds of the area’s Jewish population lives in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storm, including Meyerland, Willow Meadows and Memorial.

In response to flooding, the Jewish Federations of North America partnered with the Houston Federation to set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, raising money to support the Greater Houston Jewish community as it recovers from the devastation of the storm.

Click here to learn more and donate to the Jewish Federations’ efforts.

A recent demographic survey by the Federation indicated that 63,700 people live in Jewish households in the Greater Houston area. More than a quarter of that population are seniors, including 5,900 who are age 75 and over.

The Houston Federation is coordinating its response with other local Jewish organizations, including the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston and Seven Acres Jewish Senior Care Services, an assisted living home.

Separately, one of the congregations washed out by Hurricane Harvey, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, has opened relief funds to help cover losses to the massive synagogue complex and its attached day school.

Click here to donate to the synagogue, and here to donate to the day school.

The United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston also flooded, with damages potentially in the millions of dollars to its campus. Robert Levy, a member of the synagogue’s executive committee, said the storm was “just a disaster for the community.”

“While we have been through devastation before, this one is just an order of magnitude more extensive,” he told the Journal.

Click here to donate to the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston.

Meanwhile, on Aug. 28, the day after the storm ended, a team from the Israeli disaster relief organization IsraAID was already on its way to Houston. In a fundraising email, the group’s co-CEO, Yotam Polizer, said IsraAID would provide debris removal assistance, psychosocial support and childcare services to those impacted by the storm.

Click here to learn more and donate to IsraAID’s efforts

In the Houston area, several Chabad rabbis launched a joint fundraising effort to provide kosher meals to those who have evacuated and to help families recover after the floodwaters recede.

Rabbi Yossi Zaklikofsky of Bellaire, Tex., near Houston, acted as a spokesperson for that effort. He spoke on the phone from his home, where neighbors and community members had gathered to begin cleanup and repair after 6 inches of water flooded the ground floor.

“In terms of the number of Jewish families who were impacted by the storm, it’s certainly in the thousands,” he said. “So this is anywhere from minor damage to the home to losing everything.”

Click here to learn more and support Chabad’s efforts.

Zaklikofsky said some members of the congregation he operates, the Shul of Bellaire, had seen three or four feet of water flooding their homes. He said that efforts to help Jews in extreme physical need were part of Chabad’s central mission.

“Before you can be there for somebody spiritually, you need to be there for them materially, physically emotionally, and help them restore stability and restore their dignity, first and foremost,” he said.

Other funds supporting Houston’s Jewish community and beyond:

Union for Reform Judaism

Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center in Houston

NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster

Greater Houston Community Foundation

Yiscah Smith Photo courtesy of Yiscah Smith.

Transgender Jewish Educator Shares Her Rebirth in Torah


Chana Rosenson first saw Yiscah Smith from across the room at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where Smith was teaching and Rosenson was spending a year visiting as a rabbinical student.

Something about Smith struck Rosenson. She turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know who she is, but whatever she’s got I need to get for my soul.”

Smith soon became Rosenson’s teacher and mentor, and on a recent late-June evening she sat in Rosenson’s living room in Calabasas to lead a class on Chasidic wisdom and Jewish text. There was no institutional sponsor or promotional message for the event. Instead, Rosenson explained to her guests, “I just wanted to share her with as many people as I possibly could.”

Just over 25 years ago, when Yiscah Smith was still Jeffrey “Yaakov” Smith, with a long beard and six children, she left a life as a Chabad educator in Jerusalem. After 10 years living a secular life in the United States, Smith returned to religious life as an observant transgender woman and a nondenominational Jewish educator.

At the recent gathering at Rosenson’s home, Smith sat in front of a semicircle of about a dozen people from various L.A.-area neighborhoods and congregations, wearing an ankle-length blue dress that matched her eyes, her dark hair falling to her shoulders. For two hours, she wove together Torah passages, Chasidic teachings and her own personal journey in a lesson that was part Torah study and part self-help seminar.

“Authenticity is a process,” she said. “Trust the process — that God does not want you to live anybody else’s life.”

Underscoring her sermon was the idea that making peace with oneself is a prerequisite for fully understanding Jewish wisdom.

“God, Torah and the truth are aligned only when one is honest with oneself,” she said.

Smith came by that lesson the hard way. In an interview shortly before her lecture, she spoke with the Journal about her personal journey.

Jeffrey Smith grew up in a nonobservant Jewish household in New York. After visiting Israel for the first time as a college student in 1971, Smith became inexorably attracted to Jewish spirituality.

“I began to encounter my soul, and I really, passionately wanted to inquire more and practice more,” she told the Journal.

But she had known from early childhood that she identified more as a female than as a male. Delving deeper into traditional Judaism, she faced a spiritual paradox, trapped between her gender identity and her religious one.

“The more I started to access that place of inner truth, the more I felt like a fraud,” she said.

Back in the United States and studying toward a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Smith soon discovered the Chabad Lubavitch movement and became a regular at its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Smith recoiled from the movement’s strict gender roles but was attracted to the community it provided.

“The day I put on a black fedora and long black coat, the day I stopped shaving my facial hair to grow out a beard was one of the saddest days I can remember,” Smith wrote in her 2014 book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.” “I looked in the mirror and all I could think was, ‘What have I become?’ ”

Still living as a married man, Smith moved to Jerusalem but soon found she no longer could keep up the charade. She built a home “that outwardly looked like the model Orthodox Chasidic family,” regularly hosting dozens for Shabbat dinner. Meanwhile, Smith said she felt increasingly isolated and alienated as a woman living inside a man’s body.

“There was no place for a transgender,” she said. “There was no place for me to go to the rabbis and engage them in the narrative of, Where do I fit in as a woman who senses I’m in someone else’s body? Where does Jewish law identify me? Where do I sit — what side of the mechitzah? Who do I study with? Who do I dance with?”

Smith went through a divorce in 1991m moved to the United States, and spent a decade living a secular life, languishing without community or direction.

“I felt I had the key out of the prison, but I did not yet have the wherewithal to actually put it in the door and let myself out,” she said.

She was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001 when her 50th birthday came around and she decided she’d hit her “spiritual rock bottom.”

“That was the day that I decided, ‘I can no longer breathe any more breath into someone else’s body,” she said. “I had no more energy left to live a lie.”

Smith resolved to live as the woman she’d always known she was. One of her first acts after beginning her transition was to light the Shabbat candles, an act traditionally reserved for women. Though Smith’s childhood home had been mostly secular, both her mother and grandmother had lit Shabbat candles.

“I didn’t even have to really think about it — where else do I begin but light the Shabbat lights?” she said.

After that, “it just all came back,” she said. “That’s the road I’ve been on since.”

For the past 16 years, Smith, 66, has made “a daily commitment” to “becoming faithful to my inner core, my inner self, the image of God.”

These days, Smith teaches Chasidic texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and lives in Nachlaot, a warren of cobblestone alleys with a large population of American expatriates.

Though she no longer defines as Orthodox, she observes Jewish law as best she can. She hopes to carve out a new understanding in halachah that will account for a transgender woman living a Torah lifestyle. Despite the challenge, she’s confident that hers is a winning battle.

“The halachah has a flexibility to it,” she said. “It’s like a rubber band. It stretches, it contracts, it expands, with time it moves. And I didn’t trust that process because I myself was so insecure. Now, I’m able to say, ‘The rabbis need to address what’s really going on.’ And if it means a different interpretation, if it means an addendum, then that’s what we do. The halachah is strong enough. It has weathered 3,400 years of changes.” 

Among those attending the Jewish Free Loan Association annual gala were (front row, from left) board member Jim Kohn, honoree Emily Feit, JFLA board President Harold Tomin; and (back row, from left) honorees Randy Schwab, David Gardner, Alan Feit, Kenny Tashman and Jeffrey Feuer. Photo courtesy of Jewish Free Loan Association

Moving & Shaking: JFLA gala, Bret Stephens lecture, and LA Jewish Comedy Festival


The Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) held its annual gala on June 14 to “highlight the work of JFLA and its impact on the community,” said Rachel Grose, JFLA’s new executive director.

The event, attended by about 300 people at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel, began with a cocktail reception, followed by dinner and the event program.  

JFLA has been providing interest-free loans to people of all faiths in Greater Los Angeles for more than 100 years. The annual gala provides a setting to thank and reward those in the community who have contributed to the organization’s success.

Four awards were given out. The Salter Family Foundation Client Recognition Award was presented to the Tashman Family in honor of their successful use of a JFLA loan they took out in the 1960s to realize their dream of starting a hardware store. They made Tashman Home Center in West Hollywood a community landmark.

Emily and Alan Feit received the the Mitchell Family Foundation Philanthropy Award. With the help of JFLA, the Feits started the Feit 4 KidZ Fertility Loan Fund, a program for families that cannot conceive children on their own but who instead decide to conceive through in vitro fertilization.

The Nathan Shapell Memorial Lifetime Commitment Award was given to immigration attorney David Gardner for creating a citizenship loan fund through JFLA. His loan fund helps people who are in the process of gaining citizenship by aiding in paying for attorney fees and other necessities.

The Ben and Anne Werber Communal Service Award went to Randy Schwab, CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles, recognizing his leadership and commitment throughout the community.

— Isabella Beristain, Contributing Writer


New York Times columnist Bret Stephens (right) participates at Stephen Wise Temple in a Q-and-A with Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback. Photo by Ryan Torok

As a New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens expresses views on some of the most complicated topics of the day, including terrorism, immigration and President Donald Trump. He also recognizes the value in a healthy dose of self-doubt.

“The challenge of a columnist, I think the challenge of all intelligent people, on the one hand is to express your views confidently, but to have enough internal security to know you might be wrong — to know that there is some floating small percent of wrongness in any single point of view,” Stephens said on June 20 at Stephen Wise Temple.

Stephens delivered a lecture and participated in a Q-and-A with Stephen Wise Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback at an event titled “The Jewish Future in a Changing America.” Among the topics Stephens discussed were anti-Semitism in the Arab world, free speech on college campuses and the future of journalism.

“The people who have been most damaged by anti-Semitism in the long run have been the anti-Semites,” Stephens said. “In this case, the Arab world has done itself irrefutable harm by expelling 800,000 talented people, as they did in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel.”

Stephens lived for several years in Israel while serving as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. The former Wall Street Journal columnist predicted the top newspapers in the United States will survive well into the future, despite predictions about the death of traditional journalism.

“I have no doubt there is going to be a New York Times in 20 years,” he said. “I have no doubt there is going to be a Wall Street Journal. And I have no doubt that people do want reliable, authoritative news that they don’t have to double check or wonder [if] that could be true.”

Stephens appeared before a crowd that featured many of Los Angeles’ Jewish leaders, including Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Emeritus Eli Herscher, former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, Community Advocates Inc. President David Lehrer and VBS Rabbi Noah Farkas.

Stephens expressed frustration with the culture on college campuses that has fomented the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel while stifling other speech found by some to be disagreeable.

“One of the things I find disturbing at colleges [is] they seem to be incapable of dealing with an opposite point of view,” he said. “Their way of dealing with it is saying, ‘That’s evil,’ ‘That’s stupid,’ or something like that, as opposed to saying, ‘That’s another approach to the truth.’ ”

— Ryan Torok, Staff Writer, and Jakob Marcus, Contributing Writer


Israeli comedian Gali Kroup performs at the June 24 Jewish Comedy Night at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Photo by Mark Rius

Jewish comedians cracked jokes about bar mitzvahs and guilt-tripping mothers at the June 24 Los Angeles Jewish Comedy Festival, held at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (TEBH) and organized by the production group Comic Cure.

Proceeds from the show benefited YoPro, TEBH’s social group for young professionals.

Among the 23 performers was headliner Kira Soltanovich, a stand-up comedian and former correspondent on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Alex Kojfman, a comedian and TEBH director of communications and marketing, was the emcee.

Israeli stand-up comedian Gali Kroup won the Judges’ Choice Award, receiving $100 and a spot in one of Comic Cure’s “Comedy Upstairs” shows at The Social Attic in Eagle Rock.

The event’s 200 attendees cast ballots and awarded performer Brandon Morganstein with the Audience Choice Award, consisting of the same prizes. Three runners-up — Kari Assad, Adam Gropman and Jared Goldstein — won guest spots in a Comedy Upstairs show.

The judges were local entertainment producer Samantha Shahi, comedian Greg Berman and public relations agent Penny Vizcarra.

Comic Cure produces live comedy events to raise awareness, funds and volunteers for local charities.

— Gabriella Kamran, Contributing Writer


Singer Alex Clare performs in honor of the 23rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
Photo courtesy of Chabad of California

“An Evening With the Rebbe,” an event honoring the 23rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was held June 19 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Lubavitcher rabbi, also known as the Rebbe, for four decades was the face of Chabad, a sect of the Chasidic religious movement. Schneerson was the last of seven rabbis who led the Chabad movement.

The event featured performances by Alex Clare and the Cunin Brothers. Clare is a pop music star and baal teshuvah Orthodox Jew who sings in the secular world but observes Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The Cunin Brothers is a group of six shluchim, or emissaries, of the Rebbe. The six, all rabbis, performed together and then sang with Clare.

Also featured at the event was guest speaker David Suissa, the president of TRIBE Media and the Jewish Journal, who spoke about the Rebbe’s unique contributions to the Jewish world. A short film, “Marching Orders,” which explains the importance of the Rebbe’s legacy, was shown.

The legacy of the Rebbe, who died in 1994, lives on, said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California.

“The Rebbe’s marching orders to each and every one of us was to seek out every opportunity to spread goodness and kindness, and in so doing, to unite world Jewry and all of humanity, and bring about an era of peace and redemption,” he said. “Despite the chaos and darkness that seems to continue and intensify throughout the world, the flip side is that you see a coming together like never before.”

— Clara Sandler, Contributing Writer


From left: Rabbi Richard Camras and Carolyn Reznik-Camras, Benjamin Reznik and Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Daniel Farkas, David and Jeanne Herman, Claudia and Sandy Samuels, Ivy and Burt Liebross, Tzivia Schwartz Getzug and Steve Getzug, and Orly and Howard Fisher are honored by L.A. Hebrew High School. Photo by Curtis Dahl Photography

More than 200 people attended the 68th anniversary of Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS) on June 4 at Hillel at UCLA.

The gathering, titled “A Night of Dinner and Comedy,” honored the organization and nine alumni couples that have emerged over the course of the part-time religious school’s years. Honorees were Carolyn Reznik-Camras and Rabbi Richard Camras; Tzivia Schwartz Getzug and Steve Getzug; Anita and Theodore Farkas; Dalia and Daniel Farkas; Orly and Howard Fisher; Jeanne and David Herman; Ivy and Burt Liebross; Claudia and Sandy Samuels; and Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Benjamin Reznick.

Hebrew High is a supplementary school and program that teaches teens the Hebrew language and a variety of subjects pertaining to Judaism and Israel.

Attendees included Amittai Benami, head of school at LAHHS; Carolyn Reznik-Camras, the outgoing board president; Karen Freed, the incoming board president; and Debbie Holzer, development coordinator at LAHHS.

Organizing partners for the event included Hillel at UCLA, Judith Boteach of Kosher Express Catering and Jeremy Broekman, the event producer.

Emcee Elon Gold provided the laughs as the comedian roasted LAHHS, which raised about $180,000 at the event.

— Avi Vogel, Contributing Writer


Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas.

Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

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

+