Planned Parenthood says Colorado shooter opposed abortion


Planned Parenthood said on Sunday that news reports that the gunman who attacked its Colorado health clinic had uttered “no more baby parts” during his arrest showed that the suspect was motivated by an anti-abortion agenda.

The remark attributed to the suspect, identified by police as Robert Lewis Dear, was an apparent reference to Planned Parenthood's abortion activities and its role in delivering fetal tissue to medical researchers, a hot button issue in the 2016 race for the presidency. 

“We now know the man responsible for the tragic shooting at PP's health center in Colorado was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion,” the organization said on Twitter.

Conservatives have accused Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit that provides a range of health services, including abortion, of illegally selling baby parts, an accusation it has strenuously denied.

Dear, a 57-year-old South Carolina native who moved to Colorado, made the remarks during his arrest after a standoff lasting several hours at the Colorado Springs clinic on Friday, NBC News and other media outlets reported.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm those reports of Dear's comments though the reports cited unnamed law enforcement sources.

While Dear's remarks could hint at a possible motive for Friday's rampage, NBC's sources stressed that investigators were still not sure why the gunman launched the attack.

Authorities have steadfastly declined to discuss a motive for the attack, saying their investigation was still under way.

But Colorado Springs police on Sunday sent a tweet that said unofficial leaks could jeopardize the investigation and prosecution, without specifically mentioning the words attributed to Dear. 

Dear, who appeared to have moved to a remote community in Colorado last year, has been jailed ahead of a court appearance scheduled for Monday.

The shooting was believed to be the first deadly attack at an abortion provider in the United States in six years. The Colorado Springs center has been repeatedly targeted for protests by anti-abortion activists.

At least eight workers at clinics providing abortions have been killed since 1977, according to the National Abortion Federation. The most recent was in 2009 when physician George Tiller was shot to death at a church in Wichita, Kansas.

While calling the shooting “an incredible tragedy,” Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Sunday dismissed talk that harsh anti-abortion rhetoric may have contributed to the attack.

“What he did is domestic terrorism,” the former Arkansas governor told CNN, referring to the gunman. 

“There's no excuse for killing other people, whether it's inside … Planned Parenthood clinics, where many millions of babies die, or whether it's people attacking Planned Parenthood,” Huckabee said.

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who is running for the Republican nomination, said on Fox News it was “typical left-wing tactics” to demonize opponents of abortion or the “sale of body parts” because what she said was “obviously a tragedy.”

Planned Parenthood countered in a statement issued after remarks by the Republicans.

“It's not enough to denounce the tragedy without also denouncing the poisonous rhetoric that fueled it,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said. “Instead, some politicians are continuing to stoke it, which is unconscionable.” 

Planned Parenthood came under fierce criticism this year after some of its officials were secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group discussing compensation for providing human tissue from aborted fetuses to researchers.

Critics say the footage is evidence that Planned Parenthood has illegally sold baby parts, but the organization denies the accusation, saying that some affiliates have donated tissue for research and were paid a small fee to cover costs. 

Planned Parenthood recently announced it was discontinuing the practice, aiming to tamp down the controversy, but critics say that is an admission of guilt.

The Center for Medical Progress, which produced the videos, issued a short statement on its website on Sunday, saying it “condemns the barbaric killing spree in Colorado Springs by a violent madman.”

The attack led Governor John Hickenlooper to call for both sides of the debate overPlanned Parenthood's activities to “tone down the rhetoric.”

“I think we should have a discussion at least urging caution when we discuss some of these issues, so we don't get people to a point of going out and committing violence,” the Democratic governor told CNN, describing the rampage as “a form of terrorism.”

The national security and civil rights divisions of the U.S. Justice Department have joined state and local authorities in investigating the shooting, it said in a statement. That raises the possibility that the federal government may bring a terrorism or civil rights charge, or both. 

TWO CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

Hickenlooper revealed that the two civilian fatalities were a man and a woman, but he offered no further information and would not say whether they were patients or employees at the clinic. Planned Parenthood said all of its employees had escaped unharmed.

Authorities have said they would reveal nothing about the pair until after their autopsy reports, likely on Monday.

Garrett Swasey, 44, the officer killed in the attack, worked for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He had joined city police in responding to reports of shots fired at the clinic. The father of two served as an elder at a local church. 

“We will cherish his memory, especially those times he spent tossing the football to his son and snuggling with his daughter on the couch,” his widow, Rachel Swasey, said in a statement.

In addition to the three fatalities, nine people were injured, including five police officers.

Except for his name and age, police have only said that Dear recently resided in rural Hartsel, about 60 miles (96 km) west of Colorado Springs. Official records show that he has a history of brushes with the law, mostly in South Carolina, but no criminal convictions.

One of Dear's Hartsel neighbors described him as a loner who lived on his remote property with a woman. Zigmond Post Jr., said Dear once gave him a pamphlet critical of President Barack Obama.

Three killed, 9 injured in attack on Colorado Planned Parenthood


Police arrested a gunman who stormed a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Colorado Springs on Friday and opened fire with a rifle in an attack that left three people dead and nine others injured, authorities said.

The dead included one police officer and two civilians, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey told reporters about an hour after the suspect had been captured.

All nine surviving victims – five police officers and four civilians – were listed in good condition at area hospitals, Carney said.

The suspect first engaged in a protracted gun battle with police but ultimately surrendered to officers inside the building about five hours after the start of the violence, which played out under a steady snowfall in Colorado's second-largest city.

A Reuters photographer at the scene saw a man in a white T-shirt, with his hands cuffed behind his back, being taken out of an armored police vehicle and placed in an unmarked squad car. Authorities said they did not know the suspect's identity but believed he acted alone.

The slain lawman was a campus police officer for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who joined city police in responding to the first reports of shots fired, authorities said.

The Colorado Springs clinic has been the target of repeated protests by anti-abortion activists, and in recent years moved to new quarters on the city's northwest side – a facility derided as a “fortress” by critics of Planned Parenthood.

The national non-profit group, devoted to providing a range of reproductive health services, including abortions, has come under renewed pressure in recent months from conservatives in Congress seeking to cut off federal support for the organization.

CHECKING FOR EXPLOSIVES

A police spokeswoman, Lieutenant Catherine Buckley, said it took officers a number of hours to establish communication with the suspect before he gave himself up.

“We did get officers inside the building. They were able to shout to the suspect and make communication with him and at that point they were able to get him to surrender and he was taken into custody,” Buckley said.

An hour earlier, police said progress in securing the building was slowed by the fact that the gunman brought “some bags” with him into the clinic and left several items outside, all of which needed to be checked for possible booby traps or explosives.

After the arrest, Buckley said it would take hours more, and perhaps days, for investigators to fully process the crime scene.

Police swarmed the area around the building after an emergency call reporting shots fired at about 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time (1830 GMT), and officers ultimately confronted the suspect inside the building, Buckley said.

Television footage aired by CNN showed a number of clinic staff and patients being escorted safely into police vehicles from the building, which lies on the northwest side of Colorado Springs, about 70 miles (112 km) south of Denver.

The FBI and agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were assisting local law enforcement investigators.

Colorado movie gunman James Holmes sentenced to 12 lifetimes in prison


Condemning the movie massacre gunman to 12 life sentences and the maximum 3,318 years in prison for his rampage in a midnight screening of a Batman film, a Colorado judge on Wednesday said evil and mental illness were not mutually exclusive.

“It is the court's intention that the defendant never set foot in free society again … If there was ever a case that warranted the maximum sentences, this is the case,” Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour said

“The defendant does not deserve any sympathy.”

Survivors and relatives of those killed clapped and cheered as Samour then ordered deputies to remove James Holmes from his courtroom, and the gunman was led away in shackles.

The 27-year-old was found guilty by a jury last month of murdering 12 people and wounding 70 in his rampage inside the packed screening a multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

The jury did not reach a unanimous decision on whether Holmes should be executed. That meant the former neuroscience graduate student, who had pleaded insanity, got a dozen automatic life sentences with no possibility of parole.

Samour still had to sentence Holmes on attempted murder counts and an explosives charge.

Condemning the shooter to the longest term he could issue, the judge said Holmes decided to “quit” in life, and that he set out to kill “as many innocents as possible.”

Samour said whatever illness Holmes may have suffered, there was overwhelming evidence that a significant part of his conduct had been driven by “moral obliquity, mental depravity … anger, hatred, revenge, or similar evil conditions.”

He said “the $64 million question” that still lingered was whether the defendant was afflicted by a mental condition, disease or defect, and if so, to what extent.

“We tend to like simple answers, but maybe it's not so simple,” Samour said. “And maybe that's because we're not where we need to be in the fields of psychiatry and psychology.”

JUDGE PRAISES VICTIMS

After two days of often tearful and sometimes angry testimony from victims, District Attorney George Brauchler had called on Tuesday for Holmes to be given every day of the longest possible sentence.

The lead prosecutor also said he wished the court could order that the defendant spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement, surrounded by photos of the people he killed, but that it could not.

Samour said he had heard some people bemoan that the gunman would luxuriate in prison.

But he said he thought one of the victims summed it up best when he said being behind bars would be no picnic.

The judge said people could focus on the free food and medical care Holmes will receive. Or, he said, they could see the glass as half-full and consider he will be locked up for the rest of his days with serious, dangerous criminals.

“That doesn't sound a like a four-star hotel to me,” Samour said.

Defense lawyers say they have no plans to appeal, and the judge said that meant they had “truly completed” the trial in a surprisingly short period of just over three years.

“That's unheard of time for a death penalty case, especially one of this magnitude,” Samour said.

And the judge praised the victims, who he said had shown tremendous courage and grit, some of whom were disappointed that Holmes was not sentenced to death.

“You know your healing is not tied to the defendant's fate,” Samour said.

“Even despite all the pain and suffering you've been through, you're not quitting, and you're hanging in there, and you're fighting. You have my admiration.”

Colorado movie gunman Holmes to be formally sentenced to life


Colorado movie massacre gunman James Holmes will be sentenced to life with no chance of parole at a three-day hearing that begins on Monday following his conviction last month for murdering 12 people and wounding 70 in his rampage.

While the murder convictions carry mandatory life sentences with no parole, Colorado law requires that Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour formally impose the penalties. Samour must also decide the punishment for the other charges Holmes was convicted of.

A jury found Holmes guilty of 165 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and explosive charges stemming from the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside a Denver-area multiplex during a midnight screening of a Batman movie.

The 27-year-old onetime neuroscience graduate student had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and prosecutors had sought the death penalty.

The nine-woman, three-man jury could not unanimously agree to condemn Holmes to death during the trial's penalty phase. Under Colorado law, he must automatically serve 12 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

About 100 people are set to give victim impact statements at this week's hearing, the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office said in a statement. The victims cannot address Holmes directly.

After the testimony from victims, lead prosecutor George Brauchler will present his sentencing argument, the statement said.

Defense lawyers can present mitigation evidence on the attempted murder convictions, but it is unclear if they will do so. It is also unknown whether Holmes will make a statement before he is sentenced. He declined to speak in his own defense throughout the earlier proceedings.

The California native could ultimately be sentenced to a maximum of 3,318 years in prison, in addition to the mandatory life sentences, prosecutors said.

Jury keeps death penalty as possibility for Colorado movie gunman Holmes


James Holmes, the gunman in the Colorado movie massacre, could face the death penalty after jurors found on Monday that aggravating factors in the case counted for more than mitigating ones such as mental illness.

After deliberating for less than half a day, the panel of nine women and three men said they had concluded unanimously that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones. If just one juror had found that they did not, the 27-year-old Holmes would have received a life sentence with no chance of parole.

At Aspen, wounded IDF vets learn to ski — and overcome obstacles


After Yinon Cohen lost his legs in an accident involving a rocket-propelled grenade, it wasn’t clear he’d ever be able to walk again, much less ski down a peak in the Rocky Mountains.

A fresh-faced soldier in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Golani brigade, Cohen was in an advanced weapons training course in February 2003 when his sergeant inadvertently fired an RPG, an explosive weapon capable of piercing armored vehicles, straight into his legs.

Just moments before, Cohen had been nodding off, and his exasperated sergeant ordered him to stand for the remainder of the class. That ended up saving Cohen’s life. Had he been seated, Cohen would have been struck in the torso and almost certainly killed. Instead, he found himself dazed in the smoke-filled room, trying to piece together what was happening as soldiers around him panicked.

When he awoke a day later in the ICU unit of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, a psychologist delivered the grim news: He had lost both legs below the knee. Cohen’s response was instinctive, he recalls. Looking at his parents’ tear-stained faces, he said, “Be thankful that I’m alive.”

Then his father recited the Kiddush — it was Friday evening — and they all cried.

Fast forward to 2014, and Cohen, a native of the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikvah, found himself standing on a snowy mountain 8,000 miles away and more than 8,000 feet above sea level, insisting to his incredulous ski instructor that he didn’t need any special equipment other than his prosthetic legs to ski down.

It was Cohen’s first day on the slopes as part of Golshim L’Chaim-Ski to Live, a Colorado program that brings wounded Israeli veterans and victims of terrorism to Aspen to learn how to ski — and boost their spirits.

Now in its eighth year, Golshim is the brainchild of Aspen’s Chabad rabbi, Mendel Mintz. An avid skier himself who is on the snow about one day a week, Mintz got the idea for it from a program for wounded U.S. veterans whom he spotted one day on the slopes.

Golshim, which brings about a dozen Israelis each winter, is focused on skiing and physical activity. The group eats breakfast and dinner together at the Chabad center, and most nights local community members join the group for some kind of program or recreational activity. At a cost of about $5,000 per person, Golshim L’Chaim is supported by local donors, including the local Jewish federation, UJA Aspen Valley. The program is free for the Israeli participants.

“Imagine someone without legs coming here to ski and a week later skiing down Aspen,” Mintz told JTA. “They feel they can do anything after that. The local community gains more than we give. It’s truly inspirational.”

The logistics are daunting, starting from transporting the wounded Israelis from Israel over multiple flights. Some come with a spouse or sibling to assist in their care, and on the mountain each Israeli may be escorted by up to three or four instructors. Medications must be managed, doctors must be consulted and Golshim keeps oxygen on hand in case the altitude becomes difficult for the visitors.

For the ski instruction, Golshim L’Chaim hires Challenge Aspen, an organization that runs adaptive ski programs for people with physical and cognitive disabilities, including wounded U.S. soldiers. Many participants ski with specially equipped chairs, tethers and outriggers — poles with mini-skis on the bottoms.

“Our goal is to have the soldiers become as independent as possible,” said John Klonowski, director of Challenge Aspen’s military program and a veteran ski instructor with the Golshim L’Chaim groups.

“The learning curve is pretty quick. It doesn’t really matter if you’re in adaptive equipment,” he said. “We’ll get folks out on a ski hill, and they have an opportunity to feel like they’re just like everyone else. Especially for people in wheelchairs, this is one of very few opportunities to be out of the wheelchair. Once you’re out there, everybody’s doing the same thing — feeling the speed, the wind in their face, out in the great outdoors.”

When Cohen turned up his first day, the instructors presented him with a monoski, a chair connected by a shock to a fat ski.

“I said no, I’m doing it on my legs,” Cohen recalled. “They thought there was a language miscommunication. In the end I did it on the legs.”

Always athletic, Cohen had tried not to let his disabilities limit him. His initial rehab after the RPG explosion had lasted nearly a year. Because his knees were spared in the explosion, he was given prosthetics and slowly was able to learn to walk anew.

Cohen joined other Israelis on their post-army trips to the Far East and South America, though instead of trekking he rode horseback or on scooters. Back in Israel, he enrolled in Bar-Ilan University, studying criminology.

“Without strong faith in God, I couldn’t have gotten through it,” Cohen told JTA, noting that the part of his legs left intact were what had been covered by the tzitzit ritual fringes he wears every day. “You talk to the man upstairs and you know you’re not alone.”

But there were limitations. Cohen couldn’t run. He often found himself the subject of curious stares. And like many wounded veterans, he struggled at times to keep his spirits up.

At Aspen, Cohen says, his success skiing gave him a new boost.

“When I skied all the way down, I saw that anything is possible,” said Cohen, now 31. “I came back to Israel and it gave me strength to believe in myself. If I look at myself as handicapped, people will treat me that way. If I consider myself a healthy person, people will look at me that way.”

Ariela Alush, 37, who also was on the Golshim L’Chaim program last year, said her Aspen trip proved transformative for her.

Alush was vacationing with two friends in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in October 2004 when terrorists detonated a car bomb just a few feet from her bungalow. She suffered a spinal injury, a head fracture, a broken hand and shrapnel in her ear; one of her friends was killed.

After two years of ear surgeries and rehab, Alush eventually was given a clean bill of health. But she remained traumatized by her experience, disoriented and anxious. She was fearful of traveling overseas and never took vacations. After the bombing, she temporarily lost her sight, and she associated the idea of vacation with the darkness that had befallen her in Egypt.

“When you have post-traumatic stress disorder, you never feel safe. You’re always bothered by something,” Alush said. “But as soon as I got to Aspen I felt embraced by the Jewish community there. I felt like I was in a safe place. I experienced something primal. Just as in Sinai I had my first difficult, dark experience, Aspen was a good, positive experience of light.”

But when Alush tried skiing, her first bad fall triggered a flashback to the bombing in Egypt 10 years earlier. She couldn’t get up. Alush panicked. A ski patrol rescue team was called in to bring her down the mountain. For two days Alush sat disheartened, traumatized anew.

Then one of the program participants gave her a camera. Alush, a film student, perked up. She filmed the snow, the mountains, her friends on skis. Slowly, she says, she felt she was regaining control through the camera lens. Finally, she felt ready to try skiing again.

“I only skied for two days that week, and not even alone. But the therapeutic value of the experience was, in my eyes, worth everything,” Alush said. “In Aspen, something in my pace of life changed. I went back to Israel and I returned to work in a different way. I went back to working on my movie, I had ambition again. Something new had awakened in me.”

For Cohen, the high at Aspen soon was followed by one of the worst lows since his accident.

After several years on artificial legs, his prostheses were worn out. Cohen wanted new prostheses that would allow him to be more athletic, but his Israeli doctors told him that because he had lost his legs in a violent explosion rather than a careful amputation, that wasn’t possible — at least not without additional risky surgery.

For the first time since his rehab, Cohen was confined to a wheelchair.

After months of research, Cohen found a New York outfit called A Step Ahead Prosthetics that said it could design him an advanced prosthetic. But it would cost $150,000 and Cohen couldn’t afford it.

When his new friends in Aspen heard about his predicament, they sprang into action, within weeks raising 80 percent of the cost. An Israeli nonprofit, Dror for the Wounded, which provides medical, psychological and financial assistance to wounded Israeli soldiers, donated the balance.

“Without Golshim L’Chaim it wouldn’t have happened,” Cohen said. “They said the whole time, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get the money.’”

Cohen was fitted with his new prostheses late last summer.

“It’s a real success,” he said. “I can walk and even run. I hadn’t run in 12 years.”

This year’s Golshim L’Chaim program, scheduled for late February, will include several soldiers injured in last summer’s Gaza war, according to Mintz.

“When you see what these people have gone through and what they’re able to do, it’s mind-boggling,” Mintz said. “It puts life in perspective.”

Colorado judge accepts insanity plea from accused theater gunman


Accused Colorado theater gunman James Holmes, who could face execution if convicted of killing 12 moviegoers last summer, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity on Tuesday, and a judge accepted his plea.

Holmes, 25, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder. He is accused of killing 12 people and wounding dozens more in a gun rampage inside a suburban Denver cinema during a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” last July.

Holmes, seated with his lawyers, said little during the latest proceedings in Arapahoe County District Court, but he appeared attentive and answered “no” when the judge asked him whether he had any questions about the ramifications of his plea.

The judge, Carlos Samour Jr., had delayed ruling on whether to accept such an insanity plea until legal questions surrounding the matter were resolved.

Among those issues was a challenge to the state's insanity-defense law by public defenders. They argued that a provision of the statute that requires a defendant mounting an insanity defense to submit to an examination by court-appointed psychiatrists is unconstitutional.

Compelling a defendant to divulge information that could be used against him at trial and at sentencing violates his right against self-incrimination, they argued. But Samour upheld the law last week, setting the stage for Tuesday's hearing.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the former University of Colorado-Denver graduate student if he is convicted.

Public defender Daniel King said in court last month that defense psychiatrists had obtained a complete diagnosis on Holmes' mental illness.

Twice since his arrest, Holmes has been hospitalized, his lawyers said, once for apparent self-inflicted head injuries and again when he was held in restraints in a psychiatric ward.

At a preliminary hearing in January, before a judge ordered the defendant to stand trial, investigators testified that Holmes spent months amassing firearms and bomb making materials in preparation for committing mass murder.

At the same time he was assembling his arsenal, Holmes failed his oral examinations and was told by a university professor that perhaps he was not a good fit for his neuroscience doctoral program, prosecutors said.

Also expected to be decided at Tuesday's hearing is the issue surrounding a package Holmes sent to a university psychiatrist who treated him that was delivered to a university mail room two days after the killings.

A notebook included in the package sent to Dr. Lynne Fenton reportedly contained details of a planned massacre. Holmes' lawyers have argued that the package is protected by physician-patient privilege and should not be turned over to prosecutors.

Defense attorneys submitted numerous pre-trial pleadings that were made public on Tuesday, including a notice to the judge that they plan to seek a change of venue for the trial on grounds that pretrial publicity could prejudice the jury. They also asked the judge to sequester the jury.

Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Grant McCool

Recipe for marijuana cholent


Now that the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use and commercial sale of marijuana for its residents 21 years or older, there are all sorts of way to get creative in incorporating the new legal substance with Jewish edibles. Here's a recipe for “Happy Cholent” that one seasoned “cook” shared with the JTA — he guarantees it will uplift your Shabbat spirits.

HAPPY CHOLENT

Ingredients:
3 1/2 grams dried marijuana
1/2 cup olice oil
1 onion
3 cloves fresh garlic
3 potatoes
2 sweet potatoes
1 cup barley
1 can baked beans
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon paprika
3 tablespoons Frank's hot sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1 piece flanken with bones
2 cups water
 
Preparation:
Heat oil over low flame. Grind marijuana by sprinkling with hand or by using grinder. Add to oil, keep on low flame for 20 minutes or until weed turns light brown. Pour content through sifter, throw out weed residue, and pour oil into bottom of crock pot, put on high high setting. Saute onion into oil, add rest of ingredients, cook on low setting overnight. Serves 8-10; side effects will take 20-30 minutes to kick in if served hot.

Jewish pot activist Mason Tvert hits new high with marijuana legalization vote in Colorado


Say what you will about Mason Tvert, the Jewish activist behind the marijuana legalization campaign that passed in Colorado, the man clearly has a sense of humor.

Some years ago, in his efforts to persuade the public that marijuana is far less of a health menace than alcohol, Tvert famously challenged both the mayor of Denver and the heir to the Coors brewing fortune to a sort of intoxication duel: Tvert would smoke pot while the others drank, and they would see who dropped dead first.

Neither man took up Tvert on his offer.

[Related: Recipe for marijuana cholent]

But after Colorado voters on Nov. 6 adopted a newly permissive approach to marijuana following a campaign for which the 30-year-old was the public face and a leading strategist, Tvert's tomfoolery is no longer just a laughing matter. The measure, and a similar one adopted last week in Washington state, is a watershed, permitting residents over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants for recreational use.

Though somewhat overlooked amid the cacophony of a hard-fought presidential campaign, the new laws in Colorado and Washington are unprecedented.

Colorado's Amendment 64: The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012 is more liberal than even the Netherlands' famously permissive drug laws, which still consider pot possession a misdemeanor. The new law goes well beyond the medical marijuana provisions now on the books in 18 states that permit use of the drug with a doctor's permission, and directly challenges federal authority, which still considers cannabis a Schedule I controlled substance along with heroin and LSD.

“We have forced a major international, let alone national, discussion on this issue,” Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER, told JTA. “And I truly believe the more people talk about this issue amongst each other, the quicker we're going to see broader change in how our country and our state and our world treats marijuana.”

Tvert grew up in a Jewish family in Scottsdale, Ariz., and attended the University of Richmond. His consciousness around marijuana reform was galvanized in college when, for reasons he claims not to know, he was subpoenaed in a multijurisdictional investigation into marijuana use.

“It was really just a shakedown, more or less,” Tvert said. “They start with college kids who probably have a lot to lose. They work their way up from there.”

Tvert likes to compare that to an earlier incident in which, taken unconscious to the hospital to have his stomach pumped after excessive alcohol consumption, he was later released without any questioning from the police — despite being under age. The discrepancy informs one of the pro-legalization campaign's most frequent talking points: They say marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol, which itself was once the target of a costly and failed effort at prohibition, and should be regulated as such.

Critics counter that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug whose legalization would legitimate its use by the young and lead to a range of social ills.

After graduation, Tvert moved to Colorado and co-founded SAFER, a small group that raised just $132,000 in 2010 and shares office space with Colorado's Jewish newspaper, the Intermountain Jewish News. He was instrumental in two earlier legalization efforts in Colorado: the 2005 adoption of the Denver Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative, which permitted the possession of marijuana in Denver, and a 2007 measure that required officials to make marijuana offenses the city's “lowest law enforcement priority.” State law remained unchanged, however, and thousands of Coloradans still were being arrested each year for possession of marijuana.

Tvert persevered, developing a reputation as someone with a knack for media stunts.

In 2008, after a rash of alcohol-related disturbances at Denver's airport, Tvert called a news conference to urge authorities to allow marijuana in the airport's smoking lounge to cut down on traveler stress. Two years earlier he had a billboard erected near a speech by the visiting White House drug czar, John Walters, that quoted Walters saying that marijuana is the safest drug around. Tvert has called the state's governor — an owner of a popular Denver brew pub — a “drug dealer” whose product just happened to be legal. In another Tvert billboard, a woman in a marijuana-colored bikini appeared above the caption “Marijuana: No hangovers, no violence, no carbs!”

“He is just almost a media force of nature,” said Steve Fox, the president of SAFER and the director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, which provided about 90 percent of the funds for the $2.2 million Colorado campaign.

“He's just been brilliant in terms of being on message at all times, developing relationships with the media so they trust him and are willing to come out when he's doing some sort of event. And just the body of communications skills were just excellent for this. That's really where he's excelled.”

As the campaign moved to the state level, advocates buttoned up their image somewhat, attracting some high-profile support in the process. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, who is best known for his staunch opposition to immigration, endorsed the initiative. Actress Susan Sarandon recorded a robocall targeting Colorado voters. Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge did a radio spot.

The group also upgraded its message from one that emphasizes marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol to one that emphasizes the potential tax revenues of regulated marijuana, misplaced law enforcement priorities and overcrowded prisons. Amendment 64 specifically requires the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenues be used to support capital funding for Colorado schools and, unlike a similar but failed attempt in 2010 in California, requires the state to design a tight regulatory regime.

The legalization campaign in Colorado no doubt benefited from a sea change in American attitudes toward the drug. A 1969 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans opposed legalization; by last year the number was down to 46 percent, with 50 percent favoring legalization.

It's unclear exactly what happens next for Tvert and the wider marijuana legalization campaign. Washington could justify a crackdown under the doctrine of federal supremacy, but it's still unclear how the administration will react to the new laws in Colorado and Washington. After years of looking the other way at the budding medical marijuana industry in California, the Justice Department last year cracked down on pot shops in the state.

But it may not have the same incentive to repeat that in Colorado, marijuana activists say.

“There's no need for a knee-jerk federal response,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York and one of the country's top marijuana activists. “There is ample time for rational discussion of how state regulatory authorities will accommodate federal concerns.”

Besides, Nadelmann added, “Colorado is an important swing state. Why make enemies unnecessarily?”

L.A. camp gets unwanted attention in wake of Colorado shooting


Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes’ reported ties to Camp Max Straus have led to unwanted attention for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and its camp, its director said.

“I think the attention is unfortunate,” Randy Schwab, CEO of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and Camp Max Straus, said during a July 23 phone interview.

Following last week’s shooting rampage in Aurora, Colo., media reported that Holmes, 24, worked as a counselor at Glendale-based Camp Max Straus during summer 2008. The camp and its parent organization have found themselves trying to avoid negative attention while coming to terms with the knowledge that Holmes — who is suspected of killing 12 people and injuring 58 — was once responsible for a group of approximately 10 children.

On July 20, Holmes allegedly walked into a movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman finale, “The Dark Knight Rises,” and, armed with multiple weapons, began shooting. He was arrested immediately following the incident and is currently being held in a Colorado detention facility. Holmes made his first court appearance on July 23.

Holmes grew up in the upscale northwest San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Peñasquitos and attended a local Presbyterian church with his family, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Holmes’ connection to Camp Max Straus was discovered through a resume found on employment Web site Monster.com following the shooting.

Situated on 100-plus scenic acres in the Verdugo Mountains and at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet residential neighborhood, Max Straus serves a primarily non-Jewish population of low-income and disadvantaged youth ages 7-12. Mentoring organization Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles owns and operates the nonsectarian camp.

Director Schwab has resisted being interviewed, instead referring reporters to a written statement confirming Holmes was a cabin counselor at Camp Max Straus for eight weeks during the summer of 2008.

“Camp Max Straus is accredited and adheres to rigorous standards to ensure the safety and security of its campers and staff,” the statement says. “All employees of the camp are subjected to a thorough screening process.”

On July 23, NBC Channel 4 News shot footage for a live segment from outside of Max Straus. The news station’s van had been parked outside the camp for approximately five hours, said NBC general assignment reporter Cary Berglund, who was on the scene.

[Related: Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes]

Berglund arrived at the camp hoping to interview camp staff, but counselors declined interview requests and Schwab did not speak to reporters. Two security guards patrolled the entrance, forbidding reporters from walking onto the property, and handed out copies of Schwab’s written statement.

The camp is currently in session, and young children could be seen walking amid the cabins.

Speaking to The Journal, Berglund said that Max Straus doesn’t deserve negative attention, even though it’s “chilling that somebody like [Holmes] was actually a counselor at a kids camp.”

“Somebody like that could be anywhere at any time,” Berglund said. “I don’t think it reflects badly on the camp. It’s just kind of an eerie addition to what the story is.”

A man who worked with Holmes at Max Straus told CNN that he was a “nice guy” who worked well with children.

“He was a little isolated, but he was, you know, a nice guy,” Gabriel Menchaca said.

The attention that the camp has received is surprising and undesirable, according to a former camp staff member who had worked with Holmes.

“I’m looking at us all over TMZ,” the former camp staff member said on July 22, speaking to The Journal on condition of anonymity. “There’s my picture, it’s crazy.” 

“We had a great summer in 2008, and we don’t want this backlash to spoil it,” the former staffer added. “It’s unfortunate that they’re screaming about the camp all over the news.”

Rob Eshman: Who will protect us from the NRA?


The National Rifle Association (NRA) claims it exists to protect our rights. My question is this: Who will protect us from the NRA?

The gun lobby is not responsible for the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., last week that has so far claimed 12 victims. 

But its consistent and effective efforts to thwart common-sense laws to reduce gun deaths have turned the NRA into a public health threat. To the mayhem of Aurora, it adds its own brand of madness.

I’m not saying the NRA doesn’t have a right to do what it does. I’m not saying gun laws are a panacea that will stop spree killings or gun deaths — more on that below. I’m saying that by standing up to the NRA and passing a handful of sensible gun laws, we can prevent thousands of gun-related deaths each year.

I say this as a former NRA member. I still enjoy shooting guns, and I probably know more about them than your average concealed-carry diehard. There are Red Staters who drive Leafs and Blue Staters who shoot skeet. We can have both guns and common sense in this country – right now we only have the former.  

“Aurora was a tragedy,” Adam Winkler, author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” told me by phone when I called him just four days after the shooting. “But since Aurora, 240 people have died from guns in this country. Two hundred and forty.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns claim 35 victims each day in this country — a statistic that does not include suicides (as Winkler’s number did). About 86,000 people are either killed or wounded by firearms each year, of which 12,612 people die. That means that 10 days after Aurora, guns will have killed another 350 people.

The key to driving these numbers down, Winkler said, is to enact federal laws that address the most egregious flaws in gun legislation.

Winkler, like me, is not anti-gun. He’s a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, a Westside native (and yes, the son of legendary film producer Irwin Winkler) who has focused his considerable intellect on the Second Amendment, which has resulted in America’s patchwork of state laws regarding guns. Because of the inconsistencies across state lines, restrictions are bound to be ineffective, as guns are easy to conceal and transport.

I asked Winkler to name one or two federal laws that sensible people and courageous politicians could support.

He suggested new laws aimed at improving criminal background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns. New federal laws should also require these checks for all gun sales. Right now, they only apply to sales by licensed gun dealers, who only account for 60 percent of all gun sales. That means 40 percent of all gun sales—via private parties and gun shows, for example—take place with no background check.

That’s a good place to start, President Obama.

Even such a law, Winkler acknowledged, still might not prevent the next Aurora. Twisted men (it is almost always men) intent on killing will find a way to procure one of the 200 million guns in this country, as well as the millions of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

People who really want to wreak havoc will find a way. Norway has strict gun laws, yet still one of the worst mass shootings in history took place there a year ago this week. And in America, the problem of violence goes far beyond guns. Our homicide rate is four times that of France and the United Kingdom — the highest of any advanced democracy. Switzerland and Israel both have a high percentage of gun ownership but low or negligible amounts of gun-related homicide.

The causes of such carnage may be spiritual, sociological, economic, historical or all of the above. 

But smart, universal background checks could save two or three or five lives each week.

“You could say you’re just addressing the margins,” Winkler said, “but those margins are human lives.”

To save those lives, people have to funnel their outrage over Aurora into two things: contributions and votes.

“Gun control supporters don’t do that,” Winkler pointed out. “Gun control opponents do that.”

He’s right. The NRA, whose founding vision has been hijacked by people with a maximalist agenda, is flourishing. Meanwhile, gun control advocacy organizations flounder. Last May, the Los Angeles-based Women Against Gun Violence held a fundraiser honoring New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, and the event brought in much less money than expected. Foundation grants have also slacked off, the group’s executive director, Margot Bennett, told me. The economy may be partly to blame, but so are politicians from across the spectrum who lack the courage to confront the NRA, and people like you and me who have given up the fight.

The annual budget of Women Against Gun Violence is $300,000. The NRA’s annual budget? $220 million.

“Mayor Bloomberg said we need more leadership on this issue,” Winkler told me. “But he’s got it exactly backwards. We don’t need more leadership, we need more followership.”

This is a fight between those willing to sacrifice American lives for a maximalist political agenda, and those who want to find the right balance between our constitutional rights and the sanctity of human life. 

To all those in favor of balance: It’s time to step up.

Despite militarized society, Israel’s strict gun laws keep civilian violence down


First-time visitors to Israel might be taken aback to see groups of armed teenagers walking through a city plaza on a weeknight, or surprised to walk into a public bathroom and see an M-16 laying across the sinks as a soldier washes his face.

But guns are ubiquitous in Israel, where most 18-year-olds are drafted into the army after high school.

However, once those soldiers finish their service two or three years later, they are subject to civilian gun control regulations that are much stricter than American laws.

In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for civilians who live in Israel to acquire an arsenal of weaponry of the sort used by the alleged shooter in last week’s massacre in Aurora, Colo. James E. Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 in an Aurora movie theater, legally bought the firearms he used, according to reports, including a semiautomatic rifle, a semiautomatic pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun. Leading up to the shooting, he reportedly bought thousands of bullets online.

[Related: Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes]

In Israel, assault rifles are banned except for special circumstances. And while political violence in Israel is all too common and gun violence is a growing problem, random shootings of strangers—like the Aurora massacre—are virtually unheard-of here.

Unlike in the United States, where the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, Israel’s department of public security considers gun ownership a privilege, not a right. With few exceptions, gun owners in Israel are limited to owning one pistol, and must undergo extensive mental and physical tests before they can receive a weapon. Those who have not served in the military or in a government volunteer agency must wait until age 27 to apply for a firearms license. Gun owners are limited to 50 rounds of ammunition per year. West Bank settlers can obtain permits to carry guns for security purposes.

Lior Nedivi, an Israeli firearms expert, said that despite Israel’s militarized society, neither soldiers nor veterans engage in extensive gun violence because 18-year-olds are tested for mental and physical fitness before being drafted.

“They don’t recruit everyone,” said Nedivi, who runs a company called Advanced Forensic Science Services. “If you are a person with a record of violence, you will be discharged.”

Nedivi favors allowing private gun ownership with tight regulations, noting that armed civilians have used their guns to stop terrorists during attacks. He said that gun massacres don’t occur in Israel because gun owners here undergo more comprehensive psychological screenings than do U.S. gun owners.

“It’s not guns that kill, it’s people that kill,” Nedivi said. “If this person in Colorado will be screened now, they will say he has mental problems. In Israel, most people like this don’t get a chance to get a gun.”

Gun violence does still occur in Israel, though gun control is not a sensitive political issue.

“We think the society is over-armed,” said Smadar Ben-Natan, a lawyer who co-heads Gun-Free Kitchen Tables, an Israeli coalition to end domestic gun violence. “There are too many weapons going around. There is no justification that these weapons go home and are present in civilian surroundings.”

Rather than lobbying for new laws, Gun-Free Kitchen Tables is pushing for the enforcement of current regulations, which require security guards to leave their weapons in their workplace. Ben-Natan said private security companies often do not abide by the law.

“The private police companies offer an illusion of security,” Ben-Natan said. “They’re not accountable in terms of the public interest. They don’t bear the cost of the precautions that need to be in place. The people that pay this price are the women and family members who get shot.”

For soldiers who take their weapons home on weekends and off nights, the rule is they must be on their person at all times or under double-lock if left at home.

Former Jewish camp staffer worked closely with James Holmes


In the summer of 2008, when James Holmes was 20, he was known as a quiet counselor at Camp Max Straus in Los Angeles County, liked by his campers.

As details have emerged about the background of the now 24-year-old suspected shooter at the midnight massacre at an Aurora, Colo. showing of a Batman sequel on July 20, an unwanted media spotlight has fallen on the 110 acre camp in the Verdugo Mountains run by Jewish Big Brothers and sisters of Los Angeles.

“I’m looking at us all over TMZ,” said one former staff member contacted by The Jewish Journal. “There’s my picture, it’s crazy.”

In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Journal, the staff member, who asked not to be named, confirmed what many friends, colleagues and former neighbors of Holmes have said: He was decent and unremarkable.

“He was a quiet guy,” said the former staffer, who was in close contact with Holmes. “I never would have suspected a thing. He just kept to himself.”

At Camp Max Straus, Holmes was in charge of a group of 10 boys, ages 7 to 10.

“He never got in trouble,” recalled the staffer, who added that there were never any complaints about him from his campers.  While Camp Max Straus activities do not include shooting sports, Holmes did engage in archery with his campers.

The former staffer said Holmes did not seem to hang out with other counselors his age, however.

“It’s not that they didn’t like him,” the staffer said. “It’s just that he wasn’t very social.”

Holmes, the staffer said, was not Jewish.  During the summer, Camp Max Straus serves a primarily non-Jewish population of low-income and disadvantaged youths through ” title=”Chanuka Camp” target=”_blank”>Chanuka Camp.

Since the connection to the camp was revealed on Saturday, July 21, staffers and volunteers have been fielding numerous calls about their now-infamous former counselor, and the group has been working to avoid any implication that the long-running camp is not a safe and secure place. It has had a long track record of improving children’s lives.

The former staffer stressed to The Jewish Journal that nothing in Holmes recent past, even his most recent days, tipped off authorities to imminent danger.

“We had a great summer in 2008,” the staffer told The Jewish Journal, “and we don’t want this backlash to spoil it. It’s unfortunate that they’re screaming about the camp all over the news.”

Relief funds assisting Colorado fire victims


As residents of Colorado Springs return to their homes following widespread wild fires, U.S. Jewish communities are raising money for relief funds.

The Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, in conjunction with local synagogues, community organizations and national partners, has launched the Colorado Fire Relief Fund to help victims, firefighters, first responders and others affected by the fires.

Jewish federations have been directing donors to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund online or to send checks with the notation “Colorado Fire Relief Fund” to Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, 300 S. Dahlia, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80246.

All the donations to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund will go to directly combat the fire and help victims. There will be no administrative fees taken out of these funds, according to a Jewish Federations of North America statement.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs also has set up a relief fund.

Amid the ravages of wildfires, Colorado Jews band together


The Sidmans are among the lucky ones: Their Colorado Springs home is still standing, nearly untouched by the flames that left many of their neighbors’ houses in ashes.

“I was just sobbing uncontrollably, even though my house was perfect,” Renee Sidman told the Colorado Springs Gazette.

For the past week Sidman and her family—among some 30,000 Colorado residents who were evacuated from their homes as wildfires spread—have found refuge with fellow congregants from Temple Shalom, which was not in the evacuation area.

As of Tuesday, the fire in Waldo Canyon, which sits on the western edge of Colorado Springs, had destroyed at least 347 homes and claimed two lives, according to the Denver Post.

Temple Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements, had about 20 member families evacuated, according to the Sidmans’ host, Julie Richman.

“It’s been kind of a blur,” Richman told JTA about having her family of four now sharing their home with the four Sidmans.

Ironically, Richman’s younger son, Adam, 13, and the Sidmans’ son, Daniel, 12, had just spent two weeks together as bunk mates at summer camp.

The temple’s Facebook page helped to ensure that everyone was accounted for, Richman said, noting that “Everybody in the congregation was kind of tracked down within about 24 hours.”

She said the synagogue also served as a temporary home to the Alpine Autism Center for a few days.

The communal sense was widespread, both in and out of the Jewish community, Richman added. The Jewish-owned Poor Richard’s restaurant gave out free meals to evacuees, individuals picked up restaurant tabs for police and residents put up signs thanking firefighters for keeping them safe.

“Everybody here has been struck by the extremely strong sense of community,” Richman said, reporting that the shelters set in place for evacuees never reached capacity because most people found home hospitality.

Temple Shalom held a healing service Friday night.

“When we Jews suffer pain and tragedy, we come together to strengthen one another. That is how we begin to heal,” said a notice sent to congregants by Rabbi Mel Glazer.

Unlike Temple Shalom and the city’s other synagogue, Temple Beit Torah, Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs was in the evacuation area.

Chabad’s Rabbi Moshe Liberow and his family evacuated ahead of the flames on June 26, finding refuge in Denver. He returned two days later with rabbinical student Zalman Popack to volunteer at one of the shelters.

Police escorted them to his home and synagogue, so they could retrieve some items. The rabbi was relieved to see that there was no damage to his home or synagogue, or his community’s mikvah.

At his home he picked up a cotton candy machine, which he and Popack took along with beverages and other snacks to one of the Red Cross-run shelters.

“People so enjoyed it; adults and children were lining up for the cotton candy,” he said.

Popack has established a relief fund, as has the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, in conjunction with local synagogues, community organizations and national partners.

Jewish federations throughout the United States have been directing donors to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund online or to send checks with the notation “Colorado Fire Relief Fund” to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, 300 S. Dahlia, Suite 300, Denver, CO 80246.

The donations to the Colorado Fire Relief Fund will go to directly combat the fire and help victims. There will be no administrative fees taken out, said Melissa Gelfand, the federation’s marketing and public relations director.

“We’re working locally with the local VOAD [National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster] to help victims, firefighters and any other first responders,” she said.

As of Monday, she was not certain how much money the federation fund had raised nationally, but said $30,000 had been raised locally.

The Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center is serving as a Red Cross drop-off location for supplies.

Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado Springs is also is collecting relief funds.

“Our heart goes out to those affected,” Liberow said. “We want those people to feel uplifted. Hopefully their lives will be on the mend.”

Apres le beard: Matisyahu takes the stage in Boulder


When Matisyahu, the 32-year-old Chasidic reggae superstar, appeared onstage for the first time since shaving his trademark beard, no one in the audience at the Boulder Theater seemed surprised.

The news of his shaving had been widely discussed since the star tweeted a photo of himself, along with a brief explanation for his cosmetic and philosophical changes. Though he was now missing the aesthetic hallmarks of Chasidic Jewry, he still wore a yarmulke—a large, black-knitted version—and his tzitzit hung out from under his plain white T-shirt. He also wore baggy khaki pants that sagged off of his slim, vegan-fed frame, a long black jacket and dark sunglasses.

Without the camouflage of his beard and peyes, his face was noticeably angular, gaunt even. His features looked delicate and feminine under the multicolor stage lighting. 

The sold-out crowd didn’t seem to care, roaring with approval as he stood in front of the mike.

Yet some concert-goers expressed concern before the start of the show as to the viability of Matisyahu’s career without his signature look.

“I think it’s the beginning of the end of Matisyahu,” said Donny Basch, who was attending the Dec. 15 show with his wife. “If you’re going to see KISS and Gene Simmons comes out without makeup, I’d be really pissed.”

Others were more interested to see if any changes would result from his altered appearance.

“I’m curious to see how his concert today compares to the show in Philly,” said one woman, referring to a show she had attended several years prior that had a mix of Modern Orthodox and secular folks in the audience. “I thought it was a fun show, but mostly due to the mystique of a Chasid rapping and doing reggae.”

“I’m very interested in him and what his shift is philosophically,” Deborah Skovrom, a middle-aged woman, said of the singer’s new look and the deeper changes it might signify. “It’s a major shift in how he wants to be perceived.”

Yet she expected no changes in what perhaps matters most to fans—his music.

“His music and message is still right on,” Skovrom said.

Story continues after the jump.

Calvin Carter spoke even more emphatically in defense of Matisyahu’s choice to shave off his beard.

“He’s got the right to do that without people saying he gave up his faith,” Carter said. To him, the music is the point—“as long as the brother is spreading good cheer and good music.”

Carter was one of several stereotypical reggae fans in attendance—guys with long dreads and colorful knit Rasta hats. Most of the crowd, however, ranged in age from high schoolers to baby boomers and were white. Many seemed to have stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog.

Newly shorn and wearing his Gap-esque clothing, Matisyahu looked more like his fans than he ever has before. He danced jerkily across the stage. Many in the audience followed suit, yet few reached down to pick up their fallen yarmulkes as the singer did several times throughout the night.

Addressing the audience briefly after a few songs, Matisyahu spoke in unaccented American English without any hint of the patois he adopts when he busts into reggae and dancehall, and none of the “oys” and Ashkenazi pronunciations he sprinkles throughout his songs—especially those that are extra heavy on Jewish and messianic themes. In those brief moments he was simply Matt Miller.

And some people seem to like it that way.

“I think it’s kind of sexy,” said one Jewish woman of Matisyahu’s new look. “With the beard he looks like every other Chasidic Jew.”

It’s an interesting observation—to Jews, looking like a Chasid makes you look like every other Orthodox Jew. It makes you seem like you’re part of a black-and-white-clad monolith. But on the stage of popular music, the beard—not the neatly shorn scruff favored by Brooklynites but a long, full beard—makes one stand out. Some may even argue that it helped launched Matisyahu’s career.

He covered many of his most popular songs—“Jerusalem” and the seasonally appropriate “Miracle”—yet the evening’s highlight was the final song (before the encore set), “One Day.” The song had been used as the official anthem of the 2010 Winter Olympics due to its utopian message.

During his performance, Matisyahu was joined on stage by more than two dozen teens from the audience. A couple of the girls embraced him, clearly unaware of—or undeterred by—Orthodox Judaism’s prohibition against touching between the sexes. Though he did not brush them off, he seemed to momentarily stiffen. His beard may be gone but his fidelity toward Jewish law remains.

“I’ve seen him several times and this is the best I’ve ever seen him,” said Jonathan Lev, the executive director of the Boulder JCC.

Whether his performance quality had anything to do with his new look is hard to say (especially since this reporter had never seen him live). In the blog post he had penned to accompany the photos, he said, “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”

For the fans who lined up outside the theater, crowded around the stage and sang along with him, that seemed to be more than enough.

Reb Zalman archives given to Colorado U.


The personal papers and other materials of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, have been given to the University of Colorado.

The material, including audio-visual material, have become part of the Colorado University-Boulder Library Archives, according to the Boulder Jewish News, after being in the care of Naropa University, which was working with the Reb Zalman Legacy Project of the Yesod Foundation to preserve, develop and circulate the rabbi’s writings and teachings.

The Jewish Renewal movement has infused modern Judaism with mystical teachings and contemplative practices influenced by Hasidism.  The movement is run by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in Philadelphia.

Zalman was born in Poland and grew up in Vienna. The family settled in Brooklyn after fleeing the Nazis; Zalman was ordained by Lubavitch in 1947, received a Master of Arts degree in the Psychology of Religion in 1956 from Boston University and a Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree from Hebrew Union College in 1968.

“The acquisition of such an important archive makes the University of Colorado a world hub for the study of Jewish Renewal, specifically, and Jewish mysticism more generally. We are excited to be building the university’s resources with the archive of this important religious leader and thinker,” David Shneer, associate professor of history and director of CUs Program in Jewish Studies, told the Boulder Jewish News.

Zalman is currently professor emeritus at both Naropa and Temple University. He retired from the World Wisdom Chair at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, in 2004.

Deals on December getaways


It is so good to be a traveler during December. Whether you want a romantic escape, a girlfriends’ getaway or a family vacation, the deals are abundant as many people choose to stick closer to home through the holiday season. My family and I have traditionally hit the road and enjoyed destinations that are packed with value and are not crowded — great places for a quick winter trip. 

Here are a few places to visit that are loaded with value:

Las Vegas
December bargains and Las Vegas go hand in hand. The Mirage Hotel offers a great grown-up getaway called The Serenity Spa and Room Package. Through Dec. 24, guests can spend two nights in a deluxe room and enjoy two 50-minute Swedish body massages or opt for two nights in a deluxe room with one 50-minute massage and a manicure/pedicure at a cost of $331 for Sunday through Thursday arrivals. Friday and Saturday arrivals are available at $461. Call (800) 234-7737 and ask for the “spa weekday” or “spa weekend” package.

All-inclusive vacations have made their way to The Strip with a jam-packed offering at The Luxor. Starting at $209.99 per night through Dec. 28 (two-night minimum stay), guests can enjoy all-you-can-eat at MORE Buffet; two tickets to “Criss Angel Believe,” two tickets to “Titanic: The Artifacts Exhibition,” two Nurture Spa day passes, VIP admission for two to LAX Nightclub and CatHouse Ultra Lounge plus VIP check-in. Call (877) 386-4658 and mention promo code “PDALL1.”

Colorado
We’ve hit the slopes at the end of December several times and found that it is a terrific time to enjoy a ski/snowboard holiday. Ski.com is a great resource for planning a value-packed winter vacation, and there are a couple of terrific packages being promoted for December. Snowmass (aspensnowmass.com) is one of the best family ski destinations in the world and they are offering 30 percent off of lodging from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1. Located at the base of the mountain, The Treehouse is a massive, kid-friendly experience filled with winter activities and lots of fun.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort (skicb.com) is also running an added-value promotion with an early booking incentive of a fifth night free. These rates are subject to making your reservations by Nov. 23. Ski.com is also featuring an awesome air special with a fourth airline ticket free after the purchase of three.

Mexico
Cabo San Lucas is an easy trip by plane and The Marquis Los Cabos (marquisloscabos.com) has extended its Thanksgiving Promotion to Dec. 20, making it even more enticing. The all-suite, beachfront hotel is giving a lot of bang for your buck with a fourth night free, $300 spa credit per suite, VIP roundtrip airport transportation, up to two children (under 12) complimentary, unlimited access to the fitness center and one dinner for two (drinks included during the first hour) at the resort’s Vista Ballenas restaurant. There is also a complimentary daily continental breakfast. Nightly room rates start at $590 for a junior suite.

Bay Area
San Francisco is another ideal destination for a December escape, via a road trip or quick flight. The Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf and The Hyatt Regency San Francisco have designed “San Francisco on Sale” packages that are filled with added value. The Fisherman’s Wharf property (fishermanswharf.hyatt.com) has room rates that start at $161 and include a $25 food and beverage credit as well as the Shop SF/Get More savings card, which features special offers and discounts at more than 200 retailers around the city. Rates at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (sanfranciscoregency.hyatt.com) begin at $169. There are plenty of ways to enjoy San Francisco, from hopping on board a City Lights Cruise on the Red and White Fleet or ice skating at the Embarcadero Center’s ice rink. New Year’s Eve at the Hyatt properties is value-packed as well with a great location to view the Waterfront Fireworks and enjoy all kinds of special amenities, from champagne to breakfast buffets with rates of $299 at the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf and $219 at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco.

Ventura
If you want to feel like you are miles away yet stick close to home, the city of Ventura (ventura-usa.com) is a perfect option. Best-known for its cozy beachside atmosphere, Ventura bursts with activity during the month of December. The Winter Wine Walk takes place Dec. 4 with a sampling of fine wines and delicious appetizers in downtown Ventura’s restaurants and stores. Ventura Harbor’s Winter Wonderland and Carnival takes place Dec. 19 with faux snowfall, fudge tastings, ice-sculpting demonstrations and more from noon to 4 p.m. The harbor is filled with boats decked out with lights, and fireworks fill the sky during a two-day celebration on Dec. 17 and 18 with a family carnival and something for everyone.

Faith in Travel


Vail, Colo., might seem like Siberia compared to the more established Jewish community of Los Angeles, yet here in Lionshead (elevation: 10,350 feet) there’s some 75 Jews gathered for Shabbat morning services.

Under the burning morning sun, the clouds feel close enough to touch as we sit on wooden benches facing the stage, a "wedding chapel" on the precipice of a mountain. Aspen trees line the hillsides and, in the clear distance, peaks crowned with snow glisten, reminding us of Vail’s other purpose.

As a relative newcomer to Southern California, I can find no rationale for leaving my beach community during the summer, but my internal travel bug is oblivious to reason and has sent me off to Colorado for outdoor adventures.

Yet, I am really only following in the tradition of the Jews, who have historically always been a nomadic people. Only in this last century have we seemed to settle down, and still, we are a more transient and traveling people than most. Perhaps it has to do with the comfort of readily available communities located in places as far as Siberia or as close as the Rockies.

B’nai Vail, a congregation of some 230 households, usually holds weekly services in the Vail Interfaith Chapel in the Valley, but in the summers they use the outdoors by praying at Gore Creek outside the chapel — and twice each summer at Eagle’s Nest on the mountain.

Its mission statement reads: "We are an active community committed to building a Jewish congregation that is welcoming to individuals and families of all backgrounds including full-time locals, part-time, summer and winter residents and visitors who are here for just a short time. The beautiful and splendid natural environment that surrounds us enhances our Jewish experience,"

Cantor Jennifer Werby welcomes the congregation, advising us to take in our surroundings and yet remain "present" for the services, to push away thoughts of the outside world and concentrate on the godly. It’s hard not to. Even as a baby fox darts by with a mouse in its mouth, as mountain bikers and hikers stand on the side observing, the cantor’s familiar opening Carlebach melody brings me back to dozens of similar services, from Los Angeles to the Upper West Side and Jerusalem.

During the Torah reading — yes, on the top of the mountain, there’s a Torah, not to mention wine and challah for "Kiddush" — the cantor calls up various members of the congregation and, finally, all those who have not been called up. We stand close to the edge of the stage, closer to the sky than to the ground, recite the blessing and kiss the holy scroll.

I am visiting a girlfriend who has moved here to be with her boyfriend, whom she is hoping will eventually convert to Judaism. This is his first service, and I think it has inspired him; I have been to services all my life, and it has managed to move me, too.

In life, when we travel, we seek out the exotic, yet we also search for the familiar. The Jewish communities of Colorado are challenged by issues similar to those in other American communities: intermarriage, assimilation, disinterested youth, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The characters are even the same.

I was reminded of this when I visited my cousins in Denver, the rabbi and rebbetzin of the Charedi community, a growing group of some 100 families. I asked my cousin if he would be interested in meeting with the Conservative rabbi of a synagogue on the other side of town. My learned cousin stammered; he was busy, he might say hello in a social setting, he said. Finally, as I stood there, he admitted: "We don’t have official meetings with them, because we Orthodox only believe there’s one way — the Orthodox way."

A meeting with non-Orthodox rabbis would imply that he believed the others were rabbis, he explained, citing the rabbi he followed who ruled against it. A gentle and intelligent man, my cousin brought to life for me the conflict in the book, "One People, Two Worlds," conversations between a Reform and an Orthodox rabbi who ultimately could not seem to find common ground.

The old Zionist pioneering song says, "Kum v’hithalech ba’aretz…" ("Get up and go travel around the country, with a backpack and a walking stick, and maybe on the way we will meet the Land of Israel").

Wherever our travel bug takes us to this summer — whether it’s Israel, Denver, Siberia or Spain — we may be trying to escape, but what we might find, as I did in Colorado, is ourselves … for better and for worse.