Bomb threats called in to Houston synagogues


Two Houston synagogues received bomb threats.

The bomb threats were called in to Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue, and Congregation Or Ami, a Conservative synagogue, on Wednesday afternoon.

Both synagogues canceled Hebrew school classes for Thursday but said they would reopen Friday with more security, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Houston Police Department, Anti-Defamation League, FBI and Department of Homeland Security all were notified about the threats, Congregation Beth Israel told the Houston Chronicle in an email.

A message on the Beth Israel website said that a congregational dinner scheduled for Friday night was canceled; it did not say if the cancellation was related to the bomb threat.

Police squad cars were parked outside the synagogues on Thursday morning, KHOU in Houston reported.

In N.Y. and Houston, Jewish communities are struggling with tragedy


The two tragedies occurred 1,500 miles apart and in much different circumstances, but both united a community in shock, horror and grief.

In New York, the abduction and gruesome murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky while walking home from summer day camp in Borough Park, Brooklyn, left the neighborhood’s tight-knit Chasidic community reeling from the revelation that the crime was committed by an apparently observant Jew.

In Houston, catastrophe struck when five members of a Jewish family driving home from a vacation in Colorado over the July 4 weekend collided head on with another vehicle.

The parents, Josh and Robin Berry, 41 and 40, were killed instantly. Two of the children in the back seat, Peter, 9, and Aaron, 8, suffered severe spinal injuries and are paralyzed from the waist down. One child, Willa, 6, escaped with broken bones and was able to speak when paramedics arrived. A woman in the passenger seat of the other car, Colleen Doyle, also died.

“The tragedy is unprecedented in our synagogue, in our community,” said Rabbi Brian Strauss of Congregation Beth Yushurun, the Conservative synagogue where the Berrys were members. “In Houston, the Berrys were beloved.”

Robin had worked as family life coordinator at Beth Yushurun, and Josh had participated in men’s club programs. The Berry children attend Jewish day schools.

In both Houston and New York, the tragedies rippled far beyond the Jewish community.

In New York, coverage of Leiby’s disappearance—on the first day his parents let him walk home alone—and murder dominated headlines for days. This week, the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, visited the Kletzky home to pay a shiva call.

In Houston, the Jewish community’s grief was joined by a burst of activity to make sure the Berry children are well cared for. Friends established a trust fund for the kids, local businesses held fundraisers, TV stars have sent their condolences and professional athletes have stopped by the children’s hospital beds.

Baseball all-star Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros showed up, and Wilson Chandler of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Kyle Lowry of the Houston Rockets also came to boost the children’s spirits with a gift and jokes. Three players from Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo visited, too. An upcoming Dynamo match, already designated to celebrate Jewish Heritage night, will donate $10 of every ticket sold to the Berry trust.

“It made me really happy,” Aaron Berry said after the visit by Chandler and Lowry, the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston reported. “I got to meet Kyle Lowry of the Rockets and his friend Wilson from the Nuggets!”

Reality TV stars Kourtney Kardashian and Brooke Burke expressed their condolences online, and Kardashian encouraged followers to donate to the trust fund.

At least $46,000 has been raised through dog washes, lemonade stands and ice cream sales organized by local children and their parents, according to Jewish Herald-Voice reporter Michael Duke, who has been covering the story. That amount does not include donations to the trust fund or fundraisers by local businesses.

“The response has given a glimmer of hope,” Strauss said. “If they walk again, it will be with the help of the community.”

While the community mobilized for the children, friends and family mourned the Berry parents. More than 1,200 mourners turned out for their funerals, and area Jews have organized Shabbat candle lightings in their memory and shifts to say Kaddish and pray for the surviving children.

In New York, community members also had mobilized to pray for Leiby, whose disappearance July 11 triggered a frantic two-day search. Upon hearing the news that the boy had been slain—the alleged killer, Levi Aron, led police investigators to dismembered body parts in his freezer and in a trash bin a couple of miles away—disbelief took hold. Community members struggled to process a murder apparently committed by a trusted community member.

A Borough Park resident named Ephraim told The New York Jewish Week that the incident was a “a double murder—one was the child, and the other is the image of a Jew.”

Aron entered a guilty plea last week to second-degree murder charges.

At the funeral, which drew thousands of mourners, Leiby’s father, Nachman Kletzky, said in Yiddish, “At least we had the merit of having him for nine years.”

The question now facing both communities is what comes next.

In Jewish Brooklyn and beyond, parents debated the appropriate age to let a child walk around on his own. Orthodox parents talked about the challenge of imparting to children a healthy suspicion of strangers, even someone wearing a kipah, without casting a pall of fear over their kids’ interactions.

In Houston, an uncle of the Berry children, Adam Berry, was preparing to move Peter and Aaron to Chicago for at least two months to receive specialized treatment. Another uncle, Matt Berry, has become their legal guardian.

At the children’s school in Houston, parents and counselors have been talking to students about the incident.

“When Peter and Aaron do come back, we will treat them as we always did,” Strauss said. “But kids are having a hard time with it. I think they’ll have a harder time when they see them for the first time. “

A Race Against Time and Floodwaters


Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm’s wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.

Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.

“We have mobilized our community around all the areas that seem to be current and potential needs,” said Lee Wunsch, the federation’s CEO. “There’s a lot of activity. People are very generous with their time. Our phones have not stopped ringing.”

Approximately 15,000 Louisiana evacuees were being housed in the Astrodome, the city’s covered sports stadium, after conditions in the New Orleans Superdome grew unbearable. Houston is hosting tens of thousands of evacuees, including an estimated 5,000 Jews.

The federation has joined an interfaith coalition taking responsibility for feeding the refugees in the Astrodome for the next 30 days, a service that the federal government is not providing, Wunsch told JTA. The effort will require 700 to 800 volunteers each day and is expected to cost between $7 million and $8 million.

“We’re trying to raise the money to make a sizable contribution to that,” Wunsch said.

In the first 24 hours when the fund was opened last week, the federation raised about $75,000 in online donations. Donations are coming in so quickly that by the beginning of this week, the federation had decided to hold off calculating the total until a quieter time.

The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation Inc. announced it would be donating $1 million to help relieve survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Funds will be allocated as $500,000 grants to both United Jewish Communities (UJC) and Catholic Charities USA.

On Tuesday, UJC said it had raised nearly $4 million, including the Weinberg Foundation grant. The UJC also said that the local federations directly affected by the hurricane were overwhelmed and had asked that those with questions or seeking to make donations contact the UJC directly.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Jews may be among those still trapped in water-inundated homes or missing in the Gulf region, said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, Chabad-Lubavitch’s spokesman based in New York.

Chabad rescue teams, comprised largely of New York-based medics and others with relevant expertise, have rescued 32 Jews from their houses over the last several days, he said. The teams are operating both on foot and in boats.

Some elderly Jews resisted leaving their homes, as did one woman who was reluctant to leave her pets behind to fend for themselves. The teams were able to convince some victims to evacuate their homes; others stayed put.

The Hurricane Relief section of Chabad’s Web site asks anyone who knows of people still missing or trapped to provide details through the site (www.chabad.org.).

As of Tuesday, the official death toll in New Orleans was 71, and in Mississippi it was 161. However, those figures were expected to climb into the thousands as floodwaters begin to recede, revealing the true toll of those lost.

Hunger and fear of disease in affected areas engendered anger and disbelief as the federal government’s handling of the crisis garnered sharp criticism. President Bush toured the battered region Monday, comforting victims and vowing to do what is necessary to aid them. In a visit to the area last week, Bush said relief efforts to that point were “not acceptable.”

Jewish organizations in the hard-hit region and beyond pitched in to help those whose lives have been disrupted by Katrina.

Israeli universities are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm. Tulane University in New Orleans announced that it will not hold classes for the fall semester. Loyola University is also closed though January, and Dillard University is examining its options for the immediate future. The two schools are also in New Orleans.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA — the Gateway to Long-Term Israel Programs and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life have forged a coalition of the five major Israeli universities with study-abroad programs to allow displaced students — Jews and non-Jews — to quickly continue their studies.

Meanwhile, Jewish day school networks across the United States and across the denominational spectrum are working to absorb Jewish students and their families, offering everything from free tuition and school supplies to employment opportunities for parents and living accommodations.

“Jewish day schools across the streams walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

The UJC and local federations throughout the United States and Canada have also established funds to aid those in need. Numerous other Jewish organizations, both national and local, are also offering help — raising money, coordinating housing and looking into specific medical and religious needs of refugees in their communities.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has composed a special prayer for the victims.

“In the path of Katrina’s destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood,” it reads, in part. “Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors. Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair. Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.”

At Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., congregants are preparing backpacks full of school supplies for young Katrina evacuees who will shortly be enrolling in the Houston public school system.

Each school bag is being filled with grade-appropriate supplies in accordance with Houston school guidelines — younger students may get crayons and markers while older pupils will receive items like graph paper and protractors.

“In terms of rallying the community, it was really wonderful,” said Gari Julius Weilbacher, who is coordinating the synagogue’s effort. “It’s giving people something to do besides writing really, really vital checks.”

Weilbacher said that she expects more than 150 backpacks to come in, and some congregants are writing checks to pay for postage, while others are donating boxes in which to pack the bags for shipment.

The Houston federation is working feverishly to meet Jewish evacuees’ needs.

A number of New Orleans families are now living with families in Houston, Wunsch said, and local day schools are allowing students from New Orleans to enroll for free. The Maimonides Society, a group for local Jewish doctors, has been mobilized to help those evacuees with medical concerns, and several local rabbis are coordinating an effort to ensure that their Jewish religious needs are met.

Synagogues in the Houston area are providing free Shabbat meals and are expected to open their doors to evacuee families, both in the immediate future and during the High Holidays.

At Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, members are making room in their homes for those with no place to go and have prepared welcome packages of toiletries, snacks and beverages. The synagogue was also arranging kosher meals for those who want them, and sent about 250 volunteers to the Astrodome this week.

The community response has been swift and overwhelming, say those involved in coordinating area relief efforts.

“I’m 150 e-mails behind,” said Adam Bronstone, who fled New Orleans on Aug. 27 and has since been working at the Houston federation office and living with a friend. “There’s one guy here answering four phones at a time.”

The situation, Bronstone said, is “crazy, it’s surreal, it’s loving, its warm. It’s the worst of times — but it’s also the best of times.”

Hurricane damage in the region was staggering. The full extent of damage to sites of Jewish concern remained uncertain. West Esplanade Avenue in Metarie, La., is home to about five Jewish institutions.

Rabbi Yossie Nemes, who rode out the storm at his home there with his family and four others seeking refuge, saw downed trees, power outages, some damage to roofs and up to two feet of water.

Those with knowledge of New Orleans geography said that based on news reports about damage to particular neighborhoods, they suspected that some other buildings, including a Jewish museum, were badly damaged or destroyed.

As Nemes, his wife, seven children and four house guests sat on the second floor of his home — winds howling outside, water rising on the bottom level, rain pelting the sturdy brick home’s protective hurricane shutters — they prayed and played board games.

“We weren’t worried for our lives,” he recalled on Tuesday from Chabad’s offices in New York, where he had arrived by car in the morning after three days in Memphis. “But it was very, very nerve-wracking. We were hoping and praying for the storm to end.”

Things grew more tense, he said, when some of the city’s levees broke. At that point, Nemes had no idea how his neighborhood would fare. In the end, the power went out and his house took in about two feet of water — but everyone got out safely.

“All the appliances and furniture are damaged,” he said. “It’s dirty, bacteria-filled water. There’s extensive damage, but I don’t believe it’ll be condemned.”

In addition to those who landed in Houston, Jews also ended up in Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Dallas; cities in Florida; and elsewhere.

Many also fled to Memphis. The Orthodox Union (OU) dispatched Rabbi Chaim Neiditch on a fact-finding mission to Tennessee.

“They’re living Jewish lives as best as they can,” said Neiditch, the director of the southern region of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth. They are attending prayer services and eating kosher food, he said, but there is a real fear that the community, stretched to its limits by the influx of evacuees, will run out of kosher food.

“There is a sense of despair and worse — every single possession is lost, jobs gone,” he said. “They are separated from family and friends. They have no means of communicating with each other. It is beyond comprehension what is going on.”

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Caouette’s Journey to Hell and Back


When gay Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Caouette was a preteen in Houston, he frequented sock hops at the Baptist church near his home. Invariably, church elders warned he was destined for hellfire: “And I would tell them that I was possessed by the devil,” Caouette, 31, said.

His tart reply wasn’t far from the truth, according to his new documentary memoir, “Tarnation,” named for an archaic term for “damnation.” The experimental self-portrait describes Caouette’s hellish childhood, during which he endured physical abuse, a mentally ill mother and brutal foster homes. The raw, hallucinatory film is compiled from 20 years of home movies, answering machine messages and snippets of underground films — all edited on a borrowed Apple computer for a total production cost of $218.32. Lauded as “a category-defying work of blistering originality,” by the Guardian and “astonishing” by The New York Times, it won best documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

If the movie exposes Caouette’s childhood demons, it’s also steeped in a zeitgeist obsessed with public exorcisms performed on reality television programs and cringe-fests such as “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Caouette has been turning his life into a kind of reality TV from age 11, when he first pointed a camera at himself and his relatives. He recorded family arguments and performed impassioned monologues influenced by underground filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey. In one such sequence, he portrays a battered housewife, “essentially channeling my mother, who was being beaten by her second husband,” he said.

For the budding cinephile, the camera became a “protective force field, a means of controlling and validating the family chaos,” the boyish director said from his Queens, N.Y., apartment. “It was a grand way of saying, ‘Pinch me, but is this for real?'”

The reality was that Caouette was living with his overwhelmed grandparents as his mother, Renee, was repeatedly hospitalized for acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A former child model, she had suffered mental illness since undergoing electroshock therapy following a childhood accident. During a manic period, she whisked 4-year-old Jonathan off to Chicago, where she was kidnapped and raped.

“I remember cowering under a bed while she was being strangled,” the filmmaker said.

Back in Houston, Renee went on a rampage, breaking windows throughout the neighborhood with Jonathan in tow. The boy was promptly placed in a series of foster homes where he was sometimes tied up and beaten. When his grandparents assumed custody two years later, they attempted to curb his wild behavior by enrolling him in a highly structured Jewish day school.

“But I didn’t have the attention span to sit through the long day or to retain a new language, Hebrew,” he said. “I was a mess of a child already at 6.”

It didn’t help that Caouette felt like an alien while visiting his classmates’ pristine Jewish homes.

“Our house had gum all over the floor, like a New York subway, and rat droppings all over the beds,” he said.

His wealthy Jewish relatives eventually stopped inviting him to holiday celebrations.

The discord turned Caouette into an angry preteen who staged suicide attempts and hit his grandparents. After smoking PCP-laced joints at 12, he was hospitalized eight times for a depersonalization disorder that made him feel like he was disconnected from his body and living “in a constant state of unreality.”

Former Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who became Caouette’s big brother in 1984, remembers walking through his home and noting “broken mirrors and holes where Jon had punched through the wall.”

“I felt he might be capable of making a bad decision that could kill him,” Millar said. “But I also saw that he was innately talented and that he had a rigorous film aesthetic. I felt that if he managed to get through what was sure to be a troubling adolescence, he would do something creatively spectacular.”

Caouette proved Millar right two years ago, when he decided to turn his 160 hours of home video into a film. He had nursed Renee back to health after a lithium overdose and hoped to create a cathartic piece about their relationship.

An early version of the movie convinced filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to sign on as executive producers and secured a slot at New York’s 2003 MIX Film Festival. But as Caouette sat next to Renee at the screening, he worried he had made a terrible mistake.

“I wondered if I had exploited her, exploited all of us,” he said.

As patrons embraced him after the screening, Caouette began to change his mind. He now views the movie as a healing trip to Tarnation and back: “It’s the story of people going through hell and coming out OK, sort of,” he said. “It’s still not entirely OK, but it’s better than it’s ever been.”

“Tarnation” opens today in Los Angeles.

Enron Fallout in Houston


The Enron Corporation and Linda Lay, the wife of its chairman and chief executive, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Houston’s Holocaust museum, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the institution’s $3 million budget.

Now enmeshed in scandal and bankruptcy, Kenneth and Linda Lay were to be among the honorary co-chairs at the museum’s annual dinner this March, sharing the title with various dignitaries, including President George W. Bush.

The energy company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month after acknowledging it had overstated its profits by nearly $600 million, is at the center of a scandal in which it is accused of lying to investors and abusing its vast political clout.

Enron’s collapse and the ensuing scandal are threatening the entire economy of Houston, and its effects are being felt by local Jewish institutions — particularly the Holocaust museum — and some of the city’s 45,000 Jews.

Holocaust Museum Houston was one of many local cultural institutions that benefited from Enron and the Lays’ largess and whose future — presumably without their assistance — is uncertain.

Although neither of the Lays are Jewish, Linda Lay — who is on the museum’s board — grew up with many Jewish friends and sometimes attended synagogue with them, said Steven Johnson, a spokesman for the museum. "She really believes in her heart about celebrating diversity, being aware of the dangers of hatred and prejudice," he said.

The Lays and Enron each regularly purchased $100,000 tables at the museum’s annual dinner, and Enron was the $100,000 corporate patron of The Human Race, an annual "fun run" the museum sponsors to celebrate diversity, Johnson said.

In addition to the couple’s donations, Linda Lay reportedly raised the lion’s share of revenue for the museum’s annual dinner, according to one Jewish leader, by making "lots of calls to Enron business associates." "She was a major source of fundraising for the museum, and now that’s dried up," the Jewish leader said.

While the money from Enron "seems to be through," Johnson said Lay remains on the board and the museum is "hopeful that Linda Lay and her involvement will continue, and that we’ll continue to receive some funding from her personally."

Asked whether some might find it unseemly for someone linked to a major scandal to serve in such a prominent role, Johnson said that while "things could change," there has been no discussion yet.

"Our involvement is predominantly with Mrs. Lay and not Mr. Lay, and she doesn’t work for Enron and hasn’t had anything to do with what’s going on," he said.

The Lays also contributed $2,500 to the Jewish Community Center of Houston for its scholarship fund and made a one-time contribution of $50,000 to its capital campaign in 1999 .

Top professionals with the federation and JCC acknowledge that the Enron scandal is taking a toll on the Jewish community, but say Enron had a relatively minor role as a donor to Jewish causes or an employer of Jews. So far, local Jewish agencies are not experiencing a surge in demand for services from people who lost their jobs or retirement money as a result of the Enron bankruptcy.

"We’ve had very few if any individuals that have lost their retirement assets approach Jewish institutions for help," said Lee Wunsch, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

"We’re encouraging all the Enron employees who are JCC members to come talk to us about financial aid if they need to or if they are considering not continuing their membership" due to Enron-related financial losses, said Jerry Wische, executive vice president of the JCC.