A view of the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin, which was one of several JCCs to receive more bomb threats on Sunday. Photo from Facebook.

At least 7 JCCs receive bomb threats on Purim


At least seven Jewish community centers in the United States and Canada received bomb threats while they were hosting Purim events.

The threats, either called in or emailed, were reported Sunday at JCCs in Rochester, New York; Chicago; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Cleveland; Houston, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Most of the JCCs were evacuated and searched. None of the threats turned out to be credible.

For some of the centers it was their second threat in the past week.

The threats are part of a wave that has hit JCCs, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions since the start of 2017. More than 150 threats have been received since the beginning of the year, according to the Secure Community Network, which coordinates security across Jewish organizations in North America.

On Sunday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the second such threat against the Rochester JCC in less than a week “a despicable and cowardly act” of anti-Semitism. Cuomo ordered the New York State Police to launch a more intense investigation into the threats, and to work with federal and local law enforcement on the investigation.

“Like all New Yorkers, I am profoundly disturbed and disgusted by the continued threats against the Jewish community in New York,” Cuomo said in a statement. “As New Yorkers, we will not be intimidated and we will not stand by silently as some seek to sow hate and division. New York is one family, and an attack on one is an attack on all.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he plans to provide additional law enforcement intelligence and staffing to the JCC in Milwaukee so it “continues to be a safe place” after it was evacuated Sunday for the fourth time in six weeks.

Meanwhile, a rally was held Sunday outside the Rady Jewish Community Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, which was evacuated due to a bomb threat on Thursday, “to send a signal of unity against fear and terrorism.”

At least 8 dead in Houston-area floods, more rain falls


At least eight people have died and some 1,150 homes have been damaged in flooding triggered by torrential downpours in the Houston area this week as more rain fell in the region on Wednesday adding to vast pools of standing water.

All of those who died were found in or near vehicles that had been in flooded areas, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and a local sheriff said.

The National Weather Service said about an inch or less had fallen in the area as of Wednesday afternoon, keeping water high in parts of the country's fourth largest city where some roads have been turned into lakes. The Houston region had a record-setting drenching that dumped as much as 18 inches (45 cm) on some places on Monday.

Don Oettinger, a forecaster with the National Weather Service's Houston/Galveston office, said there was a possibility of more rain on Thursday.

“After tomorrow, we should dry up for a couple of days,” he added.

The weather service issued a flood watch from central Texas through Houston and into large parts of Louisiana.

There have been more than 1,200 water rescues during the flooding, with emergency crews shuttling people by boat to dry ground and picking up hundreds of motorists whose cars were caught in rushing waters.

The Houston Independent School District, the country's seventh-largest school district, said it would reopen on Wednesday after flooding caused the closure of hundreds of schools earlier this week. Some suburban school districts remained closed on Wednesday.

Heavy storms can overwhelm drainage channels that move water from Houston back to the Gulf of Mexico, particularly if the ground is already saturated.

The city faced similar widespread flooding during a storm last May and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. 

One killed, one wounded in shooting near Texas Southern University


One person was fatally shot on Friday and another person was wounded in a shooting an apartment complex adjacent to the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, and a suspect has been taken into custody, police said.

The school, with about 9,700 students, was placed on lockdown after the shooting and all classes were canceled on Friday. Authorities have not yet identified the suspect or the victims.

The incident came several hours after an 18-year-old student opened fire with a handgun on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff early on Friday, killing one person and wounding three, in the latest in a series of U.S. school shootings.

Texas Southern said there was a separate shooting incident at an apartment complex near campus on Thursday night.

Komen organization apologizes for Houston race’s Yom Kippur date


The Susan G. Komen organization apologized for holding its Race for the Cure in Houston on Yom Kippur.

Komen’s executive director, Ariana Higgins, told the Houston Chronicle that the foundation has learned its lesson following an outcry from the Jewish community. The foundation received “considerable community feedback,” according to the newspaper.

In its unsigned letter of apology, the organization said it noticed five years ago that there would be a conflict and tried to change the event, but that the alternate dates offered on the crowded city calendar did not suit its needs.

“Although we are aware of the message that scheduling the Race for the Cure over this important holiday may send, we must express that we did not intend any disrespect or to undervalue the significance of this holy day,” the apology said.

But Rabbi David Lyon of Houston’s Congregation Beth Israel wrote in a blog post, “Over the course of five years, any truly concerned organization would have found a better solution.”

The rabbi said that he and his wife would no longer support the organization, and would find “other organizations that accept greater personal responsibility to honor the health of all women and their respective faith traditions.”

Susan G. Komen, for whom the race is named, reportedly was an observant Jew.

The race is traditionally held the first Saturday in October, the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Some cities hold their race on the first Sunday of the month. This year, eight of the 138 races across the United States will be held on Yom Kippur, the Chronicle reported.

“We’re already looking at future calendar dates and making sure we won’t encounter this in the future,” Higgins said.

Participation in this year’s race is expected to be about 23,000, down from a high of 30,000 in 2011, Higgins told the Chronicle.

 

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.

L.A. Teens Win More Than 70 Medals at Maccabi Games


Team Westside’s luggage was a little heavier on its return flight from the Maccabi Games in Houston last month. Athletes won a combined total of 18 medals in three sports at the annual competition, which took place Aug. 5-10.

The boys’ 16-and-under basketball team took home the gold medal while one of the two Team Westside boys’ 14-and-under squads took silver. Team Westside, which sent 65 athletes total, won five medals in tennis events and swam away with 11 medals in various individual and team swimming events. 

Although the majority of the week was spent in competition, all of the athletes at the Maccabi Games engaged in a community service day as part of “JCC Cares.” On Aug. 7, Team Westside athletes created art projects with inner-city youth in a partnership with a local YMCA.  

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Maccabi Games, which is organized by the Jewish Community Center Association. 

Though the competition is only once a year, Westside JCC Assistant Executive Director Ronnel Conn said that the Team Westside athletes would engage in social and bonding activities throughout the year, including group Shabbat dinners.

“At Westside JCC, we stress that this is not just a one-week competition,” he said. “The Maccabi Games are a yearlong experience.”

Meanwhile, Team Milken, which participated at Maccabi Games in Rockland, N.Y., and in Memphis, Tenn., also claimed a hefty number of medals. In Memphis, Team Milken took home 60 medals, including 40 in track and field events and 16 in swimming. In Rockland, Team Milken recorded 32 more medals, with 25 in swimming.

After the closing of the Milken JCC in West Hills earlier this year, Team Milken competed in the 2012 Maccabi Games under the auspices of the Westside JCC. Team Milken sent 115 athletes to the two venues.

“We had a fantastic year,” said Philip Benditson, who chairs the Milken delegations. “Our athletes had a fantastic time, and we’re very blessed to be this athletically talented.”

Holy hoops: The story of the Beren Academy basketball team


For one week, the boys basketball team of the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, Texas, made nationwide headlines.

The reason—they made the Texas 2A semifinals, but since the academy is Orthodox Jewish, they couldn’t play the game, which was scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

After a campaign and filed lawsuit, the games were moved to accommodate Beren, and their performance attracted the media, as well as the Texas Jewish community.

JTA’s Uri Fintzy spent the final four weekend with the Beren staff, students and fans.

This is the story.

Orthodox school falls short in Texas tournament


The Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston lost, 46-42, to Abilene Christian in the 2A private and parochial boys basketball state championship game.

Down by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, Beren closed the deficit to three with two minutes to play but could not cap the comeback effort.

Co-captain Isaac Mirwis and junior sensation Zach Yoshor each had 15 points to lead Beren. After a slow start, Yoshor hit a three-point shot to tie the game 19-19 at halftime.

Beren, which finished its season with a school record 25-6 mark, had grabbed national headlines with its push for a pre-Shabbat starting time for its semifinal game Friday. The Stars defeated Dallas Covenant, 58-46, to secure a spot in the title game on Saturday night after the Jewish Sabbath.

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, known as TAPPS, originally ruled that the semifinal game would be played at its original 9 p.m. Friday start time—after the start of the Sabbath. Beren, a Modern Orthodox school, would have opted to forefit without a change in the schedule.

But TAPPS reversed itself just hours after the announcement that Beren’s team captain, along with teammates and parents, had enlisted the support of prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin and filed a lawsuit against the association; the lawsuit also named the Mansfield Independent School District, whose facilities are hosting the semifinals and finals of the 2A tournament. The 2A category includes schools with enrollments of 55 to 120.

The championship game was originally set for 2 p.m. Saturday, which also conflicts with the Sabbath.

“We feel this was a success,” said Rabbi Harry Sinoff, Beren’s head of school, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “We got to compete in a basketball game, but the whole experience for the school was really remarkable. It brought the community together. Sometimes you don’t have an event like this to do that. We’re not pioneers. We just thought it was right for us to play. It was good for basketball.”

TAPPS in a statement posted on its website Wednesday had said that when the Beren Academy met with the association’s board in 2009 to discuss membership, it was told that tournament games are scheduled on Friday and Saturday, and that the school’s athletic director said he “understood” and “did not see a problem.”

Beren’s plight made international headlines this week and garnered support from several public figures, including the mayor of Houston, the former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The team had earned a spot in the state semifinals last week with a 27-point victory in the quarterfinals.

Shabbat conflict sends Beren Academy hoops squad to the sidelines


Chris Cole, the coach of the boys’ basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, says his squad is peaking coming off its 27-point victory in the state tournament quarterfinals.

Apparently the Stars, who with a record of 24-5 are having the best season in school history, won’t be able to show off their game in the rest of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools 2A tournament.

The semifinals are being held on Friday night and the finals on Saturday afternoon, conflicting with the Jewish Sabbath, and Beren’s appeal to change the starting times was rejected Monday by the association. Beren thus is forced to forfeit.

Beren, an Orthodox Jewish day school with 67 students, had asked the association to adjust the start time of Friday’s game to earlier in the afternoon and, if necessary, begin the championship game on Saturday evening.

The quarterfinals game against Our Lady of the Hills Catholic High School of Kerrville on Feb. 24 had been played earlier than scheduled to accommodate Beren, and the other three semifinalists in the 2A category—schools with enrollments of 55 to 120 students—reportedly were willing to follow suit.

“Just as TAPPS doesn’t schedule games on Sunday in deference to Christian teams, we expected that as a Jewish team, there would be grounds for a scheduling change,” Beren’s head of school, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, told JTA.

But TAPPS would not acquiesce, prompting Beren to withdraw from the competition. On Monday, TAPPS changed the tournament bracket on its website, crediting the Kerrville team with the victory and advancing Our Lady of the Hills Catholic to the semifinals against Dallas Covenant on Friday.

TAPPS director Edd Burleson, who declined to respond to inquiries from JTA, told The New York Times that changing the scheduling for Beren would create problems for other teams.

“When Beren’s joined years ago, we advised them that the Sabbath would present them with a problem with the finals,” Burleson said. “In the past, TAPPS has held firmly to their rules because if schedules are changed for these schools, it’s hard for other schools.”

Conflicts surrounding high school sports or academic competitions and Sabbath observance that have cropped up periodically over the years often have been resolved to the satisfaction of Jewish teams.

Earlier this month, the wrestling team from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, like Beren’s a Modern Orthodox day school, captured a regional wrestling title by winning a match originally scheduled for a Saturday afternoon. Ida Crown’s coach had successfully petitioned the Illinois High School Association to have the match delayed until after sunset.

In 2009, a mock trial club from the Modern Orthodox Maimonides School in suburban Boston reached the national championships in Atlanta only to discover the competition was scheduled for a Saturday. The organizers initially balked at a request to change the schedule, but the school enlisted a prominent Washington attorney and persuaded the Justice Department to write a letter on its behalf.

Two days before the competition, the mock trial group reversed its position, permitting Maimonides to schedule part of the competition on Thursday.

For its part, Beren has managed to bring considerable outside pressure to bear on TAPPS.

Articles about the Sabbath conflict were published this week in The New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, as well as on the ESPN website. The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League weighed in, sending a letter to TAPPS urging the association to accommodate Beren.

“Many of the private and parochial schools with TAPPS membership are faith-based institutions where religious values are a significant part of the education process and the lives of students who attend,” Martin Cominsky, ADL’s Southwest Regional director, said in a statement Monday. “We hope TAPPS officials and board members will keep that in mind when looking at future game schedules, and adjust policies to be flexible when a school’s games conflict with students’ religious obligations.”

But things don’t always work out: In 2010, a yeshiva in Washington State forfeited a girls’ basketball game in the state tournament that fell on a Jewish fast day after officials declined a request to reschedule the game.

Beren continues to hold out hope that TAPPS will reconsider and permit the team to play. Sinoff said an informal community task force has been working behind the scenes to reach an accord.

And the basketball team, which had never before competed in a state championship, launched a Facebook page and a Twitter campaign to rally support.

“We’ve had a really good year,” Cole said. “We’re always hopeful, obviously, but we’re really playing our best basketball.”

Saving Golani: An Israeli puppy’s journey from Jerusalem to Houston


A puppy born in Israel and abandoned in the streets of Jerusalem has completed his unlikely journey to a new home and new life in Houston, Texas: the final stop on a trek that began beneath the wheels of a tour bus that was parked in front of the hotel where Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle (R-Houston) and the tour group she and her husband brought to Israel were staying.

The dog’s cheerful welcome by Riddle and friends who first met the puppy in Israel culminated in an unlikely series of events that began before the Riddles even departed for their trip. The couple had debated whether Israel would be the right place to find the rescue dog they had been looking for, but without success. Riddle vividly recalls the reaction of husband Mike, a Houston estate attorney, who thought he had settled the matter with his unqualified declaration, “No, no, no. We are not going to do that.”

Looking back, though, Debbie – attractive and petit, but a determined and experienced politician now in her fifth legislative session at Austin – insists with a knowing grin that she didn’t go against her husband’s wishes at all because, “We didn’t really find him—he found us.”

An animal lover and horse breeder, Mike didn’t really stand a chance. The puppy was cowering beneath the wheels of the tour bus after being ejected from its mother’s owner’s home. “He was abandoned on the streets right in front of the hotel and he was going to die because he was under the bus. There were a lot of tour buses around and he would have been squished,” Debbie recalls. Besides, she adds, “He immediately took to me.”
Hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are abandoned each year on the streets of Jerusalem alone. A fortunate handful are adopted by foreign residents willing to go through the time and expense of enlisting organizations that handle the bureaucratic red tape involved in relocating animals – details far more complicated than having the animal vaccinated and brought on-board someone’s flight home.

Dr. Eytan Kreiner, CEO of Terminals4Pets, the veterinarian who handled Golani’s arrangements, told The Media Line that “the first thing to be done after determining that the animal is in good health is to determine what regulations in Israel and in the destination country apply.” In the Riddles’ case, even though, as Dr. Kreiner said, “you could see from the first moment…that he’s physically in good shape…he’s happy… the only thing he wants is attention, attention, to be around people,” it would be a month of vaccinations and examinations along with a trip to the Agriculture Ministry, before Golani would reach Houston.

“To fly a cat or dog from Israel to any place in the world can vary from $500 to about $1500 or more depending on length of time the animal needs to spend in Israel, vaccinations, crating, security, Customs and transportation,” according to Kreiner.

As foreigners transporting rescued animals to their home abroad, the Riddles are not alone. It’s not unusual for visitors to rescue one or more of the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats abandoned in Israel and ship them home for a new life.  Paula Nelson of West Virginia told The Media Line that over the past four years she has flown seven cats home, three of which have become pets for her two daughters. Nelson says, “People are crazy” and attributes the obsession with Israel’s strays as “Jerusalem fever.” Yet, she says that she and her husband, Carl, “have very tender hearts.” They spend about $3,500 annually just to feed the twelve cats, three dogs and a rabbit that live with them on their one-acre plot. But she discourages anyone from bringing back a pet they’re not willing to “take care of for life.”

According to Nelson, “you do it because you love the animal, not because it’s from Israel,” but Debbie Riddle disagrees. For her, that Golani was born in Israel was an important element in her decision to take him home, which is evident in her selection of a name for the dog. In fact, Golani’s breed is mostly Canaani, a breed indigenous to Israel and renowned for it’s prowess as a rescuer. Since part of the dog’s role with the Riddle family will relate to personal protection, Debbie wanted a “tough” name. She named her puppy in tribute to one of the Israel Defense Force’s elite infantry brigades, explaining that, “because he’s going to be a family pet, a member of the family, and also a protector, I felt like the name “Golani” fit him very well. He is very handsome and terribly lovable. He has the instinct to protect but is lovable.”

Deborah Taylor was on a Trinity Church trip to Israel when she found two kittens near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – the spot holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Afraid one would be trampled, she scooped up the kitten and placed it in her pocket book. Her taxi driver led her to Dr. Kreiner to whom she paid $100 per kitten to insure placement off the streets. With two dogs and a cat back home, “my husband didn’t want me to bring more animals home.”

Chaya Beili, who manages the shelter at the, The Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSCPA) where currently 200 dogs and about 200 cats are currently boarded, attests to the overabundance of stray animals on the streets of the Israeli capital. She told The Media Line, “We advise leaving cats on the streets as long as they are spade. What’s the point of moving them to an environment they can’t handle? Dogs are a different story. Legally they can’t live on the streets in Israel, and practically it’s more difficult for them.” Chaya receives twenty calls monthly and can’t accommodate many of them.

“I just got a call from someone who found a puppy by the Qalandiya checkpoint [separating Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Ramallah]. There’s no city responsible at the checkpoint. These puppies are usually strays belonging to Arab villages where spraying and neutering is banned and dog food is barely heard of. We have at least 100 of these Canaani dogs.”

Israel is not the exclusive birthplace of animals America-bound. “In both Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers bond with street dogs and go to all measures to bring these animals home”, according to Kelley O’Meara, director of companion animals and engagement at the Humane Society International. According to O’Meara, “Local groups are essential in expediting this complex process which in the case of Afghanistan can cost between three to four thousand dollars [per animal].”

Thirty-five days after their fortuitous meeting alongside the tour bus in front of the Olive Tree Hotel, Golani was brought to the cargo terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport where Dr. Kreiner cleared the final red tape and the dog, now grown to a robust six and a half pounds, was placed aboard a lighted, pressurized area of a United-Continental Boeing 777 jet for his flight to Houston with a Newark stopover for custom clearance. 
Meanwhile, back in Houston, inhabitants – human and otherwise – of the Riddle’s 16-acre horse farm anxiously awaited Golani’s arrival. At Houston’s George Bush International Airport, Golani was greeted by Debbie Riddle and some members of her tour group who had witnessed her fateful and dramatic meeting on a Jerusalem street. It didn’t matter whether Golani recognized Rep. Riddle because he remembered her or he became familiar with the scent of the Riddles’ socks left in the dog’s crate. An onlooker would be hard-pressed to deny a bond already existed between owner and pet.

“He ended up the birthday present I wished for,” an emotional Debbie Riddle told The Media Line by phone after arriving home with Golani.  “And Golani’s got duel citizenship: Israeli and Texan.”

This article originally appeared at The Media Line Ltd.

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. “

Rabbi talks about Gabrielle Giffords’ status, connection to faith [VIDEO]


A Frantic Hour


The dumbest question asked by any reporter anywhere in response to Hurricane Katrina came last Monday in Houston.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush had just finished announcing a special relief effort — the Hurricane Katrina Fund — when someone in the press pool blurted out, “What do you think of reports that the levees were intentionally broken?”

The two men were already walking away at that point, but you could see the question register on Clinton’s perennially exhausted face. Uncertainty — did she really say that? — then anger — how dare she say that? — then sadness — what a sick, sick world where someone could even think that.

Then again, maybe I was just projecting my reaction. It was a hastily called press conference at a frantic hour, and they couldn’t keep everyone out. For a moment I was even embarrassed for the two ex-presidents, who, after offering themselves forth, get hit with such a crackpot response.

That night, I found that I was still thinking about that question.

It was, on the one hand, in keeping with a well-established American tradition of asinine conspiracy theories. Other examples: AIDS was a virus released by the CIA in the ghettos; the Mossad flew those planes into the Twin Towers; American nuclear testing caused the tsunami in Indonesia. Extremists of all stripes can’t stand to see complicated reality destroy their airtight ideologies. Fantasy fills in where facts seem to fall short.

But what made that question stick in my mind was something else: the idea of intentionality.

As much as we want the floodwaters to wash our hands of culpability in the unfolding tragedy, our hands are not clean.

No one intentionally broke the levees, but many people intentionally decided to limit funds for repairing and improving them. No one intentionally brought the waters down on the Gulf and New Orleans, but many people helped alter the natural environment to the area’s detriment. No one intentionally flooded those impoverished parishes, but many people decided to overlook their needs. No one intentionally let so many people suffer in the wake of this disaster, but many people — like me, like you — turned their backs on these poorest of the poor long before the floodwaters tragically worsened their lot.

Judaism, in its wisdom, makes such distinctions, as well. God is in control of the trembling Earth and its raging waters. But it is left to us humans to control how we treat the natural world and ourselves, how we prepare for and deal with both natural and man-made conditions. What our tradition is trying to beat into our heads is that there have to be two responses to the tragedy.

Most immediately, we must accept its inevitability and meet its demands with quickness and courage, with mercy and generosity. By all accounts, the Jews of Los Angeles, as individuals and as a community, have been doing this. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has received and distributed more than $500,000 in relief funds. Chabad has announced it will raise money during its upcoming telethon for relief efforts. Synagogues and other organizations have also raised significant funds. Even the Great American Hot Dog Company, a kosher establishment at The Grove, kicked in, shipping its entire weekend proceeds to hurricane relief. To do more, you can link directly to donor sites at www.jewishjournal.com.

But the second response has to go beyond that, to learn the deeper lessons. Clinton was getting at this more profound response when he said at the same Monday news conference that, “There are a lot of similarities between the people most affected by the tsunami and by the hurricane.”

The hurricane afflicted the most vulnerable in our society. They were invisible before the floods and given our track record, there is a good chance they will return to their role as disaster-victims-in-waiting once the cameras are turned off. It was not intentional, but yet we nonetheless left them to suffer the worst effects of the storm’s violence — just as they suffer the worst effects of social violence.

Now we need to ask whether we’ve done enough to help them outside of emergencies. It is a comforting cliché of Jewish life, to be repeated often from pulpits this weekend I’m sure, that God is not in the hurricane, but in our response to it. That is only partially true.

True, our first response should be, “How can I help?” For in helping we make manifest the goodness of our Creator. But our second response must go deeper. It must be: “How can I make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

Is it enough to airlift people out of harm’s way, but do nothing to lift them out of poverty?

How do we make investment in education, healthcare and housing as much of a national emergency as a natural disaster?

“The worse thing of all is when a Jew makes peace with the way things are,” the Slonimer rebbe wrote in Netivot Shalom. At every moment, he continued, our souls are summoned to do God’s work. “In every condition that a Jew is in there is an aspect of, ‘And God called out to him….'”

At this moment, it would be a mistake to assume all the suffering we’ve witnessed was the result of an inevitable, albeit historic, flood. No. As expert after expert has made clear, the greatest human costs came about because of ill planning and poverty — and those are not conditions we need accept.

That’s what makes the images and news of Katrina so tragic: not that the death and destruction were intentional, but that they were — to a large degree — avoidable.

 

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.

My Father, My Hero


There’s a framed glass poster that hangs on the wall of Assaf Ramon’s Houston bedroom wall. While the image of the smiling astronaut in the orange jumpsuit is famous, the Hebrew words inscribed at the bottom of the poster are not:

"Assaf, my oldest son, each night, look at the sky and feel me going about there. A bit far, but close. Close in my heart. I love you, my dear, and I miss you. Take care of yourself, of mother, and of your brothers. Dad."

"Dad," was Ilan Ramon, one of the seven astronauts killed Feb. 1, 2003, as the Columbia space shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and tore apart. Israel air force fighter pilot Col. Ilan Ramon inscribed those words on the poster to his eldest son the night before he left for Cape Canaveral. It was the last time his family saw him alive.

"In retrospect, I think that it was a goodbye letter," Assaf said. "That maybe it crossed his mind that something could happen to him. Because with the words ‘take care of your brothers,’ there is a transferring of responsibilities. On the other hand, even when he went to Florida for training, he would always say, ‘Take care of your brothers.’ Clearly, now, after the accident, the words have a different meaning for me."

As the oldest of four — Tal, 13; David, 10; and Noa, 6 — Assaf seems older than his 16 years. Well, almost 16. Ramon will turn 16 on Feb. 10, the day his father was supposed to be buried in Israel last year — until the family postponed it a day.

"It will take me a few years until I celebrate my birthday," Assaf said. "I don’t think I will be in the mood. Certainly not this year."

It’s been a tough year for the Ramon’s, who came to America for what went from a two-year stint to a six-year journey to support Ilan’s mission to become Israel’s first astronaut. It was a tough year for Assaf, a shy and disciplined boy, who spoke out for the first time, to Yedioth Aharonot, Israel’s daily newspaper, about his relationship with his father, about that terrible day and his feelings of his father’s legacy.

"I have no idea how my father will be remembered in history. Until now, I haven’t tried to think about it at all," Assaf said. "I assume he will be remembered as the first Israeli astronaut. As a man who was a pilot and fought for Israel. Maybe also as a man who wanted the world to live in love and peace. I don’t know. I think of him as a father, not as a history."

lan and Rona Ramon came to Houston with their four children in June 1998, after the Israeli air force commander decided that Ilan was the man for the prestigious mission.

About two months before the trip, the parents gathered the children for a conversation. Assaf was 10, in the fourth grade.

"Mom and dad called us downstairs to the living room," Assaf recalled. "We sat on the sofa and dad took out a picture of a space shuttle and said, ‘They want me to be on one of these shuttles, so I can fly to space.’ It was night, and we were little and tired, and we didn’t completely understand what he was talking about. So we said, ‘Wow!’ and we went to sleep."

"Dad said that we would move to Houston in the summer for two years, and I thought that it could be great," he continued. "I had never been outside Israel, and I thought it would be fun, a vacation of sorts. I never knew about NASA or about the shuttle. That was the first time that I heard of NASA."

At first, Assaf found it difficult to adjust, because he didn’t know English. "You came from Israel?" many students asked him. "So what are you doing here?"

Assaf explained to his classmates about his father’s mission and that the family was stationed there until it was completed. "They said, that’s nice, but they didn’t really get excited. Honestly, they would have been more excited if my father was a football player."

Actually, Assaf started to play football when he was in the seventh grade. "I didn’t want to play at first; I didn’t want to become part of the [American] culture," he said.

But it amused him how seriously Americans took their sport. "I remember that one of the games ended 48 to nothing, against us." As Assaf walked over to his father, he noticed people getting really upset; some were even crying. "The closer I get to my father, I see that he’s smiling. And then when I get to him, both of us burst out laughing. The Americans are crying, and the two Israelis are rolling in laughter."

America, in many ways, was good for the Ramon family.

"My whole childhood, my father had worked very hard. Here, there was this feeling of a new kind of life. Suddenly, he was home when I got back from school. In Israel, that never happened."

They took many family trips together, to Texas, Florida, Panama, Denver and Toronto. They skied in New Mexico and toured in the "most fun" place, Los Angeles.

"We all went to Universal Studios on Thanksgiving, and we got VIP passes." After the kids went on the rides, they went to look for their parents. "Suddenly, we see a crowd of people around them holding pictures of my father, and he is sitting at a table signing them. It was cool," Assaf recalled. "He looked like a celebrity."

lan Ramon’s fame began way before he came to America, with his participation in the mission to destroy Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in a preemptive raid in 1981. But Assaf and his siblings didn’t learn about that either until they were in America.

"About three years ago, he put in a video of the attack and showed us, ‘Hey, that’s me, and there is my plane. This is the target, and that’s the missile.’ And then he explained to us why they did the mission and why we can’t talk about it with anyone."

Assaf recalled that his father didn’t say too much, just that it was an important and dangerous mission. "Over time, after the destruction of the Twin Towers and the terror situation in Israel began to get out of control, I understood its importance."

Ilan Ramon never made a big deal of his accomplishments, his son said. "He never bragged … take the running for example. He would run like nine miles every time. On our last vacation together, at a cowboy ranch in Texas, I joined him. We ran about six miles, and then when we started going back to the ranch, dad continued straight on the road and said, ‘Go in, I’ll do another little loop,’ and he pushed himself to do another three miles. I was so done, having trouble breathing. It was only then that I understood how strong he was."

While his father was disciplined, disciplining at home was another story.

"We would all laugh at him when he tried to get angry," Assaf recalled with a smile. "It was ridiculous, because he didn’t get mad often. But when Tal and I would fight amongst ourselves, or when I did something stupid, then my father would get angry. He would yell, but it didn’t sound like he was really yelling. Then we would start to laugh, and he would break down and laugh."

Assaf saw in his father a confidante. "I would talk to him about everything. Even about girls."

When Assaf was in eighth grade, he started going out with a local Catholic girl named Kelly. "My father would give me advice what to buy her if she got mad at me. Once he even advised me to buy her underwear." Before the Columbia flight, Assaf’s relationship with Kelly started going down hill, and Ilan saw it was driving his son crazy.

"The last time I spoke to him, on videoconference from the space shuttle, we even talked about Kelly. He said, ‘This relationship is not good for you. End it.’ Even from the shuttle he had advice for me. I would say that he never gave me bad advice in the romance department. I know that I was lucky, because how many fathers tell their children to buy underwear for their girlfriends?"

OR THE RAMONS, two years here turned into five, with the Columbia missions continuously postponed. But in the winter of 2003, they started to prepare, and Ilan went on more and more training missions. He also started to bring home NASA experiments with him.

"He would come back with these containers of disgusting food they prepared at NASA — all kinds of dry steaks, repulsive pasta and vile vegetables — and he had to eat them and afterward bring the samples of … nu, what comes out from the food after its eaten?" Assaf said. "We would make fun of him when we were eating good food, and he had to open his containers to find an unpleasant surprise."

As the mission grew closer, Assaf said the family went about its business. "We didn’t have any fears. We really, really didn’t. We were totally confident and very happy. I asked him if this whole thing was dangerous. He said that people at NASA check everything they do three or four times, and they don’t take any risks. You could say that he was also very confident. He believed in NASA completely."

The last time Assaf saw his father in person, before he went into isolation for the mission, was on Jan. 9, 2003. "It was a regular day. I came home from school, did my homework, ate dinner with the whole family and dad organized our stuff. I came downstairs to talk to him a bit. Afterward he took these giant posters with his picture of him dressed in his orange space suit, put them on the bed, and he wrote something personal on the poster to each one of us. He gave me a small hug and gave me the poster."

After they said goodbye, Assaf went into the house and drank some water. "I didn’t cry, but I felt a bit choked up, like there was something caught in my throat. And then I said to myself, ‘Why am I getting worked up? I’ll see him again in less than a month.’"

few days before takeoff, the Ramons went to Cape Canaveral. "When you see the awesome power of the ship and the missiles around it, it’s a little scary. We all cried, a cry of happiness, because it was very moving. All in all, we had waited for this moment for five years. At takeoff, [my sister] Noa said, ‘I lost my father,’ and everyone talked about it afterward. I think it was just something she said, a little girl without any real meaning. She saw the smoke and the fire and apparently was afraid."

After takeoff, they went back to Houston, and gathered every day in front of the television to watch the NASA station. "In general, the experiments were somewhat boring, but it was moving to see the astronauts talking amongst themselves. On the videoconference, dad would do tricks with M&Ms," Assaf said.

Assaf admired his father’s decision to keep kosher and observe Shabbat in space. "Dad is not a religious man, but I think it was a nice decision that honors the entire Jewish people."

On Friday, Jan. 31, the day before the shuttle was scheduled to land, the Ramons returned to Cape Canaveral.

"We stayed at the hotel, we played soccer and tennis, we passed the time," Assaf said. After watching his father on the NASA channel, he was too excited to sleep. "That night, I saw how the shuttle was coming closer to Earth, and I thought that my father was inside, and pretty soon he would be here. It was clear to me that he was coming."

They got up the next morning at 7 a.m. and drove to the landing zone and went upstairs to watch.

"We waited and waited for the sonic boom. There was a clock running backward, and a man with a microphone speaking. I remember that five minutes before the landing, someone said that they lost contact with the shuttle. I said, ‘Big deal. Why do you need contact? They should just land the shuttle alone, and that’s all.’ It didn’t seem like they were worried."

"Three minutes before the clock got to zero, a sonic boom was supposed to sound, to indicate that the shuttle pierced the atmosphere. I’m looking at the clock, and I see it go down to a minute and to continue to tick away. And then I heard a noise."

Assaf can’t exactly explain the noise, but when he asked if it was the sonic boom, he was told that it wasn’t. "Meanwhile the clock had struck zero, and still they weren’t there."

"And then two minutes after zero they started to take us out; they took us back to headquarters. They just said: ‘Come with us.’"

"The NASA people didn’t look worried. But on the way to the car, I saw one of the friends of one of the astronauts crying. I said to myself, ‘What — is he stupid? What’s he crying about? What’s he all hysterical about?’ And in the car, I saw that my mother was also very sad and worried. I told her, ‘Don’t worry. Worst comes to worse, they’ll land at a different place.’"

"At that point, I really thought they were just going to land in a different place, and that’s why they were taking us to watch the landing on the video. But I think at that point, my mom understood that that was it. That it was over."

Assaf didn’t. He didn’t even consider the possibility of an accident at landing, because the only time he was worried was at takeoff, and that had passed — seemingly without a hitch.

The family drove five minutes to headquarters and went up in an elevator into a room with some families and a few senior astronauts and waited for about 20 minutes.

"Then someone from NASA entered, closed the door and introduced himself. He said, ‘This is the most difficult task I have ever had to do ever in my life.’"

"And I thought to myself, ‘It can’t be that they’ll tell me that my father was killed. It can’t be. It can’t be.’ But I was worried. And then he took a breath, and there was complete silence in the room. He said, ‘We lost contact with the shuttle over Texas. It disintegrated. There is not a great chance of finding survivors.’"

"I remember that I got angry, and I said again, ‘It can’t be.’ I didn’t believe it. And my leg started to tremble uncontrollably. I wasn’t ready to accept it."

"Some of the children started to cry hysterically at this point, and Tal and David came to sit with us. Mom was sitting next to me, and she had started to cry when the man entered. That’s why she didn’t hear exactly what he said. An astronaut sitting nearby repeated the NASA man’s words. That’s when I broke down."

That same day, the Ramons packed up and returned to Houston. "Later I saw on TV the footage of the shuttle exploding in the air," Assaf said. "And then I finally understood that dad is gone."

he extensive investigation of the Columbia disaster showed a long line of failures within NASA. The 248-page report concluded that the piece of debris that hit the shuttle’s left side on takeoff caused the shuttle to explode on reentry to Earth. The report also said that NASA had eight different opportunities to prevent the disaster.

"We read about all the chances that NASA had to deal with the mishaps, and they ignored it," Assaf said. "It doesn’t sound like NASA, and really lowers their image in my eyes. We always looked to NASA as a very secure place, and this report shows that they make a joke of the work."

"They saw the foam that hit the shuttle already on takeoff, and they could have said, ‘Something’s not right, go back and check it.’ I’m very disappointed, and I am sure that dad, as much as he loved NASA, would have viewed this whole thing from the outside and would have also been severely disappointed."

Despite everything, Assaf is not upset his father was an astronaut. "I am proud," he said. But he thinks about his father every day.

"I am trying to pass the time," he said. "You cannot avoid sadness. Every day I think about dad and the accident, and all the things that could have happened and didn’t. I don’t cry much, but sometimes I break down. It’s like a roller coaster: Some times there are better, happier days, and some times there are days that are not so pleasant."

But, he said, that the last year has matured him, that his father’s death has given him a new perspective on life, and he has learned not to take things for granted. "I look at my friends now, how they relate to their own parents. So if my friend yells at his mother or father, I get upset. They don’t understand it like I do. That it’s all temporary. "

ow, one year later, the Ramons are preparing to return to Israel. In August, they will go to a house that is being built for them in Ramat Chen. "I think it’s time," Assaf said, adding that he knows it will be hard at first, because he will feel like a new immigrant.

"On the other hand, my mother says that in Israel there is a better community. Here, sometimes, it’s boring for me. You need a car to go everywhere, and there is a certain age for drinking, and there’s also a lot of drugs among the kids. I am ready to live in Israel, again."

For his 16th birthday, a friend of Ilan’s gave Assaf flying lessons in a Cessna. Assaf is practicing to be a pilot in the Israeli air force, like his father.

"After the accident it came to me: I very much want to be an astronaut," Assaf said. "I want to share with him what he went through and to know how he felt. I believe that that’s how I’ll feel closer to him.

The 16-year-old, who has matured a lifetime in this last year, added: "Who knows, maybe one day [Israel] will send me."

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.