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Europe’s refugee crisis: An inside look with Maya Rimer


The Refugee crisis in Europe, though seemingly distant and even sometimes obscure, is now actually more severe and relevant than ever. Every week thousands of immigrants are rescued from the Mediterranean, as many more enter from the east by any means possible.

2NJBIn Turkey millions of refugees, held back by Erdogan, await the opportunity to cross the border. As Europe is divided by the question of how to handle this influx of millions of immigrants, the situation in the refugee camps continues to worsen. But amidst this crisis there are rays of light and one of those rays are the many volunteers from all over the world who come to assist these migrants in need.

Maya Rimer recently returned from a period of 3 months working in refugee camps in Greece. Just before going back there, she came to tell 2NJB about her experience.

We also played some great music by the Wild Willows (Find them on Bandcamp too!)

Donald Trump says anti-Semitic immigrants will be barred under his plan


Donald Trump said he would test would-be immigrants for anti-Semitic beliefs and that Israel would be a key ally in defeating radical Islam.

Speaking Monday in Youngstown, Ohio, the Republican presidential nominee outlined national security policies that included “extreme vetting” for would-be immigrants, including for those who would reject what he described as American values of tolerance.

“We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people,” Trump said.

Explaining why he favored such a policy, he cited the French experience as an example.

“Beyond terrorism, as we have seen in France, foreign populations have brought their anti-Semitic attitudes with them,” he said.

It’s not clear which “foreign populations” he was referring to, although from the broader context of his comments, targeting “radical Islam,” it appears he was speaking of Muslims from North Africa. Anti-Semitism existed and at times thrived in France for centuries before its recent waves of immigrants, although recent high-profile attacks on Jews have been carried out by French Muslim extremists.

Trump also said Israel would be key in an alliance to face down the spread of radical Islam.

“As president, I will call for an international conference focused on this goal,” he said. “We will work side by side with our friends in the Middle East, including our greatest ally, Israel.”

Much of Trump’s targeting of would-be immigrants focused on attributes he has associated with Islam.

“In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law,” he said, referring to the Muslim religious canon.

The Anti-Defamation League immediately took to Twitter to express concerns about Trump’s reiterated call to ban Muslim entry and entry from countries subject to violence.

“Refugees from Syria, Iraq, etc. are fleeing the same terror we fear,” the ADL said. “Suspending immigration would only trap those who need refuge most.”

Also speaking out was HIAS, the lead Jewish group advocating for immigrants and refugees.

“For the American Jewish community, the thought of barring a refugee family because of their religion or home country is simply unpalatable,” Melanie Nezer, the group’s vice president, said in a statement.

Trump dedicated a chunk of his speech to decrying what he described as a decline in American security under President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee who was secretary of state in Obama’s first term. He referred to the nuclear rollback for sanctions relief deal with Iran.

“The nuclear deal puts Iran, the No. 1 state sponsor of radical Islamic terrorism, on a path to nuclear weapons,” he said. “In short, the Obama-Clinton foreign policy has unleashed ISIS, destabilized the Middle East and put the nation of Iran – which chants
‘Death to America’ – in a dominant position.”

In an almost simultaneous appearance with Clinton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Vice President Joe Biden also invoked Israel in attacking Trump’s national security policies.

Biden noted Trump’s claim last week that Obama had founded ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist group. Trump doubled down on the claim for days before claiming he was being sarcastic.

“The leader of Hezbollah, a direct threat to our ally Israel, repeated that claim,” Biden said.

The Republican debate’s $10 question


The easiest question of the second Republican presidential debate turned out to be the hardest: “Which woman would you put on the $10 bill?”

All of the candidates immediately got that deer-in-the-headlights look, except that a deer would have probably come up with better answer than Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher or the woman you happen to be married to.

Rosa Parks was a good pick, even though it later emerged that the civil rights pioneer was a supporter of Planned Parenthood, the Republicans’ Mordor. I can understand why the most obvious choice, Democratic first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was politically incorrect. Still, there was an even simpler, more obvious answer.

How come no one mentioned Emma Lazarus?

Lazarus is the poet whose sonnet “The New Colossus” adorns the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Born in 1849 to a Sephardic Jewish family that immigrated to this land in Colonial times, Lazarus was deeply moved by the plight of Eastern European Jewish refugees escaping the anti-Semitic pogroms and desperate for a safe haven in the United States. She advocated for their rescue, helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York to help them learn new skills and, in 1883, was moved to write the poem that would greet generation after generation of hope-filled immigrants to New York Harbor.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Some 3 million Jews, most of them destitute, arrived in the United States from 1881 to 1920. More than a century later, it’s easy to romanticize the poet and the poem, but at that time, many Americans feared these immigrants would bring an inexorable decline in American culture. 

“I am perfectly conscious that contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us,” Lazarus wrote.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Jews who arrived helpless on America’s shore turned out to become a vital engine of this country’s prosperity and greatness in the generations that followed. They found here the freedom and safety that enabled them to express the full measure of their gifts.

But Lazarus’ poem is not a celebration of Jewishness. It is a celebration of refuge, of opportunity, of second chances. She was also writing about the Chinese, Irish and Italians. She was writing, though she could never have imagined it, about Pakistanis, Koreans and Mexicans.

Lazarus’ sonnet, like a second national anthem, became the touchstone for those who believe in America’s value to the world’s homeless, and for those who understood the potential value of those homeless to America.

And it is a sad testament to how far we have moved from those ideals that not one candidate could summon the name Emma Lazarus, and that the primary message of the leading candidate, Donald Trump, calls for rounding up immigrants and tossing them out.

This week, the shrill anti-immigrant ghosts returned. When President Barack Obama’s administration announced a plan to take in up to 100,000 refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war by 2017, critics in Congress and in the media warned darkly that to do so would open a spigot for terrorists to enter the United States. A recent poll shows Americans divided on how many of these refugees to take in, with a plurality of 35 percent saying the figure 10,000 per year is “too high.”

The correct answer is we need to give refuge to as many of the 4 million Syrian refugees as possible, and it is possible to handle many.

The collapse of Syria and the relentless ongoing war is not America’s fault, but Obama bears some responsibility for allowing it to fester. It’s unclear whether intervention by the United States could have made things better, but Obama’s policy of non-engagement there has, in any case, helped bring us to this low, tragic point.

At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most persuasive arguments against taking in Jews was that Eastern European Jews would bring a strange culture, anti-American values and a criminal element. They wouldn’t integrate, and they would drain the economy. Those who level these same charges against the Muslims of Syria show not only how little faith they have in strangers, but how little they have in America. Give us your tempest-tost and we’ll give you back Cpl. Kareem Kahn, recipient of the Bronze Star, killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Steve Jobs — the son of a Syrian immigrant.

We seem to go through fits of collective forgetting, of being unable to reconcile our noble intentions with our deepest fears and apathy. We see it playing out on the streets of Los Angeles, where America’s internal refugees, the homeless, have taken up permanent, growing residence in the shadows of 10,000-square-foot homes and luxury high rises. And we see it playing out at our borders and shores, where this century’s Jews are once again met with “contempt and hatred.”

But I believe that most Americans prefer leaders who see America as a shelter for the wandering and wretched of the world. Fear will take you far in the polls, but faith — in human potential, in America itself — will take you further.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corp./Jewish Journal. 

Young olim won’t feel alone


When Avital Avraham, 17, of Sherman Oaks arrived in Israel earlier this month with plans to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces, she said she was “honored that Israel is opening their arms to me even though I wasn’t born here.”

She wasn’t alone. Avraham was one of 331 North American and British immigrants to Israel — including 12 from the Los Angeles area — whose arrival here was celebrated Aug. 13 during a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was among those welcoming the olim, or immigrants under the Law of Return, with words of praise.

“You [make] the biggest and most important decision — to leave your familiar home in different places to immigrate to Israel,” he said vehemently. “This is the core of Zionism.”

The olim arrived from New York on a flight chartered by the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, which supports aliyah efforts, and they were greeted by more than 1,500 supporters. The audience waved Israeli flags, cheered and even danced as they listened to notable guests. Singer Rami Kleinstein, himself an oleh, also performed.

Avraham, who speaks Hebrew and whose father is Israeli, said she chose to enlist in the IDF because she feels she should contribute — “just as every Israeli would.”

Danielle Tubul, 17, of Tarzana, who is considering remaining in Israel for college and beyond, said she believes it is her “duty” to complete her Israeli army service.

Like both women, Ofir Elkayam, 17, of Oak Park acknowledged the challenges they will experience as Israeli soldiers who are foreign-born. Still, Elkayam, who hopes to be accepted into Shayetet 13, Israel’s version of the Navy SEALs, said he believes the whole process of making aliyah is one big challenge.

“We left our jobs and our families behind, and what could have been a very successful college career,” he said.

This is not to say these teenagers are all alone. Israeli Scouts (Tzofim), for example, has a program called Garin Tzabar that is meant to create a support network for these teens. Tzofim offers lone soldiers, or soldiers whose families live outside Israel, the opportunity to be placed in a group together, or Garin.  The idea is that a Garin becomes a surrogate family for each of the oleh soldiers as they are acclimating to Israel and the army together.

A West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar organized seminars in Los Angeles for these olim with the goal of mentally and emotionally preparing them for military service and life in Israel. Elkayam said these seminars created a familial bond among participants even before they left the United States.

“We all got to know each other at the first seminar we had. Everybody connected,” he said. “It’s been a family ever since. We’ve been hanging out every day.”

Noam Harari, 18, of Agoura Hills said he already feels incredibly close to his Garin. For the next three months, this group from Los Angeles will live together on a kibbutz, where they will acclimate to Israeli life, go through ulpan (a Hebrew study program) and begin being evaluated by the military. Once they are in the army, the kibbutz will continue to be their home, where they can be together on weekends.

It was through the West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar that Harari heard about Nefesh B’Nefesh. Not only does the latter organization charter flights to Israel for olim,  they also aim to provide all types of support for them while they make aliyah and afterward.

Its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, established the group in 2002 after Fass learned that many American Jews decided against making aliyah because of the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles involved. Among its partners is the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Nefesh B’Nefesh isn’t just for immigrants who are enlisting. On this recent flight alone, it also sponsored physicians, lawyers and 41 families. There were physicists who are settling in the Negev.

Fass, during his speech at the Aug. 13 ceremony, said all of these olim are “heroic” for leaving their lives abroad to contribute to Israel.

“I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome Home Heroes.’ I think that encapsulates the whole day,” he said.

The event marked several milestones for Nefesh B’Nefesh, including this flight being its 50th.

Gelbart said afterward that making aliyah will not only benefit the immigrants personally. They, in turn, make Israel a better country.

“It sends a message to the enemies of Israel that people are always coming because they’re coming to Israel. To friends of Israel and people that love Zionism, it gives them adrenaline,” he said. “It gives them power to continue.”

Israel will bring in remaining Ethiopian immigrants


Israel’s government agreed to expedite the arrival of the final Ethiopian immigrants waiting to come to Israel. 

Under the plan approved on July 8 by the Cabinet, some 2,200 Falash Mura — Ethiopians whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity — will be brought to Israel by March 2014.

The Ethiopians are waiting in a refugee camp in the Gondar province before coming to Israel. Some have been waiting for 10 years.

The Israeli government in October 2010 reportedly had agreed to bring in 200 Falash Mura each month for a year, and then the remaining of those eligible until the last 4,500 approved for immigration were in Israel by March 2014. But the government had cut the number it was bringing per month in recent months due to dwindling available space in absorption centers.

Under the July 8 decision, an absorption center will be opened in September at Ibim, a student village in southern Israel located near Sderot , at a cost of more than $4 million. The funding will come in part from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“We must act to bring all of the Falash Mura to Israel and close the immigration camp in Gondar as soon as possible,” said Harel Locker, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, who will monitor the arrival of the immigrants.

Jerusalem court clears way for S. Sudanese migrants’ deportation


A Jerusalem court ruled that Israel could deport South Sudanese migrants who entered the country illegally.

Thursday’s decision in Jerusalem District Court was in response to an appeal by NGOs representing African migrants. The appeal was filed after Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai issued a decision to return the migrants.

Israel recognized South Sudan a day after it officially announced its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, and initiated formal ties three weeks later.

The decision paves the way for the deportation of about 1,500 South Sudanese who entered Israel illegally. Yishai said that he hoped the decision would be a precedent to allow the deportation of African nationals from other countries.

“This is not a war against infiltrators,” Yishai said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “This is a war for the preservation of the Zionist and Jewish dream in the land of Israel.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said last month that South Sudanese could be repatriated to their country now that it has achieved independence and is deemed safe by the foreign ministry. Each asylum application must be considered individually, he added.

The Jerusalem court said that the deportations could commence since the case had not proven that those South Sudanese to be deported would face “risk to life or exposure to serious damage.”

It is not known when the South Sudanese migrants will be deported.

South Tel Aviv quiet but tense


South Tel Aviv remained calm but tense Friday after recent violence aimed at African immigrants.

Law enforcement officials deployed a large force of border police in the Hatikvah neighborhood, regular police and volunteers to better secure the area, which has seen a spike in friction between African migrants and local residents, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Yochanan Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch had agreed to add approximately 40 police to the area to try to calm the streets.

Wednesday night, a group of rampaging Israelis assaulted migrants and looted storefronts belonging to Africans. Rioters smashed the windshield of a car carrying three migrants as well as other car windows. The rioters also set trash bins on fire and threw firecrackers at police.

The next night, a group of locals protested outside the city’s Likud headquarters, demanding that the government put forward clear policies to solve the migrant issue, including refraining from what they labeled as incitement against the migrants.

Also, an 18-year-old resident of Tel Aviv was arrested Friday morning on suspicion of belonging to a gang that targeted African migrants for physical assault.

The police alert is expected to last through Shavuot, which ends in Israel on Sunday evening.

Ten years after the Dolphinarium attack, a turning point for Israel’s Russian-speaking immigrants


Faina Dorfman, who immigrated to Israel from Uzbekistan hoping that her only child would have a better life here, walks along a stretch of beach just south of a tattered seaside disco called the Dolphinarium.

Ten years ago, a young Palestinian detonated a bomb packed with nails and bullets as he stood amid a crowd waiting to be let inside for a night of dancing.

The suicide bomber stole away the life of Dorfman’s 15-year-old daughter, Yevgenia (known as Genya), along with the lives of 20 others, most of them teenage immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“The world is a crazy place where people kill each other and never learn,” said Dorfman, a strong sea breeze blowing as she spoke. “Like everyone else, I never thought this madness would reach me, my family.”

The June 1, 2001 attack, which also wounded more than 100, would become seared into the Israeli consciousness as one of the most infamous of the second Intifada.

For Russian-speaking immigrants, the bombing marked an initiation to the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would bring them into the fold of Israeli society in the most painful of ways.

“It was seen as sort of a right of passage as it is described in anthropological terms,” said Larissa Remennick, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University. “To become one of ‘us’ is to demonstrate participation in a national log of losses, that you too have paid a toll.

“Despite the terrible nature of this tragedy, the Russian community, if it can be called a community, was kind of christened in blood together,” said Remennick, whose research focuses on Russian Jewish immigrants around the world.

In the 10 years since, Russian-speaking immigrants have gone on to pay a disproportionate toll in terms of suffering, some experts argue, as many live in border areas in northern and southern Israel that have been the repeated targets of rocket attacks by terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon.

Ruth Bar-On, founder of SELAH, an acronym for the Israel Crisis Management Center, which assists immigrants affected by sudden tragedy, rejects the sentiment described by Remennick and expressed at the time of the attack that such suffering is a way into the Israeli collective.

Instead, Bar-On points to the outpouring of compassion and support by native Israelis seeking to help the families of those killed or injured following the attack.

Some 600 people volunteered their services within two days after the explosion, she said.

“It was a turning point, this wave of support, compassion and generosity,” Bar-On said.

“It is something that touched everyone … because everyone wants a better future for children, and all the parents repeated this description of this being why they had come here,” she said, referring to those who had lost children in the attack. “It’s something that touched every Israeli.

“And Israelis also simply got to know these families, whether bereaved or of the wounded, and got to know the young people affected because of the massive media attention.”

Dorfman, a museum curator in her native city of Tashkent, who after immigrating to Israel in 1994 cleaned apartments and stairwells to support herself and Genya, said she might not have have survived the tragedy without the support she received from SELAH volunteers and other Israelis.

“If something like this happened in Tashkent I would have been totally alone in coping, but here,” she said, exclaiming, “There was so much support.”

Dorfman remains in touch with fellow members of a support group that SELAH formed of bereaved parents from the Dolphinarium attack. She also traveled with the group for what the organization calls healing retreats.

The attack transformed so much, she said, but it also reshaped her identity.

“Before, when I would say how ‘we’ did things, I was referring to life in the FSU because I did not feel as deeply part of society then. After the attack when I spoke of ‘we’ and ‘us’ I meant as an Israeli,” she said.

With her daughter at the time of the attack was Genya’s best friend, Sonya Shistik. The two had been classmates and neighbors in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, their bond forged in a ballet class where both were serious dancers.

Both were critically injured from the bomb and left unconscious for days. Genya died of her wounds 2 1/2 weeks later—on June 19, the same day Shistik, by then conscious, turned 16 and asked what happened to her friend.

Shistik, who spent months in the hospital and had multiple operations, said it was too painful to speak about the attack. But she offered that like Dorfman, she also felt her identity transition from feeling somewhat like an outsider as an immigrant to feeling more rooted here.

“I felt more Israeli after the attack,” said Shistik, who immigrated to Israel from Siberia as a young girl. She added, “It had something to do about being connected to an event so specifically part of the conflict.”

Now 25 and living in Jerusalem, Shistik works doing voice and movement therapy.

Michael Philippov, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute specializing in the political behavior of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, said the disproportionate number of immigrants affected by terror and rocket attacks has done nothing to dampen their nationalistic spirit but has made them more likely to leave the country.

“People don’t talk about it, but the fact that immigrants have been relatively hurt more by such attacks has led to various processes,” most notably the decision to make their lives elsewhere, he said, often in Canada, Australia or larger cities in Russia.

According to official statistics, some 90,000 immigrants from the FSU who came to Israel as part of the historic wave of immigration that began with the fall of the Iron Curtain have left the country. But Philippov said the figures do not include immigrants who have left but return annually to visit relatives here, estimating the real figure to be significantly higher.

He cited government statistics that revealed approximately 60 percent of those who emigrated from Israel in recent years were Russian-speaking immigrants.

“When asked why they leave in surveys, they said that they feel more affected more and under threat than sabras,” he said, referring to native-born Israelis.

Meanwhile Dorfman, the bereaved mother, feels that Israel is home. She says she tries to focus on the beauty of everyday life and volunteers at SELAH, where she teaches workshops to other bereaved immigrants on how to harness a bit of that beauty through the art of flower arranging.

Helping others, Dorfman said, “helps me move forward.”

Her dark, almond-shaped eyes fixed on the shimmering Mediterranean, she adds that “I was looking for something that would help me get on with the work of living.”

North American immigrants lead in Israel’s nonprofit sector


When David Portowicz was a new immigrant to Israel from Brooklyn in the 1970s, he began research on poverty in Jaffa that would lead to his life’s work: the creation of a nonprofit organization that now serves thousands of disadvantaged children and their families.

A doctoral student in social work at the time, the small NGO he co-founded in 1982, the Jaffa Institute, today is a veritable force of nature with 35 programs and an annual operating budget of $6 million. The institute runs afterschool activity centers to help keep kids off the streets, offers university scholarships for 170 graduates of Jaffa programs, has shelters for runaways and even provides music lessons.

“It’s a mission of love,” Portowicz says. “You work hard.”

Portowicz is one of many immigrants from North America who along with other English-speaking immigrants to Israel have played an outsized role in Israel’s growing nonprofit sector. For many, the same idealistic instincts that prompted them to leave comfortable lives in North America, Britain and elsewhere for Israel led them to top roles in the Israeli nonprofit sector, and they have brought with them a mixture of can-do enthusiasm, background in grass-roots activism and fundraising skills that have helped make their projects successful.

“We are talking about the kind of people who are immigrants by choice,” said Alon Tal, an immigrant from the United States who founded one of the most influential environmental groups in Israel, Adam Teva V’din, Israel Union Environmental Defense.

“Many of us grew up in youth movements where you are raised on the idea that you are supposed to change the world,” Tal said. “It’s a certain kind of person willing to take a chance and who could have been very successful” in their home country. “For some of us, the thought was that if you are coming here, you might as well have an adventure.”

Over the last decade, the number of nongovernmental organizations in Israel has multiplied as Israel’s traditionally socialist-leaning welfare system has significantly downsized. Some 12,000 NGOs are now active in Israel. English-speaking immigrants have found their niche not only in reaching out to the socio-economically disadvantaged, but also in civil society areas like the environment, human rights, religious pluralism and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

“It’s likely because Anglos come with a much more developed idea of civic society than other ethnic groups in the country, and so they get involved,” said Sydney Engelberg, a faculty member at Hebrew University’s program in nonprofit management.

“Part of my Zionist feeling was that if I can help anyone, I want to help children in Israel,” Portowicz said. “I think I made a bigger difference here than I thought I would make.”

When Tal came to Israel in 1990 at the age of 29, he vacillated between joining the just-established Environmental Ministry or establishing an environmental advocacy organization. He went with the latter.

“A large percentage of many Israeli nonprofits come from international Jewish philanthropy, so there is a home-court advantage for American immigrants in terms of English skills and cultural affiliation,” Tal told JTA.

Miriam Garmaise, an immigrant to Israel from Canada, also became a prominent environmentalist. She is the executive director of Shomer for a Better Environment, a nonprofit established in 1998 by Tamar Gindis, a fellow Canadian immigrant, that focuses on national, cross-sector projects. Their current flagship project is promoting a gray-water recycling initiative intended to jump-start the practice of recycling shower and laundry water as a way to save up to tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year.

Garmaise traces her interest in activism to growing up in Canada, where her parents were active in the Jewish community and projects to help Israel.

“The fact that people like me moved to Israel is because we consider Israel a very important place to be and to contribute to once we are here,” she said.

As for the bureaucratic and other stumbling blocks they face here, Garmaise is upbeat.

“I have come to respect the need for time and patience to make things happen,” she said.

Portowicz adds, “You persist. You don’t take no for an answer.”

Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who immigrated from the United States and founded ITIM, the Jewish Life Information Center, knows all about persistence. He fights what he says often seems like an interminably uphill battle to help Israeli and Diaspora Jews navigate the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which holds a monopoly on issues of religion like conversion and marriage.

Farber believes his American background has been helpful in his work, specifically his knowledge of how other Jewish religious leadership models work.

“In Israel people don’t feel as responsible for their Jewish life, so it can sometimes have less meaning,” Farber said. “What I can bring to the table is a middle ground, an opportunity for people to have their say.

“Americans put a lot of belief into the third sector to have power and make a difference,” he adds. “Because I’m a Zionist and this is the center of the Jewish people now, this is where I want to make my impact.”

Another American-run Israeli NGO involved in efforts to reduce tensions between religion and state is Tzohar, founded by a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in 1996, soon after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

The organization’s current executive vice president is Nahum Rosenberg, an American immigrant.

“It’s important to be not only bilingual but bicultural and live in both worlds,” Rosenberg said.

He says Americans bring advantages when it comes to fundraising and the culture of management.

“We may be nonprofits, but that does not mean we are not performance organizations. So you need to have that side,” he said, referring to professional Western standards for NGOs. “And you need to have that Israeli flair for ingenuity and perseverance with the ability to stretch every shekel as far as it can go.

“If you can seize on both traits, you can use them to your advantage.”

Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel


More than 335 immigrants from Ethiopia arrived in Israel on a special Jewish Agency charter flight.

The Falash Mura, Ethiopians who claim family links to descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago, arrived Monday and Tuesday on Ethiopian Air Lines charter flights. They are the first Ethiopian immigrants to arrive in Israel since November because of an aviation dispute between Israel and Ethiopia.

Israel’s Cabinet in November approved a plan to bring about 8,000 more Ethiopians to Israel over the next four years.

The Cabinet’s approval came as aid groups involved with Ethiopian aliyah reached an agreement under which mass Ethiopian aliyah would end once the 8,000 Ethiopians are brought to the Jewish state. They will arrive beginning in February at a rate of 200 per month.

In April, the Jewish Agency will assume responsibility for the transition camps currently housing the Falash Mura in Gondar, Ethiopia, and will provide them the kind of services offered at absorption centers in Israel, including Hebrew and Judaic studies classes. They must convert to Judaism within two years of their arrival.

1,000 new immigrants set to arrive in Israel


The final 1,000 new immigrants for 2010 are arriving in Israel.

The immigrants coming from 25 countries will arrive in Israel through the end of the year on special flights arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the agency said in a statement. Some of the flights and the reception of the new immigrants are organized in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

New immigrants from South Africa and Australia on Wednesday were scheduled to receive their national identity cards in a ceremony near the Western Wall.

The new immigrants will be arriving from many countries including France, Italy, Belgium, Great Britain, South Africa, USA, Canada Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Australia, Germany, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“The new immigrants contribute to the strength of Israeli society and the strength of the connection between Jewish communities of the Diaspora and the State of Israel,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency. “Every new immigrant is a bridge linking his/her Diaspora community with their old-new land—Israel. We welcome every new immigrant who has decided to come live in Israel and build their future and their children’s future here.”

Israel begins building barrier on Egyptian border


Israel began construction of a barrier along its border with Egypt.

Engineers were scheduled to fan out along Israel’s southern border Monday and prepare the ground of for the construction of the barrier and electronic fence.

The nearly $375 million, 155-mile project is being undertaken in order to prevent migrant workers from entering Israel as well as to deter terrorists and drug smugglers.

Hundreds of illegal migrants from Africa enter Israel each week. Nearly 11,000 have entered Israel since January, according to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. Most are economic migrants searching for work, though a couple hundred asylum seekers have been granted refugee status in recent years.

Dozens of migrants, who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the border from Egypt into Israel, have been shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers.

Photo exhibition reveals challenges, dreams of teen immigrants


Arsim Mustafa, a 14-year-old boy who immigrated with his parents from Kosovo to the United States, is leaning against a paint-spattered wall, arms loosely crossed as they rest on the oversized T-shirt he is wearing. He looks like any American teen, wearing baggy pants and high-top sneakers, his boyish face framed by close-cropped dark hair, his gaze meeting the camera with apparent equanimity.

But when documentary photographer Barbara Beirne asked him about his homeland, he told her how scared he had been before he came to America.

“In my country, it was always war. I saw people dying. I saw people without arms, eyes, hands — without heads,” Mustafa said. “We finally got away, but I was upset.”

On a winter day, just four months after arriving from Ukraine, a 15-year-old girl stood beneath low-hanging gray clouds on a deserted stretch of Coney Island Beach, amusement park rides visible far behind her. Engulfed in winter garb, holding a scarf to her neck against the wind, her eyes are fixed on a point in the distance over the ocean. She told Beirne that she missed “Ukraine and nature,” where everyone in her village worked in the fields, then picked and ate apples together.

“Is it true that you can’t pick apples from trees here?” she asked.

These teens’ impressions of their homelands — from Mustafa’s wartime horrors to the young Ukrainian woman’s pastoral idyll — are just two examples of the wide-ranging sentiments expressed by 59 teens included in the exhibition, “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration,” opening Oct. 17 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), “Becoming American” premiered March 10, 2007, at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and will travel to various venues around the country through 2011. The teenagers’ stories, as told through their own words, appear alongside Beirne’s evocative photographic portraits, drawing viewers into a maelstrom of the teens’ hopes, fears and dreams as they face a new life in a foreign land.

Beirne, who studied photography with Philip Perkis and Robert Mapplethorpe, has amassed an impressive body of work over the past 25 years. She has worked in India, Nepal and Ecuador; has documented the lives of children in war-torn Belfast, Ireland, and has had a prior exhibition, “Serving Home and Community: The Women of Appalachia,” tour the United States from 1999-2003, also through SITES.

Beirne first became interested in teenage immigrants while on a magazine assignment in her home state of New Jersey in 1999. More than 3,000 Kosovar Albanians had been brought to the United States in a humanitarian response to the crisis in Kosovo; hundreds of them were housed at Fort Dix, N.J., awaiting resettlement assistance. Visiting them weekly, Beirne discovered that of the refugees, it was the teenagers who were the most willing — excited, even — to talk to the news media.

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All photos by Barbara Beirne

Final aliyah flight leaves Ethiopia for Israel, U.S. revokes Fulbright winners’ visas


Last Ethiopian Airlift Heads to Israel

The last official airlift of Ethiopian Jews was scheduled to land in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, bringing to an end a state-organized campaign that began nearly 30 years ago and brought in some 120,000 immigrants from the east African nation.

The Jewish Agency for Israel said its emissary to Addis Ababa had been recalled, though Jerusalem officials could still be sent out to help an estimated 1,400 Ethiopian crypto-Jews, apply to immigrate as part of efforts to reunite them with relatives already in Israel.

“But we will no longer be seeing anything on the scale of Operation Moses or Operation Solomon,” Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski told Israel Radio, alluding to major missions to bring in Ethiopians by air and sea in the 1980s.

He called on the government to reinvest its energies in helping the Ethiopian community in Israel, many of whose members live in poverty and complain of inadequate social integration.

U.S. Revokes Visas for Palestinian Fulbrights

The United States revoked the entry visas of three Palestinian students who won Fulbright scholarships.

The State Department announced Monday that the three Gazans would not be admitted to the United States after “new information” was received about them. U.S. officials declined to give further details.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came out in support of the three Fulbright scholars after Israel, citing security concerns, refused to give them permits to leave the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Four other Palestinians who won Fulbrights were allowed to leave Gaza.

Israel ‘Knows’ Where Shalit Held

Israel knows where Gilad Shalit is being held captive, the Israeli armed forces chief said.

“We know who is holding Shalit, and where,” Israel Radio quoted Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi as saying Monday in an address to new military draftees.

The remarks stirred speculation that Israel could be preparing an operation to rescue Shalit, a tank crewman who was abducted to the Gaza Strip by Hamas-led gunmen in June 2006 and has been kept mostly incommunicado since.

But Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told the radio station that there has been no change in Israel’s intelligence gathering on Shalit or policy of holding Egyptian-brokered negotiations on his return.

Hamas has demanded that Israel free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit, but Jerusalem has balked at the asymmetry of the proposed swap. Israel Radio quoted Ashkenazi as saying that retrieving Shalit is crucial so that all those serving the Jewish state know they will not be abandoned on the battlefield.

Israeli Family Leaves Girl, 3, at Airport

A 3-year-old girl was found wandering at Ben-Gurion International Airport after the rest of her family boarded a plane to Paris.

Police accompanied the girl to the boarding gate but the plane already had taken off with her parents and four siblings aboard. The girl was flown to Paris later Sunday, and her family met her at the airport.

Police will question the parents upon their return to Israel.

Last week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that an 8-year-old boy traveling alone was flown by El Al Israel Airlines from Ben-Gurion Airport to Brussels instead of to his destination in Munich.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


The transformation of Israeli food — from falafel to fennel


The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel is a good time to reflect on how this young country has progressed during its mere six decades of existence. Its economic growth, its leading role in technological advances and its presence in world affairs are all impressive, but most notable to me is the transformation of Israeli food from mundane and unknown to cutting edge and creative. Modern-day Israeli cuisine reflects ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.

I have always thought of Israel as a microcosm of the world, blending three major world religions and countless nationalities, each with their own palates and flavors. What has resulted is an amalgamation of the best of all culinary worlds. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, only tourists, diplomats or foreign journalists ate in restaurants. Grabbing hummus and falafel at a fast food stand or dropping into a cafe for coffee and cake was the Israeli idea of “dining out.” Food was scarce and wasting time on such a bourgeois matter seemed contrary to the pioneering spirit of the country. In fact, the restaurants were so bad in those days that Henry Kissinger, engaging in his Middle East “shuttle diplomacy,” once moaned, “Why can’t a country with 2 1/2 million Jewish mothers have better food?”

Recently, Henry Kissinger told me that that lament is a thing of the past.

Whenever I go to Israel, I am constantly transporting myself, like a child playing make believe, back to my ancestry. The first time this happened was during a wonderful week spent in the sand dunes of the Sinai many years ago, where Bedouins continue to live much as the nomadic Israelites did when they were wandering the desert. I couldn’t help imagining myself as part of that ancient culture, sharing the stew — perhaps with lamb and chickpeas — that Sarah prepared for Abraham or the pottage of lentils that Jacob gave to his brother Esau.

As I returned to Jerusalem after that week, layers of civilization and thousands of years unwound before me like a newsreel at each fork in the road.

Through culinary haunts one can uncover the enormously exciting story of how these pioneers transformed a harsh, arid land to one bursting with new produce and culture. Some of the dishes that we find in Israel today are as old as the land; others are quite modern; and still others mix the old and the new.

Since I left Israel, I have been back every year or so, and the transformation from the 1970s to now is enormous. Israelis, like Americans, are taking food more seriously. It is no longer shameful in Israel to enjoy the luxury of eating well. Since Israel is at the crossroads of so many cultures, both the ones that surround it as well as the ones that have immigrated to it, cooking there today reflects the fresh globalism that we are encountering everywhere. Just look at the fruits and vegetables coming out of Israel: various kinds of kiwis and avocadoes, persimmons, pomelos, pomegranates. Some of these fruits and vegetables are biblical. Some are brand new, brought to the country with immigrants or agronomists who have gone all over the world.

But what is Israeli cuisine? A cuisine is usually defined as cooking which derives from a particular culture. Since the Jewish population has essentially been dispersed throughout the world, Jewish food, and by extension that of Israel, while centered in the Jewish dietary laws, subsumes the cuisines of countries throughout most of the globe. Unlike in France and Italy, for example, where cooking has been grounded in the same soil for thousands of years, in Israel the “new food” is a hybrid, inspired by every corner of the world, but with an increasing emphasis on native ingredients.

The original ingredients used by cooks in the land of Israel included the seven biblical foods mentioned in Deuteronomy: barley , wheat, figs, dates, pomegranates, olives and grapes. Mizrachi or “Oriental” Jews — those who left Palestine for Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, or those who stayed in the Middle Eastâ?? have always maintained a cuisine more rooted in the original biblical ingredients. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews who migrated to Spain and Portugal adapted the new local foods to their dietary laws. These people became known as “Sephardic” Jews following the Inquisition, and their cuisine took on the tone of their new homelands like Greece, Morocco, and Turkey. So, too, “Ashkenazic” cooking developed, as other Jews made their journeys to Central and Eastern Europe. Today, all these foods are being embraced by many of the Jews returning from afar to the “land of milk and honey.” Christian and Muslim cultures of the region have also contributed their own customs to Israeli cooking, so that today Israel’s emerging cuisine is global in scope.

The food of modern Israel began, really, with the first aliyah, the immigration that came in the late 19th century mainly composed of Eastern European Jews. It also included 5,000 Jews from Yemen, who made up 6 percent of the new Jewish population. Unlike the Eastern European immigrants of this period, the Yemenites were motivated by the biblical commandment to return to Jerusalem. The men often found work in kitchens and as waiters, and were most likely the first Jews to make falafel in the country. The women, mostly illiterate, hired out as domestics, which provided a meager subsistence.

Although they were not educated or sophisticated by European standards, they set an example of meticulousness in all aspects of housework, including the religious obligations taught by word of mouth: dietary laws, separation of challah, salting and koshering meat, the ritual immersion of utensils, blessings for meals and candlelighting. They would rise before dawn to fetch water and to prepare the gisher (Yemenite coffee), grind flour, bake and have breakfast ready when the men returned at sunrise from the prayer service in the synagogue.

Little by little, Yemenites and other Middle Eastern Jews started influencing the eating habits of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, and different tastes and traditions began to coexist. For some, like those from Eastern Europe, the idea of raw vegetables fresh from the soil seemed unhealthy. But their sense of curiosity prevailed: Yemenite soup with spicy sauces and the buttery layered bread called malouach may very well have been one of the exotic meals eaten by a group of well-heeled British Jews, organized by the Jewish industrialist Herbert Bentwich, who came to visit Palestine in 1897.

L.A.’s German Jews celebrate club’s 75th year


When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, one of his principal goals was to rid Germany of its Jews, to make the country Judenrein. German Jews, many of whom had considered themselves more German than Jewish, began to search for secure havens. From 1933 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939 there was a mass immigration of Jews to countries all over the world.

Thousands were able to find sponsors, enabling them to come to the United States, with the vast majority settling in New York. But by 1939 some 2,500 German Jews had relocated to Los Angeles, and by 1941, when the United States entered the war, their number had grown to 6,000, making Los Angeles the second-largest center of German-speaking Jews in America.

They were “often regarded as the most educated and intellectually brilliant wave of immigrants ever to come to the United States,” according to Anne Clara Schenderlein, who has written on the history of German Jewish refugees in Los Angeles.

However, they were not particularly welcome in the City of Angels. Their Jewishness was held against them, which inspired director Gottfried Reinhardt to describe Los Angeles as a “ghetto under Pacific palms.”

As the German Jews made connections with the L.A. Jewish community, two immigrant businessmen, Theo Lowenstein and Lothar Rosenthal, along with dentist Bruno Bernstein, came together to form The German Jewish Club of 1933.

It was “a loosely structured organization whose aim it was to assist in the Americanization of its members and to help them become valuable American citizens,” said Annelise Bunzel, a past club president.

When the Benefactors of The Jewish Club of 1933, Inc. gather at Sinai Temple on June 1 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of their organization, the club will honor Randol Schoenberg for recently reclaiming a collection of Klimt and other famous works of art from Austria, while President Ray Prinz will present a check for $20,000 to the Jewish Home for the Aging as well as $5,000 to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. TV personality Monty Hall will serve as emcee, and Prinz said “Gemuetlichkeit will be the watchword at the luncheon,” using a German word that has no direct translation, but can best be described as cozy.

The club, which initially met at the Hamburger Home for Jewish Girls, helped arriving refugees find a place to live, study English and learn “the American way.” For 20 cents a month, members were able to join exercise groups, play tennis, go on hikes and attend lectures.

Finding work was especially difficult since America was still in the depths of the Great Depression and most of the German Jewish immigrants lacked adequate English skills. Those who were able to find work typically held menial jobs. Wolfgang Blech, who owned a large manufacturing firm in Germany, worked as a porter, cleaning toilets and pushing a broom.

Women were able to find work, provided they were prepared to take on jobs as domestics or seamstresses. Berlin-born Eva Hirsh, a retired physical therapist and the current treasurer of the club, is the daughter of Paul Hirsch, the prime minister of Prussia in the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1920. She came to Los Angeles after having first immigrated to South Africa, where she worked as a nanny.

With the help of the greater Jewish community, the group established a clubhouse at 1126 S. Grandview Ave. that it rented until the 1940s. New arrivals paid $7 a week to live in the large California-style home, which provided limited sleeping accommodations.

As more immigrants arrived from Europe, the club also attracted German-speaking Jewish immigrants from such countries as Austria, Hungary and Switzerland.

Former theater producer Leopold Jessner, who served as the organization’s president, founded a cultural events program in collaboration with the European Film Fund, a Hollywood group that aided refugees. The club’s Cultural Committee scheduled Tuesday night meetings, with programs ranging from lectures by such noted German émigrés as author Thomas Mann and piano recitals by Andre Previn. Current events discussions were held, and other talks included familiarizing housewives with the varieties of fruits and vegetables available to them in their new California surroundings.

Several of the club’s leaders filed a petition for a charter with the state of California in December 1938 and changed the club’s name to The Jewish Club of 1933 after connection with anything German became undesirable. By 1939, the club had some 1,600 members and annual dues were $1.20 for individuals and $1.80 for families.

After the United States entered the war, German Jewish immigrants faced new hurdles, including registration under the Smith Act, which featured curfews and travel restrictions as well as the threat of forcible eviction from homes in the vicinity of defense plants or military establishments. Due in large part to the 1933 Club’s lobbying efforts, these restrictions were lifted in October 1942 and members were free to join in the war effort.

The 1933 Club’s members were enthusiastic boosters of war bond and blood drives, and many joined the Civilian Defense Corps. About 170 of the younger men also served in the armed forces. Among these was Ray Prinz, a native of Danzig and the club’s current president, as well as Kurt Herrmann, from Nordhausen, who will be 90 in August and has been secretary of the club for 52 years. “For me, it’s a mitzvah to help,” he said.

Once club members began to assimilate and prosper after the war, they followed other Jews into West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In 1980 the club took on a philanthropic mission, changing its name once again to The Benefactors of The Jewish Club of 1933.

A bulk of the club’s financial support has gone to the Jewish Home for the Aging, and according to Hirsh its donations have totaled $20 million.

Although the club’s numbers have dwindled with the passage of time, its 300 members continue to enjoy programs, including an annual membership brunch at the Jewish Home for the Aging, a midsummer garden kaffeeklatsch traditionally hosted by the consul-general of Germany and held at his residence in Hancock Park, as well as a festive pre-Thanksgiving luncheon. And each year, the club takes part in a special Yom HaShoah service of remembrance at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

For more information about the Benefactors or to attend the 75th anniversary at Sinai Temple on June 1, call (818) 774-3337.

‘Emerald Isle’ beckons Jews


There is a saying that in Ireland there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.

On our visit we experienced a tangible expression of this in Kenmare, where perfect strangers went out of their way to help us get our laundry done and then volunteered to drive us back to our hotel when we couldn’t find a taxi.

Encounters with ordinary folks are easy in Ireland, not only because there is no language barrier, but also because so many people have links to America and feel genuinely warm toward us.

Today, however, many of the people one meets in Ireland are not Irish. There are more than 300,000 Poles and countless thousands of other Continentals, many from Eastern Europe, in the country. A large number of these young men and women work in hotels and restaurants; being greeted by a receptionist with a Slavic accent becomes almost commonplace.

The reason for this influx of foreigners is, quite simply, the economic boom the country experienced after joining the European Union and adopting the euro as its currency. In Dublin and larger cities, construction cranes, new highways, industrial parks, as well as modern office and apartment buildings offer proof of Ireland’s standing as the Celtic Tiger.

This newfound prosperity has also had an effect on Ireland’s small Jewish community. For the past 50 years, the community had been shrinking from a high of more than 5,000 members to less than a thousand today. Where Dublin once had more than a dozen synagogues it has but three today, and those in Cork and Limerick are completely gone.

Now, however, the boom has stanched the outflow of Jews and the community is experiencing modest growth with the inflow of skilled computer scientists and construction engineers from Israel, Britain, South Africa and even Canada and the U.S.A.

The majority of these immigrants have young families, which has resulted in an increase in the enrollment at Dublin’s Jewish day school. Rabbi Zalman Lent, a Chabad rabbi from England, together with his wife, Rivki, is responsible for the community’s youth programs, school and summer camp, as well as for teen and young marrieds activities.

The rabbi says there is virtually no anti-Semitism in Dublin, and people have been respectful toward him. The only time he experienced any hostility, he said, was when someone called him “Osama bin Laden,” presumably because of his black beard.

The Terenure Hebrew Congregation, at 32a Rarthfarnham Road, is Ireland’s largest and most prominent synagogue; its spiritual leader, Dr. Yaakov Pearlman, is chief rabbi of Ireland, a position that gives him a degree of official recognition. The synagogue is Ashkenazi Orthodox in the manner of the British United Synagogue, and it holds regular Friday night and Shabbat morning services, as well as daily minyans. The congregation also provides study and communal programs and features a mikvah.

The Dublin Progressive Hebrew Congregation, at 7 Leicester Avenue, is an egalitarian community along the lines of the American Conservative movement. It has a visiting rabbi from England, Rabbi Charles Middlebergh, who conducts services weekly “in season.” According to Max Roitenberg, an immigrant to Ireland from Ottawa, Canada, services are held every Friday evening and most Saturdays and on all holidays. Roitenberg said the congregation has some 200 members, many of who are converts or in mixed marriages. In the absence of the rabbi, services are conducted by lay members.

The third synagogue is a small ultra-Orthodox stiebel, Machzikei Hadass, in the Terenure suburb.

Kosher food is readily available at the SuperValu market on Braemor Road in Churchtown, while kosher bread is available at the The Bretzel Bakery at 1a Lennox St. in Portobello. While Irish meat and dairy products are popular the world over, we were surprised to learn from Rabbi Lent that the preparation of kosher meat is a major industry in Ireland and that much of the kosher meat sold in Europe is imported from there.

Although it is a small institution located in two adjoining row houses in what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, the Irish Jewish Museum is a “must see” for Jewish visitors. Upstairs is the former Walworth Road Synagogue, preserved much as it was during its heyday, complete with plaques honoring major donors. Several showcases with documents and memorabilia from the first half of the 20th century have been added. Possibly the saddest of these is the record of an Irish Jewish woman married to a Lithuanian citizen who became the only Irish citizen to be murdered by the Nazis.

Downstairs, the museum presents an overview of Irish Jewish history and features a plethora of memorabilia, including records and correspondence related to the family of Irish-born Chaim Herzog, who opened the museum in 1985 when he was president of Israel. Raphael Siev, a native Dubliner and retired barrister-at-law, is the museum’s curator and happily shares his memories with visitors. The museum is open Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is free.

Ireland is a country of significant historical and literary interest and exquisite natural beauty. It is truly an “emerald isle,” with a vast variety of wonderful places to stay, ranging from modest bed and breakfasts to magnificent country houses. The economic boom has also resulted in an influx of master chefs and the opening of gourmet restaurants in Dublin, as well as in the major tourist centers of the country.

Even though there are undoubtedly some bargains to be found, it’s important to remember that as long as the U.S. dollar remains weak against the euro, you must be prepared to have the Celtic Tiger bite you in the wallet. But, being Irish, he’ll do it with a smile.

For more information, visit

Briefs: More Ethiopians allowed to make aliyah, Jerusalem stage for Anglican ‘schism’


Court Will Allow More Falash Mura

Israel may allow 1,400 additional Ethiopian Falash Mura to immigrate to Israel. In a court hearing Sunday, a panel of three Israeli High Court judges recommended that Israel bring 1,400 or so more Ethiopians to comply with a 2004 government decision to bring some 17,188 Ethiopian immigrants. But the court stopped short of explicitly issuing an order, and it also refused to hear a petition that sought to force Israel’s Interior Ministry to screen an additional 8,500 Falash Mura for their eligibility to make aliyah.

Israel’s government decided in February 2003 to enable the aliyah of thousands more Falash Mura, Ethiopians who claims links to Jewish ancestors who converted to Christianity more than a century ago due to social and economic pressures. The government clarified that decision in 2004, specifying 17,188 immigrants.

At Sunday’s hearing, the state told the court it had finished processing the potential immigrants from 2003, including children born since then. State attorney Yochi Gnessin told the court that 15,775 Falash Mura from the original list either already were in Israel or would be coming soon. Justice Ayala Procaccia asked Gnessin to have the state allow another 1,413 not on the original list to immigrate, if they meet the state’s requirements, to “improve the morale” of the Ethiopian community. That addition would bring the total number of Falash Mura immigrants up to the number specified in 2004.

Olmert Courts Lieberman Over Walkout Threat

Ehud Olmert tried to talk a key partner in Israel’s coalition government out of quitting over negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister met Tuesday with Avigdor Lieberman, who has threatened to take his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party out of the government since Jerusalem began talks with the Palestinian Authority on “core” peacemaking issues such as the future status of the capital. Should Lieberman bolt, as many political analysts expect, it would not immediately topple the government since Olmert’s coalition would still command 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

But a walkout by Yisrael Beiteinu might precipitate similar action by Shas, another right-wing party. That would potentially force Olmert to look to left-wing replacements at a time when he needs to persuade Israeli hawks that he is tough enough to deal with Palestinian security threats.

Jerusalem Stage for Anglican ‘Schism’

Conservative clerics from the Anglican Church plan to hold a breakaway summit in Jerusalem. Traditionalist clergy said this week they would use the Global Anglican Future Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Israel’s capital in June, to highlight their opposition to a lenient stand on homosexuality professed by some of their coreligionists.

The apparent schism runs roughly along cultural and geographical lines, with more hard-line Anglicans hailing from Africa, Latin America and Asia while more liberal church members tend to be in North America and Britain. Nominally linked to the Church of England, Anglicanism has 77 million followers worldwide.

The future conference will likely set the tone for July’s Lambeth Conference in Britain, a gathering every 10 years of Anglican leaders.

JDate Parent for Sale

The parent company of the Jewish online dating Web site JDate.com is up for sale. JDate owner Sparks Networks, which owns online personal Web sites aimed at religious and other special interest groups, is in talks with several major media companies, The New York Times reported last week.

Sparks Networks could sell for as much as $185 million, analysts speculated for the Times. The company has a market value of $131.4 million. Reuters reported that about half of the Sparks Networks revenue for the first nine months of 2007 came from its Jewish Networks division, which rose 5 percent during that period.

JDate is considered the model for online dating sites.

Orthodox Institute to Ordain Women

The Shalom Hartman Institute will begin ordaining Orthodox women as rabbis. It is the first Orthodox institution to do so. The Jerusalem-based institute, which runs Orthodox middle and high schools for boys, will begin accepting women and men of all denominations this fall for a four-year course leading to ordination, according to the Jerusalem Post. The candidates will receive ordination, or smicha, from the streams to which they belong.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of founder Rabbi David Hartman, downplayed the significance of this revolutionary step. He told the Post that the institute was not trying to make a political statement, but was responding to a need for “master educators” in North American Jewish high schools.

Unlike other rabbinic programs, which focus on text study and halacha, or Jewish law, the Hartman program will focus on teaching skills and theory.

The title “rabbi” naturally falls to one who is a learned teacher, institute officials say. Hartman told the Post that the institute has accepted men and women of all denominations since its inception.

“Hartman has been multi-denominational for the last 12 years,” David Hartman said. “We make no distinctions between men and women here. Our latest decision is a natural evolution of our existing policy.” The first Reform woman rabbi was ordained in 1972, the first Reconstructionist in 1977 and the Conservative movement ordained its first woman in 1983.

Wiesenthal Center: Lebanese Blocking Our Ad

The Simon Wiesenthal Center says the Lebanese government is blocking newspapers from running one of its advertisements. According to the Los Angeles-based Jewish organization, the Lebanese government has apparently blocked the Beirut-based Daily Star from running the ad, which calls for the United Nations General Assembly to convene a special session on suicide terror.

Several other Arab newspapers did not respond to requests to run the ad, which was timed to coincide with President Bush’s visit to Israel. It did appear in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Ha’aretz and Jerusalem Post.

“We are deeply disappointed that these important newspapers would block our solidarity campaign to put suicide bombing on top of the international community’s agenda, particularly when the ad highlights the tragic murder of a prominent Muslim woman,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “Such censorship certainly calls into question the Arab World’s claim that it is a strategic partner in the fight against terror.”

The ad featured a photo of the late slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, along with the headline: “What More Will it Take for the World to Act.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Ethiopian advocates push for 8,500 more olim


With Israel’s Interior Ministry on the verge of bringing its Ethiopian aliyah operation to a close, a coalition of Ethiopian advocacy groups is pressing the government to add another 8,500 would-be immigrants for the ministry’s consideration.

For now it seems nothing short of a court order will force the Interior Ministry to screen the additional Ethiopians for aliyah eligibility under the special terms granted to the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who claim links to Jewish progenitors.

The advocacy groups say Israel is shirking its obligations under a February 2003 government decision to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura to Israel, and they have petitioned the Supreme Court to take action.

The Interior Ministry says it has fulfilled its obligations, and that the 8,500 Ethiopians represent a new group beyond the 26,000 specified in ’03.

“This stems from the decision that we don’t open lists to additional people,” said Sabine Hadad, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman. “Our job is to implement the government’s decision of 2003, and we have done that.”

Avraham Neguise, the director of South Wing to Zion and a leader of the advocacy coalition, said Israel is drawing an arbitrary line that is dividing families.

“By deciding to draw the line between parents who have already come and brothers and sisters, they are cutting the live flesh of the community,” Neguise said. “The government is lying and cheating the Israeli people and the Jewish people.”

The Supreme Court has given no indication when, or whether, it will hear the petition, which has been pending for several years.

The dispute over the 8,500 Ethiopians cuts to the heart of the controversy over Falash Mura immigration to Israel.

Many observers — including Israeli and Ethiopian government officials and some Jewish aid groups — long have warned that Israel’s efforts to end the mass immigration of Ethiopians would be stymied by advocates seeking to bring additional Ethiopians to Israel.

Those fears were realized once before, in 1998, when Israeli officials welcomed what they thought was the last planeload of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, only to find another 8,000 Ethiopian petitioners knocking on their doors several days later.

The 2003 government decision and subsequent decisions by the Israeli Cabinet were aimed at bringing those new petitioners, who soon swelled to some 26,000, while putting a cap on the olim (immigrants under the Law of Return). The cap was based on a 1999 census conducted in Ethiopia by a former Israeli official, David Efrati.

Israeli officials’ insistence on a cap underscored fears that Ethiopians with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry would exploit the system to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for a better life in Israel.

Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively, the Falash Mura were not practicing Jews until very recently. That has made it difficult to ascertain their claims of links — either by heritage or marriage — to Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity more than a century ago to escape economic and social discrimination.

The Falash Mura, most of whom practiced Christianity until a few years ago, must agree to embrace Judaism as a condition of their aliyah. They currently are being brought to Israel at a rate of 300 per month.

Once in Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel teaches them Judaism, houses them in absorption centers and helps them adjust to life in Israel. After a year or two they are given housing grants to purchase or rent homes. The government estimates that each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state an average of $100,000 over the course of his or her lifetime.

The Interior Ministry has been systematically going through the list of Falash Mura petitioners, which is based on the 1999 census.

That unofficial census originally counted some 26,000 or so Ethiopian candidates for aliyah, but the Interior Ministry said the list shrunk to some 17,000 once the Israeli government made clear its criteria for coming to Israel. In intervening years the list grew by some 3,000 as a result of natural growth, the ministry said.

Now the ministry says it is a week or two away from completion, and only about 1,500 to 2,000 eligible petitioners remain.

“As soon as the eligibility process is done, the project is over,” Hadad, the ministry spokeswoman, said.

The advocacy groups charge the ministry is arbitrarily excluding 8,500 people from those counted in the 1999 census — people who remained in their rural villages rather than going to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, where the other petitioners congregated while their cases were being reviewed.

“The people on the 1999 list included people in villages, but they’re simply not included in the Interior Ministry’s numbers and were not permitted to apply for emigration,” said Joe Feit, a New York lawyer involved with several of the Falash Mura advocacy groups.

Feit said that in the last three or four years, those 8,500 villagers have left their rural homes for Gondar, where Jewish aid compounds offer schooling, some employment and some food aid to the Falash Mura.

The compounds, which do not include housing, are funded by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and run by a local proxy group headed by Getu Zemene, an Ethiopian who himself applied for aliyah but was deemed ineligible by Israeli authorities.

NACOEJ has not directly run the compounds since 2005, when the group was barred from operating in the country.

The NACOEJ-funded activities are supported primarily by the United Jewish Communities (UJC) federation umbrella group, which sends NACOEJ some $68,000 per month for a program at the compound that provides food to children and pregnant mothers. UJC also is lining up federation support to construct a school in Gondar — a move some aid officials called puzzling, since Israel is on schedule to bring all eligible olim by late next year.

UJC officials declined to comment for this story.

KCRW’s gift — five days of ‘Only in America’ Jewish history


For a certain nostalgic segment of the Jewish community, Chanukah wasn’t official until KCRW-FM general manager Ruth Seymour narrated her lively “Philosophers, Fiddlers and Fools” program at this time of the year.

This noble tradition has now come to an end, but KCRW (89.9) has come up with a worthy replacement in “Only in America,” which will air over five days in one-hour segments, Dec. 3-7 at 2 p.m.

The series on the Jewish experience in this country has as its starting point 1654, when 23 Jews from Brazil — four men and 19 women and children — arrived in New Amsterdam, on the lower part of Manhattan, and asked permission to stay.

Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the colony, would have none of it. In a letter to his superiors in Holland, read by actor John Lithgow, he petitioned the directors of the Dutch West India Company “that this deceitful race … be not allowed to further infest and trouble the new colony.”

Fortunately for all of us, a number of Dutch Jews were major stockholders in the company, and the attempt to strangle Jewish life in America before it even began was rejected.

The producer of the ambitious program is Larry Josephson, a native Angeleno now settled in New York. The concept, he said in an interview, struck him four years ago when he heard about plans to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States.

“My great-grandfather came here from the Ukraine in 1900, but I realized that I knew nothing about Jewish history here between 1654 and 1900,” Josephson said.

Even more historically minded listeners will be impressed by the presentation’s color and detail, interspersing the jokes and songs of an era with eyewitness accounts and scholarly analysis.

There is a reading of George Washington’s letter promising religious freedom to “the children of the stock of Abraham” and shocking descriptions of New York’s sweatshops, but also Al Jolson belting out songs from “The Jazz Singer” and Philip Roth observing that “God gave us Irving Berlin, and Berlin gave us ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Easter Parade.'”

In chronological order, the Dec. 3 broadcast on “The First Jews” traces the struggle of the pioneer Jews, from the initial arrival through the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The ironically titled “The Streets Were Paved With Gold” program, on Dec. 4, introduces the mass arrival of Eastern European Jews and their settlement on the Lower East Side, where they retained the old language and customs while their children assimilated as fast as they could.

They voice their problems and frustrations in the Bintel Briefs in the Yiddish Forvertz, asking, “Will I die if I eat a tomato?” and “Is it okay for a socialist to go to Rosh Hashanah services?”

One woman writes, “I am a Russian woman, and my daughter just married a Hungarian, and now she’s putting on airs. Now that she’s a first-class Hungarian, she laughs at the way I talk, at my manners, even the way I cook…. I therefore want to express my opinion: that Russian Jews and Hungarian Jews should not intermarry.”

“Becoming Americans,” on Dec. 5, opens with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, in which 164 young Jewish women died, and covers the struggle to unionize, the rise of the Yiddish theater and, ultimately, the exodus to fancier neighborhoods.

“White Christmas,” airing on Dec. 6, is the first of two segments on “Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood” and celebrates the careers and songs of Israel Baline, the immigrant cantor’s son who changed his name to Irving Berlin, and of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.

In the second part on Dec. 7, “Over the Rainbow,” we meet Eastern European immigrants Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Samuel Goldwyn, who invented Hollywood and created the screen image of the Wild West and small town America. Jon Stewart and Mel Brooks are among the commentators.

Due to scheduling problems, KCRW is unfortunately not broadcasting one vital segment, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed,” which chronicles the less-uplifting story of the strain of anti-Semitism that ran through much of American society from colonial days to World War II and beyond.

The chapter takes its name from an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which she recalls, “I was driving through Pennsylvania, and there was a bed and breakfast with a sign outside that said, ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ I’d never seen anything like that.”

This chapter, as well as an additional segment on Ginsburg’s career, and “Never Again,” with Elie Wiesel and ADL national director Abraham Foxman, are available on an eight-disc CD set. It can be ordered by calling (212) 595-2920.

For more information on the KCRW program go to www.KCRW.com and/or www.onlyinamerica.info.


Books: Land of ‘Golden’ dreams and tarnished identities


When Jews at the turn of the last century wistfully spoke of the goldene medina (golden country), they meant just one place: America. The phrase evoked images of a land of “freedom, justice, opportunity — and protection against pogroms,” wrote Leo Rosten in his 1968 classic, “The Joys of Yiddish.” But when “spoken in irony or sarcasm,” he added, the goldene medina also came to signify “a miraculous hope that ends in disappointment.”

Which makes the title of Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, “Golden Country” (Scribner, 2006), especially apt. In her intricately plotted story, Gilmore deftly weaves fact into fiction as she traces the fortunes of three intertwined families of Jewish immigrants in early 20th century New York. The result is a compelling portrait of hopes, both realized and dashed, that explores questions of identity, self-invention, women’s roles and the definition of success.

Embracing American culture in all its fluidity, the Brodsky, Bloom and Verdonik families navigate the tantalizing opportunities and surprising limitations of their new land. Solomon Brodsky escapes his shtetl-like neighborhood of Williamsburg by way of the mob, causing a keen sense of shame in his mother and younger brother, Joseph. Hardworking, dutiful Joseph ekes out a living selling household cleaning products door-to-door, but catapults to success when he invents the first cleaner miscible in both oil and water (which he calls Essoil, in tribute to his wife, Esther).

Neighbor and landsman Pauline Verdonik yearns to join Solomon in his new life of luxury; when she becomes his wife, she shares his success and exile from their families. Pauline’s less glamorous, resourceful and plucky sister, Francis, marries the brilliant Vladimir Zworykin (another transplanted landsman), who later invents the foundation technology for television. Francis’ long-held dream of stardom is first realized and then limited by her husband’s invention, as she becomes the first star of Essoil’s TV commercials.

Fellow immigrant Sarah Rosen Bloom is less lucky. Her theatrical ambitions are quickly defeated and she descends into alcoholism, even as her husband, Seymour, moves from salesman to gangster (under Solomon’s wing) to Broadway musical producer — miraculously surviving the transition back into “legitimate” business.

Moving back and forth in time, revealing deep ties strained by years of disappointment and resentment, Gilmore’s story unfolds as an explication of why a marriage in the following generation — between Miriam Brodsky and David Bloom — is an emotional landmine for all.

While “Golden Country” is undeniably a Jewish story, Gilmore’s characters move in decidedly secular worlds: theater, inventions, sales, crime. Like many immigrants before and since, these families seem to have shed all trappings of their religion when they set foot on Ellis Island (save for one shiva minyan that occurs late in the story).

Gilmore relates to her own Jewishness in much the same way. The writer, whose work has appeared in anthologies — including the upcoming “How to Spell Chanukah,” due out this fall — grew up outside Washington, D.C. Although she attended religious school, Gilmore didn’t have a bat mitzvah and characterizes her childhood home as “not very religious.”

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Gilmore felt she “was probably the least religious person there, at least from this country.” She became fascinated by “what made people Jewish…. I’d always felt 1,000 percent Jewish, but it obviously wasn’t religious,” she said.

While in graduate school at Cornell University, Gilmore saw her experience mirrored in many of the books she read in Jewish American fiction classes. Pursuing her master’s of fine arts degree and teaching courses of her own design, Gilmore’s academic work merged with long-held interests as she studied the myriad ways Jewish identity was being defined in America — through ethnicity, culture, humor, even stereotypes.

“I wanted to deal with those tropes — money, noses, intellect — that are typically ‘Jewish,'” Gilmore said. In addition, “everyone in my family was Jewish, and I was always fascinated with their stories.”

Gilmore enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents when she was growing up, and was “especially interested in their experiences as immigrants in America,” she said. After the death of her maternal grandmother, with whom she’d been very close, the family discovered years’ worth of scrapbooks and diaries.

“My grandmother had been this amazing, hilarious storyteller,” Gilmore said, and the writings she left behind captured her vibrant spirit. She had kept meticulous records of her daily life and thoughts, including details of her courtship with Gilmore’s grandfather, Sid. “Every day they went out, she’d mark with a star. Some days, three stars. I never found out exactly what that meant,” Gilmore said teasingly.

The intimacy of her grandmother’s diaries helped Gilmore create the female voices in her novel.

“I loved their inner lives,” she said, and she wanted to show how they struggled with desire and ambition, even if they had been largely thwarted.

But while she “originally had written a lot from [the women’s] point of view,” over time Gilmore felt she needed to take out some of their self-expression “because of the time period they lived in.” Ultimately, Gilmore said, “I knew that seeing their lives through their son’s or husband’s perspectives was more appropriate.”

Among her grandmother’s effects, the family also found a self-published book titled, “Just the Two of Us.” It had been written by the widow of the man (a distant relation, as it turned out) who invented the household cleaner Lestoil, which became the inspiration for the novel’s Essoil. Like Gilmore’s grandmother, this woman wrote about her romance with her husband, but she also wrote about how they’d come to America from Eastern Europe, invented a time-saving household product and become rich.

“I became interested in how that generation came over and invented things that people used in everyday ways — Sweet N’ Low, depilatory cream [invented by a rabbi in Portland, Maine] — things that changed our everyday lives,” Gilmore said.

She had also long been fascinated by questions of success and failure, of how we define those terms and how they in turn define us.

Israeli, Iranian and Russian immigrants learn the American way of giving


When the Los Angeles Jewish community staged a rally to show support for Israel during the conflict with Lebanon last year, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch was pleased by the numbers, but bothered by the fact that there were not many Israelis there.

“You would have thought 30,000 Israelis would have been on the streets,” he said. “I thought to myself that there is no correlation between the number of Israelis that live in Los Angeles and the actions that are being taken by them.”

One of the reasons Israelis didn’t turn out in droves to the rally — aside from the excuse they gave him of the sweltering heat — is that Israelis aren’t used to being involved here: in politics, in philanthropy, in volunteering.

“The Israelis here are Israeli; it’s clear to them that they are Israeli. They watch the Israeli news, the Israeli sports,” Danoch said, explaining why they don’t feel the need to be pro-active. “It’s like Israel’s TV slogan: Chayim B’America, Margishim Yisrael. (“Living in America, Feeling Israel.”)

Danoch decided then and there to start an organization to bring together successful Israelis to encourage leadership and philanthropy for the community here and tie it back to the community in Israel. The Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) met for the first time last week to discuss how to mobilize Israelis here.

Israelis aren’t the only ones living in America who feel like they are somewhere else.

Indeed, immigrant communities often struggle with loyalties to the social mores of their old country and their new one. In the world of philanthropy and volunteerism, many Jewish leaders have learned that immigrant Jewish communities also have attitudes different from their American-born Jewish brothers and sisters. Those attitudes stem from the political systems and types of communities from which they came and what was expected of them in their native lands.

In Russia, for example, there was no real word for charity, said Si Frumkin, chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“There is a word, but it means giving away,” he said. “In general, people don’t give.”

Coming from a communist regime, where one was discouraged from doing anything for the community, he said, working for the individual was the only way to survive. This is an attitude they bring with them to America.

“The Russian immigrants come here and think you have to build a new life for yourself,” he said. “It’s not a question of being bad or good — it’s a different attitude.”

Israelis also come from a socialist country, where the government takes care of its people’s needs. Similarly, they are not used to a capitalist country where many of those needs must be funded by charity. But in Israel, unlike the former Soviet Union, there is an additional barrier to charity and volunteerism: army service.

Naty Saidoff “The Israeli community has been trained to be able to possibly sacrifice their lives for the community,” said Naty Saidoff (photo), a real estate investor on the board of the newly formed ILC. “They have to give in the way of survival. They give their children as cannon fodder, to protect the country through military service.”

“The Israeli community that came here, in a way, turned its back on the Zionistic dream, and they came here to chase the golden calf and some came to hide,” he said. “In my head I know that every Israeli that lives here really cares about Israel; they just need an outlet to make that energy come out.”

Saidoff didn’t let his own son serve in the Israel Defense Forces “for selfish reasons,” but had him volunteer in community service here instead.

The Iranian Jewish community, while also an insulated immigrant group, is different from the Israeli and the Russian-speaking communities.

“The Persians had a community in Iran, and giving was done — they are traditional, they feel an obligation of Jewish values to give in their community,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. So the notion of charity and community organization is as familiar to them as it is to many American Jews, he said, especially within their own community.

“You can see [it in] the nature of the proliferation of causes, programming and things that are related to members of their own community.”

Organized giving outside their own community, though, is a different story.

“They were involved within themselves … their synagogues and organizations, and their own people,” said Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills and a leader in the Iranian Jewish community. “As time has passed, they really became more charitable toward Israel.”

In fact, Fishel said, the cause of Israel has inspired all three immigrant communities — Russian-speaking, Israeli and Iranian — to be more involved in charity. Whether for advocacy on behalf of Israel, donations to Israeli organizations or emergency fund relief for specific causes like the war, in the past few years all the Jewish organizations have stepped up.

“The Russian-speaking community picked up the issue of Israel and terror attacks,” said Eugene Levin, of Panorama Media Group, which owns six Russian newspapers, some of which ran ads for the gala to support Israel. This year the gala raised more than $250,000, he said.

“It’s a new culture [for Russian-speaking Jews] and they assimilated to a certain degree, and they understand this is a need for Israel and they donate money.”

They feel connected to Israel especially because of the influx of immigrants there from the former Soviet Union.

The Iranian community has also come together on behalf of Israel. “The Persian Jews are more Zionist-oriented and like to help Israel a lot,” Delshad said.

For example, Magbit, an Iranian Jewish charity in Los Angeles, was founded 18 years ago to donate money to Israel. Today, more than $10 million in interest-free loans are given to students in Israel.

“They started becoming successful in their businesses and it’s a way not to forget their brothers in Israel,” said Delshad, who was the president and now is the chairman of the board. Other Iranian Jewish organizations and synagogues with a heavy Iranian Jewish concentration have rallied around Israel to send missions and donate large sums of money.

Letters to the Editor


Chamberlain Ad

I do not know if I can communicate how deeply offended I was by the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Neville Chamberlain ad on page 6 of the Sept. 8 Jewish Journal. Besides the complete lack of intellectual honesty, the appalling lack of logical reasoning fails beyond the pale to measure up to the traditions of Judaism specifically and humanity in general:

Rather than deal with the threat that Al Qaeda actually presents to our national security, President Bush has chosen to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on a personal vendetta in Iraq washed in five years of the blood of the Iraqi people and citizenry of our great nation.

Rather than communicating with a government seeking to open communication between the United States, President Bush consciously closed all potential paths of dialogue and continuously vilified and threatened a sovereign nation in a tinhorn cowboy attempt to force Iran into a diplomatic mistake of nuclear proportions.

Rather than assist Israel to defend itself against continuing malicious attacks from Hezbollah or Hamas, Bush specifically chose to do absolutely nothing for five years, and more importantly, two weeks of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon, then sent the single most ineffectual secretary of state within the last century to negotiate a failed cease-fire proposal.

If The Journal is so strapped for cash, it would be a far better use of its ad space to place a plea for donations and financial support from its readership, rather than compromising all dignity and integrity by running further tripe from the RJC.

Richard Adlof
North Hollywood

Shame on the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for running two ads which desperately tried to denigrate the Democratic Party.

First, shame on the RJC for taking an issue of great bipartisan agreement — support for a strong U.S.- Israel relationship — and turning it into a wedge issue for tawdry partisan political advantage. Any objective observer of U.S. politics has to agree that both of our major political parties are remarkably supportive of Israel. This fact is crucial in maintaining the strong relationship between the United States and Israel. For the RJC, however, it appears that twisting the truth for some petty partisan gain is apparently more important than maintaining bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

It is true that in both parties there are a handful of politicians who are not part of this bipartisan consensus. Carter is one of these outsiders who find no support for their positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict within their own parties.

Jewish newspapers, like all newspapers, have an obligation to not print false and misleading ads. We hope in the coming weeks, as RJC slings more mud, this newspaper will fact-check their ad copy to make sure the RJC doesn’t continue to use these pages to violently twist the truth.

Marc Stanley
First Vice Chair
National Jewish Democratic Council

The Republican obsession with Iraq has left Israel open and vulnerable to the possible nuclear overtures of a Holocaust-denying Iran. The Republican obsession with the Cold War almost led to a military defeat for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and did lead to a country-permeating malaise). The Republican obsession with a fundamental Christian theology that is based on the apocalyptic demise of not only Israel but Jews everywhere is too eviscerating and too self-evident to even require an elaboration.

Does any Jew still believe that the Republican party has their true interests at heart?

Marc Rogers
Thousand Oaks

We applaud the recent public discussion about the support for Israel by the political parties (“GOP Sees Israel as Way to Woo Democratic Jews,” Sept. 1).All who are pro-Israel should appreciate the positive influence our growing Jewish Republican community is having on the GOP. Our access to senior GOP leaders is warmly encouraged, and, in return, the Jewish community is increasingly impressed by an administration and a Republican Congress that have been deeply pro-Israel.

The example of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is instructive. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) was virtually alone among national Jewish organizations in supporting the nomination of this hero of the Jewish people, who not only helped to defeat the odious “Zionism is racism” resolution years ago, but who now vigorously defends Israel at the United Nations against unfair demonization and delegitimization. Many Jewish Democrats now see that Bolton is the right man at the United Nations.

Putting aside the issue of Israel, moderate Jews might approach 21st century American politics with an open mind on who is best on both national security and domestic public policy issues. It is time that respectful attention be paid by Jews to positive GOP ideas about economic growth, welfare and entitlement reform, medical liability and tort/legal reform, energy independence and educational choice and competition to best serve children.

To the benefit of Israel and the United States, the days of one-party Jewish voting are, thankfully, over.

Joel Geiderman
Chairman
Larry Greenfield
Director
Republican Jewish Coalition, California

Illegal Jewish Immigrants

Your articles focused on illegal Israeli immigrants who are not terrorists and do not take low-paying jobs away from minorities (“Living and Working [IL]Legally in America,” Sept. 8). Instead they engage in commercial activity that is beneficial to Israel.

Thanks to your article calling attention to them, perhaps immigration officials will divert attention from terrorists to crack down on these Israelis.

Are you The Jewish Journal or the anti-Jewish Journal?

Marshall GillerWinnetka

The Jews Didn’t Do It

Not all conspiracy theories are equal (“The Lie That Won’t Die,” Sept. 1). Richard Greenberg’s article asks us to believe otherwise, holding out only two possibilities to the American public: Either you accept the government version of Sept. 11 or you are a “conspiracist.”

But the world is much more complex than these two positions allow, and the democratic process itself depends on citizens who question official stories. David Griffin, author of “The New Pearl Harbor” and three additional books on Sept. 11, raises important questions about the adequacy of the Kean Commission report.

Five Gold Bangles and World of Difference


The morning of my wedding day, my mother called me into her bedroom.
“Come sit with me,” she said quietly, patting the spot next to her on the bed.
I sat down beside her, the softness of the mattress causing our shoulders to touch.

She turned her face toward mine, looking happier than I had seen her look in years. I attributed it to the fact that her almost-30-year-old daughter was finally getting married. Smiling, she handed me a box.

“Open it,” she urged.

Inside the box were five beautiful, gold-filigree bangle bracelets of different patterns. The gold was unlike any I had ever seen and warmed to my touch. They were not new, their shapes having been altered from perfect circles to imperfect ones by the wrists they had adorned.

I turned them over in my hands and, one by one, slid them on my right arm. They were truly beautiful.

“Oh, Mom, I love them! Where did you get them?”

She answered by telling me a story about my great-grandmother, Jemilla Danino, who, at the age of 12, married a man more than three times her age to become his second wife. Born in 1882 to a poor family in Alexandria, Egypt, she had no choice but to respect the arrangement her parents had made. One afternoon he arrived, and within the week she left with her new husband to live in Haifa, never to see her parents again. The bracelets on my arm were the same ones that Jemilla had received from her husband as a token of his commitment to marry her.

Living in the 21st century, it is hard to fathom an arrangement like the one Jemilla’s parents made for her. I barely get a vote as to whom my own daughter dates, let alone a veto. And I cried for three nights when I sent her off to summer camp and she was the same age that Jemilla was when she left home forever. And knowing, as Jemilla’s parents surely did, that I would never see my child or my grandchildren, is a thought I don’t even want to entertain.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the early 1900s, my great-grandmother lived in a harem; marketing, cooking, washing and cleaning side by side with the other wives who shared her husband’s bed. Yet for Sephardic Jews who lived in communities influenced by Islam, like Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and Turkey, polygamy was an accepted practice.

This is in contrast to the Jews of Eastern Europe, where Rabbi Gershom decreed a ban on polygamy in the 10th century. Sephardic Jews did not accept Rabbi Gershom’s ban however, and when Israel was created in 1948, the state faced the problem of what to do with Jewish immigrants who had multiple wives. The Israeli government permitted those marriages already in existence to stay in effect while forbidding any future ones. Today, the ban on polygamy is universally accepted in the Jewish world.

The Bible is filled with stories of the problems and the unhappiness that exists in a polygamous marriage: Sarah was derided by Hagar because she couldn’t have a child, Leah was jealous of Rachel because Isaac loved her more and Solomon’s many wives brought idolatry into the land of Israel. My great-grandmother suffered a similar fate when, at the age of 13, she gave birth to my grandfather amidst women who could not bear children. Barely a teenager herself, she learned how to care for her child in a home where her life was made miserable by the disappointment and bitterness of other women. What saved her during those difficult years, and throughout her life, was her wit, wisdom and undying love for her son, my grandfather.

There are other laws that have been changed or prohibited throughout Jewish history. Another example is Rabbi Gershom’s decree prohibiting a man from divorcing his wife against her will, for any or no reason at all. This reversed a long-standing injustice that left women totally vulnerable in a marriage. The law was changed requiring the consent of both parties to a divorce, although there are still problems when a husband refuses to give the woman a bill of divorcement, or a get in Hebrew. (But I will save that topic that for another time!)

I treasure wearing my gold bracelets for many reasons. They help me remember my great-grandmother, a woman whose courage, strength and devotion carried her through a lifetime of struggle. They remind me of my mother, who wore them as a young girl when she was raised by Jemilla as a result of her own parents’ tragic and untimely deaths. And they give me a sense of optimism about our future as Jews.

For it is through the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and its ability to change and respond to laws that are patently unfair or result in causing hardship and injustice, that our greatest hope for the future lies.

School Risked Fiscal Peril for Its Students


Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.

“I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older,” she said.

But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.

“If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000…. It was still out of reach,” Nir recalled.

One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.

Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.

Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, “I think we’ve found the school we’re looking for.”

Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.

The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D’vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family’s financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.

Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.

“Other schools weren’t accepting these children,” he said. “So we decided to take on that mitzvah.”

Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.

“We see the potential in the child, not what he’s doing now,” said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school’s principal. He believes it’s never too late to begin learning.

“Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history,” he said.

Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob’s students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, “Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year.”

This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school’s liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year’s rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.

Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob’s plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.

In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. “We left everything behind,” said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.

The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, “they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us,” Abecassis recalled. “I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education.”

In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.

“We’re Jews. And Jews all help people in need,” Abecassis said.

When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob’s financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.

“Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation’s aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one,” Fishel said.

Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob’s board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob’s general studies principal.

In what Abecassis describes as “a rescue effort by the Jewish community,” 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year’s operating expense, Abecassis said, but also — for the first time in its 17 years of existence — Etz Jacob is now free of debt.

Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He’d like to break ground within three years.

As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob’s future finally seems secure. “Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building,” Esther Nir said. “The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child.”

 

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

A Banner Day


At the beginning of the month, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who marched from MacArthur Park to the

La Brea Tar Pits in support of basic rights for immigrants, the strangers among us. I was worried about my family becoming separated in the throng of marchers, so I brought a bicycle flag, a little neon triangle on a tall lightweight rod, upon which I’d written in sharpie: “Klein Family.”

We were surrounded by banners, some hand-painted, some mass produced, words passionately imploring in Spanish and English, flags of different countries rippling toward helicopters as we marched ever so slowly.

At one point my husband and daughter became separated from my son and me. My son held up the little orange flag to reunite us. It was just an orange fleck in a sea of waving banners, with no message, no political statement. It said simply: “Here we are. Find us, join us. Don’t let us be lost. We love you.”

Perhaps that was the essence of every banner that was flown that day.

This week’s Torah portion creates a picture of the 12 tribes of Israel marching over the wilderness terrain in well-organized troops, the divisions of Judah to the east of the tabernacle, Ephraim on the west, and the other tribes assigned to positions in between. An army of men, women and children who once marched hunched over from intolerable service to Pharaoh were now marching upright, in formation, in service of God, with banners streaming above them, as it is written: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house” (Numbers 2:2).

Some imagine the 12 banners were designed each according to the character of the sons of Jacob, much like the signs of the 12 months of the year in the zodiac. Others say that the color of the banners matched the colors of the 12 gemstones imbedded in the High priest’s breastplate, ruby red, golden topaz, glittering sapphire.

According to the Midrash, the Israelites witnessed the angels at Mount Sinai, each with their flowing banner, singling them out as precious to God. The Israelites also wanted to be unique, to be counted. Bamidbar is primarily focused on counting and arranging the Israelites, who stands where in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) explains: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai, 22,000 angels descended with Him, as it is said, ‘The chariots of God are two myriads, two thousands; The Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness'” (Psalms 68:18), and they were all arrayed under separate banners, as it is said, “Marked out by banners from among myriads” (Song of Songs 5:10). “When Israel saw them arrayed under separate banners, they began to long for banners, and said, ‘O that we also could be ranged under banners like them!’…. They said, ‘O that He would show great love for me’: and this is also expressed in the text, We will shout for joy in Your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.’ Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, ‘How eager you are to be arranged under banners; as you live, I shall fulfill your desire!'”

As a child, my family would often spend the summer on Fire Island, off of Long Island. I remember walking all the way to the tip of the island, where there stood an old weathered lighthouse that had become a museum.

Inside, there were old pictures of the original family who operated it, parents with two children. The docent explained that the father would make his children wear bright red hats while they played on the reed-swept dunes. That way, when he was high in his tower, he could look down and know exactly where they were.

We run through the reeds, explore the dunes, and our Father, the light-keeper, keeps His eye on us. Not one of us should be lost. At the end of the day, not one of us should be left out. Not one of us should be unembraced by the banner of love, when evening falls, like a blue-and-silver-threaded tallit over creation and everything in it.

Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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Nefesh Immigrants Cite Smoother Aliyah


When Fairfax resident Yasmine Noury boarded an El Al flight late last year, she joined the growing ranks of North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005.

“I really believe in living in Israel, and I felt the best time to make aliyah was when I’m young, before I have too many things tying me down,” said Noury, 20, a Modern Orthodox graduate of Yavneh and YULA, who is already enrolled at a seminary, Michlelet Orot in Elkana, and plans to study early childhood education at Bar-Ilan University. “I luckily have ties otherwise in terms of friends, family and a school life but even before that, the connection to Israel was already there. The Jewish heritage links us without having to make any effort.”

Noury’s departure from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on Dec. 27, linked her with the 3,200 North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005, including 84 Californians, 30 of them L.A. residents. They came through joint efforts of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel and Nefesh B’Nefesh. This nonprofit organization has helped settle approximately 7,000 U.S. and Canadian immigrants since its launch in 2002. Several thousand more are expected in coming years.

Making aliyah through Nefesh helps reduce bureaucratic red tape. Immigrants fly on complimentary, one-way tickets and when they land in Tel Aviv, they receive the new identity cards that entitle them to a “sal klita,” a basket of benefits meant to ease their absorption into Israeli society. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages, living stipends, Hebrew-language classes and more.

The help is often greatly needed. The greatest challenge to a successful klita, or absorption, is finding work, a support system and a sense of belonging. In fact, approximately 80 percent of North American immigrants arrive through Nefesh. Those who arrive through the traditional channels of the Israeli government seek out Nefesh B’Nefesh services after they arrive.

The formula seems to be working. As of January 2005, 99 percent of those immigrants who have received aid have remained in Israel, 94 percent of families have at least one employed spouse, 110 children have been born and 36 immigrants have married, including two couples who met on Nefesh flights.

The program’s success is largely the result of the vision of its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the United States. They have attracted several other American Jewish philanthropists to contribute to Nefesh B’Nefesh efforts. Despite rumors to the contrary, only a small portion of funding comes from Christian evangelists.

“We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, right or left, religious or not,” Gelbart said. “If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”

American Jews of all stripes are moving to Israel for a variety of reasons, including religious motivations, hopes for raising a family in a Jewish state, a sense of kinship and a growing affinity for the country.

“North American aliyah is very different from what is happening in many other countries,” Fass said. “Ours is an aliyah strictly of choice and idealism, not of escape or refuge. We believe that a large reservoir of American and Canadian Jews have dreamt or considered aliyah as a possibility for themselves, and we know many of the reasons or obstacles in their way that have prevented them from realizing that dream.”

Nefesh recognizes that money is a major obstacle for many potential applicants. The expense of making pilot trips, finding a new home, acquiring or shipping household appliances and furnishings and the income lost during the process often discourages North Americans from making the move. Nefesh estimates a family of six will require $21,920. Applicants are awarded a loan, at first, but it turns into a grant if recipients remain in Israel for more than three years. Singles receive approximately $5,000 to $7,000; families get between $15,000 and $22,000.

For the marjority of olim, or immigrants, the first few years are the most difficult, even with financial assistance as well as workshops and social events sponsored by Nefesh throughout the country.

Shlomo Katz, 25, earned a master’s degree in computer science before moving to Haifa from Fairfield, Conn., with his widowed father more than a year ago. Originally, he felt very supported by Nefesh. But a year later, a job still hasn’t come through. Katz recently enrolled in a yearlong software engineering course to enhance his qualifications for a “high-level job.”

“I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Luckily, I have enough to live on with savings from the U.S. and by living with my dad.”

Israeli rents can be quite low by U.S. standards. A bargain studio apartment near Rehavia in Jerusalem can go for as little as $300, but living at an American standard, with many other costs comparable to the United States, is nearly impossible on a typical Israeli paycheck. Hourly minimum wage, for instance, is less than $4. As a result, many Israelis live beyond their means. For Shlomo Katz’s father, Eliezer Katz, higher wages in America make brief stays there at the home of friends worthwhile. While in the United States, the elder Katz supplements his income as an electrician. But for now, the family is remaining in Israel.

For Deena and Aaron Singer, both 33, the first 12 months after their aliyah from New York in July 2003 required them to each return individually to the States for short term visits to help care for ill family members.

“I was nervous about leaving family, finding jobs, all the typical aliyah fears,” Deena Singer said. These days, Aaron Singer works in publication sales at the Shalem Center, a post-Zionist think tank, and Deena Singer finds meaning in her job as a behavioral consultant with autistic children. After two years in an Orthodox absorption center, the Singers moved to a “mixed” moshav near Gush Etzion where they feel they are giving their own children, Naama Shira, 5, and Ahuva, 3, the benefit of living among a variety of Jews.

Daniel Rebuck, 36, didn’t have a job lined up in advance of his aliyah this winter, but he remains hopeful while he studies in an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew-language course. A former professional soccer player, Rebuck would like to find a position coaching at a soccer club, working as he did before Hurricane Katrina wiped out his job in New Orleans.

“I’ve been to Israel six times and I always feel very much at home,” he said. “With the hurricane, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.'”

Yasmine Noury says she already lives a very normal life in Israel as a student, and feels very fortunate “every day to be part of a Jewish nation.” She looks forward to getting married and having children in the Holy Land.

“That’s something that is crucial in my aliyah,” she said. “I feel strongly it’s very important to raise a family in Israel.”

She is optimistic that one day, her two younger siblings, a 16-year-old brother and a 12-year-old sister, will follow. And if they make aliyah, she says, then her parents might consider it.

“It’s a scary thing because you, of course, want your family to follow,” she said. “It’s the ultimate goal that you should have everyone with you. Part of building your own family and being part of Am Yisrael [the People of Israel] and Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] is that you will have family to be around. You never know what the future holds.”

Passover Fest Offers Many Paths to Fun


At a time when hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded downtown chanting “Let My People Stay,” Passover may be resonating more acutely across all racial and ethnic groups than it has in recent years.

It is not only illegal immigrants for whom the Passover tale holds appeal. The story of the Exodus can be easily updated for any of the numerous people in the Third World seeking freedom from oppression. That is why Craig Taubman, who has produced events like Sunday Funday at the Ford Theater, has broadened the scope of Let My People Sing, his inaugural Passover festival, to include a seder on behalf of those suffering in Darfur. That is also why he has included musicians like Ani, a Malaysian Muslim, and Joshua Nelson, an African American who says he descends from the Jews of Senegal.

Every program is free, except for the seders, the profits of which go to building medical and water facilities in Darfur, said Taubman, who adds that at all the events people will receive gifts.

The eight-day festival actually takes place over 12 days. It kicked off on April 4 with a Clippers basketball game. Some of the festival participants sang the “National Anthem” at the Staples Center; others will play in basketball tournaments on the last day of the fest, April 16, at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, a recreational property that Genie Benson, one of the organizers, refers to as “the best kept secret in L.A.”

Benson, executive director of Keshet Chaim, an Israeli folk ballet dance ensemble, is spearheading Let My People Rock, a full-day finale at Brandeis-Bardin. While some kids play hoops, others will replicate the Exodus by going on a trek through the 3,000-acre hilly property, led by an individual resembling Moses. Benson says that there will be a number of surprises along the way. That’s not including the different “culture” tents, such as a Moroccan tent and a Persian tent that simulate a Middle Eastern village. Or the giant sand sculpture being carved by Kirk Rademaker, an interactive environmental artist. Or the performances by the Israeli rap group, Hadag Nachash, and singers Rick Recht and Nelson.

Nelson may hail most recently from East Orange, N.J., but he traces his Jewish ancestry back to the West Coast of Africa. The 29-year-old singer, who sings and composes what he calls kosher gospel, soul music with Jewish liturgy, has been performing since his bar mitzvah. He was 18 when he released his first CD.

Nelson says that Jews of African descent, by which he means not only Falash Mura from Ethiopia but also Ugandan Jews, Nigerian Jews and Lemba Jews from Southern Africa, view Passover as the New Year because it celebrates aviv, or the spring. Because of the obvious parallels to black slavery, Nelson says that African Americans, irrespective of their religion, identify with the Jews in the Passover story.

So do many Muslims of different racial backgrounds. Ani, who will be singing passages from the Quran with the backing of the A.M.E. Church Gospel Choir at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said that, “Islam is very inclusive of all faiths, especially of the Abrahamic faiths.”

Ani has performed at many interfaith gatherings in the past, including a Muslim-Jewish seder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple; she points out that all faiths have a version of the Passover story, a story about struggling for freedom. In a phone interview, she reads a passage from the Quran in which the Israelites flee Pharaoh so that they can worship Allah.

Beyond the inclusion of non-Jews in the program, Taubman has also planned events all around Los Angeles, whether it’s Koreatown, the locale of the Islamic Center for Ani’s event, UCLA Hillel for the Darfur seder, Pasadena for a Raise the Roof performance by Rick Recht’s band, or the West Valley for the Let My People Rock freedom walk.

Nor is he limiting the entertainment to song, dance and basketball. There will also be comedy. Comedian Joel Chasnoff will perform on Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15.

Chasnoff, 31, hopes that attendees “come out with a different view on Judaism” than they had before the show. For Chasnoff, the humor, even absurdity, of Judaism is in its “strange details.” For instance, he likes to talk about the hilarity of keeping kosher in the modern era. Boiling calves and milk may have been routine in 1906, but these practices sound almost alien in 2006.

If these kind of observations remind one of Jerry Seinfeld’s brand of humor, that is not surprising because Chasnoff admires Seinfeld’s dedication to writing. Chasnoff, who once opened for Jon Stewart and cites the “Daily Show” host as another comic influence, will also regale audience members with tales of Jewish guilt. One favorite line of his mother’s: “If my son worked just a little bit harder, I, too, could have an honor roll student.”

Like Chasnoff, many of the organizers and performers cite family as the common theme to Passover. Benson, the organizer of the finale at Brandeis, points out that Passover is uniquely participatory for everyone, children, adults, even strangers. She remembers how her father “always rented a room and invited everyone. No one had to pay. Just like now.”

Everyone may have participated, but she says that her father, in not charging anyone, was not being altruistic so much as trying to control the nature of the seder.

As her father would say, “When everyone contributes, everyone has an opinion.”

Let My People Sing, which opened with a Clippers game on April 4, continues through April 16. For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15273