Morris Treibitz. Photo courtesy of Morris Treibitz

In prison, but not alone anymore

It’s 1999, two days before Rosh Hashanah, and I can’t think of anything positive to look forward to in the coming year. Rabbi Shalom Leverton is coming to see me with some supplies to celebrate the holiday. I know that he’s going to try to lift my spirits. He’s going to tell me what a beautiful soul I have or something like that.

Although I am eager to get my hands on some of the food he will be bringing, I am not too eager to be around this upbeat man. His unbending optimism is contagious, and today I don’t feel like being happy.

At this point, I am 23 years old and I have been in prison for two years with eight years to go, serving a term for armed robbery. The rabbi is a member of the Aleph Institute, a program designed to reach Jews in prison and the military and help advocate for their religious rights. I am waiting for the officer to unlock my cell so I can go to the chapel and meet him.

Finally, 30 minutes past the appointed time, the officer comes and lets me out. He tells me that my “priest” is at the front gate, and they are waiting to hear from the administrator for approval on the items he brought. I am directed to go to the chapel and wait.

Walking the long corridors of the prison, I start to get angry, assuming they will not let him in. Or even worse, maybe they won’t let the food in. Maybe the chaplain forgot to submit the special request to the administrator, and it would be too late to do so at this point. Maybe the officers were giving the rabbi a hard time.

Assuming all of these things and feeling as though I have no recourse, my eyes begin to burn with tears that I fight back. This is not a place to let people see me cry.

Suddenly, the door swings open and Rabbi Leverton is standing there with the biggest smile a person could muster. As if I am the only person in the world, he shouts out my nickname as loudly as he can: “Moe!” I am so happy to see him that I forget my tears and decide to forgive him his cheerfulness. I see he’s empty-handed and I ask him if they denied the food. As I ask the question two guards step into the chapel, each carrying huge boxes. I should have known that nobody gives this rabbi a hard time. His very presence commands respect.

He brought me all of the traditional New Year foods along with a shofar, a holiday prayer book and a new Aleph calendar. Although I am wearing a happy face, he can tell that something is wrong. When he asks me about it, I let him know I’m feeling hopeless. I explain that I can’t even fathom what eight more years will bring.

The rabbi looks at me and starts to compare me to an onion. He’s saying something to the effect that I am like its layers and that each time rot sets in, a layer is peeled and a newer fresher one is underneath. While he’s saying this, all I can think is that onions stink.

The rabbi asks me if I know how to blow the shofar. I tell him that my father had taught me years ago. He hands it to me and I try to blow it. I don’t do very well. He takes it from me and proceeds to blow the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. I could hold back no longer. Without warning, the tears that threatened to start earlier begin to stream down, staining my cheeks. I am reminded of walking with my father to shul to hear the shofar. It makes me realize how much I miss my family and they are missing me. My body is racked with sobs like a hysterical child.

After I collect myself, the rabbi explains to me that one of the sounds of the shofar, shevarim, represents the crying of the Jewish heart. He explains that we are crying for the missed opportunities of the past year, our misdeeds, repentance and, most importantly, the yearning to connect and grow. At the moment the shofar is blown, he says all the Jewish people are standing in front of our creator as one — no walls or barriers, and certainly no bars or barbed wire fences. My family and I will be together. I smile.

I begin feeling like a new person, cleansed of sorrow and grief, free of pain and the walls that surround me. I explain this by telling him how good it felt to cry. He then tells me that for now on, whenever I need to cry and can’t, due to my environment, I should just let the shofar do the crying for me. He tells me to just close my eyes and remember what it sounded like, and I will feel the same way I feel right now. He gives me a hug and leaves. As he walks, out I think how much I love that man for his words, his kindness and especially his optimism.

On Rosh Hashanah that year, alone in the chapel, I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for my family and I prayed to be a better person and a better Jew. I was not miserable, but I did feel lonely. Until I blew that shofar. Or at least until I tried to. I am sure that it didn’t sound majestic or mystical, but to me, in my head, it sounded just the way the rabbi blew it two days earlier. Just like my father blew it for me so many years before.

I was not alone anymore. I was standing as one with my family, my friends, my people. I was connected, happy and free. It was at that point I knew that although there may be times that I would feel lonely, I would never be alone again.

Threatening caller to Toulouse school gets jail term

A man who made death threats against the Jewish school in Toulouse where Mohammed Merah killed four people last year was ordered jailed for a year.

Lucien Abdelrhafor, 20, in an expedited court procedure Monday also received an additional year’s suspended jail term for phoning in the threats to the  Ohr Hatorah school, the French daily L’Express reported.

According to SPCJ, the French Jewish community’s security service, the man called the school on Sept. 16 and told a secretary, “I am Mohammed Merah’s cousin and I’m coming over tonight to kill you.”

Merah in March 2012 gunned down a rabbi and three children at the school, which changed its name from Ozar Hatorah after the attack.

Abdelrhafor in the call claimed to be a “cousin” of Merah — a false claim, according to SPCJ.

SPCJ said police have arrested several callers who threatened violence against the school following the shooting.

French police believe Merah planned the shooting with his older brother, Abelkader, who is in prison awaiting trial.

Belarus Jewish leader convicted of tax evasion, sentenced to time served

Yuri Dorn, a Jewish community leader in Belarus, was convicted for tax evasion but set free after a year in jail.

Dorn, president of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in Belarus, was arrested in March 2012 on allegations that he had mismanaged the community’s property for personal gain. Police also said Dorn had been caught accepting a $13,000 bribe in a sting operation. Prosecutors had accused Dorn of renting out space belonging to the Jewish community without permission,

Earlier this week, Dorn pleaded guilty to tax evasion but denied charges that he abused his position or rented out space without permission. The latter charges were dismissed by the judge at the Central District Court of Minsk on Friday. The judge convicted Dorn of evading taxes but said the year Dorn spent in prison was his penance for the offense, according to the Interfax news agency.

In an interview after his release for Liberty Radio, Dorn said he would resign from his position as president of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations. He was placed under house arrest until the sentence goes into effect, Intefax reported. Dorn does not intend to appeal the verdict, according to the news agency.

On March 21, prosecutor Tatiana Rak asked the court to hand down a five-year sentence to be served in a medium-security facility.

Last month, prosecutors in Minsk dropped bribery charges that were included initially in their indictment.

Anat Kamm wants compensation from Haaretz for revealing identity

Anat Kamm, who was jailed for turning classified military documents over to a reporter, is seeking compensation from Haaretz for revealing her identity.

Kamm, a former Israeli soldier, is asking the newspaper for more than $540,000, according to Haaretz.

“Kamm views you and some of the newspaper’s employees as directly responsible, or indirectly, for revealing [her] as the source,” Kamm's lawyer, Ilan Bombach, wrote to Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken more than a week ago, the newspaper reported on Monday. “This exposure caused my client enormous damage.”

Haaretz attorneys said that Kamm's claims “have no real basis.”

Kamm charges that her house arrest and jail time cut short her career as a journalist and her academic studies.

Her lawyer said that if she does not get the money from Haaretz, she will sue.

Kamm was convicted in February of collecting, holding and passing on classified information without authorization. She had been charged originally with espionage, but the charge was dropped as part of a plea bargain. Kamm was arrested in late 2009 or early 2010.

Kamm admitted to stealing about 2,000 documents, hundreds identified as classified or top secret, which she downloaded to two discs, while serving her mandatory military service in the Israeli army in the Central Command. She gave the information to Haaretz reporter Uri Blau, who wrote stories based on the information that were approved by the military censor. The stories led to a search for Blau's source.

Following her military service, Kamm was a media reporter for Walla, an online news site that at the time was partly owned by Haaretz.

Jailed in Israel, Marwan Barghouti says he’ll be president of Palestine

Marwan Barghouti, a convicted terrorist jailed in Israel, said he will be the president of a Palestinian state.

Barghouti also said in an interview reported Wednesday night on Israel's Channel 10 and conducted jointly with the Haaretz newspaper that he would not promise that there would not be a third intifada — unlike Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — though he believes it could be a nonviolent uprising.

Military censors did not allow the actual film of the interview to be broadcast. Instead, Barghouti's comments were repeated by reporters. The interview had taken place last month during Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

A member of the ruling Fatah party led by Abbas, Barghouti is among the most popular Palestinian leaders. Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and officially supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences and an additional 40 years for terrorist activity. He was arrested on April 15, 2002.

In the interview, he reportedly said he would not compromise on the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendents, saying the right of return is “sacred.” Abbas earlier this month said he did not need to return to his hometown of Safed.

Jailed Gross calls for U.S. to sign pact with Cuba

Jewish-American contractor Alan Gross asked the U.S. government to sign a non-belligerency pact with Cuba in an effort to obtain his release from a military hospital there.

In a meeting with a Cuba specialist from a non-profit research center in Washington, Gross asked that the United States negotiate for his release and a dialogue with no preconditions be held between the two governments, NBC News reported.

On Sunday, about 300 people held a candlelight vigil in front of the Cuban Embassy in Washington to mark the anniversary of Gross’ third year in jail in Cuba. They sang and carried protest signs.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency on International Development.

The State Department marked the third anniversary of his arrest on Monday by calling once again for his release.

“Since his arrest, Mr. Gross has lost more than 100 pounds and suffers from severe degenerative arthritis that affects his mobility, and other health problems,” spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “His family is anxious to evaluate whether he is receiving appropriate medical treatment, something that can best be determined by having a doctor of his own choosing examine him.

“We continue to ask the Cuban Government to grant Alan Gross’s request to travel to the United States to visit his 90-year-old mother, Evelyn Gross, who is gravely ill,” it continued. “This is a humanitarian issue. The Cuban government should release Alan Gross and return him to his family, where he belongs.”

Palestinians escalate hunger-strike in Israel jails

Hundreds of Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli jails said on Friday they would shun vitamin supplements and prison clinics in an escalation of their mass protest against detention conditions.

“We swear we will not retreat. We are potential martyrs. Either we live in dignity or die,” prisoner organizers said in a letter announcing the move and which was read out by Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Islamist Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, during a demonstration.

An estimated 1,600 inmates out of 4,800 launched the hunger strike on April 17 to demand improved conditions in Israeli custody, such as an end to solitary confinement and more family visits. They have also challenged Israel’s policy of indefinite detention without charge of suspected Palestinian militants.

The fate of the hunger strikers has touched a raw nerve among Palestinians, with daily support rallies in the West Bank and Gaza, and political leaders warning that Israel could face new violence should any prisoner die.

Dozens of Palestinians, including militants and politicians who had served terms in Israeli jails in the past, have gone on hunger strikes in tents put up in solidarity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which witnessed daily heavy attendance by residents and visitors from Arab and foreign countries.

The prisoners include Islamists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with the Jewish state, as well as members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular and Western-backed Fatah movement.

Israel says all prisoners receive adequate medical attention, including in civilian hospitals if required.

A Prisons Service spokeswoman said there was no immediate sign of the hunger strike being stepped up.

“As of now, I know that those who should be receiving extra care are receiving it,” the spokeswoman, Sivan Weizman, said.

Defending its so-called “administrative detention” policy, Israel says some cases cannot immediately be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources that have cooperated with Israeli security organs against militants.

Two inmates who helped launch the hunger strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 74th day of their fast on Friday.

Anat Litvin of Physicians for Human Rights in Israel quoted Halahleh’s doctor as saying his death could be imminent.

“What is very worrisome is the fact that he said that he doesn’t want to be saved if something happens to him and he loses consciousness,” Litvin said, adding that the Prisons Service’s medical facilities might prove inadequate.

“They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the expertise; constant follow-up that is very much needed is not available,” she told Reuters Television in Tel Aviv.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich

‘Son of Sam’ denied parole for sixth time

David Berkowitz, the New York serial killer known as “Son of Sam,” was denied parole for a sixth time.

A New York prison parole board made the decision on Tuesday to deny Berkowitz, 58, who has spent 35 years behind bars. He will be eligible for another parole hearing in two years.

Berkowitz admitted to killing at least six people and injured others during a crime spree in 1976 and 1977 that terrorized New York City. He is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in the maximum security Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State.

He has expressed remorse for the shootings and runs a prison ministry.

Berkowitz became a born-again Christian in 1987 and now calls himself “Son of Hope.” On a videotape message last week to a prayer breakfast in Virginia, he said God can forgive anyone, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

Jewish school teacher arrested on possession of child pornography

A teacher at a Jewish elementary school in the New York area has been arrested on charges of possessing child pornography.

Evan Zauder, a sixth grade teacher at the Modern Orthodox school Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, N.J., was arrested after the FBI reportedly raided his Manhattan department and discovered on his computer hundreds of images and videos of boys engaged in sex acts. His bail hearing is set for Friday. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a maximum fine of $250,000.

The Forward reported that Rabbi Chaim Hagler, principal of Yeshivat Noam, was unavailable for comment, but issued a statement to parents May 2 stating that the school had “no reason to believe that any of our students are in any way involved or directly affected.”

Zauder is also a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University. The Forward quoted Y.U.‘s spokesman, Mayer Fertig, as saying that he was “saddened and dismayed” by the charges.

Following the news of Zauder’s arrest, Rabbi Shaul Feldman, director of the U.S. and Canadian wing of the Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva, issued a mass email message to parents informing them about the arrest and Zauder’s stint the past two summers as a head counselor on the organization’s Israel summer tour. “We learned of this arrest in the news and have not been contacted by the authorities,” Feldman said. “This arrest is not related to his employment at Bnei Akiva and we have no reason to believe any inappropriate behavior occurred while he was employed in any of our programs or camps.”

Former Palestinian hunger striker released from Israeli jail

Khader Adnan, a Palestinian who went on a 63-day hunger strike to protest his administrative detention, was released from an Israeli jail to his home in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Palestinian supporters came out late Tuesday night to greet Adnan, who first stopped to meet with the families of other Palestinian prisoners currently on hunger strikes, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported.

“The happiness I saw on my people’s faces made me forget all the suffering I experienced when I was on hunger strike,” Adnan told Ma’an.

Adnan, a member of Islamic Jihad, agreed in February to end his hunger strike in return for an Israeli agreement not to extend his administrative detention. A prisoner can be held in administrative detention, without charges being brought, for up to four months.

He was arrested on Dec. 17 on the basis of “secret evidence” that he is a threat to regional security.

His hunger strike reportedly was the longest ever undertaken by a Palestinian prisoner in Israel. It sparked several other hunger strikes, including that of Hana Shalabi, a member of Islamic Jihad, who agreed on March 29 to end her 43-day hunger strike and be freed in exchange for spending the next three years in Gaza.

Palestinian prisoners launch hunger strike

At least 1,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have launched an open-ended hunger strike.

The hunger strikes began Tuesday, on what the Palestinians observe as Prisoners’ Day, which honors prisoners being held in Israeli jails.

Another 2,300 prisoners declared that they would not eat on Tuesday in solidarity with the hunger strikers and returned their meals to prison guards. At least eight foreign activists who arrived in Israel on Sunday as part of a protest “fly-in” and remain in an Israeli prison also refused food, Ynet reported.

The mass hunger strike is calling for an end to solitary confinement and isolation; for allowing families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip to visit their loved ones; and allowing prisoners to have newspapers, learning materials and specific television channels. It is also protesting administrative detention. A security prisoner in Israel can be held in administrative detention without charges for up to four months; it can be renewed.

Four Palestinian prisoners have been on extended hunger strikes and are in prison hospitals.

Two other high-profile hunger strikers were released after cutting deals with Israeli authorities.

Khader Adnan ended his 66-day hunger strike in mid-February when Israeli prosecutors agreed that his administrative detention would not be renewed. Hana Shalabi, a member of Islamic Jihad, agreed March 29 to end her 43-day hunger strike and be freed in exchange for spending the next three years in Gaza.

Palestinians in Israeli jails set to launch hunger strike

More than 1,600 Palestinians in Israeli jails reportedly are set to launch a hunger strike on what is called Palestinian Prisoners Day.

The coordinated hunger strike is scheduled to begin Tuesday, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported. But it is unclear whether Fatah and Hamas prisoners will begin the hunger strike together, Ma’an reported, citing Issa Qaraqe, the Palestinian Authority prisoners’ affairs minister. Fatah officials believe that starting the hunger strike on Prisoners Day will harm negotiations with Israeli authorities, according to Ma’an.

The mass hunger strike is calling for an end to solitary confinement and isolation; to allow families of prisoners from the Gaza Strip to visit their loved ones; and to allow prisoners to have newspapers, learning materials and specific television channels.

The news agency reported, citing the Gaza-based Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, that four Palestinian prisoners now on hunger strikes are in an Israeli prison hospital and two others are in solitary confinement. The six are being held in administrative detention. A prisoner can be held in administrative detention without charges for up to four months; it can be renewed.

Two high-profile hunger strikers were released after cutting deals with Israeli authorities.

Khader Adnan ended his 66-day hunger strike in mid-February when Israeli prosecutors agreed that his administrative detention would not be renewed. Hana Shalabi, a member of Islamic Jihad, agreed March 29 to end her 43-day hunger strike and be freed in exchange for spending the next three years in Gaza.

Gross visited Cuba at least five times, court document says

Jailed American Jewish contractor Alan Gross visited Cuba at least five times in one year to set up wireless Internet connections, according to a report citing leaked court documents.

The report Thursday by The Associated Press comes two days after Juan Lamigueiro of the Cuban interests section in Washington posted a letter on the Cuban Foreign Ministry website saying that “the Cuban government has engaged the U.S. government on its willingness to find a humanitarian solution to the case of Mr. Alan Gross on a reciprocal humanitarian basis.” The statement is believed to be referring to the so-called “Cuban Five,” spies arrested in the United States in 1998, which Cuba has been rumored to have asked the U.S. to swap in exchange for Gross.

Gross visited Cuba five times in 2009, the year he was arrested, and his movements there had been tracked since 2004, according to a filing with the court, apparently from Gross’ sentencing, the AP reported. The document was published on the U.S.-based blog Cafe Fuerte, and its authenticity has been neither confirmed nor denied.

The document alleges that Gross recruited other Americans to help bring restricted telecommunications equipment into Cuba.

Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba. He has been jailed since he was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba.

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet. The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

He reportedly is in poor health and has lost more than 100 pounds.

Gross was not included on a list released last month of nearly 3,000 prisoners whom Cuban leader Raoul Castro said he would release on humanitarian grounds.

Holocaust fund scammer gets a year in slammer

A Russian Jewish immigrant was sentenced to a year and a day in jail for scamming thousands from a fund benefiting Holocaust victims.

Polina Anoshina, 63, of the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, also received two years probation when she was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Anoshina was the first to be sentenced among 19 caught in the FBI investigation for participation in the scam; nine have pleaded guilty. She is not a Holocaust survivor.

Judge Deborah Batts also ordered Anoshina to repay $105,000 to the Claims Conference, an organization that distributes the restitution made by the German government to Holocaust survivors. Anoshina, who made a tearful plea to the court prior to sentencing, made $9,000 through fraudulent claims to the Claim Conference.

She also assisted in the theft of $105,000, part of a larger $42.5 million scam run on the program that authorities say dated back to 1993.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Frey said that Anoshina “played an intricate role” in the scam; prosecutors told the court that she had recruited 30 people to take part. Frey also pointed out that she was the only person in the criminal ring who helped a non-Jewish person receive fraudulent money.

Anoshina’s attorney, Mark Zawisny, argued that his client was “a very small part of a very large wheel,” and that “she thought she was entitled to receive some benefits” because of her past in “war-torn Russia.”

Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said in a letter to his organization’s board of directors that “We are grateful to the United States authorities for their diligence and dedication to this case.”

Prosecutors appeal Demjanjuk’s release from jail

Munich state prosecutors appealed a district court’s decision to release convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk from prison pending his appeal.

Monday’s appeal of Demjanjuk’s release, following his conviction on war crimes on May 12, also appealed the five-year sentence handed down that day for being too lenient.

The prosecutors’ reasons will be presented in writing and only then released to the public, according to a spokesperson for the Munich District II court, which found Demjanjuk, 91, guilty as an accessory to nearly 28,000 murders in the Nazi death camp Sobibor in occupied Poland in 1943.

Demjanjuk’s main attorney, Ulrich Busch, appealed the conviction immediately. It is likely the appeals process will take more than a year, observers have said.

Demjanjuk, who is stateless and has no relatives in Germany, has been placed in a nursing home.

While Jewish leaders have decried Demjanjuk’s release from jail, a group of Dutch co-plaintiffs said they found the entire court proceeding encouraging.

Their “respect for the court’s verdict includes respect for the court’s decision to release Demjanjuk until his appeals are decided and the guilty verdict is upheld,” said a statement from their Cologne-based attorney, Cornelius Nestler.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster last week appointed a public defender to assist Demjanjuk in reviving the U.S. denaturalization case against him. The move follows the release by The Associated Press of a 1985 FBI report challenging the authenticity of the Nazi ID card that was the key evidence against him in the German trial and in stripping him of his U.S. citizenship for lying about his Nazi past in order to gain entry into the United States.

This matzah is kept under lock and key. So are the people who will eat it.

A few weeks before Passover, there was a moment when Shirley Friedman looked worried that there might not be enough food for everybody.

Friedman, who calls herself “a full-time grandmother,” is expecting to feed three dozen people over the first two nights of Passover at her table at home — but on that Thursday morning, she wasn’t worrying about a problem that could be solved by another trip to the supermarket.

That’s not the way things work in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

“Why do I only have two pallets?” Friedman, asked, eyeing two dense stacks of shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes that had just come out of an industrial-size freezer. The boxes contained Passover food from a large kosher food processing company in New York and cost the county nearly $8,000; the contents were supposed to feed the county jail’s 35 kosher-observant inmates for the eight days of Passover. And Friedman, an Orthodox woman who has been volunteering as a chaplain in the jail for the last 10 years, was on hand to make sure that everything was, well, kosher.

Taking care of the spirits and souls of Southern California’s jailed Jews is a demanding job throughout the year. Passover’s additional requirements take the religious observance to another level of complexity.

“I think it’s the most intensive Jewish holy day inside the prison system, just because it is so logistically complicated,” said Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for the past 15 years.

From finding officers to supervise the pre-Passover cleaning of the prison’s two separate Jewish chapels where the communal seders will be held, to training the “supervisor volunteers” to lead them, the effort has kept Moskowitz very busy. “It takes six weeks of eight-hour-day preparation,” Moskowitz said.

Even with all that work in advance, the California state budget situation could still throw a wrench into the works.

“The whole prison system is on what they call a ‘rolling lockdown,’ which means that at any given time, one of the yards that the men live on is locked down,” Moskowitz explained. “Some of the men will actually not be free to walk the 200 to 300 yards from their cell over to the chapel area to participate in a halachic community seder.”

Jewish law — halachah — specifies the date (April 18) and time (after sundown) when a Passover seder is to take place. But in correctional facilities, despite the protections for religious practice provided by the First Amendment, the California administrative code and an 11-year-old federal law that specifically protects prisoners’ religious rights, other laws, rules and regulations can present obstacles to observance.

Rabbi Yossi Carron, senior rabbi in the L.A. County jails for the past eight years, has become adept at balancing these competing requirements.

Carron calls the people he serves “the forgotten Jews,” and he quickly makes clear that not all Jewish prisoners are behind bars for white-collar crimes. “There are rapists and murderers and drug addicts — mostly drug addicts — and armed robbers,” Carron said, “just like the rest of the world. But nobody wants to acknowledge it.”

Dividing his weeks between L.A. County’s cash-strapped jails and one state prison in Corcoran, Carron has learned to stretch his limited time and his limited funds as far as possible — far beyond what would be expected of most rabbis.

There’s no Protestant chaplain, no Catholic chaplain, no imam” at the state prison in Corcoran, Carron explained, so whenever he leads Jewish services, he’s also nominally supervising the other inmate-led religious services. “Otherwise they couldn’t have services at all,” Carron said.

“Rabbi Carron has taken that chaplaincy to an entirely new level of commitment, of involvement, of caring about the inmates and the staff,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Inmates who meet with Carron know his rules. They are not to lie to him, and they must not show up intoxicated at any meeting. But aside from those two strict guidelines, Carron is probably one of the more flexible people in the county jail.

Take Carron’s seder, which he leads using a photocopied haggadah of his own devising. “It’s always about recovery, and how Judaism and recovery fit together, and how we’re expected to be holy,” Carron said.

Carron will lead this year’s seder on April 22, the fourth day of Passover, but he’s not sure how many people will be able to come, nor could he say for certain what they’ll be eating.

Until last year, Carron was able to find caterers to donate food for the seder, but last year, in accordance with a change in jail policy prohibiting any outside food being brought inside, he had to end that practice. Not being able to bring in food from the outside, Carron had to depend on the jail kitchen, which led to a less-than-ideal situation for the Jewish inmates who were not among those keeping kosher.

Some ended up eating meals that were kosher but not kosher for Passover. And they were the lucky ones.

“Some guys, if they weren’t on kosher, they weren’t allowed to come. And that’s wrong,” Carron said. It isn’t clear how that policy has changed this year, if at all.

Which isn’t to say that administrators in charge of running the L.A. County jails aren’t working very hard to accommodate the Jewish inmates interested in celebrating the holy day.

Benson Li, the sheriff’s department manager for food service units in the jail, explained that the Meal Mart-branded kosher for Passover food costs $24.30 per inmate per day. “That’s almost nine times more than the regular meals,” Li said, referring to nonkosher food that most of the 15,000 other inmates eat daily. “We always take care of our religious inmates — whatever it takes.”

On the first night of Passover, this includes a meal of roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot tzimmes. Included in each prisoner’s box are four boxes of grape juice, an Artscroll paperback haggadah and a plastic seder plate with all the fixings, all of them freezer-safe. (The green vegetable on the plate is celery, which freezes better than the alternatives.)

Los Angeles County Bureau of Offender Programs and Services director Karen S. Dalton said her staff attempts to allow inmates to eat communally, “to the extent possible that we can.”

“We have several different housing areas where the inmates who are Jewish live,” Dalton said. “In many of them, there’s only one Jewish inmate. If they’re housed in the same area, same pod, same everything, they can sit at the same table and eat together.”

Even Friedman, the Orthodox volunteer chaplain, admitted that a degree of flexibility is required on certain matters — like having non-Jews heat up food on Shabbat for Jewish inmates, which is halachically prohibited.

But Friedman was not willing to compromise as she oversaw 13 people — one officer, one jail dietitian and her intern, five cooks from the different jail facilities and five prisoners in yellow jumpsuits — sort through the Passover food.

Aside from one loading dock guard who called the Passover preparations “mumbo jumbo,” the staff and inmates were efficient and cooperative as they sorted packets of French dressing, individually boxed beef goulash and boxes of matzah into a week’s worth of meals.

When the job was done, there was enough food for the 35 inmates on Friedman’s list — more than enough, actually. The county had ordered food for 40 people, and every prisoner would get about 2,700 calories per prisoner per day, a bit more than the mandated 2,500 calories.

And even though nearly everything was shrink-wrapped, reducing the risk of something contaminating the kosher for Passover food, Friedman kept her eye on everything — including this reporter.

At one point, I approached an inmate named Miguel while he was sorting cream cheese and jam into individual plastic bags. He said he’d never before celebrated Passover.

Then I asked if the Passover food he was packing up looked better than the food he was used to in the jails. His eyes went wide.

“Don’t answer that,” Friedman told Miguel.

He didn’t.

Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav receives seven-year prison sentence

Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who was found guilty of rape and sexual assault, was sentenced to seven years in jail and ordered to pay compensation to two of his victims.

A panel of three Tel Aviv District Court judges handed down the sentence Tuesday, nearly five years after he was first accused.

Katsav, 65, reportedly began sobbing after the verdict was read and then yelled out several times, interrupting the judges, saying “It’s all lies,”  “the sentence is a mistake” and “it’s not true.”

Katsav’s prison sentence is set to begin May 8. He was also ordered to pay more than $28,000 to the rape victim and about $7,000 to the sexual assault victim. He also will serve two years of probation after his release from prison.

“The defendant committed the crime and like every other person, he must bear the consequences. No man is above the law,” the judges wrote in their sentence, which was read out in the courtroom. “The contention that seeing a former president of the country go to jail is too painful to watch is an emotional argument, but it definitely cannot be accepted as an ethical argument.”

The closed-door trial lasted for one year, ending with a guilty verdict on Dec. 30. Two years ago, Katsav declined what was seen as a lenient plea bargain—one that dropped the rape charges for lesser charges and likely would have left him with a suspended sentence—saying that he wanted to clear his name in court.

Katsav, who immigrated to Israel from Iran in 1951, became president when the Knesset elected him in 2000, upsetting candidate Shimon Peres. Peres became president in 2007 after Katsav resigned in the wake of the allegations, shortly before the end of his term.

“This is an extraordinary day in the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the sentencing. “This is a day of sadness and shame, but it is also a day of deep appreciation and pride for the Israeli justice system. The court issued a sharp and unequivocal ruling on a simple principle, that of equality before the law; nobody is above the law, not even a former president, all are subject to the law. This distinguishes the State of Israel to a very large degree.”

Netanyahu said the court also ruled on equality between men and women.

“Every woman has the right to her body, the right to respect and freedom, and nobody has the right to take these from her,” the prime minister said. “This also distinguishes the State of Israel to a very large degree.”

Katsav has 45 days to appeal the sentence.

Gross marks year in Cuban jail

Alan Gross, a contractor that the U.S. State Department says was assisting Cuban Jews, marked a year in a Cuban jail.

Cuban authorities detained Gross on Dec, 3 2009 on his way out of the country.

Gross’ family and State Department officials says he was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s Jewish community, numbering about 1,500, to communicate with other Jewish communities through the Internet.

Cuban leaders say Gross is a spy.

The country’s main Jewish groups have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, has rallied U.S. Jewish groups to press Cuba for Gross’ release.

Gross, who has gout, has lot 90 pounds in prison, his lawyer says, and has yet to be charged.

“Alan’s incarceration for a year without clarity of the legal process he will face or its timing is a travesty,” Peter Kahn said in a statement. “It violates every international standard of justice and due process. We continue to urge the Cuban authorities to release Alan immediately based on humanitarian grounds, as well as the fact that he has already served one year in a Cuban prison.”

Gross’ wife, Judy, in October wrote Cuban President Raul Castro expressing regret, saying she recognized “the Cuban government may not like the type of work that Alan was doing in Cuba,” but that he did not intend harm.

She urged Castro to release Gross, noting that their 26-year-old daughter was diagnosed recently with breast cancer.

Inmates’ rights were violated on kosher meals, judge rules

The Indiana Department of Corrections violated federal law when it substituted vegan meals for kosher for its inmates, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson made the ruling last week in Indianapolis in response to a class-action suit filed last year against the department by Matson Willis, an Orthodox Jewish inmate at the Miami Correctional Facility.

The meals reportedly were changed in order to cut costs. The judge said the change violated the religious rights of Willis.

Some 90 to 120 inmates were affected by the change, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

A hearing set for Nov. 30 will decide what actions the department must take going forward.

Segregated school affair: Fathers arrive in jail, mothers fail to show

Thirty five men, fathers to Ashkenazi girls attending an illegally segregated school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, arrived at the Ma’asiyahu prison Thursday evening to serve a two-week sentence.

Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at the all girls’ school don’t want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim.

The Ashkenazi parents insist they aren’t racist, but want to keep the classrooms segregated, as they have been for years, arguing that the families of the Sephardi girls aren’t religious enough.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, and ruled that the 43 sets of parents who have defied the integration efforts by keeping their daughters from school were to be jailed on Thursday.

Read the full story at

West Bank haredi parents ordered to jail

Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered haredi Ashkenazi parents who refused to send their daughters to school with Sephardi girls to go to jail.

The Slonim Chasidim kept their daughters segregated from other girls at the school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel, going so far as to have separate entrances and a dividing wall through the school’s courtyard.

After the courts ordered the school to remove the separation, the Chasidic parents kept their children home from school. The case has gone through months of court hearings, rulings and mediation, culminating in the court’s ultimatum late Tuesday afternoon.

The parents, who were required to inform the court in writing by Wednesday that they would abide by the court’s ruling, sang a song of faith in the courtroom following the justices’ decision, and they have vowed to march to prison on Thursday.

“No one has yet to die from a fortnight in prison,” parent Avraham Luria told the Jerusalem Post. “But I certainly hope that the government of Israel will have the tools to take care of the hundreds of children whose parents are going to prison and find enough foster families on such short notice.”

Inmates Celebrate B’not Mitzvah

Two women, identified as Carol and Pamela — not their real names — became b’not mitzvah on Saturday, Sept. 5. Both are inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The event is believed to be the first bat mitzvah to take place inside prison walls in the United States.

Carol and Pamela approached the rabbi with the idea of a bat mitzvah six months ago — both are incarcerated for a variety of offenses, including drug-related charges — and their preparation for the day included learning Hebrew and writing a speech. The service took place in the prison chapel, which the Jewish community shares with Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, and was led by Rabbi Moshe Halfon, who has served as Jewish chaplain at the facility for the last three years. Halfon describes himself as a spiritual healer and explorer; he is also a Reconstructionist rabbi and holds a master’s degree in educational psychology and organizational process from Temple University. Halfon is the co-founder of Am Or Olam (People of the Eternal Light), a nonprofit center in Southern California that promotes holistic healing, Jewish spirituality, the arts and, now, prison outreach as well.

Halfon spends Wednesdays through Saturdays at the prison teaching classes, and he conducts services there almost every Friday night and Saturday, as well as additional holiday observances. Halfon’s curriculum includes traditional prayer, but early into his tenure he decided that teaching spirituality, ethics and basic rituals were most important.

Carol, 29, came into the Jewish community not long after arriving at CIW in May 2008. She is of Jewish descent, and was exposed to Judaism as a child through her grandparents, who were Orthodox. Her professional and family life were torn apart as a result of her substance abuse and other dysfunctional behavior, and she no longer is in contact with her family. Carol is scheduled for parole in December and hopes to return to a professional life and to one day be reunited with her children, who currently are in foster care.

Pamela, 25, is Jewish and has been incarcerated since December 2007. She did not grow up with a religious background, but by chance was assigned to work in the kosher kitchen at CIW, where she became interested in the community. She has earned an associate degree while at CIW, and she plans to go to college. Her family is currently caring for her 5-year-old son.

Both women undertook intense and dedicated study in preparation for their b’not mitzvah day. Each studied Hebrew on her own time, during hours not filled with work, classes, 12-step programs and other prison-mandated activities.

The women took Hebrew names — Pamela chose Zohara Binah and Carol chose Chava Shira. During the service, they led prayers, chanted the Parashat Nitzavim, and each delivered a devar Torah — both of them on the theme of choosing life. (Even though it wasn’t the week’s portion, the women chose to study Parashat Nitzavim because of their connection to the text and the particular constraints relating to the timing of the service.)

In her writings, Zohara Binah called the Jewish community “a lifeline of hope and light in an abyss of futility and despair.” She said she experiences the “renewal style of Judaism embracing and encompassing other religious philosophies, adding an air of tolerance which is tantamount to spiritual practice behind prison walls.”

Her speech included teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, while Chava Shira spoke personally and pointedly of the mistakes she had made in the past and her commitment to choosing the path of life; she has also written of how she has been influenced by the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Both women are hoping upon release to go to Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish residential addiction recovery center in Culver City.

Numerous volunteers attended the service, including the Rev. Shayna Lester, an interfaith minister who spends two days a week teaching a course in Jewish ethics at the prison, providing spiritual education and guidance to the incarcerated women. During the service, Lester expressed her desire for the two women “to become their truest and most authentic selves.”

In addition, other leaders in the Jewish community flew in from the Bay Area, including Nancy Goldberg, vice president of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco and the surrounding areas. Inmates from the institution’s general population also gathered in the chapel to support the women, participating in the service along with the inmates who regularly attend classes and services. One woman, K, who is not Jewish but a regular at services, holds an advanced degree in economics from Stanford and is incarcerated for a white-collar crime. She said she sought out the community after observing that the women who attended services were “leaving with light in their hearts.”

L, a Jewish inmate who has long been active in the prison’s Jewish community, has been incarcerated for 24 years and has tattoos with the Hebrew words from the Song of Solomon, “I am my beloved, my beloved is mine.” At the time of the service, L was scheduled for release in 14 days and hopes to stay connected to the Jewish community.

Traditional Jewish songs along with standards like “Stand by Me” were played. Carol and another inmate performed an a cappella version of Christina Aguilera’s “You Are Beautiful.”

Institutional regulations prevented Pamela’s parents from attending, but they sent an inspirational message that was read aloud by the inmate congregants. Pamela’s father wrote of his love for her, saying, “I love you yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Her mother sent a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”

Ariella Lewis, co-founder with Halfon of Am Or Olam, read words of inspiration to Carol, speaking of two sephirot (emanations) on the kabbalistic tree of life: Netzach, the quality of endurance, and Hod, the quality of integrity and majesty — qualities needed to stand up as individuals.

The horn blew at 4:30 p.m., calling the inmates back to their units, a sudden and stark reminder that some in attendance were convicted felons and others would leave to resume their lives outside. Zohara Binah, Chava Shira and the other inmates returned to their evening institution regimen.

Actress and writer Annabelle Gurwitch hosts the carbon foot printing series “WA$TED” on Planet Green Network. Her new book, “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up,” a love story co-written with her husband, Jeff Kahn, will be published by Crown Books in February 2010.

Bernie Madoff Reportedly Dying of Cancer


Madoff, who is serving 150 years at a North Carolina federal prison after pleading guilty to swindling more than $65 billion, has been telling fellow inmate he doesn’t have much longer to live.

“He’s been taking about 20 pills a day for his cancer,” one inmate told the newspaper. “He talks about it all the time. He’s not doing very well.”

Read the full story here.

A Seder Is Not a Seder Is Not a Seder…

My Passover odyssey began in 1991, when I decided to organize a community seder. It would be homemade affair in a rented room, with my children, cousins and friends creating the decorations, skits, music and conversation topics.

Even after I had to close registration at 95 people, I was still receiving a barrage of eager calls at the last minute — including from many people who were not Jewish.

What was the great attraction? I was determined to find out.

I hired a crew to film that initial seder, and from there my 18-year odyssey led me to document a variety of exotic Passover experiences that I could never have anticipated.

Some of the individual seders I have filmed include one for 600 African Americans led by a black pastor; Ethiopian Jewish teenagers from Israel meeting with inner-city L.A. youth; Jewish socialists who never mentioned God and read poems about the Holocaust in Yiddish; Muslims and Jews in a Seder of Reconciliation following Sept. 11; one initiated by nuns 25 years before, which is still being led by the members of the group Los Angeles Catholic Worker; feminists who celebrate the brave and revolutionary women of the Exodus story; one for battered women, during which I wasn’t allowed to film their faces because of the real-and-present danger that their abusive husbands might find them; and a Seder for the Deaf, where everything was signed as well as spoken.

For the gay and lesbian community, the Exodus story mirrors their own private struggles — not only to cross the Red Sea and “come out” to society, but also to be able to tell the truth of their lives to their own families. How many parents were not present that night because they couldn’t accept their adult children’s cry for “gender freedom”?

Over the years of filming, my question about why so many non-Jews are drawn to the holiday of Passover has been answered. I could see at each seder how the Exodus story offers the universal theme of freedom from oppression, an opportunity for revelation and transformation, crossing all boundaries — religious, cultural, ethnic, economic and gender.

A Latino garment workers’ seder for economic justice, led by Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller, took place in one of the original sweatshops in downtown Los Angeles. Women held their babies and toddlers tightly in their laps as they listened to the story of the haggadah, translated from English and Hebrew into Spanish. The curious youngsters chewed on the dry, unfamiliar pieces of matzah, as the mothers listened to the first-hand account of Rose Freedman, the last survivor of New York’s infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Clothing Factory Fire. Freedman, who was 101 at the time of the seder, recounted how the heartless owners managed to escape to the roof, but locked the roof door behind them. In the end, 148 garment workers died.

The Latino workers at the seder were invited to call out the plagues of our times: “Exploitation! Hunger! Unemployment! Homelessness! Prejudice against immigrants!”

I looked around at the standing-room-only crowd of garment workers, wearing their black-and-red union T-shirts and baseball caps, and I thought to myself: “You certainly don’t have to be Jewish to love Passover.”

I also found that to be true at Chino men’s prison, where I saw Christian and Muslim inmates, whites, Latinos and blacks, crowding around the beautifully appointed seder table with their Jewish “brothers” to relive the story of the Israelites as they examined their own checkered past. I remember watching as my cameraman panned their tattooed arms while they delicately took out drops of grape juice from their symbolic wineglass. God does not want us to rejoice at the death of our enemies, we learn, so they were diminishing the pleasure of a full cup.

Rabbi Mel Silverman, his silver hair sparkling under his kippah, had been leading the seders in Chino Prison for many years, but this time he was assisted by one of his “disciples,” Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who served time in prison for embezzlement and now leads Beit T’Shuvah, an addiction recovery center in Culver City. “The biggest prison you have is in here,” Borovitz said, pointing to his head. “So go to your soul, go to your heart,” he encouraged them, “where you are always free.”

Each seder I filmed was memorable and unique, but one I remember with special fondness was the Seder for the Disabled, in 1997.

It was the third night of Passover. Some 80 people were gathered in a community center in Santa Monica, at one of the most enthusiastic seders I had ever attended. The audience was made up primarily of people who belonged to a social group called Chaverim (Hebrew for friends), organized by and for the disabled community in Los Angeles.

“They relish every detail,” the young student rabbi who led the seder emphasized. “And they are never bored. In fact, they are not in a hurry to eat, like at many other seders I have led, because this community loves the seder. Moses was also disabled. He had a speech impediment, so they identify with him, and they love talking about the Four Questions and the Four Sons,” she said.

Several of the members of Chaverim I later interviewed mentioned that when they ate the bitter herbs, they thought about the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust as well as the Israelite slaves in Egypt.

But when I asked their social worker, Ray, if she thought the disabled population considered themselves “afflicted,” or if they identified with the bitterness, she uttered an emphatic, “No!”

“They do not feel oppressed,” Ray explained. “They are not angry at their situation, and they don’t feel they’ve been given a terrible lot in life. On the contrary, they are joyous to have one another, to share in their friendships. They don’t look at this holiday with an idea that they want to extract from it the bitterness of their own lives. They don’t spend their lives saying ‘Why me, God?’”

“But what about that part of the seder when we talk about the importance of inviting a stranger to our table?” I asked. “Don’t they feel they are strangers in society?”

Her reply was one of the reasons I still remember, with particular fondness, attending this seder.

“Even though we talk about inviting the stranger to our table,” she said, “I never see strangers in this group. Even the new person who first shows up for a social activity or comes to a Passover seder, they are immediately brought in as if they are one of the family, introduced around and included. And so, there is no stranger here.

“So the real question is,” she said with a knowing smile, “What do the disabled have to teach us about how to treat a stranger?”

Looking back over 18 years of filming seders, I have witnessed how supple and nurturing, how instructive and inspiring Passover can be for all people, not just Jews. Those who experienced the most from the seder were those who gave themselves permission to enter the time machine of human experience. By listening deeply to the 3,500-year-old story of a downtrodden people, rescued from their oppressors and then rewarded with revelation and the possibility for personal, lasting transformation, the participants at the Seder could imagine, taste, and affirm their own liberation — all this while sitting around a dinner table that honors a shank bone, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, salt water, bitter herbs, four glasses of wine and flat, unleavened bread. And a glimpse of the Promised Land.

Ruth Broyde Sharone is a prize-winning documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist. She is online at

Arrested development: Young Jewish activists voluntarily go to jail in support of union rights

Sarah Leiber Church and Laura Podolsky had big plans for the evening of Sept. 28 — getting arrested.

They were part of a protest march that took place along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport aimed at hotels that allegedly have been preventing employees from unionizing. During the late afternoon, approximately 2,000 people marched down the major thoroughfare, cutting off traffic. In what has been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles, more than 300 of those people later deliberately sat down in the street, were arrested and jailed for up to 24 hours.

Both Church and Podolsky say their Jewish heritage is an important motivation for their activism for labor rights.

“From a young age I learned there’s a really strong message [in Judaism] about the importance of standing up for justice, and the importance of being directly involved,” Podolsky said.

Both she and Church are members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a group dedicated to social justice in Los Angeles. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of PJA, estimates that the group had anywhere between 50 and 100 people present at the protest, and that about 10 of those were arrested.

One part of the PJA’s larger goal is to reexamine the meaning of “kosher” among the Jewish population of Los Angeles.

“We’re working to expand the definition of kosher for the Jewish community, to go beyond how food is prepared to how workers are treated in institutions,” said Jaime Rapaport, program director for PJA. For example, she said, “The LAX Hilton is not a kosher hotel. Their kitchen may be kosher, and they may serve kosher food, but the way they treat their workers is not kosher.”

Church, the PJA’s Bay Area program director, said the timing of the protest, during the holiest part of the year, added meaning to her participation.

“The time in the Jewish calendar was very important to me in making the decision to take the steps to risk arrest … it’s a time when you take stock of how you’ve treated people over the last year,” she said. “I can think of no better way to start off 5767 than by supporting hotel workers and hard-working immigrant families in their fight for dignity in the work place.”

The sentiment was echoed by many, including Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester,who presided over a blessing of the challah in front of the Westin Hotel — one of three blessings that took place: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The challahs used were round, he said, “as a symbol for the cycle of the year, but also as a symbol of a message to the hotel management — what goes around comes around.”

Church said the religious service had been a highlight of the march.

“They said, ‘We give you bread for the journey,’ and passed out challahs to everyone. I remember hearing from some of the women later that the bread was just exactly what they needed, because they were feeling a little faint; they were feeling a little scared, frankly, and they said that having something to eat whether or not they were Jewish was really important to them.”

When the marching stopped, the sitting began. Those being arrested sat down on Century Boulevard — the main thoroughfare to LAX — where the police warned them that, unless they moved, they faced arrest. All wore matching shirts that read, “I am a human” in English and Spanish, echoing signs held at the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The 300 arrested offered no resistance as officers put them in plastic handcuffs.

En route to jail they sang songs.

“I wanted to lead songs in Hebrew and teach people, but it didn’t seem like the right environment,” Church said. “But we sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and we sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ in English and Spanish.”

Even as they were arresting the protesters, many police seemed supportive of the action.

“I was speaking to one of them who was taking my fingerprints,” Church said, “and he said, ‘You know, I think I support what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You’re unionized, right?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, and if we weren’t I’d want you all to be out on the streets.'”

This was a first arrest for both Church and Podolsky.

“Jail is cold, dingy and boring,” Podolsky said. “But I would do it a lot more, if it were necessary in order to stand up for these issues.”

Other arrestees shared cells with prostitutes or drug dealers.

Both Church and Podolsky spent the night in jail in South Central, released at 3:30 and 6:30 a.m., respectively.

Van Leeuwen agreed that the action was in accordance with Jewish teachings.
“The Torah repeatedly tells us that we should love the stranger; that they should be subject to laws and rights we’re subject to,” he said.

Though tired from a long march and a night spent in jail, everyone seemed in good spirits by Friday, proud of what they had accomplished.

“It was an incredible experience, and it was also an uncomfortable experience
… it’s something that I look back on with pride,” Church said.
Said Podolsky, simply, “It’s a good way to be Jewish.”

Krugel Gets 20 Years for Bomb Plot

The former No. 2 man in the Jewish Defense League (JDL) had his day in court last week and the only suspense was over how much time he would remain in prison. Earl Krugel, 62, has already spent close to four years in lockup over alleged terrorism charges. And in court, he learned that he could be in prison for as much as 16 years more.

The proceedings brought an apparent close to a case that briefly riveted national attention in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists on Sept. 11, 2001. Krugel and JDL colleague Irv Rubin were accused of plotting to bomb a local mosque and the office of an Arab American congressman. No one associated with the targets had any ties to terrorism.

A young JDL member, who’d been recruited to participate in the plot, revealed it to federal authorities.

The sentencing marked the official denouement to the best-known public faces of the JDL, whose mantra called for Jews to defend themselves by any means necessary. The aborted anti-Arab terrorist plot was something of a last gasp for JDL leaders trying to reassert their relevance. The group and its adherents have virtually vanished from the American scene, although its ideological descendants continue to play a role in the body politic of Israel.

Under a deal struck some time ago with federal prosecutors, Krugel had pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to bomb the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City and carrying an explosive to use in the attacks, which included plans to bomb the field office of Congressman Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista). Krugel’s alleged co-conspirator, JDL head Rubin, died in prison in November 2002.

One charge, with its enhancement — the use of explosives — carried a mandatory sentence of 10 years. The range on the other count was probation to 10 years. At one point, the government voided the plea agreement, because prosecutors decided Krugel was not cooperating enough. Although the government’s reasons for backing out of the deal and the response from Krugel’s defense were filed under seal, the government was plainly dissatisfied with the extent of Krugel’s cooperation in helping solve the 20-year-old murder of Arab American activist Alex Odeh and other unsolved crimes. Associates of the JDL have been suspects in the Odeh killing almost from the start. And Krugel’s assistance apparently yielded little, if any, new information. In the end, prosecutors argued for a stern calculation of his sentence.

For his part, Krugel showed contrition in court as he asked for mercy.

“I regret joining a criminal conspiracy for the burden and shame it has brought to me and my family,” he said, “and for the burden it has brought to the government and the court.”

Krugel added: “This was carried too far. It became a plan for violent protest and not civic protest. Violence only begets violence.” After “much soul-searching” in prison, he concluded, he had come to realize there are “good Arabs and bad Arabs just like there are good and bad Jews.”

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S. W. Lew sided with prosecutors, giving Krugel the maximum 10-year jail term on top of the 10 years required for the other charge.

Lew said that he “did not believe [Krugel] was a changed man. People don’t change like that overnight.”

Lew added that Krugel’s actions were “totally reprehensible and the sentence imposed was completely reasonable.”

He also noted that Krugel’s collection of guns had included a “machine gun, an aggravating fact as well.”

Krugel will get credit for his three years and nine months in custody and could shave three years and eight months off his sentence with good behavior. Still, he won’t be eligible for parole until he’s at least 76.

What’s left of the JDL is uncertain. Meir Kahane, who founded the JDL in 1968, emigrated from the United States to Israel in 1971, where he advocated the forcible expulsion of Arabs. Kahane was assassinated during a trip to New York City in 1990. His movement was outlawed in Israel, but still has adherents.

In the United States, however, a walk-in closet might be large enough to hold a board meeting of the local JDL faithful. And there’s a chance those assembled would spend much of the time bickering or finger-pointing.

Krugel’s wife, Lola, maintained outside the court that her husband is innocent and the victim of bad legal representation from a former attorney, which she asserts will form the basis of an appeal. Lew gave Krugel 10 days from sentencing to file a notice of appeal. Krugel’s former attorney, Mark Werksman, dismissed Lola Krugel’s criticism as ridiculous and factually baseless. Meanwhile, Irv Rubin’s widow, Shelley, called Earl Krugel a traitor, while also asserting that her late husband had done nothing illegal.

Shelley Rubin told The Journal that she’s furious with Krugel for pleading guilty and accusing her husband of criminal wrongdoing.

“Irv was his best friend, his best man at the wedding,” she said. “How could he do this to him, when he is dead and can’t defend himself?” she asked. “Friends meant something to my husband. He would never have done this to Earl.”

Shelley Rubin claims control of the JDL leftovers, while another faction, headed by Ian Sigel, is battling over control of the JDL Web address, asserting that it is now the official JDL. Even while Rubin was alive there were divisions and conflicting claims of leadership. Critics sometimes dismissed Rubin and his cohorts as three guys and a megaphone, but authorities implicated the JDL in some very real and deadly crimes.

A million-dollar reward is still being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for assassinating Odeh, 41, the western regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Odeh was killed by a pipe bomb as he tried to enter his Santa Ana office. Since then, the FBI has tried but failed to make a case against current or former members of the JDL, which has repeatedly denied any involvement by the organization and its leaders.

Regarding the Odeh murder, Krugel’s third attorney, Jay Lichtman, said in court “Krugel had passed on to the government four names, which Rubin allegedly gave him. But the FBI responded that they were already aware of three of those people.”

According to Robert Friedman’s 1992 book, “The False Prophet — Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member,” three of the named individuals, Andy Green, Robert Manning and Keith Fuchs — all former JDL members, actually surfaced as suspects within hours of the Odeh attack.

Green reportedly immigrated to Israel from New York City in 1975, where he met JDL founder Kahane. He then joined a West Bank settlement, and changed his name to Baruch Ben Yosef. In 1983 he moved back to his hometown, where he ran the office for Kach, another group Kahane started.

At one point, Green partnered with Manning in a private investigation firm. Manning, who hailed from Los Angeles, was convicted of a bomb attack against a Palestinian in 1973. He reportedly became Kahane’s chief bombmaker. Prior to the Odeh killing, federal authorities claimed the pair carried out a number of bombings, mostly directed towards former Nazis and their collaborators.

Fuchs, another New Yorker, had also traveled to Israel. In 1983, he was convicted of shooting at a passing Arab-owned car in the West Bank. Israeli authorities eventually pulled him out of jail and put him on a plane back to New York. Today, Fuchs and Green are reportedly back in Israel. Meanwhile, Manning was extradited from Israel to California, where he was tried and convicted of a fatal letter-bomb attack that arose out of a business dispute. He is now serving a life sentence in state prison.

Since Green, Manning and Fuchs have been suspects in the Odeh investigation for nearly 20 years, it’s unclear what more prosecutors wanted from Krugel in exchange for his reduced sentence. Much of the court record in the JDL case was filed under seal and remains secret.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Jessner asserted in court that Krugel had not cooperated fully, had not been totally honest and delayed almost five months before giving his FBI interrogators information about the alleged Odeh murder plotters.

Judge Lew said in court that Krugel had “failed several polygraphs.”

The JDL also was investigated in recent years for an alleged role in an extortion scheme against black rappers Tupac Shakur and Easy-E. Both are now dead, Tupac from a bullet, and Eric Wright, a.k.a. Easy-E, from complications due to AIDS. That probe, by the FBI, with assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, lasted from Oct. 17, 1996 to May 18, 1999, according to government documents. It was closed because investigators could not substantiate the allegations.

The key figure in the terrorism investigation was JDL recruit Danny Gillis, a former Navy seaman. Gillis had second thoughts about carrying out the bombings and contacted authorities. He agreed to help the FBI tape record his meetings with Rubin and Krugel. Those tapes became the centerpiece of the government’s case.

In response to the sentencing, the office of Rep. Issa issued a statement thanking the FBI for “preventing the conspirators from carrying out their planned acts of terrorism and the many individuals, including the office of the U.S. attorney, who have worked to bring justice to those who participated in this plot.”

Speaking on behalf of the King Fahd Mosque, Usman Madha, director of public relations said that he had no comment on whether Krugel’s 20-year sentence was fair.

“I leave it to the wisdom of the court,” he said. He added: “JDL is a fringe group that does not represent the Jewish mainstream. We have very good relationships with many Jewish rabbis and this has only strengthened them. People who do not learn the lessons of Sept. 11 will try and repeat them. I just thank God it didn’t happen here.”

At the court hearing, the speakers included Salam Al-Mayayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which was one of the conspirators’ proposed targets, according to government tapes.

“I would like to appeal to you, your honor, for Earl Krugel to receive the maximum sentence for his crime to harm me, my institution, a mosque and a congressman’s office,” Al-Mayayati said. “Mr Krugel should be treated like any other terrorist.”

Mainstream Jewish groups have consistently repudiated Krugel, Rubin and the JDL, but that didn’t stop Linda Krugel from saying her brother had been abandoned by the Jewish community during the court case. This was “a dark day in American justice,” she said. “My brother fought for 35 years to defend the Jews, and where are they when he needs them?”


Q and A With Floyd Abrams

New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail this week for refusing to reveal confidential sources. The attorney for Miller and the Times is Floyd Abrams, who spoke with The Journal about the case, about his career, and also about his new book, “Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment.”

Miller faced imprisonment after the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to hear her appeal and also an appeal by another reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine. A judge had held both reporters in contempt for not talking to the grand jury probing an alleged leak by someone in the Bush administration. The investigation centers on who may have violated federal law by disclosing the identity of a covert CIA agent. The leak of the agent’s name, Valerie Plame, could have been retaliation, because it occurred shortly after Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, became a public critic of the Bush administration.

Cooper avoided jail time after agreeing to testify. He said his confidential source had, at the last moment, given him clearance to answer questions. Miller could remain in custody for as long as four months – until the grand jury completes its term.

In the interview, Abrams also talked of the Jewish perspective in his legal work, and about his role this year as an adviser to a Columbia University committee assembled following high-profile allegations of campus anti-Semitism.

Abrams, 68, emerged as a leading First Amendment attorney through his role in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, which he discusses at length in his book. Over the past 35 years, his career has been a virtual textbook in the development of First Amendment case law.

Jewish Journal: What’s at stake in the decision of Judith Miller and The New York Times to keep secret the names of confidential sources?

Floyd Abrams: Something that is a staple of Washington reporting and much used outside of Washington, as well. In Washington, a journalist literally cannot find anyone to speak to in the Defense Department, in the CIA, in Homeland Security, except on an off-the-record basis – on a promised basis not to reveal the name of the person who gives the information.

So what is really at issue here is whether journalists are going to be able to continue to function in certain types of reporting. They can do other sorts or reporting. There’s a lot of reporting where you don’t need confidential sources.

But if you want reporting that deals with national security-related matters, you have to give some sort of allowance for confidential sources to be used and protected. And if the word goes out either that journalists break their word or journalists can’t give their word, I think there’ll be a significant loss.

JJ: Your client and another reporter, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, face jail time because they won’t reveal information about their sources to a grand jury. But it was conservative columnist Robert Novak who actually used the information from the Bush administration source.

FA: Judy Miller did not even write a story about this. Matt Cooper, after Novak, wrote an article criticizing the unnamed leakers. The irony here is that a critic of the leaking and someone who didn’t even use the fruits of the leak are now sentenced to jail.

JJ: How is it that Novak doesn’t seem to be in the same hot seat as Miller and Cooper?

FA: If this investigation were being carried out by someone other than the special prosecutor, Pat Fitzgerald, who seems to me a straight shooter, I’d be very suspicious. How come Novak, a fellow who is pro-administration, is let loose, and my clients are in the dock? But no, I don’t think it’s that. Either he’s talked or he’s taken the Fifth Amendment [against self-incrimination]. Some people have suggested maybe the government does think it will indict Novak; that maybe he did do something illegal.

If something legally happens to Novak, that would raise very grave First Amendment problems, notwithstanding that he’s not the most appetizing victim, as far as the liberal community is concerned.

JJ: The coverage has tended to focus on Miller and Cooper.

FA: I don’t understand why Mr. Novak is not constantly barraged with questions from other journalists. If he has testified, he’d be free to say, ‘They asked me this. They asked me that. I protected my source. Or I didn’t protect my source.’

All of this is relevant to my side of the case, too. Because if I knew he had testified, I would be saying with a lot more confidence in court: “What are we doing here? Why are my clients here in the dock?” And if I knew that he had said something in particular, I might be able to say, “Why do you need my people? You’ve already heard from Novak.”

But the government and the courts will not let us see even the written submission of the Special Counsel in which he set forth what he has done, the theory being: It’s Grand Jury material; therefore it’s secret; therefore I can’t see it. Now that’s the general rule, but I’m representing people who are very close to being imprisoned, and I’m not entitled to see the documents submitted by the government in support of imprisoning them. That seems to us to be another violation of the Constitution, and that’s the due-process clause — that you shouldn’t just be able to lock someone up on the basis of secret information, period.

JJ: Earlier this year, you had a hand in addressing a politically charged issue at Columbia University. You served as an adviser to a faculty committee investigating allegations made by Jewish students against professors regarded as pro-Palestinian.

FA: We were asked to look into charges by some Jewish students that they were mistreated in class and that certain classes were biased against Israel. Some students were saying that they were marginalized in these classes and made to feel as if their views were condemned.

JJ: According to The New York Times, the most credible allegation involved professor Joseph Massad. A student said she asked if it was true that Israel sometimes gave a warning before a bombing, so that people would not be hurt. She accused the professor of getting angry, and responding, ‘If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom!’ The professor denied that the incident occurred.

FA: The student’s articulation of what happened was credible. The committee concluded that there were a few instances in which a particular professor had acted inappropriately or potentially so.

The broad issue here is this: Do students have academic freedom rights also? I think they do. They do not have to be humiliated, attacked, disdained. And what should a university do about charges of bias? For this was a matter more of alleged bias than intimidation.

You have to be careful not to sit in constant judgment of the bias or lack of bias of faculty members. That said, if a course becomes a political harangue, its pedagogic value is limited.

JJ: Where do you draw the line?

FA: You’d get rid of a professor who taught the flat-earth view simply on a basis that he’s wrong. It’s very hard, however, when a professor is talking about deeply politicized subjects.

The committee focused on what it was asked to focus on: incidents of alleged harassment of students by faculty. The broader questions it was not asked to look into. The usual First Amendment answer is to get some more faculty members so that students are exposed to a range of viewpoints – unless what a professor is doing is so far outside the realm of what can properly be offered in a great institution of learning.

JJ: You have not been a supporter of many of the campaign-reform laws, in particular McCain-Feingold.

FA: I wound up with a most unlikely client, Mitch McConnell, in challenging the McCain-Feingold law.

JJ: McConnell is one of the more conservative senators.

FA: Indeed. No one has ever said that Sen. McConnell is not consistently conservative. But on this issue I thought he was right, at least on the part of the case that interested me the most.

What bothered me and still does is the part of the law that makes it a crime for any union or corporation to put an ad on radio and television that mentions the name of a candidate for federal public office within 60 days of the election, or within 30 days of a nominating convention.

When I was called by Lions Gate Films, Michael Moore’s distributor of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ which is a very strong anti-Bush movie, I had to tell them they could not put on television their ads with a picture of Bush within 60 days of the general election, so no ads in September and October of 2004. They couldn’t do it within 30 days of the Republican convention, so nothing in August of 2004. And they could do nothing in a state that had a primary within 30 days of that state’s primary.

Beyond that, the AFL [American Federation of Labor] had to cancel ads that it routinely used, where they would, for example, say congressman so-and-so should vote in favor of raising the minimum wage. And the chamber of commerce, the pro-business group, couldn’t put on similar ads for, say, tort reform, focused on vulnerable members of Congress who were up for election.

JJ: You lost that case in the Supreme Court.

FA: We lost narrowly and definitively. A 5-4 vote, with the three most conservative members, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, voting for us. And Justice Kennedy voting for us, too. Kennedy is probably the most consistently protective of the First Amendment. And we lost all the justices traditionally viewed as more liberal.

JJ: What do you see as the actual solution to curbing the influence of money in politics?

FA: I don’t think there’s ever going to be a great solution…. I think that the optimum solution was the one advocated by the ACLU, that there ought to be public financing of political campaigns without limiting what private people can contribute. In New York City, for example, we have such a system. Michael Bloomberg last time spent $75 million running for mayor. At least the Democratic candidate had $16 million of city funding. So at least he could be heard, albeit by no means evenly. The other is to require instant disclosure over the Internet of every gift, or every gift over a certain amount made by anyone or anything. So it can become an issue if anybody thinks that too much corporate money goes one way or too much union money goes the other.

JJ: Does your heritage as a Jew give you a particular affinity as a lawyer for the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech and establishes the separation of church and state?

FA: Jews are amongst the first victims in countries that don’t recognize First Amendment rights or their equivalent. And it seems to me that Jews, in particular, have generally borne that in mind, and that is one reason why Jews have been drawn, out of interest and necessity, to the legal profession.

Many Jews have taken the broad view that it’s necessary for them and for all groups of potential dissenters to have these freedoms legally protected. Freedom of speech and equality under the law are such essential values to Jewish people that it has been well said that freedom is always spoken with a Hebrew accent. We carry those notions and principles with us.

JJ: Has post-9/11 America proved to be an especially chilly time for the First Amendment?

FA: During a time in which people are afraid, there is always more of a tendency to suppress speech or to limit it.

The flap about Newsweek, I think, is one example. There were flaws in the Newsweek article, but the notion that the press secretary to the president is now holding press conferences purporting to instruct the press on how to do journalism — and blaming the press for deaths in Afghanistan — is suggestive of what happens in times of war, in times of crisis and the like. It’s very easy to blame the press, to come down hard on the press, especially at a time when the press does have a lot to answer for. It is also very tempting to try to score political points off the press at such a time.

JJ: Your new book makes clear that the push and pull of competing interests lies at the heart of our legal system. You describe how the government sought to prevent the New York Times and other newspapers from publishing the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg and contained critical accounts of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The government claimed that national security was at stake, and ultimately, the government lost. That ruling is now enshrined in legal lore, but it was a very close call at the time, was it not?

FA: It was a very close call. After a case is over, decided — and somebody wins and somebody loses — it becomes the received wisdom. As in: That is the way it had to be. But that was a case that could have been lost

If Dan Ellsberg had gotten up in Central Park and started reading the Pentagon Papers, or indeed, if the Village Voice had published just what the New York Times did, I always thought the First Amendment side’s chances before the Supreme Court would have been greatly diminished. Only because the establishment press stood up and took this position did we finally eke out a victory.

What would have happened if we’d lost the Pentagon Papers case? I believe we really would live in a different sort of country. It would not necessarily be un-free, but it would be a lot less free than we are now.

Every president has grievances with the press, especially post-Sept. 11, with fears of war, fears of terrorism. And anyone who is in power has grievances with the press, but doesn’t even think about going to court and trying to stop the press from printing. That it is off the table is the big result, at the end of the day, of the Pentagon Papers case. The cultural lesson of the case is that presidents don’t have the weapon of a judicial injunction against the press, even when the press publishes material that the president believes is harmful to the country, not to mention the president himself.

JJ: You can still beat up the press afterward if it didn’t do its job properly.

FA: Correct.

JJ: Will the Pentagon Papers precedent survive a new Supreme Court? Or, for that matter, are other landmark decisions on the free press likely to be at stake?

FA: I don’t think that the central approach of the Pentagon Papers case is likely to be put back in play.

In lots of other areas, the battles go on and who’s on the court is absolutely essential. A lot of people think as many as three justices might leave during this term. Then you really start to cut into the core of the court and you have potential for vast changes in judicial rulings.


Five Iranian Jews Remain Jailed

Three Iranian Jews imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel have been released, but the last five remain in jail, contrary to earlier reports.

Sources close to the issue said Monday that Iranian authorities had granted the last five an indefinite furlough. On Wednesday, however, those sources confirmed that the reports from Iran were "disinformation."

That’s "why we urged people not to comment on this, because it’s happened before," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The uncertain status of the five seems to underscore the precarious situation faced by the entire Jewish community in Iran. They now number between 22,000 and 25,000, down from 100,000 or so prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

After the three Jews were pardoned last week, hopes were raised among their families and American advocates that the remaining five would soon be freed.

Hoenlein said he was "still hopeful" that they would be released soon.

Both Israel and the Iranian Jewish community deny the men ever spied for "the Zionist regime," as Tehran alleges.

It’s unclear what led to the dissemination of the false reports.

Pooya Dayanim said Wednesday that sources in Iran informed the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles on Monday that the five men were home with their families.

The release was confirmed the next day by an Iranian justice official in a statement to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA.

"We now know that the information given to us [was] false. The five remaining Iranian Jews are still in prison," Dayanim said.

Asked why the sources would provide erroneous information, Dayanim said, "No comment."

The five who remain in jail are Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, sentenced to 13 years in prison; Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.

The three released last week — who reportedly were granted a pardon directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — were Javid Beit Yakov, 42, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison; Farzad Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Paknahad, 24, who had received eight-year sentences.

Analysts suggested the release of the three might be due to a supposed power struggle between relative moderates in the Iranian regime who favor detente with the West and conservative clerics who have maintained a grip on power since the 1979 revolution. Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: President Bush’s lumping of Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil"; the prospect of a United States-led war against Baghdad; and the possibility that Iran may be the next target of America’s year-old war on terrorism.

It’s not only from Washington that Iran is feeling the heat. Europe, a significant economic partner, reportedly has cited Iran’s disregard for human rights and its treatment of minorities as impediments to improved relations.

According to analysts, the tension between Iranian hardliners and reformers influenced the original arrests.

Thirteen Jews were arrested in January and March 1999, but three were found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years. The men appealed, and Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000. Two men already were released after serving out their terms.

Advocates for the men say that what really bothered Iranian authorities was the men’s increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism. Most of the men were religious leaders from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a bastion of religious conservatism. The arrests were perceived as a warning to the rest of the community, and there was initial fear that the men might be executed.

In May 2000, after more than a year in solitary confinement, the 13 gave "confessions" for Iran’s Revolutionary Court.

But their advocates — and media, diplomats and human rights experts from around the world — pronounced the closed trial a fraud.

Charismatic Rabbi Faces Charges

Michael Ozair is, by many accounts, charming, charismatic and an excellent teacher.

He is also in jail.

The once-popular instructor at schools like Shalhevet High School on Fairfax Avenue and Sinai Akiba Academy on Wilshire Boulevard, who was an active participant in the Happy Minyan at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, was arrested earlier this month and charged Aug. 15 with the 1997 sexual molestation of a then-14-year-old girl. At press time, he was in custody at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with bail set at $95,000. A preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 4.

The complaint first came to the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department about a year ago, according to Lt. Dan Mulrenin, who oversees the LAPD’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit.

"The reason it waited so long is because the victim was apparently in therapy and did not report this to the police until Aug. 22, 2001," Mulrenin said. "There is one additional victim, but that victim has refused to cooperate and does not want to pursue this matter."

Police and prosecutors were guarded about who initiated the charges — three counts of a lewd act on a child and one count of oral copulation of a child under 16. Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, said that in general "when allegations of rape or sexual assault occur, the victims are taken to the hospital and there are a long list of questions they must undergo. With an older case, we have to have independent corroboration, someone who can testify. It cannot just be the word of the victim." Robison also mentioned that "by law, there are people who are mandated reporters [of sexual assault], including clergy. So if the victim were to tell a teacher or a therapist or a clergy member about the attack, [that person] would have to report it."

Ozair, 33, could not be reached for comment and his attorney, Daniel Hustwit, did not return repeated calls from The Jewish Journal.

This is the third arrest of a rabbi charged with child molestation this year. What makes this case unique was the esteem with which Ozair was held by a variety of influential people and organizations. In addition to his involvement in the Happy Minyan (of which he was not the leader, members insisted, despite press reports to the contrary), Ozair led the Mystical Wednesdays program for OLAM for about a year, from summer 2000 until 2001. He was featured in an OLAM Magazine article titled "You Had Me at Shalom" (which characterized Ozair as "the cool, charismatic, ex-Dead Head and self-acknowledged Seeker of Truth") and in a June 2000 Jewish Journal article about an event called "Building Bridges of Spiritual Unity." Ozair also was scheduled to lead a Yom Kippur spiritual service at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

Ozair’s problems began to surface several years ago. In June 1997, the year of the alleged incident, he left his full-time teaching position with Sinai Akiba. It was not until September 1998 that he landed another teaching position, this time with Shalhevet. However, his employment was terminated for undisclosed reasons in August 2000, according to Shalhevet president Dr. Jerry Friedman. Ozair then returned to Sinai Akiba for a brief stint in early 2001, said headmaster Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin.

"He was coming once a week to do some work on tefillah with some of the classes," Scheindlin said.

Both Friedman and Scheindlin stated that there were never any complaints about Ozair’s behavior at their respective schools. Indeed, a number of people interviewed noted that parents and students at each school were fans of Ozair.

"To his credit, there are a number of students on whom he had a very positive influence at Sinai Akiba," said Rabbi Steven Weil, leader of Beth Jacob. "He launched them on a path of morality, decency and theological searching. Many of these young men have become outstanding stars in the community."

Despite the rabbi’s popularity, Weil said leaders at his shul decided to expel Ozair last year.

"He was banned from Beth Jacob Congregation over a year ago by myself and by Marvin Komorsky, our executive director, because we felt he was a threat," Weil said. "We were concerned for the safety and well-being of certain individuals in the community."

Weil said he was saddened to see an organization like the Happy Minyan, which has operated out of Beth Jacob for about eight years, taken in by someone like Ozair.

"Because they are such a welcoming, open community, they attract people who are often needy or searching. Unfortunately, such people can often be taken advantage of," Weil said.

Although Weil declined to elaborate whom the congregation was protecting with Ozair’s expulsion, some people close to Ozair have said that it was around the same time that Ozair’s marriage fell apart and that his wife and children sought protection at a battered women’s shelter.

An incident last year might also provide some insight: According to Sgt. Steven Seeger of the Beverly Hills Police Department, Ozair turned himself in to that department on Aug. 15, 2001, and was briefly in custody on a probable cause warrant.

"This was in regard to a warrant issued for his arrest under Penal Code Section 422, making a threat, which means making a credible, criminal threat to do harm to someone else," explained Seeger, adding that an underlying crime report showed the initial complaint that led to the warrant involved a charge that Ozair had made a threatening phone call or calls. The case was dropped within days by the district attorney’s office because of insufficient evidence.

(Several sources also questioned Ozair’s credentials as a rabbi. Ozair’s Web site states that "his rabbinical training was at Kol Yaacov Torah Center in Monsey, N.Y." However, administrators at Kol Yaacov tell a different story, saying he applied to the school and visited it in August 1997, but never enrolled.

"He said he wanted to try it out, so he popped in for a couple of hours a week for about six weeks, but he was never officially accepted as a student," said Rabbi Leib Tropper, the school’s educational director.)

Douglas Schiller, like other members of the Happy Minyan, was reluctant to discuss Ozair, who was one of the group’s founders and mainstays.

"I can see easily why somebody would call him charismatic or a good teacher," Schiller said. "I think we’re all surprised and saddened by what has happened."

Weil said it was important to see that it is possible for a person to have good qualities and still commit a crime.

"These people, the Baruch Lanners and the Michael Ozairs, are multidimensional individuals, which is why the Ozair incident has been very painful to many people whose lives he touched in a legitimate sincere way," Weil said.

Yomtov Pleads Guilty

Teacher Mordechai Yomtov stood sobbing in his orange prison jumpsuit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court as he pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor.

The Feb. 4 plea follows an agreement worked out between the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and defense counsel. Yomtov was sentenced to one year in County Jail, followed by five years’ probation.

Yomtov, 36, was arrested Dec. 3 and charged with 10 felony counts of committing lewd acts with three of his students, ages 8 to 10, at Cheder Menachem, an all-boys Orthodox yeshiva located in Hollywood and run under the auspices of West Coast Chabad.

Four family members of the three victims in the case were present; one mother even moved closer to force Yomtov to face her as he admitted to the crimes.

Yomtov’s attorney, Mitchell W. Egers, said he told his client it was possible to fight the charges but Yomtov declined.

"He told me he did not want to subject the children or their families to a trial or to cross-examination," Egers said, adding that his client is not a rabbi as previously reported (students traditionally call teachers there "rebbe").

The court ordered Yomtov to have no contact with the victims, their families or with any minors without an adult present, with the exception of his own three children. He must also undergo psychiatric treatment through USC for the length of his term (including probation) and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Following his jail term, he is prohibited from seeking employment in any position where he would be teaching minors.

The parents said they were satisfied with the agreement.

"Under the circumstances I think he is extremely lucky," said the father of one victim. "If we didn’t work with the district attorney, this guy would have got 25 years to life. But we understand that he is ill. He has an addiction that is not treatable."

The man said his son, one in a family of seven children, was undergoing therapy as a result of the incident.

"Only time will tell. Sometimes he acts like nothing is wrong and other times you can see it is affecting him," he said.

The boy, like the other victims, is still attending Cheder Menachem. Attorneys for two of the families say they have not ruled out a civil suit against the school.

"I’m pleased that the process of holding those accountable for the terrible crimes against these children has begun," said Gary Wittenberg, a civil litigator, adding that any further actions "depend on what develops over the next few days and weeks."

The father of the one victim said he hoped the case brought cloure not only for his son, but also for the rest of Yomtov’s victims.

"We know there were other victims who have not come forward and my prayer is for their parents to get these kids help," he said. "I also hope this clears up the rumors that the boys were making this up. there were people even last night telling me that. I hope [the plea agreement] will put those rumors to rest for good."

In response to the resolution of the case, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad, issued the following statement: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families that make up the Cheder Menachem community. We are very thankful to the various organizations, including Jewish Family Service and Ohel, that continue to support and guide Cheder Menachem through the healing process."