White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wife of key Trump aide worked to make Putin’s Russia look good in the West 


In the rush to connect the dots between the Trump Administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jewish wedding provided the latest purported link.

Specifically, it’s the Jewish wedding of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House aide whom the New York Times identified as having leaked sensitive intelligence to a high-ranking Republican congressman in March. New information suggests Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government as a Washington D.C-based public relations specialist before they married.

In November, the 30-year-old Trump aide celebrated his upcoming wedding with Rebecca Miller, a content executive at the multinational public-relations firm Ketchum, which was retained until 2015 by the Russian government. While at Ketchum, Miller reportedly worked to “make Russia look better.”

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

On his blog, Schoenberg wrote that he and a fellow genealogist managed to uncover family details about Cohen-Watnick that led to the find.

Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak is particularly significant because it led to a breakdown in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In addition, after the source of the leak was revealed, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster reportedly sought the aide’s firing, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington D.C., announced Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s aufruf, the Shabbat celebration that precedes an observant wedding, in November.

A wedding in Venice


We were touring the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, Italy, which is commemorating its 500th year, when I struck up a conversation with a lovely couple, Lana Atlasov and David Mednick, from the San Francisco area.

They had heard me testing the synagogue’s acoustics in my loudest cantorial voice, and they asked me if I ever officiate weddings. 

“All the time!” I responded. 

David and Lana told me they were struggling to figure out their wedding plans. They’d met three years ago and were eager to start this new chapter. It would be a second marriage for both.

They loved the idea of getting married in Venice, but their emails to the rabbi there received no response, so they had settled on a wedding upon their return to San Francisco. But two days into their Italy trip, they found out their rabbi at home had mistakenly scheduled their wedding ceremony for Tisha b’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, a day in which a wedding celebration would be unthinkable. So many plans had already been made.

“All I’ve ever wanted was a Jewish wedding!” Lana said with such longing in her voice. Years ago, Lana had escaped the Soviet Union. This was to be the first Jewish wedding in her family since before World War I.

“Then let’s just do this!” David said. 

“Great!” I said.

My parents got into the conversation to help with details, and we made quick plans for a wedding at 9 that evening in Piazza San Marco.

My sister Annette came over, not having heard this conversation.  She has a degree in fine arts. Could she create the ketubah? At first, Annette didn’t understand. “Do they want to commission me?” No, we made it clear, this wedding is happening tonight. She giddily agreed.

We talked through details such as rings, which they ended up buying later in the afternoon on the island of Murano, where they were staying: two white glass rings that fit them perfectly. They found a wine glass to break in the ghetto. As for wine and cups, we had a bottle of Champagne that had come with our room. I bought a kippah for David to wear. I already had the big tallit for the chuppah since I was in Venice to officiate a bat mitzvah service.

Annette told the story to one of the artists on the Grand Canal and asked to buy a piece of heavy art paper for the ketubah. He referred her to the master, who ended up loving the story so much he gave her the paper as a gift.

At 9 p.m., we gathered in the lobby of our hotel. We went over all of the details together. It is amazing how connected we all felt despite having met only that day. My mom and dad had picked up some red roses for Lana to hold during the wedding. I found out later that my dad had bought out the street vendor of all of his roses for the day. We were all dressed up and ready to go — we signed the ketubah in the lobby. My parents, married for 46 years, served as witnesses. Then we headed to Piazza San Marco. Lana told us she wanted to be by the famous clock tower in the middle of the life of the city. We settled on a spot. The ceremony began. 

We held up the chuppah, rings were exchanged, and they said a few vows to each other, although not many words were spoken, as they were so overcome with emotion. Then I sang the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings, as loud as I could amid the hustle and bustle of Venice’s busiest square. In my concluding words to them, I reminded them that of all the billions of people in the world, and all the billions of people who have ever existed, and all of the billions who ever will, they have found each other, and that is truly lucky. Lana began to cry. Then David stepped on the glass, and we shouted, “Mazel tov!” They kissed. 

Passersby snapped photos. One couple walking by also yelled, “Mazel tov!”  

We heard music playing in the square. Annette suggested to David and Lana that they should have their first dance. David approached the bandleader and requested a tango — they’d first met each other in tango class. They began to dance like we have never seen from ordinary folk. All of the patrons from nearby restaurants came over to watch them. We announced that they were newlyweds. They danced the most romantic and sensual dances of all time. And not just to one song — the band continued and played another tango for them. Tourists video recorded them. They were such a beautiful couple. It was like a movie — that classic Venetian story of romance and kismet, and one that is truly bashert — meant to be.


Todd Shotz is a Jewish educator and film producer. He is the founder and executive director of Hebrew Helpers and often officiates weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.

In honor of Tu b’Av, the love holiday, this column is the first in our new series, Meant2Be, stories of love and relationships. Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

Wedding of lesbian activists, both 76, is a celebration of Jewish and ‘Aquarian’ traditions


When Shoshana Dembitz and Abigail Grafton first met, they spent several long moments gazing into each others’ eyes.

But this wasn’t a love-at-first-sight occurrence. Rather, the two were attending a Shabbat service in which participants were split into pairs to look into each others’ eyes, an exercise to create intimacy within the group, as well as facilitate seeing God within one another.

After services, Dembitz gave Grafton a ride home — and with it, her phone number.

Grafton didn’t call. For the next three years, they’d say hi when they saw each other, but that was the extent of their relationship. However, things changed when they both turned up at the same retreat to celebrate the ordination of the then-leaders of their unique community, the Aquarian Minyan.

As it turned out, Grafton — who had been in short-term relationships with both men and women — needed time to process a lasting attraction to another woman. But once she did, Grafton and Dembitz were rarely apart.

After 18 years together, the Berkeley couple, both 76, married on June 27 under a grove of redwood trees at the Hillside Swedenborgian Church in El Cerrito.

Grafton and Dembitz are very active in their Jewish community. “The Aquarian Minyan is our baby that we have nurtured together,” said Dembitz.

Both serve as “shomrot” (guards) of the minyan, which eschews more traditional language like “trustees” or “president.” Grafton is in charge of long-term planning and budgeting; Dembitz manages and schedules events, along with editing the newsletter. They also lead services, sometimes together.

Founded in 1974, the Aquarian Minyan — which calls itself “a beacon of creative, spiritual and egalitarian Judaism” — grew out of a kabbalistic retreat that Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, led in Berkeley. It was also greatly influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known to many as the singing Chasidic rabbi, who had established his “House of Love and Prayer” in San Francisco.

“The Aquarian Minyan has been a huge influence on me and vice versa,” Grafton said. “Its motto is about finding the rebbe in each of us, and it allows you to find your own creativity and your own spiritual voice and contribute that to the community.”

Not surprisingly, both halves of the couple are no strangers to the concepts of creativity, voice and community.

As a young child, Grafton lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her father, Samuel Grafton, was a well-known liberal journalist who wrote a syndicated column, “I’d Rather Be Right” and socialized with the likes of composer Richard Rodgers and playwright Arthur Miller. The family — which did not practice Judaism, except for Passover — moved to Connecticut when Grafton was 7.

Grafton dropped out after a year at Swarthmore College to live in an anarchists’ collective on the Lower East Side. She was a regular participant in both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.

In 1970, she moved to the Bay Area, finished college and then got a master’s degree at Sonoma State University. She started her own psychotherapy practice and founded the Sonoma Institute, which trained psychotherapists with a feminist slant.

Dembitz grew up in Washington D.C., in a family of Reform Jews and strong Zionists — her maternal grandfather was an associate of Theodor Herzl and her paternal grandfather was a cousin of Louis Brandeis. Her father worked for the Federal Reserve; her mother was a civil rights attorney, until she was accused of having communist affiliations. She was killed in a car accident when Dembitz was 15.

Dembitz graduated from Radcliffe; at Harvard she met her husband, a “red-diaper baby,” as the children of leftists were known as then. After serving in the Peace Corps in Kuala Lumpur, they moved to California and lived off the grid in Humboldt County, where they raised three daughters. Dembitz helped found the B’nai Ha-aretz Jewish Community, a congregation inspired by the Jewish Renewal movement; a one-room non-profit elementary school called the Salmon Creek School; a community credit union and a natural food co-op. With the exception of the food co-op, all still exist.

After Dembitz and her husband divorced, she moved to Berlin in 1991 with a new partner and her youngest daughter. The partner didn’t stay long, but Dembitz and her daughter were happy in Germany. She helped found Die Egalitarische Minyan, the first post-World War II egalitarian Jewish community in Berlin. It remains active today.

Dembitz returned to California in 1995, settling in Berkeley, and began to seriously educate herself about Judaism, becoming active in the Aquarian Minyan. She was in her early 50s then, and “it was like I had a bug in my ear saying, ‘If not now, when?’” she said.

Grafton had been part of the minyan — which was largely composed of fellow East Coast transplants like herself who headed to California to embrace the counterculture — since almost the beginning. Back then, some of the members lived together in a communal house. They included Shefa Gold, a well-known Renewal rabbi, and Burt Jacobson, a rabbi and co-founder of Berkeley’s Kehilla Community Synagogue (now in Piedmont, California), with whom Grafton fostered two children in a non-romantic relationship.

Today, the Minyan consists of about 80 households, most of them around the age of the couple.

“I find Abigail really fascinating,” said Dembitz. “She’s so creative and loving and she’s the head of the ‘let’s do something for fun’ committee in our relationship because I’m kind of a workaholic. She’s brilliant and she comes up with these amazing ideas, and some of them she actually puts into practice.”

Grafton said of Dembitz, “I love that she is sweet and practical, things I’m not particularly, and she’s an unending source of love and constant forgiveness, which I badly need. She is also very smart and wise, and appreciates that I’m smart, too. With men I was always trying to be less smart, less large, less loud and more demure.”

“‘Demure’ is not one of your strong suits,” interjected Dembitz.

“And she introduced me to being a lesbian,” Grafton added. “I’ve been very, very happy since I became a lesbian.”

Though Grafton had been asking Dembitz to marry her for years, Dembitz always declined, saying she didn’t see the point unless it was legal. Once that day came, the couple patiently waited their turn after a few family milestones.

Now, they are taking each other’s last names before their own. “I like that we’re each taking each other’s illustrious name,” Grafton said.

Their wedding was not only a reflection of their personalities, but of the Aquarian Minyan’s past and present.

On Friday, June 24, the couple hosted a Shabbat dinner,  during which their extended families met for the first time. During Saturday morning’s aufruf, a synagogue event to honor an upcoming marriage, Grafton spoke about the pain of the recent mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

On Sunday, with Grafton’s siblings present, they buried her parents’ ashes in a nearby Jewish cemetery then went out to dinner — courtesy of her parents’ estate. “If you had known my parents, you’d know that they would have loved nothing better than to know that I was finally getting married, and that they were getting to host a rehearsal dinner right after getting buried,” Grafton quipped.

The couple married that Monday afternoon. Prior to the ceremony, each held court at a separate “tisch,” a gathering traditionally reserved for the groom and his male guests. At the Grafton-Dembitz wedding, Karen Roekard, author of “The Santa Cruz Haggadah,” urged guests to find their inner male or female to decide which tisch to attend.

They both wore turquoise: Dembitz in a long caftan; Grafton in a pants suit with a chunky necklace. Grafton walked the aisle with her two brothers and Dembitz was escorted by her three daughters and their families. Their basset hound, Tessie, also was walked down the aisle, while Voices Lesbian A Capella for Justice sang Mozart’s “Overture to The Magic Flute.”

Jacobson and his wife Rabbi Diane Elliot conducted the ceremony.

When they exchanged rings, Dembitz and Grafton presented each other with a ring from their own grandmothers, and said, “With this ring, I consecrate you as my wife in accordance with the emerging traditions of Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Ruth, Naomi, Shifra and Puah.”

Most of those names are probably well known to most Jews, but the couple added Shifra and Puah — two midwives who tried to prevent the slaying of the firstborn by Pharoah — because, said Grafton, “while we don’t know if they were Jewish, they were conscientious objectors and shit disturbers.”

Looking for a quickie Jewish wedding in Las Vegas? Call Rabbi Mel Hecht


Rabbi Mel Hecht clutches his black coffee and paces in front of the Dunkin’ Donuts just down the road from the Red Rock Casino.

It’s 2:27 p.m., and the couple said they’d be here by 2:20. The photographer has an appointment at Bellagio at 5 p.m., and he wanted to get started by 2:30.

“Here she comes,” says the photographer, Britt Pierson.

Karen Butt, resplendent in a teal bridal gown and carrying a bouquet of cloth flowers, is waving from the stretch limo idling in the parking lot unable to fit into a space. She trots across and apologizes for being late, but it’s all good because Hecht has turned on his rabbinical calm, flashing a huge toothy grin framed by his trim, white beard.

Her bridegroom, Craig Silver, follows in her wake, patting his inside pocket, making sure he has the rings.

Hecht sets about calming the nervous couple.

“I thought this was a circumcision,” he says, introducing himself as “Rabbi Cutcherdickoff.”

Silver laughs, relieved – a little relieved, anyway. He’s getting married, after all. He launches into a story about how his mother insisted on a doctor for his own circumcision, which wasn’t a thing 59 years ago like it is today, but thinks better of finishing and trails off.

Hecht explains how to get from the parking lot to the actual Red Rock – not the casino, but the geological formation just west of this city.

“Meet us at the first turnoff,” he says.

The rabbi slips into his white SUV and checks the back seat with a pat for his gear: the battered, black leather briefcase stuffed with a kiddush cup, a golden tallit, an array of marriage certification stamps and an ancient Rabbinical Assembly prayer book. And a wine glass wrapped in a napkin.

Hecht has this routine down. He’s about to turn 77, and he’s been doing this since he arrived in Las Vegas in 1980 from Fort Pierce, Florida, where he was a congregational rabbi.

Call Graceland Wedding Chapel, scroll through the five Elvis options (from $199 for basics to $799 for dueling Elvises), ask about the “Yes, we do offer Jewish ceremonies” on the website’s FAQ page, and the lady on the phone will tell you, “Call Rabbi Mel.” There used to be another guy, she says, but he’s gone. Now it’s just Rabbi Mel.

Hecht confirms there was another guy, but he also can’t remember the name. That’s Las Vegas: People come and go and are forgotten.

Or it once was Las Vegas. Hecht is a holdover from the last of the city’s Wild West days, the 1980s, when there wasn’t much of an established Jewish community here, just two or three synagogues and folks moving in and out.

He came to serve an established synagogue but it didn’t work out, and he became the go-to guy for idiosyncratic Jewish weddings and funerals – rites that would make sense nowhere else but ring true in a town built by the Jewish mob, where roads just end and buildings rust half-completed, where Jewish would-be entertainers come to fail and Jewish one-time entertainers come to fade.

What once was Hecht’s side vocation – ministering to the transient – has become his full-time job. Other rabbis build community; Hecht tends to those fleeing communities. Some are pornographers, gamblers or gangsters who disappear until they die, when they want Hecht to make sure their long-estranged families know that in the end, they did not forget they were Jewish.

Others are like Butt and Silver, pretending for one fantastical weekend that all they have is each other, leaving behind families complicated by divorce and generational tensions.

“Las Vegas is perhaps the only place that is not so much interested in someone’s past as it is in how that person performs in the present,” says Hecht, who charges $400 for your basic nuptials.

At the Graceland Wedding Chapel, Hecht has never played “Elvis the rabbi.” But yes, there were Jewish brides who wanted an Elvis impersonator to sing before the ceremony, or after the ceremony, or in the middle of the ceremony. There was the bride who wanted Elvis walking her down the aisle.

Don’t brides want their fathers to give them away? I ask.

“They don’t come with the father,” Hecht says. “With a select group, but not their parents.”

Family in Las Vegas is not the one you’re born into, it’s the one you create. There was the Jewish showgirl who married an actor in the show. Like other wedding parties, she and her bridesmaids coordinated outfits. Unlike others, these were mesh dresses with very little underneath.

For the couple who wanted a Western wedding, Hecht appeared in dungarees, a three-quarter black coat, a wide-brimmed hat and a shotgun (unloaded). The Jewish costumers at Bally’s who threw a Renaissance wedding for themselves dressed Hecht in the flat hat and cassock-like garment a contemporary rabbi might have worn.

Two days before Butt and Silver wed, Hecht meets me at a Starbucks near his home. (In Las Vegas, distances are marked by outlets, casinos and strip malls. “It’s the one just past the Best Buy,” he explains.)

Outfitted in a black pinstripe suit and white shirt, he’s about to do a funeral: a man born to a Jewish mother and an Italian father who spent his life driving a cab and tending bar. He had started a family, abandoned it, then raised another – never marrying Jews, never raising his children Jewish. But one thing everyone in his family knew – from estranged to recent – was that he wanted to go out as a Jew.

Hecht will recite the El Malei Rachamim in English, to be true to the dead man’s wishes, but also so the families will feel connected.

“The funeral home knew who to call because of my reputation,” he says. “I’m a rabbi for all people, not just Jews.”

Karen Butt got to Hecht by Googling “rabbis and Las Vegas”; Hecht had incredible reviews. (Not that he would know; he hates computers and his wife handles emails.)

Butt, 49, a clinical social worker in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Silver, 59, who develops real estate, had met on JDate two years earlier, and they talked with Hecht over the phone. She knew he was the one. He sounded “familiar,” she says, holding hands with Silver in the back of the limo.

“We wanted to focus on our marriage,” Butt says, explaining why the wedding is in Las Vegas. “It gets more complicated with families.” Silver chimes in: “We wanted it to be just about the two of us.”

There are parents and kids from previous relationships. How many times have they been married?

“Never mind, just say we’ve been married before,” Butt says.

The limo arrives at the first turnoff in the Red Rock Loop. Families are gathered by the roadside to gaze at the canyon.

“Aren’t there too many people for a wedding?” Silver asks, having expected something a little more serene.

Butt, already out of the car, pulls Silver out.

“We’re walking out of here Mr. and Mrs. Silver, that’s all I know,” she says.

The passers-by become part of the ritual, bikers whooping cheers to Hecht’s grinning approval. This is Las Vegas, and family is who you make it in the moment.

Hecht throws the golden tallit over the couple. As they huddle, their faces etched in bliss, he blesses them in the first person plural, a “we” that encompasses himself, the couple’s absent children (whom he names), Pierson the photographer, me, the bikers roaring by, the grinning family watching from the overlook, the Jewish dead and living.

“We wish you the kind of home that is made of more than stone and wood,” the rabbi says, “that it will be an island that will protect you from the frenzy the world has become.”

Out comes the wine glass wrapped in a napkin. Silver smashes it not once but twice.

Hecht pronounces them man and wife.

 

Valentine’s Day: An ideal date for Jewish weddings?


In December, around the time my wife and I were celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary, we received an invitation to an outdoor Jewish wedding to be held on Valentine’s Day 2016. Printed on a red postcard affixed with a heart postage stamp, the couple, Lena Silver and Aaron Wolfson, “joyfully” invited us to a “celebration of their love and commitment” in Palos Verdes, California.

“Please bring something warm to wear,” the invite advised, since it was being held near the ocean. And warm is what I wanted to feel — there’s a special kind of heat that’s generated at a Jewish wedding, with all the words, rings, glass breaking and guests dancing, encircling the couple and bringing them together.

Adding to that, the bride’s father and I have been friends since we were teens. I had attended his wedding, and he, as a young rabbinic student, had co-officiated at mine. Remembering how traditional the day was, a wedding on Valentine’s Day — with its murky ties to several early priests named Valentine — gave me pause. Would a Jewish wedding on Valentine’s Day be too corny, too cute, too out of Jewish context?

While clearly not a red-letter day on the Jewish calendar, for many Jews of my generation, Valentine’s Day always seemed like a secular and harmless way to express friendship — and later, love — beginning with the time-honored exchange of Valentines in elementary school. Since my teachers insisted we bring cards for every student, even the new ones, I realize now, looking back, that this probably was my first experience practicing the Torah concept of “welcoming the stranger.”

Still, handing out cartoon-character Valentines to classmates is far different a religious, and public, declaration of lifelong love. Checking online, I quickly found three other Jewish couples — two from Los Angeles, a third from New York — who also were planning to stand under the huppah on Valentine’s Day. Were other Jewish couples just taking advantage of Feb. 14 being a Sunday, a popular day for Jewish weddings, as it’s not Shabbat yet still the weekend? Or is this another phase in the continued warming of Jews to what was originally a Christian holiday?

For answers, I went straight to the couple whose wedding I’ll soon attend.

“It was all about Monday being a holiday,” said Aaron, who met Lena on OkCupid, an online dating service, while he was attending Boston University medical school in 2012.

The couple wanted to “maximize the amount of people” who were coming from out of town, and with Presidents’ Day on Feb. 15, having the wedding on Valentine’s Day was a “brilliant” solution, explained the soon-to-be groom, who was now in a cardiology fellowship at Los Angeles County Hospital and the University of Southern California.

“I was actually pretty embarrassed, but it’s a very convenient day,” added Lena, who was attending Harvard Law School when the couple started dating and is now an attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. “First, we were going to ignore that it was Valentine’s Day, then we decided to embrace it.”

“It sure helped us to decide what kippah to have,” interjected Aaron, referring to the pink suede skullcaps adorned with hearts that will be given out for guests to wear.

The couple is also planning a Valentine’s Day craft table for their guests to make cards.

But that’s not all the crafting that has gone into this Valentine’s Day wedding. Together, Aaron and Lena have modified the Jewish wedding ceremony to incorporate what they feel is an expression of their loving, egalitarian relationship.

Instead of a traditional ketubah — the Jewish wedding contract that is signed before the ceremony — the couple is using a shtar brit, a covenant agreement.

Traditionally, a ketubah is  a “unilateral agreement” in which “the husband guarantees to his wife that he will meet certain minimum human and financial conditions of the marriage,” according to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage.”

Though today there are various forms of egalitarian ketubot, Lena felt that “they don’t really give couples an opportunity to explore more expansive commitments they make to each other.”

So instead, Lena and Aaron created their own contract. It’s adapted from a variety of sources, including Rachel Adler’s book “Engendering Judaism,” an article on Ritualwell by Rabbi Heather Altman and Heather Sapiro, and a shtar brit used by Lena’s cousin. The final document, painted by Lena’s great-aunt, “memorializes” the couple’s “shared commitments to each other in different facets of their relationship — economic, domestic, and personal,” according to the program the couple will distribute at the wedding.

They are also making changes to the ring ceremony by having a brit ahuvim, a lover’s covenant, a concept they also adapted from the same Ritualwell article.

The traditional Jewish wedding-ring ceremony, called kiddushin, is when the groom acquires the bride by giving her a small token — usually a ring —  and declaring “Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.”

During the brit ahuvim ceremony, rather than each putting a ring on the other’s hand, Lena and Aaron will each put a ring in a pouch, symbolically joining their beings and possessions. As they lift the pouch, they will be making a commitment to their loving relationship.

“Why not just use two rings?” I asked, as my wife and I had done at our wedding.

“Both partners acquire the other through the ring ceremony,” Lena responded in an email. “We felt that rather than acquire each other — which means we/our bodies are the property of the other — a ceremony that represents the creation of an equal partnership was more representative of what we hoped to express though our wedding ceremony.”

Still, with all this businesslike discussion of contracts, covenants and who may or may not be acquiring whom, I started to think that my search for a romantic Jewish wedding connection to Valentine’s Day had melted like a box of candy left in the California sun.

There goes my thesis that a Jewish wedding on Valentine’s Day might seem more romantic than contractual, I said.

“I disagree,” Lena said. “I think entering into a committed equal relationship is extremely romantic.”

She was right, I realized. Better than any sentimental card or overly sweet candy, the soon-to-be bride gave me a new way to look at the heart of my relationship, 35 years after my wedding day.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

Cool Kiddush cups


One type of wine glass is intentionally, and dramatically, broken during a Jewish wedding. But there is another — the Kiddush Cup — that is meant to be reused and treasured for years. After drinking from a Kiddush Cup during the matrimonial ceremony, couples often use the same cup for Shabbat and festive occasions throughout their married life. Here are some unique designs to inspire you.

For those who imbue even the most important moments in life with humor, there is the T-WINEOSAURUS REX DINOSAUR WINE CUP ($85) by The Vanilla Studio (above). Each cup is made to order from repurposed plastic dinosaur toys and a stainless steel chalice.” target=”_blank”>traditionsjewishgifts.com

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Why did Cameron Diaz have a Jewish wedding?


Last night Cameron Diaz married Benji Madden, the guitarist for the popular punk rock band Good Charlotte, at her Beverly Hills home.

In an interesting twist, the couple had a Jewish ceremony — despite the fact that neither appears to be Jewish.

Diaz’s father was Cuban, and her mother has English and German ancestry. Madden, who started Good Charlotte with his twin brother Joel, was born to Robin Madden and Roger Combs. There is no evidence that he has any Jewish ancestry.

Furthermore, while some high-profile celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna have converted to Judaism or shown interest in Kabbalah, it is not readily apparent that Diaz and Madden have done either of these.

So why the Jewish wedding? US Weekly reported that the ceremony was complete with crushed glass, heartfelt chants of “mazel tov” and even a traditional Yichud ritual, during which the newlyweds were left by themselves in a private room after they said their vows.

One possible clue to a solution could lie in Madden’s middle name, which, according to his Wikipedia page, is Levi. Perhaps there is some kind of conversion or interest that the tabloids have missed there.

The other possible phenomenon at work is the Jewish wedding’s transformation into a chic cultural statement.

Rachel Shukert expands on this in Tablet:

For the first time in the history of America, Jewishness — and not just the bagels-and-lox part — is aspirational. There’s a Seder in the White House, and rabbis gave the invocation at the conventions of both major political parties … Ralph Lauren built an empire giving us all WASP anxiety; now the WASPs want to be Jews.

The truth behind the Diaz-Madden wedding may turn out to be more straightforward, but having a Jewish wedding — even if the couple isn’t Jewish — might just be the next trend in Hollywood.

 

Group Jewish wedding held in eastern Ukraine


The Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine held a group wedding for 19 Jewish couples.

Most of the couples that wed Sunday were already married under Ukrainian law but had not had a Jewish wedding ceremony, or huppah, the director of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, Zelig Brez, told JTA.

“It is a huge event in the spiritual sense, and, I’m not afraid to say it – historic,” he said, adding that the ceremonies were the largest group wedding performed in his city – where 50,000 Jews live – since before the communist era.

Ten rabbis conducted the marriages on a terrace at the Menora Center, Dnepropetrovsk’s $100 million Jewish community center, which opened in 2012. The couples received special preparation by Shmuel Kaminezki, the city’s chief rabbi and Chabad’s influential envoy to Ukraine, and his wife, Chana.

Under communism, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union was conducted underground, a reality that meant many Jews did not have a Jewish wedding. In many areas, a majority of Jews were not circumcised.

“The challenge was both logistical and halachic,” the community wrote in a report about the weddings. Special attention went to helping couples feel the moment in their own private context as opposed to a group activity, Brez explained.

For this reason, the weddings were conducted in two groups and not all at once – first for 10 couples and then for the remaining nine.

“It was something special, and I’m happy that I saw my daughter, in the presence of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, finally get a huppah,” community activist Mina Dreitser said of the wedding of her daughter, Miriam Minutova, to Shlomo Skorokhod.

 

Give the unforgettable gift


A wedding is more than the union of two people in love. For those in the community who join in the celebration, it’s a chance to give the perfect gift. Finding that, however, can pose a challenge to even the most experienced guest. Here are some suggestions for go-to gifts, many of them from those who make it their business to attend these celebrations.

Something Traditional

Julie Pryor, owner of Pryor Events, a wedding and events coordination company located in West Los Angeles, says a mezuzah is a gift that the newlyweds can enjoy no matter how many they receive. So don’t worry if another guest gives one, too.

“Each room should have a mezuzah, so even if the couple already have a mezuzah by their front door, they will welcome your gift to hang in other doorways,” she said.

Something Green

David Jacobson, a wedding photographer from Studio City, believes that money — the old standby — is the most practical wedding gift one can give, but you don’t have to just write a check.

“A lot of couples these days have honeymoon registries where you pay for parts of their trip, like a meal at a nice restaurant or the cost of one night at a nice hotel,” Jacobson said. “The money helps them do something they really want to do but can’t necessarily afford after the costs of a wedding.”

Something Sentimental

Hen Marciano, a recently engaged law school graduate from Studio City, says that the best gift she’s ever given someone was one that had over a decade of nostalgia built into it.

“My friend gave me this Minnie and Mickey Mouse gag gift when we were younger,” she said. “I kept it, and 11 years later, when that same friend got married, I gave Minnie and Mickey back as the wedding present.”

Something Practical

Terri Doria, of Be A Guest Events in Moorpark, recommends useful household items for a secular Jewish wedding, especially for couples who are just starting to build a home. One of the most well-received gifts she has given was a set of plush bath towels monogrammed with the couple’s initials.

Something Homemade

Matthew Freese, a local behavioral therapist and part-time wedding photographer, thinks that the best gift to give is one that’s homemade.

“I like to bring a painting or a nicely framed photo print to a wedding,” said Freese, for whom painting and photography are passions. “If I’m invited, it means I know the people well, and want to give them something unique and meaningful.”

Over-the-top nuptials an Israeli specialty


Born into a poor Moroccan immigrant family that settled in the development town of Dimona, Yardena Ovadia always dreamed of giving her daughter a fairy-tale wedding.

A millionaire who made a fortune doing business in New Guinea, Ovadia spent almost $2 million on the Venetian-themed wedding, which featured close to 200 flower girls and boys, a river-front setting designed to look like a canal in Venice, and—of course—gondoliers.

Asked by an Israeli news show why she decided to splurge on such a grandiose wedding, Ovadia replied, “My daughter was getting married. That doesn’t happen every day!”

As the number of rich Israelis has grown in recent years, so, too, has the number of lavish weddings taking place in Israel.

“Last year was the year of huge weddings,” says Nikki Fenton, an Israel-based wedding planner. Yitzhak Tshuva, a self-made billionaire, spent nearly $2 million on his son’s extravagant wedding. Some 1,700 guests, nearly all of them rich and famous, including family friend Paul Anka, traveled to the Ben Shemen Forest, where, according to a Ha’aretz business columnist, “large stages were erected … around which gigantic hideous artificial flowers were placed. There was enough lighting to set the city of Ramat Gan aglow.”

“The Tshuva wedding took over the entire Ben Shemen Forest. It had four events, each with a different theme. It was absolutely on another level of crazy,” Fenton added.

Even that sum was paltry compared to the $5.2 million extravaganza billionaire Michael Cherney, an Uzbekistan-born aluminum magnate, threw for his daughter. It took 200 workers working 24 hours a day to prepare the indoor venue, which was the size of a football field or two. Guests who flew to Israel from all over the world, many in private jets, received engraved Czech crystal key chains as party favors. Specially made Italian textiles and magnificent crystal chandeliers were hung throughout the hall, and even the bathroom floors were carpeted for the event. A 36-member orchestra serenaded the couple.

Just as the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton lasted several days, so, too, do some Israeli wedding and even bar mitzvah celebrations.

Naomi Schwartz, the events manager at the venerable King David Hotel in Jerusalem, said wealthy families from abroad—the United States and especially France, Belgium and Brazil—sometimes book half of the hotel’s rooms, including all the suites, for four or five nights.

“It means starting celebrations on Thursday with a henna party and continuing with a very fancy private Friday night dinner and then lunch, often around the pool or in a tent, replete with carpets and draperies, in the garden.”

If the group is large, Schwartz said, the hotel creates a tented synagogue in its parking lot.

Often, the chuppah is placed on the hotel’s semi-circular terrace overlooking the beautiful garden, pool area, and the walls of the Old City. Paul Newman dines on this terrace in the movie Exodus.

While the King David’s vast garden has enough flowers to please any bride, one couple asked the hotel to import two planeloads’ worth of flowers for their special day.

Schwartz said the hotel does whatever it can to please its clients. Within reason.

“This past summer we had an amazing wedding,” she said, noting that the family, which was French, booked 100 of the hotel’s 240 rooms.  

“It was a nonstop celebration. A rich barbecue around the pool, a private breakfast on the terraces, and a menu geared toward the French Moroccan grandparents.”

Yaniv Hiumi, the assistant general-manager of the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya, said his seaside hotel has hosted weddings of up to 800 people.

“They took 100 of our 209 rooms and the wedding was around the pool. At midnight, the guests went to the ballroom, where a well-known Israeli singer entertained until 3 a.m.”

Hiumi said the Dan Accadia is popular with both Israeli and foreign families. He added that all of the hotel’s simchas are at the highest standard.

“We don’t have regular and premium rates, and that’s the reason we don’t host a large number of weddings. But the weddings we do host are on a very high level,” Hiumi said.

While religious families, especially from abroad, often opt for Jerusalem-based venues that afford a view of the Old City, both religious and secular couples are drawn to ocean-front properties like the Accadia, which also has a vast garden. Aquariums are a popular centerpiece, because they reinforce the sand-and-sea atmosphere.   

One recent Accadia wedding boasted eight “open kitchens”—large outdoor work stations where chefs prepared a stunning assortment of food.

Fenton, who plans wedding both in Israel and England, believes Israel provides more options, as well as better value, for upscale weddings.

“The high-end Israeli market is really a level above what you see in London. What you can do here stretches far beyond what you can do in Europe or the U.S.,” Fenton said.

Thanks to “almost guaranteed weather” between April and November, when virtually no rain falls, “you can do a big fancy production outdoors,” whether in an Israeli vineyard or the desert.

In addition to being a lot more affordable (an elegant wedding at the Accadia can cost $150 per person), “menuwise, there’s more on offer here,” Fenton said. “There’s a lot more variety and caterers here are more flexible than kosher caterers abroad.”

And then there’s what Fenton calls Israel’s intangible “wow” factor.

“When you throw a wedding in an unusual location, the guests don’t know what to expect,” the wedding planner said, conjuring up images of circus tents and Arabian nights.

“The spectacle is heightened,” Fenton said of the adventure, “and people are amazed.”

Bills to relax marriage registration rules pass Knesset committee


Two bills that would allow Jewish couples in Israel to be married by Modern Orthodox rabbis in the city of their choice were approved by a Knesset committee.

The so-called “Tzohar laws,” named for the organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis that performs alternative religious wedding ceremonies for non-religious couples, would remove jurisdictional hurdles that prevent the organization’s rabbis from performing wedding ceremonies recognized by the office of the Chief Rabbinate.

The bills, one proposed by Faina Kirshenbaum of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and the other initiated by Otniel Schneller of the Kadima Party, passed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Sunday by a vote of 4-3, The Jerusalem Post reported. They now move to the full Knesset for a first reading. Members of religious parties voted against the bills.

Jewish couples now must register with the rabbinate in the city or region of residence of one member of the couple.

The legislation comes after Tzohar was given approval to register couples in the community of Shoham, where the head of the organization serves as chief rabbi, following a threat by the Religious Services Ministry to limit the number of marriages that the community would be allowed to register. The threat led to Tzohar briefly canceling its services. 

A Jewish couple must have a religious ceremony in Israel in order to be recognized as married. Many travel abroad to marry in secular ceremonies.

Romancing the Stone


Apryl Levine (nee Carson) had thought of everything the morning before her wedding. Every decision was made, from food to flowers, right down to the exact glass that her husband-to-be, Joshua Levine, would break.

Or so she thought.

During the rehearsal at Piru’s Rancho Camulos, among the roses and lavender, the Levines realized there was a hitch.

Under the shade of a billowing maple tree, the couple found they were on uneven ground.

“I said, kiddingly, ‘I hope the glass breaks,’ ” Apryl Levine recalled. “We thought we had everything planned to the last detail, but we’d never given a thought to the glass not breaking.”

Her wedding planner, who wasn’t Jewish, “didn’t fully understand the significance, that breaking the glass seals the deal,” Levine said. “She asked, ‘Can’t we just get a light bulb? You know it’ll break.’ ”

That wouldn’t do for the couple.

The groom’s cousin, Robb Dunlap, had an idea. A stonemason for more than 25 years, he happened to have a sample of Jerusalem Gold limestone in his car.

Fitting, since one telling has it that the breaking of the glass symbolizes the remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“The traditions and the history that Judaism has is really special,” Dunlap said. “The fact that the stone comes from the same quarries that virtually all of ancient Jerusalem was made from is pretty cool.”

And when it came time for the wedding on June 6, 2010, Levine broke the glass with no problem.

“What’s nice is they got to start their marriage on a piece of Israel,” noted Lisa Dunlap, Robb’s wife and one of Levine’s bridesmaids.

After the ceremony, the Dunlaps presented the newlyweds with the slab of Jerusalem Gold limestone engraved with their names and wedding date as a keepsake.

“It’s beautiful to have something to commemorate such a special day,” Levine said.

The Dunlaps knew they were on to something and have since dubbed their creation the Mazel Tov Stone.

“We did some research, and there was nothing like it,” Lisa Dunlap said. “I was surprised how many stories there were about mishaps with the glass.”

“Hopefully this will take a little pressure off the groom,” Robb Dunlap added.

A popular satiric explanation is that stepping on the glass is the last time the groom gets to put his foot down. A more metaphysical interpretation is that the tradition represents the tenuousness of joy and the importance of nurturing marriage. Yet another version states that the marriage will last as long as glass is broken.

The custom’s origin is unknown but is often sourced to the Talmud. In two different accounts, the father of the groom smashes a cup to quiet down a group of boisterous rabbis. The interpretation is that joy must be tempered.

Mazel Tov Stones, priced from $299, are available cut in various shapes, including rectangles, ovals and hearts, and can be engraved in several monogram and border styles and with optional icons, such as a Star of David or entwined rings, among others. Custom designs are also available. Lisa Dunlap recently designed a stone based on her own wedding invitation to commemorate their 18th anniversary in October 2010.

Delivery of the stone takes about four weeks after final approval of the design, but stones can be prepared faster if necessary. The Dunlaps also ship stones directly to venues for destination weddings. Mazel Tov Stones arrive in white velvet bags, which can be used to encase the glass to be broken during the ceremony.

Looking back on her wedding, Levine considers the stone’s presence a tribute to her deceased grandparents, who had been active in the Jewish community.

“It was special because [the stone] came from the motherland, if you will,” she said. “I think having this extra little bit of history really helped enrich the day.”

Klezmer: Backward and Forward


Three new klezmer recordings offer a listen into the genre’s past, present and possible future.

Klezmer was originally the soundtrack to the Jewish wedding, but no band has attempted to recreate such an event until recently. Working with people who were in Eastern Europe at the time klezmer was developed, the band Budowitz — named for the maker of their accordionist’s instrument — crafted "Wedding Without a Bride" (Buda Musique, $18.98).

In 70 minutes, Budowitz ushers the listener through the whole wedding day, from the bride’s bedecken to the groom’s processional to the in-laws’ dance. The songs conjure up the sadness of the bride leaving her family, the joy of the new union and the lighthearted pomp of the families, considered royalty for the day. There are quite a few surprises for the wedding attendees, including a dance in which the couple’s parents mime a fight and reconciliation.

Another intriguing feature is the use of the cimbalom. This dulcimer-like instrument has strings across a sound-hole, like a guitar, but is played flat on a lap or table, and its seeming dozens of strings are struck by small sticks, like inside a piano. Its glinting, chiming tone is unfortunately not common in more recent klezmer ensembles.

Another highlight is the badchan, the jokester. This emcee serves and a poet, jester and ringleader, guiding the attendees through the wedding ceremony and spouting praise and admonishment to the young couple in exuberant Yiddish.

The CD comes with thesis-worthy liner notes, but it is more than an academic exercise. "Wedding Without a Bride" is a highly listenable introduction into klezmer for novices, while those familiar only with more recent takes on the form will also be entertained and enlightened.

The current state of klezmer is examined on "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" (World Music Network, $12.98). The Rough Guide series is like a musical version of Fodor’s, escorting listeners around the world through their headphones.

The Rough Guide volume on klezmer purports to be a overview of the current klezmer scene. It succeeds, however, in being an excellent overview of the Klezmatics and Naftule Brandwein, and the more intellectual approach to the genre in general. Now, these artists are key to klezmer. And other major players — like the Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Budowitz — are profiled. But they are far from the limits of the style.

Inexplicably missing are such major figures as Giora Fiedman and Andy Statman. Further, some United States-born musicians stationed overseas are here, but natives like Britain’s Burning Bush and Italy’s KlezRoym are not. Also MIA are rising stars like Shawn’s Kugel and Tzimmes; Midwest favorites, like Chicago’s Tumbalalaika, Madison’s Yid Vicious and Cleveland’s Yiddishe Cup; and jokemeisters like Mickey Katz and Klezperanto. Clearly, there is not room for everyone. But their omission is hard to justify when five of the 18 tracks are by the Klezmatics or members thereof, while upwards of eight selections are Brandwein compositions.

One nice feature of the disc is that it presents the same tracks twice — once by Brandwein himself, once by a more recent band — in keeping with the disc’s subtitle: "Shtetl roots and New World revival." It closes with two divergent modern takes on a Brandwein classic as well.

Klezmatics fans will want the band’s whole-group and solo albums, and newcomers to klezmer would find this a skewed introduction. But those who like their klezmer somewhere between sugary freylachs and flavorless reproductions should find "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" a winning compilation.

"Wedding Without a Bride" is notable for the way it wrings many emotions from the same instruments. "Rough Guide to Klezmer," on the other hand, boasts the expected clarinets and violins, but also drums, pianos, a trombone, and a tuba.

Looking to the future, KlezSka announces itself as "part of the next wave in Jewish music." The band’s name explains its modus operandi: klezmer mixed with ska (punk-like protoreggae). The duo is comprised of composer and producer Glenn Tamir, who has played with the seminal Skatalites, and keyboardist Tommy Mandel, who has backed Bryan Adams and Dire Straits. The first half of their CD, "Rasta Meets the Rabbi" (Klezska, $18.95), is given to explorations of the places klezmer and ska might meet, melodically and rhythmically.

But this strange bird doesn’t really fly until the second half, which spins Jewish favorites as ska. There is a double dose of Debbie Friedman, "Elokai" and "L’Chi Lach" — arrangements she might consider borrowing. And "Ein Fiddler" uses a medley of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Tradition" to invite Tevye from Anatevka to Kingston. In these and the following tracks, Tamir finds an island groove and rides it like a champion surfer.

Appropriately for the age of the Internet, Jewish music’s past, present and future are all available for listening right now. Who would have thought we’d live in a time when we could use the words "klezmer" and "download" in the same sentence?

Rebirth in Wroclaw


When Curt Fissel stomped on the glass after his wedding in the southwestern Polish city of Wroclaw, the congregation erupted into loud applause and a resounding chorus of “Mazel tov!”But the joyous response went far beyond heartfelt good wishes to Fissel and his bride, Ellen Friedland, both of Montclair, N.J.

Their emotional nuptials took place Sunday in the historic, partially reconstructed White Stork Synagogue, which just four years ago was a ruin. It was the first Jewish wedding there in 36 years, and it marked a symbolic milestone in the life of the small but reviving local Jewish community.”This is a sacred moment in Jewish history,” said Rabbi Michael Monson of Montclair’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who traveled to Wroclaw (pronounced VRAW-slav) from New Jersey to perform the ceremony.

“It is a statement to the world that the Jewish people, wherever we may be, are alive and well.”Fissel, a photographer, and Friedland, a political reporter for the New Jersey Jewish News, decided to marry in Wroclaw to make their personal joy a public celebration – not just of a united Jewish peoplehood, but of the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland since the fall of communism a decade ago.The near-capacity congregation included as many as half of Wroclaw’s estimated 600 to 1,000 Jews, nearly 200 non-Jewish townspeople and about 30 friends and family of the bride and groom from the United States and Israel.

“I’ve never been to a synagogue and wanted to see a real Jewish wedding,” said Anna, a 19-year-old Catholic student who attended with her parents and aunt. “It was beautiful, amazing – there was more passion, love and friendship than in my church.”

Also present were representatives of local Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, as well as the U.S. consul from Krakow and the German consul from Wroclaw.

Local television, radio and newspapers covered the event, which began with the signing of the ketubah – the wedding contract – and ended with a party featuring klezmer music, Israeli dancing and a kosher buffet prepared in the Jewish community kitchen.

“Our wedding is about more than a personal union bridging different lives and families,” said Friedland.”It is also about a union bridging different Jewish communities, and it is about a union bridging different times in Jewish history,” she said. “In the small marriage of two people lies an intangible, optimistic and enormous hope.”

Friedland and Fissel first came to Poland about four years ago. Like most American visitors to Poland, they expected to learn only about Jewish death: the annihilation of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust; the death camps; the devastated shtetls, cemeteries and synagogues.

They were amazed to find small Jewish communities that had begun emerging, like seedlings through ashes, after the fall of communism.

Fissel, born a Christian, reclaimed his own distant Jewish roots and converted to Judaism.”My Jewish roots are seven-and-a-half generations back,” he said, “but with my conversion I reconnected my Jewish soul to Judaism.”

Their documentary film, “Poland: Creating a New Jewish Heritage,” was completed in 1997.During their work, the Jewish community in Wroclawand particularly the White Stork Synagogue became powerful symbols of the destruction and revival of Jewish life in Poland.

“Why Wroclaw? We don’t know,” said Friedland. “When we started coming to Poland, we felt the spirit of the 3 million dead Jewish souls, and they brought us here, specifically here, to this synagogue and this Jewish community, at a time when the synagogue had no roof and no floor and there was little apparent hope for the future.”

Thanks to a grant of more than $1 million from a German foundation, the synagogue has a new roof and its ground floor has been restored, though its two balconies and exterior still need reconstruction.

Before World War II, Wroclaw was part of Germany. Then known as Breslau, it was home to some 30,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Germany. It was a center of the Reform movement.The neoclassical White Stork Synagogue, completed in 1829, was designed by the same architect who designed Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The famous Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary was located across the street.

During World War II, Wroclaw’s Jews were herded into the synagogue’s courtyard before being deported to Nazi death camps. The synagogue itself was desecrated and used as a stable.

After the war, Wroclaw became part of Poland. Over the decades, the synagogue became a ruined shell.Jewish life began to revive in Wroclaw after 1989, as young people began to claim Jewish identities amid new religious, social and political freedoms.

Today, Wroclaw has Poland’s second largest Jewish community after Warsaw’s.Nearly 45 children will be enrolled next year in the Jewish school, run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and community leaders are seeking a rabbi for the congregation.

The Jewish community took back ownership in 1996. Ambitious plans foresee turning the synagogue and the adjacent, rundown Jewish administrative buildings into a full-service Jewish community center. “It will be a real, living Jewish center,” said Kichler.

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