Would-be Florida synagogue bomber has psychiatric problems from car wreck, says cousin


A Florida man accused of planning to bomb a Miami-area synagogue last week has had psychiatric problems since suffering head injuries in a car accident, his family said.

James Gonzalo Medina, a 40-year-old convert to Islam from Hollywood, Florida, was arrested by the FBI last week, while carrying what he thought was a bomb to the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in a suburb of Miami. He is being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami without bail; a bail hearing scheduled for Thursday was postponed to Tuesday after his court-appointed lawyer said he needs more time to prepare.

Gladys Jaramillo, told Florida’s Sun Sentinel Medina, his cousin, has had serious mental health problems since he sustained head injuries and was in a coma following a serious car accident in South Florida some years ago.

“He used to be a normal person but he had a big accident, and we thought he was going to die,” said Jaramillo, who said she is a teacher and lives in the Bronx. “He has had mental problems since he got in that accident.”

According to prosecutors, Medina initially planned to attack the 800-member Conservative synagogue and its school with assault rifles on Yom Kippur and was hoping to inspire other Muslims to commit terrorist attacks. He told the FBI informant, “Jewish people are the ones causing the world’s wars and conflicts.”

According to the Sun Sentinel, Medina was recorded telling an FBI informant he was prepared to kill innocent women and children. He also allegedly made several videos before the planned attack on the synagogue, including one in which he said goodbye to his family.

“I am a Muslim and I don’t like what is going on in this world. I’m going to handle business here in America. Aventura, watch your back. ISIS is in the house,” agents reported he said in one of the videos.

Jaramillo said she does not know exactly what her cousin’s diagnosis is, but that he is supposed to take some sort of medication.

In recent years, Medina, who was born in New York, has had a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality, Jaramillo said, according to the Sun Sentinel. For example, he once phoned her saying he was at Disney World with the celebrity Jennifer Lopez.

“He’s not a bad person, he’s not a criminal,” Jaramillo said. “I don’t think he ever got the psychiatric help he needs.”

Medina has an arrest record in Florida, including a misdemeanor domestic violence charges that were dismissed after a mental health expert determined he was incompetent to assist in his defense, the Sun Sentinel reported, citing state court records.

The Sun Sentinel was unable to access the details of Medina’s diagnosis.

The imam of the Islamic Center of Greater Miami mosque in Miami Gardens told the Sun Sentinel that Medina, who claimed to have volunteered there, was not a member of the mosque, but had prayed there a “few times” about three or four years ago. The imam said he had not seen Medina for two years.

“For sure, he has many, many problems, I saw that,” the imam said. “He was not stable. Sometimes, he seemed like he was using drugs or alcohol.”

Would-be Miami synagogue bomber reportedly was Muslim convert, wanted to inspire other attacks


The South Florida man arrested for planning to bomb a Miami synagogue has been publicly identified and charged in federal court.

James Gonzalo Medina, 40, of Hollywood, appeared in court in Miami on Monday afternoon, several media outlets reported.

Medina, who according to court papers is a convert to Islam, was arrested on a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction in an attempt to blow up the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center during Friday night services, the last night of Passover. The Conservative synagogue has about 800 member families and houses an early childhood center, according to its website.

Local 10 News reported that the criminal complaint also accuses Medina of planning to attack the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Medina told a confidential informant more than once that he planned to strike during Yom Kippur using AK-47 assault rifles, Local 10 said, citing the complaint. When the informant told Medina the attack might look as if it were orchestrated by the Islamic State, Medina expressed pleasure, believing it would “inspire other Muslims to attack as well.”

Asked by the FBI informant why he wanted to attack the synagogue, Medina said it was his “call of duty” and something he had to do “for the glory of Allah,” the complaint said, according to the Washington Post. Medina also told the informant he believed “Jewish people are the ones causing the world’s wars and conflicts.”

According to the Sun Sentinel, Medina tried to make a speech during his court appearance, but was stopped by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff after saying, “I’ve got a few words of my own. … My name is James Medina, aka James Mohammed.”

Prosecutor Marc Anton told the judge that Medina talked about “obtaining a bomb he could either place under a car or throw it over the wall.”

After the undercover informant provided Medina with what he said was an explosive device, the FBI arrested Medina on his way to the synagogue. The device was not real, authorities said.

Medina is being detained at the Federal Detention Center in Miami and will remain there until at least Thursday, the day of his arraignment and bond hearing.

If convicted, Medina faces a maximum penalty of life in federal prison, according to the Sun Sentinel. He has not indicated whether he will plead innocent or guilty.

In a statement published in the Sun Sentinel, the synagogue said its leadership “has been briefed by law enforcement and Jewish community security officials” and been assured “that the synagogue and school were never at risk at any time during the investigation and arrest, and that there are no credible threats directed against us at the present time.”

The synagogue and an affiliated school were operating as normal Monday.

Medina has several prior arrests, including one for sending violent threats via text message. He said in court that he is out of work, divorced and has no significant assets. He was provided a court-appointed lawyer.

Study: N.Y., Boston and Miami are America’s 3 most Jewish cities


New York, Boston and Miami are the three most Jewish cities per capita in the country, according to a new analysis of data gathered last year by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Eight percent of New York City residents are Jewish, followed by Boston at 6 percent and Miami at 5 percent, according to the data. Philadelphia and San Francisco each are 4 percent Jewish, and Chicago and Washington are 3 percent Jewish.

Nationally, 2 percent of all Americans are Jewish, according to the study. Los Angeles, which by raw numbers is believed to house the country’s second-largest urban Jewish population, is just 2 percent Jewish, the analysis found.

Ranked by state, New York and New Jersey tie as the most Jewish, with 6 percent of residents in both counted as Jews. Next are Massachusetts (5 percent) and Maryland (3 percent), followed by California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Vermont each with 2 percent.

Ranked by region, the Northeast is 4 percent Jewish; the Midwest, South and West each are 1 percent Jewish.

The analysis is based on data collected in some 52,741 telephone interviews conducted in 2014 as part of the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas.

Overall, the largest urban religious group is Catholics, who are No. 1 or tied for the top spot in 15 of America’s top 30 metropolitan areas. Religiously unaffiliated make up the top “religious group” in 10 of those metro areas, and white evangelical Protestants are the plurality in six of the major metro areas. Atlanta is the only major metro area with a different group at the top: black Protestants.

Nationwide, Nashville, Tennessee, has the largest percentage of a single religious group, with 38 percent of all residents identifying as white evangelical Protestant.

The least religious city appears to be Portland, Oregon, where 42 percent of respondents identified as religiously unaffiliated. Two percent of the city’s residents are Jews.

Steven Sotloff’s parents to light public menorah in his memory


The parents of Steven Sotloff, the Jewish journalist who was beheaded by a member of ISIS, will light a public menorah in Miami in his memory.

Arthur and Shirley Sotloff will light the first candle of Hanukkah on Tuesday night at the Chabad center.

“Steve was a proud Jew who always enjoyed the holidays,” Arthur Sotloff told Chabad.org. “It was one of his defining characteristics.

“Hanukkah is a time we commemorate the vanquishing of our enemies who tried to deprive us of our right to live with Torah. The Maccabees fought for Judaism, and Steve fought for the values they endowed us with.”

The directors of the Chabad center in Miami, Rabbi Yossi and Nechama Harlig, got to know the Sotloffs during the shiva period for their son and decided Hanukkah would be the appropriate time to honor the slain journalist, “who sought to bring a little more light and truth to the world,” according to Chabad.org.

On Sept. 2, ISIS released a nearly three-minute video showing the beheading of Sotloff. He had been abducted on Aug. 4, 2013, after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey.

Sotloff, 31, who grew up in Miami, had articles from Syria, Egypt and Libya featured in publications including Time.com, the World Affairs Journal and Foreign Policy. He also freelanced for The Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report magazine.

It was revealed after his death that Sotloff held Israeli citizenship. His connections to Israel and the Jewish community reportedly had been sanitized from the Internet and social media in order to keep the information from his radical Islamic captors.

Sotloff, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, made aliyah in 2005.

His parents have established The 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation to provide scholarships for journalism students.

 

Study: Miami Jewry sees first growth since 1975


For the first time in four decades, Miami Jewry is growing.

That’s the official finding of the new Miami Jewish population study released Monday by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The Jewish population of Miami-Dade County increased 9 percent over the last decade, to 123,000 from 113,000 in 2004, according to the survey. That makes it slightly larger than the Jewish community of Atlanta and slightly smaller than West Palm Beach, Fla.

The findings confirm trends long suggested by anecdotal evidence, as Miami has become a magnet in recent years for Latin Americans, including Jews from Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Peru. Many have come to the United States seeking greater economic or political security, finding in Miami a U.S. city with a strong Latin identity and not too far from home.

Miami has a higher proportion of foreign-born Jewish adults than any other American Jewish community, at 33 percent, according to the study; 51 percent of all of Miami’s 2.6 million residents are foreign-born. Researchers also found a 57 percent increase over the last decade in Hispanic Jewish adults in Miami.

The survey, titled “2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study: A Portrait of the Miami Jewish Community,” represents the first concrete evidence of Jewish growth in Miami since 1975.

“In the past decade, we have seen a flow of new Jewish residents, as well as an increase in the length of residency in Miami,” Michelle Labgold, the federation’s chief planning officer, said in a statement. “This is significant news because Miami’s Jewish community experienced a steady decline in population between 1975 and 2004.”

Miami remains the smallest of the three heavily Jewish South Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. A 2005 survey counted 256,000 Jews in Palm Beach County, and a 2008 study found 186,500 Jews in Broward. Together, the three counties’ 550,000 or so Jews make up the third-largest Jewish metro area in the nation, behind New York and Los Angeles.

Of Miami’s foreign-born Jews, the largest group by far is Israelis. Some 5,180 Miami Jews were born in Israel, and approximately 9,000 adults consider themselves Israeli. About 3,700 Miami Jews were born in Cuba; 2,854 in Argentina; 2,643 in Venezuela; 2,537 in Colombia; and 2,220 in Canada.

Part of Miami’s recent growth is Orthodox. Compared to the last federation study, in 2004, the number of people residing in Orthodox Jewish households grew by 41 percent — “mostly due to a significant increase in the average size of Orthodox households,” the study reported. The survey also found the overall percentage of Jewish Miami households identifying as Orthodox up to 11 percent from 9 percent in 2004; the number of Reform Jewish households up to 31 percent from 27 percent; the number of Conservative households down to 26 percent from 32 percent; and “just Jewish” households steady at about 32 percent.

Miami has about 47,000 Jews under age 35; 43,000 Jews aged 35-64; and 40,000 age 65 and older. The largest growth since 2004 was in the 18-34 age range and the 65-74 range (the baby boomers); both grew by 26 percent in the last decade.

The numbers weren’t all good for the Jewish federation. The study found that giving to Jewish causes had decreased among Miami Jews, with a steep decline in gifts to the federation: Only 32 percent of respondents said they gave to the federation, down from 42 percent in 2004.

Miami’s Jews live mostly in North Dade, South Dade and the Beaches, with North Dade growing fastest — up 19 percent since 2004. The study also found about 7,000 Jews living in the downtown area, mostly young adults.

The survey found relatively high rates of Jewish attachment. Only 16 percent of couples reported being intermarried, 74 percent said being Jewish is “very important to them” and eight in 10 children have had some type of formal Jewish education, such as Jewish day school, Hebrew school or private tutoring. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they were “very” or “extremely” attached to Israel.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they cannot make ends meet or are just holding on financially. Thirty-five percent of households said they needed some kind of social services in the past year.

The study interviewed 2,020 Jews and had a margin of error of 2.2 percent. It was conducted by Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami who has authored 43 Jewish federation population studies.

 

Murdered journalist Steven Sotloff was a hero – and my friend


I paused the video in panic when I saw his face: I know that face, I thought. It’s older and rounder than I remember, sallow from fear, but I know that face. What the f— is it doing in a terrorist propaganda video in which an American journalist is being gruesomely beheaded? For a moment, my mind was a muddle: The face I recognized – gentle-looking, sweet, but painfully stricken – was being named as ISIS’s next target. Who is this person? And why do I have this sinking feeling?

I stared at his face. At the young man on his knees, hands tied behind his back, while a menacing killer sheathed in head-to-toe black hovered over him, pulling his blood-orange shirt so tight it choked his neck. An instant later, a wave of heat swept over my skin as his name appeared on the screen in English and Arabic: Steven Sotloff.

It can’t be him.

Not the Steven Sotloff I grew up with, the goofy, smiley, playfully mischievous kid from Miami I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years. I clicked over to Facebook to dig through my message archives; I remember corresponding with Sotloff a few years ago when he discovered I was working as a writer for the Jewish Journal. He was a writer, too, as I recalled. But my Facebook query turned up nothing; an email exchange I was certain we’d had was completely missing. I moved over to Gmail, searching for some trace of “Steven Sotloff”; two items popped up. The first was a Facebook friend request from Steven from November 2010: “Hey buddy! Long long long time no see. What are you up to in LA? I've been in the Middle East for the past 6 years gaining knowledge about the world. I'm moving back to the States at the end of the year. Hopefully we'll bump into each other sometime!”

The other item, just above it, was The New York Times email digest for Aug. 20, 2014. I didn’t have to open that one.

The Steven Sotloff who appeared in the video showing the beheading of freelance journalist James Foley, and who was cursed as next to die, was the same Jewish kid I grew up with in Miami, where we both attended day school at Temple Beth Am. I clicked back over to Facebook, because even though my correspondence with Sotloff had apparently been scrubbed, with no trace of him remaining on the social network, I remembered that one of our friends’ mothers had posted photos of our 1st grade class, which had to still be there. I pulled it up and there he was: 8-year-old Steven Sotloff. He had been untagged from the photo. Already a ghost.

I called Temple Beth Am, the synagogue in Miami where we grew up and where Steven’s mother, Shirley, daughter of Holocaust survivors, has been a teacher in the Early Childhood Center for something like 20 years. I was desperate for answers and was told, yes, they were aware of the situation; no, they couldn’t say anything further. I reached out to friends and teachers. I left a voicemail for my rabbi asking him to call me back. I wondered how long he had known – rabbis can be very good keepers of secrets.

While I waited, I searched for more “Steven Sotloff.” In my Jewish Journal inbox I found an article Steven sent me in February 2011. The subject line, “Viennese Jews” referred to an article he wrote about the resurgent Jewish community in Vienna for The Jerusalem Post.

“Hey Danielle! I hope all is going well for you out in Hollywood. I know you're into Jewish news and thought you may be interested in my recent piece on the Jews of Vienna… Let me know how you're doing!”

It doesn’t appear I wrote back that time, which now makes me feel irreparably awful. As I re-read his article, I found echoes of Steven’s voice, and even an unconscious presaging of his own destiny:

“In the past Vienna’s beleaguered Jews were threatened by Christian and Nazi persecutions; today they are under siege by a melange of native extremism and Muslim hostility,” he wrote.

“Despite such hostilities, the Viennese Jewish community has refused to relent in the face of such adversity and emigrate to more hospitable lands free of the turmoil that has plagued this city that was once Europe’s cultural and intellectual mecca.”

Steven, too, “refused to relent” in the face of roiling hostilities in the Middle East; rather than cower from danger, he flew right into it, intent on telling the stories he believed would shape history. “He was always a bit of a risk-taker, I remember him trying to push edges,” a friend from Miami told me, requesting anonymity to respect the wishes of Sotloff’s family. According to friends, Sotloff vacillated before finally deciding to leave the U.S. to cover the civil war in Syria. He was concerned about what to do with his Israeli passport. His parents didn’t want him to go.

“He really felt that this was who he was; he said he had to do this,” a friend told me. “He felt compelled to put a human face on war stories.”

Just before Steven disappeared in August 2013, he checked into room 303 at the Hotel Istanbul, four miles north of the Turkish-Syrian border, according to journalist Ben Taub who wrote an account of Steven’s last-seen days for The Daily Beast.

“Sotloff had been to Kilis before. He’d been to Syria in wartime, too. And in the recent years leading up to the date of his abduction, he’d also reported courageously in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. He was experienced. He could speak Arabic. He was careful. And he told me he had had enough.

“Over beers at Kilis’s only bar, Sotloff told me he was sick of being beaten up, and shot at, and accused of being a spy,” Taub wrote. “Just the day before, Turkish police had hit and pepper-sprayed him for taking pictures at a protest in a nearby city. He told me he wanted to quit reporting for a little while, at least on conflict in the Middle East, and maybe apply to graduate school back home in Florida. But first he wanted one last Syria run. He said he was chasing a good story…”

No one knows for sure exactly how Steven disappeared. According to Taub, he arranged to meet with a fixer named Karam who would drive him into Syria, but Karam may have been compromised; earlier that week, an inexperienced Canadian photographer who had been naïve about what he’d find in a conflict zone may have brought unwanted attention to the fixer. Friends in Miami say Steven had befriended a journalist from Turkey, who called his family after his disappearance and told them he had entered Syria with a “driver.” Maybe the driver had betrayed him. Or is it possible the driver and the fixer were one and the same?

After Steven disappeared, his family was connected with contacts in Washington, who were supposed to help the situation. The advice the family got was to keep his disappearance quiet, the better to negotiate a possible ransom, and to erase any trace of his Jewish identity from the Web. They were told that ISIS “probably didn’t know or wasn’t sure that Sotloff was Jewish and knowing that he was Jewish would be like another Daniel Pearl situation, so let’s not give them that information,” a friend from home said.

That explains why Sotloff’s Facebook account disappeared, and why, when ISIS finally outed his capture, the New York Times deleted the reference to Sotloff’s Jewishness that was posted in its initial online report. Stupidly, the Times had announced he was “the grandson of Holocaust survivors” in the lead sentence, which the paper had learned from his mother’s bio on the Temple Beth Am website (that too, however, was superficially erased, even though it turned out, nothing ever really disappears from the Web).

Not that any of those little protections matter now. On the morning of Sept. 2, the 7th of Elul, the news broke that ISIS had kept their poisonous promise and beheaded Sotloff, just like they had done with journalist James Foley two weeks prior. My heart broke for my friend Steven, for the terror, fear and anxiety he must have felt all year long; for the stories and insights he must have been burning to write but was instead left bereft. And my heart broke for his family, especially for his mother Shirley, whose video plea less than a week before his death could not convince ISIS to act with even a speck of mercy. “As a mother… I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad who protected People of the Book…”

I pray that somewhere in that desperate wilderness, some time during that hopeless wandering, Steven found strength and comfort. Mima'amakim keraticha adonai … Out of the depths I call to you, hear my voice …

I don’t know if God answered Steven. All I know is that Steven had Godliness within him: he was a searching, sensitive, inquisitive soul and a hero. I know that his blood, like all Jewish blood, will be remembered. And that if his death awakens the world to the evil proliferating among those who killed him, then maybe, just maybe, there can be redemption.

Local girl battles cancer, fire and Miami Marathon


She may only be 10 years old, but Sienna Wolfe’s narrow escape from a bunkhouse fire during sleep-away camp last summer wasn’t the first time she’s eluded death: The Beverly Hills girl is also a cancer survivor.

Diagnosed when she was 6 with fibromyxoid sarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer — she’s now in remission — Sienna was among those endangered by an early morning fire at Camp Simcha, a camp in the Catskill Mountains for children with cancer and other serious diseases. 

Earlier this month, she joined another camper and 12 counselors to raise money for rebuilding the camp by participating in the Miami Half Marathon as part of Team Lifeline. Pushed in a wheelchair in the Feb. 2 race by her counselor, Penina Wolff, Sienna crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 13 minutes.

“She’s just a ray of sunshine,” said Wolff, who flew in from New York. “She’s super fun and always looks on the bright side.” 

Each team member in the Miami race had to raise $3,600; this year, the Team Lifeline program aims to raise $2 million for rebuilding and refurbishing the camp, as well as scholarships. 

Sienna, who lives with her mother, Michelle Kalt, and two older brothers in Beverly Hills, attends Beverly Vista School and studies Hebrew at Temple Emanuel. She said she was “scared and sad” when she was diagnosed with cancer, but that some good came of it, too. 

“I learned to appreciate things and think good thoughts,” she said.

For the past three years. Sienna has attended Camp Simcha, a kosher, tuition-free camp accommodating 430 campers. It holds sessions for young cancer patients and, as Camp Simcha Special, hosts those with chronic conditions, such as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and rare genetic diseases. It is operated by the organization Chai Lifeline as one of its many services for families dealing with pediatric illness.

Sienna said she loved the unique, nurturing experience, explaining that for the two weeks she’s there, “I feel like I’m not alone and not the only one.”

That comforting security was shattered last year in the predawn hours of an August Shabbat morning, three days before the end of camp. Wolff, who has worked at Camp Simcha for six years and as division head for the last three, remembers being awakened at 4:30 a.m. by another counselor who said the bunk next door was on fire. 

“I ran to see if everyone got out and saw a counselor carrying a wheelchair-bound camper out, against a background of flames. We counted and saw that everyone was out. Everything went as planned,” she said, explaining that they’d practiced fire drills, the fire department came quickly and no one was injured.

“But we were in shock. The bunk was destroyed.” Aside from someone’s keys, those campers and staff members “lost everything.”

Melanie Kwestel, Chai Lifeline’s director of communications, said the fire is believed to have been electrical in nature.

“It was a traumatic experience for everyone,” she said, adding that as cancer survivors, the children coped better than their counselors. 

“These kids really have been through hell. Pediatric cancer treatment is very painful, and these girls were in or had been through treatment and they had faced down death. Even though it was not a pleasant experience, they were able to take it in stride.”

The entire camp rallied around the affected campers, Kwestel recalled. 

“The other girls immediately came forward and gave them clothing, stuffed animals. These kids have some sort of object they take with them when they go through cancer treatment, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, something that comforts them,” she explained. “These kids lost that in the fire, and other kids said ‘Here, take mine.’ It was such amazing compassion.”

The campers wore pajamas all day that Shabbat, in solidarity with those who’d lost everything but their sleepwear, Wolff said. She recalled a speech Sienna gave to the camp assembly that Friday night about positive thinking and how she retained that attitude, along with her sense of humor, after the devastating fire. 

“We were all sitting there afterward, and she said, ‘Tragic times, Penina. Tragic times,’ and everyone laughed. She just has that way about her,” Wolff said. “She said, ‘We’re all alive. We all survived.’ ”

And they all did it together, which is one reason participants in the Miami race decided to rally as a group. Sienna, who needed a wheelchair for the half marathon because she tires easily, thanked her fellow racers and gave them medals at the finish line. 

She said she’s looking forward to returning to Camp Simcha this summer, and even though she wants to become an actress someday, she has a more immediate goal. 

“I want to work at camp as a counselor,” Sienna said. “I understand what they’ve been through.”

Florida: It’s not just for old Jews anymore


At the Urban Rustic Cafe in a strip mall in this city located between Miami to the south and the Palm Beach retirement communities to the north, the line for a table stretches out the door and into the parking lot.

Inside the kosher establishment, the volume is loud. An elderly Orthodox man sitting near the window leans across a table to hear what his wife is saying. At the dessert counter, a gaggle of boys with tzitzis fringes hanging from their shirts have their noses pressed against the glass.

Nearby, two stylishly dressed 30-something women chatter away in Spanish, one of them rocking a young baby. As the blond waitress trying to serve them bumps hips with a busboy, the two have a brief exchange in rapid-fire Hebrew.

Welcome to South Florida’s Jewish community, an amalgam of retirees, Latin American immigrants, Orthodox families, Holocaust survivors and plenty more.

More than half a million Jews live in three counties there — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — making the region America’s third-largest Jewish metro area behind only New York and Los Angeles. Add in the smaller Jewish communities elsewhere in Florida, and one of every 10 American Jews resides in the Sunshine State.

While many are retirees, Florida isn’t just a place for elderly Jews. A combination of factors — lower costs of living than in the Northeast, the lack of state income tax, Jewish institutional infrastructure, the draw of Miami to Latin American immigrants and, yes, the weather — has helped turn Florida into one of America’s largest, most diverse and most unusual Jewish communities.

“I think today we are no longer simply a retirement community,” said Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami.

The Jews of South Florida boast several distinctions. Palm Beach County has the oldest median Jewish age in the country, 70, according to the last Jewish community study of the area. The southern part of Palm Beach County has the highest density in the country of Jews proportionate to the total population: 49 percent, according to the same survey.

In the Miami area, a massive influx of Latin American immigrants since 2000, particularly from Venezuela, Argentina and Mexico, has reduced the Jewish community’s average age and brought far more Latin American diversity to a population whose Spanish speakers once were overwhelmingly Cuban exiles.  The last Jewish population study conducted in Miami-Dade, in 2004, found that the county had the largest percentage of foreign-born Jews of any Jewish community in America.

“We’re such an international community,” said Jacob Solomon, CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “Clearly, the big story is the continuing Latin immigration and what that means.”

Nobody knows for certain how many Jews live in South Florida, because the most recent community studies are about a decade old. At last count, local federations’ studies found 256,000 Jews in Palm Beach County (2005); 186,500 Jews in Broward County (2008); and 113,000 Jews in Miami-Dade (2004). Miami began work on a new survey last month, but the results are not expected until fall.

Even without solid numbers, however, there are some clear signs of the changes underway in South Florida Jewry, especially growth beyond retirees.

As in many other regions across the country, there has been a significant expansion over the last decade or two in Orthodox synagogues, kosher restaurants and Jewish day schools, suggesting that the area’s Orthodox population is growing, particularly in Hollywood, Miami Beach, Aventura and Boca Raton.

“Boca has the largest density in the Miami area of Jewish people per square mile,” said Deborah Shapiro, manager of loyalty marketing at the big-box grocery retailer Winn-Dixie, which conducted extensive demographic research in the area before investing $3 million to revamp its Boca Raton supermarket last year to focus on kosher consumers.

Since completing the remodeling — the store’s kosher offerings now include a pizza shop, fresh sushi counter, bakery, and meat and deli counter — business in the store’s kosher departments has tripled, according to Shapiro. Winn-Dixie has two other stores in South Florida with in-store kosher operations and full-time kosher supervisors, in Aventura and Tamarac.

In Miami Beach, the story has been the growing number of young families,  prompting the recent construction of a new building for a JCC that for years had been housed in a 1920s-era mansion. Completed in October 2012, the  37,000-square-foot Miami Beach JCC already has 1,700 member units — about 5,000 people.

“The influx of young families and the role that the center can play for them gave momentum to the project,” Jay Roth, the JCC’s executive director, told JTA. “This is a community that is committed to culture and growth.”

A few miles to the north, the community around the Michael-Ann Russell JCC in North Miami Beach, near Aventura, also is growing, thanks to Latin American Jewish families.

Located between an Orthodox-run, 1,000-student day school on one side and a 440-student Reform Jewish day school and synagogue on the other, the JCC’s single-largest constituency is Latin American Jewish immigrants who have moved to the area since 2000 fleeing economic or political insecurity at home. At both day schools, too, the students are overwhelmingly Latin American.

[RELATED: Reform Judaism with a Latin flavor takes root in Florida school]

“In the last 15 years, especially since 2001, there’s been a gradual increase in the number of Spanish-speaking kids,” said Nancy Posner, head of the Reform day school, Jacobson Sinai Academy. “Now we have students from 17 different countries. It’s a microcosm of Miami.”

While Miami-Dade has the fewest Jews of the three counties, its population is the most stable because it has more young people and fewer retirees.

“It gives us a more normalized age period and more stable base,” said Solomon of the Miami federation. “The northern South Florida communities still have to go through that demographic adjustment.”

Farther north, in Broward County, losses due to mortality have prompted a steep decline in the Jewish population — by about 55,000 between 1997 and 2008. Far fewer new retirees are moving in.

“Over the course of the past 20 years or so, there clearly has been a drop-off as retirees have passed away or moved back North to move in with their adult children,” said Eric Stillman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Broward County.

The story is different in Palm Beach County, which remains the No. 1 destination in America for Jewish retirees. The county’s Jewish population exploded in the 1990s and early 2000s. While growth probably has leveled off, according to Sheskin’s demographic estimates, the expected retirement of the baby boomers likely will help Palm Beach keep up its Jewish numbers in the coming years.

“I think we’re losing an older generation, but we’re getting new people to retire here all the time,” said Matthew Levin, CEO of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.

The story of Florida Jewry has not been one of unchecked growth. The Jewish community of Miami is still far below its peak, when it numbered nearly 250,000 in the late 1970s, and Broward is down from its high of nearly 300,000 in 1990.

What’s different about South Florida today is that the region increasingly is a place where second- and third-generation Jews are being born, growing up and choosing to raise families of their own.

“Increasingly, Florida is a place where people come and stay,” said the  Roth of the Miami Beach JCC.

Ruling returns kosher meals to Florida inmates


A federal judge ordered the Florida prisons service to provide kosher meals to all prisoners with a “sincere religious basis.”

Judge Patricia Seitz of the U.S. District Court in Miami in a ruling issued earlier this month required the order be implemented by July 1, the Miami Herald reported Tuesday.

The Florida Department of Corrections had promised to reinstitute its kosher meal service in all its facilities by the end of this year but had been dragging its heels.

In August 2012, the U.S. government sued the corrections department in the Miami federal court for ending the kosher service, saying the current meal policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 that allows prisoners to worship according to their religious beliefs. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 inmates.

Kosher meals are now offered at one state prison, according to the Herald.

The department canceled its kosher meal service six years ago, citing the expense. An average of 250 inmates used the kosher meal service, including Muslims, The Associated Press reported. The state now offers vegetarian and vegan options.

At least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets in prison.

‘Israeliness’ may be the answer for secular American Jews


The recent Pew survey of American Jews caused a flutter in the organized Jewish community.

The survey raises a number of questions about the efficacy of Jewish institutions, leaving professionals and donors alike in a position of uncertainty regarding their investments in the Jewish future. But while traditional American Jewish organizations regroup, a growing movement in the community remains largely overlooked.

In major metro areas across the United States such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Boston, Israeli-American organizations are popping up and growing in popularity. Programs centered on Israeli culture and Jewish identity for families, young adults and children have swelling appeal.

Participation in these Israeli-American organizations is increasing rapidly, and not only among Israeli expats and their children. American Jews join Israeli programs related to Hebrew language, Jewish education, and creating connectedness to Israel through the arts, music, literature, and tradition.

The American way of practicing Judaism is largely based on attending synagogues and affiliating with religious congregations across the denominations. What it does not offer are substantial alternatives for Jewish involvement in a secular way. The phenomenon of growing Israeli communal life in the United States offers a new model for American secular Jews to express their Judaism without needing to belong to a synagogue or religious institution.

In Los Angeles, the Israeli American Council (IAC) reached more than 50,000 members of the Israeli-American community last year with its Israeli-tailored programming. The organization’s flagship event, the Celebrate Israel festival — now the largest Jewish festival in North America — turned out about 15,000 people, half Israeli-Americans and half American Jews.

Other Israeli-style holiday festivals with a focus on family activities, Israeli performances, and Israeli or Jewish customs attract thousands and reflect a similar demographic split.

The trend continues through the young professional program BINA, targeting the age group of American Jews who are least connected to Judaism according to the Pew report. The IAC’s success, in fact, led to its recent expansion across the United States.

American Jews in New York have also recently been showing a growing interest in Israeli educational programs, such as “Israeliness” at the 92nd Street Y, among others.

Upon a closer look, perhaps these developing programs, which are almost entirely secular in nature, are the new avenue for secular American Jews to connect to their Jewish identity.

The Pew results revealed that 70 percent of American Jews feel very attached or somewhat attached to Israel, and more than 60 percent believe Judaism is about culture, ancestry and identity. What better environment to cultivate those feelings and transform them into strong connectedness to one’s Jewish roots than among secular Israelis?

Although Israelis living in the United States may have left the Jewish nation state, many maintain their deep love of Israel. And they do everything they can to ensure their children will inherit that love through Hebrew culture, Jewish knowledge and political awareness. As Israeli expats strive to instill a secular Israeli identity in the next generation, many American Jews find themselves relating. Perhaps it is the “Israeliness” rather than the Jewishness of this community that attracts them, making organized cultural Judaism accessible in a new and relevant way.

American Jewish leaders have responded to the Pew survey with a number of calls, including alternative venues for Jewish identity.

Well, look no further. The Israeli-American community may just be the answer.


Miri Belsky is the chief operating officer of the Israeli American Council (israeliamerican.org). Copyright Religion News Service. Reprinted with permission. 

Ron Dermer bringing to envoy’s post loyalty to Netanyahu, history of abrasiveness


“I was with him when,” Ron Dermer laced his address to the 2009 American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

Dermer used the phrase five times in the first five minutes of the speech — the “him” being Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two elements of the address, made just weeks after Netanyahu assumed office, explain Dermer’s ascension this week to the country’s most important diplomatic post, the ambassadorship to Washington.

Dermer has a closeness to Netanyahu so steadfast that it does not inhibit his brashness in boasting about it. And Dermer utterly buys into Netanyahu’s most cherished notion about himself — that he has been right when others have been wrong.

“He’s a man of basic core convictions who has time after time been willing to stand against the current when it was not popular,” Dermer told AIPAC.

Born to a family of conservative Democrats in Miami — his father and brother are both former Miami Beach mayors — Dermer, 41, served as Netanyahu’s top adviser from his assumption of office in March 2009 until his new term began in March of this year.

But Dermer is known for more than just loyalty to his boss. His reputation is as a brash political player dismissive of those with whom he disagrees.

He is rumored to be the source for news stories about President Barack Obama’s supposed snub of Netanyahu during his 2010 White House visit. And Obama administration officials believe he was behind Netanyahu’s perceived tilt toward Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election.

Dermer’s reputation raised eyebrows when his name first surfaced earlier this year as a possible replacement for Michael Oren, the historian turned diplomat who will wind down his tenure in Washington this fall. But leaders of mainstream Jewish groups, which lavishly praised the pick on July 9, said those muddied waters were under the bridge.

“He’s coming here as ambassador to the United States, not to get involved in partisan politics,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee director. “The prime minister knows it. He knows it.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, noted that Dan Shapiro, Obama’s envoy to Israel, once was closely identified with positions that upset the Netanyahu government. In his previous position, as the top Middle East official on the National Security Council, Shapiro took the lead in pressing Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

“The relationship is bigger than political nuance,” said Foxman, who added that since Obama’s successful March visit to Israel, the tensions that once divided the governments have passed.

But unlike Shapiro and other functionaries turned ambassadors, Dermer made the case for his boss in an abrasive tone. In 2011, he declined a New York Times request for an op-ed in a letter that was later leaked to The Jerusalem Post.

“It would seem as if the surest way to get an op-ed published in The New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel,” Dermer wrote.

Dermer immigrated to Israel in 1997 after several years of involvement in Republican congressional politics. He drew close at first to former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky, co-writing with him “The Case for Democracy,” a book that President George W. Bush later cited as a major influence. In the book, Sharansky treats Dermer as a full partner in shaping its ideas.

Through Sharansky, Dermer met Netanyahu, and they also forged an immediate closeness. Netanyahu, the finance minister in the mid-2000s, sent Dermer to Washington as economic consul.

Dermer lets little stand in his way. Oren — also U.S. born and beloved by the U.S. Jewish community — wanted to keep his job, insiders say, and the only reason he was removed is that Dermer wanted the envoy post.

Oren and his two predecessors, Sallai Meridor and Daniel Ayalon, made outreach to the U.S. Jewish community a hallmark of their tenure. Oren in particular was sensitive to anger in the Jewish community over Israel’s perceived discrimination against women and helped broker a tentative compromise that would allow for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

In 2009, Dermer said he considered cultivating ties with the American Jewish community’s liberal wing a waste of time. Dermer is believed to be behind the liberal lobby J Street’s inability to secure meetings with high-level officials during its Israel trips. Oren, by contrast, has forged low-level ties with the group.

Like other Jewish groups, J Street welcomed Dermer’s appointment.

Dermer also led efforts in the Prime Minister’s Office to limit the activities of human rights groups in Israel, casting them as agents of foreign powers. Some of the groups have the support of leading Jewish liberal benefactors from the United States.

Dermer’s defenders in Washington say those issues are dwarfed by the immediate challenges facing Israeli-U.S. interests in the Middle East.

“He will be an effective representative of the State of Israel generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically, as we are in a crucial period of U.S.-Israel relations with the need to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” said William Daroff, who directs The Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.

Unprompted, Foxman, Harris and Daroff all made the same point: Dermer’s closeness to Netanyahu is what will make his time in Washington a success.

“The most important thing for any ambassador in Washington, especially any Israeli ambassador, is that he brings the full trust of the prime minister,” Harris said. “That’s an asset you cannot put a price on.”

Petition aims to have Facebook pull anti-Israel page


A Facebook petition to remove an anti-Israel page that uses an expletive in its name has 75,000 likes, the removal campaign's creator says.

Michael Mendelson of Miami told JTA by telephone that the removal petition against the “F*** Israel” page has been on Facebook for less than a week; the number of likes is as of Monday. He said he started the counter campaign “with the help of various pro-Israel groups” in the Miami area.

Mendelson said he had been unable to reach Facebook managers, but estimated that his campaign would have to score 10 times as many “likes” as the other side for Facebook to act on the removal petition.

Deborah Lauter, civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, urged people to complain to Facebook, not just about the “F*** Israel” page itself, but also to flag and call Facebook’s attention to individual offensive comments and posts on the page.

The “F*** Israel” page, which has 36,000 “likes” as of Monday, features such sentiments as “God bless Adolf Hitler for what he did,” “Jews are children of apes and pigs … they are baby killers,” and “I hate Israel,” surmounted by a hand-draw flag with a Star of David. On the page, however, Israel defenders outnumber the haters and mostly reply in kind.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper and senior researcher Rick Eaton of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles have been monitoring anti-Semitic and anti-Israel websites, as well as YouTube and Twitter postings, for years.

Eaton said there are at least two dozen such sites on Facebook alone, most of them started by Muslim groups, featuring logos such as “Free Gaza” in the colors of the Palestinian flag or an Israeli flag with a red circle and diagonal line superimposed on the Star of David.

Facebook is also a popular site for hate tirades against Hindus, Mormons, Christians and Muslims, Cooper told JTA.

On the whole, Facebook has been responsive to requests for removal of obviously offensive material, according to Cooper, but in numerous instances such sites are reinstated if they clean up their act or reappear under different names.

NCIS Tel Aviv?


Every morning, at my kitchen counter, I leaf through two Israeli dailies, both of them in English.  The Hebrew papers I read in cafés, not every day.  I watch the TV news at 8 pm, on Channel 2.  I rarely watch the Israel Broadcasting Authority news in English, but you can see it – and everything else I just named – every day, on the Internet.  An engaged American Jew in Beverly Hills or Boston can read Ha’aretz or Yediot on his or her smartphone, the same way I do.  If you get into the habit, you can be no less well informed than a Jew in Jerusalem. 

But your experience of the information will be different.  Reading Israel in the Diaspora is not the same as reading it here.  I don’t mean that the experience is “lower” for Jews who have not made aliyah.  Certainly, aliyah is not a realistic option for every Jew.  And the choice of non-aliyah may also facilitate certain important Jewish values – religious pluralism comes to mind – as many of us who live here are well aware, sometimes ruefully. 

I’m drinking Italian coffee, turning pages in my hometown paper, the Jerusalem Post.  I sail past an op-ed about “self-hating” Jews and land on the back page at “Arts and Entertainment,” my favorite section.  A photo of four young, smiling tourists posing at the Western Wall, like a Birthright pic on Facebook.  Headline reads: “CSI stars ‘gather evidence’ in Israel.”  Subhead reads: “Four actors from the cluster of CBS-TV crime-scene investigation dramas visit Israel for the first time and declare it ‘close to a utopia.’”

Such an article cannot be skipped over.  The four guys in the picture seem different from the stressed-out characters they play.  They are on vacation, relaxed, having fun – “the actors Segwayed in Tel Aviv, floated in the Dead Sea” – and not solving gruesome murders in front of the camera, take after take.  The best line in the story belongs to Owen Benson Miller, who plays an African American cop in “CSI:Miami”:  “As a Christian, he says he ‘had very high hopes for Israel and it’s lived up to and surpassed what I had in mind,’ despite hurting his knee while horseback riding in the Galilee.”  In other words, not quite a utopia. But close enough.

The eight-day trip was arranged by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  The Post article is credited to Israel 21c, a news service providing articles that engage the reader while stressing Israel’s brightest sides.  You may have read this story too, on a screen near you.

Al Buckley, who plays “Adam Ross” in the New York version of CSI, is “an Irish Catholic familiar with the Bible. “  Buckley says he “feels healthier from eating Israeli cuisine,” singling out the cucumbers and tomatoes for breakfast and the “unbelievable” hummus, possibly “the best I’ve ever had in my life.”  (Carmine Giovinazzo – “Danny Messer” of “CSI: NY” – is pictured but not quoted.)

On the Israel 21c website are two additional group photos, at Caesarea (Herodian grandeur   meets beachfront lifestyle), and at a medical technology firm that has developed an “exoskeleton” that can enable paraplegics to walk.  Summed up in the words of the one Jewish actor in the group, Ryan Wolfe of “CSI: Miami”:  “Israel is the finest combination of the ancient beginning of civilization and the most progressive, cutting-edge community of right now.” It is Wolfe who pronounces Israel “as close to a utopia as I’ve ever seen.”

The CSI article, judged in its own terms, is a home run of hasbara – variously translated as “explanation,”  “public diplomacy,” “PR,” or “propaganda.”  Indeed, it’s a Hollywood version of Israeli reality – idealized and prettified – and genuine, so far as it goes.  Once, Hollywood made movies like “Exodus” or” Cast a Giant Shadow,” warming the hearts of Zionists everywhere.  Now, they make “Munich” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” whose messages are less clear, perhaps subversive.  So the hasbara specialists in California and Jerusalem team up and take another tack, enlisting familiar TV faces as enthusiastic pitchmen for the Jewish State.

Is this a good and valuable thing?  Is it worth the money and effort?  Does it work – and on whom?  Breathes there a soul who believes that Israel is all peaches and cream?  At the end of the day, does it aid Israel’s cause to flood the information marketplace with stories that omit fundamental, omnipresent problems – or do such efforts often backfire?  Is the bright side disingenuous by definition?  But does every story have to include conflict and death, like an episode of “CSI”?  Isn’t it nice to be uplifted once in a while? 

Reading the 21c story against the Israel I live in, I am unavoidably put in mind of a poem called “Hollywood Elegies,” penned in Los Angeles around 1942 by the brilliant German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht.  He was not a Jew, but he was a Marxist, and fled the Nazis too.  He landed in California in 1941 and tried to work as a Hollywood screenwriter, but without much success.  Meanwhile, more adaptable émigrés, such as Billy Wilder, were thriving.  Brecht was not so much a refugee as an exile, and his acerbic view of Hollywood reflects it.  In the “village of Hollywood,” he wrote, people have

. . . come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven.  It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.
(Translation by John Willett)

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but you do get the point.  Imagining an Israel of omnipresent prosperity and leisure, cutting-edge science and heavenly beauty, is indeed utopian, in the undying spirit of Theodor Herzl’s fantasy novel of 1902, “Altneuland.”  But Israel has never been a utopia, and won’t be anytime soon.  Just ask Reform rabbis, Eritrean asylum seekers, Palestinians, frightened haredim, displaced Gush Katif settlers, underpaid workers, disgruntled students, and pretty much anyone else who lives here. 

Recently, Jews the world over re-read the weekly Torah portion “Shelach-Lecha,” which features the famous tale of the twelve spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land.  After 40 days of evidence-gathering, they return with sobering news.  In verses of close proximity, Israel is described as both “a land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) and a “land that devours its inhabitants” (13:32). 

In the Bible story, the Israelite masses despair, and want to return to Egypt, for which they are punished.  They will die in the desert and not enter the Land.  But now that we, their distant heirs, have re-entered Israel, the spies’ candid prefiguration of Brecht seems both valid and necessary.  On the other hand, a Hollywood segue to a Segway in Tel Aviv sounds pretty good too.


Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its Engaging Israel project.

Miami temple disinvites Wasserman Schultz


Miami’s Temple Israel said it canceled tonight’s appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) due to security concerns, but the congresswoman – chair of the Democratic National Committee– called it “internal politics” after learning that a leading GOP donor quit the synagogue because he would not be allowed to give a Republican response.

Stanley Tate, a well-known philanthropist and prominent Republican, resigned from the temple after he learned Wasserman Schultz would be talking about Israel following Friday evening services and that he wouldn’t get an opportunity for rebuttal, according to the Miami Herald.

The temple’s president, Ben Kuehne, a Miami attorney, said the event was canceled because of security concerns (SEE KUEHNE’S LETTER BELOW).

Wasserman Schultz called it an unusual situation, due in part to the temple’s “internal politics.”

“I believe strongly that in a democracy people should be able to hear from and interact with their elected officials, which is why I gladly accepted Temple Israel’s invitation to speak as I have previously to many organizations and religious institutions throughout South Florida,” she said. “It is unfortunate that some would allow politics to stand in the way of citizens’ ability to interact with their representative.”

Tate, 85, is co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Miami-Dade County. He also has a national role in the GOP presidential candidate’s campaign.

“She’s the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee,” he said. “The topic is the U.S.-Israel relationship. There cannot be any conversation on that topic, none, unless it has to do with the politics.”


Biggest federation trip to Israel in years brings more than 700 from Miami


From afar it appeared to be a luminescent snake, twinkling in the dusk that was just beginning to cloak the desert mountains framing the Dead Sea.

Upon closer inspection it turned out to be hundreds of Jews from South Florida bearing glow sticks making their way down Masada’s snake path in an Israeli Independence Day celebration.

They were part of the biggest federation mission to Israel in at least a decade, organized by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Shortly before their trek down the snake path, the hikers had participated in a ceremony atop Masada that included a prayer for the State of Israel, the singing of “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and the release of 130 doves. Earlier in the day, many of the participants had been in the Negev development town of Yeruham singing, dancing and partying with the locals from Miami’s Israeli sister city.

“Having a mega-mission enables us to produce events that have a tremendous wow factor,” Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Miami federation, told JTA in a telephone interview. “I’m watching this church-like parade down a Roman ramp. You can’t do that with a little mission.”

The 700 participants on the April 22-May 1 mission include both first-time visitors to Israel and federation mission veterans, with participants ranging in age from 22 to 88.

Each day of the mission has its own theme – Jewish peoplehood, tzedakah, tikkun olam, leadership and federation values, to name a few – and the trip includes everything from visits to federation-funded projects supported via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel to a scheduled April 29 meeting with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.

There is no Palestinian component to the trip, although some participants are doing site visits to Israeli-Arab projects supported by the federation system, according to Solomon.

Before the trip, about 140 of the participants spent several days in Poland at the site of the Nazi concentration camps.

With such a large group, the Miami mega-mission presents numerous logistical challenges. It took two years to put together, and on the ground in Israel involves 16 buses, 26 staffers and one charter plane (which brought approximately 400 of the participants). Each bus has its own itinerary, and the whole group comes together about half a dozen times during the 10-day trip for so-called mega events.

“The scale is pretty impressive, even for me,” Solomon told JTA.

The purpose of the trip, Solomon said, is to foster community.

“Nothing builds community like a mission,” he said. “The point is to inspire people, to touch people, to engage them. Clearly there is a fundraising objective. But there’s also a human resource dimension that’s equally important. Past mission goers have become campaign chairs, board chairs. We did it as an investment in the future of our community.”

At Passover, let my people go south


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

Bomb threat evacuates two Miami-area temples


Two Miami-area synagogues were evacuated following a bomb threat.

A call Wednesday morning to Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Fla., said there was a bomb at the synagogue as well as at Temple B’nai Aviv, also in Weston, the Miami Herald reported.

The bomb squad did not find any explosives at either temple.

With the Republican base on the ropes, all eyes are on Florida — again


Most Jews live in three states, two of which, New York and California, are already in the bank for Sen. Barack Obama.

It’s the third one, Florida, that has the presidential campaigns in a frenzy. There are roughly 650,000 Jews in Florida, out of 18 million residents. Concentrated in South Florida in three counties (Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade), they are older, high-turnout voters with whom the Democrats have a big edge.

This is familiar territory. Unless tens of thousands of Jews had a sudden epiphany in 2000 that revealed Pat Buchanan to be a friend of the Jews, Al Gore won the election with a groundswell of Jewish votes that were interpreted incorrectly because of the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County.

In 2000 we didn’t know how important Florida Jews were until it was too late. In 2008, elderly Florida Jews are political rock stars. Sarah Silverman has a ” target=”_blank”>Jackie Mason has recorded an online countervideo to make the Republican case. Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” has had two segments featuring a ” target=”_blank”>making calls to Jewish voters that in all innocence ask if it would bother the voter to “know” that Obama has supported the PLO. That this stuff works is testimony to the challenge of a young black candidate, not yet well-known in the Jewish community, and to the complex undertow of recent black-Jewish tensions. Remember that many Florida Jews moved there from New York City, with its long and difficult history of black-Jewish conflict.

Indeed Florida itself seemed out of reach for Obama until a few weeks ago. But as in all the battleground states, the Wall Street crash and bailout transformed the campaign and a raft of new polls give Obama a small but significant lead in Florida.

If Obama wins Florida’s 27 electoral votes, it’s over. If Sen. John McCain holds Florida, he still has a chance. So it looks as if Florida and its Jewish bloc are back in play.

The surrogates are all over the place, with Sen. Joe Lieberman plugging McCain and Obama pulling in former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Florida Rep. Robert Wexler and Middle East expert Dennis Ross. Joe Biden is very popular with Florida Jews, and he is pulling his weight. With the advantage of the Republican brand, and McCain’s own familiarity, he does not need as many surrogates as Obama.

So why did McCain’s economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, pick this moment to tell the Wall Street Journal that McCain plans to pay for his health care plan by taking blocks of money from Medicare and Medicaid? Politically, this makes no sense in Florida, where an attack on Medicare, joined to McCain’s support for private accounts in Social Security, could shake loose thousands of older voters.

McCain is on a precipice with those voters, many of whom are trying to decide whether to take a risk on the unfamiliar and cast a vote for the young black guy instead of the older white guy everybody knows. The older the voter, the more difficult the decision. Why then would McCain make it an easy choice?

I imagine that while Holtz-Eakin spoke accurately, his timing reflects the chaos within the McCain campaign, especially in regards to economic policy. But the substantive explanation might lie in the pressure on McCain to explain his health care plan, under which he proposed to provide tax credits for Americans to buy private insurance while removing the tax deduction for employer-based health care.

This approach leaves the taxpayer paying more in payroll taxes for the pleasure of navigating the private market (with its well-known aversion to insuring anybody who might someday get sick or is sick now). So the McCain people said that there would be no payroll tax increase. But how to pay for the new tax credit? Thus the decision to take it from Medicare and Medicaid. From their standpoint, they get to further the privatization of health care and still avoid the charge (fatal with the Republican base) of raising taxes.

Put more simply, it seemed safer to risk losing older voters in Florida than to risk the Republican brand of no new taxes, hoping that those Floridians won’t have heard about the interview or will believe when told that Holtz-Eakin was talking out of turn, or will just be confused because the whole thing comes across as such a complex muddle.

Because, if the McCain camp doesn’t find a way around this, how can it continue to attack Obama for raising taxes?

The problem for any Republican nominee is that what pleases the base (e.g. Sarah Palin, privatization, lower taxes) may end up turning off everybody else. If McCain loses Florida, that may be the lesson for his party. The base can never be fed enough.

McCain would have probably been better off with no health care plan rather than one that eviscerates employer-based insurance and cuts Medicare and Medicaid. But it’s too late now.

Now, the question is whether the Obama campaign can boil down for Florida voters the peril to Social Security and Medicare from a McCain-Palin administration. This is a job for Bill Clinton, the one Democrat who can reduce complex policy issues to a story about a frog sitting on a fence post. Clinton really hurt Paul Tsongas on the Social Security issue in the 1992 Florida Democratic primary.

The Republicans meanwhile plan to push farther and deeper into the attacks on Obama as a “friend of terrorists,” as a “different kind of American” and more. It is already ugly out on the campaign trail, and reporters in the field are feeling the heat of the rising anger of a Republican base on the ropes.

This is Florida 2008. Fasten your seat belts.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is spending the semester in Paris as the Fulbright-Tocqueville Chair at the University of Paris VIII.

Delivery chef unable to savor his culinary success


Crab cakes drizzled with zesty chipotle lime sauce and peppercorn brandy glazed pork loin are a few of the entrées The Fresh Diet delivers to clients. But its Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, who developed most of the dishes offered on the meal-delivery program’s menu, has never actually sampled his own dishes, which have been praised by Phil Lempert, food trends editor for NBC’s “Today.”

While it might seem odd for a head chef to have not tasted any of his or her own creations, Yosef Schwartz can’t; he keeps kosher.

The Fresh Diet is one of about 50 meal-delivery programs nationwide that can help take the time-consuming preparation — as well as portion-control and guesswork — out of eating healthy. In the next few weeks, Miami-based Fresh Diet will start delivering to homes and offices in Los Angeles. And if there’s enough of a call for it, Schwartz is hoping to start a kosher version of Fresh Diet here after he returns to the Southland this month.

Schwartz, 27, grew up in Westwood and Mar Vista, attended Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad near Hancock Park and received his smicha in Israel. While you can call him a rabbi, he would rather be thought of as a chef.

Schwartz wanted to cook from the time he was a teenager. His rabbi father and rebbetzin mother would host 50 people for dinner each Friday night, and Schwartz says he would spend Thursdays and Fridays after school cooking with his mother. “I knew by 14 years old that I wanted to go to culinary school,” he said.

After he received his rabbinic degree in 2001, Schwartz immediately applied to California Culinary Academy to hone a variety of cooking skills.

“My parents were very supportive,” he said.

As far as working with treif ingredients like pork and shellfish at California Culinary Academy and now Fresh Diet, Schwartz says it took some getting used to.

“Once I started working with the product, I was really fine with it,” he said. “There are other senses besides taste. I like to think of myself as a food technician.”

Schwartz worked with a variety of local kosher caterers while he studied in Pasadena. And after graduating from California Culinary Academy in 2004, his high school friends encouraged him to consider joining them to start a food-delivery business based on Dr. Barry Sears’ Zone Diet, which features 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent proteins and 30 percent good fats.

The prices for the Fresh Diet delivery service, which currently reaches South Florida, Chicago and the New York Tri-State area, range from $35 to $60 per day. The meals are delivered in cooler bags overnight and include three entrees and two snacks.

“We’ve had people who said they’ve saved money,” he said, referring to busy clients who would tend to eat in restaurants several times each day. “It’s basically a little present at your door every morning.”

Schwartz says exercise and his own kosher version of the meal system have helped him lose weight. He weighed 300 pounds when he started the business with his friends. His shirt size has since gone from XXL to large, having dropped down to 210 pounds.

“I was thinking about doing it kosher before we even started the company,” he said, adding that it would take 30 to 50 subscribers to start a similar kosher service in the Southern California. “If there’s a demand for it, we will do it.”

Better late than never, Theodor Herzl, children reunited in death; Ex-N.J. Governor McGreevey’s Isra


Theodor Herzl, Children Reunited in Death
 
Two of Theodor Herzl’s children were reinterred in Jerusalem after decades of debate. Hans and Pauline Herzl, who died in 1930 and were buried in France, were laid to final rest alongside the Zionist visionary at the cemetery that carries his name in Israel’s capital. Theodor Herzl, who launched the modern Zionist movement and wrote “The Jewish State” a few years before dying in 1904, had expressed the wish to be buried next to his children. But Israeli authorities, after reinterring Herzl himself in 1949, were reluctant to do the same for Hans and Pauline given the controversy over their deaths. Pauline died of a drug overdose in what might have been a suicide, prompting her brother to shoot himself. Hans’ conversion to Christianity shortly before his death further stoked religious opposition to his burial in Israel. But rabbis recently ruled that Hans had disavowed Christianity before dying, and that Pauline’s demise was a result of mental disturbance.
 
“Having brought in the remains of Pauline and Hans, we are completing the mission and achieving historical closure,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the burial ceremony.
 
Ex-N.J. Governor McGreevey’s Israeli ‘Lover’ Denounces Book
 
An Israeli who was James McGreevey’s declared love interest attacked the former New Jersey governor’s memoir. McGreevey, who stepped down in 2004 after declaring he was gay, published a memoir this month titled, “The Confession.” In it, he details an affair he said he had with Golan Cipel, an Israeli whose appointment to serve as homeland security adviser in New Jersey raised eyebrows. But Cipel, who says he is straight and suffered sexual harassment by McGreevey, issued a statement attacking the book as a “pack of lies.”
 
Cipel said: “I strongly hope that the gay community rejects this obvious and shameless ploy from a man who has engaged in acts of deception, sexual violence and intimidation.”
 
Latino Jews React to Miami Radio Caricature
 
Hispanic Jews in Miami formed a group to monitor Spanish-language media for anti-Semitism. The establishment of the Hispanic Jewish Initiative comes after Jews said they were offended by Goldstein, a Jewish character on the top-rated 95.7 FM show, known in English as “The Morning Hijinks,” local media reported. A Web page, until recently linked to the show, depicts a black character, Al Jackson, with the mug shot of a man whose lips balloon from his face. In place of a photo for Goldstein is a Nazi eagle and swastika.
 
The group, created under the state chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, will monitor and address other concerns of Florida’s Spanish-speaking Jewish population.
 
Israel Unmoved by Irish Boycott Call
 
Israel’s education minister downplayed an Irish call for Israeli academics to be boycotted. In an open letter published by the Irish Times newspaper earlier this month, 61 local academics urged their country, as well as the European Union, to impose a moratorium on ties with Israeli educational institutions until Israel “ends the occupation of Palestinian territories.”
 
The letter also deplored Israel’s “aggression against the people of Lebanon” during the recent war against Hezbollah. Israel’s education minister, Yuli Tamir, said she would meet the Irish ambassador to discuss the boycott call but played down its importance.
 
“At this time, I don’t see a real danger to Israel’s academic ties, though any boycott is despicable and we have to make sure it is lifted,” she told Army Radio.
 
Four Men Charged In Norway Synagogue Attack
 
Norwegian police charged four men in the shooting attack on an Oslo synagogue. The men were initially charged with vandalism Sept. 21, but the charge was upgraded to organizing an act of terrorism, an offense punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Police said one suspect was Norwegian, and the others had different backgrounds. They declined to provide more information about the suspects. However, Norwegian news outlets have reported that one suspect was a 29-year-old Norwegian of Pakistani origin who had been held briefly in Germany in June on suspicion of planning an act of terrorism against the soccer World Cup. No one was hurt in the Sept. 17 incident.
 
Czechs on Security Alert During High Holidays
 
The Czech Republic went on high alert for a terrorist attack during the High Holidays. The government announced the alert in the early hours Saturday and said it would continue for some time, with no specifics given. Czech officials noted that the Czech alliance with the United States in its war on terror might have made it a target, but there was also media speculation that an attack was planned to coincide with Rosh Hashanah. A government spokesman reportedly hinted that the alert was connected to the arrest of four men charged with shooting at an Oslo synagogue last weekend. Norwegian authorities have said the men were plotting to blow up U.S. and Israeli embassies in other cities. Thousands of additional police are present in the streets of Prague and are particularly noticeable near Jewish sites, such as synagogues and the Jewish community headquarters.
 
Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Wild Ride With Wildlife in Miami


 

Stretching along the popular beachfront area of Miami, approximately 650,000 Jewish residents support more than 100 synagogues, several Jewish community centers and abundant kosher restaurants, including authentic Thai food. The South Florida city even employs a full-time kashrut supervision department.

So on a recent trip to Miami, I indulged in Thai food and a few other favorites. Along with spotting baby alligators in the wild, viewing ancient art and other treasures, that meal was one of many memorable highlights.

We couldn’t skip the Everglades, one of the most well-known sites in Florida. Since we were on limited time over a long weekend, a friend and I opted for an airboat ride in the Everglades Alligator Farm.

With 10 other passengers, our craft launched from a canal filled with adult and adolescent alligators swimming just feet away. Their amphibious compadres, soft-shelled turtles, resemble snakes swimming with their heads above water.

As we took off, the boat’s engine roared so loudly that our driver instructed us to stuff our ears with complimentary cotton balls. We floated along as he pointed out the wildlife, alligator tracks and a breeding den. He spoke so loud, we could hear him even with the cotton.

When we neared an expansive glade he warned us to hold on. Suddenly, as if levitating on a flying carpet, we were airborne. The sensation was remarkable; the moment magical. We were weightless, skimming along gentle curves, skirting above the water and the abundant grasses. As far as the eye could see, there were only the Everglades: a clear blue sky, water and grasses spreading in every direction.

Then suddenly, the driver changed course, taking us in a 180-degree turn. He immediately accelerated again, then spun us in full circle. After a handful of more wild spins that created giant splashes and left us laughing for more, we headed back to an open stretch that led to the mainland.

There we took in a snake show, where we handled a magnificent albino python with striking yellow and white skin that was cool to the touch. We also toured the breeding ponds on a nature trail. Covered with a bright green moss, the alligators lay still, many of them just visible with their scales skimming the surface and their beady eyes staring above the water.

On our return trip, we dropped anchor at Robert Is Here, which specializes in exotic fruits. With delicacies such as monstera deliciosa, which looks like a giant green ear of corn but tastes like banana-pineapple pudding, you could easily say the blessing for tasting new fruits again and again. Mamey, atemoya, longan, canestel, anon, sapodilla, sapote and many other natural treats all qualify at this “Shehecheyanu store.”

Our next unique destination was Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a majestic bay-front villa established between 1914 and 1916 by American farm equipment manufacturer James Deering as his winter home. Designed in the style of Italian Renaissance villas, the estate originally spanned 180 acres and resembled a typical northern Italian village with a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, greenhouse, machine shop, paint and carpentry workshop and staff residences.

The fully restored mansion was made to look as if a family had lived in it for 400 years, adding its own period furnishings, neoclassical, rococo and much more. As a result, Vizcaya contains one of the finest collections of European decorative arts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Vizcaya was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and now functions as an art house museum.

We capped off our Florida adventure at Thai Treat & Sushi, located just a few minutes drive from The Shul at Bal Harbour, where we spent Shabbat. Opened two years ago by a Thai and Indian couple, June and Naresh Choudhury, the kosher restaurant’s extensive menu features truly authentic Thai specialties.

We were sold on two superb dishes. Rich and flavorful Tom Kha Kai soup featured chicken in coconut milk, fresh mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice. The exceptional Thai Basil Special featured chicken (or tofu or beef) sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, chili paste and fresh herbs.

We were so taken by the captivating Thai flavors, we gave the sushi only a taste. The yummy vegetable combo, like all the sushi platters and bento boxes, was beautifully presented (and available with brown rice instead of white). We washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.

The chef also recommended chicken and beef satay, montod — fries made from sweet potato and coconut — and spring rolls. We were far too stuffed for more. At least we know what we’ll try when we return — as if we really needed a reason.

Thai Treat & Sushi. Sans Souci Plaza, 2176 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami. (305) 892-1118.

The Everglades Alligator Farm. 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead. (305) 247-2628; everglades.com.

Robert Is Here. 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead. (305) 246-1592; www.robertishere.com.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. (305) 250-9133; vizcayamuseum.org.

 

On Shabbat, Stay Cool as a Cucumber


Miami is hot. In the summer, even sometimes in the winter, the air arches off the streets radiating heat circles that bend but do not break as you walk though them, slowly, slowly.

My grandparents, Oma and Opa, bought an apartment in Miami Beach that my family of eight piled into for visits. It was a small unit with one bedroom and a galley kitchen that emptied into a simply furnished dining and living area. But the center courtyard, where each of these tiny apartments faced, was opened to the sky and bathed in Florida sun. And the beach and the Atlantic Ocean were only two lazy blocks away.

So when we got our driver’s licenses, my brothers and sisters and I drove ourselves from our Atlanta home to Miami. Opa would find us a little room close by so we could run around all day and night and touch base for meals or chats in between. Oma, a fastidious and controlled woman, loved our visits. Her serious and beautiful face would break into a child’s laugh when my sister and I shared stories about the boys we met while strolling the beaches and dancing at nightclubs. And Opa, a sparkling and wise man, managed to find us once every day on the beach. From a distance, we would see him coming, wearing his summer suit and beige cap and carrying a brown paper bag holding our carefully prepared lunches of cold chicken, homemade challah, and light sugar cookies.

But for Saturday lunches, we came to them. Since they were Orthodox and didn’t use appliances on the Sabbath, Oma had an array of simple but wonderful dishes she prepared in advance to be eaten cold. In the Miami heat, her Cucumber Dill Salad was one of my favorites. It was always served in a rectangular glass container with gold flower foiling on the sides. The pale green slices were always perfectly thin and even. And when we sat together around the dim unlit dining table — me sunburned and tired from the day before — her cool salad felt like a mint mist, a slow fan. Outside their window, the palm leaves baked yellow in the sun, but inside, eating pale green cucumber circles with my Oma and Opa, I was filled by a moment where there was nothing I’d rather do.

Oma’s Cucumber Dill Salad

My grandmother marinated her cucumbers in distilled white vinegar, but I replaced it with rice vinegar for a less sharp taste. She also cooked with a very light hand when it came to spices, so play with the seasonings until it is perfect and refreshing for you.

2 large cucumbers (approximately four cups sliced)

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon sugar

Pinch of white pepper

Fresh dill (approximately 1-2 tablespoons)

Peel skin off cucumbers and slice thinly. Arrange in long rectangular sealable container. In small bowl whisk vinegar, water, salt, sugar and pepper. (Season to your taste, but don’t add too much salt as it draws liquid from the cucumbers.) Pour vinegar mixture over cucumbers and mix well. Cut fresh dill and sprinkle over cucumbers. Close container, toss to mix and refrigerate overnight to marinate. Toss again before serving.

Serves five as a side dish.