Abramoff Linked to Jewish Ventures

Reading the indictment against Jack Abramoff, one might not know that he was prominent in Washington Jewish circles. But in coming months, his ties with Jewish and Israeli organizations may emerge as a prominent piece in the lobbyist’s web of questionable activities.

Last week, Abramoff pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts in Washington and Miami as part of a settlement in which he agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in their ongoing government corruption probe. In the Washington case, the 46-year-old lobbyist admitted defrauding at least four Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, enticing government officials with bribes and evading taxes. In the Miami case, Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud stemming from his purchase of a fleet of casino boats.

While Abramoff is best known as a political wheeler-dealer, he also was a player in the Jewish community of the nation’s capital, starting several short-lived, money-losing ventures to fill what he perceived as religious gaps in the city’s Jewish world.

He also used his largess to further Israeli businesses and charities that appealed to his conservative worldview. Some of these activities have come to light in connection with the cases outlined in the federal indictments.

Specifically, Abramoff allegedly using money from a Washington charity he oversaw to fund military-style programs in the West Bank. Indian tribes donated money to tax-exempt charities, believing they were supporting anti-gambling foundations, but the money was redirected to help a “sniper school” in the West Bank, operated by a friend of Abramoff.

According to congressional documents, Abramoff sought night-vision goggles and a vehicle for the sniper-training facility.

Abramoff also allegedly worked on behalf of an Israeli firm that sought to wire the Capitol for cellular phone use. While leading cell phone manufacturers in the United States settled on JGC Wireless to install antennas in repeaters in House buildings, an Israeli company with ties to Abramoff, Foxcom Wireless, ultimately won the bid.

The switch is allegedly linked to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, who accepted numerous favors from Abramoff over the years, and placed comments in the Congressional Record favorable to Abramoff’s ventures.

Foxcom didn’t pay Abramoff to lobby for the House job, but it did donate $50,000 to the Capitol Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff charity, the Washington Post reported.

Foxcom has changed its name to MobileAccess and moved its headquarters to Virginia. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Abramoff also has been tied to two rabbis, the Lapin brothers from South Africa, who aided his political and personal ventures. David Lapin was hired to run a Jewish school Abramoff created in suburban Maryland to teach his children and others.

Lapin also received close to $1.2 million to promote “ethics in government” to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, one of Abramoff’s clients. Officials on the island said Lapin did little for the money.

His brother, Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition. Abramoff allegedly asked him to create an award to bestow upon Abramoff to help his acceptance into Washington’s Cosmos Club. Abramoff suggested he could be a “scholar of Talmudic studies” or a “distinguished biblical scholar.”

Lapin said yes, according to e-mails obtained by congressional investigators, and asked whether Abramoff needed a letter or a plaque. Lapin told the Washington Post he meant the exchange to be tongue-in-cheek and never produced an award for Abramoff.

Two other Abramoff aides moved to Israel last year as investigators continued their probe. Sam Hook and his wife, Shana Tesler, both worked at Abramoff’s law firm and had been cooperating with investigators before moving to Israel in July, according to The Hill, a Washington newspaper. The Orthodox Jews had long planned to move to Israel, their attorney said last year.

Abramoff also made contributions to several Jewish lawmakers, among numerous congressmen Abramoff and his associates help finance. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) donated $7,000 — the amount he received from Abramoff — to charity last week.

A spokesman for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did not respond to questions about his own donation from Abramoff — in the amount of $1,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In Washington, Abramoff was well-known for the idiosyncratic use of his money. He shunned other religious schools in the area, choosing to open Eshkol Academy specifically for his children’s education.

The school closed within two years, and several teachers say they are owed back pay. David Lapin, the school’s dean, was not an active administrator, former teachers said.

Abramoff also opened several kosher restaurants that failed quickly. Stacks, a deli, was welcomed by the city’s Jewish community, but never made money. A more formal restaurant upstairs, Archives, never stayed open for more than a few weeks at a time.

Some Jewish professionals found it noteworthy that the Abramoff that appeared outside a Washington courthouse Jan. 3 — with a long, double-breasted black coat and black hat — resembled a devout Jew on his way to Shabbat services. In a New York Times interview last year, Abramoff compared himself to the biblical character Jacob, saying his involvement in lobbying was similar to Jacob’s taking the identity of his brother, Esau. A spokesman for Abramoff later told JTA his client was misquoted.


Israel Fest Expands Celebration Borders

UCLA Hillel special events coordinator Guy Kochlani was born in Tel Aviv, but he was never actively involved in supporting Israel — until the day three years ago when a group of Palestinian students interrupted the Yom HaAtzmaut celebration on campus.

"I couldn’t believe it — these 15 guys dressed in black militia garb came storming across campus, shouting and carrying signs reading, ‘You Nazis, You killers!’" Kochlani recalled. "It didn’t stop the other [Jewish] students, they just kept on dancing, but it stopped me cold. That was my breaking point."

Kochlani is one of the planners of this year’s Israel Independence Day Celebration Festival to be held Sunday, May 11 in Woodley Park in Encino. In the three years since the incident on campus, he has co-founded two groups for Israeli college students — Bruinpac, which became Bruins for Israel, and the social group Israelis Biyachad — and was chair of the 55th Israel Independence Day Block Party at UCLA held May 7. He also joined the board of both the Israeli Festival’s planning committee and the Council for Israel Community, a local political action group that seeks to promote positive images of Israel in the media.

Kochlani, 23, hopes the Israeli Festival will attract more young people. Last year, he helped institute a teen stage (which will also appear at this year’s event) featuring popular Israeli DJs cranking out a variety of music, from house and hip hop to Israeli pop. This year, he will direct the festival’s fashion show on the main stage at 3 p.m.

The all-day festival commemorates Israel’s 55th Independence Day and includes activities for all ages. There will be a children’s village featuring rides, an arts-and-crafts area and a petting zoo, along with live musical performances and magic shows. An Israeli Pavilion, sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, will showcase music and art from across Jewish culture. Visitors can indulge in a variety of ethnic food, such as schwarma, falafel and kabobs, or stroll through the marketplace for Israeli artwork, jewelry and Judaica.

Dignitaries participating in this year’s ceremony will include Gov. Gray Davis, Reps. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) and Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Yuval Rotem and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

During the ceremony, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will be honored as a "distinguished friend of the Israeli community."

This is the festival’s third year in Encino, where it moved after many years at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles. The festival usually attracts around 40,000 people, said organizers, who expect even larger crowds this year.

Festival chair Itzik Glazer said that this year’s festival has expanded to include nearby Lake Balboa Park area, as well as Woodley Park, increasing vendor space and parking. The number of vendors for 2003 has more than doubled, from 120 last year to 250 this year, spurring festival organizers to create an "Israel street" market area. Security for the event was also revamped, Glazer said.

"The private company working for us will have more people on staff," he said. "All of the park will be fenced, and because we’re busing people from the Lake Balboa parking lot [to the main festival area], on each bus there will be a security guard. We also worked with the police [the West Valley Division of the Los Angeles Police Department], so there will be more security people inside and more police outside."

Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel, who is honorary chair of the Israeli Festival, said a demonstration in support of Israel is more important now than ever.

"This is an opportunity for the residents of the second-largest Jewish community in the country to come out in force, to show that we stand strongly with Israel at this critical time," Fishel said.

Kochlani agreed that the State of Israel needs a powerful demonstration of support from Angelenos, and he hoped that people along the political spectrum can put their feelings about the road map aside for the sake of the festival.

"Any event you do for Israel, politics are included — it just comes with the package," Kochlani said. "But we’re trying to keep the event in the center, so both sides can enjoy it."

The Israel Festival will take place Sunday, May 11 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Woodley Park, corner of Victory Boulevard and Woodley Avenue in Encino. Admission is $3 per person and parking is free. For more information, call (818) 757-0123 or visit www.israelfestival.com.