Orthodox conversions in Israel down dramatically, study shows

Orthodox conversions in Israel are down by 31 percent over the past two years, according to a new report.

“Both demographic changes and bureaucratic hurdles have contributed to this change,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life.

The ITIM study, released on the eve of Shavuot, in which Jewish tradition celebrates the conversion to Judaism of Ruth, shows that the total number of Orthodox conversions performed in Israel in 2011, including Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopians, has been cut nearly in half since 2007.

There were 4,293 Orthodox conversions in 2011, compared with 8,008 in 2007. From 2008 to 2010, the number of Orthodox conversions fell from 6,221 to 4,645.

ITIM’s report also discussed other developments in conversion in Israel during the past year, including Israel’s inability to develop clear criteria for recognizing conversions from abroad.

“Despite the 2005 Supreme Court ruling which calls upon the Ministry of Interior to recognize the autonomy of local Jewish communities on issues relating to conversion, the State of Israel continues to make it difficult for converts to make aliyah,” according to the report.

“This is against the spirit of Jewish tradition,” Farber said.

The report will be placed on the table of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee this week.

Ethiopian Israelis demonstrate against discrimination

Hundreds of Israelis of Ethiopian descent and their supporters protested in the southern Israeli community of Kiryat Malachi against housing discrimination.

Tuesday night’s demonstration, with estimates of up to 2,500 participants, came after what the Ethiopian residents of the city say is a pattern of refusal to sell or rent housing to them.

A residential committee of a block in Kiryat Malachi reportedly signed residents to a contract committing that they would not rent or sell to Ethiopian Israelis.

In a meeting Wednesday, just hours after the end of the demonstration, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver told an Ethiopian activist to “Say thank you for what you got.” Landver immigrated from Russia in 1979.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed his adviser on Ethiopian immigrant affairs, Alali Adamsu, who met Tuesday night with the organizers of the demonstration, to act to eradicate racism against Ethiopian immigrants.

“We are full of admiration for Ethiopian immigrants. In the face of obstacles and difficulties, they came here and are integrating into Israeli society, which we are encouraging in every possible way,” Netanyahu said in a statement issued from his office. “Racist phenomena are infuriating and have no place in Israeli society. The ingathering of exiles from Ethiopia and everywhere else in the world is an inseparable part of the character of the State of Israel.”

On Sunday night, at least 18 cars in Kiryat Malachi were spray-painted with graffiti against Israelis of Ethiopian descent and the haredi Orthodox, according to reports.

Gingrich questions Ron Paul about racist newsletters

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich on Friday urged rival Ron Paul to explain his links to newsletters two decades ago that carried the Texas congressman’s name and contained racist, anti-homosexual and anti-Israel rants.

“I think that Congressman Paul has to explain his own situation and how he could have had a decade of newsletters that had his name on it that he apparently wasn’t aware of,” Gingrich said.

“I think that somebody should say to him ‘OK, how much money did you make from the newsletters?’ These things are really nasty, and he didn’t know about it? Wasn’t aware of it? But he’s sufficiently ready to be president? It strikes me it raises some fundamental questions about him.”

Paul, leading the race for the Jan. 3 Republican caucuses vote in Iowa, the first nominating contest in the nation, has come under pressure after revelations of possible links to far-right comments.

A direct-mail solicitation for Paul’s political and investment newsletters in the 1990s warned of a “coming race war in our big cities” and of a “federal-homosexual cover-up” to play down the impact of AIDS.

The eight-page letter, which appears to carry Paul’s signature at the end, also warns that the U.S. government’s redesign of currency to include different colors – a move aimed at thwarting counterfeiters – actually was part of a plot to allow the government to track Americans using the “new money.”

Paul’s campaign has launched a wave of attack ads on Gingrich in Iowa, as the Republican race to select a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election heats up.


Speaking before a crowd of about 250 in the early voting state South Carolina, Gingrich criticized Congress’s last-minute deal this week to extend the payroll tax extension for two months, which followed a bruising political battle.

“I don’t know how we get this message across to both parties, but there’s something profoundly wrong in this economy, with the problems around the world threatening to make it worse, to have the president and Congress thinking that they accomplished something by passing a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut.”

He went on to tout his own record as speaker of the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s when, he said, he was able to work with Democrats on welfare reform, a balanced budget and the creation of 11 million new jobs. “Unemployment went down to 4.2 percent” during his tenure as speaker, he said.

Gingrich is the choice for 38 percent of South Carolina primary voters, while twenty-one percent said they favored former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, according to Clemson University poll results released on Monday.

The poll surveyed by telephone 600 South Carolinians who said they would vote in the state’s Jan. 21 primary. About a third of the respondents said they had decided on a candidate. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Gingrich called Romney a “Massachusetts moderate”.

Fresh from his effort to get his name on the ballot for the Virginia primary, Gingrich will be off the campaign trail until Tuesday.

Reporting By Alistair Bell; Editing by Paul Simao

Rice tells Jewish leaders: U.N. engagement ‘vital’

The United States must remain engaged with the United Nations, its envoy to the international body told the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella.

“I hope we never let our justified frustration over the treatment of Israel blind us to the ways in which the U.N. is vital to our security and our values,” Susan Rice said Wednesday in an address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “It’s not in America’s interest to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Some conservative groups have lambasted the Obama administration for increasing its engagement with the United Nations, and a number of Jewish groups have been frustrated for years with its anti-Israel bias.

“Whether it’s bringing the world together to isolate Iran or North Korea; keeping the peace in conflict zones at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops; saving the lives of refugees and starving children; or fostering democracy in places like South Sudan and Liberia, the work of the U.N. is fundamentally in our interest,” Rice said. “We will continue to lead, to pursue our interests and our values, and to stick up for fair treatment for Israel.”

The Presidents Conference conferred its National Service Award on Rice at a New York dinner, citing the Obama administration’s support for Israel.

Rice in her remarks referred to what she called “unprecedented” closeness in the U.S.-Israel security relationship and chided the Palestinian leadership for seeking statehood recognition in the absence of direct talks with Israel.

“We will continue to fight against any obstacle placed on the path to peace,” she said.

Jewish activists seize buildings on Jordanian border

Jewish activists seized several buildings near the border with Jordan to protest its interference in Temple Mount affairs.

Approximately 30 right-wing activists entered the buildings—abandoned churches, according to Haaretz—accompanied by a television crew.

The activists reportedly wanted to send a message to Jordan to stay out of matters regarding the Temple Mount. Israel and Jordan have been involved in talks to replace the temporary wooden Mughrabi Bridge, which was erected in 2004 to replace a damaged stone walkway. The bridge was closed Monday after engineers said it could collapse or catch fire.

Jordan has called on Israel to refrain from destroying the bridge, saying it will change the character of the holy site.

Israeli security forces evacuated the protesters.

A Hamas spokesman on Monday called Israel’s closure of the Mughrabi Bridge “a violent act that amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.”

Long resented by Muslims, the bridge links the Western Wall to the Temple Mount and had allowed tourists to visit the latter’s Al Aksa and Dome of the Rock mosques.

The structure was to have been demolished last month to make way for a new, permanent walkway, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the project in a move widely seen as designed to avoid stirring anti-Israel passions in Arab states rocked by political turmoil.

At RJC forum, Republican hopefuls preview their lines of attack

Iran’s nuclear program appears to be racing ahead. The Middle East peace process is in shambles. And a series of recent flare-ups have highlighted ongoing tensions between the Obama administration and elements of the pro-Israel community.

It was against this backdrop that six Republican candidates took the stage Dec. 7 at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s presidential candidates forum. The hopefuls took turns laying out their lines of attack against President Obama, offering a preview of how Middle East issues might play out in a general election battle.

The daylong event attracted hundreds of Republican Jews to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center here. They heard from the top GOP contenders with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who was not invited. (The RJC’s executive director, Matthew Brooks, cited the congressman’s “misguided and extreme views” as the reason for his exclusion.)

With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, the current leaders of the GOP pack, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, appeared to cement their status as favorites of Jewish Republicans, both receiving warm receptions and ample applause.

While the candidates touched on economic issues, most avoided addressing the social issues, such as abortion and religion, that tend to push Jewish voters away from Republicans.

Instead, their comments focused heavily on foreign policy, with each assailing the Obama administration for its policies toward Israel and Iran, and vowing that they would be better friends to the Jewish state and tougher foes for the Islamic Republic.

The ‘appeasement’ accusation

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum led off the forum by introducing a theme that the front-runners would echo.

“The president, for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, has had nothing but appeasement,” Santorum said.

Later in the day, Romney accused Obama of an “appeasement strategy” toward America’s rivals and enemies, while Gingrich said he was “very, very worried about our entire relationship with radical Islam,” saying it is based on self-deception and appeasement.

In response to a reporter’s question, Obama fired back the next day.

“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” the president said.

Obama and Israel

Gingrich and Romney both placed their criticisms of Obama’s Israel policies within the context of broader foreign policy critiques.

Gingrich said the U.S. needs “a dramatically rethought strategy for the Middle East” and that the country is engaged in a “long struggle with radical Islamists.” The former House speaker took aim at recent remarks by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who urged Israel to “mend fences” with its neighbors.

“This one-sided continuing pressure that says it’s always Israel’s fault no matter how bad the other side is has to stop,” Gingrich said.

Romney accused the president of having “rushed to apologize for America, but he has hesitated to speak up for democracy and freedom.” The former Massachusetts governor depicted Israel as a case in point.

Obama “has immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East,” Romney said, and his administration’s policies have only “emboldened Palestinian hard-liners” who feel that “they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that Obama “has insisted on previously unheard-of preconditions for Israel, such as an immediate stop to all settlement activity.” Perry said he supports “the goal of a Palestinian state, but it should be the Palestinians who meet certain pre-conditions.”

First, Perry said, a Palestinian state must be “directly negotiated between Israeli and the Palestinian leaders.” Second, he demanded “Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” Finally, he said Palestinian leaders must “renounce the terrorist activities of Hamas.”

Perry’s pre-conditions closely resemble positions previously articulated by Obama. The president has condemned Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood outside of the context of negotiations, called previous Hamas-Fatah unity efforts “an enormous obstacle to peace” and said Israel should be “a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.”

The Iranian threat

The candidates talked tough on Iran—and had some tough words for the Obama administration.

“On Iran, the only rational long-term policy is regime replacement,” Gingrich said in response to a question from an audience member. He called for covert action to sabotage Iran’s gasoline supply and said the U.S. should fund Iranian dissident groups.

Regarding the country’s nuclear program, Gingrich said, “It’s better to stop them early than to stop them late.”

Perry warned that Obama’s “failed policy of outreach to Tehran” has left the U.S. “with only two options: a military strike or a nuclear Iran.”

Romney called for keeping the threat of military action on the table while pursuing sanctions.

“We should make it very clear that we are developing, and have developed, military options,” Romney said in response to a question. “Nothing concentrates the mind like suffering from sanctions and seeing a military option. It is unacceptable for the U.S. to endure an Iran with a nuclear weapon.”

Moving the embassy

Presidential candidates regularly promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Back in 1999, then-candidate George W. Bush told an RJC gathering that he would move the embassy, but he never followed through as president.

At the RJC forum, Gingrich reiterated his pledge—made in a June speech to the RJC—to move the embassy to Jerusalem. But it was Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota who took that promise into uncharted territory with her unconventional proposal to help finance the move.

“I already have secured from a donor who said they will personally pay for the ambassador’s home to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Bachmann said.

Gingrich’s State man

Gingrich offered some red meat to the foreign policy hawks in the house and made the only real news of the night when he said that he would offer the job of secretary of state to former American diplomat John Bolton.

Bolton served for less than a year as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the second Bush administration as a recess appointment. Known for his confrontational style, Bolton is a favorite of conservatives who take a dim view of multilateral institutions such as the U.N. but a pariah to liberals who see him as an undiplomatic diplomat.

Bolton, who has not yet endorsed a candidate, later called the offer “very flattering” but did not say whether he would accept the job in a Gingrich administration.

Aid to Israel

One issue mostly missing from the RJC forum was aid to Israel.

The issue became a campaign flash point after Perry said at a debate that all U.S. aid allotments to foreign countries should start at zero and be considered anew each year, and Gingrich and Romney immediately agreed.

Asked at the debate whether his framework also would apply to Israel, Perry answered that it would, though he stressed that Israel would likely continue to receive funding at a “high level.”

Even the RJC had expressed concern over Perry’s formulation, warning in a Twitter post that it contradicts a previous memorandum of understanding between the two countries.

For weeks, leading Jewish Democrats have been highlighting the issue, accusing the Republican contenders of lacking commitment to American aid to Israel.

In an interview in advance of the forum, Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, expressed confidence that the candidates would “put to bed the political smears” from Democrats “that the leading Republicans want to cut aid to Israel.”

At the forum, Perry did address the issue head on, saying that “I am adamant that any discussion of foreign aid should start at zero. But let me be clear: Israel is our strategic ally. America long ago ended traditional foreign aid to Israel. Strategic defense aid to Israel will increase under a Perry administration.”

Yet the issue of aid was not mentioned by front-runners Gingrich and Romney—and Democrats pounced.

“I am deeply disappointed that Governor Romney refused to state whether he supports the [Memorandum of Understanding] between the U.S. and Israel in his address this morning to the Republican Jewish Coalition,” Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “If Governor Romney isn’t willing to support Israel’s military and foreign aid package before an audience of pro-Israel, Republican Jews, many of us believe he simply doesn’t support it!”

However, in a follow-up interview, Brooks dismissed the controversy surrounding aid to Israel as nonsense.

“The only one who had a perception problem on foreign aid was Perry as a result of his comments at the debate,” Brooks said. “He laid that to rest unequivocally as predicted.”

Post-forum headlines

While Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” labeled the RJC’s event a “tuchus kiss-off”—and Democrats used the opportunity to accuse the Republican candidates of politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship—the forum’s organizers said they were pleased with how things went.

“All of the candidates used the opportunity to demonstrate their strong pro-Israel credentials, their visions for how they want to lead America and provided a strong contrast between their visions and that of the failed policies of Barack Obama,” Brooks said.

But while the RJC forum garnered plenty of media attention, it did not yield much news. Instead the headlines—and sparks—over the Israeli-Palestinian issue came later in the week with the release of an interview that Gingrich did with The Jewish Channel.

In the interview, Gingrich labeled Palestinians as “an invented” people. After coming under criticism—including from Romney, who called his opponent’s comments “incendiary”—Gingrich said that he stood by his characterization but reaffirmed his support for a negotiated settlement including a Palestinian state.

This article was produced in cooperation with The Washington Jewish Week.

In tough times, relying on the Jewish community for help

In August, in the heat of the summer, a Boston-area mother of three began to worry about how she would pay for Chanukah gifts. Across the country in San Francisco, a 33-year-old Russian-born mother of six said that thinking about this Chanukah made her cry.

Both women—Lauren of Boston and Lilya of San Francisco (they asked that their last names not be used)—are struggling in a down economy to provide for their families. Still, they are hopeful that with support of Jewish organizations, they will find meaningful ways to celebrate the eight-day Festival of Lights.

As American Jews prepare to celebrate Chanukah, which this year begins on the evening of Dec. 20, Jewish social service agencies across the country are gearing up to help the growing number of needy American families.

In the five boroughs of New York City, the magnitude of Jewish need is huge, according to William Rapfogel, CEO of the New York-based Met Council, a Jewish anti-poverty agency. Even before 2008, when the recession hit, Rapfogel estimated that one-third of the 1 million Jews living in New York City live at or near poverty.

Since ‘08, more middle-class and upper-tier earners have experienced job loss and other financial crises.

“There now really is no unaffected group, except maybe the very top income earners,” Robert Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, told The Associated Press. “Recessions are supposed to be temporary, and when it’s over, everything returns to where it was before. But the worry now is that the downturn—which will end eventually—will have long-lasting effects on families who lose jobs, become worse off and can’t recover.”

At Chanukah, Rapfogel expects his agency to distribute 15,000 to 20,000 toys. In New York, kosher pantries serving those in need will offer Chanukah food, he said.

Understanding the growing need for families, Lauren began calling Jewish groups in the summer hoping to get a head start to arrange for her three young sons to receive Chanukah gifts. She has tried to manage the gift-giving expectations, but admits it’s stressful.

Three years ago, her middle-class family faced an unpredictable crisis that left Lauren to raise her children on her own. Lauren sold her home and is living in a smaller house with the financial support of her family. She is juggling four separate part-time jobs, from caring for an elderly blind woman to office work for a seasonal service company.

Her children participate in the Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters program in New England, which provides some gift cards and will host a Chanukah party for its families.

Lisa Cohen, a licensed social worker and vice president of programs and services for the organization, says the program is inundated at Chanukah time.

“We anticipate a lot of tough stories this year,” she told JTA in a phone interview. Noting that the hard times have hit middle-class families, Cohen said, “We hadn’t experienced that as much before.”

Chanukah once was Lilya’s favorite holiday. She had immigrated to America in 1993 at the age of 14 with her parents and siblings. After she married, she would decorate her home and host a large family gathering, setting a table with special Chanukah dishes.

But last year, Lilya ended a difficult marriage and now is the sole support of her children. She is struggling to find work.

Lilya, trying to make significant changes in her life, says staff members at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the San Francisco Bay Area have helped with everything from resume-writing assistance to emergency funds and supermarket vouchers.

“I don’t feel alone,” she said.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the Bay Area over the last several years has seen an increase in families who had never utilized a social service agency, said Gayle Zahler, the agency’s associate executive director. She said her agency will see a 15 percent increase in the number of families seeking help, with a total of 3,000 families in some kind of economic distress.

At Chanukah, people feel more isolated, Zahler says. Her agency maintains five regional food pantries, including one at the San Francisco office. For the High Holidays it collected a record 11,000 pounds of non-perishable food. The office is gearing up for a similar drive for Chanukah, she said.

Rapfogel says the proximity this year between Chanukah and Christmas on Dec. 25 has an impact on how the holiday is observed. Even in predominately Jewish neighborhoods, Christmas ornaments and decorations are on full display.

“It’s a fact of life. There’s pressure on families to buy gifts,” he said.

For retailers, that proximity provides some optimism.

Naftoli Versch, who directs Internet marketing for Rite Lite, a large manufacturer of seasonal Judaica, told JTA that when the two holidays fall at approximately the same time, retailers can market the holidays together.

“There’s a lot more excitement,” he told JTA.

And Chanukah already is the biggest season for Rite Lite, which this year is offering 50 new products for the holiday. Expected to be among the most popular are home-related items such as Chanukah cupcake kits and environmentally “green” products, including organic vegetable wax candles in a biodegradable box.

The economy plays an important role in how Americans celebrate Chanukah, according to Dianne Ashton, whose book “Hanukkah in America” will be published next year. At the end of the 1800s, when Christmas became more child-centered and sentimental, the rise of department stores led to gift giving for children for both holidays.

By contrast, in the 1930s, during the Depression, the Jewish women’s magazine Women’s League Outlook featured paper cutouts for a headband for kids that had paper candle holders, like a Chanukah menorah. Throughout American history, Chanukah has offered Jewish families the opportunity to shape celebrations that are meaningful to them in their own homes, Ashton said.

“It will continue to be shaped by American Jews as they wish to shape it,” she suggested.

Last year, Lilya didn’t decorate her house. Her 14-year-old daughter told her that it didn’t feel like a holiday. That saddened Lilya, so this year she intends to bring her children to community Chanukah programs.

“I do have hope,” she told JTA.

For Lauren, Chanukah is a time to slow down her family’s hectic pace to celebrate the holiday, using homemade menorahs and dreidels her sons made in Hebrew school—the local Chabad congregation provided a scholarship that allows her sons to attend Hebrew school and summer camp.

Lauren sees a positive outcome from the upheaval in their lives.

“This has brought me closer to Judaism,” she said. “My boys wouldn’t be in Hebrew school.”

Sarkozy explains snipe on Netanyahu

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as saying he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” after being sidelined on the Shalit deal.

Israeli media reported Thursday that Sarkozy, who was embarassed by the publication of an unflattering private discussion about Netanyahu that he had with President Obama at the G-20 summit in Cannes, met Jewish leaders in Paris two weeks ago to make amends.

According to Haaretz, Sarkozy said he had been frustrated by Israel’s failure to involve France in the Oct. 18 repatriation of Gilad Shalit from Gaza, where the Israeli army conscript had been held for more than five years as a Hamas hostage. Shalit has French as well as Israeli nationality, and Sarkozy had campaigned for his release.

Israel’s Channel Two television said that Sarkozy, who is considered a lifelong friend of the Jewish state, was considering a visit to Jerusalem next year in which he would demonstrate his continued good will toward Netanyahu.

Israeli and French officials had no immediate comment on the report.

Israeli military chief apologizes for gaffe

The chief of Israel’s armed forces apologized for joking about boycotts by some religious soldiers of female entertainment troupes.

During an inspection of Golan forces Tuesday, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz was asked by Defense Minister Ehud Barak about the duties of several female soldiers standing nearby.

“They sing during recesses. We bring them over during recess to sing,” Gantz quipped as television cameras rolled.

Barak responded by pointing to one of his civilian aides and saying, “She can sing. She’s not in uniform.”

That drew a bawdier joke from the local commander, Col. Ofek Buchris: “As long as she’s not in uniform, but she’s wearing clothes, it’s OK.”

The exchange, aired on national television, touched a nerve given the military high command’s efforts to curb complaints within the ranks that performances by conscripted female singers offend Orthodox Jewish sensibilities. The controversy has flowed into a wider debate as to the growing influence of religious soldiers in the armed forces.

Gantz exacerbated the affair by telling reporters who observed the Golan repartee that they should not publish it.

The Israel Defense Forces issued a statement Wednesday saying Gantz “clarifies that his remarks were made jovially and that the interpretation appended to them contradicts the chief of staff’s outlook and his record of advancing women in the IDF.”

“The chief of staff has further emphasized that he apologizes before anyone who took offense at his words.”