Bending the rules

Bending the Taharah Rules By Rick Light


He was a boy of 19.  He had a full curly beard and brown hair that flowed in waves.  His father found him.  He had duck-taped a plastic bag over his head and inserted a propane hose.

Only two of us were available to perform the taharah, the first taharah for both of us in many months, although both of us were experienced in this holy ritual.  I was asked to lead.  When we arrived at the funeral home, right away things were unusual.  The father met us almost immediately and made two very specific requests: (1) that he (the father) be allowed to see his son prior to closing the casket, as he needed to see him differently than the horrid vision so compelling that met him when he found his son; and (2) that their son be buried in the street clothes provided, a strong demand of his wife.  No, they didn’t want tachrichim under the clothes.  And, no, they didn’t want the tachrichim laid on top of their son.

A rush of feelings overwhelmed me.  I could immediately relate to the father, who just lost his son and more than that, had found him and had that image burned into his memory like a hot brand.  And, of course, I wanted to help him in any way that I could.  Coupled with these feelings and deepening my concern were the strong feelings inside me that taharah has specific ideas on how things are to happen, and right away we were not “following the rules.”  On one hand we were supposed to be anonymous, the family and community were not supposed to know who participated in the taharah, and especially, the family was not to know us so as not to feel obligated to thank us.  So the fact that the father had approached us directly was already an assault on regularity.  Then there were the requests he made, which again were outside of the norm, and on the surface seemed extraordinary and something inappropriate to request; but upon a moment’s thought, it was obvious that these could be accommodated if we were just willing to not follow strict traditional practices.  Inside I felt overwhelmed with compassion for this father and family, torn between doing traditional practices and breaking tradition to meet the needs of this family.  In the end, through all of this, which lasted only moments, I remembered to ask myself, “whose death is this?”, and I was given a way to navigate these strong waves of emotion, and come to a clear resolution as to how respect both tradition and this family.

We promised to honor the father, the wife, and the son.

The taharah process was not difficult.  There were no medical devices to worry about, no bleeding to worry about, no bedsores, no open wounds, nada.  This was a healthy young man in his prime.  It was a bit tricky at times since there were only two of us, but it was manageable.

But the taharah itself was difficult. Very difficult.  This was a healthy young man in his prime.  He was the same age as my colleague’s son, and a decade younger than my son.  We both have children and could not easily accept this young man’s death.

In addition, it occurred to me that bending the rules (doing something other than what is Jewish tradition under the local minhag for taharah) to honor the family was certainly not new.  Yet, these requests seemed hard to do.

After some reflection, and with inner guidance, I thought of a respectful and meaningful way to make this work for the two of us on the taharah team, and for the family.

We proceeded to do a “normal” taharah on this young man, just the two of us.  We had to pour the taharah water twice as we had an unexpected break in the flow of water.  No worries, we just did it again.  When we finished drying him after the pouring of the water, it was the normal time to dress and casket the deceased.  But instead, we were to dress him in street clothes, and not the vernacular suit and tie, rather we were given an old shirt, colored underpants, jeans, fun socks, and shoes.  I halted.  The dressing is part of the liturgy, part of the midwifing of this holy soul.  So I could not just “dress him in street clothes.”

I remembered another taharah many years ago, in which a man’s wife requested that he be buried in a robe he had received when he was awarded an honorary degree.  We agreed to honor her request, and when the time came, we simply dressed him in the normal tachrichim, and afterwards had the funeral home personnel come in to cut the robe up the back and lay it over him like a blanket.  It worked beautifully.  But today we were not allowed to do that.

We looked for the first time at the clothes provided by the family.  The shirt had metal snaps.  Another rule to bend?  I thought of yet another taharah, years ago for a teenaged girl, where the father had requested that her favorite jacket be included in the casket; it had metal snaps and metal zippers not only up the front but also elsewhere on the jacket as part of its style, all of which I painfully removed preserving the integrity of the jacket before giving it to the team to place into the aron (a process that took over an hour).  This time, however, honor for the family required that I leave the shirt alone.  I wrestled with this for a bit and then decided it was simply OK, in fact it was more than OK, for kavod hameit dictated that it was required for us to honor this family and this youth by dressing him in this shirt.  The pants were simple black denim jeans with a belt (with a metal buckle).  Again, the same principles applied.  We laid the clothes aside until needed.

We prepared the aron as usual, with sovev in place and earth from Israel sprinkled inside.

Once the aron was ready, we didn’t just dress him in street clothes as requested.  Instead, we carefully laid each piece of tachrichim over his body where that piece belonged, and said the liturgy for that part of clothing, and then removed it and dressed him in his street clothes.  And so it went with each piece of the tachrichim, each piece with its liturgy followed by street clothes, everything but the head covering, which we left off until after the father had seen him.

Well, almost everything.  I just couldn’t put shoes on him.  Just didn’t seem right.  So we left his feet wearing his colorful fun socks.

Before casketing him, I carefully folded and laid the tachrichim into the sovev creating a bed upon which he would rest, with the tallit laid in waiting over these, to be wrapped around his shoulders. We laid him into the waiting sovev, wrapped his tallit around him and took him out to say goodbye to his father.

After the father had spent time with him, we brought the son back into the taharah room, where we tied the gartel of the tachrichim around his waist, being careful to make sure the knots were just right.  Then we tucked the removed tzitzit from his tallit into the gartel, placed the sherbloch over his eyes and mouth, and placed the head covering over his kippah.

We asked for forgiveness, closed the lid, read the remaining prayers and readings, and returned him to the waiting room with a candle on the casket over his head, where he stayed for only a few minutes before being whisked away for burial.

As we began to clean up, I felt numb.  We had completed our task, yet it was not over.  Something seemed unfinished.  We went through the process of finishing, but I felt both that we had done something very good here, and at the same time, I felt that something was truly out of harmony.  This death was simply wrong and we were unable to fix that.

After cleaning up and ending the taharah process as usual, we went to a local restaurant for a meal and some decompression.  Then it hit me how hard this had been for each of us.  Neither of us could express what we felt, nor how deeply it had impacted us.  But after an hour of sharing and just being together, we both felt almost whole again.

After getting home, and thinking about this, I realized that although I had thought our luncheon discussion had enabled me to process this taxing and unusual ritual experience, it became obvious as I began to write this story that I needed to write this, as I was still processing the deep emotional impact of that day.  And, yes, it was a blessing and a very humbling thing in which to participate.  But it was also a very hard thing to do, and it will take time to integrate.

I pray that he be guided on his new path, and that we be forgiven for our inadequacies.  I know I wasn’t up to my usual skill level, and, I although I felt that we did the best we could, we didn’t do it perfectly, we tried to do the right things under the circumstances, and still, still, I felt we didn’t do enough, we couldn’t do enough.  And, that emptiness remains…

Yet, how can one ever do enough for one so young and prime and beautiful?

May his memory be a blessing.

Rick Light has been teaching spiritual development in various ways for more than 30 years and has been studying and practicing meditation for more than 40 years. He is a leader in the community of those who prepare Jewish bodies for burial, has published four books in this regard, and for 18 years was President of a local Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996. He is on the Board of Directors of Kavod v’Nichum, is a faculty member of the Gamliel Institute, and continues to lecture and raise awareness about Jewish death and burial practices at the local, state, and national levels.  For more information see richardalight.com.

Richard A Light

Rick Light

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting roughly in January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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“13 Reasons Why” is about Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who kills herself. Photo courtesy of Netflix

A Jewish response to ‘13 Reasons Why’


“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”

— Hannah Baker, “13 Reasons Why”

The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is about Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes for her peers, explaining the reasons why.

Over the past month, this show has gone viral, and in turn it has brought the issues of suicidal ideation, rape, mental illness and, especially, bullying — which are central to her reasons for ending her life — to the forefront of our community.

Some feel the show glorifies suicide by giving it an element of revenge and that it inaccurately portrays mental illness. Others feel validated by it and are grateful it is finally giving a real and raw voice to what have been taboo issues. Regardless of where you fall, the truth is that the success of the show merits a response. And when we as Jews face what certainly are the most serious social issues in the lives of our preteens, teens and young professionals (though not limited to them), we need a Jewish way to respond.

The Gemara relates that one day Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi were debating a verse from Proverbs 12:25, “Anxiety in the heart of a man weighs him down.” One of them said the word ישחנה should be read not as “weighs him down” but as “he should push it down from his mind,” and the other disagreed and said it means “he should talk about it with others.” Their disagreement was around the root of the word ישחנה — is it derived from the word “to push down” or “remove,” or from the word “to discuss”?

But Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s disagreement is not just linguistics. It is fundamentally about how we respond to worries, anxieties and problems in our lives. Is it best to push them down and move on or do we actually need to talk about them with another person?

This debate raises the same concern that “13 Reasons Why” has challenged us with: How can we constructively respond to our own struggles and the struggles of others? What do we do when we are feeling depressed and hopeless or when we are perhaps filled with dread for the well-being of our child who is being bullied at school?

Certainly when it comes to personal coping, it is true that Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s two answers resonate equally with different people. Some of us cope by doing deep introspection alone, by pushing it down to move on, others by talking it through with another person. But when it comes to suicide and bullying, the interpretation can be applied only one way: When we are faced with hurt and hopelessness, we must talk about it with others.

When I spoke with seniors at Shalhevet High School and YULA Girls High School about “13 Reasons Why,” I heard two powerful reactions over and over again. First, frustration with the lack of communication both from the girl who killed herself and from her peers and teachers who either failed to notice warning signs or who actively contributed to her hurt and isolation. And second, acknowledgement that the show was prompting us to talk about issues that until now we were not discussing — or that, for some, were being lived alone in silence without any support.

It is clear that communication (ישחנה לאחרים) is the response that can literally save a life in the face of suicidal ideation and any self-harm or self-injury. The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health underscores this in its training programs “Mental Health First Aid” and “Suicide Prevention,” both of which we have held at B’nai David, and from which we have resources available to our shul. Practically, we learned that if we suspect a person may have suicidal thoughts, our communication should follow three steps, known as QPR, which stands for Question-Persuade-Refer — Question a person about suicide; Persuade the person to get help; and Refer the person to the appropriate resource.

We cannot shy away from asking, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Do you have a plan?” Using the word “suicide” will not put the idea into the person’s mind but instead will express empathy, respond to the plea for help and join the person in identifying an issue that is almost always already known to them.

If just one person had done QPR in “13 Reasons Why,” the show and the book it was based on may have had a very different ending.

Preferably, of course, we don’t want a person to get to the stage of suicidal ideation. For someone who is being bullied, safety and communication must begin before the crisis. We need to decide as a community — as students, as parents of teens, and as Jews obligated to love our fellow as ourself — that we have zero tolerance for bullying. This means establishing the expectation that lashon harah (idle gossip) and harmful and exclusive social media are just not part of how we function. Instead, we love each other as we are and look for what is holy in each other. I cannot tell you how many kids or parents have told me about the devastation that has happened on a Snapchat. The solution does not require the elimination of social media, but it does require a refocusing on the Jewish ethics of communication and the separation between self-worth and an online profile.

Our Torah, our moral and ethical code, is very straightforward. As we just read in Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, “Do not cut your flesh or self-harm,” “Do not oppress your fellow,” “Do not stand on the blood of your friend.” Suicide is about destroying one’s own life in order to end pain, while bullying is about destroying another’s life so that the bully can avoid his or her own pain. Our holiness is contingent on how we treat ourselves and one another, especially in the midst of human vulnerability, for the life God has given us is precious.

And so, our job as a community committed to cultivating holiness is to respond to hurt and hopelessness with holy conversation. When we ask a friend about possible suicidal thoughts, we must be calm and speak without preconceived judgments. To provide just one such example of holy conversation, students at a high school in Michigan recently made a list of “13 Reasons Why Not,” which included public thank you’s at school to peers who were there for their friends in times of hurt and hopelessness, and reasons why suicide cannot be an option.

I have lost two friends to suicide and have cared for countless others in moments of suicidal ideation, including my brother. This past week, my best friend was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. I felt crippling helplessness, heart-wrenching anger, and unresolvable fear and guilt. I felt terror. I wanted to protect her, to watch her every move and make sure she was safe. I wanted to get rid of her depression and anxiety and yell at her colleagues who had been bullying her at work.

I wanted to fix it all. But I couldn’t. All I could do was talk to her, hear and hold her pain, and sit in silence when that was what she needed.

I reminded myself of Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s profound conversation and the Jewish response that HaShem has given us through them: ישחנה לאחרים — talk to each other, be there for each other no matter what, because your words and your listening ears can save a life.


RABBANIT ALISSA THOMAS-NEWBORN is a clergy member at B’nai David-Judea
Congregation in Los Angeles.

Hundreds turn out for Israel funeral of ex-Hasid who apparently killed herself


Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral of a formerly haredi Orthodox Israeli woman who was found dead in what is believed to be a suicide.

Esti Weinstein, 50, was buried in Petach Tikvah on Tuesday, the Times of Israel reported.

Weinstein’s body and a suicide note were discovered in her car at a beach in Ashdod on Sunday, a week after she went missing.

“In this city I gave birth to my daughters, in this city I die because of my daughters,” Weinstein wrote.

Six of her seven daughters had refused contact with their mother after she left the Gur sect of Hasidic Judaism eight years ago.

Tami Montag, the daughter who stayed in touch with Weinstein and who also left the haredi Orthodox community, gave a eulogy at the funeral in which she said, “You were everything to me, a friend and mother.”

According to Haaretz, Weinstein wrote a short memoir titled “Doing His Will” about life in the Gur community, her decision to leave it and the pain she felt after her daughters severed their relationships with her.

Weinstein, who married at 17, also wrote about her unhappy marriage in which she was required to follow numerous strict marital guidelines that are unique to the Gur sect. According to her memoir, the guidelines restrict couples to having sexual relations only twice a month.

In the book, Weinstein wrote of her ongoing pain at being cut off from her daughters.

“I thought it was a temporary matter, but the years are passing and time isn’t healing, and the pain doesn’t stop,” she wrote.

Estranged family members also attended and spoke at the funeral, according to the Times of Israel.

“It’s hard for me to speak about you. For me, you will always be like your first 43 years, when you were pure,” said her father, Rabbi Menachem Orenstein, according to Ynet.

Weinstein’s boyfriend also spoke at the funeral, The Times of Israel reported, but did not identify him.

“At the heart of every religion is a kernel of unity, and that’s the source of life. But unfortunately it’s turned into ideology,” he said. “Don’t let any rabbi lead you to hatred and to alienation. The pain from being cut off by your kids is massive.”

Alberto Nisman may have been forced to kill himself, says Argentine prosecutor


Alberto Nisman, the federal prosecutor who investigated the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center here, may have been forced to kill himself, a prosecutor who was formerly in charge of his case said.

Viviana Fein, who in December was removed from the investigation into Nisman’s mysterious death, had said before that it was likely suicide. But in an interview with local radio station La Red, she acknowledged for the first time that it was possible he was “induced” to kill himself.

Fein defended the theory, saying there were several back-and-forth calls with “six or seven people,” including former spy chief Antonio Stiuso and then-army chief Cesar Milani on Jan. 18, 2015. The body of Nisman, who led the probe of the AMIA Jewish center attack that killed 85 people, was discovered that day in his apartment with a gunshot wound to the head.

“I think he was forced; it’s perhaps highly likely that they forced him or induced him to commit suicide,” Fein said, adding: “I find it suggestive and noteworthy that personalities of this caliber were on the same day of his death talking uninterruptedly.”

Elaborating on this point, she said: “There was a group of people who may have been waiting for something. It’s possible, it’s one of the hypotheses, but it raises red flags that these calls happened only on that day, not before or after.”

Nisman had been scheduled to appear in Congress the day after his death to present allegations that then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner orchestrated a secret deal to cover up Iranian officials’ alleged role in the AMIA bombing. Fernandez denied the allegations and judges threw out the case.

Nearly 18 months after Nisman’s death, authorities have yet to determine whether he took his own life or was killed by someone else.

Conspiracy theories have flourished around the case.

Sister of Faigy Mayer, former Chasid who took own life, commits suicide


The older sister of a former Hasidic woman who killed herself four months ago hanged herself at her parents’ home in Brooklyn.

Sara Mayer, 31, was found dead on Sunday afternoon at the home in the Borough Park section, the New York Daily News reported.

Her death comes four months after Faigy Mayer, 30, jumped off a rooftop bar in Manhattan. Six years earlier, Faigy Meyer had left the Chasidic world in which she had grown up.

Unnamed family and friends told the Daily News that Sara Mayer was mentally ill and had been hospitalized on several occasions. An unnamed law enforcement official told the newspaper that she had been scheduled to move into a group home this week.

The New York Post reported that Sara Mayer was released last week from a psychiatric hospital where she had been an inpatient for two years. The newspaper also quoted an unnamed family member as saying she left a note to her parents telling them she loved them and was sorry.

In an essay written shortly before her death, Faigy Mayer rejected the Belz Hasidic sect of her childhood, saying that “Chasidic Judaism shouldn’t exist at all,” and lamenting that her three nephews were missing out on life by being raised in the same community.

“If people were allowed to think they would not be religious,” she also wrote.

Missing Maryland Jewish college student found dead


A Jewish college student from Maryland was found dead in Pennsylvania with what was reported to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The body of Jacob Marberger, a sophomore at Washington College who had been missing since Nov. 16, was discovered Saturday in a nature sanctuary in Kempton. The wound was to his head.

Marberger had left home with a firearm, leading to a shutdown of the school for at least two days until it was decided to close the campus until the end of Thanksgiving break.

The car he had been driving also was found in the sanctuary, according to reports.  The sanctuary is located about an hour-and-a-half drive from his family’s home in suburban Philadelphia. It is not known how long his body had been there before it was discovered, The New York Times reported.

In an announcement posted on its website Saturday evening, the college informed the campus community of Marberger’s death.

“This is a terrible blow to our community, and the outpouring of compassion and support we have shown each other will help us through this difficult time,” the post said. “We need to continue to be supportive of each other as we mourn individually and as a community.”

Vigils had been held for Marberger, including one large gathering at Temple Beth Am in Abington, Pennsylvania, the Forward reported.

Marberger had been suspended from campus for two weeks and was facing expulsion for showing off an antique pistol at a campus party, according to the Times. He also was kicked out of his fraternity and dormitory, and was looking at possible criminal charges: It is illegal in Maryland for someone under the age of 21 to possess a firearm. The incident reportedly left Marberger feeling depressed.

He reportedly had not made any threats to the college or fellow students.

Haredi mother of transgender woman fights to stop her cremation


The haredi Orthodox mother of an Israeli transgender woman who killed herself is battling the woman’s lawyer over plans to cremate the body.

May Peleg, 31, an activist in Israel’s LGBT community, filed a will with attorney Yossi Wolfson the day before her suicide stating her desire to be cremated, Haaretz reported Tuesday. The Israeli newspaper did not provide the precise date or details of Peleg’s suicide.

Cremation is forbidden according to Jewish law, although it is has become increasingly popular among liberal and secular Jews in recent years, particularly in the United States. The Jerusalem District Court is expected to issue a ruling on Wednesday.

Peleg’s will requests not only that she be cremated, but that a ceremony be held and her ashes scattered at sea and under a tree to be planted in her memory.

Peleg’s mother, who in her affidavit describes Peleg as her “son,” has requested an injunction to stop the cremation and that she “be given the body for burial according to Jewish law.” She argues that Peleg’s will “should be disqualified since my son was undergoing a deep mental crisis and was not capable of drawing up a will.”

Anticipating that her estranged family might try to stop the cremation, Peleg, according to Haaretz, wrote in a letter to Wolfson, “Since I have no contact with my biological family and since I fear that after my death there will be those who try to obstruct my final wish to be cremated, using various arguments, I ask you to represent me in court and be my voice.”

Before killing herself, Peleg contacted the Aley Shalechet funeral home and crematorium and paid for her cremation.

In a letter written shortly before the suicide, Peleg said she felt “pain and suffering” for most of her life.

Peleg was active in Jerusalem’s Open House LGBT center and owned a gay bar in Jerusalem called Mikveh, according to Haaretz. Her Facebook page states her full name as May Peleg Friedman and says that she studied sociology and communications at the Open University in Israel.

Peleg married at age 20 and had two children before divorcing and undergoing a sex-change operation. The mother said Peleg’s ex-wife also wishes to block the cremation.

While Peleg and her ex-wife initially maintained good relations, two years ago the ex-wife stopped letting Peleg have a relationship with the children, who are now 9 and 10 years old.

In an affidavit attached to the will, Peleg specifically requested that her mother be prevented from getting her body after her death.

“There are reasonable grounds for concern that if my body reaches her hands she will subject me to a religious burial, with Judaism not recognizing me as a woman, even though I’ve undergone sex-change surgery. This constitutes a lack of respect and an erasure of my identity,” Peleg wrote in her affidavit, according to Haaretz.

Wolfson said during court proceedings, “Everyone in Israel has rights over their body. Just as her family could not request the court to prohibit May from tattooing her body, cutting her hair the way she wanted to or changing her sex, the family cannot interfere with her wishes regarding the disposal of her body. May acted with consideration and detailed logic. She knew who would object and what their reasons would be and she preempted this with her stated objections.”

The mother’s attorney, Yitzhak Dahan, argued that Peleg’s will has “no legal validity.”

A Mishkan for all: A communal approach to mental illness


I grew up with my younger brother, Zack Thomas, who has struggled with bipolar disorder since he was a very young child. 

What it has taught me is that as individuals, and as a community, encountering mental illness is a blessing and a challenge — and one that we need to do a much better job of talking about.

I say blessing because I am who I am today because of the empathy, humility and strength that my experiences have cultivated within me. I say challenge because struggling with mortality, whether of the mind, body or soul, is perhaps the greatest challenge we know in this life. Mental illness exists in my nuclear and extended family, as well as among many of my close friends, two of whom tragically committed suicide during my high school and college years. I hold their memory in my heart today.

There is a brokenness that reaches into our hearts and our minds. A brokenness that causes alienation and disrupts our plans and our dreams. It is a brokenness that breeds loneliness, guilt, despair and anger. I am speaking of the brokenness that comes from the suffering and stigma of mental illness, a brokenness I have known in my personal and professional life.

As Zack’s sibling, I learned how to differentiate between my brother and his disorder. I learned that empathy and forgiveness, instead of anger, fear and blame, are crucial in speaking with someone who struggles with manic highs and lows. For much of my life, I have lived in terror, trying to prepare myself for the worst, while still trying to live as though everything is “fine” and “normal.” I have tiptoed, compensated and shed many tears. I am familiar with what Rebbe Nachman poignantly names “יונפה‭ ‬ללח,” (hallal hapanui) an emptiness that arises in the face of suffering. I have learned and continued to learn that mental illness for many is a wave, ebbing and flowing, with good days, better days, bad days and worse days, and that healing is a matter of perspective.

But I have also learned kindness from my brother, Zack. I have learned sensitivity from his Betzalel-like artistic talents and his literary brilliance. I have learned love from his willingness to greet and accept anyone he meets. My brother, who as a child always gave away his toys to his friends, quite clearly embodies what the Torah describes as the בל‭ ‬בידנ‭ ‬(nadiv lev)‭ ‬and‭ ‬בל‭ ‬תמכח‭ ‬(hachmat lev), the generous heart and wise heart. My brother is my role model in living both in his brokenness and in his wholeness.

Today the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a diagnosable mental illness. One in four people in our families. That is an astounding figure, especially given how much stigma exists around mental illness and how little psychiatric care and psychological care we seek out as a country. Mental illness does not affect “other people,” “them” or “the disenfranchised.” Mental illness affects everyone, and has no boundaries or awareness of financial, religious or cultural differences.

Diagnosable disorders include but are not limited to anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, dementias, intellectual disabilities and eating disorders. Many of these diagnoses also have a high comorbidity with addiction and substance abuse. And some tragically include suicidal ideation. Although suicide is a much larger topic, I want to mention that statistically, those who attempt suicide do not want to die, but instead want to stop their pain. These are disorders with which many of us live and, perhaps despite of or even because of, have deeply meaningful lives. 

My prayer is that we will begin a conversation that will continue to evolve. We must educate ourselves about mental illness to reduce stigma and create a safe space, and to empower us in providing support to each other. In seeking to better understand and empathize with those living with mental illness, we have the ability as a community to decrease the suffering and shame that come from stigma and to even encourage comfort and dignity. For example, when we say the misheberach, the prayer for the sick, we can pray for a friend fighting cancer or heart disease as well as for a friend struggling with depression or anorexia. Or we may be able to sit with a mother or father who is worrying and praying for normalcy in the face of a child’s recent mental-illness diagnosis.

On the other hand, given how stigmatized mental illness is, it is crucial to respect and honor others’ privacy and boundaries, as we are not always ready or in need of sharing our suffering publicly. Even the language of “mental illness” and “disorder” can feel like labels that alienate and isolate. I encourage us to be creative and rethink our language with informed empathy.

In the Gemara, Masechet Bava Batra 14b, we learn that the ark in the Temple contained both the first set of broken tablets, תוחול‭ ‬(luhot), and the second set of whole tablets. Why do we keep the broken tablets? We have all experienced brokenness, we have all known fragility, and it is not something about which to feel ashamed. It is an inevitable part of being human. We do not seek it out. Yet through our breaks, cracks and fissures, we have the opportunity to allow more light in. At times, our brokenness is part of our wholeness. 

As a chaplain specializing in psychiatric care and suicidal ideation, I have learned this Gemara of the broken and whole tablets with patients of varying cultures, backgrounds and faiths, and it resonates. Each time, the same themes arise: guilt at having broken the tablets in our own lives, anger at ourselves and others for that brokenness, pain and longing in learning how to forgive ourselves, and comfort in knowing that brokenness and wholeness can coexist.

God does not ask us to be “fixed,” but instead to recognize all of the raw, broken parts of ourselves. The ark, the center of God’s holy home, holds our broken selves and whole selves. We need the presence of the broken tablets to remind us to be patient when we are fragile and to help us value and not shy away from the shared human experience of brokenness. 

Alissa Thomas-Newborn is the Kehilla intern at B’nai David-Judea Congregation. She is also a chaplain specializing in palliative care, end-of-life care and psychiatric care. She is a writer for Metropolitan Jewish Health System’s Center for Jewish End of Life Care. Thomas-Newborn is completing her final year of studies at Yeshivat Maharat.

In apparent suicide, Levi Moscowitz found dead in Griffith Park


Levi Moscowitz, a young man who recently moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, was found dead Jan. 3, in Griffith Park. Moscowitz was 24. The L.A. County Coroner’s office ruled the death a suicide.

Coroner’s Lt. Fred Corral said on Jan. 5 that passers-by discovered Moscowitz’s body hanging from a tree near 2652 Commonwealth Canyon Drive and called 911. Paramedics pronounced him dead upon their arrival at 8:20 a.m.

Three weeks ago, this paper ” target=”_blank”>Los Angeles Times on Jan. 4 that Moscowitz “was committed to his continued treatment and to leading a productive life.”

***

UPDATED: For the record (1/5, 3:30 p.m.) An additional quote from the Los Angeles Times attributed to Tiffany Feder was pulled after Feder said she was quoted out of context.

Death of actor Robin Williams officially ruled a suicide, was sober


Oscar winning actor Robin Williams' death in August has been officially ruled a suicide, Marin County authorities said on Friday following an investigation and toxicology tests on the comedian's body.

The 63-year-old Williams, whose body was found on Aug. 11 by a personal assistant at his home in Tiburon in the San Francisco Bay area, died of asphyxia due to hanging, the Marin County Sheriff's Office said in a statement. That was the same finding sheriff's officials made in their preliminary conclusion.

Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease and from severe depression, his widow, Susan Schneider, said soon after his death. He had not been ready to share his diagnosis with the public, she said.

A toxicology test on Williams' body revealed the absence of alcohol or illicit drugs in his system, and prescription medications were detected in concentrations consistent with their use for therapeutic purposes, the statement from the Marin County Sheriff's Office said on Friday.

Williams, who was one of the world's most famous stand-up comedians, earned an Oscar for his role in the 1997 drama “Good Will Hunting.” He also starred in the comedies “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Night at the Museum.”

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles,; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler

How I plan to die


One Sunday last November, 86-year-old Joy Johnson laced her running shoes and ran the New York marathon for the 25th year in a row.  At mile 20, she tripped and fell, but quickly got up and finished the race. After celebratory hugs from her family and a quick interview with Al Roker, she returned to her hotel room, took a nap and died.

She is my idol.  

Who wouldn’t want to go out that way?  And yet, for many elderly people, the reality of life at 86 doesn’t involve marathons, but frailty, physical disability or Alzheimer’s, straining the resources of the grown children who care for them. At 55, I’ve already made my children promise that if I become demented, they will not write a heartbreaking memoir about how they bravely fed me prunes while I stared dully into space with food all over my shirt or, as Karl Ove Knausgaard vividly recounts in the international best-seller “My Struggle,” hauled my week-old festering corpse out of the home I’d trashed in my senility.   As human beings live longer and longer, extreme elderliness is a likelihood for many of us. But if we can’t choose to be elderly like Joy Johnson, do we want to live like Knausgaard’s father? Is there an opt-out clause?

Yes, says Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, whose recent article in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” went viral immediately, racking up thousands of comments. Emanuel objects to what he calls the “American immortal” ideal of prolonging life as long as possible. Life after 80, Emanuel contends, is likely to involve physical or mental diminishment. Over the objections of his family, Emanuel has decided that he will accept no medical care after he is 75, and if diagnosed in his late 60s with a terminal illness, he will choose not to be treated. Ideally, he hopes to die of an infection like pneumonia, which will kill him swiftly and relatively painlessly.  

I’m fascinated with Emanuel’s argument. What’s most appealing to me is the idea that if I chose it, I might avoid what horrifies me most: that I would become a burden to my children, a shell of the full human being I believe myself to be. I am a control freak. I fear indignity more than death, and if the passionate public response to Emanuel’s article is any indication, I’m not alone.

But the more I think about his argument, the more dubious I become. One of his central arguments is that as people age, they experience a slowdown in memory and problem-solving ability. For him, this slowdown represents a dire and unequivocal loss of humanity. The average age of Nobel Prize winners, he argues, is 45. For the majority of elderly people, “Creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone.” Because they often feel happy anyway, they are oblivious to the fact that they are “aspiring to and doing less and less.” 

I think of my mother, a very lively 80, who retired several years ago from her career as a psychologist; though she remains extremely active and takes many classes at Northwestern University, she’s often content to take life a little more slowly than she once did. On a recent trip to Laguna Beach, she was happy to walk into town and sit on a bench for much of the afternoon, watching the ocean. But really, why in the world should she aspire to do more? What’s wrong with taking time to breathe the fresh air and watch the gulls swoop over the waves? Couldn’t that be called wisdom? Or even enlightenment? Three years ago, she caught a bacterial infection that nearly killed her; after a brief course of antibiotics, she was back on her feet. If she’d refused antibiotics and died by choice, how would that have been different from suicide? For the rest of my life, I would have felt personally responsible, guilty and even angry. And how would her beloved grandchildren have felt, knowing that a quick death was more important to her than being at their college graduations? Is that really how she would want to be remembered?  

I don’t want to sentimentalize the reality of aging. Too many of my friends know the pain of caring for an elderly parent who is suffering from dementia. We roll the dice when we choose an uncertain future. But our lives belong to the people we love as much as to ourselves, and making a unilateral, radical decision in the midst of a healthy life may cause more pain than it prevents.  Our legacies are as complex as the lives we have lived. And old age, for all its losses, is not only loss.  

I respect Emanuel’s choice, but to me, making a proclamation like his in the midst of a healthy life feels like a defensive crouch, a way of denying uncertainty. It also feels deeply unfair to the rest of the family — and does an injustice to how much our elderly relatives and friends often give to us. The same medical system that gives some people the illusion of immortality also gives us the illusion that we can control when we die without causing suffering to others. Instead of focusing on how Joy Johnson died, I’ve decided to focus on how she ran her race: full-throttle, joyous, undaunted by pain. I can’t promise to live that way when I’m 86, or when I’m 76, or even, let’s face it, tomorrow. But I can try to live that way today.  And maybe that’s enough.

Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.  She blogs at gatsbyinLA.wordpress.com

Robin Williams was sober, had Parkinson’s at death


Robin Williams was sober and suffering from early stages of Parkinson's disease as well as anxiety and depression at the time of his apparent suicide, the actor's wife said in a statement on Thursday.

Susan Schneider said the actor “was not yet ready to share publicly” his struggles with Parkinson's Disease.

“It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid,” Schneider said in the statement.

The 63-year-old Oscar-winning star of such films as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Good Will Hunting” was found hanged at his San Francisco-area home by his personal assistant on Monday.

Williams had been open about his struggles with alcohol and had recently gone to a Minnesota rehabilitation center this summer to “fine-tune” his sobriety, his publicist said.

The death of Williams, who shot to prominence in the 1970s with his groundbreaking hyperactive comedic style, shook Hollywood as tributes poured out from actors, directors, politicians and generations of fans.

Reporting by Eric Kelsey and Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Jonathan Oatis

Comedy great Robin Williams hanged himself at home


Oscar-winning actor and groundbreaking comedian Robin Williams hanged himself with a belt in his Northern California home after he had sought treatment for depression, a coroner said on Tuesday based on preliminary findings.

Williams, 63, was found dead by his personal assistant at midday on Monday in a bedroom. He was suspended from a belt wedged between a closet door and a door frame, in a seated position just off the ground, Marin County's assistant chief deputy coroner, Keith Boyd, told a news conference.

“Mr. Williams' personal assistant became concerned at approximately 11:45 a.m. when he failed to respond to knocks on his bedroom door,” said Boyd.

“His right shoulder area was touching the door with his body perpendicular to the door and slightly suspended. Mr. Williams at that time was cool to the touch with rigor mortis present in his body,” Boyd added.

The official preliminary cause of death was asphyxia due to hanging, he said, and conclusion of the investigation is still weeks away.

Officials also found a pocket knife near Williams and superficial cuts on his left wrist with dried red material that matched what was on the knife blade. It was not yet known if it was his blood.

Williams had been open about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine and in the past months had entered a rehabilitation center to help him maintain sobriety. But many questions remained over what could have led him to take his own life.

Williams' publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said on Monday that he had been suffering from severe depression, and Boyd acknowledged that he had been seeking treatment without giving more details.

His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Williams was last seen alive by his wife, Susan Schneider, on Sunday night when she retired for the evening. She left the next morning around 10 a.m., thinking that her husband was still asleep.

Boyd would not say whether Williams had left a suicide note, nor if any drugs or alcohol were involved. The full toxicology report would take two to six weeks, he said.

In addition to his wife, Williams is survived by three grown children – daughter Zelda, and sons Cody and Zachary. Funeral arrangements are pending and his body has been released by the coroner facility in neighboring Napa County.

'THANKS CHIEF'

Tributes poured out from actors, comedians, politicians and generations of fans, including President Barack Obama who called him a “one-of-a-kind” actor.

A force of manic energy, Williams long ago established himself as one of the world's most beloved comedians, and took audiences on wild flights of imagination that often stressed one simple message: seize the day.

His improvisational stand-up routine broke all rules, whether he was giving a comedic account of a nuclear accident in the style of Shakespeare or grabbing a camera from an audience member and pointing the lens down his pants.

Ben Affleck, whose breakthrough role came alongside Williams and Matt Damon in 1997's “Good Will Hunting,” for which Williams won his only Oscar, said he was heartbroken.

“Thanks chief – for your friendship and for what you gave the world,” Affleck wrote on his Facebook page. “Robin had a ton of love in him. He personally did so much for so many people. He made Matt and my dreams come true. What do you owe a guy who does that? Everything.”

Spontaneous acts of tribute sprang up at landmarks from his career.

In Boston, scores of people jotted tributes in chalk to Williams near at bench in the lush Public Garden downtown, which featured in “Good Will Hunting”.

Mourners hung signs including “You will be missed” and “RIP Robin” on the wooden fence of the home in Boulder, Colorado, where parts of the intro credits for his breakout 1970s TV comedy, “Mork & Mindy,” were filmed.

On the Hollywood Walk of Fame, fans congregated around Williams' star, leaving flowers and candles to honor the actor.

“My kids grew up on 'Mrs Doubtfire',” said Erlinda Fantauzzi, referring to the hit movie in which he played a father who took on the persona of a tender British nanny to be close to his kids. “I feel so bad. He was a tortured soul and he died alone. He touched adults and children,” she said.

Interest in his film work spiked on Tuesday, with “Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” making it into the top 20 in the iTunes movie chart.

Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Scott Malone in Boston and Daniel Wallis in Denver; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Sandra Maler

Suicide bombings kill 23 near Iran embassy in Beirut


Two suicide bombings rocked Iran's embassy compound in Lebanon on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people including an Iranian cultural attaché and hurling bodies and burning wreckage across a debris-strewn street.

A Lebanon-based al Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks unless Iran withdraws forces from Syria, where they have backed President Bashar Assad's 2-1/2-year-old war against rebels.

Security camera footage showed a man in an explosives belt rushing towards the outer wall of the embassy in Beirut before blowing himself up, Lebanese officials said. They said a car bomb parked two buildings away from the compound had caused the second, deadlier explosion. The Lebanese army, however, said both blasts were suicide attacks.

In a Twitter post, Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the religious guide of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, said the group had carried out the attack. “It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon,” he wrote.

Lebanon has suffered a series of sectarian clashes and bomb attacks on Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim targets which have been linked to the Syrian conflict and which had already killed scores of people this year.

Tuesday's bombing took place on the eve of more talks between world powers and Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. They came close to agreeing an interim deal during negotiations earlier this month.

The bombs also struck as Assad's forces extended their military gains in Syria before peace talks which the United Nations hopes to convene in mid-December and which Iran says it is ready to attend.

Shi'ite Iran actively supports Assad against mostly Sunni rebels, and two of its Revolutionary Guard commanders have been killed in Syria this year. Along with fighters from the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, Iran has helped to turn the tide in Assad's favor at the expense of rebels backed and armed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

CULTURAL ATTACHE KILLED

A Reuters cameraman at the scene counted six bodies outside one entrance to the embassy compound. Body parts were strewn as far as two streets away and several cars were badly damaged.

The embassy's sturdy metal gate was twisted by the blasts, which Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said killed 23 people and wounded 146.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the bombs were “an inhuman and vicious act perpetrated by Israel and its terror agents”, Iran's IRNA news agency reported.

Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi said his country had played no role. “The bloodshed in Beirut is a result of Hezbollah's involvement in the Syria crisis. Israel was not involved in the past and was not involved here,” he said in Jerusalem.

Iran's ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi identified one of the dead as Ebrahim Ansari, a cultural attaché at the embassy.

A Lebanese security source said the bombers struck just before Roknabadi and Ansari had been due to leave the embassy for a meeting at Lebanon's Culture Ministry, as embassy guards were preparing a convoy of cars to take them.

Fires engulfed cars outside the embassy and the facades of some buildings were torn off. Shattered glass covered the bloodied streets and some trees were uprooted, but the embassy's well-fortified building itself suffered relatively minor damage.

“Whoever carries out such an attack in these sensitive circumstances, from whichever faction, knows directly or indirectly that he is serving the interests of the Zionist entity (Israel),” Roknabadi said.

He did not say whether other embassy officials were among the dead, but Lebanese TV stations quoted Iranian diplomatic sources as saying none of their staff in the embassy was hurt.

CONDEMNATION

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned what he described as a “shocking terrorist attack” and France expressed “solidarity with the Lebanese and Iranian authorities”.

Politicians from across Lebanon's Sunni, Shi'ite and Christian communities also condemned the attack.

In Syria, the government said its soldiers took full control of the town of Qara, which straddles a highway from Damascus to government strongholds on the coast and is also used by Sunni rebels to cross into Syria from Lebanon.

The capture of Qara may mark the start of a wider offensive by the army, which has been backed by Hezbollah and Shi'ite fighters from Iraq, to recapture the mountainous border region of Qalamoun and consolidate Assad's control of territory around Damascus and close to the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah's military role in Syria has helped to inflame sectarian tension there and in Lebanon. Many Lebanese Sunnis back the Syrian rebels, while many Shi'ites support Assad, whose minority Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam.

Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst with Eurasia Group, said the embassy bombing was an attempt by supporters of the Sunni rebels to weaken Hezbollah and Iran's support for Assad, undermine the Qalamoun campaign and possibly pressure Tehran before Wednesday's nuclear talks.

“While sectarian tensions in Lebanon will increase, Hezbollah's retaliatory response will be centered on Syria where (it) will further commit military forces to eliminate the Sunni rebel threat along the Syrian-Lebanese borders,” he said.

The Abdullah Azzam Brigade has strong links in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps as well as connections with the Gulf. Two of its senior military leaders are Saudi nationals, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

“This attack is a significant escalation. After months and months of speculation, an al Qaeda-linked group has now underlined its involvement in the Syria-related Lebanese theatre,” he said.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi implicitly blamed Saudi Arabia and Qatar for supporting radical militants, who have been blamed for previous attacks against Shi'ite targets.

Footage from local news channels showed charred bodies on the ground as flames rose from stricken vehicles. Emergency workers and residents carried victims away in blankets.

“These kinds of explosions are a new and dangerous development,” said the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, Mohammad Raad.

Southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, was hit by three explosions earlier this year. Those attacks were blamed on groups linked to the Syrian rebels, believed to be in retaliation for the group's military role in Syria.

Three decades ago, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militants carried out devastating suicide bombings in Lebanon that hit the U.S. embassy, as well as U.S., French and Israeli military bases.

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes, Mariam Karouny and Stephen Kalin in Beirut and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, Alistair Lyon and David Stamp

Oustanding Graduate: Sepora Makabeh — Using gift of gab for good


Sepora Makabeh is a social butterfly — outgoing, talkative, friendly and approachable. But rather than using this quality to just collect friends and speak her mind, the 18-year-old senior at Milken Community High School has employed it to assist people with special needs and desperate teens seeking help.

This year, she volunteered with The Help Group, a nonprofit serving children, adolescents and young adults with special needs. Always interested in psychology, she put both her ability to communicate and interest in mental health to work by teaching children who were socially challenged or diagnosed with autism how to interact in society. 

“We worked on how you respond in conversations and how you treat people,” Makabeh said. “The kids learned a lot.”

Since she was a freshman at Milken — where she is this year’s valedictorian — Makabeh also has been part of Teen Line, a confidential phone line for teenagers in need. For five hours a week, she’s on call, aiding teens dealing with abuse, suicide, depression and various mental health issues. Makabeh said she started volunteering with the organization because she’s always been a shoulder for friends to lean on. 

“You know how everyone has a friend they call in the middle of the night? It’s me. I thought that if I’m doing this for friends, I want to do it for other people, too. I wanted to understand how to do it more effectively.” 

Being part of the program has taught her valuable skills, Makabeh said.

[Next Grad: Rachel Arditi]

“Sometimes you don’t know what to say to people. It taught me how to react to those situations,” she said. “I feel like everyone should go through training like that. It taught me how to be an empathetic person.”

Makabeh said that she learned from her parents the importance of helping others. She applied this value yet again in high school when she became involved with Cover the Homeless Ministry, a nonprofit dedicated to getting the poor back on their feet. She and her classmates assisted the founder of the group, Rose Rios, with fundraising, setting up a business plan and delivering 4,000 toys to needy families in South Los Angeles. Through this, Makabeh said, she was able to bridge a gap between communities. 

“I was inspired by this idea of leaving our bubble and going outside of our small community. We used the toy drive as a launching pad for the program. It became so much more than a chance to help people.”

Ross Mankuta, associate director of college counseling at Milken, said that Makabeh is well rounded, passionate about what she does and a hard worker. 

“Everyone who knows her is better off for it. She’s a special human being,” he said.

When Makabeh goes to Washington University in St. Louis this fall, she’s going to continue to pursue psychology. One day, she wants to be a psychiatrist and change how mental health is dealt with in America.

“One of my big goals is to develop programs in school where you would have conversations about these things,” she said. “We try not to talk about suicide, bullying and cutting, but people are dealing with these issues all the time. We try to brush it off. We need to start talking about it.”

Israel conducts illegal weapons amnesty


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

There are a lot of guns in Israel. You see them carried by soldiers as you walk down the street; on the hip of the security guard checking your bag as you enter the bank; and even by licensed civilians who live in or travel through areas Israel acquired in the 1967 war.

Israel’s Ministry of Public Security has embarked on an amnesty campaign to collect illegal, unlicensed firearms, promising that anyone who hands over their unlicensed gun will not be prosecuted. Unlike similar campaigns in the US where the concern is violent crime, misuse of firearms is a greater problem relative to suicides. 

Yakov Amit, the head of firearm licensing in the Ministry says there are 160,000 licensed civilian weapons in Israel, along with 130,000 guns licensed to institutions such as security companies. According to law, Israelis must renew their gun permits every three years, including a requirement for shooting practice.

According to officials, there are about 6,500 Israelis who have not renewed their gun licenses. 

“It is likely that these guns were stolen and they’re afraid to report it or they were sold illegally,” Amit told The Media Line. “We want to know how many people have done this. They must report it but there won’t be any criminal proceedings against them.”

In the first week of the campaign which began earlier this month, 200 Israelis came forward. Since then, there have been dozens more, although complete statistics are not yet available.

The issue gained prominence here earlier this month when a disgruntled customer opened fire in a bank in the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, killing four people before turning the gun on himself. The gunman, Itamar Alon, was a former security guard who had won a commendation from the city for preventing a terrorist attack years ago.

His gun, Amit said, was licensed.

The shooting dominated the Israeli news for days, ironically pointing out how rare gun violence is in the country. Israeli officials say the difficult process required in order to obtain a gun weeds out potential misuse.

“Unlike in the US, in Israel there is no legal right to [own or carry] a gun,” Amit said. “Anyone who wants a gun needs to submit a request and explain why he needs that gun. He also has to undergo physical and psychological tests.”

Israel’s Ministry of Health is legally bound to report any changes in psychological health that could impact on a gun owner’s ability to use the weapon safely.

Anyone living in post-1967 areas, or on Israel’s northern and southern borders, is reasonably likely to obtain a license for a firearm, as well as people involved in businesses that include risk, like diamonds or money-transfer.

Most Israelis are familiar with guns from their mandatory army service. With the exception of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens, all Israelis are drafted at the age of 18 and serve in the army – men for three years and women for two years. Even those in non-combat jobs complete at least three weeks of basic training that includes firing assault rifles.

Although violent crime involving gun use is considered rare in Israel, guns feature heavily in the high rate of suicide in both the civilian and military sectors.

The army does not like to release statistics, but after a blogger writing under a pseudonym wrote on the issue last year, the army revealed that 237 servicemen and women took their own lives over the past ten years, the vast majority using their army-issued weapons.

“There is a dangerous cultural combination of easy access to guns and the lack of awareness of depression and its prevalence in the 18 to 26 age group,” Sara Halevi, an adolescent cognitive behavioral therapist in Jerusalem told The Media Line. “That lends itself to a situation where suicide is unfortunately far too common.”

Halevi said she has noticed an increase in depression and stress-related illnesses in her practice, especially among 17-year-olds just before they enter the army.

“They feel unprepared for the responsibility that they are going to have put on them,” she said. “I’ve seen the incidence of depression go up significantly.”

There is still a stigma in Israel against seeking treatment, and many young Israelis worry that seeing a therapist could keep them out of important army jobs.

The army is also working to combat suicides of soldiers on active duty. In the past, most soldiers would bring their guns home with them when they came home for the weekend. Now, since the army began requiring that most soldiers keep their guns on their bases when on leave, suicides have decreased significantly.

Report: ‘Prisoner X’ spy Ben Zygier tipped off Hezbollah


The man known as “Prisoner X” unwittingly caused the arrest of two Hezbollah supporters who were spying for Israel, a German magazine claims.

Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli who allegedly was a Mossad agent, leaked highly classified information in a botched attempt to recruit a spy for the agency, according to an expose in Der Spiegel.

Zygier, who had been returned from the field to a desk job at Mossad headquarters, was attempting to restore his reputation at the spy agency by attempting to turn an enemy into an ally, the magazine wrote.

In the end, however, Hezbollah managed to extract from him the names of two Lebanese men working for the Mossad — Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh — who were arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail, the magazine said.

The report said Zygier started working with the Mossad in 2003 but was ordered back to Israel in 2007 because he was not delivering for the agency. He returned to Melbourne and operated independently in an attempt to restore his reputation, the magazine claimed. But as he tried to prove his bona fides to a man linked to Hezbollah who he wanted to become a double agent, he was the one who became the double agent, leaking the classified information.

On Dec. 15, 2010, the 34-year-old father of two was found dead in his Tel Aviv cell. Reports said he hung himself.

Report: Israel informed Australia when Zygier was arrested


Israeli intelligence services notified Australian officials of Ben Zygier’s arrest immediately after he was detained, an Australian news agency reported. 

Australia’s Fairfax Media quoted a “well-placed source familiar with the case” as saying Israeli intelligence had told Australian officials about the 2010 arrest of Zygier, a dual Australian-Israeli citizen dubbed Prisoner X who committed suicide later that year while in prison in Israel. Zygier is alleged to have worked with the Mossad.

Fairfax Media's former Middle East correspondent, Jason Koutsoukis, said he had been tipped off by an ''Australian intelligence source'' in October 2009 about concerns that Zygier may have been facilitating the use of Australian passports by Israeli spies. He then interviewed Zygier, who denied the allegation. A week after their last conversation, Zygier was imprisoned.

Israel denies mystery 2010 detainee spied for Australia


Israel denied on Tuesday that an Australian immigrant who committed suicide in 2010 while jailed for security offenses had spied for his native country.

The statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, which oversees Israel's intelligence services, was the first to confirm the affair concerned Ben Zygier, who was named in an Australian TV expose last week.

One of Zygier's lawyers has since linked him to Mossad, fanning speculation the 34-year-old Jewish man from Melbourne had been arrested and held in isolation on suspicion of betraying the Israeli spy agency's secrets – perhaps to Australia.

“Following many reports, the prime minister's office emphasises that Mr. Zygier had no connection to the Australian security services and organizations,” the statement said.

It said that Israel and Australia shared “excellent cooperation, full coordination and full transparency in dealing with the issues on the agenda”.

Zygier was held under alias to stem serious harm to national interests, Israel says, but has not given any other details.

In a separate measure to douse speculation of foul play, an Israeli court allowed the publication of a judge's inquiry, completed two months ago, that said Zygier hanged himself in his cell.

The investigation showed the prisoner looped a wet sheet around his neck, tied it to the bars of a bathroom window in his cell and hanged himself, choking to death.

Israeli media reported the bathroom area was not covered, for privacy reasons, by closed-circuit television cameras that transmitted images from other parts of the isolation cell.

Ruling out foul play on the basis of medical and physical evidence, Judge Dafna Blatman-Kardai said entry to the cell was monitored by cameras and examination of their footage showed no one “intervened in causing the death of the deceased.”

She said his family – which has not commented publicly on the case – agreed with the findings.

“A small amount of sedative was found in his blood. There was no alcohol or drugs. This does not change my determination … about the cause of death,” a forensic medical expert was quoted as saying in the judge's report.

Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers in Israel, protesting at the state censorship restricting local reporting on the case, have demanded to know whether Zygier's rights were violated by his months of incarceration, isolated from other inmates, and whether his death could have been prevented.

Those calls were echoed in Australia, where media suggested Zygier had been suspected of betraying Mossad missions to Canberra's spy services. Australia was angered in 2010 by the fraudulent use of its passports in the assassination of a Hamas arms procurer in Dubai, which the Gulf emirate blamed on Israel.

NEGLIGENCE IN QUESTION

In her report, the judge said there was prima facie evidence that the Prisons Authority had been negligent, noting that it had received special instructions on supervising the prisoner to prevent a possible suicide.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said state prosecutors would decide whether charges would be brought.

A source briefed on the affair told Reuters that Israel has since installed biometric detectors in the toilet stalls of high-risk prisoners, designed to summon guards within seconds should they stop breathing or display other signs of distress.

Responding to the media reports about Zygier, Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told parliament on Monday that the detainee had received frequent family visits and been “supervised by mental-health support and treatment systems, both external and those of the Prisons Service”.

Zygier also consulted with Israeli lawyers, one of whom, Avigdor Feldman, said he saw the married father of two shortly before his death to discuss “grave charges” on which he had been indicted, and the possibility of a plea bargain.

“I met with a balanced person … who was rationally weighing his legal options,” Feldman told Israeli television last week, adding Zygier had denied the charges against him.

“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”

Feldman declined to comment on an Israeli newspaper report that Zygier faced between 10-and-20 years in prison.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor on Saturday called Zygier's death a “tragedy” but said his treatment was justified.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Michael Roddy

Israel struggles to keep cloak of secrecy over spy story


The mysterious death of an Australian prisoner in Israel has put the spotlight on a military-run censorship system that is finding it harder to black out secret information often only a mouse click away on the Internet.

The case involves a man reported by Australia's ABC channel on Tuesday to have been a member of Israel's Mossad spy agency. According to the report, he committed suicide in prison in 2010 in an isolated top-security wing originally built for the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Why the man, identified by ABC as Ben Zygier, an immigrant to Israel, was jailed is still a closely guarded secret, and reports dealing with matters of state security must be submitted to military censors for vetting.

In a highly unusual move within hours of the ABC broadcast, Israeli editors were summoned to an emergency meeting in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office and asked not to publish a story “that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency”, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.

Israeli news outlets that had carried the report scrambled to remove it from their websites, but that only drew attention to the case. Chatter ran rampant on Twitter and Facebook, offering polyglot Israelis links to foreign news sites.

For decades, journalists in Israel have been required to sign an undertaking to abide by military censorship rules when they apply for accreditation from the government press office. Reporters risk being denied press cards and, in the case of foreigners, work visas if they violate the regulations.

“You either work with us, or you work abroad,” a military censor, cautioning against reporting where Palestinian rockets were landing in Israel, warned a Reuters correspondent during an eight-day Gaza war in November.

SHAME

In the age of the Internet, efforts by Israel to put the genie back in the bottle proved fruitless.

“People in the state, in the Shin Bet (internal security agency) and the courts conduct themselves as if we were still in the stone age,” said Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli attorney whose clients have included nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.

Vanunu, a former technician in Israel's top secret Dimona nuclear reactor told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986 that atomic bombs were produced at the facility. He was jailed as a traitor and served 18 years in prison.

“These things are ultimately revealed. People talk, and not just on the Internet. The tight-lip that once typified this country is no longer … all the gag orders just shame the courts and the country,” he told Reuters.

Aluf Benn, editor of Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper, said Israeli security authorities and judges who issue gag orders at their request find it hard to come to terms with the concept of a free media operating in a democracy.

“For (Mossad chief Tamir) Pardo and his ilk, the Israeli media are a branch of the state … that is why we are forced absurdly to quote foreign news sources about military operations, intelligence snafus and clandestine trials,” Benn wrote in a commentary in his newspaper.

“Generation after generation, the military censor has explained to reporters that anything published by an Israeli outlet is seen by the international community as an official statement, whereas reports by foreign news sources are not.”

So when controversial incidents take place, such as an attack on Syria last month that the Damascus government said was carried out by the Israeli air force, Israeli media are banned from publishing their own information.

And while Israel's nuclear arms have been an open secret for decades, reference to the arsenal has always been attributed in the local press to “foreign reports”.

Curiously, the case of “Prisoner X” was deemed so sensitive that for almost 24 hours the authorities tried to prevent any word seeping out into the local media.

They finally raised the white flag after left-wing and Arab legislators used their parliamentary immunity to demand explanations about the affair on the floor of the Knesset, enabling Israeli papers to at least allude to the story.

On Tuesday the gag orders were eased to allow the media to carry foreign reports of the case, but the censors told journalists not to identify the dead man's wife and two children – information that is readily available on the Internet.

Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence matters, told Reuters he had no knowledge about Zygier, “but in the 21st century, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, I simply don't believe such secrecy can be maintained”.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams

More details trickle out about Israel’s Prisoner X, aka Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew


More information has begun to trickle out about the mysterious man known as Prisoner X who hanged himself in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in 2010.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s “Foreign Correspondent” program made headlines worldwide when it reported this week that the prisoner, whose identity was so secret that even his jailers did not know it, was a Jewish immigrant to Israel from Melbourne named Ben Zygier. The program claimed it had “compelling evidence” that the inmate incarcerated for several months in the suicide-proof cell built specifically for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin was Zygier and that he had worked with the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

Zygier was 34 when he died on Dec. 15, 2010 from “asphyxiation by hanging,” according to documents obtained by the TV investigation.

Israel had imposed a strict gag order on the case that forbade publication of any details related to the case — or even the existence of the prisoner. When Israeli media outlets began to report this week about the Australian news report, Israeli authorities ordered them to be deleted.

On Wednesday, however, the gag order was lifted a day after Knesset members began to raise questions about the case in Israel’s parliament.

Zygier is no stranger in the Australian Jewish community. His father, Geoffrey, is the executive director of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation Commission. At the time of his son’s death, he was executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. Geoffrey Zygier did not respond to JTA’s inquiries this week about his son.

Zygier’s mother, Louise, worked at Melbourne’s Monash University and helped raise funds for its Jewish center.

Zygier himself went to two Jewish day schools in Melbourne, King David and Bialik College. He was a member of the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and spent significant time in Israel, where he graduated from the Machon leadership program in Jerusalem. He lived for a while at Kibbutz Gazit, in Israel’s Galilee region. Back in Australia, he worked at the Deacons law firm in Melbourne before immigrating to Israel and assuming the name Ben Alon, according to acquaintances.

He eventually married an Israeli woman and lived in Raanana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, with his wife and two children.

The Australian network's report said Zygier had another Australian passport under the name Ben Allen, and that he was connected to the Mossad, but the program offered no conclusive proof. Ex-Mossad officials reached in Israel told reporters they had no comment.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr ordered a review of the case on Wednesday in light of the “Foreign Correspondent” probe. Carr said he understood that consular officials were neither informed that an Australian was in jail nor that he had died in prison.

The first the government heard of the case was when family members contacted the Australian consulate in Israel to seek help repatriating Zygier’s body for burial in Melbourne.

It emerged on Wednesday that Israel had informed an Australian diplomat of Zygier’s jailing but that the diplomat had not passed on the information through the requisite channels.

Meanwhile, members of Australia’s Jewish community shared the details they knew about Zygier’s earlier life. One Hashomer friend who was on Kibbutz Gazit with Zygier in 1994 said that Zygier “never struck me as someone who was stable.”

“I could never imagine someone like that being good for Mossad,” said the acquaintance, who like most acquaintances interviewed about Zygier did not want to be identified. “Also, Ben talked too much.”

Another acquaintance said, “I remember hanging out in Israel with him in 1996. He was a nice guy, a bit lost. Next I heard was that he died in Israel. At the time, what the family understood to be the case was that he was overseas on a [Mossad] operation, then they got confirmation he had committed suicide. It crushed the family.”

Reached by JTA, Zygier’s cousin, Marlon Dubs, said, “I have nothing to add, nothing at all.”

The family’s rabbi, Shimshon Yurkowicz of Chabad, declined to confirm or deny anything to do with the Australian network's report.

Zygier’s uncle said the family was in mourning.

“I saw that show last night. I have no idea what is true and what isn't true,” Willy Zygier told The Age newspaper on Wednesday. “All I know is there is a family tragedy. Every suicide is a family tragedy.”

A spokesman for the family told the newspaper that the family would not be releasing a statement.

Others who know the family said the parents were devastated in 2010 by their son’s death.

“They were absolutely shocked, it was just terrible,” recalled Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Lamm said he had no current information on the case.

“There was a complete shutdown,” said someone else about circumstances surrounding Zygier’s death. “No one knew what the story was. The parents crumbled. They cut off from life. They were broken. They completely withdrew from everything for two years.”

Both of Zygier’s parents quit the Jewish community posts they held around the time of Zygier’s death.

“The poor parents have suffered enough till now,” one former Jewish community leader told JTA. “No one acknowledged there was suicide. There were rumors he was Mossad, but no one knew, there was such secrecy.”

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment. Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Council of Australia, said, “We know absolutely nothing about the allegations in the story.”

The gag order placed on Israeli media for stories about Prisoner X was unusually strict. Citing “a serious breach of the state's security,” the order forbade Israeli media not just from reporting any details about the case but also from noting the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s report this week. Shortly after the report aired, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned top editors to reaffirm the importance of the suppression order.

Hamas leader calls for third intifada


A senior Hamas leader called for a third intifada, including suicide bus bombings in Israel.

Hamas Jerusalem bureau chief Ahmed Halabiyeh on Tuesday called for new, violent action against Israel,  saying that ”we must renew the resistance to occupation in any possible way, above all through armed resistance.” He called for “a third intifada to save the Aksa Mosque and Jerusalem.”

The call came in response to the approval for construction of thousands of apartments in eastern Jerusalem and the E1 area near Ma'aleh Adumim.

Also on Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a conference that Israel is “on the verge of a third intifada,” Ynet reported.

“If we continue to refuse peace, we will be dealt a painful blow that will affect all aspects of our lives,” he said.

On Chanukah, Hamsas, for love and tzedakah


Meeting Rachelle Tratt, a yoga teacher with a warm smile and huge blue eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she was ever anything but the strong, spirited healer she is today. But Tratt, who grew up Modern Orthodox in the Catskill Mountains, has seen her fair share of tragedy.

At 9 years old, she discovered her mother’s body hanging in the basement of her family’s home in South Fallsburg, N.Y. “It shaped the course of my life,” said Tratt, 27, who wears not one but two hamsa pendants around her neck. “Everything stems from that one event.”

In the years following her mother’s suicide, Tratt’s family moved away from their religious community and set down roots in Westchester County. By the time Tratt graduated from high school in Rye, N.Y., she had started partying hard. A second tragic event — her brother’s fall from a banister that left him with spinal cord and brain injuries — compounded the pain of losing her mother, who would be 57 this year, and Tratt’s downward spiral continued. 

When she was 18, Tratt’s father, aunt and two siblings staged an intervention. She checked into rehab in Boca Raton, Fla., and it was there that she stopped drinking, connected with her higher power and eventually took her first yoga class. “Rehab wasn’t fun, but it put me on the spiritual path,” Tratt said in an interview in the airy Marina del Rey home that she shares with two other yoga instructors. “I knew I had a bigger purpose that I wasn’t living up to.”

One year later, while Tratt was teaching yoga in Boca Raton, one of her students — an Israeli — gifted her with a small turquoise hamsa. An ancient Middle Eastern symbol of protection, the hamsa is seen in both Judaism and Islam as a powerful tool to ward off the evil eye. Tratt wore the pendant on a gold chain, and soon she was fielding compliments and questions about the tiny blue hand on a daily basis. 

It wasn’t until Tratt traveled to Israel herself that she made the connection between the greater purpose she aspired to and the hamsa she never took off. Two summers ago, Tratt returned from her third trip to Israel — where her parents had met on a religious kibbutz in 1973 — and started The Neshama Project. 

Named for the Hebrew word for “soul,” as well as in honor of her mother Nicole’s first initial, The Neshama Project fuses a jewelry business with spiritual healing and charitable causes in both Israel and Los Angeles. The project represents the best aspects of her mother’s spirit, Tratt said. “It’s about Israel, community, kindness and tzedakah.” Blue and white opal necklaces, as well as opal earrings, are for sale through the neshamaproject.com store.

For each Hamsa necklace that she sells, Tratt donates 10 percent to a charity of the buyer’s choice. Thus far, she has partnered with Innovation Africa, a nonprofit organization that brings Israeli technology to African villages, and Friends of Ofanim, which supports educational efforts for at-risk youth living on Israel’s periphery. In Los Angeles, Tratt has partnered with Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for adults with special needs, where she regularly volunteers.

Each time Tratt strings a hamsa on a gold chain — the actual pendants are manufactured in Israel — she types an inspiring message on a small square of paper included in the jewelry bag. The first message that Tratt ever typed read, “Hummus and falafels weave together our history of love.” It came on the heels of her first trip to Israel, where she visited the kibbutz on which her parents had met, and, she said, felt her mother with every step. Since then, she has expanded her repertoire to include more universal messages such as, “Make someone smile,” or “I believe in the power of love.”

In the year that she’s been in business, Tratt has sold more than 100 hamsas. But the most satisfying part of The Neshama Project, she said, has nothing to do with profit. “What fills me up the most are the interactions I’ve had with people who have been given a hamsa.” 

One of those people was Esther Kustanowitz, program coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

“These necklaces are more than just purchased products,” Kustanowitz said. “They’re conversation starters, relationship starters, opportunities to connect over something you may not have known you had in common.” 

Israeli doctor euthanizes daughter, takes own life


A doctor in Israel euthanized his daughter and committed suicide.

Relatives of the 60-year-old physician found him dead on Thursday in his garage and his daughter, who had terminal cancer, in her bed at their house in Nir Yisrael, a moshav in Israel’s south, according to a report in NRG, the news site of the daily Ma’ariv.

NRG quoted a police source as saying the physician gave his daughter, who was 31, a lethal dose of an unspecified barbiturate and then hung himself in the garage.

He reportedly called his brother and told him he was going to put an end to his daughter’s life and his own and asked his brother’s forgiveness before hanging up.

The man’s chest showed stabbing wounds. Police believe he tried to stab himself to death but hung himself instead.

The mayor of Hof Ashkelon Regional Council, Yair Farajun, told NRG the daughter’s mother was a teacher.

“This family is made up of good, hard-working moshavniks,” Farajun said. “It’s very difficult to comprehend this tragedy.”

Wife of Israeli celebrity rabbi attempts suicide as police question him


The wife of Israeli kabbalist Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto tried to commit suicide as her husband was being questioned by police.

The rabbi's wife, Rivka, was rushed to a Tel Aviv hospital on Sunday after reportedly overdosing on pills, Israel Radio reported. The questioning of Pinto was suspended on Sunday after three hours.

The couple were arrested and released to home detention late last week after allegedly attempting to bribe a police officer to get information about an investigation into alleged money laundering by the couple.

A former aide to Pinto, Ofer Biton, was jailed last month in the United States over immigration violations. U.S. officials reportedly have been scrutinizing Biton's fundraising activities for a U.S. congressman, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).

Biton had a falling-out with Pinto, whose supporters have accused Biton of embezzling funds from Pinto's organizations.

Ari Rubin suicide continues pattern of violent JDL deaths


Ari Ephraim Rubin, vice chairman of the Jewish Defense League long led by his father, Irving (Irv) Rubin, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on July 20. He was 30.

Ari Rubin had been active since his youth in the militant JDL, which has long been rejected by mainstream Jewish organizations for its violent tactics, and he became vice chairman in 2006.

His death was ruled a suicide by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, whose spokesman, Craig Harvey, said that a neighbor found Rubin in his car with the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.

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Report: Calls between Lebanon and Burgas increased before attack


Israel has evidence of many telephone calls between Lebanon and Burgas in the two months before the bombing that killed six people, The New York Times reported.

The volume of calls intensified in the three days before the attack on a bus carrying Israeli tourists, the newspaper reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior government official, pointing the finger even more directly—in Israel’s eyes—at the terror group Hezbollah.

“We know the sources in Lebanon,” although not the identity of those on the other end in Bulgaria, the official told the Times.

Israel placed the blame for the July 18 attack on both Iran and Hezbollah. The United States and Bulgaria reportedly agree with the assessment, but have not said so officially.

The Bulgarian investigation has “largely stalled,” according to The New York Times. The attacker and his accomplices have not yet been identified. Bulgarian officials are hesitant to declare Hezbollah responsible without hard evidence, according to the newspaper.

An unnamed senior security official in Germany was quoted as saying that the European allies are skeptical that Hezbollah was responsible for the attack, speculating that Iran used “individuals with Hezbollah affiliation.” 

San Francisco synagogue service to remember Golden Gate Bridge suicides


A San Francisco synagogue will hold a memorial service for the 1,558 known suicide victims who have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will host a special yizkor or remembrance service on August 7 to raise awareness about suicides and bullying, according to j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California. 

Jewish filmmaker Jenni Olson, who made the 2005 documentary “The Joy of Life” about the bridge’s history of suicides, told j. the idea came to her during the recent 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We do a Yizkor service during the High Holy Days that is so moving,” Olson reportedly said of the congregation, whose name is Hebrew for “golden gate.”

“I thought it would be so powerful as a remembrance, as a religious service, and also as a kind of activism project to continue to draw attention to this issue,” she added.

At the one-hour event, the names of the 1,558 suicide victims will be projected on-screen as congregant volunteers lead the assembled in prayer. Organizers expect both Jewish and non-Jewish families and friends of lost loved ones to attend, according to the newspaper.

“There’s been an epidemic of teen suicide related to bullying in the last few years,” Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel, told j. “Of course our community is touched when these things happen. It shakes us.”

Suicide bomber behind Bulgaria bus attack had help, Bulgarian prime minister says


A suicide bomber who killed five Israeli tourists when he blew up a bus in Bulgaria last week was backed up by an organized group who helped him plan and carry out the attack, Boiko Borisov, the Bulgarian prime minister, said on Tuesday.

Borisov said police had not yet identified the bomber whose attack also wounded more than 30 people at Burgas airport last Wednesday, but said the man had not acted alone.

“These are extremely experienced people who have followed strict conspiracy rules,” Borisov told reporters after meeting John Brennan, a counter-terrorism adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama.

“From what we see, they arrived nearly a month beforehand, changed rental cars, and traveled to different cities … and not more than one of the people we are looking for was captured on either security camera,” Borisov said.

He declined to give more details on the plotters.

Borisov said that the bomber’s DNA and finger prints had not matched anything held on file by Bulgaria or by partner spy agencies and that police were still working to identify him.

But he suggested that the attacker, whose bomb was concealed in his backpack, may have entered Bulgaria on a plane from the European Union’s “Schengen” passport-free travel zone. He did not elaborate.

Israel has accused Iran and the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah of the bombing. Iran has denied the accusations.

Borisov said that Bulgaria – a member of both the EU and NATO – would not say who it thought was responsible for the attack until the investigation was complete.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Hezbollah: Uncertain future, but still dangerous


Hezbollah may have hurt Israel with last week’s bus bombing in Bulgaria, but the Lebanese terrorist faction faces an uncertain future as one of its main sponsors—Syria’s Assad regime—faces a serious revolt and weakening support from once Arab allies, according to analysts.

Still, no one is predicting the quick demise of Hezbollah.

As has been the case throughout the Arab popular uprisings of the past 20 months, Israelis have viewed the turmoil gripping Syria with wariness. President Bashar Assad was no ally of Israel’s—the countries technically remain in a state of war—but the Syrian regime has kept its border with Israel mostly quiet for nearly 40 years under Assad and previously his father, Hafez Assad.

“We don’t feel reassured that those who are trying to topple the Assad regime are a great improvement,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. The Assad government, he said, “for its own interests, kept the armistice” with Israel.

Some Israeli policy experts, however, are looking forward to a Syrian regime change because it is one of Hezbollah’s main backers, along with Iran. Syria has acted as a crucial pipeline for Hezbollah to receive money and weapons from Iran and elsewhere.  A new Syrian government might close that route.

“Hezbollah is losing support in the Arab world,” said Shlomo Brom, a former chief of the strategic planning division of the Israel Defense Forces. “It’s on the wrong side of history. Syria was a central source of support.”

Hezbollah, however, remains a serious danger on several levels.

In an address at an IDF ceremony on Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak cautioned that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons may fall into Hezbollah control if they are transferred over the border due to a weakened Assad regime.

“The State of Israel cannot accept a situation whereby advanced weapons systems are transferred from Syria to Lebanon,” Barak said. “There is no doubt that we are facing a global terror campaign, against Israel in particular, with Hezbollah at its center, inspired by Iran.”

Barak did not elaborate on the Israeli military’s plans. In a statement, the IDF said it “is carefully following events in Syria as they unfold, as they may have significant regional repercussions.”

Further, Hezbollah is now reported to have up to 50,000 missiles—more than three times the 13,000 it reportedly held when it began launching rockets at Israel six years ago, leading to the Second Lebanon War. In that nearly monthlong conflict, almost 4,000 missiles landed on Israel, killing 43 civilians and wounding more than 4,000.

Israeli authorities also are worried about the security of the Israel-Syria border in the Golan Heights as Assad loses control of the country. Last Friday, Syrian rebels took control of several posts on the country’s borders with Iran and Turkey.

In May 2011, masses of Syrians stormed the Israeli border in commemoration of Palestinians losing their homes in Israel’s War of Independence, which they call the Nakba. More than a dozen people died as Israel fired on the protesters.

Now analysts fear that a rebel takeover could lead to a porous border that allows terrorists to infiltrate the country.

“The Golan may become a kind of Sinai, with ideological extremist organizations that are on our border,” Brom said, referring to the current state of Israel’s border with Egypt in the Sinai desert.

Regardless of the possible scenarios, the analysts all dismissed the idea that last the July 18 terrorist attack in Bulgaria was a direct result of the Syrian fighting. Senior Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have blamed Hezbollah for the attack, which they say is the product of a global Iranian campaign of terror aimed at Israeli targets.

Hezbollah and Iran have rejected the allegations.

Middle East professor Eyal Zisser said that “Bulgaria is a story with Iran and Hezbollah that is a long story,” while Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, called the attack “part of the ongoing hidden war between Iran and Israel and part of Hezbollah’s ongoing effort to attack Israel.”

Shoval noted, though, that the attack in part could be Hezbollah’s way of asserting that it can survive without Syrian support.

“Obviously there is a connection between what happened in Bulgaria and the situation in which Hezbollah finds itself these days,” he said. “Maybe it wanted to prove that it can also act indirectly or directly with Iran, and not only through the intermediary of the Syrians.”

But Shoval said that Israelis should not necessarily rest assured that Assad’s fall means Hezbollah’s decline, even though Hezbollah is a Shiite group while most Syrians are Sunni.

“This is presented as a Sunni-against-Shia struggle, but with regard to terrorism and enmity against Israel, they won’t have any difficulty to cooperate,” he said. “One can’t rule out the possibility that Hezbollah will be supported by a Sunni regime in Syria.”

While most Israelis are worried about what Syria will look like when Assad falls, others are more optimistic.

“In the Middle East there is a struggle between extremist Islam and moderate Islam,” said Alon Liel, who has advocated in the past for an Israel-Syria peace agreement. “In the long run, moderate Islam is not bad for Israel.”

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