Norwegian official: Jews, Muslims should replace circumcision with ‘symbolic’ ritual

Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights has proposed that Jews and Muslim replace male circumcision with a symbolic, nonsurgical ritual.

Dr. Anne Lindboe told the newspaper Vart Land last month that circumcision in boys was a violation of a person’s right to decide over his own body.

“Muslim and Jewish children are entitled to the same protection as all other children,“ she said, adding that the practice caused unnecessary pain and was medically unbeneficial.

Lindboe, a pediatrician, was appointed ombudsman in June. Her predecessor, Reidar Hjermann, proposed setting 15 as the minimum age for circumcision. According to Jewish religious law, Jewish babies must be circumcised when they are eight days old.

The children’s ombudsman is an independent governmental institution entrusted with safeguarding the rights of minors.

Ervin Kohn, president of the Jewish Community of Oslo, said that Norwegian Jews “will not be able to live in a society where circumcision is forbidden.” He noted that the mandate of Norway’s children’s ombudsman did not extend to devising Jewish rituals. Norway has a Jewish community of about 700.

In June, a spokesperson for Norway’s Centre Party, which has 11 out of 169 seats in parliament, proposed a ban on circumcising babies.

Jamaican Elegance With a Jewish Twist

Set back from the Main Road behind the tall and majestic trees is the splendid mansion of Devon House. This stately mansion a regal tribute to the craftsmanship of Jamaica, and it also stands as a proud symbol of Jamaican Jewish history. Sitting on the aptly named Hope Road, this magnificent mansion is now open to the public.

The story of Devon House starts with George Stiebel. Born the son of a German Jew and a Jamaican housekeeper in the 1820s, his mixed parentage made his early years difficult. Taunted by his peers, young George left school at 14. At 19, he joined the crew building the Ferry Inn between Kingston and Spanish Town and by the time he reached his early 20s, his father rewarded his tenacity with enough money to buy a ship. One ship turned into three and soon his fleet was trading between the other West Indian islands. When the rebel slaves of Cuba wanted guns, Stiebel began delivering them aboard his ships. But that scheme came to an abrupt halt when he was thrown into a Cuban jail cell on a gunrunning conviction.

But young George wasn’t all about making money. He was also a romantic who fell in love with Magdalen Baker, the Jamaican daughter of a missionary. Aware that his Cuban jail record and mixed background didn’t exactly make him an attractive prospect for a son-in-law, the young couple waited until after the death of Magdalen’s parents before getting married. A son and daughter soon followed, but so did tragedy.

Stiebel had moved to Venezuela where his trading business flourished. However, bad weather caused one of his ships to sink off the South American coast. Miraculously, he survived only to discover he had lost everything except the money belt he tied to his waist before jumping ship.

With a young family in Jamaica to support, Stiebel stayed in Venezuela, determined to recoup his lost fortune. Eventually his investments in Venezuelan gold mines paid off and he returned to Jamaica in 1873 as a man of great wealth.

But bad luck struck once again when he discovered his teenage son had died while he was away in Venezuela. While in his 50s and financially secure, Stiebel bought sugar estates and 99 Jamaican properties (local law at the time forbade owning 100 properties). Now officially Jamaica’s first “black millionaire,” the Honorable George Stiebel, as he was known, was a man of respect.

In 1879, he bought 53 acres of land from the St. Andrew Parish and built his dream house on the foundation that was the church rectory. He called that dream house Devon House and for 10 years, George and Magdalen, their daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Richard Hill Jackson, who had become the mayor of Kingston, lived like Jamaican royalty.

With its elegant single staircase in the grand lobby, European antiques and handcrafted mahogany furniture, Devon House was a sight to behold. Its many bedrooms, with their Southern-style verandahs, grand ballroom, library, gaming room, grand Wedgwood ceilings and exquisitely carved fanlights above the doorways, earned Devon House the coveted National Monument honor bestowed by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

But the fairy tale on Hope Road began to unravel for the Stiebels. In 1892, Magdalen died. In 1895, their grandson died of typhoid and, a week after that, Richard Hill Jackson died. Heartbroken again and in his 70s, George Siebel died in 1896 leaving behind his beloved Devon House.

After Theresa Stiebel Jackson’s death in 1922, Devon House was sold to Reginald Melhado, another successful Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur whose descendants had been forced to leave Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. He lived in the mansion for five years and in 1928, passed the torch to another member of Jamaica’s Jewish community.

The new owner, Cecil Lindo, was descended from a Sephardic family that fled to Costa Rica and Jamaica to keep from becoming Christian converts during the Inquisition. Lindo lived in Devon House until his death in 1960 at the age of 89.

Like Stiebel, Lindo left Devon House to his family. It was Lindo’s wife who was approached by developers to sell it in 1965. However, under the National Trust Act, the Jamaican government stopped the developers from demolishing the mansion and began their own restoration process in 1967.

George Stiebel’s life story is “an inspiration for all Jamaicans,” said Janice Francis-Lindsay, the promotions coordinator for the Devon House Development Company, which owns Devon House today. “His monetary donation helped stage the Great Exhibition of 1891, which introduced tourism to Jamaica.”

And so it is goes that Devon House was home to three families of Jamaican Jewish descent and today is one of the most visited attractions in Kingston, a turn of fate that would have made Stiebel smile.

The great ballroom has the original English crystal chandelier. The 200-year-old clock still ticks, and you can see some of the Stiebel family possessions in the master bedroom.

Once the servants’ quarters, the Courtyard Shops sell a variety of Jamaican products in stores like Rum, Roast and Royals, Elaine Elegance and T and Treasures. Traditional Jamaican recipes can be sampled in what used to the Stiebel coach house and the best ice cream on the island is for sale in the lush courtyard. The west lawn gazebo is popular for craft fairs and picnics, and the majestic Great House is one of the islands preferred venues for elegant affairs.

“Tourists come for more than just a tour of the House,” said Norma Rhodan, who has been conducting guided tours of Devon House for 16 years. “I’ve seen them spend an entire day here. It is one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in all of Jamaica.”

Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. Tours offered Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $5 (adults), $3 (children). For more information, e-mail

Melanie Reffes is a travel journalist living in Montreal. She’s a correspondent with the Montreal-based “Travel World Radio” as well as a regular contributor to several publications including the Montreal Gazette newspaper.

Are Muslims Endangered?

Heightened ethnic and religious hatred might be rearing its ugly head in California — but some politicians are eager to stand in its way.

State Assemblymember Judy Chu introduced and saw passage of Assembly Joint Resolution (AJR) 64 in early April. The resolution condemns hate crimes against “Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asian Americans and Sikh Americans.”

“The fact that hate crimes and discrimination continue to be perpetrated against American Muslims, Arabs, South Asians and Sikhs at a higher number than ever before is unacceptable,” wrote Chu in AJR 64.

Chu spoke about the resolution at a joint press conference on April 2 with a major supporter, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). A representative from Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office and community leaders from the ethnic groups mentioned in the resolution also attended.

California is the first state whose legislature has passed such a resolution condemning discrimination against Arabs and Muslims.

The resolution has also received some Jewish support.

“We’ve written a letter to the author expressing our support for the resolution, and we support any action taken publicly by our leaders to denounce hate crimes,” said Amanda Susskind, director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League. “I would hope that Muslim activist groups like CAIR would reciprocate and denounce the rise in global anti-Semitism as well.”

Susskind, her own organization no stranger to working publicly against all manner of hate crimes, noted that the true importance of resolutions like AJR 64 is to send a “countervailing message” that hate is not endorsed by the society at large.

In support of the claim that acts of discrimination against Muslims are occurring “at a higher number than ever before,” CAIR also released a study on May 3 called “Unpatriotic Acts” which noted that the number of reported anti-Muslim incidents tripled between 2003 and 2002.

“Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in Arizona, New York, California, and New Jersey experienced the greatest increase in reported incidents, ranging from a jump of 233 [in California] to 584 percent [in Arizona],” according to a statement released by CAIR about the report.

CAIR’s data also claims that U.S. government policies such as those under the PATRIOT Act negatively and disproportionately affect Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities.

As with any study of self-reported incidents, many other variables could affect the numbers, such as increased reporting or increased attention to harassment. But regardless of the specific numbers in any such study, Susskind also emphasized that simply the act of reporting a hate incident is important because it reinforces the belief in the community that there are in fact groups actively working against the hatred.

Redlands, a Cross and the ACLU

It seems time for the City of Redlands to remove a cross from the public sphere.

Since 1963, Redlands has sported the same official seal on everything from its police badges to its business cards to its city vehicles. One corner of that emblem displayed a glowing cross and church. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California received anonymous complaints about the appropriateness of the image from two local residents and sent a letter on March 11 to the city asking that the design be changed.

“[The City of Redlands was] a public entity with a sectarian religious symbol prominently displayed on its seal, and that violates the establishment clause [of the First Amendment],” said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU and author of the letter to the city.

“If it said, ‘In God we trust’ it might be a closer call, but if, as in the Redlands seal, it has a Latin cross glowing and hovering above a church, I think the message that Christianity is being endorsed is unmistakable,” Wizner said.

The City of Redlands, already facing a $1.2 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, chose not to fight the ACLU in court after reviewing the strong precedent against it.

“[The city] realized that the only loser if they fought this would be the taxpayer,” Wizner said.

If it had pursued the matter in court and lost, Redlands would have had to pay both sides’ legal fees.

Even the Alliance Defense Fund, a group which openly derides the ACLU’s positions on practically every issue, declined to assist the City of Redlands to fight the ACLU in this case due to the long odds of success. Though some local Christian private school students protested, the city has already moved forward with a plan to replace the picture of a church and cross with one of a home and star.

Despite the City Council’s work to remove the iconography from all city seals by the April 30 deadline, Redlands Mayor Susan Peppler still hoped to placate a group of vocal dissenters who support the public display of the cross. She said she would explore alternatives to fight the ACLU — so long as they don’t cost the city any money.

Reaction Mixed on Riordan’s School

Expect big changes in California’s educational system. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appointed secretary of education (and former L.A Mayor) Richard Riordan has been pushing the advancement of so-called “micro-spending” initiatives in California public schools, devolving control over 80 percent to 90 percent of a school’s money from the district office to the school’s principal.

His plans are largely based on the thinking of a former adviser from his mayoral days, William Ouchi. Ouchi’s 2003 book “Making Schools Work” examines school districts with and without micro-spending programs and concludes that children benefit with more local control.

The plan has met with some criticism, especially for its lack of emphasis on actually increasing the funds available to poorer schools. John Perez, United Teachers Los Angeles president, has publicly stated ambivalence toward the plan, which he believes misses the major points necessary to improve education: increased funding for poor schools and decreased class sizes.

Should Riordan’s restructuring of California public education funding succeed, public schools will function under a radically different funding system. Jewish parents may want re-examine their stake in public schools, for better or for worse.

“The latest demographic study that the Jewish Federation ran of the Jewish population here in Los Angeles indicated that 64 percent of Jewish children of school age in the Federation area were attending public schools,” said Gil Graff, executive director of The Bureau of Jewish Education.

Graff is not convinced, however, that public micro-spending will impact Jewish private school enrollment. Though the plan will ideally lead to higher achievement for students, Graff said that many Jewish parents routinely choose to forgo excellent public facilities elsewhere in the country, “not because they consider the public education to be of poor quality, but because they consider it to be lacking in Jewish education, which is what they’re seeking.”

Graff added that even in districts where there is a fair amount of local power, unlike in the sprawling LAUSD, many Jewish parents distinctly seek that religious and cultural background only possible at a Jewish private school. Nonetheless, Graff emphasized the common-sense notion that all Californians, including Jews, have a massive stake in the future success of public education in California.

Though Riordan has been speaking about the merits of micro-spending power since his appointment as California’s Secretary of Education in November of 2003, no specific timetable has been made public. It seems likely that many portions of the plan will have to be approved by the California legislature.

A More Reliable Kosher Label

There was a time when a half-moon K on a carton of cottage cheese didn’t mean much to someone who kept strictly kosher. Conventional wisdom held that the heksher (the kosher symbol) was not all that reliable.

Today, things are changing at Kosher Overseers (KO), which supervises about 1,000 companies worldwide and has its bulging K on more than 1 million products.

Over the past three years, the 90-year-old nonprofit organization has been working to upgrade its rabbinic supervision, tracking and data management to bring its heksher up to community standards.

“Methods have changed, things have changed — it doesn’t mean the old school was bad, it just means that things have changed,” said Howard Sharfman, president and CEO of KO.

Sharfman’s grandfather, Rabbi Hyman Sharfman, founded the agency in the early part of last century, and his father, Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman, took it over in 1959. By the time Howard became CEO after his father died in 2000, his father’s time-honored methods had begun to lag behind increasingly stringent standards.

Today, Rabbi Chaim Hisiger, who has been associated with the organization since the late 1970s, has made it his mission to make certain that every product with a KO symbol on it meets the highest community standards.

That means computerizing 90-years worth of files in the Beverlywood house that serves as the company’s headquarters. And it means making sure each company that has a contract with KO has regular visitations from qualified rabbis who check every ingredient. Hissiger has also put together a tracking system that will help in ascertaining whether there are products that have unauthorized symbols on them.

After three years of working on the project, Hissiger said about 80 percent of the half-moon K hekshers are now reliable.

The trick when you’re standing at the supermarket staring at a box of oatmeal is knowing which symbols have earned their spots, and which haven’t.

For now the best that KO can offer is honesty.

If you call KO, Hisiger will tell you which of the products with his symbol
on it are really kosher, and which are not yet up to standards -­ a system
that even kashrut maven Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz is comfortable with, for now.

For more information, call Kosher Overseers Associates of America at (323) 870-0011.

Eight Crazy Lights

A kosher menorah can be fashioned out of any material, so why
not get creative? During the Festival of Lights we light the Chanukah menorah —
a modern-day symbol of the candelabra used in the Temple, also known as a chanukiah
— to commemorate the miracle of the oil and to celebrate the victory of the Macabbees.
In the tradition of Pirsum Ha’ness, broadcasting the miracle of Chanukah, why
not place a menorah that speaks a little bit about you on your windowsill?

With these creative pieces you won’t sacrifice Jewish
ritual. The eight candleholders are equidistant and aligned, making them kosher
for lighting. So buy yourself some dripless candles, and instead of lighting
the traditional eight-branch, kindle one of these proudly from left to right
each and every Chanukah night!

1. A menorah made for the solider wanna-be. Show your
solidarity with the Israeli army and light this Israel Defense Forces menorah,
complete with tanks, helicopters and jets.

$50. “> .

3. Now if you find yourself away for Chanukah, you don’t
have to take one of those disposable menorahs that might get dented in your
suitcase. Resembling a treasure chest, this solid pewter miniature menorah
travels like a miracle.

$60. “> .

5. Even the babes can light the menorah (under adult
supervision, of course). The diorama-like menorah sets a scene of a Chanukah
party with Disney characters Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Donald and Pluto striking
up the band.

$84.95. “> .

7. The da Vinci among you will appreciate this painter’s
palette-shaped menorah. Crafted in ceramic and hand-painted, this beautiful
piece boasts a dreidel as a shamash.

$35.95. “> .

Lions in Zion

It is not common for the mayor of Jerusalem to write to a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old. But it is similarly not the norm for them to write to him. The subject of this exchange was a new, unusual art project carried out by the Jerusalem municipality.

The perception in most of the world is that Jerusalem is a besieged, dangerous city, devoid of pedestrians, with its full attention focused on preventing terrorist attacks. While it is certainly true that Jerusalem is hurting for tourists and that there have unfortunately been far too many residents murdered in recent months, it is not true that the city is ignoring all else.

My children clamor to visit the capital, a 30-minute ride from our home in Beit Shemesh. They enjoy visiting the Kotel and seeing their many relatives. But the reason they really want to go of late is so we can look for more of the lions that are currently dispersed throughout the city, ones that are soon to be removed, much to my children’s chagrin.

Just as Los Angeles had its angel statues and Chicago had its cows, Jerusalem has its symbol — the lion. Eighty-two life-size sculptures of lions are scattered throughout the city. They range in color and posture: some are sitting, some standing, some have wings, one even has the face of jailed politician Aryeh (Hebrew for lion) Deri. There is a caged lion, multicolored lions, a lion high up on the top of the Generali Building, a lioness with exaggerated mammary glands, a lion with metal giant ants crawling on it, a lion in a harp, a lion with meshing through it, and so on.

The idea of scattering statues with a theme around a city did not originate with Jerusalem. In the summer of 1998 hundreds of plastic cows decorated by different artists were placed around Zurich, Switzerland. The idea was surprisingly refreshing. It involved pedestrians and motorists in a huge, open-air, citywide art exhibition. The Swiss model spawned similar ideas in cities around the world. Nearly two years ago, Tel Aviv had a similar project. They inexplicably choose to place fiberglass penguins around the city; currently they have a dolphin exhibit.

Jerusalem, or more accurately Aliza Olmert, the wife of the Mayor Ehud Olmert, first thought of the lion for Jerusalem.

The lions are practically ubiquitous, and visitors, including my children, are continuously on the lookout for new, as yet undiscovered, lions. But the lions are an endangered species for Israel.

The original plan had called for them to remain on the streets of Jerusalem for six months, at which point they were to be transferred as a pride to the Jerusalem Zoo for one month and then auctioned off with the proceeds going to Jerusalem charities.

However, the lions have been a big hit, and some have suggested alternatives. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman proposed that the lions be auctioned off to Jewish community centers, organizations and institutions in the Diaspora. He said presence in those places would serve as a perpetual link between those Jewish communities and Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the spiritual center of world Jewry. He mused that he would, of course, love to see one in the lobby of the ADL building.

My children, and many other children and adults, are not so happy with those plans. They enjoy searching for and finding the lions all around the city.

So my 7-year-old daughter, Shlomit, wrote a letter to the mayor, accompanied by drawings made by her brother Yosef, 5. They thanked the mayor for the project, but also expressed their wish for the lions to remain.

The mayor responded with a personal letter in which he acknowledged their letter and reiterated the goals of the project. But, to their disappointment, he concluded by stating that the plan is still to auction off the statues. As a sort of consolation, he noted that the proceeds would go towards projects that help the children and youth of Jerusalem.

In the meantime, the lions are still there, and for my kids, the lions are reason enough for us to visit Jerusalem.