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A liberal group celebrated Hanukkah in Trump Tower — to protest Trump

2 hours 2 min ago

Rabbi Debra Cantor of Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, Conn., speaking at Trump Tower in Manhattan at the “Not The White House Chanukah Party,” a protest organized by T’ruah, Dec. 13, 2017. (Jake Ratner)

(JTA) — It would be reasonable to assume that the Jews lighting a Hanukkah menorah on the fifth floor of Trump Tower supported the president.

The front of the Midtown Manhattan high-rise, after all, bears his name in large gold letters, and the trash cans in its lobby are emblazoned with “Make America Great Again.” More than a year after the election, campaign gear is sold in the basement.

But the several dozen Jews who came together in the building Wednesday evening weren’t there to celebrate its namesake but to protest him.

Organized by T’ruah, the liberal rabbis’ human rights group, the protest was titled “Not the White House Chanukah Party.”

The president hosted his own Hanukkah party on Dec. 7, with a guest list notable for its omission of Democratic lawmakers and Jewish leaders who have objected to much of his domestic agenda. Some of them came to Wednesday’s protest instead.

T’ruah was able to use the building because a terrace on its fifth floor is technically a New York City public park open to anyone. All one needs to do is pass through security and go to the elevator, where a uniformed attendant will press the button for you.

The event itself was a relatively standard protest of Trump — with a Jewish holiday twist. There were songs (“Al Hanisim,” a Hanukkah prayer thanking God for miracles), chants (“More light, more justice!”), protest signs and snacks (fair trade Hanukkah gelt and decaf coffee). Nine leaders of liberal Jewish groups — including the Workmen’s Circle, HIAS, Jews For Racial & Economic Justice and Bend the Arc — spoke, then each held up a picture of a candle and lined up to form a human menorah.

“Tonight, I light this candle to banish the darkness that comes when power turns abusive, when sexual harassment and sexual violence put fear into our hearts and silence us,” said Dina Charnin, director of Israel policy and programs at the National Council of Jewish Women.

A handful of counterprotesters showed up on the terrace led by Karen Lichtbraun, head of the New York chapter of the far-right Jewish Defense League. She was wearing a camouflage Make America Great Again hat and called T’ruah anti-Semitic.

“T’ruah came here to bash the president and to bash Israel,” Lichtbraun told JTA. “We’re here to express ourselves. We stand with Israel. We stand with the president.”

T’ruah, for its part, sees itself as articulating Jewish values in Israel and the United States. And while it didn’t stand with the president, exactly, it did stand in his building — at least for one night.

Krakow opens first kosher hotel post-Holocaust

2 hours 10 min ago

(JTA) — Seventy-five years after the Nazis deported Krakow Jews to concentration camps, descendants of survivors opened the Polish city’s first post-Holocaust kosher hotel.

Hotel Polin opened last month but will have an official launch on Saturday. The 38-room hotel has an in-house synagogue and elevators programmed for use on Shabbat without breaking Jewish Orthodox law.

Its kosher kitchen is under the supervision of the Polish chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, the hotel’s  manager, Eli Zolkos, told JTA on Thursday.

Plans calls for a mikvah, or ritual bath.

A double room at the hotel, which is located near John Paul II International Airport Krakow-Balice, including breakfast costs approximately $45 per night, Zolkos said. The hotel offers shuttles to the city center, to the historically Jewish Kazimierz district, approximately six miles away.

A non-Jewish local businessman invested the $560,000 cost to build the hotel, which may open a branch in Kazimierz.

Zolkos said the hotel’s business model is based on growing traffic between Israel and Poland.

The Nazi occupation forces in Poland at first expelled tens of thousands of Jews from Krakow. They began the deportations of the city’s remaining Jews to death camps in May 1942, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Hundreds of Jews were shot in the ghetto, while the others were dragged out of their homes and put on trains to Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In March 1943 the ghetto was liquidated, and the remaining 2,000 Jewish workers were taken to the nearby Plaszow forced labor camp. All the others were deported to Auschwitz.

Holocaust survivors light Hanukkah candles in inaugural global ceremony

2 hours 30 min ago

BERLIN (JTA) — Hundreds of Holocaust survivors around the world participated in an an inaugural global Hanukkah ceremony meant especially for them.

In Jerusalem, New York, Berlin and other German cities, the survivors lit candles on Thursday night, the third evening of the eight-day holiday.

International Holocaust Survivors’ Night was sponsored by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

In the German capital, about 20 survivors met with Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble in the Reichstag and lit a menorah in the Jewish community center.

“They say every person is born with the Lebenslicht, the flame of life,” said Berliner Marlene Herzberg, born in 1934 to a Jewish father and Christian mother.

Herzberg survived because her mother had her baptized.

“The world should be filled with light,” she said.

Rudolf Rosenberg, 92, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1935, ended up in what was then Leningrad.

“When it’s dark, you have to fight to bring the light back,” he said.

Rosenberg, a retired educator who taught Russian in the former East Germany, returned to live in Berlin in 1993.

“In my opinion, everyone has experienced a miracle at some time in their life,” he said. “For me it’s that I fled Berlin at the age of 10, and that I am here again.”

According to Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, there are some 450,000 survivors living around the world, most of them former Soviet citizens who like Rosenberg had fled eastward. About 90,000 who survived concentration camps, in ghettos or in hiding are still alive, said Schneider, who participated in the Jerusalem event.

“We need to dedicate at least one night of Hanukkah to reminding the world about Holocaust survivors,” Schneider told JTA, adding that he hopes to repeat this next year and beyond. The Hanukkah story “resonates with their story of resilience; of being powerless – you would not believe they could survive – and against all odds they come put triumphant and rebuild.”

In Berlin, some survivors expressed worry about rising anti-Semitism following recent street demonstrations where Israeli flags were burned. The demonstrations came in response to President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that the United States was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“They said that the very aggressive atmosphere and demonstrations at the Brandenburg Gate, right in front of the chanukiyah there, reminded them of 1938,” Rüdiger Mahlo, the Claims Conference representative in Germany, told JTA.

In New York, the Holocaust Survivors Night took place at the Park Avenue Synagogue. And in Israel, some 300 survivors attended a ceremony at the Western Wall.

Dutch university’s professor emeritus questions Holocaust on TV, calls Jews ‘parasites’

2 hours 42 min ago

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — A professor emeritus from an esteemed university in the Netherlands whose father was a Nazi called Jews “parasites” in a televised interview.

Jan Tollenaere, a lecturer on medicinal chemistry who retired from the Utrecht University in 2001, also questioned the historical record on the Holocaust in an interview aired Thursday by the Canvas broadcaster in Belgium about children of Nazi collaborators.

Tollenaere, whose father, Raymond, was in charge of propaganda for the Belgian pro-Nazi collaborationist government of Flanders during the German occupation of Belgium in World War II, said Jews “are not a nice people, I don’t feel any warmth toward them.” They are, he added, “parasites, speculators and mean people.”

In the interview, Tollenaere described himself as an anti-Semite.

About the Holocaust, Tollenaere said: “Was it really a reality? I think there was propaganda in play to underscore the Holocaust, to exaggerate it and cynically use it, leverage it to extract money.”

A Utrecht University spokeswoman said her institution “fully and clearly distances itself” from Tollenaere, whom she described as a “former employee and nothing more.” But Tollenaere’s page on the university’s website does not make clear he is no longer active with the university or that he retired from it.

The professor emeritus title “is no honorary title and cannot be taken away, it simply means that he is a retired professor,” the spokeswoman said.

Asked whether, given his heritage, the university had looked into Tollenaere’s politics prior to hiring him, she said, “We don’t judge people according to their parents; that would be unfair. We look at faculty and prospective faculty according to their actions.”

The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, the Netherlands’ foremost watchdog on anti-Semitism, condemned Tollenaere’s remarks as disgusting.

“Such an anti-Semite must not be allowed to be associated with any educational institute in the Netherlands,” the group said in a statement.

The Forum of Jewish Organizations of the Flemish Region in Belgium and the Joods Actueel Jewish monthly in Antwerp also condemned Tollenaere. But the Forum also criticized Canvas, the broadcaster, for offering “a podium to the views of Tollenaere’s father.”

Separately, the Dutch Party for Freedom, a populist anti-Islam party, kicked out a local politician from Rotterdam who posted congratulations on Facebook to David Irving, a Holocaust denier from Britain, on his birthday in March.

“Many more productive years, you really have my respect,” wrote Géza Hegedüs, who headed the party’s Rotterdam operations.

Geert Wilders, the head of the party, which in the March elections emerged as the country’s second largest, said Friday in a statement that Hegedus “would have never received the position” had the party been aware of his views.

Controversial Israeli film ‘Foxtrot’ makes Oscar shortlist

4 hours 58 min ago

(JTA) —  “Foxtrot,” a film that Israel’s culture minister said attempts to “undermine” her country and its soldiers’ morality, has been named to the Academy Awards shortlist for best foreign language film.

Director Samuel Maoz’s movie made the list of nine films announced Thursday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 92 submissions. Five finalists will be selected on Jan. 23, when all the Oscar-nominated films are announced.

Starring Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler, “Foxtrot” is a superb and wrenching film about parental grief at the death of a soldier’s son, the joys and stresses of marriage, the boredom of army life, and how Israel’s occupation humiliates the occupied and hardens the occupiers.

In a phone interview with JTA, Maoz described his film as “the dance of a man with his fate.” He said “there are many variations to this dance, but they end up at the same starting point.”

The film features a scene in which Israeli soldiers kill a family in their car and then cover up the act.

Israel’s culture minister, Miri Regev, has blasted the film.

“It is inconceivable,” Regev declared publicly, “that movies which shame the reputation of the Israel Defense Forces … and that are supported (financially) by the state …  are selected to showcase Israel cinema abroad.”

In the interview, Maoz did not directly address Regev’s criticism, but declared, “When my brothers are dying, I have the right to make such a movie.”

Maoz and Askenazi have defended the film as an “allegorical tale” about what they consider Israeli occupation, adding it does not seriously claim the Israeli army covers up civilians’ deaths.

It won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and swept the Ophir Awards, Israel’s version of the Oscars, with eight wins, earning it a place as Israel’s entry for the Academy Awards in the foreign language category.

Israel’s last nominee to make it to the Oscars was Joseph Cedar’s 2011 film “Footnote,” which lost to “A Separation,” the Iranian entry. That year was the last time an Israeli film made the shortlist, AFP reported.

Among its competition for the Oscar will be Lebanon’s “The Insult,” about the civil war in that country. French-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri was briefly detained this year in Lebanon after arriving there to promote the film for having shot 2013’s ” The Attack” in Israel. He was eventually cleared by a military tribunal.

The German movie “In the Fade,” which also made the cut, addresses the rise of neo-Nazism in present-day Germany dramatized through the murder by a neo-Nazi couple of a German woman, her Kurdish husband and their small son.

Director Fatih Akin, a German-born citizen of Turkish descent, attributed the growing neo-Nazi sentiment mainly to hostility to the large number of refugees, mainly from Muslim countries, admitted into Germany.

“We are seeing the rise of a new racism in Germany based on the fear that the existing German identity will be altered by the refugees,” Akin said in a phone interview.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said hate groups everywhere “have perfected the delivery system” of their anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish messages through the use of social and other media.”

In contrast to nearly every other year since the end of World War II, none of the 92 entries dealt with the Holocaust or the Hitler era. This may well indicate that to a new generation, the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s are ancient history.

Conversely, there have been a few years during the past decade when producers and directors stayed away from this era, only to return to it in a subsequent year.

 

 

The Academy Awards will be handed out on March 4 in Los Angeles.

Israeli soldier wounded in West Bank stabbing amid riots

5 hours 47 min ago

(JTA) — An Israeli soldier sustained moderate injuries from a Palestinian who stabbed him while wearing what appeared like an explosive vest, the media in Israel reported.

The incident, in which other soldiers shot the suspected terrorist, causing him serious injuries, occurred Friday near Ramallah, where Israel Defense Forces and Border Police troops were confronting rioters, the Israel Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The soldiers fired several rounds at the suspected terrorist upon noticing he was wearing what they thought to be an explosive vest.

Last week, two Palestinians were killed and hundreds more were wounded in widespread riots following President Donald Trump’s declaration that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In its monthly report on terrorist attacks in November, the Israel Security Agency listed 84 attacks – a slight increase over October’s 71 attacks, which was the lowest tally on the record since 2012. The tally for November is still significantly lower than the average of 125 incidents per month since 2012.

Protesters in Nablus in the West Bank waved Hamas flags at a demonstration in that city earlier this week. In Hebron, protesters waved posters of  Trump depicted as a pig and emblazoned with a Nazi swastika.

J Street slams Abbas’ ‘divisive, inflammatory’ speech on Jerusalem

6 hours 39 min ago

(JTA) — J Street, the dovish lobby group on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, condemned remarks by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who said Ramallah may pull out of efforts to reach a settlement.

Abbas made the threat in a speech Tuesday at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, where he also said the United States can no longer mediate peace talks because of President Donald Trump’s declaration on Dec. 6 that the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The United States can and must play a vital and productive role in facilitating negotiations toward a comprehensive two-state solution,” read the statement by J Street, in which the organization said it “rejects” Abbas’ threat, which is called in a statement “divisive and inflammatory rhetoric.”

While routine for centrist and right-wing organizations supportive of Israel, J Street’s strong-worded rebuke is unusual for that organization.

The “harmful” actions of President Trump, the statement continued, “can be overturned by future administrations and leaders who understand the value of serious diplomacy and the urgent necessity of resolving this conflict.”

In his speech in Istanbul, Abbas made no acknowledgement of Jerusalem’s significance for Jews and Israel. “Jerusalem is and will forever be the capital of the Palestinian state,” Abbas told delegates. “We do not accept any role of the United States in the political process from now on, because it is completely biased towards Israel.”

He added: “We will tell the Israelis that we are no longer committed to any agreement from Oslo until today,” Ramallah intended to return to the United Nations to circumvent negotiations and gain full membership, he also said.

Why this non-Jewish lawmaker quoted a famous Hasidic rabbi

Thu, 2017-12-14 22:43

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., attending a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing in the Capitol Visitor Center on Russian ties to the 2016 election in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — “A Very Narrow Bridge” is a popular Hasidic song, one that is embraced by Jews of all denominations.

The words to it, which are from the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th-century founder of a Hasidic sect, are “The entire world is a very narrow bridge; the main thing is to vanquish fear.”

It’s a good song for the Sabbath table, or when a friend needs solace.

Also, we now know, for a congressional hearing.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is a cable news favorite for his confrontational posture toward President Donald Trump and who is not Jewish, quoted Rabbi Nachman in advising Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to stay the course however hard the times.

Rosenstein appeared Thursday before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee to field questions about the investigation led by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into alleged ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign and transition team. Rosenstein hired Mueller and because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, is the only man who can fire him.

Rosenstein repeatedly defended Mueller against calls by Republicans that the special prosecutor should step down because of allegations of bias on his team.

Swalwell had a sometimes tense exchange with Rosenstein, who refused to divulge the nature or even frequency of his conversations with Trump. Swalwell wanted to know if Trump was attempting to influence Rosenstein or press him to fire Mueller. But Swalwell also made clear he admired Rosenstein’s forbearance in defending Mueller and advised him to stay the course.

“Mr. Deputy Attorney General, your investigation is a very narrow bridge,” Swalwell said. “The important part, I believe for our country is for you to not be afraid. In these trying times, we need you to be fearless. We have a president who is willing to involve himself in ongoing investigations that involve he and his family.”

I asked Swalwell about the quote’s origins. “It’s a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav,” he said in an email. “Occasionally, it comes to mind.”

Why these experts say Trump’s Jerusalem recognition will help the peace process

Thu, 2017-12-14 22:40

U.S. President Donald Trump signing a proclamation that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, at the White House in Washington, D.C., Dec. 6, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — When President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, many foreign policy experts called it a blunder.

It could spark a conflagration of violence in the city, they said. It would alienate Palestinians who revere the city, and would ice any remaining hopes of a peace process. It could be the death knell for an increasingly elusive two-state solution.

“Raising this the way he has done doesn’t advance the cause of peace, it doesn’t advance the cause of stability in the region, it doesn’t make Israel safer, and it doesn’t make the United States any safer,” James Cunningham, a former ambassador to Israel who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told the Atlantic Council. “It raises a significant risk with very little upside as far as I can see.”

But a countervailing chorus of analysts, mostly on the right but stretching to the center, says the opposite: Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem is a strategically savvy course correction of American foreign policy. It has not hurt prospects for peace, they say, and there’s a good chance it will help.

“U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem might contribute to peace,” Douglas Feith, President George W. Bush’s undersecretary of defense, wrote in Foreign Policy. It teaches Palestinians, he wrote, that “[t]here is a price to be paid for perpetuating the conflict: Life goes on, the Israelis create new realities, and the world in general adjusts to those new realities.”

Trump’s declaration showed that the United States would not be cowed by extremism, tweeted Amos Yadlin, who heads the centrist Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and affiliates with the center-left Zionist Union party. Resisting threats of violence changes the contours of peace negotiations, he added.

“Trump was not intimidated by the threats from Ramallah, Amman, or Ankara,” Yadlin wrote in a Twitter thread, referring to the Palestinian, Jordanian and Turkish capitals, respectively. “The refusal to bow to the threats and blackmail, together with the message that the Palestinians do not have veto power [is] a very important precedent for the future of the peace process.”

Jewish groups, meanwhile, largely praised the move as a recognition of Jewish historical and religious claims to the city, long overdue, as well as an acknowledgement of Jerusalem’s status in modern Israel as the seat of government. But many of them, too, reiterated their support for the two-state solution and urged Trump to double down on that cause.

“This is a significant step that acknowledges reality: Jerusalem is the political capital of the country and has been the spiritual heart of the Jewish people for millennia,” read a statement by the Anti-Defamation League, which has not shied away from criticizing Trump’s actions in the past. The statement went on to urge “the rapid resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading to a two-state solution.”

One week after Trump announced the decision, any peace prospects do appear to have dimmed: Protests did take place in Jerusalem and Palestinian areas, though they were far milder than anticipated. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called on his people to now pursue equal rights within Israel rather than a state of their own, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that the U.S. no longer has a role to play in brokering talks.

But that does not bother analysts who feel the United States should present itself as a resolute supporter of Israel rather than an evenhanded mediator. Such a stance, some wrote, rightly puts the onus on Palestinians to adjust their demands and show their willingness to reach a deal.

“The intention is to disabuse the Palestinians of the notion that the U.S. is neutral between them and our democratic, pro-Western, tolerant, free-market ally Israel,” wrote Shoshanna Bryen, director of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative group, in the Daily Caller. “American support for Palestinians aspirations is not withdrawn, but hinges on Palestinian behavior.”

But some analysts who were inclined toward the decision also warned that granting a longstanding Israeli demand could put Israel in Trump’s debt if he ever demands concessions.

“Because Trump is viewed as very pro-Israel by the Israeli public, it will be more difficult for Netanyahu to say no to any requests from the president for compromises,” wrote Jonathan Rynhold, director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University. “It was easy for Bibi to say no to Obama, since there was no domestic political price; not so with Trump.”

The 5 weirdest menorahs we’ve seen this Hanukkah

Thu, 2017-12-14 21:38

Conan O’Brien’s music producer Roey Hershkovitz, right, demonstrating how to use a vape pen menorah on “Conan,” Dec. 13, 2017. (Screenshot from “Conan”)

(JTA) — Looking to celebrate Hanukkah but want to make this year a bit unique? Take a hint from these unusual menorahs — including ones made out of pita bread and exploded rockets — and your eight nights of Hanukkah will be sure to be different from all the other ones.

A human torch

Over 500 students from Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, N.J., broke the world record for the largest human menorah. (Screenshot from video by NorthJersey.com)

Students at a Jewish day school in New Jersey broke the record for the world’s largest human menorah. More than 500 students from Ben Porat Yosef, a private school in Paramus, stood in the shape of a Hanukkah candelabra on Wednesday. A representative from Guinness World Records certified that the formation was indeed the largest one in the world. Students dressed in colors to make the menorah come to life, with the younger pupils wearing red or orange to symbolize the flame and the older ones in white to represent the candles and dark colors to represent the menorah itself.

A menorah worth a lot of bread

Rabbi Levi Hodakov of Chabad of Clearwater, Fla., adorned a large outdoor menorah with pita bread. Hodakov told Fox 13 on Tuesday that pita are often served with falafel, which though not a food typically associated with the Festival of Lights fits in with the holiday custom of eating fried foods. This is not the first year Hodakov has built a carb-filled menorah — last year he adorned the Chabad menorah with pizza pies.

“I have found that when we do these big exciting menorahs, it really excites the people in the community to want to come out and celebrate,” he said.

Swords into plowshares, rockets into candle holders

A menorah made of exploded rockets sent from Gaza to Israel can be seen outside the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway in Cedarhurst, N.Y. (Screenshot from News 12 Long Island)

An outdoor Hanukkah candelabra in Cedarhust, N.Y., features parts of exploded rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The menorah, which is displayed outside the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, was made by artist Yaron Bob at the request of a local family that saw a similar one in Sderot, Israel. Students at the school say that the message of the menorah is that it is possible to take something evil and turn it into something associated with light, News 12 Long Island reported on Wednesday.

Claws for celebration

A lobster menorah (The Vanilla Studio/Etsy)

Ever wanted to incorporate shellfish into Hanukkah celebrations but don’t want to break Jewish dietary laws? This lobster-shaped menorah is the perfect solution. Constructed from repurposed plastic toys and metal candle cups, the candelabra, which retails for $85, is sure to bring plenty of light and humor to any Hanukkah celebration. But beware — the menorah is already sold out for this year, and the producer is already taking pre-orders for 2018.

Smoke your marijuanica, here comes Hanukkah

Television host Conan O’Brien introduced his viewers to the vape pen menorah on Wednesday night’s episode of his TBS talk show. The candelabra is made up of nine vape pens of varying heights, including one in the center that serves as the shamash, the candle used to light the other ones.  This creative menorah allows smokers to get their nicotine or cannabis kick Hanukkah style — in the episode, O’Brien’s Jewish music producer, Roey Hershkovitz, even demonstrates how to take a hit.

The Reform movement is alive with the sound of music

Thu, 2017-12-14 21:25

Musicians Josh Goldberg, Rick Recht, Mikey Pauker, Doni Zasloff and Josh Warshawsky perform at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, held Dec. 6-10, 2017, in Boston. (Union for Reform Judaism)

BOSTON (JTA) — Emily Katz and Liora Hyman arrived early enough to snag front row seats for a concert with some of their favorite performers.

But this show wasn’t at one of Boston’s storied nightclubs. Rather, it was the first-ever music lab at last week’s biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, where 6,000 delegates gathered at the Hynes Convention Center for the movement’s largest ever gathering.

When popular Jewish singer-songwriter Peri Smilow led off the set with her new song, “One,” the excited teens, who are youth song leaders, could hardly sit still. The friends — who met last summer at a program for youth leaders at URJ Kutz Camp in Orange County, New York— were on their feet, singing, jumping and bouncing with the beats that constitute the Jewish soundtrack of their lives.

“One” is heard in “Together As One,” a newly released CD compilation of eight songs about social justice, written by some of the Reform movement’s all-star musicians. The project, which benefits the movement’s Religious Action Center, was funded by Isabel Dunst, chair of RAC’s commission on social action.

While songs and melodies are integral to worship in all the major Jewish denominations, the Reform movement has been the boldest in experimenting with genres and reshaping traditional liturgy in song. It’s an emphasis reflected in synagogue services, religious schools and summer camps. The Hava Nashira Institute, an annual five-day summer program in Wisconsin, serves as a unifying training ground for synagogue and camp song leaders and cantors, and attracts people from outside the Reform movement.

Katz, a high school junior who helps lead religious services at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, New Hampshire, said being a Jewish song leader is emotionally fulfilling. “The music completes me,” she said. “We are all singing the same song. We all know the words. It is so much fun singing the music we all love.”

But in the sounds and lyrics of this contemporary Jewish music, Katz and Hyman, a high school senior from Long Island, New York, find more than social engagement and entertainment — it is a source of inspiration for their faith, they both told JTA.

The biennial’s schedule demonstrated the centrality of music in the Reform movement: There were three dozen musicians, a choir, late-night concerts, multiple workshops on worship music and musical approaches for congregations. There were more than 30 performances staged in partnership with Jewish Rock Radio, part of a nonprofit founded by musician Rick Recht, who grew up in Reform’s NFTY youth group. There was a coming-out party for PJ Library Radio, a streaming music service from PJ Library, the popular Jewish children’s book giveaway organization.

“Music plays one of the key roles in how our services continue to transform our movement,” said Rosalie Boxt, director of worship for the URJ and the former cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Maryland.

The music of the Reform movement is attuned to the world around it, Boxt said. It’s an ethos that dates back to the late nineteenth century in Germany, when Reform synagogue music was influenced by church music, she noted. While the more traditional movements eschewed instruments during Shabbat and holy days, Reform temples welcomed pipe organs, strings and, later, guitars and percussion. Nineteenth-century composers like Solomon Sulzer and Louis Lewendowski set prayers in styles that borrowed from the contemporary genres of their day, a practice that continued into the next century.

Starting in the 1960s, the folk music revival was introduced to the Reform movement — a transition most associated with Debbie Friedman, a prolific singer-songwriter who died in 2011 at age 59. Beginning in the late 1960s, she helped move the Reform movement away from the organ, choir and a cantorial soloist to the guitar-plucking, participatory style of the American folk scene.

“We embraced the idea that American folk music could tell our stories … and we shaped that into something Jewish,” said Jeff Klepper, a contemporary of Friedman and co-composer, with Rabbi Daniel Freelander, of the popular song “Shalom Rav.” Klepper, a cantor at Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts, said he and his colleagues, who began performing the early 1970s, saw music as a way to bring people together and affirm Jewish beliefs and values.

The URJ biennial featured the North American premiere of the “Debbie Friedman Suite,” arranged and conducted for a full orchestra by Or Oren, a 24-year-old Israeli composer who is a film-scoring student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The suite includes nine of Friedman’s songs, including “L’Chi Lach,” her gender-neutral interpretation of Genesis 12. “They are the symbol of her music and mean a lot to Jewish communities here and other places in the world,” Oren wrote in an email.

Klepper, Boxt and others noted that there’s an explosion of music being written and incorporated into the Reform movement. The music is more varied than three and four decades ago, and brings in broader musical influences. Klepper pointed to Joe Buchanan, who celebrates his decision to become a Jew-by-choice in Texas-style country blues.

According to Boxt, the array of music influences, from bluegrass to gospel to traditional Ladino songs, resonates with congregants, many of whom are interfaith families and Jews-by-choice.

One new trend Boxt has observed is a mashup, where kids and teens pair a popular contemporary secular song about love or justice with a Jewish prayer with a similar theme.

Liora Hyman, left, and Emily Katz were on their feet at a performance of songs from “Together As One,” a compilation of new social justice protest songs, unveiled at the Reform movement’s biennial in Boston, Dec. 6-10, 2017 (Penny Schwartz)

One such teen is Alexander Nadelberg, a song leader at Temple Isaiah, in Lexington, Massachusetts. Nadelberg, who is an eighth-grader, got hooked on playing Jewish music at URJ Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

“I feel the music is my connection with God,” he told JTA in a phone conversation. He enjoys teaching music to younger kids, which he does regularly at Temple Isaiah.

As for Hyman, the New York teen who’s the daughter of two Reform cantors, said as a child she was lulled to sleep to the music of Debbie Friedman. She envisions a future in Jewish education and music.

“I want to help people through music and create change through music,” she said. “I build my life on Jewish music.”

Jerusalem municipality distributing free Christmas trees

Thu, 2017-12-14 21:15

Jason Heeney searching for a Christmas tree at the Jewish National Fund forest in Givat Yeshayahu, Israel in 2013. (Ben Sales)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Jerusalem municipality is preparing for Christmas, including the annual Christmas tree distribution.

The city will distribute 150 free Christmas trees to Jerusalem residents next week.

Meanwhile, the municipality is hanging Christmas lights and flags in predominately Christian neighborhoods. In addition, the city is preparing for Christmas pilgrimages and processionals.

Christmas trees also are being distributed by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and are available for about $20. The trees being distributed are six-foot-tall Arizona cypresses.

Vera Katz, three-term mayor of Portland who escaped the Nazis, dies at 84

Thu, 2017-12-14 20:49

(JTA) — Vera Katz, a popular three-term mayor of Portland, Oregon who escaped from the Nazis with her family as a child, has died.

Katz died on Monday in Portland at the age of 84. She was diagnosed with acute leukemia shortly before her death, her third bout with cancer since 2000, the Oregonian reported.  She had been on dialysis for the last decade.

Katz served as mayor of Portland from 1993 to 2005, during which time she helped transform a somewhat seedy city into what the Associated Press called a hipster haven and international tourist destination.

Vera Pistrak was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, to parents who had fled Russia after the 1917 revolution. Two months after she was born in 1933, Katz’s parents fled again for France, and from there escaped to Spain by hiking through the Pyrenees. They arrived in New York City when Katz was 7, according to the Oregonian.

Katz, her husband and her son, Jesse, left New York in 1964 for Portland. She never outgrew her New York roots, the New York Times reported, saying that she missed egg creams, and never learned to drive after failing her drivers’ test twice. She and her husband, Mel, divorced in 1985.

Katz fought for opportunities for women beginning in the ’60s. She and other women picketed in front of the Portland City Club to protest its men-only membership. She participated in sit-ins at a local department store counter to protest its refusal to serve food to women unaccompanied by a man, according to the Oregonian.

She became active in politics at the age of 34, when she volunteered for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.

Five years later she was elected to the Oregon Legislature, where she served three terms. She was the first female Speaker of the House of the state legislature, after creating its first Women’s Caucus. The women’s 12 votes allowed them to bring forward bills dealing with gender discrimination and strengthening rape laws.

In 1997, she traveled to Israel, which the Oregonian reported was “one step toward coming to terms with her Jewish heritage and the Holocaust.” The newspaper quoted her as saying after she returned from the trip:  “Israel made me look at myself in the mirror and face myself and in a way, come clean and feel good about who I am. And feel proud about who I am. And feel less guilty about the fact that I survived and others didn’t.”

Vera Katz escaped the Nazis as a child, came to America on a Greek steamship speaking only French and Russian, then grew up to become Oregon’s first woman speaker of the house and Portland’s longest-serving woman mayor. She also showered me with unconditional love. She was 84. pic.twitter.com/gB16ny5Ucg

— Jesse Katz (@byjessekatz) December 11, 2017

Parents angry after homework assignment about Hitler

Thu, 2017-12-14 19:57

(JTA) — An 8th grade homework assignment about Hitler has angered parents in a suburban Chicago school.

Students at the Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, Illinois, were assigned last week to “create a comic strip for little kids that exemplifies Europe’s appeasement towards Hitler,” Chicago television channel WGN reported.

The cartoons that were turned in included swastikas and characters dressed like Nazi storm troopers.

One parent posted a picture of the Hitler-themed homework on her Facebook page, which raised questions from other parents.

The school district is investigating the assignment, WGN reported.

In a letter to students’ parents, school officials wrote that the “objective of the lesson is in alignment with district curriculum.” It also said, however, that the assignment was not meant to minimize Holocaust atrocities.

Israel’s first Arab Rhodes scholar has the chutzpah to love her country, and to try to change it

Thu, 2017-12-14 17:51

Lian Najamin speaking at an Israeli Independence Day student gala at Boston University, in Boston, Mass., April 6, 2017. (Nir Landau for Combined Jewish Philanthropies)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – Lian Najani, Israel’s first Arab Rhodes scholar, is the kind of person who can be optimistic about just about anything — including having a needle stuck in her spine.

As she waited in a Haifa hospital Wednesday morning for a lumbar puncture, Najani expressed hope that the procedure would finally put a name to her degenerative neurological disorder. After that, she said, anything was possible.

“Once we know what it is, we should be able to treat the symptoms better, and maybe one day we will find a cure,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’m really excited to see where the world is going to take me next.

“As an Israeli, I guess I have that chutzpah,” she added. “I always have in mind: What can I do from here?”

When Najani, 23, won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship last month, it was the latest of many affirmations of her relentlessly forward-looking worldview. The honor, which provides a free education at Oxford University, was also an opportunity to advance her advocacy work to make Israel a more inclusive place for people like her: a disabled Arab Muslim woman.

Najani has become a sought-after public speaker on behalf of her country. In recent years, the Haifa native was a featured speaker on leading U.S. campuses like Harvard and Brown, at the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit EMEA in Israel, and at events in Germany organized by the Israeli Embassy.

Her message: Arab Israelis, who make up some 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, can succeed in the Jewish state. She has held herself up as living proof.

“I was able to get a great education in Israel, and my social worker really gave me a lot of help and confidence in dealing with my disability, or what I like to call my different ability,” she said.

In addition to her public speaking career, which has been facilitated by her fluency in five languages (Hebrew, Arabic, English, German and Spanish), Najani graduated from the University of Haifa in 2016, where she studied political science and international affairs.

This year, she interned in Washington for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Jewish Democrat from Hawaii, analyzing counterterrorism strategies, making policy recommendations, and drafting bills and resolutions. She also helped draft the senator’s speech decrying President Donald Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries in which he invoked his own Jewish immigrant ancestors.

However, none of Najani’s previous accomplishments made joining the exclusive ranks of Rhodes scholars  — they were extended last year to include Israelis for the first time — any less exciting. She said she “could not stop crying” after getting the news, and her father is still bragging to friends and acquaintances.

“My family is very happy for me to be the first Arab Israeli to break that barrier and send a message to the Arab society within Israel that there is nothing to stop them,” she said. “I keep getting phone calls from my dad saying, ‘OK, I’m with this person,’ and then he hands over the phone for me to explain the whole thing again.”

Fortunately, Najami is a polished speaker. When it comes to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, for example, she has made the case that it hurts all Israelis — including some of the Arabs it is supposed to help.

“As an Arab Israeli, I would like to tell them, ‘No thank you,'” she said. “Academic boycotts especially prevent us from exchanging and challenging ideas, and that is something we want here.”

Her Israel advocacy has helped make her something of a hero to many Jews.

“Lian is a prime example of why the allegations that Israel oppresses its minorities are false,” said Karen Berman, the CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa. “To see someone like her receive the Rhodes Scholarship is truly a testament that this is a true meritocracy.

“And on a personal level,” Berman added, “she’s just so lovely and inspiring.”

On the other hand, some Arabs have criticized Najami for allegedly choosing Jewish nationalism over the Palestinian cause — and whitewashing Israel’s oppression of Arab Israelis and Palestinians.

“They don’t understand why I need to speak out for Israel,” she said. “I tell them I’m coming from an agenda of really wanting to let the Arab-Israeli voice be heard, and to make sure the Arabs in Israel are treated equally to Jews.”

Like most Arab Israelis, Najani said she is a proud citizen of her country but would not call herself a Zionist. However, she does not identify as Palestinian, she said, explaining that she has not endured the same hardships as her family members living in the West Bank.

She is adamant that Israel should be a democracy for all its citizens, and is critical of ways she sees it failing to live up to this ideal. As an example, she said Israel fails to invest sufficiently in Arab communities and denies Arabs equal access to land.

To Najami, Israel is at its best in her hometown of Haifa, where Jews and Arabs live together. She said growing up there, in a highly integrated neighborhood, gave her an early understanding that coexistence is possible. Her first friend was a Jewish girl.

“When I got older and people would come and say, ‘Oh, Jews are like this or Arabs are like this,’ and stuff like that,’ I would be like, ‘Wait a second, Rita is Jewish but she’s nothing like what you’re saying, so maybe you shouldn’t be generalizing people and stereotyping,’” Najami said.

Najami and her fiance, Joe Ryan-Hume — a Scottish man with a doctorate in American political history whom she met while interning in Congress — are making plans to move to England this summer. In the fall, Najami will start a master’s degree at Oxford, where she will study comparative politics with a focus on inclusion policy. She said she hopes to bring some of the lessons she learns back to Israel.

Najami’s seemingly relentless positivity applies to everything, from her approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict to her personal life. Dealing with a neurological disorder from a young age, she said, has taught her to focus less on grievance and fear and more on solutions.

“I got this chronic illness at the age of 12, when I was dancing, and running and playing football, and suddenly I couldn’t,” she said. “I could have easily played the victim, but I decided to just not focus anymore on who I was, and start focusing on what’s ahead of me and who I can be.

“That also how I look at Israel today. What we should be looking at is, how do we advance from here? How do we incorporate all the people who live in this country and find a way to live together?”

Israeli man living in Texas kills daughter, 9, before taking his own life

Thu, 2017-12-14 16:24

(JTA) — An Israeli man living in Texas is believed to have shot his 9-year-old daughter to death before taking his own life.

The bodies of Yariv Kaplan, 42, and Lielle Kaplan were found with gunshot wounds in their Travis County home on Monday during a routine welfare home visit.

Yariv Kaplan was going through a divorce and was fighting for custody of his daughter, KXAN-TV in Austin reported. The next hearing had been scheduled for January, according to the report.

Anti-Semitism rampant among Muslim refugees in Germany, study finds

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:54

BERLIN (JTA) — Anti-Semitism among Muslim refugees is rampant and requires urgent attention, a new study suggests.

But the study commissioned by the American Jewish Committee’s Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations in Berlin also suggests that refugees from persecuted minority communities are more likely to take a stand against anti-Semitism and for Israel.

Titled “Attitudes of refugees from Syria and Iraq towards integration, identity, Jews and the Shoah,” the research report was prepared by historian and sociologist Günther Jikeli of Indiana University and the University of Potsdam, Germany, with help from Lars Breuer and Matthias Becker.

The report, based on interviews with 68 refugees, comes amid a series of virulent anti-Israel and anti-America demonstrations in the German capital  denouncing the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Thousands of protesters  burned homemade Israeli flags and crowded city subway stations chanting anti-Israel and anti-American slogans on their way to rallies. The numbers of refugees among the demonstrators was unknown.

At the same time, in a show of solidarity with Jewish communities in Germany, local imams joined with Christian and Jewish leaders in public celebrations of Hanukkah, including the annual candle-lighting ceremony at the Brandenburg Gate, where Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of Berlin was joined in a cherry picker by Mayor Michael Mueller. Security has been tightened throughout Germany and at Jewish venues.

The tensions run deep, the new study indicates. Anti-Semitic attitudes and rejection of Israel are widespread among the newcomers, the head of the Ramer Institute, Deidre Berger, said in a statement.

While many of those interviewed had positive impressions of Germany, they also tended to believe in conspiracy theories, such as about Jews or Israel controlling the world.

“Anti-Semitic thinking and stereotyping are very common … even among those who emphasize that they ‘respect’ Judaism or that there is no problem living together between Muslims, Christians and Jews in their countries of origin and in Germany,” Jikeli said in a statement.

Berger said that given the depth of anti-Jewish hostility in Arab countries, this is not surprising based on the stereotypes that are implanted in schools, mosques and government propaganda in some countries.

“[N]onetheless,” she said, “the dimensions of the problem are much larger than expected.”

“When political challenges multiply, anti-Semitism often increases, a situation that must not be tolerated,” Berger said, calling for swift prosecution of crimes related to hate and incitement.

She said integration classes for refugees must emphasize Germany’s links to Israel, support for Jewish communities in the country and liberal democratic values, adding that staff and volunteers must be trained to cope with anti-Semitic attitudes.

The study was funded by the Bennet Fund and the Meyer Fund.

At least 1 million Muslim refugees have arrived in Germany since the summer of 2015.

Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical to lay off 14,000 workers as part of restructuring

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:24

A general view of the Israeli drug company TEVA Pharmaceutical Industries in Jerusalem, Aug. 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, one of the largest manufacturers of generic drugs in the world, will lay off 14,000 workers as part of a global restructuring, or 25 percent of its workforce.

Teva made the announcement on Thursday. The cuts will take place over the next two years, with most in 2018, The Associated Press reported.

After the cuts are completed, only 8 percent of Teva’s employees will be Israeli, the Israeli business daily Globes reported. Teva, based in Petach Tikvah, is the country’s largest private sector employer with nearly 7,000 employees in Israel. The cuts will reduce the number to about 4,000.

Teva stock has fallen 60 percent in the past year. The company also took a hit from the expiration of its patents on Copaxone, its drug for multiple sclerosis, and is struggling under a $35 billion debt from its acquisition of Allergan’s Anda generic drug division.

The company’s Israeli headquarters are expected to be significantly affected, AP reported.

Israel’s main labor federation, the Histadrut, has called for a half-day general strike on Sunday to protest the layoffs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday spoke with Teva CEO Kare Schultz, who was hired six weeks ago to turn the company’s fortunes.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu asked Schultz to minimize the damage to Israeli workers, especially in the periphery of the country where two Teva factories reportedly will close.

Schultz said he would make a “supreme effort” to reduce the damage to the company’s employees, the statement said.

Netanyahu also asked Schultz to do everything possible to preserve Teva’s identity as an Israeli company, according to the statement.

David Friedman, US ambassador to Israel, lights menorah at Western Wall

Thu, 2017-12-14 15:14

JERUSALEM (JTA) — David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, lit the menorah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the second night of Hanukkah.

Thousands attended the ceremony on Wednesday evening one week after President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“A great honor to light the Menorah at the Western Wall,” Friedman tweeted after the lighting ceremony. “Some 2,180 years ago, the Maccabees reclaimed this very site and restored Jewish ritual to the Second Temple. Awed to stand on the same hallowed ground. Happy Chanukah to all!!

Friedman lit the candles accompanied by the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitch; Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar; and the minister of tourism, Yariv Levin, Ynet reported.

Earlier in the day, Friedman met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, whose office said in a statement that the meeting was part of “the beginning of the process of moving the embassy to the capital,” and that they discussed “a shared future in Jerusalem.”

A U.S. Embassy spokesman did not return a message from JTA seeking comment on the Jerusalem municipality’s characterization of the meeting.

A great honor to light the Menorah at the Western Wall. Some 2,180 years ago, the Maccabees reclaimed this very site and restored Jewish ritual to the Second Temple. Awed to stand on the same hallowed ground. Happy Chanukah to all!! pic.twitter.com/vnhageusmr

— David M. Friedman (@USAmbIsrael) December 13, 2017

Family of Miss Iraq forced to flee country after photo posted with Miss Israel

Thu, 2017-12-14 13:58

Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman, left, and Miss Iraq Sarah Idan posing for a photo on Gandelsman’s Instagram page.
(Instagram)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The family of Iraq’s contestant in the Miss Universe Pageant have left the country due to threats to their lives over her modeling in a bikini and posting on social media photos taken with Miss Israel.

Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, lives in the United States and the rest of her family has now fled the country, Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, told Hadashot news. Gandelsman said she has been in touch with Idan since the pageant and that the two women have a special relationship.

During the competition in Tokyo in November, Miss Israel, Gandelsman and Idan  posed for photos on their respective Instagram accounts. Idan’s caption read: “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”

Gandelsman told Hadashot news that Idan said she does not regret posting the photos.

“She did it to so that people can understand that it’s possible to live together,” Gandelsman said. “In order for people to see that we can connect, in the end we are both human beings.”

Idan has not removed the photo from her Instagram account. Last month she defended the photo in a post in Arabic on Instagram, the Times of Israel reported.

“I want to stress that the purpose of the picture was only to express hope and desire for peace between the two countries,” she wrote in the post. She said the photo does not signal support for the Israeli government and apologized if the photo was harmful to the Palestinian cause.