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J Street and Americans for Peace Now back bill that restricts Israeli spending of US aid

Wed, 2021-04-14 20:06

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Two liberal pro-Israel groups, J Street and Americans for Peace Now, are backing a House bill to be presented this week that would list actions Israel may not fund with U.S. money.

The measure, which will be introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and was first reported by The Intercept, would restrict Israel from using U.S. funds to detain Palestinian minors, appropriate or destroy Palestinian property or forcibly move Palestinians, or annex Palestinian areas.

The endorsement by two groups that describe themselves as pro-Israel and McCollum’s new seniority as the chairwoman of the defense subcommittee of the powerful Appropriations Committee suggest that the bill could attract broader Democratic support than previous attempts to restrict how Israel spends U.S. assistance. Americans for Peace Now is a member of the umbrella Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It’s time that Congress stand up and defend the human rights of the Palestinian people,” McCollum said Wednesday on Twitter.

Spokesmen for J Street and Americans for Peace Now confirmed that they backed the bill. The latter’s president, Hadar Susskind, emphasized that the bill does not condition aid to Israel but restricts it. Thus Israel may carry out the activities named in the bill, but would incur no penalty if it can show the actions were completed without the use of American funds.

U.S. assistance to Israel, $3.8 billion a year, overwhelmingly goes to weapons systems.

The bill requires State Department and General Accounting Office reporting on whether Israel is using U.S. funds to carry out the restricted activities, but it does not describe a mechanism to penalize Israel.

“The one thing this bill does is that it requires reporting,” Susskind said.

The bill expands prior attempts by McCollum to restrict areas where Israel may spend U.S. funds. McCollum has sought previously to keep Israel from spending U.S. funds on detaining Palestinian minors. Those bills attracted only a handful of backers, and no support from groups that described themselves as pro-Israel. Center and right-wing pro-Israel groups, chief among them AIPAC, have forcefully opposed the McCollum initiatives.

J Street, which launches its annual conference this weekend, did back separate legislation last year that would have banned Israel from spending U.S. money on annexation.

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Group that ‘elevated white supremacist voices’ should remain on Boston Jewish council for now, internal report says

Wed, 2021-04-14 18:16

(JTA) — Seven months after being asked to kick out a group over allegations of racism, the board of directors of Boston’s leading Jewish coalition has come to a conclusion: Yes, the group’s president “elevated white supremacist voices” — but it shouldn’t be ejected.

That’s the recommendation of an internal report issued last month by the leadership of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, which includes dozens of local groups and community members representing virtually every local Jewish constituency. 

In September, the JCRC tasked a committee with evaluating the Zionist Organization of America, whose national leader, prominent right-wing activist Morton Klein, was accused of “vicious attacks” on social media against “minorities, people of color, Palestinians, and fellow Jews.”

After scrutinizing Klein’s social media record, the committee found that he had amplified white supremacy and sowed distrust about the U.S. election results. The panel is proposing a new guideline that could make such comments grounds for expulsion, but also said that expelling ZOA’s local affiliate right now would work against the council’s interests.

“Given that ZOA is a longtime member of the Council, has a long history as an influential national organization, and continues to represent a meaningful segment of the Boston Jewish community, and given that JCRC seeks to represent a broad swath of the Boston Jewish community and its disparate views, there was consensus that, despite the concerns summarized above, expulsion at this time would not serve the interests of JCRC or the broader Jewish community in Boston,” according to the report, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has obtained. 

That recommendation will go before the entire council for a vote on April 27. The body that will decide whether to expel ZOA is made up of JCRC member groups and community representatives, as well as the organization’s officers, board of directors and past presidents. They will have to decide whether the report’s logic is compelling, or whether they want to overrule its recommendation and risk alienating part of Boston’s Jewish community.

Jeremy Burton, the council’s executive director, declined to comment on the report, saying that he wanted to assure that members could “make independent, unbiased decisions based on the facts and recommendations before them.” But he said he was “confident that both the process for developing the resolutions and for member review and vote has been sound and in keeping with our stated protocols.”

The report details Klein’s tweets before and after the complaint against him was filed in September. It calls attention to several posts that the committee concluded were objectionable. For example, Klein had retweeted former Congress member Steve King, who was driven out of office by his own Republican Party over comments defending white nationalism.

Klein had also boosted conspiracies about George Soros, a liberal philanthropist and leading boogeyman for anti-Semites, according to the report. And the report faulted Klein for having “questioned legitimate and well-established election results” following the 2020 presidential vote and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Idit Klein, the head of one of the groups that brought the original complaint, said the report’s recommendations do not follow from its assessment of Morton Klein’s online behavior. (The two Kleins are not related.)

“It was certainly affirming to see that the report included numerous findings that echoed findings in our petition,” said Idit Klein, the president and CEO of Keshet, a group for LGBT Jews. “We thought that the report read like an indictment of ZOA, and I’m disappointed that they are not endorsing the call for removal.”

For his part, Morton Klein rejected the complaints against him and said he stood by all of his social media activity that was examined

“We went over all of their concerns and none of their concerns were appropriate or valid,” he said. “We said or did nothing that was racist, that was inappropriate, in any way, shape or form.”

The JCRC’s investigation is not the first time that Klein’s comments have caused Jewish organizations to weigh his participation. After Klein vilified Black Lives Matter protests inspired by the killing of George Floyd last spring, liberal members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called to expel the ZOA

After months of debate, the Presidents Conference essentially decided that it would not make a decision about ZOA’s membership, citing in part the fact that the investigation had inflamed divisions within the organization.

That decision was revealed the same week in September that 25 members of the JCRC council in Boston filed a petition saying that the local chapter of Klein’s organization should be removed from the council for undermining the JCRC mission statement, which speaks of promoting democracy, pluralism and justice. The signatories were a mix of local organizations and affiliates of national mainstream and left-wing groups including Keshet, Hillel and the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street.

“So long as ZOA enjoys a seat at the American Jewish communal table, we are collectively signaling that their views are a welcome and tolerable part of our communal life,” the petition said. “American Jewish institutions must make clear that Klein’s pattern of abuse and bigotry can have no place in our Jewish communal life.”

The petition triggered a review process by the Boston JCRC’s membership committee. From September to March, the committee interviewed people on both sides of the issue, gathered documents and analyzed the council’s bylaws. ZOA also filed a response that focused on J Street’s involvement and defended Klein’s comments as legitimate criticisms of what it said were “antisemitism and Israel-bashing” by Black Lives Matter campaigners.

The committee also inquired about the size of ZOA’s local constituency, which must number at least 200 to qualify for representation at the JCRC, and concluded there were enough members.

“The local and national ZOA representatives confirmed that the local group has 400 dues-paying members, who organize an active calendar of activities,” the report said. 

The board of the Boston JCRC endorsed the recommendations during a meeting on March 22. 

It is also not the first time that Boston’s JCRC has been riven by debate over whether a member group has exceeded the boundaries of what is acceptable.

In 2018, the Workers Circle, a left-wing member of the council, signed a statement by Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that is not on the council and is known for its pro-Palestinian activism and support for the movement to boycott Israel. Following an uproar, the JCRC of Boston passed a resolution prohibiting members from partnering with anti-Zionist groups. The Workers Circle remains part of the JCRC and signed the petition about ZOA. 

For Idit Klein, the current episode brings to mind an even earlier debate. She said that some of the opposition to the removal of ZOA stems from fears that such a move would harm the unity of the community. Similar concerns were expressed in 2004, Idit Klein said, when the JCRC was considering making Boston the first Jewish community in the United States to endorse same-sex marriage. 

People thought endorsing same-sex marriage “would cause the community to irreparably splinter,” Idit Klein said. “It may be hard to conceive of this today, but the debate was intense and emotionally fraught and painful. There was a long time to get to the point that there was anything close to consensus.”

She said she is motivated by how history turned out in that situation and predicted that even if the ZOA is not expelled now, a proposed guideline that members should not “normalize or legitimize” white supremacy and related conspiracy theories might lead to an expulsion down the line. 

“It helps me feel clear and confident that, whether it happens on April 27 or happens in three months or happens in three years and is in line with our values today, even if it’s even if it is scary to some, will lead us to be stronger as a community,” she said.

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Polish Jewish leader quits Auschwitz museum board over right-wing politician’s appointment

Wed, 2021-04-14 15:44

(JTA) — A Polish right-wing politician has been appointed to a board of the Auschwitz state museum, leading to a Jewish member’s resignation on Wednesday amid claims of politicization.

Stanis?aw Krajewski said he would be leaving the International Auschwitz Council over the nomination of the Law and Justice party’s Beata Szydlo, Onet reported.

Culture Minister Piotr Gli?ski, a member of the same right-wing party, announced the nomination of Szyd?o, who had served as prime minister for nearly two years until 2017, on Tuesday.

“I understand it as a politicization of the Council,” Krajewski, a philosopher and former leader of Polish Jewry, wrote in a letter to Gli?ski, Onet reported. “In such a situation, I do not see any possibility for myself to continue my function within its framework.”

Under Law and Justice, Poland has been accused of manipulating the historical record on the Holocaust – an allegation the party has rejected, arguing it is preserving the country from such abuse. In 2019, Law and Justice passed a controversial law that outlaws blaming Poland for the Holocaust.

The Auschwitz state museum has largely stayed out of that debate and maintained its status internationally as a major site of preservation and research.

However, the museum was largely seen as having politicized its capacity as a venue for Holocaust commemoration ceremonies, in which Poland’s government under Law and Justice effectively disinvited Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending.

Russian troops liberated the Auschwitz camp, which Nazi Germany built in occupied Poland.

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Future in question for Chicago Loop Synagogue and its monumental stained-glass window

Wed, 2021-04-14 15:35

CHICAGO (JTA) — Just three stories high and hemmed into a small 5,000-square-foot lot, the building at 16 S. Clark St. is a small jewel box situated amid this city’s dense urban fabric. Exuding an aura of cool simplicity, the structure’s facade is composed of glass, metal and concrete planes. Its name is etched in delicate gold lettering: Chicago Loop Synagogue.

Perched above the synagogue’s front door, a two-ton sculpture extends over the sidewalk. Created by Henri Azaz in 1963, the work consists of bold letters tumbling over each other spelling the priestly benediction. A pair of massive hands emerges from the words, sloping downward as though placing a blessing on the heads of all those who enter.

The brass and bronze has since weathered and turned a tarnished green. Streaked with corrosive lines, the heavy hands now look weary. Chicago Loop Synagogue has fallen on hard times, and its future is precarious.

The only consistently operating Jewish house of worship in Chicago’s Loop, the 1.5-square-mile area touted as the second largest business district in North America, the Loop Synagogue has been unusual since it was conceived in 1929. Few members live anywhere nearby. Before the pandemic, most popped in for lunch or a prayer service during the workday while spending Shabbat at their home synagogues in the suburbs. In recognition of that unusual arrangement, dues top out at $180 — meaning that the congregation’s 400 members generate far too little revenue to keep operations afloat.

The pandemic abruptly halted the flow of commuters, severing ties that for many Loop members were only tenuous in the first place. But keeping the building closed also cut expenses necessary for operating the synagogue’s outdated and inefficient systems, buying the congregation’s leaders time to ponder the possibility of relocating to a less expensive space. One pressing question: What will happen to the historic stained-glass panels that are perhaps the Loop Synagogue’s most defining feature?

The congregation’s president, Lee Zoldan, reports that the synagogue has enough cash assets in the bank to continue running comfortably for another year and a half.

“Then we are headed for the red,” she said. “The time to panic is now.”

Chicago Loop Synagogue was initiated by a gift from the Midwest Branch of The United Synagogue of America (today the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). The goal was to serve commuters seeking kosher food and a place to pray during the workday. It remains the only Loop venue to offer both services.

The institution quickly gained national recognition. By 1934, the prayer space was renovated to accommodate more worshippers, and was featured in the Chicago Tribune for installing air conditioning. Situated just a few blocks from the site of the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair, the synagogue also boasted wall paintings designed by A. Raymond Katz, official muralist for the “Century of Progress.”

Today the Chicago Loop Synagogue holds fast to its identity.

“We are not a neighborhood synagogue,” administrator Mary Lynn Pross said. “We have always been a synagogue for the world.”

Now, as in its early years, synagogue members include commuters from Chicago’s nearby suburbs. Les Blau is among them. Each weekday morning prior to the pandemic, Blau attended services at Central Avenue Synagogue, a Chabad-affiliated house of worship near his home in Highland Park, then hopped on the train for a 45-minute ride to his law office in the Loop. In the afternoons, Blau took a quick jaunt from his office to the Loop Synagogue to attend mincha, the afternoon service.

“It’s the only institution like it in the Loop – the only synagogue in the area that holds afternoon services every weekday all year round,” he said.

Other commuters come from New York, Los Angeles and internationally.

“We’ve got members who regularly fly in on business,” Pross said. “Whenever they are in town, they head here for daily services.”

The downside of serving as a destination synagogue is a weak sense of community. Nearly every member also belongs to a home synagogue closer to where they live.

“We are really three – or even four – different congregations,” Zoldan said.

Strong ties bind members who saw each other every day at shacharit, the morning service. So, too, for those who regularly attended mincha, like Blau. But the two groups generally didn’t overlap. Nor did they intersect with the 30 to 40 members who live in the Loop’s immediate outskirts and regularly attended services on Saturdays.

Decline began long before the synagogue shut its doors in response to COVID-19. Between 1992 and today, membership numbers dropped from 1,400 to 416. Zoldan offers a conjecture to explain why: “As our regulars retired and stopped attending, they were not replenished with newcomers.”

That appears unlikely to change. Some of those who attended services regularly before COVID-19 are being vaccinated and looking forward to returning to their luminous prayer space once the pandemic is under control. But pre-pandemic commuting patterns seem unlikely to resume. Meanwhile, new options are emerging to serve younger Jews who are moving to the West Loop, an adjacent and up-and-coming neighborhood.

That has put intense pressure on the Loop Synagogue, where leaders fear losing people if they raise dues significantly beyond $180 a year, a fraction of what full-service suburban synagogues charge members.

“We are in dire straits,” Pross said. Overall, operating expenses for the building run approximately $400,000 a year, and the synagogue has no endowment or large donors.

The “Hands of Peace” sculpture is mounted at the entrance to the Chicago Loop Synagogue. (Michael Landau)

Letting go of their mid-century modern structure, however, is hardly the ideal answer. Never mind that it is an architectural gem or that the congregation’s most significant asset – its property located just blocks west of Millennium Park – is worth millions. Relinquishing the building would also doom the fate of Chicago Loop Synagogue’s monumental stained-glass window.

Designed by the renowned New York-based artist Abraham Rattner especially for the synagogue, the work was the subject of a 1976 exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a 1978 exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Insured for $1.5 million, the spellbinding window is simply too large to fit anywhere except where it sits now: inside the prayer space for which it was created.

To create the work, Rattner drew inspiration from the opening passages of Genesis, honing in on the hidden meanings of the words “… and there was light” to channel cosmic creative energies of the Divine.

After two years working on conceptual and design schemes, Rattner spent another year engaged in the window’s fabrication in the Paris studio of stained-glass artist Jean Barillet (where other American synagogue stained glass has also been fabricated). The scale was expansive. At 40 feet wide and three stories high, it was devised to fill the entire eastern wall of the synagogue. Jutting into the prayer space from the far-left corner of the window, Rattner incorporated the ark that would house the Torah scrolls. He surrounded it with flames – integrated into the glass – leaping up and out, drawing attention to the presence of God in the very heart of the sanctuary.

Rattner once wrote that he wanted Chicago Loop Synagogue worshippers to experience “renewed faith in a higher elevation of being.”

“Rattner was a deeply spiritual artist, imbued with a powerful moral connection to his own Jewishness,” said Samantha Baskind, a historian of Jewish art at Cleveland State University.

Today the synagogue’s vast space, cathedral-like in its openness, is dominated by the window. A kaleidoscope of blues and purples pierced by electric shades of yellow take on the forms of planets, trees, Hebrew letters and the Israelite tribes hovering and extending toward one another. Those who enter are “awestruck,” Blau said. And Pross, who herself is not Jewish, recalls people dropping into the building before COVID-19.

“They came just to sit in the sanctuary. It’s hard to explain to someone who has not been here,” she said. “You have to be in that room, with the light streaming through that window … the experience transcends religious identity.”

In addition to these occasional visitors, over 2,000 people visit the space each year as part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s annual Open House tour. Groups from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society also regularly tour the building to study the architecture and behold the window.

Zoldan has convened a task force charged with imagining a new future for the congregation and its building: one that will generate revenue while allowing them to preserve the Rattner window intact and continue meeting in their space. Possibilities include identifying an organization to co-locate in the building, such as an education center, a theater or an event space.

The most desirable of the options on the table: create a national sanctuary for synagogue stained-glass. Envisioned in part as a light-and-color experience and in part as a museum, this “stained-glass sanctuary” would provide dissolving synagogues across the county safe haven at Chicago Loop Synagogue for their own colorful windows.

This idea is favored by task force member Michael Landau, an architect who has worked on over 75 U.S. synagogues and is known for his creative reuse of historic sacred materials. Landau takes windows, Torah arks, eternal lights and other treasured ritual objects that hold synagogues’ histories and incorporates them into new contemporary design schemes.

His goal with the objects is “honoring their history by giving them new life and provoking interest in their past.”

That is Landau’s hope for Chicago Loop Synagogue. As other congregations across the country shrink, disband and struggle to figure out what to do with their own stained glass, the Loop Synagogue with its Rattner window beckons.

“I think it can serve as a beacon,” Landau said, a gathering place for displaying the windows and telling the stories of their congregations.

Blau is likewise optimistic about the synagogue’s future.

“All it takes is one person – or a few — who don’t want to see this magnificent structure go to the wrecking ball,” he said.

Zoldan, the president, is more pensive.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” she said. “This is a monumental endeavor.”

In the worst-case scenario, the congregation would have to leave its building altogether. Fearing that possibility, Zoldan has reached out to a number of museums to see if she might find a new home for the window. But at three stories tall, the work’s tremendous scale would make moving it prohibitive.

“I don’t want to see it divided up into pieces and sold off as scrap,” Zoldan said, pausing and taking a deep breath before continuing.

“That window has been the centerpiece of our sanctuary since the day it was installed. We are attached to it,” she said. “The window, our location, our historic building — they are all integral to who we are.”

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As it did decades ago, Northern Ireland’s Jewish community looks to weather the storm of violence on the streets of Belfast

Wed, 2021-04-14 14:52

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (JTA) — Since last week, Northern Ireland’s capital has been plagued by familiar scenes: rioting, the gray shells of burned-out cars, injured police officers.

For many in this post-industrial city of 280,000, it has conjured memories of the Troubles, a three-decade period of sectarian violence that left thousands dead and pushed thousands of others to leave.

But as it was throughout the worst of the Troubles, Belfast’s tiny Jewish community — much smaller than it used to be, down to about 30 households from a peak of 453 in 1977 — is not overly concerned about the new conflict, which has boiled over due to Brexit complications and other unresolved British-Irish tensions.

Michael Black, the community’s chairman, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week that he hopes the violence will “peter out” soon.

“Thankfully the few areas that are rioting are not near the shul or where the Jewish community live. We only feel threatened when there is a problem in the Middle East,” he said, referencing the anti-Israel sentiment that runs strong throughout Ireland.

Just like in the 1970s, the feuding protesters are broadly split into two groups: Irish Republicans, who want a united Ireland, and British loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The loyalists, angered by part of the Brexit deal that has set up a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, have been the main instigators of the current protests. The trade wall has effectively left Northern Ireland using European Union market rules, leaving many infuriated loyalists feeling like the country is treated differently than the rest of the U.K.

The last straw for them was a large funeral for IRA member Bobby Storey, which drew lawmakers and disregarded social distancing guidelines despite taking place at the height of the COVID pandemic.

Nationalists attack police in Belfast, April 8, 2021. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

But there is also an ethno-religious divide between the two sides: the Irish Republicans are largely Catholic, the loyalists largely Protestant.

Because local Jews avoided taking a side on the religious front, they have been — and still are — seen as neutral onlookers. In some cases they were even involved in attempts at reconciliation between the two groups.

But that doesn’t mean the Jewish community left the Troubles completely unscathed.

A thriving “shtetl”

As 1970 dawned and Belfast was plunged into violence, the city’s Jewish community was thriving in a social sense.

Former member Keith Daly said that growing up Jewish at the time felt “like the shtetl from Russia moved to Belfast … so when we grew up it just felt like family.”

Many Northern Irish Jews in the province were the descendants of Ashkenazim who had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe and later the Holocaust. On their way to America, some decided to settle and build a community in Northern Ireland instead of making the journey across the Atlantic.

Many have attributed the success of the community to the Belfast Jewish Institute — locally nicknamed “the club” — which was a short walk from the synagogue situated on a leafy street in the northern part of the city. One ex-community member named Ben (like others in this article he refrained from providing his last name for safety reasons) called the club “a huge, central part of the community.” It offered its members tennis courts, a ballroom, card rooms, a drama society, a debating society, a kosher restaurant and more. It entertained esteemed guests, such as ceremonial lord mayors and chief rabbis.

While the city around it occasionally erupted into literal flames, or the sound of bombs blowing up could be heard nearby, the club acted as a literal sanctuary for the Belfast Jewish community.

A view of “the club,” where Belfast Jews used to socialize in its 1970s heyday. (Courtesy of Belfast Jewish Community)

For a provincial area that struggled to attract any tourism during the conflict, Belfast had everything going for its tight-knit Jewish community in the early ’70s: a synagogue that was full every week; a booming social life at the club; and amenities not found in other small communities in Great Britain, such as a kosher butcher who came to the doorsteps of Jewish families in the northern part of the city.

Staying out of the conflict allowed community members to relatively prosper financially, and they were held in high esteem throughout the Troubles for their important contributions to Belfast over time. For example, a Jewish family was instrumental in Northern Ireland’s booming linen industry, which cemented Belfast as an enviable industrial city in the 19th century. Later on, many Northern Irish Jews owned family-run businesses, and became doctors and other professionals.

‘The thing went boom’

If it seemed too good to be true, it was. Some 3,700 people died in the conflict, many of them uninvolved civilians, and eventually it hit the Jewish community.

On Feb. 8, 1980, Leonard Kaitcer, a husband with two sons and a beloved member of Belfast’s Jewish community, was dragged from his home and kidnapped by gunmen. He was an antiques dealer who owned a shop in the city and his kidnappers had demanded a ransom of 1 million pounds, nearly $1.4 million, for his release. When Kaitcer was unable to hand over such a huge amount, he was shot dead.

While no paramilitary ever took responsibility for the murder, kidnapping was a tactic employed by many Irish Republican groups as part of a campaign to devastate the British state and its economy, and to fund its weaponry.

At the time of Kaitcer’s death, sectarian murders were a norm, but a local Jewish man, Steven Jaffe, said his community was especially devastated because of how hard they had tried to avoid the conflict.

“[Kaitcer’s] murder shocked people in a way because the sense was that this had nothing to do with the Jewish community,” Jaffe said.

Children hijack vehicles to celebrate the shooting of a British soldier by an IRA sniper in West Belfast, April 12, 1972. (Alex Bowie/Getty Images)

Kaitcer’s funeral was the largest ever Jewish one recorded in Belfast and was seen as symbolic. The Belfast Jewish Record reported at the time: “[O]ur own small community came to join the parents in mourning a son, a host of friends came to pay their last respects and many more, unknown and unrecognised came simply to share our grief and make silent protest against the savagery that has overtaken our country.”

The Kaitcer murder, along with other random, less serious attacks on Belfast Jews at about the same time, prompted many families to flee the city and immigrate to Great Britain. Some left for Israel.

Following the pattern of other small British Jewish communities — such as in Newcastle and Cardiff, whose members gradually moved to larger communities in cities like Manchester and London — the Belfast community was actually already in slow decline numbers-wise in the 1960s. Belfast Jews had to look elsewhere for university and professional work, as well as to marry into the faith if they wanted. But the Troubles accelerated the exodus.

Keith Daly recalled being 7 or 8 years old, waiting in line at a newsstand, when a woman came rushing into the shop, panicking and sputtering that a bomb was about to go off at the police station a few shops down. As Daly had been out for a while, his mother had sent his brother to the store to see why he was taking so long. When Daly told him about the bomb, his brother grabbed him and they bolted across the street.

“As we ran out of the newsagent store and across that first street, the thing went boom and the bomb went off, and all I really remember about that experience was that I was holding [my brother’s] hand and we were jogging and then we were sprinting as fast as we could, smoke and bricks and stones flying by,” Daly said.

They ran home.

“My mother had my younger brother in her hands and threw him at my grandma,” Daly recalled. “She ran down the driveway and said when she got to the gate, all she could see were two kids in their school uniform running out of the smoke.”

The current struggle

For many Jewish families, moments like these became the final impetus to leave Belfast.

Gillian Rowe Price, an expatriate of the community, remembers being “whisked away” by her parents at short notice to go to Manchester, a city with a larger Jewish population in England. Other families followed suit.

In 1977, there were 453 households affiliated with the synagogue in north Belfast, Northern Ireland’s only Jewish house of worship. In 1983, there were 312. By 1990, the number had dropped to 221. Today there are just over 30.

A photo of the old Belfast synagogue. (Northern Ireland Friends of Israel)

As the community began to decline at a steeper rate — arguably when the Troubles was at its peak, in the early 1980s — the Belfast Jewish Record reported that “each departure is a grievous loss to the small community, one which we can ill afford.”

“The cumulative effect is indeed serious and will inevitably bring about much soul-searching,” the report continued. “Obviously, there will have to be a serious reassessment of the communal institutions and the maintenance in the light of the reduction in numbers. Like it or not, the whole future of this community is now in a state of flux and its condition must be continuously under review.”

The thriving state of Jewish life declined, along with everything else.

Shoshana Appleton, who was born in Jerusalem but moved to Northern Ireland to marry Belfast-born Jew Ronnie Appleton, remembers how challenging Jewish life was at the time. Her husband was chief prosecutor for Northern Ireland for 22 years, so their family had 24-hour police protection, as they would have been likely targets for paramilitaries.

For their son’s bar mitzvah, they needed a big batch of kosher meat that was  supplied only in Dublin, south of the border. But the border was tightly controlled, and cross-border food trading was prohibited. So Shoshana’s husband was driven, secretly, by a police escort to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland where British soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland and Gardai, members of the Irish police force in the republic, watched as kosher meat hidden in black bin liners was smuggled from one side of the border to the other. The plight was onerous, but it made certain that the bar mitzvah guests would not go hungry.

It also became nearly impossible to attract rabbis to stay at the synagogue during the conflict. The Belfast Hebrew Congregation was once led by Rabbi Isaac Herzog, who later became the chief rabbi of Israel, and whose Belfast-born son Chaim was president of Israel between 1983 and 1993. Despite such an impressive past, the synagogue had no rabbi at all between 1979 and 1983. And the rabbis they did manage to attract stayed sometimes for a matter of months before Belfast’s violence took its toll and they fled the city for Jewish life elsewhere.

(Today the synagogue has a Jewish “reverend” named David Kale who leads services and acts as a cantor, despite not being ordained as a rabbi. He has explained that “A reverend is an experienced and qualified person who is authorized by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth to carry out all the duties of a rabbi.”)

The club, which had been dilapidated for a while because the community could no longer afford its upkeep, was burnt down by vandals in 1982. This wasn’t an anti-Semitic attack, Black said — burnt-out buildings were a feature of Belfast’s landscape at the time.

The ballroom that Belfast’s Jews had once danced in was unrecognizable. The Belfast Jewish Record described the club’s remains as a “charred skeleton.”

To replace the club, the community decided to adopt a smaller social center on the same site as the synagogue, but by the 1990s even that was ill-afforded. The shrinking community meant that there were fewer families contributing to its finances. Eventually that building was  sold, and instead they sliced the synagogue itself in half, allowing part of it to become a social center. This is how the synagogue site remains today.

Northern Ireland’s Jewish community is one “dying on its feet,” Appleton said. But regardless, in her view, the community remains as welcoming and friendly as it always had been.

“A lot of people wouldn’t believe you because of the Troubles, but it’s a lovely place. A warm place,” she said. If people came to join or visit the community today to keep it alive, she told JTA, “that would be a great mitzvah.”

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‘Divine Flow’: First-ever Jewish psychedelics conference looks to put spiritual drug use on the map

Wed, 2021-04-14 14:26

(J. the Jewish News of Northern California via JTA) — Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, while some people were dabbling with new hobbies, Rabbi Zac Kamenetz was going all in on a lifelong fantasy.

Kamenetz has a vision. He dreams of a world in which the trauma of the Jewish past can be healed through psychedelic experiences, a world in which chemically assisted mystical encounters are a normative part of Jewish spirituality.

“Someday I see a space, maybe in the East Bay, where people can have safe and supported psychedelic experiences individually, and then integrate those experiences in a community that is invested in the application of mystical experiences with other people,” he told J. the Jewish News of Northern California, in 2019. “This is total science fiction because it doesn’t exist.”

It does now. After losing his job as the director of Jewish learning and living at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco during a round of pandemic layoffs, Kamenetz decided to go for it. He founded Shefa, which means “flow” in Hebrew; the organization’s tagline is “Connect With Divine Flow.”

In less than a year, Kamenetz has secured funding from Jewish donors, as well as Dr. Bronner’s Family Foundation (as in Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, the earthy brand with fine print all over the bottle) and the Riverstyx Foundation, which funds a number of “psycho-spiritual” projects.

He also has begun to hold regular “integration circles,” support group-like gatherings in which fellow travelers discuss and come to terms with their psychedelic experiences.

Later this spring Kamenetz is staging a two-day event that promises to put Shefa on the map — the first-ever Jewish Psychedelic Summit. It’s a collaboration among Kamenetz; Madison Margolin, editor of the psychedelics magazine DoubleBlind; and Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, director of policy and advocacy at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Ginsberg’s group, MAPS, has deep Jewish roots. Its founder, Rick Doblin, was inspired by a dream about surviving the Nazis to devote his life to promoting psychedelics as a cure for human ills and an insurance policy against another Holocaust. The organization has supported research and policy to advance psychedelics as a therapeutic tool.

Shefa’s summit will zoom in on uniquely Jewish questions related to psychedelics. To be held virtually with four sessions each on May 2-3, the summit will bring together dozens of rabbis, scholars, artists and more for panels with topics such as “Did Psychedelics Play a Role in Ancient Jewish Practice?” “What Draws so Many Jews to India?” and “Jewish Trauma and Psychedelic Therapy: What Is Culturally Informed Care?”

Psychedelic substances — whether organic, such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or synthetic (such as LSD) — are illegal virtually everywhere in the country, although some have been decriminalized to varying degrees in Oakland and Santa Cruz, California; Denver, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and the state of Oregon. But that hasn’t stopped researchers and other practitioners — some funded by MAPS — from beginning to delve into the medical applications of these substances, such as treating PTSD, anxiety, depression and other conditions.

Kamenetz has had two experiences with psilocybin, and both were done legally as part of a Johns Hopkins University study of psychedelic experiences in clergy of various religions.

Those experiences were among the most powerful of his life, he said, and convinced him of the need for psychedelic-assisted healing in the Jewish community.

“I’m one of the very few people who can say they’ve had a legal experience with psychedelics in this country,” Kamenetz said. “To be able to speak freely about it without the stigma — because it’s not just people talking about doing illegal things — it’s allowed people to start having a more open conversation about it. When there’s the opportunity to hear from someone who did this in a legal environment, people will listen more.”

And for Jews who have already been working with or using psychedelics, Kamenetz is proud to be creating a platform where they can talk about it more openly.

“I think we’ve gotten ahead of the market,” he said. “If it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else.”

Ben, a 34-year-old graduate student who didn’t want to use his full name, is one of the many Jews who have used psychedelic substances. He’s attended two Shefa integration circles, 90-minute affairs that can include some Jewish chanting, brief text study and discussion of personal psychedelic experiences.

He appreciates the open, nonhierarchical vibe.

“People are encouraged to share about their experiences, ask questions, receive feedback,” Ben said.

“I have a significant and long-standing psychedelic background. I have had a lot of conversations about it with similarly inclined Jews.”

Ben first heard about Shefa when Kamenetz was interviewed on the Judaism Unbound podcast.

“I knew right away this is a conversation I want to be part of,” he said. “And I sort of got the same sense from a lot of other people, a shared sense that it was important to talk about and do and explore this, to create spaces where we can talk about it.”

When the Jewish Psychedelic Summit was announced, Ben didn’t even bother looking at the list of speakers.

“I just saw the name [of the conference] and said sign me up,” he said, though he admits he’s excited about hearing from Rodger Kamenetz, the poet and author of “The Jew in The Lotus.”

Rabbi Kamenetz (no relation) is excited, too.

“We’ve got this big Jewish family of psychedelic enthusiasts who are coming and contributing to making this thing happen,” he said. “That’s why it feels so significant to me. I’ve never been part of something that really felt like a movement.”

RELATED: Meet Rick Doblin, the Jewish psychedelics advocate working to turn a club drug into legal medicine

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Netherlands anti-Semitism tally drops by 25% due to COVID-19 lockdowns

Wed, 2021-04-14 14:07

(JTA) — The number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the Netherlands in 2020 decreased by 25% over the previous year but was still among the highest totals in a decade.

The annual report by the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, or CIDI, released Wednesday counted 135 incidents last year compared to 182 cases in 2019. But the 2020 tally is identical to the one for 2018 and the third-highest since 2010.

CIDI attributed the decrease to the paucity of real-life interactions between people due to COVID-19 social distancing in 2020 and to limited faith by many Dutch Jews in police and the effectiveness of reporting incidents.

“A large portion of the incidents is staying out of the picture,” CIDI wrote in the report.

“The lack of faith in follow-up to complaints probably plays a major role” in failure by victims to report anti-Semitic incidents,  the center added.

In one case from January 2020, a former co-worker of a Dutch Jew threatened to hurt him and his children, adding what the alleged victim and CIDI consider anti-Semitic messages to the threats. But when the victim informed police, an officer said that accusing the co-worker of anti-Semitism “doesn’t make sense” and left it out of the complaint.

The complainant returned later and asked to speak to another officer, who did quote the complainant as saying he had suffered anti-Semitic harassment. Police took months to detain the suspect.

CIDI praised the government for its appointment in March of Eddo Verdoner, president of the Central Jewish Board, as the national pointman for fighting anti-Semitism.

“But a lot remains to be done,” CIDI said.

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French top court upholds decision not to try Muslim man who killed his Jewish neighbor while high on marijuana

Wed, 2021-04-14 14:02

(JTA) — Relatives of a Paris woman who was killed by her neighbor while he spewed anti-Semitic slurs and was high on marijuana have lost their final appeal to have the killer tried.

In its decision Wednesday, the Court of Cassation’s Supreme Court of Appeals upheld rulings by lower tribunals that Kobili Traore cannot stand trial in the 2017 killing of Sarah Halimi because he was too high on marijuana to be criminally responsible for his actions.

The handling of Halimi’s slaying has been a watershed event for many French Jews, who say it underlines the French state’s failures in dealing with anti-Semitism.

Traore broke into the third-story apartment of Halimi, a physician and educator in her 60s, shouted about Allah, called her a demon and pummeled Halimi. The intruder then threw Halimi out the window.

Traore then shouted out the window, “A lady has fallen out the window,” and fled the scene, witnesses said. Police caught him nearby.

An appeals court said Traore, now in his early 30s, had anti-Semitic bias and that the killing was partly connected to it. But it also accepted the defense claims that Traore was too high to be tried for his actions and he was placed at a psychiatric facility.

The CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities called it a “miscarriage of justice.” The founder of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, a communal watchdog known as BNVCA, said he “no longer had full confidence that anti-Semitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.”

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Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme devastated the Jewish world, dies in prison at 82

Wed, 2021-04-14 13:45

(JTA) — Bernie Madoff, the fraudster who ran a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme ensnaring thousands of investors, including a long list of Jewish organizations and families, has died at 82.

The Associated Press reported Madoff’s death Wednesday at a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina.

Madoff was known as a selective money manager who made fantastic yet consistent profits for his clients until his entire operation was exposed as a scam amid the 2008 financial crisis. Madoff’s confession of his Ponzi scheme, in which he invented fake stock gains on paper and used new investments to pay off withdrawals from other investors, set off a virtual earthquake in the Jewish philanthropic world.

Among Madoff’s investors were European hedge funds, elderly retirees and a range of nonprofits. Among his victims were some of the most prominent Jewish institutions in the country, as well as Jewish celebrities like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Sandy Koufax, the Hall-of-Fame pitcher.

Madoff’s investors included Yeshiva University, elite Orthodox Jewish day schools in New York and Boston, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and other Jewish organizations and family foundations.

Many of those investors had met Madoff through the small world of Jewish philanthropy in New York and south Florida, and placed their money with his fund via friends of his such as Jeffrey Picower and J. Ezra Merkin, who operated hedge funds that invested heavily with Madoff. Merkin, a former president of the elite Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, directed perhaps $1 billion of congregants’ money to Madoff, according to the New York Times.

So when Madoff, facing increasing pressure due to a national financial crisis, confessed his crime in 2008, the effects were felt across American Jewry. Following the confession, the Jewish Funders Network, which convenes Jewish donors, brought together 35 of the largest Jewish foundations to create a plan to provide emergency funding to some of Madoff’s victims.

Around that time, the Anti-Defamation League also documented an uptick in anti-Semitism that it concluded stemmed from the news of Madoff’s fraud.

The consequences of Madoff’s fraud have reverberated through the Jewish world for years. Some Madoff investors, such as Hadassah, had withdrawn more money than they invested over the years, and were subject to “clawback” suits in which they had to pay back the fictitious profits. While Madoff had claimed to be managing nearly $70 billion, most of that money (aside from what investors gave him) had never actually existed.

A trustee, Irving Picard, has spent the years since 2008 trying to recover the actual billions that Madoff stole. As of 2021, they had recovered and restituted more than $14 billion of the $17.5 billion Madoff took.

“They really felt that they had so much more money in their accounts,” Richard Greenfield, a lawyer who consulted for a handful of Madoff victims in Florida, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2018. “When they talk about their losses, they talk about the fictitious numbers in their accounts, and for some of them, it’s hard to explain: Your real loss wasn’t $200,000, it’s $10,000, which is what you put in.”

Madoff was born in 1938 in Queens, New York, and began working as a stockbroker in 1959. He married his wife, Ruth, that year and had two children. He originally made a name by investing in computerized stock trading in the NASDAQ market, and served as NASDAQ’s chairman.

He began managing private clients’ wealth in the 1970s. While he told Diana Henriques, who wrote a book about him, that the Ponzi scheme began in 1992, the federal prosecutor who led the criminal investigation of Madoff believes that Madoff started the scheme when he began his money-management business.

He collected accolades as his ostensible success grew. Madoff was named the treasurer of Yeshiva University, the flagship Modern Orthodox institution, and gained a reputation as a reserved but effective steward of Jewish organizational finances.

Then it abruptly ended. Madoff pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. His two sons, whom he swore had no involvement in his fraud, predeceased him, one by suicide on the second anniversary of Madoff’s arrest.

In 2020, Madoff requested compassionate release from prison, telling the court he was dying from kidney disease. His request was denied.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth.

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Former ADL chief Abe Foxman says he would still give an award to Rupert Murdoch

Wed, 2021-04-14 02:51

(JTA) — Days after his successor at the Anti-Defamation League said he would not honor Rupert Murdoch today, Abraham Foxman said he stands by the award he gave to the Fox News owner a decade ago.

In 2010, under Foxman’s leadership, the ADL gave Murdoch its International Leadership Award in recognition of his “stalwart support of Israel and his commitment to promoting respect and speaking out against anti-Semitism.”

In the years since, critics of Fox have called out the network, and particularly its popular talk show host Tucker Carlson, for giving a platform to far-right ideas. Last week, Greenblatt called on Fox to fire Carlson for endorsing the white supremacist theory that there is a coordinated effort to “replace” the population of the United States with immigrants from the “third world.” (Carlson said he was not discussing an issue of race.)

Greenblatt said he would not honor Murdoch if the Australian media magnate were up for an award today.

Foxman had a different take. “I’m proud that I gave it to him then and I would give it to him again today,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Tuesday.

Foxman declined to comment on Carlson’s remarks. But he did say he believes Fox as a network is not anti-Semitic.

“Fox is not an anti-Semitic network,” he said. “It’s a lot of things but it’s not an anti-Semitic network and it’s certainly not an anti-Israel network.”

He added, “The issue was not giving an award to Fox. That was not the issue. The issue was giving an award to Rupert Murdoch.”

In his nearly three-decade tenure at the helm of the ADL, from which he retired in 2015, Foxman was perhaps the most prominent public arbiter of what was and was not anti-Semitic. As the organization’s director, he saw combating anti-Semitism across the political spectrum and supporting Israel as part and parcel of the same mission.

Under Greenblatt, the ADL has retained that dual mission of fighting anti-Semitism and defending Israel. While the organization has condemned anti-Semitism on the right and left, Greenblatt has been especially outspoken about the danger of white supremacists in the United States and has criticized former President Donald Trump’s failure to consistently condemn them.

A Holocaust survivor, Foxman came out publicly against Donald Trump, Fox’s favored candidate, ahead of the 2020 election. He said Murdoch’s support for the Republican candidate also did not cause him to rethink the decision to honor Murdoch.

“There are a number of people throughout my years at the ADL who I had the opportunity, the fortune, the privilege to honor,” he said. “Some of them support Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump was a danger to American Jews. That doesn’t cancel out all these people who even today still support him.”

He said that regardless of his political disagreements with Fox, he still appreciated Murdoch’s personal opposition to anti-Semitism and his support of Israel.

“He should be recognized for who he is and was on issues relating to the Jewish people and Israel,” Foxman said. “That hasn’t changed. I may not like what his newspaper writes. I may not like what his TV network projects. But he has still earned what I believe he earned 10 years ago.”

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When a colleague compared a mental health bill to the Holocaust, she interrupted him. Meet Jewish Maryland lawmaker Shane Pendergrass.

Tue, 2021-04-13 22:02

(JTA) — It only took 54 seconds for Shane Pendergrass to stand up and call out another member in the Maryland General Assembly for diminishing the meaning of the Holocaust.

She wishes she had acted faster.

“The question was how did I make myself sit in my seat for the extra 15 seconds before I stood up,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

On Thursday, fellow delegate Daniel Cox rose to oppose a bill that would lower the age at which children can seek mental health treatment without their parents’ consent. He compared the bill to the Nazi behavior revealed during the Nuremberg trials of 1946. Cox, a Republican, said he would mark Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, by voting against the bill, which he said “interferes with the sacred right of parents and their children.”

Pendergrass, a Democrat, rose and said she wanted to speak on a “point of personal privilege,” a right granted by the House rules. Cox objected but the speaker allowed it.

“I am enormously affronted as a Jew when you in any way compare this bill to the Holocaust, especially today,” she said. “Shame on you.”

Talking about her response later with JTA, Pendergrass said “I am the absolute least likely person to be doing this,” noting that she was raised Jewish but no longer has any connection to religious ritual. “I have very little connection to the practice of the religion.”

But as she listened to Cox, she recalled how her late father had been a prisoner of war held by the Germans during World War II. How he understood Yiddish but couldn’t let the Nazis know that he understood what they were saying. And how he had thrown away his dog tags before he was captured so he would not be identified as a Jew.

“His family thought he was dead,” said Pendergrass. (The Library of Congress recorded Marvin Reitman’s story.)

Pendergrass became emotional recalling her father’s story.

“Forgive me, this is hard for me to say,” said Pendergrass, 71. “You know, if you’re born a Jew, you’re a Jew. It’s not about whether you go to shul.”

She was offended not only because she is Jewish but also because her professional experience as an art therapist included caring for children with mental health issues.

“I’m very sensitive to mental health issues,” said Pendergrass, whose focus as a legislator has been health care.

The bill Cox objects to would allow minors as young as 12 to seek care for certain health services without parental permission. It is likely to pass in the Democratic-led legislature. 

During his assembly remarks, Cox said the COVID mask he wore had a picture from the Nuremberg trials printed on it, and compared the bill to the Nazis’ infringement on “the rights of parents.” During the war crimes trials that began in 1945 in Nuremberg, an international tribunal charged Nazi medical doctors for their involvement in human experimentation and mass murder.

“One of the things that was interesting and very sad in the Nuremberg trials, was the fact that medical professionals interfered with parental rights. And what was the result of those trials? Well, the European Union passed the European Commission on Human Rights guaranteeing that never again will the state and the healthcare community interfere with the rights of parents, and the rights of family,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”

Cox was likely referring to the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1953 by the then Council of Europe.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington in a statement called Cox’s comparison “unconscionable.”

Cox later in the session said he wanted to “apologize for any improper comparison, that wasn’t my intent at all.”

Cox said he was seeking to protect “sacred parental rights” and noted that he had visited Auschwitz and that he had Jewish ancestry.

“I just want you to know that I’ve been raised to absolutely love and remember the struggle of the Jewish race and the Jewish religion and of our dear friends,” he said. “My great-great-grandmother actually is Jewish from Eastern Germany. And when I walked the halls of Auschwitz I want you to know I went, I actually walked into the gas chamber and so I just, you know absolutely want you to know how much that impacts me.”

Pendergrass, who represents the town of Columbia and first elected in 1994, said she has a reputation in the chamber for outspokenness. She was furious whenever invited clergy would invoke the name of Jesus in blessing the proceedings — she would bang the lid of her desk shut in protest. 

As a result of the protests from Pendergrass and others, the General Assembly in the early 2000s ended the practice of inviting clergy to open sessions — making it unique among U.S. legislatures. Instead, lawmakers open sessions with prayers but are forbidden to invoke a specific religion.

“I have a long history of when people do things that are unacceptable of standing up and letting them know,” she said.

Pendergrass was not exactly surprised that Cox outraged her: He’s on the far right of the Republican Party and organized two buses to attend the Jan. 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol that aimed to overturn the election of Joe Biden. He shocked fellow delegates when on Twitter he called Vice President Mike Pence, who affirmed that Donald Trump had lost, a “traitor.”

If she was surprised, Pendergrass said as Cox spoke, it was that he was acknowledging the reality of the Holocaust. 

“The first thing I thought as he talked about the Holocaust, and knowing who he is, I looked at him and was quite startled that he was not a Holocaust denier,” she said. “So, I was paying attention to what he said.”

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University of Illinois to get a Jewish students’ dorm following spate of alleged anti-Semitic incidents

Tue, 2021-04-13 21:18

(JTA) — A year after the filing of a federal civil rights complaint alleging an “unrelenting campaign of anti-Semitic harassment” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the school is set to have a new dorm specifically for Jewish students.

Illini Chabad will run the dorm in partnership with the university, the Forward reported. The dorm, which joins a list of faith-based housing options, will have room for 32 students. The bottom floors will serve as the Chabad center and kosher dining hall.

While the dorm is meant to be a place where Shabbat and kosher observance will be easier, it is also intended to be a response to the recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents on campus.

In March 2020, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of students over an alleged pattern of anti-Semitism, including instances of swastika graffiti, vandalism at Jewish centers, and harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students.

The complaint was enabled by the Trump administration’s 2019 decision directing the Education Department to include Jewish students in anti-discrimination protections.

In September, the school’s student government passed a resolution supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that also included a call to divest from companies that do business with Israel. In November, the university said it would work with Jewish and pro-Israel students to make sure they felt safe at school.

Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, director of Illini Chabad, told the Forward he hoped the new dorm would be a step toward making students feel safer on campus.

“If there’s one place on campus you want to be comfortable, it’s at least where you go to sleep at night,” Tiechtel said.

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Iran says it will enrich uranium closer to weaponization levels

Tue, 2021-04-13 21:05

(JTA) — Amid escalating tensions with Israel, Iran pledged on Tuesday to enrich uranium to 60% — closer than ever to the over 90% needed for weaponization.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator and its deputy foreign minister, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, did not offer an explanation in his announcement.

His statement comes on the eve of the second round of talks Wednesday in Vienna, Austria, aimed at getting the United States back into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Iran in compliance again with its provisions. The agreement trades sanctions relief for a rollback in Iran’s nuclear capability.

Iran and Israel have engaged in a shadow war in recent weeks, striking each other’s ships in the region. An attack over the weekend on Natanz, a major Iranian enrichment facility, reportedly has crippled the site. Iran has blamed Israel for the attack; Israel has not commented.

President Joe Biden has made a priority of reentering the nuclear deal, which he believes is the best means of keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it does not have ambitions for weapons, despite a barrage of Western intelligence evidence to the contrary.

President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018 with the backing of Israel and Sunni Arab states. Trump reimposed sanctions and added new ones, leading Iran to violate the provisions, which included keeping enrichment to below 4%. Iran increased enrichment to 20%, bringing the uranium one step closer to weaponization levels.

Israel, which has been vehemently against the deal from its inception, opposes US reentry.

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Henderson, Nev., has a growing Jewish population. Here’s what locals love about living Jewishly in the desert.

Tue, 2021-04-13 20:48

HENDERSON, Nev. (JTA) — Gershon and Leslie Wolf relocated from Brooklyn to Las Vegas in August 2006, then returned to the East Coast in 2010 to join their son and daughter and their families. But four years later, when the kids decided they’d had enough of the high prices, snowstorms and weeklong power outages, the whole clan moved back to Nevada.

Only this time the Wolfs opted for neighboring Henderson, mainly because they wanted to be near the Yeshiva Day School of Las Vegas, “so the kids wouldn’t have to commute to school,” Leslie Wolf said. “We’ve never looked back. We all love the life here.”

If Las Vegas is known as a place to have fun, its next-door neighbor Henderson — Nevada’s second-largest city — has become a prime destination for Jewish families. Some 40% of the approximately 70,000 Jews who live in the Las Vegas Valley reside in Henderson, according to the most recent demographic survey by Jewish Nevada, the representative organization for the Jewish federation. A steady trickle of newly arriving families every summer has propelled what was a sleepy suburb to an emerging hub of Orthodox Jewish life in the desert.

In the shadow of Sin City sits a haven for Jews who, with few exceptions, all made the move from somewhere else.

Henderson has peeled off Jews from New York and California, who are drawn to the low housing costs, abundance of parks and trails, and lack of snow. But it’s the well-developed infrastructure of observant Jewish life that’s the real draw: the thriving minyans, supermarkets with kosher sections, summer camps, kosher restaurants, religious schools, a kosher butcher, mikvahs and a Jewish cemetery. A religious boundary known as an eruv is bursting at its seams, and an expansion effort is underway.

“We love it,” gushes Simon Lader, a corporate headhunter who relocated from England seven years ago. “Coming from Manchester we love the weather, the landscape, the dry heat and blue skies. We also love how warm and close the community is. It has grown exponentially since we first arrived. However, it has retained the ‘village’ culture where everyone still looks out for each other.”

The city does not yet have everything that some community members want — but even when people move on, the village culture persists. The community was rocked this year when Bashi Rand, a 37-year-old former resident who had just moved with her family to New Jersey, in part to seek a larger Orthodox high school for her daughter, died of COVID-19 complications.

Rand’s death sent many in Henderson into mourning. Her funeral was viewed virtually in Henderson by longtime friends. An online fundraising campaign launched on behalf of the family has raised more than $760,000. While it helped provide closure, it didn’t relieve the pain.

“It was very tragic,” said Sy Ader, a retired engineer who arrived in Henderson in 1996 before much of the city had been built. Ader remembered Rand not only as someone who was always there for others, but as “a very funny girl with a subtle sense of humor.”

“Aside from her loss, it really hit home to everyone because this was the first loss in our community,” he said. “It was a reality check on how precious life is.”

Rand’s family represented a relatively rare occurrence. While Henderson has four synagogues – mainstream Orthodox, Chabad, Conservative and Reform – running the gamut of contemporary American Jewish life, it’s the local Orthodox community that has seen the most dramatic growth from its beginnings a quarter-century ago with a Chabad emissary.

Henderson, which was incorporated in 1953, saw its population expand rapidly beginning in the 1990s, quintupling over the past 30 years to its current 320,000-plus. The first Chabad emissary had arrived in the mid-’90s. The Orthodox presence grew further with the arrival of Rabbi Yehoshua Fromowitz in the summer of 2008 to form a kollel (yeshiva for married men). Three years later he founded the Ahavas Torah Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

Unlike in some other expanding Orthodox-dominated suburbs, such as Lakewood, New Jersey, the Jews of Henderson don’t necessarily see their proximity to a big city as an advantage. Being a stone’s throw from the legendary Vegas Strip “definitely created some challenges in terms of spiritual growth,” Fromowitz said.

“But for the most part,” he added, “the community remains isolated from the entertainment capital of the world — or so we hope.”

Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel of Midbar Kodesh Temple, a Conservative congregation, considers Henderson unique in that “you can live here and avoid the common vices normally associated with Las Vegas.”

“The Strip and all that it offers is there for those who want to take advantage of it,” he said. “However, you can live in Henderson and not even know it exists. As a master-planned community there is a park within a mile walk of any home.”

For some in the community, having Las Vegas nearby offers something of a beacon when it comes to maintaining Orthodox values in Henderson.

“Every city has its places to go and places to avoid, but they are all interlaced and it’s hard to know where to steer clear of,” Lader said. “With Vegas only a few miles away, we know that all the tumah [impurity] is concentrated in one specific area, and it’s lit up and visible for miles around, so it’s very obvious where to avoid.”

Others say the Strip allows for employment opportunities, even if the content is not totally palatable for Orthodox workers.

“Look, you grin and bear it,” said one Orthodox local who had worked at the Egypt-themed Luxor resort on the Strip and asked not to be named for fear of societal pressure. “Earning a living for one’s family is a righteous endeavor, and bottom line we’re still in golus [exile]. You make the best of things.”

Many have made that determination. The Yeshiva Day School of Las Vegas is now located in Henderson and has 200 students, enough to have outgrown the school’s physical space — it leases additional space from the local Reform congregation, Ner Tamid. And preliminary plans are in motion to expand the city’s eruv eastward to encompass more apartment communities. Consultation with rabbinic experts is already underway.

“People in Henderson, Jews and gentiles alike, are generally nice,” said Howard Perlman, president and founder of Perlman Architects. His firm designed developments in the city that cater to observant Jews, including housing units that surround the three synagogues and a local assisted living facility with a kosher kitchen.

“I have found over the years that the gentile community we’re integrated with accepts and likes us,” Perlman said. “Even the city government went out of its way to help us with our eruv and traffic control on Shabbat and holidays.”

Like many Jewish communities, Henderson is reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID had a huge impact on our community,” said Ahavas Torah Center’s Rabbi Zecharia Rubin, who relocated with his family from Jerusalem. “Many people have been home and stayed away from shul and other gatherings, even with social distancing in effect. I am confident it will get back to normal, but it will take time.”

When the pandemic struck, the community, like so many others, had to pivot to virtual events. Shuls shut down for months, then moved outdoors, adopted all regulations such as providing face masks and hand sanitizers, and socially distancing, suspended the weekly kiddush (the repast following Shabbat services) and curtailed all social events.

Tecktiel sees “great” potential for the growth of Henderson’s Jewish community.

“The strong base that we have created allows for people to move here and seamlessly integrate into the Jewish community,” he said.

Locals await the addition of fresh-made food items for takeout or even on-premise consumption by the newly arrived kosher butcher Prime Nosh, which opened in 2018. The charitable organization founded by the Wolfs shortly after they arrived, Aishel Avraham — similar to one theyah’d operated back in New York — now delivers free Shabbat food bundles to 80 financially stressed families across the area, and its scope is growing.

Rubin said the pandemic had made Henderson attractive to even more potential Jewish residents than before.

“Jews in big cities are looking to get out,” Rubin said, “and when they see Henderson they find the perfect place to come to. … There simply aren’t enough homes available within the eruv to accommodate the families interested in moving here.”

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French-Jewish gay man threatened in Turkish prison, his family says

Tue, 2021-04-13 20:14

(JTA) — A French-Jewish gay man serving a 16-year prison sentence in Turkey for buying a small amount of drugs is being harassed and intimidated in jail, his family said.

Inmates have regularly threatened to hurt Fabien Azoulay, 43, unless he converts to Islam and over their suspicions that he is gay, according to a petition published earlier this week by his family and friends. About 92,000 people have signed the petition, which calls on French President Emmanuel Macron to intervene.

The petition raised awareness in France and in the French media to Azoulay’s case.

On Tuesday, Turkey’s ambassador to France told the C8 channel television that Azoulay had been moved to a new prison with better conditions and less contact with other inmates.

“The problem was that he had a fellow inmate who behaved violently toward him,” Onaner said.

He said he did not know whether Azoulay was being targeted because of his Jewish identity or sexual orientation. Onaner added that high-level diplomats from both France and Turkey are in contact about Azoulay’s case.

On Tuesday, the City Council of Paris passed a resolution calling on Turkey to release Azoulay, who has been in prison since 2017. The resolution called the sentence “excessive.”

Azoulay, who came to Istanbul to get hair implants, went online to order a substance called GBL — a party drug popular in French nightclubs. GBL was legal in Turkey until being outlawed six months before Azoulay bought it online using his credit card.

Lawyers for Azoulay, who has no criminal record, said he arrested and sentenced for buying GBL for personal consumption. But Onaner said the order was “substantial” and the punishment corresponded to what the court deemed a commercial quantity.

Prior to his move to a new prison this year, Azoulay lived with three inmates in his room and had no ability to stay fit, he wrote a friend in a letter from June 2020.

“When I look at my sentence and read ‘release: 05/23/2034,’ my heart beats forcefully,” he wrote. “I won’t make it till then. I know it. I feel it. I won’t have the strength.”

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Israel to allow vaccinated tour groups starting in May

Tue, 2021-04-13 18:52

(JTA) — Israel will be reopening its gates to fully vaccinated tour groups on May 23.

The Jewish state hopes to allow individual vaccinated tourists by early July, a source in its Tourism Ministry told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel has vaccinated most of its own population, and largely reopened public and recreational spaces, while seeing the number of COVID cases plummet.

“It is time that Israel’s unique advantage as a safe and healthy country start to assist it in recovering from the economic crisis, and not only serve other countries’ economies,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen said in a statement. “Only opening the skies for international tourism will truly revive the tourism industry, including restaurants, hotels, sites, tour guides, buses and others looking to work and provide for their families.”

The reopening to tourists will happen in three stages: Beginning on May 23, the country will let in a small number of tour groups, about 10 to 20 a day, led by licensed tour providers. Tourists will still need to test for COVID before the flight, and test for antibodies upon arrival.

A few weeks after May 23, if case numbers remain low, the number of tour groups allowed in per day will rise. Israel then hopes to reopen to individuals and families who are vaccinated.

In 2019, some 4.55 million tourists visited Israel, and the country’s tourism industry employed some 200,000 people, according to the ministry. But Israel closed nearly all entry to foreigners with the onset of the pandemic, and shut down its main airport completely earlier this year due to rising case numbers.

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Association of Jewish Studies president resigns over meeting with Steven Cohen

Tue, 2021-04-13 16:30

(JTA) — The president of the Association of Jewish Studies has resigned after revealing that he met with Steven M. Cohen, the Jewish sociologist who was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct in 2018.

Cohen resigned from his formal positions at multiple Jewish institutions amid those allegations but had recently been meeting with Jewish studies scholars and communal leaders, including Noam Pianko, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Washington and the president of the academic association.

The meetings drew widespread condemnation, with over 500 rabbis and 100 rabbinical students signing letters criticizing attempts to “rehabilitate” Cohen before he had fully repented for his actions. The Association of Jewish Studies’ women’s caucus also condemned the meetings.

“Accepting this meeting invitation was a mistake,” Pianko wrote in a letter to the association’s executive committee, which the committee shared when it announced his departure in an email to members Tuesday morning.

“As a scholar and an individual member of AJS, I believe strongly in upholding our mission-centric value of academic and intellectual freedom including our commitment not to regulate the intellectual association of its members,” Pianko wrote. “However, I have now come to understand that although I violated no AJS policy, my role as president of AJS necessitated a different set of obligations and standards than other members of the organization.”

Pianko’s resignation marks the first in connection with the Cohen meetings, which the once-celebrated scholar held with three colleagues. In his letter of resignation, he acknowledged the women’s caucus’ statement.

“Over the last two weeks, I have listened carefully to colleagues who have made public statements and with those who have shared their perspectives with me privately,” Pianko wrote. “I am grateful to the Women’s Caucus for their clear articulation of the implications of such a series of meetings.”

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‘These people and their f***ing tree houses’: Andrew Cuomo chafed at campaigning on Sukkot

Tue, 2021-04-13 14:23

(JTA) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long prided himself on his strong relationship with the Jewish community — a relationship he dates back to his father’s three terms as governor.

But that love for the Jewish community apparently does not extend to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

In a story about Cuomo’s political career, The New York Times Magazine reported Cuomo’s frustration with a campaign appearance at a Sukkot event during his run for attorney general in 2006.

“These people and their f***ing tree houses,” Cuomo said to his team, according to The Times.

A spokesman denied the comment.

“His two sisters married Jewish men, and he has the highest respect for Jewish traditions,” the spokesman said.

Sukkot is marked by eating, and sometimes sleeping, in a sukkah, a temporary hut often built from wood and covered in tree branches.

Cuomo’s relationship with the Jewish community has largely been positive for most of his career. But his ties with the Orthodox Jewish community hit a rough patch in the fall when Cuomo ordered tightened restrictions on a number of Orthodox neighborhoods with heightened COVID test positivity rates during a major surge in cases. Coincidentally or not, those restrictions were announced during  Sukkot.

One Orthodox advocacy group, Agudath Israel, even sued Cuomo, claiming that a rule restricting attendance at religious services in those neighborhoods was a violation of religious liberty. The Supreme Court agreed with Agudath Israel in November and the rule eventually was amended.

Cuomo’s comments about Sukkot were revealed as the governor continues to power through a multifaceted political scandal involving multiple accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct, charges that his office tampered with the number of COVID deaths of nursing home residents and a newer scandal involving government employees working on his memoir about the early days of the pandemic.

The political firestorm was set off when Lindsey Boylan, a former aide now running for Manhattan Borough president, accused Cuomo of sexual harassment and kissing her in his office in February, followed by nine other accusations. The state attorney general has opened an investigation into the accusations and multiple New York elected officials have called on Cuomo to resign, but he has refused to step down.

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With new initiative on changing school culture, Jewish schools focus on anti-racist education

Tue, 2021-04-13 14:15

After George Floyd was killed in May at the hands of Minneapolis police, and protests and demonstrations spread around the country, students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, found themselves upset, too.

Many of the school’s 900 or so students, including a few who are Black, were asking questions about police brutality and systemic racism in American society. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of the school, wanted to ensure those questions were encouraged rather than silenced or ignored.

That’s one of the reasons the Charles E. Smith school decided over the winter to enroll in a unique initiative on race and school culture created by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

As a first step in what is envisioned as a multilayer, multiyear approach to help schools foster greater diversity, equity and inclusion, educators from about 40 schools gathered five times online over the course of a month for trainings focused on overcoming implicit bias, why equity work is important and how schools can create a welcoming climate for discussions on race.

“One of our core values is that all people are created in God’s image and are to be treated with respect,” Malkus said. “We Jews have experienced thousands of years of persecution, so we feel we have an obligation to make the world better through tikkun olam. And it’s important for us to participate with other Jewish day schools that share those values in having that conversation — even though it can sometimes be an uncomfortable conversation.”

The strong interest in Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive is reflective of the increasing attention to matters of race and social equity among Jewish day school educators — and students.

“This isn’t just a conversation that came and went in a few weeks when it was a hot topic,” said Prizmah CEO Paul Bernstein. “This has been an ongoing conversation for Jewish educators, and with recent events raising the temperature on these issues, there was also a very strong groundswell from the students themselves as they begin to see themselves as the leaders of tomorrow.”

The five initial sessions in Prizmah’s Race and School Culture Deep Dive, which ran in February and March, focused on continuing to build a culture and community of change; strategies for building a diverse Jewish community, including welcoming Jews of color; addressing implicit bias; learning about current successful anti-racism programs in Jewish schools; and mapping out ways to advance work in these areas that is already underway.

Beyond those initial sessions, each participating school is working with a consultant to further the effort, and lay and professional school leaders are joining collaborative working groups to move their race and school culture work forward with specific, goal-oriented next steps. Those groups are focused on topics that include creating a professional development agenda on race and school culture for faculty; teaching about identity, bias and race in elementary school; and identifying interdisciplinary curricular resources on race and equity. Prizmah also offers a peer-to-peer professional development community for sharing resources, asking questions and celebrating successes related to race and school culture.

“The urgency of this work cannot be overstated,” said Tonda Case, a professional on diversity, equity and inclusion working with Prizmah on the project.

“How do we do the work of co-creating a world that holds at its core equity and justice? For our children, our elders and ourselves, how do we reframe our experience of ‘the other’ by coming to see all human beings as a different version of ourselves?” asked Case, who is a Jew of color. “How do we deeply root our work — emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually — in our Jewish belief that each of us is created ‘b’tzelem elokim,’ in the image of God, and recreate Jewish institutions, systems, language, rituals and cultural norms that hold organically the whole of who we are while maintaining the integrity of our beautiful and blessed difference?”

The primary funders of the Prizmah project are the Jim Joseph Foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Crown Family Philanthropies, which have partnered to fund the program for at least three years, according to Bernstein.

“At a moment when our country is reckoning more seriously with our legacy of racial injustice than it has in decades, the Jewish community must confront our own responsibilities, both to Jews of color and as part of our broader national commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for all Americans,” Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, said.

Steve Freedman, head of the 415-student Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, New Jersey, said his school is taking part in the Race and School Culture initiative to help get guidance in making better decisions about how to teach children.

Jewish day school students, like these at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County bearing signs with the Hebrew word for love, are increasingly pushing their schools to explore how they can foster greater diversity, equity and inclusion both in school and out in the world. (Courtesy of the Schechter School of Bergen County)

“This is a complicated time we’re living in. We’re facing complex issues, so we want the collective wisdom of different experts in the field to help us,” Freedman said. “We’ve been exploring these issues at Schechter for many years, dealing with the broader issue of race and discrimination using our own experience as Jews.”

Years ago the school began examining its library and curriculum to make sure that students studying history and civics were hearing multiple voices — an approach informed by Jewish tradition, Freedman said.

“Being human is to be messy,” Freedman said. “Our biblical heroes all contributed significantly to the betterment of civilization, and yet they were all flawed. The same goes for our own heroes of American history. We must not be afraid to teach kids honestly and help them think critically.”

Tikvah Wiener, head of The IDEA School in Tenafly, New Jersey, a Modern Orthodox, project-based learning high school that opened in 2018 and now has 51 students, said that addressing racial justice issues is an integral part of the curriculum.

In its first two years, the school ran a “justice and righteousness” curriculum that used Talmudic texts to show how Judaism is concerned with seeking justice. For next year, Wiener and her team are working with experts to design a curriculum that weaves together the history of American slavery and the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. The students will interview survivors and descendants of both horrors, Wiener said.

“We will inevitably make mistakes and need to learn from them, but by providing us with information and resources, schools can then decide how they will start, continue and develop racial justice work and be there for each other,” Wiener said. She cited a well-known Jewish aphorism from a Mishna in Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Aside from the 40 Jewish schools participating in the initiative, many more of the over 300 Jewish day schools in the Prizmah network are doing their own work in educational programming related to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Portland Jewish Academy, a community day school in Oregon with about 180 students, began working on diversity issues several years ago, examining everything from its print educational materials to its wall art, the language teachers used to educate students and the facility’s layout to ensure inclusion.

The school also brought in educators from the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education to work with students and adults on issues of racism and discrimination. Over the winter, 12 middle-school students participated in a three-day diversity workshop for students across the Pacific Northwest.

“Our students are activists who express themselves and their passions in a number of different ways, including attending protests, researching and teaching about important causes, and going into the community to feed the hungry,” school principal Merrill Hendin said. “Our goal is to send mensches out into the world — whether at the age of 3 or 14 — and we are doing whatever we can to accomplish that.”

Debra Shaffer Seeman, Prizmah’s director of network weaving, said that though many schools were already doing this work on their own, there is new urgency to addressing inequity in the Jewish community and beyond.

“Why are we doing this? Because Jewish day school and yeshiva educators feel a deep sense of responsibility for their students, including instilling their own sense of responsibility for the world around them,” Seeman said. “We can best serve the next generation by instilling in them the value and responsibility to improve themselves and the world.”

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Isi Leibler, activist for Soviet Jewry who helped expose World Jewish Congress scandal, dies at 86

Tue, 2021-04-13 13:59

(JTA) — Isi Leibler, a former activist on behalf of Soviet Jews and a leader of Australian Jewry, has died in Israel. He was 86.

Leibler, who was born in Belgium but grew up in Melbourne, Australia, led the Executive Council of Australian Jewry for nearly 20 years until 1995. He later served on the governing board of the World Jewish Congress. He was WJC’s honorary vice president at the time of his death Tuesday.

In addition to lobbying with Australian governments to let in Jews leaving the former Soviet Union and leading public awareness campaigns to allow more of them to leave, Leibler used his contacts in China and India to improve their relations with Israel and eventually establish diplomatic relations with that country.

A multimillionaire who founded and then sold the JetSet Tours tourism firm, Leibler immigrated to Israel, or made aliyah, in 1999.
A stalwart of the Israeli right wing, Leibler was a longtime columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.

Leibler had a key role in exposing a scandal within the World Jewish Congress involving the conduct of its former secretary-general, Israel Singer, who quit in 2007 amid criticism of his alleged misuse of the organization’s funds for personal gain.

In 2004, Leibler publicly accused Singer of misusing funds, leading to a drop in donations. The World Jewish Congress sued Leibler for libel, but dropped the suit in 2007.

“The Jewish world has lost a great leader,” former Israeli ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem wrote on Twitter.

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