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Jewish groups urge Congress to preserve anti-Semitism monitor

Wed, 2017-03-22 21:40

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish defense groups urged Congress to preserve the State Department’s anti-Semitism monitor.

Representatives of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Secure Community Network testified Wednesday before the human rights subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the subcommittee chairman, convened the hearing to examine connections between increases in anti-Semitism in Europe and in the United States.

The witnesses spoke to the topic, but also made the case for preserving the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. A report last month said that President Donald Trump’s administration was planning to scrap the position. No successor has been named for the the most recent anti-Semitism monitor, Ira Forman, who was on hand for the hearing.

The position is mandated by a 2004 law that Smith helped author, and the New Jersey lawmaker has joined Democrats in opposing any bid to scrap it. An array of Jewish groups and lawmakers have also urged the Trump administration to keep the post in place.

Naming a replacement for Forman “will ensure that the U.S. maintains a specialized focus on anti-Semitism,” said Stacy Burdett, the director of ADL’s Washington office.

Mark Weitzman, the director of government affairs for the Wiesenthal Center, said the position should be elevated to the ambassador level.

Speakers suggested — sometimes gently, sometimes less so — that Trump’s team needed to exhibit more sensitivity to the issue of anti-Semitism.

Weitzman cited the White House’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, which omitted any mention of Jews. He noted that anti-Semites seized on the statement as a means of denying Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

“Even a mistake in the context of this background can be used by people with bad intentions,” he said.

Burdett said that “political leaders have the most immediate and significant opportunity to set the tone of a national response to an anti-Semitic incident, an anti-Semitic party or an anti-Semitic parliamentarian.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs for the AJC, focused on manifestations of anti-Semitism on the left and right in Europe.

Paul Goldenberg, the director of SCN, the security arm of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that extremist groups in the United States and Europe are “increasingly the context for each other” by echoing one another in the themes they embrace.

Barry Shrage, longtime CEO of Boston Jewish federation, announces retirement

Wed, 2017-03-22 21:08

(JTA) — Barry Shrage, the longtime president and CEO of the Boston-area Jewish federation, announced that he will resign effective next year.

Shrage, 69, who has helmed the Combined Jewish Philanthropies for three decades, made the announcement in a letter Wednesday to the local Jewish community — the fourth largest in the United States.

A search for his successor will begin in September, Shrage said in the letter, with the transition taking place in the summer of 2018.

Shrage said in his letter that he would continue to work on “issues of greatest concern to our community, issues where I can continue to have an impact, nationally and locally, while assuring the best possible professional leadership for CJP’s future.” He said he will work with national and local Jewish institutions and foundations.

The issues, he said, include those “related to Jewish identity, especially Jewish adult learning, Birthright, outreach to young adults and interfaith households, inclusion and strengthening ties to the Jewish people and to Israel.”

Shrage cited spending more time with his family, particularly his grandchildren, as one reason he was leaving his post.

Jewish countertenor, 23, wins prestigious Metropolitan Opera award

Wed, 2017-03-22 21:02

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (YouTube)

NEW YORK (JTA) — A 23-year-old Jewish singer won a prominent competition held by the Metropolitan Opera.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, a countertenor from Brooklyn, was one of six winners among the nine finalists who performed at the National Council Auditions Grand Finals at Lincoln Center on Sunday. The prize is often seen as the most prestigious for opera singers in the United States.

Nussbaum Cohen, the son of JTA contributor Debra Nussbaum Cohen, performed two arias, Handel’s “Dove sei, amato bene?” from “Rodelinda” and Jonathan Dove’s “Dawn, still darkness” from “Flight.”

The New York Times’ classical music editor, Zachary Woolfe, said Nussbaum Cohen, who studied history at Princeton University, was the only “complete artist” at the competition.

“Expressive yet dignified, his phrasing confident and his ornamentation stylishly discreet, he brought tears to my eyes,” Woolfe wrote of Nussbaum Cohen’s rendition of the Handel aria.

The National Council Auditions is run by the Metropolitan Opera “to discover promising young opera singers and assist in the development of their careers,” according to its website. Auditions are held across the U.S. and Canada, and winners and finalists each receive $15,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Watch Nussbaum Cohen performing “Dawn, still darkness” earlier this month:


Netanyahu praises China upon completing state visit there

Wed, 2017-03-22 20:53

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked the Great Wall of China at the end of a state visit to China.

During the visit, which ended Wednesday, the University of Haifa signed an agreement with the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, a Chinese conglomerate, and the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences that will establish three joint artificial intelligence technology centers constructed in Haifa, Israel, Hangzhou, China and Beijing, and an initial investment of $10 million.

Chinese billionaire Zong Qinghou, the CEO of the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, will finance the Institutes for Artificial Intelligence Technology Centers.

Netanyahu was present for the signing of the agreement.

Several cooperative agreements between Israel and China also were signed during the visit in areas such as emergency medicine, science, education, intellectual property and environment.

Netanyahu thanked China for its friendship and praised the country in a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

“We admire China’s capabilities, its position on the world stage and in history. We have always believed, as we discussed on my previous visit, that Israel can be a partner, a junior partner, but a perfect partner for China in the development of a variety of technologies that change the way we live, how long we live, how healthy we live, the water we drink, the food we eat, the milk that we drink – in every area,” Netanyahu said.

During the visit, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, laid a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square.

A short visit to the Great Wall of China at the end of a successful state visit to China pic.twitter.com/4beSPUexyj

— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) March 22, 2017

Richard Gere on channeling his ‘inner schlub’ in new movie

Wed, 2017-03-22 20:33

Richard Gere stars as Norman Oppenheimer in “Norman” (Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures Classics)

(JTA) — Richard Gere is sexy, suave, tough.

He’s been the star of a constellation of films, from “American Gigolo” to “Pretty Woman,” “An Officer and a Gentleman” to “Primal Fear.” At 67, the onetime People magazine Sexiest Man of the Year (1999) still has the looks and charm of a leading man.

So what is Richard Gere doing playing the title role in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”? His character, Norman Oppenheimer, is neither sexy, nor suave, nor tough. He’s a loser, a sad sack, a Sammy Glick wannabe who would “get it for you wholesale” for a favor in return.

As it turns out, Gere asked the same question before accepting the role, he told JTA in a telephone interview.

Gere explains he was a fan of the film’s Israeli director, Joseph Cedar. But before signing on, “I said I want to ask you a question first: ‘Why me? There are a lot of wonderful Jewish actors in New York,'” he said. “He told me, ‘That’s true, but I want people to see this character through fresh eyes. I want them to see it through your eyes.’

“It was a brilliant script, so I said OK,” he added. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I worked on it close to a year.”

Just how did he “work on it?”

“I had to find my inner schlub to play Norman,” Gere said with a laugh.

“There was something about what Richard brings to this character that didn’t exist before [in the screenplay],” Cedar said. “He came with the ability to be naive and scheming, charming and repelling. Movie stars don’t usually go this low.”

By “low,” Cedar means plunging into the depths of a character who is so complex — a plotter and schemer who at the same time is somehow good at heart. He isn’t so much evil as he is delusional — convinced that he’s just one deal away from success.

“When we started screening the movie, we realized everyone had a Norman story,” Gere said. “An uncle, a friend of a friend, a parent’s friend, someone in the office — everyone has a Norman. A mysterious guy. You don’t really know where he comes from. You don’t really know his history.”

In the film, when we first meet Norman, he appears prosperous, dressed nattily in an expensive-looking suit and camel-hair overcoat. He’s walking down Manhattan streets, a cellphone plastered to his ear, ostensibly making deals. But we soon see appearances are deceiving — Norman is a hustler about whom we learn little.

He refers at times to a deceased wife and a child, but we’re not sure they exist. He doesn’t seem to have a home or office. All he seems to have is a pathological, almost shark-like need to keep moving forward, on to the next deal, the next promise, the next lie.

“As you see in the movie, he’s a steamroller,” Gere said. “Nothing will stop him.”

Gere, right, with “Norman” co-stars Lior Ashkenazi, center, and Michael Sheen. (Seacia Pavao/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shortly after the film begins, Norman follows Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenzai) from a conference. Eshel is Israel’s deputy minister of trade, but feels at a low point of his career. Claiming mutual friends and acquaintances he doesn’t really have, and perhaps sensing Eshel’s vulnerability, Norman imposes himself on Eshel in front of an upscale haberdashery, convincing the Israeli to accept a gift of a very expensive pair of shoes he’d admired.

Three years later, Eshel is elected Israel’s prime minister, and when they meet at a reception in New York City he greets Norman warmly. Eshel’s staff is wary, but he seems to only remember the sympathetic and generous man he had met earlier.

That connection changes Norman’s life; suddenly he is welcomed in circles where he had been shunned. As he says in the film, “For once I bet on the right horse.”

Emboldened by his sudden popularity, Norman makes promises he can’t keep. To his rabbi — that noted Yiddish actor Steve Buscemi — he pledges to raise the millions needed to refurbish and save his synagogue. To his nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen), he offers to arrange a synagogue wedding for his interfaith marriage.

But for Norman, every silver lining has a cloud. He brags about his “shoeish” gift to an Israeli he meets, unaware that she is an operative of the Israeli Justice Department. This leads to a chain of events that threaten Eshel’s political career, as well as Norman’s dreams.

Cedar was reimagining the story of the court Jew — someone who offers a favor to a powerful man, becomes powerful himself and creates resentment in a society that’s already anti-Semitic. But the story has echoes of the current corruption investigation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For the record, promoting the film during its Israeli premiere earlier this month, Gere suggested that the cigars and other gifts Netanyahu allegedly received are “no big deal” if the prime minister can come up with a peace plan.

“There’s no defense of this occupation,” Gere told Haaretz in an interview published March 12. “Settlements are such an absurd provocation and, certainly in the international sense, completely illegal — and they are certainly not part of the program of someone who wants a genuine peace process.”

For his part, Cedar has a more personal connection to a court Jew story. Four years ago, Cedar’s uncle by marriage, American Rabbi Morris Talansky, famously gave then-Jerusalem mayor (and later Israeli prime minister) Ehud Olmert numerous “cash-stuffed envelopes,”and then testified against him during Olmert’s bribery trial in 2013.

Cedar insists there was no connection between that and his script, but it might explain why this potentially pathetic character was so sympathetically drawn and played.

“Every once in a while I feel like a Norman,” Cedar said. “That was the motivation behind the whole project.”

“All the problems this guy faces, all the slights he faces, there really is no anger in him,” Gere said of his character. “When I first started playing him, I thought there’d be more frustration.”

While at times Norman is sympathetic, he is nonetheless a negative portrayal of a Jewish character. Given the times, I asked Gere if he had any qualms about taking the role.

“I mean, it’s a complicated thing,” he said, pausing to gather his thoughts. “This was written by a scholarly Jewish writer-director [Cedar]. He’s an intuitive writer and the story of the court Jew is really important to him.

“I was always asking him, ‘Does this feel right to you?’ and he kept reassuring me. I didn’t want to be the cliche Jew and I worked hard to avoid that.”

Gere is famously a Buddhist; he’s both follower and friend of the Dalai Lama. Buddhism, he said, “impacts everything I do. I always ask myself, ‘Why are you doing it?’ If the answer is money, that’s probably not good enough. I have a daily commitment to do something spiritual.”

I mention Leonard Cohen, who seems to have embraced both his Judaism and Buddhism.

“Some of the very best Buddhists are Jews because of their analytical approach to life,” Gere said. “The Jewish mind is an inquiring mind. I can’t tell you why that is. There is a fearlessness in examining things. Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy of deep exploration.”

Israel, British Jewry offer condolences in wake of deadly London attacks

Wed, 2017-03-22 20:07

(JTA) — At least two civilians and a police officer were killed in a car-ramming and knife attack outside of the houses of Parliament in London.

British authorities are calling the attack a “terrorist incident” as they continue to investigate the motive in the Wednesday afternoon attack.

More than 20 are reported injured, some seriously. The attacker was shot and killed by police after crashing into a crowd of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and then exiting the vehicle brandishing a knife. He stabbed a police officer to death inside the gates of the Parliament building. The attacker has not yet been identified.

The Community Security Trust, the United Kingdom’s main watchdog group on anti-Semitism, called on the Jewish community to be “calm, vigilant and to co-operate with security measures,” a spokesman told the London-based Jewish Chronicle. The CST said there is not believed to be any immediate threat to the community.

Additional police patrols were visible in London neighborhoods with large Jewish populations, such as Stamford Hills.

U.K. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said in a statement: “Today’s attack, which targeted the very heart of our democracy in Westminster, will serve only to unite us against the scourge of violence and terrorism.

“The prayers of the Jewish community are with the families of the victims and with our security services, who so often selflessly place themselves in harm’s way for our protection.”

Prayers of the Jewish community are with the families of the victims of today's attack at #Westminster & with our brave security services

— Chief Rabbi Mirvis (@chiefrabbi) March 22, 2017

“Israel expresses its deep shock at the terror attack in London today and its solidarity with the victims and with the people and government of Great Britain. Terror is terror wherever it occurs and we will fight it relentlessly,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a statement about the attack. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also holds the Foreign Minister’s portfolio, was on an airplane back to Israel from China at the time of the attack.


Israel expresses its deep shock at the terror attack in London and its solidarity with the British people.We are fighting this war together

— Tzipi Hotovely (@TzipiHotovely) March 22, 2017

The European Jewish Congress in a statement condemned the attack, calling it a “cowardly and barbaric terror attack.”  The EJC also extended its condolences to the British government and the British people.

“This strike, at the heart of democracy, on the anniversary of the Brussels attacks which claimed the lives of 32 people, once again demonstrates that radical extremists continue to have the ability and motivation to commit mass murder in Europe,” EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor said in the statement.

“This murderous ideology targets all of Europeans and all of Europe must stand together to fight this scourge.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a statement condemned the attack.

“On behalf of the United States, I express my condolences to the victims and their families. The American people send their thoughts and prayers to the people of the United Kingdom. We condemn these horrific acts of violence, and whether they were carried out by troubled individuals or by terrorists, the victims know no difference,” the statement said.

These two non-Jews are stars of Yiddish theater

Wed, 2017-03-22 20:00

Shane Baker, left, and Caraid O’Brien in the New Yiddish Rep’s current production of “God of Vengeance.” (Ronald L. Glassman)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Veteran actor Shane Baker has performed in three productions of “God of Vengeance,” Sholem Asch’s Yiddish classic about a brothel-owning family and their daughter’s lesbian relationship.

Currently playing to sold-out audiences at New York’s Theatre at St. Clement’s Church, the play — which was first staged in 1906 — still resonates today as a treatise on morality, religion and sexuality.

When Baker brusquely growls, in Yiddish, to his wife, Sarah (played with charm and poise by Caraid O’Brien) about wanting to own a Torah scroll, they really pack a punch.

But here’s the surprising thing: While Baker and O’Brien are at the forefront of the Yiddish culture and theater scenes, neither actor is Jewish.

Baker, 48, who was raised Episcopalian in Kansas City, has been performing in Yiddish plays since the mid-1990s. He is also the first non-Jewish director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, an organization that brings Yiddish productions around the world. In addition, he teaches a summer workshop on Yiddish theater at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research here, as well as classes for the Workmen’s Circle, an organization that promotes Jewish culture and offers Yiddish lessons.

O’Brien, 42, grew up in Boston and traces her family’s roots back to Galway and elsewhere in Ireland’s Aran Islands. She has translated multiple Yiddish plays into English (including “God of Vengeance,” although the current production is staged in its original Yiddish) and has taught classes on Yiddish theater history. She is finishing up a book on Seymour Rexite, a former star of the Yiddish stage known for translating pop and Broadway songs into Yiddish, as well as her friend and mentor.

Both Baker and O’Brien admit that people are often surprised to come across non-Jews who are so passionate about Yiddish. Still, both said they see their interest in Yiddish as the same as anyone’s interest in any culture that’s not their own.

“No one gets surprised if a Scotsman studies French or a German studies Russian,” Baker told JTA in a phone interview. “Why should it be such a shock if a gentile studies Yiddish? It’s reflective, in a way, of a sort of inferiority complex regarding Yiddish.”

True as that may be, it’s nonetheless rare these days to hear anyone speaking Yiddish who was not brought up in a haredi Orthodox community. On top of that, Yiddish theater — which hit its heyday during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — is even more of a niche interest. There are only two Yiddish theater companies left in New York City: the New Yiddish Rep, which is behind this “God of Vengeance” production, and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene.

Still, if a packed house on a cold Sunday afternoon is any indication, this production of “God of Vengeance,” which is playing through March 26, is finding a receptive audience.

The play is riding the buzz around the upcoming Broadway debut of “Indecent,” written by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, which chronicles the real-life drama that surrounded “God of Vengeance.” When the play arrived in New York in 1923 after success in Europe, it staged the first same-sex kiss in Broadway history — and was subsequently banned after the cast and producer were arrested on obscenity charges.

The fact that several of the actors in this production of “God of Vengeance” were formerly Hasidic has also made waves.

Caraid O’Brien, left, and Shane Baker acknowledge that many people are surprised to learn of their passion for Yiddish theater. (New Yiddish Rep/Jordan P. McAfee)

But Yiddish theater still suffers from stereotypes.

“When I arrived in the New York theater world, people didn’t know anything about Yiddish theater, or they had this idea that it was some kind of joke, or some kind of schlocky melodrama,” O’Brien said.

When he first began attending Yiddish cultural events, Baker said he was approached by groups of Jewish women wondering whether he would consider converting to Judaism. He later discovered they were using what he called their “shidduchim radar” — meaning they were looking for men to enter arranged marriages.

O’Brien noted that her appearance — punctuated by fiery red hair — would sometimes confuse groups of Yiddish speakers.

“We’d have a conversation, in Yiddish, then at the end of the conversation they would say, ‘Do you speak Yiddish?’” she recalled. “They just couldn’t process that that was happening.”

O’Brien said she was first hooked on the language while reading Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in high school. She scoured the two shelves of Boston’s public library dedicated to Yiddish literature and became enamored with other Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Chaim Grabe. She saw connections to Irish literature and culture: a similar quick wit, self-deprecating sense of humor and the suffocating influence of religion.

O’Brien then studied Yiddish literature at Boston University. During her senior year, while digging in the Yiddish theater archives at Harvard, she stumbled upon work by Joseph Buloff, a former Yiddish theater star. A librarian there suggested she meet with Buloff’s wife, Luba Kadison, who was living in New York.

Kadison, a former star of the illustrious Vilna Troupe — one of the world’s most famous Yiddish theater companies between the world wars —  would  become one of O’Brien’s mentors. The pair would meet weekly to go over Yiddish scripts and talk about their craft.

“I wasn’t really meeting Jewish person to non-Jewish person with Luba,” O’Brien said. “It was artist to artist.”

Baker, too, also was mentored weekly by Kadison. His interest in Yiddish theater was piqued when he saw a Yiddish play in the early 1990s starring Mina Bern. Entranced by her performance, he wanted to talk with her after the show — but language proved to be a barrier. Inspired, Baker decided to learn Yiddish and soon began meeting regularly with Bern, who helped him make connections in the Yiddish theater scene (and introduced him to Jewish delicacies such as tzimmes and tongue sandwiches).

When this “God of Vengeance” run is over, O’Brien will put the finishing touches on her book on Rexite. Baker will get back to adapting Sholem Aleichem stories into humorous plays for the Congress for Jewish Culture. Both will continue pushing for greater appreciation of the language and culture they have grown to love.

“With the right choice of materials and marketing and exposure,” Baker said, “there’s great growth potential for Yiddish culture.”

The last Passover countdown checklist you will ever need

Wed, 2017-03-22 19:31

For Passover, Jews celebrate the exodus of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt to freedom by scouring the house of every speck of leavened food. Good times! (Lambert/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The 30-day period between Purim and Passover is often fraught, especially for Jews — especially if, against all sound advice, they insist on hosting a Passover seder. To ease the challenging process of planning and preparing the festive meal, we offer this handy Passover countdown checklist:

30 days out (the day after Purim): Begin going over your invite list for the seder. Parents, siblings and their kids, check. Widowed Aunt Fay? Of course. But Cousin Eric? A nice guy, but how did he vote?

27 days out: Think about clearing out cabinets to make way for Passover food.

24 days out: Continue thinking about clearing out cabinets to make way for Passover food.

23 days out: Throw out Passover food still crowding the cabinet from last year: the bottle of off-brand ketchup still three-quarters filled, one jar kosher le Pesach duck sauce, one carton gluten-free “panko” matzah crumbs, two boxes of Streit’s matzah you bought last year on the second-to-last day of Passover worrying that you’d “run out.”

22 days out: Clear out last of cabinets to make room for Passover food.

21 days out: Announce to family that no more non-Passover food will be purchased between now and the holiday. Start planning pre-Passover meals based on the crap you have on hand: freezer-burned hamburger meat, bags of stale macaroni, whatever that thing is in the Tupperware.

20 days out: First Passover shopping trip: condiments, tea bags, tomato sauce, tuna fish, shelf liner, grape juice, off-brand ketchup, kosher le Pesach duck sauce, one carton gluten-free “panko” matzah crumbs, potato vodka. Total bill: $347.71.

18 days out: Begin planning menu: Search online for new Passover recipes. Brisket with horseradish gremolata? Skillet roast chicken with fennel, parsnips and scallions? Braised lamb shanks with dates, tangerines and baby onions? Check the number of steps and ingredients for each recipe, gasp, then agree to make the same three things you’ve been making for the past 19 years.

17 days out: Cousin Eric calls asking if he can bring a date — someone he met at a “political rally.” For a “very famous politician.” Uh-oh.

16 days out: Second Passover shopping trip: macaroons, Passover cake mix, soda, jars of gefilte fish, paper plates and disposable utensils, matzah meal, wine, almonds and walnuts, jarred horseradish, cottonseed oil, mayonnaise, potato vodka. Total bill: $740.

5 minutes later: Return to grocery store for your free five pounds of matzah, per coupon. Reduce grocery bill by $20.97.

10 minutes later: Return again to grocery store to buy one pound of gluten-free shmurah matzah for Aunt Fay. Increase grocery bill by $67.26.

14 days out: Ask spouse to bring up kosher dishes, seder plate and Haggadahs from the basement.

13 days out: Ask spouse to please bring up kosher dishes, seder plate and Haggadahs from the basement.

12 days out: Ask spouse to please bring up kosher dishes, seder plate and Haggadahs from the basement — goddammit.

10 days out: Finalize guest list. Finalize menu. Longingly peruse ads in Jewish newspaper for weeklong Passover cruises.

7 days out: Last shopping before Passover: beef, chicken, fish, produce, milk, cheese, parsley, shank bone, eggs, chocolate-covered matzah, potato vodka. Total bill: You don’t wanna know.

5 days out: Clean and kasher sink, counters, stove, oven and refrigerator. Begin cooking seder side dishes.

5 days out: Inform family that Passover rules already apply in kitchen: no bread, pasta, beer or everyday tableware or cutlery. When they ask what they are supposed to eat, reply “improvise.”

3 days out: Ask spouse to bring up table leaf from the basement. Begin vacuuming and cleansing all surfaces with the care normally given to sterilizing microbiological laboratories. Longingly peruse ads in Travel + Leisure magazine showing non-Jewish couples on Caribbean vacations.

2 days out: Ask spouse to bring up table leaf from basement, goddammit. Set table.

1 day out: Cousin Eric calls. It’s off with his plus-one — he can’t date a “cuckservative” who thinks Rachel Maddow “sometimes makes some good points.” Panic.

Seder day: Welcome parents, siblings, their kids, Aunt Fay and Cousin Eric. Ask your youngest to recite the Four Questions, which he does perfectly, which is less impressive than it might seem when you remember that he’s 23. Read Haggadah. Eat festive meal. Welcome Elijah. Ignore Cousin Eric.

1 day after: Vow never to do this again.

2 days after: Agree to do this again next year.

$1 million in security grants available for New Jersey institutions

Wed, 2017-03-22 19:18

(JTA) — Nonprofit organizations and religious institutions determined to be at high risk of terrorist attack in nine New Jersey counties can apply for $1 million in security grants, Gov. Chris Christie announced.

“Unfortunately, as incidents in the past few weeks have shown, every area of New Jersey is vulnerable to threats and possible attacks, making these additional resources crucial in our efforts to enhance security in certain parts of the state that had not previously received federal security grant funding,” Christie said Tuesday in a statement. “During these trying times, my administration remains committed to ensuring that nonprofits across our entire state have the resources they need to ensure our citizens may gather freely and securely.”

The statement referenced several bomb threat incidents at Jewish community centers around the state, part of a series of bomb threats against nearly 150 Jewish institutions throughout the country since the beginning of the year.

The grants should be available by the summer, according to the statement.

The announcement of the grants comes days after reports that Christie eliminated an increase in security funding for private schools in his proposed state budget, sparking charges from the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of New Jersey that he is endangering Jewish day school students.

Nonprofit organizations in New Jersey’s other 12 counties already are eligible to receive similar security funding through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

Upstate NY man charged with spray-painting hate graffiti on his own home

Wed, 2017-03-22 19:10

(JTA) — A man in upstate New York has been charged with spray-painting swastikas and hate messages on his own home.

Jewish leaders in Schenectady also say that Andrew King, who was interviewed last month by the local media in front of his defaced home wearing a kippah, is not Jewish. He tried to convert several times but was rejected by at least two congregations, according to the local ABC affiliate, News10.

King, 54, was arraigned Tuesday in Schenectady City Court and released on $500 bail. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

He was arrested a day earlier following a five-week investigation of the Feb. 10 vandalism and charged with falsely reporting an incident, which is a misdemeanor, the Times Union of Albany reported.

“This has brought a sense of shame to the community,” Rabbi Matt Cutler of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady told BuzzFeed. “We knew there was something peculiar about the vandalism.”

New campaign aims to help fund efforts to solve murder of Jewish DNC staffer

Wed, 2017-03-22 19:01

Seth Rich, the voter expansion data director for the DNC, was killed near his home in July 2016. (Facebook)

(JTA) — The family of Seth Rich, a Jewish Democratic National Committee staffer killed near his Washington, D.C., home last summer, has launched a crowdfunding campaign in an effort to fund efforts to solve the case.

The GoFundMe campaign as of Wednesday, three days after its launch, had raised $5,337 from 111 people. The drive has a goal of $200,000.

“These funds will allow my family to investigate, and help solve Seth’s murder,” Rich’s brother, Aaron, wrote in a letter on the page. “We know somewhere, someone has the information on who murdered Seth. We intend to use these funds to hire professional help that can discover new facts and information, cooperating with the police and solving this in the fastest way possible.

“One thing that no one tells you, and something we weren’t prepared to hear when we lost Seth, is that if a case isn’t solved immediately, it could take months or years before justice is served. Worse, to keep the investigation active, to seek leads and to follow up on investigations, to make sure that every possible angle is covered — it’s expensive.”

Aaron Rich added that the family wants help that is “free from any ulterior motives or with any strings attached.”

Rich, 27, a Nebraska native, was shot dead while walking home before dawn on July 10, 2016. Police have speculated that he was the victim of a robbery gone awry. Rich’s body was found about a block from his home with his wallet, watch and cellphone still in his possession.

His death sparked several conspiracy theories, including that he was a source for WikiLeaks.

In November, Rich’s parents, Mary and Joel Rich of Omaha, visited Washington in an attempt to find new leads in the case.

There is a $125,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the killer or killers.

Netanyahu support for Trump’s wall triggers wave of online anti-Semitism in Mexico

Wed, 2017-03-22 18:42

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending a ceremony marking 25 years since the 1992 terror attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem, March 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (JTA) — The support expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January for President Donald Trump wanting to build a wall separating the United States and Mexico has triggered an “alarming” wave of anti-Semitism online, according to an Argentine Jewish watchdog.

A report by the Argentine Observatorio Web released earlier this week analyzed comments in 22 online articles from the major Mexican newspapers El Universal, Excelsior and Milenio and concluded that nearly 40 percent of the comments were anti-Semitic. The most recurrent themes were the vindication of Adolf Hitler, the representation of Jews as avaricious, greedy, usurers and guided purely by economic interest.

Some 35 percent of the comments were negative about the Israeli government but without anti-Semitic expression, according to the report.

“This particular case is one of the first times where we see that the criticism is directed towards” Netanyahu, Ariel Seidler, director of the Observatorio Web, told JTA.

The Observatorio Web is a cooperative project of the Argentine Jewish political umbrella, DAIA; the Latin American Jewish Congress, and the AMIA Jewish center of Buenos Aires.

In late January, Netanyahu said on Twitter that “President Trump is right” in response to a tweet on Trump’s campaign promise to build the border wall to prevent illegal immigration.

“I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea,” Netanyahu said in a tweet that featured American and Israeli flag icons. The White House later retweeted the message.

Asked how the negative comments about the Israeli government ranked in comparison with other average comments, Seidler stressed that “in the Netanyahu tweet case, the level of negative comments is double the average.”

“We registered 19 percent of negative expressions [about Israel] online in comments in Spanish-language newspapers during 2016. In the Spanish-language media in Latin American, when Israel is in the headlines, the anti-Semitic comments online register a significant rise,” he added.

The report not only stressed alarm about the anti-Semitic commentary on media forums, but also “the lack of discernment by the readers between Israel and the Jewish community.”

The report analyzed the forums of opinions by readers of the three Mexican newspapers, not the media coverage. According to the Web Observatory, the forums mirror people’s opinions.

In the articles that mention the statement made by the Mexico Jewish Community rejecting Netanyahu’s statement, anti-Semitic comments grow to 57 percent.

By comparison, anti-Semitic comments in the comments sections of Argentine newspapers averaged 24 percent in 2016, Seidler told JTA.

A steady trend analyzed by the Centre for Social Studies of the DAIA is that anti-Semitism continues to grow online, even in years in which anti-Semitic incidents dropped.

Stemming from a growing concern over anti-Semitic messages, the Observatorio Web was founded in March 2010 to combat discrimination on the web.

Jewish teen network donates more than $1 million

Wed, 2017-03-22 18:28

(JTA) — Jewish teens in a program for budding philanthropists donated more than $1 million during the 2015-16 school year, with nearly two-thirds going to Jewish organizations.

The donations, which were given to 300 recipients, came from about 1,700 teens organized in 50 groups known as “teen foundations.” The total was some $100,000 higher than in 2013-14, according to the Jewish Teen Funders Network, which supports giving among teens in the United States and around the world. Two years earlier, according to the network, teens gave about $950,000 in total.

According to a report published this month by the network, a program of the Jewish Funders Network,$675,000 went to Jewish groups, about 65 percent of the total — compared to $551,000 in 2013-14. Sixty percent of the donations went to local groups, 22 percent to groups in Israel, 13 percent to international groups and 5 percent to national groups. The plurality of donations focused on social justice and education.

“That’s a reflection that teens are continuing to develop their identities,” said Briana Holtzman, the network’s director, referring to the increase in giving to Jewish groups. “They can give to the Jewish community and they can serve those outside of the Jewish community. There’s a real focus on the conversation, on challenging our teens to grapple with who they are.”

The various teen funders projects take place at schools, camps, Jewish federations and community foundations. Participants usually sign up for a year or more of workshops in Judaics and philanthropy, site visits to nonprofits in North America and Israel and meetings in which teens discuss ways to pool and divide their gifts.

Jessica Biel discovers that she’s a little bit Jewish

Wed, 2017-03-22 16:01

Jessica Biel at the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 26, 2017. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The celebrities who appear on genealogy shows are almost invariably in for a surprise, like a criminal in their family tree or a British royal in their web of relatives. Some, like Dustin Hoffman — who broke down in tears on “Finding Your Roots” last year — delve into their Jewish ancestry deeper than they ever have before.

Others, like actress Jessica Biel, who appears on this Sunday’s episode of TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” discover Jewish roots they didn’t know they had.

Biel — who is also Mrs. Justin Timberlake — achieved fame at age 14 when she was cast in the long-running TV series “7th Heaven.” She has appeared in a number of films since, receiving acclaim for roles in “Ulee’s Gold” and “The Illusionist,” among others.

She and Timberlake had a child in 2015, and she says her status as a new mom intensified her interest in her own family — which she didn’t know much about. Family lore on her mother’s side was that Jessica was part Native American, either Chippewa or Cherokee. There was also a legend about a Civil War soldier shot in the back by his commanding officer while wading across a river.

Jessica was also under the impression that the Biels came from a German town named Biel. After investigating with TLC’s genealogists and historians, she discovered she was the great, great granddaughter of Morris and Ottilia Biel, who emigrated from Hungary (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to Chicago in 1888.

The Biels were Jewish, and Morris at first found work as a cloak cutter in the garment business.

To say that Jessica was surprised is putting it mildly. She also seemed moved.

“I felt my whole life I’ve really not had any religious community at all,” she says.  “I want something. Interestingly, we’re talking about a people with a really, really rich cultural community.”

Biel has plenty to discover about Jewish culture. Later in the episode, she notes: “My friends are really into this. They say they’re going to throw me a bar mitzvah.” (A bat mitzvah is the correct term for a girl’s coming of age ritual.)

There was another surprise awaiting her. Morris eventually went to work for a bank and became prominent enough in his community that the Chicago Tribune ran a photo of him and Ottilia on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.

To follow up on all of this, Jessica had a DNA test, which proved she was eight percent Jewish.

“I’m really interested into diving into this Jewish culture a little more,” she says at the end of the episode.

This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are” airs Sunday, April 2, at 10 p.m. on TLC.

Australia finds no evidence World Vision funds went to Hamas

Wed, 2017-03-22 15:35

(JTA) — An Australian government investigation found no evidence that funds it gave to the US-based Christian charity World Vision International were diverted to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The Australian government suspended some funding to World Vision last year after Israeli allegations that a senior official in the Gaza Strip, Mohammed el-Halabi, had diverted millions of dollars in aid to the Hamas terrorist group.

The Australian government had given World Vision some $5 million over three years intended for projects in Gaza.

World Vision said at the time of the accusations that they were unfounded.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced on Tuesday that: “The review uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds.”

World Vision also is conducting an independent review of its operations to determine whether any siphoning of funds occurred.

The Australian funds will remain frozen until the completion of the World Vision review and Halabi’s trial in Israel, according to the department.

Halabi’s trial is ongoing. He reportedly has rejected a plea deal   and has pleaded not guilty. He also has accused Israeli authorities of torturing him during interrogation.

According to the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, during interrogations following his arrest on June 15, 2016, el-Halabi revealed that he has been a Hamas member since his youth and had undergone organizational and military training in the early 2000s.

Shortly after being employed by World Vision, he began to use his position to help the Islamist terrorist organization, primarily by diverting funds meant as aid to strengthen Hamas’ terrorist arm, Shin Bet said.

Hundreds of liquor bottles from WWI British soldiers uncovered in central Israel

Wed, 2017-03-22 13:26

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Hundreds of liquor bottles whose contents were consumed by British soldiers during World War I were uncovered near Ramla in central Israel.

The bottles were excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in preparation for the construction of a new highway, the IAA announced on Wednesday.

They were found near a building where British soldiers were garrisoned during the war.

Also found in the area were 250,000-year-old flint tools.

The uncovered building where the bottles were found was originally used for agricultural purposes during the Ottoman period and converted by the British for military use, according to Ron Toueg, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The intact bottom floor was a barracks for the soldiers. Uniform buttons, belt buckles, parts of riding equipment, and other artifacts that were the property of the British soldiers were discovered in the excavated building, according to the IAA.

“The place where the soldiers discarded debris was revealed just a few meters from the building. We were surprised to discover that along with broken crockery and cutlery there was an enormous number of soft drink and liquor bottles. In fact, about 70 percent of the waste that was discarded in the refuse pit was liquor bottles. It seems that the soldiers took advantage of the respite given them to release the tension by frequently drinking alcohol,” Toueg said.

The glass bottles had once contained mainly wine, beer, soda and alcoholic beverages such as gin, liquor and whiskey.

Connecticut church shows support for threatened local Jewish institutions

Wed, 2017-03-22 12:03

(JTA) — A Connecticut church is showing its support for the local Jewish community after several bomb threats.

The Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford  and the JCC of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge, Connecticut, as well as the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, Connecticut have been the victims of called-in bomb threats, part of the nearly 150 Jewish institutions nationwide that have received such threats since the beginning of the year.

In response to the threats, The Church of Saint Timothy in West Hartford has put up banners in support of the local institutions and the Jewish community, local media reports.

“To our Jewish brothers and sisters and the Mandell JCC, we pray and stand with you,” the banners read.

“Together, joined as neighbors and children under one God, we can reject this evil, and serve as lights of resistance, resilience, and persistence,” Rev. George S. Mukuka, administrator of St. Timothy, told local television station WTNH.

Family of missing CIA consultant Robert Livinson sues Iran in US court

Wed, 2017-03-22 11:50

Robert Levinson (Screenshot from YouTube)

(JTA) — The family of a Jewish-American man who disappeared from Iran in 2007 while working on behalf of the CIA is suing the Iranian government in the United States.

Robert Levinson, 68, of Coral Springs, Florida, a private investigator and former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was also a part-time consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency, has been missing since disappearing from Iran’s Kish Island during what has since been revealed as a rogue CIA operation.

Levinson’s family filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in federal court in Washington DC, the New York Times reported. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from Iran, in part for inflicting emotional distress on Levinson’s wife and seven children.

In an announcement earlier in March on the 10th anniversary of Levinson’s disappearance, a statement from the FBI said that the agency has a dedicated team seeking Levinson’s return. The statement was unusual since, over the years, the State Department and the White House have noted the anniversary, but the FBI has not weighed in.

As a candidate in 2015, President Donald Trump vowed to bring Levinson home.

Under President Barack Obama, five Americans were released by Iran in January 2016 in an exchange timed to coincide with the implementation of the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six major powers. Levinson was not one of those released, but the Obama administration, which had brokered the deal, accepted an Iranian pledge to help track his whereabouts. The information Iran provided led to dead ends, the Times reported Sunday.

Some American officials believe that Levinson died in captivity, or that he is no longer being held in Iran. Throughout its time in office, the Obama administration continued to say that bringing Levinson home was a top priority.

There is an outstanding $5 million reward for information leading to Levinson’s return.

New Jersey synagogue, preschool evacuated after called-in threat

Wed, 2017-03-22 11:28

A New Jersey synagogue, which houses a preschool, was evacuated after receiving a called-in threat.

Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey was evacuated on Tuesday after receiving the threat just before 11 a.m., the local CBS affiliate reported.

The Essex County Sherriff’s Department and Livingston Police Department, including the K-9 and bomb squad units, arrived at the synagogue and searched the premises.

Nearly 150 Jewish institutions, mostly JCCs, have been the victims of bomb threats since the beginning of the year. No explosive devices have been found after any of the threats.

Jewish groups quarrel over memorial service at pro-BDS group’s conference

Tue, 2017-03-21 23:04

The Hyatt Regency hotel at McCormick Place in Chicago. (Screenshot from YouTube)

(JTA) — An Israel advocacy group criticized a pro-BDS group for denying its request to hold a memorial event for Israeli terror victims at its conference.

Jewish Voice for Peace, which is organizing the confab, said however that it had already planned its own general memorial event.

The Israel advocacy group StandWithUs had asked to hold a multi-faith memorial service for the victims of a 1969 deadly bombing in Jerusalem during JVP’s upcoming biannual conference. The gathering, which will take place March 30-April 2 in Chicago will feature among its speakers Rasmeah Odeh, a Palestinian woman convicted by Israel of involvement in the 1969 terror attack that killed two.

JVP — which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — confirmed to JTA that the event venue, the Hyatt McCormick Chicago hotel, had passed along the request but said that it decided not to allow the service to be held, noting that it was holding its own memorial event.

The quarrel comes amid criticism from some in the Jewish world about the anti-Israel views of Odeh and Linda Sarsour, two pro-Palestinian activists who have recently taken public role in various feminist events and who are speaking together at a plenary at the JVP meeting.

Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP’s deputy director, said that her group had the right to decide the schedule at its gathering.

“This is the Jewish Voice for Peace national member meeting. StandWithUs are not members of Jewish Voice for Peace, and this is our gathering, and we have designed the memorial circle and the program that fits our needs,” Wise told JTA on Tuesday. “It’s fine for them to ask, and it’s fine for us to set our own boundaries.”

The JVP-organized multi-faith “memorial circle” will not focus on any particular event, Wise said.

“It’s really a space that we hold with music and poetry for people to pause in time and connect to their feelings and their grief and their mourning for the loss of life that has taken place in recent days, and past decades in the long history for organizing for justice in the region,” Wise said.

StandWithUs said it was “apprehensive” about the JVP memorial event.

“We are apprehensive about a memorial service in which a convicted and unrepentant terrorist will participate, and a service that even refuses to acknowledge Odeh’s victims. We are outraged at an organization that blocked a memorial for them,” Peggy Shapiro, Midwest Director for StandWithUs, said Tuesday in a statement to JTA. The Hyatt McCormick Chicago did not respond to a request for comment by JTA.

On Monday, Shapiro called JVP’s decision “disgraceful,” and slammed the group for hosting Odeh.

“Not only is JVP honoring a convicted terrorist at their conference, they have denied a request to hold a memorial service for her victims — Edward Joffe and Leon Kanner. These two young Jews no longer have voices because they died in an attack perpetrated by Rasmea Odeh, and it seems JVP is committed to silencing them even further by refusing to allow us to hold this service in their memory,” Shapiro said in a statement. “There is nothing Jewish or peaceful about this disgraceful decision.”

Odeh confessed to planting the bomb in the 1969 attack that killed Joffe and Kanner and injured nine others, though in recent years has claimed the confession was given under torture, which is disputed by Israeli officials.

She was convicted and sentenced by an Israeli military court in 1970 to life in prison for two bombing attacks on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She spent 10 years in an Israeli prison before being released in a prisoner exchange with the PFLP in 1980.

Jewish Voice for Peace said earlier this month that it was “proud” to host Odeh, questioning the validity of her Israeli conviction.

“The accusations against Odeh stem from a context of long-standing anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim persecution by both the Israeli state and the United States, policies which are escalating under the Trump administration,” JVP said in a March 7 statement.

Odeh was one of the leaders of the grassroots feminist International Women’s Strike. Sarsour, who organized January’s Women’s March on Washington and also helped plan the Women’s Strike, recently said there is no space in the feminist movement for those who do not criticize Israel.