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French Holocaust survivor and fashion tycoon Maurice Bidermann dies at 87

3 hours 43 min ago

(JTA) — Maurice Bidermann, a French textile magnate and Holocaust survivor, died in Paris at the age of 87.

Meyer Habib, a French-Jewish lawmaker, wrote on Twitter that his late friend Bidermann had died Monday of the coronavirus — a claim that was denied, according to the PurePeople fashion news site, by Bidermann’s relatives, who cited a host of medical complications as the true cause of death.

Bidermann, who was born in Belgium, survived the Holocaust as an illegal alien in neighboring France. A family of non-Jews hid him at their home near Marseille for 1.5 years, but he was eventually found by local French police. However, instead of handing Bidermann over to the Germans, the police officers took pity on Bidermann, who was ill as a boy, and put him in hospital.

He survived the war there.

Bidermann later left France and fought in the Israel Defense Forces during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 before returning to Europe. He began working at a small textile shop owned by his family in Paris, called Bidermann. Within 20 years, he transformed it into what PurePeople described as France’s no. 1 maker of men’s fashion for a time.

In 1994, Bidermann became a suspect in a corruption probe that ended with his conviction in 2003 for corporate maleficence. He provided personal favors to a head of an oil firm, Elf, that invested heavily in Bidderman’s businesses, in violation of French securities laws. Bidderman was sent to jail for one year but ended up serving two months.

His firm went bankrupt.

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Western Wall stones sanitized after notes removed

3 hours 46 min ago

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Western Wall stones were cleaned and sanitized ahead of Passover.

Every year, the prayer notes tucked between the stones in the wall are removed at Passover and before the High Holidays, and buried with other sacred papers according to Jewish law in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

This year, according to a statement from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, “the Western Wall stones, visited and touched by thousands of people from Israel and around the world all year round, were sanitized and cleaned in order to protect those who come to the Western Wall even now.”

The cleaning took place Tuesday morning. The notes were removed with gloves and disposable wooden tools.

The statement noted that since Rosh Hashana over 8,000 prayer notes sent from around the world were via the Western Wall internet site have been placed between the stones.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, supervised the cleaning and prayed there for the recovery of all those who have become ill with the coronavirus, according to the statement.

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Iran has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Here’s what that might mean for its threat to the region.

Mon, 2020-03-30 19:50

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Iran by its own accounting is the fifth-ranked among nations in coronavirus fatalities. Outside experts say the rate is likely much higher.

The confluence of hard-hitting sanctions on the country and Iran’s floundering theocracy frustrated an adequate response to the pandemic, according to most accounts, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knows who to blame: Genies. And Americans.

Khamenei’s March 22 speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has spooked regime watchers inside and outside the country. He blamed the pandemic on the demons identified in the Quran as “Jinn,” known as genies in Western lore, and the American intelligence services working in tandem.

“We have jinn and human enemies that help each other,” he said, according to a translation by Maryam Sinaiee, a British-Iranian political analyst writing for Radio Farda, the U.S. government’s Persian language news service. “The intelligence services of many countries work together against us.”

Among these, he said, was the “most evil enemy of the Islamic Republic” — the United States.

It’s an alarming prospect: If Khamenei truly believes that the CIA is working hand in hand with demons to engage in biowarfare against Iran, he may see fit to respond in kind. And any response would likely bring in Israel, the closest American ally in the region.

It’s a manifestation of what Ali Vaez, the Iran Project director for the International Crisis Group, called “crisis therapy.” Iran historically, faced with internal upheaval, creates an external crisis as a distraction.

“The reality is that a regime under siege from all sides and that has no exit ramp might calculate that it has little to lose and a confrontation with the U.S. would be a good distraction,” Vaez told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Blaming other countries is not unique among leaders worldwide: Chinese media and officials also have insinuated that the virus is a means of U.S. warfare. President Donald Trump frequently faults how China and Europe have handled the virus when he is under fire for how he has dealt with COVID-19.

The stakes are higher with Iran, given how besieged the regime is — a number of its leaders have contracted the virus and at least one has died — and the theocracy’s history of acting on the religious dictates of its leaders.

“The Iranians as a result of the combined impact of sanctions and the coronavirus are under tremendous economic duress,” Vaez said. “If they had any cushion that could keep them afloat until the U.S. elections,” when Trump’s potential departure might ease sanctions pressure, “that has evaporated.”

Patrick Clawson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy whose expertise is Iran, said the language was alarming enough that for a number of days, government sites posting the speech omitted the passage about jinn — suggesting that even officials close to the 80-year-old Khamenei felt it was prudent to obscure the comments.

“Senior people in the IRGC,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, “were saying ‘this guy is our leader, is the old man losing it?’” Clawson said in an interview.

There was good reason to be spooked, Clawson said. The Nowruz speech is the equivalent of the State of the Union.

“This is the biggest speech of the year, this tells you what Iran is going to do for the next year,” he said.

Here are some takes on how Iran’s coronavirus-induced aggression might manifest, how it might not and what can be done to mitigate it.

Scenario 1: An Iranian response is happening now

Militias in Iraq aligned with Iran have attacked U.S. targets in the country in recent weeks, including a rocket attack that killed two American soldiers. U.S. officials are blaming Iran for the attacks.

“We’ve made clear that the Iraqi Shia militias are funded, trained and equipped by the Iranians,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month. “We’ve urged the Iranians not to do that.”

An assistant secretary of state, David Schenker, tied the attacks to the coronavirus.

“This is in fact not only an effort to have an impact on domestic politics in Iraq, but also to divert attention from the coronavirus both in Iraq and in Iran, where it’s being dramatically mishandled,” Schenker told reporters at a recent briefing.

Clawson has his doubts. The militias, he said, have minds of their own and are less likely to take orders from Iran since the United States assassinated a top IRGC general, Qassem Soleimani, earlier this year.

“Iranians have after Soleimani’s death lost control of those militias,” Clawson said. The militias “are in the teenage stage, they do what they want.”

The regional chaos that predated the virus also mitigates against immediate action. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for instance, is dealing with protests that aim in part to remove the militia from power.

Scenario 2: It happens later

Iran has played a long game historically when it retaliates for perceived aggression.

“I read the speech as implying that Iran should consider retaliating in kind with bioweapons,” Clawson said. “It would be months down the road, not days.”

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a weapons of mass destruction watchdog, says there have not been definitive assessments recently that Iran has biological weapons, but it likely has the capability. Getting to actual weapons, and selecting an appropriate arena to make it clear that Iran is ready to use them, would take time.

Scenario 3: The U.S. continues to squeeze Iran

The Trump administration has not relented in pressuring Iran with sanctions, imposing new ones this week on 20 companies and officials that it says are implicated in attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. The aim of what the Trump administration calls a “maximum pressure” policy is to get Iran to stand down from its adventurism, although it has yet to show substantial results.

Now is not the time to relieve those sanctions, according to hawkish critics of the regime, who note that Iran has rejected humanitarian assistance that is allowed under the sanctions. Iran has even expelled a mission by Doctors Without Borders, a group that was positioned to alleviate the impact of the virus, baselessly accusing the group of espionage.

“The Iranian government had the power to curtail the virus, but instead they ignored the situation, lied to their people and exacerbated the situation to weaken the resolve of the international community to robustly implement sanctions,” David Ibsen, the president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, wrote in EuroNews. “Sanctions are not the villain in this regretful story.”

Scenario 4: The pandemic eases relations

Vaez and his Crisis Group colleague, Robert Malley, wrote recently in Foreign Policy that the coronavirus crisis could create an opportunity to deflate tensions between the United States and Iran.

“Both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas” related to the pandemic “that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle,” they wrote.

They cite Washington’s demand that Iran release foreign prisoners susceptible to the spread of the virus, and Iran’s bid for an International Monetary Fund loan to buy equipment to tackle the virus.

Were Iran to release the prisoners, and the United States to refrain from blocking the IMF loan, that could set in motion a dynamic that could lead to more expansive backdowns affecting sanctions and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Vaez and Malley say.

Vaez in the JTA interview said he was not optimistic the sides would take that path.

“The reality is that this crisis is also a diplomatic opportunity, but all the indicators are now in the opposite direction,” he said. ”It seems Iran and the United States are on a collision course rather than using this crisis as an opportunity to reduce tensions.”

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said Iran’s trajectory has been for decades to accelerate and expand its malign activity outside its borders, and that a crisis was only exacerbating those tendencies.

“They’re becoming more desperate to try to strengthen and stabilize a regime that is in the throes of dissolution that looks to be entering a period of significant risk to its survival,” he said in an interview.

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Let my people know: This is the first time I’ve had to plan a seder

Mon, 2020-03-30 18:53

(J. The Jewish News of Northern California) — How long does a seder really have to be? “No, we can’t just say ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” I tell my daughters. There’s some negotiation until I promise it’ll be 10 minutes. I can get the essentials done in 10 minutes, right?

We are wrangling because, for the first time in my life, I am organizing a seder. Yes, this Gen X Jew has been to a lot of seders, but always as a guest — at my aunt’s in Los Angeles as a kid, at my oldest friend’s in Alameda as an adult. And sure, I’ve skipped seders, too, while living in Budapest.

But I’ve never actually hosted one.

It’s only as our newsroom continues to report on coronavirus and canceled community events that it dawned on me: This affects me, too. I can’t go to Alameda. What will I do?

The answer, of course, is that I’ll host my own seder. It’ll be just the four of us, two adults and two kids (children who find the Haggadah appallingly dull, apparently). I’m messaging with J.’s online editor, David, and he recommends we include in our seder a special showing of “Prince of Egypt,” the 1998 DreamWorks film that tells the story of Moses and the Exodus.

He is appalled to realize that I have never seen it and begins to send me admonitory messages in all caps, upset at my ignorance. Apparently this is another thing I know nothing about!

I have to admit that I’m suddenly feeling out of my depth.

“What is this?” I’m looking at something described as a solid chocolate seder plate on the Passover end cap at my local Safeway and wondering who thought combining a shankbone with chocolate was a good idea.

Unlike the toilet paper section, the Passover shelves are fully stocked with matzah imported from Jerusalem, dubiously packaged macaroons and a plastic matzah dish described as an “affordable alternative to elegant silver,” which I seriously consider investing in. I go through the necessities in my head and start to worry. I’ve been freeloading for too long — do I have to make my own gefilte fish?

Not if I live in the Bay Area, apparently. I can pick up rock-and-black-cod gefilte at Market Hall, where I can even get a lamb shank labeled gluten and dairy-free. Oakland Kosher Foods, meanwhile, has more packaged Pesach foods than you can shake a sprig of karpas at.

But it’s not about the cooking — not really.

It’s not about the fact that I don’t own an afikomen cover or a seder plate. It’s that I suddenly feel responsible for something that I’ve always taken for granted. I can do Pesach with homemade charoset, store-bought gefilte fish and a bone from my local butcher, with Val Kilmer saying “Let my people go!”

The point is getting it done, somehow.

This year, I’ve suddenly become responsible for the transmission of our oral history to my children. So be it. If this is the year I have to step up and be in charge, then so be it. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes.

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I thought the coronavirus would make my congregants feel far away. In fact, I’m seeing them more closely than ever.

Mon, 2020-03-30 18:45

(JTA) — If you glanced at my work calendar, you might not know that the world is turned inside out. As a cantor and rabbi at a Los Angeles synagogue, I am continuing to lead services and counsel congregants. But like so many others, all of my meetings have been commuted to digital platforms.

That shift has created new sets of dynamics in each virtual “room.” Some I anticipated, some surprised me.

Some dynamic shifts obviously are for the worse. Many of us are unpracticed at the art of teaching, learning and leading by digital means, at least on this global scale. We pride ourselves on how we usually walk into a room or step in front of a crowd with competence and confidence.

Sitting at my laptop, I find myself fumbling. Can I post a link to a Sefaria page here, or get the right .pdf of a siddur posted there? Whose microphone is squeaking, and is it OK for me to ask them to mute themselves for the 17th time?

In an age of chaos, the digital channels are often pathways to more chaos when all I want, for just 30 minutes, is at least the pretense of some composure.

We’re also disembodied by means of these online channels, and every meeting starts with some manner of attendance-taking that would be wholly unnecessary if we could just eyeball who was in the room. And it’s usually something like “Who’s showing up as the initials BW, and by the way, do you want to lead mincha?”

There’s an eerie quiet as we gather after Shabbat in the online space and hit the collective mute button, a digital hush that threatens the authenticity of even the sweetest moment of Havdalah as we train our eyes on the candle glowing at the corner of our screen. We even name these experiences as feeling far away: We call our homeschooling adventure “distance learning” because we feel, well, distant.

Despite this extended separation, I am experiencing a deeper intimacy in my interactions. When I logged on to our daily minyan for evening worship the first time, a thrill ran through me as face after face lit up the screen — each of us physically directed eastward but every one of us “panim el panim,” face to face in the Toraitic description of closeness.

Standing in a typical minyan room, we would be at least “arbah amot,” four cubits apart. In a physical space we would be at least six feet apart to be safe if legally gathered. In my living room, I can crowd my computer screen with 22 minyan-goers (best attendance in months!) safely, lovingly, intimately. It’s touching.

My default setting on Zoom videoconferencing is “active speaker” view, which means that the moment someone speaks in a meeting, their face fills my screen and my attention goes straight to their features. I find myself watching the contours of their head, their micro-expressions, their brief brow furrows and smirks. I’m able to listen with a deep connectedness to their full self in a way that’s transformational to my work and interpersonal relationships. There have been moments of matter-of-fact reporting among team members when I’ve watched anxiety and exhaustion flicker through the eyes of a colleague, and I’ve stopped to note that I should reach out.

And I watch myself watching myself — I watch my own face lose focus midway through a pastoral conversation. I self-correct, recenter and give myself over to the conversation.

I have more frequent pastoral conversations lately, more time set aside to sit with community members and tease through the tensions of the moment. The natural cascade of cancellations created an initial pileup of work that has now given way to a great pregnant pause in synagogue programming. In sacred partnership with my clergy team, I’m choosing to fill much of that vacuum with the kind of spiritual care giving that lets me slow down and spend substantive time listening to the angst of my congregants. B.C. (that is, “Before COVID-19”), I would have considered an hour of counseling over coffee, just for the sake of checking in, as the kind of generous time I could afford once a week at best. Now it’s a part of the fabric of my work, woven among everything I used to think of as “what cantors do.”

I remember an era long before FaceTime existed when someone described to me the eventuality of our being able to hold phones in the palm of our hand and speak to people around the world while looking into their eyes. There is no way I could have appreciated the dynamism made possible by virtual proximity, how intimacy could grow beyond tone and inflection when coupled with a face-to-face connection. And intimacy is precisely what I’m craving, and what I imagine so many others are craving, at a time where nearly nothing that’s intimate is permissive.

All sacred touch is in the category of restriction: the holding of a hand at a hospital bedside; the handshake on Shabbat evening; a hug at shiva; a hand wrapped around a dollar bill for tzedakah; baking challah for a friend. What a blessing that a screen can be an open window leading back to that holy corridor of intimacy.

True story: Last week, I was booted off our videoconference in the middle of leading weekday maariv. This arrangement still feels glitchy, and I’m sure some of what I misattribute to as inauthenticity is simply what I miss of my in-person experience. I miss our people, I miss our building and I miss tangible communal practice. I pray that health, normalcy and peace are soon restored to all of us.

But for as long as this lasts, I will not take for granted the intimate experience of looking someone in the eyes as I say amen to their Mourner’s Kaddish.

Hillary Chorny is a rabbi and cantor at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

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Should we be shopping for Passover or the pandemic?

Mon, 2020-03-30 18:39

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Like most people preparing for their coronavirus self-isolation, I took stock of my pantry staples. I only owned one can of beans (a pre-flavored mix of black beans that had expired in 2018) and decided I could afford something fresher to hold me over for the next two weeks.

When I arrived at the swamped grocery store, lines snaking from the register back to the dairy aisle, shelves had already been cleared of paper towels and boxed spaghetti. I stocked up on beans and rice, peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese.

I called my mom, who lives near Chicago, to check in on her coronavirus preparation, expecting her to brag about all her secret deals and insider tips at Costco, a store that she loves and knows like the back of her hand; she had worked there as a sample lady for many years. I was startled to learn that she hadn’t made a trip to Costco, let alone any of her local grocery stores. She told me that it was too close to Passover and that she was in the process of purging chametz, and that she didn’t want to bring any more into her home. 

Passover does not begin until April 8. Before speaking to my mom, I hadn’t given any thought to Passover cleaning or how filling a cupboard with pasta could be a problem for some Jews. But my mother, who is lenient on keeping kosher in her daily life, goes all out for Passover — and the logistics of pandemic preparation clashed with her customs. As she follows the Ashkenazi tradition, she doesn’t just rid her home of leavening agents, but also packs away all kitniyot (legumes, grains and seeds). For Passover, that means no rice, corn, beans, seeds or any of their byproducts.

During my childhood, the kitniyot rule was what made a kosher for Passover kitchen unbearable. I didn’t need to eat popcorn or chili, but the byproduct loophole meant that we couldn’t eat anything with corn syrup or soy lecithin in it, and one of the two are found almost universally in regular grocery stores. I’d try to eat chocolate, like a Hershey bar, only for it to be forbidden, soy lecithin screaming out from the ingredient list. As we enter a time of potentially uncertain supply chains, I imagine my mother eating breakfast in May, her morning Cheerios replaced by a chametz-free variety, grimacing during every bite of bland cardboard passing for cereal. 

While combing through articles and videos offering COVID-19 grocery shopping tips, the most commonly suggested foods are dried pastas, beans, nut butters, rice and canned fish. All of these are chametz or kitniyot, except for the fish — and even then, you’d need to search carefully for a can with Passover certification.

It’s clear why these foods clash with Passover tradition. They’re the nonperishable products that line bomb shelters and are deployed with soldiers. They’re the foods that cater to uncertainty, indefinite timelines and broad palates. They ensure survival in bleak times.

Passover asks us to replicate the dire conditions we escaped, not just during slavery but on the walk to freedom. It’s not just about re-creating Exodus, but to remember that survival was a miracle. 

In the time of the coronavirus, survival is not guaranteed. As of this writing, more than 2,500 Americans have died from COVID-19, and the virus is spreading like wildfire. 

Does it make sense to emulate the difficult conditions that Passover asks of us when we’re already living in a present where health and resources are precarious? Do we need to sacrifice our bodies for the sake of tradition? 

It’s easy for me to ask bold questions like this. As an adult, my Judaism is more culture than tradition, so my Passover preparation consists of making a batch of matzah ball soup out of nostalgic obligation. For Conservative Jews who find consumption of chametz and kitniyot unthinkable, luckily the Rabbinical Assembly wrote an opinion allowing kitniyot for Passover back in 2016, making the struggle far more manageable for the 90% of American Jews who aren’t Orthodox. Still, many Jews like my mother continue to strictly avoid consuming kitniyot during Passover, even if it’s the only time of year that they do.

More concerning than the pantry is what coronavirus will do to the seder. As more cities lock down for the next month, the government is strongly urging people to cancel their family gatherings. So are rabbis of all denominations who are telling their congregants that Passover should be celebrated at home this year. 

My mom and I don’t live in the same city, but despite our different levels of observance, I know she wouldn’t be opposed to pointing a webcam toward a seder plate. Though the pandemic may alter Passover tradition, we’ll still find a way to feast. 

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Netanyahu, from self-quarantine, limits gatherings to 2 people

Mon, 2020-03-30 18:29

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Gatherings of Israelis are limited to two people except nuclear family members living in the same home, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday evening from his home, where he is in self-quarantine.

Netanyahu and his advisers entered self-quarantine after his Knesset adviser, Rebecca Paluch, tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday. The next evening, Netanyahu and his family tested negative, though the prime minister will remain in quarantine per Health Ministry regulations.

Netanyahu announced in a nationally televised address from his home that “there won’t be gatherings of over two people who are not from the same nuclear family.” This includes outdoor prayer services in open areas and respecting social distancing, which had previously been permitted. Funerals remain limited to 20 mourners and circumcisions to 10 people appropriate social distancing.

Netanyahu said this is the year of the “lockdown seder,” and that Easter and Ramadan in the country should be observed the same way.

At the start of his address, Netanyahu said that the camera was at least 6 feet away and that “I did my own makeup and hair, which is why it looks like this.”

Netanyahu and outgoing Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon also announced a $22 billion economic rescue package that allocates $2.8 billion to the health system, $8.4 billion to welfare and unemployment, $9 billion to help small and large businesses, and $2.2 billion for economic stimulus.

As of Monday evening there were 4,695 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Israel and 16 deaths.

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Bucharest Jews can bury coronavirus dead on Shabbat to avoid cremation, a rabbinical authority rules

Mon, 2020-03-30 17:57

(JTA) — The Jewish community of Bucharest, Romania, received a rabbinical allowance to bury coronavirus victims on Shabbat.

That followed an order from Romanian government authorities on Friday that coronavirus victims must be buried on the day of their death or cremated. Cremation of the dead is not allowed under religious Jewish law, and a burial cannot take place on Shabbat.

The community turned to Rabbi Yaakov Rojah of the Zaka volunteer community emergency response organization for the allowance, called a heter, and he identified a possible precedent that would allow a non-Jew to bury the body on Shabbat, the Hebrew-language Haredi 10 news website reported.

Rojah turned to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the former chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem and the president of the Rabbinical Council of Zaka. He ruled Friday that the Bucharest Jewish community would be permitted to have a Christian bury a coronavirus victim who dies on Shabbat to prevent the body from being cremated.

“We’re receiving dozens of appeals from Jewish communities around the world to prevent cremation of bodies in the wake of government directives,”  Zaka head Yehudah Meshi-Zahav told the news website. “We will make every effort to preserve Kavod HaMeis [the honor of the dead] like we constantly battle to do. We daven every day and hope that the pandemic ends and we can assist in happy events only.”

On Thursday, the first Jewish victim of the coronavirus in Argentina was cremated by local authorities despite protests from the local Jewish community.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo renames hate crime legislation to honor Monsey stabbing victim who died

Mon, 2020-03-30 17:50

(JTA) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he is renaming proposed state hate crime legislation in honor of the Monsey stabbing victim who died on Sunday.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Josef Neumann, who suffered brutal stab wounds after an attacker invaded the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on the final night of Hanukkah three months ago,” Cuomo said in a statement Monday.

“This repugnant attack shook us to our core, demonstrating that we are not immune to the hate-fueled violence that we shamefully see elsewhere in the country.”

Neumann had remained in a coma from the time of the Dec. 28 attack to his death. He was 72. Four others were injured in the attack.

Following the attack, Cuomo proposed legislation that equates hate crimes with domestic terrorism. The legislation will be called the Josef Neumann Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act.

Cuomo called on the state legislature to pass the act in the budget due this week.

“We owe it to Mr. Neumann, his family and the entire family of New York to get it done now,” the governor said.

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Israel’s spy agency acquires ventilators, coronavirus test kits and 10 million surgical masks from unnamed countries

Mon, 2020-03-30 16:39

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, has acquired ventilators and other medical equipment, along with 10 million surgical masks, in the fight to halt the coronavirus, all from unnamed countries.

The agency brought in 27 ventilators and 20,000 test kits, as well as N95 masks, which include air filters, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported. The Mossad is expected to obtain another 180 respirators in the coming days after obtaining components for 400,000 test kits last week.

The Israeli media have speculated the equipment came from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Mossad would take over the purchase of medical equipment from other countries.

The Mossad also brought in 700 overalls for Magen David Adom ambulance personnel. Magen David Adom is handling the initial diagnosing and transporting of suspected COVID-19 cases.

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6 employees and 4 residents of Jewish-operated assisted-living facility in suburban Atlanta test positive for coronavirus

Mon, 2020-03-30 16:19

(JTA) — Six employees and four residents of a Jewish-operated assisted-living facility in suburban Atlanta have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Jewish HomeLife, which operates Berman Commons in Dunwoody, Georgia, sent a letter on Sunday to residents of the facility and their families, the Atlanta Jewish Times reported.

Two days earlier, four residents in the memory unit tested positive for COVID-19.

Some 43 employees were tested on Friday as a precaution, according to the facility, including those who work in the memory unit.

The employees found to have the virus were asymptomatic, according to the letter. Employees are asked screening questions and have their temperatures taken before entering the facility, and visitors were barred early in the pandemic.

On Friday, residents of the Berman Commons assisted-living wing were directed to remain in their apartments and communal dining was stopped. Meals have been delivered to the residents’ apartments.

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Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’ Is Yiddish, feminist and just what we need now

Mon, 2020-03-30 16:03

This story originally appeared on Kveller.

Back in 2012, when Deborah Feldman’s memoir “Unorthodox” came out, several people recommended I read this tale about a young woman leaving the Hasidic Satmar sect.

I didn’t follow the advice, but I should have. It’s an important and engrossing autobiographical work.

“Unorthodox” has inspired an incredible new Netflix miniseries by the same name. Starring Shira Haas of “Shtisel,” this is reverent and beautiful television.

Haas plays Esther “Esty” Shapiro, a woman struggling to find her place in the same Brooklyn Satmar community where Feldman grew up. Like Feldman, who wrote in secret, Esty has a secret passion: music. Like Feldman, her father is incapacitated, her mother has left the community and she is raised in part by her bubbe.

But Esty’s story isn’t a carbon copy of Feldman’s. It’s more of an amalgam of the many high-profile tales of those who left ultra-Orthodoxy, such as Shulem Deen, Jericho Vincent and Abby Stein, who has a small role in the show.

Haas brings a powerhouse performance, and Esty’s character is powerful and specific. Yet it’s a universal tale found in the stories of Hasids who have gone “off the path” — those who feel like a square peg in a round hole in their restrictive and tight-knit communities. In each instance, for every chunk of freedom sought, there is a price — ultimately, the dissolution of the relationship with your family and the only community you’ve ever known. That is a heavy and constant price to pay.

In the show, which came out last week, Esty keeps searching for her happiness — in clandestine piano lessons, in a marriage that she hopes will bring her freedom (spoiler: it does not), and then by escaping from Brooklyn to Berlin, where her ex-Hasid mother lives. While she finds a new community of musicians in the German capital, and a way to follow her love for music, it’s safe to say there is no way to neatly tie this story in a happy-ever-after knot. There is no place in the world that will be a square hole for this square peg. Just a place that perhaps feels a little less painful, a little more right.

Many do find their place and happiness within ultra-Orthodoxy: It offers them faith, community and comforting rituals. But for those who grow to feel out of place, the exit is arduous and incredibly painful and, in some ways, never truly complete. “Unorthodox” portrays this journey with emotional eloquence.

If you are worried that this show contains a two-dimensional portrayal of ultra-Orthodoxy, let me assuage your fears. Sure, unlike “Shtisel,” the Israeli show about haredi Jews, this show centers on someone who rejects their religious community. But the portrayal of Orthodoxy is handled with utmost sensitivity and care.

For a start, the show is partly in Yiddish — a novel choice that feels very respectful and very right. Both Haas and her co-star, Amit Rahav, learned the Jewish tongue spoken by the Satmar community for the show. It was a difficult for both actors, entailing hours of lessons from Eli Rosen, the rabbi in the show and himself an ex-Hasid (Rosen and actor Jeff Wilbusch, who is also ex-Satmar, helped make sure every minute detail in the show was accurate, down to the length of the socks.)

It’s striking to see a show in which Yiddish is front and center. I found myself admiring the show for its beauty, musicality and warmth. One scene that features a song in Yiddish is breathtaking. And the choice of Yiddish helped engross me in the community being portrayed — a complex one, like all communities, with villains and heroes and everything in between.

Esty’s husband, Yanky, played by Rahav, is a particularly strong and complex character. His love and devotion — his desperation for her to remain with him — is heartwrenching.

Yanky offers to love Esty, quirks and all, and at first she is thrilled by the concept. On their wedding day, the exhilaration on Esty’s face is intoxicating — you see that she truly believes that in marriage she will find freedom. But it all sours as the couple work to consummate their marriage. Esty feels oppressed by her husband’s sexual desire and her physical inability to return it.

The marriage scenes are the most intimate. A journey to the mikvah before the wedding shows Esty dipping in the ritual bath, impatient and giddy with excitement. As a viewer, the scene felt even more shocking than the lovemaking scenes of the two — they entail no nudity but can be stomach-churning because of Esty’s discomfort. But intimacy and sacredness are communicated in the show, and nothing feels salacious.

Yanky is distraught when Esty leaves him without saying a word. And he follows her to Berlin — a complex place for the Satmar community. For Esty it’s where her mother sought freedom from her community, and where she comes looking for her own. But the Satmar community was started in Europe and re-established itself in New York in the wake of World War II, on the ashes and trauma of the Holocaust. The show really drives home that point — in a way that sometimes feels a bit didactic, but still powerful.

Motherhood is an important part of the show — both the void that Esty’s absent mother created as well as Esty’s fear that she will not know how to be a mother because of it. It is never addressed in the show, but undergoing the journey to find her own happiness is not only something that Esty does for herself, but for her future children and their well-being. She does not want them to grow up with an unrealized, angry or absent parent, as she did.

“Unorthodox” is a beautiful show, and Esty is a magnificent character. Her harrowing coming-of-age tale is universal, and I feel like many of us, religious and secular, will see ourselves in certain moments of the portrayal.

A show this profoundly human is exactly what we need now, in days where we all feel so lonely and so detached from our communities — and so scared that things will be this way forever. “Unorthodox” reminds us that life is a constant search, that happiness is not always the end goal, and that sometimes you just have to work through some — pardon my French — real tough shit before you come through on the other side.

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Attorney sues Cuomo over NY ban on large gatherings, says it infringes on ability to observe Jewish faith

Mon, 2020-03-30 15:18

(JTA) — A Brooklyn attorney has filed a lawsuit accusing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of violating his right to free speech and ability to observe his Jewish faith because of the state’s ban on large gatherings due to the coronavirus.

Lee Nigen also alleges that telling state residents to limit travel, Cuomo has violated his right to meet with clients, friends, family and “like-minded people,” the New York Post reported.

Cuomo signed an executive order requiring an indefinite ban on large gatherings on March 23. He has yet to impose a travel ban.

The suit filed Friday in Brooklyn federal court named Cuomo and the state government.

“Mr. Cuomo’s threat that his directives will be enforced by law enforcement cause Mr. Nigen to fear arrest if he attempts to travel for any other purpose other than getting medical attention or obtaining groceries, thus impermissibly chilling his exercise of his constitutional rights to travel,” the suit says, according to the Post.

Nigen has been strongly criticized on his Facebook page.

“Your rights stop when the purpose is to protect the greater good,” read one comment. “During a horrific time for the country, you feel the need to file a lawsuit? As a Jew, I’m ashamed you use our religion for this nonsense. And then you wonder why people hate us? Go ahead- ignore the warnings, spread the virus in your community and let’s see how many Jews are dead thereafter you schmuck.”

Nigen posted in response to the criticism.

“To those who ill consider my dissent, I still wish you well, and treasure the right you have to express your opinion,” he wrote. “To the extent that fleeting flame has come upon me at this time of plague and panic, there is only one favor I ask of all: Be well and be free.”

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Attorney at center of New Rochelle coronavirus outbreak released from hospital

Mon, 2020-03-30 11:19

(JTA) — The attorney at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York has been released from the hospital, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Cuomo did not identify Lawrence Garbuz by name during his daily news conference on Sunday.

“The ‘patient zero’ — what we call patient zero in Westchester, New Rochelle — who was very sick for a very long time, he has actually gone home,” Cuomo said, adding: “He’s out of the hospital.”

Originally diagnosed with pneumonia, Garbuz, 50, had been on a ventilator and in an induced coma from March 1. His wife, Adina Lewis Garbuz, announced on social media on March 18 that he had wakened from his coma.

Garbuz was directly connected to 37 other confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York, including his wife, two of their children and a neighbor. Following his diagnosis, a one-mile containment zone was set up around his synagogue, the Young Israel of New Rochelle.

Cuomo was asked what those observing Passover and Easter should do when large gatherings are prohibited and people are being urged to remain in their homes.

“Worship the way you can, but the gatherings are just not a good idea,” he said. “It’s hard. But on the flip side I say look at what happened in New Rochelle: Those gatherings that brought people together were religious gatherings and brought hundreds of people together, which was beautiful, but made a lot of people ill.”

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Monsey stabbing victim, in coma since December attack, has died

Mon, 2020-03-30 11:18

(JTA) — The most seriously injured victim of the stabbing attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey in late December has died.

Josef Neumann, 72, died on Sunday afternoon. Though he remained in a coma from the time of the attack to his death, he had begun to open his eyes in February, leading to calls to keep praying for a full recovery.

The assailant’s knife penetrated Neumann’s skull and cut into his brain. His right arm also was shattered. Four other people were injured in the Dec. 28, 2019 attack.

The first announcement of his death came in a tweet from the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council.

Neumann had seven children, “many grandchildren,” a great-grandchild, and brothers and sisters.

The alleged stabber, Grafton Thomas, 37, has pleaded not guilty to 10 federal hate crimes charges along with six counts of attempted murder and several assault and burglary counts in Rockland County court.

If it is determined that Neumann died of his injuries, Thomas could face the death penalty.

We are sad to inform you that Yosef Neumann who was stabbed during the Hanukah attack in Monsey late Dec 2019, passed away this evening.

— OJPAC (@OJPAC) March 30, 2020

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William Helmreich, sociologist of U.S. Jewry and inveterate New Yorker, dies of coronavirus

Mon, 2020-03-30 11:15

(JTA) — Sociologist William Helmreich, 74, an academic with eclectic interests whose areas of expertise ranged from race relations to urban life to Orthodox Jewry, died of coronavirus on Saturday.

A longtime professor at City College of the City University of New York, Helmreich penned more than a dozen books, ranging from the seminal 1982 book “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry” to “What Was I Thinking: The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.”

“Helmreich is extraordinarily energetic and voluble,” The New Yorker wrote of Helmreich in a 2013 piece by Joshua Rothman about Helmreich’s chronicle of his urban walks in New York City, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in New York City.” Research for the book had Helmreich walking city streets nearly every day for four years, and he later expanded his work by following up with specific guides for each borough.

“I love the city,” Helmreich was quoted as saying. “I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.”

Born in Switzerland in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Helmreich came to the United States as an infant and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He went to Yeshiva University for college and obtained his doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis.

He lived most of his life in Great Neck, on New York’s Long Island, where he was part of the local Orthodox Jewish community. Helmreich was a member of Great Neck Synagogue.

“Willie was in precisely the wrong profession for the coronavirus: He was a sociologist and he loved interacting with people,” Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Social distancing was not in his nature. Connecting with people is the point of his book about walking New York, and his scholarship also saw him exercising his interview skills in a wide range of ways. His book ‘The World of the Yeshiva’ pioneered a subject that few, at the time, considered worthy of study.”

Among Helmreich’s other books are “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives they Made in America,” “The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and Metrowest,” and “The Black Crusaders: A Case Study of a Black Militant Organization.”

At the City University of New York, Helmreich held the title of “distinguished professor,” the highest academic honor that CUNY bestows on its faculty.

Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine, and three children: Deborah Halpern, Joseph Helmreich, and Jeffrey Helmreich, a professor of philosophy and law at University of California, Irvine. A fourth child, Alan, died two decades ago.

A private graveside funeral took place Sunday. Due to the pandemic restrictions in place in New York, in-person shiva visits are not possible.

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Influential Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki remembered for promoting ‘cultural dialogue’ between Poland and Israel

Mon, 2020-03-30 00:30

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki died Sunday at 86 in Krakow, Poland, and was remembered by the Israeli embassy in Warsaw.

“His work has found a special place in the hearts of music lovers and will be remembered in Israel as having great significance for cultural dialogue between Poland and Israel,” the embassy said on Facebook.

Penderecki’s avant-garde and at time atonal compositions made him one of the most respected classical music composers of the 20th century, but he also composed scores for Hollywood films like “The Shining” and “The Exorcist” and collaborated with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who was an avid fan of his work.

Penderecki, who was not Jewish, was born in 1933 in D?bica in southern Poland. He witnessed the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in his hometown during World War II. His early work was inspired by the war’s brutality, including the “Death Brigade,” composed on the 20th anniversary of liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Penderecki’s “Seventh Symphony” commemorated Jerusalem’s 3,000 year anniversary in 1996. He combined motifs typical of Middle Eastern music with Christian elements.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lorin Maazel, premiered the piece in 1997.

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New Jersey man arrested after threatening Orthodox Jews for ignoring coronavirus restrictions

Sun, 2020-03-29 18:31

(JTA) — A New Jersey man sent Facebook messages to Gov. Phil Murphy and others threatening harm Orthodox Jews for violating state coronavirus restrictions.

Anthony Lodespoto, 43, of Howell, was charged Friday with making terroristic threats during a state of emergency, law enforcement officials said in a statement.

Lodespoto allegedly used Facebook’s direct messaging feature to threaten the Jewish community of Lakewood, a New Jersey township with a large Orthodox population that has reported a higher number of coronavirus cases than surrounding areas.

“The threats largely consisted of Lodespoto threatening to travel to Lakewood with the purpose of assaulting members of the Jewish community with a baseball bat,” the statement said.

As of Thursday, Lakewood had 198 confirmed COVID-19 cases, by far the most in Ocean County, according to the county Health Department, the Asbury Park Press news site reported.

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Bernie Sanders’ Florida campaign office vandalized with swastikas

Sun, 2020-03-29 18:25

(JTA) — A Florida campaign office for Bernie Sanders was vandalized with swastikas.

A tweet Saturday from the Florida for Bernie account showed two large swastikas painted in black and the words “voting didn’t stop us last time.” It did not say where in Florida the office is located.

“Didn’t know if we should share, but one of our grassroots Bernie offices in Florida was vandalized with swastikas. Sheriff sent a team to clean it up. But Bernie is just another old white man, right?” it said.

Several replies called the vandalism “fake.” Others accused a Sanders staffer of drawing the graffiti.

Earlier this month a protester identified as a known white supremacist unfurled a Nazi flag at a Sanders rally in Phoenix.

Sanders has been more open about his Jewish identity during the current Democratic primary contest, but he trails former Vice President Joe Biden in the race.

Didn’t know if we should share, but one of our grassroots Bernie offices in Florida was vandalized with swastikas. Sheriff sent a team to clean it up. But Bernie is just another old white man, right? pic.twitter.com/zRFxdTBKKQ

— Florida for Bernie (@FL4Bernie2020) March 28, 2020

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Conservative pastor says spread of coronavirus in synagogues is punishment from God

Sun, 2020-03-29 18:21

(JTA) — Rick Wiles, the Florida pastor who claimed that the effort to impeach President Trump was a “Jew coup,” said the spread of coronavirus in synagogues is a punishment of the Jewish people for opposing Jesus.

Wiles made the claim Wednesday on his TruNews broadcast.

“The people who are going in to the synagogue are coming out of the synagogue with the virus,” Wiles said. “It’s spreading in Israel through the synagogues. God is spreading it in your synagogues! You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues. Repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and the plague will stop.”

Wiles also claimed that the U.S. outbreak started at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, D.C., in early March. In fact, the first case and the first outbreak were both reported in Washington state.

In November, Wiles called the impeachment effort a “Jew coup,” and said that Jews will also “kill millions of Christians.” Wiles’ TruNews website regularly releases anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic videos.

In February, TruNews was permanently banned from YouTube, but it continues to receive media credentials from the White House.


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