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Beirut synagogue appears to suffer only minor damage from bombing

Fri, 2020-08-07 13:48

(JTA) — A photograph said to be of Beirut’s only synagogue shows minor damage to the interior of the 95-year-old building from a blast this week in the city.

The image of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue appeared Thursday on the page of a Facebook group called the Lebanese Jewish Community Council. Lebanon has no organized Jewish community and very few Jewish residents, if any.

More than 150 people died in the blast, which authorities initially said occurred at a storage facility for  ammonium nitrate. But President Michel Aoun on Friday said the possibility of “foreign intervention” is also being examined.

The blast obliterated some buildings and heavily damaged thousands more, rendering about 300,000 people homeless, according to The Daily Star.

The photo shows some debris and dust on the floor of the synagogue and on plastic sheets covering the pews. The walls show no cracks and it’s not clear whether the glass windows were shattered, but the frames seem to be in place.

The blast occurred on Tuesday about a mile west of the synagogue, which is adjacent to the Grand Serail government palace. That building sustained more significant damage, including doors that were torn from their hinges.

Initial reports on social media spoke of heavy damage to the synagogue as well, and some even said it had been destroyed.

The synagogue reopened last year following extensive renovations.

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Blow shofar sparingly and outside, Dutch rabbis warn worshippers

Fri, 2020-08-07 13:44

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — The shofar should only be blown sparingly and outside this year because of the coronavirus, Dutch rabbis said.

The advisory on the blowing of the ram’s horn ahead, a core practice associated with the upcoming celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, came Friday from the Dutch Conference of Rabbis, or NCRZ, the country’s highest Orthodox rabbinical body.

Rabbis “should consider inviting congregations to go out to the synagogue’s yard and blow the shofar there, outside the actual building,” the advisory read. It also recommends blowing the shofar outside people’s homes if they cannot attend synagogue services, which are limited to a few dozen people because of the virus.

The Organization of Jewish Communities in the Netherlands, or NIK, asked the Conference of Rabbis to consider the issue ahead of the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, which begins on Aug. 21 this year. It is customary to blow the shofar daily throughout Elul, though this is “by no means required,” the advisory said. Hearing the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah itself, which begins this year on Sept. 19, is considered a religious obligation.


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Construction firm withdraws lawsuit to evict synagogue in Uzbekistan

Fri, 2020-08-07 13:38

(JTA) — A construction firm in the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan withdrew a lawsuit that aimed to evict a synagogue to make way for apartment buildings.

Absolute Business Trade ended its legal efforts last week amid an international outcry over its fight to have the Beth Menachem Ashkenazi synagogue in the capital Tashkent vacate a property the firm had taken over with the intention of building luxury apartments, according to a statement from the Uzbek government’s Committee on Religious Affairs.

JTA last week reported on the dispute based on an article published in the Russian-Jewish weekly L’Chaim. Multiple newspapers and forums in Uzbekistan and beyond have reported on the dispute.

The firm “has withdrawn a claim for ownership of a plot of land belonging to the European Jewish Religious Community in Tashkent. Accordingly, the demolition of the synagogue belonging to the European Jewish Religious Community in Tashkent was prevented,” the committee said.

The firm withdrew its lawsuit during a court hearing on Aug. 5, Zeev Levin, the head of the Hebrew University’s Central Asian Research Unit, confirmed to JTA.

“The court noted that the Republic of Uzbekistan is a multi-religious state,” the committee statement said. It ensures the “full protection of the rights of members of any denomination by law.”

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Adin Steinsaltz, acclaimed scholar who made the Talmud more accessible, dies at 83

Fri, 2020-08-07 11:44

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinzaltz, the acclaimed scholar whose landmark translation of the Talmud enabled a vast readership to access one of Judaism’s most canonical texts, has died.

Steinsaltz died Friday at 83 in Jerusalem.

Steinsaltz’s monumental translation of the 63 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud made the arcane rabbinic debates and folkloric tales easier to comprehend, unlocking the wonders of Talmud study for those lacking a high-level Jewish education. The project took 45 years to complete.

Steinsaltz not only rendered the forbidding Aramaic text into modern Hebrew, but integrated his own commentary into the sparse language of the original, filling in gaps in the text that had previously required deep familiarity with the internal mechanics of talmudic discourse to decipher.

A new English version of the Steinsaltz Talmud by the Koren publishing house, and a free version of the translation available on the website Sefaria, further expanded Steinsaltz’s reach.

“The Talmud was never meant to be an elitist book,” said Arthur Kurzweil, the author of two books about Steinsaltz and a board member of the Aleph Society, which raises funds to support the rabbi’s work. “It was meant to be for everybody. So Rabbi Steinsaltz spent 45 years trying and succeeding to make that happen.”

Described as a once-in-a-millennium scholar, Steinsaltz was renowned for his prodigious intellect and tireless work ethic. He was reputed to put in 17-hour workdays.

Authoring a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud alone put him in a category alongside Rashi, the medieval French scholar whose commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, composed 1,000 years ago, is considered the most authoritative. But Steinsaltz also wrote another 60 books on topics ranging from Jewish ethics to theology to prayer to mysticism. He also helped establish educational institutions in Israel and the former Soviet Union.

Born to secular parents in Jerusalem in 1937, Steinsaltz embraced Jewish practice as a teenager. Though his father was an irreligious socialist, he sent his son to study Talmud with a tutor at the age of 10. Steinsaltz’s intellectual gifts were evident early, when he became the youngest school principal in Israel at 23.

In 1965, Steinsaltz founded the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, the same year he began his Talmud translation. His work was driven by a desire to educate large numbers of Jews about their heritage. “Let my people know,” was his favorite slogan.

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish,” Steinsaltz told JTA in 2010 on the occasion of the completion of the translation. “But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”

The completion of the translation was accompanied by a global day of Jewish learning connecting 360 Jewish communities in 48 countries. The event has since become an annual affair.

Steinsaltz’s work was long deemed controversial. His Talmud departed from longstanding conventions, introducing punctuation and paragraph breaks, altering the pagination and placing his own commentary in the space around the main text that had previously been the domain of Rashi.

Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leading haredi Orthodox rabbi in Israel, called Steinsaltz a heretic and forbade his followers from reading his works, apparently out of concern for some passages in two works on the Bible that Steinsaltz subsequently agreed to modify. Shach insisted that all of Steinsaltz’s work was heretical, however, another eminent 20th-century authority, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, approved of the Steinsaltz Talmud. In 1998, Jacob Neusner, a Conservative rabbi and noted scholar of Judaism, published a 250-page book entitled “How Adin Steinsaltz Misrepresents the Talmud.”

Steinsaltz was also criticized for accepting the leadership of a modern-day Sanhedrin, a recreation of the ancient rabbinic body. Steinsaltz resigned the post in 2008 out of concern for potential breaches of Jewish law.

But none of that slowed Steinsaltz’s embrace as an unparalleled scholar of Judaism, both in the Jewish world and beyond. He was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest cultural honor, in 1998, along with the inaugural Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, the French Order of Arts and Literature, and a 2012 National Jewish Book Award. He was invited to deliver the prestigious Terry Lectures at Yale University and was a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. In 2016, he was invited to a private audience with the pope.

Among his best-known works beyond the Talmud translation is “The Thirteen Petalled Rose,” an introduction to Jewish mysticism first published in 1980. A follower of the Chabad Hasidic movement, Steinsaltz also authored several books on Tanya, one of the group’s core texts. In 2018, he published a translation and commentary on the Five Books of Moses.

Despite his massive intellectual achievements, Steinsaltz often appears slightly disheveled in public and had a playful streak. Kurzweil recalled an appearance at a Long Island yeshiva at which Steinsaltz encouraged the students to do everything they could to make their teachers’ lives miserable, and even suggested a source book where they could find difficult questions sure to flummox them.

“He’s a troublemaker and he’s got a gleam in his eye at all times,” said Kurzweil, who served as Steinsaltz’s driver during his visits to New York. “He’s up to mischief sometimes. He likes to question everything.”

Long plagued by ill health, Steinsaltz suffered a stroke in 2016 that left him unable to speak.

“Jewish learning is created by the Jews and is also creating the Jews,” Steinsaltz said in 2010. “When you learn, you learn about yourself. So learning one page of the Talmud is equivalent to two or three sessions with a psychoanalyst. That’s why people are interested — Jewish learning is a mirror into our soul.”

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Elliott Abrams named envoy on Iran issues

Thu, 2020-08-06 23:22

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Elliott Abrams, a longtime foreign policy hawk, is adding Iran to Venezuela in his portfolio of countries whose governments the Trump administration wants to be neutralized.

Axios on Thursday reported that Abrams would replace Brian Hook, who is stepping down from the Iran job.

Abrams, who since last year has been leading efforts to isolate the Maduro regime in Venezuela, has served multiple Republican presidents. He was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan presidency, which used money from weapons illicitly sold to Iran to illicitly fund right-wing insurgents in Central America.

The Trump administration quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in 2015 in hopes of extracting a better deal from Iran through economic and diplomatic pressure. Hook has been leading that enterprise.

Abrams was a trenchant critic of the Obama administration’s Iran policies, including the 2015 sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

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The centrality (or not) of Israel for progressives

Thu, 2020-08-06 21:46

Welcome to The Tell, the week's Jewish news from Washington by Ron Kampeas, JTA's Washington Bureau Chief.-->WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan, calls Bernie Sanders “Amo Bernie,” using the Arabic term of endearment for “uncle.”

I learned that Wednesday night watching an hourlong lovefest hosted by the Vermont senator on his YouTube channel for three candidates he has endorsed: Tlaib (who beat a primary opponent in her Detroit district), Cori Bush (who just ousted a longtime pro-Israel congressman in St. Louis) and Jamaal Bowman (who recently toppled the longtime pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel in New York).

I got to wondering why she didn’t just use “Uncle,” or the Hebrew “dod” or the Yiddish “feter” or even “saba” or “zayde”  — Sanders is Jewish and spent time as a young man in Israel. 

Of course, I learned about more than Sanders’ family-like dynamics with his progressive endorsees. Notably, here were four thorns in the sides of the centrist and right-wing pro-Israel movement, and Israel never came up in their conversation. 

What does that mean for progressives and Israel? I dove into that here



 My colleague Gabe Friedman and I review a short list of likely contenders to be Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate — from a Jewish angle.

Backed by Barack

Barack Obama released his list of endorsements for this election year, and while Bowman celebrated the endorsement, Obama’s fuller list indicated that as in 2018, he was more interested in pushing likely winners over the line than he was in embracing any ideological trends. Among the first round of more than 100 endorsements were moderate Jewish Democrats seeking to hold onto districts they took from Republicans: Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey, Susan Wild in Pennsylvania and Elaine Luria in Virginia.

Undiplomatic diplomat

President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Germany, Douglas Macgregor, is pulling off the rare Trump-era feat of uniting Jews from across the political spectrum in opposition to him. CNN’s K File unearthed a long history of the retired general’s attacks on Muslims and immigrants. That earned him rebukes from the Jewish left, with J Street Vice President Dylan Williams decrying his “shameful record of expressing profoundly bigoted views.” 

Weighing in from the center was the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, who was appalled by Macgregor’s statement in 2018 on Nazi Germany. “There’s sort of a sick mentality that says that generations after generations must atone for sins of what happened in 13 years of German history,” Macgregor said.

B’nai B’rith International, which tacks to the right on foreign policy, had raised concerns about Macgregor even before the K File story was posted, noting his past propensity to insinuate that “neocons” serving Israel’s interests were controlling U.S. foreign policy. “It is important that American diplomats not question the patriotism of other Americans who hold political views different from their own, especially given that questioning Jewish loyalty to America is an anti-Semitic trope,” B’nai B’rith said.

Gumby on fire!

What did we learn from a Biden campaign gabfest on anti-Semitism? Some things about anti-Semitism — but even more about its participants: Rep. Adam Schiff, Sen. Jacky Rosen and “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander (who still longs for the Gumby toy his menorah set alight).


In this photo illustration the USAID logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

At the Daily Beast, Will Sommer analyzes the perplexing dalliance between right-wing provocateur Jacob Wohl and Merritt Corrigan, a conservative Christian who was one of the White House liaisons to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Part of their romancing allegedly included cooking up a false charge that Eliot Engel solicited prostitutes. It gets weirder.


A tweet from The Lens. (Twitter)

 The Lens, a New Orleans news site, posts the most pandemic-era correction ever.


Share your thoughts on The Tell, or suggest a topic for us. Connect with Ron Kampeas on Twitter at @kampeas or email him at thetell@jta.org.

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Israel may not top progressive agendas now, but tensions with the pro-Israel community will persist

Thu, 2020-08-06 21:12

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Israel issue isn’t necessarily toward the top of the progressive to-do lists at the moment, but that doesn’t mean elements of the movement are any less at odds with the pro-Israel community.

That was evident in an interview this week that the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City co-chairwoman, Sumathy Kumar, gave with the news site Kings County Politics.

Here’s the passage involving Israel:

Kings County Politics: I noticed in the DSA questionnaire given to all local candidates looking for DSA support before this year’s state races that they were asked if they support Divestment, Sanction and Boycott (BDS) the state of Israel for their policies regarding Palestinians. Does the DSA support BDS as a policy plank?

Kumar: The DSA is in favor of BDS and believes everybody has a right to their home. Obviously in New York City, we don’t have that much that we’re doing around that here, but we have a national organization that focuses on international affairs.

So does the DSA support the existence of the state of Israel?

I feel like that’s not really relevant to this conversation.

That’s a tough stance to back in a country that’s still overwhelmingly pro-Israel. But it’s worth noting that not all progressives feel this way. Ritchie Torres, a progressive being backed by pro-Israel groups who secured the Democratic nomination last month in a Bronx congressional district, did not think the exchange made much sense.

“The leadership of the DSA declines to affirm that the state of Israel should exist,” he said on Twitter. “’Insane’ is the word that comes to mind.”

On Wednesday night, four Democrats whose Israel positions rile the pro-Israel community — notably Sen. Bernie Sanders — met for an hourlong conversation on YouTube and Israel never came up.

Sanders, the erstwhile presidential candidate who has repeatedly angered the pro-Israel community for saying things like the United States should move money to Gaza from the funds earmarked for defense assistance for Israel, was joined by three progressives he is endorsing: Jamaal Bowman of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri.

Bowman in a recent primary ousted longtime pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel and, like Sanders, said he would condition assistance to Israel. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman from a Detroit-area district who just won her primary, believes in a binational one-state solution and backs BDS.

Bush in a primary just ousted a longtime pro-Israel congressman, Lacy Clay, in the St. Louis area. She is expected to win the general election and would become the third House member to support the boycott Israel movement along with Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

In the event on the Sanders campaign’s YouTube channel, each of the candidates told compelling stories about themselves and their constituents who had to overcome institutionalized adversity. Bowman, for example, described how his experience as a middle-school principal informed his campaign.

“I approached education, first and foremost, as a teacher, school counselor, middle-school principal, and then maybe like a social justice educator,” he said. “You know it wasn’t just about providing a quality academic environment. It was about social and emotional learning, it was about mental health, it was about interrogating the community and why certain communities lived in concentrated poverty and others did not.”

The pro-Israel community may take some comfort in the absence of the mention of Israel, but as the Kings County interview shows, it should not.

Compelling narratives of class struggle are what is winning elections for these candidates. And when their Israel-critical posture emerges, it will be inextricably woven into those narratives, in no small part because of the tendency of some pro-Israel activists to make enemies of these folks.

Bush removed from her campaign website the page in which she endorsed BDS. Still, Clay made it an issue — he sent around a mailer that highlighted her BDS support and his own pro-Israel record.

Russel Neiss, a St. Louis-area Jewish educator and technologist, analyzed the mailing and said it went mostly to an area with large concentrations of Jews.

Pro-Israel PACs spent $1.5 million into a bid to defeat Bowman, a similar amount to defeat Sanders and millions in an effort to replace Omar, who faces a primary next week. The only thing protecting Tlaib from a similar onslaught was her primary rival’s associations with Louis Farrakhan, who has spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric over the years.

How tightly the Israel postures of these progressives are tied to their appeal was evident in how Bowman celebrated this week when he learned that he had earned the endorsement of Barack Obama. Bowman told his followers on Twitter that he heard the former president  endorsed him in part after reading his letter to Rabbi Avi Weiss in trying to address the longtime New York Jewish activist’s concerns about the candidate’s Israel policies.

“He loved it,” Bowman said.

Notably, Weiss did not.

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Polish-language newspaper in Toronto blames Jews for the pandemic

Thu, 2020-08-06 20:36

(JTA) – A Polish-language newspaper in Toronto has published an article blaming Jews for the coronavirus pandemic.

B’nai Brith Canada, an organization that fights anti-Semitism, has filed a police complaint over the article published twice by the G?os Polski weekly.

“Propagating the lie that Jews are responsible for COVID-19 must be met with criminal charges, especially when someone does so repeatedly,” said Michael Mostyn, the CEO of B’nai Brith Canada.

According to B’nai Brith, the article blamed the coronavirus pandemic on the Jewish community, claimed Jews were responsible for the creation of ISIS, and called Israel the source of the world’s problems and “an emanation of the Devil himself.”

The article also claimed that communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an were actually Jewish.

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Hostage-taker at French bank demands Israel free Palestinian children ‘unjustly imprisoned’

Thu, 2020-08-06 20:14

(JTA) — A man who holed up inside a bank in northern France on Thursday with several hostages told the media that he would free them if Israel “liberates Palestinian children unjustly imprisoned” and allows greater access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The man, who was not named and is presumed to be armed, took six hostages at the BRED bank branch at the center of Le Havre, a coastal city located about 100 miles northwest of Paris. He has allowed four of the hostages to leave and two remain.

The man’s demands on Al-Aqsa were that Palestinians under the age of 40 also be allowed to enter the site, according to RTL. He is in contact with police forces, who have surrounded the bank.

Le Havre does not have a large Jewish community.

Israel routinely limits access by worshippers to the mosque, especially following frequent rioting there. But such restrictions are currently not in place.

The mosque and other places of worship had been closed for two months through May 27 due to emergency measures connected to the coronavirus.

The Jordanian Waqf, a religious authority that enjoys some nonadministrative autonomy in and around the mosque, is limiting the number of visitors to only a few dozen at any given time. The restriction is not applied according to age.

BRED, whose French-language acronym stands for “regional accounts and deposits bank,” is a cooperative that was founded in 1919 by a non-Jewish person and is not widely associated with Jews in France.

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Dallas prayer service ‘Zoom bombed’ with messages including ‘Kill All Jews, Bomb Israel’

Thu, 2020-08-06 18:38

(JTA) — A virtual prayer session that included several Dallas-area synagogues was “Zoom bombed” by intruders shouting hate messages.

The incident took place on July 30, the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av.

The intruders, faces covered, shouted and typed comments such as “Kill All Jews, Bomb Israel” and “Hail (sic) Hitler,” Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky of Congregation Shaare Tefilla told the Dallas News. One continued to make the Nazi salute.

“We’re not commemorating something — we are actually living through it. This is what Tisha B’Av looks like in the year 2020,” he told the newspaper.

Some 100 people, ranging in age from preteens to 80 years old, were on the Zoom call at the time. After about five minutes the rabbis terminated the call and started a new one. One of the rabbis called the FBI, according  to the report.

An FBI spokesman would not tell the newspaper whether the incident was being treated as a hate crime, but said such incidents are treated seriously.

Fashion blogger Elizabeth Savetsky posted a few seconds of the Zoom-bombed call on Instagram and it has had more than 62,000 views.

“Today, on Tisha B’av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, we are blatantly reminded of the growing movements of radicals who want to take our lives,” she wrote in the post. “The threat is no longer looming in the distance. It is upon our very community. We will not stand down, we will not tolerate the overwhelming hate! Hashem, hear our cry!! We need Your protection!”

View this post on Instagram

This morning, our very own synagogue’s virtual prayer service was hijacked by people spewing horrific antisemitic hate speech including, “KILL ALL JEWS,” and “HAIL HITLER.” This is a federal hate crime! Today, on Tisha B’av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, we are blatantly reminded of the growing movements of radicals who want to take our lives. The threat is no longer looming in the distance. It is upon our very community. We will not stand down, we will not tolerate the overwhelming hate! Hashem, hear our cry!! We need Your protection!

A post shared by Elizabeth Savetsky (@elizabethsavetsky) on Jul 30, 2020 at 10:00am PDT

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Delaware to require teaching of the Holocaust and genocide

Thu, 2020-08-06 18:29

(JTA) — The state of Delaware will require the teaching of a Holocaust curriculum in middle and high schools starting with the 2021-22  term.

A bill signed into law late last month by Gov. John Carney mandates that public schools implement curriculum on the Holocaust and genocide for students in grades 6 through 12. Each district can develop its own curriculum, according to the Delaware State News.

The Halina Wind Preston Holocaust Education Committee of the Jewish Federation of Delaware, an interfaith volunteer group comprised of Holocaust survivors and their families, Holocaust scholars, teachers, clergy and community advocates will provide guidance and resources, according to the report.

The bill passed the state legislature unanimously.

Ann Jaffe, a Holocaust survivor living in Delaware, participated in the signing via videoconference. She spoke to the House and Senate about her experiences and has regularly spoken at schools in the state for several decades.

“I am the last generation of first-hand witnesses, and I am 89-years-old. I am glad to know that when I will be gone, the schools will continue our work,” Jaffe said in a statement at the signing, WDEL reported. “The importance of teaching the Holocaust and about genocide in Delaware schools is great. How can we expect our children to remember and learn from history they did not know?”

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Philadelphia Jewish federation says it won’t cooperate with local NAACP because of its leader’s ‘anti-Jewish’ posts

Thu, 2020-08-06 18:22

(JTA) — The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said it will not work with the local chapter of the NAACP over “an alarming amount of bigoted and anti-Jewish sentiments” on his social media channels and the mosque he leads.

Rodney Muhammad “still has yet to fully apologize for his most recent actions,” the federation said in a statement updated earlier this week.

The statement also said that while the federation would continue to work with the national office of the NAACP and other local chapters, “our obligation to oppose hate and discrimination will prevent us from working with the Philadelphia chapter while Mr. Muhammad is employed there.”

Last month, Muhammad posted a meme on his public Facebook page known as “the Happy Merchant,” an image that the Anti-Defamation League says is commonly used by white supremacists. The meme included photos of  Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon, Black celebrities who recently posted anti-Semitic comments on social media, and the quote “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” falsely attributed to French philosopher Voltaire but which originated with Kevin Strom, an American neo-Nazi. (Jackson and Cannon have apologized.)

The post was later removed.

The NAACP national leadership announced Wednesday that it will not cut ties with Muhammad, the Philadelphia Tribune reported. It cited an email statement from NAACP spokeswoman Austyn Ross saying that the national leadership was “saddened and deeply disappointed by the harm caused by Mr. Muhammad’s actions” and that Muhammad “now recognizes the offensive nature of the imagery and post.”

National NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Muhammad will meet with community and faith leaders in the coming weeks to “open a dialogue and continue the educational conversations,” the statement said.

In a widely reported statement released a week ago, Muhammad said “I do regret the insult, pain and offense it caused to all, particularly those of the Jewish community, by this unfortunate episode.”

Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, both Jewish, reportedly have called for Muhammad’s resignation.

Muhammad is up for reelection in November, according to the Tribune. He is the minister of a North Philadelphia mosque affiliated with the Nation of Islam network. The Nation of Islam’s leader, Louis Farrakhan, has made a number of anti-Semitic comments over the years.

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Powerful Jewish women face vicious tropes — they’re being used against Biden’s VP choice, too

Thu, 2020-08-06 16:25

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It has already begun. Leaks about “allies” warning Joe Biden about naming Kamala Harris as his running mate because she “had no remorse” for the gall of actually competing in the primaries. Or comments that Harris “rubs people the wrong way” but that Karen Bass doesn’t. Or that Susan Rice should smile more.

It’s a trope as old as time — reframe a strong, ambitious woman as a bitch. Pit two women against each other. Tell a woman to smile. What’s next? Publicly worrying that once a month she might become “hysterical”?

Add racism, and all of this is heightened further if the candidate is also a woman of color. If this is what we’re hearing from allies of Biden, what’s going to happen once the Republicans weigh in?

Get ready, folks. The tap of misogyny has opened and the floodwaters are about to pour forth.

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My own organization, Jewish Women International, represents more than 120 years of standing and fighting at the forefront of social justice issues — violence against women and girls, access to health care, systemic inequity. Through it all, we have had to continually push back against negative stereotypes that seek to diminish us. 

We think back on our early years of raising the issue of domestic violence in the Jewish community only to be told it didn’t happen — or were countered with stories of “nice Jewish boys” and their “nagging” wives.

We are at once the loudmouthed, overly ambitious troublemakers and annoying, anxiety-producing mothers living only through the success of our children. We are the backbone of our community organizations and passed over as unqualified for the top seats. We are Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, yet are mocked as Sylvia Fine (“The Nanny”), Susie Green (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Mrs. Wolowitz (“The Big Bang Theory”). 

For those of us who work to end intimate partner violence, we know that at the root of violence and aggression is power and control. And nothing is more threatening than a powerful woman — not even a powerful man. 

A powerful woman is somehow emasculating. Think of these early critiques of the possibility of Harris as Biden’s running mate. How dare she have successfully challenged him during the primary debates! Had a man made the same provocations, his being named as the VP candidate would have been lauded as a brilliant move.

Hillary Clinton faced this in 2016. Peter Beinart, in the October 2016 issue of The Atlantic, reported pins at the Republican National Convention that read “Trump 2016: finally someone with balls.” And, “Life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one.” Even a T-shirt reading “Hillary sucks but not like Monica.”

Of course, there are also the quieter, more subtle remarks — “she doesn’t look presidential” or “there’s just something about her I don’t like.” And don’t get us started on the fashion critiques, or the slut shaming that our young women share during our workshops on campus sexual assault.

We faced the wrath of online trolls just a few years ago when we were working on a program to prevent get abuse in the Jewish community and were trolled on our Facebook page by men stating the women “claiming” to be agunot — women seeking a Jewish divorce who are trapped in a marriage — were actually “golddiggers.”

So we know what’s coming. And more than the whispered “concerns” about likability that are festering and growing in the back rooms of political consultant’s offices is the hate that will spew on social media.

Already the platforms have allowed anti-Semitism to flow freely on their networks. Under the guise of “free speech” or even, as Mark Zuckerberg has used to defend the proliferation of Holocaust denial, the freedom to be misinformed, anti-Semitic groups are using social media to build their following. 

Allowed to run free, misogynist campaigns are even more insidious on social media because of the inherent echo chamber. We live in a world driven by clickbait. Anti-Semitism, misogyny and hate are not only allowed to grow and become weaponized online, platforms intentionally push them to our newsfeeds. People click on the sensational. And platforms have advertising fees and revenue driven by clicks; their newsfeed algorithms are created to amplify incendiary content. 

We expect better, especially from Facebook, whose COO Sheryl Sandberg, herself a Jewish woman, boldly exerted us to “ban bossy.” In fact, her site banbossy.com explains on its homepage: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.”

Sandberg understands. She knows how words are used to fortify the glass ceiling. Girls can’t grow up to be president (or vice president) — after all, they are bossy or whiny or petty or don’t smile enough. So then why isn’t she doing more to raise awareness on her own platform? If we can pledge to stop calling middle-school girls bossy, how about we do the same for vice presidential candidates?

Of course, we’re screaming into the void. Sandberg and others will stand silently behind their calls for “free speech” as female candidates are skewered. “Ban bossy” only applies when there isn’t advertising to be sold. 

But we know. And we’ll be watching. And we’ll be calling out the misogyny and disinformation and the efforts to depress the vote.

After all, we’re strong, Jewish women. We know what it means to stand up and speak out.

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USC student government leader says she quit because she was harassed for supporting Israel

Thu, 2020-08-06 16:07

(JTA) — A Jewish student leader at the University of Southern California said she resigned due to harassment over her support for Israel.

Rose Ritch, the vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government, said in an open letter to the campus community Wednesday that she had to resign to “protect my physical safety on campus and my mental health.”

The university administration had recently stopped impeachment proceedings against Ritch over allegations of complicity in racial misconduct on campus, and for not calling out alleged racial misconduct and microaggressive behavior by the student government president, who resigned last month, the Daily Trojan student newspaper reported.

“I have been harassed and pressured for weeks by my fellow students because they opposed one of my identities. It is not because I am a woman, nor because I identify as queer, femme, or cisgender,” Ritch wrote. “All of these identities qualified me as electable when the student body voted last February. But because I also openly identify as a Zionist, a supporter of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, I have been accused by a group of students of being unsuitable as a student leader.

“I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist. Students launched an aggressive social media campaign to “impeach [my] Zionist a**.” This is anti-Semitism, and cannot be tolerated at a University that proclaims to ‘nurture an environment of mutual respect and tolerance.'”

Ritch said that “an attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity,” and that the suggestion that her support for a Jewish homeland makes her unfit for office “plays into the oldest stereotypes of Jews, including accusations of dual loyalty and holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.”

She said the USC student government “has failed to be an inclusive space for numerous communities on campus.”

A USC spokesperson had no immediate comment on Ritch’s accusations, the Daily Trojan reported.

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Ex-Obama health official gives a Rosh Hashanah pep talk on dealing with coronavirus

Thu, 2020-08-06 15:56

(JTA) – As the High Holidays approach, Jews across the country are preparing for a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like none they’ve ever experienced.

Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration official who ran Medicare and Medicaid from 2015 to 2017, wants to encourage his fellow Jews to look on the bright side.

“This is a year for maximum creativity,” Slavitt said in a conversation with Leah Jones, host of the Finding Favorites podcast and the president of her Chicago synagogue.

Slavitt, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic who hosts his own podcast on the pandemic — In the Bubble With Andy Slavitt — emphasized that the main job for synagogues this year is to protect their elderly members who are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus.

“When I say use creativity, don’t lose the spirit of what makes the holiday special,” he said.

Most synagogues across the country have been closed since stay-at-home orders were imposed across the country in March. While many Orthodox synagogues are planning to hold in-person services this year, most Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues this year will conduct High Holiday services over Zoom or other livestreaming platforms.

Jones asked Slavitt to give Jewish listeners a pep talk as they contemplate a High Holiday season without in-person synagogue gatherings.

“It’s undeniable that we’ve made the right choice, but it’s hard to deny people the chance to pray together,” Jones said.

Slavitt encouraged synagogues to reinvent rituals and consider in-person gatherings held outdoors. He mentioned the Kaddish, the memorial prayer, as having a particular resonance this year and as a way to commemorate those who have died in the pandemic.

“Find those special touch points,” he said. “Replace every negative with a positive so if you can’t do an X, don’t just say let’s feel deprived, say let’s do Y instead of X.”

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A Jewish guide to Joe Biden’s VP short list

Thu, 2020-08-06 15:52

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is expected to name his running mate in the next two weeks, and while the list of contenders has changed constantly for months, most reports have now whittled the group of front-runners down to Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Susan Rice, Karen Bass, Tammy Duckworth and Keisha Lance Bottoms.

In that list is a range of opinions on Israel policy, varying levels of history with the Jewish community and multiple other X factors of interest to Jewish-American voters. We’ve broken those down here in a guide (in alphabetical order) to why Biden could pick any of them — from a Jewish angle.

Karen Bass

Rep. Karen Bass in her office at the Rayburn House Office Building, July 30, 2020. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Background: The Los Angeles representative to the U.S. House of Representatives has the rare reputation of being a solid progressive who works well with Republicans. She is known for her preternatural calm, evident when as speaker of the California Assembly she worked with GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 2008-10 financial crisis. Her background in Black civil rights activism would stir excitement among African-American voters.

On Israel: Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, was protective of Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota last year after Omar came under fire for comments that a large part of the pro-Israel community saw as anti-Semitic. Bass said that some of the attacks on Omar, a freshman Democrat, were Islamaphobic. But she also agreed that Omar’s insinuation that pro-Israel groups control Congress with money was “inflammatory” and “viewed as anti-Semitism.” Last summer, Bass co-authored a House resolution to voice support for the two-state solution after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised in political campaigns that he would annex parts of the West Bank, which some believe would endanger the possibility of two states. This June, as Netanyahu edged closer to making annexation a reality, Bass came out strongly against the move and lobbied Republicans to support a letter opposing it.

Eyebrow raisers: Bass has lavishly praised the Castro regime in Cuba and the Church of Scientology. The support for a communist leader could concern some U.S. Jews who fled persecution in other communist regimes, such as the former Soviet Union and places in Latin America.

Fairfax connection: Bass has spoken about growing up with Jews in the historically Jewish Fairfax area of Los Angeles (it was badly damaged after some recent George Floyd protests) and making Jewish friends through civil rights activism. Her first encounter, she told the Jewish Journal, was when she turned up at school on Yom Kippur and was the only one there. “That’s how I contacted the Jewish community,” she said.

Her VP case: Bass has said she regrets those statements on Castro and Scientology, but they could harm Biden, particularly in Florida, with its large Cuban-American community that includes many Jews. Florida, home to one of the nation’s biggest Jewish communities, is not a must-win for Biden, but if he knocks Trump out there — and it looks like he has a chance — the president is finished.

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at the BronzeLens Film Festival Women Superstars Luncheon, Aug. 23, 2019. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Background: The Atlanta mayor since 2017 has been given high marks for resisting Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s anti-mask doctrines during the pandemic and for her sympathetic ear to Black activists. She also has been with Biden through highs and lows: At last year’s Democratic presidential debate in her city, at a time when Biden was down in the polls, she was his surrogate to reporters, forcefully making the presidential case for him.

On Israel: Managing Atlanta is a tough and maturing gig, but she has not developed substantial foreign policy chops. She did chair the drafting committee for the Democratic National Committee’s party platform this year, which hewed to a centrist outlook, calling on Israel’s government to stop settlement expansion but omitting any mention of the word “occupation.”

Jewish shout-outs: Her city has over 100,000 Jews, and she has delivered greetings on Jewish holidays. After the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, Bottoms said that Atlanta stands with “our Jewish brothers and sisters around the nation.

Her VP case: Bottoms is the most unknown to the Jewish community — and the wider political community — on Biden’s short list. But she has shown an ability while in the national spotlight to weather pressure and critique from progressives while strongly advocating for the Black community. And she has been a solid Biden advocate, signaling that she could back him up on Jewish issues.

Tammy Duckworth

Sen. Tammy Duckworth speaks at the 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 25, 2019. (Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Background: The Illinois senator is a military veteran who lost her legs in combat in Iraq. She has been outspoken and cutting in her criticism of President Donald Trump, coining the sobriquet “Cadet Bone Spurs,” an allusion to the dubious pretext Trump used to avoid the military draft. Like Biden, she is a centrist, and her legislative achievements are in the area of veterans’ affairs.

On Israel: Duckworth has been a solid AIPAC Democrat, making a point of publicizing her meetings with its activists at a time that some progressive activists were counseling a boycott. More recently, however, she was one of 18 senators who signed on to a letter that warned Netanyahu that his plans to annex part of the West Bank would “fray” U.S. bonds with Israel. That countered the centrist Democrat line that advocates for strong criticism of annexation while making clear that U.S.-Israel ties are sacrosanct. J Street has endorsed her.

Chicago Jews love her: “Senator Duckworth has been a great friend to the Jewish community and a champion on the issues they care about, from helping the widow, orphan and stranger, to ensuring a safe and secure Israel as a democratic, Jewish state,” Jewish House Rep. Brad Schneider told Jewish Insider. And this from Lauren Gash, a former Jewish member of the Illinois House: “Personally, I feel as an American Jew that she is the kind of leader we can trust to fight for Israel, and that matters to me.” 

Her VP case: On paper, she does not bring the progressive balance to the ticket that the party’s left says is needed to galvanize the voters disappointed by the defeat of Bernie Sanders. And the conservative line on her is, as an Illinois Republican operative told Jewish Insider: “On issues in the Jewish community, [she’s been] absent or on the wrong side.” But her identity as both a woman of color and a decorated military veteran hints at the potential of intriguing a wide swath of voters.

Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris in the Russell Senate Office Building, June 24, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Background: The California senator briefly led the presidential contenders in the polls in mid-2019 when she stood out in the crowded debates — in part by bashing Biden on his civil rights record. Her outspoken feminism and her blunt prosecutorial style on the Senate Judiciary Committee has earned her support from Hillary Clinton-style Democrats and some progressives, while her background as a prosecutor has made her vulnerable to attacks from others to her left.

On Israel: Despite her progressive bona fides, Harris is a staunch pro-Israel liberal who is more AIPAC than J Street — in fact, J Street, the liberal Israel lobby, has never endorsed her, despite the fact that they endorse more than half of Senate Democrats. She pushed back against claims in 2019 that she was boycotting the American Israel Public Affairs Committee by releasing a picture posing with its conference activists. She backs a two-state solution and says that “a resolution to this conflict cannot be imposed” on Israelis or Palestinians. Harris isn’t just talk, though: She also co-sponsored a Senate resolution in early 2017 that essentially rebuked the Obama administration for allowing through a U.S. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies.

She has already broken some glass: She married Jewish lawyer Douglas Emhoff in 2014. His Twitter feed can get sappy about her, in a good way.

Blue box connection: “So having grown up in the Bay Area, I fondly remember those Jewish National Fund boxes that we would use to collect donations to plant trees for Israel,” she said at the AIPAC conference in 2017. “Years later when I visited Israel for the first time, I saw the fruits of that effort and the Israeli ingenuity that has truly made a desert bloom.”

Her VP case: On paper, Harris is very aligned with Biden, who is also a centrist Israel defender, on Israel policy. By picking her, Biden could rest easy on that front while earning some points with progressives who are not thrilled by his record.

Susan Rice

Susan Rice, then the national security adviser, sits in the audience of a joint news conference conducted by President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron in the White House, Jan. 16, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Background: Rice is a veteran diplomat and White House adviser who has served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser and foreign policy adviser to multiple other Democratic presidential nominees. Her strength, clearly, is in international relations. Republicans associate her with the controversy that followed the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and has since then been a lightning rod for critics of Obama’s foreign policy failures.

On Israel: Rice got high marks from the pro-Israel community for defending Israel during her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013, and she has said that countering hostility to Israel took up the largest part of her time at the body. But those plaudits might not resonate so much these days — the Israel advocacy of Rice, or almost any past U.S. ambassador to the body, pales next to the closeness that Trump’s first envoy, Nikki Haley, has forged with Israel and the pro-Israel community. If she is selected, Rice will have to explain the U.S. abstention in December of 2016 on a U.N. Security Council vote to condemn Israel’s settlements. As national security adviser, she was the person who called then-Ambassador Samantha Power instructing her not to use the U.S. veto to kill the resolution.

Darfur defense: Rice is especially close to the Reform movement, having worked with it to expose the genocide in Sudan.

Her VP case: From a non-Jewish political standpoint, Rice brings a wealth of experience handling the entire machinery of government. But Politico reports that Republicans hope Biden chooses her because they believe her associations with Obama, Hillary Clinton and Benghazi would rev up their base. Those connections with Obama extend to the Jewish arena — Jewish voters might see her as a continuation of the Obama-era foreign policy school. For pro-Israel Jews who were not pleased with the friction between Obama and Netanyahu, that could be a liability.

Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a presidential campaign rally in Detroit, March 3, 2020. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Background: The progressive Massachusetts senator has built a big base of support thanks to her rigorously detailed policy stances, her persistence in taking on corporate interests and her commitment to tackling feminist issues. Early on in the presidential campaign, she was a leading candidate.

On Israel: Warren is pro-Israel and firmly believes in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. In an Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed in February, she wrote that she is “committed to Israel’s security and safety.” But she added: “At the same time, branding all criticism of Israel as automatically anti-Semitic has a chilling effect on our public discourse and makes it harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians.” Due to her strong disagreements with Netanyahu policy and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Warren said she would consider conditioning assistance to Israel to influence that policy. She also boycotted this year’s AIPAC conference. She disagrees with the boycott Israel movement, but a member of her presidential campaign, Max Berger, helped found the anti-occupation group IfNotNow and tweeted in 2017 that he “agree[s] with BDS.” Warren as a senator is endorsed by J Street.

Close with the locals and immigrants: After a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, Warren joined the national Jewish initiative called “Show up for Shabbat” and spoke at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts. Her official presidential campaign Twitter account tweeted about several Jewish events: twice in the wake of Pittsburgh, and once each after the Chabad of Poway shooting, the Halle synagogue shooting in Germany, on Yom Hashoah (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day) and on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Warren also pledged during the January 2019 government shutdown to donate her wages to HIAS, the leading Jewish group dealing with immigration issues and the victim of a social media attack by the Tree of Life gunman before the attack.

Her VP case: In terms of winning the Jewish vote, choosing Warren likely wouldn’t net Biden too much — many of Warren’s liberal Jewish supporters will likely swallow the moderate pill and vote for Biden regardless of who is on his ticket. Picking Warren could raise questions about his steadfastness on Israel and other foreign policy.

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‘Umbrella Academy’ co-creator says accusation of anti-Semitism on Netflix show is ‘factually incorrect’

Thu, 2020-08-06 14:37

(JTA) — The co-creator of the Netflix superhero series “The Umbrella Academy” pushed back against criticism that the show features anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Based on a comic book series of the same name, the show includes an underground society of lizard people who secretly control the world and their handler — who speaks Yiddish in at least one scene.

“The accusation of anti-Semitism in ‘The Umbrella Academy’ is hurtful and, more importantly, factually incorrect,” Steve Blackman said in a statement. “I wrote these episodes, created the character, and am myself Jewish. While I understand audiences sometimes receive things in a different way than creators intend, The Handler was not created as an anti-Semitic character.

“The Handler speaks every language, including Swedish, Mandarin, Yiddish, and English as we saw this season, and The Commission is not an evil organization; they do not control finances, governments, or the media. The only thing they control – and more importantly, protect – is the timeline of our fictional Umbrella Academy universe.”

Critics, including on social media, have said that an organization dedicated to controlling the world headed by someone who speaks Yiddish plays into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews published an open letter criticizing the show following the first season.

“The use of a Yiddish saying by the evil boss of an organization which controls the world’s timeline is clearly an anti-Semitic trope,” the group’s vice president, Amanda Bowman, told the Sun, a British tabloid, after the open letter was published. “Whether intentional or not, this makes for very uncomfortable viewing. Netflix should take action to remove the racism from this scene.”

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Russia has a full-time surgeon whose only job is circumcising Jewish men

Thu, 2020-08-06 14:18

(JTA) — The religious Jewish world has created some unusual jobs, from shofar makers to etrog pickers to mashgichim – kosher certifiers whose job is literally to watch others cook.

But one of the more bizarre surely belongs to Dr. Yeshaya Shafit, who is Russia’s only mohel, or professional circumciser, for adult men.

Shafit, a 56-year-old surgeon, travels across that vast country to circumcise about 10 Jewish adults every week, splitting his time between Russia and the United States. Jewish ritual circumcision, called a bris or brit milah, is typically performed on 8-day-old babies, as dictated by Jewish law. Adult circumcision is common for Orthodox converts to the religion and others who become more religious later in life.

In Russia, the adult demand is very high because many Jewish men were denied the procedure during the time of the communist Soviet Union, when Jewish religious practice was effectively outlawed. Throughout the country, circumcision was not allowed unless it was required by a medical condition. 

Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, a Chabad-Lubavitch leader who grew up in Italy and settled in Russia in 1987, remembers a time in his new land when performing a bris required being part of an illegal conspiracy.

“There was a clandestine underground. You’d show up at a designated time, get picked up in a car, blindfolded and taken to an apartment in Moscow where the mohel would wait,” said Lazar, who helped facilitate many of these procedures.

The blindfold was to prevent men who were circumcised from later divulging, willingly or otherwise, the location and identity of those who helped circumcise them, the rabbi explained.

The conditions “were not great for surgeries,” Lazar said, “yet dozens of people asked to be circumcised.”

Fortunately, “nothing bad happened during those clandestine britot,” he added. But as soon as the Soviet Union fell, “it was clear that we needed to improve conditions, and that included hiring an experienced, talented and motivated surgeon for this position.”

The procedure is much more complicated for adults, requiring a skilled surgeon who is qualified to administer anesthesia and perform medical interventions if complications arise. Mohels who perform infant circumcisions are often not doctors.

So Lazar hired Shafit, a Russia native who moved to Israel in the 1980s, in 1990. Shafit spent time as a hand surgeon at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, but returned to Russia to work under Lazar and as a representative of the Brit Yosef Yitzchak charity, an international organization affiliated with Chabad. Founded in 1989, the group facilitates free circumcisions for Jews around the world. 

Before the fall of the Berlin wall, Shafit would perform the circumcisions during his vacations. It’s a tough job involving much travel and time away from his wife and two children living in Philadelphia, he said. (His family had moved there about a decade ago in connection with the higher education of his children.)

Now Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a nonprofit that is the main organization in that country’s Jewish community of about 250,000, keeps a permanent clinic for circumcision in Moscow, where most Russian Jews live.

But Russia, whose land area is nearly twice that of the United States, has many far-flung Jewish communities, including in Kaliningrad in Russia’s far west and Vladivostok, opposite the Japanese shoreline.

His travel expenses are covered by Chabad emissaries who invite him over to perform operations or by Lazar’s office. And Shafit sees the work as a worthy cause.

“It’s like a vaccine for a person’s sense of identity,” he said. “Once you do it, that man will never forget who he is.”

Shafit has circumcised at least 7,000 Russian men since entering his post, with some of the procedures conducted at clinics and hospitals. Rabbis in each city — typically emissaries for the Orthodox Chabad movement, the largest organized Jewish group in Russia — line up several candidates.

Other times Shafit uses more unusual settings: apartments, synagogue back rooms or even a rabbi’s office.

For the more remote communities without a devoted clinic, Shafit came up with a cheap and hygienic solution: foldable massage tables.

“Economic, easily stowed, designed to be cleaned to sterility. Huge improvement,” said Shafit, a laconic interlocutor who during an interview showed a preference to discussing logistics over emotions or ideology. “You’ll find one in the storage room of most Russian provincial synagogues today.” 

These arrangements were of no use during the coronavirus crisis, which hit when he was visiting his family in the U.S. He was kept out of Russia for four months due to the country’s emergency measures. When he was finally allowed to reenter, Shafit had to self-isolate for two more weeks.

Meanwhile, Sergei Chernovol, a 37-year-old man who learned that he is Jewish only two years ago, was “climbing the walls” waiting for Shafit to travel to Chernovol’s hometown of Rostov-on-Don in western Russia.

“I made the decision, picked the date for March 27 — and then everything was canceled indefinitely,” said Chernovol, a renovations contractor who belongs to the Chabad congregation in Rostov and discovered his Jewishness after digging into the history of his maternal relatives.

The waiting was “devastating,” Chernovol said with tears in his eyes during a recent video interview.

His chosen date was the 100th anniversary of the death of the fifth spiritual leader of Chabad, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, who died in Rostov. Two other members of the congregation were supposed to be circumcised at the end of an event commemorating Schneersohn’s passing. 

Shafit finally made it to Rostov, where he circumcised Chernovol and the two others on July 27.

To Chernovol, the sense of urgency stemmed from the Hebrew-language meaning of the term brit milah — its literal translation is “pact of circumcision.”

“Two years after reconnecting with my Jewish identity, I had already made the pact in my mind and my soul,” Chernovol said. “But to move on and live the way I’m supposed to live, I still needed to do the actual milah.”

Getting off Shafit’s operating table was “a great relief, like a weight had been lifted and an obstacle has been cleared,” he added.

“[The circumcision demand] is a symbol to how Russian Jews are connected to Judaism even after decades of repression,” Lazar said, “and the sacrifices they’re willing to make to establish that connection.”

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Jewish federations group gets $5 million US grant to help Holocaust survivors

Thu, 2020-08-06 14:08

(JTA) — A $5 million U.S. government grant will help a Jewish group care for Holocaust survivors and other adults with a history of trauma and their caregivers.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living/Administration on Aging awarded the grant to the Jewish Federations of North America on Wednesday.

The grant will come from annual congressional appropriations as well as $1.6 million in philanthropic contributions, Jewish Federations said in a statement.

The problems of survivors and older adults have become even more acute with social distancing and the threats posed by COVID-19.

“Holocaust survivors are our teachers and our heroes. Now, they are teaching us how to help other older adults who have survived trauma, and their caregivers,” Mark Wilf, the umbrella group’s board chair, said in the statement. “We are honored to partner with the federal government to lead this initiative,”

In addition to aiding Holocaust survivors, the grant will help bring PCTI practices – person-centered trauma information care — to other older adults with a history of trauma and their family caregivers.

PCTI care is a new type of service delivery, spearheaded by JFNA, that promotes trust, dignity, strength and empowerment of individuals by incorporating knowledge about trauma into agency programs, policies and procedures, according to the statement.

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Israeli research institution to launch human trials of coronavirus vaccine

Thu, 2020-08-06 13:47

JERUSALEM (JTA) — An Israeli national research institute will begin human trials of a coronavirus vaccine after the High Holiday season ends in October.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz made the announcement Thursday after visiting the Defense Ministry’s Institute for Biological Research in central Israel, about 13 miles from Tel Aviv.

The vaccine has already been tested successfully on animals.

The human trials will be undertaken “in coordination with the Ministry of Health and in line with medical safety protocol,” Gantz said in a statement following his visit to the institute.

In June, Israel signed a deal with the American biotech company Moderna for a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

Also Thursday, Israel’s so-called coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, told reporters that Israel has the highest per-capita morbidity rate in the world, though it is not clear if he was referring to the number of Israel’s cases overall or over the past several weeks, when the number of new cases per day has skyrocketed.

Gamzu criticized a wedding held the day before in Jerusalem in the Belz Hasidic community in which thousands of people participated, calling it a kind of Russian roulette.

“What we saw at the wedding yesterday is the potential for mass infection,” he said. “It drives me crazy; it makes me angry.”

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