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‘Does he remember me?’: For some Israelis, COVID-19 has meant being separated from their families

Tue, 2020-08-04 18:32

(JTA) — It has been four months and counting since Yaara Mizrachi has seen her one-year-old son.

Mizrachi and her partner have been together for seven years. But because same-sex marriage is illegal in Israel, and was illegal until 2017 in Germany, the two never made their committed relationship legally official. Her partner, who does not wish to be named in the press, lived in Berlin, Mizrachi lived near the port city of Haifa, and they would visit each other often.

At the end of 2017, they decided to have a child and build a life in the same place. Once the baby was born, they planned to spend six months in Germany and six months in Israel, then decide where to live.

It was during the stint in Israel that the coronavirus spread across the globe. On March 13, Mizrachi’s partner flew back to Berlin to be near her aging parents. Because she was the one who gave birth to their son, and he thus did not have Israeli citizenship, she took the baby along.

Five days later, Israel shut its borders to foreigners. Because Mizrachi and her partner weren’t legally married, there has been no way for them to reunite as a family. So, since March, Mizrachi has watched her son grow via videochat, 2,400 miles away.

“I always ask, does he remember me? Does he recognize me?” Mizrachi said. “We were co-parents and now it’s a situation where she’s raising him alone, and my ability to make decisions is minimized. So my parenting has been minimized to watching him develop and crawl and start to walk and grow teeth and wave goodbye. It’s something that I’m not connected to. I can’t tell you how much it breaks my heart.”

Family separations like Mizrachi’s have become another effect of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel, where the country’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls all legal Jewish marriage. That means all recognized marriages need to take place under Orthodox Jewish law, which forbids interfaith and same-sex marriage. So increasing numbers of secular, LGBTQ and interfaith couples instead opt to marry elsewhere and then, eventually, file the paperwork necessary to certify the marriage in Israel. Others, like Mizrachi and her partner, don’t get married at all.

Activists have lobbied against Israel’s marriage laws for years, but day-to-day, couples have found workarounds and taken their time with the bureaucracy. The ease of travel between Europe and Israel also meant that couples who lived in both places could come and go as they pleased.

That all ended on March 18, when Israel shut its borders. Now, couples that hadn’t done the right paperwork, even those who are legally married somewhere else, find themselves in two different countries with no way to reunite.

“It’s really a scandal,” said Gabi Lasky, an Israeli human rights attorney who is preparing to file a suit in the coming days on behalf of the separated families in Israel’s Supreme Court. “We have the right to family, the right to not be discriminated against. This is a disproportionate response that’s without basis and not topical, because there’s no legal reasoning that justifies discriminating against unmarried or same-sex couples.”

In one instance, a three-year-old Israeli girl was taken with her Ukrainian grandmother for a short visit to Ukraine — and then prohibited from returning to Israel for six months because, at first, there weren’t flights, and then because her grandmother wasn’t an Israeli citizen and was thus prohibited from boarding a plane destined for Israel, Reuters reported. Eventually, the toddler got home with the help of a special escort.

In June, Israel released guidelines paving the way toward family reunification — for people with recognized marriages in Israel. In July, it updated those guidelines to include married couples where one of the spouses is not an Israeli citizen, but those guidelines still mandate that the non-Israeli needed to have been in Israel for at least 90 days in 2019.

On Tuesday, updated guidelines stated that foreigners who had submitted an application to register their relationship in Israel could enter the country, pending approval of the Interior Ministry. For Israelis like Mizrachi, whose relationships aren’t officially recognized in any way, it doesn’t help at all.

The guidelines also let a variety of other foreigners into the country, including medical tourists, grandparents of people getting married, people studying in Israeli religious academies and more.

Sabine Haddad, a spokesperson for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, a division of the Interior Ministry, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the couples protesting Israel’s guidelines are only those who have no actual proof that they’re together.

“The Population Authority gives permits to hundreds of couples to enter,” she wrote in response to a JTA inquiry. “You’re talking about couples where no one knows they’re a couple except them and the press. Because according to the current rules, every registered couple receives a permit.”

Left: Plia Kettner and her partner, Erik, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Kettner) Right: Andrey and Polinka Belikov, who got married in October. (Courtesy of Andrey Belikov)

But even married couples that have tried to register their marriages in Israel have found themselves stymied and separated. Andrey and Polinka Belikov got married in Cyprus in October because Polinka is not Jewish, making it impossible for them to get married by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Andrey is an Israeli citizen and Polinka is not. In January, she was living in Ukraine and preparing to move to Israel. In January, Andrey went there to gather the documents necessary to register their marriage with Israel’s Interior Ministry. In February, Polinka received a visa to live in Israel. She bought a plane ticket for March 21, after which they planned to register the marriage.

On March 17, she quit her job in anticipation of the move. The next day, Israel closed its borders.

The Belikovs are hopeful that Tuesday’s change in the regulations will allow Polinka to enter the country.

“It’s really hard, every day, to just see your wife on a phone screen,” Andrey said. “We just got married and wanted to build a new family. But instead of that, in the hardest era for humanity, we’ve been separated and prohibited from seeing each other.”

No one knows exactly how many families have been separated by the regulations, but a Facebook group for those affected has more than 1,500 members. On Tuesday evening, Israelis who are separated from their foreign partners set up socially-distanced picnic blankets in a field opposite the residence of Israel’s foreign minister. The event, which took place on the eve of Tu B’Av, a Jewish holiday celebrating romance, was meant to show that the protesters could not celebrate their relationships like other Israelis.

A hearing in the Israeli Knesset on separated families, convened in early July at the initiative of the Facebook group’s creator, Plia Kettner, revealed that the issue affected far more Israelis than the young, urban secular people who eschew Orthodox marriage.

At the hearing, left-wing legislator Tamar Zandberg called the separations a “a vexing and troublesome issue” and a human rights violation. But the separations were also decried by Israel Eichler, a haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, lawmaker, who spoke of non-Israeli spouses and children of his constituents who had trouble entering the country. Osama Saadi, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker, said his office was “flooded with inquiries” regarding the separations. He also raised the issue of families who are split between Israel and the West Bank, who have found it even harder to reunite during the pandemic.

“I can’t remember another hearing where we had everyone around the table, and everyone was in favor of the same idea,” said Yifat Shasha-Biton, a lawmaker from the right-wing Likud Party who chaired the session.

But the affected couples say that the Ministry of the Interior still needs to do more to address their situation. They’re calling for an ad-hoc committee to examine their requests on a case-by-case basis. If the ministry doesn’t do that, they’re pinning their hopes on a favorable decision in Israel’s Supreme Court. If activists decide to file suit with the Supreme Court, says Plia Kettner, who created the Facebook group and spoke at the Knesset hearing, that too would be a painful decision.

“We all do this with heartache,” she said. “You’re suing your own country. We’re all people who love the country. We’re all people who chose to be here. I’m here. I’m not in Sweden. That’s a choice, and no one likes being in a situation where you have to hurt your country because they’re denying you basic human rights.”

If Israel doesn’t change its regulations soon, couples that are able may choose to make their lives elsewhere, Kettner said. Mizrachi is trying to see whether she and her partner can meet up in London and get into Berlin from there. Belikov may move to Ukraine, but that would mean giving up work as a house painter in Israel.

Others simply don’t want to leave their home country. Kettner’s boyfriend Erik, for example, lives in Sweden. While it may be possible for Kettner to move there to be with him, she’s reluctant to, as she’s a local elected official in the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba. All she wants, she said, is for her partner to be able to be with her in Israel.

“Sometimes people approach this as, ‘Oh, all it is is that he can’t see his boyfriend,'” Kettner said. “But to not see the person who is your support system — that has health implications. They’re trying to protect us from the coronavirus, but they’re giving us other illnesses.”

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At Biden fundraiser focused on anti-Semitism, Schiff, Rosen and Jason Alexander bash Trump — and get personal

Tue, 2020-08-04 18:06

WASHINGTON (JTA) — A fundraiser for Joe Biden on Monday night was billed as a “Virtual Conversation on Anti-Semitism” with three marquee speakers: Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee; Nevada freshman Sen. Jacky Rosen; and Jason Alexander — yes, that Jason Alexander, the one famed for his portrayal of George Costanza on “Seinfeld.”

The conversation, co-organized by the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee, included plenty of critique aimed at President Trump, whom liberal Jews accuse of stoking anti-Semitism in the U.S. — but it also veered into poignant territory at times, offering a rare window into the politicians’ personal Jewish identities. Biden did not attend.

Alexander, who moderated the talk, invited Rosen (who last year co-founded the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism) and Schiff (who spearheaded Trump’s impeachment proceedings last year) to draw a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric and the rise in anti-Semitism during his term, evidenced in attacks such as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life and Poway synagogue shootings. Trump’s defenders counter that by saying the president forcefully and unequivocally condemned anti-Semitism after the Tree of Life attack.

“We have to assume that our president has exacerbated the problem. Adam, he typically refers to you as ‘Shifty Schiff,’ so he obviously plays into anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes,” Alexander said. “How much do you hold him, and frankly the Republicans that echo and abet him, responsible for these increases in the amount of hate activity that we’re seeing?”

Rosen obliged. “So many people are enabling the president,” she said. “The rise of anti-Semitism just manifesting itself in different ways, whether it’s the left the right, the center, we have to call it out — but regardless of that, everything starts at the top.”

Schiff also said Trump was ultimately responsible for a rise in bigotry, noting his recent appeal to “suburban housewives” that he would protect their neighborhoods from interlopers. 

“The president has a unique capability to set the tone, nationally, and he has set the most ugly, bitter, divisive and sometimes racist tone of any president, certainly in my lifetime,” Schiff said. “And, you know, people follow that.”

Rosen said education was critical to countering anti-Semitism and referred to the Never Again Act, which funds Holocaust education, and which she helped pass this year. Holocaust survivors were dying off, she said. 

“It’s important that we tell those stories, because if we don’t learn from them, if we don’t shine a light to educate, then we’re lost,” Rosen said.

Then-Senate candidate Jacky Rosen introduces former Vice President Joe Biden as he campaigns for Nevada Democratic candidates during a rally in Las Vegas, Oct. 20, 2018. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Alexander asked Schiff to comment on the false claim proliferating on the far right that he is in cahoots with the liberal Jewish billionaire, George Soros.

“The main one that’s been circulated is that George Soros and I are related because my sister is married to his son,” he said. “When that first caught on like wildfire, I called my brother and I said ‘Dan I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is we have a sister. Why didn’t Mom tell us? And the even better news is, she married really well.’”

Jewish critics of Trump point to several examples that they say proves he either has a blind spot on anti-Semitism or actively engenders it. Trump has told Jewish donors that he “doesn’t want your money,” has said Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal to other Jews and posted an ad during the 2016 campaign superimposing Hillary Clinton’s face on a pile of money and a six-pointed star. His first statement on the Holocaust as president omitted any mention of Jews.

Biden rolled out his campaign in April 2019 with a video in which he said he was spurred to run after Trump equivocated in condemning the deadly neo-Nazi violence at a 2017 March in Charlottesville, Virginia. The assumed Democratic presidential nominee has said dozens of times that his campaign is a “battle for the soul of this nation,” and often cites the rise of anti-Semitism.

Alexander asked Schiff and Rosen what he should tell politically conservative Jewish friends who say Trump has been good for Israel. Republicans “paint any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic,” Rosen said. “We can criticize our own government, we can criticize our spouse or family or kids, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a robust conversation.”

Tickets to the event, made public on Monday by Jewish Insider, were at a minimum $250, although donors could check amounts up to $50,000. About 400 people called in, raising $200,000. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency obtained a phone call-in number, so a reporter was able to hear, if not see the proceedings.)

Alexander also asked Schiff and Rosen to personalize their Jewish experience, and that’s when the conversation took a turn.

“Do you know how much your bar or bat mitzvah actually cost, within five thousand dollars?” Alexander asked at one point.

Rosen, a former synagogue president who was bat mitzvahed as an adult, knew but would not tell. Schiff said he did not know, except for the fact that his cost less than his older brother’s did. 

Did they remember “even one line” of their haftarah? (No.) “I remember having my voice crack,” Schiff said. Had they ever not fasted on Yom Kippur? (Yes.) Had they ever built a sukkah? “Yes!” said Rosen, sounding surprised she was able to answer in the affirmative. (Schiff was a “no.”)

What was their favorite Hanukkah present? “I remember my favorite present when I was a kid,” Schiff said. “It was this self-winding car, you pull back a little lever and it would scoot across the floor.” 

“We had the piano bench,” Rosen said. “That’s what that’s where all the Hanukkah presents were, so I just remember always going under… opening presents under the piano.”

After recalling how he set a favorite Gumby doll’s head alight with a menorah flame, Alexander then asked how their Jewishness led them into public service. Neither answer had anything to do with Israel or with religious learning.

Rosen recalled her grandmother discussing the “old country” and the sense of want she attached to it, and how her “bubbe” inculcated in her the idea that she should always reserve something for those less fortunate. For Schiff, it was education. 

“My father, who is 92 and is watching us this evening, telling me how, the one thing they can’t take away from you is your education,” he said.

Alexander also asked them to describe personal experiences of anti-Semitism. Both their answers typified the experience of their generation — Rosen is 63 and Schiff is 60.

“I don’t have an actual memory of it but a memory of a story,” Rosen said.

Her parents “took me to Florida I think must have been about 1960 or so, and we were swimming in a pool, and somebody came up to my mom and said she had to take her daughter out of the pool,”  Rosen said. “‘She’s a dirty Jew, you have to get out of the pool’.”

Schiff described the experience of a pastor’s candid anti-Semitism, expressed because the pastor did not realize Schiff was Jewish. “Look at the Jews, they don’t have their spiritual house in order, and they say ‘never again’ but if they don’t get their spiritual house in order, it will happen again,” Schiff quoted the pastor as saying. 

“It gave me a window into how much anti-Semitism there is,” he said, adding that he informed the pastor he was speaking to a Jew.

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Amazon renews ‘Hunters,’ Al Pacino’s Nazi-hunting drama, for second season

Tue, 2020-08-04 16:00

(JTA) — “Hunters,” the Amazon series starring Al Pacino about a group of Nazi hunters in New York City in the 1970s, has been renewed for a second season.

Variety reported the news on Monday.

The show — which involves a network of Nazis living in the United States and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich, and a band of misfits who hunt them down — drew criticism from some Jewish groups for its premise and for its portrayal of the Holocaust.

Following the release of the first season in February, the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum called the show “dangerous” for depicting a human chess game in Auschwitz.

RELATED: The real story behind ‘Hunters,’ Al Pacino’s new Nazi-hunting Amazon series

“Inventing a fake game of human chess for ‘Hunters’ is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers,” the museum said.

In March, Stephen Smith, who heads the USC Shoah Foundation Institute — the Holocaust foundation founded by Steven Spielberg — called on Amazon to not produce a second season.

“Survivors of the Shoah sought justice, not revenge,” he wrote in an op-ed.

RELATED: Murder or mitzvah? Amazon’s ‘Hunters’ grapples with the morality of Jews killing Nazis.

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Larry Johnson, former Kansas City Chiefs running back, tweets that Jews are involved in sex trafficking, pedophilia and more

Tue, 2020-08-04 14:19

(JTA) — Larry Johnson, a former running back who played seven seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs, tweeted multiple times to his more than 147,000 followers over the weekend that a Jewish “cabal” is involved in “Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Pedophilia, Ritualistic Child Torture, Perversion, Human Sacrifice/Murder.” And on Monday, he showed no signs of apologizing.

Johnson framed one of those tweets as a response to Max Kellerman, the Jewish co-host of ESPN’s “First Take” show, who said on the air recently that “Jews do not have a plan for world domination.” Kellerman was responding to social media posts by another NFL star, DeSean Jackson, who last month posted a quote he attributed to Adolf Hitler accusing Jews of having a “plan for world domination.” Jackson subsequently removed the post and apologized.

A Racial Disparity I’m proud to be apart of…

African Americans overwhelmingly underperform in the area of:

Human Trafficking
Sex Trafficking
Ritualistic Child Torture
Human Sacrifice/Murder

…than the Jewish cabal @maxkellerman said don’t exist.

— Larry Johnson (@2LarryJohnson7) August 2, 2020

On Saturday, Johnson posted a video of Alan Dershowitz speaking to the pro-Israel organization Stand With Us in which the attorney said, in part, “We have earned the right to influence public debate, we have earned the right to be heard.”

Johnson’s accompanying tweet accused Jews of seeking to conceal “a lucrative market in pedophilia, human trafficking, child sex trafficking & torture.”

On Monday, Johnson noted the attention his tweets had garnered, posting: “I angered ‘Rabbis’ from here to Israel.”

Johnson played for the Chiefs until 2009, when he was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the club” for a series of tweets using gay slurs. He was later waived by the team.

Since February, Johnson has hosted a podcast called “Sight to the Blind,” which its description says “explores the dark roots of our society and culture to expose deep secrets that remain untold,” according to the site StopAntiSemitism.org. Johnson frequently quotes Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of anti-Semitic comments.

An early July episode of the podcast is entitled “Anti-Semite.” The episode description reads: “This is not a war of races but a war of nations. If you don’t know who controls the propaganda in this war, how can you tell who is the real enemy? Those who are not a nation have conspired to keep the true nation of Israel asleep and will use race and Hollywood marriages like The Smiths to do it.”

Another podcast episode description reads, in part: “What is the true nation of Israel? Where does the bloodline really come from? What is Satan’s scheme in today’s world?”

Johnson’s tweets are still up as of Tuesday morning.

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We run Jewish day schools in NY. To reopen safely, we need our community’s support.

Tue, 2020-08-04 14:07

(JTA) — Since March, Jewish day schools have expanded their roles in the community to provide Jewish life and engagement 24/7. We have organized memorial services, supported families in financial duress and served important public health roles. We have done all this while launching an entirely new product overnight — full-time online learning.

Now we are planning to go back to school. This month, Jewish day school employees across the country from North Carolina to Los Angeles are preparing to return to in-person work in buildings filled with students and employees. Next month, schools in the New York Tri-state area, the region with the largest concentration of Jewish day schools in the country, plan to join them. We will be the first sector of the professional Jewish community to do this.

As a Jewish community, we have honored and supported our frontline workers — the senior living staff, clergy and others — during this pandemic. They all deserve deep appreciation and extra care for the risks they take on behalf of all of us.

Day school employees are about to become frontline workers, too. As people who are steering some of the Tri-state region’s 250-plus Jewish schools toward reopening, we are acutely aware of the risks that our employees are taking to return to school, and we want to demonstrate our care in every way we can.

But the decisions we are making and the expenses we are incurring are not things that each school should be handling on its own. Nor should they be solely the purview of the increasingly contracting realm of day school funders. Caring for our frontline workers is the responsibility of the Jewish community as a whole.

Together with a handful of local colleagues, we are spending at least $5 million on costs like facilities upgrades, additional space, ventilation upgrades, additional staffing and PPE, with the largest among our schools spending more than $1 million. With the costs continuing to mount and uncertainty about whether the plans we make today will be enough next month, the full tally of resources needed to make our schools safe is unclear. What is clear is that we cannot cover these on our own without cutting deeply into other priorities.

We recognize and appreciate that there are institutions trying to support us. National and local organizations have offered timely, thoughtful and effective professional development the whole way through this pandemic. Others have offered support and tools, such as tuition assistance for the most financially vulnerable students, the opportunity to purchase some PPE in bulk at slightly reduced prices or starting a listserv for the hundreds of school-specific COVID medical advisory committees to share ideas. A national consortium of funders initiated a grant and loan program to which day schools, among other institutions, could apply.

All of this is appreciated, but none of this is enough. Each individual school is still left to figure out how to “make it work” during the most confusing and volatile time of our generation.

This is the case for America’s 13,000 school districts, too. A coordinated response, with resources to support the unprecedented needs, would help all schools figure out ways to bring children back to school while keeping them and their teachers safe.

While a national response is not emerging, it is not too late for a more significant coordinated Jewish response. Already, we have examples to learn from, in the sort of efforts under way in a number of places, like both Bergen County and Metro West New Jersey, Boston and Toronto to name a few. In some areas, regional medical committees have been convened to lead all Jewish institutions through the labyrinth of COVID-related decision making, or money has been raised to support all regional schools in procuring PPE.

We need community-wide leadership. Here are four concrete opportunities for a national and regional leadership to make a real difference in the lives of our day school employees.

First, bring together the best epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists and pediatric experts to set best practices for our community. Each school has convened its own medical advisory committee. Each newly released guidelines from federal, state, city and industry group sources require significant review and analysis. They do not provide clarity on their own, and most definitely do not provide clarity when read together. They are also changing: In the last week, the federal, state and city guidelines were all revised, forcing us to rethink our planning once again. We need to know what to do to protect our staff and children, and these decisions should not be made school by school. We need to standardize policies and best practices for our community overall.

Second, make sure every school can procure and implement proper PPE, testing and HVAC/ventilation systems to protect our teachers and other employees to the level of best practices. Most importantly, pay for this. Many of us cannot even afford to purchase medical grade masks for all our teachers. Schools are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases upwards of a million, each to address ventilation, replace furniture to comport with social distancing rules, procure PPE and hire the additional staff needed to implement all the changes. Without support, schools with fewer resources will have to sacrifice either safety or educational quality, while schools with more resources — those whose parents can pay higher tuition, or have a robust alumni base, or own their buildings instead of renting — may be able to afford both.

Third, support the wellness of our staff members — our community’s frontline workers. Our staff members are scared, exhausted and committed to learning whatever they need to in order to continue to serve each child, a herculean effort during these times. A great educator can teach through all sorts of personal upheaval, but a person cannot be a great educator unless they are inspired. Inspiration is hard to come by when you have “nothing left.” We need to offer real mental health services to all Jewish day school staff members. That means developing a system to support the emotional and spiritual wellness of Jewish day school leadership and educators and, again, having that system paid for.

Finally, please do not make us jump through hoops to access the extra funds we need to ensure that our day school students and teachers are safe and learning. Make grants easier to access, with quicker turnaround time, and a timeframe that actually works within the context of schools, which never have months to spare before putting programs and procedures into place.

There is little time to spare. Teachers — this critical demographic of Jewish communal frontline workers — are coming back to school next month. Our community needs to act now to ensure their safety and wellness.

Nora Anderson, Beth Am Day School
Stephanie Ives, Beit Rabban Day School
Danny Karpf, Rodeph Sholom School
Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Kobrin and Ofier Sigal, North Shore Hebrew Academy
Rabbi Bini Krauss, SAR Academy
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, Westchester Day School
Benjamin Mann, Schechter Manhattan
Rabbi Gary Menchel, Yeshiva Har Torah
Nicole Nash, Hannah Senesh Community Day School
Amanda Pogany, Luria Academy of Brooklyn
Deganit Ronen, Westchester Torah Academy
Sara Rosenfeld, Barkai Yeshivah
Rabbi Yahel Tsaidi, Yeshivah of Flatbush Elementary School

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Today at 1 pm EDT: Hear from Israeli parents who’ve been back to school already, for better or worse

Tue, 2020-08-04 13:58

(JTA) — Israel’s rocky school reopening — and the coronavirus cases it may have helped spread — have been getting much-deserved attention as schools in the United States fumble toward their first day.

A new story in today’s New York Times summarizes the situation: “When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well.

The story recaps much of what we at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency have reported over the past few months: After months of restrictions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rapidly rolled back pandemic rules, including school closures, in a matter of weeks in late April and early May. The return to school was chaotic, and some parents kept their children out at first. But soon, many schools were operating much as they had been before the disease arrived — and children and teachers were shedding their masks.

Within weeks, outbreaks tied to schools had emerged, and the country was engaged in a sweeping game of whack-a-mole as it sent children into quarantine, closed schools and, in at least one case, lost a teacher to the virus. Now, with COVID-19 widespread across Israel, the country is planning for only younger children to learn in person this fall — but that could still change as a new coronavirus czar examines every inch of the country’s response to the disease.

But that’s just the chronology. What does feel like to be a parent in Israel today, living through that emotional and practical roller coaster? Join JTA and Kveller today at 1 p.m. EDT for a live chat with three Israeli parents about their families’ experiences over the last several months – and about what they’re anticipating as the country moves toward a new school year.

You can join the event at 1 p.m. ET here. Have specific questions? Please share them.

The chat is part of our “Back to School?” collaboration with Kveller, the Jewish parenting website that, like JTA, is part of 70 Faces Media. Missed the first episode last week? Catch up the compelling conversation among Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Meg Keene, Rabbi Seth Goren and host Sharon Weiss-Greenberg.

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A rabbi and dad is starting an online Jewish day school to help families get through the pandemic

Mon, 2020-08-03 21:04

(JTA) — The pandemic lockdown was just weeks old when Jonah Rank first realized he wouldn’t be sending his daughter to kindergarten as planned.

Rank and his wife, both Conservative rabbis, moved from Nova Scotia to southeastern Pennsylvania a year ago in part because they wanted to be able to send their children to a Jewish day school. But as the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, the school closed temporarily — like nearly all others closed temporarily.

Looking ahead, Rank concluded that because he and his wife both are immunocompromised, they would not want their children in school until a vaccine was available.

In early May, he sent out a beacon to his thousands of Facebook friends.

“Are you worried about sending kids to school physically next year?” Rank wrote. “If you’re interested in Jewish education amidst all this, let’s talk; I’m building a network now.”

At the time, Rank may have sounded like a pessimist: Many summer camps hadn’t even been canceled yet. With the disease appearing to be in retreat in most places, the idea of an online fall semester seemed far-fetched.

Rabbi Jonah Rank was inspired to create Yesod after realizing he would not feel safe sending his daughter to kindergarten in person. (Courtesy of Rank)

But now, with the disease widespread and schools across the country reopening online, Rank looks more like a prophet. And the conversation he began that day has yielded the outlines of an online Jewish elementary school program: Yesod, or foundation in Hebrew.

Rank is still ironing out the details around Yesod, which will be nondenominational and run from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. But he has taken steps to incorporate a legal nonprofit, convening an 11-member board to develop a program that he sees as a structured, supported and most of all social approach to homeschooling. He’s also put out a call for teachers, for Jewish and secular studies.

And while registration won’t open for a few weeks, Rank says hundreds of parents have expressed interest. He expects the final student body to number about 50 — including his daughter.

“Knowing that we would not have our local day school quite be an option unless we were to have our eldest be possibly the only kid on a computer, which sounded like a terrible idea, I knew I had to do something,” Rank said.

Yesod represents one of countless efforts by enterprising parents trying to manage uncertainty around schooling that would have been unimaginable just six months ago. Driven by safety and financial concerns, some parents with means are forming micro-schools or “pandemic pods,” small groups of children learning together in private homes, sometimes with privately hired teachers. Others are exploring homeschooling for the first time.

Many others are gritting their teeth and hoping for the best at public or Jewish day schools that are either seeking to open with precautions, often on a limited schedule, or planning to operate online only.

Yesod also represents the way that the pandemic is giving rise to educational models that could be testing grounds for long-term changes to how Jewish education is delivered.

Until now, the only virtual school options for non-Orthodox students have been supplemental, not meant to supplant school enrollment. While Rank does not envision the one he is launching as a replacement for the traditional day school, the longer the pandemic wears on, the more likely it may be that parents experience upsides to helping their children engage in communal learning online — especially when it comes with a relatively low price tag of about $10,000.

Paul Bernstein, the CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, which works with more than 300 day schools and yeshivas across North America, says he is encouraged by innovation happening around virtual instruction in Jewish educational settings. But he said virtual-only instruction can fall short in a number of ways, including not being able to provide socialization for children or create a community in the same way that in-person ones can.

“I embrace the innovation and I just encourage those providing the education and also the families choosing education to really consider the full mix of academics, social, emotional and community that a school represents,” Bernstein said. “At the moment I think the best model is a school as we currently know it, with a mix of physical and online.”

Most Jewish day schools are hoping to open for at least some in-person instruction in the fall, Bernstein said. But they know that could easily change.

“Everyone is planning for ideally being in person, being ready to be online either at the beginning or at certain points in the year, [and] even if you’re in person you need to be prepared for the fact that some of the faculty and some of the students may not be able to be themselves in person,” he said.

That’s exactly the scenario that Rank said was driving parents to express interest in Yesod.

“We are primarily getting concerns from families where the day school is planning on reopening for as long as they can be open and then going virtual again and it’s not stable enough for what these families need,” he said.

A typical day for students at Yesod will look something like this: School will start at 9:50 a.m. Eastern time, when students will join their cohort — others in their grade and perhaps another — for a 30-minute lesson with a teacher.

They will then spend an hour in a “beit midrash”-style Zoom with students of all ages working on assignments they received in their lesson. Teachers will be available to provide assistance, and students can join smaller breakout rooms to work together with others in their grade.

After that, they’ll return to their small groups to go over the assignment. After an hourlong lunch break, the afternoon will repeat the pattern, but those who had Jewish studies in the morning will have secular studies in the afternoon and vice versa.

Rank and the board members consulted a number of curricula when developing the plan for Yesod. They include standards for Jewish learning developed by Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva in New York, and Beit Rabban, a day school in New York, as well as secular standards.

Much of the secular subjects will have children examining their own homes and communities in a pedagogical approach that asks students to draw on their own experiences as they construct knowledge.

“All these questions about ‘How does our house come into the larger picture of how a society works?,’ you end up needing to be able to learn about how plants grow and how does food get on your table,” Rank said. “That is going to involve understanding a little bit of science and understanding a little bit of social studies and understanding that literary skills will be helpful in reading nutrition facts and reading the ingredients.”

Designing the curriculum has come with a set of challenges, said Hannah Hofrichter, a Houston-based board member who works as a private tutor both in Jewish and secular subjects. The challenges include having to design a curriculum that will be taught completely online as well as having to do so prior to having an enrolled student body.

“We don’t necessarily know where the student body is coming, what their backgrounds are. It’s a lot of things that are a little bit up in the air,” said Hofrichter, who is still figuring out where her 7-year-old daughter will enroll in the fall.

Rank will soon be hiring four teachers and four instructors who can provide guidance during the beit midrash portion of the day (some of the roles could potentially overlap, he said). But the rabbi says he is not planning to be part of the staff in the fall. Instead, Rank will continue to run the religious school at Kehilat HaNahar, a Reconstructionist congregation in the Pennsylvania town of New Hope. That, too, will be completely virtual.

One significant difference between Yesod and a traditional day school is the tuition. Yesod will operate on a sliding scale model with the full recommended tuition at $10,000 per child per year, less than half the average cost of $22,910, according to Prizmah’s 2020 report.

“We will cost less than just about any day school option in the United States,” Rank said. “We will also cost basically what families can afford because we don’t want safety to have a hefty price tag.”

Those who cannot afford the recommended price will be able to pay less as well as receive financial aid. There will also be an option for parents to pay significantly less to just receive the curriculum and assignments and teach children on their own or participate in just some of the daily sessions.

Still, the model won’t be a threat to Jewish day schools in the long term, said a board member who asked to have her name withheld because she is employed by a Jewish day school.

“It doesn’t compete with an eight-hour school day where the parents drop the kids off and they’re actively engaged in either teacher-directed or student-directed learning all day,” she said. “This will require some parent engagement.”

Initially, Rank had planned for Yesod only to run for the upcoming academic year. But he says it may run longer depending on how the pandemic develops.

“As I’m learning that it’s likely that vaccines might not even be a full solution, at least the first vaccines that will come out, I wouldn’t be surprised if the coronavirus is going to change life for the next four years, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Yesod lasts at least four more years,” he said.

But does he see Yesod outliving the pandemic?

“It would be lovely to learn that it’s such a powerful experience for the students to be in the particular [cohorts] that they will be learning in that they will want to stay learning peers with the kids that they meet through Yesod, and it will be lovely if kids really adapt to learning online very well and responsibly,” Rank said.

“But if there’s a very good option for my kids one day learning in person in a Jewish day school, I would love for that experience to be possible for them, too.”

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Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah, 92, captivating reader of Torah

Mon, 2020-08-03 18:55

(JTA) — When it came to chanting Torah, Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah was in a class by himself.

As a child of ten, Musleah lost his mother. Two years later, partly as a way to console himself, Musleah dedicated himself to a meticulous three-year undertaking to learn to chant the entire Torah. There was no turning back.

For nearly 70 years, until his death on July 14 of COVID-19 at the age of 92, Musleah enthralled congregants at four synagogues on two continents, bringing the expertise of a scholar and the dramatic flair of a storyteller to his reading of Torah.

“His Torah reading was masterful,” recalled his daughter, Rahel Musleah. “Every letter, every vowel, every trope was resonant and full of his understanding of the text.”

Musleah was born in 1927, in Kolkata, India. His tight-knit extended family traced its lineage to 17th-century Baghdad, a heritage that remained a source of pride throughout his life.

His journey to the rabbinate was propelled by the encouragement of a Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army who was stationed in India. At age 20, Musleah enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he learned the Ashkenazi style of Torah reading. He returned to Kolkata in 1952, becoming the Jewish community’s first Western-trained rabbi.

In 1964, he and his wife, Margaret, and their three young daughters moved to Philadelphia, where he served for 15 years as rabbi at the city’s historic Mikveh Israel synagogue. He also led Congregation B’nai Abraham Synagogue and served on the Conservative movement’s local and national rabbinic court.

For the last 30 years, Musleah was the weekly Torah reader at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. Congregants noted that he and Margaret were inseparable. When she was 65, he taught her to read Torah.

‘When Rabbi Musleah read Torah in the synagogue, it was the voice of God,” Adam Laver, a lawyer who began studying with the rabbi as a teenager, told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

Musleah was beloved by his family for his mischievous streak, his love of baseball and a lifelong fondness for backgammon. Children and grandchildren all noted his gift for telling a good joke and story.

“His storytelling was a beautiful art, consisting of so many intricate details, similar to the strokes of a paintbrush on canvas,” his granddaughter Penina Polofsky recalled.

Musleah is survived by his wife, Margaret; daughters Flora, Rahel and Eliza; a sister, Ruby Mordecai; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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Alexander Vindman, as retirement kicks in, decries Trump’s ‘efforts to undermine the very foundations of our democracy’

Mon, 2020-08-03 17:42

(JTA) — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was among the first to raise flags about President Donald Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate a political rival, embarked on his retirement by comparing the U.S. of today with the communist regime in Ukraine that his family fled four decades ago.

“At no point in my career or life have I felt our nation’s values under greater threat and in more peril than at this,” the Jewish National Security Council staffer wrote in an op-ed published Saturday in The Washington Post — the day that his retirement after 21 years of service in the U.S. military went into effect. “Our national government during the past few years has been more reminiscent of the authoritarian regime my family fled more than 40 years ago than the country I have devoted my life to serving.”

Vindman, who came to the United States with his twin brother and father from Ukraine in 1979, decried what he called Trump’s “efforts to undermine the very foundations of our democracy.”

He said that even though he is retiring from the Army, he will continue to defend the United States, writing that “I will speak about the attacks on our national security.”

Vindman reiterated that last month he “made the difficult decision to retire because a campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation by President Trump and his allies forever limited the progression of my military career.” He had been set to be promoted to colonel, but learned that Trump planned to block his promotion.

Vindman testified in November before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Trump’s impeachment about a July 2019 phone call between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, during which Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to launch politically motivated investigations that would help Trump’s 2020 campaign. Vindman was listening in on the call in his official capacity with the National Security Council.

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Seth Rogen: Israel should exist, but I’m not sorry for my critique of Jewish education

Mon, 2020-08-03 17:11

(JTA) — In a new interview, Seth Rogen said his comments about Israel being a bad idea for a state were made in jest but affirmed that he found his childhood education about the country, which he received through Jewish schools and camps, to be problematic.

“I don’t want Jews to think I don’t want Israel to exist and I understand how they could have been led to think that,” the actor and comedian said on a Zoom interview with Haaretz reporter Allison Kaplan Sommer published Monday.

“I was just not given a full picture of the situation and I understand it’s a wildly complex picture to give a child,” he said, adding that he knows Jewish parents who “are taking it on themselves to try to paint a more complete picture of how complex a situation it is.”

The interview came a day after Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog released a statement saying he had talked with Rogen about “the current situation in Israel,” and that Rogen had “apologized” for his comments. (The Jewish Agency is a nonprofit that works to bolster Israel-Diaspora relations.) Rogen told Haaretz that he did not tell Herzog that he could make details of their talk public.

“I did not apologize for what I said. I offered clarity. And I think [Herzog] is misrepresenting our conversation,” Rogen told Haaretz. “At no point did I give him permission to publish any part of the conversation.”

The new interview and ongoing conversation come nearly a week after Rogen discussed Israel on Marc Maron’s popular “WTF” podcast, and the pair’s comments sparked an outcry among many Israel supporters. Rogen said he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” as a child in Vancouver and that Israel’s organizing principle — grouping Jews together in one state — “doesn’t make sense.”

He clarified to Kaplan Sommer that the principle was “a joke I’ve heard Israelis make.” He also said that comedy inherently carries the risk of being perceived as offensive.

“If you take any comedic monologue and treat it as though it is not based in humor, there’s probably some very questionable thoughts in there,” Rogen said.

Rogen, who reiterated to Haaretz his pride in being Jewish, also discussed “An American Pickle,” his film that comes out this week, which he called “probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made.”

He was on site shooting the film in Pittsburgh when the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting occurred.

I was about a mile away from it when it happened. It was, in a sense, very scary, but in another sense I remember thinking: I’m about to make the most Jewish movie I’ve ever made, probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made, in the wake of the most violent antisemitic attack in the history of America, in the same city. And there was a sense that it suddenly became much more important to do it. And any fear I had about how Jewish a movie it was, I honestly thought that if there was ever a time to double down on this, now was that time.

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Niall Horan, the 1975 and more British pop stars condemn anti-Semitism after rapper Wiley’s tweets

Mon, 2020-08-03 16:29

(JTA) — Hundreds of British musicians and music industry leaders have signed an open letter condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of hate in the wake of the scandal involving English rapper Wiley, who was banned from Twitter for posting anti-Semitic tweets.

Among the letter’s signers are former One Direction member Niall Horan, pop rockers The 1975, Lily Allen, Rita Ora, Lewis Capaldi and James Blunt, in addition to Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music.

“Whether it be systemic racism and racial inequality highlighted by continued police brutality in America or anti-Jewish racism promulgated through online attacks, the result is the same: suspicion, hatred and division,” reads the #NoSilenceInMusic letter, published Saturday.

“From slavery to the Holocaust we have painful collective memories. All forms of racism have the same roots — ignorance, lack of education and scapegoating.”

The display of solidarity from prominent British pop stars, songwriters, producers, managers, record labels and publishers, most of them not Jewish, comes a week after Wiley’s Twitter spree drew widespread attention. Many British Jews boycotted Twitter for 48 hours last week to protest the platform, which allowed the tweets to remain up for days before deleting them and then banning Wiley entirely. The rapper said he had been lashing out because of his anger at his Jewish manager.

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Peter Beinart ignores an inconvenient truth: Israelis and Palestinians haven’t given up on a two-state solution

Mon, 2020-08-03 15:30

JERUSALEM (JTA) — For millennia, Jews longed for a return to their ancient homeland, Zion. But for much of modern history, a considerable number of Jews dreamed instead of a vibrant life as a minority in cosmopolitan nation-states. 

In 1770s Berlin, a movement was formed around the hope and the ideal that emancipated Jews could live as free and equal members of modern society.

This was the challenge posed by members of the Haskalah, as the movement was called, borrowing the Hebrew word for enlightenment, who paved the way for today’s robust secular Jewish communities and, arguably, contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.

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Yet the Haskalah faded in the late 1880s when confronted with a more compelling idea: Jewish statehood.

 Instead of a path of integration into surrounding majority cultures, Zionism proposed a smaller, harder thing: independent political agency.

For Jews, the path from European emancipation to Zionist statehood was treacherous when it wasn’t lethal.

Today’s Jewish state remains a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. Its political leaders all too often disappoint. 

Yet statehood remains the most convincing and, if we are to be honest, the only possible outcome — both for Israelis and for their conjoined twins, the Palestinians.

In his Jewish Currents essay “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” and shorter New York Times op-ed “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State,” commentator Peter Beinart argues for a single binational state, abandoning his previous belief in the necessity of both Jews and Palestinians each having a state of their own.

Beinart decries what he calls the “Holocaust lens [that] leads many Jews to assume that anything short of Jewish statehood would mean Jewish suicide.”

“Before the Holocaust,” he continues, “many leading Zionists did not believe that.”

I’d argue that is not the case, but regardless, any proposition asking us to be so mentally agile as to skip over the Holocaust to retrieve thoughts expressed in what passed for brainstorming sessions among the fathers of Zionism requires some scrutiny. 

The reason a one-state solution is championed mostly in activist circles of the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas is that when tested against local reality, it doesn’t pass a basic stress test.

In June, as annexation slipped from Netanyahu’s hands and only 3.5% of Israelis ranked Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank as a government priority, a swelling chorus of international observers decreed, as Beinart does, that “in practice, Israel annexed the West Bank long ago,” with many demanding international recognition of a one-state reality

But to insist that a de facto single state already exists is to shortchange both Israelis and Palestinians. It represents a cavalier dismissal of the real Palestinian demand for full statehood, and similarly elides the current and historic reality of a Jewish imperative for self-determination.

Achieving two states may be prolonged and excruciating, but at least it holds out the hope of something real.

We spoke with Jewish Currents about Seth Rogen, young Jews and that Peter Beinart essay

Local leaders and influencers, even those with radically clashing points of view, do not advance the one-state solution as a serious plan for the region’s future.  

For years, the prospect of a binational state was wielded against Israelis as a looming demographic threat, the message being that “there are more of us than you.” During the norm-breaking era of the Donald Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu alliance, “one state” has been brandished as a cudgel against Palestinians, the message being that “if you don’t return to negotiations on our terms, we’ll annex you on our terms.” 

“The one-state solution is ivory tower nonsense,” Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister, said at a mid-July forum hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A binational state creates “a South African situation without a South African solution.”

In fact, there is little difference between one-staters and unilateralist annexationists: Each threatens a justifiably apprehensive people with erasure. Even Netanyahu, Israel’s emphatically nationalist prime minister, knows one state is no state, which is the reason he has yet to propose an alternative to two states.

Despite turning annexation into a litmus test for his own political viability, Netanyahu’s failure, thus far, to so much as propose a road map toward annexation must be understood as a counterpoint to the Palestinian Authority’s remarkable success in maneuvering around the hurdles imposed by the Trump administration.

In reality, while the commentariat class resigns itself to one state — maybe — the Palestinians have been building a state.

It is imperfect, and the path to Palestinian statehood remains fraught. It is very much a work in progress. And yes, its leaders often disappoint.

And yet, on June 22, I saw it almost coming to fruition. The Palestinian Authority’s Jericho rally against annexation bore all the markings of a classic Middle East summit — brusque security agents, rows upon rows of plastic chairs, blistering heat, lofty words and clusters of tall, besuited diplomats.

About 50 diplomats, in fact, including the Russian and Chinese ambassadors, who addressed the crowds in fluent Arabic, and the Canadian ambassador, who arrived in a Beast-like vehicle flying a gold-trimmed maple leaf flag. 

One thing was missing: There was not an American or an Israeli emissary as far as the eye could see.

I asked a couple of European ambassadors what they were doing at a political event, and they replied that a rally in favor of the two-state solution was policy, not politics.

Veteran peace negotiator Saeb Erekat took to the stage and hailed what truly was “an unprecedented event.”

“Today,” he said, “the world came to us. The international community came to us, and they told us we are not alone. It is about freedom, independence, dignity and justice.”

In the past, Netanyahu has easily managed to scuttle diplomatic initiatives having a whiff of Palestinian statehood. But the June rally was, without doubt, the most momentous diplomatic event ever hosted on Palestinian land, by Palestinian leaders, and it was a slap in Netanyahu’s face.

On the ground, however haltingly, a two-state solution is coming into being. We saw a glimpse of it in Jericho, alongside a foretaste of a future regional realignment in which the United States and Israel are relegated to the status of observers.

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Biden fundraiser focuses on fighting anti-Semitism

Mon, 2020-08-03 15:21

(JTA) — The presidential campaign of Joe Biden is holding a fundraiser Monday with a focus on fighting anti-Semitism.

The videoconference event will feature a conversation on the subject between two Jewish lawmakers — Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander, also Jewish, will serve as the moderator.

Tickets range from $250 to $50,000.

The Biden campaign has hosted multiple fundraisers geared toward the Jewish community.

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Trump to attend private NJ fundraiser hosted by family of close friend who died of coronavirus

Mon, 2020-08-03 15:01

(JTA) — President Donald Trump will attend a private fundraiser at the New Jersey home of a close friend who died of the coronavirus in April.

Stanley Chera was a longtime leader in New York’s tight-knit Syrian Jewish community. Reports said Trump at one point had advised Chera and his wife, Frieda, to leave their New York City home for Deal to avoid the virus. The Jersey Shore community has a large Syrian Jewish community.

The news website Yeshiva World News first reported about the location of  the Aug. 9 fundraiser and included an image of the invitation.

Details of where the fundraiser will be held are provided upon RSVP, according to the invitation. Yeshiva World News identified the location as the Chera home.

Donations range from $250,000 to meet Trump at a roundtable, have a photo op and attend a reception with the president to $5,600 to attend the reception.

The family hosted a Trump fundraiser when he was running for president in 2016.

Chera, a New York City real estate mogul, was an early and generous backer of Trump’s presidential campaign, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Trump said in a White House briefing in March that Chera brought the dangers of COVID-19 home to  him.

“When you send a friend to the hospital, and you call up to find out how is he doing — it happened to me, where he goes to the hospital, he says goodbye,” Trump said during a White House briefing, referring to Chera. “He’s sort of a tough guy. A little older, a little heavier than he’d like to be, frankly. And you call up the next day: ‘How’s he doing?’ And he’s in a coma? This is not the flu.”

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Israeli army says it thwarted attack on Syrian border by infiltrators who planted explosives

Mon, 2020-08-03 14:54

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Israeli army said it thwarted an attack on the Syrian border by four infiltrators who planted explosives.

Israeli soldiers on the ground and in the air simultaneously fired on and hit the men, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement. The IDF had tracked the group on Sunday night. The explosives they placed along the border fence were likely meant to be detonated as an Israeli patrol went by.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hedi Zilberman, also said that in recent days, the military has identified “a number of suspicious approaches to the fence, disguised as shepherds.”

It is not known what terror group was responsible for the attempted attack.

“The Syrian regime is responsible for any action taken from its territory, and therefore the State of Israel considers it responsible for this incident,” Zilberman said.

Also on Sunday evening, a rocket fired from Gaza was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rocket was launched toward the southern Israeli city of Sderot as dozens of cars gathered for the inaugural showing of a movie at the city’s new drive-in theater, which was established due to coronavirus restrictions.

Fragments from the interceptor missile landed on a car parked on a city street, breaking its back windshield.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the Israeli military retaliated, launching airstrikes on Hamas targets in the central and southern Gaza, including a cement factory used to build tunnels between Gaza and Israel, and what the military described as “underground infrastructure.”

It was the first rocket fired at Israel from Gaza in about a month.

Families in southern Israel went to see a movie at a drive-in theater this evening.

Halfway through, terrorists from Gaza fired a rocket at Israel, forcing the kids to run to bomb shelters.

Terror is not a movie for these kids, it’s a traumatic reality.

(Video: Yaniv Kalif) pic.twitter.com/nAeBXa65tU

— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) August 2, 2020

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Planning reopenings amid pandemic, Jewish institutions navigate minefield of challenges

Mon, 2020-08-03 14:30

When Jewish institutions like JCCs and synagogues shut down this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, it often felt like a wrenching decision arrived at reluctantly after careful deliberation.

Now, deciding how and when to physically reopen Jewish institutions is proving at least as challenging and fraught.

“In this murky interim period — when the pandemic continues even though lockdown orders are relaxing — how can we safely use our facilities?”

That was the question that 44 representatives from schools, synagogues and other Jewish facilities wrestled with when the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati convened an online meeting in June to discuss reopening, according to its CEO, Shep Englander.

“The discussion was very rich,” Englander said. “We all agreed that according to our Jewish values and tradition, we must put the health and safety of our families and community before any other considerations.”

While some Jewish communal institutions have been physically open – either partially or completely – since May, others are still planning a reentry or expect to remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. Many have sought advice from their local federations and the Jewish Federations of North America, the federations’ umbrella organization.

The Secure Community Network, or SCN, the organization that deals with securing Jewish institutions against outside threats, created a working group focused on reopening planning. Comprising security directors, partner agencies, and experts in health, safety and other disciplines, the group produced guidance materials and documents to assist the Jewish community and other faith-based organizations.

“We are helping many Jewish organizations with detailed scenario planning so they can each chart their most effective course for the future,” said Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations. “We trust our communal organizations to make their own reopening decisions. They know the relative risks and needs of their own members.”

With the circumstances of the pandemic varying in different parts of the country, SCN’s official guide, called “Back to Business: A Jewish Community Guide for Reopening Facilities and Resuming Operations in the Age of COVID-19,” emphasizes that every facility is unique and that “no one else can decide for you when you are prepared to reopen.” The Jewish value of pikuah nefesh – protecting human life – must be a community’s first priority, it says.

“Recognize that many may feel uncomfortable returning, and take care not to pressure anyone to do so,” it says. “Find ways to stay engaged and connected with members who are unable or uncomfortable returning.”

In Cincinnati, the community’s local SAFE Facilities ReOpen group drafted several recommendations. Before reopening, a facility should:

  • determine how it will clean and sanitize surfaces on an ongoing basis
  • transition staff working remotely to onsite work while adhering to social distancing
  • implement entry and screening guidelines for staff and members
  • supply personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • implement protocols in case someone working in or using the facility is exposed to or tests positive for the virus
  • address child care if schools are shuttered.

When the community’s JCC partially reopened, it relocated its fitness center to a more spacious auditorium, and the preschool and summer camp are hosting fewer children than it did prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The JCC’s senior center remains closed, but social workers are continuing to reach out to elderly members, including Holocaust survivors, and the center provides meals at home in lieu of the onsite senior lunch program.

Food pantry volunteers work outside at the Jewish Federation of Kansas City amid the adoption of new pandemic-era health and safety protocols by Jewish institutions around the country. (Courtesy of JFGKC)

In Kansas City, Derek Gale, vice president and COO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, said his federation’s reopening plans are constantly evolving.

“At any given point it’s up to date and then out of date,” Gale said, based on the number of confirmed virus cases in the area, COVID-positive rates and state guidelines. As of mid-July, no more than five people were working onsite at the federation’s offices at any given time, with distancing and other safety protocols in place.

“No one is forced to work in the office,” Gale said, particularly if they are at high risk of suffering virus-related complications. Those working in the office on certain days have discussed in advance with supervisors and notify the rest of the staff in advance.

He also said that the federation recognizes that employees may have child care issues and offers flexibility. Although the local school year traditionally starts in mid-August, the start date is being postponed by state and municipal governments until after Labor Day, and online, remote learning is figuring in to plans of most districts and schools.

The Jewish Federations of North America’s guidance and weekly online meetings with planning experts and other functional area leaders have proved invaluable, Gale said.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, which is home to the local federation, Martin Pear JCC, day school and other Jewish facilities, reopened on May 18.

“From the beginning, we took an attitude that it’s about what we can do, not about what we can’t,” said Jay Jacobs, CEO of the campus and the JCC. “The goal was to create an environment people felt safe walking into.”

To get the campus up and running, the facilities director created a reopening plan that was reviewed by a medical task force. The campus held training sessions for all 11 of the facilities it hosts, and the JCC briefed its departments on new protocols.

Ninety percent of the campus’ hallways, staircases and paths now move in one direction to limit interactions and keep foot traffic flowing. In addition to the regular cleaning crew, a full-time crew has as its sole job to sanitize the campus’ doorknobs, railings, counters, sinks, bathrooms, etc. Temperature checks are mandatory for anyone wishing to enter, and signage reminds people with symptoms not to enter the facility.

Before the pandemic, the campus saw some 3,000 to 3,500 people per day. Today it serves about 1,000 daily, including the kids at the Shemesh Camp at The J. Unlike regular summers, there are no field trips this year. The limitations have forced staff and counselors to get creative, come up with activities on the sprawling campus and go “back to the basics” of traditional day camps.

“Things are far from how they used to be, but it’s not all bad,” Jacobs said. For example, taking visitors’ temperatures at the entrance “has reminded us how important it is to greet people when they walk into the building. We’ll definitely continue member greeting once the COVID crisis is behind us.”

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White House criticizes Twitter for censoring Trump and not Iran’s Khamenei calling for destruction of Israel

Mon, 2020-08-03 13:59

(JTA) — A Twitter official told Israeli lawmakers that the social media platform would not remove tweets calling for the destruction of Israel by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

That led the White House to accuse Twitter of “bias against conservatives,” as the company has recently flagged or deleted tweets by President Donald Trump for “glorifying violence” and spreading misinformation.

Here’s what Ylwa Pettersson, the head of Twitter policy for the Nordics and Israel, said last week during a videoconference with a Knesset committee regarding Khamenei’s tweets, which have called for terror attacks and the murder of Israelis and the destruction of Israel:

“We have an approach to world leaders that presently says direct interactions with public figures, comments on political issues of the day or foreign policy saber-rattling on military and economic issues are generally not in violation of Twitter rules.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, responding to a reporter’s question on Friday, criticized Twitter for what it considers the double standard.

“I thought it was very eye opening,” McEnany said. “And it tells you where these social media companies stand, where they’re not willing to assess the Ayatollah Khomeini’s tweets but they are willing to assess President Trump’s tweets.

“It’s really appalling, and it just speaks to their overwhelming, blinding bias against conservatives and against this president. And we are taking action.”

McEnany said the administration is submitting a petition to the FCC for proposed regulatory changes to hold social media companies accountable for their censorship.”

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Berlin rally against coronavirus rules features neo-Nazi supporters, anti-Semitic displays

Sun, 2020-08-02 20:45

BERLIN (JTA) – A rally supported by neo-Nazi groups drew more than 20,000 protesters in Berlin Saturday to demand an end to coronavirus restrictions.

The rally was called a “Day of Freedom,” an apparent reference to a 1935 documentary about the Nazi army by Adolf Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. Some attendees displayed anti-Semitic slogans, while others compared Germany’s rules meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus to Nazi regulations.

“In retrospect, this demonstration has confirmed many of our fears,” Sigmount Koenigsberg, commissioner against anti-Semitism for the Jewish Community of Berlin, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Sunday. “The Shoah was repeatedly relativized and anti-Semitic conspiracy myths were part of the standard repertoire.”

A last-minute intervention by Jewish groups on Friday led authorities to alter the planned route, which would have passed by a main city synagogue during Shabbat services, Koenigsberg said.

The demonstration organizers, a Stuttgart-based group called Querdenken 711 (“Thinking Against the Tide”), had registered for up to 500,000 participants to attend, and various neo-Nazi groups were among those who urged people to attend, Berlin’s Interior Minister Andreas Geisel told ZDFheute TV news. The actual number of people who joined the rally fell short of those ambitions and reflected a broad cross-section of ideological arguments against the health rules, according to news reports.

Berlin police broke up the demonstration a few hours after it started, forcibly removing some speakers from the stage they had set up, according to German news reports. More than 100 people were arrested, and dome 45 police officers were injured in unrest following the main demonstration. The Berlin police are pursuing charges against the organizers for failing to wear face masks and maintain distancing, and they are investigating the use of symbols of organizations considered unconstitutional in Germany — including the Nazi party.

The Department for Research and Information on Antisemitism, a watchdog group known as RIAS, tweeted images of demonstrators carrying or wearing anti-Semitic propaganda.

One carried a sign with a yellow star similar to those that Nazis forced Jews in Germany and other occupied countries to wear, but which read “not vaccinated.” Munich outlawed the use of the yellow star at similar demonstrations in June.

A demonstrator was photographed wearing a t-shirt that said “FCK ZION” on the front, and on the back urged people to “read the protocols,” a reference to the infamous early-20th-century anti-Semitic hoax text. RIAS also tweeted that one of the speakers referred to “high finance” – a frequent code word for Jews – being behind the coronavirus pandemic.

“Open anti-Semitism was not unexpected at this demonstration,” tweeted the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, urging people to report cases to RIAS.

Demonstrators at a Berlin rally Aug. 1, 2020, hold signs with slogans like like “No place for Nazis” as a protest against the rally against coronavirus restrictions. (Photo: Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Koenigsberg told JTA that the protesters’ “search for scapegoats and spreading of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths has confirmed our view that this demonstration must be considered anti-Semitic.” He lauded the mainstream political parties for criticizing it. Counter-protesters also demonstrated, some holding signs that said “No Place for Nazis.”

Germany’s death toll in the pandemic is currently at about 9,000. The number of reported cases has increased after dipping in May; the country’s main health research institution, the Robert Koch health institute, recently reported about 1,000 new infections per day.

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Pandemic reinvigorates push to bar pre-Yom Kippur chicken-swinging ritual in NYC

Sun, 2020-08-02 20:01

(JTA) — An organization that objects to a pre-Yom Kippur ritual that involves swinging live chickens is renewing its legal effort to stop the religious rite in New York City, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Kapparot involves swinging a live chicken over one’s head three times and reciting a prayer to transfer sins to the bird. The chicken is then slaughtered and donated to the poor. (Learn more about the ritual.)

In recent years, money has replaced the chicken in the rite for many Jewish groups, but the practice continues in some communities, including in Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn. That has angered advocates who say the practice is abusive to animals.

In 2017, a state appeals court struck down a lawsuit calling for New York police and health officials to block the practice.  But the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos filed a motion last month to renew the lawsuit, first filed in 2015, citing fears that the ritual could spread dangerous pathogens in the air, just as scientists believe that animals in the wet markets of Wuhan, China began spreading the COVID-19 virus.

“In light of the Covid-19 virus, and the consensus that it arose from a zoonotic cause, many people have been questioning how the city can possibly allow Kaporos to take place this year,” attorney Nora Constance Marino, who represents the alliance, said in a statement in July. She said the current pandemic represented new evidence that warranted reopening the suit.

There are more than 80 live animal markets in New York City, where the animals are slaughtered on the spot, NY1 reported, which also is a concern of animal activists.

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As Israel expects 16,000 US students, COVID-19 czar warns that rule-breakers will be deported

Sun, 2020-08-02 19:29

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Foreign students who disregard Israel’s restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will be deported, Israel’s coronavirus czar said.

Some 16,000 young adults from the United States alone are scheduled to enter Israel before Rosh Hashanah for study, seminary and pre-army programs.

Dr. Ronni Gamzu is under pressure to reverse the decision at a time when gatherings are restricted and the disease’s spread is ongoing. He said during public appearances this weekend that he did not agree with the decision to allow the students entry into Israel but noted that it was made before he was appointed late last month to run Israel’s efforts to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

Gamzu said inspectors would be deployed to make sure foreign students adhere to regulations, including studying only in small pods. He also threatened to close down any institution that does not follow the regulations.

Israel Beiteinu Party chairman Avigdor Liberman sent Gamzu a letter Friday asking him to reconsider letting students into the country. In a post on Facebook, Liberman accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz of surrendering to the Orthodox parties in allowing yeshiva students to enter. Yeshivas have remained open even after Netanyahu closed all camps and schools for students in fifth grade and above.


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