Bruce Damonte
The lobby of San Francisco's new Contemporary Jewish Museum was designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind.

By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- The Contemporary Jewish Museum, set to open June 8 in its new San Francisco location, is a mind-blowingly grand celebration of what Jewish sensibilities can contribute to the American cultural experience.

It’s also the latest example of the Jewish museum as event rather than institution.

Several things set this ambitious new creation apart.

First is the sheer scale: a $47.5 million, 63,000-square-foot building designed by Daniel Libeskind, the famed architect of Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the master site plan for the rebuilt World Trade Center. The facility, which incorporates an abandoned 1907 PG&E power station into a design inspired by "chai," the Hebrew word for life, fairly screams high-concept, but in a comfortable, northern California kind of way.

The airy lobby of the San Francisco museum acts to lift the spirits. As Libeskind explains in his architect’s statement, “no Jewish museum can ignore the darkness of the Holocaust,” but the building here “embodies and manifests hope” and, like the American West, describes “a culture of freedom, curiosity and possibility.”

It’s a museum that could have been built only in California, says Mitchell Schwartz, an art history professor at the California College of the Arts. It fits a community that is highly innovative, largely unaffiliated and has not experienced the discrimination Jews have felt elsewhere.

“This is a place of life and celebration and moving forward," he says. "It’s not a place of reflection on tragedy because the Jewish experience in California has not been a tragic one.”

Another defining characteristic is that the museum will maintain no permanent collection, but will host temporary and travelling exhibitions.

That’s partly due to its proximity to Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, which owns the country’s third largest Judaica collection. The two institutions are still smarting from an abortive merger effort that collapsed several years ago, and are eager not to step on each other’s toes.

In fact, one of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s opening exhibits is on loan from the Magnes, highlighting what both institutions envision as a close ongoing cooperation.

“They’re doing something totally wonderful and unique,” says James Leventhal, the development director at the Magnes. “They are carving out new ground, and the way they are partnering with us is part of that.”

Lastly is its focus.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum isn’t the only large-scale Jewish museum to open in recent years. There’s the splashy and quite successful 10-year-old Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles; the impressive Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, which opened in 2005 in Cleveland, and the country’s newest Jewish museum, which opened last month in Milwaukee.

In 2010 Philadelphia’s National Museum of Jewish History will move to a new 100,000-square-foot facility on Independence Mall.

The latter three, like most Jewish museums in this country, focus on chronicling the history of a particular Jewish community. A lesser number function more like Jewish art galleries. And, of course, there are the Holocaust museums, which range from small private collections in federation offices or synagogues to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The San Francisco museum is most similar to The Jewish Museum in New York in terms of focus, scale and public programming. But while the latter is a collecting institution that interprets the history of world Jewry, San Francisco’s museum offers what director Connie Wolf describes as “a contemporary perspective on Jewish art, culture and history.”

Wolf sees the new museum as devoted to “art and ideas.” While it will host ambitious exhibitions, the art itself isn’t the focus so much as the conversations that art engenders, and the community that Wolf and her staff hope to create from those conversations.

“Most people, if you say ‘Jewish museum,’ they think Holocaust museum or history museum. We are neither,” says Wolf, who headed the museum in its previous, much more modest incarnation and was the driving force behind its years-long reimagining. “We want people to ask questions -- what does ‘contemporary’ mean?”

It’s a lofty goal, envisioning museum as community builder. Starting June 7, a day before the official opening, the museum will host "Dawn," a dusk-to-sunrise Shavuot celebration for young Bay Area Jews featuring live music, spoken word, film, DJ dancing and rabbi-led text study.

And art, of course. The revelers will be able to wander through the exhibit halls all night, enjoying the artwork while marking a Jewish holiday. The holiday actually begins the next night, Wolf says, so as to enable observant Jews to attend.

That kind of innovative programming, focusing on events that appeal to the young, largely unaffiliated Jewish generation, is more typical of what one might expect from a Jewish community center. What distinguishes it as a museum is the conscious reference back to the arts.

For example, the three inaugural exhibitions are “The Aleph-Bet Project,” a series of sound pieces based on letters of the Hebrew alphabet commissioned by musician John Zorn; “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig,” on loan from New York’s Jewish Museum; and “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,” where the museum invited seven artists -- not all of them Jewish -- to create works inspired by the first book of the Hebrew Bible.

Five of the artists did a morning study session in New York with Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, demonstrating the museum’s focus on the interplay between art and ideas.

That focus is illustrated also in the writer-in-residence position created for Berkeley writer Dan Schifrin, who is doubling as the director of public programming. Many of his initial offerings show a heavy literary bias, including an October hosting of StoryCorps, a New York-based oral history project that will be run by Bay Area literary darling Dave Eggers.

Eggers, whose newest book is about immigration narratives, will lead a discussion of immigration and the Jewish value of tikkun olam.

Schifrin himself will facilitate a book group focusing on Jewish literature that deals with Jewish art.

“The book group is an innovation that will create community and bring it into the museum,” he says.

Museum organizers hope these cutting-edge programs, as well as the physical design of the museum and its downtown location, will draw visitors, especially younger California Jews, who do not engage with the Jewish community in other ways.

“A museum is an easier place to interact with Judaism than a synagogue -- membership is much cheaper, and the obligations are pretty light,” Schwartz says. “But it’s not instead of synagogue. It might even get people interested in synagogue.”

Josh Yoches
Biblical scholar Ephraim Isaac, left, chats with Nigist Mengesha, director of Israel's Ethiopian National Project, and Conservative rabbinical student Juan Mejia at the Be’chol Lashon conference in San Francisco.

By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Miguel Segura Aguilo’s ancestors were executed as Jews five centuries ago in Spain, but he is not welcome in his local synagogue today.

Gershom Sizomu, who will be ordained this month in Los Angeles as a Conservative rabbi, dreams of setting up the first yeshiva for African Jews in his Abayudayan village in East Uganda.

Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a largely African-American congregation in Chicago, is off to Nigeria to make connections with the Ibo, a community that claims Jewish heritage.

These men, and dozens of other representatives of far-flung communities seeking recognition by the Jewish mainstream, gathered earlier this month in San Francisco at a conference sponsored by Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a project of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

The Ibo, Lemba and Abayudaya of Africa, the anusim and xuetas of Spain and Latin America, Ethiopian Jews from Israel, Indian Jews from New York and Asian-American Jews-by-Choice spent three days networking and sharing information about their struggles to join the global Jewish family, a family that is not always eager to embrace them.

“The Jewish community keeps talking about the crisis of intermarriage and the crisis of declining numbers, but meanwhile you’ve got people with Jewish heritage, spiritual seekers, Jewish communities of historical significance, and the Jewish community is doing nothing to help them,” says Gary Tobin, the institute’s president and a longtime advocate of greater openness to those outside the Ashkenazi mainstream.

According to institute research, at least 20 percent of American Jews are racially and ethnically diverse. But old stereotypes about what “real Jews” look like persist, Tobin says.

“Instead of worrying about people being ‘lost’ to intermarriage," he wonders, "why aren’t we extending our ideological borders to include all these people who are so interested in joining us?”

Some of these communities have gone through formal conversion, like the 800 Abayudaya of Uganda, who did so together in 2002. Others have not, including the Lemba of South Africa, who claim Jewish ancestry and point to the Jewish cultural practices they have maintained for centuries.

Still others languish in a gray zone, notably the anusim of Spain, Portugal and Latin America, known more popularly as the conversos -- those whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism under the Inquisition, and who now wish to reclaim their Jewish identities. Estimates of their number range from tens of thousands to more than 1 million.

Aguilo was part of a group from Mallorca, Spain that met with Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, last year, to request a mechanism for their return to the Jewish fold.

“He told us, ‘I need to find a legal tool to defend your position to the rabbinate,’” says Aguilo, a prominent journalist who writes and lectures widely about the xuetas, descendants of those conversos who recanted and reclaimed their Judaism before execution.

Aguilo and his friends are still waiting for Metzger’s reply. “Whatever happens, just don’t put a cross on my grave,” he says, only half-joking.

Some of the anusim claim special status as the descendants of Jews, insisting that they don’t need formal conversion. A handful of sympathetic rabbis have held “ceremonies of return” for them, just as a growing number of Conservative rabbis describe the conversion of people with one Jewish parent as “affirmations” of a Jewish identity they were born with.

But thousands of others are willing to undergo conversion, says Cuban-born Rabbi Manny Vinas, who runs El Centro de Estudios Judios, a Spanish-language Torah center in New York that tries to guide anusim back to Judaism.

“These people want to return to Jerusalem with their heads held high,” he says, arguing the need for a formal process to help them.

Those who wish their conversions to be recognized by Israel are thwarted, he asserts, by new conversion regulations worked out between Israel’s rabbinate and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, whereby only conversions performed by 15 Orthodox rabbinical courts in North America will be accepted in Israel.

That means, he continues, that anyone from Central or South America who wants to convert must travel to North America, a practice that favors the rich.

“The only people able to convert are those with enough money to do it in the United States," he says.

Some of the communities in Be’chol Lashon’s network are far removed from this political struggle over conversion. The Lemba of South Africa, who formed their own Lemba Cultural Association in 1948, are still at the stage of finding out who they are, and what Judaism is all about.

Be’chol Lashon is sponsoring a Lemba student in Botswana who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the history of the community. This is in line with the group’s focus on empowering local leadership, says Be'chol Lashon director Diane Tobin.

She noted that Be’chol Lashon also funded Sizomu’s five years at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, so he could return to Uganda this summer as Africa’s first native-born black rabbi.

Sizomu wonders what effect his return will have on his people's worship style, as he has now become accustomed to western Conservative norms.

"The words we use are the same," he says, explaining that the Abayudaya use prayer books donated by Conservative rabbis who have visited this past decade, "but the melodies are African."

Tobin said she hopes to fund rabbinical studies for more African Jews.

“We will work with anyone who wants to move forward toward being part of the Jewish community,” she says.

Brian Hendler
Israeli soldier tends to Merkava tank at a deployment area on the controversial Golan Heights on Sept. 7, 2007.

By Roy Eitan

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- The skepticism that greeted Ehud Olmert’s announcement that Israel and Syria are renewing peace talks underscores the domestic challenges the prime minister faces in selling any Israel-Syria peace deal at home.

After months of hints and overtures from Jerusalem and Damascus, both governments issued nearly identical statements Wednesday revealing that their envoys were holding indirect, Turkish-mediated negotiations in Ankara.

The simultaneous announcements were themselves something of a milestone, considering the reciprocal saber-rattling between Israel and Syria following the 2006 Lebanon War and Israel’s bombing last year of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility.

But negotiations over a peace deal face a host of substantive obstacles, including domestic concerns.

The starting point for negotiations seems obvious on all sides. The Syrians will demand the full return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed

Israel will demand peace, recognition and normalized relations, and will require that Syria discontinue support for Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas -- Israel’s primary foes.

The last set of official peace talks, at Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 2000, collapsed over Syria's demand for a return of the Golan.

Assad has shown no sign of budging. His foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said Wednesday that Damascus had received a "commitment" from Israel on ceding the territory and that without this, there would be no hope of an accord.

Jerusalem officials denied any such sweeping agreement, allowing only that Israel has arrived at a "formula" for resolving the Golan dispute.

Olmert appeared to allude to the possibility of ceding at least part of the Golan in a speech he gave Wednesday evening.

"The negotiations will not be easy, they will not be simple, they could be protracted and, ultimately, require making difficult concessions," he said.

Describing himself as willing to tackle peacemaking with Damascus despite the potentially steep price, he said, "It's better to talk than to shoot.”

With early reports indicating that Syria has far more to gain -- the Golan, engagement with the United States -- than Israel, many in the Jewish state suggested the announcement of the talks came primarily to distract attention from Olmert's legal woes.

A poll conducted by Channel 2 television found that 57 percent of Israelis think the talks are linked to the investigation of suspicions that Olmert he took bribes from an American businessman while serving in previous government posts.

Fifty-eight percent of poll respondents said the prime minister lacks the legitimacy necessary to conduct negotiations in good faith.

Most significant, 70 percent said they would oppose ceding the Golan even under a comprehensive peace accord.

Censure of Olmert was quick to come from all spectrums of the political opposition.

"I very much hope this isn't a distraction gimmick," said Zehava Gal-On of the leftist Meretz Party.

Effi Eitam, a lawmaker with the right-wing National Union and a Golan resident, accused Olmert, who has been criticized for pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians while rockets are being fired from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, of deepening Israel's national security plight.

"Over recent years, the State of Israel has increasingly failed in defending its citizens in the North and South," Eitam said. "And from this position of weakness, we are now going to forsake a strategic asset and our quietest border to a partner who is unwilling to give anything in return."

Olmert is likely to face opposition from within his own government coalition, some of whom distrust the idea of territorial concessions. Others simply distrust the prime minister.

"I think that the fact that this comes from the Prime Minister’s Office tells us of another very serious deterioration in how the Prime Minister’s Office works, apparently -- most likely -- with Olmert’s knowledge, in order to save his political skin," lawmaker Danny Yatom, whose Labor Party is a junior partner to Olmert's Kadima in the coalition, told Israel Radio.

Even if Israel and Syria manage to overcome their differences and reach an accord, Olmert will have difficulty getting it approved at home. A 1999 law requires any ceding of land annexed by Israel to be approved by a majority vote in the Knesset, and then in a referendum.

By then, Olmert's current scandal may be forgotten, as were a string of previous criminal investigations against him. And Assad may attain his primary goal of new ties with the United States under President Bush's successor.

"The Syrians' deep desire is to emerge from the almost leper-like political isolation in which they find themselves," the chief of Israel's military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, told Ha'aretz last week. "Israel alone cannot open the gates of the world to Syria. That asset has to be supplied by someone else.

"Therefore, Assad is preparing for the moment when the U.S. administration will change, when, he believes, Israel will give him what he wants."

Ben Harris
Maria, left, says she resisted the sexual advances of a Guatemalan supervisor at Agriprocessors. Her sister Yolanda, right, started working at the plant at age 16 and asked not to have her photo taken.

By Ben Harris

POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA) -- As the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse scrambles to stay open after a federal raid, former workers at the plant -- many of them still fearful of retribution from government authorities -- have begun to tell their stories, revealing new details of conditions there.

Agents in the May 12 raid at the Agriprocessors plant in this small northeastern Iowa town arrested 389 illegal workers, among them 18 juveniles.

In recent days, former employees have been painting a picture of a company indifferent to federal laws prohibiting slaughterhouses from employing workers younger than 18 and where workers frequently were pressured to exchange sexual favors for preferred treatment.

At least one lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), reportedly has said he supports an investigation into conditions at the plant.

Following what the government is describing as the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, Agriprocessors denied any wrongdoing and insisted it would cooperate with federal officials. The company has remained tight-lipped about the latest allegations by former employees.

"As with any legal matter, Agriprocessors cannot comment about any specific allegation," said Chaim Abrahams, a company representative. "The company is performing an independent investigation and will continue to cooperate with the government about this matter."

Founded in 1987 by Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin, Agriprocessors has grown into the country's largest seller of kosher meat, producing some 60 percent of the kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher chicken in the United States.

The company -- which sells its kosher meat under various labels, including Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, Rubashkin’s, European Glatt, Supreme Kosher, David’s and Shor Habor -- has been dogged by allegations of worker mistreatment, environmental offenses, and food and safety violations at its flagship plant.

With nearly half its workforce in federal custody, and many others having fled or afraid to show up to work, Agriprocessors has struggled since the raid to replenish its ranks. Workers have been shipped in from around the country and several former Postville employees say they have been asked to return to work.

One ex-worker, who would identify himself only as Jose, said a female Agriprocessors employee had called his home looking for a man named Miguel. Jose told her that Miguel had been arrested in the raid, but the woman encouraged him to tell his friends that the company was looking to rehire workers.

"She said don't worry about" having the proper papers, Jose said. "You can come to work and we’ll pay in cash."

Another worker who refused to give her name said a supervisor had called her house Monday and said the company had a list of people it wanted to rehire. Her name was on the list even though she admitted to having purchased forged identification and a fake Social Security number.

Agriprocessors also has recruited workers from its plant in Gordon, Neb., 650 miles to the west.

John Marshall, 19, had worked in the Gordon plant for six months before boarding an Agriprocessors bus for the 12-hour ride to Postville. At the Iowa plant he worked 17-hour shifts in several capacities, from flanking on the kill floor to cleaning.

Marshall says the company promised a $200 bonus for coming to Postville, as well as reimbursement for expenses, a place to sleep for free and an hourly wage of $8.25.

After six days, Marshall said, he wanted to go home, but the company wouldn’t pay him anything beyond the $150 he received May 16. Marshall told JTA that he has no money to make the return trip to Gordon.

Angelo Morales, 23, who drove himself from Gordon to Postville, said he was not reimbursed for expenses incurred along the way. Morales said he cannot afford gas for the return trip and is waiting for his girlfriend to send him money to get home.

Meanwhile, former workers at the Postville plant are speaking out about alleged conditions there, often at the prompting of union officials that have flooded the town in the wake of the raid.

A girl who would agree to be identified only as Yolanda said she was 15 years old when she left her home in Iztapa, Guatemala, late last year and illegally crossed the U.S. border into Texas. Within weeks she had arrived in Postville, where she found work in the Agriprocessors plant.

Yolanda told JTA that she produced a fake government ID card that showed her to be 18 years old. She pulled 11-hour graveyard shifts bagging chicken breasts and removing turkey feathers -- difficult work that she said led to a hand injury from constant use of scissors. Supervisors routinely pressured the workers to move faster, she said.

"They were constantly pushing us and forcing us to work faster," Yolanda said through a translator. "They were very abusive, screaming a lot."

Yolanda’s sister Maria, 32, said she resisted the sexual advances of a Guatemalan supervisor who tried to force himself on her in a car. In the days that followed, Maria, who describes herself as a diligent worker, was accused of coming late to work and was denied overtime pay.

"I like to do my job correctly and I like to do things a particular way," she said. "It's very different than some of the other workers, the way they do their job."

Maria eventually complained and the supervisor was fired. But other workers appeared to keep quiet about alleged mistreatment out of fear they would be turned over to the authorities.

"There was such fear in that community that they were afraid to go talk to anybody," said Kevin Williamson, the international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Joel Rucal said he went to work at Agriprocessors after finishing the eighth grade. He said he paid $150 for a fake ID and took a job paying $8.75 an hour to work in quality control. Sometimes he worked 12-hour shifts through the night checking the temperature of the meat.

According to Rucal, his 16-year-old girlfriend worked at the plant cleaning chickens, as did his sister, also 16. Rucal said that a supervisor told his sister that if she became his girlfriend, he would reward her with a promotion.

"She said no," Rucal recalled. "And when she said no, he give more jobs to her."

Rucal also said that he was pressured to purchase a blue Ford Focus from a supervisor for $3,500 after the supervisor promised he would make work easier for his mother, an Agriprocessors employee who was picked up during the raid. Rucal said she was released because she has children.

Even as complaints and allegations mounted about the conditions at the Postville plant, the substitute workers brought in from Nebraska described a more positive environment back at the company's factory in Gordon.

Morales said the Postville plant is far worse than what he experienced in Gordon, where supervisors would take the time to explain proper procedures or help out when something went wrong.

In Postville, he added, supervisors only paid attention to the workers when they were taking a break -- to make sure it didn't last too long.

"It’s not all rabbis; there are rabbis that are good," Morales said. "The Jews back home" at the plant in Nebraska, "they're like real people, real good people. But these Jews over here they’re different, real different."

Obama for America
Some Democratic lawmakers and activists say U.S. Barack Obama, seen here in Oregon, needs to do more to reach out to Jewish voters.

By Ami Eden

NEW YORK (JTA) -- It's become as much a campaign-season staple as Iowa and New Hampshire: Each election cycle Republicans predict a major shift in the Jewish vote and Democrats end up scoffing all the way to winning upwards of 75 percent at the ballot box.

This year, however, something is different.

Many Jewish Democrats -- at least in the heart of Hillaryland -- are worried as it becomes increasingly likely that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will be the party's presidential candidate in November.

The anxious mood was easy to detect Sunday night at the annual dinner of the New York chapter of the National Jewish Democratic Council, especially during a speech by one of the night's five honorees, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

"We need to convince Jewish voters that" Obama will "stand by Israel," said Engel, who with four other pro-Clinton Jewish congressmen from New York -- Gary Ackerman, Steve Israel, Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner -- was recognized for working to bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Such talk is not a complete surprise coming from Engel, a hawk from the Bronx who has taken the lead in pressing for tougher U.S. sanctions against Syria. But several other speakers and attendees voiced similar concerns.

After the speeches, Nadler told JTA he shared Engel's view that Obama faced some challenges.

"Barack Obama is not well known in the Jewish community," Nadler said. "There is a lot of nervousness."

Even the NJDC's executive director, Ira Forman, who in past years was quick to dismiss any talk of a pending Jewish crossover to the GOP, raised the alarm.

Borrowing from Charles Dickens, Forman told the crowd that it was the "best of times," with Democrats poised to make "huge gains" in Congress. But it is also the "worst of times," he added, citing a recent Gallup Poll showing Obama winning 61 percent of the Jewish vote in a match-up against U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) taking 67 percent against the presumptive Republican nominee.

Forman noted that while the poll gives both Democrats a solid majority, it also shows McCain faring much better among Jewish voters than his Republican predecessors from the past four presidential races.

"What does that drop of 15 to 20 percent mean?" he asked. "It means 180,000 votes in the state of Florida if we drop 20 percent. It means 35,000 votes in Ohio. God forbid New Jersey's in play, 130,000 votes in New Jersey; 16,000 votes in the small state of Nevada; 25,000 votes in Colorado; 70,000 votes in Pennsylvania. I could go on and on."

Both Nadler and Engel said that despite their objections to Obama's stated willingness to meet with the president of Iran, they are comfortable with the Illinois senator. Weiner and Israel also stressed that for them, backing Obama over John McCain was an easy choice.

The four honorees on hand -- Ackerman was in Israel as part of a delegation headed by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- said Obama would be wise to put Clinton on the ticket. Some of the lawmakers said the move would send a reassuring message to Jewish voters who view her as a proven supporter of Israel.

However, two NJDC activists at the event -- Trudy Mason, a state committeewoman, and Risa Levine, an attorney active in State of Israel Bonds and the Democratic National Committee -- rejected the idea.

They said forcing Clinton to serve a notch below a man with significantly less experience would alienate many women like them who actively supported her.

Echoing a view voiced by several of the politicians in attendance, Mason and Levine said that ultimately the most important thing is for Obama to do a better job of reaching out to Jewish communal leaders and activists.

Obama has spoken at high-profile Jewish or Israel-related events in Chicago and Washington, met with Jewish communal leaders in Ohio and Pennsylvania prior to the respective primaries in those states and granted several interviews to Jewish media outlets.

But as several attendees pointed out, he has yet to establish the sort of strong personal relationships with many of the Jewish power players and elected officials in New York, that they are used to enjoying with Clinton and other national political figures.

One obstacle until now has been that in New York, as well as some other states with significant Jewish populations, Clinton boasts long-term relationships with and commands the support of most of the major Jewish Democratic figures. That has made it especially difficult during the primary season for Obama to make any significant inroads.

Experience -- or Obama's lack of it -- is another factor, especially with pro-Israel activists who place a high premium on familiarity and reliability.

"I think the best friend Israel has is the U.S. Congress, and the longer someone is in Congress, the more they get it," said Levine, the New York chair of the DNC-aligned Women's Leadership Forum Network. "It's not just about the ability to spout back AIPAC talking points. He hasn't been there long enough."

Levine said the lack of experience was an issue even before Obama was rocked by controversies involving inflammatory comments, including harsh criticisms of Israel made by his former pastor. Now, she says, the fact that many American Jews don't have a good feel for Obama is an even bigger problem.

Unlike the congressmen, who all were emphatic about their support for Obama should he prevail in the Democratic primary fight, Levine sounded noncommittal.

Asked if she would vote for Obama in November, Levine would only say, "It's a secret vote."

Israel -- the congressman, not the country -- predicted that if Clinton lost, the number of Jewish defections to McCain would be small. In the process, he previewed the hard-hitting line of attack that Democrats intend to follow in the fight for Jewish votes.

"For sure we are going to make this a referendum on a Republican Party that has made Iran stronger, and has enriched Saudi Arabia and other petro-dollar states, which undermines Israeli security," the congressman said, adding that Democrats also will be stressing domestic issues in their outreach to Jewish voters leading up to November.

"John McCain has stated explicitly that he would appoint a Bush Supreme Court," Israel said.

Weiner argued that the differences between Obama and Clinton are "infinitesimal" compared to what separates either of them from McCain. And he also demonstrated a willingness to challenge the claim of GOP activists that their leaders are now in the vanguard of defending Israel.

"In terms of the safety and security of Israel," Weiner said, "probably nothing has jeopardized that more than the war in Iraq, and John McCain says he wants to carry that for the foreseeable future."

Harry Baumert/Des Moines Register
Students from the Yeshiva of Northeast Iowa in Postville gather across the street from Agriprocessors Inc. to ask questions of U.S. Immigration and Customs officials regarding the raid on May 12, 2008.

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) -- In laying the legal groundwork for a massive raid of the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse, federal authorities cited claims that illegal narcotics production took place at the factory and hundreds of illegal immigrants were employed there, including several of the rabbis responsible for kosher supervision.

The charges were among the most explosive details to emerge following the raid Monday at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa.

Agents arrested 390 workers in what Immigration and Customs Enforcement called the largest raid of its kind in U.S. history.

The raid, which required federal authorities to rent an expansive fairground in nearby Waterloo to house detainees, prompted the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa to temporarily relocate judges and court personnel to the site because the facilities in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City were inadequate.

"There have been other operations where more people have been arrested," Tim Counts, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, told JTA. "But as far as we can determine, this is the largest single-site operation as far as number of arrests go."

The raid follows a six-month investigation involving more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the departments of labor and agriculture.

Three Israelis and four Ukrainians were among the detainees held on charges of being in the country illegally, Counts said. Officials are expected to bring criminal charges against some of the detainees as well, most of whom are from Guatemala and Mexico.

Agriprocessors said in a statement Tuesday that it "takes the immigration laws seriously" and intended to "continue to cooperate with the government in its investigation."

"Agriprocessors will also inquire further into the circumstances that led to these events," the company said. "We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families whose lives were disrupted and wish them the best. We are deeply committed to meeting the needs of all of our customers and are operating again today."

In the affidavit filed as part of the 60-page application for a search warrant, additional details were revealed of the government's investigation of Agriprocessors, a company that has been beset by numerous allegations of health and safety violations, mistreating workers and using controversial slaughter practices.

According to the document, a former supervisor at the plant -- identified only as Source #1 -- told investigators that some 80 percent of the workforce was illegal.

The source also said he believed rabbis responsible for kosher supervision entered the United States from Canada without proper immigration documents. According to the affidavit, the source did not provide evidence for his suspicions about the rabbis.

Source #1 also claimed to have discovered active production of the drug methamphetamine at the plant and reported incidents of weapons being carried there.

Methamphetamine, more commonly known as crystal meth, is Illegal in the United States. The popular nightclub drug gives users a sense of energy and euphoria that can last for hours.

Agriprocessors employees told investigators that sometimes they were required to work nighttime shifts of 12 hours or more.

The affidavit says that 697 plant employees are believed to have violated federal laws.

With Agriprocessors producing more than half of the nation's kosher meat, the raid has prompted fears of a disruption in supply. Though the plant was back in operation Tuesday, it was unclear if Agriprocessors could meet its normal production capacity with hundreds of its workers in federal custody.

Founded by Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin, Agriprocessors produces kosher meat and poultry marketed under the labels Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's.

The firm gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book "Postville," which described the tensions between the company and the local community. The company has attracted a significant population of Orthodox Jews to a rural pocket of northeast Iowa.

Agriprocessors did not respond to requests for comment from JTA. Asked if there was slaughter taking place Tuesday, a woman who answered the phone at the plant said, "We're trying."

The Des Moines Register reported that more than 100 cars were in the company lot Tuesday morning, but quoted a nearby business owner who said that foot and vehicular traffic to the plant was much lower than usual.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union's kosher supervision department -- the largest outfit certifying the kosher status of Agriprocessors' meat -- told JTA that other companies had assured him that they could make up for any shortfall from the Postville plant.

Genack reiterated the O.U.'s policy of leaving matters of immigration and labor standards to the government.

"No one else has the resources to do what the federal government can do," he said.

If the company turns out to be criminally liable, Genack said, that could be grounds for losing its kosher certification.

Genack said he was told by the plant's supervising rabbi that two foreign rabbis working at the plant had failed to renew their work permits when they expired a few weeks ago. He described the issue as a "technical" violation and insisted the two rabbis had not been detained.

Much of the information the government collected appears to have come from former employees of Agriprocessors who were detained by police on unrelated charges. Sources related similar stories of presenting fraudulent documents and Social Security numbers when seeking employment with the company.

Several said they were aware of undocumented workers employed at the plant that were paid by supervisors in cash.

The affidavit says the government has probable cause to believe that an Agriprocessors supervisor assisted workers in acquiring fake documents in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

Federal investigators provided documentation for a former Agriprocessors employee, identified in the affidavit as Source #7, for the purpose of gaining employment at the plant. Once hired, the source reported on rabbis who insulted the workers and threw meat at them.

In one alleged instance, a "Hasidic Jew" duct-taped a worker's eyes and then hit him with a meat hook, "apparently not causing serious injuries."

Agriprocessors has come under fire before for its labor practices, as well as health and safety violations. In March, authorities fined the company $182,000 for violations at the plant.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has clandestinely videotaped a controversial slaughter practice used at the plant.

In addition, an investigation by the Forward weekly newspaper revealed allegations that employees were underpaid and exploited. Agriprocessors officials denied the allegations.

On Tuesday, members of the Conservative movement's Hekhsher Tzedek Commission condemned the company, saying that keeping kosher requires more than just adherence to ritual matters, but also sensitivity to the environment and respect for workers and animals. The Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is in part a response to past allegations of misconduct at Agriprocessors.

"The actions of this company have brought shame upon the entire Jewish community," the commission said. "Yesterday’s discovery, along with the other violations of the ethical standards set forth by our Torah and our tradition underscore the need for Hekhsher Tzedek. To be sure, halacha has never limited its concern to the ritual elements of kashrut alone."

World File :: Back to Burma

5.13.2008

Courtesy Sammy Samuels
The colorful blue glass window of Yangon's Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue fell to the floor during the cyclone that ravaged Myanmar on May 3, 2008.

By Jacob Berkman

NEW YORK (JTA) -- The Starbucks on 50th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan is a world away from the gruesome mayhem that is the aftermath of the cyclone that hit Myanmar last week.

But as Sammy Samuels sips on a $4 coffee, his thoughts are with his home and family in the ravaged country's capital. His is one of only eight Jewish families in Yangon.

Samuels is heading there this week to deliver suitcases of water purification tablets and medicine.

When he arrives, the fourth-generation Burmese will become one of the few Westerners to bring aid into Myanmar, where an estimated 1.5 million people have been severely affected by the cyclone that ripped through the country May 3.

Cyclone Nargis killed anywhere between 30,000, the number given by the country's military rulers, and 100,000, the estimate provided by human rights groups.

With the Burmese left without homes, food, water and basic medical supplies, the United Nations is warning that the situation could spiral out of control.

Yet even as worldwide pressure is mounting on Yangon to admit aid from Western countries, and even as Thailand is becoming a staging ground for what could be the largest U.S. aid effort since the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the military junta has refused entry to aid workers from the West.

Only Westerners with Burmese citizenship are allowed in. Aid groups, including a number of Jewish groups trying to mobilize, are waiting to help but are handcuffed.

Along with the water purification tablets, Samuels will bring cash to buy a generator for Yangon's only synagogue and hopefully to help repair the 110-year-old temple, whose roof and windows were destroyed during the cyclone.

"I'm just tired of being worried away from home," Samuels, 27, told JTA in an interview Monday at Starbucks. "I just can't stay here while people are having a difficult time, having gone through these difficulties. I just can't stay here."

The Samuels family moved to Burma about 80 years ago from Iraq to pursue business interests in the rice and teakwood trade. At that time, its Jewish community numbered in the thousands. Most fled to Japan during World War II and the rest left when the military seized power in 1962 and nationalized many businesses. (The military changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and Rangoon to Yangon in 1989.)

The Samuels family stayed and watched as the community dwindled to about 20. Four are his family -- his father, Moses; his mother, Nelly; and his two sisters, Kazna, 29, and Dina, 31.

Along with the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon has a Jewish cemetery. Moses Samuels, who runs a travel agency that arranges Jewish tours of Myanmar, serves as the de facto caretaker for both.

The beautiful brick synagogue features a two-tiered sanctuary -- the men sit downstairs and the women in the balcony -- but few in the community attend services.

Samuels recalls that as children, he and his sisters on sunny days would sit in the sanctuary and watch as a prism of light through the stained-glass windows fell over the area in front of the Torah ark.

Those windows were destroyed last week.

Samuels moved to the United States in 2002 to attend Yeshiva University, from where he graduated in 2006 with a degree in international business. He also came to find a Jewish bride. In Myanmar, with only 15 Jews who are not family, that's a difficult proposition.

He heads the information technology department for the American Jewish Congress but remains close to his native country. Samuels plans to move back one day, hopefully when the economy develops. Perhaps then he could earn more than the $100 to $200 a month he estimates he would earn now.

Samuels sends 10 percent of his salary to Myanmar to help keep up the synagogue and cemetery, which he estimates costs approximately $2,200 per month.

But Samuels says he feels tremendous guilt about being in the United States while his family, friends and fellow Burmese suffer through the cyclone and its aftermath.

The day it hit, he had turned off his cell phone because he was busy at work while the AJCongress held its annual meetings. Samuels turned on his phone to find 40 messages from friends and acquaintances asking about his family and the synagogue.

With no idea what was happening, he checked CNN and saw that several thousand Burmese had been killed. That number grew steadily as Samuels refreshed his browser.

He called home but couldn't get through.

"People died. My family, I tried to call them every 15 minutes -- for three days I had no contact with them," Samuels said. "I was so worried and terrified. I had no idea what was happening."

Samuels finally reached his family via e-mail through the Israeli embassy in Myanmar. The reports from his father were harrowing.

Though his family was unharmed in their big apartment building in Yangon, a city of 5 million, they were shaken.

"My father said in all his life, in 60 years he had never seen anything like that," said Samuels, slight of frame, bespectacled and Asian in appearance. "Both of my sisters, they were shaking and praying. All the winds and rain and sounds were just terrifying."

He recalls his father saying, " 'Even though we are here suffering like this, you cannot imagine how the small villages and the small towns and all of these small houses, what these families went though that night. You cannot imagine.' "

Despite his father's protestations, Samuels decided he would go to Burma.

"Though they wouldn't say so, I know they wanted to see me," he says of his family.

His two-week trip is turning into a relief mission through the help of Scott Klepper, a business consultant in Utah.

Klepper, 47, met Moses Samuels on a trip to Burma in March. Upon hearing about the cyclone Klepper, an avid outdoorsman, remembered the water purification tablets he uses when hiking.

He pulled out one, looked at the packaging and found the manufacturer, Wisconsin Pharmaceutical. Samuels called the company's president, who offered to sell him the pills at cost and make a donation of 20 percent of the total sale to help Myanmar.

Working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and through a self-propelled e-mail blast, Klepper by Tuesday had raised about $1,000 for the pills.

Klepper said he was hoping that by the time he sent the water purification pills by overnight mail to Samuels on Wednesday, he would have been able to buy enough to make up to 2,500 gallons of water usable.

Monday night, the Hillel at New York University and two partners held a fund-raiser at a downtown art gallery to help raise money for the Burmese Jewish community.

Samuels said the water purification tablets will go to help the general community, not just Jews. He also hopes the synagogue can be repaired quickly so it can take in those left homeless -- Jews and non-Jews.

Two Jewish families from villages just outside Yangon are now living in a building behind the synagogue after they were left homeless. A non-Jewish family is living with them.

Samuels' mission is only part of what is a mounting Jewish response to the cyclone.

The JDC has three staff members in some of the hardest hit areas of Myanmar. They entered the country on Israeli passports via Israel and through Thailand.

Myanmar has good diplomatic relations with Israel, unlike its paranoid attitude toward the American government.

The JDC opened an online mailbox to raise money and will allocate whatever it raises to help Burmese citizens of all faiths.

The United Jewish Communities and the North American Jewish federation system, as well as other groups, also will funnel money to the JDC mailbox.

During the Indian Ocean tsunami four years ago, the system raised some $18 million for relief to help build infrastructure, schools, community centers and low-income housing, the JDC's executive director, Steve Schwager, told JTA.

The American Jewish World Service by Tuesday had raised some $60,000 to funnel to the 19 grass-roots organizations it works with on the Thai-Burmese border. And B'nai B'rith International announced last week that it would allocate $10,000 to help the Israeli organization IsraAid send 10 relief workers, including paramedics, doctors, nurses and water specialists, to Myanmar.

A team of Israeli volunteer doctors, nurses and water specialists from two Israeli nongovernmental organizations under the umbrella of The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid also arrived in the area May 8. It is expected to stay three weeks.

But money has been slow to come in from the United States, according to Schwager. When he spoke with JTA on May 8, a day after the JDC opened its mailbox, the organization had received about $50,000. On Tuesday, according to another senior staff member at JDC, the number still had yet to reach $100,000, though it expects the federation system appeal to slowly start funneling more money into the relief effort, Schwager said.

That staff member said JDC purchased a ton of bananas, rice and bottled water to ship into the region, and it was working with the Israeli Red Cross, Magen David Adom, in getting medical workers into the region. It was also searching for Burmese organizations with whom JDC could partner.

The junta is warier of foreign press than of aid workers, and it is hard to appeal for aid when it's so difficult to describe the situation on the ground to donors.

"The issue is that pictures are missing from the press," Schwager said. "It is purely all about the pictures.

"During the tsunami, it was about dead bodies in the streets and corpses not yet picked up. The folks in Myanmar are busy expelling reporters."

Just as it did in the aftermath of the tsunami, JDC is organizing a coalition of Jewish groups to mobilize a collaborative relief response. But while 40 to 70 organizations worked together in the aftermath of the tsunami, Schwager said only 10 participated in a conference call Monday.

U.S. relief organizations are livid but not surprised by the junta's actions.

"The military regime is infamous for being extremely closed to international organizations and having very strict restrictions," said an AJWS spokesperson, who asked not to be identified. "They are one of the most egregious human rights violators in the world. It is a very difficult place to work for international groups.

"The situation now in Yangon illustrates that the military government has no responsibility towards its citizens."

That relief worker is applying for a visa into Myanmar and is afraid of being identified because the government, which scours the Internet for negative news reports, would likely deny the visa for speaking out against it. Similarly, Sammy Samuels won't say much on the record about his mission, about the things he has seen in Myanmar in the past, and about his feelings about the situation there now.

Samuels loves the Burmese people. He says they are peaceful, respectful of other faiths and beautiful. And he is hopeful that one day the country will open up.

"It is not their fault. They should make a positive thing now and join with all the relief workers to let them in," he said of the government. "The natural disaster is not their fault, but their action now, that is their fault."

Is he angry?

"Yeah," he says, but then tempers his response. "Not only me, but all the international people."

But his eyes belie his lips, framed by the sparse beginnings of a Vandyke beard. They grow cold and angry when he says that he understands the government's position on not allowing in aid to help the 1.5 million citizens it claims to protect. He understands that the junta is afraid of Western influence from aid workers inciting a coup.

Those eyes warn that one should not misread his understanding as sympathy. And they grow a little nervous when he is asked to consider if something should go wrong, if authorities grow fickle and arrest him for bringing in aid from a Western country -- albeit just a suitcase or two of tablets and medicine.

"I hope they have sympathy," he said. "It is part of he Burmese culture. But whatever happens, I have to go."

Janine Spang
Alysa Stanton, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, is preparing to be ordained as the first African-American female rabbi in May, 2009.

By Sue Fishkoff

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Alysa Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

She’s proud to be black, proud to be a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raised her adopted child on her own.

And when she says that next May, following her ordination as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she feels pretty good about that, too.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, didn’t set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so much else in her life.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah and kedusha,” she says, using the Hebrew words for intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

Stanton-Ogulnick -- she’s still getting used to the second part of her hyphenated last name, the product of a recent marriage -- was in this city over the weekend for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that supports their efforts to enter the Jewish mainstream.

That’s something the future rabbi knows a great deal about -- as a woman, as a convert and as a Jew of color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that wasn't always welcoming.

“At this conference there are people from all over looking for their identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick says. “Maybe I can help them on the path by breaking down barriers.”

That’s among her goals as a rabbi, she says: breaking barriers, building bridges and giving hope.

Like many rabbinic students now, Stanton-Ogulnick is on her second career. She came to the rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss issues.

Stanton-Ogulnickhas worked with trauma victims in Colorado for the past 16 years, at the same time becoming more active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She has served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentacostal parents, Stanton-Ogulnick spent her childhood and young adulthood as a spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She converted more than 20 years ago.

“People look at me and ask if I was born Jewish," she says. "I say yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one day I scratched my head and said, hmm, now how can I make my life more difficult? I know -- I’ll become Jewish!”

Stanton-Ogulnick made her choice to join the Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties that might arise. Her daughter Shana, now 13, didn’t get to choose; she was dipped in the mikveh as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as an HUC student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced daily prejudice at school.

“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the bus,” her mother says with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other children held her hand.

“ 'Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,' she said to me,” Stanton-Ogulnick recounts. “I said, why? She said, 'Because I’m shochor,' ” or black.

“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,” the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no good, I’m not pretty.”

Even telling the story now, six years later, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head.

“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this child through,” she says.

Stanton-Ogulnick relates some of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she created last fall called “Layers.”

First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school educators in October, the piece opens with her standing on stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of slavery. The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and other major changes in her life, including a recent weight loss of 122 pounds.

Pulling out an old picture of herself at her former weight, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head again. Is she really no longer that person? Is she really about to become a rabbi?

It’s all so remarkable, she muses.

At the end of one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears, saying, "You told my story, thank you.”

“It’s those moments," Stanton-Ogulnick says, her voice trailing off as she smiles. “Even though the journey is long and the path difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”

It’s experiencing those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi, whether she ends up in a pulpit, working as a chaplain or in some other position.

“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she says, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me."

By Dina Kraft

TEL AVIV (JTA) -- A recent rabbinic court ruling in Israel is prompting thousands of converts in the country to worry if their conversions to Judaism are at risk of being revoked.

The ruling in the city of Ashdod retroactively annulled the conversion of a woman conducted 15 years ago after she acknowledged that she is not religiously observant today.

It also cast doubt on the validity of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other conversions by suggesting the annulment of those converted by Rabbi Haim Druckman, the state-appointed rabbi who has been charged with overseeing a more tolerant, open conversion process in Israel.

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook with people who have gone through conversions who are deeply concerned about their status and potential converts who are trying to figure out if this whole process is worth the effort," said Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the Jewish Life Information Center, or ITIM, which runs a 24-hour hotline for those seeking assistance on Jewish issues in Israel.

One of the callers was Florence Rouaux, 27, who converted to Judaism two years ago with the assistance of ITIM after moving to Israel from her native Belgium.

"I am angry, sad and disappointed -- all the things you can imagine. It's very hurtful," she said. "It reminds converted people that they are converts when you are trying to build your life as a Jew."

The ruling prompted an emergency Knesset hearing Tuesday, and public outrage and confusion both in Israel and the Diaspora.

It again has laid bare the politically charged ideological struggle between religious Zionist, Modern Orthodox rabbis and fervently Orthodox, or haredi, rabbis.

The more moderate rabbis seek to ease the process of bringing Israelis who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, or halacha, into the Jewish fold --especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The haredi rabbis want to block the conversions of anyone who does not comply with strict Jewish religious observance.

"The ultra-Orthodox, who don't see conversion as a possible solution, are willing to sacrifice on the altar of Jewish history not only those non-halachic Jews but even legitimate converts who would be accepted by any standard,” said Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi. “They are essentially engaging in an anti-traditional and, in my opinion, an anti-halachic battle.”

In New York, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing moderate Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a stinging rebuke to the court decision.

A statement from the group said the Israeli rabbinic court ruling, its language and tone, "are entirely beyond the pale of acceptable halachic practice, violate numerous Torah laws regarding converts and their families, create a massive desecration of God's name, insult outstanding rabbinic leaders and halachic scholars in Israel, and are a reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity within the Jewish people in Israel and beyond."

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the chief Sephardic rabbi who has jurisdiction over Israel's religious courts, reportedly has tried to quell the fears of the decision's opponents. His office issued a statement that the ruling would not signify a new precedent in religious law.

Rabbi Nahum Eisenstein, a fervently Orthodox former rabbinical court judge aligned with those in favor of the stricter interpretation of conversion law, said the matter was not one of invalidating so-called "valid" conversions but of nullifying those that were granted erroneously -- when prospective converts tricked rabbinical court judges into thinking they would live an Orthodox lifestyle.

“If this commitment never took place, the whole process was never valid,” he said.

Eisenstein takes issue with the notion that conversion to Judaism should be a tool for nation building.

"Conversion is a halachic issue," he said. "It cannot be used to solve a demographic problem in the country. That's a big mistake.

Critics said the court ruling was part of a trend at some marriage registry offices -- overseen by the fervently Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate -- to cast doubt on the validity of conversions done under the auspices of the Conversion Authority.

Some marriage registry offices reportedly question one-time converts about their observance levels when dealing with marriage or divorce proceedings.

Although the Conversion Authority has exclusive legal jurisdiction over conversion issues, the Chief Rabbinate oversees marriage and divorce.

"Even years after living as a Jew people are now being told they are not Jewish. It's a terrible thing," said Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the chairman of Tzohar, a group of religious Zionist rabbis that seeks to present to Israelis a more tolerant face of Orthodox Judaism.

Feuerstein cited a commandment in Leviticus that forbids Jews from harassing a convert: "You shall not oppress the convert in your land."

Tzohar rabbis were among those present Tuesday at a stormy four-hour session of the Knesset's law committee. At the meeting's end, a call was made for legislation that would secure the status of converts.

At the meeting Zevulen Orlev, a member of the National Religious Party, made an unprecedented declaration that he would consider revoking the Chief Rabbinate’s authority on personal-status issues such as marriage and divorce if they proceed to nullify past conversions.

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Jewish groups have been worried for months that the United Methodist Church would revive a push for anti-Israel divestment measures at its convention.

Instead the meeting last week drew no fewer than five laudatory news releases from Jewish organizations.

B'nai B'rith International, the Reform Religious Action Center, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League all celebrated the rejection of five separate petitions calling on the church to divest from companies that support or profit from the Israeli occupation.

The groups described the actions, taken at the church's quadrennial convention in Fort Worth, Texas, as contributing to interfaith understanding and the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Some attributed the positive outcome to successful grass-roots lobbying by local Jewish leaders.

Even one Jewish organization that supports divestment was choosing to see the bright side of the convention's proceedings.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a California-based group that considers divestment a legitimate and peaceful tool to end the occupation, focused instead on a separate decision requiring the church to consider the ethical dimension of its investment decisions.

In a news release, the group called the decision a "stunning rebuke to anti-divestment groups."

"This is an important step forward for a major U.S. church that has a longstanding history of opposition to the Israeli occupation, and is now moving towards one of the only nonviolent actions that can lead to real peace in the region," said Sydney Levy, director of campaigns for Jewish Voice for Peace. "Each day Israel's occupation and settlement expansion continues unabated, the divestment and sanctions movement will grow."

Concern that the United Methodist Church would adopt a divestment resolution has been building for months, fueled by a study guide the church published last year on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Jewish groups compared to hate literature.

Jewish organizational leaders worried that the church, as the largest mainline Protestant organization in the United States, could reignite a push toward divestment by other Protestant groups.

Last month, the United Methodist Church withdrew from consideration a resolution targeting Caterpillar Inc. after the company agreed to enter a dialogue with the church. Caterpillar produces equipment that Israel uses in the Palestinian territories.

No less than 14 petitions concerning Israel and the Middle East conflict were considered at the Methodist convention among some 1,600 pieces of legislation.

While rejecting divestment petitions that specifically named Israel, the church did adopt two general resolutions on ethical investing. It also moved to create a task force to establish standards for responsible investing consistent with the church's ethical principles.

Jewish groups were hailing as well a resolution urging the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and calling the church "to contrition and repentance of its complicity in ‛the long history of persecution of the Jewish people.'" Another resolution that earned plaudits opposed proselytizing to Jews.

David Michaels, B'nai B'rith's director of intercommunal affairs, called the grass-roots lobbying effort a "key part" of the positive outcome.

"Credit really goes to the Jewish representatives at the local level," he said.

The Methodist conference elicited an intense lobbying effort on both sides of the divestment issue.

Several major Jewish organizations had representatives on the ground in Texas to fight the divestment push. Meanwhile, Jewish Voice for Peace also undertook a broad effort, with seven members dispatched to the conference and the launch of a pro-divestment Web site.

"What we came away with is, this isn't going away," said Rachel Pfeffer, Jewish Voice for Peace's interim executive director. "The Methodists are dealing with this in their way. They haven't said no to divestment. It's going to keep going."

But the mainstream organizations countered that Jewish Voice for Peace was trying to save face after coming up empty in its massive pro-divestment effort.

"If it was a stunning rebuke to those who oppose divestment from Israel, then it was also a stunning rebuke to those who oppose divestment from Cleveland or anywhere else," said Ethan Felson, the associate executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. "It just wasn't situation specific."

Ariel Jerozolimski / BPH Images
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to be making progress on several fronts in the peace process before the latest corruption story broke.

By Leslie Susser and JTA Staff

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- The corruption investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is threatening to bring down the Israeli government, potentially may have far-reaching consequences for Middle East peacemaking.

The contours of the probe against Olmert are still unclear. After questioning Olmert and his longtime former bureau chief, Shula Zaken, multiple times, police requested court permission to take testimony under oath from a foreign citizen currently visiting Israel.

A strict gag order prevented the disclosure of the allegations against the prime minister or the foreigner's identity, but the New York Post identified him as Morris Talansky, an American businessman from Long Island, N.Y.

In the meantime, police and political officials are saying that the allegations, if true, could spell the end of Olmert's political career.

The latest corruption affair surfaced May 2 as Olmert seemed to be making significant diplomatic progress on three fronts: negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ moderate government in the West Bank on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal; an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and the reopening of peace talks with Syria following an intensive Turkish mediation effort.

But if Olmert is forced to step down, Israel will be thrown into a maelstrom of political uncertainty, potentially freezing peacemaking efforts for months. If the political turmoil results in an early election, peacemaking in its current form could cease altogether if, as polls suggest, the Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu wins the election.

New signs of progress appeared on the Palestinian track before the dramatic news of the investigation of Olmert broke.

In the run-up to a meeting Monday with Olmert, Abbas declared that some 80 percent of peace-related differences with the Israelis had been resolved. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit echoed that claim, insisting the two sides keep Egypt and other key players abreast of progress he said was being made.

After the Olmert-Abbas meeting, the Israeli side was even more effusive.

"The discussions are probably the most serious ever to be held between Israeli and Palestinian leaders," Mark Regev, a spokesman for the prime minister, told JTA.

Significant progress had been made on delineating borders and security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state, other officials said. Although no maps have been made public, the officials estimated that Israel’s withdrawal to the new borders would entail the evacuation of 60,000 of the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Regev, however, added a caveat: "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. For example, if one side has made a move on one issue, it is conditional on the other side moving on something else."

In other words, Israel sees a deal on the four core issues -- borders, security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees -- as a package, and if Israel has been generous on one, it will expect Palestinian concessions down the road on another.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians doubt whether the claimed progress is genuine and see it as nothing more than spin to help the beleaguered prime minister. Others fear Olmert may be selling out Israel as part of a desperate attempt to save his skin.

Even in Olmert's own Kadima Party, legislators have their doubts about the prime minister.

"If it transpires that the various affairs have had a direct or indirect influence on the substance of the negotiations, any agreements that may have been reached will be null and void," Kadima legislator Otniel Shneller told JTA.

If it becomes clear that Olmert is about to be indicted on corruption charges, Israeli law allows him the option of declaring himself temporarily unable to do his job and to take a leave of absence. In that case his deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, would take over as acting prime minister for 100 days.

As far as the various peace tracks are concerned, this would be a relatively seamless transition.

Though Livni theoretically could form a new coalition in the current parliament after the 100 days are up, that road is fraught with political difficulties. Labor leader Ehud Barak might not want Livni to gain credibility as a bona fide prime ministerial candidate ahead of the next elections, and neither will Netanyahu.

The smart money in the Knesset is saying that the smell of new elections already is in the air, with politicians and pundits talking about a date sometime in November.

If that happens, Barak and Livni probably will both paint Netanyahu as likely to destroy the peace process and trigger new regional violence.

But unless a sea change in public opinion occurs, Netanyahu probably would capture the office of prime minister. Should that happen, all Middle East peace tracks would be reassessed.

Netanyahu is convinced that a peace deal with Abbas’ Palestinian moderates would do more harm than good. He warns that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would lead quickly to a Hamas takeover of the territory, and Hamas terrorists then could fire rockets at strategic targets like Ben Gurion Airport, Jerusalem and central Tel Aviv rather than just the southern town of Sderot.

Israel would find itself surrounded on all sides -- from Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon -- by Iranian proxies. To prevent that, Netanyahu likely would look for a modus vivendi, based on economic cooperation with Palestinian moderates, that leaves the Israeli army in control of most of the West Bank.

"I am for promoting economic peace while keeping security in our hands," Netanyahu declared in an interview Monday in the Israeli daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom.

As for Gaza, Netanyahu regards a cease-fire as the worst possible option for Israel because it would enable Hamas to build its military power on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Instead, he says Israel must take action to smash the Hamas military machine.

The main thrust of Netanyahu's regional policy probably would be to break what he sees as Iran’s stranglehold on Israel. That could mean Israel trying to initiate tougher diplomatic sanctions on Iran, but possibly also pre-emptive strikes against Hamas, Hezbollah and maybe even Iran itself.

In 2005, Netanyahu left then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government precisely because he believed the Gaza withdrawal would lead to a tightening of the Iranian noose around Israel.

On Syria, Netanyahu argues that if Israel returned the Golan Heights, the Golan simply would become an Iranian forward base. Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has said that his own peace feelers with Syria – conducted by U.S. multimillionaire Ronald Lauder when Netanyahu was prime minister in the late 1990s – broke down because Netanyahu refused to withdraw from the heights.

If Netanyahu were to come to power at Kadima's expense, the political wheel in Israel would have come full circle. Sharon and Olmert broke away from Likud in 2005 to build the political platform for a withdrawal to defensible borders and an end to the occupation of Palestinian-populated territory. Netanyahu almost certainly would reverse that process.

(JTA Staff in New York contributed to this report.)

Project Better Place
Electric-powered Renault-Nissan sedan is one type of electric car Israel hopes will gain popularity in the next few years.

By Dina Kraft

TEL AVIV (JTA) -- In a land of high gas prices and no oil resources, Israel is positioning itself to lead the world into the age of the electric car.

With $200 million in funding from private investors and enthusiastic support from the Israeli government, a young Israeli high-tech multimillionaire, Shai Agassi, is laying the groundwork for Israel to become the first test case for the gasoline-free electric car.

His company is planning to establish a network of battery-recharging areas across Israel by 2011. Renault-Nissan will begin introducing electric cars to the Israeli market as soon as next year.

“What we are doing is something that should have happened already," says Dafna Agassi, the marketing director of the Israel office of Shai Agassi’s Project Better Place, which is based in California.

“The consumer pays for gas, and the prices are going up every day. The solution is here: It's the electric car."

Given Israel’s small size, dearth of oil resources and location in an oil-rich yet hostile neighborhood, the Jewish state is an ideal testing ground for the electric auto.

Eager to reduce the country's dependence on gasoline and reduce car-generated pollution, the Israeli government already has pledged to offer significant tax incentives for buyers of electronic cars. If successful, the electric car venture could make Israel the world's leader in the industry.

That's precisely what Agassi and the Israeli government want.

"Think about what happened with Finland and Nokia -- it sprung an entire industry,” Dafna Agassi said of the mobile phone phenomenon. "We are starting the field here. Imagine bringing this to other countries and the potential impact is huge."

The cars will run on lithium-iron batteries, provided by Project Better Place, that should last for about 124 miles before needing to be recharged. This should suit the typical Israeli driver, who on average drives fewer than 45 miles per day. For longer trips, battery swap stations will serve as a safety net, the company said.

"Environmentally, I thought it's the best idea I've ever heard of, and secondly it made a lot of financial sense," said Idan Ofer, a leading Israeli businessman and the project's main investor.

Ofer spoke to JTA by phone from his SUV, which he says he plans to trade in for an electric car next year.

By "deploying faster than any other country on the planet," Israel will map out and discover the best ways to implement the electric-car system, he said. Project Better Place can then take that know-how to other countries and traffic-clogged cities.

Ofer says he plans to bring the idea to China, where he has shares in a local car company.

Renault-Nissan will be the first to bring its electric cars to Israel, but the market soon will open to other companies.

"Zero emission, zero noise," Renault-Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said when he was in Jerusalem in January to inaugurate the project. "It will be the most environmentally friendly mass-produced car on the market."

Although electric cars are expected to reduce emissions and make Israeli cities quieter, they will still use fossil fuels. For the time being, the recharging stations will run mostly on coal and oil.

"As I understand it, it has no relation to alternative energy,” said Micha Asscher, a professor of physical chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “It's a nice idea that our cars will gradually be driven by electric power -- for the quiet and less pollution in the cities -- but it is not alternative energy.”

By contrast, in Denmark -- which signed on to the project after Israel -- power stations are fueled at least in part by wind power.

According to Ofer, whose family holdings include oil refineries, Israel is making a gradual transition to more environmentally friendly sources of energy for its power stations, including the country's most plentiful resource -- solar power.

The major expense of an electric car is its battery. To tackle that challenge, Project Better Place is establishing a battery charging payment system similar to the way customers pay for the air time on their cellular phones.

Car owners will not own their batteries. Those who purchase cars will pay monthly fees based on their expected mileage. Cars will be recharged both via plug-in charge units at malls and parking garages, and some 100 battery replacement stations along highways, where batteries will be replaced for longer journeys.

Shai Agassi will be in Israel next week showing off the latest version of the electric car and offering test drives to members of the media.

Toby Axelrod
Nirit Ben-Joseph, an Israeli, and Eckehart Ruthenberg, a German non-Jew, inspect an abandoned Jewish tombstone in a Polish cemetery.

By Toby Axelrod

BERLIN (JTA) -- Eckehart Ruthenberg stands beside tombstones overgrown with moss and layered with leaves to have a smoke, then dons a yarmulke and enters the gateless cemetery.

This nearly forgotten Jewish burial site in the Polish forest is one of 600 that Ruthenberg, a non-Jewish German, has documented painstakingly. His self-imposed mandate is to rescue the names of Jewish families.

The cemeteries "are like orphans who were abandoned," Ruthenberg says. "I adopt them."

Many non-Jewish Germans have tried to restore dignity to Jewish cemeteries, but Ruthenberg's efforts range farther than most. Since 1987, he has been "adopting" cemeteries across the German state of Brandenburg and into western Poland.

Ruthenberg, who was born in 1943 and grew up in the former East Germany, says his journey began as a form of rebellion.

His father, a committed Nazi and student of "eugenics," threw Ruthenberg out of the house when he was 21. Ruthenberg stopped looking into his father's past after learning that as a soldier he'd been stationed near where the first gas vans were used in mass asphyxiations.

"I was afraid," Ruthenberg says. "It went too far for me."

In 1983, after East German authorities confiscated his passport when he applied to go to the West, Ruthenberg opted to cross another forbidden boundary -- into Jewish cemeteries. Local officials literally told him it was "foreign territory" when he asked for details about a site in Eberswalde.

"Jewish history was a taboo theme," he said, as Jews were identified in East Germany as capitalists, bad guys.

Four years later, in a dusty shop in East Berlin, Ruthenberg found what he calls his "golden book:" a 1914 listing of German towns including population identified by religion. On maps of towns with Jewish communities, he sought the tiny "L" indicating a Jewish cemetery.

"I would guess the 'L' stands for 'Lebenshaus,' house of life," says Nirit Ben-Joseph, Ruthenberg's Israeli friend, a professional tour guide and an amateur historian who has lived 20 years in Berlin. "In Hebrew, a cemetery is 'Beit HaChayim.'"

Ruthenberg started visiting the sites with his youngest son, Jonas, who was born in 1985. He says they would "walk around with sticks," poking to find "stones under the leaves and earth."

In 1994, Ruthenberg published a lexicon with Jewish studies professor Michael Brocke and photographer-filmmaker Kai Uwe Schulenburg that named 300 cemeteries.

Ruthenberg estimates that only a small percentage of the cemeteries he has seen can be restored.

German occupiers laid waste to some during the war, according to Rabbi Andreas Nachama, the director of the Lander Institute for the Communication of the Holocaust and Tolerance at Touro College in Berlin.

"But the other pattern was that after the war, there was no longer anyone to take care of these cemeteries," says Nachama, a historian. "They were very often forgotten and then destroyed."

Abandoned sites have become a resource for stonemasons, says Ruthenberg, recalling a cemetery that had 10 stones two years ago. "When I went back a few months ago, they were all gone," he says.

So far, Ruthenberg has made impressions, or rubbings, of 60 memorial stones. Ben-Joseph translates the inscriptions.

"If I find a stone under the earth, that is when I am happiest," Ruthenberg says during a recent trip to Poland. "It is like I saved a family. Everyone was forgotten."

In many places, a cemetery is the last trace of a destroyed European Jewish community.

It is also the closest thing to a Jewish holy place, says Phil Carmel, the director of a new online database of Jewish cemeteries in Europe called Lo Tishkach, Hebrew for "Do not forget." The project is coordinated by the Conference of European Rabbis and sponsored by the Claims Conference.

The database's Web site contains information about the condition of 4,000 cemeteries; eventually it will have at least 10,000.

Other efforts include the Jewish cemetery project of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and the Jewish Cemetery Database Project, which has information about 34 Jewish cemeteries in Germany and nearly 20,000 individual gravestones.

Such umbrella projects demonstrate the vastness of the Jewish life that was destroyed. In Germany, people like Ruthenberg have done much of the legwork already.

There are others, too. Ernst Schaell is a retired mechanic who spent 20 years restoring the Jewish cemetery of Laupheim in the former West Germany. Klaus-Dieter Ehmke convinced his neighbors to return the tombstones they had removed from the Gute Ort Jewish cemetery near Niederhof, in the former East Germany.

Such people "have tried to preserve the memory of something that was important to the Jewish community," says Arthur Obermayer, whose German-Jewish History Award has honored Ehmke and Schaell. "In Germany, cemeteries have been much more effectively maintained than in Eastern Europe because of Germans who care."

"Sometimes local, non-Jewish groups have the best possibility of ensuring some kind of protection or care for these places," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a member of the Claims Conference board. He said he has encountered cases "where a town historian or school group studying about the history of the Jewish community decides to take a kind of responsibility for the cemetery."

Lo Tishkach hopes to inspire those with ancestral connections to Europe to support local efforts.

Ruthenberg, who describes himself with the German term for "memory worker," supports himself through a small art gallery in the former East Berlin.

On this day he sits with map in hand next to Ben-Joseph, 46, who is driving through Brandenburg into Poland. Her van bounces past the disbanded border posts and zips along wet roads. The sun glances furtively from behind fast-moving clouds.

In the village of Cedynia, narrow streets wind uphill past old farmhouses and crumbling brick walls. On a well-mown slope overlooking the surrounding plain, several tombstones stand lovingly restored but face the wrong way.

Several miles on, past low hills fringed with birch trees, another cemetery -- marked by a memorial plaque -- lies along the wall surrounding the town of Moryn. Ben-Joseph crouches between a hedge and a tree, pulling tenacious vines from a stone in search of names.

In the town of Mieszkowice, chickens strut and peck in the yards, chasing their own reflections through puddles.

Ruthenberg says this is a "typical cemetery used as a garden after the war. You see almost nothing left."

Nearby, a man scrapes at the earth with a shovel, seeking potatoes.

Not far away, in Boleszkowice, a sign among trees points to the forest cemetery. A stone wall encircles the secluded plot. Tombstones lie asunder, the soft earth turned up around them – probably by wild boars, Ruthenberg says.

He kneels near a fallen stone. A trace of gold gleams in the groove of a Hebrew letter. Only the rustle of footsteps in dry leaves and the chirp of a bird break the silence.

Reading Assignment

5.05.2008

From the editor: you really must read this.

Hans Pinn/GPO/BPH Images
Loaded with thousands of European Jewish refugees, the Exodus sailed for Palestine in 1947 under the command of Yossi Harel. The ship galvanized support for a Jewish state.

By Dina Kraft

TEL AVIV (JTA) -- A white-haired former shipmate propped a gold-fringed, pale blue flag of the legendary Exodus ship next to the coffin of its commander, Yossi Harel.

A short distance away sparkled the azure Mediterranean Sea, whose waters Harel sailed four times on clandestine journeys between 1945 and 1948. Those journeys brought a total of 24,000 Holocaust survivors to the shores of what would soon become the State of Israel.

Harel, who died April 26 of cardiac arrest at the age of 90, was remembered as a hero by his former comrades, the Jewish refugees he helped bring to Israel and the leaders of the country.

He was "modest, a brave fighterand a hero who did not seek acts of heroism," said Shaul Biber, a fellow former Palmach fighter.

When he secretly set sail from France on the Exodus, a rickety former Chesapeake Bay steamer originally called the President Warwick, Harel could not have known that the voyage would become legendary.

The boat left on July 11, 1947 with 4,553 Jewish refugees on board and headed toward Palestine until it was intercepted by British navy vessels. The British commanders ordered that the refugees not be allowed into Palestine, then under British control, and be sent back to Europe.

But the defiant Harel and his skipper planned a daring escape from under the nose of the British destroyer that was escorting them. They shut off the ship's lights in the dead of night and swiftly changed the ship's course, heading for Palestine.

The British intercepted the Exodus, hitting the ship’s bow and attempting to board the boat. Passengers tried to repel the British forces by hurling potatoes and canned goods at them. A British soldier and three Jews were killed in the clashes, including an American volunteer sailor from San Francisco, before Harel ordered his passengers to surrender.

The refugees were taken to Haifa and put on ships headed back to Europe.

Among those who witnessed the dramatic scene of the refugees disembarking from the Exodus in Haifa only to be loaded onto three other ships headed back for the continent were members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine.

The officials said later that seeing the unfortunate journey of those refugees up close spurred them to push for a resolution of the question of Palestine and the Jews who wanted to make it their home.

For its role in galvanizing world opinion in favor of a Jewish state, the Exodus became known as the ship that helped launch the Jewish state.

The dimensions of its story, including the return of the refugees to Europe and their eventual landing in Germany, was covered widely by the international media. The story was mythologized in the 1958 novel “Exodus,” by Leon Uris, as well as a hit film starring Paul Newman in a loose portrayal of Harel.

For Jews and non-Jews, the book and film painted a romantic, heroic picture of the Zionist cause, doing wonders for the young state's image.

Years later, in the Soviet Union, illegal copies of the book were circulated among young Jews, turning them into avid Zionists. Among them were the leaders of the movement to free Soviet Jews and allow their immigration to Israel.

Harel, who was 28 when he was the Exodus commander, went on to a career in the Israeli army's intelligence corps in the early years of the state. He later went into business and reportedly also worked for the Mossad.

During a visit to Los Angeles in 1948 he met an American woman who would become his wife.

"I saw a man in uniform facing me, impressive and handsome, and I fell in love with him immediately," Julie Harel was quoted this week by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. "We were married and since then we were never apart. It's hard for me to imagine life without him.

“His life,” she said, “was interwoven with the history of the State of Israel.”

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