John Gaps III/Des Moines Register
After federal officials arrested nearly half its work force in a raid last month, Agriprocessors has scrambled to fill positions at its Postville plant.

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) -- In an effort to restore lagging production at its Iowa plant, the country's largest kosher meat producer has been hiring workers from homeless shelters in Texas to replace employees detained in a massive federal immigration raid last month.

According to a spokesman for the meat producer Agriprocessors, workers are recruited by a firm in Amarillo, Texas, and sent to Postville. In Iowa, they are processed by Jacobson Staffing, a Des Moines-based company that screens them for drugs and alcohol, and ensures they are legally permitted to work in the United States.

Several Postville officials say the new arrivals have created problems for the town.

Police Chief Michael Halse told JTA that his officers had arrested four plant workers for disorderly conduct last week.

The Rev. Paul Ouderkirk, the leader of the local Catholic church, which has played a key role in helping former workers and their families after last month's raid, said a mentally challenged woman from Texas had come to his church seeking help with prescription medications.

Diana Morris, in an interview Friday with Postville's local radio station, said she spent three days on a bus from Amarillo only to discover that she was expected to live with 10 men in a four-bedroom house that had no electricity or hot water.

"Amarillo's homeless problem has become Postville's homeless problem," Jeff Abbas, who runs the KPVL radio station, told JTA.

In a statement Friday to JTA, the newly hired compliance officer for Agriprocessors said any allegations that contractors had misled new recruits would be investigated.

"We would note that we do not believe that homeless people should be prohibited from applying for employment from Agriprocessors," Jim Martin said. "In fact, for the appropriate individuals, we welcome the opportunity to offer them the chance to better their lives."

Agriprocessors has been struggling to restore production since authorities conducted the largest immigration raid in U.S. history May 12 at the Postville plant. Nearly half the work force was rounded up.

Some 300 workers are now facing deportation, having pleaded guilty to various forms of identity theft and fraud.

The company's difficulty in restoring its normal production levels has sparked concerns of a kosher meat shortage around the country.

Within weeks of the raid, a Waterloo staffing company withdrew an estimated 150 replacement workers from the plant, citing safety concerns. A group of Native Americans brought in from a smaller Agriprocessors plant in Gordon, Neb., left within days, saying working conditions were worse than expected and the company hadn't made good on its promises.

Those reports have helped prompt several Jewish organizations to call for a boycott of the company.

But Rabbi Seth Mandel, the rabbinic coordinator for the Orthodox Union, one of two agencies certifying the plant as kosher, says Agriprocessors merely is responding to the dictates of the market.

"Most consumers will not pay a premium for free-range, natural or organic beef, no matter how much lip service they pay to the idea," Mandel wrote in an e-mail obtained by JTA. "The same thing holds true regarding employees and their working conditions. Meat packers would [have] no problem with paying higher wages and make working conditions better -- IF the consumers would pay the premium price thereby entailed."

In her interview with the radio station's Abbas, Morris described how she was recruited from Amarillo with about 15 others and given a Greyhound bus ticket and $15 to pay for food during the 1,000-mile journey. She said she was promised 30 days of free housing as well as a $100 bonus upon arrival.

What made the offer so attractive, Morris said, was the $10 per hour that Agriprocessors is now offering.

"Everything down there is about $6 an hour being paid, and that's the minimum wage," she said of Texas.

Juda Engelmayer, an Agriprocessors spokesman, said that Jacobson determined who was fit to work in the plant and that resources were provided to transport workers back to their homes if they weren't offered jobs.

"They are given the opportunity and the means to go back where they came from," Engelmayer said. "I don't know if everyone takes it. Free citizens are free to move around as they wish."

United Jewish Communities
Geut Argon, above, was wounded when a Kassam rocket hit her Sderot home earlier this year, causing about $30,000 in damages.

By Jacob Berkman

SDEROT, Israel (JTA) -- For the past several years, Geut Argon has spent little time on the second floor of her home here in southern Israel.

With Palestinian militants in the nearby Gaza Strip regularly aiming Kassam rockets at random targets in this poor, working-class town, it just seemed too dangerous,she says in a recent interview at the Sderot Community Center.

But one afternoon about eight months ago, her son Nir, 4, and his 5-year-old friend Lior begged her to let them go upstairs to see something on the family’s computer. She relented.

Before Argon dropped off Nir and Lior at the computer, Nir headed toward the bathroom. A rocket came crashing through the roof.

“There was just one big boom and then I don’t remember,” she said.

Argon, 35, was knocked unconscious temporarily. She still recalls the horror of the moments after she came to, frantically scrambling through the rubble to find the two children. It wasn’t until she located them, relatively unscathed, that it became clear she was the one who had been wounded.

"Mommy, Mommy. Blood!" Nir screamed.

The gash in Argon's head would require several surgeries to remove shrapnel embedded in her brain.

Argon is one of the thousands of residents in Sderot and the surrounding towns on the Gaza-Israel border who has received some form of relief from the network of North American Jewish federations and the United Jewish Communities over the past year and a half.

The UJC has doled out some $26 million to its overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for programs in Sderot. And though it has received some resistance from local federations of late, the UJC hopes to give slightly more than $10 million in additional aid in the coming months.

Argon has received psychological counseling though UJC-funded programming. The Jewish Agency has provided approximately $1,300 through its SOS Fund for short-term relief, but she is waiting to receive money from the Israeli government to fix her house. The Jewish Agency later gave her about $8,000 from its Victims of Terror Fund.

Since April 2001, Palestinian militants have fired an estimated 4,000 rockets and mortar shells at Sderot and the areas near the Gaza border.

The situation has worsened in the past two years, according to Israeli military officials. Nearly 2,900 attacks have come since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005. Some 1,400 have come since Hamas took political control of Gaza in June 2007.

Sixteen Israelis have been killed in the Sderot region since the attacks began.

The Palestinians have increased their firepower, largely with the help of Iran, military specialists say. They have improved the range of their Kassam missiles, started to use 122 mm mortar shells and begun to employ Grad missiles that can reach Ashkelon and perhaps beyond.

As the attacks have increased, the population of Sderot -- mostly new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Arab lands -- has dwindled. Although there is no definitive figure on the number of residents that have departed, estimates range from 25 percent to nearly 50 percent in a region that once had a population of 24,000.

Most of those who had the financial means have left, according to municipal officials, social service workers and residents. The majority of those who remain are either idealists or could not afford to leave.

Elsewhere in the world, Israeli and American Jewish philanthropy has focused on removing Jews from endangered areas. But for Israel, the flight from Sderot is troubling -- both militarily, as the country's border could essentially be pushed back, and for national morale, as Israelis see themselves fleeing.

Most of the UJC allocations to the Sderot region have gone to helping the residents endure, giving them respite and offering incentives to others to move to the embattled area. The federation system has allocated some $2.9 million in scholarships for Sapir College in Sderot and more then $5 million to take children in Sderot and Ashkelon out of harm's way for summer camp.

In sharp contrast to the UJC's funding strategy up north, where it has directed about $35 million to economic development, less than $1 million of the funds from the federation system has been spent that way in the Sderot area. Lodge said that's because most of the economic development funding up north was in the form of loan guarantees issued after the conflict with Hezbollah. Such measures, he added, are seen by the UJC as a poor investment during a time of active conflict like the one plaguing Sderot.

The UJC has spent more than $2 million on programs to treat trauma and stress among Sderot residents, as well to promote “resiliency" in coping with the constant threat of rockets. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder is high among the residents.

The JDC has helped seven of Sderot’s eight elementary schools build “havens of calm,” fortified rooms where students come for alternative therapy sessions in managing their stress. Yoga and pet therapy are among the approaches incorporated into the sessions.

Until recently, aid coming into the region has been slow, especially from the government. Much of the assistance in Sderot from the UJC's partners thus far has come from the $360 million raised by the North American federations to rebuild Israel's north in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Other than the One Family Fund, which has been helping the people of Sderot since 2004 -- it has given more than $1 million in the past year alone -- the situation garnered little attention from Israeli society and nonprofits, according to Pini Rabinovich, the coordinator for the organization's activities in the Jerusalem area and southern Israel.

Sderot's plight also has been largely ignored by the Israeli public, and the town's story has been misplayed -- and in some cases flat-out missed -- by the Israeli media, according to Tal Samuel-Azran, a media specialist at Ben Gurion University.

It's a turn of events that has frustrated Sderot residents like Argon. Much of the frustration is with the Israeli government, which has provided tax cuts to the region's residents but has left a void that private organizations such as the UJC have increasingly had to fill.

Argon estimates that the Kassam that hit her house caused $30,000 in damages. The UJC and Jewish Agency assistance was needed because “the government doesn’t want to pay for it."

“The government? They keep forgetting them, otherwise why do you need so many organizations?” Rabinovich asked at the Sderot center, where the organization’s founder, Mark Belzberg, was distributing books and toys to area children.

When asked about such complaints, the Israeli Consulate in New York noted that the Israeli government has spent about $172 million since 2003 in civilian assistance to residents of Sderot and the western Negev.

“These figures include direct assistance by means of 50% reductions in property tax, 25% reductions of income tax, the highest subsidies for daycare centers, and scholarships for students, among others,” the consulate said in a statement. “The unemployment rate in Sderot is one of the lowest in the country due to government incentives given to investors and entrepreneurs. These figures also includes aid on a regional level by means of upgrading industrial areas; preference for defense ministry contracts; funding communities' security expenses; aid for agriculture, new immigrants, and large families; investments in neighborhood refurbishment, infrastructure, sewage, roads, and water systems; funding cultural events, increasing school hours, new ambulances, treating psychological trauma, creating new employment opportunities, and many other projects.”

At the same time that residents bemoan what they see as their government's failures, those on the ground see a new momentum in Sderot-related philanthropy.

“Now it is very popular, it is in,” Rabinovich told JTA.

Argon, for instance, receives aid from four organizations: the UJC, the Jewish Agency, the One Family Fund and another called Chibbuk.

Nachman Shai, the senior vice president of the UJC and director general of UJC Israel, says the Jewish community is starting to recognize the problem in the Sderot region.

At the same time, the UJC has had issues of late raising money for the cause.

The organization largely has been rebuffed in its efforts to raise another $13.6 million from local Jewish federations in North America for helping Sderot, Ashkelon and the surrounding cities, said a UJC official.

The UJC approved an allocation for that amount in March to cover additional Sderot programming, then sent a letter from its leadership to the federations making a soft pitch for money. But the federations have been slow to react, according to Jim Lodge, the UJC’s vice president for Israel and overseas issues.

So far, the federations have given roughly $2.25 million, which the UJC has allocated to five projects. Further projects are on hold until the federations come through with more aid.

“I hope they will respond,” Shai told JTA.

Argon, though, sees hope that the Jewish world is starting to pay attention.

"People know more now I think," she said. "I don’t think they really knew what was going on until now."

Ron Csillag
Ethiopian Falash Mura gather at the synagogue of a Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia.

By Uriel Heilman

NEW YORK (JTA) -- With the final planeload of Ethiopian immigrants scheduled to land in Israel early next month, advocates of Falash Mura aliyah are hoping a last-ditch intervention by Israel’s prime minister will extend immigration rights to thousands more.

Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar held a closed-door meeting with Ehud Olmert in late May in a bid to convince the prime minister to order the immediate screening of an additional 8,500 to 8,700 Ethiopians for immigration eligibility.

Also, a coalition of advocates is petitioning Israeli Knesset members, rallying American Jews and filing lawsuits to force Israel to take in thousands more Ethiopian immigrants.

“Experience teaches us that when the Israeli government says no, when we, the members of the community, do not give up, we prevail,” said Avraham Neguise, an Ethiopian aliyah advocate and director of South Wing to Zion, an Ethiopian-Israeli group. “There are 8,700 Jews left behind. I hope that the prime minister will check this situation and make the right decisions, and not make another mistake.”

The campaign, launched several months ago, has taken on renewed urgency following several court rulings rejecting the advocates’ petitions, the termination of United Jewish Communities funding of aid activities in Ethiopia and the imminence of the planned end of mass Ethiopian aliyah.

With more than 17,000 Ethiopian immigrants having come to Israel since Ariel Sharon’s government decided to expand mass aliyah from the country in 2003, the aliyah appears finally to be at its end.

Israel’s Interior Ministry, which was responsible for verifying who was eligible for immigration, several months ago finished going through a list of potential Ethiopian immigrants dating back to 1999. That list is now closed, according to ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad.

The UJC announced recently it had exhausted the $71 million it had raised and was ceasing its funding in Ethiopia. The national arm of the North American network of local Jewish federations had pledged $100 million to Ethiopian immigration and absorption as part of Operation Promise.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates the Ethiopians’ immigration and absorption in Israel, anticipates the final flight of Ethiopian immigrants will arrive in Israel in early July.

“The Jewish Agency is winding down its activity based on the decision of the government to cease the current immigration of the Falash Mura at the end of June,” agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz told JTA.

But the coalition of activists pressing for additional Falash Mura aliyah says there actually are another 8,500 or so Ethiopians that the government should screen for eligibility. The activists say these were people on the 1999 list but remained in their rural villages rather than migrating to the Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa, where most petitioners congregated while Israel reviewed their cases and where they received Jewish aid.

Israeli courts have rejected this argument, ruling that the government fulfilled its commitments dating back to the 2003 government decision and that the 8,500 Ethiopians represent a new group.

Nevertheless, the coalition of activists is pressing on with its campaign, which began last December.

“I know people have concerns that there’s no end to this, that this is an indefinite extension, that they’re not really Jews,” said Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister and longtime advocate for Ethiopian aliyah. “Our entire position rests on two points: One, that there’s a finite, definite group of 8,500. Two, we’re not saying the 8,500 should be brought. We’re saying the 8,500 have a right to have their eligibility determined according to law.”

At the heart of the controversy over Ethiopian immigration is the fear that mass Ethiopian aliyah will continue without end. Ethiopian aliyah was declared over by Israeli officials on several previous occasions, only to begin anew following public campaigns for its extension.

In 2003, the government decided to verify the eligibility of an additional group of Ethiopians, subsequently capping the number. The decision reflected a desire both to bring Ethiopians with Jewish roots to the Jewish homeland and to limit the number of potential immigrants to those with legitimate Jewish links.

Unlike the Ethiopian immigrants who came to Israel in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively, the Falash Mura were not practicing Jews until very recently. That has made it difficult to ascertain their claims of links -- either by heritage or marriage -- to Ethiopians of Jewish ancestry whose progenitors converted to Christianity more than a century ago to escape economic and social discrimination.

In order to be eligible for immigration, the Ethiopians must demonstrate both that they have close kin in Israel as well as a maternal connection to a Jewish line -- or are married to someone who has. The Falash Mura must also agree to embrace Judaism as a condition of their aliyah.

Rather than immigrating under the Law of Return, the Ethiopians qualify under a family-reunification statute, the Law of Entry.

Some observers, including veteran Ethiopian immigrants, have warned that Ethiopians with dubious claims to Jewish ancestry are exploiting the system to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for a better life in Israel. But advocates of the Falash Mura say that except for a few isolated cases, those coming to Israel have legitimate Jewish links.

In their current campaign, activists have developed a four-pronged approach focusing on Israel’s three branches of government and the fourth estate. Advocates are filing additional lawsuits and appeals, lobbying Knesset members for legislation expanding Ethiopian aliyah, urging the prime minister to issue a new order on Ethiopian aliyah and campaigning for public support.

An Olmert spokeswoman, Gali Cohen, told JTA that the prime minister is interested in settling additional immigrants in Israel, including Ethiopians, but at this point there is no plan of action to extend Falash Mura immigration.

Cohen said Shamgar’s meeting with Olmert was no more than a briefing.

“Shamgar asked to meet with the prime minister to explain the situation. It was a very general meeting; it did not lead anywhere,” she said. “It has not progressed on any government front.”

Meanwhile, Jewish aid funding to Ethiopia is drying up. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which funds Jewish aid and education in Ethiopia, says it will stay the course, but its sponsors are pulling out.

“The truth is, we just don’t have the money,” said Jim Lodge, the vice president of the Israel and Overseas division at UJC, one of NACOEJ’s main sponsors. “It’s not out of any kind of policy decision or initiative on our own, but simply out of budget considerations.”

UJA-Federation of New York says it will continue to fund NACOEJ and its operations in Ethiopia, “pending a final decision by the government of Israel on who is eligible to make aliyah,” said David Mallach, the managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People.

“If the decision of the Israeli government is final and Israel phases down the program, we’ll not continue funding programs for people who are not going to be making aliyah,” he said.

NACOEJ's director of operations, Orlee Guttman, said the group will rely on grass-roots support if necessary.

As for the uncertain future, the Ethiopian director of the aid compounds in Gondar, Getu Zemene, shrugs.

"We will continue what we are doing," he told JTA.

(JTA correspondent Ron Csillag contributed to this report from Gondar.)

Sue Fishkoff
Members of the Winnipeg Jewish burial society use a live body to demonstrate ritual cleansing at the North American Chevra Kadisha Conference in Edison, N.J., on June 1, 2008

By Sue Fishkoff

EDISON, N.J. (JTA) -- Rochelle Lichtman carefully lifts the head of the woman lying prone on a table in front of the room, while Karen Richter places a fresh piece of white cotton over her face.

Lichtman then eases a white bonnet over the woman’s head, tucking in the edges of the face covering. She winds the bonnet’s strings under the chin and back up to the top of the head, where she ties the ends to form the Hebrew letter “shin,” representing one of the names of God.

Lichtman and Richter volunteer for a chevra kadisha, or burial society, in Winnipeg, Canada. They are part of a four-woman team that has come to this week’s North American Chevra Kadisha Conference to demonstrate the taharah ritual -- washing a newly deceased body according to Jewish tradition before it is dressed in a white shroud and buried in a plain wooden box.

Their model for the purification rite is very much alive -- her face covering is moved at one point to ease her breathing. But the care and respect the team demonstrates during its two-hour session is as real as if the members are working on one who has passed away.

“I wasn’t sure I could do it,” says another member of the team, Evita Smordin, talking about the first time she was asked to take part in a taharah. “Now I feel it’s a real honor. It’s the only thing you do for a person that they can’t pay you back for.”

Taharah and other Jewish burial customs fell out of favor in liberal Jewish circles during the 20th century, as increasing numbers of Jews adopted American fashions of embalming or even cremation, which goes against Jewish law.

Now as more liberal Jews are re-examining such rituals as keeping kosher and Shabbat, the chevra kadisha is also making a comeback. And a new institute set to open in the fall of 2009 will offer what organizers say is the country’s only certified program in Jewish end-of-life practices.

While it is one thing to rhapsodize about the beauty of caring for the deceased, it is quite another to find volunteers who literally must touch death. That's typically left to hospitals and mortuaries.

The work of the chevra kadisha is shrouded in mystery. Traditionally, even the names of those who perform the work are kept secret to preserve the dignity of the departed.

And there are few hard-and-fast rules. Beyond certain basics, the actual steps of cleaning and dressing vary from community to community. Thus if no “elders” are available to teach a new generation, volunteers must use books and common sense.

When the small Jewish community of Fort Collins, Colo., organized its burial society, members consulted many instruction manuals in developing their own ground rules.

Given the difficulties, it may seem surprising that burial societies are starting up at more and more synagogues and in Jewish communities across North America.

Several dozen were represented at the sixth annual conference Sunday to Tuesday. It was co-sponsored by the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and Kavod v’Nichum, a group that provides training and resources for the burial societies and bereavement committees.

David Zinner, the executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, cannot quantify the growth of burial societies, but says he sees more conference participants each year and is receiving more inquiries on setting up the societies.

As part of its efforts to increase awareness of and expertise in traditional Jewish burial and bereavement, Kavod v’Nichum is launching the Gamliel Institute, a center for the study, training and advocacy of Jewish end-of-life practices.

The institute will offer a three-year certification program aimed at chevra kadisha volunteers, rabbis, chaplains, funeral directors and other Jewish communal professionals.

Organizers say the goal is to produce a cadre of trained advocates who will encourage Jewish communities to integrate death and mourning into the Jewish life cycle instead of marginalizing and neglecting them.

“This will take what we’ve been doing for the last six years at these conferences and turn it into an in-depth, comprehensive way of looking at the entire continuum from critical illness through death and mourning,” says Zinner, who will co-direct the new institute with Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif.

Many of the volunteers at the conference spoke about the emotional toll of their work, as well as the spiritual satisfaction.

Reba Herzfeld of Atlanta described the “chevra huddle” her women’s burial group does after each ritual cleansing.

“We put our arms around each other, we say a prayer, someone says something nice about the woman,” Herzfeld says. “Even if we didn’t know her, we talk about how she was somebody’s daughter, wife, mother, something to send her soul peacefully to the next world.”

Herzfeld’s grandmother and mother both served on burial societies in Atlanta, but it “was something you didn’t talk about when I was growing up in the ‘50s,” she said.

It was only when she saw a friend’s 16-year-old son taken off a respirator 12 years ago that she “found the strength,” she says, to help organize one of the first Reform synagogue-based burial societies in the country.

Noting that three Reform synagogues in Atlanta now have burial societies, Herzfeld says the field is growing fast.

“I get a lot of soul satisfaction from this,” she says.

Getting younger volunteers is another challenge.

Risa Hanau, 42, says she is the youngest member of her Conservative synagogue’s chevra kadisha in Greensboro, N.C.

“A lot of the younger women are mothers, and their focus is on youth, the start of life,” she explains. “Also, it tends to be older people because they want to feel that someone will do it for them.”

In an effort to draw in younger congregants, her burial society is encouraging them to volunteer first for shmira, the round-the-clock guarding of the body as it awaits burial.

Rabbi Susan Tendler of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Norfolk, Va., ran an educational session on her congregation’s chevra kadisha last fall, specifically targeting younger congregants. Fifty people showed up.

“There’s an opportunity there to start getting younger people,” says Tendler, who is in her late 30s.

As new burial societies organize themselves, they often find themselves making decisions that raise questions of Jewish tradition, even Jewish law. What if a family wants a taharah, but the burial society knows the deceased will be cremated? Should a burial society perform a taharah on a non-Jew if the Jewish spouse requests it?

It’s up to each society, even each individual member, to decide.

The burial society in Los Alamos, N.M., polled its members on some of these questions, according to one of its members, Rick Light. Four said they would do a taharah before a cremation; eight said they would not. One said he would not do a taharah on a non-Jew, while five said they would as long as Jewish prayers were not said.

These decisions must be conveyed to the bereaved family.

“You’re walking a tightrope,” Light says. “You don’t want to offend people. It’s a very emotional topic.”

Ben Harris
Rubashkin's butcher shop in Brooklyn was still well-stocked as of Tuesday, June 3, 2008, but elsewhere kosher meat was less plentiful.

By Sue Fishkoff

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Jacqueline Lankry doesn’t know how she’s going to fill her orders.

The owner of a kosher catering firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Lankry orders a box of meat and poultry every week from Agriprocessors, which runs the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. But production there has slowed to a crawl since a federal immigration raid last month at its plant in Postville, Iowa.

Lankry learned June 4 that this week’s box isn’t coming.

"They told me they have no merchandise," she told JTA. "I'm closed for business today. I’m going from store to store looking for meat to fill my orders."

Instead of buying wholesale chopped meat for $2.19 a pound, Lankry is dishing out $6.99 to buy it retail. That’s going to hurt her bottom line in a big way, she says, but she’s stuck. There are no other kosher meat suppliers in town -- everything comes from Agriprocessors, which she and other caterers refer to as "Rubashkin’s," after the family that owns it.

Lankry doesn’t know about the raid, problems with the workers or PETA’s allegations of inhumane slaughter methods. She just knows that if Agriprocessors shuts down, she and many others will be out of business.

"We don’t have a choice," she said.

The 400 undocumented workers arrested in the May 12 raid and their families are living in limbo, out of work and facing deportation. But now the fallout is beginning to extend beyond those most directly impacted.

The production slowdown at the Postville plant has finally hit the nation’s kosher markets and, by extension, kosher consumers. Retailers from coast to coast are reporting trouble having their orders filled. Many are hiking prices, although they are generally vague about whether the increases are coming from Agriprocessors or competing suppliers.

Bottom line is, there is less kosher meat, and it’s costing more.

Some retailers aren’t even bothering to order from Agriprocessors, which has scrambled in recent weeks to bolster its depleted work force.

Klara Gottesman, manager of the meat department at Kosher Marketplace in Manhattan, stopped a week ago.

"I know they don't have stuff, so I can’t rely on him," she said. "I can't close the business and wait until Rubashkin brings it to me."

Gottesman is looking for other meat providers now.

Mordechai Yitzhaky, the owner of Kosher Mart in Rockville, Md., says his meat supply is down 80 percent. He hasn't seen a price hike yet, but expects one if production doesn't return to normal soon. Yitzhaky says he won't pass on the increase to his customers, however.

"Kosher meat is already more expensive," he said. "We don't want people to stop keeping kosher."

Albert Zadeh, the owner of Pico Glatt in Los Angeles, buys all his meat and poultry from Agriprocessors, which sells its products under labels that include Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, Shor Habor, Iowa's Best Beef and Supreme Kosher.

Zadeh has seen a sharp decline in supply.

"If you order 10 boxes of beef shank, you only get four," he said.

There's also less poultry, and it arrives more haphazardly.

"They used to send chicken legs, cut up," Zadeh said. "Now they give you whole chickens, all sizes, whatever they have."

His customers "understand the situation," he said, and are making due with less. Prices have risen "a few cents," but for now Zadeh is absorbing the difference and charging his customers the same.

Dov Bauman, the owner of Glatt Mart in Brooklyn, says his fresh poultry supply from Agriprocessors is down and he also is getting whole chickens instead of ready-to-sell parts.

"I don’t have the manpower to break it down," he said.

Prices have risen from 3 percent to 15 percent, Bauman says, depending on the item. But like other kosher retailers, Bauman doesn’t blame it all on Agriprocessors. Fuel hikes, which increase shipping costs, are affecting meat prices as well, he says.

And in a way, the tighter supply means more consumers are eager to stock up on kosher meat and poultry now in case the situation worsens.

"I'm getting more business," Bauman said.

Agriprocessors has taken several steps to boost its image and reassure customers, starting with the removal of the manager of the Postville plant, Sholom Rubashkin, the son of the company's owner and founder.

The company also issued a statement June 5 announcing that it had retained Jim Martin, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, to serve as its outside corporate compliance officer. Martin will begin his efforts immediately.

Martin was quoted as saying that the company would be able to meet the needs of consumers.

“Agriprocessors’ 800 jobs are important to Postville and northern Iowa, along with the observant Jewish community across the country that relies on them for their kosher meat and poultry," he said. "Agriprocessors can meet the needs of those who depend on the company and operate in compliance with all laws, and I intend to see that happen.”

Marketing consultant Menachem Lubinsky, who represents Agriprocessors, acknowledges the "shortages in many markets," particularly outside New York.

"Last week there was enough inventory," he said, "but it became depleted and people are buying more than usual."

Prices have risen "sporadically," he reports. And other kosher suppliers, like Empire Kosher, have stepped up production in a bid to fill the supply gap.

Part of the problem, Lubinsky says, is that Agriprocessors dominates the market, supplying 60 percent of the country’s kosher meat and 40 percent of its chicken. Any slowdown in its production affects the entire system, "and this comes at a time when demand for kosher meat is up."

"They tell me they’re stepping up production," he said, "but from what I see, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 kosher consumers, including several leading rabbis, have signed a petition that calls upon Agriprocessors to treat its workers fairly and abide by all laws pertaining to workers rights and safety.

The petition, which is being circulated by Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group in New York, also asks the company to create a transparent monitoring system open to third-party inspection, “so consumers can have faith that the meat is coming to them in an ethical manner,” said Ari Hart, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and one of the four founders of Uri L’Tzedek.

The petition states that if these conditions are not met by June 15, its signers will no longer patronize the company.

Hart says the petition is not aimed at challenging the kosher system or hurting a particular supplier.

"We have no interest in hurting the Rubashkin company or in promoting any other company," Hart said. "We are simply consumers of this meat, and our interest is in having an available supply of kosher meat we are comfortable purchasing."

Joel Magalnick
Jurors deliberated eight days on a verdict in the case of Naveed Haq, shown being led to the Seattle courtroom in April 2008, before a mistrial was declared.

By Janis Siegel , JTNews

SEATTLE (JTA) -- A judge declared a mistrial in the case of the gunman who shot up the offices of this city's Jewish federation.

The King County prosecutor vowed to retry Naveed Haq, 32, who claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity.

The jury said it could not agree on all but one of the 15 counts of murder and attempted murder against Haq, whose July 2006 shooting spree at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle left one woman dead and seriously injured five.

Jurors deliberated for eight days after a six-week trial that featured testimony from 32 prosecution witnesses and 16 for the defense.

“Substantial justice cannot be done,” Superior Court Judge Paris Kallas told a packed Seattle courtroom Wednesday. "There is no reasonable probability of the jury reaching an agreement. I declare a mistrial.”

Prosecutor Daniel Satterberg said he hopes to try the case again in six months. A hearing to select a new trial date is scheduled for June 12.

In a news conference following the mistrial announcement, Satterberg told reporters that the mistrial would not seriously harm the prosecution’s core arguments and emphasized his continued commitment to the case.

“The attack by Naveed Haq upon the women inside the offices of the Jewish federation remains one of the most serious crimes ever committed in this city,” Satterberg said.

Haq kidnapped a 14-year-old girl to gain entrance into the building and began shooting as he reached the federation's second-floor reception area.

He spewed anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slurs during the attack while decrying the Iraq war and Israel's 2006 conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Haq made similar comments on a video shown in the courtroom prior to the trial's start.

According to a court memorandum, Haq told a 911 operator during his shooting rampage, "I'm not upset at the people, I'm upset at your foreign policy. These are Jews. I’m tired of getting pushed around and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East."

A self-proclaimed Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, Haq had driven 227 miles from his home in eastern Washington to Seattle, stopping to test-fire his two handguns along the way. Two weeks before the shooting he had researched Jewish organizations via the Internet to choose his target. He went on Mapquest for directions to the building.

After the shooting, Haq was coaxed into speaking with 911 operators by a pregnant Dayna Klein, who covered her abdomen with her arm to protect her unborn child. The wound left her without use of the arm.

“He said nothing,” Klein testified during the trial. “He shot at his first opportunity. He was aiming for me and I put my arm in front of my abdomen.”

Haq surrendered to police without further incident and complied with directions from police while in custody, officers testified in court.

Federation CEO Richard Fruchter expressed disappointment at the jury’s inability to reach a verdict on all but one of the 15 counts against Haq.

“We are extremely disappointed in this hung jury,” Fruchter said. “He made anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, but somehow this was not enough.”

During deliberations, the six men and six women of the jury told the judge they did not understand the legal meaning of concepts like “right from wrong” and whether Haq knew the “nature and quality” of his acts.

Prosecution witness Robert Wheeler defined the terms for the jury under direct questioning from prosecutor Donald Raz.

The terms “nature and quality,” testified Wheeler, “is when he acts with an objective or purpose to accomplish a result that constitutes a crime.”

To determine whether Haq understood right and wrong, Wheeler said one must ask, “Was he capable of understanding the consequences of his actions? Can they perceive risks to themselves and to others? Did he know where he was, who he was, and what he was doing at the time? Could he follow directions?”

Jurors made five requests to Kallas during their deliberations, but none were to clarify language or for a review of the 20-minute surveillance video from security cameras at the Jewish federation recorded the afternoon of the shooting.

Haq initially was charged with nine felonies, including aggravated first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder, all with the use of a firearm. Other charges included kidnapping and burglary for taking Kelsey Burkum hostage and unlawfully entering the federation building.

Haq also was charged with malicious harassment under the state’s hate crimes law.

Jurors found Haq not guilty on first-degree attempted murder for the shooting of Carol Goldman. The charge is expected to be lowered to second-degree attempted murder for the next trial.

According to doctors who treated him for a decade, Haq suffers from Bipolar 1 disorder with psychotic features including schizoaffective disorder, delusions, hallucinations and depression.

Once a promising student at the University of Pennsylvania--he has degrees in biology and electrical engineering – Haq became withdrawn and moody shortly after enrolling in graduate school, according to the medical experts.

The defense’s central medical expert, Dr. James Missett, a Yale University-trained addiction and forensic psychiatrist, told the court that Haq was and is severely mentally ill, and was exhibiting manic and aggressive behaviors as well as deep depression on the day of the shootings.

However, two counselors who evaluated Haq three days before the shootings testified that he was having no side effects from his medications and seemed to be feeling well. They said he was even looking for work.

Haq was on six prescription drugs, including lithium, for his mental disorders. Defense attorneys had hoped to convince the jury that the combination was toxic and that a change in medications before the shootings had induced side effects that spurred his rampage.

Two shooting victims, Goldman and Cheryl Stumbo, who were in court nearly every day voiced disappointment and shock at the verdict. Still, they said they would be back when the next trial starts.

“I’m ashamed that I live in a society where the seriously and chronically mentally ill can legally purchase handguns,” Stumbo said after the mistrial. “How can it not be obvious to our elected representatives that the right to live and work in a safe environment trumps the right of dangerous people to buy and use deadly weapons?”

Ben Harris
Aaron Rubashkin, outside his Brooklyn butcher shop on June 3, 2008, says his Agriprocessors firm "don't do no injustice to nobody, not to a cat."

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of the embattled kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors, denies he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blames the failure of U.S. immigration policy for his mostly illegal workforce.

In the first substantive comments by an Agriprocessors representative since the government rounded up more than a third of its employees on immigration charges in a May 12 raid of its Iowa plant, Rubashkin flatly denied allegations of worker mistreatment and plant mismanagement.

"Everything is a lie," Rubashkin told JTA.

In a more than hourlong interview May 30 outside his Brooklyn butcher shop in the heavily Orthodox enclave of Borough Park, the 80-year-old Rubashkin was visibly angered by the flood of charges that have imperiled his business, the country's largest kosher slaughterhouse.

The raid has reduced Agriprocessors' output significantly and sparked fears of a national shortage of kosher meat.

A government affidavit cites claims that the drug methamphetamine was being produced at the company's Postville plant, that undocumented workers were paid $5 per hour and that a Jewish kosher supervisor duct-taped a worker's eyes and abused him with a meat hook.

In the weeks since the raid, workers have also charged that female employees were offered improved working conditions in exchange for sexual favors and that underage workers were employed at the plant in defiance of Iowa labor laws.

"We got 21 or 23 inspectors," Rubashkin said in a thick Yiddish accent. "Every minute the plant is open, there is USDA inspector. We got maybe 30 rabbis. How can we do something which is wrong? If I want to, God forbid! We are ethical people. We don't do no injustice to nobody, not to a cat."

Dressed in a blue cotton shirt and black fedora, Rubashkin acknowledged that he was concerned the company may be brought up on criminal charges, but said he was "a hundred percent confident" that he would prevail in court.

"I believe in the American system, and I did nothing wrong," said Rubashkin, who opened his shop in 1953, the same year he emigrated from Russia.

Asked why he was replacing his son Sholom as vice president if the charges are phony, Rubashkin threw back his shoulders and arched his eyebrows.

"For the business," he said. "In order to enforce, after such a shock, we want to beef up management -- change management, change rules, to do different ways."

Rubashkin emphasized that the management change was for the sake of the company, "not for the people."

"We treat people -- I wish everybody should be treated like we treat people," he said.

Agriprocessors sells meat products under various labels that include Aaron's Best, Rubashkin's, Shor Habor, Iowa's Best Beef and Supreme Kosher.

Federal authorities have not brought criminal charges against the company or its executives. The bulk of the accusations, particularly those concerning worker mistreatment, remain unsubstantiated.

But nearly 300 former employees have pleaded guilty to various forms of fraud involving fake work documents and are facing deportation. The affidavit cites claims that Agriprocessors had assisted workers in securing false documentation.

Rubashkin denied underpaying his workers, saying that all new hires start at $8.60 per hour -- above the federal minimum wage of $5.85, that workers are paid time-and-a-half for overtime and that they are provided with paid vacation and health care. He further said he had no idea that his workers were illegal and that they had produced what appeared to be legitimate work documents.

The affidavit states that Agriprocessors received five separate notices from the Social Security Administration of 500 Social Security number discrepancies.

"People coming there looking for jobs -- they bring ID with a photo, with a number," Rubashkin said. "With the same card the person go to the bank. With the same card he got his credit card. With the same card he bought a car."

"19 million illegals here? I don't bring 'em here. I pay taxes and the government supposed to control the stuff."

Rubashkin also had harsh words for the media, which he mockingly referred to as the "free press" and twice compared to the Soviet, state-run media.

"A lynching press," he called it.

He accused the media of harping on the negative and ignoring the good he has done for the Postville community. Rubashkin said he offered full medical coverage to workers and their families, paid for cancer treatments for sick workers at the renowned Mayo Clinic 100 miles to the north and helped set up a day-care center for the children of employees.

Katie Hageman, who runs Postville Child Care Services, told JTA the Rubashkins donated $20,000 to the construction of the center, which caters primarily to the children Agriprocessors' employees.

Rubashkin sees himself as a victim of an immigration system that Washington has steadfastly refused to fix. He has bitter words for the Jewish social justice activists who have spoken out most vigorously since the raid.

The Conservative movement has urged kosher consumers to "consider" whether they should purchase Agriprocessors' products, while Uri L'tzedek, a social justice initiative launched by liberal Orthodox rabbinical students, circulated a petition threatening a boycott of the company.

"I'm against tzedek?" Rubashkin asked, using the Hebrew word for justice. "It's a very nice word, but what kind of tzedek? Tzedek is when you give a person what to live. Tzedek is when you give 'em a salary he should be able to pay rent. Tzedek is when you sick, you should have a doctor. This is tzedek."

Long prominent in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rubashkin was interrupted several times during the interview by well-wishers, including a bearded man who used a Hebrew expression to wish Rubashkin success in his business. And while the butcher himself was loath to speculate on why he was being singled out, his customers were not so reticent.

"It's only anti-Semitism," said a woman who identified herself only as Esther, as she wheeled a half-dozen Rubashkin's bags to her vehicle.

Esther compared Rubashkin's plight to that of Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was slapped with a harsher sentence -- life imprisonment -- for spying for Israel than others who had spied for enemy states.

"Everything is the same," Esther said.

Other customers offered different theories to explain the controversy swirling around their longtime neighborhood butcher.

"I think they took him as a scapegoat because he's a big company," said a Borough Park resident who identified himself as Motti. "All the big guys suffer at the end. What's his name, Mike Tyson, was put into jail because he had too much money. O.J. Simpson was nailed in some ways because he has a lot of money. And on and on."

Though their explanations differed, all agreed that they would continue to patronize Rubashkin, even if the charges against him were proved to be true.

The Orthodox Union, by contrast, one of two kosher certification agencies supervising Agriprocessors, has said it would withdraw supervision if charges are brought against the company.

"I would have a problem, but I again realize that the world has come to that," said customer Shaya Mayer. "Nobody cares about somebody else. The meat's nice, the meat's good, I'm going to continue to buy it."

Unlike his customers, Rubashkin refused to endorse the anti-Semitism thesis as the explanation for his troubles -- but he didn't seem entirely unconvinced, either. Several times he invoked classical anti-Semitic canards, like the infamous libel that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzah, to underscore what he sees as the baselessness of the claims against him.

"We got a big mess, no question about it," he said. "Why? Because somebody say I was 15 years when I came to work there."

Jewish Funds for Justice
Rabbi Jill Jacobs revised the wording of her living-wage teshuva many times before it was adopted May 28, 2008 by the Conservative movement.

By Ben Harris

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Just days after the Conservative movement became the only Jewish denomination to speak out against alleged worker abuse at the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States, the movement's legal authorities voted to recommend that Jewish-owned businesses pay their employees a living wage.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement's highest legal body, endorsed a religious ruling, or teshuva, on May 28 saying that Jews should "strive to" hire unionized workers and pay them a living wage. The teshuva earned 13 votes in favor, with one opposed and three abstentions.

The decision comes just five days after the movement urged kosher consumers to consider the appropriateness of purchasing meat from Agriprocessors, the Postville, Iowa company whose workers have alleged gross mistreatment in the aftermath of a May 12 immigration raid.

A joint statement from the movement's rabbinic and synagogue organizations stopped short of calling for a boycott of the company.

"For sure it was in the air," Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who authored the teshuva, said of the controversy surrounding Agriprocessors. "I think that everything going on in Postville has for sure raised people's consciousness of how important workers' issues are."

Both decisions point to the rising assertiveness of Conservative rabbis on social justice issues, but they also have laid bare the tensions between activist rabbis who want to see the movement take firm positions and those that remain cautious about the potential fallout from such actions.

Among the three rabbis who abstained in the living wage vote was Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the outgoing executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the movement's synagogue association.

Epstein told JTA that while in principle he favors paying workers a decent wage, he is concerned that if companies raise their salaries they also may be forced to reduce their work force. He also worries about putting Jewish employers at a competitive disadvantage.

"Is it better to have 100 percent of people earning a wage in which they can sustain themselves, but not at the appropriate level, or is it better to have 50 percent of the people unemployed?" Epstein asked.

A living wage is generally considered to be the money needed to support oneself on a 40-hour-per-week job, taking into account basic expenses such as housing, food, health care and transportation.

Jacobs in her teshuva offers several methods for calculating a living wage. Invariably they result in figures above the federally mandated minimum wage of $5.85 an hour and vary from city to city. In New York City, for example, a living wage would be more than $10 an hour.

"I am all for the basic principles that Jill was articulating," Epstein said. "I just felt uneasy about putting some people in a difficult situation where they would have to lay off individuals in order to meet the conditions of that teshuva."

Similarly, while some in the movement wanted a boycott of Agriprocessors, others favored a softer approach so as not to discourage observance of kosher laws by making approved meats harder to access. Epstein, who favored the latter approach, also noted that allegations against the company remain unproven.

Rabbi Leonard Gordon, who chairs the Rabbinical Assembly's Social Action Committee, told JTA that both issues reflect the careful balancing of competing values that rabbis must perform as they apply religious strictures to contemporary social issues.

"I think what will typify an emergent Conservative approach to this is going to be an understanding of the complex lessons of Jewish history and of how Jewish communities have dealt with analogous situations, along with understanding more narrowly the history of a specific halachic issue," Gordon said. "We are trying to model a path that recognizes that it's not just about taking a strong prophetic stand with a sort of absolutist vision and saying follow this banner and that's where morality lies."

Or as Jacobs put it, "Law codes are written in a vacuum, but teshuvot aren't."

Jacobs, the rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice, first submitted her teshuva to the committee in 2003, and undertook extensive revisions before its final adoption. She added a detailed economic analysis to address concerns that a living wage might lead to a loss of jobs and thus hurt workers overall. She also inserted the phrase "strive for," softening the language to make clear the ruling expressed a recommendation, not a requirement with respect to wages and unionization.

Marc Gary, executive vice president and general counsel of Fidelity Investments and a non-voting member of the law committee, said he was unconvinced by Jacobs' economic analysis.

While Gary said he was comfortable with the recommendation language, he had other objections to the teshuva and overall thought it was more appropriate as a policy statement than a religious ruling.

"In my judgment, if you increase the wages of folks who are essentially unskilled workers in lower-income types of jobs, like busboys or nurses' aides and so forth, and you raise them to the levels that Rabbi Jacobs was suggesting, I think it would have negative employment effects," Gary said. "I think that's pretty clear in my mind."

Conservative social justice advocates say the real challenge is putting the principles of the teshuva into action.

Gordon says his committee will now turn to the "tricky task" of producing materials to help rabbis and educators explore the implications of the teshuva for Conservative institutions. Gordon and Jacobs speak of the teshuva as a conversation starter, a role both see as entirely appropriate for a halachic ruling.

"Halacha is a very big category, and I don't think that it just breaks down into things that you absolutely must do and things that you absolutely can't do," Jacobs said. "I think there's a lot of space in between."

Brian Hendler
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown at the Knesset in May, 2008, is facing a probable ouster that is expected to end his political career.

By Leslie Susser

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- The media and the political establishment in Israel already have decided: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is through.

The cover on Ma'ariv's weekend political magazine shows a framed portrait of a sad-looking Olmert on the wall of a government office with the caption "Ehud Olmert -- Prime Minister 2006-2008."

Now his Kadima Party is preparing for a new leadership contest and the country could be heading toward new elections.

The political fallout comes in the wake of the latest corruption scandal involving the prime minister, this one alleging that Olmert took improper funds from an American fund-raiser.

There is wide consensus that Olmert's legal team made a major strategic blunder in not cross- examining the American fund-raiser, Morris Talansky, immediately after his damning pre-trial testimony May 27 against the prime minister.

Talansky painted a picture of envelopes stuffed with dollars for Olmert's personal use. The prime minister's lawyers claim they can explain or disprove each and every item, that Olmert did not commit any crime and that he only did what all Israeli politicians legitimately do to finance election campaigns or speaking engagements abroad.

But the fact that the lawyers decided to defer their cross-examination of Talansky until July 17 left a pall of unchallenged allegations in the air. This led to scathing press against Olmert and demands in the political echelon for his resignation or, at least, temporary leave of absence.

Tainted by unrefuted allegations of corruption, Olmert no longer has the moral authority to make major decisions on peace or war, the critics charged.

Labor leader Ehud Barak fired the first shot in the political arena. The day after Talansky's testimony, the defense minister issued an ultimatum: Kadima must change its leader if the party wanted to continue its coalition partnership with Labor.

"I don't believe the prime minister can simultaneously run the government and deal with his personal issues," Barak said.

Although Barak did not place a deadline on his ultimatum, his move was enough to trigger a process that almost certainly will lead to Olmert's ouster. With the defection of Labor or some other disaffected coalition partner a distinct possibility, Kadima has been left with no alternative but to gear up for a new leadership primary.

Given the huge wave of public sentiment against him, it is obvious that Olmert cannot run. That has cleared the way for a four-way race with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Housing Minister Meir Shetreet.

Kadima's 65,000-plus members will choose a new leader probably some time in September. Olmert has asked only that the moves be delayed sufficiently to give him a chance to clear his name, enabling him to leave office and a political career spanning more than 40 years with some dignity.

Two possibilities emerge for a government without Olmert: The new leader of Kadima could form a coalition based on the parties in the current Knesset, or there could be new elections.

The Likud Party, which is leading in the polls, wants new elections immediately. Labor and Kadima prefer building a new coalition and putting off elections for as long as possible.

Shas is the problem for Labor and Kadima. The fervently Orthodox party has indicated it would not be happy to serve under Livni, the front-runner to take over for Olmert. Shas also is demanding increased child allowances as a condition for joining any new coalition, which without Shas is not possible.

So the smart money is on elections within the next six months. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, among the Likud's most astute politicians, already has put forth a bill for the dissolution of the Knesset, with Nov. 11 as the favored election day.

Although there are several candidates to succeed Olmert, the front-runners are Livni, Barak and the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu.

Livni, who would become Israel's second female prime minister after Golda Meir, is perceived as squeaky clean and thus would have a head start at the polls after the public revulsion over the Olmert-Talansky scandal.

Although her opponents denigrate her experience, she has a long record of public service. Livni served in the Mossad intelligence agency in the early 1980s, and later as the director of the Government Companies Authority.

She entered politics in 1999 and has been the minister of immigrant absorption, of justice and of foreign affairs. Livni is committed to peace with the Palestinians and is conducting negotiations with the former Palestinian prime minister, Ahmad Qureia.

Livni comes from a revisionist background. Her father, Eitan, was an Irgun fighter and a Herut Knesset member from 1973 to 1984.

She is Olmert's official deputy, but lost points with the prime minister when she said the prime minister should resign after the first interim Winograd report on the 2006 Lebanon War was published in April 2007. Olmert has never forgiven her; he and Mofaz have been coordinating a "stop Livni" campaign inside Kadima.

Mofaz is a former chief of staff and defense minister who led Operation Defensive Shield, which broke the brunt of the second Palestinian intifada in the West Bank in April 2002. He is one of the more hawkish members of Kadima, sees peacemaking as a process that will take generations and holds that for now, the conflict must simply be managed.

Dichter also has a security background, having served as the Shin Bet chief and now as minister of internal security. He is the new kid on the block, and pundits believe Dicher eventually will throw his weight behind Livni.

Shetreet, a whiz kid from a poor Sephardi family, served as the mayor of Yavne while still in his 20s and became a Knesset member at 33. He headed the Jewish Agency for Israel and served in various governments as minister of finance, of justice and of housing.

In 1999, Shetreet made an unsuccessful bid for the Likud leadership against Ariel Sharon and Olmert.

The latest published poll on the projected Kadima primary shows Livni well ahead of her rivals in all the key categories: integrity, foreign policy, security and the economy.

In polls for the national leadership, she finishes second to Netanyahu and ahead of Barak. A poll by the Dialog group published May 30 in Ha'aretz shows the Likud under Netanyahu winning 29 seats in the Knesset, Kadima under Livni 23 and Labor under Barak 15.

Significantly, the polls show Likud being able to assemble a coalition of right-wing and religious parties without Kadima or Labor. But the polls also show that Likud could build a powerful alternative coalition with Kadima and Labor without any of the other hawkish or religious parties.

It's still early to know what will happen; between now and November in Israeli politics is a very long time.

But one factor seems certain -- Ehud Olmert's political career is over.

Jeff Finkelstein
Adventure Rabbi participants dance under Corona Arch outside Moab, Utah, during a Passover seder led by Rabbi Jamie Korngold on April 19, 2008.

By Sue Fishkoff

BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) -- There were about two dozen people on Rabbi Mike Comins’ Torah Trek in Tilden Park here.

Most members and friends of Chochmat HaLev, a Jewish Renewal-style community, had hiked a lot. Many had prayed or meditated. Some had done both together.

Comins, a compact man with sandy hair, suddenly took off down the trail at a rapid pace. The hikers set off behind him, chattering happily on this sunny Shabbat morning. They walked for five minutes, their conversations growing louder. But oddly, Comins said nothing.

Then he stopped. When the hikers caught up to him, Comins told them to walk for another five minutes, this time in complete silence.

What a simple exercise, but how powerful the impact. It’s amazing what one hears as the mind quiets down. The rustling of a tree branch. The crunch of a foot as it meets the earth. The pounding of one’s heart.

For Comins, that small, still space is where God can be encountered. And that’s where he and a handful of other Jewish spiritual leaders are trying to take those willing to follow, even for a few hours: into the wilderness, back where Judaism began and into themselves at the same time.

Comins, 51, now based in Los Angeles, does it by walking. He leads groups on Jewish spiritual hikes via Torah Trek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures, the company he founded in 2001.

His Reform colleague Rabbi Jamie Korngold, 42, in Boulder, Colo., created her Adventure Rabbi program that same year. She leads those hiking, skiing and biking their way back to Judaism.

Both rabbis have published books to help others do it on their own.

Comins’ book, “A Wild Faith,” came out last fall; Korngold’s “God in the Wilderness” appeared in April. The books, filled with biblical wisdom and practical exercises, are small enough to fit in a back pocket -- while one is hiking, for example.

Their messages come across so well because they developed their rabbinates to answer their own needs.

Comins, ordained in 1996 by Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was leading spiritual treks in Israel’s deserts but felt his own Judaism had become sterile.

“I’d become a spiritual wannabe,” he says. “I was taking people into the desert, but we did the same things we’d do in the city -- we’d take out the text and study, we’d take out the siddur and daven.”

He moved back to Los Angeles, took a two-year spiritual sabbatical and developed what he describes as a personal relationship with God.

Just saying those words makes him chuckle. No, he’s not enamored of New Age thinking. It took him a while to convince himself that what he was experiencing was real and worth passing on.

Korngold, a skier, mountain climber and ultra-marathoner, says she was languishing in Calgary, Canada, after her 1999 ordination. Then she took a group of students to the Grand Canyon for a baby-naming ceremony for a daughter of one of the students. On the trip she realized her real gift lay in bringing Judaism to the unaffiliated through the sports she loved.

Comins’ walks are aimed at spiritual seekers. Some of his participants are disaffected Jews who like to hike. Others are Jewishly involved but want to deepen their spirituality by exploring the wilderness.

What makes his walks Jewish is not the encounter with nature --- that, he says, has a power beyond cultural context -- but how he guides his groups to respond by saying Jewish blessings and reflecting on the teachings of rabbis who loved the outdoors, such as Nachman of Bratslav and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“In the wilderness, it’s hard not to experience awe," he says. "And as Heschel explained, the gateway to God is awe.”

Zann Jacobrown on a trek last fall near Seattle recalls Comins leading the group in the shacharit, the traditional morning prayer, then asking them to walk around and come back with their own morning prayers related to what they found.

Jacobrown brought that exercise and several others from the Torah Trek back to the religious school where she teaches, taking the children on a spiritual day at a nearby river. She says it was a big hit.

Thousands have taken part in Torah Treks and Korngold's outdoor adventures. The rabbis receive calls from rabbinic students and leaders of Jewish organizations eager to learn how to become wilderness spiritual leaders. More than 1,000 people are registered on Korngold’s social network site.

Korngold’s adventures are more consciously aimed at outreach to young Jews who are marginally, if at all, involved in Jewish life. She runs holiday retreats in deserts and campgrounds, and in winter leads Shabbat services on top of a mountain with worshipers skiing down afterward.

“My dad goes to shul every single week, but my peers, if they have to choose between going skiing or going to synagogue, they’ll choose skiing every time,” says Korngold. “So I say, I’ll go with you, and we’ll make this a holy day and a Jewish day."

Most of her participants are aged 25 to 45.

“We’re really hitting that demographic everyone’s trying to reach, and for 85 percent of them, this is the only Jewish thing they do,” Korngold says.

Boulder resident Rosalie Sheffield went on Korngold’s Passover retreat in April in a desert in Utah. She describes hiking to the top of a stone arch and standing with more than 50 others in a line, their hands on a Torah scroll stretched before them.

“That moment was so spiritual, looking down at the Torah, then up at the arch, seeing all those Jews standing together,” she says. “I think it’s perfectly fine and appropriate to find a connection to God outside the synagogue walls.”

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