Demonstrators at a rally in Postville, Iowa, on July 27, 2008 show their support for undocumented Agriprocessors workers arrested in a May raid on the kosher meat plant.
By Sue Fishkoff
POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA) -- When busloads of Jews from Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin started pulling up outside St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Sunday morning, and more than 350 people, some sporting yarmulkes, poured out to take part in a big immigration rally planned for the afternoon, localsnoticed.
“We weren’t expecting so many Jews to show up,” said Alicia Lopez.
A Mexican native and former employee of Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meat plant, Lopez was one of nearly 400 undocumented workers arrested in a May 12 immigration raid at the factory.
Like four dozen other women released to take care of dependent children, her right ankle is encased in a heavy tracking device that keeps her under virtual house arrest as she awaits trial and, likely, eventual deportation.
Lopeznever met a Jewish person in Mexico, and the impressions she developed during her seven years here were not flattering. They were her bosses, the guys who didn’t give her raises, the guys she blames for not warning her and the other workers that La Migra -- the immigration police -- was on its way.
“I thought badly of them,” she said bluntly, speaking through a Spanish interpreter.
But after marching with Jews on Sunday afternoon, praying with them in her church and hearing their shouts of solidarity with her plight, Lopez changed her mind.
“I could see and feel they were different,” she said. “I really appreciated them. It was like an injection of adrenaline.”
That’s why 22-year-old Tamar Pentelnick came on one of the buses from Minneapolis.
“As Jews, hearing that other Jews treat people like this, I wanted to show that not all Jews are like this, that we care about others and human rights are important to us,” she said.
The interfaith service, march and rally represented the largest and most public demonstration of Jewish support for those affected by the massive raid two months ago by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Police estimated the crowd at more than 900.
Agriprocessors first gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book "Postville," which described the tensions between the the local community and the company, owned by Lubavitcher Chasidim from Brooklyn.
Since then, Agriprocessors has come under fire over its slaughter methods and labor practices, as well as health and safety violations. The May 12 raid added new layers to the controversy, with federal authorities coming under criticism, the plant's former workers facing economic problems and the company scrambling to keep up production.
Through it all, the company has denied any wrongdoing and vehemently rejects the claim that it does not look out for its workers.
Sunday's events -- spearheaded by the Minnesota-based Jewish Community Action and the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and supported by a number of other groups including the Jewish Labor Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society -- focused on the affected workers and their families as a way of generating support for the larger goal of comprehensive, national immigration reform.
“The Agriprocessors raid is the legacy of a failed immigration system,” said Gideon Aronoff, the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Aronoff told the crowd that immigration reform is something “that matters” to the Jewish community.
“Instead of a national solution to a national problem, we have a mishmash of local responses, a border fence that doesn’t work and millions of dollars spent chasing down immigrant workers,” he said.
Athough virtually all the workers arrested in the Postville raid were from Mexico and Guatemala, the Jews who participated in the rally say this is a very Jewish issue. Text study and discussions of immigration policy were held on the buses coming in from Minneapolis and Chicago, emphasizing the Jewish values and teachings that informed the rally’s organization.
“We’re here because we care,” said Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis.
Working conditions are no better in many other industrial plants, he noted, but the fact that Agriprocessors is Jewish owned and produces kosher meat gives the case particular urgency to some Jewish activists.
“We’re here as Jews because we believe kosher means we must answer to a higher authority,” Kravitz said.
“We think a Jewish voice is critical,” added Vic Rosenthal, the executive director of Jewish Community Action. “Who else should be speaking up for workers' rights, especially when it involves kosher food?”
Jonathan Ribnick, 15, was on one of two busloads of teens from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
On one hand, Ribnick was upset that the allegations of worker mistreatment by Agriprocessors and its Jewish owners are giving Jews a bad name, fanning the flames of anti-Semitism and “messing it up for the rest of us,” as he put it.
“But we’re not here because we want kosher meat,” he said. “We’re here for the people. We care how people are being treated.”
Abby Seeskin, 20, a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, had been to a few rallies for immigrant rights, but this was the first time she went as part of a Jewish group.
“It’s important not just because it’s a kosher plant but because although I’m not particularly religious, the Jewish values I grew up with influence my outlook in life and have informed my interest in immigration issues,” she explained. “The idea of tikkun olam" -- reparing the world -- "is very important to me, probably more than any other Jewish value.”
The issue of caring came up repeatedly throughout the day.
Agriprocessor owners take issue with the claims that they, by contrast, don’t care.
Aaron Rubashkin, who founded the company two decades ago, in a prepared statement said he and his family were immigrants themselves, escaping first Soviet and then Polish communism to find “freedom and opportunity” in America.
The company has helped workers hurt by the raid, said spokesman Chaim Abrahams, providing food and subsidizing rent by allowing them to stay in Rubashkin-owned properties even when they are not up to date on payments.
No workers interviewed were aware of rent subsidies, although some said that company trucks handed out boxes of meat, chicken and sausages in their neighborhoods last week.
Earlier Sunday, Abrahams met with leaders of the Catholic and Jewish activist groups to address their major concerns, including help for the affected workers and back pay for those arrested. Talks should continue next week, participants reported.
For more than an hour, the blocks-long march snaked its way through town, past the front gates of Agriprocessors and a playground eerily empty of children. In some classrooms, locals report, more than half the students disappeared overnight.
Young Jewish activists used megaphones to lead the crowd in Spanish-language chants: “Nosotros todos immigrantes” -- “We are all immigrants.” They were answered by Guatemalans wearing traditional woven shirts and young mothers with electronic ankle bracelets wheeling babies in strollers, American flags flying from the handles.
Longtime Postville resident Norma Schlee watched it all from her front lawn. “I think it’s magnificent that they were able to come from all over,” she said.
And as for the Jews coming in from out of state to show their support for this tiny Iowa town ripped apart by the raid and its aftermath, Schlee nodded her head in approval, saying, “I think that’s very important.”
Updated :: There will be one community memorial service, at Temple Beth El on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
A memorial service for Michal Elboim, the Shlicha who was killed near Pensacola on Sunday, will be held at Pensacola's Temple Beth El on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Another memorial is being planned at B'nai Israel Congregation, but details have not been announced.
Elboim's body was flown to New York yesterday, accompanied by her boyfriend. Her sister was to join them in New York for the flight to Israel. Her parents had been on the way to an Alaskan cruise, then a visit to the Rockies.
As is traditional, members of the Pensacola Jewish community took turns sitting with her body until the flight to New York.
Elboim was planning to visit Honduras after leaving Pensacola on Aug. 5, then she was to return to Israel.
Itai Rosenfeld, the Shaliach in Mobile, said he remembers her as being passionate about education, which is why she chose to join the program that sends Israeli young adults to American communities for one or two years. He remembers her telling him "this may sound big, but I want to be the Minister of Education in Israel."
Pensacola’s Jewish community was stunned last night by the news that its Israeli Shlicha for the past year, Michal Elboim, was killed in an afternoon boating accident.
According to authorities, Elboim was sitting on the bow of a 24-foot pontoon boat in Perdido Bay, near the Alabama-Florida border, when she fell and was struck by the boat’s propeller. There were 10 aboard, including four personnel from nearby Naval Air stations.
Efforts to resuscitate her on a nearby dock were unsuccessful and she died at the scene. A helicopter had been called in but was not needed. Alcohol is not believed to have been a factor, and an investigation is underway.
According to reports, the driver was teaching another passenger how to operate the boat, and Elboim fell overboard when the boat jerked suddenly.
Elboim, 24, was born in Hod Hasharon and had been in Pensacola for the last year, teaching Jews and non-Jews about Israel.
She also traveled the region with Shlichim from Montgomery, Mobile and New Orleans for a series of “Fab Four” panels, discussing growing up in Israel. She also staffed the “biggest and best” Israel booth at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s International Fair.
Shimon Smith, the Montgomery Shaliach, said Elboim “was an adventurer and an amazing person. I will miss her very much.”
Einav Avidan, Shlicha for New Orleans, said “it's a terrible tragedy and a loss. We all loved Michal and we will miss her terribly.”
Ariella Feldman, program director of camping and Young Shlichim for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said the program would collect condolences and stories about Elboim for a book that will be presented to her family.
The Pensacola Jewish Federation had been planning a farewell event for Elboim and to welcome her successor on Aug. 2. She had planned to return to Israel on Aug. 5.
A worker stands between solar energy collectors at the Solel Solar Thermal Energy Plant in Beit Shemesh on May 20, 2008.
By Dina Kraft
TEL AVIV (JTA) -- From cutting-edge geothermal power deep underground to wind turbines and solar panels capturing energy from the sky above, foreign investors are pouring money into Israel's growing clean tech sector.
And it's not just Jews.
"Every day I get calls from people asking for opportunities to invest in clean technologies in Israel," said Michael Granoff, president of the New York-based Maniv Energy Capital and an investor in Project Better Place, the company working to make Israel a testing ground for an electric car.
“That to me is extremely encouraging," he said. "I believe nothing will determine Israel's prosperity more than the degree to which it is a leader in innovation around sustainability.”
Clean tech, a catch-all term for emerging technologies focused on renewable and more efficient energy consumption, is soaring in Israel. A wave of new start-ups, academic research projects and new venture capital funds are focusing on the industry, and multinational corporations such as the Coca-Cola Co. and General Electric are scouting out new technologies here.
Fueling the interest in environmentally friendly clean-tech solutions are skyrocketing oil prices, growing concerns about global warming and a push for sustainable solutions to the world’s energy problems.
Investing in Israel's expertise may not only make good business sense but benefit the worldwide quest for cleaner, greener energy alternatives.
It also may constitute an opportunity to bolster Israel’s international reputation by linking the Jewish state with green innovation.
Jonathan Shapira, a recent American law school graduate who writes a blog on clean-tech investment in Israel, says Diaspora Jews can play an essential role by becoming either consumers of or investors in Israeli technologies.
"Every Jewish family and institution should consider installing solar panels, rooftop wind turbines or energy efficient lighting developed in Israel,” he said. “This will lower their electricity bill, protect the environment, benefit the Israeli economy and help position Israel as a world leader in clean technology.”
The imperative for developing alternative energy sources is particularly acute for Israel because its enemies’ strength derives in large part from the world’s dependence on their oil resources.
"It really makes sense for reasons of economics, but there is also the issue that so much is at stake here,” said David Rosenblatt, the vice chairman of the board of a new solar power company near Eilat, Arava Power, which is headed by Yosef Abramowitz. “This is doing something for Israel's national security, protecting its energy independence through green power.”
Rosenblatt, who also runs an investment fund in New York, where he lives, said his investment in Arava Power is a Jewish venture as well.
"This is about clean energy, but it's also about Jewish roots and what I can do to express it and where I personally have value to add,” he told JTA.
In Herzliya, three American immigrants in their 30s have created the first venture capital firm to target the Israeli clean-tech market, Israel Cleantech Ventures. They recently raised $75 million for their debut fund, exceeding the $60 million they originally set out to raise.
Glen Schwaber, one of the firm's partners, said enthusiasm among investors for Israeli clean tech reflects Israel’s growing reputation as a potential incubator for new technologies that is buoyed by the country's high-tech success stories.
"Israel has a reputation for innovation and technology, and a mature venture capital environment along with a successful history in entrepreneurship,” Schwaber said. “The next logical place for the clean-tech investor after Silicon Valley and the Boston area is Israel.”
The Jewish state is beginning to capitalize on its experience in such fields as solar thermal technology, wastewater recycling and desalination. Until recently, Israel had the world’s only large-scale desalination plant, off the coast of Ashkelon. Now countries such as China are building them.
"Israel is a great country to beta test some of these new technologies because it is a microcosm of the world's needs: shortages of water, a large transportation fleet on per-capita basis, and an abundance of solar energy potential," said Schwaber, 38, who made aliyah from Boston.
Among Cleantech Ventures' investors are some big names in Jewish philanthropy, including the families of Edgar Bronfman and Stacy Schusterman.
Schusterman, CEO of the Samson Investment Co., a private oil and gas company based in Tulsa, Okla., said she sees her investments in Israeli clean-tech ventures, including Israel's electric car enterprise, as business, not philanthropy.
"This is a business venture," she told JTA in a phone interview from Tulsa. "We saw this as an opportunity to leverage Israel's deep intellectual capital in an area we see as a burgeoning worldwide industry, and by investing it we would have the opportunity to create a hedge against our base business."
She added, “This is an area where Israel should excel, so as a Jew I have every reason to help make that happen.”
Last month, the city of Los Angeles signed an agreement with Kinrot Incubator, a company located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that helps entrepreneurs and researchers with water-based technological innovations.
The deal will enable Israeli start-up companies to use water and power facilities in Los Angeles for pilot projects and to conduct joint research with the University of California, Los Angeles on water projects.
Los Angeles is interested in using the Kinrot model to establish its own incubator for water-related technologies.
Assaf Barnea, Kinrot's CEO, said that although the water market is not new, the hype over going green has given it a new shine in the eye of investors.
"They have now heard about it and want to be players," he said. "There is huge hype but it's not just hype. This is a market that is here to stay.”
Karnit Goldwasser and the Goldwasser family follow Ehud Goldwasser's coffin at the beginning of his funeral procession in Nahariya on July 17, 2008.
By Ben Harris
NEW YORK (JTA) -- At the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School here, Rabbi Dov Linzer decided Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to start the day like any other given the news that the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006 were returned to Israel deceased.
Instead,Linzer passed around several media reports about the return of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, effected in exchange for five Lebanese and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters.
The morning’s discussion eventually turned to the ethics of the exchange -- a debate that has raged in Israel in recent weeks as the country has wrestled with the appropriateness of trading live terrorists for dead Israelis.
“Everybody really was struggling with it,” Linzer told JTA. “It wasn't a black-and-white issue, even if people came out on one side or the other.”
The plight of Israel's captive soldiers has galvanized the American Jewish community in ways that few Israel-related issues have in recent years. While the merits of the exchange were debated passionately at Chovevei and elsewhere Wednesday, Jewish groups that had worked for the soldiers’ release made no mention of the controversy surrounding their return.
Instead they expressed sympathy for the pain of the families, recognition of Israel's difficult moral choices and a commitment to work toward the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in the summer of 2006 just a few days before Hezbollah’s attack.
“As we mourn Ehud and Eldad, let us redouble our efforts to seek the safe return of Gilad Shalit to his family,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail message. “The blue bracelet with the names of all three soldiers will stay on my wrist until that blessed day comes. And let us keep all the other captive soldiers -- Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Majdy Halabi -- in our thoughts and prayers.”
Since their capture in cross-border raids two years ago, Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev have inspired broad action by American Jews. More than a dozen groups dedicated to securing their release were created on the popular social networking Web site Facebook, a rally for their release was held at the United Nations and a petition sent to the U.N. secretary-general garnered 150,000 signatures.
Concern for the three MIAs reached the highest echelons of the U.S. Congress, where House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged as arguably the most vocal Washington lawmaker on the issue.
In early 2007, Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, presented Pelosi with copies of the soldiers' dog tags, and the speaker has taken them around the world, showing the dog tags to heads of state as she lobbied for the soldiers’ release.
In a statement Wednesday, Pelosi joined the chorus of sympathizers expressing condolences to the families and pledging to keep working for Shalit's release.
"Today our hope has been replaced by grief,” Pelosi said. “As we mourn, I will hold on to these dog tags as a symbol of the sacrifices made -- sacrifices far too great -- for peace and security for the State of Israel.”
Like most Jewish groups, her office declined to comment on the swap deal itself.
Linzer, who encouraged his students to express their opinions on the swap, acknowledged that care should be taken on such matters.
“In general,” he said, “while we should feel invested, we should also be careful, as people who are not living in Israel, about the way in which we judge those who are.”
The news of the return of the soldiers’ bodies prompted mixed feelings for Gabrielle Flaum, the New Jersey teenager who founded a youth advocacy group for the MIAs called SOS: Save Our Soldiers.
“I keep trying to tell myself that no matter what, this is what we wanted,” Flaum said Wednesday. “Even if they're not alive, we want their bodies. We want their families to be able to move on. We want them to have closure.”
Last year, Flaum came up with the idea of placing three empty chairs in synagogues on the High Holidays, a practice that was widely adopted around the country.
Now SOS is planning an online memorial for the soldiers while directing its efforts toward the release of Shalit, who unlike Regev and Goldwasser, has sent several messages to his family after his abduction and is thought to be alive.
“We're not going to stop,” Flaum said. “I feel that he's alive and I want to see him returned.”
The publicity firm 5WPR is under the microscope after someone associated with the company impersonated a rabbi.
By Ben Harris
NEW YORK (JTA) -- The public relations firm trying to restore the image of the embattled kosher meat producer Agriprocessors is wrestling with a controversy of its own after being accused of impersonating online a leading critic of the company.
The New York-based agency, 5WPR, is accused of making a fraudulent posting to several Web sites in the name of Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi who also heads the movement's ethical kashrut initiative.
Two of the postings appeared at FailedMessiah.com, a blog that is highly critical of Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States.
The blog, operated by Shmarya Rosenberg, reported Wednesday that the two comments in Allen's name came from Web, or Internet Protocol, addresses registered to 5WPR. Later in the day the blog quoted the 5WPR executive handling the Agriprocessors account, Juda Engelmayer, as saying he had been unaware of the fraudulent postings.
Engelmayer blamed the postings on an intern, whom Engelmayer said was subsequently fired.
A separate fraudulent comment was posted to the JTA Web site from what appears to be Engelmayer's home. The comment, by someone purporting to be Allen, was posted Tuesday at 9:51 p.m. to a JTA article about Agriprocessors.
It came from the same IP address as an e-mail that Engelmayer sent 10 minutes earlier to two JTA employees. That IP address, which is different from the one that FailedMessiah’s Rosenberg tied to 5WPR’s offices, is a residential consumer Internet connection on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Engelmayer lives.
A person identifying himself as the intern in question but refusing to provide his full name called JTA on Thursday to say he posted the fraudulent comment to the JTA site using a computer at Engelmayer’s apartment during a get-together there Tuesday night, but without Engelmayer’s knowledge.
Engelmayer declined to comment.
A fraudulent comment posted to the JTA Web site, above, and an e-mail from an executive at 5WPR had the same origin I.P. address.
Ronn Torossian, 5WPR's founder and president, issued a statement to JTA on Friday, saying that his firm's "IT department investigated accusations which we have now learned to be true."
"A senior staff member failed to be transparent in dealing with client matters. He has taken full responsibility," Torossian said. He added: "We have instituted internal measures to ensure this cannot happen again. We continue to strive for the highest ethical standards."
The incident is shining a spotlight on one of the fastest growing publicity firms in New York. It also could hamper efforts by Agriprocessors to bolster its image.
Since its founding in 2003, 5WPR has landed several major Jewish and Israeli clients. According to the firm’s Web site, in addition to representing several high-profile celebrities, it has worked for a number of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends of Magen David Adom, Shaare Zedek Medical Center and the Zionist Organization of America.
The firm has also represented the government of Israel and several Israeli political figures, as well as Pastor John Hagee, a San Antonio-based mega-church leader and leading Christian conservative supporter of Israel.
Agriprocessors turned to 5WPR after federal authorities conducted a massive immigration raid May 12 at its packing plant in Postville, Iowa. Nearly 400 undocumented workers were arrested.
Last week, two plant supervisors were arrested on charges that they helped employees use fraudulent documents to acquire jobs.
The raid has unleashed a flood of negative publicity, including allegations that the company hired underage workers, tolerated an atmosphere rife with sexual harassment and underpaid employees. Agriprocessors has denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and suggested that it is the victim of selective prosecution by the federal government.
In response to the growing controversy, Agriprocessors hired a former federal prosecutor, Jim Martin, as its compliance officer. In an e-mail to JTA, Martin said the meatpacking company neither approved nor authorized 5WPR's tactics.
Since hiring 5WPR, Agriprocessors has held a conference call for community leaders responding to the allegations and taken out an advertisement in major Jewish newspapers headlined "The Agriprocessors Our Customers Know and Love!"
Allen, a longtime critic of Agriprocessors, dismissed the public relations offensive. Hekhsher Tzedek, the ethical kashrut initiative he heads, was launched largely in response to allegations of worker mistreatment at the meatpacking firm that first emerged in 2006.
Allen's purported comments were made in response to a blog item announcing that an Orthodox social justice group was calling off a boycott of the company. The group, Uri L'tzedek, said it was encouraged by "early signs of reform" instituted by the new compliance officer.
"We're going to pursue this relentlessly, tirelessly," read a comment on the site attributed to a misspelled version of Allen’s name. "They can hire ten more compliance individuals, more PR firms and lawyers, but we know what we have to do. Hekhsher Tzedek is not in this for the short haul -- we have a goal, and that is to make sure that Tzedek is on kosher foods all over the country. This doesn't rile us. This is a cause. Agriprocessors is the drive for us."
An identical comment was posted to the Web site Vos Iz Neias, which reports news about the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community, setting off a string of invective from the site's largely Orthodox readership. Vos Iz Neias confirmed to JTA that the addresses from which both comments emerged is associated with 5WPR.
The comment on the JTA site attributed to Allen called the controversy "a war" between Orthodox and Conservative standards of kashrut.
"If an owner has a housekeeper or nanny, he or she better be legal," the post continued. "Then again, if these illegals are paid well and treated well, maybe it won't matter that they are illegal. This hasn't been worked out yet."
Allen told JTA that he did not leave any of the comments and may pursue legal action against the firm.
Michael Siegel, a Chicago rabbi and the national co-chair of Hekhsher Tzedek, said he has sought legal advice.
"We are going to pursue all avenues," Siegel told JTA. "This is just a terrible statement on so many levels that we've come to something like this in the Jewish community. I don't know how much lower we can go in this whole thing."
In his statement, Torossian cast his firm as playing a role in a religious struggle.
"This battle is not about blogging, it is however about protecting the highest levels of Kashrut in the Jewish community. We as a firm feel personally and professionally passionate about these, and related issues," he said. "Critics of traditional Judaism have chosen to smear the largest provider of the highest level kashrut meat in the world. We stand with protecting kashrut."
Bernie Krisher takes a hands-on approach to philanthropy with a Cambodian child outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Phnom Penh.
By Tibor Krausz
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (JTA) -- Headquartered in an upper-floor lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel here, which he has turned into his command center, Bernie Krisher irons out the details of his latest charity projects for this nation’s poorest children.
Things, however,aren’t proceeding smoothly. An assistant tells him of foot dragging by intractable local bureaucrats over building permits for a new school.
Krisher will have none of it.
“I’m not going through this nonsense of red tape,” snaps “Bernie the Pusher,” as the Tokyo-based Brooklynite has been nicknamed for his can-do, never-say-die chutzpah. “I’m gonna break the law [and build anyway] because there’s a higher law -- helping people. I’ll call [King] Sihanouk and [Prime Minister] Hun Sen if I must.”
Krisher doesn’t have to call. He is called and invited to the palace.
There Krisher is the guest of honor at a luncheon by King-Father Norodom Sihanouk, an old friend. Before massed ranks of court photographers and camera crews for Cambodian television, the diminutive elderly monarch thanks Krisher for his "precious friendship with Cambodia" and his myriad altruistic projects for the land's neediest.
Sihanouk then decorates the American Jew with Cambodia's highest honor -- the medal of Grand Officier de l’Ordre royal du Cambodge.
The new school is built on schedule.
A half-hour drive from Phnom Penh, the Bright Future Kids' home boasts airy classrooms and a dormitory. It sits next door to another project initiated by Krisher: an orphanage for youngsters whose parents have died in the country’s raging HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The Bright Future Kids program includes gifted but underprivileged secondary students from the remote provinces. In addition to their studies in Cambodia’s national curriculum, the two dozen participants also learn English and computer skills.
“The single most important thing for Cambodians in overcoming poverty and the trauma of genocide is education,” says Krisher, 76, a native of Germany who says he came to identify with long-suffering Cambodians through his own experience as a refugee from the Holocaust. “Most problems are fueled or exacerbated by hopelessness and ignorance.”
During the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror between 1975 and 1979, as many as two million people died on Cambodia’s “killing fields.” Intellectuals, including teachers and doctors, were systematically eliminated, blighting the country's prospects for generations to come.
Three decades later, Cambodia remains one of Asia’s poorest lands, where most citizens survive by subsistence farming, grueling manual labor or employment in sweatshops.
But Nhou Chorm wants to be “a teacher or a doctor.”
The 16-year-old at Krisher’s Bright Future Kids home comes from the Rattanakiri province in the mountainous hill-tribe region of the remote northeast, near the Laotian border. The literacy rate there is only about 25 percent.
Her parents scrape the hard earth for a living; Nhou is the only one of their six children to attend school.
Nhou began her studies at one of several schools built locally by Krisher in his “Put a Roof Over Their Head” initiative. He conceived the project nearly a decade ago during a visit to the provinces, where he saw children learning in groups. The older children taught the younger ones in the open under the shelter of banyan trees.
Krisher, a former Southeast Asia correspondent for Newsweek who publishes The Cambodia Daily -- he's a trailblazer in the country for freedom of the press -- has since helped build some 400 schools across the land.
The schools cost $25,000 each to build and are underwritten by individual donors from Japan to the United States. Many even have Internet connection thanks to the “Motoman” system that links villages through a network of satellites and mobile units transported on motorcycles.
Helped by a program with the Harvard Medical School, sick villagers living in far-flung communities with no access to health care can also benefit from modern diagnostic techniques and consultation with expert health professionals via satellite.
In bamboo and thatch hamlets without running water or electricity, more and more of Krisher's proteges can join the global village with donated computers powered by solar panels.
Enthused by her opportunity to study, Nhou explains in her halting, newly learned English that she read late into the night after long days working in the fields with her family by the light of homemade resin candles.
“Even the poorest kids in the boondocks of New York or Tel Aviv have far better opportunities than the smartest kids in rural Cambodia,” Krisher says. “Many Cambodian kids are showing great promise, but their poverty prevents them from living up to their potential. All we need do is tap that potential and some may become a future prime minister, a Bill Gates or even another Einstein.”
Though suffering from a heart condition, Krisher says he won’t be slowing down.
“My head is bubbling with ideas,” he says.
One is to enlist Israeli agronomists to help teach poor Cambodian farmers modern farming and water management techniques.
And there are plenty more schools yet to build.
"Play the Wedding Game" portal is part of Masorti movement's new advertising campaign that shows Israelis alternative ways to marry within the Jewish tradition.
By Dina Kraft
TEL AVIV (JTA) -- In an online game, prospective Israeli brides and bridegrooms construct their dream wedding -- everything from venue to guest list to food.
Finally the punch line arrives: What kind of ceremony would they choose?
For most Israelis, there is little choice.
In a country without civil marriage, an Orthodox ceremony performed by the Chief Rabbinate is the only legally recognized union for Jews.
A growing number of Israeli Jews, however, are bypassing the Rabbinate and marrying abroad. Some do so because they are not considered Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law. Others are turned off by the Rabbinate's reputation for sluggish bureaucracy and pedantic questioning of petitioners’ Jewish identity.
The Conservative movement in Israel, called Masorti, is tapping into this discontent.
Its new advertising blitz is spreading the message that other ways are available to marry within the fold of Jewish tradition in the Jewish state. Launched June 15, the campaign includes radio spots, newspaper and online ads, and the online "Play the Wedding Game" portal.
The campaign has been a surprise hit for the movement, generating 35,000 hits on its Web site in just a few weeks, as well as a huge spike in phone calls and e-mail inquiries to its Jerusalem office.
It also has angered Shas, an Orthodox political party.
Yaakov Margi, the party's Knesset chairman, asked the Israel Broadcasting Authority to pull the Masorti radio ads from the airwaves. In a letter to the authority, Margi wrote that the Masorti movement "knowingly misleads and perpetrates a campaign of fraud" because it misrepresents its wedding ceremony as traditionally Jewish.
The Rabbinate also is taking issue with the campaign, asking the government to shut it down, according to Avi Blumenthal, a spokesman for the Rabbinate.
Couples who consider the Masorti movement and marry under Conservative auspices still will not have their marriages recognized in Israel. They will need to marry abroad to gain legal recognition in the Jewish state.
The Masorti movement remains unrepentant, saying it hopes the campaign will convince more Israelis to marry in Jewish ceremonies rather than in civil ceremonies overseas. The movement estimates that some 20 percent of Israeli marriages take place abroad, many in nearby Cyprus.
"Young couples are giving up totally on having a Jewish chupah, and we as a movement think that's very problematic," said Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, the director of the Masorti movement's wedding initiative. "Because of their reluctance to go to the Rabbinate, which they hear is a difficult process, they give up on their heritage."
The idea of the ad campaign, she said, is to show Israelis there’s an alternative.
“We want them to see there is another way to marry, and that's the Jewish way, under a chuppah, as has been done from generation to generation,” she said. “We need to make sure our young people do not lose touch with their traditions.
“And at the same time,” she added, “we want them to see they can still remain true to themselves at this important moment.”
While most Israelis are not religiously observant, Reform and Conservative Judaism have found little traction in Israel. Orthodoxy dominates religious life, with membership in non-Orthodox religious movements negligible by comparison.
Andy Sacks, the head of the Masorti movement's rabbinical assembly, attributes the success of the movement’s wedding ad campaign to popular alienation from the Rabbinate, which he says is out of touch with the Israeli public.
"I think this sort of stemmed from a confluence of events -- shmitta and people talking about the Rabbinate not meeting their needs, and then that conversions started being canceled,” he said, citing two recent controversies surrounding the Rabbinate.
In the shmitta controversy, the fervently Orthodox wing of the Rabbinate tried to impose extra strict regulations concerning observance this year of the shmitta sabbatical, during which Israel relies on Jewish legal loopholes to circumvent the biblical injunction to let the land of Israel lie fallow every seven years.
The other controversy concerned a threat in Israel to revoke the conversions of those who do not lead religiously observant lifestyles.
"With all this going on, we realized there was a niche for people who have respect for tradition but a bad taste in their mouth from the religious establishment," Sacks said.
Blumenthal, the Rabbinate spokesman, rejects the criticism. He insists the Rabbinate is not out of touch with the public's needs and has been doing its best to streamline the marriage process.
"We need to do what we do to assure we are following Jewish law; there is no unnecessary bureaucracy," he said. "And we are working to improve our services all the time."
Jewish motifs decorate the gold-painted glass medallions that were stolen by Nazis and restituted to the owners' heirs.
By Toby Axelrod
Berlin (JTA) -- Israel has restituted three ancient "medallions" stolen by the Nazis in Poland in 1941.
The heirs and an anonymous patron, however, are keeping two of the fourth century artworks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they have resided since their purchase from looters in 1965.
Jewish motifs, including menorahs and lions of Judah, decorate the gold-painted glass medallions, actually the bases of glass bowls.
The medallions are among the oldest known depictions of Jewish symbols ever found in the Mediterranean Diaspora, according to Anne Webber, a co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe.
The nonprofit commission, which assists heirs in locating stolen objects and helps museums determine the provenance of their collections, announced Tuesday that the museum had restituted these three medallions to the heirs of their original owners.
Webber told JTA in a telephone interview that the Israel Museum also acknowledged the items had been purchased from looters. She said the family wanted the items to remain in Israel because of their historical significance.
In a statement, Count Adam Zamoyski, speaking for the heirs in London, said they were "very happy with the outcome."
"We fully recognize the importance of the two glasses to the Jewish people and respect the wishes of the Israel Museum to keep them in Jerusalem," he said.
Originally found in catacombs in Rome, the medallions belonged to a collection assembled by Countess Isabella Dzialynska (nee Czartoryska) at the Hotel Lambert, her family home in Paris. She later moved the collection to the family castle at Goluchow, and then to Warsaw for safekeeping before the outbreak of World War II.
But the Nazis found and confiscated the collection, which Hitler moved to Castle Fischhorn in Zell am See in Austria in 1944. After the war, the collection was looted again, mostly by collectors from Austria.
Two decades later, Teddy Kollek, the then-mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the Israel Museum, purchased two of the medallions from a collector in Vienna together with Israeli art dealer Joseph Steiglitz. Kollek bought the third one for himself and donated it to the museum in 1970.
With help from the commission, the collection slowly is being reunited with its heirs. Earlier this year, a 13th century Limoges enamel cross was located in a collection in Zell am See and returned to the family.
The family has known for four years that the medallions were in the Israel Museum.
The two items bearing images of the Holy Ark, the lions of Judah and the Temple menorah will remain in the museum's permanent collection, the commission said. One was repurchased by the museum; the second was purchased by a museum patron for long-term loan.
The eight-member commission of historians and attorneys has helped reunite some 3,000 stolen artworks and objects with their heirs over the past nine years, Webber said.
"It is a drop in the ocean of stolen art," she added.
Zamoyski says the family hopes to one day re-create the Dzialynska Collection in Poland.
Budget cuts have forced the New York Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty to trim its food pantry budget and lay off staff.
By Jacob Berkman
NEW YORK (JTA) – In her 15 years at the Yad Ezra kosher food bank in Berkley, Mich., Leah Luger has never seen a situation quite as bad.
Michigan has the highest unemployment rate of any state in the nation at 7.4 percent, and Yad Ezra has seen a 30 percent increase in demand over the past two years. With food costs soaring, Michigan’s only kosher food bank is struggling to keep up.
Luger, the organization's director of development and co-executive director, says there is "more need, more desperation" than she's ever seen.
Yad Ezra, which was started 18 years ago to help feed an influx of poor elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, now has a different clientele. Many are younger, working-age Jews who have lost their jobs or been blindsided by economic hardship.
Two years ago, Yad Ezra served 1,000 families per month. Now it serves 1,400.
Rising food costs -- 10 percent in the last few months alone, Luger says -- are compounding the challenge. A box of groceries that cost $36.50 in January now runs $39.
"We are really struggling here," Luger told JTA.
Luger is not alone. Emergency food providers everywhere are struggling, including Jewish agencies.
Organizational officials describe the situation as a perfect storm: Food prices have increased by 10 to 20 percent, gas prices have soared to more than $4 per gallon, unemployment is rising, growing numbers of Americans are losing their homes to foreclosure, and state and local governments are slashing funding for social services.
The crunch is coming from both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum of poor, they say. Food stamps, which help the poorest of the poor, simply do not stretch as far as they did a year ago. At the same time, a growing number of working poor and lower-middle-class Americans are being forced to turn to food banks for help for the first time.
"In general, the entire country's food bank system is facing a crisis, and it is directly affecting all of the emergency food providers throughout the country," Heather Wolfson, a spokeswoman for Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, told JTA.
Mazon gives as much as $4 million per year in grants to some 300 organizations that either provide food or work in food advocacy. This year, for the first time, Mazon sent out a special mid-year appeal to its donors asking for more money, Wolfson said.
"There has always been a need, but there is even more now with the economy the way it is,” she said. “The unfortunate thing is that we don't see an end to this very soon.”
The New York Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which provides 13,000 families with non-perishable food through its food bank and food vouchers to another 2,000 families to buy perishable goods, has seen a steady increase in middle-class clients in the past three or four months, according to Executive Director William Rapfogel.
Some middle-class New Yorkers hit hard by layoffs as well as the rising costs of rent, food and fuel show up at the Met Council's warehouse in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. The warehouse is not a distribution center, but about a dozen people a day come anyway because they are embarrassed to seek help closer to home.
Rapfogel says his budget has been slashed by more than $2.5 million this year by state and city budget cuts. Those cuts have forced the Met Council to trim its food pantry budget and will force the agency to lay off 34 staff members, he said.
For those who receive food stamps, higher food costs mean they can’t afford as much food.
"For a household of four that would have been getting the max allotment, by January they were already finding that they were falling $30 short per month," said Ellen Vollinger, the legal director for Food Research and Action Center, a national food advocacy group. "The new numbers we think will be more acute."
Some 28 million Americans receive food stamps, which Vollinger estimates is only two-thirds of the number that actually qualify for the program.
Hopefully the crisis will persuade government officials that they must help more, says William Daroff, the director of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group and its vice president for public policy.
Daroff estimates that the federation system expends approximately $240 million annually on food and nutrition services, including food pantries, synagogue meal programs for seniors, Meals on Wheels, and an emergency food and shelter program. Approximately $60 million of the budget comes from government sources, he said.
In May, Congress voted to override President Bush's veto of the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, which mandates an additional $10.3 billion in aid to federal nutrition programs. The UJC pushed hard for the measure, which will raise the minimum benefit for food stamps for the first time in 30 years starting in October.
Jewish federations support about 100 food banks through the national system of Jewish Family Service organizations, according to the president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family and Children's Agencies, Bert Goldberg.
In Jacksonville, Fla., Jewish Family and Community Services partners with the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain to give away some 6,000 packages of supplementary food per year.
The group has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in demand, according to its executive director, Robin Peters. Meanwhile, rising food costs have forced Peters to begin to substitute lower-quality food in her packages. She used to give away cans of beef stew for protein; now it's beef ravioli.
Local Jewish Family Services directors have been holding intense discussions about how to deal with rising costs and rising needs. While there is no national emergency campaign, Goldberg says most have started their own emergency campaigns to raise funds locally.
Can they raise enough to keep up?
"I hear frequently from execs that this is an issue that they don't know how to deal with," Goldberg said.
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