Thursday, May 25, 2017

Animal rights group to appeal decision to throw out kapparot lawsuit 

An animal rights group will appeal the decision of a federal judge in California which dismissed a lawsuit against a synagogue for holding a kapparot ceremony, a pre-Yom Kippur ritual in which a chicken is swung by its legs and then slaughtered.

Los Angeles District Court Judge Andre Birotte Jr. earlier this month ruled in favor of a request by Chabad of Irvine to dismiss the lawsuit filed against it in late September by animal rights activists.

The suit on behalf of the Virginia-based United Poultry Concerns claimed that the practice violates the state’s unfair competition law. But Birotte wrote in his decision that the kapparot ceremony is a religious ritual supported by donations, not a “business act” covered by the unfair competition law.

The case will now go to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal reported.

Chabad typically accepts donations of $18 from those who participate in the kapparot ritual, according to the Jewish Journal. The group reportedly had not donated the chickens to the poor as is customary, instead hiring someone to dispose of the carcasses.

A 2015 lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court that called for an end to the practice based on animal cruelty is still pending. The suit, which was filed on behalf of the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League, alleges that the chickens are crammed tightly into cages and mishandled, and are disposed of and not used for food.

Kapparot is an ancient practice performed annually by some Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By performing kapparot, a person’s sins are said to be symbolically transferred to the chicken as part of the process of atonement ahead of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The meat of the chicken is then donated to charity. Some people perform the ritual using money in place of a chicken.



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jonathan Pollard loses appeal to ease parole conditions 

A federal appeals court has rejected convicted spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard’s request to lift restrictive parole conditions.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan issued the judgment on Wednesday, a week after hearing arguments.

The parole terms issued upon Pollard’s release from a federal prison in November 2015 after serving 30 years of a life sentence require him to stay in his New York home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.; to submit any computer he uses for inspection, and to wear a GPS-monitoring device at all times. The device means that Pollard, who is Orthodox, is forced to violate Shabbat observance, his lawyer has said.

Pollard, 62, also must remain in the United States for five years, despite his desire to move to Israel.

Pollard’s attorney argued that the terms are overly severe because Pollard cannot remember the classified information he provided in 1984 and 1985 to Israeli officials and that he is not a flight risk, Reuters reported.

Pollard pleaded guilty in 1986 to conspiracy to commit espionage in connection with providing Israeli contacts with hundreds of classified documents he had obtained as a civilian intelligence specialist for the U.S. Navy.



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In Fight Against Opioids in Hasidic Crown Heights, 'Nobody's Immune' 

The first opioid overdoses in Yaacov Behrman's neighborhood happened more than a decade ago, around 2005, he remembers.

At the time — a period when accidental overdose deaths were rising in New York, according to data from the city's Department of Health — he said many in his community of Lubavitch Crown Heights thought the "first kids we lost" were exceptions.

"It was a one-time thing," he recalled. "It was a fluke."

But in the years since, at least 10 young people in the Hasidic Jewish community have died using drugs, usually prescription painkillers, according to Behrman, program director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-founded drug prevention group Operation Survival.

"When it happened over and over, people started to realize it was a real issue — a real epidemic," he said.

Now, Behrman and others in the Crown Heights Jewish community are trying to raise the alarm about the dangers of opioids, which have hit New York hard, as they have all over the country.

Last year, the city was on track to see more than 1,000 accidental overdose deaths for the first time ever, according to the most recently available health department data. Of the overdoses tracked through November of 2016, 83 percent of all deaths involved an opioid, the agency said.

Many of those overdoses were due to prescription painkillers, such as those that have ravaged families on Staten Island in recent years. In the past two years in particular, an uptick in the use of a powerful opioid known as fentanyl — commonly mixed with heroin or mixed with handmade prescription pill look-alikes — has pushed the number of deaths higher, according to the DOH.

It's unclear which drugs exactly are killing young people in Crown Heights since no data is available on overdoses by neighborhood or religious group. But Behrman most commonly sees overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, caused by pills taken recreationally and sold by dealers "all over" the area, he said.

That's what killed a close friend of Eli, a 30-year-old Crown Heights resident who spoke with DNAinfo using only his first name. The friend, who was 25 at the time of his death five years ago, used opioids from time to time, but "wasn't a drug addict," Eli said.

But one "bad-batch drug" caused an overdose and killed his friend, a trauma that left Eli "broken," he said — and wanting to increase awareness of the problem.

"It's happening way too much in our community," he said. "I felt it was important to let the parents and the community members know what's going on."

Last fall, he partnered with Operation Survival to lead an event educating Jewish families in the neighborhood about opioids and drug use. About 650 people attended, he said.

"Family members and parents of people in the community are slowly becoming more open to the realization that this is something that's real," he said.

But he also acknowledged there are still many "who are in denial" because either they're scared for an addicted relative or because "they don't want to believe that in their community, an Orthodox Jewish community like Crown Heights, it's such a problem."

"That's unfortunate because if people don't want to believe it or don't want to hear it, they're not going to become knowledgeable about it," he said.

To push the conversation, Operation Survival, founded in 1988 by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has made an effort to get their anti-drug message into the hands of locals — literally.

In honor of National Prevention Week, the group handed out shopping bags emblazoned with the words "Teach kids to refuse to use" all along Kingston Avenue last week, the main shopping district for the Lubavitch community.

And for more direct overdose prevention, Behrman has been training teachers, emergency response volunteers, parents and young people how to use naloxone, a drug administered by nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Charity whose rabbi sought to deregulate circumcisions sues city 

Charity whose rabbi sought to deregulate circumcisions sues city

A Williamsburg charity is suing the city for not getting a tax break in what insiders say is mayoral payback for its rabbi’s role in the circumcision controversy.

The city wrongfully revoked a property-tax exemption of a building owned by the United Jewish Organizations, the group claims in a lawsuit filed Friday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

City officials said they were open to revisiting the issue if UJO filed an appeal of the revocation. But insiders said the city’s move was a sign Mayor de Blasio is displeased with the group’s leader, Rabbi David Niederman, who has tussled with City Hall over the regulation of mohels who practice oral circumcision rites.

In the metzitzah b’peh ritual, the mohel sucks blood from the wound left by the cut foreskin. Several newborns have contracted herpes during the bris ritual.

De Blasio cut a deal with Hasidic leaders in 2015 that would allow the ritual to go on without a consent form as long as the community identified mohels spreading the infection. But the city has been unhappy with the level of cooperation.

“City Hall is pissed at Niederman for his circumcision shenanigans,” said one Jewish leader with ties to both City Hall and Niederman. “They’re not going to help him with any issues, such as the building’s property-tax exemption.”

UJO is converting a property at 500 Bedford Ave., which has been tax exempt since 2001, into a condo. The city said the building’s change in mission disqualified it from an exemption.

“The city never questioned UJO’s December application to renew the exemption before rejecting it in January,” the UJO argued in its filing.



Chabad synagogue vandalized - in Meah Shearim 

Congregants of the old Chabad shul in Meah Shearim were amazed to discover on Shabbat (Sabbath, Saturday) that vandals had broken into their synagogue.

The vandals destroyed the synagogue's walls, stole books and newsletters, and harmed anything they could get their hands on.

The vandalism was discovered when sexton Tzvi Hanon returned late on Friday night to lock the synagogue after everyone left and prepare it for the next morning.

However, when he arrived on Friday night, he discovered that various materials had been spread on the walls, books and newsletters had been taken, and the entire synagogue had been trashed.

Hanon's son Mendy said, "The Chabad synagogue in Meah Shearim is a lighthouse for thousands of Jews all over Jerusalem. Every Shabbat, people stream to this place, to be inspired by hasidic teachings, by the lectures we hold every day of the week."

"In the midst of our intensive preparations for the Shavuot holiday, we are witness to these difficult events. I am sure we will overcome it.

"Anyone who did these acts is invited to taste the hasidic teachings. I promise that after tastes it, he will not be able to leave."



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Swastikas painted on synagogue, rabbi’s headstone smashed in Ukraine 

Weathered Jewish gravestones above the tomb of Nathan, Rabbi Nachman‘s disciple, Bratslav, Ukraine, May 10, 2017. (Sue Surkve

Two swastikas were painted on the front door of a synagogue in western Ukraine and, in a separate incident, the headstone of a prominent rabbi’s grave was smashed.

The incident involving the swastikas was discovered last week in Chernivtsi, a city located some 250 miles southwest of Kiev, according to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The local community leaders reported the incident to police and removed the offensive symbols.

Last year, the words “death to the Jews” were spray-painted on the main synagogue of Chernivtsi. And earlier this month, a monument that was erected last year in memory of Holocaust victims was spray-painted with Nazi slogans and symbols.

Meanwhile, in the town of Storozhynets, which is located 12 miles southwest of Chernivtsi, the headstone was smashed last week at the resting place of Rabbi Yechiel Hager — a grandson of Menachem Mendel Hager, the 19th-century founder of the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty.

There are no suspects in either case.

The European Jewish Cemeteries Foundation announced Friday that it would rededicate four Jewish cemeteries in western Ukraine next week as part of its multi-phase mission to protect such sites.

“The first stage of course is the physical protection through demarcation and fencing, but the long-term protection requires the involvement of local people, most particularly in areas where there are no longer Jewish communities because of the Shoah,” the Germany-based foundation’s chief executive officer, Philip Carmel, wrote in a statement Friday.

His nonprofit foundation has fenced the cemeteries that are due to be rededicated with an initial budget of $1.35 million. It has fenced and protected some 70 burial sites across Eastern Europe in the past two years.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

New York City Report On Secular Education At Yeshivas Coming Soon 

New York City’s Department of Education is preparing an interim report on its ongoing investigation into secular education at Hasidic yeshivas in Brooklyn, to be released later this summer.

The report, the existence of which was first uncovered Thursday by the Daily News, comes years into an investigation spurred by complaints from the activist group YAFFED.

YAFFED alleges that Hasidic schools fail to meet state-mandated standards for secular education, and that elected officials knowingly allow them to get away with it.

Over the past year, officials with the DOE have visited a number of Hasidic yeshivas. In response to the probe, yeshivas have promised to improve aspects of the secular education they provide.

“We are encouraged by the work that is being done and will continue supporting schools to make improvements when necessary to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education,” DOE spokesperson Toya Holness said in a statement to the Forward.



Friday, May 19, 2017

A Jewish hipster haven in the heart of Chabad’s Brooklyn territory 

Manhattanville Coffee, opened two years ago, merges two of Crown Heights' communities: It's a chic artisanal cafe with strict kosher certification. (Ben Sales/JTA)

Soon after Nechama Levy moved to Brooklyn five years ago, she opened a bicycle repair shop. The spacious, high-ceilinged store was just down the street from a new pub with exposed brick walls.

Like many who have moved recently to the rapidly gentrifying borough, Levy, 33, was drawn to the area's relatively cheap rent — at least back then — plus its bicycling culture.

Levy also ensconced herself in one of Kings County's Jewish trends: a curated, artisanal type of liberal Judaism. Like much of brownstone Brooklyn, her neighborhood has a growing galaxy of independent prayer groups, or minyans — one of which Levy herself founded, the Brooklyn Women's Chavurah, a women-led service.

But what makes her growing Jewish community unique is that it's on the home turf of Chabad, perhaps the most visible Hasidic Orthodox group in the world.

Welcome to the new progressive Jewish community growing in Crown Heights.

Less than a half-mile away from Chabad Lubavitch's global headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway, is the local office of Repair the World, a progressive Jewish community service group. The Brooklyn Women's Chavurah has met there monthly for the past year. Now Levy is downscaling the group as a coed egalitarian service, Keter, that starts up in Crown Heights this week. Other liberal groups in the neighborhood include Kavod, a quasi-egalitarian Orthodox minyan, and Grindr Shabbat, an LGBT minyan named after the gay dating app.

"There's a very independent spirit here," Levy said about the neighborhood. "Not only were there a number of spaces that attracted very wonderful people, but there was an ethos of 'What do you have to offer, and what can you create?'"

Located in central Brooklyn, Crown Heights is a tranquil yet vibrant neighborhood lined with the borough's iconic brownstones. Home to large West Indian and African-American communities, Crown Heights has been Chabad's base since the group escaped Europe in 1940. According to the UJA-Federation of New York's 2011 study, some 24,000 Jews lived in the neighborhood — about a fifth of its residents — with residents saying the number has since risen.

The neighborhood is most infamously known for the 1991 riots in which black demonstrators attacked Jewish residents after a black child died when he was struck by a car in the motorcade of the Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. A visiting yeshiva student was killed and several people were injured.

Today the neighborhood might be better known for its rapid gentrification, following the path of nearby neighborhoods like Park Slope, where rents rose nearly 50 percent between 1990 and 2014, or Williamsburg, where the increase for that period was close to 80 percent, according to a study by New York University's Furman Center. The study put Crown Heights among the city's top 15 gentrifying neighborhoods.

'I think a lot of newcomers feel uneasy… that they're part of the wave of gentrification that's caused prices to rise'
Independent minyans are a reflection of the spirit that has made Brooklyn home to hipster trends like matcha cafes and organic food markets. Crown Heights is one of the latest frontiers in that process of gentrification, with rents rising and new yuppie arrivals moving into lower-income minority neighborhoods.

"The reality of Crown Heights today is that it's a vibrant, alive, Caribbean-American and African-American community," said Cindy Greenberg, Repair the World's New York City director, noting the neighborhood's "small-town feel." But at the same time, she said, "I think a lot of the newcomers feel uneasy about what it means to move into a predominantly African-American, Caribbean-American neighborhood and know that they're part of the wave of gentrification that's caused all these prices to rise."

Repair the World opened its Crown Heights office two years ago precisely to recruit young Jews to volunteer amid a lower-income population that could benefit from community service, Greenberg said. Since then, it has engaged in services like emergency food relief, help with food stamps and after school tutoring.

But along with hosting space for community advocacy groups, the organization's office has increasingly been a meeting place for the neighborhood's growing ecosystem of independent minyans. While Chabad is known for its outreach to non-Orthodox Jews, its approach to observance is traditionalist Orthodox. Independent minyans tend to emphasize progressive ideas like gender equality and LGBT rights.

Though there have been some hiccups along the way — some members of the Chabad community objected to a modern Orthodox synagogue erecting an eruv, a symbolically enclosed area that allows observant Jews to carry objects on Shabbat — the fracas has blown over. Both Chabadniks and the newer Jewish arrivals say their communities get along, even if they mostly operate apart.

"The community somehow becomes more cohesive, it becomes more accepting," said Dov Alpert, a co-founder of Kavod. "Here, everyone is trying to be more nice and friendly. That's the M.O. — trying to be nice."

Sometimes the two communities cooperate. Mordechai Lightstone, who runs Chabad's social media, invites independent minyan goers to his home for meals and, outside of his official Chabad role, sits on Repair the World's young leadership board.

'The intersectionality of Jewish identity has shifted. They no longer say I go to just this thing'
"When you speak of young Jews, the intersectionality of Jewish identity has shifted," Lightstone said. "They no longer say I go to just this thing. They'll go to Repair the World and do social justice stuff and then they express themselves Jewishly, but when they want a Shabbat meal they go to Ari Kirschenbaum or go to me."

Kirschenbaum heads Chabad Heights, a synagogue and community center serving Brownstone Brooklyn.

Ben Weiner, a fellow at Repair the World, welcomes the Chabad teenagers who come to his office on Fridays asking if he wants to put on tefillin. On a Friday before Passover, after laying the ritual leather straps on his arm, Weiner invited the teenagers to volunteer at a Repair the World event that educated local children — Jewish and non-Jewish — about the holiday. The teens agreed.

"Whenever I'm around, I like to have them wrap tefillin and engage the conversation to get a little view into what their community does and what they believe in," said Weiner, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. "I wasn't sure they would come. I was really happy they did, and were willing to give that additional perspective, knowing that different customs would be taught that day."

Young Jews who are new to Crown Heights say the neighborhood's diversity and open attitude makes them feel free to express themselves spiritually.

'There's no pressure around someone being too religious or someone not being religious'
"It was the first time I experienced a Jewish community that I felt a part of, that reflected my social justice values and religious values," said Malkah Nadoff, 27, a Chicago native who moved to Crown Heights in 2014. "One thing that stands out to me is that there are people with different levels of observance that share community and share space. There's no pressure around someone being too religious or someone not being religious."

Still, the newer communities are experiencing some growing pains. Residents recognize not all the minyans can survive. Levy, the bike shop owner, wonders how much the Women's Chavurah will stay active now that a new egalitarian Saturday morning service has popped up. Rising prices in Crown Heights, along with the transience of prayer groups without physical infrastructure, make the future of all the groups tenuous, said Avishai Gebler, one of Keter's organizers.

Plus, he said, while the young liberal Jewish community is active, it's not all that big. Most of the groups draw a few dozen people.

"We talk about the growth of the community — we're talking about 30 people — but it's growing," Gebler said. "As things grow, it does feel different. That's the nature of any startup effect. I do wonder about the sustainability of this community. It's expensive. What's the model? Is the model to have like lots of different minyanim, piecemeal?"

'We talk about the growth of the community — we're talking about 30 people — but it's growing'
The leadership of groups are in transition — Reform rabbinical student Matt Green, for example, who founded Grindr Shabbat, has shifted his focus to a new project: Brooklyn Jews, a service with musical instruments — prohibited in traditional Shabbat services — and non-kosher food.

"There are an extensive number of non-traditional Jews, secular Jews, Jews that appreciate a guitar on Shabbat," Green said of his Brooklyn Jews, which draws close to 100 people at some meetings.

Lightstone said the gentrification that's come along with the new arrivals has made conditions difficult for longstanding Crown Heights families. But he added that if the newcomers engage with existing residents, and get to know their cultures, they are welcome in the neighborhood.

"I don't think anyone is doing something wrong by moving here," he said. "If you're moving to Crown Heights and have a respect for people here before you, and you have the history they have, as long as you do that, you're doing the best you can."


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mayor to Consider Expanding Contentious Women-Only Hours at Met Pool 

The mayor promised Tuesday night to reconsider the reduced hours dedicated to the contentious women-only swim at the Metropolitan Recreation Center, after nearly a year of refusing to budge on the issue.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't commit to expanding the women-only hours, he said at a town hall meeting that he would review whether the pool was not being used during the hours taken away from the women only last July.

"I've not gotten a report on what the usage of the pool has been," he said. "We should look at what's happening day by day and give that due consideration."

The issue was brought up at a Borough Park town hall by Williamsburg swimmer Esther Weiss, 51, who insisted that the Metropolitan Recreation Center's pool is empty during four hours that were siphoned off from the women's eight hours at the pool.

"Instead of 70 to 100 women on a Monday morning, there are seven people swimming," she said. "The pool is literally empty because they took it away for the women's swim."

"We love it. We need it back," she said.

Since last July, Weiss and other women who use the Metropolitan Pool, most of whom are the neighborhoods Hasidic women who don't swim with men because they adhere to strict rules of modesty, have been meeting with elected officials and organizing to try to get their eight hours at the pool restored as well as additional hours they say they deserve.

But for months, their cries have fallen on the deaf ears of the Parks Department, which has refused to budge on the issue.

Leading up to the Parks Department cutting the women hours back, the Human Rights Commission had been looking into whether the all-women swim violated the city's Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender.

The commission ultimately struck a bargain with the Parks Department allowing women-only swim to be an exemption to the law.

However, the Parks Department decided to cut the hours in half anyway, after public pressure from secular swimmers who argued the Hasidic women were getting special treatment at the pool and civil rights watchdog groups like the NYCLU who argued a religious group shouldn't get to dictate how public space is used.

The swimmers countered that the hours served religious and non-religious women alike.

The issue sparked nation-wide debate about how public facilities are used.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rabbi fired as chaplain from Brooklyn lockup sues federal prison system, ex-bosses over religious discrimination claims 

A former Jewish chaplain working in a Brooklyn federal prison said his bosses discriminated against him — and ultimately fired him — for his religion.

Rabbi Naftali Ausch, a certified chaplain and Hasidic rabbi in Williamsburg, is now suing the federal prison system and his former bosses who, he says, subjected him to the discrimination, a hostile workplace and retaliation when he complained.

Ausch started as a chaplain in the Metropolitan Detention Center in July 2009 and said he did well by the inmates he counseled. Prisoners of all faiths talked with him at the Sunset Park facility and he enjoyed the work.

“People felt comfortable with me,” Ausch, 64, told the Daily News on Tuesday. But problems started for him around fall 2012, when the Rev. David Barry became Ausch’s supervisor.

Ausch had a Monday-to-Friday schedule, which let him attend morning prayers and make it home at the end of the work week for Shabbat.

But that became a hassle.

Barry, a Jesuit priest, “always gave Rabbi Ausch a difficult time about accommodating his religion,” said the lawsuit filed Monday in Brooklyn federal court.

In December 2012, Ausch told Barry about volunteers for the upcoming holiday of Purim, which fell that year on a Sunday. Ausch said he didn’t work on Sundays, but Barry allegedly lost his temper and vowed to “fix that.” Two days later, Barry put Ausch on a Sunday-to-Thursday schedule.

“I’m sure your God will forgive you. He is a forgiving God,” Barry said, according to Ausch’s lawsuit.

The new schedule began earlier in the day, which interfered with Ausch’s morning prayers. When the rabbi didn’t show up the Sunday of Purim, he was disciplined and docked pay. Ausch’s suit said Barry “often made derogatory remarks to the Jewish inmates and other chaplains in front of Rabbi Ausch, and when Rabbi Ausch was not present. These comments were perceived by Ausch, as well as his fellow chaplains, to be anti-Semitic.”

The rabbi filed complaints with the Bureau of Prisons, which he said only led to further scrutiny from Barry, and then another supervisor, after Barry retired around September 2014.

Ausch was fired in October 2015 for bringing in tefillin, a prayer accessory that prison authorities claimed was contraband. When he heard about his termination, Ausch said he was “shocked to death” and cried as he went home to his wife.

Barry could not be immediately reached for comment. The Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fire Guts Landmark Lower East Side Synagogue 


The New York Fire Department is investigating a three-alarm blaze that on Sunday gutted Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street, a landmark Lower East Side synagogue.

Three people were seen on a surveillance video running from the building, which had been abandoned for a decade, according to reports. But a FDNY spokesman said this week that the "investigation is in the early stages" and it was too early to speculate if the fire was caused by arson or could be classified as a hate crime.

Teenagers had been seen trespassing on the site in recent weeks, according to published reports.

"There is no indication" whether the fire was set intentionally or was an accident, David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, told The Jewish Week. "The question is how it became a three-alarm fire so quickly."

The building's roof collapsed during the fire, and most of the interior was destroyed.

The fire likely ended the possibility that the 167-year-old synagogue, among the last surviving physical symbols of the once-heavily Jewish neighborhood, will be able to complete a deal with the neighborhood's Chinese-American Planning Council to fund renovations of the building, sell the air rights and establish a Jewish-Chinese community center on the property.

The building was empty when the fire broke out. Two firefighters sustained minor injuries injured while fighting the blaze, an FDNY spokesman said.

The Gothic-style building, built in 1850 as a Baptist church, was closed in 2007 after synagogue leaders determined that they did not have the $3-$4 million needed to repair the building, which was declared a city landmark in 1967 and an endangered historic site in 2003.

The synagogue earned renown, starting in 1952, when Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor who became active in the Shoah remembrance movement, became its spiritual leader. The rabbi, whose interpretations of religious law helped sustain Lithuanian Jews during Nazi occupation and were buried in tin cans for retrieval and publication after the Holocaust, served until his death in 2003.

Rabbi Oshry headed an association of rabbis who were concentration camp survivors, and often expressed his views on issues related to the Holocaust. He opposed the normalization of relations between Jews and Germans.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Mom watches 10th child get married on Mother’s Day 

Inline image

It was one Mother's Day gift that his nine siblings couldn't top.

A Brooklyn mom joyously watched Sunday as the last of her 10 children got married — at the Crossroads of the World, no less.

"Even if I had all the money in the world, the best gift I could give my mother would be to get married," 23-year-old groom J.J. Hecht II admitted to The Post.

Hecht tied the knot with his bride, Hadassa Halperin, as 200 guests and untold tourists witnessed the traditional Hasidic ceremony complete with a Klezmer band, dancing and scores of children.

His mother, Baila Hecht, said she had been hoping her adventurous son would settle down for years and called the event a true "gift.

"You get more enthusiastic every [wedding] because you're more relaxed about it," the 62-year-old matriarch explained. "You don't worry about every detail, every flower. It doesn't matter so much anymore.

"It's just the thrill of seeing them grow up and move on to their own lives."

The jubilant mother inadvertently wrapped the gift herself, when she discussed her son's lack of a bride with a friend at the city's annual menorah lighting in Midtown in December.

Baila's friend knew a matchmaker, who put the Crown Heights man and the Toronto woman in touch, lighting a different sort of flame.

The couple's union marked the merging of two prominent Jewish families.

Halperin, 20, is a descendant of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Hecht comes from one of the most well-known rabbinical families in the world.

"On Mother's Day, it's extra special,'' Halperin said. "Marriage is not only about being a wife but about becoming a mother."

Baila Hecht said Sunday's venue was an additional "thrill'' because it had long been "a dream" of her husband, the prominent Rabbi Shea Hecht, to have a ceremony in Times Square. Shea Hecht officiated the marriage.


Inside the Plot to Kill a Religious Woman’s Husband So She Could Get a Divorce 

Joe Levin told the rabbi that the man he'd kidnapped was "half dead already."

Levin was talking about Joseph Masri, a Hasidic man who refused to give his wife a religious divorce. Rabbi Aharon Goldberg, who specialized in such cases in Israel, had been in contact with him about the situation. That day, they said they were going to "do the bullet"—kill Masri—but that alone wouldn't be enough. Goldberg said he would need proof of death so he could testify before a rabbinic court that the husband was deceased and the marriage was over.

The third man at the meeting, Shimen Liebowitz, was anxious.

"So there's going to be a video and you are going to give it around to the world or what?" Liebowitz asked Goldberg. "Are you prepared that if the government knocks on the Rabbi's home he will say that Aharon Goldberg is the witness?

"You don't grasp what is going to happen here," he added, ignoring Goldberg's plaintive pleas that the situation will "calm down." The body had to be found, they discussed, so that DNA could be used to identify it. Levin even suggested they'd have to lead police to the body.
He promised Goldberg a video of the victim with a bullet in his head.

Then the FBI burst in.

Esther Masri married Joseph in a religious ceremony, with a contract saying the marriage was bound by the Satmar Hasidic sect's interpretation of Jewish law. She'd met him once, for about 20 minutes, before she consented to the marriage.

"What did I know? I was an 18-year-old child. I didn't know what people are," Esther told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. "He had two hands, two feet, he had a mouth. I didn't know what to look for."

The relationship was rocky from the start. Esther says she blamed herself, and tried to fix it. Things got harder when they had their first child, born premature and with serious disabilities. A second, healthy, son was born soon after, but the marriage didn't improve.

"I didn't have communication with him. It's not like the communication was bad, I didn't have any communication at all," Esther said. "And I said that's it, if I'm not going to do it for myself, I'm going to do it for my kids."

It was 2007 and she wanted a divorce.

Ten years later, she's still waiting.

Masri has refused to give her a "get," a religious divorce that will allow her to remarry in the Orthodox community and move on with her life. The impasse has left Esther, a 34-year-old teacher's aide, to support herself and her younger child; The older one has disabilities, and lives in a taxpayer-funded institution, according to court papers. Without the get, she cannot remarry in a community that centers on family. In fact, Rabbi Jeremy Stern of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot told The Daily Beast that he considers get refusal itself as a form of spousal abuse.

Religious divorces in the ultra-Orthodox corners of Brooklyn, New Jersey, and upstate New York are litigated by rabbinic courts. Modern Orthodox couples may get "halachic prenups" that bind the couple to arbitration before a rabbinic court in the case of a dispute. Those are too innovative for Esther's "frum, frum, frum" community, she said, using the Yiddish word for "devout." Yet everyone still tried to pressure Masri into letting her go.

"The get itself does not take too long. And it goes by appointment, and rabbis, rabbinical courts do this all day every day," she explained. "It's not like you have to bring down the moon."

But Masri refused to appear before the court, which issued a seruv, or contempt order, against him. The community plastered the order all over Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel.

Esther's appeal to the secular court in 2016, then, was twofold: First, she asked for a secular judgment of divorce and got it. Then, she asked that the court to make Masri pay her $2,000 in spousal support, every month, until he grants her an acceptable religious divorce. It was her third time pursuing a civil solution.

Orange County Supreme Court Catherine M. Bartlett was sympathetic to her plight, but said her hands were by the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Unlike other spouses, Masri didn't seem to be withholding a divorce for the "advantage" of lower support payments. Rather, while it was unfortunate that Esther needed his consent for a get, Bartlett said "the unfairness comes from [the wife's] own sincerely-held religious beliefs," as a court in a similar case found.

Bartlett did dismiss Masri's claim that he makes a paltry $3,813 a year and ordered him to pay more than $1,600 in monthly spousal and child support payments. Esther's family was supportive. A brother drove her to court each time.

"I believe in God that the day will come soon, that [Masri]'s gonna, for himself, he's gonna want to be out of this," she said. "He's gonna want to feel free."
She still doesn't have her get. But four months before that judgement, three men were arrested for trying to solve her problem.

In July 2016, an Israeli rabbi met with a private investigator specializing in Orthodox communities. Aharon Goldberg is a well-regarded mediator in get refusal cases in Israel, a community member told The Daily Beast. In New York, he told the private investigator, who uses the pseudonym Joe Levin professionally, that he needed help getting Masri to grant Esther a get.

"I have people in Israel, here, I don't have any soldiers," Goldberg told Levin. "I don't have soldiers here, I don't have. Here one has to work with an investigator," Goldberg said, who could follow a target. "When he wakes up, when he leaves."

It's unclear how Goldberg got involved in Esther's problem, but last July he discussed ways to free her from her predicament. All of the dialogue about the alleged murder plot comes from court filings by both the defense and prosecution.

"The Talmud says there are two ways" to free a wife whose husband won't divorce her, Goldberg told Levin.
"Yes, I know," Levin replied.

"So I am going for this and for this too," Goldberg replied. "You understand?"

Prosecutors say Goldberg was referring to forcing Masri to sign a get, or killing him. Goldberg's lawyer counters that the rabbi would never suggest that murder is permissible in their faith.

But getting to Masri, who lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his parents, was another challenge. Goldberg and Levin discussed approaching Masri during his religious sect's annual ritual pilgrimage to Ukraine. Another possibility was enticing him to go to Mexico with a young woman.

"There are solutions also in the [United] States. You rent a house in Pennsylvania […] he gets put into a closed cage, the kind that you put a dog in, two months," Levin said. "He gets dog food, you know what a dog does—at the end—he barks."

A quicker option floated by the men involved setting Masri up for a sexual assault by having a woman accuse him in the taxi they believed he drove.
"I would prefer a girl from Israel or a girl from a foreign country," Levin said. "Why? The investigation here is very tough, when you come here with a claim, the DA sits with you and examines you, and you need to be very tough and strong that everything is true talk."

But having a tourist allege the assault would clear up many later challenges.

"If you bring a tourist from Israel with a taxi—she just happened to be in Williamsburg and she stopped a taxi, she doesn't know English well and she doesn't understand anything," Levin said. "They bring her a translator, they bring her whatever, after that she flies back to Israel and he is stuck here with charges."

"If he wants to give a get, I'll convince the girl to drop the charges," Goldberg said.

Prosecutors say this plot was hatched despite a high-profile prosecution of a New Jersey rabbi for another plot to coerce religious divorces from recalcitrant husbands. Rabbi Mendel Epstein was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December 2015, for techniques that included kidnapping and shocking reluctant husbands with cattle prods.

Levin recalled that prosecution and distinguished the methods he would use on Masri.

"There is no problem with making money," he said while criticizing Epstein. "There are also many women that paid him and he didn't do anything for them, the money blinded him completely, that was the problem with Epstein. And that's why he fell."

And Masri was apparently feeling the heat from the community. Another alleged co-conspirator said that posters had popped up around the neighborhood about him, and a friend of Masri's came to tear them down. When Masri came to the scene, the crowd turned on him.

When Masri arrived, "there were already a few people on the street that started screaming: Give a get! Give a get!" Liebowitz said. "So he ran back to his car and shut his windows."

Such actions even made him too scared to continue driving a taxi service, according to Leibowitz. But he reported that Masri lived with his father's family in a top-floor apartment on the outer edge of Hasidic Williamsburg, which Levin interpreted as a possible complication to getting a get.

"That is not good," Levin said. "If one day he doesn't come home—the people at home know about it."
"I am not so sure his father is going to rush to call," Liebowitz countered.

The operation wouldn't be simple. Levin told the men he charges $250 an hour, and any operation would need 100 hours of surveillance to start. Chartering a private flight to kidnap Masri to Israel, or "a small house with two guys" in the U.S. to hold him hostage, would be extra.

"We still have to sit on him. I have to know what the guy is doing, and how he's doing it, how he's driving, everything in his life. We are building a profile on the person," Levin told the men. "That's the way I—that's the way the FBI works. That's the way everyone in this field works."

But Masri was never in any danger from Levin. Levin knew how the FBI worked because he was working for them as a confidential source, recording the meetings.

Goldberg and Liebowitz were arrested on Sept. 6 and charged with conspiracy to commit murder for hire and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. A third man, Binyamin Gottlieb, was arrested shortly after for introducing Goldberg and Levin, and allegedly participating in the kidnapping conspiracy.

Prosecutors credit Levin, who'd worked with law enforcement previously, with helping to stop a dangerous plot. But Goldberg and Liebowitz's attorneys now say the defendants were tricked into the most damning conversations.

The defense attorneys argued that their clients should be released on bail, and that they were too poor to pose a flight risk. Prosecutors countered that the men must be closely held in federal lockup because the extensive resources of the tight-knit community make them a virtually unprecedented flight risk.
The government "basically stood here and suggested that the entire community of Kiryas Joel are criminal," responded Susan Necheles, Liebowitz's attorney, according to court transcripts. "There's nowhere that someone who likes like this and who needs to live in a community like this, can flee nowadays and they know it."

Attorneys for Gottlieb, the initial connector who was arrested later, argued that he was peripheral to any plot and wasn't present at some of the most damning meetings. He was the only one of the men to be approved for $2.5 million bond, after an extensive back-and-forth.

But the controversy didn't die down with the arrests.

The case still percolates in the Hasidic enclaves of Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel. Someone set up a Facebook page in Masri's name with a goofy picture of the man, and a message in English and Yiddish: "I will not give my wife a get." (The Daily Beast was unable to track down the creator of the page, and Masri declined to comment.)

In court filings submitted by defense attorneys and first reported by The Daily Beast, defense attorneys also accuse prosecutors of inadequately providing them with all recordings of conversations. They say they're missing key early conversations that may have "exculpatory" evidence and shed light on how Levin and Goldberg were first introduced, and what Levin knew about him. Goldberg says he was led into talk of kidnapping and murder by Levin.

Available evidence "leads to the undeniable conclusion that someone had a conversation(s) with [Levin]" before he met with Goldberg, the rabbi's attorney, Robert Stahl, charged. "Did [Levin] and the person setting up the meeting agree to steer the conversation in a certain way, to set up Rabbi Goldberg and others in an illegal scenario?"

The recorded conversations were part of "the defendants' unsavory," though not illegal, "efforts to compile incriminating or embarrassing evidence about the husband's sexual or financial misdeeds," Goldberg's attorney argued in court filings. The other options, he said, were first suggested not by Goldberg, but the man he was consulting with.

The attorney for Liebowitz, a 25-year-old with an infant child, asked for recordings of calls between Levin and FBI agents to be provided to the defense, and also sought to discredit the government's source in court filings.

"In artfully crafted language, the Government in this case represents that [the source] has not 'historically' received compensation from the Government. This language implies that he might expect compensation in the future for his cooperation," Nechelles wrote. (Prosecutors said at a hearing last week that they would find out and let defense attorneys know if a one-time payment was to be made. Levin's attorney denied any compensation.)

Nechelles also mocked the idea that Levin was cooperating with the government as a "concerned member of the Jewish community," instead suggesting that he was motivated by an antipathy toward Goldberg's Satmar Hasidic sect.

"Finally, the Government represented that [Levin] has 'not requested assistance with any criminal charges,' although it acknowledges that [he] has at least one criminal conviction," Necheles added. "This language leaves it unclear whether [he] has received any assistance with criminal charges, or whether his assistance has helped him avoid criminal charges in the first place."

Reached by phone, Levin stopped responding to The Daily Beast when asked about this case.

Levin's attorney, Brian Condon, told The Daily Beast that his client does not harbor ill will toward the Satmar community. He also denied that Levin was receiving help from law enforcement, and said he could not comment on Levin's work on the Goldberg case because of its ongoing nature. (A trial date is set for October.)

Supporters of the jailed men, meanwhile, have gone after Levin. They set up a website revealing his real name—also listed in court filings by the defense—and criminal record. They accuse him of working as an unlicensed private investigator, and numerous other allegations.

His lawyer told The Daily Beast that Levin is technically a consultant, and not a private investigator, so he doesn't need a license. And the other charges on the websites, which have since been removed, are libelous, he said.

If anyone releases that information again, "I have been authorized to bring appropriate legal action," Condon wrote.

But before he hung up, Levin chuckled about the website set up to take him down.

"And then… that disappeared," he said.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Jewish Man Attacked With Ax in Ukraine 

A 26-year-old Jewish man was attacked by an ax-wielding neighbor earlier in the day in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro (formerly Dnepropetrovsk). The young man was badly injured and rushed to the hospital, where he underwent surgery.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the chief rabbi and head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary of the city, told Chabad.org that the operation was successful, and that the young man’s status remains “serious, but stable.”

Multiple sources in Dnipro are describing the Ukrainian attacker as someone with a violent past and a history of mental-health issues.

The victim, a father of young children and an active member of Dnipro’s Jewish community, had knocked on the attacker’s door to speak with him. The attacker opened his apartment door holding an ax and struck the man, badly injuring his foot. At this time, the incident is not believed to have been driven by anti-Semitism.

A team of doctors in Israel has been in touch with doctors in Ukraine regarding the incident. Sources say the operation saved the victim’s foot.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hasidic real-estate frenzy in South Blooming Grove since early last year 

It didn’t take Jeff and Elizabeth Baum long to find a buyer for their house once they decided it was time to leave Worley Heights.

One by one, a cascade of neighbors already had made the same decision, selling their homes to eager Hasidic couples and investors from nearby Kiryas Joel or Brooklyn in the midst of a real-estate frenzy. Interest was so feverish that about 25 prospective buyers streamed through the Baums’ four-bedroom bi-level once they put it on the market. And in just four days, they had accepted an offer for the house they had lived in for 28 years.

They have since moved to Cornwall-on-Hudson, about 13 miles away. “I would have loved to have stayed there,” said Jeff Baum, a retired New York City police officer. “This upset our plans in life. I’m a senior citizen. I wanted to age in place, but you can’t do that in Blooming Grove at this time.”

A steady turnover began in the Village of South Blooming Grove early last year. Since the home-sale closings began to accumulate in March of 2016, at least 170 homes – 15 percent of the village’s entire housing stock – have changed hands, judging from the sale records that buyers so far have filed with the Orange County Clerk’s Office. Virtually all of the buyers were from Kiryas Joel, Brooklyn or other largely Hasidic and Orthodox communities such as Monsey and Lakewood, N.J.

The same phenomenon has occurred, to a lesser degree, in other neighborhoods in Monroe and Woodbury, as more couples from the fast-growing Hasidic community look outside the congested and largely built-up confines of Kiryas Joel for housing, especially those seeking a more suburban lifestyle in which to raise their families. The demand for homes never lets up. And with efforts to expand Kiryas Joel tied up in litigation, and plans for new subdivisions in Monroe frozen for the past year by a building moratorium, buyers have focused largely on existing homes in the towns surrounding Kiryas Joel.

South Blooming Grove is a notable example both because of the high volume of homes that have been sold and the potential for a future political shift. Large in size and low in population, the village has about 3,200 people living in five square miles, an area roughly five times the size of Kiryas Joel – which has at least 23,000 residents and pending plans for hundreds of additional homes. Though political control may be the last thing that families buying homes in South Blooming Grove have in mind, the steady influx of Hasidim suggests the newcomers eventually will gain enough voting clout to decide the outcome of elections for mayor and village trustees.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Sharp rise in home-schooling for Montreal Hasidic children 

Home-schooling is on the rise within Montreal's Hasidic community.

The number of Hasidic children in Montreal being educated at home has jumped dramatically over the past two years, following a crackdown by the Quebec government on ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.

There are currently 705 Hasidic children registered to be supervised by the English Montreal School Board. That is a threefold increase since 2015, said Angela Mancini, the school board's chair.

"When you're at 705 children, that's a school," Mancini told Radio-Canada. "That's like a small school."

The increase comes as Quebec education officials have been attempting to better regulate the schooling of Hasidic children, due to concerns that many attend schools that don't follow the provincial curriculum.

Last summer, a school in the Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie borough was raided by youth protection workers, escorted by police.

As part of the crackdown, the government has encouraged parents in the Hasidic community to sign home-schooling contracts with school boards. 

The demand for such contracts has proven so great that the EMSB has had to hire additional staff. In addition, the school board will start administering French, English and math exams to home-school students.

"These are children who haven't written exams in the past. They don't have the same path as the students in our schools," Mancini said. 

"The goal of the exams is really to ensure that the children have all the capacities, all the possibilities to succeed — to not put them in a failing situation."

Only certain students, at first, will write exams, but eventually all of them will, Mancini added. The long-term goal is to have the students write province-wide ministerial exams as well.

Many of the Hasidic children enrolled in home-schooling programs still attend private Orthodox schools, where they receive religious instruction. At home, they are taught standard subject matter. 

At least one religious school, Yeshiva Toras Moshe Academy, has said it will help prepare its students for the school board exams. 

"We obviously want to help them prepare," Jacob Maman, who heads the school's support services. "This is something different from what they've experienced in the past."


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Rabbi apologises for popular video of Pope Francis dancing with Hasidic Jews 

A popular video of Pope Francis dancing with a group of Hasidic Jews at the Vatican has drawn criticism from some Orthodox Jews and 'deep regret' from one who took part.

The video of the Pope swaying while an audience of Hasidic Jews jovially serenaded him with music and dancing was shared widely online this week.

The video drew criticism and debate from some Jewish groups however, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbi Dovber Pinson, dean of the Iyyun Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY, who attended the papal audience, apologised in a letter to students and friends. He said the video was 'unfortunately clouding the important mission I was there to accomplish'.

Pinson added that the festivity began 'spontaneously without my foreknowledge or consent' and he didn't wish to cause embarrassment by cutting it off abruptly.

'It is my deep regret that this video was released at all, (which was accidental) and that the visit was portrayed in such a way,' he wrote.

It was suggested that the psalm sung (Psalm 91) could have been seen as adoration directed at the Pope. The psalm proclaims: 'With long life I will satisfy him and I will show him my salvation.'

Others thought the large cross worn by the Pope meant the Jewish audience could be seen as associating with idol worship. For others, the practice of music and singing during the period of mourning preceding the minor festival of Lag b'Omer on Sunday was inappropriate.

During the 45-minute meeting on Monday the Pope discussed issues including the protection of Jewish cemeteries in Europe and the fight against child sex abuse.


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