Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Mazel Tov: Brooklyn District Attorney candidate Ken Thompson scores endorsement from Assemblyman Dov Hikind
Brooklyn District Attorney candidate Ken Thompson is good for the Jews — at least according to Orthodox power broker, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who endorsed Thompson Tuesday in Borough Park.
"It's time for a change," Hikind said referring to incumbent District Attorney Charles Hynes' six terms in office. "As a prosecutor and attorney in private practice, Ken has a proven track record of fighting for one standard of justice."
The reference to one standard was intentional. Hynes was long criticized for pacifying a key voting bloc by ignoring sex crimes in the Hasidic community. But more recently, Hynes has been accused of being too aggressive with Jewish pervs, such as Satmar counselor Nechemya Weberman, who was sentenced to 103 years in February for abusing a Williamsburg girl.
Brooklyn's Orthodox Jews are known to vote en masse and are often courted by a bevy of political hopefuls during election season.
The endorsement came despite a revelation that Thompson, a former federal prosecutor, failed to file his personal financial information with the Conflict of Interest Board.
The oversight could cost Thompson a fine of up to $10,000 — and prompted a spokesman for Hynes to blast Thompson's "hypocrisy."
"While Thompson seeks the top law enforcement office in Brooklyn, he does not feel like the law applies to him. What is he hiding? What doesn't he want the public to know?" said Hynes' campaign spokesman, George Arzt.
Thompson's spokesman, James Freedland, said the forms were merely sent in late — though he refused to make them available to the Daily News.
"If District Attorney Hynes spent less time obsessing over other candidates paperwork and more about delivering justice to victims, his office's reputation wouldn't be tarnished," Freedland said.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
One Rabbi's Uphill Battle Against Sexual Abuse
I first met Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz in a hotel lobby three years ago. He overheard me talking about my Muslim faith and the charity work I do and randomly approached me. We've been friends ever since.
Last year, when I was forced to come out as gay, I surprisingly found my friendship with this ultra-orthodox conservative Hasidic Rabbi strengthened. The rabbi showed me greater empathy, understanding, and compassion about why I accepted my sexuality and why I had to come out publicly than even my own family.
More recently, partly in response to recent national media attention on the matter, Rabbi Berkowitz has become extremely vocal about addressing suspicions and concerns of sexual and other forms of abuse within the Hasidic Jewish community.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Berkowitz, this will be an uphill battle. I know this first hand after I was confronted with evidence that my boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) watched and possessed child pornography, had sexual fantasies involving children, and had relations with at least one minor as an adult.
As a gay Muslim, the journey I undertook to address these concerns taught me lessons which are surprisingly applicable to the Hasidic Jewish community:
1) Fear of Community Alienation
When Sam Kellner came forward about allegations of sexual abuse within the Hasidic community, he was shunned. For those part of a tight-knit community, being shunned means exile from one's entire support network.
Such fears are by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community. As a gay Muslim, instead of family, I relied on tight-knit LGBT communities (such as gaymers and gaybros) for support. In taking steps to report my concerns about someone I loved from within the gaymer and gaybros community, I feared alienation.
2) The Hope That They Can Change
Given the fear of alienation, it is no surprise that some may try to address concerns of sexual abuse through venues outside of law enforcement. This, perhaps, might explain the motivation behind Sam Kellner and the extortion charges he now faces.
For me, when I started to have concerns about my (then) boyfriend, I falsely believed I could address them by being a loving, loyal, and dedicated boyfriend. I had hoped that a mature and affectionate relationship could change him.
3) Fear Of Victim Blaming
Rabbi Berkowitz's main focus has been to promote the training of children within the Hasidic community to recognize and report instances of inappropriate sexual contact. This is important because, often times, victims can be made to feel that they are the ones to blame. And, unfortunately, religion compounds this.
I experienced this first hand as I came out not just as gay but as a victim of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. After coming out, my father's first comment to me was that the abuse I received was an inevitable consequence because I choose to "pursue the homosexual lifestyle."
Ultimately these issues of reporting concerns of sexual abuse, and the hurdles Rabbi Berkowitz's faces in championing this cause, has very little to do with Judaism, Rabbis, or Hasidism. Rather, these are challenges that any values and identity driven tight-knit community will inevitably face.
And, as the New York Hasidic community faces increasing criticism in the wake of this scandal, this gay Muslim in Bangladesh hopes others show the Hasidic Community the same compassion, empathy, and understanding that one ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi once showed me.
Raising Questions of Professional Conduct as Brooklyn’s Prosecutor Pursues Votes
In search of love and votes, Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, cannot seem to stop tripping over himself.
Last week, he went on a television and radio show for the Orthodox Jewish community and denounced Sam Kellner. Bearded and intense, a bubbling fountain of words, Mr. Kellner is one of the rare few in the Hasidic community who spoke publicly about the plague of child sexual abuse. He helped the district attorney build cases against prominent Hasidic leaders, including a man accused of molesting Mr. Kellner's own 16-year-old son.
Or at least Mr. Kellner spoke until Brooklyn prosecutors turned around two years ago and charged him with trying to extort his son's accused abuser, the Satmar cantor Baruch Lebovits.
The weakness of the case against Mr. Kellner is difficult to overstate. On Monday in State Supreme Court, Mr. Hynes's prosecutors pleaded for more time to reinvestigate their rapidly disintegrating case.
None of which appeared to have given pause to Mr. Hynes. "I believe there was a substantial effort by Mr. Kellner to gain money by making up stories," he told the host of the program, Zev Brenner, last week. "I think we have a substantial case."
It appears Mr. Hynes, who often emphasizes the management experience he has accumulated over many decades, has violated the state's rules of professional conduct, which prohibit prosecutors from offering "any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of a suspect" in a criminal matter.
"That's an expression of his opinion of Kellner's guilt, and he can't say that," said Prof. Stephen Gillers of New York University, one of the nation's leading legal ethicists. "Hynes may have tried to stop short, but he didn't stop short enough."
The case against Mr. Kellner comes with curious aspect piled upon curious aspect.
Mr. Lebovits's lawyers pounced upon the indictment of Mr. Kellner. They pointed to it, and to legal technicalities, and persuaded a state appeals court to overturn their client's conviction.
The two lawyers for Mr. Lebovits — Arthur L. Aidala and Alan M. Dershowitz — make a formidable and intriguing pair. A respected trial lawyer, Mr. Aidala is a former Brooklyn prosecutor and a former campaign manager for Mr. Hynes. He is the registered agent for the Charles Hynes Association. Mr. Aidala, his family, and his legal firm contributed $5,100 to the district attorney last year.
Mr. Dershowitz, meanwhile, rendered his own service to Mr. Hynes. Earlier this year, Pro Publica, a respected investigative news Web site, published a critical account of Michael F. Vecchione, a close friend of Mr. Hynes and chief of the district attorney's rackets bureau. The news site's account detailed "a staggering array of misconduct" by Mr. Vecchione as he led the prosecution of a young black man, Jabbar Collins, in the killing of an Orthodox Jew. After 15 years in prison, a court overturned Mr. Collins's conviction; he is now suing the Brooklyn district attorney's office and Mr. Vecchione.
Mr. Dershowitz and the defense lawyer Benjamin Brafman wrote a public letter to Pro Publica, arguing that its account relied on "unproved claims made in an adversarial complaint" and that this was "wrong and defamatory."
As it happens, Mr. Vecchione is the man who made the decision to try Mr. Kellner. As it also happens, Mr. Vecchione's credibility took a seismic hit last month when he gave a deposition in the lawsuit brought by Mr. Collins.
Mr. Vecchione is a proud and confident fellow. As recently as 2006, he declared in a court affidavit that "I and I alone determined the course of our investigation." He insisted, "I still have a clear recollection of it."
Under questioning by Mr. Collins's lawyer last month, Mr. Vecchione suffered rapid memory loss. Asked why his signature appeared to be forged on key documents, and asked about all manner of irregularities, Mr. Vecchione took rhetorical refuge in a forest of iterations of "I don't recall."
He says these words over 300 times.
This is an election year, and you can't begrudge politicians searching where they must for votes. The Orthodox community votes in great blocs, and they have been good to Mr. Hynes.
But as I sat on a bench in State Supreme Court on Monday and spoke to Mr. Kellner, and he spoke of his life since the indictment, you wonder about the choices made by Brooklyn prosecutors. "To be screamed at in the street, people say, 'You're an informer.' " He shakes his head. "Trust me, it ain't easy."
Monday, July 29, 2013
Missing 10-year-old special needs boy found safe in Kiryas Joel
State police and Kiryas Joel emergency officers found a 10-year-old special needs Brooklyn boy who went missing for some 15 hours.
Shimon Zorger went missing near Lizensk Boulevard, a densely populated cul de sac off Schunnemunk Road around 6 p.m., said a Kiryas Joel public safety officer.
Police say the boy seems to be in good health.
The boy was found about 9:15 Monday morning at the Byoel Moshe girls school on Forest Road, not far from where he was last seen.
The boy, who has Down syndrome, has a tendency to hide, a Kiryas Joel officer said.
He had been visitng his grandparents in Kiryas Joel.
Residents and emergency responders had beeen going through the region helping to search the nearby area and woods.
State police search dogs and rescue boats had been called in to help in the search. Initial reports have the search boats going to Shadow Lake and Lebanon Lake.
10-year-old special needs boy still missing in Kiryas Joel, emergency responders say
State police and Kiryas Joel emergency officers searched Sunday night for a 10-year-old special needs boy who went missing.
Shimon Zorger went missing near Lizensk Boulevard, a densely populated cul de sac off Schunnemunk Road around 6 p.m., said a Kiryas Joel public safety officer.
The boy, who has down syndrome, has a tendency to hide, the Kiryas Joel officer said. Kiryas Joel residents and emergency responders helping to search the nearby area and woods.
Responders didn't believe the boy to be hurt, the Kiryas Joel officer said.
State police search dogs and rescue boats had been called in to help in the search. Initial reports have the search boats going to Shadow Lake and Lebanon Lake.
As of 6 a.m. , the boy had still not been found, officials said.
Mom-and-Pop Hasidic Businesses Get Big Boost From Small Financing
Lazer Chaim Zinger washes talleisim. His small storefront on Lee Avenue, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, looks like any dry cleaner, with a row of tagged plastic-sheathed garments hanging behind the counter. In this Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, however, you have to take your long black coat somewhere else.
For $100, Zinger will hand-wash your tallis and shine its atara, the fringe of sterling studs stitched around the neck of the prayer shawl. Until last year, the father of seven ran his business from his apartment. That changed in June 2012, when Zinger opened his shop with a $25,000 interest-free loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Society.
HFLS is not part of the Hasidic community. Yet as poverty rates have risen in Orthodox Brooklyn, the 120-year-old Manhattan-based Jewish charity has lent nearly $1.6 million since 2009 to help launch small Hasidic-owned businesses.
The idea is to help ultra-Orthodox Jews find work, despite their lack of a secular education, by supporting them as they start their own companies.
"It's not that they don't want to work," HFLS executive director Shana Novick said about Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews. Eastern European Jews have always owned small shops, Novick said. "That's what we're helping them to do here."
The extraordinary growth of Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community came at the worst possible time in terms of New York City's economy. There are 240,000 Hasidic Jews in the New York area today, up from a relative handful just 50 years ago. At the same time, the restructuring of the city's economy has severely limited the job options for people without even a high school diploma.
It wasn't always that way. As recently as the late 1990s, large numbers of Hasidic men were able to find work in Manhattan's diamond industry. But New York diamond sellers have since outsourced their diamond cutting operations to India, and those jobs, like similar skilled work in other city industries, have disappeared.
That's left a dearth of decently compensated employment opportunities. "Their options in terms of earning a significant salary are quite limited because of the lack of secular education," Novick said.
Yides Blum had never been to college, never mind business school, when she cut her first deal.
Walking down an ultra-Orthodox shopping strip in Brooklyn's Boro Park, the Hasidic mother from Williamsburg saw a man selling skirts designed for Hasidic girls. Long, dark and shapeless, Hasidic girls' skirts are hard to find in a department store, and Hasidic mothers often scramble to fill their daughters' wardrobes. So Blum cut a deal with the man, offering to sell his skirts on commission at a Hasidic flea market in Williamsburg.
She says that she did $10,000 worth of business over the course of a few hours. "It was just a spur of the moment thing," Blum said. "I was just courageous."
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Rest area offers pit stop and prayers
The New York Thruway travel plaza in Sloatsburg offers familiar conveniences: fast food, hot coffee, cleanbathrooms.
But the rest area also provides a different kind of comfort to Orthodox Jewish men: every Thursday night during the summer it is transformed into a virtual house of God. For state authorities, it’s a safe alternative to the men stopping on the highway’s shoulders to carry out prayer services.
As many as 1,200 Orthodox Jews use the upper level of the parking garage to offer their prayers in the evening, with up to 250 at any one time.
Located on the northbound Thruway, the travel plaza is midway between Brooklyn, where most of the travelers live, and Sullivan County
“It’s so useful,” said Rabbi Abe Friedman, whose late father, Morton, helped set up the arrangement with the state Thruway Authority and state police about two decades ago. “It’s 10 minutes of prayer and then they leave.”
The prayer area, set aside in a corner of the garage’s upper deck, is used from 5 p.m. Thursdays to 1 a.m. Fridays, from late June until the end of August.
A Thruway Authority official said several rabbis help manage the event each week and provide several signs in Hebrew to direct participants to the prayer service location. The signs are only posted on Thursdays. A Thruway staff member assists as needed as part of his normal work duties.
“In order to ensure the safety of Thruway motorists and patrons of our Sloatsburg Travel Plaza, we have for many years made a once-a-week accommodation during summer months for prayer services for religious Jews in the upper deck parking area,” Thruway spokesman Dan Weiller said.
Friedman, who is based in Brooklyn, and his brother, Joel, promised their father, who died in 2009, they would carry on his work at the rest stop.
They’re on hand to make sure all travelers park on the garage’s upper deck, not on the grass or in fire lanes. If the religious men are traveling with their families, Friedman said the women and children typically wait in the vehicles or go to the travel plaza.
That wasn’t always the case.
In the 1980s, Friedman said, men would leave their cars along the Thruway’s shoulders and gather in small groups to offer their afternoon (Mincha) and night (Maariv) prayers. Children would sometimes move around the side of the road, creating a serious hazard.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Cellini woos key casino voting groups
The decades-long champion of a Catskill casino says he knows how to try to sway two potential obstacles to legalizing casinos in the state: New York City voters, who narrowly oppose changing the state constitution to allow casinos, and the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, which is said to morally oppose those casinos.
Town of Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini plans to make the case for a "yes" vote in the November referendum to New York City mayoral candidates and the Hasidic community when the politicians campaign at Sullivan County bungalow colonies this summer.
Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson campaigned at a Monticello colony last Sunday. Other candidates, such as former Rep. Anthony Weiner and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, are expected to soon visit Thompson, the summer home to thousands of New York City Jews.
"I want them (the candidates) to support casinos because a lot of the money would be going to education all over the state and in the city," said Cellini, whose office displays scores of new and vintage "Casinos mean jobs" posters, bumper stickers and buttons. They're jobs that, if the referendum passes, would also be available for New York City workers in at least seven years, the soonest the city could get a casino, according to a new state law, tied to the impending referendum.
Cellini says he'll give something to the candidates in return for their casino support.
"I would come out against fracking," he says about the natural gas extraction method of hydraulic fracturing that critics say could pollute drinking water.
Cellini knows the city gets its water from upstate reservoirs like one in Sullivan. But even though proposed regulations would ban fracking in the city watershed, drilling critics say much of the fresh water throughout Sullivan ultimately makes its way to the city.
"They don't want to support us? What, they don't want clean water?" Cellini asked rhetorically.
Cellini already conveyed his message to Thompson — who didn't take an immediate stance.
As for the Hasidim?
Cellini says he's spoken to at least two leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who politicians covet for their bloc vote. He's asked them to either support the referendum, or not vote against it.
So far, the response has been positive.
"We understand the county needs to grow, and casinos bring business," said Rabbi Moishe Indig. "If it doesn't hurt us and it's good for the neighborhood."
And just to make sure he's covering even more casino approval bases, Cellini plans to ask some 900 towns across the state to pass a resolution supporting the November referendum. He expects his town to pass the resolution Aug. 6.
"The revenue generated by casinos will assist the Town of Thompson, ... but it will also assist your town as well under the Governor's plan," Cellini writes in the cover letter, naming one of the same monetary benefits from casinos he cites in his pitch to the politicians and Hasidim — "to help fund education throughout the state."
Friday, July 26, 2013
'Frumpification' of Orthodox Fashion
Everything comes easier for me when I have a bit of intellectual stimulation, and exercise is no exception. Recently, as I pushed through another grueling post-baby workout, my trainer, sensing that I was in desperate need of distraction, told me something interesting. An Orthodox Jewish woman had recently complained to her that some of the women in her shul were purposely dressing frumpier and frumpier. This woman claimed that she and some of her friends were discouraged by the new trajectory of modesty that likely stems from increasing efforts to shield the seductive female body from the penetrating male gaze. (Yes, I said penetrating.)
Apparently modesty glasses haven't yet made it to Los Angeles, and so women are taking long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and high necklines to the next level of unfashionable. No longer is it good enough to wear modest clothing that fits. It would seem that modesty, according to this story, is also about looking as unattractive and sometimes even as slovenly as possible.
I wondered, could this be true?
I have certainly heard other women lament that some of their friends equate modesty with baggy clothing, and I must admit that I myself have observed an increase in such clothing choices in my own community. Whether or not this is indeed a growing phenomenon, it's occurring at least to a certain degree within observant communities; the question is whether we should be bothered by it.
But perhaps Orthodox Jewish women should not be singled out as more disheveled than the next person. Slobbery is not a phenomenon only to be found in the religious community. It's everywhere. Further, it appears that slobbery and immodesty are American epidemics, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. As Notre Dame Professor Linda Przybyszewski so eloquently explained in her recent Jezebel post, "There's got to be a happy medium between wearing a burka and running around half-naked." Yes, there's got to be.
Opinions on the definition of modesty aside, the relevant discussion has to do with the extent to which we all have a responsibility to care for our appearance. As far as I know, the Jewish community here in Los Angeles hasn't yet organized modesty squads to monitor women's dress. But my trainer's story reminded me of a talk I heard in a local Orthodox shul a couple of years ago in which the rabbi, after criticizing the short skirts he had encountered on some of the community's women, admonished them not to abandon all efforts to look attractive and stylish in their pursuit of modesty.
His purpose was to suggest that observant Jews have a responsibility to take pride in their appearance. To illustrate his point, he recalled vacationing with his family at the Grand Canyon, where a woman asked him if he and is family were Jewish, which was unexpected because his kippah was covered by a baseball cap. When he asked the woman how she knew, she said it was because of how modest and well put together they all were.
Now, I have a hard time believing that there wasn't an ankle-length denim skirt somewhere in the group to give the woman a hint as to the group's observant Jewish identity, but, okay, I get it. As Jews, we are representing Judaism wherever we go, whether we're dressed well or barely dressed at all. I was ambivalent, however, about a male rabbi dictating anything about women's clothing from the pulpit. On one hand, given my own predilection for fashion and my tendency to recoil from the long denim skirts and ill-fitting, outdated clothing that I sometimes see in religious communities, I appreciated his style-conscious gesture. I visit various Los Angeles shuls on a regular basis, but I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and while my attire in this context is always modest (below-the-knee skirt lengths, sleeves down to my elbows, and no revealing necklines), I sometimes feel out of place if my clothing is too stylish or tailored.
But considering that there are at least as many men who could benefit from a fashion makeover as there are women, it seemed to me that the rabbi's public commentary on the attire of women bordered on sexism and was, at the very least, mildly inappropriate. As a woman sitting in the mixed congregation, I felt suddenly scrutinized despite my tailored knee-length skirt and snakeskin heels. And, truth be told, all day I had been nervous about what people might think of those snakeskin heels, ever since I had chosen them over something flatter and sturdier that morning.
I realize now that I felt distressed in light of both stories — my trainer's as well as my own in shul — given the manner in which male and female equality seems to be moving backward in both America and the religious communities of Israel, where religious practices separate men from women; eight-year-old girls are spat upon for dressing "immodestly"; some ultra-Orthodox radio stations refuse to let women's voices be heard on the airwaves, and some ultra-Orthodox men have even tried to insist that women sit in the back of buses. Focusing on women's attire potentially contributes to the unsavory message that women's bodies are objects — vessels of seduction — and that men are not capable of self-restraint.
But, to the rabbi's credit, I can't help but feel that there is something to be said about looking like we care, whether we're male or female, Jews or non-Jews. Whether or not we are concerned about modesty, there's nothing enticing about boorish behavior or dress. And using modesty as an excuse for this behavior transforms unattractiveness into intellectual dishonesty. Rather than stretch the definition of modesty to include carelessness, perhaps we should demonstrate outwardly the mindfulness that is so much a part of Judaism. At the very least, we should avoid apathy, and maybe this even means trying not to dress as if we are apathetic, as if we don't care.
Stones and eggs hurled at Hasidic Jewish boys in sickening attack in Sheerness
Stones have been thrown at a coach carrying Jewish boys before they were egged in a sickening attack in Sheerness.
Witnesses saw around seven teenage boys and girls hurling missiles at the vehicle and shouting "go back to where you came from".
Moments later, the group of 10 to 14-year-olds were set upon again with eggs.
Now a coach firm is warning ethnic minority groups not to visit the Isle of Sheppey in the wake of the attack.
The Hasidic Jews, from London, were visiting the town to go to the beach after a trip to Diggerland in Strood on Tuesday afternoon.
A window on the coach was smashed as it turned into High Street from Millennium Way. Luckily, no one was hurt.
One person - who saw the incident, but did not want to be named for fear of repercussions - said: "They were saying '**** you - go back to where you came from'.
"I couldn't believe some of the things they were saying."
The vehicle then moved to the car park in nearby Trinity Road, where witnesses said the group of 10 to 14-year-olds from London were set upon again with eggs.
West's Coaches Limited, which is based in South Woodford, London, had to send a replacement service to pick up the passengers and take them back home.
Director Nick Brown said his business is £1,000 out of pocket to pay for a new window and having to divert another driver from the capital.
He said: "The people on the coach were pretty shaken up. In the future we will have to warn ethnic minorities about bringing them to Sheppey."
He added abuse was also aimed at the driver, who is of Indian descent.
Heather Thomas-Pugh, chairman of Sheppey Tourism Alliance, said: "We are extremely disappointed that this sort of behaviour has happened on our island.
"When people take the time and trouble to come and visit us, they should expect Islanders to provide a warm welcome.
"It is incidents like this, from a minority, that prevent the Isle of Sheppey being seen in the correct light."
A Kent Police spokesman confirmed officers were called to reports of criminal damage at just before 1.50pm. It is not currently known if it is being investigated as a hate crime.
Plans for Hillcrest Orthodox school draw protesters
More than 70 people took to the streets Thursday evening to protest the planned construction of a 250-student Orthodox Jewish religious school at 8 Eckerson Lane.
The protesters gathered at Hillcrest Plaza on Route 45 around 6 p.m. before making the half-mile march in front of the property, a three-story house being used as temporary classrooms. They chanted and held signs as community activists spoke.
"There are a lot of problems with what they want to do with this school," said organizer Michael Miller, 67, using a bullhorn. "First and foremost is they are building a school here that people in this community cannot use."
The school is being built by Mosdos Sanz Klausenburg, a Monsey-based congregation. Plans call for adding a 35-foot building with 27 parking spots and a recreation area of 7,500 square feet. The existing three-story structure would be converted into administrative offices for a staff of 12 and housing for a caretaker.
Ramapo building department inspectors issued two stop-work orders before Anthony Mallia, director of building, planning and zoning, approved an application for temporary use of the building for at least a year.
One complaint from residents is that they weren't told about the plans or allowed to comment on its design or size. Another is that the school will hurt property values and bring quality-of-life issues such as increased traffic.
But other complaints — that the school will be a foothold for a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community — go to the heart of Ramapo's political and ethnic tensions, including the battles in the East Ramapo school district.
The neighborhood, which includes Trinity Avenue and Rockland Lane, is largely working class with a racial and ethnic mix that includes Haitians, South Africans, blacks, Hispanics and non-Orthodox Jews.
"We are a multiethnic, multiracial society here," said Hillcrest resident Nancy Mirsky, 59. "We've worked hard to live together in a friendly manner. We don't want anybody to destroy the character we have."
Reached by phone Thursday night, Abraham Spitzer, a representative from Mosdos Sanz Klausenburg, said he was eager to answer residents' questions about how the school will coexist with the neighborhood.
"We are looking forward to getting to know our neighbors and responding to all their comments and suggestions," he said, declining to comment further.
The property, surrounded by one- and two-story suburban homes, is still very much a work in progress, with dirt, straw and rocks covering much of the front yard and driveway.
Row Torabi, who lives across the street, said he saw several yellow school buses pull up Thursday in front of the property.
"They were very noisy," said Torabi, 56, who took part in the demonstration. "I don't think that road was built for school bus traffic. I think it will be unsafe for me and my family."
Thursday, July 25, 2013
The Secret Genius of Hasidic Fashion
"The genius of the Satmar rebbe," Williamsburg-based artist Michael Levin said of the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the post-Holocaust leader of Williamsburg's Satmar Hasidic community, "was to say that if you wear a shtreimel and long peyes, everyone will be freaked out and hate you and stay away from you. But in the end, they'll also respect you."
Whether or not the Satmars have gained the respect of the world is up for debate, but the Satmar Rebbe's ideology of separatism has proven effective at preserving the Hasidic lifestyle. Hasidic garb, the subject of a new art exhibit by Levin called "Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress," as well as a book by the same name, has perhaps been the most important factor of that ideology.
The exhibit, which opened July 20 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is at once an expression of the artist's fascination with Hasidim as well as a recognition of his outsider status. His work, while deeply respectful — even reverent at times — includes imaginative interpretations of Hasidic life that would strike Hasidim themselves as alien.
Raised in Los Angeles, Calif., with what he calls "Hollywood-style" Reform Judaism, Levin, 28, moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and developed an interest in the Hasidic community. "I was jealous," he said. While not religiously observant, Levin said that as a Jew he identifies with the Hasidim in a powerful way. "If there were a race war in this city, I'd run to the Hasidim."
His work is not that of an ethnographer, Levin is quick to point out, but a subjective exploration of his own perceptions. As such, he acknowledges that his work may not reflect the world of Hasidim in the ways they experience it themselves, but he still compares it to other attempts he sees as misguided, such as the Israeli exhibit last year at the Israel Museum called "A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews."
"Too often," Levin said, "we see Hasidim as mascots, there just for you to look at. But this is a community that is still living and changing and experiencing itself from within. It is more than just a museum-piece."
Levin's drawings are exquisite. With an unusual eye for detail he captures many of the almost intangible distinctions — in posture, in the thrust of their chests or in the way they tuck their hands inside their gartels or in the folds of their caftans — between the Hungarian Satmars and the Polish Gerers and the Romanian Vizhnitzers. It's in the sartorial nuances, however, that Levin has picked up so much of what goes unobserved by outsiders but carries great significance to those in the know.
"There seems to be this will to perpetuate the subtle differences between each hasidus [Hasidic sect]," Levin said. "How to wear the bow of their hat, or whether to wear their payes long or twisted into 'bullets.' As if it's their one possession that is strictly theirs, that keeps them distinct from one another." Levin's work also goes beyond garb. In several panels, there are drawings recalling some of the more sordid, even macabre, chapters in Hasidic history. One image has the Satmars throwing punches at the rebbe of the Monsey faction of Vizhnitz, Rabbi Mordechai Hager, recalling, albeit figuratively, a particularly contentious period in the mid-'90s between the two groups. Another shows the 1924 assassination of Yaakov Yisrael de Haan, a Dutch Jewish journalist who, after aligning himself with the anti-Zionist Haredi factions in Jerusalem, was assassinated by members of the Haganah, an event that figures prominently in Satmar's anti-Zionist lore.
A third panel in this category depicts the 19th-century rebbe of Tolne and his Hasidim in a frenzied march to attack their nemeses the Breslovers, a composite of several events in 1860s Ukraine, based on recent research by historian David Assaf. The Tolners, who, as part of the Chernobyl dynasty were closely related to the Skverers and Rachmestrivkers, were powerful and polarizing in their time, "occupying" town after town across the Ukraine, and bringing them under their rebbe's "sovereignty." Today, the Tolners no longer exist, but the tales about them provide a fascinating historical backdrop to the sectarian rivalries of Hasidim today.
Themes of power and influence exist in other aspects of Levin's work, most notably in a series of archetypal images of a Satmar, Vizhnitzer and Skverer man. The Skverer stands with his head bowed, suggesting devoutness, but also meekness and timidity. The Satmar stands tall with his hands on his belly in smug satisfaction, while the Vizhnitzer has his arms spread and raised as if in an effeminate dance.
"The Satmars have real power," Levin says, "while the Vizhnitzers, with their illustrious marriage arrangements, receive their power in an almost feminine way." Levin refers to the late rebbe of the Israeli Vizhnitz faction, Rabbi Moses Hager, whose daughters married some of the most powerful leaders of the Hasidic world, including the rebbes of Satmar, Belz and Skver.
Levin points out that as a personal exploration, his images are only about men, not women, as it is the male world to which he sees his strongest personal connection. Additionally, Levin says, unlike with men, Hasidic women's dress raises bigger issues that exist in other communities as well, such as the hijab among Muslim women, and so would not fit well with the themes of his portraits.
Those themes are primarily the world of Hasidic rebbes and their male followers, and Levin's inexplicable attraction to their counter-cultural ethos even amidst their conservatism.
"Reb Yoelish," Levin said, referring to Teitelbaum, the first rebbe of Satmar, "was a radical and a genius. He did something that was crazy and beautiful and really different. You just have to respect that."
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Novel on London's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community among nominees for Man Booker Prize
A book about life in London's Jewish community is among the novels vying for this year's Man Booker Prize. Eve Harris wrote "The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" about an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in England's capital.
The long-list for the prize, one of the English language's top fiction awards, names 13 writers from seven countries. Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, billionaires in China and hard times in Ireland are also candidates for the prestigious prize.
"This is surely the most diverse long-list in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject," said Robert Macfarlane, a writer and Cambridge University academic who chairs the panel of five judges.
"These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000 and from Shanghai to Hendon," he said in a statement announcing the list.
Selected from 151 titles, it includes authors from Britain, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Ireland.
Two authors, Jim Crace with "Harvest" and Colm Toibin with "The Testament of Mary", have appeared on the award's shortlist previously.
The 2013 long-list includes established best-sellers Colum McCann and Jhumpa Lahiri with their latest novels "TransAtlantic" and "The Lowland", and three debut authors.
The newcomers are Eve Harris with "The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" about, Zimbabwe's NoViolet Bulawayo with "We Need New Names" about growing up under Mugabe, and Irish author Donal Ryan with "The Spinning Heart" about the impact of financial crisis on a small town in Ireland.
The latter contrasts with the latest book by award-winning Malaysian lawyer Tash Aw, "Five Star Billionaire", about the economic boom in China.
Richard House makes the list with "The Kills", a political thriller spread over four books. In total seven women are the list, the others being Alison MacLeod with "Unexploded" Charlotte Mendelson with "Almost English", Canadian Ruth Ozeki with "A Tale for the Time Being," and New Zealand's Eleanor Catton with "The Luminaries".
The judges will meet again in September to decide a shortlist of six books and the winner will be announced at a ceremony on Oct. 15 in London.
Hilary Mantel won the 2012 prize for "Bring Up the Bodies", making her the first woman and first Briton to win the coveted award twice. The award dates back to 1969.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Safe box with $50,000 stolen from Hasidic Jews in Uman
On the night of Saturday, July 20, unknown people attacked the Hasidic tent camp, which is under construction in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, brutally beat up a security guard and stole a safe box containing $50,000 from the office building, the Segodnya newspaper reported.
EXCLUSIVE: Juror’s bombshell claim: Hasidic suspects can’t get a fair trial in Brooklyn
Jurors in a sodomy case against a Hasidic Brooklyn man expressed anti-Semitic bias even before the trial went underway, a member of the panel said in a bombshell interview.
The troubling assertion was made by the lone holdout, whose refusal to convict Alexander Rogalsky, 29, on a decade-old allegation of molestation led to a mistrial last week.
"They were saying he was guilty before the trial even started," the 51-year-old woman told the News. "To them, he looked guilty even before we heard any evidence."
She said the slanted discussions started during jury selection and continued through contentious deliberations. Jurors are routinely instructed not to form an opinion or discuss the case before all evidence is presented - but this jury ignored that order, the juror claimed.
"There was a lot of talk about the Jewish religion and one girl said it was a 'Jewish trial,'" the juror recalled.
Her allegations boost defense lawyers' long-standing contention that Hasidic Jews face bias because of their distinctive looks and customs.
"When an obviously Orthodox Jewish defendant goes on trial, (he's) facing a subconscious prejudice," said Michael Farkas, who represented Nechemia Weberman, a Satmar counselor who was convicted last year of molesting a teenage girl in a supercharged case that many say put the entire Hasidic community on trial.
Rogalsky, who works as a cook, is accused of bedding a 12-year-old boy he counseled at an upstate sleepaway camp in 2003. The alleged incident happened at Rogalsky's Crown Heights home after the summer at Camp Bnei Menachem.
The boy told his mom about the incident in 2006 but didn't press charges until 2011 and soon after filed a civil suit, records show.
The statute of limitations had elapsed on most sex charges, so Rogalsky was slapped with a single count of criminal sex act. The alleged victim, now 22, testified in during the trial in Brooklyn Supreme Court and prosecutors also played a recorded conversation in which Rogalsky didn't deny misconduct.
"It seemed something did happen between them, but there wasn't enough evidence (to convict on the lone count)," said the holdout juror, who also lives in Crown Heights, which has a high Hasidic population.
A spokesman for Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes strongly disagreed.
"This is a strong case and we intend to retry it," said the spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer. "The defendant received a fair trial."
Monday, July 22, 2013
Dov Hikind's radio silence
Assemblyman Dov Hikind took a minute out of his weekly radio show recently to promote a health-screening event his office was holding with Maimonides Medical Center, a hospital in his Borough Park district.
"I will be there, with God's help, to go through these tests myself," Mr. Hikind said, his voice booming through to a heavily Orthodox Jewish audience, which regularly tunes in to his Saturday-night politics program.
The longtime Brooklyn lawmaker was not merely doing a public service. An advertising firm he owns is being paid $65,000 by the hospital for promotion on The Dov Hikind Show this year, a hospital executive confirmed. Maimonides also lobbies the state government and Mr. Hikind.
In fact, Mr. Hikind's company, DYS Production, receives checks from a number of businesses, though the assemblyman has repeatedly failed to disclose income from the firm, as required. In his July filing, Mr. Hikind listed no outside income in 2012 beyond his legislative pay of $99,000.
After an inquiry from Crain's, Mr. Hikind amended his financial disclosures dating back to 2006 to reflect income from the company. Only for last year did Mr. Hikind have to list the approximate amount: between $5,000 and $20,000. Public records don't show where the rest of DYS Production's revenue went.
Advertisers on his AM radio show range from home-health-care company At Home Solutions to travel agency Do All Travel, according to recordings reviewed by Crain's. "We sell enough advertising that this show has become extremely successful financially," Mr. Hikind told City & State in 2008. "That makes my wife a little happier about it."
But the state's Legislative Ethics Commission would not say whether he had ever asked if payments from advertisers that lobby him could represent a conflict of interest. His office declined requests for comment.
Mr. Hikind's three decades in office give him considerable sway. The Assembly's assistant majority leader, he rarely sponsors legislation but is known for his ability to "bring home the pastrami," as they say in Mr. Hikind's district. But the intricate web he weaves with public funds and local nonprofits has landed him in hot water before: In 1998, he was charged with taking bribes from a social-services group that received state funds. Mr. Hikind was acquitted, though the official who paid him was convicted.
Mr. Hikind, who has spoken at ceremonies honoring Maimonides officials, frequently promotes the hospital in his governmental newsletter. Maimonides, which has thrived as other nonprofit hospitals have struggled financially, has touted its ties to elected officials who help secure funding. But hospital officials said Maimonides' payments to Mr. Hikind's company pose no conflicts on their end, and that it advertises on his show to reach local residents. Borough Park is a famously insular community.
Dick Dadey, executive director of good-government group Citizens Union, said it makes sense for Maimonides to buy time on Mr. Hikind's program. The problem is that the assemblyman repeatedly failed to make his outside income public.
"The fact that he didn't disclose it raises the question of why he didn't," Mr. Dadey said. "If there's no conflict, why not disclose it?"
In the wake of numerous scandals in state government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month formed a commission to investigate corruption. Mr. Hikind has not been accused of wrongdoing since his trial 15 years ago.
Other aspects of Mr. Hikind's radio show also overlap with his public office. Political candidates have often paid Mr. Hikind's company, appeared on his show and been endorsed by him. The show is co-hosted and run by Dov Cohen, an $80,000-a-year full-time aide in Mr. Hikind's Assembly office, and has shared space with Mr. Hikind's longtime political club, the United New York Democrats. The club often paid the rent on the space between 2006 and 2009, but as its campaign account was shut down in recent years, payments were made from Mr. Hikind's own campaign fund to the building's landlord. Campaign funds cannot be used for a candidate's business expenses.
Borough Park insiders said Mr. Hikind talks privately about the money generated by the show, but some assumed it went to charity. "It's really something I have no idea about," said Zev Brenner, a popular radio host who sells airtime on WMCA 570 for The Dov Hikind Show.
DYS is named after Mr. Hikind's three adult children: his daughter, Deena, and sons, Yoni and Shmuel. The lawmaker was in the news recently for landing part-time jobs for his sons in 2011 with fellow Brooklyn Assembly members, with salaries just high enough to entitle them to government health care.
Two years ago, Mr. Hikind's son-in-law, Rabin Rahmani, a doctor in his early 30s and just off a residency and fellowship at Maimonides, raised eyebrows among colleagues by landing the post of director of medical education and research at the hospital's gastroenterology division. Dr. Rahmani, Deena's husband, has promoted the hospital as a guest on Mr. Hikind's radio show. A hospital spokeswoman said Mr. Rahmani was exceptionally qualified for his post.
Maimonides buys four 30-second spots per hourlong program and gets "dozens" of appearances on the show annually for its physicians, according to Barry Ensminger, the hospital's vice president of external affairs.
"The reason we advertise on the radio show is that it's very widely listened to in the Orthodox community," he said. The hospital also buys space in Orthodox Jewish publications such as Hamodia. He added that Mr. Hikind's show accounts for a small part of the hospital's advertising budget.
"It's something we've been doing for years and years," Mr. Ensminger said. He said the hospital's lobbying of Mr. Hikind is separate from its marketing activities.
Records show that in 2011 the hospital spent $470,000 on lobbying, including of Mr. Hikind and the Legislature. Its Albany efforts have been fruitful: In 2011, $13 million of its $16.7 million in government grants came from the state Department of Health.
A Maimonides spokeswoman said the hospital simply informs Brooklyn lawmakers of new services and funding needs, and that its lobbying does not single out Mr. Hikind.
The assemblyman has supported zoning changes that have helped Maimonides expand over the past decade. Some locals charge that potential dissent is headed off by hospital officials' money, including to Mr. Hikind's campaign fund.
"Maimonides keeps all the elected officials happy with campaign donations from [hospital President] Pam Brier and her husband [Peter Aschkenasy]," said William Handler of the Boro-Park West Community Association. "They place advertisements in all the local newspapers. Community groups get donations. Everybody who could politically oppose the hospital gets a donation."
Meanwhile, Mr. Hikind's radio program is thriving. With the 2013 races for mayor and other city offices heating up, candidates will angle for appearances and perhaps sponsor shows to court the Orthodox vote and Mr. Hikind himself. The lawmaker announced on a recent show that in August the program will move to 620 on the AM dial and air Wednesday evenings instead of Saturday nights. The
Dov Hikind Show is heading to prime time.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Onward and Upward with Matisyahu in Krakow
In the sultry darkness of a summer night, a tall, skinny figure with close-cropped hair and a purple T-shirt threaded through a beer garden during Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, the annual nine-day extravaganza of performance, exhibition, debate and intensive interaction that for a quarter of a century now has been a catalyst of Krakow’s Jewish cultural revival.
Bridging the open space between the city’s lively Jewish community center, which hosted dozens of festival events, and the grandiose Tempel Synagogue, venue for many of the concerts, the garden served as an informal salon where public and performers, Jews and non-Jews alike, could shmooze.
Whispers trailed in the newcomer’s wake: “Matisyahu’s here!”
The American singer, much less recognizable since he shed his Hasidic garb, blended with the dozens of other folks sipping their drinks as he made his way through the slatted wooden tables and sat down with a group that included Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow’s Jewish community center, and Janusz Makuch, the bearded, non-Jewish Pole who co-founded the festival in 1988 and is still both its director and its main driving force.
Matisyahu wasn’t on the program, though he has performed here in the past.
This time, en route to a gig in northern Poland, he had simply dropped in to hang with the festival crowd in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish district.
Over the past two decades, Kazimierz has famously been transformed from a rundown slum, the quintessential Jewish graveyard, into a major tourist attraction: a burgeoning hub of revitalized Jewish culture, life, consciousness and commercial kitsch — as well as the city’s liveliest center of clubs, pubs and other late-night venues.
“We must have been out till 5 in the morning,” Ornstein told me the next day.
I’ve been writing about Kazimierz since 1990 and about the festival itself for nearly that long, returning each summer, at least for a few festival days, to monitor changes in the place, the program and the issues that swirl around both of them.
Saturday, July 20, 2013
Meet the Hasids: Getting to know the people who scared me
This past spring, I went looking for a family of Hasidic Jews, neighbors I had avoided in my youth, to make amends and learn about Judaism. As someone who grew up with no religion, I saw this effort as my own tiny project to promote harmony. Maybe I couldn’t solve conflict in the Middle East, but I could increase my own understanding and tolerance.
I lived a few doors down from the Hasidic family when I first moved from Dallas to Los Angeles to stay with my dad and stepmom. The three of us occupied a tiny house of 500 square feet, like an outhouse that had sprouted additional rooms as an afterthought. I was 10 and slept on a sofa. That house was dwarfed on all sides by apartment buildings. We tumbled out the front door like a clown family from a too-small car. I would have felt more self-conscious, but this was a neighborhood of misfits: single moms, eccentric elders, late-night yellers. Perhaps none more strange to me than the family of Hasidic Jews who occupied a shabby apartment complex on the corner, the front yard crammed with old playground equipment and quarantined by a low but sturdy fence.
Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those years, I went “boy crazy” and even they were weighed as romantic partners; we made odd imaginary pairs. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down.
For all the time I had spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them, nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was so different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I sneaked up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.
Back in L.A. for a visit, I drove past the old apartment building and spied a Hasidic man standing nearby, though whether it was the same family as before I didn’t know. Almost 20 years had passed.
I looked at a map of the area and found an Orthodox synagogue seven blocks from that corner. I knew that, as ultra-Orthodox Jews, they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. I didn’t know if that was the right synagogue, but decided it was worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d celebrate Sabbath with some Jews. I called, and made sure they were all right with visitors and to see if I needed to cover my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”
Friday, July 19, 2013
Poconos Camp Counselor Accused of Molesting Boy
A counselor at a Jewish summer camp for boys in Pennsylvania was taken into custody after a camper accused him of inappropriately touching him, police said.
Camp Dora Golding counselor Chisdai Ben-Porat, 19, of Ottawa, Canada, was charged with indecent assault of someone under 13 years old, unlawful contact with a minor and corruption of a minor at the camp, The Morning Call newspaper in Pennsylvania reported.
State police were called to the Orthodox Jewish camp in the Pocono Mountains on July 11 to investigate the camper's report. The Monroe County District Attorney's Office approved the charges, according to police.
Ben-Porat was arraigned on July 12 by District Judge Thomas Olsen and taken to Monroe County Prison. He was released later on $20,000 bail.
According to an email sent to parents by the camp's executive director, Alex Gold, the counselor was arrested within hours after the camper reported the alleged incident. He said the camp's staff is cooperating with authorities in the investigation, and making mental health professionals and social workers available to campers, counselors and parents.
"For more than a decade, (even before recently publicized stories of abuse in the Orthodox community), our staff orientation included specific training to deal with improper contact and conduct between staff and campers," Gold said in the email. "We have a zero tolerance policy towards any improper behavior and, as demonstrated by recent events, are ready to follow through whenever necessary. I am proud of my staff, which acted quickly, properly and responsibly."
Orthodox Jews Denied Benefits For Refusing To Work Saturdays
Unemployed Orthodox Jews have been denied benefits because they cannot work on Saturdays, according to strict religious guidelines.
The Jewish Chronicle reported that the government is investigating claims that staff in job centres in the north west said that their policy to require staff to be available at weekends for work.
Orthodox Jews not only cannot work on the Sabbath, but are prohibited from driving, writing, carrying or using electricity, amongst other things.
Earlier this month, a 19-year-old Hasidic Jewish man won a landmark case against the Department for Work and Pensions after he was denied jobseeker's allowance for over six months and told he must work on the Sabbath.
Jacob Slinger received £1,500 backpay from missed JSA payments, and tribunal judge David Hewitt called on other Jewish people denied money to come forward.
Regulations state that jobseekers must be available to work up for a minimum of 35 hours a week, which Slinger had agreed to.
At the tribunal, Slinger said he was available to work for 53 hours a week, far exceeding the requirement to claim the allowance, but was not available on Friday afternoon or Saturdays because of religious observance.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said no jobseeker should "compromise their religious practices in order to claim JSA", and that an investigation was underway.
JCom, a Manchester-based Jewish employment agency, told the Times it would meet representatives of Jobcentres in the area in the next few weeks to try to reach an agreement.
Isaac Ginsbury, the company's manager, said: "The main issue is the interpretation of the law, which states that allowances can be made for religious purposes as long as there is a reasonable prospect of the person finding employment. It is up to the adviser to use their common sense in respect to Jewish people and Saturdays."
Jewish groups battle over $17 billion kosher domain name
A Brooklyn-based kosher-certification agency has created a hullabaloo among Jewish groups by trying to add the word "kosher" to the end of its Internet address.
OK Kosher Certification, a major Orthodox Jewish certification company, in November filed a request with Icann, the Internet's organizing body, to register "dot-kosher" as a domain name. The company said in its application that it wanted the name to help it "promote kosher food certification in general, and OK Certification and its clients in particular."
Icann – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – began accepting requests for generic top-level domains names, or gTLDs, in January 2012. The body is meeting in Duban, South Africa, this week to begin a major expansion of domain names, which are currently limited to country identifiers and 20 others, like "dot-com" and "dot-org." The meeting may include a decision on who can operate and license dot-kosher Internet addresses.
Five other North American Orthodox Jewish organizations that deal with kosher certification, verifying that food is prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary law, have banded together to oppose OK Kosher's application, saying the company seeks to profit from a sacred tradition that should not be over-commercialized. Last month, the Orthodox Union Kosher, Star-K Kosher, the Chicago Rabbinical Council, KOF-K Kosher Supervision and the Kashruth Council of Canada sent a strongly-worded letter to Icann urging it not to allow the use of "dot-kosher."
Icann's decision is likely to have a significant impact on the kosher certification industry, which the research firm Market Trend estimates is worth $14 to $17 billion. If OK Kosher is granted the domain name, it will have control over which websites can use it. The registration fee is $185,000.
OK Kosher Certification's director, Rabbi Don Joel Levy, told Bloomberg that he has no intention of taking over the domain name, but his company's rivals remain concerned.
In their letter, they urge Icann to apply the same logic to OK Kosher's application that it used in rejecting "dot-islam" and "dot-halal" – Halal is the Islamic equivalent of kashrut. An Icann advisory panel last April recommended the Islamic domain names be avoided because of their religiously sensitive nature. The decision came after Saudi Arabia and other Muslim entities pressured Icann to reject a request by a company called Asia Green IT System for "dot-islam."
Bloomberg reported that the two sides in the OK Kosher dispute met but were unable to reach an agreement. In the meantime, the five organizations behind the letter to Icann appealed to the United States Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to intervene.
The "dot-kosher" domain name is not the only one being contested. The Internet giant Amazon failed recently in its attempt get access to "dot-Amazon," due to objections by South American countries that the Amazon River flows through. Argentina also blocked a company from using "dot-patagonia," given that the Patagonia region is located partially within its borders.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Over 400 police officers to maintain order in Uman during pilgrimage of Hasidic Jews
Over 400 police officers will be involved in maintaining public order during an annual religious pilgrimage of Hasidic Jews to Uman (Cherkasy region), the media liaisons department of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported on Wednesday.
Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Ratushniak said this at a meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Reuven Dinel and Security Attache at the Israeli Embassy in Ukraine Roi Alkorat.
From September 4 to September 6 in Uman, Hasidic Jews will hold annual religious events at the grave of their spiritual leader Reb Nachman and in the building of a local synagogue on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).
Ratushniak said that interior bodies had been entrusted with one of the main objectives – maintaining public order and safety during the annual religious pilgrimage. Over 400 police officers will be involved in ensuring public order, he said. Cooperation between Ukraine and Israeli police officers plays an important role in maintaining order during the events, he added.
Dov Hikind Asks Brooklyn DA To Drop Charges Against Sam Kellner
Last Thursday, New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind called on Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes to drop the charges against a Hasidic whistleblower of sexual abuse, Sam Kellner.
In 2010, Kellner, a Munkacs Hasid, reported that his son had been sexually molested by Rabbi Baruch Lebovits, a local cantor and travel agent, but was then, in turn, himself accused of bribing and extorting witnesses — allegations that now appear to be false.
"The charges against Sam Kellner seem to be based on a Yiddish tape that was presented to the DA's office by Lebovits' son," Hikind declared. "But it now seems clear that this tape in Hungarian Yiddish, which I've listened to, was mistranslated. Without this tape, there's no smoking gun. Moreover, reports from reliable sources indicate that prosecutors have told the trial judge that their key witnesses are unreliable. No evidence? No witnesses? What is the DA waiting for?"
According to the Gothamist, Hynes's spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, has stated: "We intend to take this case to trial."
This past Thursday, a group of activists supporting victims of sexual molestation gathered outside Hynes's office on Jay Street in Brooklyn, demanding he drop the charges against Kellner.
Chaim Levin, a 24-year-old activist from Crown Heights and himself a victim of sexual abuse as a child, organized the protest. During an interview with the Forverts, Levin remarked that it was very important to show support for Kellner in this difficult time.
"This is a father who went to the police seeking justice for his son, which is more than my parents did," Levin said.
Sam Kellner is accusing Baruch Lebovits of sexually molesting his son, as well as other young boys in the Hasidic community.
In 2010, Lebovits was found guilty on 8 out of 10 counts of child sexual molestation and sentenced to 10 ½ to 32 years in prison. He was freed in 2011 on a technicality. A new trial was ordered, but the date has yet to be set.
Several months after Lebovits' conviction, Hynes accused Kellner of trying to extort money from Lebovits' family, and blackmailing witnesses to testify against Lebovits.
It now appears that the charges against Kellner came from Baruch Lebovits' own family and lawyers. According to several articles by Hella Winston for the Jewish Week, and a report in the New York Times, the statements made by the key witness against Kellner had gross inconsistencies. The witness also acknowledged that community activist Zalmen Ashkenazi – one of Lebovits' supporters — has paid for his flights to and from Israel, as well as his school fees, lawyer's fees and rent.
The DA has confirmed that Lebovits' attorney tried to obtain a plea deal on charges related to the witness, but the prosecutors rejected it, Winston reported. Kellner's lawyers now believe that the efforts of Lebovits's defense team to negotiate a plea deal is a sign that they too may suspect that Lebovits might have manipulated the witness, and that Kellner might not have blackmailed him.
Kellner is "paying a really big price for what he did and we need to stand up for him," Levin says.
Levin, the founder of a website, "Gotta Give 'Em Hope," himself recently won awarded 3.5 million dollar by the court in a case against his first cousin, who molested him over the course of many years. Israeli prosecutors are also looking into allegations that the cousin molested him during a family trip to Jerusalem in 1999.
"The DA's actions are not only shocking, but also set a terrible precedence for others," Levin said. "Instead of pursuing Lebovits, who everyone knows is a threat to children, they're going after Kellner. In the meantime, Kellner has lost everything – his community, his house, and his job."
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Williamsburg Hatzalah Comes To Aid When 911 System Failed
Northbrook speaker to dispel misunderstands about Orthodox Jews
Residents of Northbrook and other surrounding communities can learn more about Orthodox Jews and the myths surrounding Judaism at an event this weekend.
Allison Josephs, an Orthodox Jew who shines light on misconceptions and stereotypes about religious Judaism, will talk in front of an audience on Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Northbrook Theatre, 3323 Walters Ave.
When Josephs, 33, first started to become an observant Orthodox Jew, she said her choice was met with a lot of negativity from people she knew, she said.
"People are getting ideas about us through the headlines, movies and television," Josephs said. "And they portray characters that are always over the top and are ridiculous caricatures."
Such stereotypes include perceiving Orthodox Jews as overly modest, repressed, sexist and anti-scientific, Josephs said.
Knowing that many Orthodox Jews don't identify with those labels, New Jersey-native Joseph said saw an opportunity to dispel the stereotypes about her religion humorous YouTube videos, social media and other online content. In 2007, she founded Jew in the City, an online outreach resource, to show people of all religions that Orthodox Jews can be open-minded, approachable and pro-women. Josephs' YouTube channel has gained more than 1 million views to date.
"My biggest goal is for people to judge Orthodox Jews based on actual information, not on stereotypes," said Josephs, who is a mother to two daughters and two sons. "There is more that connects us as human beings than divides us."
Because of the growing popularity of her YouTube channel and website, Josephs has been named one of the Top 10 Jewish Influencers in 2012 by the National Jewish Outreach Program. Josephs has also been a Torah study mentor for American actress Mayim Bialik of "The Big Bang Theory" fame, for about seven years.
Sunday, Josephs will share with the audience a story of how she became religious as a teenager while she searched for meaning in life.
The event is organized by Buffalo Grove-based Neshama Women, a division of Suburban Alliance for Jewish Education. The nonprofit organization, which has been created about four years ago, provides Jewish programs for youth and families in northern and western suburbs of Chicago.
Tracy Dalton, spokeswoman for Neshama Women, said she is excited to see Josephs.
"I really believe in what she's doing, and we're just thrilled for her to come to Chicago," Dalton said, adding that she found out about Josephs through her YouTube videos.
Being an observant Orthodox Jew for about 18 years, Dalton said she can relate to the stereotypes Josephs speaks of.
"There is so much erroneous information out there," Dalton said. "But we're not so different."
Dalton said she expects the event to draw a crowd of about 150 and hopes it will inspire and educate women of different backgrounds and religions.
"Hopefully it'll be an eye opener for many people who attend," Dalton said.
Monday, July 15, 2013
An Exclusive Interview With Lipa Schmeltzer
Hasidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer is a true exception in the Haredi world, both because of his music and because of his personality. Frimet Goldberger lives a few blocks away from Schmeltzer in the community of Airmont, N.Y., and she and her family are members of his shul. In this exclusive interview with the Forverts, Schmeltzer discussed the community he grew up in, the people who rejected him, and how the experience changed him.
Lipa Schmeltzer: I was raised in the town of New Square, which is a small ultra-Orthodox community, and a significant part of my popularity happened because I am a strong critic. My reputation came to be that Lipa Schmeltzer is talented, but shunned by many. And this happened in part because I grew up in [New] Square. They contributed to this rejection, because they were hurt by the mere fact that I became a singer.
To them, singing is a problem — and the genre is irrelevant. An artist who will perform at concerts; a singer who will go out in the world and fans will clap with their hands and cheer loudly; they despise this.
But my talents prevailed and I continued on my way. I grew stronger within as a result of this, and I also healed a lot from my music. And all the pain, shame, and humiliation that I endured only served to strengthen me.
I had a very difficult childhood. I could not concentrate in heder [Hasidic boys' school], I was spanked, and I was given nicknames — things I was never willing to discuss, until recently. But I am more willing now to go back to this pain, to look in the mirror and see what I have endured, and how I have to thank Hashem that I arrived to where I am now.
The most difficult time in my life was when 33 so-called rabbis signed a petition against me. Five or six called to apologize, and a few I recorded on paper saying that they were fooled. It's interesting to note that on the signed rejection letter, you only see their printed signatures. But I do have the authentic signatures on paper from the few who said they were duped. But they did not allow me to publish it in the newspapers.
Today, if 500 rabbis come out against me, perhaps it will be uncomfortable, but that is where it will end. I will go on the radio to talk about it, I'll write about it in the newspaper and on blogs, but I won't run and hide in a hole the way I did back then.
Burekh Hashem, [thank God], God gave us a gift called the Internet. If I wanted to pay $10,000 back then for a Haredi publication to publish my side of the story, I couldn't, because a rabbi warned them not to accept my story. These days I am able to express my opinions in different places. So it is a little easier now. But I still have endured a lot — and this was one of my most difficult periods.
Many of these trying times were when I lived in New Square. I wanted so badly to have the honor, the opportunity to sing for the Rebbe. This was my dream. They said they would allow it, but only if I commit to five conditions. After I signed their commitment paper, they canceled on me at the last minute, citing one dayan [a judge of Jewish legal matters] who said I am not yet 100% kosher. It really stung. I stayed home and hid for a few days.
I was once publicly thrown out of a wedding — off a stage; I was once thrown out of a sheva brokhes [post-wedding meals] where I was a guest; all because I sing with a wilder beat. And I have to believe God is bothered by all this. It's silly to even talk about it.
Rejection is a very difficult feeling, and I suffered from it a lot in my life. So I will hopefully never do this to others — no matter what happens. Each week I receive calls here at my shul, sometimes from a dayan, a rabbi or just congregants: I shouldn't allow this, I should tell him that, etc., and I never pass along the message. Because I know what it feels like to face a closed door and not to be accepted. I will never do this to others.
Sometimes I have to attend family occasions, or go back to places where they look at me with contempt. But instead of getting upset, I pity them, because I know that they don't know any better; it is not their fault. And maybe, one day, they will change, too.
We are one nation. Hitler did not differentiate between those [women] who did not cover their hair and those who did; Hitler did not differentiate between those who dressed in black and white or those who dressed in blue; Hitler did not differentiate between those who were Jewish or those whose grandfathers were Jewish; he wanted us all out. We need to come together. Am Yisroel Chai.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Courting Jewish Voters, Weiner Faces a Challenge
Boruch Benenfeld still remembers Representative Anthony D. Weiner speaking at his daughter's yeshiva graduation. That was before Mr. Weiner acknowledged sending sexually explicit images and messages to women he knew only online, before he resigned from Congress in disgrace and before he announced, two years later, that he would seek redemption as a candidate for mayor of New York. Still, to Mr. Benenfeld, a 47-year-old Orthodox Jew, none of that matters.
"I don't feel that's going to affect his being mayor," Mr. Benenfeld, a clothing store manager, said as he stopped in at Sweet Choice, a kosher ice cream shop in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave of Midwood, Brooklyn. "He got over it. He got therapy. His wife forgave him. We've moved on, just as we did with President Bill Clinton. I don't judge a person by his personal life."
As Mr. Weiner vies with a field of current and former officeholders to win the Democratic nomination for mayor, he is making an aggressive play for votes in the Jewish community, with an intense focus on the ultra-Orthodox community. He is the only Jewish candidate; he represented several heavily Jewish communities on the City Council and in Congress; and he has over the years staked out staunchly pro-Israel positions.
But ultra-Orthodox Jews espouse a strict code of moral behavior, particularly regarding interactions between men and women — some frown on even casual conversations between unrelated men and women — posing a challenge for Mr. Weiner.
"The scandal made him someone I cannot trust," said Rabbi Yaakov Klein, 50, a teacher at Yeshiva Ohr Yitzchok in Midwood, as he shopped at Pomegranate, a kosher specialty foods emporium. "His integrity is lacking. If you're trusting him with public matters, you want his personal life to be beyond reproach."
Mr. Weiner has other liabilities in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. Yaakov Kornreich, a journalist for Jewish publications who is associated with the Midwood-based "yeshivish" or "black hat" community, said it will be hard for many Orthodox Jewish voters to forgive Mr. Weiner for marrying a non-Jew. Mr. Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, a longtime personal aide to Hillary Clinton, is Muslim, though Mr. Kornreich said that her particular belief is not as much an issue as the fact that she is not Jewish.
"There's a feeling that he betrayed the Orthodox community, its values and standards, by marrying out of the faith," he said. "He literally crossed a red line that is enforced in this community."
(Mr. Weiner, asked about the potential interfaith marriage issue, said his marriage is "between me and my wife and my God.")
Ezra Friedlander, a Hasid who is a public affairs consultant and is supporting Christine C. Quinn for mayor, pointed to a greater problem than morality in the way many Orthodox Jews perceive the Twitter episode: his posts raise questions about his judgment. "Everyone understands that men have these weaknesses, but Anthony Weiner tweeting inappropriate pictures is more like what college kids do than a serious candidate for mayor," he said.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community could be crucial to Mr. Weiner's bid because its adherents are a growing citywide force — 40 percent of the city's 1.1 million Jews, according to the latest population survey by the UJA-Federation of New York. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are coveted by candidates because they tend to vote, and they are among the last communities that tend to vote in blocs, following the guidance of communal leaders.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Weiner has sided with the ultra-Orthodox community against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's effort to regulate the practice of circumcisions that involve oral suction to clean the wound, which health authorities say has led infants to contract, and on occasion die from, herpes. He has spoken sympathetically about Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel, and the Rubashkin family, which has faced a variety of legal problems connected with its kosher meat businesses. And he has dropped Yiddish phrases, like "kishkes," meaning guts, into his talks to Jewish audiences.
A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found a narrow majority of Jewish voters said they had an unfavorable view of Mr. Weiner, and Jewish voters were slightly more likely than the overall electorate to view Mr. Weiner unfavorably. The poll did not break down the Jewish community by observance level.
Some Hasidic leaders say that Mr. Weiner, as a secular Jew, benefits because the ultra-Orthodox community already assumes that many non-Orthodox Jews are engaged in behaviors they view as sexually immoral. Many aspects of the non-Orthodox world — mixed-gender dancing, same-sex relationships, revealing clothing, content on the Internet — are met with disapproval, and in that context, Mr. Weiner's behavior might be less shocking. Furthermore, said Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist, Mr. Weiner's behavior is not dwelt upon, because it "would not be a subject of discussion at the family table — it's taboo."
In an interview, Mr. Weiner, who had his bar mitzvah at a Reform temple on Eastern Parkway, took note of his long record of helping Orthodox Jewish constituents, having arranged extra trash pickups before Passover and Homeland Security grants for yeshivas and synagogues. He said now he was "reintroducing myself to the community" and believes that the scandal will only form part of his image.
"Hopefully they'll include it in the full continuum of what they know about me," he said.
Many of the candidates are courting ultra-Orthodox Jews. William C. Thompson Jr., in particular, has a long history of work with the community, and has reached out repeatedly during his campaign.
But Mr. Weiner appears to be making progress. He is often welcomed warmly in Jewish settings. And he recently met with the grand rabbi of Munkacs, Moshe Leib Rabinovich, who bestowed legitimacy if not quite an imprimatur by stating, according to a Hasid who was there, that Mr. Weiner had a record of helping the community. (Mr. Weiner once aided the Munkacs sect by getting the State Department to help secure Jewish grave sites in the town of Munkacz, Ukraine.)
"The fact that the Munkacser Rebbe was willing to sit down with him meant he was being treated as a serious candidate," said Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn that is the city's largest Hasidic enclave. Mr. Hikind, who has not endorsed a mayoral candidate, said many Orthodox Jews admire Mr. Weiner as a fighter who was able to pick himself up and "get out of the mud" when his political career seemed unsalvageable.
"To underestimate Weiner is to make a huge mistake," Mr. Hikind said.
In the communities he represented as a state and federal lawmaker, he was viewed as attentive to local concerns. "When he was involved in the neighborhood, he was very good," said Ephraim Nierenberg, 50, a real estate manager. "He helped every constituent out."
But still, in Borough Park, residents seemed divided over what to make of Mr. Weiner.
"He committed something pretty horrendous, for a person who is supposed to be a role model," said Dolly Rabinovich, an Orthodox Jew, though not Hasidic, who was watching a movie about Israel at a senior center at the Boro Park Y.
Frieda Emer, an Orthodox Jew accompanying her mother to the center, was more forgiving.
"We're all human," she said. "We have to look aside human failings and see what he can achieve. What he did was harmless. It wasn't like it was embezzlement. Let's forgive the guy."