Thursday, April 30, 2020

Jewish leaders slam de Blasio over comments about Brooklyn funeral in letter 

More than 100 Jewish leaders expressed their "anger and disappointment" with Mayor Bill de Blasio over his warning to "the Jewish community" after thousands gathered for a funeral in Williamsburg — and demanded a meeting with him to discuss his incendiary critique.

In the Wednesday letter, obtained by Jewish Insider, the leaders said they want face time with de Blasio "to discuss constructive approaches to respond to the pandemic that recognize the Jewish community's earnest efforts to fight COVID-19, protect vulnerable communities, and avoid heavy-handed over-policing."

"In the midst of a historic wave of antisemitic hate violence in New York City, our community — like the Asian community — has been feeling the pain of being singled out and blamed for the spread of this deadly disease," the letter says.

"This singling out is especially potent because it aligns with longstanding antisemitic tropes that have, for millennia, blamed Jews for societal ills," it continues. "Laying blame upon Hasidic communities — among the most visible members of our Jewish family — will not stop the spread of COVID-19, and referring to these particular communities as 'the Jewish community' both flattens a diverse group of New Yorkers into a single bloc and fuels the anti-Semitic hatreds that bubble beneath the surface of our society."

The letter was signed by groups including Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and the New York Jewish Agenda, as well as city council members Stephen Levin and Brad Lander, who, respectively, represent parts of the Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods. State Sens. Brad Hoylman and Julia Salazar, as well as Assembly members Harvey Epstein and Linda Rosenthal, also signed.

Dozens of religious leaders are also included in the signatures.

The letter echoes similar concerns brought earlier by Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder and even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for the mayor's tweet.

Hizzoner tweeted his outrage Tuesday night after Orthodox Jewish mourners gathered en masse — a blatant violation of social distancing mandates — near Rutledge Street and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg to pay their respects for Rabbi Chaim Mertz.

In a Wednesday press conference, he defended his statements, saying he spoke out of "passion" and "tough love," but regretted if his message came across in a hurtful manner.

Hizzoner called the funeral "by far the largest gathering" in the city he'd heard of since the start of the coronavirus crisis, "and it's just not allowable."

He added that the city no longer permits these kinds of gatherings "in any community" as the crisis continues.



Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In 3 days, NYC handed out 30,000 free kosher meals. It still wasn’t enough 

New York City has handed out nearly 32,000 kosher meals since last Wednesday, but it underestimated the number of meals needed and encountered problems distributing them, including shortages in some locations, surpluses in others and several long lines.

Politicians representing Jewish areas who fought for kosher meals to be added to the city's free-meal program, run through the Department of Education, criticized the rollout and said it risks humiliating and disappointing people.

"Thursday was a disaster. Friday was a disaster," said Simcha Eichenstein, a state assemblyman representing the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, and who helped organize the kosher meal program. "It is not acceptable to have 100 people on line, and just turn them away without food — that cannot happen in 2020 in the city of New York."

In normal times, the Department of Education's breakfast, lunch and after school meal programs feed about 70 percent of the city's children. The DOE kept providing those meals when the virus shut down the schools, and then in late March the city decided to use the same mechanism to feed adults, as well.

It will distribute more than 10 million meals in April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week, but the provision of kosher meals was delayed by Passover, said Sam Levy, head of sales and customer relations at Borenstein Caterers, the company supplying the meals. City rules mandate that the meals include a certain amount of whole grains, and observant Jews can't eat leaven during that holiday.

New York City neighborhoods with large Orthodox communities had high concentrations of poverty even before the virus hit. According to a 2011 study of Jewish poverty from UJA-Federation of New York, 55% of Jewish households in Williamsburg, and 44% in Borough Park — the two largest Hasidic communities in Brooklyn — were considered poor.


Orthodox Jewish girls' school is accused of 'censorship' after gluing textbook pages together to airbrush famous woman including Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn out of history lessons 

A Jewish girls' school has been slammed by Ofsted for cutting out a 'large chunk of history' by gluing textbook pages together.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman accused the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School of 'censorship' for redacting history books to cover up elements of Elizabeth I's reign and pictures of men and women together. 

Ms Spielman told a Commons education committee that the north London school made 'extremely extensive restrictions and redactions in all the materials made available to the girls'. 

The school, which caters to the capital's Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community, was run by Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, until his death from coronavirus this month. 

It has appointed an acting headteacher ahead of his replacement, with the website reading simply: 'Our core values and ethos, guided by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregation, discourage the use of online communication and Internet use wherever possible. 

'This site therefore holds only statutory and other basic information about the school.'

Ms Spielman made her comments about the school in Stamford Hill during an online hearing of the House of Commons education committee. 

She had been asked to defend criticisms she made in a report of the school in January. 

The Ofsted boss told the hearing passages about Elizabeth I had been removed from textbooks.

It is thought that they were censored because of references to the Queen's special friendship with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester.  

The pair were also pictured dancing together and these images were redacted, reports The Times.      

The Tudor period was not taught thoroughly by teachers because of Henry VIII's many wives and Anne Boleyn's alleged adultery, according to the newspaper.  

January's report revealed that pupils were not allowed to visit the Tate Modern art gallery because it exhibited works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, which were deemed far too explicit by staff.

Parts of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels were also redacted, the report said.   

Headteacher Rabbi Pinter became unwell at the beginning of April with symptoms of coronavirus. 

He was admitted to a central London hospital but died after testing positive for the virus.  

Best known for his work as a community figurehead, he was also a driving force in the bid to get state funding for the Yesodey Hatorah Girls School, where a new building was later opened by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.  

MailOnline has contacted Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School for comment.



Monday, April 27, 2020

Litzman's personal rabbi ordered him to quit Health Ministry 

Though Yaakov Litzman announced Sunday he's wanting to retire from the Health Ministry in favor of the housing portfolio, many attribute his decision to a row with the current Rebbe of the Hasidic dynasty of Gur, his personal rabbi, regarding his actions during the coronavirus epidemic.

Litzman on Sunday claimed his sudden decision to leave the ministry he has headed for more than a decade, is down to feeling that he has done all he could for the health system during his tenure.

Behind the scenes, however, it seems the main reason for his retirement is the Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Yaakov Arye, who apparently has grown tired of the way Litzman has failed the Haredi community over his years in charge of the ministry.

Sources within the Rebbe's inner circle said that he ordered Litzman to leave his post, a decision that very much surprised him.

According to the sources, the main reason behind Rebbe's decision is the health minister's conduct during the coronavirus epidemic, which he deemed as being anti-Haredi, due to Litzman's consent to impose lockdown on the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and parts of Jerusalem.



Friday, April 24, 2020

Soup kitchen and Hasidic philanthropist provide free groceries to Boro Park families affected by COVID-19 

Masbia Soup Kitchen has partnered with Mordy Getz, the owner of Eichler's Judaica Bookstore, to offer free groceries to any Boro Park family which has lost a breadwinner to coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus has devastated tight-knit Hasidic communities in New York. And for families, grief over a parent's death is compounded by anxiety about fulfilling basic needs.

"No one wants to see someone who lost a loved one struggling with the additional burden of feeding their family," Getz said.

The initiative, which launched on April 22, will function using grocery "taps," a common system in Hasidic communities that allows families to shop on credit at their local supermarket, settling the bill at the end of each month. Families served by the new initiative will shop at a tap at a Boro Park grocery store, administered by Masbia with funds provided by Getz.

Alexander Rapaport, Masbia's executive director, said he had chosen the tap system because of the dignity and discretion it affords to families, most of whom had been self-sufficient before losing a breadwinner. He said he understood how hard it was to accept charity for the first time, especially after a loss.

"You could hear mothers choke up leaving a voice message," he said of the first women who contacted him for help.

Any Boro Park family who lost a breadwinner after Purim is eligible for the service, which will last until Rosh Hashanah. Rapaport expects to serve between one and two dozen families in the neighborhood.

Getz, a cancer survivor who now counsels cancer patients, said that in his years of charitable work he'd noticed how much people underestimate the importance of food security in the wake of a tragedy. "Groceries go a long way towards determining how well families cope during such a crisis," he said.

Rapaport hopes that more members of the Hasidic community will come forward to sponsor groceries in other affected neighborhoods. As of April 22n

Rapaport said he was hoping that other members of the Hasidic community would come forward to spearhead similar initiatives in other affected neighborhoods. As the project launched, Itzy Laub, Chair of Masbia of Queens, announced that he would sponsor groceries for all needy families in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood.



Orthodox NY Jews donate blood plasma en masse, helping corona research 

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Hasidim who have recovered from coronavirus are turning up en masse in New York City hospitals to donate blood plasma in an effort to help researchers find a treatment for the deadly disease, reported the Forward.

According to the report, the major influences behind their eagerness to help has come from the combined efforts of Dr. Samuel Shoham, an expert on infectious diseases in transplant patients at Johns Hopkins University, and his friend Chaim Lebovits, a hasidic shoe wholesaler from Monsey.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered "nonessential" businesses to close on March 20 until further notice, Shoham, knowing Lebovits to be of extraordinary character, urged his friend to rally up those in the hasidic community who have recovered from coronavirus to donate blood plasma.

"I had no idea that he would drop everything and completely immerse himself in this," Shoham told the news outlet. "[Lebovits] is giving his community members a chance to do something, now that they have this power in their body to make a difference."

Lebovits took his friend's request to heart and began creating a network of rabbis, religious organizations, virus researchers, and other health professionals to educate the Hasidic community about the benefits of donating plasma if they have recovered from coronavirus.

"The plasma isn't just used for frum (religious Jews) or Jewish people. It's for people in general. " Lebovits told the Forward. "We as observant Jews have an obligation to preserve life, save life, and help as many people as we can."

At least 3,000 recovered coronavirus Hasidic individuals have donated blood plasma, said Lebovits.

According to Dr. David Reich, president of the Mount Sinai hospital system, more than half of those who have contributed to the coronavirus plasma research program are from the hasidic community.

"The level of organization from the Orthodox community has been a step above," he said.



Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Mitchell Moyshe Silk confirmed as Treasury assistant secretary 

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On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed — via voice vote — the nomination of Mitchell (Moyshe) Allen Silk as assistant secretary of the Treasury for international markets, a position he has held in an acting role since last July. 

Background: Silk, a resident of the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a lawyer and expert in Chinese law and finance who is fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese. Silk joined the Treasury Department in 2017 as a deputy assistant secretary for international affairs. Silk, a father of eight, is believed to be the first Hasidic Jew confirmed by the Senate for a senior position in a U.S. administration. 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin congratulated Silk on his confirmation, tweeting: "I know he will continue to serve the [Treasury Department] and the nation well." 

For more than 12 years, Silk served as chairman of Agudath Israel of America's pro bono legal services. Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein (D-Brooklyn) tweeted about his constituent: "You make Borough Park proud working to make a difference in the halls of government with honor and integrity." 

Rabbi A.D. Motzen, the national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, told JI that during his time with the organization, Silk's "passion was helping those who could not speak for themselves," and he would regularly get personally involved in cases. "Assistant Secretary Silk has earned the respect and admiration of all who know him and I am sure that he will continue to serve the United States with honor and distinction."



Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Chag Kosher V'Sameach 

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach.


Tuesday, April 07, 2020

A group of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn became experts in online learning before the coronavirus - now educators are seeking their help 

The Chabad movement has been educating its children online since 2006. With 80% of schools now closed worldwide, people are seeking their expertise.




Monday, April 06, 2020

Is Unorthodox a true story? How Deborah Feldman's book inspired the Netflix drama series 

Netflix's latest offering Unorthodox has introduced viewers to Esther "Esty" Shapiro (Shira Haas), a young woman who rejects her Hasidic upbringing to start a new life in Berlin.

Throughout the four episodes, Esty is seen struggling with what is expected of her in the ultra-orthodox community before she flees her arranged marriage with the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for a new life.

The highly emotive drama is inspired by bestselling memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, which many question the veracity of.



Sunday, April 05, 2020

Will Corona usher the internet into the Haredi Orthodox home? 

The dire circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing prominent Haredi Orthodox figures to acknowledge the hazards of keeping the internet out of their homes, though so far any changes have been limited and temporary.

In Israel, after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was forced to defy the strict rules of his Gerrer hasidic sect and install a computer in his home that is linked to the internet so he can communicate with other government officials.

In North America, the influential Lakewood yeshiva leaders issued guidelines that allow internet use during home isolation, though its rabbis stressed that this is a temporary step made necessary by the urgent situation (“sha’as ha-dehak”). They also emphasized that this easing of policy does not extend to children, for whom there should be “no relaxation of technology standards… even [for] Torah purposes.” Video conferencing apps such as Zoom are still off limits for kids, the Lakewood directive says.

It’s no secret that many Haredi Jews use smartphones covertly. Academic studies have pointed to widespread internet use, evidenced by the abundance of Haredi-oriented blogs and websites. Still, the disproportionately high spread of the COVID-19 virus within Haredi communities shows that information is not getting through and that limiting digital access endangers lives. Without the internet, people were less informed about the potency of the virus, less exposed to fast-rising fatality numbers, less familiar with the rules of social distancing and hygiene, and slower to transition to safer conduct.

After Corona, rabbinical leaders may revert to prior policies that either reject the internet completely or limit it to the workplace. But now that web access has proven it can save lives, it will be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. On the other hand, if the rabbis face the new reality directly rather than trying to avoid it, a strategy can be developed for maintaining and even enhancing the Haredi lifestyle in an internet-saturated world.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Haredi community will have dispensed with a major taboo. Much of the Orthodox rabbinic world once looked at psychiatry as tantamount to heresy. Eventually the broader benefits became too clear to ignore. Today many of the most sectarian-oriented institutions have mental health consultancy arrangements. Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua hospital has a full-fledged psychiatric department with both religiously observant and nonobservant practitioners.

But while embracing psychiatry was a major leap, acceptance of the web has more far-reaching implications for the Haredi world because the internet’s value to the community far exceeds just delivering emergency information. The internet can provide other significant benefits to Haredi communities as they struggle to deal with the pandemic. Despite mass isolation and social distancing, millions of people throughout the world have been able to do their jobs remotely. They also keep up their health regimens, participate in religious functions and maintain contact with close relatives and friends.

The threat that Haredi leaders see in the internet is comparable to how their predecessors perceived the rise of the modern state. Some Orthodox groups were relatively successful in limiting exposure to specific components of modern culture such as formal secular education. But the impact of the state was far more pervasive. Regardless of one’s ideology, it entered the home and seized control of foundational aspects of life. Avoiding contact with the state and its apparatus became nearly impossible. Survival dictated achieving pragmatic accord with the overall environment.

Haredi populations did not necessarily become patriotic activists in their host countries, nor did they desist from defending their rights when they felt impinged upon by the state. But they did develop workable models that enabled them to function within the prevailing systems. The challenges of the internet to core Haredi Orthodox values, including rabbinical authority and rules of modesty, can similarly be reconciled.

Just as acknowledging the state’s dominant role in life was the first step to reaching a workable modus vivendi, recognition of the foundational role of the internet in contemporary existence is critical. It will generate effective tools for engaging the web with minimal damage to fundamental Haredi ideals.

Indeed, these trying times have produced profound initiatives that can serve as inspiration for developing future Haredi approaches. Other leaders and lay practitioners have harnessed the universal reach and power of the internet to strengthen and advance religious life under current circumstances. Pathbreaking web portals have been adopted for engaging Torah study, worship, family rituals. communal activities and dissemination of critical halakhic decisions (often with life and death implications). Many already existed, but social distancing and isolation have transformed the internet sites and mobile apps into the focal vehicles for ongoing religious involvement. They have even prompted figures of Jewish authority who were previously ambivalent to embrace these innovative channels.

Within the diverse and wide spectrum of Haredi Jewry, select individuals and clusters have exhibited an encouraging level of adaptation to the digital world over the past few years, and especially in response to the present predicament in fighting Covid-19.

In this vain, I was so delighted by the wedding that took place this past week of a close relative who was educated in elite Haredi institutions. The families, attentive to the health hazards and legal limitations on being present at the chuppah, set up dedicated YouTube and Zoom links, and a WhatsApp mazal tov chat group. These facilitated maximum engagement by friends and loved ones from across the globe – including parents and siblings – who were prevented from traveling. The well-wishers who appeared on my screen throughout the day of the wedding as well as the scenes of simultaneous dancing and singing during the event itself emanated from Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Flatbush, Monsey, Lakewood, Passaic, Manchester, Melbourne and other prominent points on the Orthodox world map.

Such grassroots initiatives offer a glimpse of the positive opportunities for using the internet that can benefit Haredi Jews in better times to come. Rather than being forced by the coronavirus to bring computers into their homes, like Israel’s health minister was, rabbinical leaders should seize the initiative and find benefits in the digital world. Starting now to develop sustainable internet strategies is the best way in the long term to ensure both the future physical and spiritual health of the Orthodox home.



Friday, April 03, 2020

In Lakewood, a daily battle to secure compliance with social distancing order 

Lakewood Police blocked off a stretch of Ridge Avenue on Thursday, turning cars away to prevent crowds from gathering at a Hasidic funeral, the latest in a series of actions they’ve taken in recent days to compel compliance with state COVID-19 public health orders in this sprawling Ocean County township.

Despite emphatic public health messages about the need to stay home and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that has now killed nearly 650 in the state, officials here say achieving wholesale compliance has been an ongoing battle.

“We are frustrated by it. It is a topic of conversation at least a half dozen times a day,” said Ray Coles, mayor of the township that’s home to more than 100,000 people. “And we’re doing everything we can with the religious community to get the word out.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order 107 banning all parties, celebrations and public events on March 21, but it’s apparently been a tough sell with some folks in this large Orthodox community accustomed to frequent social gatherings. Lakewood has been among the municipalities in New Jersey that are mentioned by State Police Col. Patrick Callahan frequently during his daily reports on incidents that resulted in citations and arrests for non-compliance with the order.

Authorities in Lakewood — where local police have partnered with state and county agencies — have charged people for hosting such events as backyard weddings, a bat mitzvah and an engagement party. Recently, 14 were charged at a funeral.

“The police went after there and issued a summons to anyone who wouldn’t disperse immediately,” Cole said. “When somebody passes like that, people sometimes don’t think straight. They get emotional, they allow those emotions to take over.”

Rabbi Aaron Kotler — the president of the Yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha, said to be one of the world’s largest schools for Orthodox Jews — says that while many residents don’t like the restrictions, most do obey the executive order.

“They were wrong. We begged them not to. They were wrong,” he said of the funeral attendees. “And we’re happy law enforcement cracked down on them.”

Kotler also cited an example of members of the community who are managing to observe tradition and adhere to the guidelines. “That same day, there was another funeral, that 10,000 people dialed into a funeral by Zoom for Zvi Rothschild, which we arranged.”

He pushed back against those who would make generalized assumptions about the community.

“The statement that Lakewood is not observing the social distancing rules is simply — it’s flat-out false,” he said. “Out of 130,000 people, there are going to be a few people who make mistakes.”

Social distancing is particularly important in Lakewood because it’s a COVID-19 hot spot. As of Wednesday, Lakewood logged 450 of Ocean County’s more than 1,200 positive cases. At least five rabbis have died.

Kotler suggests the Lakewood outbreak might be traced back to parties held in early March, before the executive order was signed, in honor of Purim, an annual festival dating back 2,500 years.



Thursday, April 02, 2020

Touting Virus Cure, ‘Simple Country Doctor’ Becomes a Right-Wing Star 

Last month, residents of Kiryas Joel, a New York village of 35,000 Hasidic Jews roughly an hour’s drive from Manhattan, began hearing about a promising treatment for the coronavirus that had been rippling through their community.

The source was Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, 46, a mild-mannered family doctor with offices near the village. Since early March, his clinics had treated people with coronavirus-like symptoms, and he had developed an experimental treatment consisting of an antimalarial medication called hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin and zinc sulfate.

After testing this three-drug cocktail on hundreds of patients, some of whom had only mild or moderate symptoms when they arrived, Dr. Zelenko claimed that 100 percent of them had survived the virus with no hospitalizations and no need for a ventilator.

“I’m seeing tremendous positive results,” he said in a March 21 video, which was addressed to President Trump and eventually posted to YouTube and Facebook.

What happened next is a modern pandemic parable that illustrates how the coronavirus is colliding with our fragile information ecosystem: a jumble of facts, falsehoods and viral rumors patched together from Twitter threads and shards of online news, amplified by armchair experts and professional partisans and pumped through the warp-speed accelerator of social media.

Dr. Zelenko’s treatment arrived at a useful moment for Mr. Trump and his media supporters, who have at times appeared more interested in discussing miracle cures than testing delays or ventilator shortages.

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, quickly promoted Dr. Zelenko’s claims on his TV and radio shows. Mark Meadows, the incoming White House chief of staff, called Dr. Zelenko to ask about his treatment plan. And Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, praised him in a podcast interview this week for “thinking of solutions, just like the president.”

Few people have been as hopeful about hydroxychloroquine as Mr. Trump, who has enthusiastically promoted it for weeks as “very effective” and possibly “the biggest game changer in the history of medicine” — even as health experts have cautioned that more research and testing are needed.

That has not deterred Mr. Trump’s supporters, who have vilified public health officials such as Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the most outspoken advocate of emergency virus measures. Instead, some are pinning their hopes on Dr. Zelenko and his unproven treatment plan, which has now been seen by millions.



Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Proposed New York Hate Crimes Law Named in Memory of Rabbi Murdered in Monsey Attack 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has renamed a proposed domestic terrorism law after the late rabbi who was stabbed during an attack on a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey.

Rabbi Josef Neumann, 72, had gone into a coma after suffering a head injury on Dec. 28 at the hands of a man who burst in on a Hanukkah celebration and began slashing attendees with a machete. He passed away on Sunday, three months after the outrage.

Cuomo said that the “Josef Neumann Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act” would reclassify certain hate crimes so they carry a life sentence without parole. He urged the New York state legislature to pass the measure in its budget on Wednesday, April 1.

“We owe it to Mr. Neumann, his family and the entire family of New York to get it done now,” Cuomo said in a statement on Monday.

Neumann’s attacker, Grafton Thomas, 37, was charged with attempted murder — which could now be upgraded to murder — and pled not guilty to federal hate crimes charges in January.

Thomas’s attack on the celebration in Monsey capped a string of incidents in which Jews were physically attacked or accosted in the New York metropolitan area — including a Dec. 10 shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey that left two members of the Hasidic community dead.

Neumann is survived by seven children, many grandchildren, a great-grandchild and several siblings.

One of Neumann’s close friends described him as “one of the most selfless people I knew” and an “incredibly kind human being.”



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