Monday, August 31, 2020

Kiryas Joel and Monroe: Turf War 

A documentary on PBS stations THIRTEEN and WLIW21 follows a tense, existential conflict between townspeople in a commuter haven in Orange County, NY, 50 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. Monroe is where that American staple, Velveeta cheese was invented, but the area's bigger lures are the Woodbury Commons shopping outlet and the Storm King Art Center.

This is where I grew up watching THIRTEEN. Sesame Street taught me although people are different, we can all get along. But can we? The film City of Joel (2019) reveals the answer to that question by observing angry town hall meetings and difficult conversations on park benches and by sharing the voices of those trying to protect the futures they envision.

The village of Kiryas Joel is part of the Town of Monroe and the film captures the age-old power struggle that arose: the control of land and politics. The insular, close-knit religious group of Satmar Hasidic Jews in Kiryas Joel seek more room for their rapidly growing population. Monroe residents have unified to form an equally powerful bloc vote and oppose the Satmar's plans to annex land.

This is not Wild, Wild Country, though anyone who saw the Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary series will recognize the "us" versus "them" aspect to this true story. In both documentaries, a population in a rather unremarkable area must come to terms with a cohesive community whose culture and way of life are very different. It is their difference that gives otherwise diverse Monroe residents a sense of unity.

The film's edginess comes from witnessing a civic situation in which some feel the American system of democracy is being twisted. We also watch people challenge each others' sense of entitlement and rights, from freedom of religion to reproductive choice.

Yiddish is the first language of the Hasidic community (City of Joel is a translation of the Kiryas Joel). The village's ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect has its roots in Eastern Europe, where it was founded by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) in 1905. After the devastating genocide of the Holocaust, the group immigrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1946. Teitelbaum sought more seclusion from the secular world for his followers, and in 1974, bought pastoral land for Kiryas Joel, where the first 14 families settled.

This once rural area has become increasingly suburban. By the time Jesse Sweet began filming City of Joel, Kiryas Joel's population had grown to 22,000 and was in dire need of more housing and other facilities. The Satmar organize their lives to follow Jewish law in the Talmud. Hasidic couples have as many children as possible. In 2010, 83% of the population was under 18.

"Every child born is a defeat to Hitler," says Chaya Wieder, a compelling Hasidic woman featured in the film.

At the time of the film, more than 50% of the population of 22-square-mile Monroe were living on one square mile of overcrowded multi-family buildings. The area meant to be an alternative to life in Brooklyn is crowded, and taxing on the town water supply, county social services and the environment. The 2010 Census revealed the Kiryas Joel tract to be the poorest area in all of the United States.

My family also moved to the area in the mid-1970s. We left an apartment in Suffern, NY, for a large house in a development four miles from the center of Kiryas Joel. Because the Satmars use their own religious schools, work for their own business and keep to themselves, I knew little about them. Our lives didn't intersect, except rarely at a dentist or doctor's waiting room.

It is those in Monroe who own property, pay taxes, and have children in the public school district of Monroe Woodbury who are concerned as Kiryas Joel seeks to annex 500-plus acres for the village. They are not only losing a largely bucolic landscape to high-density development; more significantly, they worry that all elections and votes will be decided by a bloc that votes according to their religious leader's guidance.

In response, Democrats and Republicans in Monroe double down to create an opposing voting bloc, building on the group United Monroe, which was originally formed to protest the town of Monroe's purchase of a theater, and is led by Emily Convers. The About section of the United Monroe Facebook page includes that they "promote candidates who reflect the interest of the citizens of the region for the preservation of the rural character, environment and school districts."

There is political opposition, and then there is anti-Semitism. The latter rears its ugly head, well documented in comments on local social media pages. This does not go unnoticed by the Satmar, who otherwise avoid modern technology other than for business purposes. Angry Monroe residents express frustration at the many children the Satmar's have, and reliance on welfare. They criticize their community as filthy and much worse.

What fascinates me is the implied unfairness of democracy when a group decides to cast its vote as one. It is not un-Constitutional. Women have the right to bear or not bear children in this country, and Hasidic couples are criticized for not being able to support their families through their personal income. The Hasidic community has experienced the worst persecution imaginable – genocide – and wants to not only to restore their population, but thrive in the place they live. Are the Monroe residents who express a desire to keep the quiet, undeveloped area intact being unreasonable in the face of a multicultural country?

One can look up the result of these elections and lawsuits that determined the future of Kiryas Joel's growth, but I won't spoil it here. There is no narrator of this film. Residents of Kiryas Joel and Monroe speak eloquently for themselves.

As to my family, my parents no longer live in Monroe. They sold our home several years ago to a younger Hasidic family who were looking for room to grow, and willing to live outside Kiryas Joel.



Friday, August 28, 2020

NY's Cuomo vows action against Hasidic Brooklyn weddings over virus concerns 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened on Thursday to step in to prevent large weddings - particularly in Brooklyn's Hasidic community - if New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio fails to do so.

“If the mayor is not doing any enforcement actions, then the state will,” Cuomo told a news conference, according to the New York Post.

“We’ve had superspreader events in New Rochelle with the Jewish community, we’ve had them in the Catholic community. The virus does not discriminate by religious or racial lines, right? This is an equal-opportunity situation. So we police it in every circumstance.”

Cuomo's comments come after de Blasio announced 16 new cases last week in Borough Park, home to the city’s largest Hasidic population, with several connected to a large wedding.

De Blasio was sharply criticized recently for seeming to come down much harder on members of the Jewish community for congregating at large gatherings - including funerals.

The New York Post also reported Wednesday that several wedding halls in Borough Park continue to host large Orthodox weddings, despite the bans on gatherings of more than 50 people, with people entering through side doors and windows covered with paper.

The rising number of cases led several branches of the Jewish emergency medical services organization Hatzalah to issue warnings after it saw an increase in calls from people reporting COVID-like symptoms.

This raises concerns that if the numbers continue to grow it will affect both the timing of schools' reopening for the fall semester and also in-person High Holy Day services.



Friday, August 21, 2020

New COVID-19 cases among US Orthodox may preclude opening school year, say MDs 

Over the past week, the reports have come fast and furious.

One overnight sports camp for boys in Pennsylvania had an outbreak of COVID-19, sending eight boys back to their home communities on Long Island and several more to Baltimore, where others had contracted the virus after attending weddings or coming into contact with those who did.

Bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains saw an outbreak among families, many of whom were summering there away from their homes in Brooklyn.

And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that 16 new cases were found in the Brooklyn Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, with some traced back to a large wedding there.

As the summer comes to a close and families prepare for a new school year and the High Holidays, government officials and leaders in the Orthodox community are monitoring new cases in Orthodox communities across the New York City area and down the East Coast. They say the cases, though small in number at the moment, could spiral out of control, derailing plans to reopen schools with in-person instruction and hold in-person services for the holidays.

Left unchecked, the increasing cases also have the potential to turn next month's gatherings in schools and synagogues into superspreader events, reversing the progress made over the past few months.

"It has the potential to be a perfect storm," said Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island and an assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, a large Orthodox synagogue in Long Island's Nassau County. "The question everyone has to ask themselves is: Is not wearing a mask that critical that they're willing to risk everything?"

Glatt said the New York City and Nassau County health departments have been in touch with him about a slight uptick in cases in several communities in the New York City area, including some related to wedding celebrations. He cautioned that a further rise could jeopardize schools, which are set to reopen in person for the first time since March, and in-person High Holiday services, which Orthodox Jews cannot replace with virtual services.

The question everyone has to ask themselves is: Is not wearing a mask that critical that they're willing to risk everything?

"The Department of Health has the right, the jurisdiction, to say we're closing down schools, we're closing down minyanim if there's a big enough uptick," Glatt said.

Doctors in Orthodox communities have pointed to a number of sources for the new cases. Vacationers are coming into contact with people from other communities and therefore risking exposure. Overnight camps, which were not allowed to open this year in New York state but were allowed in other states, including Pennsylvania, have seen some outbreaks as well, with the infected campers or staff members sometimes being sent back to their home communities to quarantine.

And while the pandemic seemed to put an end to the large weddings typical of Orthodox communities – guest lists of 400 people or more are not uncommon – the smaller outdoor weddings that have replaced them are still bringing together guests from different places, sometimes in large numbers, while mask wearing and social distancing are inconsistent. In some communities large weddings, whether indoors or outdoors, have resumed.

That has been the case especially in some Hasidic neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where life largely returned to normal as early as May and June as many in these communities, including some doctors, believed they had achieved a level of herd immunity — meaning a large enough percentage of the community had acquired immunity after recovering from the virus to significantly slow the transmission of disease.

As early as June and July, local health clinics serving Brooklyn's Hasidic communities performing antibody tests for the coronavirus were seeing a much higher percentage of positive antibody tests there than in the city overall.

New data from the city released Tuesday seemed to support the claim that some Hasidic neighborhoods had higher levels of immunity than other parts of the city. According to those figures, 46.8% of people in one Zip code in Borough Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood with the largest Hasidic population, tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. The only other neighborhood with a higher rate of positive antibody test results was Corona, Queens, one of the hardest-hit parts of the city. Across Brooklyn as a whole, 27.9% of people tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, the second-highest rate among the five boroughs.

New York City police break up ultra-Orthodox funeral as crowds gather in Borough Park, Brooklyn, April 30, 2020 (Screen grab)
But even some level of herd immunity does not mean that there can be no cases.

"Herd immunity is a relative concept," said Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who worked with the World Health Organization for over 10 years on AIDS programs in Africa.

While a large percentage of people having immunity to a virus can help reduce transmission in a group, he said, it does not bring the risk to zero for anyone who has not contracted COVID-19.

"You're still at risk of being around anyone who's still infectious, that has not changed for you," Slutkin said. "So if you're at a gathering and there's someone who is infectious, nothing has changed for you."

De Blasio, speaking of the new cases confirmed in Borough Park, called it "an early warning sign."

"Some of these 16 cases are linked to a recent wedding, a large wedding, in fact, in the community," he said. "We are working quickly to galvanize community leaders."

In response to a question about whether the new cases threaten the idea that there could be herd immunity in parts of New York City, de Blasio dismissed the theory.

"I don't think we have any evidence of herd immunity anywhere in New York City," he said.

On a blog used to disseminate information about local coronavirus numbers, doctors in Crown Heights, who as early as May were pointing to the results of a survey they disseminated showing that approximately 70% of the local Orthodox community had been infected with COVID, said they've seen cases "gradually increasing."

They also noted the new case of someone who had not traveled, been in contact with any travelers or attended a large celebration, leading the doctors to surmise that the person became ill through "community spread" — meaning the virus is still spreading in Crown Heights despite the large numbers of people there who had recovered from the virus.

To what degree immunity to the virus can be relied upon remains unclear. While the CDC advised this week that there have been no confirmed cases of reinfection among those who initially contracted the disease in the previous three months, much remains unknown about immunity resulting from previous infection.

A man prays next to an idle ambulance in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, April 7, 2020. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
But among the new cases in Crown Heights, the local doctors said, were two cases of "presumed reinfection."

"Both had antibodies but upon recent retesting had 'lost' their antibodies, and now, after being exposed to Covid, these people became sick again and tested positive," the doctors, part of the Gedaliah Society, a group of medical professionals in the Chabad community of Crown Heights, wrote in a blog post Tuesday. "These two new cases are so clear in their course as to take reinfection from a probable phenomenon to a reality (albeit difficult to prove as we don't have initial viral samples to compare)."

In a letter to the Nassau County Orthodox community, Glatt said there are cases of possible reinfection being assessed, but they appear to be rare.

"It still remains very reassuring, that with upwards of 20 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, there are very few proven reinfection cases," Glatt wrote. "This is critically important for herd immunity, and partially explains why certain communities have very few new COVID-19 cases despite not adhering to masking guidelines."

Rabbinical councils in several communities have put out community notices asking people to act with caution as the communities prepare for the reopening of local schools.

The Vaad HaRabonim of Cleveland, an Orthodox rabbinical group, sent a notice last week asking anyone returning from camps where campers or staff tested positive for coronavirus to quarantine for 14 days.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which was the first such group to shut down its large Modern Orthodox communities in Northern New Jersey back in March, sent a letter to the community Tuesday warning of the dangers of unchecked celebrations.

"While such an event, first and foremost, constitutes a threat to the health of those in attendance, the risk to the institutional health of our community created by such an event should not be minimized," the group wrote. "Indeed, even one such event could easily result in the full closure of an entire yeshiva, or multiple yeshivot across our community."

And the Vaad Harabanim of Baltimore sent a letter to the community last week asking people to act with greater caution at weddings.

"While in the shuls this vigilance is still evident, one area where laxity has sometimes set in is at weddings," the Vaad wrote. "This is not only a threat to our continued health, but it Chas v'Shalom could set us back in our quest to be able to open the schools."

Dr. Avi Rosenberg, an assistant professor of pathology at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore who has become a go-to resource for Orthodox camps, synagogues and schools in Baltimore and across the country, said weddings were his biggest concern. (Rosenberg is involved in a study on the use of convalescent plasma to treat COVID patients that has recruited a large number of Orthodox plasma donors.)

"We have people who are clearly running unmitigated simchas," said Rosenberg, using the Hebrew word for celebration.

He said he learned of approximately 25 new cases of COVID in the Orthodox community in Baltimore last week, most of which were connected to weddings in Brooklyn or Lakewood, New Jersey, home to large Orthodox communities. Weekly cases had remained in the single digits from May until last week, he said.

"People really need to understand that this upsurge in simcha-related community spread is what's putting the success of school reopenings at risk," Rosenberg said. "If it continues at the rate it's currently going in, I don't know how we're going to open schools safely."



Thursday, August 20, 2020

Two Fires at a Westside Jewish Community Center in a Week Raise Questions 

In the past week, Portland Fire & Rescue responded to two fires that happened in the same building five days apart in Southwest Portland.

The building is home to the Chabad Center for Jewish Life.

The first fire happened Aug. 14, apparently caused by an electrical malfunction.

However, Portland fire officials say they're not sure what caused the second fire in the early morning of Aug. 19.

Chabad is a Hasidic movement, among the more traditional and conservative sects of contemporary Judaism. The center is a welcoming space for Jewish people that provides a supportive community and Judaic education.

In the police report, investigators noted that the building was boarded up and vacant, making it vulnerable to crime. The quick succession of the two fires raises questions about whether Chabad was targeted.

The fire at the center, built in 1929, took firefighters about an hour to get under control after spreading to the attic.

The fire bureau said it had not determined the cause of the blaze and was seeking further information. While officials believe the first fire was accidental, "they have not come to that same conclusion today."

In a Facebook post in response to the fire, Chabad representatives acknowledged the support from the community and announced a fundraiser to help rebuild the center.

"The arson team is currently investigating the Chabad House and we don't have access nor are we able to comment as to motives or causes at this time," the Facebook post said.



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

De Blasio says COVID-19 uptick in Borough Park linked to wedding 

Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood is experiencing an "uptick" in COVID-19 cases that's mostly been linked to a large-scale wedding, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

"We've seen an uptick just in the last few days," de Blasio told reporters during his daily City Hall press briefing, explaining that there were 16 new coronavirus cases in the area.

Hizzoner called the new cases an "early warning sign," as he noted that "some" are "linked to a recent wedding — a large wedding, in fact, in the community."

Currently in New York, only social gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted and de Blasio said the wedding in question "was substantially more than that — and that's just not allowed."

It was not immediately clear where exactly the wedding was held or whether anyone has been punished.

De Blasio said the city's Test and Trace Corps is following up with attendees to get them tested and that the city is "working immediately to galvanize community leaders."

"We need to avoid those large gatherings that can cause a bigger problem," said de Blasio, adding that the city's Health Department will start doubling down on catering halls across the Big Apple "to let them know those standards must be kept."

The mayor also promised that the city will conduct more inspections of catering halls to make sure they're not flouting capacity rules.

While the violations are punishable by fines of up to $10,000, no one will face any consequences, de Blasio said.

"I'm much more concerned about the going forward," he told reporters.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, there were several instances of Hasidic Jews breaking social distancing rules by holding large funerals in the Borough Park neighborhood and elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, as it was revealed that the Big Apple's coronavirus infection rate dropped to a record low of 0.24 percent citywide Wednesday, de Blasio debunked any notion that the hard-hit Big Apple has achieved any herd immunity related to the killer bug.

"I don't think we have any evidence of herd immunity anywhere in New York City," de Blasio said. "We're nowhere near that point."

De Blasio called the idea of herd immunity "folk wisdom in many communities," but "we don't have proof of that."

Jay Varma, de Blasio's senior adviser for public health, who was also on Wednesday's conference call with reporters, referred to a city antibody survey showing that 25 to 30 percent of New Yorkers "have demonstrated some type of infection."

"That is not a level of antibody coverage that we currently think would mean people are fully protected," Varma said.

Varma pointed out that the latest information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people who have been infected by the virus are "protected in some way for up to three months after that initial infection."

"The problem is we don't know how much people are protected after that," he said, adding, "Everybody should still consider themselves potentially at risk of infection."

The only way to continue to keep infection rates low is to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and good hygiene and keep limits on gatherings, the health adviser said.

However, said Varma, "There may very well be that there is some percent of the population who are helping keep the infection rate low."



Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Supreme Court Orders Govt to ‘Raise’ Reb Nachman’s Bones to Israel from Uman 

Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dafna Barak Erez has ordered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Government of Israel, and the Jewish Agency for Israel to respond to a petition filed with the court by Breslov hasid Sharon Scheltzer, demanding they explain why they are not working to "raise" the bones of Rabbi Nachman of Uman, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect, to be interred in the Holy Land.

Scheltzer, considered one of Rabbi Israel Dov Odser's closest students, Monday night filed the petition upon hearing that Ukraine has banned all foreign Jews from entering the country this year for the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rebbe Nachman — a pilgrimage made each year by tens of thousands of hasidic and Orthodox Jews worldwide. Scheltzer is also the chairman of the committee for raising Rabbi Nachman's bones to Eretz Israel, and he has been working on the issue for decade

The petition, filed by Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir on behalf of Scheltzer, states that the respondents must act to raise Rabbi Nachman's bones to Israel "to fulfill the will of the dead."

Rabbi Nachman wanted to be buried in Israel, he wrote, and "in cases where the leaders of the Jewish people in the Diaspora made such a request, the agency or government must act to bring them for reburial in The Land," Ben Gvir wrote, and also "because the property of the Jewish People — the tomb of Rabbi Nachman to which many Israelis go to pray — is under foreign rule, which holds it without permission."

The petition also states that in view of the recent announcement by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister that this year, for the first time in decades, the mass pilgrimate of Jews to Uman on Rosh Hashanah will not be allowed, the High Court is asked to hold an urgent hearing on the issue. For burial in the Land of Israel, even before the approaching Rosh Hashanah.

Moreover, the petition states that throughout the petitioner's many years of work on the subject, senior political figures have indeed acted on the subject: In the early 1990s, then-President Chaim Herzog, addressed the Prime Minister of Ukraine during his visit to Israel, requesting the relocation of the tomb to Israel. The Ukrainian prime minister at the time granted his request, but it did not materialize. In 2007, President Shimon Peres wrote to the Committee for the Raising of Rabbi Nachman's Bones, expressing his hope that "soon" the tomb would be relocated to its proper place in Israel."

Therefore, in light of all of the above, the petition requests the Supreme Court orders the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency to act to raise Rabbi Nachman's bones to Israel.

"I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will grant us the requested remedy, which is in fact a remedy for the entire God-fearing public in the State of Israel and around the world. Raising Rabbi Nachman's bones to Israel This is a vital need of the first order," Scheltzer told Israel's Channel 20 television news.

"Rabbi Nachman was a Jewish leader, a great leader of the generation, a light to Israel, who serves to this day as the Rebbe of tens of thousands of Jews," Ben Gvir said. "There is no reason why the State of Israel, which has brought for burial in Israel the bones of other great people of the Jewish people, such as the Tzaddik Hida Herzl and Jabotinsky, and even illegal immigrants, should not work to raise the bones of Rabbi Nachman, who has many merits in reviving the Jewish nation," he added.



Friday, August 14, 2020

Bill to let Orange County towns tax property sales to conserve land stalls in Senate 

A bill that would allow Orange County towns and cities to tax property sales and use the proceeds to conserve open space remains stalled in the state Senate, with the county's two Democratic senators taking opposing stances on the proposal.

The Assembly approved the bill with almost no dissent in June and last year, but the Senate hasn't brought it to a vote. If enacted, it would let any Orange County town or city impose a real estate transfer tax — if approved by voters in a referendum — to generate funds to buy properties or the development rights to farms and other desirable tracts. State law now grants that option in Ulster, Westchester and Putnam counties.

Sen. Jen Metzger, a Rosendale Democrat who sponsored the bill and a similar one that added Ulster County last year, said in a statement Thursday that she wanted to help Orange County communities "protect irreplaceable farmland and open space from the pressures of development — pressures that are only growing."

Metzger introduced a separate bill in February to extend the same privilege to every town and city in the state except New York City. She argues that each municipality "should be able to determine for itself, through a local referendum, how best to protect these resources without having to come to the state legislature for approval in each individual case."

Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, said Thursday he had concerns about granting countywide authorization for transfer taxes because it could lead to thousands of dollars in additional closing costs for home buyers — in a state that already has the nation's highest closing costs.

"It costs too much for working- and middle-class New Yorkers to buy a home in this state," he said.



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Non-Jewish N.Y. assemblywoman targeted in anti-Semitic attack 

The fact that New York state Assemblywoman Rebecca Seawright isn't Jewish didn't stop a vandal from leaving behind an anti-Semitic note after defacing her office.

Seawright, a Democrat whose district includes part of Manhattan's Upper East Side, called for a police investigation into the incident at a news conference Tuesday. The intruder, whose note also included a sexist message, sprayed white paint on the office Monday night.

Seawright is a member of the Assembly's Jewish caucus and her husband is Jewish.

"I want to speak loud and clear today that we will never be intimidated by this criminal act," she said at the news conference, according to Jewish Insider. "We will stand together, speak up and remain vigilant against this violence and anti-Semitism."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo denounced the incident in a tweet Tuesday, saying he would "hold those responsible accountable."



Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Kazakhstan adds Chabad leader’s grave to its list of national heritage sites 

The government of Kazakhstan added the gravesite of Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, to its list of national heritage sites, a U.S. diplomat said.

Paul Packer, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, announced the move during a visit to the gravesite in Almaty, where Schneerson was buried in 1944.

Schneerson, the father and predecessor of the movement's last spiritual leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, "fearlessly served as the chief rabbi of what is today the city of Dnepro in Ukraine" until he was arrested, tortured, jailed and sent into exile in 1939 by the repressive regime of Joseph Stalin, then the leader of the former Soviet Union, Packer said in a video posted Monday on Twitter.

The elder Schneerson died the 20th day in the Jewish calendar month of Av, which this year fell on Aug. 10. Thousands of pilgrims travel each year to his gravesite in Almaty, the largest city in the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan.

Levi Yitzchak Schneerson expected his exile in Kazakhstan to be a "period of darkness," but was "warmly welcomed and quickly became leader of its Jewish community," Packer said. His teaching and those of his son "continue to transform the lives of Jews around the world."

Packer thanked President Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev and other officials for "adding the holy rabbi's grave to the national heritage list of Kazakhstan."

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) who was named for Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, saw the naming as a tribute to Schneerson's wife. "The Rebbe's mother wrote in her diary many years ago, with pain, that she hadn't yet seen appropriate recognition of her saintly husband," said Shemtov, whose organization is based in Washington DC. "She knew his true greatness more than anyone, and actually made possible his deep Kabbalistic writings and their preservation."



Monday, August 10, 2020

Over 150 Jewish gravestones pillaged by Hitler’s troops to build a road found buried under small town market square 

Inline image

Over 150 Jewish gravestones have been found under a market square in a small town in southern Poland.

The grizzly discovery was made in the town of Leżajsk, where they were laid during Nazi-Germany's WII occupation to harden the road surface.

The find, which is the biggest discovery of 'matzevot' in Poland in recent years, is all the more valuable because some of them have retained their original colours and painted lettering, which surviving headstones in the local Jewish cemetery have lost over the years.

The stones were found during road construction when workers removed a layer of asphalt on the town's market square.

They were discovered about 20 cm below the surface and covered a stretch of road of almost 30 metres on south-west frontage of the market square.

Initially, when workers removed the asphalt, they found a layer of bricks in a herringbone pattern.

It was originally suspected that this was probably made in the 19th or at the turn of the 20th century when the town was part of Galicia in the Austrian partition.

However, when the layer of bricks was removed to reveal the headstones, it became clear that the work was carried out during World War Two.

Some of the headstones still retain gold lettering and coloured painting. The blue, green, yellow and red colours of the inscriptions are clear and vivid.

Ornamental crowns, candlesticks, flowers, lions and hands are perfectly visible. One has gold-painted letters.

Around one hundred are whole, apart from the traditional rounded heads, which were removed most likely to make it easier to lay them close together.



Friday, August 07, 2020

Skoufis: Hasidic ‘mega-development’ would hurt South Blooming Grove 

State Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, is forcefully objecting to developer Keen Equities LLC's Clovewood housing proposal for the Satmar Hasidim at the former Lake Anne Country Club in South Blooming Grove.

In a newly released letter, sent to South Blooming Grove's Village Board and its Planning Board, and in a Thursday interview, Skoufis expressed multiple concerns. He thinks the municipality is too small to support what he called a "mega-development." 

The two boards are seeking public comments on the project at a limited-capacity joint meeting, with masks and social distancing, at 7 p.m., Monday at the South Blooming Grove firehouse at 819 Route 208.

The proposal, currently before the planning board, calls for building 600 four-bedroom homes on 142 acres on the 708-acre property off Clove Road, near the Route 208 intersection. Skoufis said the project would:

• ruin the village's country character, and the senator questioned whether the developer is taking adequate steps to fulfill a promise to preserve most of the land;

• overburden infrastructure, adding "many hundreds of additional cars, thousands of additional water and sewer users, and substantial new municipal expenses (e.g. police, fire, highway, clerks)";

• potentially provide poor quality water to its residents and overwhelm an "aquifer [that] barely meets existing needs," given that "municipal wells frequently run dry";

• and conflict with the village's existing zoning regulations.

Asked about the appropriateness of a state senator weighing in on a developer's municipal housing proposal, Skoufis said he's long "viewed my responsibility as going beyond just passing a bill."

"If I view something as harmful for the residents I represent, I go to bat for the community," Skoufis said.

State. Sen. James Skoufis
Skoufis said his objections are based strictly on Clovewood's merits, and acknowledged that his position could lose him some Hasidic followers' votes.

But, also, "There are many orthodox Jewish families in South Blooming Grove who oppose this project," Skoufis said. "Hundreds have moved there, and to Woodbury, because they want a yard, and some peace and to escape the high density 'hecticness' of Kiryas Joel."



Thursday, August 06, 2020

Jerusalem mayor: Anti-Netanyahu protests more dangerous than huge Haredi wedding 

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion on Thursday pushed back against criticism of a mass Hasidic wedding, claiming the weekly protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the capital constituted a more grave health violation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He spoke a day after thousands of people attended a wedding for the grandson of the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect in Jerusalem. Under the existing government rules, weddings are capped at 20 people outdoors, while protests are exempt from limitations though social distancing must be observed.

"We must enforce the rules. But it isn't fair. Every Thursday and Saturday there are more serious violations. Is the entire area of Balfour [the street Netanyahu lives on in the Rehavia neighborhood] free of coronavirus? When it comes to a Haredi area, there are headlines and photos right way. I certainly don't support it, but let's not enforce things selectively," Lion told the Kan public broadcaster.

"I watch what is happening at Balfour with great pain," added Lion, who lives nearby. "The Health Ministry and police explain to us, from morning till night, the ban on gatherings — yet we accept this gathering with equanimity, as if there is nothing we can do. I respect the right to protest, but we are in a difficult time."

Israel has struggled in recent months to contain the coronavirus outbreak, confirming close to 2,000 new infections a day. The country had 25,649 active cases as of Wednesday night, according to Health Ministry figures.

The protests against Netanyahu's alleged corruption and handling of the pandemic have grown in recent weeks, with some of the demonstrations drawing over 10,000.

At the Wednesday night Belz wedding, attendees were supposed to be divided into "capsules," or small groups of people, with dividers between them, Channel 12 reported, but the footage appeared to show people at the event packed closely together. Most were also not wearing face masks. There were conflicting reports about whether the event was held indoors or outdoors, but video said to be from the scene appeared to show attendees in an open air structure. Government rules limit indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoors to 20.



Police fine organizers of crowded wedding 

Jerusalem police imposed 5,000 shekel fines on the organizers of an ultra-Orthodox wedding of the grandson of one of the Rebbe of the Hasidic dynasty of Belz after thousands of followers participated in the celebration in violation of health restrictions imposed by the government.
An investigation into violations of licensing laws at the venue was launched, police said.

The head of the Hassidic court Rabbi  Yissachar Dov Rokeach invited his entire congregation to attend the wedding after stating that he saw greater importance in the spiritual wellbeing of his followers than in the government dictates.



Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Ukraine to let in 5,000 for Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman 

Visitors will have to wear face masks in crowded places and refrain from gatherings of more than 30 people; Israeli health officials nervous about their return

THE UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT has agreed to let at least 5,000 people attend the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage in the city of Uman, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said.

The quota may rise as high as 8,000, but the pilgrims will have to wear face masks in crowded places and refrain from gatherings of more than 30 people.

In previous years, about 30,000 pilgrims, mostly from Israel, have gathered for the Jewish new year in Uman, home to the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.

Testing for the virus at airports and mandatory installation of software on cellphones are also being considered to help keep the pilgrims safe, Bleich said. "But basically, the Ukrainian government is not putting a stop to it," he said.

Israeli health officials are "nervous" about what will happen when the pilgrims return, Bleich said.



Monday, August 03, 2020

Bagels.tv offers Jewish family-friendly alternative to YouTube 

Move over YouTube, the Jewish world now has its own treasure-trove of kosher video content - and it has a suitably Jewish name: Bagels.tv. 
From in-depth conversations on philosophy and theology with leading Rabbis, to documentaries, music videos, and nostalgia, the site features thousands of hours worth of Jewish video content, and all of it is family friendly. There's even a 'Frum' section for the more religiously-minded.

The site is the brain-child of founder Zev Stub, a veteran of the Jewish online world, who had the idea for the site while searching for something for his children to watch online.

"I didn't create Bagels because of idealism, but because of a practical need," he said. "I looked around everywhere, but I couldn't find the kind of environment where I want my kids watching videos. Like many parents, I have accepted that my kids' favorite thing in the world is vegging out with YouTube, but I don't like the yucky stuff they keep finding there."

Because the site is carefully curated to only offer videos suitable for families, parents can leave their children to watch it unsupervised without worrying what content their children might find on the site.

And it's not just parents who can benefit. With the world seemingly becoming increasingly polarized and problematic, more people are choosing to turn off traditional news and social media sites in favor of more uplifting content. Again, this is where Bagels.tv comes in: the site aims to provide positive, inspirational and fun content to while away down-time, helping people to stay grounded and share videos with their friends that will allow them to connect.

The site is consequently politics-free, focusing instead on offering a place where all Jews, from the Ultra-Orthodox to the secular and everything in between, can find great Jewish material to keep up to date with the latest Jewish videos to enjoy with friends and family, and to reconnect with their heritage.

Why the name Bagels? "I was about to go for Cholent.tv, but that name felt too hot and heavy," Stub says with a smile. "I wanted to make sure the site remains clearly Jewish, but without forcing any elements of religion. Bagels are light, fun treats that you eat at a simcha, like a Brit Mila or a Bar Mitzva - Jew-ish but without any expectations."

That being said, Stub, who lives in Jerusalem and considers himself Modern-Orthodox, wanted to make sure that the site would offer plenty of religious and Haredi-friendly content. "There is plenty about Jewish history, traditions, bible, and religious topics," Stub said. "It was important to me that the videos on this site are all "Kosher-Style." To me, that means it is clean and family-friendly, and that Haredim should feel comfortable using this site."

Stub has worked hard to ensure that all Jews feel they can use the site without fear of stumbling across inappropriate content, including the very religious.

"Modesty is a very important Jewish trait, and one of our guiding values on this site" he said. "It is true that my standards of what is or isn't appropriate is less strict than what is expected in some ultra-Orthodox circles, but I hope that I'll be able to earn your trust to allow your family to watch Bagels videos. In any case, one of our menu options, Frum, includes only videos that I think are completely appropriate for the Haredi community."



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