‘Welcome Home’ Now in Israel, former Baltimore-area residents are living their dream, thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh

TEL AVIV — At just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, their 10-hour ordeal of a flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off the El Al charter.

They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were in for next.

As they walked down the makeshift steps to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, they were met by a phalanx of photographers, each trying to capture the moment.

After posing for pictures — including a group shot of the 75 young men and women who will be joining the Israeli  Defense Forces (IDF) in three months  following a crash indoctrination course — they boarded buses and proceeded to a hangar set aside for the occasion.

Then it became even more surreal.

As the buses approached the hangar, the music picked up and the celebration began. Loved ones, friends and basically anyone who wanted to come out at 7 a.m. to greet people they felt an immediate kinship to were there to welcome them. To hug them. To wave signs with individual and family names. To wave Israeli flags.

These olim weren’t just anybody, you see.

'Welcome Home'
These boys, girls, men and women ranging in ages from 3-and-a-half weeks to 85 years old were telling them and the rest of the world, “This is where I want to be.”

“I am not used to being treated like a celebrity, but that is the way the ceremonies made you feel,” David Leichter, who brought his wife, Tzippy, and their five children from Baltimore, said via email less than a week since their arrival. “You felt like you were doing something incredible. But for us, this was something that we were dreaming of for a long time. So it was strange and at the same time  exhilarating to be treated like this.

“Our first week has been great! I find  it amazing how kind and sympathetic  Israelis can be once they learn that you’ve just made aliyah.”

They’re hardly alone among Baltimoreans.

Avidan and Ilana Milevsky also have moved their five children — three girls and two boys, ages 1 to 11 — to Eretz Yisrael, as have Menachem and Sara Lanner and their gang of five. Then there are those such as Jaqui Austen, Lily Ganse and Jacob Roshgadol, who’ll join the army once they get acclimated.

Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. that is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them stay.

— Doreet Freedman, vice president of partnership and development at Nefesh B’Nefesh

They’ve all taken the plunge thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the group that coordinates flights bringing hordes of like-minded Americans and a few Canadians to Israel twice a year.

What began as a startup out of a garage 14 years ago has evolved into an organization that provides invaluable service to those considering such a weighty decision. From the moment they inquire about making aliyah through the mounds of paperwork that have to be filled out prior to arrival and then the constant follow-up once they settle into their new home, NBN is there with advice, support and a sympathetic ear.

“I can’t image doing this without Nefesh B’Nefesh,” said Ilana Milevsky, a few days  before she and her family headed to New York, where the sendoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport included Israel’s new Consul General in New York Dani Dayan. “They give a tremendous amount of support.

“They help with the documentation and also give proactive, emotional support reassuring us. They’ve been helping us out with everything from schools for the kids to health insurance. They cover so much, and instead of needing a month or two to take care of it, they’re doing it over days and weeks.”

That’s why it’s been so successful, the Aug. 16 trip being NBN’s 55th charter flight since its 2002 origin, encompassing more than 50,000 oleh.

“We were trying to reinvent the failing mechanism of immigration,” explained Doreet Freedman, NBN’s vice president of partnership and development and one of five charter members. “When we started off, of the 1,500 to 2,000 a year who made aliyah, about 60 percent returned to America.

“Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. That is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them to stay,” he continued, noting that other sponsors include Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

But don’t try telling the 233 people being serenaded with love by some 1,800 adoring fans — among them Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — that they’re simply being used as good PR for the Jewish homeland.

We Feel This Is The Place All Jews Should Be. It’s The Best Place For Our Children. — Tzippy Leichter

No wonder so many of them, like the Leichters, truly believe the signs filling that hangar, the words Rivlin and others repeated like a mantra: They were coming “home.”

“It’s really been in my head for four years or so,” said University of Maryland, College Park graduate Roshgadol, 21, who hopes his degree in mechanical engineering will give him options with the IDF that enable him to avoid combat. “When  I wanted to go then, I was  already in Israel studying in the yeshiva in Jerusalem. What’s changed is now I go to the army coming in with a skill they want me to have. It’s a major incentive for them to take me.”

If nothing else, Roshgadol will be close to his older sisters, Ayelet and Liora, both of whom made aliyah a few years back. Not that he’ll get to see much of them right away, since the IDF immediately puts young men and women into a pre-training regimen on a kibbutz to prepare them for their induction.

“We’re part of [Tzofim] Garin Tzabar,” said Roshgadol, who indicated that the political climate in the U.S. had nothing to do with his decision to leave. “We go to different kibbutzim for three months before we go in the army.

“While I was over there over for the summer last year, I had an interview with one of the units. A long as I get security clearance, I can go into the unit. Garin Tzabar and Nefesh B’Nefesh take care of lot of bureaucracy needs. I just had to pick a date, go to the Israeli consulate and get a visa. They took care of all the arrangements.”

Doing it for yourself is one thing. Doing it for a family of seven is something else, which is why the Leichters originally backed out on their dream seven years ago.

“We went on pilot trip for 10 days to check out the communities and talk to people about what it would be like,” recalled David Leichter, a CPA whose business has evolved to the point he’s now confident he can make it work from both ends. “I went on some job interviews and  visited a half-dozen communities and Jewish day schools.

“When we came home I said, ‘This is not going to happen.’ The salaries were well below what I was looking for, and we didn’t find a suitable community. It changed about a year ago. Things fell into place, and we decided this is a good time.”

So Leichter, his wife, sons Binyamin, 13, Noam, 11, and Avi, 4, daughter Nava, 8, and  4-week-old baby boy Shalom are settling into their new home.

Also read, 50 Years Later, Israel Different but Still the Same.

“We are currently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh off of one of the main streets,” Lechter wrote. “We had no idea what the apartment looked like ahead of time or where it was located, but as it turns out, it is in the very best location that we could have hoped for.

“It’s right near the center of the city and very near the synagogues where we pray. The kids probably still feel as though they are on vacation, as they haven’t started school and haven’t had to ‘live’ here yet. So they’re in seventh heaven.”

In time they’ll understand why their parents made such a momentous decision.

“We feel this is the place all Jews should be,” said Tzippy Leichter, a teacher and speech therapist who met her husband when both were attending neighboring yeshivas in Manhattan. “It’s the best place for our children.

“There’s a connection. You really feel like you’re a part of the Jewish people when you’re there. You feel you’re where you’re supposed to be.”

Whatever their reason for coming, whether it’s to raise their family or serve in the army, they’re equally valued to Rivlin and the rest.

“For nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people have known exile,” a boisterous Rivlin told the new arrivals, which included 24 families, 78 children and representatives of 22 states. “For you, dear new olim, that exile that began then ends today.

“Welcome to Israel. Welcome to Zion. Welcome home.”

It remains be seen whether those making aliyah are truly home or just visiting for the time being.

But at least on this day for the Leichters, Milevskys and Lanners, along with Roshgadol, Austen and Ganse, their task is simple: Just live their lives.

jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

50 Years Later, Israel Different but Still the Same

The first time I ever got on a plane I flew to Israel. A not-so-sweet 16 on the verge of going into my senior year of high school (where one of my classmates was a kid named Ben Netanyahu), I was excited at spending the summer in the land I knew only through Hebrew school. Over the next seven weeks while touring with a contingent from the Jewish Welfare Board, I got a pretty full sense of the country. We combined work — in a refugee day camp outside Jerusalem and on a kibbutz near Be’er Sheva — with the things tourists usually do. It was a memorable trip, one I figured would be only a matter of time before I made it again. Funny how time works. On Aug. 17, on assignment to cover the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight taking 233 new citizens to their new home, I returned to Israel — 50 years later. It was never the game plan to have a 50-year interval between visits. That’s just how life is. While my 20-year-old daughter, Lauren, has already been there three times and undoubtedly figures to return a few more, for one reason or another, I hadn’t been back. 'Welcome Home'

Now, as then, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just knew the Israel of 1966 would be nothing like the 2016 version. Would I recognize anything? Would it seem as foreign to me as China, which I visited in 2014? Or would it all come back to me, like the proverbial “riding a bike”?

Turns out to be somewhere in between.

There’s no denying Israel has become a modern, progressive country. But I don’t remember any traffic jams 50 years ago. I don’t remember being overwhelmed by the size of the city and the swarms of people. And I certainly don’t remember that special feeling when I stood in front of the kotel to marvel at the Western Wall and the history of our people.

Oh, wait. I forgot. I couldn’t have done that back then, because the kotel and the entire Old City of Jerusalem was a part of Jordan.

That’s how long ago it had been. I was there in 1966. The Six-Day War, which enabled Israel to reclaim the Old City, the Golan Heights and other disputed territories over the ensuing 49 years, came a year later.

So going to the Wall had to be the first thing on my agenda, which this time was only going to last three days rather than seven weeks because I had to be back home in time for the wedding of a longtime friend’s daughter.

Accompanied by a fellow journalist we set out from our hotel a few hours after landing in Tel Aviv. Upon arriving at the Old City, we decided to take the longer route through the Jewish quarter rather than the Arab quarter, figuring it would be safer.

After 10 to 15 minutes we  finally reached the area surrounding the kotel. Following  a nice evening in Jerusalem I  returned to the kotel the following day for the “tunnel tour.” The tour is a march through history — in this case actually a march down to where that history was made. Over the past 40-plus years there’s been tremendous excavation of the area where the original Temples were destroyed and where the original walls of Jerusalem were built.

In the process they’ve uncovered large segments of that ancient city previously buried by debris. Should I ever make it back by then, undoubtedly they’ll have uncovered more.

Before leaving Jerusalem I felt it necessary to visit Mount Hertzl, the final resting spot not only for all the great Jewish leaders, but also for a young man I had only recently written about: Michael Levin, a suburban Philadelphia native who gave his life to the cause as an IDF paratrooper 10 years ago.

Onto Tel Aviv, where on the ride leaving Jerusalem the memories came flooding back to me. Gazing out the window at the spectacular hills and valleys, I was instantly transported back in time.

No, there weren’t tanks lurking by the roadside as in 1966, and of course there weren’t four-lane highways like now. But the overall beauty of the landscape hadn’t changed. This was the Israel I remembered!

As for Tel Aviv, it’s pretty much like any big city. It’s bustling and everybody seems to be in a hurry, even though it was really hot. I don’t really know if 24 hours in Tel Aviv was enough, but that was all I had. Since it was late afternoon when I arrived at my hotel by the beach, the first stop was obvious. The Mediterranean was spectacular, the water refreshing and nearly as warm as a Jacuzzi.

But then there was that inadvertent moment while searching for what they call the “W.C.” in many foreign countries and seeing a bunch of women walking into theirs that I stumbled into forbidden territory. Horrified looks were followed by a  security detail quickly ushering me to the other side. “Girls beach,” I was told.

Who knew?

I spent my one day in Tel Aviv doing whatever I could. A bus tour of Jaffa and the city was followed by a trip to the famed Carmel Market for shopping and general observation. Imagine people squashed together by the hundreds as they try to maneuver the narrow streets and stay in the shade. Around them merchants are selling everything imaginable, though contrary to what I’d heard, no one was willing to do much bargaining.

Still, it was a fascinating  experience.

From there it was Rabin Square, followed by a walk to the Dizengoff Center, a snazzy indoor mall that came as a welcome relief from the heat. While there I ventured to a  familiar oasis: McDonalds. A women helped me order, since the signs, unlike most places throughout Israel, weren’t in English. She asked where I was from. When I told her she immediately replied, “My husband used to live in Philadelphia.”

Over the ensuing half-hour in that Tel Aviv McDonalds I was able to trade stories and  relate with someone who knew my neighborhood. There’s a certain comfort yet irony to that. After that it was time to head for home.

Spending three days in Israel after 50 years may not have seemed worth the effort to some, but I’m glad I went. I was caught off guard by a few things, but they were minor inconveniences.

The main thing was I had  finally made it back to Israel, which has certainly changed in the interim, but not all that much. As I wrote on the note I placed inside a crack in the Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, “I’m glad I finally made it here, because I never knew I would.”

And I certainly don’t know if I’ll ever make it back.

jmarks@midatlanticmedia.com

UN Obsessed with Israel, MK Yair Lapid Says

Yair Lapid, pictured here in 2013, says he plans to meet with Jewish Democratic members of Congress. (File photo)

Yair Lapid, pictured here in 2013, says he plans to meet with Jewish Democratic members of Congress. (File photo)

Yair Lapid, the Israeli newsman-turned-politician, says the United Nations has an obsession with Israel.

“We tell them, you know what is going on in Israel. Israel is a democracy. We have human rights, we have women’s rights, we have gay rights, we are doing everything in our power to prevent the death of innocents in every conflict we have, and yet you are condemning us,” Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid Party and a former finance minister, told reporters earlier this month in a conference call held by the Israel Policy Forum.

 

I think everyone should write his congressman and say, ‘Listen, you are using my money in order to finance the [U.N.] campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East.’” — Yair Lapid

 

Speaking from Israel, the Knesset member talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and improving Israel’s relations with the United States but saved his indignation for the U.N. Human Rights Council, which he said has issued 67 condemnations against Israel in the last decade compared with 61 against the rest of the world.

“This is beyond bias,” Lapid said, calling on Americans to scrutinize the United Nations’ behavior.

“I think everyone should write his congressman and say, ‘Listen, you are using my money in order to finance the [U.N.] campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East.’”

Lapid said he hopes the next secretary general, scheduled to be appointed at the end of this year, will urge the United States and other democracies to address the U.N’s “structural problem” of singling out Israel.

Turning to Middle East peace talks, Lapid, whose party sits in opposition in the Knesset, said that presidential transitions in the United States are a “dangerous time for  Israel.” He favored Secretary of State John Kerry having  “another try at it” or for President Barack Obama to give a speech on the matter. But the “worst possibility” would be for the Security Council to broker a peace deal.

The damage from even a  Security Council resolution that doesn’t threaten Israel with sanctions but declares that settlements are illegal “will be huge,” he said. “This is counterproductive even for those of us who believe Israel needs to separate from the Palestinians and evacuate the settlements.”

Lapid said the most successful environment for a peace deal would be at a summit that  includes other countries in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany.

One area of improvement between Israel and the United States, Lapid said, is the communication between Democratic American Jews and Israel’s government. He said he plans to meet with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and several other Jewish Democrats in Congress. He also emphasized the need for Israel’s Haredi community to accept non-Orthodox denominations, noting that the majority of American  Jews who are affiliated with a synagogue are Reform and Conservative.

“The fact that [the Israeli] government is assaulting  Reform and Conservative Jews is agonizing to me, and maybe it’s time for us here in Israel to talk not in the language of  religion, not in the language of freedom, not even in the language of security,” he said. “But you have to understand that security is based, upon other things, that ‘these are our people.’”

How Paris Public Schools Became No-Go Zones for Jews

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 13: Children look out from a doorway as armed soldiers patrol outside a School in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district on January 13, 2015 in Paris, France. Thousands of troops and police have been deployed to bolster security at 'sensitive' sites including Jewish schools. Millions of people converged in central Paris for a Unity March joining in solidarity with the 17 victims of last week's terrorist attacks in the country. French President Francois Hollande led the march and was joined by world leaders in a sign of unity. The terrorist atrocities started on Wednesday with the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, and ended on Friday with sieges at a printing company in Dammartin en Goele and a Kosher supermarket in Paris with four hostages and three suspects being killed. A fourth suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, escaped and is wanted in connection with the murder of a policewoman. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Students peering out from a doorway as armed soldiers patrol outside their school in the Jewish quarter of the Marais district in Paris, Jan. 13, 2015. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

PARIS (JTA) — Twenty-five years after he graduated from a public high school in the French capital, Stephane Tayar recalls favorably his time in one of the world’s most thorough education systems.

As for many other French Jews his age, the state-subsidized upbringing has worked out well for Tayar, a 43-year-old communications and computers specialist. Eloquent but down to earth, he seems as comfortable discussing the complexities of French society as he is adept at fighting — curses, threats and all — for his motorcycle’s place in the brutal traffic here.

“You learn to get along with all kinds of people – Muslims, Christians, poor, rich,” Tayar said in recalling his school years. “You debate, you study, you get into fistfights. It’s a pretty round education.”

But when the time came for Tayar and his wife to enroll their own boy and girl, the couple opted for Jewish institutions — part of a network of dozens of private establishments with state recognition, hefty tuition and student bodies that are made up almost exclusively of Jews.

“Enrolling a Jewish kid into a public school was normal when I was growing up,” Tayar said in a recent interview as he waited with two helmets in hand to pick up his youngest from her Jewish elementary school in eastern Paris. “Nowadays forget it; no longer realistically possible. Anti-Semitic bullying means it would be too damaging for any Jewish kid you put there.”

This common impression and growing religiosity among Jews in France are responsible for the departure from public schools of tens of thousands of young French and Belgian Jews, who at a time of unprecedented sectarian tensions in their countries are being brought up in a far more insular fashion than previous generations.

Whereas 30 years ago the majority of French Jews enrolled their children in public schools, now only a third of them do so. The remaining two-thirds are divided equally between Jewish schools and private schools that are not Jewish, including Catholic and Protestant institutions, according to Francis Kalifat, the newly elected president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities.

The change has been especially dramatic in the Paris area, which is home to some 350,000 Jews, or an estimated 65 percent of French Jewry.

“In the Paris region, there are virtually no more Jewish pupils attending public schools,” said Kalifat, attributing their absence to “a bad atmosphere of harassment, insults and assaults” against Jews because of their ethnicity, and to the simultaneous growth of the Jewish education system.

Whereas most anti-Semitic incidents feature taunts and insults that often are not even reported to authorities, some cases involve death threats and armed assaults. In one incident from 2013, several students reportedly cornered a Jewish classmate as he was leaving their public school in western Paris. One allegedly called him a “dirty Jew” and threatened to stab the boy with a knife. A passer-by intervened and rescued the Jewish child.

The increase in schoolyard anti-Semitism in France, first noted in an internal Education Ministry report in 2004, coincided with an increase in anti-Semitic incidents overall. Prior to 2000, only a few dozen incidents were recorded annually in France. Since then, however, hundreds have been reported annually. Many attacks — and a majority of violent ones — are committed by people with a Muslim background, who target Jews as such or as payback for Israel’s actions in what is known as the “new anti-Semitism.”

In 2012, payback for Israel’s actions in Gaza was the stated motivation of a jihadist who killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Since then, Jewish institutions across Europe and French Jewish schools especially have been protected by armed guards – most often soldiers toting automatic rifles.

In neighboring Belgium, the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism has documented multiple incidents that it said were rapidly making Belgian public schools “Jew-free.” Some blamed Belgian schools for being more reluctant than their French counterparts to punish pupils for anti-Semitic behavior.

The latest incident there involved a 12-year-old boy at a public school outside Brussels. Classmates allegedly sprayed him with deodorant cans in the shower to simulate a gas chamber. The boy’s mother said it was an elaborate prank that also caused him burns from the deodorant nozzles.

In April, another Jewish mother said a public school in the affluent Brussels district of Uccle was deliberately ignoring systematic anti-Semitic abuse of her son, Samuel, in order to hide it. She enrolled him specifically at a non-Jewish school because she did not want him to be raised parochially, the mother said, but she had to transfer him to a Jewish school due to the abuse.

In addition to charting anti-Semitism among students, watchdogs in France and Belgium are seeing for the first time in decades a growing number of incidents involving teachers – as victims and perpetrators.

Last month, the Education Ministry in France began probing a high school teacher who shared with her students anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook — including ones about the clout of the Jewish lobby in the United States and another about French President Francois Hollande’s Jewish roots (he has none).

In 2012, a teacher from a suburb of Lyon said she was forced to resign after her bosses learned that she had suffered anti-Semitic abuse by students. Days later, two teenagers were arrested near Marseilles on suspicion of setting off an explosion near a teacher who had reported receiving anti-Semitic threats at school.

The atmosphere is pushing many French Jewish parents to leave for Israel, which is seeing record levels of immigration from France. Since 2012, 20,000 Jews have made the move. Their absence is already being felt in Jewish schools and beyond, said Kalifat, because “the people who are leaving are exactly the people who are involved in the Jewish community.”

Some of those who left were responsible for developing France’s Jewish education system long before anti-Semitism became a daily reality for French Jews, said Kalifat. More than 30 years ago he enrolled his own two children in a Jewish school “not because of anti-Semitism, which was not a problem back then, but simply to give them a more Jewish education,” he said.

Jewish immigrants from North Africa to France had a major role in the growth of Jewish schools from a handful in the 1950s and ’60s to the formation of Jewish education networks with dozens of institutions, said Kalifat — himself an Algeria-born Jew and the first North African Sephardi to be elected CRIF president.

Arriving in a country where a quarter of the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Jewish newcomers from former colonies of France were more traditional and religious than many French-born Jews.

“They developed all sectors of Jewish life, but Jewish schools more than anything,” Kalifat said.

The effort has paid off in several ways. Last year, Jewish schools topped two French media rankings of the country’s approximately 4,300 high schools. One was a Chabad institution; the other was part of the more liberal Alliance network.

Some French Jews, including Yeshaya Dalsace, a Conservative rabbi from Paris, say the rise of Orthodox religious schools and other institutions is part of a trend toward insularity that comes at the expense of openness at a time when Jews should be more engaged in French society than ever.

But to Tayar, the growth of Jewish schools amid anti-Semitism is a much-needed silver lining.

“That parents like me effectively can’t send their children to public schools is tragic,” he said. “The only positive aspect I can see here is that anti-Semitic hatred drives us to make the financial sacrifice that will raise a generation that has much more Jewish culture and knowledge than our own.”

Ethiopians Press Their Case for Aliyah

Gezahegen Derebe and Demoz Deboch, Ethiopian Jews in their 20s, came to Washington, D.C., earlier this month hoping to press the Israeli  government into action.

They are among 9,000 Ethiopian Jews known as Falash Mura who are caught in what the Israeli government says is a budget crunch that is preventing them from making aliyah.

“The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting,” Derebe told a gathering at a downtown law office. “I don’t believe it is because of the budget.”

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

Ethiopians Gezahegen Derebe (left) and Demoz Deboch, who have their hopes set on immigrating to Israel, speak in Washington. (photo by Jared Feldschreiber)

The American Jewish Committee sponsored the event. But the initiator of the Ethiopians’ visit to Washington was David Elcott, a professor of practice in public service and leadership at New York University. Two years ago, Elcott went to Africa to see what he thought was the last aliyah of Ethiopian Jews.

Elcott thought Israel was going to accept all those who had qualified to join their relatives. But he noticed that many were left behind at one of the Jewish Agency centers in Gondar province, including Deboch and Derebe. He said he figured they needed an advocate to draw attention to their needs with the influential American Jewish community. Since then, Elcott has been raising funds and started a  petition to pressure the Israeli government to “do what needs to be done.”

“We are mystified at why the Israeli government would want to undermine a righteous and appropriate policy of kibbutz galuyot [the ingathering of the exiles in Israel],” the petition states. “We are committed to helping ensure that the State of Israel welcomes Jews of all colors as it fulfills the prophetic call.”

The Israeli embassy keeps telling us to keep waiting. I don’t believe it is because of the budget. — Gezahegen Derebe, member of Falash Mura community

Derebe and Deboch are members of Falash Mura community, descended from a group of Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted under pressure to Christianity in the 19th century. In the past, the group secretly practiced Judaism but was not allowed to emigrate with the other Ethiopian Jews until a political compromise a decade ago.

Israel’s Interior Ministry last year established a committee to look into the issue of reuniting Ethiopian families. Critics say the committee has not accepted or rejected a single case, National Public Radio reported.

An Israeli official who wished to be quoted anonymously said “there is a principal decision to bring 1,300 of the 9,000 that are waiting. This still has to be approved by the cabinet, which is expected to approve it soon.”

Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer said his organization is awaiting the Israeli  government’s decision. “Once such a decision is reached, we will implement it to the best of our ability,” he told the Times of Israel. The Jewish Agency operates a facility in Gondar to prepare Falah Mura for aliyah.

Derebe has his sights on joining his sister, who is married and lives in Israel; Deboch also hopes to make aliyah.

Most Ethiopians recognized as Jews by Israel were brought there in 1984 and 1991 airlifts, and the country’s Ethiopian community has grown to around 135,000. In 2015, the Israeli government approved entry of what it called the last group Ethiopian Jews awaiting immigration to Israel. The move came two years after the arrival of 450 Ethiopian Jews then deemed to be the last such group. Each final wave of immigrants has brought out more Ethiopians who say they are Jewish or claim Jewish  ancestry.

After listening to Derebe and Deboch, attorney David Farber said the immigration issues for Ethiopians hoping to make aliyah is “a problem that most American Jewish communities think is behind them. The truth is that more need to get into the country, and these folks are waiting in limbo.”

Added Elcott: “Whether it was a smart decision for Israel to let in these people from the villages, it’s sort of, if you broke it, you own it. It’s done. So it is in Israel’s interest, and the Jewish people’s interest, to finally make a separation and say these 9,000 need to come in.”

JTA contributed to this  report.

jfeldschreiber@midatlanticmedia.com

Aly Raisman Wins Silver Medal in Olympic Gymnastics All-Around

Silver medalist Alexandra Raisman of the United States poses for photographs after the medal ceremony for the Women's Individual All Around on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Rio Olympic Arena on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Silver medalist Alexandra Raisman of the United States poses for photographs after the medal ceremony for the Women’s Individual All Around on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Rio Olympic Arena on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Aly Raisman won the Olympic silver medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around in Rio de Janeiro.

The Jewish competitor from Needham, Massachusetts, finished second behind her American teammate Simone Biles on Thursday.

Raisman, 22, is the U.S. squad’s captain and was a key part of its gold medal in the team competition two days earlier.

The silver is her fifth Olympic medal overall. In 2012, she took the gold in the team and floor exercise competitions and won a bronze in the balance beam.

Raisman and Biles became only the second pair of American women gymnasts to win the top two medals in the all-around competition. Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson won gold and silver, respectively, in 2008.

Aly Raisman Earns Spot in Individual All-Around Finals in Rio

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Alexandra Raisman of the United States reacts after competing on the uneven bars during Women's qualification for Artistic Gymnastics on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Alexandra Raisman of the United States reacts after competing on the uneven bars during Women’s qualification for Artistic Gymnastics on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

(JTA) — Jewish-American woman’s gymnast Aly Raisman earned a spot in the individual all-around competition at the Olympics in Rio.

Raisman took the second spot for the American women ahead of all-around defending gold medalist Gabby Douglas and behind three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles.

The American women’s gymnastics team came in first place in the qualifying for the team finals with a score of  185.238 points, ahead of second place China with a score of 175.279  and third place Russia with 174.620. The finals will take place on Tuesday.

Raisman also will compete in the individual competition in the floor exercise. Raisman won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics in the floor competition, performing a routine to “Hava Nagila.”

Raisman, 22, is the U.S. women gymnasts’ team captain, and is nicknamed “Grandma” by her teammates.

Israelis Debate an International Peacemaking Role

Michael Oren (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Michael Oren (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

It wasn’t long before a small auditorium in downtown Washington erupted in  debate as Member of Knesset Michael Oren (centrist Kulanu party) and MK Merav Michaeli (center-left Zionist Union) began butting heads over which issues affect how Israelis cast their ballots.

“[Oren says] the thing that interests  [Israelis] the least is the peace process,” Michaeli said, in response to Oren’s claim that Israelis are most interested in housing, cost of living and security. “[But he] will argue that they vote, not according to their social or economic situation … but on issues that relate to the peace process.”

“I don’t see security as relating to the peace process,” Oren interrupted.

“Isn’t it my turn now?” asked Michaeli, to the audience’s amusement.

Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, was caught in the crossfire. “I’m arguing with myself,” he said during one of the exchanges between the two MKs.

The three were featured on a July 8 panel discussion held at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to discuss  Israeli perspectives on international peace initiatives.

Eran began the forum by discussing efforts such as France’s proposals for the creation of a Palestinian state, as well as Egyptian, Russian and Palestinian initiatives.

Traditionally, Israel has believed the only road to peace with its neighbors is through bilateral direct negotiations, Eran said. That idea is “based on the notion that the international community, by and large, is not balanced and is not supportive of the Israeli cause.”

Oded Eran (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Oded Eran (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, quickly dismissed recent  international initiatives to restart peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. He said he was skeptical that Israel would be able to  influence the plans.

The efforts by the French, President Obama and others represent “the nexus between international efforts that are not with the blessing of the state of  Israel,” Oren said, adding that Israel “has been a punching bag” during the past several years.

He emphasized that Israel’s political center supports a two-state solution, but “it is not tenable for Israel to remain passive in the face of these international initiatives.”

We are defined by the conflict. We do not recognize ourselves  without the Palestinian conflict.” — MK Merav Michaeli, Zionist Union

 

The desire for Israel to take control of its future was one of the few points Oren and Michaeli agreed upon. However, Michaeli said the Israel-Palestinian conflict has had a profound effect on Israelis.

“We are defined by the conflict. Israel has existed twice as long with the conflict [since 1967] in this structure than it  existed before it,” she said. “We do not recognize ourselves without the Palestinian conflict.”

Merav Michaeli (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Merav Michaeli (Courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Michaeli argued that the conflict has become a part of Israel’s core identity, often being used as the cause of other concerns in Israeli life. She said the peace process is about Israel redefining itself. Therefore the country must ask: “What do we want to achieve?”

While she believes a Palestinian state  is in Israel’s interest, she questioned her colleagues’ commitment to that idea.

“I know for a fact that big parts of [the] government do not want to achieve the two-state solution,” said Michaeli, adding that an alternative is “something we have never heard from our prime minister.”

Israel insists on direct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. But Eran said “time is running out” on that option.

He argued that even if the Palestinians accepted Israel’s security fence as its  border, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 settlers would still be living within the Palestinian territories. With Israel still reeling from the consequences of a few thousand settlers who were removed for its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Eran said he cannot imagine any Israeli government, right or left, doing the same to West Bank settlers.

“Because time is running out and I don’t see any possibility that the two sides will plunge into direct negotiations,” said Eran. “It’s time that the international community create some sort of guidelines for the future solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

American Travelers Return Jewish Life to Secret Portuguese Shul

Tour group members gather for the start of Friday night services in the “hidden” shul, which was built in 1836. (Photo by Yvette Diamond)

Tour group members gather for the start of Friday night services in the “hidden” shul, which was built in 1836. (Photo by Yvette Diamond)

A small synagogue, unused since the 1960s and hidden in a house on an unassuming street in Ponta Delgada — an island town in the Portugal’s Azores islands — once again was filled with the sound of Shabbat prayers last month, thanks to 33 Jewish tourists led by a Pittsburgh-based travel company.

Malori Asman, owner of Amazing Journeys, which specializes in leading tours for Jewish singles, first heard about the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue from Cheryl Stern, a prospective client from the Boston area, inquiring about the company’s June 5-17 tour of mainland Portugal and the Madeira and Azores islands. Stern asked Asman if she planned to take her group to visit the recently refurbished synagogue on the island of São Miguel while there.

Stern told Asman that she had a “special connection to the Azores” because her father, Aaron Mittleman, who died last February, had been instrumental in securing the funds for the renovation and preservation of the shul, a project he had worked on for almost 30 years.

(Photo by Yvette Diamond)

(Photo by Yvette Diamond)

Mittleman, a resident of Fall River, Mass., had been in Ponta Delgada on a business trip in 1987 along with several colleagues, including Paula Raposa, who had grown up in that town before immigrating to Massachusetts in the 1960s. While having coffee in a café, the group was told of the hidden synagogue, which happened to be next door to Raposa, who is Catholic. She recalled that the group was able to obtain the key to the building that housed the 19th-century synagogue and take a look.

She was stunned, she said.

“I was born there, and my parents were born there,” Raposa explained. “No one knew about that synagogue. It was a secret.”

The Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue, once home to a small but thriving Jewish community on the island, was in total disrepair, Raposa said, but she was touched by the beauty of the sanctuary, as well as its historical significance.

When she returned home to Massachusetts, she and Mittleman established a nonprofit to raise funds to refurbish the synagogue and turn it into a museum to honor the Jewish presence that was once so important to the island. After years of work and navigating administrative red tape, Raposa and Mittleman were able to secure a grant from European Union groups devoted to the preservation of historical monuments in the amount of 300,000 euros.

“The Jewish people who built that synagogue had a huge impact on business there,” Raposa said. “We felt it was important to preserve an important piece of history.”

The refurbished 67-seat sanctuary was rededicated on April 24, 2015 with a Shabbat service of 40 people, about half of them Jews. It was the first known Jewish service in the Azores in nearly 50 years, Fall River’s  Herald News reported at the time.

While the building has received more than 6,000 visitors to tour its museum of Jewish artifacts since the rededication, and the sanctuary has four Torahs in its ark, it is not used for services because there are no practicing Jews left on the island, according to Raposa. There are, however, many Crypto-Jews — those whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition — who maintain Jewish customs such as lighting candles on Friday nights, but often don’t know why.

When Asman heard about the synagogue from Stern, she put it on her group’s itinerary, and booked a tour of the museum. But after exploring the building, members of the group wanted to know if they could celebrate Shabbat there the next day.

(Photo by Yvette Diamond)

(Photo by Yvette Diamond)

At first, the administrator at Ponta Delgada’s city hall refused. But after much persistence, and the involvement of a state senator in Massachusetts and the town’s mayor’s office, the group got the green light to hold a service at Sahar Hassamain.

Asman picked up Portuguese sweet bread at a local market, bought some wine and, along with the Shabbat candlesticks with which she typically travels, set up a Kabbalat Shabbat service for her group.

“It was so touching,” Asman said. “This is a building that was built for prayer, and it had been so long since Jews occupied the area. It was so meaningful to fill the room with prayer, as it was intended.”

For traveler Yvette Diamond of Owings Mills, the service at Sahar Hassamain took on special significance because it came on the heels of a stop in Lisbon when the group heard of the tragic history of the Jews in Portugal who had fled Spain seeking refuge during the Inquisition. They were eventually forced to convert or had their children taken and sold to become slaves to the Portuguese.

“They hanged the men and raped the women,” Diamond said she learned. “And a lot of [the Jewish buildings] that used to be there were built on top of by the Catholic Church.

“We had just learned about all this, and then we went to the Azores, which are spectacularly beautiful,” Diamond continued. “We went to Ponta Delgada, and we went to this shul. It was so nondescript with no signage outside.”

The shul is housed in what was the home of a rabbi, built in 1836 and was concealed from the public. The building contains a mikvah, and the bimah is in the center of the sanctuary in typical Sephardic fashion, Diamond said.

“Being there was an amazing feeling for all of us,” she said. “One day we were bearing witness to the atrocities of Lisbon, and two days later we were in Azores and looking at this beautiful place.”

Heidie Rothschild of Alexandria, Va., agreed.

“For me, I’m not very much a practicing Jew, but to be there with the group and actually having the service in a shul that hadn’t been used in so long, it was just so beautiful,” Rothschild said. “It felt like a very nice way to return to Judaism. I thought it may be a call back; maybe I was there for a reason.”

Toby Tabachnick writes for The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. She can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

Gauging the Impact of BDS Is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel succeeding?

In 2005, Palestinian nongovernmental organizations initiated the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to encourage businesses, universities and other global entities to pressure Israel into ending the occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights, giving full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel and recognizing the Palestinians’ right of return to land they had fled when Israel became a state.

In the United States, some college campuses have seen protests and student-backed resolutions calling for their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel. An increasing number of state governments are combatting BDS and showing support for Israel through legislation.

So just how much support does BDS have and to what degree has it affected Israel?

Gauging the Impact of BDS

On Campus

On April 22, New York University’s graduate student union, a 600-member organization, voted to approve a measure urging the university to end its exchange program with Tel Aviv University and called on the United Auto Workers, its parent union, to divest from Israeli companies.

Four days later, NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, rejected the union’s proposal, stating that it would be “contrary to our core principles of academic freedom, antithetical to the free exchange of ideas.”

The same month, Vassar College students voted in a referendum to reject a resolution supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement after the student council had passed it.

These two recent incidents at NYU and Vassar help illustrate the dynamics of BDS on campus. Student-backed resolutions relating to at least one element of BDS have seen the light of day at 34 universities in the United States between 2013 and 2015, according to the ADL. Of these, 13 passed. Despite the activism at these universities, these numbers constitute just a fraction of the more than 4,500 institutions of higher learning in the United States.

Nevertheless, BDS on campus has caused alarm from the organized Jewish community. In spring 2015, Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, the campus student organization, said the lives of American Jewish students and the integrity of the university were at stake.

“And so, some Hillel directors who might not have experienced it may find that they experience it in the future. And our job is to be proactive,” he said.

Fingerhut put in place a controversial set of guidelines about which positions on Israel are acceptable in the organization’s activities. Groups that advocate any form of BDS violate those guidelines.

Last summer, billionaire Sheldon Adelson raised $50 million to create an organization called Campus Maccabees to fight BDS. David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, was named to head the group. An associated Facebook Page called Maccabee Task Force has some 20,000 likes.

Economic Effects

Central to the BDS mission is to hit Israel economically and damage it so it will withdraw from the occupied territories. SodaStream, a do-it-yourself carbonated beverage company, was in the BDS spotlight for months after it opened a factory in the West Bank in 2014.

An interfaith coalition of organizations announced a boycott of SodaStream. The company eventually closed the plant and moved to a larger facility within Israel. More than 500 Palestinian jobs were lost in the process.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said the move had nothing to do with BDS or politics. But BDS advocates declared victory upon hearing the news.

“SodaStream’s announcement today shows that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is increasingly capable of holding corporate criminals to account for their participation in Israeli apartheid and colonialism,” said Rafeef Ziadah, of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.

But the SodaStream boycott appears to have done no long-term economic damage.

“The impact of BDS is more psychological than real so far and has had no discernible impact on Israeli trade or the broader economy,” Kristin Lindow of Moody’s Investor’s Service told Forbes. “That said, the sanctions do run the risk of hurting the Palestinian economy, which is much smaller and poorer than that of Israel, as seen in the case of SodaStream.”

If you boycott Israel, New York State will boycott you.
— New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

 

Foreign investments in Israel now total $285 billion, three times what they were 11 years ago when BDS was launched, Israel Bonds chairman Izzy Tapoohi wrote in the Jerusalem Post on July 6.

That has not daunted Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. Munayyer said BDS is working even if the economic results are not apparent.

“It’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a matter of corporations that are profiteering off of a system of injustice,” he said. “When you have debates over whether or not to boycott or to divest in an institution or a church, that conversation is happening, and that conversation would not be happening if people were not using these [boycott] tactics.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netan- yahu last year launched a $25 million effort to combat BDS by monitoring the activities of pro-BDS organizations. The plan was not implemented due to infighting in the Israeli cabinet.

Isolating and Delegitimizing Israel

Opponents of the occupation want to distinguish Israeli products made in the West Bank and Golan from those made within the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. BDS goes further. It wishes to stop the sale of Israeli goods from the territories and often from Israel itself.

In response, Israel supporters in this country have spearheaded anti-BDS legislation in U.S. states. Ten states passed laws in the last three years. Another 15, including Virginia, have them on their agendas.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently signed a bill into law that creates a blacklist of companies engaging in BDS tactics. “If you boycott Israel, New York State will boycott you,” he declared.

The Baltimore Jewish Council planned to pursue an anti-BDS bill in Maryland’s 2016 General Assembly session that would have prevented pension divestment to ensure that state pensions weren’t invested in companies that divested from Israel and changed the state’s procurement contract process so that companies who divest could not earn state contracts, similar to laws enacted in regard to Iran. When BJC officials researched both issues, they found that no companies had divested and decided not to pursue an anti-BDS bill, but they continue to monitor the issue in Maryland.

At the federal level, the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 30 passed the Combatting BDS Act of 2016. It would authorize state and local governments to divest funds from companies that engage in BDS activity that targets Israel.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the conservative pro-Israel group StandWithUs, calls the legislation “victories against bigotry.”

BDS loses “as they play the game because they appear to be so extremist, and they’re losing because [U.S. governments] recognize that [BDS is] spreading bigotry,” she said.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has proposed a litmus test for whether words or actions critical of Israel cross the line from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic.

Central to the BDS mission is to hit Israel economically and damage it so it will withdraw from the occupied territories. The support for BDS among young people can partially be attributed to the effectiveness of Palestinians in making their appeal similar to that of anti-Apartheid activists, said political analyst Peter Beinart.

He calls it the “Three D’s test”: delegitimization, demonization and double standard.

“We have to fight to convince others of why [BDS] is absolutely wrong,” Sharansky said. “And in this BDS movement, the most important thing is not to convince our enemies that they are wrong. We have to tell the Jews that they have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Marketing to Millennials

BDS also marks a generational divide that is highlighted in a study released in May by the Pew Research Center. It examined American attitudes toward foreign policy, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pew found that 43 percent of millennials, people born after 1980, were likely to sympathize with Israel compared with more than 60 percent of people born before 1964.

Simply put, Israel is not the miracle for millennials that it is for their parents and grandparents. The BDS movement, with its argument on justice for the Palestinians, is tapping into the passions of the millennials.

“In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity,” Jay Sanderson, president of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, told Ha’aretz. “But it’s not going to be anymore in the same way. Israel’s too complicated. So our approach has to be to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel.”

The growing support for BDS among young people can partially be attributed to the effectiveness of Palestinians in making their appeal in a similar way black South Africans did during the anti-Apartheid movement, said political analyst Peter Beinart.

“It makes sense that this is going to be strongest in the places where there is such strong political activism,” he said, noting that pro-BDS sentiments have taken root in particularly left-leaning areas of the United States such as New England and California.

Beinart, who opposes BDS, said that because the Israeli government is “erasing the Green Line” [with its settlements policy] and because there has been little progress in the Middle East peace process over the last 20 years, BDS has become an alternative for the Palestinians in achieving their goal of a state.

Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now, a pro-Israel group that opposes the occupation, said younger people are becoming attracted to the BDS movement because they are more engaged with social media and have not had to deal with the levels of anti-Semitism their parents faced.

“Younger people have much broader connections,” she said. “They’re reading tweets from people all over the world. When they’re having revolutions in the Middle East, people can see it on Twitter. You’re looking at all of these things and you’re thinking, what can I do?”

BDS supporters only constitute a small percentage of Israel critics, said political theorist Michael Walzer. But if the movement continues, it could have negative long-term effects.

“We have to acknowledge that this is a political movement of some importance,” he said. “This is not a movement that can do serious damage to the State of Israel, and its importance often is exaggerated for political purposes on the right. But it could turn the next generation of the American foreign policy elite against Israel.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com