The Jewish Community and Freddie Gray Protests

Thousands of people chanted and waved signs as they marched from West Baltimore toward City Hall Saturday afternoon, in a mostly peaceful demonstration to protest the alleged mistreatment and death of Freddie Gray and demand increased police accountability. Gray, 25, was arrested by Baltimore police on April 12, and sustained severe injuries of unknown origin and then died one week later.

Toward the end of the protest route a few hours later, the dispersing crowd turned violent. Police cars were vandalized with trashcans to cheers from the crowd, business’ windows were broken and cars stuck in traffic were damaged.

“We have seen the vast majority of the protesting [and it] has been incredibly peaceful,” said Molly Amster, 31, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice, who participated in city protests all week long. “It’s fraught with anguish and anger that is justified. But I’m surprised and frustrated by the portrayal of the protesters in the media. It continues to stigmatize and perpetuate the portrayal of people of color in the media.”

“I think that the ongoing terrorism of black communities, Sandtown in particular, the most policed neighborhood in Baltimore, that’s not something that we as white people, the vast majority of the Jewish community, don’t experience that,” said Amster of the West Baltimore neighborhood and home of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, which is approximately 99 percent African American. “But I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to say what’s an appropriate way to demonstrate their rage and anger at the system that is oppressing them.”

Rabbi Ariel Fishman, his wife and their son walked back from Lloyd Street Synagogue Saturday mid-afternoon to Judaic Heritage, near University of Maryland Baltimore, where he is director.

“We decided to walk down Lombard thinking we’d be off the main Pratt Street protest traffic but still saw tons of people pouring out,” he said, noting that some wore anonymous Guy Fawkes masks. “It didn’t feel unsafe, but there were a lot of people moving out of that area.”

“Some of the people had a pain and sadness on their faces,” said Fishman. “I always think of what MLK said, ‘Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.’ And that resonates with Jewish ethics, to love all people, love all creation. It’s a concept that has a firm hold in Jewish tradition.”

Lighting the Way

In its first three days, the crowdsourced fundraising campaign for the Kosher Switch nearly met its $50,000 goal.

In its first three days, the crowdsourced fundraising campaign for the Kosher Switch nearly met its $50,000 goal.

NEW YORK — It promises a revolutionary innovation that could transform Jewish Sabbath observance.

By changing the way a light switch works, the patented Kosher Switch offers a novel — and, its backers say, kosher — way to turn light switches (and, perhaps, other electrical appliances) on and off during Shabbat, circumventing one of the Sabbath’s central restrictions: the use of electricity.

In just three days, the product’s backers have raised more than $45,000 toward a $50,000 fundraising goal on Indiegogo, the crowdsourced fundraising website, to start manufacturing the device.

Menashe Kalati, the device’s inventor, calls it a “long overdue, techno-halachic breakthrough.” (Halachah refers to traditional Jewish law.)

But critics say the Kosher Switch isn’t really kosher for Shabbat at all — and that Kalati is  misrepresenting rabbinic opinions on the matter to give the false impression that he has their  endorsements.

At issue is whether the device’s permissibility for Shabbat relies on a Jewish legal loophole that applies only to extraordinary circumstances such as medical or security needs. The loophole, known as a “gramma,” allows for indirect activation of electronic devices on Shabbat.

How does gramma work? If, for example, a non-life-threatening field fire is burning on Shabbat, jugs full of water may be placed around the fire to indirectly cause its eventual extinguishing. Dowsing the fire directly — a Sabbath prohibition — is permitted only in life-threatening circumstances.

Kalati, 43, says his switch does not rely on the gramma loophole. When the switch is in the off position, a piece of plastic blocks an electronic light pulse that when received turns on the light. Turning the switch on moves the piece of plastic, which is not connected to anything electrical, so that it no longer obstructs the pulse. Because the light pulse is subject to a “random degree of uncertainty” and won’t instantaneously kindle the light when in Sabbath mode, it is kosher for use on Shabbat, according to the video.

This “adds several layers of Halachic uncertainty, randomness, and delays, such that according to Jewish law, a user’s action is not considered to have caused a given reaction,” the company says on its website. (Kalati’s office did not respond to phone calls or emails.)

In the Indiegogo video, Kalati says his team has spent years on research and development, during which “we’ve been privileged to meet with Torah giants who have analyzed, endorsed and blessed our technology and endeavors.”

But Yisrael Rosen, head of the Zomet Institute, the leading designer of electronic devices for use on the Jewish Sabbath, says the Kosher Switch is unfit for Sabbath use.

“Today, Israeli media reported the invention of an electric ‘Kosher switch’ for Shabbat, with the approval of various rabbis. This item was recycled from 2010 and already then denials and renunciation by great rabbinic authorities were published regarding everyday use for this product,” Rosen wrote Tuesday on Zomet’s website. “No Orthodox rabbi, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, has permitted this ‘Gramma’ method for pure convenience.”

Rosen appended a letter from Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth, the first rabbi whose endorsement appears in the Kosher Switch video — in a one-second pull quote reading “I, too, humbly agree to the invention” — suggesting that his endorsement was misrepresented.

“To allow one a priori to turn on electricity on Shabbat — impossible, and I never considered permitting except for the needs of a sick person or security,” reads the letter, which bears Neuwirth’s signature and letterhead and is addressed to the manager of Kosher Switch. “And please publicize this thing so no [Sabbath] violation will be prompted by me.”

The son of another rabbi whose endorsement appears in the video, Rabbi Noach Oelbaum (who says it does not violate the prohibition on Sabbath-day labor), said that his father’s position was distorted.

“I regret that my father’s position on kosher switch was misrepresented by stating that he endorses it
l’maaseh,” the son, Moshe Oelbaum, wrote in a statement, using the Jewish term for “regular use.”

Oelbaum said his father’s true position is that while the switch does not involve a technical violation of the Sabbath prohibition against labor (which forbids electricity use), it is a desecration of the Sabbath spirit. Oelbaum advises consumers to consult their own rabbis on the question of whether or not they may use it on Shabbat.

Kosher Switch is hardly the first technological innovation devised to ease Sabbath observance. For decades, Sabbath-observant Jews have used electronic timers set before Friday night to control lights and appliances like air conditioners or hot plates. Multistory buildings throughout Israel and some in the United States have Shabbat elevators that can run on autopilot.

The Zomet Institute, located in the Jerusalem suburb of Gush Etzion, in the West Bank, has invented baby sensors, sump pump gadgets, hot water heater contraptions, and special switches that modify wheelchairs, hospital beds, electronic scooters and staircase elevators for use on Shabbat. However, many of these devices rely on the gramma loophole and are permitted only for medical or
security use.

Rabbi Mordechai Hecht, a Chabad rabbi from Queens, New York, who appears in the Kosher Switch video saying “I was mesmerized to be blessed to see such an invention in my lifetime,” says the controversy surrounding its permissibility isn’t simply a fight over Jewish law.

“There’s politics in halachah,” he said. “The conversations they have are often money-related. Everyone has an agenda.”

Hecht said he cannot endorse or reject the product because he is not a halachic authority.

“Is there one way in halachah? Of course not. That’s why the sages say, ‘Make yourself a rabbi,’” Hecht said. “I think the rabbis need to be brave. A conversation needs to be had, and maybe this is a good place to have it. If there’s really a halachic issue, let’s talk about it. This is an amazing invention. The question is, can it enhance the Shabbos?”

Sense of Urgency

Addressing the guests of the United States Holocaust Mem-orial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute dinner, keynote speaker FBI Director James Comey called the Holocaust the most significant event in human history.

“It is of course significant because it was the most horrific display in the world of inhumanity,” Comey told the 1,000 donors, dignitaries and survivors gathered at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park in downtown D.C. on Wednesday, April 15.

“But I believe it was also the most horrific display in world history of our humanity, of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender.”

For this reason, he continued, all new FBI special agents and intelligence analysts are required to go to the museum, referring to the Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust developed in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League.

FBI Director James Comey (Photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

FBI Director James Comey (Photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

“Good people helped to murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all,” said Comey. “That is why I send our agents and our analysts to the museum. I want them to stare at us and realize our capacity for rationalization and moral surrender.”

Prior to Comey’s remarks, the 2015 Elie Wiesel Award was presented to Benjamin Ferencz and Judge Thomas Buergenthal. Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. Ferencz was 27 years old when he successfully convicted 22 Einsatzgruppen — a particularly ruthless faction of German SS — who were charged with the murders of one million people. After the war, Ferencz helped lay the groundwork for the International Criminal Court.

“‘Never again’ has been happening ever again. We need laws and courts and enforcement. And the enforcement arm is very weak, so the public is the court of last resort,” Frencz said in a pre-taped message. “I turn the world now back to you and hope you’ll have a more peaceful world than I have seen. Good luck.”

Buergenthal, one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, served for 10 years as a judge to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands. In his remarks, he drew parallels between himself and his friend, and the award’s namesake, Wiesel, and paid homage to the more than one million children murdered in the Holocaust.

“Think of the scientists, medical doctors, scholars, artists, musicians, poets, writers, astronomers, teachers and philosophers these children might have become had they been allowed to live,” he said. “We will never know how many future Nobel Prize winners were among the children who perished.”

Listening in appreciation were ADL National Director Abe Foxman, DNC Chair Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and former Al-Quds University Professor Mohammed Dajani, who led Palestinian students on a visit to Auschwitz last year.

Judge Thomas Buergenthal (Photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Judge Thomas Buergenthal (Photo United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Seventy years after the liberation of the camps, the eyewitness generation is rapidly diminishing, creating a sense of urgency to preserve evidence and make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible. To that end, the USHMM has launched an ambitious $540 million comprehensive campaign to bolster the museum’s endowment, increase annual funds and finance a new Collections and Conservation Center.

On April 15, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held at the site of the David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center in Bowie.

“In the future — it could be a hundred years from now, 200 years from now — we can claim that something happened. But unless we can prove it, did it really happen?” said Irv Shapell, son of the center’s namesake. Without evidence, he continued, the door to denial is left open.

Among the items to be preserved at the new center are Ferencz’s papers.

Said USHMM Director Sara Bloomfield, “Technology has created a lot of problems [with Holocaust denial]. We can put all of this evidence online and make the truth accessible,” adding that the endeavor will take millions of dollars but will ultimately be an effective tool for global Holocaust education.

In a pre-taped video, Bloomfield summed up the urgency of preserving Holocaust artifacts.

“When the survivors and all the eyewitnesses are gone, this evidence, these collections, will be the sole authentic witness to the Holocaust. This is the most important building our Museum will ever build,” she said. “Our generation has one moment in time to safeguard truth.”

Days of Remembrance events continued last Thursday morning with a ceremony in the Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

Taking on the ‘Israel Lobby’

A daylong seminar — “The Israel Lobby: Is It Good for the U.S.? Is It Good for Israel?” — was convened last Friday to discuss the so-called Jewish lobby’s power to influence politicians on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration.

Such perspectives are rarely heard, but a safe space was provided by the National Press Club, which allows organizations to hold events at its facilities without ideological consideration. The same room once hosted a mock congressional hearing with former members of Congress and government officials to hear testimony about whether the government is hiding contact with alien life forms. The mock committee concluded that the government was indeed hiding its interaction with space aliens.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University, accuses the United Nations of being biased against the Palestinians. (National Press Club)

Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University, accuses the United Nations of being biased against the Palestinians. (National Press Club)

Common conspiracies that the Israel lobby was responsible for every misfortune to befall the United States and the world were generally avoided by nearly all speakers, though factual inaccuracies throughout the day were plenty. Still, following the theme, every issue that was discussed was connected to the Jewish lobby’s power to influence politicians on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration.

Kicking off the conference, Grant Smith, director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy — an organizer of the event — bemoaned the proliferation of what he said had grown into  approximately 350 pro-Israel organizations in four distinct waves throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The first wave was focused on state building; the second wave, fundraising; the third wave, media watchdog and think tanks; and the fourth wave, speech and campus monitoring.

All these groups, said Smith, were given tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.

“The Justice Department tried to get pro-Israel organizations to register as foreign agents seven times” when they first began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s but did not succeed, Smith said.

He said the time has come for the IRS to review the charitable status of these organizations, claiming that donations to pro-Israel groups in the United States fund Israel military operations.

Smith calculated that these groups have so far cost American taxpayers a total of $234 billion.

“Our question must be: How much are Americans at this point owed for all of the aid that was delivered on false pretext?” he said.

The few hundred supporters packing the event room at the National Press Club listened as Smith and a variety of pro-Palestinian activists complained about the restriction of their pro-Palestinian activism by college administrators, employers and international organizations.

A few former members of Congress — two of them addressed the gathering — were in attendance, reminiscing about their days fighting against the lobbying efforts of AIPAC and a slew of other pro-Israel organizations.

Rather than the college hippies one usually associates with these kinds of movements, the audience was made up almost entirely of professorial-looking, retired, baby boomers — nodding their heads or commenting to the side in disgust whenever a speaker would mentioned that Israel violated the human rights of the Palestinian people.

When not listening to the speeches inside the conference room, guests mingled with their ideological heroes in the hallway. Those heroes included Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University and former holder of the politically charged title of United Nations special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967”; radical left-wing writer Gareth Porter; and Paul Pillar, Georgetown University nonresident fellow, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and CIA veteran.

Speaking about his experience with pro-Israel groups during his time prior to his ouster at the United Nations, Falk blamed pro-Israel watchdog groups for exerting pressure on the organization to ignore the Palestinian plight.

An “approach used on behalf of Israel to weaken and discredit the U.N. involves trying to both manipulate the organization and to undermine it at the same time. It is a very sophisticated kind of relationship that Israel has,” said Falk.

“It both pretends to be victimized by the organization, and yet because of its relationship to the U.S. and its clever use of these tactics, it intimidates the organization more than any other government however large or small,” he added. “It’s a kind of tour de force of a negative variety that it is able, despite being so uncooperative, to impose its views and the U.N.

“Rather than being biased [against Israel, the United Nations] leans over backward in every particular context to make sure that Israel’s best arguments are made fully available and given as much attention as possible. In other words, the reality is just the opposite of the perception in this country. If anything, the organization could be criticized as being indifferent to the Palestinian reality and biased toward not offending Israel.”

Event sponsors included the American Educational Trust, which publishes the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian semimonthly publication “Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,” and Middle East Books and More, a Washington-area bookstore specializing in the pro-Palestinian cause.

Damage Control

041715_indianaThe talk at Rabbi Michael Friedland’s Seder table in South Bend, Ind., was about Memories Pizza in the small Indiana town of Walkerton. Not that the celebrants already had tired of unleavened food — rather, they were bemused at how the restaurant owner’s stand in favor of the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act was turned into a windfall.

“The owner said that if someone asked them to cater a gay wedding, they wouldn’t do it,” said Friedland, who leads Conservative Sinai Synagogue. A four-day crowdfunding campaign in support of the pizzeria, set up by conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV network, raised $842,387.

“Someone joked that the synagogue should come out in favor of discriminating against gays, and we could raise almost a million dollars, too,” Friedland said. “Somebody else asked who would go to a pizza parlor to cater a wedding.”

The catering question was hypothetical, and the pizzeria’s owner said they would serve gay couples in the restaurant.

But the national attention that focused on Indiana after Republican Gov. Mark Pence signed the bill into law on March 26 been something that Indianans — and the state’s 17,000 Jews — are unaccustomed to. The fact that in the face of national outrage the law’s proponents passed a “fix” a week later, which the governor signed. It says that religious freedom cannot come at the expense of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons has calmed the atmosphere for now.

“There’s a little bit of schadenfreude — that the governor was embarrassed and had to walk this back,” Friedland said.

Still, the unfriendly spotlight on Indiana — and the travel bans and beginnings of a commercial boycott — “is not how we want to be the center of attention,” said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, the state capital.

“Every time I bump into someone, they say ‘I can’t believe this is happening. I’m so embarrassed.’ You really can’t go anywhere without people talking about it.”

In Evansville, at the southwest end of the state, Rabbi Gary Mazo, spoke at his Seder about the meaning of freedom in the context of the RFRA debate.

“I emphasized that in today’s world, where we are no longer slaves, we are compelled to focus our efforts on both remembering and working toward securing freedom for those who are oppressed, enslaved or persecuted,” said Mazo, of Reform Temple Adath B’nai Israel. “I then made it very clear that we live in a state that has sanctioned oppression and bigotry under the guise of religious freedom, and our job is to combat that.”

Mazo said the clarifying legislation passed on April 2 does not resolve the controversy. “It was too little, too late, and the law should never have been enacted and should be repealed.”

“At this point, we’re doing what we can to make sure the rights of minority religious communities are being addressed,” said David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, which opposed RFRA.

Sklar said the JCRC began discussing the bill last summer. The agency opposed the legislation and lobbied against it as “less of a specifically LGBT issue and more of an issue of potential discrimination,” he said.

“Decades of court precedent has resulted in a workable balance in Indiana between individual and religious freedoms. RFRA would upset the balance,” he explained.

And although Jews are protected by the constitutions of Indiana and the United States, “RFRA could cloud and confuse the landscape of religious freedom in the United States,” Sklar said.

Jews have come down on both sides of the issue, and an equal number of Jews testified before legislative committees for and against RFRA, Sklar added. But the overwhelming majority of Indiana Jews oppose the legislation, he said.

Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, of Congregation B’nai Torah in Indianapolis, has come out in favor of RFRA. The Orthodox rabbi appeared with Pence in the photo taken at the first bill signing, along with “supportive lawmakers, Franciscan monks and nuns, Orthodox Jews and some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists on conservative social issues,” according to USA Today.

Gettinger declined to speak for this story. Last year, he explained his opposition to “homosexual acts” to the Indianapolis Star: “One cannot be more certain of something being inappropriate if it’s called an abomination in the Bible,” he said. “Those are not my words. Those are the Bible’s words. Those are God’s words.”

“Saying they didn’t mean to discriminate against gays was a little hard to buy.”

Critics of the bill say that it was not promoted to assure religious freedom, but to hold fallback position after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 let stand a circuit court’s decision to strike down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage.

“Given who was at the original signing, saying they didn’t mean to discriminate against gays was a little hard to buy,” Friedland said. “Most people saw it as a reaction to the frustration that gay rights have moved to far.”

“It’s part of this trend after Hobby Lobby,” the Supreme Court decision that decided that a corporation can be considered a person under RFRA, said Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.

Laser and others interviewed for this article differentiated the Indiana RFRA — and others under consideration in Arkansas, North Carolina and elsewhere — from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed under President Bill Clinton in 1993.

“It was to be a shield for religious people. It allowed a boy who wants to wear his yarmulke in school or the Catholic priest who wants to give communion wine to his child parishioners. These new RFRAs are intended to be used as a sword to discriminate,” Laser said.

Nineteen states have RFRA laws on the books. Asked why Indiana was singled out for attention, Sklar said one reason was that it had more potential than others to be discriminatory.

“In the Indiana law, what a person entails is much broader. And Indiana did not have the protections for LGBT persons in place that other states do.”

Although the fixed RFRA does not make gays a legally protected class, it does say they cannot be discriminated against.

“This is the first time that a state law makes a positive reference to LGBT Hoosiers,” Sasso said. “The only good thing to come out of this is the outrage of the community that forced the governor and legislators to revisit this.”

On April 9, Indianapolis diners at any of four restaurants owned by Patachou Inc. can support gay rights at what owner Martha Hoover calls a “sit-in.” All proceeds for a $50 four-course meal will go to Lamda Legal, a civil rights group supporting LGBT communities.

The event is an example of how Jewish entrepreneurs are joining others in the business community in opposing discriminatory legislation.

“If you allow any discrimination, who controls the leap to what comes next?” Hoover said.

She calls the Republican backing of RFRA “both a miscalculation and a tremendous lack of leadership. It did catch them off-guard and suggests how out of touch they are.”

That disconnect is particularly strong with young adults, said Rabbi Leonard Zukrow of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in Munster, an Indiana town in suburban Chicago. “This is not an issue for them. Young people in Indiana are worried about jobs.”

“Our tradition speaks to inclusiveness,” he added, and quoted from the Passover Haggadah: “To all who are hungry come and eat.”

Indiana’s apparent lack of hospitality is ill-advised “for a state that is not a leading state for business opportunities,” Friedland said.

Following the passage of the “fix,” the governors of New York, Washington and Connecticut canceled their travel bans to Indiana.

The fix does not mean all is well in Indiana, Hoover said.

By “signing one law,” Pence “has damaged the state,” she said. “Our concern is, how long lasting is the damage?”

The Struggle Continues

Ilya and Luba Tolkachov and their 22-month-old son live in a tiny one-room Kiev apartment, which they share with with Ilya’s mother. (Ben Sales)

Ilya and Luba Tolkachov and their 22-month-old son live in a tiny one-room Kiev apartment, which they share with with Ilya’s mother. (Ben Sales)

KIEV — In a crowded room of the Tolkachov family’s tiny apartment here, a couch and twin bed sit kitty-corner from each other, sandwiching a small crib. In another corner, a wooden table is cluttered with a computer and some toys.

Since October, three generations of the Tolkachov family — grandmother, parents and 22-month-old baby — have all slept in this one room. To keep clean what little space they have, everyone takes off their shoes when they come in.

The Tolkachovs weren’t always poor. Ilya, 26, worked for an import-export business in Lugansk, the war-torn city in eastern Ukraine. His wife, Luba, 28, was an administrator at the local university. Ilya’s mother, Maria, lived nearby with her husband, a retired Ukrainian army officer. In his spare time, Ilya gave photography lessons at the local branch of Hesed, a Jewish senior citizens center.

Last summer, the family began hearing explosions near their home in Lugansk. Ilya claims they saw Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 fall out of the sky in July after being shot down over Torez, Luba’s hometown.

After the crash, the family packed some clothes and went to visit Luba’s family in Kiev, intending to stay no longer than a few weeks. They have yet to return home.

“Everything that we have, we needed to leave in Lugansk,” Ilya said. “Our flat, all of our belongings, our memories, we have to leave in Lugansk. This is just one more step to a better life.”

So far, that better life has remained elusive. Ilya managed to find a job in his field, but due to the economic crisis that hit Ukraine because of the war, they make rent only with aid from Jewish organizations. His father remains in Lugansk, scared that he could be forced to re-enlist if he moves.

The Tolkachovs’ story is common among Jewish refugees in Kiev who fled their homes in the embattled eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist forces have been fighting the Ukrainian army since last spring. Safe from bombs and gunfire, in the capital they face different hardships.

The Ukrainian hryvnia has lost more than half its value against the dollar just since January, shattering the economy and making even staple foods expensive. Refugees say it’s hard to find work or places to live in Kiev, where many locals view them as hostile elements — culturally Russian imports from a separatist region who have brought crisis upon themselves. According to the United Nations, nearly 1 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced as of February.

“There’s a stereotype that people don’t want to give those people apartments for rent or give people a job,” said Anna Bondar, public relations manager for the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, in the Kiev region. “They think in the beginning that these refugees were not against the situation, and many of them are pro-Russian, and that’s why they’re blaming them.”

JDC has aided more than 600 Jewish refugees in the Kiev area with help from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has poured more than $19 million into Ukraine since December 2013. Through the local branch of Hesed and Beiteinu, a JDC center for youth and family programs, JDC provides newly arrived families three to six months of subsidies for food, clothes, toiletries, medicine and rent totaling up to about $250 a month. The centers also host programs for the elderly and families, as well as a Sunday school.

Nina Tverye, who left the eastern city of Donetsk with her grandson in July and attends Hesed’s day programs for the elderly, said “it makes it feel better” to spend time with other refugees. Tverye said refugees spend all their time talking about the war.

“From this we start the day, and with this we finish the day,” Tverye said. “We are always discussing what is happening.”

Children from the Russian-speaking east face the added challenge of integrating into Ukrainian-speaking schools. At Or Avner, a Chabad-run elementary and middle school in Kiev, 15 refugees have been absorbed into a student body of 160, and the school provides tutors to help with the language difficulty as well as clothes and daily hot meals to take home.

But though a psychologist visits the school weekly to meet with refugees, the school has treaded lightly in explaining the war to its students. Teachers are afraid of wading into a controversial subject, so they stick instead to biblical tales on the importance of welcoming guests.

“Children are very sensitive, so when the parents are tense — they lost their job, the future is in question — we receive frightened, nervous, foreign children,” said Elka Ina Markovitch, the school’s founder. “When a child comes from a stable family, they still react in as calm a way as possible. An unstable family reacts unstably.”

Jewish aid workers all say the Jewish community harbors less animosity toward Jewish refugees than Kievans in general. But the burden of helping Jewish refugees has fallen to international groups like IFCJ rather than local Ukrainian Jewish organizations.

Donetsk Rabbi Pinchas Vishetsky, who has seen his city’s community dwindle from 10,000 before the war to 2,000 now, left for Kiev in August. He now manages the Donetsk community’s religious, educational and charity programs from afar, largely through IFCJ funding. He has given up hope of returning anytime in the near future.

“The Ukrainian Jews are in a complex situation, they’re in a complex economic crisis,” Vishetsky said. “They need to take care of the local Jewish community before they take care of communities affected by war. I hope God will do what’s needed. I have stopped hoping and started living with reality.”


American Muslims are expected to be more numerous than American Jews by the year 2035, according to a new study.  (Adam Berry/Getty Images)

American Muslims are expected to be more numerous than American Jews by the year 2035, according to a new study.
(Adam Berry/Getty Images)

In 20 years, there will be more Muslims in North America than Jews, according to a new Pew Research Center report. The report, which was released April 2, also found that more American Jews are leaving Judaism than non-Jews are joining the Jewish people.

According to “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Muslims will overtake Christians in the last quarter of the 21st century as the globe’s largest religious group. In the United States, Muslims will comprise 2.1 percent of the population in 2050, up from 0.9 percent in 2010. Jews, meanwhile, will fall to 1.4 percent of the U.S. population from 1.8 percent in 2010.

The Pew study also offered a detailed look at the sizes of national Jewish communities around the world, how fast the communities are expected to shrink or grow, and Jewish fertility rates.

There were nearly 14 million Jews around the globe in 2010, with expected growth to 16 million by 2050, according to the study — a lower growth rate than the general world population. Overall, Jews comprise roughly 0.2 percent of the world’s population, with about 44 percent of Jews in North America; 41 percent in Israel, the Middle East and North Africa; 10 percent in Europe; and 3 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.

By 2050, 51 percent of Jews are expected to live in the Middle East — almost all in Israel — and 37 percent in North America. The number of Jews in Europe is expected to decline more precipitously and outpace general European population shrinkage, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the study showed that globally there were 1.6 billion Muslims in 2010 and a predicted growth to nearly 2.8 billion in 2050 — from 23 percent of the population to 30 percent. In 2050, nearly three of every 10 people will be Muslims.

Today, the United States and Israel have about the same number of Jews, though there is some debate among Jewish demographers over which country is ahead. The Pew study counted 5.7 million Jews in the U.S. and 5.6 million in Israel, but other studies have shown more than 6 million Jews in each country, and Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said Israel had 6.2 million Jews in 2014. In any case, Israel is expected to pull unambiguously ahead in the coming years.

The study counted as Jews those who self-identify as Jewish when asked their religion. It does not include so-called Jews of no religion — those who have Jewish ancestry or consider themselves partially Jewish but say they are not Jewish by religion.

Nearly 95 percent of all Jews live in just 10 countries, according to the study. Except for Israel, none of those countries is more than 2 percent Jewish. The 10 countries with the most Jews are, in descending order, according to Pew, the United States, Israel, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Argentina, Australia and Brazil.

Jewish fertility rates are highest in Israel (2.8 children per woman), whereas Jewish fertility rates in North America (2.0) and Europe (1.8) are below replacement level (2.3). In the United States, the Jewish fertility rate is 1.9 children per woman.

In every region examined by Pew, the Jewish median age was older than that of the general population. In the world overall, the median age was 28, compared with the Jewish median age of 37. In North America the median age is 37, with the Jews at 41.

While the study showed that the spread of secularism is expected to continue and the number of atheists projected to rise, religious people are expected to grow as a proportion of the global population because they tend to have more children.

In Europe, Muslims are expected to grow to 10 percent of the population in 2050, from 6 percent in 2010.

In the United States, Americans of no religion are expected to grow from 16 percent in 2010 to 25 percent by 2050, and Christians are expected to shrink from 78 percent in five years to 66 percent by 2050.

The Fight Is On

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was defiant in his news conference Wednesday evening, telling the media and cheering supporters in both English and Spanish at a Newark hotel ballroom that he will fight the indictment brought against him by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier that day — maintaining his innocence as he has throughout the drawn-out investigation that led to it and saying that he was “not going anywhere.”

“For nearly three years, I’ve lived under a Justice Department cloud; and today I’m outraged that this cloud has not been lifted,” said Menendez. “I’m outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me. But I will not be silenced. I am confident [that] at the end of the day I will be vindicated and they will be exposed.”

A federal grand jury in Newark, N.J. indicted Menendez on charges of public corruption after a more than two-year Department of Justice investigation into the senator’s misuse of his office on behalf of longtime friend and donor, Florida-based ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, who was also indicted.

Menendez, 61, will face charges connected to a “bribery scheme in which [he] allegedly accepted gifts from Melgen, also 61, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests,” according to a DOJ statement citing Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell of the department’s criminal division and special agent Richard Frankel of the FBI’s Newark division.

Menendez and Melgen were both charged on 13 counts: one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the Travel Act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements.

The DOJ listed specific accusations against Menendez in its statement.

These examples included accusations that Menendez accepted close to $1 million in “lavish gifts”; accepted “flights on Melgen’s private jet” or first-class commercial tickets to vacation at Melgen’s private Caribbean villas and other exotic locations; and received campaign contributions — more than $750,000 — from Melgen. In return, Menendez is accused of using his “Senate office to influence the outcomes of ongoing contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars” on Melgin’s behalf “and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”

“Government corruption, at any level of elected office, corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” said Caldwell. “It is the fundamental responsibility of the Department of Justice to hold public officials accountable by conducting thorough investigations and seeking an indictment when the facts and the law support it.”

Menendez, who says he has been personal friends with Melgen for decades, accused prosecutors at DOJ of not knowing “the difference between friendship and corruption.”

“[They] have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something improper,” he said.

As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — as well as serving as the committee’s chairman prior to the GOP Senate takeover following the 2014 midterm elections — Menendez has played a key role in Senate foreign policy initiatives.

Considered a hawk even when compared with some Republicans, Menendez’s stance on how the United States should conduct its foreign policy and fight against radical extremist terrorists often put him at odds with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.

His fierce opposition to the U.S.-led P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran and advocacy for additional sanctions on the Islamic state in the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act — which President Barack Obama threatened to veto on multiple occasions, including in two consecutive State of the Union speeches — made him a pariah to his party’s own administration.

Yet, these efforts made him a star among many in the pro-Israel community, for both Jewish Democrats and Republicans. During his 2012 re-election campaign, he was the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel individuals and groups, who gave him a total of $346,470, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) came out in full support of Menendez, pointing to its strong working relationship with the senator and praising his devotion on both domestic and foreign policy matters important to the AJC and many in the American Jewish community.

“Sen. Menendez has stood up for victimized nations, persecuted minorities and the least fortunate here at home. From AJC’s vantage point, our nation has been strengthened significantly in so many meaningful ways by the senator’s long record of public service,” the AJC said in a statement. “Regarding this week’s news of a federal indictment, unless and until the government proves its case, the senator is presumed to be innocent.

“We, therefore, intend to continue to work with him closely, as we have throughout his tenure. His leadership on pressing policy issues is too important to be silenced on anything less than proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In his keynote address at last month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, Menendez was enthusiastically received with numerous standing ovations. In his speech, he predicted the coming indictment, insinuating that the investigation was part of the Obama administration’s attempts to silence him. Many audience members shared this sentiment.

“I can tell you one thing: As long as I have an ounce of fight left in me, as long as I have a vote and a say and a chance to protect the interest of Israel, the region and the national security interests of the United States, Iran will never have a pathway to a weapon,” he said. “It will never threaten Israel or its neighbors, and it will never be in a position to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch. That is why I will not yield to those who wish to break me. For so long as I have a voice and a vote, I will not yield to those who wish to break my resolve on stopping Iran’s elicit nuclear program and on preserving the unshakeable bond between Israel and the United States.”

Despite his influence on the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez abdicated his position last week so that his legal difficulties would not be a distraction to the committee’s work, according to a letter he sent to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Menendez said he hoped that this move would only be temporary.

Although retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was the next most senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was tapped to take Menendez’s spot.

Like Menendez, Cardin is viewed favorably by the pro-Israel community but is regarded as less outspoken and abrasive than his predecessor.

“Cardin is somebody who has the bona fides as it relates to Israel and as it relates to Iran that are impeccable,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. “I think he’ll be a millimeter more deferential to the administration, but he’s not someone who is going to be content with Congress not having oversight [of the final P5+1 agreement].”

Cardin’s low-key demeanor matches that of the mild-mannered chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who, unlike some other Republican senators pushing for immediate, additional economic sanctions to pressure Iran to agree to a more favorable deal, has sided with Democrats in support of giving the administration time to complete negotiations.

Did They or Didn’t They? Allegations of Israeli spying put cloud over Iran deadline

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sits with President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office in March 2014. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Experts on intelligence matters in the United States are brushing off last week’s allegations from anonymous Obama administration sources alleging Israeli espionage concerning the multilateral nuclear negotiations. Scholars such as Michael Makovsky at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) dismissed the allegations, first published in The Wall Street Journal, and accusations that Israel was feeding illicitly obtained information to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as nothing more than normal behavior hyped by the White House to besmirch the Jewish state.

“It seems part of the administration’s campaign to attack Israel,” said Makovsky. “That has maybe subsided in recent days after some pushback by Democrats.”

The revelations came in the final days leading up to the negotiations’ self-imposed March 31 deadline, as Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from five other nations attempted to finalize a deal preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the administration provided high-level briefings on the talks to Israeli government officials but abruptly canceled them over frustration with Israeli espionage activities.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official told the newspaper.

Yet, leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill said that they were unaware of anyone receiving these alleged briefings from the Israelis or that they were provided with any information about the negotiations that was not already public or not provided in closed-door briefings by U.S. officials.

“Frankly, I was a bit shocked because there was no information revealed to me whatsoever,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference the morning the story broke. “I was shocked by the fact that there were reports in this press article that information was being passed on from the Israelis to members of Congress. I’m not aware of that at all.”

Although the United States and Israel maintain strong ties in defense and intelligence matters — often sharing information on security threats — the article alleged that the Israelis were active in obtaining information on the talks that was not publicly available other than through espionage, but it did not mention which methods were used and who the Israelis monitored to obtain this information.

It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S.legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy.

Beyond a “gentleman’s agreement” against spying on allies, Israel pledged to permanently suspend all espionage activities against the United States following the capture and incarceration of former U.S. intelligence contractor Jonathan Pollard in the mid-1980s.

“It is a very well-known fact that at that time and since then, Israeli leaders have made this pledge quite clearly, repeatedly, that they were not going to do that again,” said Meir Elran, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I do not have any reasons to doubt that it is an ongoing policy and that Israel is keeping to it religiously.”

As expected, senior officials with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office unequivocally denied the administration’s allegations.

That Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have met, often publicly, with American lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other branches of government is no surprise, said Elran. That they would discuss Iranian nuclear ambitions, which Netanyahu has described as an existential threat to Israel, is no surprise either.

“When a given country is perceiving a situation or a phenomenon that is an important threat to deal with, it needs information,” said Elran. “So it collects whatever information it’s possible to acquire. … There are different ways and means to collect reliable information without breaching this kind of commitment.

“If you ask me, I would say it would be very unwarranted on the part of Israel not to do whatever it can in order to collect the most reliable information on the issues,” he continued. “It considers this to be of very high significance.”

Vastly Different Candidates

As politicians throughout the state contemplate the wisdom of mounting a bare-knuckle Senate campaign, only Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards have officially declared their candidacies for the seat being vacated by outgoing Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. But while both are longtime Democrats, they could not be more different in how they are perceived by voters, both in terms of their relationship to Maryland’s Jewish community and in their support for Israel.

With more than a year until the primary elections, Van Hollen — who has represented the state’s 8th Congressional District from his base in Montgomery County since 2002 — is widely regarded as the party establishment’s favored son, having scooped up an endorsement by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) just days after Mikulski’s March 2 announcement that she was retiring. He’s also been endorsed by the Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and all nine members of the Montgomery County Council.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards are two Democrats battling for  Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat.

Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards are two Democrats battling for
Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s seat.

Edwards, by contrast, is seen as the populist underdog, the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in the House of Representatives and bearer of a coveted endorsement from the progressive women’s organization, Emily’s List.

On Israel, observers say the candidates hold vastly different records.

“Looking at their pro-Israel record closely over the years, there’s a huge contrast between Van Hollen’s excellent record and Edwards’ very poor record,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “There were times when you had 350 co-sponsors and she wasn’t one, or good letters where 317 members signed and she did not.”

Edwards, who represents the 4th Congressional District in Prince George’s County, has received campaign contributions in her previous congressional races from J Street PAC, the political funding arm of the left-leaning pro-Israel organization.

The PAC’s bio of Edwards, available on its website, quotes her 2008 campaign platform, in which she wrote that she believes that  “the U.S. should not cease in its efforts to achieve a two-state solution in which Israel’s neighbors recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, living in security alongside an independent and autonomous Palestinian state” and that “resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be pursued in parallel to diplomatic engagement that must take place with Iran, Syria and Arab allies.”

Although a majority of American Jews support a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, Edwards’ belief that Iran, Syria and America’s Arab allies — almost all of whom are sworn enemies of Israel — should be engaged in the negotiations may be outside of the mainstream Jewish community’s pro-Israel outlook.

During her time in Congress, Edwards often voted in the minority against legislation considered “pro-Israel” by most lawmakers. A few examples include voting against a 2009 bill that passed by a vote of 344-26 condemning the United Nation’s Goldstone Report, an investigation that accused the State of Israel of human rights violations but was later recanted as a fabrication. She also refused to sign congressional letters supporting Israel, such as a 2010 letter drafted by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) declaring Congress’ view that Israel has the right to defend itself and a 2014 letter drafted by Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) taking a firm stance against Iran’s nuclear program.

Van Hollen caught flak in 2006 when he authored a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice critical of Israel’s actions in Lebanon.

Edwards, though, has voted with the majority on legislation providing financial aid to Israel, including last year’s emergency appropriations bill providing $225 million to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Attempts to reach Edwards for comment for this article were unsuccessful.

Many in Maryland’s Jewish community describe Van Hollen’s as nearly perfect, but it wasn’t always that way.

Van Hollen caught flak in 2006 when he authored a letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that was critical of Israel’s actions in its battle against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

“The killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah precipitated the current crisis in the region. Those actions were followed by Hezbollah rocket attacks that have fallen indiscriminately in Haifa and other Israeli population centers. Like any sovereign country, Israel has the right and responsibility to defend itself,” wrote Van Hollen. “The Israeli response, however, has now gone beyond the destruction of Hezbollah’s military assets. It has caused huge damage to Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, resulted in the large loss of civilian life and produced over 750,000 refugees. Hezbollah is undeniably the culprit, but it is the Lebanese people — not Hezbollah — who are increasingly the victims of the violence.”

Though Van Hollen angered some in the Jewish community with his letter, he quickly clarified his position in a follow-up letter, writing that he never “called Israel’s actions unjustified” and that the letter to Rice was “meant as a critique of Bush administration policy in the Middle East,” according to JTA.

Today, few of his Jewish supporters even remember the incident.

In a recent phone interview, Van Hollen reflected on the letter.

“This was a situation where there were some differences with some in the community, but it was not a situation where we had separate goals,” said Van Hollen. “The goals were the same, which was to ensure the safety of Israel. [But] there were some different perspectives on the best approach to achieving that.”

Van Hollen spoke about what he believes to be his “close, working and personal” relationship with the local community.

“We have shared values, shared priorities,” he said.

So far, only Hoyer, the House minority whip, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have ruled out a Senate campaign, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is mulling over a possible run. But while the establishment coalesces around Van Hollen, the shadow of Mikulski’s historic firsts, including being the first woman popularly elected to the Senate, have some feeling that Mikulski’s replacement should be a woman.

Emily’s List, whose first endorsed candidate was Mikulski in 1986, endorsed Edwards last week.

“Donna Edwards is a true progressive champion with an outstanding record of fighting for women and families in Congress,” Stephanie Schriock, the organization’s president, said in a press release. “She is poised to make history as the second African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate — the first in over two decades.”

The group cited Edwards’ work to get Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, when Edwards was a community organizer, and her more recent work backing much of the group’s supported legislation, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Affordable Care Act and funding for Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, Van Hollen has swayed a number of women’s issues activists of his own, namely membership of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland and current and former lawmakers, including state Sens. Susan Lee, Nancy King and Mary Boergers, and Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez and Carol Petzold.

In endorsing Van Hollen, Susan Turnbull, former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of Jewish Women International, said that the choice between Van Hollen and Edwards was an easy one.

“For me, looking at who I might want to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate, there is no other candidate that I can see who I think would be a better senator for the state of Maryland,” said Turnbull. “To me, what a leader does is bring people with you and throughout his career, Chris Van Hollen has done that. He has taken on the issues that I personally feel are important for myself, for my family and for my community.”

Turnbull said that she did consider backing a female candidate, but felt that her belief in Van Hollen’s abilities exceeded this concern.

“I have no qualms about women running for office,” she said. “[A woman has] every right and responsibility [to run for office] if she thinks she is the best candidate for that seat.”