A Very Real Challenge

For Orthodox Jews, President Barack Obama’s proposed tax reforms present a numbers-crunching paradox: Income he designates as well-off may mean just getting by for large families.

Obama’s 2015 budget, which was introduced Monday, aims to offset economic breaks to upper-income families to help working- and middle-class Americans, a key goal of his State of the Union address. The reforms would fund most tax breaks and social services by increasing taxes on those in the higher brackets..

For Orthodox Jews, the largest growing segment of Judaism according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jewry, such reliance on households making more than $100,000 per year can strain finances already challenged by day school tuitions and the burdens of feeding larger-than-average families.

The Pew report showed that despite their relatively small population — making up only 10 percent of the Jewish population in the United States — families that consider themselves Modern Orthodox reported higher incomes than others in the Jewish community, with 37 percent having household incomes of more than $150,000. The finding surprised Nathan Diament, executive director of the advocacy branch of the Orthodox Union that represents Orthodox Jews on the state and federal policy matters.

“I would have thought that [average household incomes for] the Reform Jewish community or the Conservative community would have been higher,” he said.

Based on anecdotal evidence, Diament attributed the trend to Orthodox parents being “driven to higher paying professions, because they know that they want to pay for day school education for the three, four or five children that they’re having.”

Even assuming above-average incomes for Orthodox families, the costs involved in having a large family and providing all of their children with private Jewish educations often drives them into a middle- or lower-class lifestyle. The current tax system caps childcare benefits and per- child tax deductions for all income levels, reducing benefits as family income increases.

“That’s a huge challenge and it’s very much the case that if you are in the Modern Orthodox community and you’re making $200,000 or even $300,000 a year, you’re struggling,” said Diament. “That’s very difficult to say and we’re aware that it’s much higher than the average income in the United States, but if you’re paying tuitions of $20,000 to $30,000 a year per child and you have four or five children, it’s very, very challenging.

“It’s already the case that those tuition dollars are not accounted for in a tax-favored sort of way,” he continued, “and it is [also] the case that many tax breaks are phased out” at the $100,000 level.

According to the president, the new budget aims to reduce the gap between lower- and middle class Americans and the upper class by tripling the per-child tax incentive and providing a $500 tax break to dual income earners among other tax incentives ranging from childcare to retirement.

Roberton Williams, Sol Price fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, explained where the budget falls short.

“I think it’s a more general question of what does income represent in terms of lifestyle,” said Williams. “In New York City, $200,000 doesn’t buy you nearly as much as it does in Indiana.”

According to Williams, the government rarely factors lifestyle choices, such as how many children a family wants to have or whether they send their children to private school, into its bracket calculations.

“We all make lots of decisions about what we do with our personal lives,” said Williams. “In general, the tax code does not take account of a lot of those [issues]. So people who choose to have lots of kids, it’s a private choice.

“While the tax system recognizes that to some degree, it certainly doesn’t say ‘We’re going to adjust your taxes based on your personal choices of how you spend your money,’” he added. “Some things they allow, some things they don’t.”

Despite the president’s increased childcare credit, which applies fully to children under the age of 5 and is then significantly reduced until largely disappearing once a child turns 13, there is a cap on the total amount of child credits the family can claim.

In the current tax code, families can claim $3,000 per child up to a total cap of $6,000. Thus, each additional child after the second, does not receive tax credit.

Jason Fichtner, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, agreed with Williams’ assessment.

“The American public has a much different view of what is middle-class than an economist or a statistician might,” Fichtner said via email. “Middle usually describes an average or a median to someone familiar with statistics. But when it comes to income and American culture, the ‘middle-class’ is very wide and includes professionals making $30,000 a year all the way up to families with combined incomes of $400,000.”

To pay for its reforms, Obama’s plan would raise the capital gains tax to 28 percent for revenue greater than $200,000; increase fees on large financial institutions; and close the “trust fund” loophole that lets individuals pass on tax-free assets to their heirs.

“By ensuring those at the top pay their fair share in taxes, the president’s plan responsibly pays for investments we need to help middle class families get ahead,” a White House fact sheet released shortly before the complete budget explained.

As expected, the president’s offsets have reignited “class-warfare” accusations from Republicans.

“Obama’s tax policies and tax proposals have been consistently bad for the American people,” said Mark McNulty, communications director for the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Redistribution is never a good thing. What we want to do is raise all boats and create prosperity for everybody, and I don’t think Obama’s policies do any of that.”

One Jewish group praising Obama’s budget is the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, the movement’s advocacy arm in Washington.

“We were very positively inclined to the elements of President Obama’s tax proposals that would lift up the poor,” said newly appointed director Rabbi Jonah Pesner, noting that his organization aims to apply Jewish values to benefit American society as a whole, rather than advocating for any particular Jewish group.

“Our core work is about that Deuteronomic vision of the widow, the orphan and the stranger and those tax policies that will actually measurably impact and improve the lives of poor people, and frankly, that would generate economic activity that would improve the wider landscape for all Americans.”


Dermer’s Dance Eyes turn to Israeli ambassador amid firestorm over Netanyahu invite



A week after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) touched off a political and diplomatic firestorm by announcing an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress, attention turned to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and his role in the controversy.

How serious you believe the U.S.-born Dermer’s role is in setting off that firestorm may depend on what you think of him and Netanyahu. But even if the ambassador’s actions balloon into Dermergate, it’s likely that with Israeli elections ahead, Dermer’s job, according to Israel-watchers, is safe — for now.

The controversy has led Boehner take the unusual step of publishing a chronology showing the steps taken that led to Netanyahu’s invitation, in which Boehner took the leading role. It also spurred some House Democrats to urge that Netanyahu’s appearance be postponed until after the Israeli elections and the deadline for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program has passed. Both issues have become tangled in Netanyahu’s visit.

Dermer came to Washington in 2013 as a close adviser to Netanyahu.

Unlike other Israeli envoys, the ambassador to Washington represents the prime minister and not just the foreign ministry, said Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.

Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, also made it clear that he represented the prime minister, Peri said. “But he didn’t go into confrontations with others. Nor was he seen as preferring one [U.S. political] party over another. Dermer really doesn’t care if he’s seen with one party. That is a major mistake.”

Dermer is Netanyahu’s man, and if the prime minister wins the March election, “Bibi will keep him.” But if criticism of Dermer continues to build, Netanyahu may decide to replace him, Peri said.

“With bad blood created around this issue, Dermer can’t be a well-functioning ambassador,” said a staffer for a Jewish organization who is knowledgeable about Israeli politics. “But it would really look bad if Netanyahu ejects him now. He won’t pay a terrible price to have a lame-duck ambassador for a few months.”

Dermer will keep his job, said Josh Block, CEO and president of The Israel Project. “I have no doubt that Ambassador Dermer regrets the way this invitation issue has played out. There are major issues at stake for us and for Israel, and in the sweep of history, this won’t even be a footnote.

“He is a very effective representative of the State of Israel and of his government,” added Block, “and as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, I think we’ll be seeing Ambassador Dermer continue to play that important role here in the United States.”

Oren, now a candidate for the Kulanu party running against Netanyahu’s Likud, called on the prime minister to cancel his address to Congress. Netanyahu “created the impression that this is a cynical political move, and it could hurt our efforts to act against Iran,” the former ambassador said.

Peri put the chances of Netanyahu canceling at 60-40 against.

Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, made the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, caught the White House, congressional Democrats and pro-Israel groups by surprise and, with Israeli national elections scheduled for March, was attacked by Netanyahu’s political opposition.

The Obama administration was reportedly furious at how it was bypassed in the planning. On. Jan. 28, The New York Times cited an unnamed “senior administration official,” who said the view within Obama’s inner circle is that Dermer “had repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.”

Two days later, Dermer defended his actions and his boss’ intentions to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic: “The prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully — and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention,” Dermer said.

“The consensus in the foreign policy community is that the prime minister overreached,” said a senior official in a pro-Israel organization. “But the president blew it out of proportion and is using this as an opportunity to pick a fight.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Dermer seems eager to put all his eggs in the Republican basket. That’s foolish, short-sighted, risky and irresponsible,” Alan Elsner, vice president for communication at J Street, wrote in <em<Ha’aretz.

And JTA quoted a “source close to AIPAC,” the pro-Israel lobby, saying, “The bottom line is, it would have been smarter to consult.”

The invitation to Netanyahu also left congressional Democrats and Jewish Democrats fuming.

The result is that support for Israel and the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program have become partisan issues, said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “We think this is a bad thing.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress on March 3, when the AIPAC policy conference will be underway nearby. Rosenbaum said Netanyahu should have just planned to make “a fiery policy speech” about Iran at AIPAC rather than have accepted Boehner’s invitation.

House Democrats Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) are circulating a letter urging Boehner to reschedule Netanyahu’s appearance, JTA reported. “Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship,” it reads.

The backlash from the invitation has created linkage between the prime minister’s visit and proposed legislation to increase sanctions on Iran if talks with the West on its nuclear program fail, Rosenbaum said. “For the NJDC, this has been beneficial,” because the group opposes the legislation, believing Iran might leave the talks if it passes.


Custody battle in Vienna generating international uproar


VIENNA — In an apartment in the Austrian capital, Beth Alexander is deleting hundreds of photos of her 5-year-old twin boys from Facebook.

In one picture, Benjamin and Samuel are laughing as they hold a toy. In another they are waiting to be served lunch in their native Vienna.

The ordinary snapshots are the kind uploaded by countless mothers all over the world. Yet Alexander, a British-born modern Orthodox mother in her 30s, is barred from displaying them by order of an Austrian court, which in November ruled in favor of her ex-husband’s motion claiming the photos violated the twins’ privacy.

“Removing these pictures is painful to me,” Alexander said this month in an interview via Skype. “They allow my family back in Britain to sort of keep in touch with the boys and they show that despite all that has been said about me, I’m a good mother and the children are happy when they are with me.”

The injunction is the latest in a series of legal setbacks that have left Alexander with restricted access to her boys and declared barely fit to be a mother — rulings that have led to mounting international criticism and claims of a colossal miscarriage of justice.

Leaders of the British and Austrian Jewish communities have spoken out about what they consider to be a highly unusual case that has unfairly limited Alexander’s maternal rights. Her case even made it to the floor of the British Parliament, where lawmakers last year described it as a Kafkaesque situation that has wrongly maligned Alexander as mentally ill and an unfit mother.

“I have no reason to assume that Alexander is in any way incapable of being a mother,” said Schlomo Hofmeister, a prominent Viennese rabbi who knows the Schlesinger case well. Hofmeister said it was tragic that the children were deprived of equal access to their mother and called on both parents to “find a time-sharing arrangement in the interest of these children, who are suffering.”

Alexander, who was known in the media by her married name, Beth Schlesinger, until she changed it recently, was separated from her husband, Michael Schlesinger, in 2009 after three years of marriage. The couple formally divorced last year.

In 2011, a court-commissioned psychologist reported that Alexander had “reduced parenting abilities” and was oblivious to her children’s “significant developmental delay.” Though the report by psychologist Ulrike Willinger also acknowledged Alexander’s “close, loving bond” with her children, it concluded that Schlesinger should receive custody.

An Austrian court agreed, awarding Schlesinger full custody and restricting Alexander’s visitation rights to a few hours every week. In 2011, four policemen removed the children from her care as Alexander was feeding them supper. It would be eight weeks until she saw the children again.

Though the Willinger report’s findings were disputed in two subsequent psychological evaluations, the court refused to reconsider its ruling. Last year, Austria’s Supreme Court rejected Alexander’s appeal without explanation.

Alexander, who has a master’s degree from Cambridge University and works in Vienna as a university lecturer and an English teacher, says her ability to fight for her rights in Austria is severely limited because she is a foreigner without local connections and at first was not fluent in German. But while she has been unsuccessful in the courts, her lobbying efforts are becoming increasingly successful in swaying public opinion in her favor.

Her case was the subject of a debate in Britain’s House of Commons last year, during which lawmaker Graham Stringer made the Kafkaesque reference and cited concerns that Schlesinger may be abusing his family’s alleged ties to justice officials.
“One has to suspect that undue influence and conspiracy were taking place,” Stringer said.

Ivan Lewis, another British lawmaker, called the Austrian justice system’s handling of the case “one of the worst miscarriages of justice,” adding that Alexander “was falsely and cruelly labeled mentally ill and an unfit mother, labels both disproved by independent professionals.”

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Jonathan Arkush, the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have also both spoken out on Alexander’s behalf.
Michael Schlesinger did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this article. The couple are no longer in contact, the result of a spiteful breakup during which Schlesinger was removed from the couple’s home on police orders after he sought, unsuccessfully, to have his wife committed to a mental institute.

As a result of the legal battle, Alexander said she cannot meet with journalists at her home lest her ex-husband use such meetings for further litigation.

As she continues to fight in court and lobby for more time with her twins, Alexander uses the time she has with them to compensate for her absence from their daily lives with activities like baking, going to the park, reading stories, and arts and crafts.

“I have to make up in one day what other mothers may do with their children in a week,” Alexander said.

‘The Return’ takes new look at Polish Jewish revival

Catholic-born Katka is one of four young women featured in the documentary "The Return." (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

Catholic-born Katka is one of four young women featured in the documentary “The Return.” (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

LOS ANGELES — On the crumbling wall of a former Polish synagogue, adjacent to a one-time Jewish ritual bath converted into a car wash, a graffiti artist has painted “Jews, We Miss You” in Polish and German.

The message, scrawled on the wall in the Polish town of Dabrowno, is an apt message in contemporary Poland, which has seen a surprising revival of Jewish life in a land that nearly saw its Jewish community eradicated, first by the Holocaust and then under decades of communist rule.

The story of that revival is the subject of the new documentary “The Return.” Adam Zucker, a 57-year-old New Yorker, does triple duty as the film’s director, producer and writer. He tells his tale through the eyes of four women.

Zucker estimates that there are now 20,000 people in Poland who formally identify as members of the Jewish community — a number that doesn’t include those who have some Jewish ancestry, often recently discovered, or the legions of non-Jews who have become enamored of Jewish culture.

“Poland was the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry, where Hasidism started and Yiddish developed,” writer Konstanty Gebert declares in the film, adding defiantly, “And this is where it did not end.”

The continuation of Polish Jewish life rests in large part on the profound interest in all things Jewish among Polish Catholics, many of whom participate in the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. At the city’s Jewish community center, they play in klezmer bands, dance while juggling bottles on their heads, act in Jewish dramas and affirm that having a Jewish friend is cool.

Adam Zucker is the writer, producer and director of the new documentary "The Return." (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

Adam Zucker is the writer, producer and director of the new documentary “The Return.” (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

There are different explanations for this unlikely philo-Semitism, including a general nostalgia for prewar Polish life. But Zucker suggests that after the tribulations of decades of communist rule, the citizenry welcomes the color and enthusiasm of Jewish life.

Zucker discovered the phenomenon of Polish non-Jews spearheading a revival of Jewish culture in a 2008 New York Times article, which intrigued him enough to chance an exploratory trip to Poland.

While the quality of performances at Jewish cultural festivals in Warsaw and Krakow exceeded his expectations, what really fascinated him were the stories of young Jews “trying to define their identities and discover who they were, without access to their past heritage in the place which was once the most Jewish in the world,” he said.

Before embarking on the film, Zucker had no clear idea how many characters to feature or that his subjects would all wind up being women. Once introduced to the country’s Jewish communities, he encountered some interesting and involved men, but the women really stood out.
“I though that since Judaism, like most institutions, tends to be a bit patriarchal, focusing on women would be a somewhat different way into the story which I found appealing,” Zucker said. “Each of the women wrestled with her Jewish and female identity.”

Zucker grew up in New York City, the great-grandson of Jews from Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. He has been making movies all his life, most recently the 2007 film “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth,” which documents the first Truth and Reconciliation commission formed to re-examine the 1979 Greensboro Massacre in North Carolina.

But he pays the rent as a film editor, including work on such award-winning documentaries as “Homestead Steel Strike,” “Broadway: The American Musical,” “Richard Wright: Black Boy” and “The West.”

Between editing stints, his filming of “The Return” stretched over five years, shooting in five cities and on three continents, covering two weddings, the arrival of two babies and one conversion ritual.

Zucker raised one-third of the film’s $150,000 budget through a campaign on the website Kickstarter, with the National Center for Jewish Film as the fiscal sponsor.

Many Diaspora Jews moving to Israel find life there too intense and confrontational for their tastes. But Kasia and Maria are relieved to be in a country where they no longer have to wrestle with their Jewish identities.

Among the four women featured in the film is Tusia, whose Polish grandmother denied all her life that she was Jewish before finally acknowledging her roots on her deathbed. Tusia was raised in New York but returned to Warsaw to be part of the revival and wants to restore Dabrowno’s former Jewish center.

The other characters include Katka, a Catholic-born redhead who left her native Prague to study in Warsaw and, somewhat to her own amazement, fell in love with a young Orthodox Jewish man and converted.

“It is a big responsibility to be Jewish,” Katka said.

Kasia is an outspoken feminist and doctoral candidate in women’s studies. She grew up Catholic and didn’t discover until her teens that she was half Jewish. Now she is determined to be a secular Jew but yearns for Jewish community life.

And finally there’s Maria, a single mother and the only one of the women who grew up knowing she was Jewish, though it didn’t much matter to her. She also marries an Orthodox Jew and learns to run a kosher home.

Both Kasia and Maria follow their husbands as they move to Israel — not necessarily to settle permanently, but to try out life in a different place, a fairly common practice among mobile young Europeans.

Many Diaspora Jews moving to Israel find life there too intense and confrontational for their tastes. But Kasia and Maria are relieved to be in a country where they no longer have to wrestle with their Jewish identities.

“In Israel, I stopped thinking about being Jewish,” Kasia said. “It’s a holiday from my Jewishness.”

Tusia, who splits her time between Warsaw and New York, acknowledges similar emotions.

“When I’m in Brooklyn, I’m a Pole living in the United States and feel hardly Jewish at all,” she said. But in Warsaw or Krakow, she feels a deep responsibility to “save the crumbling remnants of Jewish history.”

In the coming months, “The Return” will screen at Jewish film festivals in New York, Atlanta and Washington, with additional venues to be announced.

Eyes on Adelson

012315_republicansEven with the contours of the 2016 Republican presidential primary race finally taking shape, Jewish donors largely remain uncommitted on the two latest contenders — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both signaled they were running last week — and are instead waiting to see who will win the support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson, the most influential member of the 45-member board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has played a dual role as something of a kin maker and spoiler in previous elections. In 2012, he bankrolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the tune of $15 million before moving on to Romney when Gingrich dropped out of the race. Although at the time, Romney was the favorite among the majority of Republican donors, Adelson’s support for Gingrich was influential among other Jewish donors, even if they weren’t ready to financially support someone deemed as a longshot.

Now, even with Romney, Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emerging as the likely frontrunners, RJC members say none of these likely candidates have yet to clinch Adelson’s coveted backing.

Adelson’s spokesman, Ron Reese, said the businessman was still looking into all the candidates and that it was too early to tell whom he would
support. Reese declined to speculate who Adelson is leaning toward.

But despite the importance of Adelson’s endorsement, some well-heeled donors may base their support of candidates on close personal ties.

“You’ve got the folks that again have long-term relationships that need to maintain them, but for the most part, I think everyone is still keeping their powder dry,” said Texas businessman and RJC board member Fred Zeideman. Other than maybe those “who have had long-term personal relationships that superseded electability, but in Texas they say ‘you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.’”

With so many candidates exploring the possibility of a presidential bid, some donors are looking forward to the coming months when they expect the candidates to lobby them with their campaign ideas. Electability appears to be the biggest concern.

“I don’t think that the people I know want to be Don Quixote anymore,” said Gary Erlbaum, president of the Philadelphia-based Greentree Properties Corporation and a self-described independent who has recently backed Republican candidates. “I think that it would be wonderful to be like the far right and want to be right rather than president, but I think that at this point in time — after what the Jews have endured and the State of Israel has endured under Obama —Republicans are definitely looking for ‘hope and change.’”

His comments were echoed by an RJC staffer who asked not to be named on the record. The staffer confirmed that most of the group’s members have not yet committed to a candidate and that perceived electability will likely be the determining factor among donors.

“I don’t think we have seen any coalescing behind one candidate or another,” explained the staffer. “I think there is strong support for a multitude of candidates: [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz, Christie, Bush and now we can add Romney to that list. What people want to see this time around is a winner.

“Hillary Clinton, the almost sure Democratic nominee, was the vehicle for Obama’s foreign policy that has put significant daylight between the United States and Israel, something that is anathema to many donors,” the staffer continued. “Whoever proves that they can beat Hillary Clinton, win and repair our relationship with Israel I think will get the majority of Jewish support.”

The sense that the relationship between Israel and the United States has been ruined by President Barack Obama’s administration is the most common sentiment among donors interviewed recently, with all speculating that their counterparts feel the same. That, and concern over what they believe to be the administration’s mishandling of nuclear negotiations with the Iranian regime, appear to be the driving force determining Jewish Republican support.

Longtime RJC board member and Florida-based attorney Joel Hoppenstein said that Obama’s response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris — failing to attend a rally with other world leaders — plainly shows the difference between the Obama administration and the candidate he believes the GOP needs to put forward.

“My Republican president shouldn’t be having to weigh whether he’s going to watch the football playoffs or go to Paris. I mean it’s a no brainer. That’s the most recent litmus test if you will,” Hoppenstein said. “That shouldn’t be something that you have to think about. It should just come instinctively. That’s the kind of candidate I’m looking for, who knows instinctively to do the right thing vis-a-vis Israel or Jewish issues on a global scale.”

Unlike most of the others, Hoppenstein made no secret that he felt Bush was the prospective candidate that he supports.

“Having lived in Florida for about 15 years, I’ve gotten to observe Jeb Bush at pretty close quarters, when he was governor and in private as a private citizen,” said Hoppenstein. “And he has an instinctive feel for Jewish issues. He has a lot of Jewish friends. He’s very comfortable around Jewish people on a personal level. I think through that, he’s gotten a feel for Jewish issues.

“He was very involved in establishing ties between Israel and the state of Florida,” he added.

Noticeably, few of the big donors appear to be considering Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, despite Paul’s recent feverish attempt at driving the pro-Israel agenda in Congress with his bill to defund the Palestinian Authority for joining the International Criminal Court, his courting of RJC leaders and attendance at their events.

According to Erlbaum, few Jewish Republicans feel they’re ready to put their trust in Paul, who until recently has espoused a strict isolationist
ideology similar to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

“Rand Paul has been backtracking for months now in expectation of a possible run for president to make himself acceptable to the Republican Party establishment on foreign policy,” said political analyst Bill Schneider. “He has been known for some time, like his father, as an isolationist. Today he claims he’s not an isolationist, and he’s been particularly outspoken in supporting Israel in ways that he devises, some of which are not acceptable to Israel, but he’s still critical of military intervention just about everywhere: in Syria, Ukraine.

“Nobody likes a shape shifter,” continued Schneider. “If he looks like a likely Republican nominee, frankly, I think he’d split the Republican Party wide open.”

Hoppenstein questioned Paul’s foreign policy evolution.

“I think Rand Paul is trying to moderate, but I don’t think this is the time for Jews to be experimenting,” said Hoppenstein. “I think we need someone who’s completely solid.”


Inauguration Celebration Hogan sworn in, promises bipartisanship

Larry Hogan inaugurationThe hundreds of Marylanders who braved cold temperatures and heavy snow on Wednesday to witness the swearing-in of the second Republican governor in more than four decades were treated to a snapshot of the new governor’s plan for the next four years.

“Today is the beginning of a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Annapolis,” declared Gov. Larry Hogan from the steps of the statehouse after being sworn in as Maryland’s 62nd governor. The ceremony was attended by Hogan’s father, former congressman Lawrence Hogan; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who campaigned heavily for Hogan ahead of the November election; outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley; former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich; Attorney General Brian Frosh and delegates and state senators from both parties, along with numerous family members, friends and citizens.

Hogan told attendees that he and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford’s administration will focus on four key objectives in his tenure. First, he will set a standard of fiscal responsibility in all aspects of governing. Second, he said, he will utilize the resources available in the state Maryland, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the wealth of top-notch colleges and universities, to spur economic growth in the state. Third, he promised to work to ensure that the state government is maximally responsive to and representative of the citizens of Maryland. And fourth, he said, he will restore fairness and balance for taxpayers.

“This is our chance to build a state that works for the people, and not the other way around” he told an energetic crowd as the snow began to collect.

Hogan’s speech centered on creating an environment of bipartisanship in Annapolis, where he will have to work with the heavily Democratic state legislature. He assured the crowd that the next four years would be marked by unprecedented cooperation rather than gridlock and stalemate. With his first budget due Friday, Marylanders will soon find out what kind of atmosphere the next four years will carry.

“In the end,” he said, “it isn’t about politics, it’s about citizenship.”

Inauguration day began at 8 a.m. for the new Hogan administration with an interfaith service held at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis and ended with a gala at the Baltimore Convention Center. At the gala, a visibly tired Rutherford and Hogan addressed the crowd of party-goers, thanking them for their support.

When Hogan launched his campaign almost a year ago, said Alfred Redmer Jr., Hogan’s new insurance commissioner who emceed the team’s election night party and introduced the governor and lieutenant governor at the gala, the pundits said “Larry who?” By the springtime, he said to a cheering crowd, “you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing his bus.”

For Marylanders Dave and Mary Manley, who enjoyed the food and cocktails at the packed gala, the party was a long time coming.

“We’ve only ever been on the other side of [elections],” said Dave Manley. He and his wife were not living in Maryland during Ehrlich’s time in office and jumped at the opportunity to attend Hogan’s Inauguration gala to celebrate the rare Republican victory. The pair was looking forward to the lower taxes and more business-friendly climate the Hogan campaign championed during the election.

“It’s always good to get some change in [the governor’s seat],” said Dave.

Ohio Rabbi Apprehended in N.Y. for Alleged Sex Crime in Maryland


Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp (Photo: Cleveland Jewish News)

Rabbi Ephraim Karp, director of spiritual living at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, was arrested in New York Jan. 15 on an active felony warrant from Maryland.

According to the Queens, N.Y., district attorney’s office, Karp has been charged by the state of Maryland with perverted practice, sex offense, sex abuse of a minor and sex abuse. He is listed in court records as Frederick M. Karp and a release from the Baltimore County Police Department linked the charges to the alleged abuse of a juvenile female over a period of time.

Karp, 50, was arrested at 9:25 p.m. Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as “a fugitive from justice” on the warrant issued by the District Court of Maryland, Baltimore County, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department.

He was arraigned Jan. 16 in Queens Criminal Court and has a hearing set for Jan. 22 in the same court. As of Jan. 21, he was in custody at the Anna M. Kross Correctional Facility in East Elmhurst, N.Y., according to the New York Department of Correction website. No public records existed for the case in Baltimore County courts.

Karp will likely be extradited to Maryland after his Jan. 22 court appearance because he faces charges there, said Ikimulisa Livingston, spokesperson for the Queens district attorney’s office. She said the crimes he is charged with probably occurred in Maryland.

Karp is president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, formerly known as the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and was en route to the annual NAJC conference in Jerusalem at the time of his arrest, a spokesperson for Menorah Park said. The conference is set for Jan. 26 to Jan. 29.

In June 2013, the organization’s national board, which includes Karp, was at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown for a conference.

In a statement, however, Baltimore County Police said there was no evidence that any incidents of abuse occurred at any local Jewish facilities.

Steven R. Raichilson, executive director at Menorah Park, issued this statement Jan. 21:

“(Jan. 20), we learned that Rabbi Ephraim Karp has been charged in Baltimore County, Md., with a series of offenses accusing him of sex abuse that allegedly took place in Maryland. We do not have further details regarding the charges, but we continue to be assured by local authorities that there is no connection between these charges and Rabbi Karp’s work for Menorah Park.

“We were tremendously saddened by this development. Rabbi Karp joined us seven years ago with solid recommendations,” he continued. “We conducted a thorough background check and no issues or concerns surfaced during that process.”

Beachwood Police Chief Keith Winebrenner confirmed that police from Baltimore County came to Beachwood on Jan. 15 looking for Karp, but said he could not provide any more details.

“I know he was arrested in New York, but I don’t know what he was arrested for or if he has been charged with anything,” Winebrenner said. “It’s still under investigation.”

Karp, of Beachwood, came to Menorah Park in 2008. He is one of two full-time Orthodox rabbis in the nursing home’s spiritual living department.

Before coming to Menorah Park, he was community chaplain for seven years for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County in New Jersey, where he founded its joint chaplaincy program.

Karp, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., was ordained at the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Spring Valley, N.Y., in 1998. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a Master of Social Work in international and community development at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.

Ed Wittenberg writes for the Cleveland Jewish News.

Online Excitement Money, influence at stake in U.S. Zionist elections

WASHINGTON — One day last week, Alyssa Gabay opened her laptop on her kitchen table, and with a few clicks cast her vote in an international Jewish election that could influence how millions of dollars are spent as well as the Jewish complexion of Israel.

“Voting came with a sense of excitement but also nervousness,” said Gabay, a freshman at the University of Maryland.

For Gabay, more than her vote is on the line. She has the No. 2 slot in the Alliance for New Zionist Vision, a slate of students and one of 11 groups competing in the elections to the World Zionist Congress, which is scheduled to meet in October.

The online election, which began Jan. 13 and will run through April 30, is the one chance for Diaspora Jews to express their opinions about Israel in a democratic way, say supporters.

“It’s American Jews’ best opportunity to have their voices heard,” said Karen Rubinstein, executive director of American Zionist Movement, which is running the U.S. segment of the elections.

Elections have been held for Zionist Congresses since the late 1800s, but this is the first time they’re being conducted online, Rubinstein said.

Of the 500 delegates to the Congress, which gathers every five years and sets policy for the World Zionist Organization and its multimillion-dollar budget, 145 delegates will be elected from the United States.

Another 200 come from Israeli political parties in proportion to their strength in the Knesset. The remaining 165 will be chosen from Jewish communities in the rest of the world.

The groups running cover the political and religious spectrum, and include the Zionist arms of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements that were the big winners in the last election a decade ago. There are also non-ideological groups running. Winning delegates will be seated by proportional representation.

Two new slates are competing: the World Sephardic Movement and Gabay’s Alliance for New Zionist

Vision, whose candidates are university students or young adults. Each group had to procure 500 signatures to be allowed on the ballot. In the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations, the World Zionist Organization is rarely mentioned at press conferences or in press releases.

“It operates a lot behind the scenes,” said Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, president of the Reform movement’s ARZA Zionist organization and No. 6 on its slate. In the last election, ARZA received the most votes and went to the Congress with 55 delegates, more than 10 percent of the total.

Despite its near invisibility and anonymity and reputation as a relic of Israel’s pre-state years, the WZO is one of an interlocking triangle of institutions — the WZO, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeIsrael) — that institutionally connect the Diaspora to Israel. Of these, the WZO is the only one to hold elections. “Through these organizations we are able to define what it means to be Jewish and drum up support for religious freedom, gender equality and the two-state solution,” said Weinberg, naming ARZA’s top issues. Because of ARZA’s strength at the Congress, “we were able to put people in key positions that really affect policy.”

“Over the last five years, the Reform movement in Israel and its institutions received funds totaling more than $20 million,” said Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, a member of ARZA’s slate and senior rabbi of Temple Beth Ami in suburban Washington, D.C. “We would struggle to raise that much money from the movement itself.”

By working side by side with Israeli delegates at the Congress, Diaspora groups can influence the Israeli political system, said Marilyn Wind, who is on the slate for Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist organization that had 32 delegates in the last election.

“Our presence allows us to work with people in the Israeli government,” she said. “We form coalitions with Israeli delegations and work with these partners to get things through the government.”She said the fact that Israel is now paying the salary of some non-Orthodox rabbis is a result of the efforts of Mercaz and others in the WZO to promote religious pluralism in Israel.

“This is the democratic voice of the Jewish people,” added Judith Gelman, a Washingtonian who is number 11 on the Hatikvah slate. “We’re often told that Jews in the Diaspora shouldn’t have a say in what goes on in Israel. This is the one time when Jews around the world have a democratically elected voice, and that’s why it’s so important.”

Hatikvah is composed of American groups that mirror the Israeli Labor and Meretz parties, as well as delegates drawn from groups including JStreet, Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund and Open Hillel. They share a common support of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and an opposition to the Israeli settlement movement. It won five seats in the last election.

The Zionist Organization of America, which also won five seats in the last election, takes the opposite positions. It filed complaints against Hatikvah with election officials, charging Hatikvah’s constituent groups with supporting the BDS, or the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

ZOA National President Mort Klein said Hatikvah members “support hurting the Israeli economy and Jewish businesses.”

“They have no moral or legal right to run,” Klein said. “This is beyond the pale.”

Gelman said in response: “Hatikvah is the slate most closely related to the founders of Israel.”

The Labor party led Israel’s government for its first 29 years and was the party of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion,” she added.

“We sit in coalition with two Zionist parties in Israel. We are Zionists who believe in a two-state solution.”

Unlike others interviewed for this story, if elected, this will be Gabay’s first Zionist Congress. She said her slate of young Jews will bring knowledge that the veterans lack.

“We have a better feel” for the “new critiques against Israel’s reputation” on campus, she said. “Other groups may have representation on campus, but there’s nothing like being there firsthand and seeing what needs to be done.

“To keep Zionism relevant, we have to ask what are our next goals and how are we going to fulfill them, and we need to have that discussion at the World Zionist Congress,” she added. “We’re a brand new state. It makes sense we might want to change around things.”

> To register and vote, go to azm.org. There is a $10 fee (payable by credit card). Once on the site, you can read about the 11 participating groups, their platforms and their slates of delegates.

On the Front Lines

University of Virginia students Pierce Eggan, Madison Orlow (center) and Patricia Garvey (right) participate in volunteer work on their campus.

University of Virginia students Pierce Eggan, Madison Orlow (center) and Patricia Garvey (right) participate in volunteer work on their campus.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jewish campus groups were ready for the painful national dialogue that took place in the wake of murky rape allegations at the University of Virginia.

That’s because organizations such as Hillel and historically Jewish Greek houses such as Alpha Epsilon Pi, Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Tau had been having the conversations for months before the explosive Rolling Stone story made national headlines — first for the brutality of the alleged gang rape detailed in the magazine and then for the subsequent evidence of flawed reporting on the part of Rolling Stone.

Zeta Beta Tau last year joined Sigma Delta Tau and Jewish Women International in launching a workshop called  “Safe Smart Dating.” Hillel International is a partner in the White House’s It’s On Us campaign against sexual violence, and the network of Jewish campus centers has also dedicated to sexual violence a stream of its Ask Big Questions program, which organizes lectures and salons on topics of Jewish interest.

Meanwhile, Alpha Epsilon Pi features sessions on consent at its conclaves, and a fraternity brother, Matthew Leibowitz, launched the Consent is So Frat movement this year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

“The prevention of suffering is what we do as Jews, and making pathways for people to heal if they’ve been traumatized is also what we do,” said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, editor of the anthology “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” and director of education for Hillel’s Ask Big Questions program. “We need to take care of our own in creating a world in which consent is non-negotiable.”

The Rolling Stone story has begun to unravel. The magazine revealed that it had not reached out to the alleged assailants in the attack that was the article’s centerpiece, and friends of the alleged victim have since told The Washington Post that they had been misrepresented.

Nevertheless, since 2011, the university has been under federal investigation for allegedly not treating adequately complaints of sexual misconduct, and the Rolling Stone article broadly addressed the complaints.

Madison Orlow, 19, a first-year premed student, said the school’s initial reaction to the allegations did not reach far enough and led her to question its honor code. The code, first formulated in the 1840s, mandates permanent dismissal if a student lies, cheats or steals.

“The honor code does not encompass all of the things that are needed,” said Orlow, volunteering at a Challah for Hunger booth on a chilly afternoon on the university’s fabled lawn, which was designed by the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.

“It doesn’t cover sexual assault,” offered her fellow volunteer, Patricia Garvey, 20, a student of environmental science. Volunteers for the group bake and sell challahs to students just before Shabbat; the proceeds go to the needy.

“There was an initial sense of ‘this needs to be dealt with,’” said Jake Rubin, director of the university’s Hillel, the Brody Jewish Center, describing reactions by university administrators to the article. “It certainly is a problem at the University of Virginia, but it is not only a problem at the University of Virginia. It has moved to what do we do, how do we fix this issue? It’s being absolutely committed to really taking a hard look at the community and trying to figure out steps forward.”

The University of Virginia is not a destination university for students who want deep Jewish involvement, although in recent years the school has increased its Jewish profile. This year it added graduate courses to its Jewish studies program; three years ago, the school opened a new Hillel building.

Among the 21,000 students overall at the university, there are 1,200 to 1,400 Jewish undergraduates and 400 to 600 Jewish graduate students, according to Rubin.

The modern Hillel building is not particularly distinctive looking. It sticks out on University Circle, a street just off Rugby Road, the leafy winding causeway where many of the elegant Victorian fraternity houses are situated and ground zero for what the Rolling Stone article described as an out-of-control culture of drinking, sexual aggressiveness and worse.

Rubin said venues such as Hillel provided a homey refuge for students dealing with what has been a traumatic semester, including the alleged kidnap and murder of a student and two suicides, in addition to the allegations described in Rolling Stone.

“Frankly, students are overwhelmed,” he said. “To have a resource for them that’s comforting in a sense, just to be there for them, that’s been our first priority.”

Jewish fraternities are among those taking the lead nationally in addressing sexual assault on campus.

Leibowitz, a 22-year-old recent Wesleyan graduate, started Consent is So Frat this year in part because of reports of fraternity-related sexual assaults at Wesleyan during his undergraduate years. AEPi chapters at other campuses, including Rutgers, have spread the program.

The initiative developed and distributes a curriculum on consent that is aimed at members of fraternities and sororities.

Ruttenberg said the notion of sexual consent is rooted in Jewish texts.

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia was the scene of an alleged gang rape that was detailed in Rolling Stone. The magazine later apologized for the story amid evidence of flawed reporting.

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia was the scene of an alleged gang rape that was detailed in Rolling Stone. The magazine later apologized for the story amid evidence of flawed reporting.

“It’s deeply embedded in our tradition,” she said. “In the Talmud, consent is one of the great non-negotiables in any sexual encounter. The Talmud forbids marital rape, which is astonishingly forward-thinking, considering it took until 1993 for North Carolina to ban it. The Talmud says that if a woman is raped and has an orgasm, she is still raped.”

Jonathan Pierce, a past president of AEPi International, said the fraternity solicits advice on sexual consent from groups such as Jewish Women International, inviting its experts to speak at its annual conference, and from its own board of rabbis.

The AEPi website links to broad restrictions mandated by the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, to which it is affiliated. According to the guidelines from the national risk-management association, fraternities “will not tolerate or condone any form of sexist or sexually abusive behavior on the part of its members, whether physical, mental or emotional. This is to include any actions, activities or events, whether on chapter premises or an off-site location, that are demeaning to women or men, including but not limited to verbal harassment, sexual assault by individuals or members acting together.” Pierce said the best programs arose from the grassroots, citing Consent is So Frat.

“This is where real learning takes place, you have your own members coming up with programs,” he said.

Jeffrey Kerbel, the president of the University of Virginia’s AEPi chapter, said its consent education begins with pledges and is sustained throughout the brother’s university career.

“This responsibility and this education are also stressed to our probationary members — first through formal trainings and then through further emphasis within the chapter,” he said via email. “Our aim is to emphasize these points consistently and frequently; otherwise we risk growing vulnerable to the social and cultural influences that can diminish the value of consent and the place it must have in society.”

The “Safe, Smart Dating” workshop was scheduled before the Rolling Stone article for a University of Virginia appearance in April.

The two-hour presentation starts with students texting their encounters with sexual assault, firsthand or otherwise. The texts are projected on a screen, prompting discussion in smaller groups.

Case studies also are included, including the 2010 murder of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love by George Huguely, also a lacrosse player at the university, as well as more ambiguous outcomes, such as the acquittal of Taylor Watson, a Minnesota man who had sex with a friend who was in a drunken stupor. Jurors accepted the defense’s argument that the woman had deliberately intoxicated herself before asking to sleep at Watson’s apartment.

Zeta Beta Tau and Sigma Delta Rau train campus facilitators to run the program.

“It’s starting conversations that people are often uncomfortable with and unwilling to have,” said Dana Fleitman, director of prevention for Jewish Women International.

Included among the hypotheticals handed out to participants on slips of paper are scenarios of digital abuse through online harassment, she said.

“The girlfriend who texts all the time and gets mad if you don’t respond” is one scenario, she said.

Laurence Bolotin, the national director of Zeta Beta Tau, said the program does not “reinvent the wheel” but guides students on how to use existing resources, including sexual assault responders on campuses. A focus of the program, as in the programs that Hillel directs, is how to be an “active bystander” and how to intervene when witnessing what appears to be sexual assault.

“It’s not a Greek issue, it’s a college issue,” Bolotin said.

‘Clear Choice’

For the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street, the upcoming Israeli election is a moment of “clear choice.” Either Israelis will elect leadership that puts the Jewish state on the path of isolation and violence, say the group’s activists, or on a path toward a two-state solution that maintains both the Jewish and democratic natures of the state.

“The reason it’s a [clear] choice in Israel is because there are elections and polls that show the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution,” explained Steven Krubiner, J Street’s chief of staff, during an interview at his Washington, D.C., office. “Now is the time for leaders to deliver one.”

But for all the bluster about a course J Street firmly believes Israel should embrace, Krubiner clarified that his group does not get involved in Israeli politics. But it has ramped up efforts to become a one-stop shop for Americans seeking coverage of Israeli politics as part of a larger “ongoing effort to change the dynamics in this country to create leadership” in the United States fostering a two-state solution.

To that end, J Street, which openly supports the joint ticket of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, launched  israelelection2015.org. The site tracks polls, news stories, political parties and the ever-changing alliances of Israel’s parliamentary system.

The “Herzog-Livni ticket genuinely believes that the two-state solution is necessary for Israel to survive. There is no greater incentive,” said Krubiner.

In the event of a victory, Herzog will become prime minister for the first two years of the joint ticket’s term, according to the arrangement. Livni, who was ousted as justice minister when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government to seek new elections, would be prime minister for the remainder of the term.

Because of the demographics in Israel today, said Krubiner, it is impossible for Israel to simultaneously control the West Bank, maintain a democracy and keep the Jewish character of the state.

Unlike the last election, when Netanyahu’s re-election was a forgone conclusion, there is a strong “anyone but Bibi” undercurrent, Krubiner said. J Street doesn’t count Netanyahu out, but Krubiner rejected the notion that only a politician seen as tough on security can win.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has used fear as his coordinating device and has offered a promise of artificial security,” said Krubiner. “How can he claim to be the candidate who will safeguard Israel’s security when over the past six months, Israel’s security has been so fragile, and from all observers’ standpoints, he wasn’t serious about the [U.S.] initiative, which was Israel’s greatest promise for a more secure future?”

Three months out from the election, anything can happen in the constantly changing Israeli political landscape. Not two hours after Krubiner finished preparing for a recent presentation in Pittsburgh, the formation of a new political party was announced.

It was a teachable moment, said Krubiner, to demonstrate how coalitions form and reform on both the left and right.