Synagogue Without Exec After $500K Theft

After little more than a month of work, the new executive director for Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was let go after admitting to stealing close to half a million dollars from a synagogue in California when he was its executive director.

Eric S. Levine “will no longer be serving as executive director for Adas Israel Congregation due to alleged, serious financial irregularities in his previous synagogue position in California,” read a letter sent to congregants and signed by synagogue president Arnie Podgorsky.

Levine admitted on Tuesday that he took between $400,000 and $500,000 over a five-year period from Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, Calif., according to a source close to the D.C. synagogue. His admission to the Adas Israel leadership followed one made to Beth El’s leadership, the source said.

Adas Israel officials immediately conducted an audit of its funds and found no irregularities at all, the source added. The synagogue is not contemplating charges as it experienced no harm.

Calls and emails to rabbinical and staff leadership at Congregation Beth El were not returned.

“We are persuaded that these alleged wrongdoings were unknown to Eric’s previous synagogue when we verified his performance and integrity prior to his being employed,” Podgorsky noted in his statement. “Obviously this news comes as a tremendous shock to both congregations.”

Adas Israel already has begun the process of finding a new executive director.

Levine started working at Adas Israel last month; he had been executive director at Congregation Beth El from July 2007 until December 2013, according to his LinkedIn page. On that page, he listed his experience as having “successfully navigated [an] organization’s finances through one of the worst economic disasters in U.S. history with six years of balanced budgets and modest surpluses each year.”

He also claimed to have “raised over $6 million for [a] congregation’s endowment with an additional 60-plus future legacy commitments.”

Prior to working at the California synagogue, Levine was associate director/director of planning and allocations at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County from April 2005 to July 2007.

Levine is married with young children.

“Our hearts go out to Eric’s family during this difficult time,” wrote Podgorsky. “We appreciate the immensely difficult circumstances that his wife and young children are experiencing. As a Jewish and holy community, we have an obligation to respect their privacy and be supportive.”

Talking About the State of the Union

President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

President Obama State of the Union, Jan. 2014. (Alyson Fligg/Sipa USA/Newscom)

Moments after President Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address last week, members of Congress were already picking apart the speech.

Some, such as Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve King, thought the president was less antagonistic to congressional Republicans than in previous speeches.

But “he could have pulled all of the Obamacare out of the speech,” the Iowa Republican said. “Then I think I could have sat there relaxed.”

King called the speech predictable and said that since the president spent a large part of his address extolling the Affordable Care Act, the GOP should continue to focus on its repeal.

Obama told the joint session of Congress that while he wanted to work with Republicans, he would use executive orders to get around gridlock.

“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” said Obama. “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. … When our differences shut down or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, then we are not doing right by the American people.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the president’s approach.

“I thought the speech was resolute,” she told Washington Jewish Week. “I thought it was visionary. I thought it was clear and that it really struck the right balance between reaching out his hand to the Republicans and very clearly telling them, ‘Look, a time for intransigence and obstructionism is over.’”

Compared with employment and the economy, the president spent little time on foreign policy. He said that his administration’s diplomacy has succeeded in launching an international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and initiating the Joint Plan of Action with Iran to roll back the threat of its developing a nuclear weapons program.

He tried to put to rest the distrust among Americans about whether Iran intends to be forthcoming about its nuclear ambitions. He said that trust will not be an element of any long-term agreement with Iran.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) did not share the president’s optimism, telling WJW that the testimony she heard from Iran experts earlier in the day did not paint the same picture.

“They said: ‘You know, we can call it a success if that makes us feel better, but it is not. It’s a very weak deal,’ “stated Ros-Lehtinen. “It’s a very low standard.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was also critical of the interim agreement with Iran.

“It was wishful thinking at best, and it’s a rotten agreement at worst,” he said. “We are giving up what we are doing right now, and they are giving up not doing something in the future. In other words, they aren’t giving up anything, and we’re giving up something.”

Applause in the chamber predictably followed party lines. Yet, when president Obama said that he would veto the Menendez-Kirk bill — which calls for new sanctions on Iran after the JPA expires — there was little applause from either side of the aisle.

Asked about the president’s position against Menendez-Kirk, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, said that even though he supports the president’s efforts at diplomacy, he still maintains that the Menendez-Kirk bill will not stand in the way of diplomacy as the administration has suggested.

“My conviction is that the sanctions bill expresses the view that tougher sanctions will be needed if the talks fail and that a vote is unnecessary as long as the progress in the negotiations is meaningful and visible,” explained Blumenthal. “We can delay a vote until the negotiations no longer are producing visible and meaningful progress, and I think the president should view us as strengthening his hand rather than detracting from his effort.”

By far the shortest part of the president’s speech was the single sentence on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there, to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians and lasting peace and security for the State of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” said Obama.

The significance of the president’s use of the phrase “Jewish state” was not lost on lawmakers. With Israel demanding that a future Palestinian state recognize it as a Jewish state, the term signaled to Israel’s many supporters in Congress that the president saw eye to eye with them, said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

“I think it’s the substance that matters, and he was very clear in terms of his determination to achieve peace,” said Levin. “But with Israel’s security absolutely essential, you don’t have to make a long speech to be clear where you stand.”

Rohrabacher, who during a visit to Israel met with that country’s security personnel, was unconvinced.

“We met with a Palestinian negotiator and our conversation confirmed for us that the Palestinians are not serious about reaching an agreement, because they are unwilling to commit to an agreement with Israel that does not include their right to return millions of people to the pre-1967 borders,” said Rohrabacher. “Unless they can do that, they are not serious, and that would destroy Israel.”

Levin wouldn’t say what he thought the chances for the success of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were but expressed optimism that both sides were at least trying.

“That’s exactly what should happen,” said Levin. “Because someday, the issues will be worked out, and Israel’s security will be absolutely sustained.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Senate Boosts Efforts to Keep Iraqi Jewish Archive Out of Iraq

 A Passover haggadah from 1902 recovered from the Mukhabarat,  Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A Passover haggadah from 1902 recovered from the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Efforts to keep a significant collection of artifacts seized from Iraq’s Jewish community by Saddam Hussein from being returned to the Gulf nation by the United States may be picking up steam on Capitol Hill.

With just months to go before a June deadline mandates the return of the religious archive, Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are shepherding a resolution that asks the State Department to renegotiate an earlier agreement reached with the Iraqi government.

It was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and sent to the full Senate for a vote.

“These priceless artifacts were stolen by the former government of Iraq,” Toomey, who introduced the bill on the Senate floor Jan. 16, said in a statement. “We should not ship the collection back to a country where their owners no longer reside.”

Comprising community records, Jewish books and sacred items belonging to the Baghdadi Jewish community, the archive was discovered on May 6, 2003, when the U.S. Army’s Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha raided the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police. The building’s basement was flooded with around four feet of water, damaging many of the artifacts and kicking off a decade-long process by U.S. authorities to salvage and restore whatever they could. The effort cost U.S. taxpayers $3 million.

Keen to avoid appearing like the U.S. was looting Iraqi heritage, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration quickly signed an agreement with the Coalition Provisional Authority administering Iraq at the time to return the collection.

Sen. Res. 333 currently has 17 co-sponsors from both parties. Along with Blumenthal, Schumer and Toomey, the original backers include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The legislative effort comes after years of outcry from the organized Jewish community in general and from Jews of Iraqi descent in particular. Lobbying campaigns were run by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union and others.

“While the Hussein regime is no longer in power, these restored works documenting the Iraqi Jewish community rightfully belong to that community now living in diaspora around the world, not the oppressive country from which they fled,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the OU, said last week. “The Orthodox Union thanks Sens. Toomey and Blumenthal for their leadership and urges the Senate to pass this resolution in a timely manner.”

Those concerned with where the collection ends up are worried about whether they can trust the Iraqi government to properly care for the items — many of them fragile and historically significant. Many fear that the original items will become inaccessible to the Jewish community.

Another argument is moral: Should the State Department return items to Iraq that were forcibly seized from fleeing Iraqi Jews or return them to their owners?

The resolution asks the State Department to reaffirm its “commitment to cultural property under international law” and its “commitment to ensuring justice for victims of ethnic and religious persecution.”

The long history of Jews in Iraq dates to 720 B.C.E.; according to estimates, as recently as 1940, Jews made up as much as a quarter of Baghdad’s population. But amid rising Islamic nationalism and anti-Semitism during and after World War II, most Iraqi Jews fled the country, leaving much of their belongings behind or having them confiscated by authorities. Most of the remaining Jews left Iraq when the Ba’athist regime’s power and influence rose in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Today, almost all Iraqi Jews and their descendants live in the United States or Israel, and according to a State Department analysis in 2011, there are fewer than 10 Jews remaining in Baghdad.

Although a similar resolution has not yet been introduced in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) signaled the possibility that something would make it to the floor, although he believes a stronger stance than that in the Senate resolution is required.

“All these are very nice sentiments, but we shouldn’t negotiate with” the Iraqi government, Nadler told the Washington Jewish Week. “We should just negotiate with the descendants of the Iraqi Jewish community and see what they want to do with it. It’s their property.”

According to Nadler, the CPA was essentially the agent of the United States, meaning that Washington essentially negotiated with itself; there is no agreement, therefore, with Iraq’s current government to break.

“Why should we negotiate with the government of Iraq at all?” asked Nadler. “I don’t see that they have any business in this.”

“The CPA was the U.S. administering Iraq,” he continued. “It was headed by Paul Bremer, [who was] appointed by the president. Would we have negotiated with the West German government — Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt 20 years later — about the recovered Nazi loot that they stole from France, Russia or from the Jewish community? You return it to its owners if you can still identify them.”

Last November, Lukman Faily, Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., told the Jewish Daily Forward that Iraq was committed to keeping the archive and that it should be viewed as a sign of a new, free Iraq welcoming all people.

“We appreciate where they are coming from, but you also have to appreciate this was an agreement, a legal agreement, agreed with the [CPA] back in 2003 and it’s owned by the Iraqi government,” stated Faily, who at the same time did not reject the possibility of negotiating another long-term loan.

Neither Faily nor the Iraqi Embassy responded to repeated requests for comment on more recent developments.

A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that while the U.S. was committed to fulfill its 2003 obligations, ongoing discussions between Washington and Baghdad are focused on finding “a creative approach to access and sharing of these documents and materials.”

With Tuesday’s committee passage of the resolution, Toomey’s office expected a full vote by the Senate in short order. Toomey aims to have it passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, the National Archives has organized 24 pieces from the collection into an exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” which is on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City until May 8. The same exhibit was displayed at the National Archives in Washington from Oct. 11 to Jan. 5.

JNS.org contributed to this story.
dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

Everybody’s talking about the State of the Union

state-of-the-union-Barak_2Moments after President Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address Tuesday, members of Congress were already picking apart the speech.

Some, like Tea Party favorite Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, thought the president was less antagonistic to congressional Republicans than in previous speeches.

But, he said, “He could have pulled all of the Obamacare out of the speech…then I think I could have sat there relaxed,” King said after the address. He said the speech was predictable and that since the president spent a large part of his address extolling the Affordable Care Act, the GOP should continue to focus on its repeal.

Obama told the joint session of Congress that while he wanted to work with Republicans, he would use to executive orders to get around gridlock.

“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” Obama said. “For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government… When our differences shut down or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Democratic National Committee, applauded the president’s approach.

“I thought the speech was resolute,” she told the Washington Jewish Week. “I thought it was visionary; I thought it was clear; and that it really struck the right balance between reaching out his hand to the Republicans and very clearly telling them, ‘Look, a time for intransigence and obstructionism is over.’”

Compared to employment and the economy, the president spent little time on foreign policy. He said that his administration’s diplomacy has succeeded in launching an international effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and initiating the Joint Plan of Action with Iran to roll back the threat of its nuclear weapons program.

“As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It is not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify, every day, that Iran is not building a bomb,” Obama said.

He tried to put to rest the overwhelming distrust among Americans about whether Iran intends to be forthcoming about its nuclear program. He said that trust will not be an element of any long-term agreement with Iran. “Any deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb,” he said, adding,

“If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., did not share the president’s optimism, telling WJW that the testimony she heard from Iran experts earlier in the day did not paint the same picture.

“They said: ‘You know, we can call it a success if that makes us feel better, but it is not. It’s a very weak deal,’” Ros-Lehtinen said of the West’s agreement with Iran. “It’s a very low standard.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was also critical of the interim agreement with Iran. “It was wishful thinking at best and it’s a rotten agreement at worst,” he said. “We are giving up what we are doing right now and they are giving up not doing something in the future. In other words they aren’t giving up anything and we’re giving up something.”

Applause in the chamber predictably followed party lines. Yet when president Obama said that he would veto the Menendez-Kirk bill – which calls for new sanctions on Iran after the JPA expires – if the Senate passed it, there was little applause from either side of the aisle.

Asked about the president’s position against Menendez-Kirk, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, said that even though he supports the president’s efforts at diplomacy, he still maintains that the Menendez-Kirk bill will not stand in the way of diplomacy as the administration has suggested.

“My conviction is that the sanctions bill expresses the view that tougher sanctions will be needed if the talks fail, and that a vote is unnecessary as long as the progress in the negotiations is meaningful and visible,” Blumenthal said. “We can delay a vote until the negotiations no longer are producing visible and meaningful progress, and I think the president should view us as strengthening his hand rather than detracting from his effort.”

By far the shortest part of the president’s speech was the single sentence on the Israel-Palestine peace process.

“As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there: to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side,” Obama said.

The significance of the president’s use of the phrase “Jewish state” was not lost on the lawmakers. Israel demands that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state, and the term signaled to Israel’s many supporters in Congress that the president saw eye to eye with them.

“I think it’s the substance that matters and he was very clear in terms of his determination to achieve peace,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said, “But with Israel’s security is absolutely essential, you don’t have to make a long speech to be clear where you stand.”

Rohrabacher, who visited Israel where he met with Israeli security personnel, was unconvinced.

“We met with a Palestinian negotiator and our conversation confirmed for us that the Palestinians are not serious about reaching an agreement because they are unwilling to commit to an agreement with Israel that does not include their right to return millions of people to the pre-1967 borders,” Rohrabacher said, referring to the Palestinian demand for a right of return. “Unless they can do that, they are not serious and that would destroy Israel.”

Levin wouldn’t say what he thought the chances for the success of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were, but said at least they’re trying.

“That’s exactly what should happen,” Levin said. “Because someday, the issues will be worked out and Israel’s security will be absolutely sustained.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

DoD Policy Breeds Questions

The Pentagon has issued a directive that loosens restrictions for U.S. troops who wish to wear religious garments, such as head scarves, turbans and yarmulkes, with their military uniforms or to grow beards. But while the Department of Defense’s new policy should in some cases benefit Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other faiths, men and women in the military must still seek special approval from their commanders to be allowed to wear religious garments, and such requests can still be denied.

“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan J. Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “Requests for accommodation of religious practices will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Constitutional lawyer Nathan Le-win said in an email that despite the loosening of the restrictions, the requirement for soldiers to seek permission from their military departments for religious clothing and beards, or the existence of “any requirement
of prior approval,” violates religious apparel statute 10 USC 774, passed by Congress in 1996.

According to retired Col. Rabbi Sanford Dresin, director of military programs for the Aleph Institute and Aleph’s ecclesiastical endorser to the Department of Defense, the loosening of the restrictions is a “terrific thing,” but it remains to be seen how the changes will be implemented.

The Department of Defense decision conjures echoes of the case of Rabbi Menachem Stern, who was sworn in as a U.S. army chaplain in 2011 following the resolution of his lawsuit against the Army. The Army had refused to amend its “no-beard” policy for several years, but finally decided it wasn’t “going to take a chance with a lawsuit because they didn’t know what the judge could do,” Lewin, who represented Stern pro bono, said at the time. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) had all advocated for Stern’s cause.

Lewin won a similar case for Rabbi Michell Geller in 1976. But in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against an Orthodox rabbi represented by Lewin who was told by the Air Force he could not wear a yarmulke indoors while he was in uniform and on duty at his base.

Then came the 1996 statute under which, said Lewin, the military can only later prohibit a soldier if it deems that the religious clothing item or facial hair interferes with “the performance of the member’s military duties” or if the item is determined to be “not neat or conservative.”

Jews in Green, an independent organization representing Jews serving across the Department of Defense, applauded the new Pentagon policy.

“The new policy doesn’t make any drastic changes nor does it allow any items previously prohibited,” said Jews in Green spokesman Jason Rubin. “However, it does clarify the process for granting religious accommodation and potentially opens the door for observant Jews to serve and observe mitzvot with greater ease.”

State of the Union: Jewish groups’ priorities

President Barack Obama will present his annual State of the Union address before Congress and the nation this evening. Like presidents before him, Obama has traditionally used this opportunity to lay out an ambitious agenda – and he probably still will – but it would be difficult to do so without acknowledging the saga of last year, when the great plans he touted in that State of the Union became a series of failed policy initiatives.

One of his highest priorities, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, has been plagued by errors and delays. Undoubtedly, the president will point to the success stories resulting from the legislation while reminding the public that the errors and missteps – some of which he attempted to solve through executive order – are to be expected from any monumental, but fledgling government program.

Judging from statements emanating from the White House, however, even recalcitrant Republicans might not hinder Obama, who has previously shown his willingness to use his executive authority to enact regulations without the backing of Congress; today, the office of Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that while the president will tout raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, through Congressional passage of the Harkin-Miller bill, in tonight’s speech, he will also commit himself to using “executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for those working on new federal contracts for services.”

Other Obama accomplishments in the past year that might see a little review in the State of Union include his recent reforms in accountability and transparency, both instigated by the revelations that the Internal Revenue Service was putting extra scrutiny into their auditing of Tea Party and right-wing affiliated groups, and the National Security Agency was collecting information beyond what many Americans believed was acceptable.

What appears to interest the Jewish community most, however, is the president’s stance on the negotiations being facilitated by Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the P5+1 conferences in Geneva aimed at reducing Iran’s nuclear capability. If the subject comes up tonight, the president will likely hail the Joint Plan of Action initiated earlier this month as a major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran – a nation that the United States had not had diplomatic relations with in 30 years. At the same time, he will urge the public to have patience and faith in the process and urge lawmakers to not support the Menendez-Kirk bill and avoid interfering with the diplomacy currently underway.

To preview the speech, the Washington Jewish Week asked numerous leaders in the Jewish community to identify what they think should be included in the president’s speech tonight. Here are their responses:

Jewish Federations urge President Obama to reiterate his commitment to ensuring Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capacity, while keeping “all options on the table.” Federations also urge the President to continue promoting the critical importance of charities in our society, speak out in support of Senate passage of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and to advocate for assessable long-term care for older Americans and services for their care-givers.

– William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America


I think that he will definitely address the two major issues: Iran and the Kerry initiative for the two state solution.

We know that the president is committed to this effort; what I think we would like to hear is a renewed commitment to Israel, to Israel’s security, and to the idea that this conflict with the Palestinians can be settled and it could be done now, this year. And that he will back to the hilt Secretary Kerry’s efforts, and that he will personally intervene at the right moment, and that this is a time for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to show leadership and to take bold decisions for peace. But that the United States will always have Israel’s back and would never abandon that.

– Alan Elsner, vice president of communications at J Street


I would like the President Obama to clearly state that the United States and Israel are engaged in a shared and existential struggle with radical Islam and that the greatest threat facing the United States, Israel and most of Europe is a nuclear Iran.

I’d be encouraged to see him say that “yes, we’d like to see two states living in peace side by side, but it is unlikely to come about, as long as the Palestinians continue to teach their children that one day all of the land will be theirs. In order to achieve the lofty goal of peace, the Palestinians must end their incitement, which is based on an unjustifiable hatred that is unacceptable. If and when that day comes America will be ready to assist the Israelis and Palestinians in peace.”

On the topic of negotiations with Iran, I’d like to see the president assert that it is necessary to use all means to defeat a nuclear Iran, including negotiations, sanctions and the military option. I’d like to see the president say, “I have taken notice of the Iranians’ claim that the negotiations do not impede their goal of nuclear capability. I differ in that view, but if that is their view, then they have proceeded to negotiate in bad faith, and it is reasonable to prepare new sanctions, and I support such efforts.”

– Sarah Stern, president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth

Police: Caleb Jacoby found safe in NYC

010913_jacoby-flyerNEW YORK (JTA)
The police department in Brookline, Mass., said JTA that 16-year-old Caleb Jacoby has been found safe in New York City.

Jacoby, an 11th-grader at the Maimonides School in suburban Boston, had been missing since midday on Jan. 6.

The case drew national attention, in part because the youth is the son of Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby.

Some 200 volunteers, including friends and neighbors of the family as well as members of local Jewish groups, searched throughout the Boston area in a coordinated effort on Wednesday. The effort was spearheaded by the Maimonides School.

“Our prayers have been answered,” Jacoby said via Twitter. “We are thrilled to hear from the Brookline Police that our beloved son Caleb has been found and is safe. Words can’t express our gratitude for the extraordinary outpouring of kindness and support that we have received from so many people. All we can think of at this moment is how wonderful it will be to see Caleb again and shower him with love.”

Day Schools Try To Put New Face On Financial Aid

Kindergarten teacher Nirit Yakov lights a menorah with a student at Tehiyah Day School in California. (Courtesy of Tehiyah Day School)

Kindergarten teacher Nirit Yakov lights a menorah with a student at Tehiyah Day School in California.
(Courtesy of Tehiyah Day School)

Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Calif., had a problem.

Like many Jewish day schools throughout North America, Tehiyah had plenty of students from lower-income families and a number from affluent ones. But it couldn’t seem to recruit and retain many middle-class students, even as it devoted increasing amounts to financial aid.

Middle-class parents “felt they wouldn’t be considered for financial aid or were just on the border of whether they could get aid,” said Bathea James, Tehiyah’s head of school. “For many who felt they were reasonably financially successful, to fill out a financial aid form just wasn’t something they’d be willing to consider.”

So last year, James tried a new strategy: Instead of posting a single tuition price and urging those who couldn’t afford it to apply for a scholarship, the school posted a tuition range from $7,950 to $22,450 for the 2014-15 academic year.

Known as indexed tuition, the plan permits parents to pay reduced tuition. To qualify for lower amounts, parents still must submit financial forms not entirely unlike what was required in the old aid application.

So the change is more about presentation than substance. But James said something about the system feels different.

“It’s a door opener for middle-income families,” she said. “They say, if it’s based on what I can afford, let’s at least have a look at it.”

In response to mounting concerns about the increasing affordability of Jewish education, day schools across North America are similarly experimenting with new approaches to tuition and financial aid.

Some, such as Oakland Hebrew Day School in California, have introduced indexed tuition models, sometimes referred to as “flex” or “sliding-scale” tuition. Others have moved to cap tuition as a percentage of family income.

The Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston launched its iCap program in the 2012-13 term that guarantees a family will never be required to spend more than 15 percent of its household income on tuition. It means families with incomes as high as $400,000 — more than four times the median household income in Massachusetts — can still be eligible for financial aid if they have three or more children enrolled and have assets under a certain threshold.

As with Tehiyah’s indexed tuition, iCap isn’t actually costing the school any more money; most families would receive similar assistance had they applied for financial aid under the traditional system. But it does help with sticker shock, particularly for families who by national standards are far from poor but still struggle to cover the cost of a Jewish day school education.

“Most families in that high-end income bracket don’t even imagine they would qualify for a scholarship,” said Dan Perla, program officer for day school finance at the Avi Chai Foundation. The iCap program, he said, “makes it really easy and really transparent.”

Another Boston school, Maimonides, is introducing a version of the program next year. And the Avi Chai Foundation is helping two other day schools — Beit Rabban in Manhattan and the Robbins Hebrew Academy in Toronto — pilot similar efforts.

Some schools are developing elaborate and sometimes costly discounts designed not only to attract new families, but also to reduce attrition.

Hillel Day School in suburban Detroit is launching a “tuition subvention” program in 2014-15 that provides a tuition credit to each student that increases by $1,000 each year they stay in the school, regardless of family income.

Milwaukee Day School tried a similar approach, offering tuition discounts that continue each year a student remains in the school. The strategy resulted in the enrollment of 55 new students last year — one of the largest increases ever seen by the school, according to Head of School Brian King.

But the incentive, which was a one-time offer available only to students enrolled at the school during the 2012-13 academic year, failed to arrest the school’s long-term decline in enrollment. The school currently has 190 students, down from last year’s 208.

One approach Perla and other experts generally discourage is across-the-board tuition cuts, which they say can be financially unsustainable and do not lead to long-term enrollment gains. A recent study of 200 schools conducted by Measuring Success, a consulting firm specializing in data analysis for nonprofits, found that contrary to conventional wisdom, raising tuition does not lead to decreased enrollment.

In addition, many point to the experience of several Cleveland-area Jewish day schools that collectively decreased tuition in the early 2000s without seeing an increase in enrollment or fundraising revenues in the years that followed.

Two of the schools eventually raised tuition again and now are initiating more modest incentives, providing discounts for Jewish communal professionals and families that recruit other families.

Julie Wiener writes for JTA Wire Service.

Increased Sanctions Proposed For Iran

Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin is co-sponsor of legislation that would  increase sanctions if Iran violates its agreement. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts )

Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin is co-sponsor of legislation that would
increase sanctions if Iran violates its agreement. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Defying the Obama administration’s push for a diplomatic way to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, 26 U.S. senators introduced legislation calling for increased sanctions if Iran violates an international six-month agreement that has yet to go into effect.

The legislation introduced last week requires further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum and applies additional penalties to elements of the Iran economy — including the engineering, mining and construction sectors. At the same time, it gives the Obama administration flexibility and up to one year from the conclusion of an agreement to pursue a diplomatic track that would end Iran’s nuclear weapons program, according to Sens. Robert Menendez (R-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who introduced the legislation.

The legislation is supported by 13 Democratic and 13 Republican senators and also calls for the United States to support Israel if it attacks the Iranian nuclear program. Locally, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) are co-sponsors.

Recent polls differ on what Americans believe is the best way to stop Iran from going nuclear. One poll by Al-Masadar.net and TheTower.org found that 77 percent support continued negotiations while imposing sanctions. In a poll by Americans United for Change and Hart Research, 67 percent say they want Congress to give the new agreement a chance before renewing sanctions.

Under the Joint Plan of Action, which was negotiated in Geneva in November, there is to be a short-term freeze on portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions. Meanwhile a long-term agreement would be worked out. However, an official start date for that short-term agreement has yet to be worked out, and many believe that Iran is continuing to work on its nuclear weapons program.

However, one day after the senators introduced their legislation, titled Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, Iran now says it will return to the negotiations.

Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of the senate’s proposal, “We want to give diplomacy a chance to take root. Both Congress and the administration share a common resolve that the preferred way to get Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program is through diplomacy. But we must be prepared to test Iran’s sincerity to comply with these latest efforts to keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. Iran’s track record gives us good reason to have new and stronger sanctions at the ready.”

Orde Kittrie, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a professor at the Arizona State University law school, said the senators’ call for new sanctions if Iran refuses to comply shows that Congress is frustrated. “So far a joint plan of action remains all plan, no action,” he said during a teleconference call sponsored by the Israel Project.

Iran’s refusal to allow the plan to go into action “is, for some, an indication that the past is repeating itself. Iran is playing games,” Kittrie said. However, Iran is already benefiting, he said. Just the mention that sanctions will be reduced has boosted Iran’s economy and increased its oil exports by 10 percent, he said.

While the senators intend to show they mean business, much of their proposal is hardly enforceable, Kittrie said. The new sanctions will only be imposed if President Obama certifies that Iran is not in compliance, Kittrie said, noting, “It looks like the president is provided with several waiver windows.”

The legislation serves “a political purpose even just being introduced. It sends a statement,” he said.

Several Jewish organizations that tend to support Obama and are aware that this administration believes increasing sanctions will have a negative influence on upcoming negotiations have instead publicly praised the senators’ legislation.

The American Jewish Committee called for a diplomatic solution but noted on its website that “skepticism is justified about the interim deal reached in Geneva and the prospect that a final agreement will eliminate the threat. Iran sows regional instability, supports terror and endangers Israel and our Gulf allies. Sanctions,  which created the economic and political pressure that brought Tehran to the table, must remain in place. AJC supports Senate efforts to ready additional sanctions should Iran violate the interim agreement or should a final deal not be reached.”

Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman noted in an email that while they “stand firmly” behind Obama, “We recognize economic sanctions have been successful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, as well as in expressing the resolve of the global community.”

Silverman continued, “The threat of additional sanctions, with the appropriate presidential waivers in this legislation, ensures that Iran knows this and all other options are on the table should negotiations fail.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs called strong sanctions the best route to a peaceful solution. “Our goal is not to inflict any more economic pain on the Iranian people, but rather to achieve a lasting, negotiated solution,” said JCPA chair Larry Gold.

The World Jewish Congress, North America and the Anti-Defamation League also issued statements in support of the sanctions legislation.

However, Americans for Peace Now condemned “in the strongest terms” the legislation and urged “Senate leaders to refuse to move this ill-timed and highly problematic legislation forward.” APN asked the senator supporters “to recognize their error and retract their sponsorship.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington sent out an email to its members urging them to thank Cardin and Warner for their support and to urge Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to sign on.

Earlier, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal that carried the headline, “Iran must not be allowed to remain nuclear.” That ad was sponsored by Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt, who founded This World:  The Values Network along with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in New Jersey in 2012.

Referencing that ad, Kirk told The Times of Israel that he read Wiesel’s call for the Senate to move forward with new sanctions. Kirk copied the ad on his Twitter page and wrote, “In powerful @nytimes ad Elie Wiesel urges Sen to move fwd w/ new #Iran sanctions. We should & we will.”

Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

Jewish World Mourns Bronfman

Edgar Bronfman (provided)

Edgar Bronfman (provided)

Edgar Miles Bronfman, former president of the World Jewish Congress, passed away Saturday, Dec. 21 at his home in New York. He was 84. Bronfman, a billionaire beverage executive and major philanthropist to Jewish organizations, was also known for his central roles in the liberation of Soviet Jewry and the fight to secure restitution from more than a dozen European countries to Holocaust victims and their families.

Bronfman was born on June 20, 1929 in Montreal. After graduating from Williams College in 1950, Bronfman joined the Seagram Company, his family’s liquor and beverage distribution business. A naturalized American citizen, he became head of Seagram’s U.S. subsidiary in 1957 and became president, treasurer and director of Seagram after his father died in 1971.

Bronfman became acting head of the World Jewish Congress in 1979 and president of the organization in 1981. A year later, Bronfman, the first leader of a Jewish organization to address the United Nations, defended the State of Israel before the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. In the late 1980s, he shuttled between Moscow and the United States to plead for the lifting of restraints on Russia’s Jewish community, leading to the opening of the Soviet Bloc’s borders and the establishment of a Jewish community center in the Russian capital.

“Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar’s determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf,” said Ronald S. Lauder, who succeeded Bronfman as WJC president. “He not only turned the World Jewish Congress into the pre-eminent international Jewish organization that it still is today, he broadened its base by bringing in new member communities in Eastern Europe and other countries.”

Lauder also called Bronfman an “ardent campaigner against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.”

“He advocated for a better understanding between different faiths and peoples,” said Lauder, “and his credo was that mutual respect was the key to overcoming hatred and to creating a better world.”

In response to the news of Bronfman’s death, letters, articles and posts about the Jewish leader poured in throughout the day on Sunday. Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote in a letter to Bronfman’s family that the businessman “understood that today’s youth represented tomorrow’s leaders and the future of the Jewish people, and strongly invested in shaping them for their responsibilities to come.”

Reflective of that dedication to strengthening youth, Bronfman counted Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life as among his major philanthropic pursuits.

“I am so lucky that I got to know him. His generous spirit came through in every conversation,” said Eric Fingerhut, chairman and CEO of Hillel International. “In his sacred memory, we will work even harder to make Hillel the leading organization in shaping the Jewish future, and we will think of him every day as we do it.”

Chaim Chesler, founder and chair of the executive committee of Limmud FSU, which works to strengthen Jewish intellectualism in the Former Soviet Union, called Bronfman a “giant among men and a giant in contemporary Jewish history. … He will be best remembered by us for his significant role in helping to liberate Soviet Jewry.”

Bronfman’s son, Matthew Bronfman, is chairman of Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee.

Marc Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, called Bronfman a man of vision, determination and resolve.

“His love for the Jewish people, coupled with his formidable human and financial resources,” said Terrill, “made his impact on Jewish life profound and enduring.”

Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter
sellin@jewishtimes.com