Yesha Council Pushes for Alternative Solutions

Benny Kasriel, mayor of Maale Adumim in the West Bank, speaks to a group of European politicians. (Provided)

Benny Kasriel, mayor of Maale Adumim in the West Bank, speaks to a group of European politicians. (Provided)

Israelis living in the West Bank have a message to politicians and world Jewry: The two-state solution is no solution.

Members of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization that represents the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and, up until the 2005 Israeli disengagement, Gaza, have ramped up outreach in an effort to open up dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I would say we’re less trying to advocate a particular solution to the conflict other than to suggest the two-state solution, as its been understood for last 20 years, is not workable and has been proven unsuccessful and has only made peace more elusive and further away,” said Elie Pieprz, director of external affairs for the council.

While statements such as Pieprz’s are rarely heard from American politicians and not generally accepted in the organized Jewish community, the Yesha Council is hoping to engage those who don’t share similar views with op-ed pieces, public forums, stories from the settlements and mission trips to the settlements.

“We neglected the outside world, including the Jewish community in America and Europe,” Dani Dayan, the council’s chief foreign envoy, said of the settlement movement’s previous outreach strategy. “We are talking to engage both in the political arena, the media arena and the Jewish arena.”

Both Pieprz and Dayan attended the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in National Harbor, Md., last month, where Vice President Joe Biden was among the speakers advocating for the two-state solution.

“We do not have an illusion that we will come and convince everyone, but we are in the business of shifting perceptions and dispelling stereotypes of the so-called settlements,” said Dayan. “Slowly and surely and we hope steadily to change the course of the political discourse also in the Jewish community.”

Around the same time of the GA, Raphaella Segal, assistant mayor of Kedumim in Samaria, was speaking to Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and New York. The 61-year-old, who is one of the founders of Kedumim, speaks about what the communities of the West Bank are like — such as the industrial factories where Jews and Palestinians work side-by-side — and explains how important the communities are to the strength and future of Israel.

“I think the majority of the politicians, they are against us. It’s very unpleasant,” she said. “In Israel there’s a kind of awareness and awakening to understanding this [two-state solution] is not going to work. On the other hand, the pressure is greater after the Gaza war.”

In addition to networking with diplomats and international media, the Yesha Council takes elected officials on tours of the region. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, whose congressional district includes Maryland’s Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, went on one such trip this past May. He told the Tazpit News Agency that the trip was eye-opening.

“We met with Israeli residents who just want to live their lives, to coexist with their neighbors,” Harris told Tazpit. “They want to leave politics out of it. It was impressive to see how these communities actually function and how well they get along with their surroundings.”

Among the places Harris’ group saw on its trip was Ariel University, an Israeli university located in the West Bank that has Jewish and Arab students and faculty members.

“So many of their expectations are just shattered,” Pieprz said of the trip.

He believes that if alternatives to the two-state solution were considered and that if political leaders accepted the conflict might not be solved in the immediate future, there could be discussion about improving living conditions of Palestinians and rebuilding trust between the Israelis and their neighbors.

Although the Yesha Council isn’t advocating for a particular solution, Pieprz points to security checkpoints when discussing what could improve. He mentions looking at the security barrier around Tel Aviv and discussing what checkpoints could be taken down.

“Even some other things like making sure that when we have checkpoints, it’s done in a way that’s respectful to the Palestinians,” he added. “Avoid having young people in their 20s in a position of authority to those in their 50s and 60s. There’s things like that Israel could be doing that could make things a little better.”

He also mentioned renovating refugee camps, since there is an assumption that Palestinians in those camps would be losing their political refugee claims if they returned home, and therefore probably won’t, he said.

“Let’s go see what we can do in the interim without anyone giving up any political bargaining chips,” he said. “I think that Israel can do some very positive tangible things on the ground in the short-term, which might lead to an environment where we see a positive resolution to the conflict.”

Farrakhan at MSU

120514_FarrakhanNation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan spoke at Morgan State University late last month, unsettling some in Baltimore’s Jewish community.

Farrakhan, who gained notoriety in the 1950s as Louis X in the NOI movement, preaches self-sustainability and black empowerment, but his remarks on homosexuals, whites and Jews have made him the subject of criticism.

“Farrakhan is an anti-Semite who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the U.S. government and controlling the levers of world power,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s online entry on Farrakhan.

In his Nov. 22 speech here, Farra-khan praised the Palestinians’ efforts to fight what he deemed an oppressive and well-equipped enemy, but he made no direct reference to either Jews or Israel. Nevertheless, for some, the invitation from Morgan State alone hints to some problems between the school and the Jewish community.

“Ultimately, Mr. Farrakhan’s participation at the Black United Summit International represents a failure of judgment on the part of Morgan’s Student Government Association that is no less objectionable for it being a legitimate exercise of the SGA’s right of free expression,” wrote Jay Bernstein, host of Shalom USA Radio, in a Nov. 19 Baltimore Sun op-ed.

“While leaders of the university cannot (and should not) bar Minister Farrakhan from speaking, they also cannot permit their silence to be taken as tacit endorsement of his presence on campus.”

“I’m actually saddened and disappointed that they would decide to invite someone who has such a bad history of racial relations with not just the Jewish community,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Abramson said he expressed his concerns to Morgan State officials in the spring, when he first heard about a plan to invite Farrakhan to speak, but he understands the right of the school to host the NOI leader and Farrakhan’s right to speak at MSU. Abramson said he asked school officials what the point of bringing Farrakhan was.

El Hajj Cooper, executive director of Morgan State’s Student Government Association, which co-sponsored the event, said the decision to bring Farrakhan was voted on by a committee of sponsors and finalized in August. When asked about any pushback from the Jewish community, Cooper noted that Farrakhan’s message at Morgan State made no reference to Jews and said he hadn’t heard about the Jewish community’s opposition to Farrakhan.

Speaking just two days ahead of the announcement that a grand jury would not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, Farrakhan focused much of his talk on a response to the events in the St. Louis area.

“The young, they’re God’s people and they’re not going down peaceful,” he told a crowd that some news outlets estimated numbered about 2,000 people. “You may not want to fight, but you better get ready. Teach your baby how to throw the bottle if they can.”

Abramson urged accountability at the school.

“People have to be held accountable for what they do or don’t do,” he said. “If it comes time that, you know, somebody decides that they don’t want to appropriate dollars, that’s for them to do and not for me to do.”

Abramson said he has plans to follow up with the school about his concerns as well as speak with Del. Jill Carter (D-District 41), who attended the talk.

Hands-On Help

It’s not the typical Israel tour itinerary that entices visitors with an opportunity to power wash desert sand from armored personnel carriers, sleep on thin-mattress army bunk beds or dine on military food with Israel Defense Forces officers-in-training. But for a group of Baltimoreans who signed on for a Volunteers for Israel (VFI) trip, their tour provided everything they hoped for, and more.

VFI is the U.S arm of Israel-based Sar-El, the only organization authorized to assign volunteers to IDF bases. It offers missions every three weeks throughout the year on which volunteers can work, eat and sleep on an IDF base.

Chicago native Pamela Lazarus, who volunteered about 10 times beginning in 1997, then made aliyah in 2001, is the program coordinator for Sar-El missions worldwide. She said volunteers, typically about 3,500 per year, supply much-needed assistance on bases with such jobs as cleaning, repairing and organizing military equipment and packing for the never-ending need of soldier safety kits. Perhaps most impactful, she added, the missions provide volunteers an opportunity to converse with soldiers one-on-one and get to know the IDF from the inside out.

“There always is plenty for our volunteers to do, because the IDF always has to stay in a readiness situation,” Lazarus said, adding that the U.S provides the most volunteers, with France second. “One of the main purposes is to further the ties between Israel and the diaspora.”

Aharon Davidi, a former head of the IDF Paratroopers and Infantry Corps, founded Sar-El in 1983.

Larry Feldman, VFI national president and a Beth Tfiloh congregation member, recently returned from leading a group of primarily BT congregants with his wife, Joan. It was the couple’s fourth such tour.

“People were frustrated during the war,” Feldman said of the locals’ reaction to Israel’s battle against Hamas terrorists in Gaza over the summer. “They couldn’t do anything, so we decided to give people an opportunity to help with their hands.”

Participants, who ranged in age from 23 to 77, had the option to stay one or two weeks in Israel. Prior to acceptance for the late October and early November mission, each person completed a 17-page application, a three-page medical form and submitted to an in-person interview with VFI ambassadors. The Baltimore group also met several times prior to departure to go over details and get a clear idea of what was in store for them.

Collectively, the group said they were eager to dig in and get their hands dirty and were willing to take on any task. They looked forward to speaking with Israeli soldiers face-to-face and, as diaspora Jews, express support for the soldiers’ military service.

VFI, said organizers, is thorough about setting expectations for its missions, especially the accommodations. They are, in a word, rustic — it is the military after all. At a group meeting before departure, there was a mild but palpable concern about possible long walks to find outdoor bathrooms in the middle of the night, ill-fitting army fatigues, less-than-desirable food, cold showers and uncomfortable beds.

Adele and David Myers, members of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, are both in their 70s and originally from South Africa. Though they don’t consider themselves luxury travelers, they both admitted they aren’t “the camping type.” They were still excited about volunteering, motivated, they said, by their strong connection and dedication to Israel.

“I was ready for something different,” said Adele. “I’m very emotional about Israel and very attached to Israel. … I don’t want to just have a vacation; I want to have a meaningful experience, and I think this will give it to me.”

BT executive director Eve Kresin Steinberg and daughter Rachel Steinberg Warschawski, a visual artist and first vice president of the Pearlstone Center board, both looked forward to sharing the base experience and spending a whole week together. The trip carried extra significance because it was dedicated to the memory of the women’s late husband and father, Dr. Steven Steinberg, a VFI volunteer from 2009 who passed away in December 2011.

“The trip is in his memory, but the best memorial to my dad is just getting up and doing the work,” said Warschawski. “He would take on any job, no matter how big or small, and he didn’t seek the limelight. He was always ready to lend a hand.”

Romanian-born Gene Schmelzer, 67, was looking forward to connecting with soldiers, practicing Hebrew and embedding himself in the experience of what he imagined a 55-year-old Israeli reservist might do when called for service. (VFI volunteer participation helps eliminate the need to call in reservists so they can stay with their families.)

Schmelzer is fit and runs five miles a day so he wasn’t afraid of physical work, but he laughed at the response he got from his cousin living in Israel when he told him about the trip.

“What’s an old thing like you doing that for,” said Schmelzer’s cousin, “and what can they use you for?!”

Also read, Solidarity and Support.

On this, his first trip to Israel, Robert Cohen, 59, said he was looking forward to seeing some sights during the free weekends but most of all spending two weeks doing all he could to help on the base.

“Some people have lots of money they can give, but not the time,” said Cohen. “I’m the other way. I don’t necessarily have lots of money, but I can give of my time.”

Fellow VFI traveler Gerson Kaplan, 75, said he “was 9 when Israel was established, I remember it like it was yesterday. The joy we felt. … I feel a sense of obligation to support them.”

Also on the trip was June Karlin, a family friend of BT graduate and IDF soldier Jordan Low who was hospitalized last summer after his tour of duty in Operation Protective Edge.

“When there’s someone that you know and … he is in intensive care, suffering from lung damage,” said Karlin, a BT member and 70-something grandmother, “I had to do something, and that’s my reason for going.”

Sar-El uses between six and eight bases regularly throughout the year, including three communications bases and two medical supply bases. Although base locations are normally communicated when a group arrives in Israel, the Baltimore contingent received its assignment a few days before departure. “Home” for the next week or two would be Bahad One, a large concrete complex in the Negev desert that houses about 2,000 soldiers.

“This base was 10 times size of any other base” he has visited with VFI, said Feldman.

Bahad One is a training base for all IDF officers as well as a large military equipment storage facility. The base has several warehouses, a hangar-sized garage, a synagogue, a gym, three- and four-story sleeping quarters and a dining hall. The Baltimore group said the food was better than expected,
accommodations were Spartan but comfortable, evening activities were well-planned and engaging, and the group dynamic they developed was positive and supportive.

There were some minimal drawbacks too, such as the absence of showerheads (but plenty of hot water), no coffee on base and the occasional lumpy mattress. Some were also surprised by the lack of prayer before and after meals. An ongoing humorous issue the women took in stride was caused by a lost women’s bathroom key that made it necessary for female volunteers to share the same lavatory area with some of the male soldiers.

“I’m not sure who was more surprised the first time we ran into each other,” said Steinberg, laughing. “We all realized we were old enough to be these guys’ mothers so it didn’t really matter.”

The only complaint the volunteers voiced about their work was that some days they weren’t kept busy enough.

Tasks varied and often required meticulous attention to detail and included some heavy physical labor. The volunteers cleaned the fine, talcum powder-like dust from inside and outside of armored personnel carriers and thoroughly cleaned and lubricated the communications equipment inside of them that they then wrapped, packed and stored. Sometimes the dust was intense, and they wore masks.

They rotated the stock of oil barrel reserves used for machinery and weaponry and replaced vehicle batteries so large it required two people to carry them. They sorted and labeled hundreds of tires, some 6 feet in diameter and also cleaned, coiled and stored yards of cables, much of which was left in disarray after being returned from combat in July.

“I never thought about what went into the logistics of preparing a base or country or nation to go to war,” said Steinberg. “Every little cable needs to be in the right place for them to pick up and take with them. … All of it must be in the right place and ready to go.”

Soldier Hadar Berman, 20, served as the group’s coordinator and liaison. She said sometimes fellow soldiers are surprised to see the volunteers on base, especially when the volunteers are older adults, but they are appreciative.

“Just to see the connection between soldiers and volunteers — it’s very nice because of the age difference,” said Berman. “They still find this common ground to stand on, and a lot of volunteers are interested in hearing the soldiers’ stories,” which they have the opportunity to do because they often work and eat side by side.

Karlin remembers a conversation that really stood out. At a meal one afternoon she spoke to a young female soldier while another soldier translated.

The young woman wanted to know why Karlin was on base. She explained her stay as a volunteer to show her support of Israel. The soldier asked her, “If you love Israel why don’t you make aliyah?” Karlin replied she didn’t want to leave her children and grandchildren in the U.S. and added that her friends and family also feel a strong bond with Israel and show support in many ways, such as through advocacy, volunteerism and donations.

“I didn’t think anyone cared about Israel outside of anyone who lives here,” the young soldier responded. At that point, Karlin became emotional and teared up. The translator then turned to Karlin and said, “You have changed her mind about people outside of Israel.”

Cohen brought a big bag of candy and offered it to soldiers as an ice breaker, which led to lots of conversations, including one with a young female soldier that, when she learned he was from Pikesville, pulled out her phone, showed a contact name and photo and said excitedly, “Do you know Becky?” Cohen, astonished, looked at the photo on her phone and said, “Yes, she works in the office at Beth Tfiloh.”

Perhaps the biggest highlight for the group was the opportunity to witness two officer commissioning ceremonies on base that featured soldier formations, a parade and marching bands. David Myers noticed something that surprised him.

“We saw several young women [graduates] in long skirts,” said Myers. “Some officers told us that more and more Orthodox Jewish girls are going into the army. Most of those who do go in are permitted to wear skirts if they choose.”

The sheer sight of so many proud IDF officers and their families had a poignant impact on Schmelzer.

“For so many years and centuries, Jews had no power, no army,” he said. “And to see that many young people becoming officers in the Israeli army, it was very emotional for me and very significant.”

Lazarus, who meets every group at the airport and ensures safe arrival at a base, admitted the experience isn’t for everyone but cited statistics that show more than 50 percent of volunteers repeat the experience.

“It gets into our blood, we get a little masochistic,” she said, laughing. “We come back for more and more. … We have many people who come every year and more than once a year.”

Lazarus likens it to the intense experience of summer camp.

“[Kids] get off the bus and don’t stop talking about it until the next summer,” she said. “This is what it’s like with Sar-El. You keep talking about it.”

“It’s a really heartening experience,” added Warschawski. “And to see the courage and the devotion and all of the incredible intention and level of seriousness with which these young soldiers take their responsibilities to do their job — they’re doing this for all of us, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their service. And this is the least we could do to show them our thanks.”

A Safe Haven

A concern for safety pushed Julie and Nathanael Weill and their sons Eytan and Lior to move from France to Montreal.

A concern for safety pushed Julie and Nathanael Weill and their sons Eytan and Lior to move from France to Montreal.

TORONTO — When Dan Charbit and his wife, Gaelle Hazan, moved to Montreal from Paris two summers ago, it was meant to be a temporary fix — a yearlong attempt for Charbit to reboot his stalled career as a special-effects artist in Quebec’s thriving film and television industry. They agreed to fly home if the experiment failed.

Fourteen months after arriving in Canada, the couple has no desire to return to France. The 43-year-old Charbit, who won an Emmy earlier this year for work on the fourth season of the hit HBO show “Game of Thrones,” started a new job last month as a supervisor at Mokko, a Montreal-based special-effects studio serving the film and television industries. Hazan, 39, has found employment as a construction project manager.

Charbit and Hazan are part of a new wave of French Jews who have resettled in French-speaking Quebec, fleeing France’s dismal unemployment rate, which hit 10.5 percent in September, as well as the shock of anti-Semitism that has reverberated throughout the country in recent months and crested over the summer during waves of anti-Israel demonstrations.

France’s Jewish Community Protection Service reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2014, compared with 276 in the same period last year. In recent months — and especially in the wake of the most recent Gaza war — there have been incidents of Jews being harassed, even physically assaulted, in the streets, and synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and restaurants being torched. And notably, in 2012, four people, including three children, were killed during a shooting rampage at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

While Israel remains the destination of choice — 5,063 French Jews made aliyah between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the most from any European country — Quebec, and its largest city of Montreal in particular, is quietly becoming a popular alternative for émigrés.

“I hear and I know of young couples moving to Quebec,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the Lyon, France-born secretary general of the European Jewish Congress. “The reason is not necessarily related to the rise of anti-Semitism, but it’s more to find a proper future, in terms of good work, good salaries and a cheaper way of life.”

There are some 90,000 Jews in the Montreal metropolitan area.

Jews are not the only French citizens resettling in Canada. Overall, French immigration to Quebec has skyrocketed since 2011, when Canada last conducted its National Household Survey. The French consulate in Montreal told the Canadian Press earlier this month that 55,000 French citizens had notified it of their residence in the city, a 45 percent increase from 2005. Since immigrants are not required to register upon arrival, the consulate estimated the actual number of French citizens in Montreal could be as high as 110,000.

Although up-to-date data on French Jewish immigration does not exist, Monique Lapointe, director of Agence Ometz, Montreal’s primary Jewish social services and resettlement organization, said she has noticed a significant increase in newcomers, especially over the past year. Inquiries, Lapointe said, have poured in through Ometz’s email system and Facebook page — including from French Jews currently living in Israel.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge number of [immigrants],” Lapointe said. “But it’s a trend. We’ll be anticipating more.”

Lapointe described the average immigrant as single, between the ages of 25 and 35, “very well educated and looking for a new kind of life.” The wider Montreal Jewish community, Lapointe said, is now in the early stages of crafting a coordinated approach to handle the inflow. Thus far, it has been difficult to track newcomers, she added, partly because French Jews keep looser ties to Jewish community organizations than do their North American counterparts.

“In France, people don’t talk about Jewishness,” Lapointe said. “They’re not used to community organizations. Some will never come to see us. They don’t have this reflex.”

Montreal’s cheaper rents and relatively low cost of living are as much a draw for French Jews as the familiar language and secular Francophone culture. In a focus group of French nationals conducted last year, Ometz identified four reasons Jews were moving out of France. The new immigrants pointed to a higher quality of life in North America, a greater openness toward immigrants and shrinking job opportunities for a younger generation of French citizens back home. Families with children also reported a fear of anti-Semitism and anxieties about their ability to practice Judaism safely amid a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

For Julie Weill, a 31-year-old mother of three, the decision to leave her home in Strasbourg five years ago was prompted by the increasing sense of unease she and her husband, Nathanael, felt as Jews in France. While the modern Orthodox couple was never victimized by anti-Semitism, they heard stories from friends and family, and it was considered dangerous, Weill said, to walk around downtown Strasbourg wearing a yarmulke.

When it came time for Nathanael to choose a post-doctoral fellowship in bioinformatics, the Weills declined compelling offers from European schools and instead chose McGill University, in Montreal. They found the prospect of raising a religious family in Europe too unsettling.

“We wanted a place with a strong Jewish community, with Jewish schools, a place you can practice freely, where you feel safe,” said Weill, whose synagogue in Montreal is run by another French immigrant from Strasbourg.

Quebec has struggled with its own, albeit minor, resurgence of high-profile anti-Semitism. During a provincial election campaign last spring, Louise Mailloux, a candidate from the separatist Parti Quebecois, publicly dredged up the longstanding “kosher tax” canard, claiming that kosher-certified products are sold at higher prices on supermarket shelves, with Jewish interest groups collecting the surplus. And in August, Gilles Proulx, a prominent Montreal columnist and television host, told a local radio station that Jewish communities worldwide “provoke the hatred” of their host countries.

Cwajgenbaum also noted that Quebec’s Muslim population — roughly 221,000 of the 3.8 million residents in the Montreal metropolitan area — as a cause for concern; France’s Muslims, of which there are roughly six million, compared with 500,000 Jews, are routinely fingered as culprits in the upsurge of anti-Semitism.

Cwajgenbaum said the integration of immigrants from the Arab world has been more successful in Quebec than in France but speculated that the province may one day face similar problems from its swelling Muslim minority. When a delegation of Quebec Jews visited Paris nearly a decade ago, searching for prospective immigrants, Cwajgenbaum told them with metaphorical flourish, “To transfer a sick man from one hospital to another one will not cure the sickness.”

The data, however, suggests that Quebec anti-Semitism is on the wane. Last year the province saw its number of reported anti-Semitic incidents fall to 250, a nearly 26 percent drop from 2012, according to B’nai Brith Canada, which tracks anti-Semitic activity across the country.

Weill still finds it difficult to let her two boys, who attend a Sephardic Jewish day school, wear yarmulkes in public, an old habit from the family’s life in Strasbourg. But the concern, she acknowledged, is largely “irrational.”

Charbit and Hazan, both non-observant, have also felt a difference in how Quebec society treats its Jewish community.

“In France, you don’t put your mezuzah outside,” Charbit said. “Jewish life in Montreal is safer.”

Soldier for His People

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch stands at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, where he was arrested in 1970.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch stands at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, where he was arrested in 1970.

ST. PETERSBURG — Through the backseat window of a black KGB car, Yosef Mendelevitch could see university students his age hurrying to take their finals.

It was June 15, 1970, and the 23-year-old Mendelevitch had just been arrested along with 11 accomplices for trying to hijack a plane to escape the Soviet Union. On the tarmac of an airport outside St. Petersburg — then Leningrad — officers from the Soviets’ secret police detained the conspirators before they could board the single-engine plane they planned to fly to Israel.

Mendelevitch spent the next 11 years in prisons and a gulag, where he endured cruel treatment and constant harassment for being Jewish. He was denied a last visit by his ailing father as punishment for wearing a yarmulke and force-fed after a 56-day hunger strike he undertook to protest the denial of kosher food and the right to pray.

“I remember thinking to myself, they’ re going about their daily lives, while my own life was ruined,” Mendelevitch said last Sunday during his first visit to the city since his release in 1981.

But his life was far from ruined.

Now a rabbi and father of seven living in Jerusalem, Mendelevitch received a hero’ s welcome last week from local Jews who flocked to hear him recall the hijacking attempt that many regard as the opening shot in the massive international campaign to free Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

Speaking at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference here, Mendelevitch needed two sessions — each packed with some 100 listeners — to convey the details and aftermath of the daring attempt known as Operation Wedding.

But Mendelevitch had another objective in returning to a place he says “brings back no good memories.” He wants to encourage participants to make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel.

“This city has 100,000 Jews, but only 350 came to Limmud FSU,” Mendelevitch said. “Most of them became lost to our people through the actions of the system that tried to tear away my identity. I tell them my story. They can draw their own conclusions.”

Mendelevitch was one of the leaders of the hijacking team that grew out of Zionist activists who were running underground Hebrew-language night schools in Leningrad and Riga, the capital of Latvia, then under Soviet control. Mendelevitch was born in Riga and was in charge of the cell’s Latvian contingent.

The group was led by Mark Dym-shits, a former Soviet Army pilot who was sentenced to death along with Eduard Kuznetsov, a repeat anti-communism offender. The sentence was commuted, but it sparked international outrage that focused unprecedented attention on the Soviet Union’s so-called Prisoners of Zion.

Surprisingly, the group knew full well they would be arrested, Mendelevitch revealed.

“On the night before the hijacking, our team camped in the woods near the airport,” he recalled. “Two government black Volga cars pulled up next to our bonfire in the middle of nowhere, and KGB officers started sniffing around before disappearing. We knew they were watching our every move.”

The group decided to go ahead anyway, “even if only so the world will hear our cry,” he said.

Among the millions who heard the cry was a young Jewish engineer from Donetsk named Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik whose incarceration in 1977 for Zionist activism became a symbol for human rights activists who rallied across the world for his freedom. Sharansky was released in 1986.

“We had no CNN, no Internet. Nobody knew anything,” Sharansky said. “And though the Soviet regime twisted [the incident] in its propaganda, their action pierced a wall of silence, having a huge impact on the movement to free the Prisoners of Zion.”

The death sentences at the Leningrad Trials — the name given by the Russian media to the kangaroo courts that punished Mendelevitch and his team — “no doubt played a major role in my decision to begin my activism,” Sharansky said. “And the realization that there were people willing to die for freedom — not only did it galvanize protests in the West, but it became the first rally point.”

For Mendelevitch, this “propaganda success,” as he calls it, came at a heavy personal price.

While serving time in the gulag, he was put in solitary confinement for refusing to remove a kipah that he had made by cutting out the hem of his prison uniform. Mendelevitch was ordered to remove the cloth while waiting to see his ailing father, who had traveled hundreds of miles to see his son one last time.

“I knew it was the last time,” Mendelevitch said. “But I was a soldier and representative for the Jewish people. It sounds harsh, but a dying father is not a factor. Plus, any weakness would’ ve invited my captors to crush me — a sign that I, who had worked hard to be branded a religious fanatic immune to Soviet logic, may finally be cracking.”

In 1981, a KGB judicial panel informed Mendelevitch that he was no longer a Russian citizen. Shortly afterward he was deported in what he described as “one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Yet, Mendelevitch says he does not bear his captors any particular grudge.

“Some of them took immoral actions, yes, but ultimately they were the servants of a regime that I vowed to fight,” he said. “I fell captive, as fighters often do. But unlike them, I was not a victim of the Soviet regime. I was a combatant.”

United Stand

Throughout the past four months, between officiating bar mitzvahs and weddings and leading her congregation, Rabbi Susan Talve, of  St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation, has been traveling north to Ferguson, Mo., to join the protests.

“There was moral outrage,” Talve said of the nights immediately following last week’s announcement that charges would not be brought against police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in August. “I’m not calling it violence.”

Talve has been one of a group of St. Louis-area clergy who have made it their mission to be present at all of the protests. Dressed in matching orange vests, they march alongside community members day and night in an effort to show Ferguson’s citizens that they are not alone. They have even undergone training in de-escalation techniques.

“That’s our place. Our place out there is to lift up the voice of the young people, to keep them safe and to de-escalate when we need to. And we’ve been able to do that,” she said.

On Nov. 25, a day after the grand jury’s decision, a Washington University student protesting in Ferguson asked Talve why she was there.

“We’re here to make sure that everybody who messes with you knows that they are messing with us,” she told the young man. “We want the world to know, and we want St. Louis law enforcement to know, that when they profile you, that they have to be accountable to us.”

Talve is especially proud of the response of some in the Jewish community. In October, Talve said, the community hosted an event aimed at focusing on the moral message brought by the events in Ferguson. More than 20 rabbis attended the weekend rally from all over the country.

“We pray for peace. We pray that the voices of the youth will not be silenced by police violence and media ignorance. We pray for the day when people of color do not have to fear the police,” read a statement from T’ruah, a rabbinic organization that focuses on human rights and helped organize the rally. “We must use our resources to amplify those voices and to share their words with our own communities.”

Photos by Marc Shapiro

“In the Jewish community, this is an issue for us because we know what it is to be profiled, even in America,” said Talve. “We know what it is to be profiled throughout the world and the reason we were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago is the same reason we need to be involved today.”

For its part, the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council has been working to collect books to send to the library in Ferguson for area children, many of whom have been out of school since Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency on Nov. 17. The council also worked in conjunction with another local synagogue and church to staff and supply a safe place for people to get food, charge their phones and pray, and it has started a #fergusonifnotuswho hashtag on Twitter to collect messages of support, said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC executive director.

In Baltimore, there were at least four protests on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the day following the grand jury announcement. That morning, Morgan State University students marched around campus. At the University of Baltimore School of Law, students lay down in chalk outlines and chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” which has become a mantra at Ferguson protests.

Two protests were held that evening downtown, the first of which took place at McKeldin Square in the Inner Harbor and was organized by Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the People’s Power Assembly.

“We’ve got to send a message that what happened in Ferguson, Mo., was completely unacceptable, and it was a true miscarriage of justice,” said Elder C.D. Witherspoon of City Revival Ministries. “We hope to send the message that Jim Crow Jr. is indeed very much alive and well and that we have to double our efforts, lock arms and come together like never before to ensure that we fight the good fight of the faith.”

Others hoped the protests would bring to light problems in the criminal justice system.

“People of color are overwhelmingly affected by police brutality and law enforcement policies that treat them like the enemy, and I think that’s an unfair and terrible thing to have to live with,” said Baltimore resident Michael Hanes. “The mobilization around [Michael Brown’s] murder is bringing a lot of attention to it, and so I hope more people will look at the broader problem; this isn’t unique. It’s not about a bad cop; it’s about a police system that does this regularly, that regularly abuses people.”

“These are our people that are out on the streets and are not feeling safe,” said Talve, noting that the Jewish community includes many black and other minority members. “But even if it wasn’t our people, we need to be there for all of the people. This is an American value, a Jewish value, and I’m very proud of my city, I’m very proud of St. Louis, that the people here are giving voice to something people have called for for a long time, and we’re taking the civil rights movement to a new level.”

Lexington Lady Bows Out

Owners Rich (left) and Bernie Krieger with their loyal staff (from left): Marsha Wartzman, Myrna Claire, Sharryn Greenberg, Amy Shuster andDebbie Schwartz. (Provided)

Owners Rich (left) and Bernie Krieger with their loyal staff (from left): Marsha Wartzman, Myrna Claire, Sharryn Greenberg, Amy Shuster andDebbie Schwartz. (Provided)

“Lexington Lady! More than a woman to me. It’s the look that you wear that shows on your face you’re a Lexington Lady. Lexington Lady,” crooned the singer in the Lexington Lady jingle that ran for years on Baltimore radio and television stations.

But now the iconic plus-size women’s clothing and accessory shop on Reisterstown Road has “Going Out of Business” yard signs dotting the grass leading up to the store. The Pikesville location is the last of the Krieger family owned and operated stores, which have been a staple in the greater Baltimore area for 81 years.

In the middle of the afternoon on a recent Thursday, the store was filled with shoppers snapping up deals. A woman studied herself in the mirror, twirling in a red-and-black striped skirt while a sales lady fetched a red coat with a black fur trim to complete the look. Others milled about in front of the jewelry display by the registers, reminiscing about the store.

Customer loyalty is strong. VIPs filled the Festival at Woodholme shopping center location at the end of October for a preview sale, and there has been a steady stream of business ever since. Rich Krieger, 76, who co-owns the store with his brother, Bernie Krieger, 71, has had to buy more inventory from New York to keep up with demand.

“Customers are so upset, they come in crying,” said Ilana Shochat, an employee of more than 10 years. “This is the place to come to get something. The customers are so appreciative.”

Sundra Jones of Baltimore estimated she’s been shopping at Lexington Lady for 25 years.

“I will miss the elegance of the clothing, the elegance of the jewelry. I’m not sure where to go now,” she said as she exited the store with her last purchase.

The first family store was opened by the Kriegers’ maternal grandfather, Ben Herman, in Virginia in 1923. The Herman family moved to Baltimore in 1924 and opened Herman’s apparel store on N. Eutaw Street in 1933. Two years later, Rose Herman, Ben’s daughter, married Alexander Krieger, who joined his wife in the retail business.

Rose and Alexander were active in the Jewish community and were among the founders of Beth El Congregation, which was originally located in Ashburton.

“Originally, we would close for one day on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur,” recalled Bernie, who, like his parents and brother, belongs to Beth El, now in Pikesville.

By the time Herman’s closed after its 27-year run, the family had opened a discount clothing store called the Three & Five Shop.

“Our father was from New York, and he had this friend named Jack Rose who sold hats,” said Bernie. “So he comes home and he tells our mother, ‘I have this great idea. We’re going to open a store, and half the store will be $3 hats, and the other half you will sell $5 dresses.’

“We got the loan for the building from American National Bank,” he continued. “Howard Scaggs was the president. The way my father got the loan was he shook hands with the bank president — no paperwork. From that handshake we stayed in business for 29 years and supported three families.”

The store, which “ran a block long,” eventually phased out the hats and went on to sell clothing in all sizes.

The Krieger boys were put to work in the family shop at an early age.

“I started working in the store when I was 7 years old as a floor walker,” recalled Rich. “One time I was walking the floor and a lady stopped me. She looked me up, she looked me down and said, ‘What do you know about ladies dresses other than looking up them?’ Well, can you imagine how many shades of red I turned? I told my dad, I need another job, so he had me make boxes.”

The brothers pitched in whenever they were needed. When his father contracted tuberculosis during Rich’s first year of law school, he came home to work and then went back to finish his degree when his father was well. Likewise, Bernie, who played lacrosse for Penn State, recalled having to miss a game to go back home to help out for Easter sales. (“The team wouldn’t even look at me when I got back,” said Bernie, “but I did what needed to be done”).

The elder Krieger made sure his boys knew the importance of customer service, an area in which they continued to emphasize during their reign as owners, which began in the mid-1960s.

“Personal attention to the customer, give service to the customer, wait on the customer — you don’t see that at department stores today,” said Bernie.

“When he comes home at night, he always talks about a customer he helped and says our customers are such nice people,” said Rich’s wife, Ellen Krieger. “Customers would say to me, ‘Your husband always gave me special service, would always smile, ask about my family.’ It’s the personal touch.”

Alexander Krieger wanted to leave his sons a legacy. Knowing that a handshake deal wouldn’t do, he bought a building across the street from the Three & Five at 105 W. Lexington St., gutted and renovated the inside, restored the marble front and moved the plus-size clothing line into the new store in 1977. A picture of the downtown storefront is pinned to a bulletin board next to the registers in Pikesville.

The business expanded into the suburbs with additional locations in Mondawmin Mall and Timonium. One by one the stores closed for a variety of reasons — rent costs, security issues, flattening sales.

In its heyday, customers would travel among the four stores to scoop up the different fashions available in each, said Bernie.

With added competition from chain stores and online shopping, sales have flattened out.

Amy Shuster, a longtime employee, said, “All the girls, we just started crying. We’ve been together so long, we’re family. It’s hard to say goodbye.”

Rich and Bernie expect to close their doors for the last time around Christmas or by the end of the year when their lease is up. The neon lady — an abstract of their logo — which has watched over Lexington Lady for decades, will dim for the final time.

Smash Success

A new podcast has quickly become possibly the most successful of all time.

“Serial,” in its first season, has been downloaded or streamed more than 5 million times from iTunes and averages around 1.5 million listeners per episode, according to reports. It has been written about in The New York Times and The Washington Post and even inspired parodies.

The show, which launched in late September, chronicles the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Woodlawn High School student, and the subsequent life imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The 10th episode was released this week and producers told The Post there will likely be 12 episodes in the first season.

Several publications have called the podcast, an online radio program, the most successful in the history of the form.“Serial” is narrated by executive producer Sarah Koenig and follows her journey, as she tears apart the case, going through the trial, interviewing students who knew Lee and Syed, tracking down witnesses who never appeared in court and going to great lengths to find out firsthand how plausible some parts of the key witness’ story are. Syed maintains his innocence, and the podcast casts considerable doubt on his guilt.

“The way that narration is done, you feel like you’re investigating the case with Sarah,” said Nikki Gamer, senior producer for “Midday with Dan Rodricks” on WYPR radio. “And that is so addicting, you feel like you’re getting inside the story as she is, so the surprise comes to you almost like it comes to her.”

A representative of the podcast declined an interview request, citing a “grueling production schedule.” (The episodes are being produced each week.) Koenig was state house reporter at The Baltimore Sun and spent more than 10 years as a producer of Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life,” the staff of which created “Serial.” Baltimore native Ira Glass, founder and host of “This American Life,” serves as the show’s editorial adviser.

Bret Jaspers, news producer at WYPR, likens some of its success to the fact that even though it’s a true story, it unfolds like a traditional murder mystery. He also likes the textured, creative use of sound.

“She’s getting lots of good interviews and getting the tape from [Syed] who’s in jail, and that has a distinct sound,” said Jaspers. “And then [re-enacting] recording out in the field and other interviews in person, tape from the trial and even tape from the interrogations. And she uses it in a way that advances the story.”

As the show has cast doubt on Syed’s guilt, an appeal unrelated to the podcast has been moving through the courts. According to The Sun, the appeal is based on whether or not Syed received ineffective counsel, which hinges on his attorney not investigating a “credible alibi witness” who claims she saw him at the Woodlawn branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on Jan. 13, 1999, the day Lee disappeared and was murdered.

State officials have until Jan. 14 to evaluate the appeal. Syed was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment in 2000 for allegedly strangling Lee.

The success of the podcast, in comparison to traditional radio listening has “been a wakeup call” to her industry, said Gamer. “I just wish I came up with the idea first.”

Listen to “Serial” at

Shalom USA Signs Off

After 15 years as a Sunday morning staple, Jay Bernstein, host of Shalom USA, signed off the Baltimore airwaves for the final time this past weekend.

The increasing difficulty in finding advertisers and donors to cover the radio station fee was the primary reason for ending the weekly broadcast. Shalom USA, which began as Shalom Baltimore in August 1999, bounced around different stations in its early years before finding a home for the past five-plus years at Q1370 in the 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. block.

Bernstein described Shalom USA as “a Jewish voice on the radio, a program that was nondenominational, not beholden to any organization — an independent voice for the Jewish community to talk about the topics of interest, be they local or national or international.”

In its last broadcast Sunday, Bernstein and his former co-host and co-founder, Larry Cohen, reminisced over the approximately “750 shows and thousands of hours and interviews” that drew attention to Israel, politics, authors and Bernstein and Cohen’s pet project: community fundraising for Jewish day schools.

The show’s history is dotted with memorable moments. Cohen recalled a harrowing live report from Gush Katif during the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Five minutes before the broadcast was to end, a Katyusha rocket landed two blocks from where he was broadcasting.

“It was very moving for our listeners in Baltimore to hear what the Jews in Gush Katif were going through,” said Cohen. Another standout for Cohen involved interviewing Michel Bacos, pilot of Air France Flight 139, who refused to abandon Jewish and Israeli passengers held hostage during their 1976 hijacking by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-External Operations (PFLP-EO) on the 25th anniversary of their rescue by Israeli commandos, known as Operation Entebbe.

Bernstein and Cohen have interviewed a Who’s Who of American and Israeli Jews, including Alan Dershowitz, Natan Sharansky and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

“[Our show] made these speakers accessible to everyone. You didn’t have to give $10,000 to sit at a table with them, pay $5,000 to speak with them,” said Cohen.

For Bernstein, addressing tough issues and allowing room for different viewpoints is a source of pride.

When former JT editor Phil Jacobs reported on sexual abuse in the Jewish community, Bernstein brought him on the show and invited victims of abuse to share their experiences.

Not one to skirt controversy, Bernstein took time during his last radio broadcast to call attention to the recent address given by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at Morgan State University. In an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun, Bernstein called on the MSU administration to distance itself from Farrakhan’s “anti-white philosophy” and anti-Semitism.

“It’s not all been controversy,” said Bernstein. “Most of the shows have been about informing the community and allowing people to come and publicize things going on in the community.”

Bernstein hopes to revive the program in the coming months with a podcast. The new platform offers the freedom to play with the formatting and programming, he said.“I’m proud to be part of [Shalom USA] for these many years,” said Bernstein. “We provided a service to the community, and we will be missed.”

Behind the Scenes

Zili Grossman, a former PR  professional for Eilat’s hotel scene, now runs an aid organization for the city’s poor.

Zili Grossman, a former PR
professional for Eilat’s hotel scene, now runs an aid organization for the city’s poor.

EILAT, Israel  — Zili Grossman did public relations for “half the hotels” in Eilat, she says. She was the mayor’s press adviser. Her job took her to festivals, bowling alleys, theaters and miniature golf courses — the gamut of tourist attractions in Israel’s best-known resort town. After a career shift, she opened up a fashion boutique in the city center.

But now Grossman sits in a small office of a radio station here, splitting her time between taking calls from needy people and directing a small staff of aid workers. She is the executive director of Eilat Gives, an aid organization she founded in 2000. With an annual budget of $650,000, the organization provides food and medical assistance to the city’s underprivileged.

The transition had started earlier in 2000, when she was working at the women’s clothing shop she owned a few blocks from Eilat’s promenade and saw a man in poor health lying beside its entrance. She called City Hall to get help, but the man died before it came. Within weeks Grossman had turned her business from a store selling dresses to what she called a “welfare office.”

Eilat — located on Israel’s southern tip, hundreds of miles and a metaphorical world away from the busy streets of Tel Aviv and the tense political climate of Jerusalem — is known as a destination with swanky hotels, swimming, snorkeling and sun tanning. But residents of the city say that behind the promenade, a faltering tourist economy and rising cost of living have made its atmosphere increasingly uncertain — and are driving some people to leave.

“There are many who make a lot, and there are the young people who make 4,000 [shekels, about $1,000] and pay 2,000 [shekels] in rent and become poor,” Grossman said.

She added, “Eilat is a special case because it looks like a sparkling city, but how much does a cashier at a hotel make?”

Nearly 8 percent of residents left Eilat in 2011, according to the Israeli news website Ynet, and the city saw a decline of 73 percent in direct foreign flights in October as compared with October 2013, according to the Israeli business publication The Marker. With an increasing number of low-cost flights available from Tel Aviv to Europe, Israelis are also choosing other vacation destinations.

Eilat is home to nearly 50,000 year-round residents. It was founded in 1950 as a outpost on the borders with Egypt and Jordan. It was declared a city in 1959 and at the time was populated mostly by fisherman and employees of the local port. Today, the city looks like an average peripheral Israeli town with a tourist strip tacked on. It has the same faded stucco houses, the same red-pitched roofs, the same rundown housing projects, the same new developments lined with McMansions.

But living a five-hour drive from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem comes with its differences. Residents don’t pay sales tax as an incentive for living here. They rarely mention addresses when giving directions: Just ask around, they say, and someone will show you where to go.

“The isolation makes us feel like we’re in the same boat,” said Oren Zadok, the city’s sole X-ray technician and someone who has lived here nearly all his life. “If there’s a bar mitzvah or a wedding, there’s a thousand people there. The funerals are giant. Eilat is essentially a kibbutz.”

Indeed, there is a small-town mentality in which everyone seems to know each other by name. Grossman gets a free slice at the pizza place down the street from her office. She is friendly with the cab driver who picks her up at a busy intersection.

Residents worry, however, that young people won’t stay in the city. Four satellite college campuses have opened in the city, and socioeconomically, Eilat ranks above-average overall among Israeli towns. However, being so far away from Israel’s big cities means Eilat doesn’t offer the same educational and employment opportunities as Israel’s center.

“The fact that you can study here is wonderful,” said Eli Attias, 53, whose father moved to Eilat soon after it was founded. The question now is, you study, and when you get your degree, what will you do? Will there be work? That’s the challenge.”

Volunteers in a soup kitchen pack lunches for poor schoolchildren in Eilat.

Volunteers in a soup kitchen pack lunches for poor schoolchildren in Eilat.

In the meantime, signs of distress are visible in Eilat. A large, crumbling housing project nicknamed “Sing-Sing” towers over one of the main streets crowded with migrants from Eritrea and Sudan as well as poor Israelis. The town center, only a few streets behind the strip, looks faded — wiry neon signs are the outstanding feature on an otherwise unremarkable traffic circle. Grossman says her hands are full with requests from the city’s poor.

“There’s economic difficulty, and because most of the city is built on tourism, if there aren’t enough tourists, the shops and restaurants are hurt,” said Nora Bitton, a social service worker in Eilat. “We didn’t get missiles [during the recent war], but we were hit hard.”

To address the economic woes, the Eilat municipality wants to make the city a commercial and industrial center as well as a tourist hotspot. A large international airport nearby that would offer more than the current small airfield is set to open next year. And plans are underway for a high-speed train from central Israel and an expanded port.

“It’s a huge infrastructure project that gives Eilat land, air and sea connections to Africa, Asia and Europe,” said Eilat Mayor Meir Halevi. “The most challenging project is to build infrastructure to create professional workplaces.”

The mayor’s constituents say such projects are essential but are skeptical they will come to pass. Residents note that previous plans to lay train tracks to Eilat from Beersheba and Tel Aviv have failed for decades.

“We’re very doubtful,” Bitton said. “We’ve been talking about a train since Eilat was founded. But if you don’t build it, you don’t attract people.”

Eilat is far from the poorest of Israel’s municipalities, but some data point to its challenges. As of 2010, one-quarter of Eilat families have a single parent as the head of household, the highest percentage among cities with more than 5,000 families. And the average monthly salary per employee in the city in 2012 was the equivalent of $1,763 — 23 percent lower than the overall Israeli average.

“Conditions have been very hard in recent years,” said Toni Lis, a reporter for Yediot Eilat, a local newspaper. “The rise in cost of living didn’t pass over Eilat. More and more people are searching in garbage cans. People have to choose between medications and food.”

Still, Eilatis say, even with the distance from Israel’s center, the limited jobs and a growing sense of uneasiness, they remain committed to their city. Drawn in by the hot days and a warm community, the residents say what Eilat really needs is for the rest of Israel to see the city beyond the hotels.

“When I leave Eilat, I’m like a fish out of water,” said Alona Yosef, who runs the Eilat Gives soup kitchen. “I like the air here. There’s a lively atmosphere.”

“Most people don’t know there’s a city here. They know there’s the hotels, but they don’t know there’s a city here, there are people here.”