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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Last Jew in Afghanistan marks Yom Kippur alone

Zebulon Simentov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, is once again marking the Jewish holy day of fasting in solitude, in a deserted synagogue in the capital of a devoutly Islamic nation.

"I have everything I need for the 24 hours of praying and fasting," Simentov tells AFP before the start of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, at sunset on Friday.

Around two decades ago, there were still about 20 Afghan Jewish families living in Kabul, although all were from Herat -- the largest city in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Iran.

Through the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the subsequent civil war and the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime, all went to Israel or moved to neighbouring former Soviet republics -- undoing a Jewish presence built up from the seventh century.

Only Simentov has been left behind, becoming by default the guardian of Kabul's empty synagogue.

The room where he receives visitors was once a prayer room for women. On the wall are pictures of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the late ultra-orthodox Lubavitch rabbi, Menahem Scheerson.

Adjoining this room is the bare-walled "small synagogue" for men, where he prefers to pray.

Simentov, approaching 50, dislikes the "big synagogue" across the corridor -- another large and dirty room in which stands only a platform traditionally reserved for the rabbi.

A cupboard built into the wall faces Jerusalem. Its doors are open and it has been stripped of its treasure, a scroll of the Torah.

The precious document was stolen by a Taliban during the rule of the Islamist movement which was driven from government six years ago by a coalition led by the United States.

The man "wanted to sell it, thinking it was valuable," Simentov says in Dari, one of the main languages in Afghanistan. He says he reads Hebrew perfectly but prefers not to speak it.

"Today that Taliban is jailed at Guantanamo Bay and I am waiting for him to be freed so I can ask him to return the Tables of the Law," says Simentov, who wears a Jewish cap called a kippa, but is otherwise dressed like an Afghan.

Simentov is alone. His wife and two children are in Israel, which he says he has not visited since 1998.

"I have been the only Jew in Afghanistan for two years," he says. Ishaq Levin, the synagogue's former guardian, died from illness two years ago aged around 80.

Simentov says it is not easy to practise his religion alone.

But he has obtained special permission from a rabbi in Tashkent, capital of neighbouring Uzbekistan and home to 15,000 Jews, to slaughter his own meat in the kosher way that can normally only be done by a special rabbi.

Otherwise this former carpet salesman appears perfectly integrated into Kabul, where he is well-known by people who live around the synagogue, and warmly greeted when he is outside.

Jews have lived in several regions of Afghanistan and legends abound about their presence.

One says the Pashtuns, one of the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan, descended from a tribe from Israel. Another says the name Afghanistan comes from Afghana, grandson of King Saul -- the first king of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.

Mayor Endorses Another Gun-Control Measure

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg held a news conference under the Brooklyn Bridge today to call on Congress to pass a bill that would allow the Justice Department to block gun sales to people who appear on the federal government’s terrorist watch lists.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Peter T. King, Republican from Long Island, has the support of the Justice Department. But gun control of any kind remains a touchy issue in Washington, where many of the new Democrats in Congress last year were elected on pro-gun stances. Michael Luo of The Times described the bill when it was proposed in April.

Since 9/11, local law enforcement officials and gun control advocates have raised concerns that terrorists might exploit loopholes to buy weapons. John Ashcroft, the former attorney general and a supporter of gun rights, blocked the Federal Bureau of Investigation from comparing federal gun-buying records against a list of suspects detained as part of the 9/11 investigation. He argued that the Brady gun law, which governs the federal system for background checks, prohibited sharing such information for other law enforcement purposes.

In 2004, the F.B.I. instituted a new system that alerted counterterrorism officials when a terrorism suspect tried to buy a gun, giving them three days to find information to disqualify the suspect under the standard federal prohibitions. If the transaction was successful, details like the type of weapon and the place of purchase could not be shared. But if the purchase was blocked, the information could be turned over. In 2005, at Senator Lautenberg’s request, the Government Accountability Office looked into the matter and found that federal law enforcement officials approved 47 of 58 gun applications from terrorism suspects over a nine-month period.

Mayor Bloomberg said today that the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition he co-founded with Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, had decided to come out in support of the bill.

“One of the most glaring mistakes in preventing 9/11 was the government’s failure to share information and connect the dots,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “As you remember, two of the 19 hijackers were on a terrorist watch list, yet they were allowed to board an airplane. Today, suspected terrorists cannot fly — but they can still buy guns. We just can’t afford to wait for another attack to take these kinds of basic, common-sense precautions.”

The National Rifle Association opposes the measure.

“There’s no one more opposed to terrorists acquiring guns than the 4 million members of the N.R.A., but just because you’re on a watch list doesn’t make you a terrorist,” said Chris W. Cox, the association’s chief lobbyist.

Mr. Cox said the process by which the terror watch lists are devised is not subject to the due process guarantees that criminal defendants are afforded at trial. He noted that the watch lists often result in significant errors: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, was blocked from boarding flights because his name triggered a similar name on the government’s no-fly list.

“To give a political appointee the arbitrary power – and it is arbitrary — to decide who gets to own a firearm and who doesn’t, with no due process, is bad policy,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Bloomberg, who has made gun control one of his major causes, appeared to be trying to use antiterror sentiment to bolster his broader argument against illegal guns.

Mr. Lautenberg joined Mayor Bloomberg at the news conference, as did Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy of Jersey City and Mayor Douglas H. Palmer of Trenton, who is the current chairman of the United States Conference of Mayors.

Under current federal law, there are nine factors — including status as a felon or evidence of a serious mental health problem — that disqualify an individual from buying a gun. The bill would give the Justice Department the ability to disqualify people on terror watch lists from buying a gun from a licensed dealer. Under the bill, a suspect would have the opportunity to challenge the determination in federal court.

Mr. Bloomberg was also joined by Devorah Halberstam, whose 16-year-old son Ari was fatally shot on March 1, 1994, on an on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. A Lebanese immigrant, Rashid Baz, was convicted of murder; he had opened fire on a van carrying 15 members of the Lubavitcher sect of Orthodox Judaism who were returning from a visit to the hospital where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, had undergone surgery.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Teamwork leads to recovery of holy Jewish cabinet

Saturday, September 15, 2007
By LAURIE LUCAS
The Press-Enterprise

The timing was perfect: Smooth sailing for Rabbi Shmuel Fuss' ark.

It isn't a vessel like Noah's, but a holy cabinet specially constructed to hold an ancient handwritten scroll called the Torah.
The ark arrived last Wednesday and was consecrated at the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Riverside for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.
What makes the ark especially poignant for Fuss, 27, is the convergence of several faiths behind the rescue and resurrection of this sacred box.
A Muslim discovered it in an antiques store in Yucca Valley. Her Jewish friends bought and transported the ark to Riverside. Their Jewish friends knew that Fuss' congregation needed an ark. They asked their Mormon neighbors if their son was looking for a service project. He was. And so, that's how the mysterious ark came to be restored.
"What I find so beautiful is that we're from the same God, the same universe," Fuss said. "We all came together with total respect."
Jon Taleb, 60, the daughter of a Kurdish father and Irish mother, stumbled upon the ark while searching for a chest of drawers. An elementary school teacher in Perris, she stopped at a vintage shop one day on her way home to Joshua Tree.
The ark had languished at the second-hand furniture store for at least three decades. The owner thought it had come from a church. But Taleb knew better.
Although Muslim, she'd visited synagogues for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
She recognized the Hebrew letters on the massive structure. It stood nearly 5 foot tall from the top of its peaked roof to the bottom of the box, which was almost as wide. It was 30 inches deep with two folding doors in front.
Taleb could see in the veneer the imprint of a metal Star of David that had been removed. "I felt some kind of reverence," Taleb said. "It had meant something to someone."
She described the ark in detail to her friends, Margie and Kevin Akin, members of Temple Beth El in Riverside. Their synagogue has a fine ark.
Margie Akin consulted her mahjong partner, Inez Trupp. She and husband Chet Trupp have attended Chabad services in the new community center. They asked Fuss.
He was eager to jettison Chabad's makeshift ark for the one abandoned at the antiques store.
"What better time to inaugurate it than the Jewish holidays?" he said.
Margie Akin gave Jon Taleb $80 to buy the ark. Taleb hauled it home. On Aug. 19, Kevin Akin drove the ark to Riverside where he scrutinized the box that was huge enough to hold four Torahs.
He surmised that the ark was at least a half-century old and was once housed in a now-defunct desert synagogue. The ark probably disappeared after its retiree population died out. Or perhaps an another congregation discarded the ark after renovating or moving to a new building.
"This piece is so heavy and bulky it probably never traveled very far," Kevin Akin said.

16-Year-Old's Project

Next stop was the home of Mark and Darlene Malone. Friends of the Trupps, they agreed to take on the transformation of the ark. It was intended as a Boy Scout and a Mormon church project for their 16-year-old son, Andrew, a junior at Riverside's King High School.
Andrew has Jewish friends and attended a bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony when a Jewish girl turns 13.
"I wanted to do something to help the Jewish community," he said.
Because of Andrew's heavy football schedule and the tight two-week deadline to rehabilitate the ark, dad stepped in to do most of the work.
"Whoever made the ark was absolutely a carpenter," marveled Mark Malone, himself an expert craftsmen.
Father and son built a 3-foot cabinet for the holy box to sit on, making it a seamless unit. They sanded and restained the ark, repaired damages, painted with gold inlay the Hebrew letters carved into the Ten Commandments at the top of the ark and replaced $400 worth of hardware.
Fuss said he plans to reimburse Malone, a small price for the donated ark the rabbi estimates would cost about $5,000.
Fuss placed the ark at the easternmost wall of the community center. That's because worshippers chant prayers while facing the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is east in most Jewish-populated countries.
"This is really a wonderful new beginning," he said.

THE FAITH LEADER: Rabbi Shmuli Novack

Title, church, city: Director of Chabad Lubavitch of Southside and the Universities.

Education: West Coast Talmudical Seminary, Los Angeles; Rabbinical College of America, Morristown, N.J.

Tell us about your family.

I am one of nine and my wife is one of 11, thank G-d. [Editor's note: Orthodox and many other Jews refrain from writing out or speaking the name of God because doing so outside of prayer and worship is considered sacrilegious.]

My wife was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Israel (a great combo). She is gorgeous. I have two adorable boys, thank G-d, Zammy and Menny, 3 and 2. People think they are twins, but they are 13 months apart. With the help of G-d we will have many more healthy, beautiful children. My wife is an amazing cook, which is nice because I love to eat (only kosher food of course).

What is Chabad?

A Jewish organization with more than 150 centers in Florida alone and four in the greater Jacksonville area. Chabad rabbis or emissaries are dedicated to enhancing Jewish education and increasing Jewish pride to ensure a brighter, more vibrant, Jewish tomorrow. An era of true redemption.

What is unique about your congregation?

I don't have a congregation, I have friends who join us for Shabbat, for holidays, to sing, to eat, to pray or just to talk. I am always making new friends.

What is most rewarding about your ministry?

Sitting down for a hearty Shabbat dinner with dozens of friends and community members.

What is most frustrating about your ministry?

Never being able to take off for the holidays or weekends.

What book are you reading or recommending lately?

I am reading Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan and The Vanishing American Jew by Alan Dershowitz. I always highly recommend Rabbi Shneur Zalman's Lessons In Tanya. Every time I read it, I am both challenged and elevated.

Have you ever doubted your faith?

I have evolved in my devotion. Being born into an observant family, I woke up in my late teens asking myself if this is me or is it peer pressure or just trying to make my parents happy.

How were those doubts resolved?

Inside out. Thank G-d my soul is in a good place.

What is your favorite saying, motto or verse of Scripture?

"Nothing is more complete than a broken heart." Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.

Casting off the year past

Area Jews observe holiday of Rosh Hashana, a time of reflection and introspection.

As the sun settled at dusk Thursday on the backs of turtles bobbing in a koi pond at Brand Park, a heartfelt, sustained whimper echoed throughout the area.

Meant to imitate the sound of a human’s cry, the noise came from a shofar — or ram’s horn — blown by Rabbi Simcha Backman, who led a Rosh Hashana service at the park.

The traditional blowing of the shofar takes place during a moment of introspection in the service, when congregants summon their sins, grab hold of them and throw them away at the start of the Jewish new year.

“The most human emotion is a cry, so we blast the horn to bring out human emotion and remind humans that we are but human,” Backman said. “You look inside and reflect.”

But Rosh Hashana is not just a time for Jews to reflect; it also provides an opportunity to commit to jettison bad habits and improve, he said.

The Thursday service, which drew about 30 people, was held at the Whispering Pine Tea House and Friendship Garden in Brand Park. It was an ideal setting for a Rosh Hashana service not only for its serenity, but for the koi pond — a perfect place for congregants to toss their sins, or as the symbolic tradition goes, bits of bread.

After the formal service and a collective reading of the Tashlich, also known as the 13 attributes of mercy, congregants passed around bags of sandwich bread, removing small pieces to throw to the fish.

“The fish, they wait for this every year,” said Mort Laski, a member of Chabad Jewish Center of Glendale.

As part of the two-day Jewish New Year tradition, Jews are supposed to find a body of water and cast their sins into it, Backman said.

If someone doesn’t find the water during Rosh Hashana, they have 10 days before Yom Kippur to find a pond, stream, an ocean — just about any body of water will do, he said.

Beyond the sunset service in the park, Jews also attended services in synagogues in Glendale and Burbank.

About 200 members of Temple Beth Emet congregated at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Burbank for a morning service marked with hand-clapping, singing and chanting in unison.

The congregation has suffered the loss of several of its members this year, so the new year and the hope that comes with it was especially poignant, Rabbi Mark Sobel said.

“Love involves all the emotions, and we have a loving relationship with God,” Sobel said. “With that in mind, it’s natural to laugh with, yell at or talk to Him, but in love, that relationship grows and strengthens.”

For Eagle Rock resident Hope Friedman, Rosh Hashana is an opportunity to tackle self-improvement.

“It’s about being a better person,” she said.

Other congregants, like Brett Bigley, cherish the holiday as a chance to spend time with family.

Bigley drove to the Temple Beth Emet service to see members of his extended family who were at his bar mitzvah and marriage, he said.

“They’re such a welcoming congregation,” he said.

Back at the koi pond in Brand Park, the day was about sharing for Jordan Marx, 5.

“I have an idea,” he said as he prepared a handful of bread for the fish.

“If I smush it up, they will have more.”

The Missionary Mogul

By ZEV CHAFETS

When Lev Leviev’s first son, Shalom, was born in 1978, Leviev decided to circumcise the baby himself. He was only 22 years old. He had never studied the art of circumcision and never performed one. But he had seen it done. His father, Avner, had been an underground mohel in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbek Republic, at a time when performing any Jewish ritual act could get you in trouble with the Soviet authorities. The family had been in Israel for eight years. There were plenty of trained ritual mohelim in Tel Aviv. But Leviev regarded the act of circumcising his own son as both a religious duty and the fulfillment of a family tradition.

Avner Leviev advised his son to prepare by cutting chicken legs, but young Lev felt no need to practice. “I knew what I was doing,” he told me when I spoke to him recently at his office in Yahud, a suburb of Tel Aviv. “I was a diamond cutter, after all. It’s not all that different.” He extended his hands, palms down, for my inspection and smiled. “I’ve got steady hands.”

In the years since he introduced his son into Israel’s blood covenant with the almighty, Lev Leviev has performed more than a thousand ritual circumcisions — many on the sons of employees in his ever-expanding business empire. In those years, Leviev has gone from impoverished immigrant to the man who broke the De Beers international diamond cartel. His companies build vast shopping malls, housing projects, highways and railways throughout Israel, the former Soviet Union and Western Europe. He owns everything from diamond mines in Angola to a string of 7-Elevens in Texas. Recently he has been buying up iconic American properties, including the former New York Times Building in Manhattan for a reported $525 million.

Lev Leviev is probably Israel’s richest man. Forbes ranks him 210th among the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated personal net worth of $4.1 billion. (People close to Leviev put that figure closer to $8 billion.) However much Leviev has, he is hungry for more. His business role model is Bill Gates, whom he says he hopes to eventually join in what he calls, in Russian-accented Hebrew, “the world’s starting 10.”

Leviev admires not only Gates’s wealth but also his activist style of philanthropy. “A lot of very rich men wait too long to give their money away,” he told me. “Warren Buffett, for example. He’s in his 70s now, and he should have started earlier. But Bill Gates is a young man, and he’s already giving to help the world. That’s the right way to do it.”

Leviev, who is 51, is a legendary philanthropist, too — he refuses to say how much he gives away each year, but he did not dispute an estimate of $50 million. He does not share Gates’s universalist outlook, however. Leviev is a tribal leader, a benefactor of Jewish causes, particularly in the former Soviet Union, where he underwrites Jewish day schools, synagogues, orphanages, social centers and soup kitchens for more than 500 communities. To make this vast philanthropic enterprise run, Leviev subsidizes an army of some 10,000 Jewish functionaries from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, including 300 rabbis.

Most of the 300 rabbis are Chabadniks, adherents of the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group Chabad — fundamentalist, missionizing, worldly and centered on the personality and teachings of the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. Chabad is anti-abortion, regards homosexuality as a sexual perversion and generally finds itself aligned with other fundamentalist religious groups on American domestic issues. In Israel, it has supported right-wing Greater Israel candidates. Most controversially, during Rebbe Schneerson’s lifetime, Chabad entertained the notion that he might be the messiah; a vocal group in the community still does. (This led the ultrapious Rabbi Eliezer Shach to acidly define Chabad as the sect closest to Judaism.)

Lev Leviev’s loyalty to Chabad is unquestioning. “The rebbe is my role model, and my values are his values,” he says.

Lev Leviev arrived in Israel as a teenager in 1971, at a time when Moshe Dayan, hero of the Six Day War, was the legendary embodiment of the Israeli WASP (Well-born/Ashkenazi/Secular/Paratrooper). Immigrants were classified by their potential to attain this ideal. The Leviev family — unconnected, uneducated, not even real Russians but Bukharan Jews, primitives from the steppes of Central Asia — were classified as “bad material” and dispatched by government authorities to the dusty “development town” of Kiryat Malachi.

Avner Leviev enrolled his son in a Chabad yeshiva. It was a match that didn’t take. “I’m not a born yeshiva scholar,” Leviev admits. In Tashkent he had finished 10th grade. He left the yeshiva after a few months, ending his formal education. If Leviev regrets this, he doesn’t show it. “I just wanted to make money,” he told me.

Through a family friend, Leviev found work as an apprentice diamond cutter. It was industry practice not to teach anyone all 11 steps of the diamond-cutting trade, but Leviev paid his fellow workers to show him every facet of the process. By the time he finished an undistinguished stint in the rabbinical corps of the army, he was ready to go into business for himself.

“I never doubted that I would get rich,” Leviev told me. “I knew from the time I was 6 that I was destined to be a millionaire. I’d go with my father to shops, and while he was talking business, my eyes automatically counted the merchandise.”

Leviev chose a tough industry. “The diamond business is usually a family business,” says a Tel Aviv diamond merchant. “People accumulate wealth slowly, over generations. When Leviev started out, all he had was an amazing amount of ambition and the ability to understand the stone. Understanding the stone — that was the key.”

The headquarters of Leviev’s U.S. diamond company, LLD USA, is located at the mouth of the Manhattan diamond district, on the corner of 47th Street and Fifth Avenue. To get up to his office, you need to be both photographed and fingerprinted by a very high tech security system.

People who handle gems are cautious and security-conscious, and Leviev is no exception. Perhaps for that reason, many of his closest associates are relatives or longtime friends, most of them also Bukharan Jews. Paul Raps, the general manager of LLD USA, has known Leviev since they were both young diamond merchants in Ramat Gan. “One day we were sitting there, just chatting, and suddenly Leviev said to me: ‘You know what we need? We need to get our hands on the gelem.’ Uncut diamonds. I thought he was kidding. Nobody could find uncut diamonds back then.”

Before Leviev’s epiphany, the world’s diamond market was strictly regulated by De Beers, a company founded in the 19th century to mine its first shaft of diamond-bearing kimberlite. In 1930, De Beers established a cartel that over the next few decades came to dominate diamond mining in the Soviet Union, Africa and the rest of the world. It regulated the market through a system of “sightholders,” handpicked producers of rough diamonds and dealers of finished diamonds, who were allowed to buy quantities of unfinished diamonds at fixed prices, via De Beers.

When Leviev started out, there were about 100 sightholders around the world. They came to London several times a year and, at syndicate headquarters, were offered diamonds on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Those who left it too often were decertified, and new sightholders were selected.

Small diamond cutters and merchants like Leviev couldn’t afford to buy from sightholders. They were allowed to buy rough diamonds from “secondary dealers” who managed to get their hands on small, smuggled quantities. It was a limiting arrangement, and Leviev didn’t like limitations. He applied to become a De Beers sightholder.

“There was resistance to him at first,” recalls the Tel Aviv diamond merchant, who knew Leviev at the time. “A lot of people thought he was uncouth, not really civilized. This wasn’t anti-Semitism. Most of the people who rejected him were European Jews themselves. Leviev was an outsider, a Bukharan. But he was so industrious, so ambitious, such a good businessman, that eventually they had no choice. They had to accept him.”

Soon Leviev became a rising star in the De Beers syndicate. He brought his extended family into his business, leveraged their resources and prospered. But he chafed under the control of the syndicate.

In the late ’80s, Leviev saw an opportunity. De Beers had encountered antitrust problems in the United States. In South Africa, the apartheid government that had worked with De Beers was losing political power. At the same time, the Soviet Union, whose leaders had long had a mutually profitable partnership with De Beers, was nearing collapse.

Leviev has a complicated relationship with his former homeland. In our first meeting, when I asked him about his boyhood memories, he surprised me by saying: “Fear. I grew up in fear.”

Tashkent is a Muslim city, and although there wasn’t much overt anti-Jewish violence, there was a climate of mistrust. “Many times I was beaten up in school,” he recalls. But his biggest fear was of the Communist government.

“As a boy, they used to make us stand at attention and salute the statue of Lenin,” he told me. “I’d curse him and the other Communists under my breath. They sent my grandfather to Siberia. They wouldn’t let us keep the Sabbath — we had to go to school on Saturdays. Just being Jewish was dangerous.”

Still, he saw business potential in Russia. He spoke the language, knew the local customs. His father, sensing danger, begged Leviev not to go. So Leviev traveled to Brooklyn, to the headquarters of the Lubavitcher rebbe, for a second opinion.

It is a meeting that has become folklore, both in Chabad and in the diamond industry. Leviev tells the story with obvious relish: “I spoke to the rebbe in Hebrew. I asked him, Should I go or not? He answered me in a kind of antique Russian. He said: ‘Go. Go to Russia and do business, but don’t forget to help the Jews. Remember your family tradition.’ ”

This was more than good advice. The rebbe’s blessing gave Leviev the keys to the Chabad network in the former Soviet Union at a very dangerous time.

Officially, Leviev was invited by the Soviet minister of energy in 1989, which was exploring ways of ending the De Beers grip on the country’s diamonds. “When I got there, Gorbachev was still in power, but you could sense that things were coming apart,” Leviev says. “Everything was unsettled, and I felt the fear again.”

There were other risks, too. To do business with the Russians, Leviev had to give up his position as a De Beers sightholder. This shook the international diamond business. “It was unbelievable,” says the Tel Aviv merchant. “He was breaking the rules, going after the source. When he succeeded in Russia, and then in Angola, others saw it and were suddenly emboldened. That’s how Leviev cracked the De Beers cartel. With the instincts of a tiger and the balls of a panther.”

There’s no need to cry for De Beers, which still controls a major share of the world’s uncut diamonds. But the syndicate no longer sets the worldwide market value of diamonds or decides who can manufacture and sell them.

Neither can Leviev. But he has become the world’s largest cutter and polisher of diamonds and one of its major sources of rough diamonds — the gelem he dreamed of.

A key to his success is his vertical integration. He mines the diamonds in Angola, Namibia and Russia, cuts and polishes them, ships them and sells them, wholesale and retail. He has a string of high-end shops in Russia and a luxury boutique, Leviev, on Bond Street in London. Next month, Leviev is opening a store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, which, as the president of Leviev Jewelry, Thierry Chaunu, told a reporter, will cater to “the young hedge-fund professional who just got his bonus.”

One of Leviev’s first moves in Russia was to set up a high-tech cutting and polishing plant. It provided jobs and, more important, showed the Russians how they could gain control of their own industry. In turn, the Russian government helped him gain a foothold in Africa. In 1997, Leviev bought into the Catoca diamond mine, Angola’s largest, in a joint venture with the Russian state diamond company, Alrosa; a Brazilian partner; and the Angola state diamond company. Leviev soon established warm ties with the Angolan president, José Eduardo Dos Santos, who speaks fluent Russian from his days as an engineering student in the U.S.S.R.

When Leviev arrived in Angola, Dos Santos was fighting a civil war against Unita rebels, who were financed by the sale of smuggled “blood diamonds.” Leviev had a suggestion: Why not create a company that would centralize control of all diamonds? The company that grew out of that idea was the Angola Selling Corporation, or Ascorp, jointly owned by the Angolan government, a Belgian partner and Leviev. While Leviev’s plan took aim at the trade in conflict diamonds, critics say that Ascorp took advantage of mounting international pressure to establish and profit from a monopoly.

Unita surrendered in 2002, after the death of its leader, Jonas Savimbi. By then, the Angolan government had effectively pushed De Beers out of the country, and Ascorp had generated great sums for the Dos Santos government (and, it is rumored, the Dos Santos family), created thousands of jobs for Angolans in newly established factories and mines and made Lev Leviev a vast fortune. None of this would have been possible without the Russian connection.

On a shelf in Leviev’s Ramat Gan office sits a framed photo of Vladimir Putin. Leviev describes him as a “true friend.” The offices of many Israeli business magnates feature photographic trophies, grab-and-grin shots with (in ascending order of importance) the prime minister of Israel, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton and A-list Hollywood stars. Leviev has a different collection. Aside from the Lubavitcher rebbe and Vladimir Putin, there are photos taken with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Kazakhstan, for which he serves as honorary consul in Israel. (“Yes, I saw ‘Borat’ ” Leviev told me wearily. “Yes, I thought it was funny. But silly.”) Leviev’s picture gallery reflects his status as the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the former Soviet Union, an organization he has led since 1998. Nobody knows exactly how many Jews live in the former Soviet Union, but estimates range from 400,000 to upward of one million. Leviev leads them with his checkbook.

“When it comes to contributing to the Jewish people, Lev Leviev is in a class by himself,” says Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and former Israeli deputy prime minster. “I know a lot of rich people who give money. But Leviev is on a completely different level. He’s building entire communities.”

More than this, he is a power broker and intercessor on behalf of beleaguered Jews throughout the former U.S.S.R. Take, for instance, the case of the Jewish private schools in Baku, Azerbaijan. Three years ago the government, concerned about the influence of neighboring Iran and the spread of local madrassas, decided to close all the private schools in the country. This, of course, included the Jewish school in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. The community elders petitioned the government, but to no avail.

“They even tried to get American Jewish organizations to intervene,” Leviev recalled. “But the Jewish organizations couldn’t do a thing.” He smiled thinly. He has a generally low opinion of American Jewish activists, especially his fellow billionaires.

And so Leviev decided to ride to the rescue. He flew to Baku on his private plane, parked at the airport and went straight to the synagogue.

“The Jews were all gathered there,” he recounted in what is obviously a favorite story. “I told them to wait while I talked to the president.” At the time, that was Heydar Aliyev. “There were journalists in his outer office. Everyone was excited to see me there, because they thought I had come to invest money in the country. Heydar thought so, too. He said: ‘Just tell me what you’re interested in — oil? Gas? Tourism? What can I do for you?’

“I asked him, ‘How can I invest in a country that doesn’t like Jews?’ Heydar got very upset when I said that. He began telling me how many Jewish friends he had and how much the Jews had contributed to his culture and the country and so on.

“ ‘But you’re closing down the Jewish school,’ I told him. ‘I’ve come to ask you to allow it to remain open. Right now the Jews of Baku are gathered in the synagogue, awaiting your answer.’ ”

Leviev paused at this point in the story. Dramatic tales of peril and salvation are part of the Chabad oral tradition.

“Heydar consulted his advisers,” Leviev said. “Then he returned to me and said: ‘The school can remain open. All right?’

“I told him: ‘Well, there’s another problem. The Jewish institutions here are in bad shape. Can you arrange for me to acquire a plot of land to rebuild?’

“ ‘Yes,’ said Heydar. ‘Is that all?’

“ ‘Not quite. I’d appreciate it if you would personally open the school next year. That way there will be no misunderstandings about what the government’s position is.’

“Heydar said: ‘I’ll do that. Are you satisfied now?’

“I told him: ‘Just one last thing, sir. Those journalists in your outer office? Would you mind announcing our agreement to them?’ ”

After Aliyev’s press conference, Leviev remembers returning triumphantly to the synagogue to deliver the good news. Shortly thereafter, Aliyev died and was succeeded by his son, with whom Leviev is on friendly terms.

“And did you invest after that?” I asked.

Leviev smiled. “No,” he said. “Azerbaijan has so many natural resources they don’t need my investment. But I told them that they would get a blessing from God.”

Leviev insists that he maintains a strict division between his community leadership and his business dealings. Perhaps this is so, but the republics of the former Soviet Union are not famous for their transparency. At any rate, business depends to a large extent on personal and political access. “A big part of our analytical value depends on the perception that we can get anything approved in Russia,” says Jacques Zimmerman, the vice president for communications of Africa Israel, Leviev’s international holding and investment company.

This perception has been strengthened by public displays of affection between Putin and Leviev. In 2000, the Russian president was the guest of honor at the opening of the Jewish Community Center in the Marina Roscha district of Moscow, which Leviev played a major role in building. It was a gesture widely interpreted as a sign of good will not only toward Russia’s Jews but toward Leviev himself.

Putin also took Leviev’s side in a dispute over the post of chief rabbi of Russia, backing Leviev’s candidate, Berel Lazar, over Adolf Shayevich, who held the position. The Kremlin’s endorsement of Lazar was a final confirmation that Leviev had achieved a typically audacious and improbable victory — putting the fundamentalist Chabad in effective control of the assimilated, mostly irreligious Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union.

Lazar’s selection has been quite controversial not only in Russia but also among Jewish groups in Israel and in the U.S. But Chabad is nothing if not practical, and they have taken a gradualist approach to winning over Russia’s secular Jews. Schools enroll nonreligious students and offer them a full government curriculum, along with some beginner’s Torah studies. Community centers hold coeducational social events. There are even mixed dances.

Such modernity comports with Leviev’s personal style, which is, in its outward aspect, Chabad-lite. He once made headlines by closing his upscale mall in Ramat Aviv — a bastion of WASP Israel — on the Sabbath, and officially his businesses are closed on Saturday. But he maintains a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for his Israeli executives, some of whom hold unofficial meetings and phone sessions on the Sabbath. Abroad, some of the businesses Leviev owns an interest in work seven days a week, and his American 7-Elevens sell nonkosher food. Leviev himself strictly observes the Sabbath, but he has been known to interrupt his weekday prayers for important phone calls.

Unlike many Chabad men, Leviev is clean-shaven, wears stylish business suits open at the collar and sometimes lounges in jeans, and his small black skullcap is barely visible. He is also something of a feminist. The women in his office, including his private secretaries, are allowed to wear slacks, a violation of strict Orthodox custom. Leviev’s two eldest daughters have been brought into the business as senior executives. Zvia, a mother of four who runs international marketing and mall businesses for her father, is frequently mentioned in the Israeli press as a potential successor. Leviev is proud to have raised his nine children in B’nai B’rack, Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox suburb, but he is planning to move to an estate in Saviyon, the equivalent of going from Borough Park to Scarsdale.

Leviev’s pragmatism ends, however, at the vexing and fundamental question of who is a Jew. American Reform Judaism recognizes patrilineal descent. The State of Israel grants citizenship under the Law of Return to people with a single Jewish grandparent. But Leviev accepts only the Talmudic rule that a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother, or someone who has undergone an Orthodox conversion and agreed to keep all 613 Jewish laws.

There are a great many people who regard themselves as Jews but do not meet these criteria. In Israel alone, there are an estimated 300,000 among Soviet immigrants, and perhaps more than that in the former Soviet Union. “What do you do about all these people?” I asked Leviev. “Just write them off?”

Leviev’s answer: “It’s not a matter of what I do or what I want. I have no choice. The law is the law.”

A few years ago, concerned Bukharan Jewish immigrants in New York reported to Leviev that their children were being corrupted by the public schools of Queens. “The kids were going out with Pakistanis, Puerto Ricans, all sorts of people,” I was told by one of Leviev’s intimates. Leviev would have been equally horrified to learn that the Bukharan Jews of Queens were hooking up with descendants of the Mayflower.

In response, Leviev donated the money for a private school in Elmhurst. He picks up the tuition tab for the entire student body — about 800 kids at an estimated $18,000 a pop. Leviev regards this as a pilot project. His goal, I was told by his assistant, Shlomi Peles, is to make a free Orthodox Jewish education available to every Jewish child in United States.

The educational project is just one part of Leviev’s recent discovery of America. After 9/11, he and a partner bought the JP Morgan building near ground zero at a bargain price (a reported $100 million), converting it into luxury condominiums and clearing a very handsome profit. It made him a believer in New York.

“Every building is half a billion dollars,” he told me. “All you need is a global perspective. I knew New York would come back.”

Jacques Zimmerman, who handles communications for Africa Israel, told me: “Lev’s natural tendency, his home court, is Israel and Russia. But he is constantly looking to expand.”

The engine for this growth is Africa Israel. The company is publicly traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and handles Leviev’s businesses, not including privately held diamond interests. Leviev personally owns about 75 percent of Africa Israel, which was valued, in mid-July, at approximately $5 billion.

According to Zimmerman, Africa Israel has made a “strategic decision” to think big. “The work involved in large and small projects is about the same, so why not do big projects?” In Moscow, Africa Israel is currently building a million-square-foot mall as well as another 750,000-square-foot mall that is entirely underground. It is the lead partner in a consortium that is building the subway in Tel Aviv. Africa Israel is active in China, India, the Philippines and Latin America as well.

“We’re worldwide, but our emphasis is moving more and more to the United States,” Zimmerman says. “In the last six months, we’ve bought into more than a billion dollars’ worth of projects in Manhattan, and that’s going to grow.”

Africa Israel’s American holdings include not only the former New York Times Building but also a half-share of the Apthorp apartment building on the Upper West Side and the Clock Tower on Madison Avenue, 1,700 Fina gas stations around the country and development projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Phoenix. Recently the company announced it will be opening a giant Hard Rock amusement park in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“All you need to do business in America is a good name, and banks will lend you all the money you need,” Leviev told me with enthusiasm.

Israel is a society in which successful people are rarely praised. But I encountered very little criticism of Leviev there, even from members of the Jewish WASP business establishment. “He’s still an outsider,” one high-powered Tel Aviv lawyer told me. “We don’t know anything about his personal life. But from what anyone can tell, he’s clean. You read about him in the business pages of the newspaper, not the gossip columns.”

One of Leviev’s greatest admirers is Eitan Raff, chairman of Israel’s Bank Leumi, from which Leviev bought Africa Israel in 1996. The sale was controversial at the time. “He was a Russian,” Raff says. “We didn’t know him or anything about him. We thought he might be some kind of oligarch. I hired two or three investigators to check him out. He came up clean.”

There were a number of foreign suitors for Africa Israel, but after fighting broke out in Jerusalem between Israeli and Palestinian gunmen, they became skittish and withdrew, leaving Leviev as the sole bidder. The asking price was $400 million, and Bank Leumi had to sell; it had been ordered by a court to divest itself of nonfinancial holdings, including Africa Israel, by a certain date. Leviev had the bank over a barrel. “What would you say to $330?” Leviev asked Raff.

“No, it’s worth four, that’s the fair price,” Raff said.

Leviev stuck out his hand, diamond-business style. “Four,” he said.

“He acted with great probity,” Raff says. “He didn’t try to take advantage or squeeze. His word is his bond,” he says. “Look, I’m a kibbutznik. Leviev and I aren’t from the same world at all. But I consider him a friend, and I think he’s an example of what the head of a public company should be.” Leviev’s biggest public-relations problem is his association with Arkady Gaydamak, a mysterious Russian-Israeli billionaire of unsavory reputation, now under indictment in France for a variety of offenses, including gunrunning and money laundering. Gaydamak, who cuts a flamboyant figure and recently established his own political party in Israel, is reputed to have made his fortune selling arms in Angola in partnership with various European, Israeli and African military and government figures.

Leviev says he was first introduced to Gaydamak by the former Mossad chief Danny Yatom. They certainly knew each other. According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan journalism group based in Washington, Leviev and Gaydamak jointly acquired a metallurgy plant in Kazakhstan in 1999. A year later, Gaydamak bought a 15 percent share of Africa Israel, which he later sold. Leviev swears they are no longer partners, but the relationship has stained his reputation.

Unlike Gaydamak, Leviev has thus far steered clear of Israeli politics. That doesn’t mean he lacks influence, however. He meets from time to time with the nation’s leaders, mostly to discuss the economy. He owns Israel’s Russian-language television station, which reaches about 15 percent of the population. Despite his allegiance to Chabad, Leviev is considered a moderate. “He’s not one of the crazies,” a former adviser to Ariel Sharon told me. “Certainly not a Greater Israel man.”

Leviev’s global view is Moscow-centric and more than a little Machiavellian. He says he believes, for example, that America’s difficulties in places like Iran, Syria and Venezuela come primarily from George W. Bush’s failure to come to Russia’s economic aid. “If Bush had invested $100 million to help the Russian economy early in his first term, he’d have Putin’s friendship,” he says. “Instead, Bush put the money into a war with Iraq, and he’s been paying for it all over the world ever since.”

The first time I spoke to Leviev, he denied that he had any personal political aspirations. Three days later, he wasn’t so sure. “Would I like to be prime minister?” he mused. “I might. When I turn 60.”

That’s nine years off. At Leviev’s pace, nine years is a lot of time — time enough to make his way into the Forbes “starting 10,” time to complete the Chabadization of Soviet Jewry and time, perhaps, to make a run at becoming Israel’s first Russian-Bukharan-mohel-mogul prime minister.

Zev Chafets is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the author of ‘A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

New Torah scroll brings life, blessings

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

It almost felt like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai to give the Jewish people their first Torah scroll. Close to 400 people poured into Chabad Jewish Center of Laguna Beach in anticipation of a newly written Torah scroll in honor of Esagh "Isaac" Lahijani by his son Kaveh and Kaveh's wife Larissa Lahijani and family.

Life in Iran for todays close to 1,000 Jews is extremely difficult as there is little to no freedom and Jews are constantly under surveillance. About 28 years ago, the father, Esagh, upon going to work, was spirited away by the Iranian police, without a trace. Two years ago, after 26 years of painful uncertainty, the family learned that Esagh had indeed died, although how, they do not know.

To commemorate his life, the good he did, and the family he left, Kaveh Lahijani, a member of the Chabad Jewish Center and a contractor in Laguna Beach, commissioned a "sofer," a scribe to write a Torah scroll in his father's honor.

The scroll was begun in America a year ago and transferred to Israel where much of it was completed, as it was in ancient times on 60 pieces of cow's skin sewn together. Three hundred and one thousand letters are each hand printed, as are all Torah scrolls. The completed scroll is rolled into two sections and read regularly, as it is un-rolled and re-rolled in its new position, progressing from beginning to end, through the Five Books of Moses. The ends of the rollers are decorated with silver and the Torah is placed into a hand sewn velvet mantle to give it a royal appearance.

A Torah scroll is the most precious object in Jewish life. Even though the first Torah was given to the Jewish people over 3,289 years ago, the new scroll is identical. The scroll, came to Laguna Beach to be completed at the celebration as honored guests were called up to watch the scribe, with ink and pen, complete the letters on the parchment.

When the ink dried, the festivities began. The new scroll, like a bride, was held under a "chuppah" canopy and danced to its new home, the ark in which it will reside with three other Torah scrolls. Accompanied by music, singing and dancing, the crowd happily led the new scroll in a festive procession into the sanctuary, holding it lovingly and kissing it periodically, where it became a part of the congregation.

Although Chabad already has three scrolls, the idea is that everyone in his or her lifetime needs to contribute to the writing of a Torah scroll and that every time a scroll comes into existence; it brings new life and blessings. Afterwards prayers were said and a sumptuous Iranian buffet added to the joy of the occasion.

Through the ages, the Torah has been, and continues to be, the single common thread by and through which the Jewish people define themselves. It is learned at every hour of the day and night and begun at the New Year and completed before the New Year.

The timing of this particular scroll was carefully thought out. The Jewish people are entering into the New Year, "Rosh Hashanah," which began at sundown Wednesday. According to the Jewish calendar, the day before the scroll's completion was the Birthday of the World, the First Day as it was in Genesis. The scroll was completed on the second day when light came into the world, symbolic for the Lahijani family of no longer being in the dark about their father, but basking in the light of his goodness.

Chabad Jewish Center is led by Rabbi Elimelech Goorevitch and his wife Perel. The center is located at 30804 South Coast Hwy., across from the Montage Resort and Spa. Information: www.chabadoflaguna.com or 949-499-0770.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chabad pledges top $7 million

From a Times Staff Writer

September 10, 2007

The West Coast Chabad Lubavitch organization had raised nearly $7.2 million in pledges by late Sunday night during its 27th annual "To Life Telethon," the organization said on its program. The event, telecast from Los Angeles and featuring an array of celebrities, raises funds for the Hasidic Jewish organization's 200 West Coast centers.They offer services such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, crisis intervention, counseling, summer camps and programs for the elderly.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Rare Judaica at Russian State Library

Rare vintage books from the Russian State Library’s massive Judaica collection went on display for the first time.

The exhibition, “Jewish Mysticism and Hassidism,” began Thursday and includes selections from the library’s holdings of more than 80,000 Jewish books and manuscripts. Sponsored by the Russian Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it is the first such exhibit ever mounted in the country’s largest library.

It includes books from the collections of Baron David Gunzberg, Rabbi Yaakov Mazeh and the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef-Yitzchak Schneersohn.

Schneersohn’s library, representing pre-1915 Lubavitch publications, was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1924 and has not been returned despite the repeated efforts of Chabad headquarters in New York.

Maria Endel of the Moscow Jewish Academic Library told JTA that the exhibition aims "to attract the attention of Russian and Western scholars to the library’s huge collection of printed Jewish mystical wisdom dating back to the 16th century.”

"You may see here books printed in Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic or, surprisingly, Latin, from Amsterdam, Venice, Istanbul, Prague, Krakow and many other towns of medieval Europe,” Konstantin Burmistrov of the library’s Oriental Literature Center told JTA. “They represent various areas of Jewish Kabbalah, from early esoteric Sefer Yetzirah to the 18th century Toldot Jakob Joseph.”

The exhibit will be on display until mid-September.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Chabad opens doors at Univ. of Central Florida

By Matthew Rosen
Rabbi Chaim Lipskier and his wife Rivkie seem to conquer the impossible week after week for Jewish college students around the University of Central Florida’s campus. Rivkie cooks on Fridays to host a fun-filled Shabbat evening at the Lipskier home. The rabbi welcomes visitors of all ages. He invites students using the online networking site facebook.com. He can frequently be seen introducing himself outside the student union, ignoring the brutal Florida heat. And he insists that guests bring their family members staying in Orlando from out of town. Shabbat means family togetherness, and the Lipskier family tries to foster that feeling. At the dinner tables, whether there are fifty students or a hundred, the Lipskiers’ goal is to make everyone feel accepted. After the meal, the rabbi invites every student to return to Chabad. He tells everyone to invite more friends the next time they come. Chabad does not stop at just one night of dinner: There are events almost every day during every week on the school calendar. On Tuesday nights, the Lipskiers have a kosher barbeque at their home with chicken, fries, hamburgers and hotdogs—food that would tame any hungry student’s appetite. On other days, they have Torah classes, a women’s circle, holiday programs, Sunday brunch with the usual Nova, bagels and a little smear of cream cheese, Shabbatons in other states for national Jewish conventions, skydiving with the rabbi, and sometimes a study group at ne of the local bars for those over the age of 21. Chabad’s main goal is to create lasting friendships inside the Jewish community and to encourage the continuity of Torah learning for future generations. Rabbi and Rivkie Lipskier love making students feel welcome and hope to become “a lasting part of the UCF community for as long as there are students thirsty for security, knowledge and friendship.”The Lipskiers invite all Jewish students to their home next Shabbat “for a meal that will affect you on a deeper level than just free food.” They conclude: “It is an unforgettable evening that will be sure to have you singing and slamming on tables.” For more information, visit jewishucf.com.

Jewish center welcomes arrival of Torah

For the 250 or so families involved, it is a time of great happiness at the Chabad of the South Hills.
The Jewish Center for Living and Learning in Mt. Lebanon formally welcomed the addition of its own Torah scroll last evening.
"Purchasing or refurbishing a Torah is considered to be a huge, huge celebration in the Jewish community," said Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, co-director of the Chabad with his wife, Batya.
Ten days of the High Holidays begin Wednesday with Rosh Hashana and conclude at Yom Kippur.
The synagogue's ark currently has three other scrolls -- the text, written in Hebrew, is literally considered the words of God as given to Moses -- on loan through various long- and short-term arrangements.
"Typically, the first time the [scroll] arrives, it is welcomed to the synagogue, but the timing just didn't work out for us," Rabbi Rosenblum said, explaining that the Chabad of the South Hills received the Torah several months ago.
Last night's festivities included dancing and dinner, as well as an education program for the children.
The cost of obtaining a Torah "is significant," he said. "which ranges anywhere from $20,000 to $70,000.
"But the spiritual achievement is great as well. It's always welcomed into the synagogue, even if it's not the first Torah scroll."
The scroll was purchased from another conservative synagogue, Poale Tzedek in Squirrel Hill.
"One of the members of our congregation grew up in this synagogue and their family is still very active. They were the ones who made the connection for us.
"It was a huge donation [but] the family wants to remain anonymous. They just wanted to see the Torah restored."
The scroll, he said, "was not fit for use when we purchased it," so they sent it to a scribe in New York who restores Torahs.
The process took about five months; all of the characters are handwritten on parchment and those handling the scrolls must be painstakingly careful due to age and wear.
When the restoration was complete, the entire Torah was run through a computer scanner to check for accuracy.
"We found two letters missing entirely," Rabbi Rosenblum said. "So in a sense, this is the first time it's really fit for use. It's really a cause for celebration in our community."
The Chabad of the South Hills began in the Rosenblum's home almost nine years ago, but is currently renting property from the Bower Hill Swim Club. A new center on McFarland Road will be dedicated this winter.
"There's a lot of symbolism here, between the holidays and our moving to a new place," Rabbi Rosenblum said.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Movie theater to close over parking lot rent dispute


Sept. 04, 2007

(Crain’s) — The owner of the Lincoln Village Theater plans to shutter the popular Northwest Side movie complex following a dispute over the rent for an adjacent parking lot, owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

The six-screen theater, 6341 N. McCormick Blvd., and several other adjacent property owners have leased the nearly 1.9-acre parking lot since 1985. After negotiations over a proposed rent increase broke down earlier this summer, the district sealed off the lot with thick concrete barriers, preventing access by theater patrons. The district has demanded a more than 14-fold rent hike, to more than $800,000 a year, according to a lawsuit challenging the proposed increase filed by the property owners.

"There's no way these businesses can pay that much for parking purposes," says Alderman Bernard Stone (50th), who supports the property owners.

But Richard Lanyon, the district's general superintendent, defended the eye-popping rent increase, saying state law requires that the rent is pegged to a percentage of the fair-market value of the property, based on appraisals.

As a result of the dispute, the theater’s owner plans to give the building to a private elementary school, Alderman Stone says.

The Philip and Rebecca Esformes Girls School, currently located at 2801 W. Jarvis Ave., would move in about two years, confirms Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, dean of Skokie-based Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School, which runs the girls school.

Rabbi Wolf declines to identify the theater’s owner or comment on the financial aspects of the move, except to say the property is being “donated, for the most part.”

"We are fortunate we got this building," Rabbi Wolf says. "It's very exciting. We're confident it will be good for the community."

When construction would start to convert the building to classrooms hasn’t been decided, he says. The date of the theater’s closing could not be determined.

The theater is owned by A.A. McCormick L.P., property records show. An executive with A.A. did not return a call requesting comment.

Terri Sween, president of Chicago-based Village Entertainment Inc., which operates the movie house, says she is unaware of the proposed closing.

Last year, the district and the property owners agreed to new 39-year lease, under which the annual rent would be 10% of fair market value, according to the lawsuit.

But the district contends that the land is worth $8 million, a value boosted by the potential residential use of the property. The business owners say the site is worth no more than $540,000, according to the complaint, which was filed in May in Cook County Circuit Court.

An ordinance to downzone the site, and reduce the value, is pending before the Chicago City Council, says Mr. Stone, who sponsored the measure.

While the two sides were still negotiating, the rent was just $36,000, under an interim agreement, according to the complaint. After that deal expired in May, the district closed the lot.

The district’s Mr. Lanyon denied the barricades were a negotiating tactic, saying, "We did it to protect our property from improper use by people who weren't authorized to be there.”


Sunday, September 02, 2007

First private Jewish school opens in Germany

BERLIN

The first privately funded Jewish educational centre in Germany since World War II opened in Berlin yesterday in another new sign of a Jewish renaissance in the country.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined the Ambassadors of the United States, Britain and Russia and some 30 rabbis from around the world at the launch of the five-million-euro ($6.8m) Rohr Chabad Centre.

The complex on a quiet side street in west Berlin includes a rabbinical school or yeshiva, a synagogue, a library, a youth recreation centre, a kosher restaurant, a tourist information centre and a lecture hall.

"If we want to remember the six million Jews, it is not enough to hold memorial ceremonies," said the director of the centre, Yehuda Teichtal, referring to the victims of the Holocaust.

"We have to keep building together-Jewish education, raising children in the Jewish tradition, Jewish consciousness and Jewish identity. We are here, we are proud and we say here today, Jewish life will grow in Germany."

Steinmeier said Germany was grateful for the trust Jews were now vesting in the country six decades after the Holocaust. "The memory of the victims of this catastrophe is burned in the memory of our country," he said.

"Soon the laughter of children and teenagers will be heard here. "I hope that generations of Jewish families will find a spiritual and communal home here."

But Steinmeier said he was troubled by a rise in far-right crimes against immigrants and Jewish institutions, citing a mob attack on Indians in the eastern town of Muegeln two weeks ago that made national headlines. "Racism and anti-Semitism are unacceptable, particularly in Germany," he said to applause.

A street fair and an open-air concert featuring renowned Hassidic singer Avraham Fried followed the ceremony. The inauguration came two days after Germany's biggest synagogue, a century-old institution in east Berlin, reopened in the presence of dozens of Holocaust survivors after a major renovation. The community centre, which like nearly all Jewish institutions in Germany will have round-the-clock police protection, is run by the Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement-a branch of Hassidism.

Germany's Largest Synagogue Reopens in Berlin

With a capacity of 1200, the Ryke Street synagogue is the largest in Germany
Berlin's Ryke Street synagogue, Germany's largest, completed its remarkable return to its former glory Friday when it was reopened after extensive reconstruction.
Nearly 70 years after it was badly damaged in the 1938 Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), Germany's largest synagogue reopened in Berlin Friday after being restored to its original glory over the past year at a cost of 5 million euros ($7 million).Built in 1904 in the neo-Romanesque style, the Ryke Street synagogue was attacked during the infamous night of violence during which Adolf Hitler’s followers torched Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship. While the synagogue was desecrated, it was not burned down, apparently because the Nazis feared causing damage to the surrounding buildings
Now, after a colorful history which also saw it fall under communist rule, the synagogue has been reborn as symbol of the rebirth of the Jewish community in the German capital. Ninety-four year-old rabbi Leo Trepp, who had preached at the synagogue in the 1930s and was one of the rabbis who was seized and deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp along with many of congregation members, called the reopening a "miracle".Synagogue's rebirth "a miracle"
Trepp was among the guests at the inauguration ceremony in the restored building with political leaders and Holocaust survivors from around the world. "It is a miracle that there are Jews in Germany again," Trepp told reporters. "And the synagogue on Rykestrasse, which survived two different regimes, is the symbol of that miracle," he said.The synagogue's architects Ruth Golan and Kay Zareh used three surviving black-and-white photographs of the original building to recreate its remarkable elegance. "It is now the most beautiful synagogue in Germany," the cultural affairs director of the Berlin's Jewish community, Peter Sauerbaum, said.Bildunterschrift: The synagogue survived some of Germany's most testing times
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, also took part in the opening ceremony in central Berlin.The opening coincides with the start of the capital's annual Jewish Cultural Days, which includes a series of concerts at the newly restored synagogue.Israeli pop star David Broza and violinist Daniel Hope will be among the performers taking part in the 10-day festival, which runs to September 9.On Sunday, a new cultural center is being formally opened in the western part of Berlin for the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of orthodox Jews. A feature of the center, which cost 5 million euros, is a 30-metre replica of part of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, built with stone from around the city.
The reopening of the synagogue marks a remarkable return to grandeur since its last prayer service at the Berlin synagogue took place in April 1940.After World War II, it was first used to house Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe before reopening in 1953 and becoming home to the East Berlin's Jewish community after the capital was divided The synagogue out-lived the Nazis and communism. Over the years after 1967, the synagogue was gradually renovated, and the most recent works have seen the restoration of the colored-glass interior. With German unification in 1990, the synagogue served an influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia which continues to make Germany's 120,000-strong Jewish community one of the fastest-growing in the world. The synagogue can accommodate some 1,200 worshippers.

Chabad rabbi sues town for filming home

A New Jersey rabbi filed a civil rights suit against a municipality alleging that it filmed prayers at his home to prove he was running a "house of worship." Rabbi Avraham Bernstein, a Chabad rabbi who hosts Sabbath prayers in his Freehold home, was given a summons by the township for operating a "house of worship" without zoning permission, according to a story appearing Wednesday on lubavitch.com, the Chabad Web site.
Bernstein sued, saying the council was overreaching. Subsequently, the rabbi alleged, the council set up a camera to monitor comings and goings to his home. That prompted a federal civil rights lawsuit with the assistance of the Rutherford Institute, a group that advocates for religious freedoms.

Agoura Chabad begins construction

Chabad of the Conejo invites residents to a festival and ground breaking at 11 a.m. Sun., Sept. 9 at 30345 Canwood St., Agoura Hills.
The event will feature live music, dignitaries, refreshments and the ceremonial placing of the foundation stone for a new campus.
A major capital campaign is underway to build the New Chabad of the Conejo Community Campus at the site of its current Agoura Hills center. The organization has acquired the empty parcel in back of the existing center for the campus expansion.
The proposed project has two phases: the construction of a new Center for Jewish Life on the empty lot and the demolition of the existing building in front to erect a new synagogue.
The new Chabad Community Campus will enable the organization to increase enrollment of its Hebrew School, Hebrew High and adult education programs and also increase the capacities at community events and Shabbat services.
Planned new programs include senior programming for the elderly, the Parenting Place for new and expectant parents, and additional Friendship Circle activities for children with special needs.
Chabad began in 1979 in a small storefront and has since expanded into a network of nine community centers spanning the Conejo Valley.