Thursday, March 27, 2008

Los Angeles rabbi, wife start a Chabad in Moorpark

Because of the lack of places for Moorpark's Jewish community to meet on a regular basis, a Los Angeles rabbi and his wife have decided to start a Chabad in the city.

Rabbi Shimon and Devorah Heidingsfeld held the first gathering of the Chabad last week, and about 50 residents gathered for a Purim celebration at the Arroyo Vista Community Center in Moorpark. The event featured an interactive reading of the Megillah, the biblical book of Esther, as well as a costume party and food.

A Chabad is an educational and social service organization, with more than 200 centers in California and 3,500 synagogues, schools and centers worldwide. Its mission is to create vibrancy in small Jewish communities and assist them in celebrating Jewish heritage and traditions.

The Heidingsfelds said they plan to move to Moorpark, where they hope more Chabad events will take place in the next few months. They are already planning a Passover Seder in April in Moorpark, but a location is being finalized.

Rabbi Shimon, who also goes by the name Rabbi Shimy, is originally from Australia and served as an assistant rabbi at Chabad of Westlake Village.

Although he and his wife are Orthodox, he said, the Chabad of Moorpark will be open to all Jews, regardless of background and affiliation. He said growing up in the warm and giving environment of Chabad outreach in Australia profoundly affected his life goals and his vision for the future. He wants to bring that same atmosphere to Moorpark.

"Many of the Jewish people here currently attend temples and services in surrounding cities, but nothing here. And many Jewish people here don't know about other Jewish people in the community, so we want to bring them together to promote Jewish pride, study and celebration," he said.

Heidingsfeld received his rabbinic ordination from the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva in New York in 2004.

Devorah Heidingsfeld, who studied and received her diploma of Jewish Studies from Beth Chana Seminary, worked in the Ventura County area leading and organizing youth programs, Hebrew School and Jewish awareness.

Shimon Heidingsfeld said many people have already thanked him for his efforts.

"I've been already asked Where were you 20 years ago? My kids are all grown now,'" he said with a laugh.

Moorpark resident Ben Fishman, who went to last week's event with his 10-year-old son, Ethan, said he is pleased something is being done for Moorpark's Jewish community.

Moorpark resident Ken Starr, who came to the celebration with his wife, Linda, and their daughters Danielle, 15, and Alyssa, 12, said his family will be going to future events hosted by the Moorpark Chabad.

"It's nice to meet the other Jewish people in the community. They were very welcoming," said Danielle Starr.

For more information about Moorpark Chabad, visit

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Peorians celebrate Purim, commemorating Jewish salvation in ancient Persia

By Brian Feldt

Of The Journal Star

Peoria - It was not the typical scene for a sacred Jewish holiday.
Little girls wore princess costumes, boys wore king outfits and the rabbi was fully cloaked in a New York Yankees baseball uniform.

Together, resembling a Halloween party, they celebrated one of the oldest traditions in the Jewish faith.

More than 100 Jews gathered at Barrack's Cater Inn on Friday afternoon to celebrate Purim, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the salvation of Jewish people from destruction in ancient Persia through the efforts of Queen Esther.

The costumes have become a custom of the holiday within the past 500 years, and are supposed to resemble biblical figures such as Queen Esther or King David.

And although Rabbi Eli Langsam chose to sport a Joe DiMaggio or Babe Ruth personality, the purpose of the celebration was far from lost.

"This is a great holiday for the Jewish people," he said. "It's all about thanking God for the great miracle that God did in saving the Jewish people from the evil (Persian Emperor) Haman."

According to the Biblical Book of Esther, Haman plotted to eliminate the Jewish race and cast lots to determine the day upon which to kill them. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, which is the day following the Jews' victory over Haman and his army.

Four phases make up the holiday's celebration. Among them are recitation of the Book of Esther, giving gifts of food and drink, giving charity to the poor and a celebratory feast.

Every year, the Chabad of Peoria hosts the celebration, and every year the party takes on a new theme.

This year's theme was "Purim in New York." Those in attendance received kosher New York-style deli meals along with traditional Purim foods such as hamantaschen - triangular pastries with a filling such as prunes, apricots or poppy seeds.

"It's a holiday like every other holiday, and actually is one of the bigger ones," Langsam said. "We have a great time. The kids have a great time and we have great food. We celebrate the great holiday that God saved the Jews."

Recently, though, the holiday has become more of a celebration for kids to experience their heritage.

"It's a wonderful holiday but it is more of a holiday for the kids," said Dolores Griminger of Peoria. "The kids always have a good time dressing up because all the little girls want to be Queen Esther. It's a lot of fun."

Brian Feldt can be reached at 686-3194 or

Purim masks highlight story of Esther

By Carla Hinton
Religion Editor

TULSA — A mask depicting the beauty of the biblical Queen Esther and a vivid red mask resembling a stoplight are displayed side by side at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art.

The variety is what leaders at the Tulsa museum had desired. It shows awareness of the lesser-known Jewish festival, Purim, is growing among Tulsa school students, due to the museum's second annual Purim Mask Invitational.

Purim is the Jewish holiday commemorating the Persian Jews' victory over oppression, as chronicled in the Book of Esther. The holiday began at sundown Thursday and concluded at sundown Friday.

Though the holiday is over, many of the colorful masks will be exhibited through April 27 at the museum, 2021 E 71st St., Tulsa. A reception for the winning artists is set for 2 p.m. April 13.

Museum curator Karen York said the mask contest was opened last year to students at Tulsa area Jewish schools such as Temple Israel School, B'nai Emunah School, Chabad House and Heritage Academy, a school on the same campus as the museum.

She said about 90 masks were submitted then. This year the contest was broadened to include students in the Tulsa Public School system and 221 masks were submitted. York said Tulsa Public Schools submitting entries included Owen Elementary, Edison Preparatory Middle School and High School, Project 12, Memorial and Central high schools.

She said the museum hopes to include the Jenks and Union area schools next year, as well as Tulsa area universities.

Arthur M. Feldman, museum executive director, said he wants to convey the message that there are many issues that unify the Jewish and non-Jewish community.

He said the mask contest is another way to get Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to discuss the story of Queen Esther and the lessons everyone can learn from it.

"Purim, which is the original beauty pageant, I guess in the Bible, is about the story of Queen Esther,” Feldman said.

As chronicled in the Book of Esther, the Persian king chooses Esther from among a bevy of women to be his queen. At her cousin's recommendation, she hides her Jewish identity, but decides to disclose it later when evil leader Haman plots to destroy all Jews in the kingdom.

"In the story, she masks her identity as a Jewess and only reveals herself in time, in essence, to save her people. That is where we get the concept of masking,” Feldman said. He said the name of God is not in the Book of Esther, symbolizing that God is present though his name is hidden.

Feldman said many people think of masks in relationship to Mardi Gras or Halloween. Purim introduces the concept of masks in a different way.

Pointing to a McDonald's french fry-theme mask and a football-theme mask, Feldman smiled.

"The vitality of what you see is ready-made masks and original masks,” he said.

"I think they did a great job. There's a lot of whimsy, there's a lot of fun.”

Combined Purim festival lights up T.Y. Park

Special to The Miami Herald

It was more than just a day at the park for Tzippi and Nick Wigoda.

The couple commemorated the Jewish holiday of Purim at a March 16 festival that attracted thousands of revelers to a mini-midway with carnival games and rides set up along a shady stretch at Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Hollywood.

''We're all celebrating together, as one Jewish community,'' said Tzippi Wigoda as she watched her 2 ½-year-old daughter, Shoshana, rode on a kiddie train.

The couple, who also brought 8-month-old son Jake, were there to have fun and show support for their synagogue, Young Israel of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale, Wigoda said.

The Orthodox congregation was one of six Hollywood temples that partnered with the Jewish Federation of Broward County to put on the event, aptly named Purim in the Park. Temple Sinai of Hollywood, Temple Solel, B'nai Sephardim, Hollywood Community Synagogue Chabad and Walnut Creek Chabad also participated.

Purim, marking how the ancient Jews of Persia were saved from death, is traditionally greeted with joyous activities. The recent celebration was the largest put on by organizers, with about 6,000 visitors.

Crowds noshed at two new food courts selling kosher hot dogs, knishes and lots of hamantaschen, a triangular fruit-filled pastry served during the holiday. Some 20 rides, compared to four last year, kept folks busy, too, said Avi Frier, co-chairman and founder of Purim in the Park.

The festival has been at T.Y. Park since its start in 2002. Due to lack of volunteers, there was no festival in 2005 and 2006, then it returned a year later when the federation got involved, Frier said.

In 2007, the event was renamed Jill Edison Purim in the Park in memory of Edison, a Hollywood resident who organized Temple Solel's Purim carnival for many years at T.Y. Park before it evolved into the existing community-wide event, said Jackie Reiner, festival co-chairwoman and a board member at Temple Solel.

Purim in the Park draws members from the six congregations representing Judaism's Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. It also brings in the unaffiliated and people from the community at large.

''Everyone's welcome,'' Reiner said.

In accordance with the Purim command of making gifts to charity, for the second year in a row the festival's proceeds supported the sponsoring synagogues and Southeast Focal Point Joseph Meyerhoff Senior Center.

The money will benefit programs at the center, which serves around 750 seniors a week at 3081 Taft St. in Hollywood, said Frieda Caldes, the facility's director.

''It's wonderful for people to come together and give back to the elderly in their community,'' Caldes said. ``We're thrilled and ever so grateful.''

Math wiz clowns around to 'serve God with joy'

Yehuda Braunstein always knew he wanted to be a clown.

Not a class clown -- the kind who makes trouble in school and gets thrown out of class (although he did like to walk into walls) -- but an actual clown.

"As a kid, I went to Ringling Bros. circus, and they had a parade, and they pulled kids into the parade -- I thought clowns were so cool; they're funny, and I like to horse around."

Braunstein wasn't one of those kids whose childhood aspirations (to be a fireman, astronaut, actor) never came true. Even though he studied to be a mathematician at MIT and earned a doctorate at UC San Diego, and he also became religiously observant -- a ba'al teshuvah, through Chabad. Now, at 39, he's a mathematician, an active Chabad member -- and a clown.

YoYo the Clown, to be precise. One of the world's few frum clowns. (Not to be confused with the owner of the Web site, who is a "Clown for Christ" in Georgia.)

Braunstein even looks like a clown, or a religious clown in nerd's clothing. In his civvies, he has a long, scraggly beard with errant strands of gray, and he puts his roly-poly body into a short-sleeved, checked engineer shirt.

But when he becomes YoYo, he dons a wig, a nose, full costume and, depending whether his audience is religious, secular or non-Jewish, he might roll up his beard and paint it to match his wig to become YoYo.

But don't call him YoYo, especially if you're not a kid: "Hello, this is Yehuda Braunstein calling for YoYo the clown," is how he puts it on the telephone when introducing his alter ego.

"My rabbi says that I'm more than just a clown," Braunstein said. "I'm a parent [of three kids], a mathematician [consultant] and a member of the shul [Chabad of the West Hills]," he said.

His rabbi plays a big role in his life.

For example, he explained, "My rabbi said I'm not allowed to do magic. Only God can do magic."

It wasn't a big deal to him to refrain from doing clown magic tricks, like changing a scarf's color, because "I was never really good at magic," Braunstein said.

What he is good at is other clown-foolery, like balloon-making, face-painting, bubble-blowing, parachute games -- all of which he learned while apprenticing as a clown while he was a grad student at UCSD.

He was out with friends at an all-you-can-eat buffet (this was before he was kosher), and he noticed a clown going to all the tables but the one where he and his friends were sitting. He called Sparkles over and realized she worked for tips, so she avoided students and focused on kids. But she got him six-month's training with her company, and a clown was born.

Around this same time, he started to become interested in his Judaism. It was Purim, actually, the most clownish of all Jewish holidays, when the world is turned upside down, and people dress up and are commanded to be merry.

"Purim got in my heart at a very young age," he explained. When he was a child, his Reform congregation in the Valley brought in the local Chabad to run Purim. They gave each kid a mishloah manot package, the customary food treats one is meant to give to two people on the holiday, "and in it were two pennies to give tzedakah after the megillah reading," he said, referring to the custom of giving charity after reading the Book of Esther.

"To this day, I give two pennies in my mishloah manot," he said.

Braunstein had fallen away from Judaism until he got to grad school, when he saw a flier for -- what else? -- a Purim megillah reading being given by Chabad.

Slowly he returned to his faith and became observant. Now divorced, with three kids, he has managed to balance clowning with a religious life -- they fit together, he said.

"Ibdu et Hashem Vsimcha," his business cards say in Hebrew, quoting the Psalms passage, "Serve God with joy."

Braunstein said that people look at observance differently, through the lens of mussar (morality or obligation) and through the Chasidic viewpoint: "Do I have to do this mitzvah, or am I lucky to get to do this mitzvah?"

Braunstein feels this way about being a clown and making people happy. "I help people enjoy their simchas [events] with happiness and joy," he said.

He performs about once a month at birthday parties, upfsherin (cutting of the hair at age 3), weddings and shul events -- especially on Chanukah and Purim.

"I help everything become more leibedik," he said, using the Yiddish word for festive.

"Get their attention and make them laugh," is his motto. "Get them in the mood, trip, honk the horn, pretend to shake hands" and other silly behavior, and you will disarm a kid.

Are children ever scared of him?

"Kids are afraid of clowns until they find a toy they like -- as soon as I do bubbles, they're interested," he said.

In Jewish circles, they're less afraid of him, especially when they see his beard.

"Oh, you're a tatti clown," a kid might say, using the word for father.

He is proud to be a religious clown.

"It's good [for people] to see there are frum clowns, that not every frum Jew has to be a rabbi or teacher," he said. "It's also good to be proud of one's Jewishness in the outside world."

While his work in mathematics may be difficult, clowning is simple. "I just like to see smiles," he said. "There's enough shuts going on in the world," he said, using the Yiddish phrase for stupidity. "We need happiness to counteract it."

YoYo the clown will perform on Purim night, Thursday, March 20, at Chabad of West Hills, and on Friday at Chabad of Brentwood. For more information call (818) 970-0013.

Abramovich set to buy United (Synagogue)

By Simon Round

The United Synagogue could be about to benefit from a massive cash injection, courtesy of an unexpected benefactor: billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

According to sources close to the Russian oligarch, whose fortune is thought to be in excess of £8 billion, he has fallen out of love with football and is said to be seriously considering funding Britain’s biggest Jewish religious organisation.

Abramovich’s possible change of direction may explain why big-money signings at Chelsea have been thin on the ground in recent months.

The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed that recent talks with senior figures at the US are likely to result in a huge investment — possibly in excess of £100 million.

He told the JC: “Mr Abramovich has become passionate about his Judaism in the past year or two. His vision is to transform the United Synagogue into a world-class religious organisation which will be able to take on the best in Europe, notably the Catholic Church.”

Although Mr Abramovich has expressed confidence in the work done over the years by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, he is said to be enthusiastic about bringing in a new director of religion to work alongside Sir Jonathan in rejuvenating the organisation. He is also said to be considering investing in other personnel. Mr Abramovich plans to use the bait of higher salaries to recruit world-class rabbis from the continent and the USA.

A huge sum of money will also be earmarked to bring the organisation’s facilities up to date, with the flagship synagogue, St John’s Wood, set for demolition and reconstruction. Another plan Mr Abramovich is said to be considering is the building of a brand-new headquarters for the organisation — possibly at Stamford Bridge.

Said the source: “Two hotels were built as part of the Stamford Bridge complex by the previous Chelsea owner, Ken Bates. They could be converted into a state-of -the-art United Synagogue HQ. The Star of David would then stand alongside the Chelsea lion at the gates of the stadium.”

This is not the first time Mr Abramovich has donated funds to Jewish organisations.

In Russia, he is a long-time supporter of the Lubavitch-led Federation of Jewish Communities.

Chabad celebrates annual Purim festival

Daniela Aizic wore a pair of bunny ears that she had bought in Israel. Her children, Ethan, 1, was dressed as an M&M, Elan, 2, as a fire truck and Aviya, 4, wore a Snow White costume.

The costumes were part of the Jewish holiday known as Purim.

"We get to wear costumes twice a year" said Aizic, reminiscing about the Purim celebrations she remembered as a child. "The children are still too young to know why we are celebrating, but in time they will learn."

Purim is a time for celebration and rejoicing. It is also about the story of Queen Esther and how she foiled a plot by Haman to have the Jewish people annihilated, thus part of the Purim celebration is the reading of the "Megilah" (Scroll of Esther).

Rabbi Simon Jacobson read the Megilah in Hebrew as a group of children and adults held clangers, poised and ready to make noise each time the name Haman was mentioned.

"Purim is also a time we exchange gifts, we aid the poor and celebrate with food and wine" said Sheina Jacobson, wife of the rabbi.

This was the fourth annual Festival of Purim sponsored by the Chabad of Charlotte County.

Children of Yiddish speakers preserve past

By Michael Hill

Sun reporter

March 15, 2008

Many middle-aged American Jews have identical memories of Yiddish - the language their parents spoke when they didn't want the children to understand.

That's what Gila Haor remembers from her childhood in upstate New York. But at 33, she's trying to change things in her Pikesville household by speaking Yiddish as often as possible to her three daughters, ages 3 to 8.

"It would make my grandparents - they are gone - so proud to know that I am speaking Yiddish," she says.

Enthusiasts like Haor are few and far between. In fact, Yiddish might have died out, or at least been threatened with cultural sidelining, had it not been for people such as Aaron Lansky.

Lansky stumbled onto Yiddish in college and eventually saved a million volumes in his National Yiddish Book Center - winning a MacArthur Foundation grant along the way. He will be the first speaker in a series on the Yiddish language that begins Sunday at 7 p.m. in The Center for Jewish Education, 5708 Park Heights Ave.

For the most part, Yiddish has followed the path of all immigrant languages: the main language of the first generation to land in America, understood but not spoken by children who yearned to assimilate, a foreign language to the third generation.

The difference: other immigrant languages such as Italian, Polish and German had home countries. Yiddish did not. As the third generation of immigrants shunned it, with it spoken only in some ultra-Orthodox communities - and with most of its native speakers in Europe lost to the Holocaust - it risked dying out.

Enter people such as Lanksy, 52, who says his relationship to Yiddish was the same as that of many Jews his age: "I heard it spoken as a kid, but nobody spoke it to me."

After taking one of the first courses on the Holocaust while a student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Lansky began looking into the culture lost to the Nazi regime. "I realized I needed to understand Yiddish to understand this culture," he said.

He got a professor at nearby University of Massachussets to teach him after hours. "That language opened up the history, opened up the literature, opened up the whole world of this culture," Lansky said.

In graduate school at McGill University, Lansky realized that many books written in Yiddish were in danger of being discarded or destroyed, so he took a leave of absence to rescue them. Scholars told him there were about 70,000 volumes out there. Lanksy found a million - now housed at the center he started on the Hampshire campus in Northampton.

"I literally collected the remnants of a civilization that most people never knew existed," Lansky said. "Even well-educated Jews who think they know Jewish culture come to the center and say 'What is this? How come we were never told about this?'"

Lansky, who won the MacArthur grant in 1989, wrote a book about his efforts, Outwitting History, published in 2004.

Hilda Rubin, vice president of Yiddish of Greater Washington, says four main forces almost killed Yiddish - Hitler with the Holocaust, Stalin by wiping out the Yiddish scholars who survived World War II, assimilation in America, and the State of Israel, which picked Hebrew as its official language and repressed the teaching and speaking of Yiddish in the country's early days.

"I call myself the missing link between the older generation that first came to America and the younger generation of today," says Rubin, 79, who will speak March 25 at The Associated headquarters on Mount Royal Avenue.

Rubin, 79, unlike many in her generation, saw Yiddish as more than the language of her immigrant parents. In her Bronx co-op neighborhood - a place of Jewish intellectual ferment - Yiddish was not just spoken, but taught. "My mother constantly tried to make sure her kids got the best Yiddish education," she says.

"There is this big gap with Jewish children today," Rubin adds. "They learn biblical history and then - boom - they go to the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel."

Yiddish, spoken by generations of Eastern European Jews, is essentially a Germanic language - dismissed by its detractors as a mere German dialect - with other roots that reach out to Hebrew and Aramaic. It also picked up linguistic influences wherever Jews lived during the centuries of the diaspora.

"You can take a random Yiddish sentence and break it down, and the sentence itself contains 7,000 years of Jewish history," Lansky says.

Though many Americans associate Yiddish with the Jewish comedians who dominated that art form in the 1950s and 1960s - the language of schlep, shtick, schnoz, schmooze - it also spawned a sophisticated culture.

Until the mid-19th century, most Jewish authors wrote in the native tongue of the country where they lived. But a Yiddish literature - written in Hebrew characters - grew in Eastern Europe to encompass theater, film and music, too.

Occasionally that culture found its way into the mainstream, such as the Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof or with the 1978 Nobel Prize to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish.

"It is such a picturesque language," says Judy Langenthal, who grew up hearing Yiddish in Baltimore. "It often has a touch of sarcasm to it. My grandmother could be pretty testy, and she would use these Yiddish curses that would often rhyme. One of them was, 'May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and your feet up in the air.' When you say that in Yiddish, apparently it rhymes."

Langenthal, 72, tried to learn Yiddish in school. When everyone was taking French at Forest Park high, she took German. Although though she went to Brandeis University - founded by Jewish philanthropists - there were no Yiddish courses.

But she has seen that change. A member of her family, Philip Myers, endowed a chair in Yiddish studies at the Johns Hopkins University - now just one of many top institutions that teach Yiddish.

"I think it has to do with the realization they were throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Sylvia Schildt says of the Yiddish revival. "There were a lot of negative things connected with Jewish history - the Holocaust, the pogroms, and poverty, intense poverty. But hidden in all of that was this incredible culture."

Schildt, in her early 70s, will discuss her book about growing up in the Yiddish-speaking New York neighborhood of Brownsville on April 13 at Baltimore Hebrew University.

As full-time director of his Yiddish book center, Lansky says people coming there are not driven by nostalgia. "For them it's common sense," he says. "This language was spoken by three-quarters of the world's Jews for the last 1,000 years. It would be good to start to understand what their culture was all about."

He recognizes that Yiddish will never again be the lingua franca of Jewry in this country. "We were American kids. I think our parents and grandparents felt it was unfair to burden us with the past," Lansky says. "I am not complaining. When you consider where Jews are today to where they were 100 years ago, it was worth it."

And there are the exceptions like the Haor family. To explain its appeal, Gila can only come up with a Yiddish word - hamish. "It is hard to translate," she says. "It means homey, familiar, comfortable. ... I am just grateful to have it as part of my family."

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

Friday, March 21, 2008

Island bride is wed outdoors according to the customs of Chabad Lubavitch

Wedding is 'a first for Manor Road'
Island bride is wed outdoors according to the customs of Chabad Lubavitch


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- An outdoor wedding in March is unusual on Staten Island but the chuppah under which Shmuli Bendet and Aidy Katzman were married Sunday was outdoors according to the customs of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

The wedding took place at the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Sea View, and although David Sorkin, executive director, said weddings have been held previously there, it was the first Hasidic wedding.

"It's a first for Manor Road," said guest Anita Diamond as she and her daughter, Ruth Fabes, headed out to the chuppah and the outdoor ceremony that was steeped in tradition.

The new Mrs. Bendet, 22, didn't see her own wedding.

According to custom, her face was covered with an opaque veil placed on her by her 26-year-old groom before the ceremony.

The veil is symbolic of a number of things -- that only her groom shall gaze upon her beauty, that he is not only interested in her physical beauty, which fades with time, and that the bride seeks to emulate Rebecca, who covered her face out of modesty the first time she saw Isaac.

Tradition also holds that the divine presence rests upon the bride's face, which must be covered just as Moses' face was covered when he received the commandments on Mount Sinai.

Behind her veil, the bride says prayers and asks that she will be as worthy as Rebecca, whose marriage to Isaac marked the beginning of the Jewish people.

After the ceremony, which included the bride circling seven times around her groom and a rabbi's blessing over the wine, the couple and their 500 invited guests went back indoors for a wedding feast with music and dancing -- men in one room, women in another.

The crowd included many people who would not identify themselves as Orthodox. It is the mission of Chabad to reach out to all Jews in an effort to make them more cognizant of the many traditions of the religion.

The bride is the daughter of Staten Island's well-known Rabbi Moshe Katzman and his wife, Rebbetzin Chani Katzman.

She and her new husband, who comes from St. Paul, Minn., will spend a year in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, worldwide headquarters of the Chabad movement.

After that they will continue to work as Chabad emissaries although where they'll be sent is not yet known.

"We hope they'll come to Staten Island," Rebbetzin Katzman said.

Leslie Palma-Simoncek is the religion editor for the Advance. She may be reached at Visit her Beyond Beliefs Web log at

Croatian law to protect Jewish cemeteries

The Croatian prime minister has agreed to change federal law to protect Jewish cemeteries.

Croatian law currently allows for the dead who have no heirs to be disinterred and reburied after 30 years, should the owners of the cemetery land want to resell it. Disinterment generally is prohibited under Jewish law.

A delegation from the Rabbinical Centre of Europe met Monday in Zagreb with Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, Croatian President Stjepan Mesi and Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandi to discuss making changes to the law, according to

The Web site did not note any timetable for changing the law.

Chabad seeks a new chief executive

By Leon Symons

The Lubavitch movement has started a search for a new chief executive and director of fundraising as it seeks to repair the rift caused by the departure of its former chief fundraiser, Rabbi Faivish Vogel.

A letter from the movement’s council of management and executive committee has been sent to the entire Lubavitch community, asking for suitable candidates to be put forward.

Rabbi Vogel resigned after allegations were made that Chabad’s £1.5 million debt crisis had been precipitated by the opening of the Gaon Club for young business professionals in London’s West End in January last year. The club was run by Rabbis Yosef and Mendy Vogel, Rabbi Vogel’s sons.

Both sides faced each other at the London Beth Din at the end of last year, when the brothers were banned from any outreach work for six months.

After Rabbi Vogel’s departure, Lubavitch called in Bolt and Partners, a specialist “turnaround” company, to run its affairs. Bolt appointed a non-Jewish interim chief executive and was asked to produce a three-year plan to ease the movement’s economic crisis.

The letter to members, a copy of which has been seen by the JC, hinted that Bolt was already having an effect, saying: “An enormous amount of work has been achieved over the past few months in regard to organisational, governance and fundraising structures of the Lubavitch head office. An important component is to ensure there is continuity of leadership for Lubavitch UK for the next generation.”

Rabbi Nachman Sudak, the senior outreach emissary of Lubavitch, said: “This is all about achieving much greater transparency for the organisation.

“Bolt’s work will be finished at the end of this month. They have introduced new operating systems that should be modern and practical. Now we are looking for a new chief executive who will run the organisation.”

Letters: Teaching to the Testosterone

I was fascinated by Elizabeth Weil’s article because I have studied an all-girls’ school in some depth. During graduate school, I lived among the Lubavitcher Hasidim, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; I’ve recorded my findings in a book. I spent many days observing, in the girls’ high school and post-high-school seminary. Despite my reservations about same-sex schools, I was deeply impressed. In this ultra-Orthodox community known for its stark gender roles, the girls’ ability to adopt stereotypically male personas struck me. Many girls became noisy instigators, impish troublemakers, charismatic schoolwide leaders — niches that disproportionately may fall to boys in coed schools. The boys were not around to usurp these roles, so the girls snatched them up.

I don’t believe that single-sex schools are best for all students. Coed schools have their own benefits. But I am delighted that an option once reserved for private and parochial schools is open to growing numbers of public-school students.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Rabbi's attackers identified

Ukrainian authorities reportedly identified the four attackers of a Dnepropetrovsk rabbi.

A special unit of the Secret Service and Ministry of Interior Affairs named the assailants who severely beat Rabbi Dov-Ber Baitman, a teacher at the Jewish educational center Shiurey Torah and the anchor of the local Jewish television show “Video-HiTaS,” on Jan. 24.

The break in the case was reported on the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community's Web site,

During the attack after evening classes at the educational center, the suspects also shouted anti-Semitic slurs at Baitman, a Lubavitch-Chabad emissary.

Finding the Unexpected Beneath the Gaudy


ONE Friday evening last December, in a typically modern Cancún condo complex, a party was under way. A motley crew of revelers — well-tanned men with curly gray hair, 20-something tourists, women with children and grandchildren on their hips — crowded around four long folding tables sagging with food, and the turquoise-trimmed white walls reverberated with the sounds of familiar songs sung in unison.

The party’s hyperactive host, his shiny yellow tie flung rakishly over his left shoulder, stood on a folding chair, held aloft a plastic cup of Stolichnaya vodka and proposed a toast — to what, I wasn’t sure; the words were lost in a jumble of languages I didn’t understand. But then a traditional cry rose up, and I recognized it instantly:


Yes, in sultry, sinful Cancún, I was spending my Friday night at Chabad House, the outreach center for the Lubavitchers, the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect. But why had I, a long-lapsed Jew, chosen this Sabbath bacchanal to break my 11-year avoidance of Jewish events?

Two words: free dinner.

O.K., it was more complicated than that. Frankly, Cancún scared me. On the one hand, this overdeveloped hub of Mexico’s so-called Mayan Riviera seemed like a frugal traveler’s dream, and the $500 I carried for the weekend could easily install me in a hostel with a refrigerator full of Jell-o shots, but I’m about a decade past my “Gross Gone Wild!” days. On the other hand, the five-star Cancún experience — represented by resorts like the Ritz-Carlton and Le Meridien, with their beachside cabana restaurants and hoity-toity spas — was well beyond my budget. And while I could surely afford all-inclusive bliss in one of the Riu Hotel chain’s pseudo-neo-Classical monstrosities, that sort of utter mindless ease offends my adventurous soul.

No, I wanted all of the above — sophomoric fun, total relaxation, a taste of luxury — plus the alternative, “real” Cancún, whatever that might be.

Before stumbling upon the all-too-real Chabad House, my search led me first to Puerto Juárez, a speck of a town five minutes north of Cancún’s gritty but lively downtown, and the Villa Playa Blanca, a $45-a-night bed-and-breakfast opened last March by Alejandro (Alex) Gutiérrez, 26, and his 27-year-old friend Horacio Viazcán.

A whitewashed four-story home in a quiet subdevelopment, the Villa Playa Blanca is a study in clean, contemporary design — soft fabrics, fresh flowers, tea lights on the staircase — and precision hospitality. Minutes after I arrived, I was standing on the roof deck when Mabelu Pedraza, the housekeeper-chef-receptionist, brought me a chilled towel and a glass of pineapple juice with a splash of vodka. I sipped my drink and gazed at the glittering Caribbean and the distant ridge of buildings that make up Cancún’s “zona hotelera,” 13 unfortunate miles of beaches, hotels, malls and nightclubs.

Not only was the Villa Playa Blanca cool, but its proprietors, Alex and Horacio, were just the kind of friendly, knowledgeable locals I’m always hoping to hang out with. And within an hour of checking in, we were taking a late lunch at Pozolería Castillo, a busy little restaurant that specializes in pozole, a rich pork-and-hominy soup embellished with chilies and oregano. A big bowl cost 55 pesos, or about $5 at 10.99 pesos to the dollar, and 15 pesos more bought me a lemonade. I had begun to think I’d discovered my own private, perfect Cancún.

After a solo late-afternoon walk on Playa Niños, a family-friendly beach just down the road from Villa Playa Blanca, I was at Chabad House — one of thousands worldwide, from Bangkok to the Brazilian rain forest — and totally out of my depth. As bearded men in white shirts and dark pants prayed and swayed, their tzitzit, or tassels, dangling from their waists, I tried (and failed) to follow along in the bilingual siddur, and comforted myself with the idea that my atrocious Hebrew made me seem almost fluent in Spanish by comparison.

When the praying ended, dinner began, and I relaxed. Over baked salmon, challah, hummus, baba ganoush, and a cucumber salad that, I swear, tasted just like my mom’s, I befriended Yardena Landau, a Spirit Airlines employee who’d moved there from Mexico City; we bonded over a love of travel and wariness of zealots. Actually, my wariness of the true believers around me slowly dissipated, and while I wasn’t about to go kosher — certainly not on the Yucatán peninsula, home of cochinita pibil, the slow-cooked suckling pig — I happily raised my cup of Stoli when Mendel Druk, the 26-year-old rabbi, reminded us all, “You can come to Cancún, and you can still pray in a synagogue!”

Well, l’chaim to that.
The next morning, after devouring my breakfast in bed of coffee, orange juice, toast, yogurt and fruit salad, I went beach-hunting. Still reluctant to confront the zona hotelera, I instead hopped a 35-peso ferry to Isla Mujeres, a five-mile-long island whose Playa Norte had been recommended by Jenny, a veteran Cancún visitor who was staying at my hotel.

Playa Norte was indeed quiet and, as Cancún area beaches go, unpopulated. I settled into a lounge chair between a pair of small piers and waited for the inevitable: a waiter demanding I buy an overpriced cocktail to secure my seat. He never came. For hours I had a free, umbrella-shaded spot next to the bathtub-warm azure water. In fact, I soon began to crave a waiter. I was getting hungry. I wound up having to — horror of horrors — walk across the warm sand to order some fish tacos and a Dos Equis (75 pesos total).

By midafternoon, I caught the ferry back to Puerto Juárez, jumped in my car and drove to Cancún’s inland downtown area and the Xbalamqué Hotel, whose clean, low-key spa is known not only for its traditional Mayan and Nahuatl treatments but also for its affordability. Nothing on the menu, from sports massage to mud, algae and chocolate baths, cost more than 550 pesos, a small fraction of the prices at the Ritz-Carlton.

Still, I picked the cheapest option: 30 minutes in the temazcal, a Nahuatl steam bath, for 120 pesos. Essentially a sauna, the temazcal was a small, brick-lined room illuminated by a single yellow filament bulb, the steam perfumed with mint that tingled my lips as I lay on a bench. When I emerged, every toxin had drained away, and my skin glowed.

Thinking there must be something to ancient local traditions, I invited Yardena to Labná, an upscale restaurant that specialized in Yucatecan dishes and came recommended by Horacio. Labná certainly had ambition: modeled on a stepped Mayan pyramid, its ceiling soared 30 feet high, and bulbous lamps hung down like luminous beehives. Serious money, it seemed, had gone into this place.

If only Labná’s owners had been as serious about everything else. For while the food tasted good — I loved my poc chuc, or grilled pork steak, and Yardena’s fish with astringent hoja santa, or sacred leaf — the presentation was disappointing, verging on depressing. The fish came wrapped in tin foil, and my poc chuc was part of a “Yucatecan Tour” that crammed as many dishes — such as papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas in pumpkin-seed sauce) — on the plate as possible. Our waiter, though friendly, walked by every two minutes to see if we’d finished. Too soon, we had, having spent a reasonable 430 pesos (including drinks and tip).

Just before we left, my phone buzzed with a text message: Horacio, Alex, Jenny and her fellow American, Morgan, were going to Coco Bongo, a mega-club in the zona hotelera (soon to be opening a branch in Las Vegas). They had a V.I.P. card that would get us inside quickly. It was time to face Cancún’s heart of darkness.

It was just as I’d imagined. Gaudy hotels. International chains (Hooters, anyone?). Flashing neon. The idiotic green amphibian head peering down from the roof of Señor Frog’s. Packs of Americans and Mexicans wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. I winced, snobbishly, and found my gang in Coco Bongo’s V.I.P. express lane. Alex asked for the entry fee, and I handed him 100 pesos to cover myself and Yardena.

He stared at it blankly. No, he said, it’s $45, not pesos.

I stared at him blankly, then I handed over the rest. It was hardly frugal, but I could afford it. (Yardena, however, wouldn’t let me cover her, and took a cab home.) Besides, Alex assured me, inside was an open bar and a floor show that would be more than worth the expense.

Again, my hosts were wise. In the cavernous club (capacity: 1,800), we knocked back whiskey, tequila and various sweet drinks in unnatural colors, and soon the show commenced. On a stage high above, gymnasts performed Cirque du Soleil-style feats to a somber classical score, then a Madonna look-alike sang a medley of the Material Girl’s greatest hits, then a guy in white tux crooned “Mac the Knife,” each number accompanied by smiling dancers, each culminating in an orgasmic burst of confetti.

Soon, the themes took a stranger turn, with whirling aerial numbers inspired by “Beetlejuice,” “Spider-Man” and, of course, “The Passion of the Christ.” As I watched a buff Jesus with a pierced nipple extend his arms in a crucifixion posture while dangling from the ceiling by a toga cloth, I was transported elsewhere: to Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian-Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the nightclubs feature floor shows almost as ridiculously over-the-top as this one. The only thing missing from Coco Bongo was a spread of pickled dishes, and those, I knew, were back at Chabad House. I ordered another free whiskey and felt, for the very first time in Cancún, entirely at home.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Kremlin's chief rabbi

MOSCOW - Any rabbi in Israel would be envious of Berl Lazar, chief rabbi Of Russia. From his spacious, wood-paneled office at the top of the Jewish Community Center that is located in the Marina Rocha neighborhood, he holds sway over more than 200 communities that comprise, according to unofficial estimates, more than 1 million Jews. The Kremlin considers him the leader of Russia's Jews and Lazar enjoys President Vladimir Putin's trust. He is likely to receive the same treatment from Putin's successor-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He is backed by billionaire Lev Leviev, who sees the rehabilitation of Jewish religious life in Russia as his life's ambition.

These are good times for Lazar. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia (FEOR), which he heads, celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. After years of harsh struggles among the Jewish organizations in Moscow, FEOR has established its leading status. Fact: Even the president of the rival organization, the Jewish Congress of Russia (KEROOR), Arcadi Gaydamak, came to the anniversary celebration to offer his congratulations.

Only 10 years ago, the international Jewish organizations and the Jewish Agency thought the Jewish community in Russia had reached the end of its road. The best of its sons and daughters had immigrated to Israel or to the United States, and it seemed as though the handful who remained would close shop and leave. According to official data, there are currently 250,000 Jews in Russia, but the leaders of the community and many experts believe the real number of is closer to 1 million, half of whom live in Moscow.

Lazar, 43, came to Moscow from New York 18 years ago as the Lubavitcher Rebbe's emissary. Last Wednesday, he oversaw his son's bar mitzvah celebration at the Community Center. The Rolls Royces of the oligarchs who arrived as his guests, surrounded by bodyguards, packed the narrow street. In a city that worships political and financial power, Lazar is considered a significant locus of power.

But should he be envied? It is hard to think of a rabbi who in recent years has been the object of quite so much criticism - a level of vituperation reminiscent of the czarist era. He has been accused of everything: of using economic and political power to get rid of rivals, of forcing Chabad on Russia's secular Jewry, of serving as an "informer" and turning Jews in to the authorities and of whitewashing cases of anti-Semitism to curry favor with the regime. Even within his own movement, Chabad, there were those who said he had not advanced the interests of the religious in order not to damage his good relations with the regime.

Once a quiet life

"I didn't want to be elected chief rabbi," says Lazar in an interview to Haaretz in which he responds for the first time to accusations against him. "The heads of the communities approached me several times, and I said no. Before that, for 10 years I had lived a very quiet and satisfying life here, but they asked again and again and I gave in. I knew that a public figure does not have an easy life, but today I feel very comfortable with myself. It might have been possible to have achieved more, but these are things that could be done."

Why do you think that they are attacking you from so many directions?

"There are people who love success and are trying to blame other people. There are certain possibilities in this community, and we are trying to do the things that need to be done. In this country there is no other way to do this job."

Lazar outright rejects the accusations that he whitewashes incidents of anti-Semitism to help Putin's regime. In the past, a document to this effect was prepared at Nativ but was never published. Lazar's opponents say it was his own lobbying that won him the administration's official recognition as the chief rabbi of Russia instead of Rabbi Adolf Shayevich who had held the position since 1980. Similar accusations were raised several weeks ago after FEOR published figures according to which during the past year there was a drop in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Russia. The Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University claims, however, that it is possible there has even been an increase in anti- Semitism.

"We are living here every day, we are working with the courts and the police and we put pressure on the government in every case of anti-Semitism," says Lazar in defense of FEOR's record. "Every community knows it is necessary to inform us immediately of every incident; we have a special hotline and we are the first to know and publish everything. Check into the cases that other organizations report to the world, and you will see that their source is our report. There is anti-Semitism and xenophobia here and this is not good, but to say there is an increase in anti-Semitism is simply incorrect."

Aren't you playing into the hands of the authorities, who are perhaps trying to hush up the problem of anti-Semitism?

"Playing into their hands? Of course. If they deserve credit, they deserve it. And when criticism is deserved, we speak out. There's a carrot and a stick, and we mustn't use only the stick."

They say that Putin makes calculating use of the Jews in order to advance his agenda. Are you convinced his affection for the Jews is authentic?

"I have no doubt. There are reasons for this that have to do with his childhood. Jewish teachers helped him very much and he had Jewish neighbors and friends. I once showed him a picture of the synagogue in St. Petersburg. He told me it couldn't be the right building because he remembers how as a boy he would go in there with a friend and eat the leftover matzas. I explained to him that we had simply renovated the building."

Putin is now saying in talks with Jewish leaders that one of the greatest mistakes of the Soviet leadership was that Jewish community life, as well as contact with world Jewry, were perceived as a threat to the regime. Even those who are among Putin's harshest critics, like former minister Natan Sharansky, believe this.

"I have serious complaints about his behavior," Sharansky said last week, "but I believe that in his attitude towards the Jews he is telling the truth."

Lazar: "Until now there has been good work done with the Russian administration regarding restoring assets and rebuilding community institutions. Now they also need to support the spiritual process and the restoration of the Jewish knowledge that was lost during the years of Communism. Putin understands this - a few months ago, he announced a donation of a month's salary to the establishment of the Jewish Museum."

Perhaps he is doing this only in order to gain points in the international arena?

"He doesn't need points in the United States."

What the Russian people wants, says Lazar, is stability "so a person knows that he can open a business without being afraid that someone is going to take it away from him."

And will Medvedev provide this stability?

"He is a very intelligent and open individual, who cares about Russia's future and the relations with the Jewish community. This can be seen in his visit here in the community, three days before it was announced he was the candidate. All of a sudden, he showed up at the synagogue for two and a half hours. Afterward, when Putin announced he would be the candidate, what they showed on Russian television were the pictures from that visit."

As for rumors spread by nationalist and anti-Semitic circles concerning Medvedev's Jewish roots, he prefers not to respond.

Criticism within Chabad

Not only slander has been Lazar's lot during his years in Russia. He was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as one of the first Chabad emissaries to Russia at the end of the 1980s. His mission was to revive religious life in Moscow and in Russia. During the first years, his large family lived in a small, decaying apartment. His eldest daughter came down with spinal meningitis, and after suitable medical treatment was not found for her in Russia the family went to Finland and from there to Israel, where the child eventually died.

Lazar's devotion to the movement, and the fact that during his years in the country the Chabad rabbis established their nearly exclusive control of established Jewish life, do not render him immune to criticism within the movement. Some of the factions in the Hasidut are not pleased with the nearly total control that Lazar has obtained in Russia, with the backing of Leviev, who is currently the most significant donor to Chabad activity.

An especially fraught issue is the fate of the Chabad Library, a large collection of antique books that belonged to the previous Lubavitcher rebbe and were confiscated by the Communists. Before his death, the Rebbe appointed four personal emissaries to deal with the issue, in order to pressure the Russian authorities, who relate to the library as a national asset and are refusing to hand it over to them. Some Chabad officials say Lazar prefers to see to his personal connections with the Putin government rather than help restore the library. His supporters, however, say that the four emissaries made every possible mistake and succeeded only in increasing the anti-Semitism in Russia through their actions.

Lazar himself is very cautious when he relates to this matter: "The Rebbe sent four rabbis to deal with the matter of the library. This is their mission. When they contact me, I will look into what can possibly be done about the matter. I have never been asked by them to deal with this. This is a matter of a decision by the Chabad center."

But the library is peanuts compared to the emotions that were stirred at the Chabad centers around the world in the wake of the arrest of 13 youngsters, Chabad yeshiva students, in the town of Rostov. The Tomkhei Temimim Yeshiva is one of the few Chabad institutions in Russia that is not under Lazar's control. Four months ago, the police raided the yeshiva a few hours before the start of the Sabbath. Thirteen students, citizens of the United States and Israel, were arrested. They were held under arrest over the Sabbath and afterward, and were then deported from Russia along with the local Chabad rabbi.

At Kfar Chabad in Israel, people accused Lazar of acting as an "informer" and of giving the authorities information to the effect that the students did not have valid visas. Lazar, who usually answers every question with a smile, tenses when he is asked about the affair and firmly refuses to relate to it. At the time he sent a letter to the rabbis of Kfar Chabad in which he refuted the accusations. "It is open season on me everywhere," he wrote. "My blood is being spilled like water in public."

Lazar claimed at the time that the students had been arrested because they had not updated their visas, despite clear instructions to do so.

But Lazar knows that on this issue he has entered sensitive territory. The accusations are similar to those raised against him several years ago. That was when one of his local rivals, the chief rabbi of Moscow on behalf of the Jewish Congress in Russia, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, was arrested upon entering Russia and deported. At the time, too, people accused Lazar of involvement in the affair. Lazar sighs again when these issues are raised during the course of the interview. Such is the price of success in Russia.

Perelman gives $50 million to hospital

Billionaire businessman Ronald Perelman has given $50 million to a New York hospital.

The New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center announced the gift in a news release last week.
The gift will be used to establish the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute, which will support research and clinical care initiatives.Perelman, the chairman of MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, is worth an estimated $10 billion.
He was born into a Conservative Jewish family but now belongs to an Orthodox synagogue. He keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, according to the book "Stars of David."
Perelman has given extensively to higher education, including a $4.7 million to Princeton University to create the Ronald Perelman Institute for Jewish Studies. He also has given to Chabad.