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Coronavirus impacts on Italian boy’s Barmitzvah

(JTA) Ruben Golran had studied for a year and a half in anticipation of his Barmitzvah this week, when 600 of his relatives and friends were supposed to converge on Milan to celebrate.

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BEN SALES

First, he planned to have a ceremony on Tuesday, when he would put on tefillin for the first time – a traditional rite of passage. Then, a party was planned for Thursday night, catered by a local kosher Israeli restaurant, and finally another ritual ceremony on Shabbat.

Instead, Ruben’s parents found out on Sunday that everything would be cancelled. Because of the rapid spread of coronavirus in northern Italy, regional officials prohibited large gatherings. A day later, houses of worship were ordered closed.

Within a matter of hours, they called dozens of relatives across the globe, telling them to cancel their flights. On Tuesday, the tefillin ceremony included just Ruben’s close relatives and no friends instead of the 400 planned attendees.

There was no party on Thursday night. Instead, Ruben and his family dined at the Israeli restaurant that was supposed to cater the affair. They still aren’t sure what will happen on Shabbat.

“He learned everything, he was ready, he was waiting for the whole family to come, and then they said it isn’t happening, the synagogue is closed, you can go with your parents if you want,” said Ruben’s mother, Nethaly Golran. “He made us very proud because, through all of this, he was very mature. He never cried. He was sad, but he said, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK, mom. It’ll be OK.’”

Jewish residents of Milan this week said it felt like the city, Italy’s economic capital, had shut down. Soccer matches were cancelled, the city’s Duomo – a major tourist attraction – was closed, and restaurants were instructed to shut their doors before a national evening drink and snack time called aperitivo.

The city’s Jews, who number about 10 000, are facing the same challenges as everyone else. Schools are closed, so people are scrambling for childcare even as some of them still go to work. The city is devoid of tourists, a mega-industry in Italy. There was a rush several days ago on grocery stores. The ban on large gatherings persists, and no one is sure when things will return to normal.

The community also has its share of unique challenges. In spite of the closure of houses of worship, people have tried to convene prayer quorums in apartments in case someone needs to recite the mourner’s kaddish. Some students taking a gap year in Israel who returned home for a short break are now stuck in Italy, barred from returning to their programmes.

Milan’s official Jewish-community organisation has cancelled its regular classes and programmes, including some celebrating the holiday of Purim, which is on 10 March. They hope that things will return to normal before the holiday comes. The community has also set up a task force to assist people who live by themselves and need to get food and other services. The Jewish school is setting up classes via video chat.

“A few people meet in apartments just to make the minyan, but there are no people from outside,” said Milo Hasbani, the president of Milan’s Jewish community. “These are the kind of people who know each other.”

Barmitzvahs aren’t the only Jewish ceremonies to be affected. A bris on Monday also had to be scaled back. At a normal Milanese bris – which, unlike their American counterparts, are often held around noon – more than 100 guests would expect to dine on lasagna, ravioli, and a delicious variety of Italian pastries.

But at this bris, conducted by community mohel Rabbi Shmuel Hezkia in a Milanese synagogue, only a handful of families showed up, and there was no feast to be had.

Hezkia said the whole thing was over quickly. Local officials have instructed Milan’s residents to avoid public gatherings, and the last thing Hezkia wanted was to anger the local government and provoke an investigation of the religious ceremony.

Meanwhile, after reading the JTA story about Golran’s Barmitzvah plight, Aboud Dandachi, a Muslim from Syria living in Canada responded in a way he figured Jews might appreciate – he donated $18 (R278) to the Canadian branch of the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in Israel in the teen’s honour.

“This is what I know how to do,” said Dandachi, 43, of Toronto. “I’ve had friends in Canada, Jewish friends, who have children, and they seem to appreciate it. That’s how I know how to commemorate such an occasion.”

After fleeing Syria as a refugee in 2013, Dandachi has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Dandachi, who moved to Canada in 2017, even supports Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. An IT specialist by profession, he founded an organisation called Thank You Am Israel in appreciation of Israeli efforts to aid Syrian refugees.

Golran’s father, Elia, told JTA he was moved by the response to his son’s predicament. In addition to Dandachi’s gift, Golran heard from a Jewish person in New York who plans to send a painting to the family in honour of the Barmitzvah.

“I was in tears next to my computer,” Golran said. “To see that there’s a Muslim from Syria who donated a tree in our land, you understand that this is something special.”

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World news in brief

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(JTA) Silicon Valley tech stands against antisemitism

Heads of some of Silicon Valley’s most recognised technology companies including Google, Twitter, and YouTube are among about 200 technology and business leaders who have signed a letter calling out antisemitism.

The signatories include former Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo, media mogul Ariana Huffington, current Google executives, and chief executives at Bay Area start-ups.

“To be too Jewish in America, or to be a Jew, is still a dangerous mark,” the statement says. “As business leaders, we have a collective responsibility to stand up for the society we want. Today, we stand against antisemitism and violence against Jews. This is true regardless of your views on Israel; this is about protecting people from the injustice of antisemitism and hatred.”

“Too few Americans acknowledge that antisemitism exists [and] events of recent weeks cannot hide the truth,” the letter says, describing the incident in Los Angeles in which Jewish diners were attacked with bottles at a sushi restaurant. The incident is being investigated as an antisemitic hate crime.

According to Jewish Insider, the statement’s primary author is Jordana Stein, the chief executive of Enrich, a private network for industry professionals. Signatories also include cultural and business figures, such as makeup artist Bobbi Brown, former NBA player Baron Davis, and Neil Blumenthal, co-chief executive of the glasses company Warby Parker.

The letter comes as the tech industry grapples with antisemitism in its own ranks. Antisemitic comments made by Google’s diversity head, Kamau Bobb, were found this month in a 2007 blog post in which he said that Jews have “an insatiable appetite for war and killing”. The company later moved Bobb off the diversity position.

Swastika discovered on ark at Frankfurt Airport shul

A swastika was found scrawled on the ark at a synagogue at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany on 11 June, according to the German publication Bild. It’s unclear when the swastika was drawn as the synagogue has been closed for several months due to the pandemic.

A German organisation of Orthodox rabbis condemned the vandalism at the airport.

“It’s simply sad. This hatred of Jews must finally stop,” the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference said, according to Associated Press. “The ugly grimace of antisemitism doesn’t stop even in a highly secured area, at a place of encounter, silence, and stopping, where people from all over the world meet briefly while travelling and are in transit.”

The swastika was discovered less than a week after a fire was set outside a synagogue in Ulm, about 70 miles (112km) northwest of Munich, in what police suspect was an attempted arson attack.

Zionist group ousts rabbi over harassment allegation

The World Confederation of United Zionists (CUZ), one of several groupings within the World Zionist Organization, has let go its secretary-general, American-born Rabbi Dov Lipman, citing his dispute with two women who say he sexually harassed them.

Haaretz, which first broke the story of the harassment allegations, reported on 14 June that the confederation’s chairperson, David Yaari, notified the World Zionist Organization of Lipman’s departure last month after the allegations were made public.

“Given the grave allegations against former MK Dov Lipman, it was decided to part ways in order to focus on CUZ’s vital work within the global Zionist forum,” Yaari told Haaretz.

Lipman, who is from the Washington DC area, is a former Knesset member from the Yesh Atid party.

He denied that he had been fired, saying he had left of his own accord to devote more time to helping new immigrants to Israel settle and assimilate.

Lipman has denied the harassment allegations, which first arose on a private Facebook page. He has sued the two women making the accusations, and they have countersued.

The two women, like Lipman, are members of the modern Orthodox community in Beit Shemesh, a city near Jerusalem. They said the harassment occurred when they and Lipman were part of a movement to push back against Haredi Orthodox harassment of modern Orthodox women and girls in the city over modesty and other perceived religious infractions.

American Jews more concerned about antisemitism

Three-quarters of American Jews said they were more concerned about antisemitism in the country following the fighting last month in Israel and Gaza, according to a survey published on 14 June by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

More than 40% of respondents said they were now more concerned about their personal safety as well than they were before the 11 days of warring. Also, more than half said calling for companies and organisations to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel was “definitely or probably antisemitic”.

According to the recent Pew Research Center study of American Jews, 10% of respondents supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

The ADL poll of 576 Jewish-American adults was taken from 25 May to 1 June by the polling firm YouGov.

Antisemitic incidents more than doubled during and after the fighting when compared to the same time last year, the ADL found. Its tally includes physical assaults, as well as antisemitic and some anti-Zionist harassment and vandalism.

The survey also found that 60% of respondents “witnessed behaviour or comments they deem antisemitic either online or in-person as a result of the recent violence”. More than three-quarters of respondents said they wanted President Joe Biden, congress, civil-rights groups, and faith leaders to do more to address antisemitism.

In addition, more than half of respondents said calling Israel an “apartheid state” was definitely or probably antisemitic, as well as the following statements or actions: calling Zionism racist; comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis; saying Israel shouldn’t exist as a Jewish state; and protesting Israeli actions outside an American synagogue.

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World News in Brief

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(JTA) Bombed AP building ‘had Iron Dome jamming tech’

Israel’s United States ambassador told Associated Press (AP) that the Israeli army destroyed the building containing its Gaza bureau because Hamas was developing technology there that would jam Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Gilad Erdan, also United Nations ambassador, met on 7 June with the wire service’s president, Gary Pruitt, and its vice-president of international news, Ian Phillips.

Hamas’s research and development and intelligence arms were in the building, Erdan said.

“The unit was developing an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defence system,” Erdan said, according to a release by the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Israel authorities told residents and workers in the building to evacuate about an hour before it bombed the 12-storey building on 15 May.

Hamas launched about 4 500 rockets at Israel during the 10-21 May conflict. Most hit open areas, but about 1 500 headed for built-up areas, and the Iron Dome intercepted about 90%.

Erdan told Pruitt and Phillips that Israel didn’t believe that AP knew Hamas was headquartered in the building. The ambassador said Israel was willing to assist AP in rebuilding its offices and operations in Gaza.

Holocaust denier gets five years for death threats

A blogger who posted videos of himself calling for the murder of prominent French Jews was sentenced to five years in prison by a court in France.

The sentence, for promoting terrorism and making death threats, is among the harshest in recent years in France over such offenses.

The tribunal of Cusset, a town near Vichy in central France, handed down its guilty verdict and sentence on 3 June to Ahmed Moualek, 53, who had posted death threats against Gilles William Golnadel and Alain Jakubowitz, two well-known Jewish lawyers, as well as journalist Elisabeth Levy, La Montagne reported.

Moualek is a former associate of Dieudonne M’bala M’bala and Alain Soral, Holocaust deniers who 10 years ago founded the now-defunct Anti-Zionist Party. Moualek was among the party’s founders.

Belfast council calls for expulsion of Israeli ambassadors

The City Council of Belfast in Northern Ireland passed a motion calling on the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland to expel Israel’s ambassadors to those countries.

“The expulsion of ambassadors is a first step – a preliminary step – to greater action, but it’s an incredibly important and symbolic step,” Fiona Ferguson, a far-left politician who initiated the voting, said during the session, the Jewish Chronicle of London reported.

The motion passed with votes from left-wing parties including Sinn Fein, the council’s largest party, with 18 seats out of 60.

Opposition parties voiced their disapproval of the motion. “The Jews are the original indigenous inhabitants of Palestine and as such have the right to exist as a nation state,” said John Kyle of the Progressive Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. “Israel is confronted by organisations which do not recognise its right to exist … and this is antisemitism.”

Switzerland adopts IHRA definition

The Swiss government has adopted the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), making the Alpine nation the 36th country to do so.

“This definition can serve as an additional guide for identifying antisemitic incidents within the framework of the various measures to combat antisemitism in Switzerland,” the Federal Council, the country’s highest executive authority, said on 4 June.

The IHRA working definition describes various forms of antisemitism, including hatred and discrimination against Jews and Holocaust denial.

It also lists examples of anti-Israel criticism that it says in certain contexts can be defined as antisemitic, including comparing the country’s policies to those of Nazi Germany, denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Parliament are among the national and international bodies that have adopted the definition.

Hebrew Israelite student forced to eat to pork

A high school football coach in Ohio and seven of his staff have been suspended for punishing a Hebrew Israelite student-athlete by forcing him to eat a pepperoni pizza in violation of his religious commitment to keep a kosher diet, according to a report from Cleveland 19 News.

The 17-year-old student at McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio, was being disciplined for missing a weight lifting session on 20 May, said Edward L Gilbert, an attorney for the boy’s family.

Four days after missing practice, Coach Wattley Marcus and other coaching staff presented him with a pizza topped with pepperoni, chosen because it includes pork.

“They ordered him to go into the gym,” Gilbert told Cleveland 19 News. “There is a pizza box on the floor. He picks up the pizza. They tell him that he has to, as punishment, eat that whole pizza.”

The student’s religious identity and his avoidance of pork were known to Marcus and other coaching staff, according to Gilbert.

“I mean it just crosses a line on every level, it’s just wrong,” Gilbert said.

Canton City School District said it was investigating the incident.

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Kosher and halaal? This shop is food for thought.

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(JTA) Tucked between a dance school and a 1960s retro lounge on a quiet street in Tucson, Arizona, sits a small Middle Eastern and African foods store. But the Al Basha Grocery isn’t just a place to get kosher meats and hard-to-find ingredients.

“It provides an opportunity for people to see each other as real people and have a normal interaction with people who ordinarily might not interact in their day-to-day lives,” said Jesse Davis, a regular Al Basha shopper.

Ghufran Almusawi and her husband, Anas Elazrag, both Muslims, opened Al Basha in July 2019 with the intention of creating a “melting pot”, Almusawi said.

“Serving kosher in our store was one of the ways that we can bring the communities together,” she said. “We just want to offer services to everybody. We want to make everybody feel welcome.”

Almusawi regularly witnesses dialogue between Muslim and Jewish shoppers.

“I see a lot of customers interacting with each other, especially if they have questions,” she said. “Sometimes the customers will jump in and answer as a way of them showing, ‘Hey, we accept you, you’re welcome here.’”

Al Basha caught Davis’ eye before it even opened, with its big sign advertising halaal and kosher foods.

“A halaal, kosher store — somebody who’s actually trying to reach out to both markets and both communities? That’s pretty striking,” he said. “They were definitely reaching out a hand.”

Davis appreciated the gesture, and has been shopping at Al Basha about three times a month since it opened.

“They’re super friendly and helpful,” he said. He’ll often get recommendations on products and spices to use in recipes. His favourite Al Basha item is pomegranate molasses, which he described as “a sort of finisher” for meat, giving it a “sweet, tangy flavour”.

Evelyn Sigafus looks forward to Al Basha’s tea selection when she goes a few times a year for kosher deli meats and holiday food ingredients. Sigafus appreciates the store’s efforts to meet the need for kosher food and foster dialogue and relationships between Jewish and Muslim communities.

“One time I was in there and the woman there didn’t have other customers, so we had a wonderful conversation about kosher products, keeping kosher, halaal, what I personally do, and how I cope and how she copes. We had a wonderful little chitchat time,” Sigafus said.

Sigafus said that kind of person-to-person conversation is beneficial, no matter how much exposure somebody has already had to different cultures.

Elazrag, a doctor, came to Tucson in 2008 from Sudan. He decided to open Al Basha after he had a poor shopping experience, Almusawi said. At the time, her husband wasn’t convinced existing local markets had what people really needed or that they could make all customers feel comfortable.

Almusawi, an Iraqi American, grew up in Michigan and was already familiar with the grocery business.

“My dad was in the grocery world, and he was always so happy to see his customers and was welcoming,” she said. “He didn’t really look at a customer as being somebody other than a human that he’s providing a service for. He didn’t look at race, colour, religion, none of that. And I kind of grew up following that. And fortunately, my husband’s the same way.”

Almusawi said she’s had fewer Jewish customers since the recent violence between Hamas and Israel.

“I just don’t think they feel comfortable coming in,” she said. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘How could you do this? How could you sell this right now?’ And I’m just like, ‘OK, this company [kosher food supplier] in California has nothing to do with it. We’re just one business supporting another.’”

The pushback comes from both worlds – some Muslims don’t want to support the store because it supports the Jewish community, and some Jews don’t want to support the store because it’s owned by Muslims. She tries to focus on the positive responses and those showing support for unity.

“What both religions teach is peace,” Almusawi said. “We’re welcoming of everybody. We don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable and anybody is welcome to shop. And if there are any items that are missing that they are looking for, we’re always willing to bring it in.”

Al Basha is in Yisrael Bernstein’s regular shopping rotation. He usually makes an “east-side loop” on Fridays gathering food for several Chabad rabbis. He stops at Al Basha, Trader Joe’s, and Costco. It can take up to six hours, depending on who joins him.

He discovered Al Basha a couple of years ago “on a lark”, figuring that if they sold halaal food, they might also have kosher items, “and sure enough, they did”.

Bernstein became friendly with Almusawi, and she began making sure the store carried his favourites: corned beef, pastrami, and hot dogs. With his long beard, black hat, and long coat, he always feels welcome.

“I really do. It makes my whole Shabbat weekend,” said Bernstein, who is a medical doctor.

Almusawi and Elazrag opened their second location last month, also in Tucson. Al Basha isn’t “going to save the world”, said Davis, but it’s those little bridge-building exchanges that can.”

“We can’t just reduce each other to what we see on television,” he said. “For all the differences that we might have, maybe we just have more in common. And you get a chance to see that in a really human context – you’re shopping for what you’re going to put on your family’s table.”

  • A version of this story originally ran in the “Jewish News of Greater Phoenix”.

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