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Illicit engagement party roils Australian Jews in lockdown

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(JTA) Video from a packed engagement party is roiling the Jewish community of Melbourne, Australia, amid a growing outbreak of COVID-19 that has extended yet another stringent lockdown there.

Compliance with local rules has been spotty across Melbourne during the latest lockdown, which comes after a year and a half of intense restrictions meant to stop the spread of coronavirus there.

But the local Jewish community is again emerging as a hotspot. Local authorities are planning to set up vaccination and testing sites in the heavily Orthodox suburb of St Kilda East after a mother and son there tested positive, and sites in other Orthodox areas, including Caulfield and Balaclava, have landed on the growing list of locations with known exposures. In Melbourne, 25 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the engagement party video has offered what many say is hard proof that some Orthodox Jews aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. The video, which is circulating online, shows a groom speaking to a crowded room of unmasked guests, at one point joking, “Clearly this is legal, because this is a group therapy session.” Laughter follows.

“Many people will have seen a video from the engagement party circulating. I have,” Philip Dalidakis, a Jewish former legislator who works for Australia Post, wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “There are people in it that I know and I am speechless. I am genuinely shocked at the brazen disregard for our laws.”

According to Rafael Epstein, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 68 people were present and contact tracing is taking place after someone at the event tested positive for COVID-19.

“If you’re angry, believe me you are not as angry as almost all of the Jewish community,” Epstein tweeted.

Among those expressing anger was the Australia Jewish News, which called on local Orthodox leaders to condemn gatherings that violate the city’s lockdown rules and to penalise local rabbis who have condoned them.

On Sunday, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria issued a statement urging local Jews to “comply with all government restrictions without exception”, then it issued a stronger comment after criticism from the newspaper and others.

“For the removal of any possible doubt, this includes all illegal gatherings including for prayer,” said the unsigned clarification, which was posted to Facebook. “We implore anybody considering flouting the law to refrain from doing so. We unreservedly condemn such actions, which bring risk and shame to the entire community.”

But the group didn’t suggest that it would name or penalise rabbis who have participated in gatherings, which local Jews said had been happening for a variety of reasons throughout the pandemic.

Responding to an Australia Jewish News Facebook post, Rabbi James Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, a modern Orthodox school, wrote that such condemnation is needed, and signalled that a wide array of gatherings had been taking place in contravention of local rules.

“It’s painful to speak out against fellow Jews in public. But at this time, the danger of staying silent is too great,” Kennard wrote. “Because the law states that we must stay at home, because the experts tell us that this is the way to save lives, because of the risk of terrible chillul Hashem [desecration of G-d’s name], every rabbi and leader must cry out. We must take the heartbreaking path and stop the gatherings – for prayer, for s’machot, for school. Just stop.”

Speaking on Australian television, Daniel Aghion, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said, “We’ve heard about a number of non-compliances. That’s actually quite disturbing for us.”

Australia has experienced perhaps the world’s most stringent restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Australians and permanent residents have effectively been barred from leaving the country, while only a small number of people have been allowed to enter. Under the current lockdown in Victoria, Melbourne’s region, all gatherings in private homes are banned, and the only kinds of gatherings allowed are funerals of 10 people or fewer.

Tension over compliance with COVID-19 rules has emerged around the world in and around Orthodox communities since March 2020, when rules aimed at stopping the spread of disease made minyans, or the quorums required to say some prayers, illegal in many places.

Early in the pandemic, Melbourne police raided several sites where Orthodox Jews were illegally holding minyans. Last October, private citizens confronted a group of Haredi Orthodox men leaving a school.

Dalidakis wrote that most local Jews were adhering to the rules. But, he said, “small pockets of our Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community need to see this event as an opportunity to reset and reflect on just how dangerous and selfish their behaviour has been”.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Andrea

    Aug 20, 2021 at 3:24 am

    It’s the same story over and over, “This won’t happen to me or us !”

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Black Eyed Peas lead singer says being in Israel is like mishpocha

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(JTA) Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am feels at home in Israel, so much so that he used a Yiddish word to describe the feeling he gets in the country.

While on a visit to Israel to perform with his group, will.i.am, born William James Adams Jr, said on 29 November that he wouldn’t boycott the country, and that being in Israel was like being among family – or mishpocha.

“I always wanted to come to Israel. Growing up in Los Angeles, a lot of my friends are Israelis,” said will.i.am, who isn’t Jewish. “My grandma came here. When she visited, she would say, ‘I’m going to the holy land.’ She came with her church. It was always a place of aspiration and wonder, and when I first came, I brought my grandma. I always love coming here. It’s like mishpocha.”

The rapper made his remarks at a technology forum in the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem. This isn’t the first time the Black Eyed Peas have performed in Israel, where they put on concerts in 2006 and 2007.

Speaking at the conference, will.i.am explained how one of his childhood friends inspired him to throw some other Hebrew words into one of the band’s most popular songs, I Gotta Feeling. In that song, will.i.am famously shouts out “Mazeltov!” and another band member responds with “L’chaim!”

“I wanted to make Benjamin‘s dad proud,” the rapper said of his childhood friend. “So I said, ‘Mazeltov,’ ‘L’chaim’, and he was like, ‘Will, I always knew you are mishpocha’. So to me, when I say mishpocha, I mean that dearly. This place is magical to me, for my grandma wanted to come here, and I can’t let politics get in the way of where my heart is going.”

Will.i.am also worked the word “mishpocha” into a music video for a song the Black Eyed Peas made with Israeli pop duo Static and Ben El in 2020.

“What’s up, mishpocha?” he asks at the beginning of the music video.

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#TefillinAgainstTerror campaign turns on the light

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In times of darkness, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair instead of fighting for the light. The murder of South African Eli Kay was one such tragic moment, and the world seems a little darker since this bright soul was taken so senselessly this week.

One can feel almost paralysed by the sadness and injustice of the world, but it’s exactly at these times that one must take action to show our humanity. This was what motivated Michael Kransdorff and Rabbis Ari Shishler and Eitan Ash to start a campaign in defiance of terror and in honour of Kay.

They are asking Jews around the world to wear tefillin and share a photo on social media with the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror. The campaign will include lighting Chanukah candles and other mitzvot for men and women.

“Like most in the community, I was shocked to hear the news on Sunday about Eli’s murder,” says Kransdorff. “I didn’t know him personally, but felt so connected to his story, his commitment to serve Israel, his love of the land, and passion for Jewish history and people. I was also extremely frustrated that the South African government was refusing to condemn this vicious act of terrorism.”

He spoke to Shishler and other Zionist activists “about something positive we could try to do in response. Of course, this is a personal tragedy for his family and friends. But it’s also an attack on the right of the Jewish people to pray at the Kotel. Eli was killed with his tefillin in hand on his way to morning prayers. His murder requires a response, to say we won’t allow terror to intimidate us. We will continue to pray as Jews. So we decided to launch the Tefillin Against Terror campaign.”

Kransdorff hasn’t put on tefillin in years, “but I have committed to doing it for 25 days for the 25 years of Eli life. Today, [24 November] is really day one of the campaign. The response has been amazing. It’s catching on all over the world and building momentum. It’s on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. People are sending pictures on WhatsApp of themselves as well.”

Kransdorff is chairperson of the Jewish National Fund, and “we’re supporting this campaign, but it’s a grassroots campaign – it’s not about organisations. We want as many people as possible to take part. Tefillin is the first leg of the campaign. It’s Chanukah on Sunday night, and this is also when shiva ends. We are hoping to dedicate Chanukah candles to Eli. In fact, there are lots of parallels with the Chanukah story. The Greeks tried to deny our rights as Jews to pray in the temple, and we responded with lighting the chanukiah. Hamas and our enemies today have the same intention, and we will respond to their darkness by creating light.

“I know the community is shocked and traumatised about Eli’s death and the lack of condemnation from the South African government,” says Kransdorff. “Now is the time for a united response in Eli’s memory, and to say, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!’ We think the #TefillinAgainstTerror campaign and Chanukah lighting does that in a powerful way.”

Follow the campaign and share a photo of yourself at @TefillinAgainstTerror on Facebook and Instagram, or @TefillinforEli on Twitter, using the hashtag #TefillinAgainstTerror.

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The extensive impact of the Ethiopian crisis

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Foreigners are being urged to leave Ethiopia immediately while commercial flights are still operating. Israel, Britain, and the United States have advised against all travel to the country, except for Addis Ababa Bole International Airport (where advice remains against all but essential travel).

This comes as thousands of opposition fighters are just more than 300km from the capital Addis Ababa, which they’ve vowed to overthrow. Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) has warned that the risk of the country “descending into widening civil war is only too real”. The government has detained at least 16 UN staff and dependants without any explanation.

Last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago, declared a state of emergency. Since then, police have been going door to door in the capital arresting, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The government considers its members secessionist terrorists.

For a year, Addis Ababa and Tigray fighters have been at war, mostly in the north of Ethiopia where the group is dominant. In recent months, the conflict escalated rapidly after fighters began to retake most of the Tigray province and expand into neighbouring regions. The civil war now threatens to engulf the capital.

The TPLF claims to be pushing toward Addis Ababa to force the government to lift restrictions on aid flowing to their region. The UN accuses Ahmed Ali of operating a de facto blockade which he denies. But it has been four months since the last big shipment of medicines and health supplies were allowed into the north of the country.

More than seven million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance with about 400 000 people in Tigray alone living in famine-like conditions. Thousands have been killed, and more than two million have fled their homes since last November.

The UN reports “extreme brutality” being meted out by both sides on civilians. It says there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights and humanitarian and refugee law are being carried out by all sides. Their intransigence has scuttled hopes of a ceasefire that international mediators including the African Union and United States were pressing for.

The war has also sparked an internal conflict in Israel. Since fighting broke out a year ago, more than 2 000 Ethiopian Jews have been airlifted to Israel in state-run operations. “We must continue to act to bring them over to Israel quickly,” vowed Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently.

But after the new immigrants were settled in various absorption centres, suspicion about the information they had given to Israeli authorities started surfacing. A probe by the Immigration and Population Authority raised “serious doubts” as to whether 61 of them were, in fact, Jewish. In spite of their affidavits, an investigation also found that “most of the petitioners didn’t come from a combat area as claimed, and weren’t in life-threatening danger”.

It turned out that the list of names compiled for rescue came from a man who emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia 25 years ago. According to media reports, among the 61 were his sons, his ex-wife, who is Christian, her husband, and their children, and a number of people he worked with in the past.

It has dampened efforts by Pnina Tamano-Shata, the Israeli aliyah and integration minister, to bring more Ethiopians to Israel. She is urging Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to speed up the immigration process. There are thought to be between 7 000 to 12 000 Ethiopian community members still waiting to make aliyah, many of whom live in the Tigray region, the heart of the conflict.

It’s here where Israeli intelligence officials are warning Israelis and Jews to be vigilant. According to Israeli media, the country’s national intelligence, the Mossad, recently thwarted multiple attacks by Iran against Israeli tourists and businessmen in at least three African countries. The targets were visiting Tanzania, Senegal, and Ghana.

Five suspects, all with African passports, have reportedly been arrested. The concern is that in countries where security is compromised, particularly in Africa, Iran is seeking to avenge the death of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was assassinated last November. Tehran blames the Mossad.

The ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel goes back decades, but Iranian efforts recently spiked. This is likely to continue until the country’s leadership feels it has achieved some kind of revenge and deterrence against Israeli attacks on it.

The Ethiopian crisis could provide fodder for increased attacks against Jews and Israelis in that country. Aware of this, the Israeli foreign ministry has started evacuating the families of Israeli diplomats from Ethiopia and is urging Israeli citizens residing in the country to exercise vigilance and be regularly updated on the progress of fighting in general and in the capital in particular.

Addressing the UN Security Council on 8 November, Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, said that in spite of much speculation about how the Ethiopian crisis would unfold in coming weeks, “in a country of more than 110 million people, more than 90 different ethnic groups, and 80 languages, no one can predict what continued fighting and insecurity will bring”.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for three decades before Ahmed Ali took power in 2018 and sought to reduce the group’s influence. Tigrayans are deeply resented by many of Ethiopia’s non-Tigrayans and Ahmed Ali has vowed to “bury this enemy with our blood and bones”. The prime minister has called the fight against former government soldiers and volunteers from the country’s Tigray region an “existential war”.

The conflict has already taken thousands of lives and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There are fears it will spill beyond the country’s borders as the heavyweight of the volatile region teeters on the brink of chaos.

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