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Jewry battens the hatches as Brazilian president gets the virus

(JTA) The bombshell news on Tuesday was ironic for some. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, one of the world leaders who has most staunchly downplayed the potential of the coronavirus pandemic, had contracted the virus.

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MARCUS M GILBAN

In spite of his ardent support of Israel, Bolsonaro’s tempered rhetoric on the virus and controversial moves to cope with the pandemic – including fiercely criticising stay-at-home measures implemented by Rio de Janeiro and other state governments, and saying that a weakened economy could kill more than the virus – have raised eyebrows even among his most passionate conservative Jewish supporters.

As of June, the country of 215 million people that is home to about 120 000 Jews had the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world behind the United States: nearly 1.6 million, including about 65 000 deaths.

In March, the Rio Jewish federation established its own crisis committee to advise the state’s 30 000 Jews. Along with being a state, Rio is Brazil’s second largest city and second largest Jewish community behind São Paulo. It’s home to some of the nation’s most famous landmarks, such as the Christ Redeemer statue and the Sugarloaf Mountain, and boasts some of the country’s most storied Jewish institutions, such as the Great Israelite Temple and Brazil’s largest Jewish school, the 1 400-student Liessin.

“In spite of government guidelines allowing religious temples to reopen, we have told all synagogues to wait longer, and our request has been met,” the federation’s president, Arnon Velmovitsky, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The city’s largest synagogue, the 1 000-family Associação Religiosa Israelita, has been garnering more than 500 people on its regular Friday evening livestreamed religious services. It’s so popular that the president of the Reform temple, which was founded in 1942 by German Jewish families, says it will keep streaming services online after the pandemic.

Orthodox synagogues in the city have been holding pre-Shabbat and Havdalah celebrations. Temples from all streams offer an array of live and pre-recorded material, including prayers, lectures and classes. Since the pandemic started, Israeli Independence Day, Lag B’Omer and Shavuot observances were celebrated online.

Brazil is regularly among the top 10 list of countries that send the most immigrants to Israel every year. In 2019, nearly 700 Brazilians moved to Israel – a record that has stayed almost constant for three years in a row. Through May, 280 Brazilians had immigrated to the Jewish state this year, but that pipeline has been nearly shut down.

“Most people are frustrated because they should already be in Israel. We can’t tell anything for sure now, we have no crystal ball. It’s all a big question mark,” said Sprintza Laim, the head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department in Rio.

Still, immigration could increase throughout the year, especially if the COVID-19 situation in Brazil worsens.

Last year, 750 Brazilian families opened aliyah files, meaning they began the process of gathering the personal and religious documents needed for immigration. The 2020 tally is expected to reach up to 1 200, according to the Jewish Agency.

Rio alone currently accounts for about 45%, although it is home to only half the Jewish population of São Paulo.

Danielle Tarnovsky was among the 23 Brazilians who landed in Israel on a flight via Ethiopia in May. She was quarantined in a Tel Aviv hotel for 14 days, as mandated by Israel, from which she spoke to Olim do Brasil, a non-profit that helps her countrymen.

“We had a thousand obstacles, many people would’ve given it up, but I was loyal to my goal,” Tarnovsky said from her new home in Nahariya. “Rio is not doing well in terms of health. We left the virus behind.”

While several private schools in Rio are providing pre-recorded classes, Jewish schools have stood out for providing real-time classes. They’re using e-learning platforms such as Google Meet and Zoom supported by the Google Classroom platform.

“The result is above our expectations,” said Celia Saada, the principal of Liessin, which has three campuses. All the Jewish schools in Brazil run from preschool to high school.

“Junior high and high-school students have responded quickly and positively. From first to fifth grade, it was a gradual thing. Preschool was our biggest challenge.”

TTH Barilan, an Orthodox school, recently posted on Facebook numbers documenting the school’s efforts to keep things running during the first three months of the pandemic. There were nearly half a million emails and files exchanged; almost 7 500 classes on Google Meet that took more than 250 000 minutes; nearly 42 000 views of class videos on social media; and more.

“Our teachers reinvented their teaching practice, families found ways to organise their homes to meet the new reality, and students took a leap of responsibility and autonomy to keep up with the new school dynamics,” said TTH Barilan’s principal, Andre Frank. “The pandemic will pass, but the legacy will remain.”

Israeli folk dance, a passionate national pastime, has probably its biggest diaspora fans in the land of the Samba. The choreographed circle, couple, and line dances are taught in Rio’s Jewish schools, youth movements, synagogues, and private spaces.

COVID-19 has turned this world upside down – especially since holding hands is one of the key principles of Israeli dance. The 50th edition of the Hava Netze Bemachol festival, Rio’s largest Jewish annual event, has been postponed as a result of the virus.

“We now hold regular classes on Zoom. We’ve been recording choreography for our pupils to rehearse at home, and training our instructors during the quarantine,” said Daniel Adesse, the founder of Kineret Institute, an Israeli dance school that gathers about 250 dancers who perform in Brazil and the United States.

The Women’s International Zionist Organization, a group of 1 500 activists from across the country whose headquarters is in Rio, is still holding a wide range of initiatives to raise funds for educational projects.

Lectures, panels, and courses on Jewish values, Israel-related topics, and more are now livestreamed on Zoom, which the activists, known as chaverot – have nicknamed WiZoom. The events constantly reach the Zoom limit of 100 participants. The goal is to plan campaigns to collect funds on the calls, but also to share the tough personal challenges imposed by COVID-19.

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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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(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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