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entries tagged with: Etzion Neuer

 

ADL blasts ‘religious fraud’

Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, first heard about messianic Jew Sid Roth’s book, “They Thought for Themselves,” when he received a call from this newspaper.

“Josh Lipowsky called after hearing from a reader who received the book,” said Neuer. “Over the next several weeks, I began to get calls — like lights on a map going off from all different parts of the state.”

“In every case, people were [both] taken aback that they received it directly and offended by the material,” he said, describing “what appears to be a fairly wide campaign to target Jews for so-called messianic organizations.”

The book profiles 10 Jews — from Holocaust survivors to media executives — who, writes Roth on his Website, “defied the status quo and thought for themselves,” finding Jesus and “changing their lives for the better.” Video testimonials from these individuals appear on the Website as well.

With calls coming from “concerned members of the Jewish community, including rabbis … most of the concern has focused on the direct targeting of individuals,” said Neuer.

According to a March 11 article on the Website matsav.com, many residents in Lakewood — which has a large Orthodox community — “were astonished” to find the book, self-described as a “gift,” in their mailbox. While many disposed of it immediately, according to the article, “[s]everal Lakewood residents related to [the Website] that because the book appeared harmless, they did not immediately realize its content and aim and did not immediately dispose of it.”

Indeed, said Neuer, he is not as worried about those who call him as about those who do not realize that the book is a “fraud.”

“Most thinking people will be able to recognize the source of the book [and Roth’s] attempt to proselytize and to deceive Jews into thinking that this is an extension of Judaism,” said Neuer. “The people who call ADL already recognize the book for what it is. I’m more concerned about those who take it seriously.”

For the most part, said Neuer, people have been calling his office looking for guidance, questioning how their names came to appear on Roth’s list and if they can request that their names be removed. According to Roth’s Website, he acquired the names from “list brokers and supporters.”

The ADL is preparing a memo for rabbis and federations addressing the issue, said Neuer, noting that, technically, Roth’s methods do not constitute “legal fraud,” since selling mailing lists is a common policy in direct marketing. He added, however, that Roth’s activities constitute “religious fraud.”

Roth is a former account executive for Merrill Lynch who, by his own account, became disenchanted with Judaism in 1972. Raised in a traditional Jewish home, in 1977 he started a ministry called Messianic Vision as well as a nationally syndicated radio program with the same name. He also hosts a television program called “It’s Supernatural.”

“Roth says that he was inspired to write the book because of a dream,” said Neuer, adding that both “the book and the campaign are incredibly offensive. Generally speaking, the very premise of Roth’s religious underpinnings is that Jews and Judaism are incomplete, and this campaign to convert Jews away from their faith [is] an affront and disrespectful to Judaism’s teachings.”

Teaneck resident Eli Rosenfeld, chief executive officer of Joseph Jacobs advertising agency received the book at home about four weeks ago.

“It was before Purim,” said Rosenfeld. “It was in a plain white envelope and my wife brought it in.”

Rosenfeld, who notified The Jewish Standard, said, “I thumbed through it and realized that something was off. My wife asked if I had ordered it. I hadn’t.”

Noting that he is not angry but simply concerned, Rosenfeld said that “there are always people who will read it not knowing what it is.”

He pointed out that messianic Judaism is rejected both by Jews and Christians.

“It’s a dangerous idea, attempting to confuse people and not be forthright. It’s different from the problem of Christian groups proselytizing [directly] and asking Jews to convert. This is done in an underhanded manner [saying] you can remain Jewish and still believe in Jesus. That is why it is so troublesome.”

Rosenfeld said he was also troubled that someone was willing to spend the sum required to print and distribute so many copies of the book.

“When you see that type of resource, you get scared about their next step to target our community,” he said, recalling an incident, 10 years ago, when his company was “duped” into a media buy for a movie that turned out to be a messianic Jewish film.

Under the headline “Missionaries dupe Jewish newspapers across country,” a Jewish Telegraphic agency story at the time reported that 80 American Jewish newspapers ended up printing a “fairly innocuous” ad for a film called “The Rabbi,” showing a man in a yarmulke praying at the Western Wall. What the ad — which ran in The Jewish Standard but not in its sister publication, the Jewish Community News — did not say was that the film was about “a self-described ‘Messianic Jew’ who gradually convinces his Orthodox family that he did not abandon Judaism when he took ‘Yeshua’ into his heart.”

While Roth calls his book “an offer of love, it is really a prescription for intolerance,” said the ADL’s Neuer. And while it is difficult to monitor the effects of such a book, he added, “at least in some cases it works” — especially among more vulnerable groups such as “the young, elderly, or spiritually vulnerable. It deliberately mixes religious symbols and distorts the essential meaning of [the two] religions.”

“It’s fraud,” said Neuer, “the deliberate blurring of lines between religions. He’s a snake oil salesman. The introductory video on his Website comes across as an infomercial — it treats religion like a hand blender.”

 
 

Police still investigating graffiti at Wayne school

The discovery of swastikas spray-painted on an elementary public school in Wayne Saturday night, the eve of Yom HaShoah, drew swift condemnation from the township’s Jewish community but its leaders remained unconcerned about a spike in anti-Semitism.

The graffiti — which included the message “I love Hitler,” swastikas, and several sexual messages — were found on playground equipment and a wall at Randall Carter Elementary School. They were cleaned up by the end of the day Sunday. No other incidents were reported across the state during the weekend, according to Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s office of the Anti-Defamation League.

Police were continuing their investigation on Wednesday. Because the swastikas were accompanied by graffiti of a sexual nature, police believe the perpetrator or perpetrators were juveniles, said Det. Sgt. Charles Ahearn. Police do not suspect a larger trend within Wayne.

“As of right now it’s an isolated incident,” Ahearn said. “We’re treating it as that. We are taking it extremely seriously, however.”

Youths, Neuer said, continue to be the No. 1 perpetrators of bias crimes in New Jersey, but he warned against assuming that the perpetrators are connected with the school.

Police routinely patrol the township’s schools, and that led to the discovery of the graffiti. Holocaust education can be a powerful tool but “is no automatic inoculation against bias incidents,” Neuer said. “Incidents like this point to the need for increased attention to youth. With the distance of the Shoah, we worry about the solemnity of [Yom HaShoah] and the cheapening of the meaningfulness of the Holocaust.”

Ahearn said investigators are taking Yom HaShoah into account but added that there is no indication yet of a link between the commemoration and the graffiti. Though the timing may be a coincidence, it is still troubling, according to Neuer.

“For many people, the Holocaust is a distant event and exists only in crumbling yellow newspapers,” he said. “For survivors, memories are vivid. Imagine the pain when they opened the newspaper on Monday morning and saw ‘Hitler’ spray-painted on a school wall.”

Such incidents elicit strong emotional responses from the community, Jews and non-Jews alike, said Rabbi Stephen Wylen of Temple Beth Tikvah. Of greater concern, however, the rabbi said, is subtler demonization of Jews, such as misrepresentations in school textbooks and in anti-Israel letters to area newspapers.

“It’s the subtler but more consistent forms of demonization against the Jews that does us more damage,” he said. “I’m concerned the Jewish community is less reactive toward those things.”

Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah intends to raise the vandalism issue with the Wayne Clergy Fellowship. Mark, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, does not plan to raise the issue with the board. The incident, he said, can be an opportunity for education. He praised the Wayne schools for past responses to past anti-Semitic incidents after which they brought in the ADL for tolerance curricula.

“Every time something negative happens it’s an opportunity to do something positive with it,” he said.

The Wayne police have asked those who have any information regarding this incident to call them at (973) 633-3549.

 
 

Diaspora Jews rally to Israel’s defense

Flotilla fallout: The communal response

The general feeling among North Jersey Israelis following Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza last week is one of disappointment, said Tenafly resident Udy Kashkash — disappointment in the world’s reaction and disappointment in how Israel has been treated in the media.

Despite world condemnation, though, 49 percent of U.S. voters believe pro-Palestinian activists on the flotilla were to blame for the resulting deaths, according to a Rasmussen Reports national survey released on Monday. Just 19 percent of those polled thought Israelis were to blame, while 32 percent were not sure.

Within the local Israeli community, though, there is a feeling that Israel is being unfairly castigated, said Kashkash, a member of the Israeli Club at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Israel’s taking all the precautions [during the flotilla raid] and even putting soldiers at risk — and after all that, who do they criticize? Israel,” he said.

Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Center, agreed that there is a sense of shock in the local Israeli and Jewish communities in reaction to the world’s response. Unlike last year’s Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza and 2006’s Second Lebanon War, no physical threat spurred Israel’s actions but rather a perceived threat. This, Levy said, has become a focus of his outreach.

“It wasn’t like suicide bombers or katyushas coming over to Israel from Gaza. It was going to be something that could threaten Israelis, and Israel does have a legitimate right protected by international law to put a maritime blockade around Gaza.”

The federation has been taking out ads in local media and sending e-blasts with talking points.

“What we hope to do as Israel activists is really get the message out in the community about the real facts on the ground,” said Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

She recommended people write op-eds and letters to their local newspapers, as well as monitor local media for inaccuracies.

The Jewish community is largely playing defense now, said Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office.

“What’s troubling and frustrating for many defenders of Israel is that the flotilla incident will be viewed without much-needed context and critical pieces of information,” he said. “The tragedy of the deaths overshadows the facts of the circumstances that led to them. Critics of Israel will omit the part about Hamas and the effort to blame Israel in all of this.”

The ADL has not seen any spikes in anti-Semitic incidents around the state, Neuer said, but the organization does expect some backlash.

“We have noticed a rise in the level of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere,” he said. “The incident fueled many of Israel’s fiercest critics and provided them with the ammunition they needed to demonize Israel.”

Neuer cautioned every Jewish organization to review its security protocols in light of recent events. The organization has not received any threats as of yet, he said, but security reviews are always a good idea.

“It’s critical for the leadership of Jewish institutions to always be vigilant and especially so when the political temperature rises in the Middle East,” he said.

Many local rabbis addressed the flotilla incident during their sermons this past Shabbat, connecting the perspective of the world to that of the spies in the Torah reading who reported that Israel was full of giants and the Israelites should turn around.

“All 12 of the scouts came back with factual information about the land, but what made the reports pejorative was that everyone’s report was colored by their own perspective and expectation,” said Rabbi Randall Mark of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, who is president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. “When you have Joshua and Caleb going out with faith in themselves and faith in God, they see the challenges as obstacles to be overcome but within their capability.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, is heartened by the Rasmussen Reports poll, but said the American Jewish community needs to continue its efforts to promote Israel’s side of the affair.

“The rush to condemn Israel seems to have become more contagious from Israel’s usual slate of adversaries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” said the Ridgewood resident. “It’s reached those nations that in recent times had better relations with Israel. That’s worrisome.”

Cole urged support of Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza.

“Weaponry has been brought into Gaza through the tunnels and other surreptitious means,” he said. “Weakening the blockade means ever-deadlier missiles and more powerful weapons could be delivered.”

Israel’s allies have been active on Facebook and in organizing rallies around New York City. One rally, sponsored by Amcha and several other pro-Israel groups, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon outside the Israeli consulate in New York. Kashkash appreciates such efforts but still wants to see more from the American political arena.

“We need our largest ally to be fully behind us,” Kashkash said. “What we hear coming from the White House is not something very strong and very stable.”

“As more information becomes common knowledge, the world will see that Israel acted correctly,” said Ben Chouake, president of the Englewood Cliffs-based Israel lobby NORPAC, “and this group that created unnecessary violence on the flotilla and unnecessary deaths instigated the incident and Israel will be fully vindicated.”

 
 

Fort Lee resident discovers swastikas on utility pole and rock

Anti-Defamation League defends its reclassification of the hate symbol

The discovery of swastika graffiti in Fort Lee by a local teen this week put the Anti-Defamation League’s revised definition of the hate symbol to the test.

The teen’s mother, who asked to remain anonymous, called the police Tuesday to the scene near McCloud Avenue where her daughter had discovered the swastikas painted on a large rock and a utility pole. On Wednesday she called The Jewish Standard and the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region.

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A Fort Lee woman and her daughter on Tuesday discovered this swastika spray-painted on a utility pole in Fort Lee.

“I am concerned,” she said. “I do see it more and more. We never experienced anything (anti-Semitic) until the past couple of years.”

The woman told the Standard that her daughter has been the target of anti-Semitic remarks at her school and has seen swastikas on blackboards and desks. She praised the school’s response to the incidents, but said anti-Semitism remains a concern for the family.

“It does exist and my daughter has experienced it,” she said.

The police were swift in their response, the woman said.

Though the swastika, for many, symbolizes the Nazi ideology that brought forth the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League recently changed its criteria for determining whether a swastika incident is also an anti-Semitic incident.

“Based on some of the circumstances, we would consider this to be an anti-Semitic incident,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s ADL office. “We received a call from a resident who was upset by it. That automatically puts it in that category.”

When the ADL released its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents last month, it redefined how it would approach the swastika.

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Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League, says context determines whether swastika graffiti are anti-Semitic or general symbols of hate. File photo

“We know that the swastika has, for some, lost its meaning as the primary symbol of Nazism and instead become a more generalized symbol of hate,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said at the time. “So we are being more careful to include graffiti incidents that specifically target Jews or Jewish institutions as we continue the process of re-evaluating and redefining how we measure anti-Jewish incidents.”

New Jersey, with 132 anti-Semitic incidents, ranked third in the nation, behind California, with 275, and New York, with 209. There had been 238 incidents in 2008.

“The symbol on its own begs for some detail,” Neuer said. He cited a case earlier this month in Long Island where a Latino family discovered a swastika painted on their door.

“The swastika is always going to be considered a symbol of hate, but it’s not always directed against Jews,” he said. “The challenge is to determine motive. So while the swastika is always a symbol of hate, what we’re seeing is it’s not always directed against Jews.”

“We don’t know who [the swastika] was geared toward,” the Fort Lee woman said in response to the ADL’s announcement. “When you see that, [anti-Semitism is] honestly the first thing you think of. I don’t know what [else] to think of it.”

Neuer told the Standard later on Wednesday that Fort Lee police had informed him that the graffiti had been there for about a year. The ADL intended to follow up as to why the graffiti had been allowed to remain for so long.

Calls to the Fort Lee Police Department Wednesday were not returned.

 
 

ADL targets cyberbullying in the wake of Rutgers suicide

Neuer says electronic abuse is a growing phenomenon

When 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, he may have been responding to cyberbullying, says Etzion Neuer, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional director.

“It’s something that can have tragic and devastating results,” he said.

According to Neuer, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan has not made a final decision on how to charge students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, who used a hidden webcam to broadcast a same-sex encounter by Clementi, a Ridgewood resident. The prosecutors’ office is seeking to determine if the perpetrators targeted Clementi because of his perceived sexual orientation.

“If so, a prosecution on hate crimes charges could be part of a strong and effective outreach and education effort to deter future such bullying,” said Neuer.

But whether this is labeled a bias crime is not the main issue, he added. While the case may involve homophobia, “it appears that the perpetrators committed this [act] without any regard for the consequences, and that speaks to the general problem with cyberbullying and misuse of the Internet.”

“Many young people spend so much time on the Internet, yet they have no sense that there are real-world consequences to their actions,” he said, adding that “parents have to work very early on with children on this issue, and it doesn’t end with high school.”

Defining cyberbullying as “intentional harm inflicted through electronic media,” he called it a growing phenomenon, as increasing numbers of young people engage in e-mail, texting, chatting, and blogging “as a central part of their social life.”

With that use comes an increase in the misuse of these technologies to “bully, harass, and even incite violence.”

Neuer said that according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, this kind of abuse affects between 20 percent and 50 percent of all United States teens.

He is not surprised, he said, given the stories he has heard from students during ADL school workshops addressing the issue.

Calling educating against cyberbullying a natural part of ADL’s mission, Neuer said “it may be motivated by prejudice, hate, or bias, based on factors such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.” But “whether related to identity-based group membership or more universal characteristics such as social status or appearance, the cruelty can produce devastating results,” he said.

The New Jersey director said that over the past several years, the ADL has developed interactive workshops for students from elementary through high school.

“While we’re known primarily in the Jewish community as being the go-to group on anti-Semitism, we’ve also had a broader mission dealing with bigotry and stopping hatred of all sorts,” he said, pointing to ongoing anti-bias programs, such as those on cyberbullying for administrators, educators, and students.

Neuer said that some students have told him “chilling” stories. “It’s so disturbing,” he said, that “many of them seem resigned to it, so they’re not reporting it.”

While those students who attend the ADL workshops seem to be helped by the program, “we often feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket. Especially with the electronic media, [we feel] we’re playing catch-up as we respond.”

Parents and administrators should not feel overwhelmed, he said, since “there are steps to put in place and ways to make improvements.”

 
 

Anti-bullying measure moves forward in Trenton

New Jersey lawmakers this week introduced the public to legislation that would toughen school policies toward bullying, in an effort to prevent tragedies like last month’s suicide by a Rutgers student.

Deemed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the legislation would empower educators to better report and respond to bullying incidents, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, told The Jewish Standard Wednesday. The bill is not, she emphasized, a response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, as it has been in the works since January.

“It’s all about awareness, prevention, and training,” she said. “We need to change the culture of kids and we need to create a new school culture.”

New Jersey passed anti-bullying legislation in 2002 and 2007.

“Unfortunately, now the incidents of bullying [here] are higher than in the rest of the United States because the laws need to go further,” Vainieri Huttle said.

The legislation is a follow-up to a December report from the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, a taskforce formed in 2007.

“The tragedy at Rutgers didn’t affect our timetable, but I think it will help sway anyone who might … be on the fence,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League office and a member of the commission.

Through the last 10 years, he said, the public’s perception of bullying has shifted away from viewing it as part of childhood.

“It’s taken years of persistence and advocacy, and now it’s the unanimous consensus that schools, parents, and administrators can change the culture,” he said.

The bill would regulate only public schools and have no bearing on the area’s private yeshivas. Day-school administrators, however, welcomed the legislation. Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, said she was “thrilled” by the news. Gerrard Berman has a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy, and begins its education early, so there have not been any incidents at the school, she said.

“We deal with it from a Jewish perspective as well as from a secular perspective,” Bernhardt added. “We talk about how every person is created in God’s image and should be treated with respect.”

Rabbi John Krug, dean of student life and welfare at The Frisch School in Paramus and a clinical psychologist, lamented the need for such a law.

“It is a sad reflection on society when legislation has to step in and mandate something that should be part and parcel of the development of human beings in general,” he said.

Each year, Frisch seniors, with training from faculty, work with the freshmen on bullying issues. Like Gerrard Berman, Frisch has a zero-tolerance policy and Krug said he knows of fewer than a handful of cases in the school each year.

The Rutgers tragedy pushed the bullying issue to the forefront, he said, but it also highlighted the changing role of technology in social interaction.

“The world does not yet know how to cope with this new universe of technology and media, and all the rules that have governed human behavior until now are being redefined,” he said.

The bill has already garnered more than 40 bipartisan cosponsors in the Assembly. It will head to the Senate after the November elections.

“I don’t think we’re going to completely solve the problems of bullying,” Neuer said, “but parents and schools are going to find that bullying and harassment and intimidation will become fringe behaviors.”

 
 

New Jersey anti-bullying legislation moves forward in Trenton

Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights could pass through legislature as early as Monday

Legislation that would empower New Jersey educators to clamp down on bullying in their schools took another step forward in the Legislature in Trenton this week.

After a day of powerful testimonies from bullying victims and families, the bill, dubbed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, passed out of education committees in the Senate and Assembly on Monday and is headed for full votes in both bodies as early as next week. Because of its broad bipartisan support, the bill’s backers expect it to pass easily.

“We’re absolutely thrilled that it passed through the education committees,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s office of the Anti-Defamation League, which played a key role in arranging the testimonies earlier this week with Garden State Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights organization. “We’re now looking forward to a full vote. I’m quite optimistic that the bill will be signed with little to no opposition.”

Neuer was a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), one of the bill’s primary sponsors in the Assembly, praised the ADL and Garden State Equality for their work in demonstrating the need for the bill.

“They’ve given us great insight into what we could do. Both groups offered tremendous help and assistance,” she said.

Calls to Garden State Equality were not returned by press time.

The legislation is not a panacea for the problem of bullying, Neuer told The Jewish Standard. But, while acknowledging that several schools already handle the issue well, he said he was hopeful that the bill would fix some of the problems in how many schools deal with bullying.

“Many of us can remember being bullied or mistreated in our own school lives,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), one of the bill’s primary sponsors in the Senate. “When you hear the testimony of adults who’ve grown up and still can’t talk about it without becoming teary-eyed — the testimony was certainly heartfelt.”

While bullying has been in the news because of the recent suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, bullying is an across-the-board problem, Weinberg said.

“It’s against all populations — [any] kid who might just be a little different,” she said. “It’s apparently more widespread than any of us knew. When it’s carried to a real extreme, it has very serious consequences.”

Bullying is not just an issue in the public schools. Many of the area’s Jewish day schools have zero-tolerance policies on bullying. Because of the separation between state and religion, however, the government cannot enforce anti-bullying legislation in the private schools, Vainieri Huttle said.

To address this issue, language has been added that non-public schools are encouraged to comply with the bill’s provisions. Another amendment in the bill prevents the legislation from prohibiting students in faith-based schools from freely practicing their faiths.

“We wanted to cover all aspects to make sure they can practice their faith freely and encourage them to adopt these provisions,” Vainieri Huttle said.

If the bill passes both houses as expected next week, it then falls on Gov. Chris Christie to sign it into law. Vainieri Huttle was optimistic that schools could begin implementing changes as early as September 2011.

“Gov. Christie is not just a leader of New Jersey,” Neuer said. “He’s also a dad. He’s a person who has demonstrated empathy for victims before and I think he’s going to see that this bill enjoys tremendous support from young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, and he’ll support it in some fashion.”

Neuer praised Vainieri Huttle for her work in pushing the bill and getting broad bipartisan support for it.

“When all is said and done, thanks to the assemblywoman’s initiatives, New Jersey will have one of the most comprehensive [anti-]bullying laws on the books,” he said.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights calls for:

• Deadlines for bullying incidents to be reported, investigated, and resolved

• Anti-bullying training of school personnel without creating new government entities or increasing taxes

• Every school’s website would post the name and contact info of an anti-bullying specialist

• Grading of each school on its safety, which would be posted on the schools’ websites

• Strengthening suicide prevention training for teachers to include the relationship between bullying and suicide

• Requiring public universities to prohibit bullying and create anti-bullying rules and procedures

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

 
 

We name the newsmakers of 2010

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A torrential storm brought down trees and power lines across Bergen County in March and claimed the lives of Ovadia Mussaffi and Lawrence Krause.

Sixteen years ago, facing the usual slow week at the first of the secular year, The Jewish Standard created what has turned into an enduring feature: naming the newsmakers of the year just passed (or, in this case, just passing).

This has been a challenging year, punctuated by an earthquake and storms as well as the continuing harsh winds of the recession. But we have also seen the community rising to meet those challenges in creative as well as tried-and-true ways.

We continue in what has become a tradition by stating our standards:

What makes a newsmaker? Philanthropy? Maybe, but also creative use of resources. Tragedy? Yes, but also survival. Personal accomplishments? Yes, but also efforts on behalf of others. Scholarship? Yes, but also originality. Political daring? Yes, but also political dealing.

The Standard, all those years ago, seeking not to judge but to inform, established a set of criteria, any one of which might land someone on the list.

• First, newsmakers must come from or have links to this region and have done something newsworthy, for good or ill.

• Second, they may have strongly stirred the community’s interest and/or emotions.

• Third, they may have brought an issue to the public’s attention.

• Fourth, they may have compelled or challenged the public to re-examine its beliefs and/or behavior.

• Fifth, they may have prompted a course of action.

This year, we’ve enlarged our scope beyond the Jewish community. We award the top spot on the list to the “heroes of Haiti,” local doctors, Jewish or not, who gave their time and expertise in the devastation following the January earthquake there.

We name and celebrate those doctors whose efforts we’ve chronicled: Alan Gwertzman, Timothy Finley, Howard Zucker, Joshua Hyman, and Thomas Bojko. (Many of these are connected to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.)

We also cite the many unnamed medical personnel from this area who have worked to heal the still-wounded nation and its people. (And we note that Israel has maintained a virtually constant medical presence in Haiti and that Teaneck attorney Sam Davis, the founding director of Burn Advocates Network, expanded its reach, starting a physical and occupational therapy clinic there as well as arranging for medical equipment and recruiting doctors to man the clinic.)

Libya is again cracking our newsmakers list. The African country burst onto the list in 2009 when its leader, Muammar Kaddafi, was reportedly planning to stay at a Libya-owned mansion in Englewood during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. After protests led by the mansion’s neighbor, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Kaddafi announced he would stay in New York. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, however, soon moved in.

In 2010, Libya made the list again, first because of its election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and second because of the controversy surrounding Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole conspirator convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of 278 people, including 38 from New Jersey. He was released from prison last year on humanitarian grounds because doctors estimated he had only months to live after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He has outlived those expectations, angering advocates of the Lockerbie victims who alleged that Great Britain freed al-Megrahi because of pressure from BP for an oil deal.

Recently released cables from WikiLeaks appeared to confirm suspicions that Libya had threatened Great Britain economically if Scotland did not release al-Megrahi.

New Jersey’s U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, have repeatedly called for investigations into the circumstances of al-Megrahi’s release. With the WikiLeaks revelation, the issue is more than likely to continue into 2011.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), who sits on three appropriations subcommittees, has been a staunch ally of Israel in the House of Representatives. A former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the precursor to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, Rothman has always been vocal about his support for the Jewish state, which has translated into numerous votes for military appropriations for Israel.

After the Mavi Marmara affair in June, Rothman came out firmly in support of Israel’s actions, telling the Standard that, “There is some regret over the loss of life, notwithstanding the fact that those killed were almost certainly armed and well-trained jihadists bent on provoking Israel’s violent reaction and creating an international episode.”

Rothman also got into a proverbial spitting match earlier this year with Boteach, who alleged that the congressman did not do enough to keep the Libyan U.N. ambassador out of the mansion next to Boteach’s home. Rothman maintained that the original agreement from the 1980s, when Libya bought the mansion and Rothman was mayor of Englewood, decreed that the U.N. ambassador could use the home, although details were murky. This policy, Rothman said, had been agreed to by the State Department and there was therefore nothing he or the United States could do — particularly since Libya and the United States have since normalized relations — to prevent the ambassador from using the house.

Boteach also accused Rothman of being an apologist for President Obama’s policies, which many have regarded as being not in Israel’s favor. Rothman has on several occasions praised Obama for being what he called the most supportive president of military cooperation with Israel in U.S. history.

Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee appropriated $217.7 million — the highest amount on record, according to Washington sources — in funding for joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, and according to Rothman, the Defense Subcommittee has allocated more than $750 million in federal funds for the Arrow and David’s Sling anti-missile systems since 2007.

Recently, Rothman voted for the inclusion of more than $200 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program in a congressional spending bill. The funds were later removed by the Senate (see story, page 8).

Rothman was also a signatory to a letter to Obama calling for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. In November’s elections, Rothman won his eighth term in the House.

The weather made news this year. In March, a storm we called “an ill wind” left thousands of people without power and toppled trees. Two Teaneck men, Ovadia Mussaffi, 54, and Lawrence Krause, 49, were killed by a falling tree as they walked home from Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic congregation, after Shabbat. (The shul, by the way, which meets in a private home, broke ground for a building in November.) Both men were described as friendly, sweet, and generous. Their friends and family — indeed, the whole community — were devastated by the loss.

The Standard asked a number of local rabbis to share their thoughts about the tragedy. For their answers, go to www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/12658.

Of local Jewish institutions, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly was hardest hit by the storm and had to close, but it was up and running in a few days. People thronged it, said its executive director, Avi Lewinson, because they had “cabin fever and wanted to be able to do something.”

And, of course, we’ve all been affected by this weekend’s blizzard. All the schools, day and public, were closed on Monday, as were many, if not most, offices. As of Tuesday, we were still digging out from under mountains of snow.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill in January that toughened fines for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The bill, signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in one of his final acts in office, was spurred by the crusade for pedestrian safety, and against drivers who talk on their cell phones, of Andrea DeVries of Paramus, whose son, Daniel, was killed in a pedestrian crosswalk on Mother’s Day 2008 by a driver who, witnesses said, was talking on his cell phone.

During a legislative breakfast at DeVries’ synagogue, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, she met Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-37), who invited her to testify before the Assembly.

“It made that bill [to toughen fines] come to life [and made us understand] that we had to do something more, that this is a problem,” Wagner said of the testimony after Corzine signed the bill into law. “[DeVries] has so much courage to tell this story and to repeat this story and to try to promote pedestrian safety.”

The new law increases the fine of $100 to $500 if a victim is seriously injured as a result of the driver’s failure to yield. It also increases the maximum jail time from 15 to 25 days.

For DeVries, though, the new bill does not go far enough. She wants to see mandatory drug and alcohol testing and a check of cell-phone records for every driver who kills a pedestrian. This law, she told the Standard, is just “a baby step.”

At the corner of Palisade Avenue and Cedar Lane in Teaneck stands a tree that, at more than 80 feet, is the fourth largest red oak in the state, according to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry. That tree, which is also estimated to be more than 200 years old, was at the center of a summer fight between the Union for Traditional Judaism and preservationists.

The tree sits on the corner of the property belonging to the UTJ, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. In July, UTJ leaders decided to remove the tree, citing safety concerns that were corroborated by an arborist the union had hired. Protests erupted around town as environmentalists, as well as state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), sought to preserve the tree; two other arborists hired by Teaneck reported that the tree could, in fact, be preserved.

The matter soon ended up before the Teaneck Township Council, where protesters vainly demanded that the township block the tree’s removal by buying the property. Protesters alleged that UTJ wanted to tear down the tree only to increase the value of the land, while UTJ’s leaders and bankruptcy attorney argued that safety of passersby was the paramount concern.

In August, 333 Realty, a real estate development agency, won a bankruptcy auction for the property for $1.4 million. The company soon rescinded its original offer, in light of publicity surrounding the tree, and negotiated a lower price with UTJ. Before the bankruptcy court could approve the new price, however, the property legally had to go back to auction.

The Puffin Foundation also stepped into the picture with an offer of a $200,000 grant to help the new property owners preserve the tree. But 333 Realty would not exceed its new offer of $1.2 million and Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox congregation that meets in the UTJ building, won the October auction.

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institution of Traditional Judaism, have since moved to a new location on American Legion Drive in Teaneck, while Netivot Shalom plans to expand its programming in the building and preserve the tree.

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, a frequent Jewish Standard newsmaker, made this year’s list by bringing a group of imams and other U.S. Muslim leaders to concentration camp sites.

An Englewood resident who is director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding, Bemporad called the Aug. 7 to 11 trip to Auschwitz in Poland and Dachau in Germany “a breakthrough in many respects, because … we took imams like [Yasir] Qadhi, for example,” who 10 years ago called the Holocaust a hoax. (Bemporad led the trip, which was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, with Prof. Marshall Breger of the Catholic University of America.)

“The main point,” he said, “is that … they are using this experience in their services and talking to their people — that’s talking about tens of thousands of people.” He added, “They want Jews to speak in mosques about this reality so they can unite with us to condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.”

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot has very specific ideas about how the Jewish community should treat people who are homosexual. In July, he released his “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” which called for compassion and respect. The statement has received more than 140 signatures from Orthodox rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals from around North America, including several from North Jersey.

“For years we have spoken with other friends in the rabbinate and in Jewish education about the growing recognition that they have had students who later came out as homosexuals,” Helfgot told the Standard in July. “We also have had friends, here and there, who came out and know parents who struggle with this with their children.”

“We kicked around the reality of this and the question of what the community, synagogue, and schools should be doing to affirm what we believe in terms of Jewish law [while also asking] ‘Is there a place for these people to be within our community? Is it simply either/or?’”

According to the statement’s preamble, “Embarrassing, harassing, or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

“The question of whether sexual orientation is primarily genetic, or rather environmentally generated, is irrelevant to our obligation to treat human beings with same-sex attractions and orientations with dignity and respect.

“We affirm the religious right of those with a homosexual orientation to reject therapeutic approaches they reasonably see as useless or dangerous.”

Helfgot is now religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

To read the full statement, visit www.jstandard.com/index.php/content/item/14319.

Since the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the issue of bullying has grabbed headlines. After hearing testimony from bullying victims, the New Jersey Legislature recently passed the so-called Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which will tighten penalties for bullies in public schools, require better reporting of bullying in public schools, and, its sponsors hoped, deal a massive blow to the entire bullying phenomenon in the school system.

State. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) spearheaded the legislation in the Senate, while Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) championed it in the Assembly. Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, helped arrange some of the testimony that ultimately convinced legislators to pass the bill.

Neuer was also a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.

While the bill was moving forward before Clementi’s death, the incident reinforced for some legislators why such legislation was needed.

Parents of day-school students continue to gripe about the high bills they must pay for their children to get private Jewish and secular education. These bills can reach higher than $50,000 per student, not including extra fees, building funds, and books. In 2009, a group of local rabbis, educators, and parents created Jewish Education for Generations to tackle the so-called tuition crisis. Its first project, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, aka the kehilla fund, has in its second year distributed hundreds of thousands of scholarship dollars to eight area day schools, Orthodox and Conservative, based on student populations from within the catchment area of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

According to the organization’s leaders, NNJKIDS’ mission is to change the communal mindset by shifting the burden of tuition from the parents to the community.

In 2009 the kehillah fund distributed almost $200,000 to the schools and in 2010, fund-raisers collected and distributed $525,000. JEFG leaders declared May to be NNJKIDS Month and pushed collections in Jewish businesses throughout the area, and organizers are planning to hold another NNJKIDS Month in May or June.

NNJKIDS has formed partnerships with the Avi Chai Foundation, Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, UJA-NNJ, and northern New Jersey Orthodox and Conservative synagogues.

“NNJKIDS was never meant just to raise money,” said Gershon Distenfeld, NNJKIDS’ treasurer. “It’s about a way to get the schools together to pursue a range of initiatives, and that work continues.”

The distributions remain small, but North Jersey’s day schools reported that tuition rates for the 2010-11 school year were mitigated by at least $200 per student because of the donations.

For information about the fund, visit www.nnjkids.org.

So many young people in this community did noteworthy things this year — including winning prestigious contests and organizing drives for this or that cause — that it is impossible to list them all. (As Garrison Keillor says of the mythical Lake Wobegon, “All the children are above average.”) But the deeds of two, in particular, fit criterion No. 5: “They may have prompted a course of action”: In October, 21-year-old Ari Sapin donated bone marrow to a 29-year-old man with leukemia, a selfless act that may inspire others to sign up for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation (http://www.giftoflife.org).

Another Ari, Ari Hagler of Bergenfield, used his Dec. 10 bar mitzvah to launch Shabbat Gilad as a way to call attention to the continuing plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Close to 150 shuls, schools, youth groups, and Jewish centers participated from all over the United States as well as from Israel, Canada, and Australia. For the list of participants, go to www.shabbatgilad.com. Let’s hope that Shalit will be freed in 2011 and there’ll be no need to name another Shabbat for him.

The Jewish Standard itself made news in 2010, sparked by a same-sex marriage announcement. After conversations with some members of the community who strongly opposed the move, the paper issued an apology and pledged not to publish such announcements again.

But then a media deluge began — people from near and far wrote and called in support of or against such announcements, and the paper has been revisiting its policy. We have published thoughtful op-ed pieces on same-sex marriage from across the Jewish spectrum and have met with leading representatives of communal organizations such as the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which is Orthodox; the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is composed of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis; and with Jewish Queer Youth, a gay Orthodox group.

This has indeed been a “teachable moment,” and people across the area have been listening and talking to one another as never before about what it really means to be a diverse Jewish community. We have been listening as well, and will continue searching for a way to serve all segments of our community until we get it right.

 
 

‘Offensive’ flier mars Garfield school board elections

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An anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim flier, right, mailed to Garfield residents before last week’s school board elections, has prompted a call for investigation from the mayor and town council. The anonymous mailing attacked three school board candidates, none of whom was elected.

“This flier was a disgrace,” said Garfield Mayor Frank Calandriello. “It’s not symbolic of the people in our town.”

The mayor introduced a resolution, which passed unanimously at Tuesday’s town council meeting, requesting that “all appropriate” local, county, state, and federal agencies “investigate the preparation and distribution” of the flier. According to the resolution, the flier “is hateful, promotes racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes and is generally offensive.”

“It’s incredibly offensive,” said Etzion Neuer, New Jersey regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. “From beginning to end, this thing is disgusting.”

“This is reprehensible. Hitleresque,” said Jim Miller, the school board candidate who was portrayed on the flier wearing a yarmulke and Jewish star, alongside a picture of a menorah topped with Miller Beer bottles.

“I had hoped that our township would have reacted in kind to such vile filth…. My hope was that it would have turned the election,” said Miller, who is Jewish. “I don’t want to make a comment that would accuse anybody,” he added. “I want to find out who did it.”

It could not be determined how many residents received the mailing, but all were notified before the election.

“I actually had a robo-call to the city endorsing those three candidates,” said the mayor. “We quickly changed the wording to condemn the mailing.” He also raised the issue in a pre-election rally the day the fliers were received.

Sam Faltas, another candidate smeared by the flier, said, “I was just infuriated by the whole thing.”

Faltas, who was born in Egypt, is Christian, not Muslim as implied by the flier. He served in the U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm, he said.

“I want whoever did this to be held accountable and punished accordingly,” he said.

“The content made me sick to my stomach,” said Susan Nogaj, the third candidate on the flyer. “Garfield politics have always been dirty and mud-slinging but they’ve never reached this level.”

“If there’s any way to find out who did it, I would love to know,” said Patricia DiCostanzo, superintendent of elections for Bergen County, “Our hands are tied because there’s nothing really to go on.”

DiCostanzo said she had passed the flier on to the county prosecutor’s office for possible investigation.

“This is just so foul in my eyes, and unnecessary for a school board election,” she said.

Calls to the Bergen County Prosecutors Office were not returned.

Neuer of the ADL said the anti-Semitism behind the flier should not be extrapolated to brand Garfield as anti-Semitic.

“This particular election brought out the worst in somebody,” he said. “I don’t think it’s reflective of any broader sentiment in the town itself.”

Neuer said he could not recall any similar anti-Semitic campaign literature targeting a Jewish candidate in his five years in New Jersey.

 
 

High school students explore how to answer Israel’s critics on campus

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From left at Sunday’s proram are Rabbi Ely Allen, Adam Nudelman, Melanie Rice, and Hannah Marcus. Miriam Allenson

As teens get set to head to college, where they’re likely to discover that Israel issues push hot buttons and controversy rages around them, community leaders and teachers have been trying to prepare them for what they will see and hear. During a Sunday bagel brunch at Ma’ayanot, 100 high school juniors and seniors were led through exercises designed to teach them to respond effectively to Israel’s critics and provided with folders packed with information. Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, called the meeting “just the first step in a program that we hope will prepare students” when they are confronted by “anti-Israel protestors on campuses around the country.”

Etzion Neuer, director of the New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League, told the gathering of recent anti-Israel activities on college campuses. He said he’s aware that most students don’t focus on those things because they are too busy, but, he added, they should be prepared to hear versions of history about Israel that is different from the narrative they were taught, and they will need to respond properly. “You are going to have to know your history and learn how to get your message across,” he said. He also suggested that students speak about all the positive things that Israel offers the world, so as to stop framing Israel in terms of conflict.

The facilitators were Bess Adler, principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies; Avi Posnick, regional coordinator of Stand With Us, New York; Rabbis David Scher, who teaches at The Frisch School in Paramus, and Ely Allen, director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey; Sara Lewis, teen director at the JCC on the Palisades; and Yoel Kaplan, vice principal of BCHSJS. Each student was given a worksheet covering five scenarios — which turned out to be true — and assigned to a group. Each facilitator addressed each group speed dating style — after a 15-minute session, each group moved to another facilitator and situation.

Students in the “yellow” group followed by the Standard were from Fair Lawn, Paramus, Old Tappan, and Ridgewood. They were headed to SUNY Binghamton, Northeastern, Rutgers, Syracuse, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. The group also included a parent, Marci Spiro of Woodcliff Lake, whose children attend Frisch. She came to learn facts to teach her children, who would soon be off to college.

Allen’s session focused on a student rally against Israel with a small group of Jewish counter-protestors in Albuquerque, N.M. A Jewish student who felt the protests were relatively tame was interviewed by a reporter. When the story broke, more than 50 percent of the story was sympathetic to the anti-Israel protestors, not a single Israel supporter’s quote was used, and the Jewish students were portrayed as aggressive and intimidating. The interviewed student thought that was unfair and wanted to respond.

Allen asked the students what they would have said to the reporter and whether it was appropriate for student groups to sponsor such rallies. Students were also asked what they would have done if they had heard about the rally while it was in the planning stages, whether they would attend, even if it offended them, and why or why not. What would they tell the student who wanted to respond to the article?

Students were advised to learn Jewish history, to seek support from Jewish groups in the community, like the ADL and UJA, and respond to the newspaper reporter by writing letters to the editor and blog posts, as well as using other ways to send the message. Students were also advised to make short, to-the-point sound bites and to educate themselves about Israel.

One session dealt with the heckling of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine and another on what to do when you know a campus organization is sponsoring a guest speaker who preaches hatred. Scher asked students how they would respond if they blogged a pro-Israel message and received 30 comments loaded with threats like “We know where you live — you’d better watch your back.” Most said they would ignore the trolls. They were advised to file a report with the police and campus security.

A session led by Posnik of Stand With Us concerned a professor of “Politics in the Middle East” who sent an e-mail to all his students showing Jews lined up for the gas chambers one side of the screen and Arabs waiting at a checkpoint in Gaza on the other. Only one person in class was willing to openly disagree with him, but his term paper, worth 30 percent of his class grade, was due the following week and he worried about expressing his true opinion because he believed his professor would lower his grade.

The yellow group students suggested forwarding the professor’s e-mail to everyone until it went viral. Others said they wouldn’t do anything because they feared for their grades. Another suggested approaching the academic review committee if the student’s grade was lowered. The story was a true one, and the student did indeed forward the e-mail until it went viral. Two other students had dropped out of the class in protest, and the incident, which took place at UC Santa Barbara, is under investigation.

As each session ended, students were advised to make contact with local Jewish community groups when they were confronted by anti-Israel action and to join with other Jewish students and student groups.

When the workshops were over, Alyssa Walker of Pompton Lakes High School told The Jewish Standard, “It’s a new thing for me to have to deal with anti-Semitism that’s so extreme. It’s hard to know how to prepare for something so intense. But I need to know how to respond properly, because I believe in standing up for what I believe in. I can’t be an idle bystander, and this afternoon helped me start dealing with it.”

In addition to the JCRC, the New Jersey ADL, BCHSJS, Hillel, and Ma’ayanot, sponsors were the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism, Bergen County YJCC, Center for Israel Engagement of UJA-NNJ, Frisch, Jewish Educational Services of UJA-NNJ, Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, North Jersey Board of Rabbis, and Torah Academy of Bergen County.

 
 
 
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