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Water boys

Local family donates hydration packs to Israeli soldiers

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The Sklarin family of Teaneck donated “shlukers” to Israeli soldiers. Eli Sklarin is in the second row, fifth from right, as the hydration packs are given out. One Israel fund

Forty young men from a Beit Shemesh yeshiva met 40 young men from the Israel Defense Forces’ Dragon artillery battalion last Thursday.

The yeshiva students, including Eli Sklarin of Teaneck, had come to take part in the Sklarin family’s donation of 100 hydration packs (“shlukerim”) to the battalion. The soldiers, including 21-year-old former Teaneck resident David Englard, were mostly 18 and 19 like their visitors from Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim, a post-high school program.

“At the beginning, the two groups were standing apart awkwardly,” said Marc Prowisor, who facilitated the donation on behalf of One Israel Fund. “I described the project and then the company commander asked his guys to take the boys around and show how they live and what they do. You started seeing them getting closer, having conversations. You saw chemistry happening right before your eyes, even before the equipment was given out.”

This was exactly what the yeshiva’s director of student affairs, Teaneck native Rabbi Moshe Benovitz, was hoping for. When Susan Sklarin had approached him to get permission for Eli to come to the base for the occasion, he’d responded that he would send a whole busload.

“It was a really exciting opportunity for our students to see with their own eyes what is going on with young men their own age in Israel,” said Benovitz. “Talking about it in the classroom is one thing, but seeing it for themselves is invaluable and goes beyond what we can communicate with words.”

Though the yeshiva has 95 first-year students, Benovitz chose 40 so that the experience could be more interactive. As it happened, about 40 soldiers were available at the time of the presentation because others were on patrol. Accordingly, each visitor presented a shluker to a soldier from the lot of 100 that the Sklarins donated.

“The soldiers started looking for anything to give back,” said Prowisor. “They were ripping off emblems from their uniforms and saying, ‘Here, take this to remember us.’ It was so special to watch them connecting, and it’s so good for the yeshiva students to see what a strong people we are.”

Susan Sklarin explained that Englard’s mother, Zahava, is a close family friend. “When Zahava was in Teaneck in November, she showed us a One Israel Fund video of a family presenting shlukers, and I thought of David, and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I can’t think of anything better than doing something to make a soldier’s life easier, and water is the most crucial thing for them.”

According to the OneIsraelFund.org, the shluker (from the Hebrew word “to sip”) is a thin, lightweight pouch that fits inside a pack and carries up to three liters of water. It’s equipped with a straw-like dispenser that allows for quick, safe hydration, unlike cumbersome canteens. This is essential for combat soldiers carrying up to 80 pounds of gear on their bodies.

Prowisor, a former paratrooper who grew up in Philadelphia, said he is always seeking ways to foster Jewish unity on spiritual and physical levels. Before the Gaza war last January, he thought of the hydration packs when a family visiting for their son’s bar mitzvah wanted to do something special for the IDF troops.

“Water is a common denominator,” said Prowisor. “The shluker has become an important part of a soldier’s life. The army gives them out, but for whatever reason they don’t supply enough of them.” In fact, the IDF came under heavy criticism for not supplying enough water to troops during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Prowisor said he coordinates the donations with the IDF, and all the Israeli companies that supply the raw materials for the packs provide discounts or other services to facilitate the donations.

Thus far, about 1,800 shlukerim, at $36 apiece, have been donated through One Israel Fund. “Sometimes people donate one, some people donate many,” said Prowisor.

Zahava Englard, who also came to the presentation, said she was touched by seeing how Susan Sklarin spoke in simple Hebrew to each of the boys in David’s unit.

“I truly believe that it raises the morale of all the soldiers to know that Jews outside of Israel think of them, worry about them, and want to make sure that, at the very least, they are provided with water when they are out in the field and out in battle,” Englard said.

See http://www.wejew.com/media/6849/One_Israel_Fund_Shluker_IDF_Water/ for a video of a shluker presentation in Israel.

 
 

Speaker will discuss threats to Israel

Lt. Amit Shuker served for six years as a company commander in the Israel Defense Forces.

Visiting the United States during the second intifida, he saw “a huge gap of understanding and knowledge” between what was going on in the field and what the media were reporting.

In response, Shuker — who will speak to the men’s club of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley on Sunday, Feb. 7 — created a multimedia presentation setting the record straight.

“I try not to get into politics,” said Shuker, who now lives in the United States. “The main reason for the presentation is to explain to people the different threats Israel faces.”

Shuker said he breaks down each threat into easily understandable components, so that listeners will be better able to understand why the IDF takes the actions it does, “why they do ‘A’ and not ‘B.’”

While the media may ask a retired general to speak on behalf of Israeli actions, “there’s a huge gap between what he knows and the average Joe knows. He speaks at too high a level, so people are getting lost.”

Dealing with Hezbollah, for example, Shuker will explain “why it is so hard to penetrate that organization. I’ll talk about who they are and how they train,” he said. “I’ll also explain why they are successful.”

During his presentation, he will also speak about the threat from Egypt, “even with the peace agreement,” and about Syria, which aids Hezbollah.

“There will be a big piece about Iran,” he said, “how they sponsor terrorism and how they ship weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas. All of this is public information,” he added. “Nothing is secret.”

Shuker said he presents so much information that some synagogues have chosen to have him come more than once, presenting the data in smaller installments.

“At the end of the presentation, [listeners] must understand the basics, so when the IDF operates, [people] can tell if the media is speaking the truth.”

Often it does not, he said, attributing the errors to bias.

“During the last operation in Gaza, Israel was accused of killing innocent people,” he said. “But they were killed because Hamas has a system of hiding its people among civilians. They shoot rockets from schools and hospitals [and have] operatives dressed as doctors.”

He recalled that during Operation Cast Lead, “One Hamas leader tried to pass between two buildings by holding a child. This is not being told in the world media.”

Shuker said “the IDF really tries to eliminate hurting innocent people.”

As a company commander, he learned — and taught others — about “the purity of arms.” Quoting from the IDF’s ethical code of conduct, Shuker said the phrase means that “the soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor, and property.”

Shuker added, however, that especially during a war, it is hard to distinguish between who is innocent and who is not when dealing with terrorists.

“They’re not wearing uniforms,” he said, noting that during the Gaza campaign, Hamas stored its weapons in different houses and passed from house to house “as civilians.”

“Hamas says 1,000 innocent citizens were killed by the IDF; but [they] were not innocent. They were terrorists, warriors, soldiers. They just have different techniques.”

Shuker said he realized during the Second Lebanon War that “the media made many mistakes in their reporting because they didn’t understand the geography and the conflict. I want to educate people so they understand what’s going on.”

For more information, call (201) 391-0801 or visit www.temple-emanuelpv.org.

 
 

A matter of convenience

 

Local town affirms support for Israel

The Fair Lawn Borough Council passed a non-binding, non-partisan resolution Tuesday night supporting Israel’s right to defend itself.

Sponsored by Fair Lawn resident Sam Heller, a member of Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation, the resolution had been moved to the top of the council’s agenda at its working session last Tuesday.

According to Heller, the idea came to him when he was driving home from Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, where he is a volunteer. The resolution — which includes a concise history of the State of Israel and describes in detail acts of terrorism by Hamas — states that Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza to prevent Hamas from getting materials to use against Israel and other parties. It further states that only after cargoes are inspected may humanitarian aid supplies pass through to Gaza.

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Sam Heller

Citing recent events and describing what happened when Israel Defense Forces soldiers tried to board the sixth ship in the flotilla from Turkey, the conclusion of the one-page resolution read, “We therefore resolve to demonstrate our support for Israel during this crisis in its efforts to control its borders and protect its people.”

Councilman Edward J. Trawinski said that passage of the resolution would be “the proverbial no-brainer” and that once it passed, it should be sent to Sens. Lautenberg and Menendez and Rep. Steven Rothman. Trawinski, a Republican, also asked that the resolution be amended to contain a statement that President Obama be called upon “to reverse his anti-Israel stand.”

Heller insisted, however, that his intention was to create a non-partisan resolution. A compromise was proposed in which wording would be included calling upon the president to speak out in support of Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of ongoing terrorism. The proposal was accepted and included in the original resolution.

Heller later told The Jewish Standard that some of his supporters felt that the language he used was not strong enough in condemning the administration for its policies on Israel.

“But that’s not what I wanted,” he said. “I learned from NORPAC that the non-partisan approach works best. That’s why I first approached the Democratic councilman, Steven Weinstein, and asked him to introduce the resolution.” Heller is a registered Republican who left the Democratic Party to vote for Ronald Reagan.

He also approached Jeanne Baratta, a Republican, and Trawinski and told them that he sought a non-partisan statement.

“I’m really surprised it went so fast,” he said, “and I am glad it happened in a non-partisan way. My personal views are stronger than those expressed in the resolution, but that is not what this is about. I also wanted to add something about Gilad Shalit and what was really happening in Turkey, but this couldn’t become a history lesson. I wanted to keep it short and sweet, so people would accept it.”

Asked if he was worried that anti-Israel demonstrators might show up at the council meeting to create an incident, Heller said he was very careful in sending out his information.

“I am an advocate for Israel trying to win the PR war for Israel. I count this as one for the good guys. Yes, it took some political skill, but a win is a win. That is how I see it.”

 
 

With school controversy, secular-haredi tensions reach boiling point

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Haredi children protest opposite the Ramle prison, where a group of haredi parents were jailed June 18 for defying a court order to send their daughters to a school in Emanuel. Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90/JTA

The showdown between Israel’s Supreme Court and the parents of students at a haredi Orthodox school found guilty of discriminatory practices against Sephardic girls has brought already strained secular-religious relations in Israel to a fever pitch.

A remark by Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy that the court’s decisions are not subject to rabbinical approval went straight to the heart of the matter, with irate haredi demonstrators declaring that if they had to choose between the court and their rabbis, the rabbis always would come first.

The fundamental argument over whether the courts or the rabbis have the ultimate authority reflects a long-standing clash between Theodor Herzl’s vision of a secular democratic state for the Jews and haredi notions of a Jewish state subject to rabbinical law.

For secular Israelis, impugning the authority of the courts means anarchy. For the haredim, overriding rabbinical rulings means perverting God’s will. At issue is a test of the capacity of the Zionist, secular state to impose its will on a large group of haredim who often are derisive of its democratic, secular institutions.

The latest angry confrontation between the state and the haredim began with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in April ordering a school run by Ashkenazi Slonim chasidim in the west bank settlement of Emanuel to stop excluding Sephardic girls from their regular classes.

In the state’s view, the practice constituted a form of intolerable segregation and violated basic principles of equality and human dignity. The offending Beit Yaakov school agreed to more mixed classes.

But rather than comply, the Ashkenazi parents started their own school next door. They argued that the segregation wasn’t ethnic but religious. The Sephardic girls, they said, came from homes less strictly observant than their Ashkenazi daughters — for example, homes with television sets and Internet connections — and they didn’t want their daughters influenced by those who were less religious. They said Sephardic girls were welcome at the Ashkenazi-dominated school if they met the standards for stricter religious observance.

The court ordered the parents to send their children back to Beit Yaakov or face fines. The parents ignored the court order and didn’t pay the fines. The court found them guilty of contempt and ordered that they be sent to jail for an initial two-week period to reconsider their position.

Amid defiant singing and dancing, 35 of the 38 fathers went to jail last week. The mothers failed to report for their prison terms on the grounds that they needed to be home to look after their younger children.

There are conflicting accounts over what caused the brouhaha and what it means.

The Slonim chasidim say that in a true democracy, they should have the right to educate their children in any way they please. They say the Israeli state, like the Romans and Greeks before them, is interfering in matters of religious principle. Just like their ancestors, they say, they’d rather face punishment than compromise their religious beliefs. In the chasidic account, the parents’ going to jail was presented as a form of martyrdom, showing up the inhumanity, lack of values, and wanton persecution of the haredi Orthodox by the secular Israeli state.

Secular Israelis see things quite differently. Many regard the Emanuel school case as a reflection of a much wider phenomenon, that of the haredim milking the state for funds without accepting its authority or performing the ultimate duty of Israeli citizenship: army service.

Haredi schools are largely state-funded but do not teach the country’s core curriculum. The secular press in Israel has been inundated with articles blasting the haredim for defying the state’s authority while tapping into its budgets for health, education, and welfare. Nowhere else in the world would haredi Jews have the temerity to behave this way, the secularists say; nowhere else would they defy state law or mock the Supreme Court.

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Before a father’s incarceration for defying a court order to send his daughter to a school in Emanuel, he tries to console his crying child. Abir Sultan/Flash90 /JTA

Many see the standoff as a test of strength the liberal democratic state cannot afford to lose.

“Don’t give in to Emanuel,” the liberal daily Haaretz exhorted in an editorial.

“We must not surrender,” echoed journalist Yair Lapid, who reportedly is on the brink of launching an anti-clerical successor party to Shinui, the party once led by his late father, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid.

The Orthodox-Sephardic Shas Party was more ambivalent. Shas was created in the mid-1980s to combat Ashkenazi discrimination against Sephardim, so it might have been expected to take up the cause of the Sephardic students and families. But to do so would have seemed like siding with the Supreme Court, which is anathema for Shas. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, resolved the dilemma by coming out against discrimination, but more strongly against taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“Anyone who appeals to the secular courts will have no share in the world to come,” Yosef declared.

Other recent rulings by the Supreme Court have compounded the strains between the haredim and the state, as well as a string of violent clashes between haredi demonstrators and police. In mid-June, the Supreme Court ruled against state stipends for married yeshiva students on the grounds that similar stipends for married university students were abolished in 2000. A seven-member panel ruled that this constituted a violation of the principle of equality in the distribution of public funds. Either all married students should get the stipend or none, the court ruled.

Shas leader Eli Yishai has vowed to introduce legislation to overrule the Supreme Court decision.

The ruling was seen as a major blow to the haredim, many of whom choose to study Torah rather than work for a living. This exempts them from mandatory army service.

The haredim also clashed recently with police during demonstrations against building on sites where ancient bones are believed to be buried. These often violent protests were led by a small radical group in the haredi camp known as the Atra Kadisha. In May there were clashes over the removal of bones — believed to be pagan — from the site of a new rocket-proof emergency room at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon; in June there were protests in Jaffa over bones at the construction site of a boutique hotel.

For its part, the Israel Defense Forces is considering launching a new plan that would allow more yeshiva students to enlist and more yet to join the labor force. At present, yeshiva students must remain in school until middle age in order to stay out of the army.

Meanwhile, with the basis of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a strategic alliance between Likud and Shas, government ministers have had very little to say on the Emanuel school brouhaha for fear of upsetting their haredi coalition partners. But it also means that Shas is unlikely to do anything that could topple the government.

If tensions remain high, it could strengthen secular parties in the Knesset willing to take a stand against the haredim. That’s what happened in 2003, when Shinui won 15 seats. But three years later it lost the seats when members defected to other parties.

Whether the current haredi-secular tensions will translate into a political shift, and whether that could be sustained, remains to be seen.

JTA

 
 

Leon Blankrot, Chief cook and bottle washer helps supply Israeli soldiers

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Jon Bendavid, far right, of the men’s club of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, stands with sailors thanking the shul for a donation of 100 fleece jackets to a patrol boat division in charge of the northern waters, 100 thermal suits to a search and rescue unit, and 100 sweatshirts (the only allowable outerwear) for a submarine unit.

Winding his way up the hills of Samaria in the west bank, Leon Blankrot points toward a red sign warning Israeli drivers not to venture into the Palestinian territory beyond. Few Israelis can do so legally — among them, Israel Defense Forces personnel and Leon Blankrot.

A North Bergen native who moved to Israel from Passaic in 1995, Blankrot refers to himself as “chief cook and bottle washer” for Yashar L’Chayal (Straight to the Soldier). He’s been visiting Passaic and Teaneck as he kicks off the group’s annual warm winter-wear campaign, but will not be making any formal presentations.

Blankrot prefers to work behind the scenes. Each week, he drives to border army installations and in areas under the Palestinian Authority, delivering donated items that the IDF cannot or will not provide to its fighting forces. His trunk is filled with anything from blankets to toasters on any given day.

Blankrot, 49, doesn’t frequent the showcase IDF bases that other soldier-welfare organizations bring foreign visitors to see. These aren’t the ones whose commanders call him with desperate requests for, say, hydration backpacks or warm socks — even a pair of tefillin.

Beyond that red sign is one such base, set up in an abandoned factory. “There are rooms without windows, and it’s freezing cold at night,” says Blankrot, who enters the base periodically with an army escort.

On another base where Israeli civilians are prohibited, Blankrot spotted border patrol soldiers in full battle gear sleeping on the pavement at 9 a.m., with their heads on their helmets. “Turns out, these guys came from an overnight patrol and their rooms were too hot, so they slept on the cold sidewalk. We came back and gave out 13 air conditioners.” He pauses for emphasis. “I don’t give out fluff.”

Blankrot asked one supporter for a donation toward bathrobes for soldiers whom he’d seen running across the way from their barracks to the showers, in mid-winter, wearing only towels. “These soldiers, most of them Ethiopians, cannot afford such luxuries, and they cannot ask the army to provide them.”

Yashar L’Chayal was an outgrowth of Blankrot’s volunteering during the 2006 Lebanon war. A fellow congregant at his synagogue in Ma’aleh Adumim had received $250,000 from the Florida-based Cherna Moskowitz Foundation to help soldiers during that hot summer war. Blankrot took a month off from work, recruited additional volunteers, and began toting vanloads of supplies to the north.

“I went through $200,000 in a couple of weeks,” he recalls. “I’d make up to two trips a day to the Lebanese border. I’d speak to officers and quartermasters — the Radar O’Reillys of the base — to tell me what was needed. The list of things we gave out included drinking water and thousands of pairs of underwear.”

The connections he forged made Blankrot the logical choice to head a more permanent effort to assist Israeli combat soldiers. Despite the work of existing organizations, Blankrot uncovered supply gaps among lesser-known combat units, including infantry, tank, engineering, paratroop, and artillery brigades. He also aids “lone soldiers” — who have no family in Israel — and visits wounded fighters and their families.

“Yashar L’Chayal is built so every penny goes to soldiers’ individual needs, something nobody else is doing,” said Blankrot, who is now in his fourth year of a five-year contract.

Mostly, Blankrot supplies low-ticket items that parents with any sort of means could buy at the mall for their soldier children: neck warmers, fleece jackets, and gloves; $22 “shlooker” water backpacks; $19 thermal rain gear; toasters for members of a religious brigade living in hostels or boarding with families.

“We give out thousands of fleece jackets and a lot of long underwear,” says Blankrot. “I always do my due diligence to make sure these things are not being provided by the army or any other organization, and I make sure donors get recognition. I try to get the biggest bang for the buck.”

Just before Passover 2009, Blankrot learned that 24 Golani Brigade infantry troops’ families lacked refrigerators, and he supplied them.

“Everything I purchase is made in Israel,” he says. “Donors always ask me if they can send underwear on sale at Wal-Mart or Target, but the army has specific regulations regarding color and thread count. That’s hard for Americans to understand.”

It’s also hard for Americans to grasp the level of poverty in which many soldiers live despite the token pay they receive.

“At training bases, I set up closets where indigent soldiers can get shampoo, soap, towels, underwear,” says Blankrot. “Probably about a quarter of Israel’s combat soldiers are in this situation, including a lot of Ethiopians and Russians. If a kid doesn’t have money, he can’t even get a dog-tag cover.”

Blankrot brings visitors to a base in Kochav Yaakov, a Samarian town strategically overlooking Ramallah. Here, soldiers in a company of the Kfir brigade — established after the intifada to serve in the west bank — serve in six-month rotations.

“Conditions here are not horrible, but there is a lot to be done,” says Blankrot, speaking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping soldiers who just returned from a 12-hour patrol.

There is a mobile synagogue, and a trailer-cum-clubhouse supplied by from Friends of the IDF. Blankrot has brought blankets in the winter and air-conditioners in the summer. He’s brought curtains to black out the windows so the young men can sleep better during the daytime.

Showing a thank-you letter from the IDF’s head of human resources, Blankrot says that Israel’s military leadership gives Yashar L’Chayal ample recognition for its work.

Some American synagogues, including Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, contribute to the organization. Blankrot also partners with the Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel on some projects. For more information, see www.yasharlachayal.org.

 
 
 
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