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Campaign launched to locate Shoah victims’ heirs

So far, nobody in New Jersey has responded to a search launched earlier this month for beneficiaries of some 55,000 unclaimed Israeli-based bank accounts, properties, and shares bought before World War II. But board members of the Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets in Israel are hopeful that many North Americans will claim what is rightfully theirs in response to a media campaign targeting Jewish communities.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of Jews took an active part in supporting the Zionist dream by investing in what was then Palestine. Following the devastation of European Jewry, many of these assets were never claimed. The RHVA, set up by the State of Israel in 2006, catalogues and collects the assets and seeks heirs of the original investors. Its Website (http://www.hashava.org.il/eng) contains instructions on submitting an application to request restitution of an asset on its list.

“With the start of our initiative in North America, we also have opened a 24-hour hotline,” said Zvi Kanor, CEO of the organization. The number is +972-3-516-4117.

The RHVA board includes three members from the Ministry of Justice and six from the private sector. Its operating budget is 2 percent per year of assets identified and collected, with the aim of reducing the budget each year until all possible assets are claimed.

Kanor explained that the RHVA is still adding to its list of unclaimed properties and accounts, which include shares from the Jewish Colonial Trust (the parent company of the Anglo Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi) as well as other Israeli financial institutions. “Within the coming three to four years, we anticipate finding all the assets in Israel,” he said.

The RHVA is working with Prof. Yossi Katz, chairman for Jewish National Fund Studies at Bar-Ilan University, whose four books on the subject include “The Business of Settlement: Private Entrepreneurship in the Jewish Settlement of Palestine, 1900-1914.” After the British Mandate, some of the unclaimed properties were turned over to the JNF.

“Gathering all the information was a big task and a big problem,” said Kanor. “Some of the documents of one company involved were destroyed in a fire in 1955.” The RHVA also drew on resources of Yad Vashem-Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority and hired two outsourcing companies to track down unclaimed bank accounts. The organization is in arbitration with Bank Leumi.

“Bank Hapoalim and Mercantile Bank have already returned the money, but not yet the stocks because it’s difficult to determine their worth today,” said Kanor. “I believe within two months we should know their value. We are also trying to get to assets held by two other banks, Mizrachi and Mercantile Discount.”

“After finding all the assets, we still have to find all those entitled to them,” Kanor continued. “We will not close until then.”

Within Israel, only about 12 to 13 percent of the recovered assets were claimed. The rest benefited Holocaust survivors. “We allocated more than 120 million shekels [equivalent to $32.3 million] to Holocaust victims in 2010,” he said.

After the North American launch of the project is established, Kanor expects to move the initiative to other countries where large numbers of Jews lived before the war.

 
 

Norwood couple funds Israeli park in memory of Shoah victim grandparents

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Esti Goldwasser, right, presents a Bible to Ben and Susan Gutmann at the dedication of a park honoring Ben Gutmann’s grandparents, who died at Auschwitz.

Standing on the railroad tracks that had carried his grandparents to their deaths at Auschwitz, Norwood resident Ben Gutmann could not help comparing their situations. “I realized with a jolt that we both stood on the platform at the same age, but I walked out of there and they didn’t,” he said.

Five years later, he and a troupe of family and friends watched Israeli children playing in the park dedicated to Benno and Hedwig Gutmann, the grandparents he never knew.

The trip to Israel earlier this year, with the park dedication as its emotional centerpiece, celebrated Gutmann’s 60th birthday. Gutmann told The Jewish Standard that he felt the most fitting way to mark this milestone and honor his paternal grandparents — murdered by the Nazis when they were just 58 and 52 — was creating a symbol of Jewish vibrancy.

President of the Jewish National Fund’s Northern New Jersey Board, Gutmann and his wife, Susan, last year scouted out an appropriate project among several JNF proposals in Israel. “They showed us places in the Negev and then took us to Nofey Prat, where 3-year-olds greeted us singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and waving flags out in the cold,” recalled Gutmann.

The 140-family Judean Desert village was established in 1992 by a group of Hebrew University students for a mixed secular and religious population. Though it lies on the west bank side of the “Green Line,” Gutmann said he and JNF chose the location not to make a political statement but to help build Israel.

“We fell in love with the community,” said Gutmann. “A mother came over to us and said they needed a park. It’s really hard to say no to that.”

Over Presidents Week, a contingent of 49 friends and relatives came to Israel to fete Gutmann. The roster included his two sisters as well as his brother Harold from River Vale; his son Andrew and his wife, Julie, and daughter, Lauren, from Manhattan; his son Samuel and his wife, Jenna, from Boston; and the parents of both daughters-in-law. Jenna Gutmann’s parents, Robert and Joan Oppenheimer, and grandmother, Marianne Lawton, flew in from Cliffside Park. Another 70 well-wishers in Israel joined them at a birthday party in Jaffa.

Two busloads of Gutmann guests arrived at Nofey Prat, where JNF America CEO Russell Robinson presided as the couple unveiled the dedication plaque and planted a tree. “Our 18-month-old granddaughter ran off the bus right to the playground. That was very moving,” said Gutmann. “People treated me as if I were a major personality. Mothers wanted to take my picture with their babies. I felt like a rock star.”

Local children sang “Happy Birthday” in English and Hebrew, and shared a birthday cake with Gutmann. Community spokeswoman Esti Goldwasser presented the couple with two leather-bound Bibles embossed with the impression of a coin found near Jericho featuring the words “peace on Israel.”

“The local residents clearly appreciate the new park,” said Gutmann. “They’re hoping it will entice more people to come to Nofey Prat. There were so many children running around the playground and I hope they still are, because that’s what makes it a living memorial.”

 
 

Sderot, besieged by bombing, JNF provides cutting-edge protection

The mayor of Sderot, David Bouskila, and the award-winning journalist Linda Scherzer were guest speakers at a Jewish National Fund event held last week at the Englewood home of Doryne and Milton Davis. More than 40 people gathered there to learn about the current “matzav” (the situation) in the border town, a target of 8,600 Hamas rockets since 2001 — with 28 deaths reported by 2009, hundreds injured, millions in property damage, and thousands of people, including 3,000 children, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sderot has a population of approximately 22,000. At the end of 2008, the mayor reported, 10 to 15 percent of the population had fled — the average number of missiles that landed in the city daily was nine. Today, said Bouskila, the town enjoys a period of relative calm; only one or two missiles land every other day, and people have begun to move back to the city.

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JNF’s Bob Levine, left, stands with Sderot Mayor David Bouskila during a JNF gathering last week. Jeanette Friedman

Teaneck resident Bob Levine, JNF’s vice president of education, noted that a 21,000 square-foot, bomb-proof facility is protecting hundreds of children and senior citizens daily. It was built as a giant recreation center to provide children with a state-of-the-art safe play space/social center so that they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to a conventional bomb shelter within 15 seconds — the time between the sirens going off and the rockets landing.

Bouskila said that 75 percent of the children suffer from PSTD. “They may never be like other children,” he continued. “They lost their childhood, they worry about the situation and their parents and they don’t know what to do….

“Our children study in a democratic society with values of human rights … but the terrorists use human shields so civilians die. Yet that is not the point. It is the media. We are not popular in the international media. It is impossible to be strong and popular at the same time — we have to be underdogs. But if we become weak, we will be destroyed.”

Linda Scherzer, who made a presentation before the mayor spoke, had been on the Middle East beat for eight years and connected to Sderot as part of the Bergen County Jewish community in 2008, when a group of local women arranged to bring 40 traumatized kids from Sderot to summer camp in the United States.

Scherzer, a former Mideast correspondent for CNN, described today’s relative calm as a “hudna,” defining that Arabic word, often translated as “ceasefire,” as a time to rearm and prepare for more war. She said she’d learned from the Palestinians she covered in the west bank and Gaza that they had generational patience, that they felt that their turn would come eventually. As for Iran, she said, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is two years closer to his nuclear bomb, while he arms terrorists on Israel’s borders. “The extremists will tell you to your face they have no interest in peace,” she said. “They are willing to wait. They understand that if their grandchildren won’t see it, then their great-great-great-grandchildren will replace the [Jewish] state with a fundamentalist religion. Their numbers have grown and their ideology is consistent. What you see is what you get.”

What is far more troubling, she said, is the callous indifference of the international community and how everyone heaps calumny upon Israel. She wondered aloud if the media are to blame for this attitude and why it was not aimed at Sudan, Libya, Iran, and other regimes that ignore human rights.

But she feels the media are generally honest, with a fair degree of integrity. “It takes journalists a while to get up to speed,” she said, “but the Palestinians have convinced the world that they are the real victims. They know they are no match for Israel’s army, so they confront [it] on the airwaves [and] in a public relations war where they embed their fighters in civilian populations. Then they aim at Israeli civilians, knowing eventually the army will respond, and the images that result from that are compelling; they are filled with tremendous pain, and they make the pain on the Israeli side look like nothing.”

Scherzer told of a doctor, a Holocaust survivor, who was in her clinic in Ashkelon during an attack and was disfigured. At a U.N. panel discussion in Geneva, one of the panelists said to the doctor, “I feel sorry for you, but it in no way does it make up for the horror Israel inflicts on Gaza.”

The mayor thanked the JNF and American Jewish community for what they have done for the children of Sderot and added, “It’s not just about the children. JNF also built us a reservoir that provides water to all the farms around Sderot and gives life to the area. People who left are coming back and starting to buy houses and apartments. No one should believe that if we leave Sderot, there will be peace. We left Gaza, and nothing changed. We will not leave, because next it will be Ashkelon. We are in Israel proper, not in a settlement. Bibi came to visit, and played with the children. We are proud, because I bring world leaders to the recreation center and show them how the American people built it for our children. When Obama came to Sderot he said that if his daughters were in town, he wouldn’t let them sleep there.” Quoting the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, he said, “We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

To raise funds for the shelter and other projects in Sderot, JNF is selling steel tulips for $1,000 a piece. Conceived and designed by soldier/artist Eldor Levy of the Givati Brigade, they are made from Kassam rockets that landed in Sderot. Bouskila said, “When a deadly weapon is transformed into a beautiful flower, it makes a powerful statement for peace. You touch the metal that was meant to kill. Now we can sell it to give life. This is our wish — to teach people to love.”

 
 

American Jews plan relief efforts in wake of Israeli blaze

With Israel in desperate need of aid to fight the fire ravaging its north last week, countries from four continents sent help, including those with whom Israel has been at odds lately, such as Turkey.

Now that the fire is out, the question is what will Israel’s close friends, the American Jewish community, do to aid in the recovery process?

Damage estimates are ranging as high as $75 million, and the American Jewish community has opened fund-raising mailboxes, started as emergency campaigns while the blaze was still burning.

The national branches of the three largest U.S. Jewish religious denominations launched fire assistance funds and asked their rabbis to address the topic in their sermons last Shabbat. Dozens of the country’s largest organizations, including the Jewish federation system, the American Jewish Committee, and B’nai B’rith International, also started funds.

The heaviest lifting in the nonprofit world likely will be done by the Jewish National Fund, which since Israel’s founding has been responsible for the forestation of the country.

With some 12,000 acres scorched and an estimated 5 million trees burned, the JNF has launched a $10 million campaign to be split between reforestation and other causes, such as rebuilding tourism in the area. In less than a week, JNF had raised nearly $2 million in cash and pledges. A number of organizations, such as Hadassah, have pledged to help JNF pay for more trees.

Reforesting the area will be a slow process, according to the JNF’s director of forestry for the northern region, Omri Bonneh. For the first year, JNF says it won’t plant any trees, allowing the land to replenish itself.

It’s not clear how much the American Jewish organizations’ total campaign will be; in some cases it’s not yet clear where the money will go.

The American Jewish Committee pledged $100,000 for reforestation, saying it will plant 10,000 trees to commemorate the 42 people — mostly police cadets from the Israeli Prisons Service — killed in the wildfire.

B’nai B’rith International, which by Tuesday had collected $12,000, will use the money to address unmet needs, according to its vice president of programming, Rhonda Love.

Last week, Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, deployed hundreds of medics, paramedics, emergency vehicles, and volunteers to the scene of the fire. Its American fund-raising arm, the American Friends of the Magen David Adom, had raised about $150,000 online since the fire broke out, according to its director of marketing, Robert Kern.

A number of organizations are focusing on helping Yemin Orde, a youth village for immigrants to Israel that was 40 percent destroyed in the fire.

Hadassah is providing space for 500 families dislocated by the fire by opening several youth villages with which it is associated. The Jewish Agency for Israel has made space in its facilities for Yemin Orde to continue operating.

The two overseas arms of the North American federation system have been on the ground since the fire began. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped out in the evacuation of residents and supplied emergency needs such as food and blankets. Now the JDC is planning to provide programs for the disabled, psycho-social support, and emergency preparedness, according to spokesman Michael Geller.

The Jewish Agency brought hundreds of children from the stricken area to Tel Aviv for respite, and planned to bring 4,000 by the end of Chanukah.

JDC and the Jewish Agency also are working on coordinating youth volunteers. In the long term, the fire could provide the Jewish Agency with an opportunity to test the value of a new strategic plan that places more emphasis on creating volunteer opportunities in Israel.

The agency has proposed a plan to focus volunteer mentors on the Druze town of Tirat HaCarmel, a development town near Haifa that was evacuated during the fire. Agency officials also have talked to the Jewish Federations of North America about creating, through the agency’s MASA program, a project to bring diaspora Jews to help in rehabilitating the animal wildlife in Israel’s north, according to Jewish Agency director general Alan Hoffmann. JFNA will be recommending programs to member federations that will assist both Jewish and Arab communities affected by the fires. This will include immediate relief that will address issues of evacuees and respite activities for children and youth, trauma relief, and professional support to professionals and volunteers. Long-term relief efforts are being assessed.

Jewish Agency officials also said they would like to set up a fund for grants to victims of the fire, much like the fund it has for victims of terror that gives out up to $35,000 to individuals and families affected by terrorism.

How much exactly the JDC and Jewish Agency will be able to do in the long run will be determined largely by how much the federations are able to raise for them. That’s not yet clear, though insiders said the federations would probably allocate approximately $2 million.

Their campaign received an early boost when the JUF-Jewish Federation of Greater Chicago immediately pledged $500,000 of its own money for the JDC and Jewish Agency’s fire relief efforts.

The question is whether money will continue to come in now that the fire has been extinguished.

“It is clear that when the fires stop burning, also the flames of philanthropy tend to die down,” Hoffman said. “But there are clear needs that have been created here. The question is how can world Jewry play a part in restoring this place to where it was before, and that will require resources.”

Use any of the links below to donate to a variety of emergency campaigns established in the wake of Israel’s devastating forest fire.

American Friends of the Magen David Adom, Israeli Red Cross: www.afmda.org

America Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: www.jdc.org

American Friends of Yemin Orde: www.yeminorde.org

B’nai B’rith Israel Emergency Fund: www.bnaibrith.org

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews: www.ifcj.org

Jewish Agency for Israel: www.jafi.org

Jewish Federations of North America: www.jewishfederations.org

Jewish National Fund, Forest Fire Emergency Fund: www.jnf.org

JStreet and the New Israel Fund: www.jstreet.org

Organizations of the Conservative/Masorti movement in North America: www.uscj.org

ORT America: www.ortamerica.org

Orthodox Union emergency fund: www.ou.org

Union for Reform Judaism and ARZA: www.urj.org

Young Israel charity fund: www.youngisrael.org

Zaka, a recovery and identification organization: www.zaka.us

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Returning food to its rightful place: Eating disorders in the Jewish community

This piece is excerpted from Rabbi Zlotnick’s chapter in “A Sacred Table” (CCAR Press).

[M]any of us were raised with the philosophy that it is always better to have too much rather than too little food at a special event. Holiday tables are laden with dish upon dish placed before the family, while relatives urge one another to “Eat, eat!” Some people speculate that this phenomenon may be attributed to our history, during much of which we experienced periods of dire deprivation and starvation….

Perhaps the power of Jewish history subconsciously plays itself out every time we gather with food as our centerpiece.

This sets the scene for eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating / compulsive overeating) to become silent yet destructive forces in our families and our community….

Jews, especially but not exclusively Jewish women, are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. People who are high achieving, well educated, and middle class are more susceptible to eating disorders than other people are. And this is often an accurate description of many of our families in Reform congregations.

Those who work in the field of eating disorders insist that … [e]ating disorders are not about food. They are about emotions and psychological wellbeing…. Hunger and nourishment are no longer connected to the nutritional value of the food on the plate but to meeting emotional needs that are not satisfied in other ways….

Occasions on which families gather for the Jewish holidays can be particularly nerve-racking for people with eating disorders. With every course, family members make comments and suggestions: “Try the kugel”; “Oh, take another piece. You can afford it”; “Sweetie, you’ve had enough dessert.”

…Anorexics often regard Yom Kippur as a day of licit fasting, a day in which everyone else experiences the “high” of self-starvation. For binge eaters, the overabundance of sweets at an Oneg Shabbat can be both tempting and painful. Passover seders, Yom Kippur break-fasts, and Chanukah latke-eating parties can all be extremely anxiety-provoking for those with eating disorders. Yet family members at these events often do not even realize that their loved one is counting calories, pushing food around on the plate, running to the bathroom to vomit, or inspecting each bite that everyone else is taking…. Jewish families have a difficult time accepting that a loved one is self-destructive.…

As a community, we have begun to chip away at the denial that compels us to say “not my loved one” or “not in my synagogue” when we see someone engaged in self-destructive behaviors….

Jewish values can pave the way to a healthy relationship to food and nourishment. Our Sages teach that in each generation since the destruction of the Temple, every table in every Jewish home has become an altar — that is, a center for the sacred in our lives. Judaism emphasizes that food should be enjoyed as one of the gifts of Creation, but it should be enjoyed in moderation…. According to tradition, every meal begins and ends with a b’rachah, a blessing, of gratitude for the food we are about to eat, which enables us to live, to work, and to love. Kashrut can also be a means to attaining a deeper reverence for the way in which we nourish ourselves, leading to an experience of wholeness in the world….

In Judaism, we believe that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim — in God’s image. For people with eating disorders, this belief has been submerged. As a community, we can help return a sense of their own sacredness to people with eating disorders by being sensitive to their needs at family and temple events, by focusing on who people are rather than how they look, and by reaching out to the entire family, not just the individual with the eating disorder. Together we can return food to its rightful place: not as a weapon that our loved ones use to destroy themselves but as a pleasurable part of our Jewish experiences and memories and as a means to nourish the best in ourselves. As Rabbi Akiva taught in Pirkei Avot 3:14, “Human beings are loved because they are made in God’s image.” We can help people with eating disorders discover that they, too, are loved and that they, too, have within themselves a spark of the Divine.

 
 
 
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