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‘Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core’

 

Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties

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From left, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Elijah Muhammad, Imam Saeed Qureshi, and Andrea Winters stand in front of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism urged its congregations to embrace a broader vision of interreligious understanding, says Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.

In a major initiative launched at URJ’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s president, declared that “Jews are not well-educated about Islam, and Muslims are not well-educated about Judaism. In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues.”

Heeding the call for synagogues to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, in 2008 Sirbu’s congregation began a dialogue with a mosque in Teaneck, Masjid Darul Islah, using a curriculum written and published by URJ and the Islamic Society of North America. Working from a text entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Committees of Temple Emeth and Masjid Darul Islah began a series of monthly meetings.

With 12 members from each institution, the group — meeting two hours on a Sunday, sometimes at one of the houses of worship and sometimes at members’ homes — tackled “segments organized from low-tension to high-tension topics,” said Leonia resident Andrea Winters, a member of Temple Emeth and co-coordinator with mosque member Elijah Muhammad of the dialogue team.

“As we got to build trust, we could embark on more difficult terrain,” she said, citing hot-button issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As time went on, she said, “more and more stories were shared about individual personal experiences [like] anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.”

Winters said that as the scheduled curricular meetings were coming to an end in December, “we discovered that we were only just beginning to talk.”

As a result, the group — with members from Leonia, Teaneck, Tenafly, Fort Lee, and Paterson — opted to continue through May. Since January, she said, “we have been engaged in topics of our own choosing, such as gender.”

Up to this point, she said, she and Muhammad have served as “co-chairs, co-coordinators, and process facilitators.” The additional sessions, however, have had rotating discussion leaders.

The dialogue team began with sessions designed to “introduce us to each other and to basics such as the Torah and the Koran and issues of charity in both faiths,” said Winters.

“The goal is to listen to each other, not to change minds,” she added, mentioning an upcoming dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She noted that there had been some tension in an earlier discussion on the topic, particularly as regarded “the perception of Jews as oppressors. [The Jews] were defensive about others seeing them that way,” she said.

Another discussion involved the immigration experiences of both groups, a topic that brought the members closer, she said.

Sirbu pointed out that the clergy of the two religious institutions have fully endorsed the project but decided not to sit in on the meetings from month to month.

“We felt it would be a better process if we took a step back,” he said. He noted as well that while a dialogue could succeed only in a small and closed environment, his congregation has sought various ways to share the committee’s achievements.

In the fall of 2008, for example, “Our annual Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture was on ‘Jerusalem: Holy City in Judaism and Islam,’ presented by Rabbi Phil Lieberman, an expert in Jewish law,” said Sirbu. All members of the mosque were invited to attend the event, held during a Shabbat service, “and there was a nice turnout. We were very encouraged and heartened.”

Noting that he enjoys cordial relations with the mosque’s imam, Saeed Qureshi, Sirbu added that last Chanukah he invited all dialogue members to the synagogue to lead a discussion for the entire Temple Emeth community on what they had accomplished.

The rabbi pointed out that the dialogue members from Temple Emeth had been appointed by the synagogue leadership “because we thought they would be good representatives” of the congregation. He did not know how their Muslim counterparts were chosen.

At the Chanukah session, “we had a great turnout and very rich discussion. The congregation didn’t know what was being accomplished. [Now] they had a sense of the worth of this project.”

“We talked to the congregation about what we learned from each other,” said Winters. But even more, “we were joking around [and] the congregation observed our teasing and playfulness,” she said.

“We’re looking for more ways to share the dialogue process and its goals with the entire temple-mosque community and whole community,” said Sirbu. “It opens our eyes to the struggles of peoples of different faiths, makes us aware of our own prejudices, and promotes understanding.”

One such effort will take place on Sunday, April 25, when Temple Emeth co-hosts “Under the Veil,” an interactive theatrical performance.

According to Winters, last spring one of the dialogue members saw the presentation at a meeting of the Ethical Culture Society.

“He loved it. So I brought it to Pace [University, where she teaches] and the students loved it as well.”

The presentation is intended to challenge audience members to think in ways they haven’t thought before, she said, adding that the program is free and open to the whole community. It is the dialogue project’s first joint initiative.

Performed by the TE’A Project (Theater, Engagement and Action), the show is based on interviews conducted by the actors in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is intermixed with facilitated dialogue between the actors and the audience.

To broaden the range of those involved in the program, it is being co-sponsored not just by the dialogue committees of the two houses of worship but by their youth groups as well.

“The performance is intended for people of all ages,” said Sirbu, noting that while it was not appropriate for the youth to be involved in the dialogue itself, “it will get them thinking about it.” The young people will also help with refreshments.

The rabbi was pleased about the “enthusiasm” the dialogue team brought back to the congregation. “They brought back the understanding that coexistence depends on relationships. They don’t meet as Jews and Muslims but as a group of 24 people who know and like one another and enjoy the chance to share ideas.”

“Under the Veil” will be presented at Temple Emeth from 2:30 to 4 p.m., April 25. For further information, call (201) 833-1322.

 
 

Beth Am seeks to sell building, merge with other shul

You can find a lot on the Teaneckshuls e-mail list: appliances, doctors, even somebody to bring packages to Israel. Earlier this week, readers learned that Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Am is for sale.

The Reform synagogue has initiated a plan to merge with one of the four surrounding Reform synagogues — Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, or Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia — although Beth Am leaders have not yet begun discussions as to which one.

“The congregation is grappling with its future and it’s trying to decide how to proceed,” said Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld. “It’s a self-examination based on demographics, based on community vitality.”

Barry Dounn, Beth Am’s treasurer, said the synagogue would like to complete a merger within a year. Because of the lagging real estate market, synagogue leaders decided to put the building on the market now, rather than wait until a deal is completed.

“We’re expecting it will take a while” to sell the building, he said.

A group of Teaneck residents created Beth Am in 1964 and moved into its Claremont Avenue building the following year. During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Beth Am had a membership of 140 to 160 families. Now the shul has 40 member-families. The board decided in late 2008 to begin working on a merger, although, Dounn said, putting the building on the market is the first active step it has taken.

“We’ve got a long and valued history,” he said. “It’s something of a difficult decision we’re going through. We need to be realistic and realize that we’ve gotten too small to survive and operate the way we have been.”

In 2008, Union for Reform Judaism leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie said that cash-strapped Reform synagogues could merge with financially struggling Conservative synagogues. Beth Am’s leadership, however, would like to merge with another Reform synagogue, said Dounne.

Rosenfeld, who has been with Beth Am for 13 years, said that much of the Teaneck Jewish community has become more traditional, and two Reform synagogues are no longer sustainable.

“People are beginning to mourn what will be lost, but at the same time people are looking toward, hopefully, the creation of a stronger synagogue,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the end of an era but the beginning of new possibilities.”

Ed Malberg, president of the Union for Reform Judaism’s New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council, has seen a number of Bergen County congregations from various streams seeking out mergers in recent years. The Reform population in the county is not as numerous as it was 30 years ago, he said, but in other parts of the state — such as Morris, Somerset, and Mercer counties — Jews are moving into areas where they had not previously clustered.

“It’s the kind of thing we saw much more frequently in Bergen and Essex 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.

The Reform movement remains strong, he said. He pointed to the movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth and camps, which he said have shown strong numbers last year and will likely top that this year.

Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn merged with Temple Sholom in River Edge last year to become Temple Avodat Shalom. Rabbi Jonathan Woll, Avoda’s religious leader, did not join the merged congregation in River Edge. Dounn said no decision has been made as to whether Rosenfeld or Cantor Susan Cohen DeStefano would continue in their roles after a merger.

 
 

Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.

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To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”

 
 

Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

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Rabbi Eric Yoffie, left, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, consults with members of the Reform Think Tank following the group’s online forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Morgan Radmall

After the Reform movement broadcast online its first session devoted to reassessing itself, in mid-November, the comments poured in.

One viewer suggested that the movement create a network of schools, camps, shuls, and seminaries focused on “tikkun olam,” the Jewish injunction to repair the world. Another said the movement should train five times as many rabbis and cantors to provide more entryways into Judaism through music, social action, and prayer.

Another wrote to express concern about the lack of civility in Jewish discourse, particularly concerning Israel. One asked how Jews could use media and technology to create community.

It is exactly the sort of grass-roots input that members of the reassessment team — called the Reform Think Tank — want as they take a hard look at where American Jewry’s largest religious denomination is today and where it ought to go in the future.

“Five years from now, congregations won’t look like they do today,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the longtime president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA in an interview.

Yoffie, who plans to retire in mid-2012, is one of the major players in the movement’s reassessment project.

The project is online and offline, top down and bottom up. Each of the three major Reform institutions — the synagogue movement, rabbinical association, and seminary — nominated 10 members to lead the 18-month discussion, which will be punctuated by four live streaming forums devoted to specific topics. Each is being archived online at urj.org/thinktank.

The first, held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, dealt with the impact of social media on religious life. About 300 individual viewers watched, in addition to about 50 watching parties at Reform congregations. They could follow a blog and Twitter feed along with the broadcast, and sent in comments and questions to help direct the conversation. The team received more than 200 comments and questions even before the first forum, an organizer said.

The second forum is scheduled for April in Cincinnati, a third for December 2011, and the final for March 2012.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Yoffie said.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and one of the co-organizers of the project. “Everything’s on the table. If we reinvent this whole thing, what will it look like? We’re not moving from one place to another in linear fashion — we’re experimenting.”

Demographic changes, financial challenges, new family structures, and the changing nature of social media and how people connect to each other are just some of the pressures forcing change upon a movement founded 200 years ago in Germany but that developed its institutions in North America following World War II, Yoffie said.

Back then, the world and American Jewry had different needs and interests, he said.

“We are primarily a suburban, family-oriented movement,” Yoffie told JTA.

That’s one thing that must change if Reform Judaism is to appeal to the next generation, according to Yoffie.

“We need more synagogues in the major metropolitan centers,” he said.

The recent economic downturn already has forced changes, including the dismantling of much of the Union for Reform Judaism itself, where consultants have replaced many staff departments. That was in the works already, Reform leaders insist; the recession just advanced the move quicker and gives a greater urgency to the reassessment project.

“This is not an ivory tower think tank,” said Rachel Tasch, president of Cong. Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and one of the 33 leaders selected for the Reform Think Tank. “We’re trying to make it a grass-roots thing, so people have a voice, a way to have real input.”

Those who want to participate in the project can send in their comments anytime over the next year and a half. Pulpit rabbis involved with the project will take the conversation to their congregations and “take the pulse of the community” before the next forum, Windmueller said. The team also will consult with youth groups, synagogue presidents, and other Reform activists.

“Most of the questions we received were in line with the questions we ourselves have,” Tasch said after the first forum. “The nature of community in a world where everything is online; the tension between face-to-face communication and technology; the nature of membership; what does it mean to belong in a world where everything is out there and available?”

Yoffie believes that synagogues will continue to be the foundation of Jewish life in North America but must evolve radically to adjust to how people communicate and relate via technology.

“Social media can be contentious,” he told JTA, “and congregations are not contentious places. It’s where you go for comfort and support. So how do we deal with the contention of modern media while preserving the congregation as a place of menschlikeit and mutual respect?

“The truth is, we have to take risks if we’re not going to be irrelevant.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Reform Judaism in transition

Local synagogues ready to plan the future

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After 16 years as leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie handed the reins to Rabbi Richard Jacobs at last weekend’s convention.

Local leaders of Reform congregations returned from the movement’s biennial convention in a Washington suburb floating on clouds, energized, and determined to meet the challenge — set by the movement’s leadership — of more than doubling synagogue participation by high school seniors by the end of this decade.

“We all came back so charged up,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “It was a fantastic renewal opportunity.”

With more than 6,000 attendees, the biennial was the largest ever, the first to be sold out, and one of the largest indoor gatherings of American Jews ever.

“It was amazing,” said Irene Bolton, director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It is the most awesome experience to sit in a space with 6,000 other Jews and to participate in Shabbat services as a group, and to be awed by the feeling of spirituality that permeates a space like that,” she said.

“You have to walk out of the biennial saying, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s hope for the Jewish people,’” she said.

The president of the Union of Reform Judaism leads the denomination in a way unmatched by his Orthodox or Conservative counterparts. This is a function of the URJ’s centrality within the Reform movement’s constellation of organizations, as well as the fact that, unlike the parallel organizations, the presidency of the URJ is a full-time position. Both the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union are nominally headed by lay leaders who hold relatively short tenures.

Biennial pronouncements and initiatives by URJ leaders are subsequently quoted in a way reminiscent of how Chabad-Lubavitch followers quote the teachings of their late leader.

This year, the theme seemed to be reinventing Reform congregations to create “sustainable” communities that can retain the next generation.

The scope of the challenge was highlighted by the farewell sermon of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose 16 years at the URJ’s helm ended at the event. Yoffie noted that neither of his children belong to Reform synagogues.

Yoffie’s son, 28, is not a member of a synagogue, “but feels very much connected to his Jewish identity, and Israel and social justice are big passions for him,” said Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.

“His daughter is married and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue, but still considers herself a Reform Jew. She reads Torah on Shabbat morning,” said Mosbacher.

“Things need to change in how we educate our kids and how we sustain our families. That’s the challenge of the movement, and the opportunity, if we think big and creatively,” said Mosbacher.

With its new “Campaign for Youth Engagement,” the URJ is focusing on the statistic that “80 percent of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no connection of any kind to their Jewish community by the time they reach 12th grade,” in the wording on the campaign’s web site.

“We can’t abide that,” said Mosbacher. “We can’t move forward as a movement with those demographics. We have to figure out ways to engage our youth and, by extension, the families that belong to the congregation in a different kind of way.”

“The goal of the campaign is that by 2020, we move that number from 20 percent to 50 percent who will stay involved through high school,” he said.

While the campaign defines a goal, it does not prescribe set programs to achieve it.

This reflects a bottom-up approach that attendees connect to the agenda of the new URJ president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs.

“We’re really moving away from that hierarchical corporate approach to how we do business, to a sense of looking outside of ourselves and saying, who needs us, how do we draw people in, how do we engage Jews in a meaningful way,” said Frishman.

“The youth engagement campaign is about helping the congregations ask intentional, challenging questions about themselves, about whether everything is as excellent as can be,” said Mosbacher. “If it’s not excellent, what are the other methods that are out there that can make the synagogue excellent?

“Rabbi Jacobs said we should not be talking about the unaffiliated; we should talk about uninspiring congregations. We need to look at what’s inspiring people.

“My educator and my cantor and my lay leadership have come back eager to ask hard questions of ourselves. If we ask those hard questions of ourselves, we will necessarily need to come up with new and creative alternatives,” he said.

The changes called for at the biennial are less a U-turn than an acceleration of changes Reform congregations are making to deal with a changing world.

Take the example of Hebrew school — clearly central to engaging teenagers.

“To say that ‘I hated Hebrew school and you my child will hate Hebrew school’ is not a sustainable model. But there are excellent models. We need to see how to use them,” said Mosbacher. “Drop-off Hebrew school is not the most excellent model we can offer,” he said.

Seven years ago, his congregation began a family school, where children and adults study Hebrew and Judaics together. Data show that participating families are more connected to the synagogue — “though whether that’s because they’re self-selected is for the professional demographers to figure out.”

The challenge now: how to make the family school the rule, not the exception.

At Barnert Temple, said Frishman, “we’re involved in an educational self-study looking at how we teach our youth and our adults. We’re looking to completely re-examine our methodology and our outreach, as a way of engaging people meaningfully.”

The study held its initial focus groups two weeks ago, and the plan is for the study to be completed in about a year.

“This work is as much about engaging people in the process, and having the process be determined by participants. By the time we have figured out what we’re doing, we’ll already be doing it. This is all the thinking that goes on behind community organizing, which is at the heart of the leadership that goes on at the URJ,” said Frishman.

The fact that the process is already underway, however, did not diminish the significance of the biennial. “When you’re with all these other synagogues and everybody is hearing this message, It’s a chance to say, ‘it’s not just us, this is the way it’s being done,’” she said.

Similarly, Temple Beth Or is in the initial stages of a major educational change. The congregation has just begun a new program for its post-bar mitzvah students — the focus of the youth engagement initiative — in the wake of the ending of the closure last year of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism.

“As a congregation, we picked up that piece after BARJ. We understood that there was a need to integrate students into Jewish life and learning. We were sad that BARJ was no longer in existence, but you know the expression that God closes a door and opens a window? We were able to open the window.”

“We found we had very few students attending BARJ. Today, we have 25 students in a post-bar mitzvah program who are learning together, who are having fun together, who are building community together, and who are here on the same night as the younger students.

“We can find ways to involve the teens in coming back and reading Torah again, or being present for a minyan if we have a shiva minyan, or helping us with our caring committee,” said Bolton.

Her work as an educator is not just focused on the “classroom environment, but I’m thinking about what kind of programs can we provide, what kind of mentors and role models can we provide, how are we going to work with them on an intergenerational basis so there will be a charismatic adult in their life,” she said.

This shift from classic textbook education to experiential education is something that Bolton said was evident in the way the biennial convention has changed over the years that she has attended.

“This biennial was much more about experiencing, feeling, and participating, whereas when I began in Jewish education over 30 years ago and went to my first biennial, it was much more about what class can we offer, what project can we do, what program will work. Today, it was much more about the big picture, about helping people internalize and find meaning.

“Teaching Torah is what this was all about. Building community, finding ways for us to link together, to connect, to become a more caring community that puts Torah at the center,” said Bolton.

The bottom line, said Frishman, “is understanding how living Jewishly as a Reform Jew is powerful. It gives you a voice in the work of the world. Our mission is not just to light a Chanukah menorah; it’s to light it and think ‘How can the light of Judaism inspire me to light the world and open my arms to everyone? ‘It’s the message of Reform Judaism, part and parcel of who we are as Reform Jews, to know that what I’ve learned as a Jew isn’t for me alone, but for the way I interact with the stranger and help the life of the stranger to improve.”

 
 
 
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