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Petition calls for equal justice for Rubashkin

Area Chabad and Young Israel synagogues are encouraging their members to sign a petition imploring the U.S. Justice Department to show evenhandedness with Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa that was the site of a massive immigration raid two years ago.

The petition, hosted at www.justiceforsholom.org and addressed to U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose in the Northern District of Iowa, states that “Sholom Rubashkin has been treated harshly and vindictively in a prosecution that is likely to go down in history as a shameful permanent stain on American Justice. You have an opportunity today to correct the course that this case has taken by directing that Mr. Rubashkin be treated no differently in the Northern District of Iowa than similar defendants have been treated in other federal jurisdictions.”

The petition had garnered more than 24,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

Rubashkin was convicted in November on 86 out of 91 fraud charges and awaits sentencing. The petition, organized by a committee including members of Rubashkin’s family, alleges that Rubashkin has been singled out for unfair treatment that includes the denial of bail while awaiting sentencing and a harsher sentencing request from the prosecution than for those convicted of similar crimes.

Prosecutors have asked for a life sentence, according to Nathan Lewin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing Rubashkin who is not connected to the petition. Agreeing with the petition’s claim, Lewin said his client is being treated differently from any other defendant in these circumstances.

“The prosecutors in Iowa see this as a high-profile case and they can make a career out of it,” Lewin said.

The petition has drawn support from a number of Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America, and Chabad.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, forwarded an e-mail to his membership during Pesach, shortly after receiving a request from Chabad’s main office in Brooklyn. Despite some misconceptions, Simon said, the petition does not argue Rubashkin’s innocence or plead for leniency or to have his conviction overturned.

“It’s saying he should be punished according to the law of the land,” Simon said. “Let him be punished but let him be punished the same as others have been punished.”

That Rubashkin has been denied bail because he’s considered a flight risk to Israel is disconcerting, according to Simon.

“To say that somebody should deserve a different standard of justice because he is a Jew is something we should be concerned about,” he said.

Rabbi Michel Gurkov of Chabad of Wayne said that his members’ response to the petition has been generally positive. A number of people are upset about the circumstances surrounding the case, he said.

“It’s beyond our understanding why the prosecution is demanding such stringent punishment,” he said.

Gurkov also expressed worry that this case could set a precedent for other high-profile Jewish individuals facing criminal charges.

“The thought itself is very disconcerting,” he said.

Repeated calls to the Justice Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison — which the petition directs people to call to voice their concern — were met with either a busy signal or a recording that the office is receiving a high volume of calls.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, cited a handful of immigration raids at Swift & Company meatpacking sites in Colorado that rounded up more than 1,300 illegal immigrants as evidence of the disparity in Rubashkin’s treatment. The leadership of Swift was not treated as harshly as Rubashkin, according to Lerner. None of the company’s leaders was charged and the one union representative convicted of harboring illegal immigrants received a sentence of one year and a day.

“The bottom line is something doesn’t make sense here,” Lerner said. “He committed a crime, we accept that. The issue is the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

Federal authorities launched investigations into the Agriprocessors plant after a May 2008 immigration raid. After a month-long trial, a jury convicted Rubashkin last year on a range of fraud charges, money laundering, and failing to pay his suppliers. A week later, federal prosecutors dismissed all 72 immigration charges against Rubashkin because he had already been convicted of the more serious fraud charges.

“This is not a Madoff story. It’s not somebody who lined his pockets for wealth,” said Rabbi Neil Winkler of Young Israel of Fort Lee, who has not yet distributed the petition among his congregants but plans to speak about it soon. “It’s proper for every Jew to seek equal justice for Sholom Rubashkin, which is what we’re asking for.”

 
 

U.S. Jewish right muted ahead of possible extension of settlement freeze

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Israelis protesting an extension of the settlement construction freeze warn Sept. 12 that Benjamin Netanyahu should not repeat the policies of the Sharon government, which removed settlements. Similar campaigns have not appeared in the United States. Abir Sultan/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – Don’t expect a familiar American echo now that west bank settlers are gearing up to fight the possible extension of Israel’s settlement freeze.

Activists on the left and right in Israel usually get their allies in the American Jewish community to fight for the cause of the day with congressional lobbying and protests to Israeli and American officials.

News Analysis

But with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sending signals that he might extend, at least partially, the west bank construction freeze he imposed 10 months ago, American Jewish groups supportive of west bank settlements do not appear to be gearing up for battle. At least not yet.

The reason, activists say, is that American Jews on the right still support Netanyahu, and there is virtual unanimous support on Capitol Hill for extending the freeze if it will help keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from the talks if the freeze is not extended, and last week President Obama said he supports an extension. This week, Netanyahu suggested that he’s open to some sort of compromise.

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which supports settlers’ rights to build, said that although he is not pleased, there is little his or other U.S. Jewish organizations can do. Last week he issued an appeal to Netanyahu not to extend the freeze. Klein said he also has sounded out members of Congress, and no one was ready to oppose an extension of the freeze.

“If Obama and Israel both are doing it, it’s very hard for a congressman to take a position that both Israel and America support,” Klein said. “What’s in it for them politically?”

In Israel, however, settlers are gearing up for a major effort aimed at embarrassing pro-settler parties into quitting Netanyahu’s government and thereby causing it to fall.

“We can use the political leverage we have within the political system to make the extension of the moratorium impossible,” Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlements’ umbrella body. Dayan spoke to JTA earlier this month during a trip to the United States to rally opposition to the renewed talks.

But with a prime minister in office who carries credibility with the American Jewish right, activists on the right said they are willing to give Netanyahu leeway — for now.

Aaron Troodler, the spokesman for the National Council of Young Israel, which is strongly pro-settlements, said in a statement that his group would consider an extension of the west bank construction freeze regrettable, but he did not outline any protest actions.

“The National Council of Young Israel has friends, family, and Young Israel synagogues in Yehudah and Shomron, and we are deeply concerned about their ability to enhance their communities while the moratorium remains intact and their growth is inhibited by virtue of the building freeze,” Troodler said, using the Hebrew for Judea and Samaria, the Israeli terms for the west bank. “The residents of Yehudah and Shomron need a place to live and grow and should rightfully be permitted to do so, just as people in communities around the world are permitted to do. It would be unjust for their rights to be curtailed any longer.”

But Israeli officials remain concerned about a possible backlash from the American Jewish right should the freeze be extended in some form.

“The moratorium was very unpopular with the American Jewish right,” Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, said recently in an interview with Jewish media. “I anticipate further, if we move down this road toward an agreement with the Palestinians, that’s just going to begin.”

Jewish groups on the left also are watching developments.

“The extension of the moratorium requires a proactive action by the government,” wrote Lara Friedman, director of policy for Americans for Peace Now. “The moratorium is set, under law, to expire automatically on September 26th. Absent affirmative action by the government to extend the moratorium, settlement construction will be able to immediately restart.”

As many as 2,000 housing units are likely to start right away, Friedman told JTA, because infrastructure already is in place or money already has been invested by buyers and developers. Another 11,000 units could be built at anytime, she said.

William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America, said Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process will continue to set the tone for the U.S. Jewish community.

“Anytime there’s a story about the settlement freeze being nuanced, you see folks on the right being critical,” he said. “The vast majority of American Jewry believes that Netanyahu, as the democratically elected leader, is in the best position to determine what is best for Israel.”

JTA

 
 

New Pollard clemency campaign

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A new campaign to free Jonathan Pollard, shown with his wife Esther, is being seen as generating more momentum on the issue than any campaign on his behalf in recent years. JonathanPollard.com

NEW YORK – A new campaign for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has racked up a series of big name politicos in the last few weeks: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama.

The recent successes can be traced not to Washington lobbyists or a New York boardroom, but to a small team of four activists whose doggedness, rather than political connections, has yielded results.

The four men, spread across America, have managed to generate more momentum on the Pollard issue — or at least more expressions of support for clemency from public figures — than any public campaign in recent years.

Foremost among the activists is David Nyer, a 25-year-old Orthodox social worker from Monsey, N.Y.

Nyer was the force behind a letter last November to President Obama from 39 congressional Democrats urging the president to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who received a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Over the past few months, Nyer successfully elicited letters calling for Pollard’s release from Quayle, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz. Korb went so far as to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formally call for Pollard’s release, which Nyer says is a key gain in the effort to free Pollard.

“It’s not really hard,” Nyer said of his ability to get powerful or once-powerful officials on the phone. “I myself was very surprised by all of this. I guess that’s the great thing about living in a democracy. The average citizen can reach a former vice president.”

Along with Nyer, the team includes University of Baltimore law Prof. Kenneth Lasson, Phoenix attorney Farley Weiss, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a longtime Pollard advocate and executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Weiss is a second vice president of the council and the president of a Young Israel synagogue in Arizona, as well as a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The four activists say they are in regular contact, bouncing around ideas and names of prominent individuals to solicit for support.

Lasson has a long track record of involvement with Pollard, having written more than a dozen articles in the past two decades calling for his release. Weiss, a trademark attorney, has a history of activism on issues related to Israel. Weiss was instrumental in reversing the views of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who long had opposed Pollard’s release.

Lerner has tended to Pollard’s spiritual needs, acting as his rabbi and paying him visits at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

It is Nyer, however, who has done much of the legwork in recent months.

His start on the Pollard case came in graduate school, when Carlos Salinas, a former Amnesty International official, presented a lecture at the school and Nyer pushed Salinas to review the case. Salinas went on to join 500 signatories, most of them clergymen, in a separate letter to Obama on Pollard’s behalf.

Among the letter’s signatories were Pastor John Hagee, the Texas minister who founded Christians United for Israel, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and now president of the conservative nonprofit American Values.

Nyer and company have been strategic in picking their targets.

They have recruited former officials who, like DeConcini, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to classified material and can speak authoritatively on the appropriateness of Pollard’s sentence. The biggest score on that front was James Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, who called on Obama in January to release Pollard.

DeConcini was a longtime opponent of clemency for Pollard, but he told JTA that he changed his mind at the repeated urging of his finance chairman, the late Earl Katz. He wrote to both Obama and former President George W. Bush on Pollard’s behalf at the behest of Weiss, whose credibility Katz had vouched for.

“He has been on my case for a couple of years,” DeConcini said of Weiss.

The group also has targeted those with particular influence on Obama, such as Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, a mentor to the president, who wrote to the White House in January. Several sources said the group is seeking support from others who are personally close to the president.

The activists hope that all the letter writing will give Obama the political cover he needs to take the potentially controversial step of freeing the spy. The fight for Pollard’s release typically has been spearheaded by the pro-Israel right wing in America, but the congressional letter was signed entirely by Democrats.

Nyer suggested that a pardon could boost Obama’s standing with American Jews and Israelis in advance of the 2012 election.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to create a political climate which would be easy to grant clemency,” Nyer said. “It would be very easy for Obama to do it. He has all the cover.”

Neither Nyer, Weiss, nor Lasson was eager to speak about his efforts on Pollard’s behalf. They each said that the injustice of the case speaks for itself.

Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for passing classified materials to Israel — a longer sentence than anyone else convicted of espionage on behalf of a U.S. ally.

While the activists would prefer that their names stay out of the media glare, they say their efforts have raised hopes that Pollard’s life sentence might soon be commuted.

“In 25 years,” Lasson told JTA, “I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Art of the chazzan revived by Teaneck synagogue

A master of parts

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Cantor Netanel Hershtik

Born in 1978 in London, where his father served as a cantor of the Fichley Synagogue, Netanel Hershtik grew up in Israel and began singing at age 5 in his father’s synagogue in Jerusalem, along with his older brother, Shraga.

“My first solo was only a word, then I sang a sentence, and then much more. My father gave me confidence,” he said.

As a child, he toured Australia, the United States, and Europe with his father, whom he called his “biggest influence.” Hershtik said he is the 14th member of his family to be a cantor. Among them is his uncle, Chaim Eliezer Hershtik, who lives in Israel.

Hershtik graduated from the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute in 2004 and trained under Chayim Feifel and Raymond Goldstein, among other renowned cantors. He has appeared with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and the Symphonet Ra’anana, and performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House, and the Casino de Paris. He appeared at the Tel Aviv Opera House in January, where he sang the aria “Che Gelida Manina” from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

His two studio recordings, “Umusafim Kehilchatam,” a tribute to the traditional Shabbat Mussaf service, and “Tzad Bet’ (Side B), a fusion of jazz, bossa nova, and traditional styles, were produced in 2005.

Hershtik served as combat paramedic in the Israeli army, has a law degree from Sha’arei Mishpat College of Law in Hod HaSharon, Israel, and recently completed his master of law degree at the University of Miami School of Law. He is preparing for the New York State Bar.

The Friday night service will begin at 5:20 p.m. and will feature compositions by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The Saturday morning service will begin at 9 a.m. and will include, among other works, Leib Glantz’s “Sh’ma Yisroel,” Moshe Gantchoff’s “Retze,” and Sol Zim’s “Avinu Shebashamayim.”

 
 

Art of the chazzan revived by Teaneck synagogue

Cantor, choir will bring harmony to Shabbat services

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Cantor Netanel Hershtik performs a Puccini aria at the Tel Aviv Opera House in January. He will sing at a Shabbat Chazzanut in Teaneck on Shabbat. courtesy Netanel Hershtik

One of the youngest stars in the small universe of cantorial music, or chazzanut, wants to change how people relate to synagogue music and prayer. And he wants to demonstrate it this Shabbat at the Young Israel of Teaneck with the Hampton Synagogue Choir at a Shabbat Chazzanut.

This may be the first-ever of this kind in the township and in Bergen County.

Netanel Hershtik, a member of YIOT and a township resident since the fall of 2009, is the cantor of the Hampton Synagogue Choir in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., where he spends most of his summer weekends.

Six members of the choir are coming and will be hosted at congregants’ homes. The choir is directed by Uzbekiztan-born Itzchak Haimov, in whose all-male, Israel-based choir Hershtik sang. Haimov founded the Hampton Synagogue Choir seven years ago at the invitation of Rabbi Marc Schneier, the synagogue’s founder and spiritual leader, whom Hershtik credits for his rapidly growing career.

The son of Naftali Hershtik, chief cantor of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue from 1981 to 2009, Hershtik and his wife, Tamira, settled in the United States in 2005, the same year he was hired as cantor of the Hampton Synagogue Choir.

Hershtik said that what he and the choir are trying to do at YIOT this Shabbat is “to move people [during prayer], not perform or show off. We will try to show how music can elevate prayer and what it can do for a service.”

He said he is very excited about the event “because Teaneck needs it.” He thanked Mark Zomick, YIOT’s president, for taking the initiative and praised the synagogue¹s rabbi, Pinchas Weinberger, for his support. “I am sure that what Mark is doing, spending money on a choir, has raised a few eyebrows,” he said.

The event is being sponsored by several congregants.

“Since Netanel moved into the community we have never asked him to daven [for the congregation],” said Zomick. “He spends few Shabbats in the shul and I didn’t want to ask him to perform, but when he offered, we jumped at the opportunity.”

His role as a cantor, Hershtik said, is to inspire congregants and “to be the center of davening [prayer] because when the devening of everyone is focused in one place, it is elevated upwards to Shamayim [Heaven].”

Hershtik is critical of religious services in most synagogues today, both locally and worldwide, calling them “dry.” Synagogues, he feels, should strive to beautify services because “it’s a tradition that requires an investment of time, thought, and money, and people must understand that they need not only rabbinical leadership but musical leadership too.”

He added, “In every community there are a few good baalei tefilot [the people who lead the services], and the congregations should embrace them, have them lead the services as frequently as possible, and they [the leaders] should also know that they have a responsibility.”

Although a synagogue doesn’t have to have a choir, Hershtik considers it important, because a choir “is the colors that accompany the chazzan.”

He added, “I am not saying there has to be a chazzan with an operatic voice; [rather], we must add every artistic element to Jewish life to make it more beautiful.”

Hershtik believes there is both a decline and a revival of cantorial music. The decline, he said, can be seen in the lack of interest of synagogues in incorporating a regular cantor or a baal tefila in the service. The revival, on the other hand, is evident in the increasing amount of concerts of cantorial music in concert halls around the world, which frequently feature a star-studded lineup of cantors such as Dudu Fisher, Pinchas Cohen, Benzion Miller, Moshe Shulhoff, and Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, known as the “Jewish Pavarotti.”

On kosher cruises like Kosherica, world-renowned cantors share the spotlight with scholars-in-residence and rabbis.

Charlie Bernhaut, co-creator of Cantors World, a site devoted to cantorial music and host of a two-hour Internet program that features one hour of cantorial music every Monday night, said in an e-mail that “Netanel Hershtik is one of the finest young cantors on the chazzanut scene today and the Hampton Synagogue Choir is excellent and unique [and] works wonderfully together with Cantor Hershtik.”

Asked if Shabbat Chazzanut is gaining in popularity, he said he wasn’t sure but, rather, the issue is that most synagogues have financial difficulties and don’t want to spend money on a chazzan.

Also, he said, a synagogue may be dominated by members who either have no appreciation for chazzanut or “don’t have the patience to be inspired by the wonderful, soul music of a chazzan (and choir, if accompanying).”

Many people, he added, just want “to do a perfunctory, quick, uninspiring davening and run to a kiddush or quickly run home, and thus forgo the inspirational experience of being uplifted by true soul music.”

 
 
 
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