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Holy Name to host gathering on new towns in Israel’s deserts

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Dr. Jacqueline Brunetti organized an event at Holy Name Medical Center on Monday to introduce the community to the OR Movement, which helps to create towns in the Negev and the Galilee.

Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck is hosting an event that aims to breathe new life into underdeveloped regions of Israel.

The informational gathering, scheduled for Monday, June 28, at 6 p.m., will introduce participants to the OR Movement, an organization devoted to populating Israel’s Negev and Galilee.

OR is settling desolate areas of Israel that are important to Israel because of the demographics and the natural resources found there, said Shai Baitel, the U.S. director of OR, Hebrew for light.

“We are bringing Ben-Gurion’s vision [of making the desert bloom] to the next level,” said Baitel. “The Negev and Galilee are the most unpopulated, undeveloped regions of Israel.”

Since OR was founded in 2001, it has established six communities in the Negev region. The latest is Carmit, a town for English speakers in the northern portion of the Negev.

OR is unique, said Baitel, because it crosses all religious, political, and socio-economic boundaries. “People of all groups come together under our umbrella to work on building new towns,” he said. “It’s a cause everyone can agree with and they all work hard together to put together communities in the undeveloped portions of northern and southern Israel.”

Dr. Jacqueline Brunetti, director of radiology at Holy Name, is a testament to OR’s capacity to inspire people from all backgrounds.

Brunetti, who grew up in an Italian -merican family in New York and attended Catholic schools, said she became acquainted with OR’s work when she visited Israel for the first time in 2008.

Her friend Angelica Berrie brought her to an OR settlement, where the physician was so moved by the idealism and can-do attitude of OR’s pioneers that she wanted to share the group’s mission with others. With the support of Holy Name’s President/CEO Michael Maron, Brunetti organized Monday’s event.

“We went to this settlement in the middle of the Negev,” Brunetti recalled. “Here we were in the desert, there was nothing, and they had created beautiful homes with grass and trees. I was blown away by the energy and the ability of these young people to successfully accomplish something that is against the odds. Imagine what could be accomplished if more people had this degree of drive and commitment.”

OR is unique, she said, because it is doing more than bringing people to settle in Israel. “OR is helping to create new communities in parts of Israel that are considered undesirable. It’s the politically safe thing to do. It’s important to the future of Israel to increase the population in these regions.” Settling that region of Israel, she noted, can help Israel from a security standpoint. And Israel needs to survive for the sake of the world, she added.

Brunetti quips that she returned from her trip a “raging Zionist.” Visiting the land and its people gave her an appreciation of Israel’s unique challenges. “Unless you’ve actually been in Israel, you don’t understand what Israel means to the world. It is symbol of democracy and creativity and strength of the human spirit and it’s surrounded by countries bent on its destruction.

“Maybe not being Jewish and seeing Israel for the first time with a wide-eyed view affected me in a different way. I know sometimes people can take things for granted when it’s a daily part of their life, and the sense of critical importance of some issues may lessen.”

OR was the brainchild of four childhood friends, including Ofir Fisher, an Israeli submarine captain and the son of renowned Israeli entertainer Dudu Fisher. The men had just completed their military service in the late 1990s and were searching for a way to make a positive impact on Israel’s future.

“The big moment came after our army service, when all of us climbed into a car and over a month drove the length and breadth of Israel, meeting people in different communities, asking lots of questions, probing for answers,” Fisher has said. “What stared us in the face was that 80 percent of the land of Israel was in the Galilee and the Negev, and only a small percentage of our population lived in these areas.”

In 1999, the crew of idealistic friends established their first settlement, Sansana, in the Negev, with 15 families. They realized they were onto something and established the OR Movement, which today has a staff of 30 and more than 6,000 volunteers.

They decided that this was a region where pioneers could establish settlements in Israel free of the highly politicized Palestinian-Jewish conflict over disputed “occupied territories.” It is an area, they believed, where young idealists could bring Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom to the next level. And it’s a part of Israel where Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists around the world can talk about hope for Israel’s future.

Baitel said he and Fisher are coming to Teaneck because they realize the vision for Israel’s future is not a monopoly. “There are a lot of different people who care about Israel’s future and the vision belongs to them,” he said. “We are happy to share the vision so they can help us make this dream come true.”

The program will include a short video presentation about OR and a question-and-answer session. The event is free and there will be no solicitation of funds. Refreshments will be served.

 
 

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

 
 

Israeli Deputy Consul Krasna reflects on time in Teaneck

Benjamin Krasna, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, has fond memories of the past five years living in Teaneck. But when he returns home next month at the end of his appointment, there is one thing he definitely will not miss.

“The hardest part of the challenge for me was the daily commute,” he said, noting that sometimes he would spend hours trying to cross the George Washington Bridge. Still, the pluses outweighed the minuses for him, his wife Sharon, and their three children, who found the modern-Orthodox lifestyle of Teaneck and day schools of Bergen County a good fit.

“Teaneck worked,” he said. “It was a very, very good match for us — in spite of the George Washington Bridge.”

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After five years as Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Benjamin Krasna is returning to Israel next month.

But with such an active and Israel-focused Jewish community, Krasna’s became a 24/7 job. At Cong. Keter Torah, where the Krasnas were members, congregants would often express their opinions on Israel’s policies and offer Krasna advice.

“You’re in a situation where every Shabbat is another hasbara challenge,” he said.

Balancing a job like that with family life can be a challenge, but Krasna said he made his choices strike that balance.

“You work very hard to protect Shabbat and Sunday … so you can do normal Sunday things — coaching soccer, going to Little League games, things like that,” he said. “If I decide on this day I need to be at my kid’s party at school, then fine, I’ll go and do that. I’ll make the time. You have to find those moments to free the time up for them as well.”

As the Jewish state’s No. 2 man in New York, Krasna has been responsible for keeping a bead on national Jewish groups and how they interact with Israel. Rather than simply responding to requests for information or appearances, Krasna took a proactive approach. He has spent more time than any of his predecessors, he said, visiting smaller communities outside the metropolitan area.

Literally the day Krasna first arrived in New Jersey, his government was uprooting thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza under the disengagement plan. Then came the capture of three Israeli soldiers, the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead, the election of America’s first black president, two elections in Israel. Also, the Giants won the Super Bowl and the Yankees won the World Series (again). But, he complained, “the Knicks didn’t get any better.”

One question in particular has become routine at every event, no matter who the sponsor is, and it’s a question Krasna will not miss answering.

“And that was about Israel’s PR,” he said. “I think Israel does a very good job. We make strong efforts to make people know about the multifaceted nature of Israel, Israel beyond the conflict.”

As PR successes, he pointed to the worldwide consensus on Iran, widespread support in Congress, and a recent Gallup poll that indicated more than 60 percent of Americans support Israel — a level not seen since the 1991 Gulf War.

“We have to understand also that sometimes being the stronger in the conflict means that public sentiment may lean a little towards the weaker,” Krasna said. “The fact of the matter is I still don’t want to be the weaker, I want to be the stronger. If I look at the level of understanding there was during the war in Lebanon — publicly in America — or during the war in Gaza, we basically had public opinion on our side to take the action we needed to take.”

Many point to Israel’s delay in releasing footage from the Mavi Marmara — that showed activists attacking Israeli soldiers — as a publicity misstep. Krasna quickly disagreed.

“It was a conscious decision taken to delay the release of some of the photographs and footage,” he said. “We paid a PR price for that. You have to remember when an operation is ongoing — literally, ships are still at sea, soldiers are still there — we have other considerations that come first regarding the safety of our soldiers. You need to successfully bring this operation to a conclusion.”

One area where Krasna would like to see more emphasis is Israel education of high school students. Much has been made in recent years about the college campus as the latest battleground for Israeli public relations. Krasna, however, believes that battle needs to begin long before students get to campus.

“If our kids don’t feel comfortable enough in their own skins as pro-Israel advocates, their choice is going to be to avoid confrontation,” he said. “They don’t have the arguments and they don’t want to be faced with a case where somebody’s going to confront them.

“That’s why we need to invest in education before they get there.”

Today’s youth — and Krasna’s generation, as well, he noted — can take Israel’s existence for granted because they never knew a world without the Jewish state.

“We all run the risk of taking for granted the fact that we live in a world with the State of Israel, which is a better world because of the State of Israel. We’re all a generation born into it,” he said. “Israel is not just Ben Yehuda [Street], or the Inbal Hotel [in Jerusalem], or nightlife in Tel Aviv. Israel is battles that were fought, people who sacrificed, and things we can be proud of.”

Krasna grew up in a Zionist home in Forest Hills, Queens, and made aliyah with his family when he was 11. Although his family returned to the United States a few years later, Krasna formed a lifelong connection with the Jewish state and, after completing a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies at Rutgers in 1986, he returned to Israel for his mandatory military service.

He left Israel again to complete a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. And when he returned to Israel, he got his first diplomatic break — in the form of a newspaper ad calling for diplomats. He applied and was accepted.

Starting in 1997, he served as Israel’s deputy consul general in Istanbul, as the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in The Hague, and specializing in the Multilateral European Institutions Western European Division of the Ministry in Jerusalem.

And what’s next for the career diplomat?

“Home,” he said. “Home is to enjoy a house that I bought before I came here and haven’t had a chance to live in yet. Home is seeing my kids reacquaint themselves with Israel — in the case of my youngest … seeing him acquaint himself with Israel.”

As he prepares to head home, Krasna has but one lingering regret.

“I’d be more careful about what I ate at these [gala] dinners. A smorgasbord is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “As a general rule I chose the carving station over the sushi every time.”

 
 
 
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