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entries tagged with: Abigail Klein Leichman


No longer on the sidelines

Eight years later, a family celebrates its life-changing decision

It was rough-going at first for the Mendes family. From left, Sam, 17, Jon 23, Ben, 21, David and Shari, and Naomi, 14.

The March 24, 1995, front page of The Jewish Standard displayed a photograph of a young Ben Mendes enjoying a Purim carnival with his father, David, in Teaneck. In the photograph, he is dressed as a ninja. Today he wears the uniform of the Combat Engineering Corps of the Israel Defense Forces—and not just on Purim.

Recently, Shari and David Mendes celebrated the eighth anniversary of their family’s aliyah (immigration). It was a time for reflection on how life has changed for them and their four children. Military service is one integral part of the picture.

Jonathan, 23, finished serving in an elite army intelligence unit in February. Ben, 21, is about to be promoted to staff sergeant. David, chief of plastic surgery at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, was called to active duty as a surgeon during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead. Sam, just 9 when the family made aliyah, will put on the IDF olive drabs in another year. Naomi, now starting high school, will decide between army and national service when her turn comes.

“We made aliyah when Jon and Ben were teenagers—not an easy time—and the first year was a rough adjustment,” says Shari Mendes, an architect. “But they’ve done well in the army, all on their own. If they could do it, really anyone can.”

“I was 13 when we came, and I was a little excited—maybe naïve,” says Ben, speaking from his military base. “I saw it as an adventure. But I was in for a major culture shock when I got here.”

Although their Ra’anana suburban neighborhood is heavily English-speaking and there are several other families from Bergen County in the neighborhood, Ben and Jon were the only “Anglos” in their rough-and-tumble all-boys school. “They were throwing chairs and lighting firecrackers in the classroom,” says Ben. “Going to that from Yavneh Academy in Paramus was a whole different world. And the language was a huge problem for me at first. It took two or three years till I overcame the shock.”

These days, explosives are not just the stuff of schoolyard pranks. The terrorist attack on a bus near Eilat on Aug. 18—a bus Ben normally takes—claimed the life of one of his friends and injured two others. Even before that incident, the fire and noise of demolition had become familiar to him. “I’ve been in and out of live minefields,” says Ben, who was a training commander and now works in logistics.

Yet he expects to look back on his three years of military service as an enriching experience.

“The army changes you. You learn a lot about yourself. Combat training has a way of pushing you to your breaking point. After an all-night hike through the desert without sleeping or eating, you say, ‘Wow, I did that.’”

His mother admits to having had her “moments” during Cast Lead, when Jon was near Ofakim with missiles raining down nearby, and David was in Gaza. “But to tell you the truth, I’m much more nervous when they drive,” she says. “I used to work in the World Trade Center, so I know things can happen anywhere.”

Shari’s parents, Martin and Vera Greenwald, live in Teaneck. David’s parents arrived separately in Israel before World War II from Europe, and his father’s position with Israel Aircraft Industries brought the family to New York for six years when David was a toddler, and permanently when he was 12.

As time went on, the couple felt increasingly drawn to the land of David’s birth. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t be on the sidelines of history anymore. I want to be part of it,’” David recalls.

Shari’s resolve strengthened as she stayed up late listening to the news during the Arab uprising that began in 2000. “Our kids were not getting younger, and we wanted to do it [make aliyah] while the oldest was young enough to make it,” she says. “My husband and I were very united. We really believed in this.”

The close-knit community in Ra’anana was pivotal to their adjustment, says Shari, who built a successful business and now employs two additional architects. “My work Hebrew is excellent, and my everyday Hebrew is passable,” she says. “I don’t think language ought to be a barrier [to aliyah]. The vocabulary you need in your profession is actually very limited and can be learned quickly.”

The family’s visits to New Jersey always include a shopping spree at Wal-Mart and Costco, where goods are cheaper than in Israel, although Shari says “we bring less and less back with us each year.”

The visits highlight the effects of dual citizenship, said Ben. “All of us in the family have an identity issue, because here we’re Americans and when we visit America we’re Israelis. The more we visit America, the more we feel there really isn’t anything there for us anymore.”

“We like the life here,” adds his mother. “The pace is so much saner here for us and for our kids. We live with a little bit less—one car instead of two. It’s a more meaningful and authentically Jewish life. I like the fact that the Jewish holidays are the rhythm of the year. You can be unaffiliated and still feel it’s Shavuot, for example, while many Jews in America don’t even know what that holiday is.”

Ben agrees. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he says, “Israel is where I want to live, from a Jewish and Zionist point of view.”

“Clearly it’s better to come when your kids are younger,” Shari says, “but it’s better to come then than not at all.”


Playing catch-up with science

When it comes to genetic screening and engineering, Judaism’s ‘jury’ still out

Progress in detection of genetic diseases is spurring a new push for Ashkenazi Jews to get screened, but timeless questions of Jewish medical ethics are being raised anew.

Rabbi David Golinkin, the Conservative Jewish law expert, says the core issue has not changed since the days when screening was available only for Tay-Sachs disease.Golinkin will be scholar-in-residence at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn during Shabbat on Sept. 23-24.

“The main discussion vis-à-vis genetic disease is whether it justifies abortion,” Golinkin told The Jewish Standard in Jerusalem, where he lives and works at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

The Conservative approach adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in 1983 concludes that there is a clear precedent in Jewish tradition “to permit abortion of a fetus to save a mother’s life, to safeguard her health, or even for a ‘very thin reason,’ such as to spare her physical pain or mental anguish. Some recent authorities also consider the well-being of other children, and the future of the fetus itself, as reasons to permit abortion.”

The responsum (decision on a matter of Jewish law) stipulates that the family’s rabbi should be involved in decision-making when a fetus is found to have “major defects which would preclude a normal life.”

The writings of Rabbi David Feldman, a noted Jewish medical ethicist and rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, are appended to the 1983 responsum. Feldman “insisted years ago that one can only abort for concern over maternal health and not the potential health of the fetus,” said Avram Israel Reisner, onetime rabbi of the New Milford Jewish Center and currently a member of the CJLS’ subcommittee on biomedical ethics. “That is the norm and the standard, but there are other voices asking about the economic and psychological well-being of the family.”

Reisner, who is rabbi of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore, said, “Judaism allows for abortion when necessary, but defining ‘necessary’ is all over the board.”

Even in the secular world, he said, controversy surrounds a new test to detect Down syndrome in the first trimester of pregnancy, which will inevitably lead to more abortions. While Jewish authorities generally permit termination of a pregnancy only for a fatal defect such as Tay-Sachs, the earlier test for Down is significant because Jewish law draws a distinction between the first 40 days of pregnancy and beyond.

“We don’t abort a Down syndrome baby after 40 days of gestation,” said Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler of Monsey, a renowned microbiologist as well as Jewish medical ethicist and a longtime dean of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary. “If it is possible to detect it before 40 days, it becomes a halachic [Jewish legal] issue that has to be resolved.”.

Reisner believes that “earlier genetic tests [for additional conditions] will follow as the science gets better.”

All of Judaism’s religious streams agree that premarital genetic screening is a better option.

Tendler noted that American health insurance companies cover the cost of screening for a variety of common Ashkenazi genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. This has been so effective that Tay-Sachs has been virtually eliminated in the Orthodox world, said Tendler.

Feinstein advised people to get screened before starting to date for marriage.

Many authorities allow pre-implantation genetic diagnostic (PGD) testing of fertilized eggs. Although this requires in vitro fertilization, which is expensive, Reisner added, “PGD can resolve a problem one step earlier than abortion. But it certainly may not be used for something like sex selection.”

Jewish medical ethicists are more united on questions of genetic engineering — specifically, human cloning. Golinkin outlined the concerns in his 2003 book “Insight Israel: The View From Schechter.”

“Who is the mother — the egg donor, the cell donor, the surrogate mother — or all three? Who is the father — the cell donor, the mother’s father, or perhaps the clone has no father? Or perhaps the clone is the identical twin of the cell donor? May we clone someone without their knowledge? May we clone a dead person? Does the nucleus donor fulfill the mitzvah to ‘be fruitful and multiply’? If a child is fatally injured in a car accident, may we take one of his cells and clone him? These questions show just how complicated human cloning is from a moral and religious point of view,” he wrote, concluding that “the [rabbinic] arguments against cloning human beings are much more convincing than those in favor.”

Feldman told The Jewish Standard that cloning humans “sounds exciting and promising, but there are so many things that can go wrong along the way.”


Horning in on a seasonal sound

Turning an animal’s horn into a shofar takes over a year

Seventh-graders at Boys Town Jerusalem take a deep breath before testing their prowess at the complex art of “shofar” sounding. A shofar can be made from any kosher animal, with ram’s horn popular with Ashkenazim, while many Sephardim and Mizrachi (especially Yemenites) prefer the curvy horns of the kudu antelope. Courtesy Boys Town

Rishon LeZion, Israel — The primitive music of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is supposed to stir reflections on repentance. This year, when you hear the plaintive notes, you might also think of Avi Mishan sorting through antelope horns in South Africa.

Mishan, 44, owns one of Israel’s four major shofar production facilities (the others are in the Golan Heights, Haifa and Tel Aviv). He and his 14 employees turn out thousands of shofarot (the plural of “shofar” in Hebrew) to sell here and abroad. “Right now, we have new clients from Paraguay and Mexico,” he says.

“Shofar” is often translated as “ram’s horn,” and indeed the most common shofar is made from the horn of a male sheep that is at least a year old. It can come from any kosher animal, however. Yemenites prefer the long, curvy horns of the kudu antelope, and Mishan has prepared 2,000 or more of these each year since starting his business six years ago. He also makes an equal number of the traditional Ashkenazic shofarot.

“I have a vision to give to everybody the opportunity to use the shofar,” he says. “The shofar is a connection with the Master of the Universe.”

The shofar is mentioned in the Bible more than 80 times, a fact that is prominent on the website of The Great Shofar (, an Internet-based business owned and operated by Aaron and Michal Shaffier of Tekoa, a small town south of Jerusalem to which they moved in 2007 from California. The shofar was sounded before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, and its blast toppled the walls of Jericho for Joshua. It is also heard on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and at the end of Yom Kippur. In biblical times, it was also sounded to announce the beginning of a jubilee year.

“We sell about 100 per month all year,” says Aaron Shaffier. “Surprisingly, before Rosh Hashanah we have only a slight spike in sales. That’s because the majority who buy them are not Jewish. We have customers in Arkansas and Louisiana, and all kinds of small towns, because apparently Evangelical Christians interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity like to have a shofar to display or to blow in church.”

The Great Shofar products, which range from $33 for a plain ram’s horn to $400 for a silver-encased show model, are shipped primarily to North America. Customs regulations on animal-made products make it difficult to send them elsewhere. “A lot of people in Korea want to order from us, but we haven’t figured out a way yet,” says Shaffier, a scribe who is his synagogue’s shofar-sounder.

Shaffier sources his horns from Mishan’s factory, which uses methods that have not changed much for thousands of years, except for the polishing machines.

The process begins in South Africa, where Mishan and his counterparts sort through horns sawed off animals slaughtered for meat. Right now, there is a shortage, he says, due to an epidemic keeping the animals from growing old enough to sprout horns. Still, he is able to put aside at least a few hundred to be shipped to his facility, where each one has to sit for a year to allow the soft bone tissue inside the hard keratin casing to dry out and shrivel for removal. After that, the horns are sterilized and the workers can begin the three- to four-hour process of readying each one for ritual use.

Along the way, many horns will have to be discarded. That is because Jewish law requires a shofar to be completely intact, without any cracks or holes. It cannot be patched — which is why many Jewish customers prefer buying a shofar that is certified, sort of like kosher food, assuring it has not been fixed with invisible epoxy.

The horns are heated carefully in order to straighten and shape the tip slightly as a mouthpiece before drilling a hole for the air to go through. Then they are polished, although many are left at least partially rough to preserve the natural look. Each is tested for sound quality as a final step.

Shaffier likes to use a large horn because it makes a nice sound and it is easier to sound. The smallest shofarot make a less pleasing squeak and are best as souvenirs.

“Anybody with any experience with wind instruments should have no problem with a shofar, but people who have never blown an instrument think it’s like blowing through a straw and don’t realize you have to vibrate your lips to get a sound out of it,” he says. “The sound is created by causing vibration. Put your lips together first and make that noise, and then bring the shofar to your lips.”

Mishan appears on Israeli Channel 2 every Yom Kippur eve for 10 minutes to explain the ins and outs of the shofar.

“You can watch me on the Internet as you prepare the meal for before the fast,” he says.


How dear a hadar tree’s fruit can be

The reason why a lemon-like fruit costs so much

Abigail Klein LeichmanCover Story
Published: 23 September 2011
Joshua D. Klein with a Buddha’s Hand etrog tree in California. Inset, Etrog trees can bear fruit of all sizes and shapes; Klein shows that an etrog can grow as big as your head.

There is no more earthy holiday than Sukkot, when Jews not only are supposed to eat their meals outside in a hut, but are also commanded to gather four species of vegetation — a closed date palm frond, myrtle boughs, willow branches and citron fruit — in accordance with Leviticus 23:40. “On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord seven days.”

Sukkot, after all, not only commemorates the days of desert wanderings, but also is a thanksgiving for the autumn fruit harvest.

The myrtle and willow are inexpensive commodities. The frond (lulav) and citron (etrog) are a different story. Most are imported from Israel — although they grow in other places, including Morocco, Mexico, California, and Texas. Other factors described below also push up the price.

Keeping the species fresh

How does one keep the Four Species fresh throughout Sukkot? Said Joshua D. Klein: “One word: plastic. Etrogim do not need refrigeration, nor do lulavim (which should not be put in water). Hadasim [myrtle] and aravot [willow] can best be kept in damp toweling. I find it best to wrap damp newspaper around the leafy bits, and put the whole thing in a plastic zip-up bag (not the hard plastic scabbards that some folks use) at room temperature.

A set of the Four Species purchased from a synagogue or Judaica vendor, therefore, can set you back $25 to upwards of $100, depending on the quality you are seeking. The priciest piece is the thick-rinded etrog, which does not have much market appeal in the West except as a ritual object, or an ingredient in fruitcakes or liquers. The Chinese use an ornamental citron variety called Buddha’s Hand both for medicinal purposes and as a sacrificial offering. Japanese use it as a New Year’s gift.

The Jewish Standard asked Joshua D. Klein, a Cornell-trained plant researcher in the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s Unit for Agriculture, for the lowdown on this bumpy, fragrant yellow (or green) symbol of Sukkot. Klein is based at the Volcani Institute near Rehovot.

Q: How many farms in Israel grow etrogim?

A: There are about 10 growers of any consequence, with about three dominating the market. Israel has around 1,000 dunams [247 acres] of etrog orchards.

Q: About how many etrogim are exported each year?

A: Probably half a million. The general demand [including in Israel] is for about 1.2 million. Most are exported as part of sets of all four minim [species].

Q. When is the growing season?

A: Etrogim, like lemons and some other citrus, flower twice a year — around Tu B’Shvat [January-February] and around Shavuot [May-June]. The later flowering gives the better-quality fruit. Actually, the best fruit are those from flowers that open around Sukkot and ripen around Tu B’Shvat, since citrus is a winter fruit. Alas, the market for etrogim is very weak in winter!

Q. When does the fruit get picked for shipment?

A: The harvest begins in Tammuz [June-July] and goes all the way through mid-Tishrei [High Holy Days season], depending on the market, with peak activity for export from 15 Av [mid-August] to 30 Elul [Rosh Hashanah eve].

Q. Why does an etrog look like a lemon but cost like a Cadillac?

A: Etrog is one of three primordial citrus, the others being mandarin and pammelo. All other citrus are descended from crosses and recrosses of these three. So it is more accurate to say that a lemon looks like an etrog.

There are about five major commercial varieties of etrog, each of which has adherents for both perceived beauty and shape and for an extended tradition down the generations that this is the “true” etrog.

The cost of etrogim is directly related to the demand: All varieties of etrog trees bear many fruit of all sizes and shapes, and theoretically the vast majority are kosher [meaning fit for use in the Four Species bundle]. However, the market keeps demanding more and more “ideal” etrogim, with nary a blemish, which means that each fruit is tended to carefully, including tying it to keep it from rubbing against other fruits or branches or thorns (etrog trees are very thorny) and packaging it separately even at the wholesale stage to ensure no bruising. This “personal handling” from the orchard to the packing house adds to the cost to the consumer.

Each tree is sprayed to make sure there are no pests at all (most other fruit orchards tolerate some insects) and the trees are irrigated very thoroughly so that the fruit will be of commercial size by Elul, when actually it “wants” to be ready two to four months later.

Q: The etrog may have an extension called a pitam at one end, where the flower was pollinated. An etrog with or without a pitam is fit for ritual use, but an etrog with a pitam that breaks off on the first day of Sukkot is sometimes considered no longer “kosher.” Is it better to buy an etrog with or without a pitam?

A: You can find rabbinic responsa with points of view on both sides....Actually, most citrus have a pitam when young, but it usually falls off by the time the fruit is about 30 days old. Exceptions are etrog and bergamot, the orange used to flavor Cointreau and Earl Gray tea, both which tend to retain the pitam (although the Yemenite etrog variety usually doesn’t). Since [Hebrew University Prof.] Eliezer Goldschmidt discovered back in the ‘60s that a certain common chemical used in citrus orchards could also promote retention of the pitum, growers can provide etrogim with and without. Pitam-less etrogim can cost more due to market demand.

Despite Egypt ban, no lulav shortage seen

On Sept. 18, the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry announced a ban on all lulav exports — to Israel, Europe, and North America — through the end of the year. In previous years, it threatened such bans, but never carried through.

The lulav (closed date palm frond) is also cultivated at northern kibbutzim and some in other areas of Israel and Gaza, but more are grown in El Arish in the northern Sinai. For the past three decades, since Israel ceded the Sinai to Egypt, about a million of these Jewish ritual items have been imported annually from the fields of El Arish.

However, the Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to rev up domestic production to make up the difference. Minister Orit Noked asked to meet with Egyptian officials in August to assure no problems in obtaining the fronds. When those efforts failed, she issued a press release stating that the ministry will assist Israeli growers “to significantly increase the number of palms to be provided for the holiday” to fully meet domestic and foreign demand. These farmers are expected to provide about 650,000 “regular” lulavim plus another 200,000 “fancy” ones, according to the release.

The ministry is also giving special import licenses to growers in Spain, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite these arrangements. Special inspection stations are being set up to make sure the imports do not carry plant diseases.

The release concludes that growers have pledged not to raise prices despite the extra work involved in meeting market needs in time for Sukkot.

An inquiry from The Jewish Standard to the Egyptian embassy in Israel as to the reason for the ban went unanswered by press time.


When in Israel, serve soup

Chaya Goldsmith, right, with other volunteers at a Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen during Sukkot.

On her twice-yearly trips to Israel from New Jersey, Chaya Goldsmith has steamed rice at a Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen, picked vegetables for Leket national food bank, assisted the elderly at the Yad LeKashish: Lifeline for the Old, made signs for the ALYN Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center bike-a-thon, danced with children at Keren Or-Jerusalem Center for Blind Children with Multiple Disabilities, and whatever else she can do to assist a variety of Israeli charitable endeavors.

It is not that Goldsmith ignores needs in her own backyard — she has also volunteered as a matchmaker, Kosher Meals on Wheels driver, and worker in a Bergen County homeless shelter and hospital.

“There are needs here, too, but in Israel it’s for the Jewish people,” says Goldsmith, one of several local residents organizing a Nov. 12 dinner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park to benefit Hazon Yeshaya. The largest humanitarian network in Israel, Hazon Yeshaya offers services to orphans, terror victims, Holocaust survivors, victims of abuse, sick and disabled people, and single-parent families. Its nutrition program provides 400,000 meals every month, and it runs free dental clinics, after-school programs, and vocational classes.

“I read about the organization years ago in The Jewish Standard and I always like to do volunteer work when I’m in Israel, so I decided to check it out,” says Goldsmith, who was back in the soup kitchen during Sukkot. Her husband, Mark, and his law partners recently helped ALYN open a facility to house parents visiting their hospitalized children.

The Goldsmiths, who live in Teaneck, are among many North Jersey residents who do much more than write checks to charitable groups in the Holy Land.

“Aside from touring or visiting relatives and shopping, it’s become part of the accepted routine to set aside time to volunteer during a trip to Israel,” says Shoshana Shore, a former Edison resident who now works at Jerusalem-based Ohr Meir & Bracha: The Terror Victims Support Center. Each Thursday, volunteers help assemble hundreds of Shabbat food baskets for families laid low by terrorism.

“I play ‘Jewish geography’ with whoever comes through the door, and I find that many of our volunteers, whether adults or bar/bat mitzvah kids or students here for a year after high school, are from New Jersey,” says Shore.

Looking at the guestbook, she notes volunteers clocking in from Englewood, Clifton-Passaic, Upper Saddle River, Fair Lawn, Teaneck, and Bergenfield.

Last year, the organization’s founder, Leora Tedgi, hosted a bat mitzvah party for girls coming to volunteer with Chana Reichman, the rebbetzin of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue. On these regular jaunts, the girls and moms not only pack vegetables and challah but also “twin” with similarly aged girls among the group’s 400 client families.

“There’s a connection between Jews no matter where they live,” says Tedgi. She relies on the good will of Jews outside of Israel to contribute both time and money. “We cannot do it ourselves; we need help from our ‘family’ abroad.”

Many of these involved donors choose one or two organizations as the focus of their overseas benevolence. For example, Steven and Eileen David of Englewood dedicated a playground at Sanhedria Children’s Home in Jerusalem and visit the home whenever they are in Israel.

“I meet the Davids every time they come to Israel, and they are always interested in the children’s welfare,” says Miriam Braun, director of program development at this residential treatment center for boys with a history of severe abuse.

Sanhedria is partially supported by the Ministry of Welfare, but depends on others to provide everything from new school backpacks to sufficient professional staffing.

“We take it on ourselves to give the extras and hope the Jewish community will help us,” says Braun. “Year after year, Bergen County gets very good representation because many yeshiva high school graduates from this area volunteer here, and they tell their parents and friends and rabbis. The parents get very enthusiastic and often come to visit us when they’re here.”

Many North Jersey bar mitzvah celebrants hold their parties at Sanhedria and donate gift money as well. “All of this helps our boys heal, and makes their orbit a sunnier place,” Braun says.

ALYN is another favorite. Teams of riders from Bergen County fly over for the Wheels of Love bike-a-thon year after year. On Nov. 6-10, Jeff Erdfarb of Teaneck plans to participate in his 11th ride.

“I feel it’s important to help children anywhere they might live, especially children with physical handicaps,” he says, noting that about half the patients at ALYN are Arabs. “I feel it can help bridge the gaps between people,” he says. “Anything you can do to help Israel is very important, and I’ve made unbelievable friends on these trips over the years, both American and Israeli.”

Not surprisingly, children’s charities resonate strongly with active donors.

The Parker families of Englewood — brothers Drew, Jeffrey, and Michael — joined their brother and sister four years ago to establish the Shirley Margolin Parker Home for Infants at Bet Elezraki, an Emunah residential facility for 240 Israeli children from abusive homes.

“After our mother passed away, my four siblings and I were looking for a way to honor her as a family,” explains Michael Parker. “My mother had a real, genuine, heartfelt passion for Israel and a very deep genuine love for children, so we met with the head of the home. He said there was a need, unfortunately, for a place for infants who had been abused or neglected and they hadn’t been able to serve that segment.”

Following a 2006 trip to Israel to assess the situation, the Parkers helped Bet Elezraki purchase and renovate a building to accommodate about 14 babies and young children in crisis. “My mother imbued that love of Israel in all of us, so we blended that with the opportunity to help children she felt strongly about,” says Parker.

Seventeen years ago, Teaneck residents Becky and Daniel Wolf donated $1,000 of their engagement gift money to Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS) in Ra’anana, which provides a range of services to children with special needs.

“We tried to pick one place to give a significant donation every year,” says Becky Wolf. “We wanted it to be in Israel and something to do with children. My husband served in the Israeli army and we both spent a year here post-high school and felt a strong connection to Israel.”

Over Sukkot, the Wolfs — now board members of the American Friends of BIS and yearly visitors with their three kids — were at the facility celebrating their daughter Gabriella’s becoming a bat mitzvah. A student at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, Gabriella raised more than $5,000 for BIS and brought books to Liri, a 12-year-old BIS student.

Wolf notes that BIS’s innovations in special needs are known worldwide, and physical therapists in North Jersey are familiar with its methods. The organization established Friendship Park, Israel’s first fully accessible and inclusive playground, whose design and programs are being replicated in Israel and other countries.

“Every year for the past four years, I have been selling mishloach manot [Purim baskets] to benefit Beit Issie, and when our youngest was born I asked for donations instead of gifts,” says Wolf. “Even if I get just one person to look at their website and donate, it’s worth it.”


Not just horsin’ around

Local woman urges ponying up for Israel therapy program

Children start a therapy session at the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association near Netanya.

A young Israeli woman was suffering from severe anxiety attacks, rapidly losing weight and hair. Then her husband brought her to the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association (INTRA) near the coastal city of Netanya.

A month later, after riding therapy horse Pocahantas (Pokey for short) twice a week, she has regained a bit of weight and, most important, a smile.

This was exactly the kind of situation for which Teaneck resident Minna Heilpern donated Pokey to INTRA about 10 years ago. Now head of the fundraising arm Friends of INTRA (, Heilpern is among organizers of a benefit scheduled for Nov. 16, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Spanish Benevolent Society in Manhattan.

For $75, supporters of INTRA will be treated to a flamenco performance and a silent auction, with prizes including two El Al tickets to Israel, four Islanders tickets, and a two-night stay at the Fern Hall Inn in Pennsylvania.

“Our goal is to raise $50,000 to sponsor five of INTRA’s 20 magnificent therapy horses for a year,” said Heilpern. The animals need special care and training to provide therapeutic riding for individuals with varying degrees of challenges, ranging from autism and post-traumatic stress disorders to youth at risk, wounded soldiers, and survivors of terrorist attacks.

INTRA Director Anita Shkedi explained that each horse has about a 10-year working life, during which it typically gives 25 rides per week.

There is much to show for these costly efforts. Since Shkedi and her husband Giora founded INTRA in 2000, they have helped hundreds of individuals with a wide variety of physical, neurological, and emotional difficulties.

A native of England with degrees in education, preventive medicine, nursing, and therapeutic horseback riding, Anita Shkedi introduced therapeutic riding to Israel in 1985 and founded a course in therapeutic riding at Israel’s Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports. She has worked with TROT (Therapeutic Rehabilitation of Tucson) to start its Horses for Heroes program for veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“For small children age 3 and up with severe physical disabilities or autism, it helps with development and communication skills, mobility, and movement,” she said. “Israel’s national health maintenance organizations refer children with emotional problems, learning problems, ADHD, or anxiety disorders. Here they build self-confidence and become motivated. We can teach them to perform tasks with the horse that they can carry over into other environments, including life skills that help them overcome behavioral or communication problems.”

INTRA worked with the Israeli Ministry of Education to establish a matriculation course in equine studies for students, including teens with a background of domestic violence. “This program has to be supported by donations because a few of the students don’t pay anything and others pay a tiny part of the actual cost,” she said.

Last year, INTRA began working with army veterans suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They came to us in a very distressed state; some hadn’t left their house in 10 years,” Shkedi said. “They discover that the horse is a good ‘listener’ and gives unconditional love, so they communicate well with the horse, and you see the tension being released. Huge changes take place. Of 11 veterans, two are back at work. For the others, we’ve reduced symptoms of hyper-alertness ... and the amount of medications they take, and have also helped with chronic sleep problems. But we desperately need support for this project, as well.”

INTRA also helps adults with physical disabilities and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury. “Riding stimulates the mind,” she said. “We seem to help them find new pathways in the brain over the course of a few years of therapy.”

Her newest project is “surf and ride,” where patients ride a therapy horse in the morning and take lessons at a nearby surfing club in the afternoon. “It’s been amazing, and I want to get our autistic children involved,” she said.

Heilpern has long been intrigued by the animal-human connection and visited INTRA the first of many times in 2001. She was so impressed that she asked friends and family to chip in for a therapy horse in honor of her 50th birthday. That is how Pokey came to INTRA.

“In 2006, I went to volunteer in the arena with the horses, so I saw personally what it’s all about,” said Heilpern. In 2008, she and her friend Barbara Goldberg in Ossining, N.Y., started Friends of INTRA. Their efforts have until now been limited to bar/bat mitzvah projects, mailings, and parlor meetings.

“This is the first time we’re doing an event,” she said of the flamenco night. Anita and Giora Shkedi are scheduled to fly over for the occasion, which will feature kosher hors d’oeuvres and wine purchased from Ma’adan in Teaneck. Beth Brunson of Manhattan is chairing the evening.


Treasure trove of sacred trash

New book tells tale of an incomparable discovery

Solomon Schechter, the man whose name graces Conservative day schools in North Jersey and across the country, was something of a scholarly swashbuckler.

The myriad scraps of Hebrew-scrawled documents he hauled out of a dusty crawlspace in an old Cairo synagogue at the end of the 19th century are the subject of “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” by the Paterson-born poet Peter Cole (see sidebar) and the biographer Adina Hoffman (Nextbook/Schocken, 2011, $26.95).

Cole and Hoffman, who maintain residences in Jerusalem and New Haven, just wrapped up a North American publicity tour for their book about the 900 years’ worth of sacred texts, letters, poems, wills, marriage contracts, money orders, trousseau lists, prescriptions, petitions, and magic charms discovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue Geniza (a depository for worn Jewish texts) by a colorful cadre of adventurer/scholars.

Biographer Adina Hoffman and Paterson-born poet Peter Cole collaborated on “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.”

Schechter was among the first to realize the significance of this treasure trove, dubbed “the Living Sea Scrolls,” which is now being pieced together digitally by Tel Aviv University computer scientists with the aid of advanced facial recognition technology. Schechter’s particular delight were scraps of the apocryphal “Wisdom of Ben Sira” (a/k/a Ecclesiasticus), composed around 200 BCE.

The more than 350,000 fragments are now scattered among 67 collections and libraries from Manchester to Budapest. The bulk are at the Cambridge University Library, “tended to with great care and devotion by the director and staff of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit (, who have gone to incredible lengths to preserve and catalogue, and generally study and care for, the collection that Schechter hauled back from Cairo,” Hoffman and Cole wrote in an e-mail to a Jewish Standard reporter during their book tour.

“Peter has spent years translating the Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain, and many of these poems were discovered in the Geniza, so that was the initial point of contact. Then, some seven years ago, we happened to be in England and were treated to a tour of the vault where the Geniza materials are held — just a few rows over from the Darwin papers — and he was transfixed by the incredibly vivid manuscripts we were shown there.”

When Nextbook Press invited them to write a book together, the Geniza seemed the perfect choice of topic.

The authors went to Cambridge, Oxford, The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and even to the bare crawlspace of the Ben Ezra Synagogue to research their subject. “We were able to talk our way up there...and we climbed up a ladder and peered inside — but it takes some real imagination to conceive of what once was there,” they said. “Now it’s just a dark, deep, emptied-out closet.”

Hoffman and Cole emphasized that just as important as the research was the writing itself, “the weaving together of the many strands of this tale. That tale includes biographies of...incredible women and men, as well as the remarkable stories of the manuscripts they discovered.”

The finished product, they said, “is a total collaboration, fact by fact and sentence by sentence. We wrote the book we wanted to write and tried our best to convey our fascination, our enthusiasm, and our sense of discovery.”

Hoffman is the author of “House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood” and “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century,” named one of the top 10 biographies of the year by the American Library Association publication Booklist. She is working on a book about “Jerusalem, the British Mandate, beauty, and ugliness.”


Stars take a shine to Israel

21 marquee names on an eye-opening tour

Published: 02 December 2011

“A lot of us are very intensely overwhelmed by this beautiful country and the tenacious, focused spirit of its people.”

So said actor-producer-director Giancarlo Esposito, one of 21 Hollywood personalities who toured Israel in mid-November through The Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to educating and mobilizing artists and entertainers on issues of public importance.

Speaking at a press conference during a week-long itinerary packed with sightseeing and dialogues with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders, fellow artists, NGO heads, ordinary citizens and new immigrants, these first-time visitors reported that it had not taken long for their preconceptions to be shattered.

“To the outside world, the ‘two-state issue’ makes you think that in the streets of Israel there would be conflict,” said KayCee Stroh (“High School Musical”). “I assumed people would spit on each other and yet on the ground level I’m amazed at how respectful everyone is. I didn’t expect that.”

Emmy Award-winner Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”) said he was impressed by a strong sense of service among Israelis. He learned that the country routinely offers medical assistance in the wake of disasters in places like Haiti and Turkey, and helps its own through organizations such as the NATAL Trauma Center.

“Everywhere we go here, I see there’s a mission that’s clearly related to the absolute necessity for security and survival that we forget about in the rest of the world. I’m grateful to witness it firsthand and bring those stories back to America,” Schiff said.

Actually, the group did not have to wait until they returned to the United States to get such messages across, as Tichina Arnold (“Everybody Hates Chris”) explained.

“I’ve been tweeting the whole time,” she said. “I have thousands of followers and I’m kind of doing a diary as we go along. Tens of hundreds are replying back that they can’t wait to come to Israel.”

She said her devoutly Christian family in New York was excited that she had visited the Western Wall and the historic churches in Jerusalem. The group also had time to unwind at the famous Fink bar in the capital city’s Talpiot neighborhood.

Steven Weber (“Brothers & Sisters,” “Wings”) said he enjoyed their stop at an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion. “We were greeted by a burst of life in the form of gorgeous little kids so exuberant and glowing and accessible, genuine and curious,” he said. “In many ways, in the United States, Israel is defined by its pain, but now what is defining Israel for me is its life and light.”

Stroh pointed out that communicating with the children transcended the language barrier. “The arts are universal,” she said. “We couldn’t understand each other’s language, but we did the Macarena with them and held them on our laps.”

For Richard Kind (“Spin City,” “Mad About You”), the visit pointed up the difference in attitude toward newcomers: “There are lots of problems for immigrants in America because we keep them at arms’ length,” he said. “Here in Israel, if immigration doesn’t rise year by year, something’s wrong...I had no idea Israel does everything it can to bring people in.”

The visit was organized in conjunction with the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent, non-profit, charitable foundation. It included some time with residents of Sderot, the Gaza border town that has long been subjected to sometimes daily missile attacks.

“I have never before seen people able to live in that kind of strange and difficult situation and call it normal, to move forward and teach their children how to love and not hate, and to remain hopeful there will be peace in this land,” said Esposito.

Rob Morrow (“Numb3rs,” “Northern Exposure”) commented on the “vitality in the people of Israel.” Addressing Israeli journalists at the press conference, he said, “I commend all of you for living here, and I get it. I understand why you want to live here.”

“This has been a remarkable learning experience,” said 21-year-old Andrea Bowen (“Desperate Housewives,” “Boston Public”). “Before coming to Israel, I talked with friends and peers and there’s a lack of knowledge about what it is really like over here. What I’ve been hearing most of all is people discussing hope. My responsibility is to go back and inform young Americans what it’s like here. I’m trying to be a sponge for information. I don’t want to leave.”

The group was also scheduled to relax on the Tel Aviv beach and go dancing. “I’m so excited about the future of Israel’s filmmakers, fashion designers and musicians,” said Rachael Leigh Cook (“She’s All That”).

CCH Pounder (“Avatar,” “The Shield”) said some friends in South Africa were “quite upset” that she was going to Israel, but she was not deterred. “I’m an actor from a household of stalwart Caribbean people. They [her friends in South Africa] didn’t really have an explanation that was strong enough,” she said.

Harry Hamlin (“LA Law,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) said he found it remarkable “what a stunning success this project of Israel has been so far. After just a few days, for all of us it’s important that this fragile yet extraordinary project be maintained.”


Israel for animal lovers

‘Unleashed’ offers un upbeat, albeit unusual, tour of the Holy Land

Published: 02 December 2011

Tova Saul moved to Israel from Pittsburgh in 1981 to find the man of her dreams. That quest is still pending. Along the way, however, she found a niche as a tour guide, and also as an animal advocate and rescuer.

Now she is combining her vocation and avocation by offering the first-ever animal-focused tour of Israel: Israel Unleashed (

The June 3-13 tour will take a maximum of 14 participants to see living examples of positive interactions between humans and animals in the Holy Land. Among the planned stops are:

• the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association (;

• the Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at Michmoret Naval Academy;

• an animal-assisted therapy program in Tel Aviv that pairs African refugee children with rescued dogs;

• a free veterinary clinic for working horses and donkeys in the northern west bank;

• the Moshav Gan Yoshia donkey and horse rescue center;

• the Jerusalem Bird Observatory conservation and education center;

• Afrikef monkeys rescue and rehab center;

• bird-watching at Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin with ornithologist David Glasner;

• Neot Kedumim, Israel’s biblical landscape reserve.

“People who love animals share a language of animal-related opinions, experiences, and feelings,” Saul says. “This deeply connects them across differences in politics, religions, personalities, and ages, so they can be a happy cohesive group as they experience Israel together.”

A camel cooperates for the camera, posing with Tova Saul. Courtesy Tova Saul

Participants will meet a Knesset champion of animal-welfare legislation, and Dr. William Clark of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, whom Saul calls “the king of wildlife conservation.” (Clark spent 30 years engaged in national and international wildlife law-enforcement efforts, including the Interpol Wildlife Crime Group.) At Zichron Ya’akov, the tourists will have dinner at a winery with a spokesperson from Israel’s Let Animals Live organization.

“I spent two weeks perfecting the itinerary for a balance between animal projects that are uplifting; evening activities with animal people; and upbeat Jewish experiences like a fun Shabbaton and walking tour in the Old City — along with the standard sites to make it a real Israel trip, such as Tzfat, the Dead Sea, Masada, Caesarea, and the Golan Heights,” says Saul.

In the course of exploring the “standard sites,” the group is sure to see a standard sight: stray cats. Saul is an expert in this field, as well, as she just recently released the 165th cat she arranged to have spayed or neutered in Jerusalem’s Old City in the past three years. You can easily identify fixed cats in Israel by looking for one clipped ear.

“Tourists should know that’s what a tipped ear means,” says Saul, who financed the first 60 or so cats at her own expense before private donors, Spay Israel, and the city pound stepped in to help.

The tour will not dwell on this aspect, however. “I want to keep it upbeat, and that’s why we’re not going to an animal shelter,” Saul says. “You can go to a shelter in the U.S. and get depressed there.”

Saul says that non-Jews are welcome to join the tour, “providing they understand there will be Jewish elements that will be fun, such as a Sabbath meal with a family, a Jewish wedding, and a talk with an expert on Jewish dating and marriage.” One of the evening sessions will be a discussion with Rabbi Adam Frank about what Judaism has to say about the treatment of animals (quite a lot, actually).

While Saul is in charge of the itinerary and the guiding, Keshet Center for Educational Tourism in Israel has partnered with her to handle the logistics. Tour participants will stay at hotels and kibbutz guest houses during the trip.

Saul is not specifying a minimum or maximum age for the trip. “It’s fine for anyone who is physically fit — not Sylvester Stallone, but enough to do some hiking,” she says. Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Old City ramparts, and Ein Gedi Nature Reserve are among the itinerary items where walking and climbing ability will come in handy, plus there will be rafting on the Jordan River.

As a licensed tour guide living in the Old City, Saul has had occasion to guide a wide range of guests, including the actor Kirk Douglas, who endowed several institutions there. She is probably best known in the cobblestone alleys, however, for her animal rescue work. It all began with a crying kitten she came upon not long after her arrival.

“I stood there wondering if it would survive,” she recalls. “I decided to take it, and I walked through the Old City knocking on doors until I found it a home. Every time I saw an injured cat after that, I had to do something.”

“My parents always let me bring home stray animals,” she says. “I’ve been told that when I was two years old, I ran away from home and was found by passersby at a junkyard, who took me home. My mother asked where I was going, and I said ‘Mike,’ which was the name of the dog of the neighbors up the street.”

For more information on Israel Unleashed, contact Saul at (972) 2 6713518 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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