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New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives — leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body — the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.’”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.


Article fuels speculation, debate over possible strike against Iran

JERUSALEM – If the United States doesn’t attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next eight months or so, Israel probably will.

So says journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine in an article that is fueling debate and speculation among many Middle East experts.

Goldberg bases his conclusion mainly on three premises: In the Israeli view, Iran will be in a position to produce a bomb by next spring or very soon thereafter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking seriously persistent Iranian threats to wipe Israel off the map and is resolved to prevent a second Holocaust. And Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argue that even if Iran doesn’t use the bomb, a nuclear threat hanging over Israel could destroy the Zionist enterprise, with Israelis leaving the country and prospective immigrants staying away.

Goldberg makes much of the prime minister’s reverence for his 100-year-old historian father, Benzion Netanyahu, who sees history in terms of successive threats to the existence of the Jewish people. And it is true that Netanyahu at times depicts himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, whose life’s mission is to save his people.

Nevertheless, Goldberg gives many reasons why Israel would think twice before launching an attack on Iran.

On the tactical level, a strike against Iran’s well-protected and far-flung nuclear facilities might have limited effect. Also, the operational complexity of having to fly great distances, over American lines or Arab territory, is a military planner’s nightmare.

Far worse, though, on the strategic level, is the fact that attacking Iran without an American green light could lead to a major rupture between Jerusalem and Washington. And if distanced from or even abandoned by America, Israel could quickly become a pariah state isolated on the international stage.

The widespread international condemnation of Israel’s action against a Turkish “peace” vessel last May is an indication of where things could go.

Moreover, any Israeli strike against Iran would almost certainly trigger a major regional war, with Israel under missile and rocket attack from Iran, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also possibly from Syria and Hamas in Gaza. That, in turn, could lead to spiraling oil prices, for which Israel would be blamed. And Iran and its proxies almost certainly would unleash terror attacks against Jewish targets worldwide.

For reasons like these, outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is said to be unenthusiastic about launching an Israeli strike. Although the Israel Defense Forces reportedly has conducted simulation exercises as far afield as Greece, and is continually fine-tuning its operational plans, Ashkenazi would prefer not to have to carry them out.

Ashkenazi is not the only senior military man with doubts.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and one of Israel’s sharpest military analysts, argued in a much-touted position paper late last year that there is no way Israel would risk harming its key strategic relationship with the United States for the lesser gain of putting Iran’s nuclear program back by a few years. Moreover, he said, if there is to be a military strike, the chances are that the Americans would prefer to carry it out themselves.

According to Eiland, some U.S. Army chiefs maintain that since America would be affected by the fallout of any strike, it should bring its greater military prowess to bear to ensure success.

In Eiland’s view, for Israel to have a realistic strike option, the following conditions would have to pertain: a clear failure of the current sanctions against Iran; American unwillingness to take military action despite what some of the generals have been saying; and American understanding for Israel’s need to act. Then Netanyahu would have to make his own personal calculus — bearing in mind that failure could leave the Gulf unstable, Western interests undermined, Israel blamed and isolated on the world stage, and worst of all, Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons accorded a degree of legitimacy.

Zeev Maoz, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, adds another concern. In a mid-August article in Haaretz, he suggested that an attack on Iran could lead to international pressure on Israel to dismantle its presumed nuclear arsenal and to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Israel refused to buckle, it could be ostracized, Maoz wrote, and if it did buckle under pressure, it would be losing a key bargaining chip for the creation of a new regional security order.

So, given the risks an attack on Iran would entail, would Israel consider a nuclear balance of fear with Iran?

According to Maj. Gen (Res.) Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, former head of military research and development in the IDF and the Defense Ministry, in such a balance the advantage would tilt hugely in Israel’s favor. He told JTA that the Iranians are trying to build a fission bomb that at around 20 kilotons would be about the size of the American bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Foreign experts assert that Israel possesses fusion bombs that can be from 50 to 250 times more destructive than the 1945 atomic bomb.

In late 2007, Anthony Cordesman, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, published “Iran, Israel and Nuclear War: An Illustrative Scenario Analysis,” in which he tried to gauge the outcome of a nuclear showdown sometime in the next decade. His bottom line: Israel would be able to survive and rebuild, while Iran would not.

According to Ben Yisrael, the Iranians are very well aware of this disparity and therefore would be unlikely to start a nuclear war against Israel.

“Maybe the Iranian man in the street doesn’t know these facts, but the engineers working on the Iranian bomb certainly do. And so does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” Ben Yisrael told JTA.

Nevertheless, Ben Yisrael, like most Israeli analysts, is adamantly opposed to Iran’s acquiring the bomb for two reasons: The Middle East almost certainly would go multinuclear in its wake, exponentially increasing the chances of someone mistakenly pressing a nuclear button, and terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear device with no balance of fear possible.

Indeed, most Israeli analysts see compelling American reasons for action. They argue that the Obama administration would be loath to see a Middle East nuclear arms race undercutting the president’s vision of a nuclear-free world. It also is crucial for America to prevent Iran from using a nuclear umbrella to promote terror and extortion against the West, or terrorists from getting their hands on a dirty bomb, or Iran from using its nuclear posture to gain control of Middle East oil supplies in the Gulf.

In addition, the failure to stop Iran from going nuclear could lead to a loss of American prestige and influence in the region, with wavering Gulf states moving from the American to the Iranian orbit.

So, if sanctions don’t work, and if a popular uprising in Iran led by the opposition Green Movement fails to materialize, the Israeli leadership’s hope is that America will see the necessity of taking military action, despite the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Israelis are careful not to spell this out, since they don’t want to be seen as pushing for an American attack.

Israeli analysts point out that what would be very difficult for Israel to achieve, militarily and diplomatically, the United States could achieve much more easily. According to Goldberg, Netanyahu himself often tells visitors “the secret” that the U.S. Army is much bigger than Israel’s.

Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama in early July was heartened, according to aides, by what he heard from the president on Iran. Indeed, it appears that U.S. policy is to prevent Israel from going it alone, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen urging Israel to bite the bullet, while Obama reassures Israeli leaders that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb.

But what if Israel and the United States differ in their estimates of the Iranian nuclear timetable? Or if the United States proves reluctant to attack when Israel feels that time is running out?

Will Israel, because of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, then take the risk of acting alone? And, crucially, will the United States then give Israel a green light to attack?



TABC grad plans kayak trip to Israel

Josh LipowskyLocal
Published: 24 September 2010
Dov Neimand loads his practice kayak for a trip down to Sandy Hook from the George Washington Bridge. Charles Zusman

Many Jews travel from America to Israel, but Dov Neimand is doing it his way — by kayak.

The 27-year-old Teaneck native, now a resident of Israel, where he is a reserve medic in the Israel Defense Forces, is in the process of shoving off from Spain and paddling his way along the Mediterranean coast to Israel.

Neimand’s plans were set back last week, however, when much of his navigation and communications gear was stolen in Barcelona. When reached by e-mail earlier this week, he was working to resupply the kayak and get going again in time to meet his February deadline.

The trip is a way to see parts of the world, he said during an interview earlier this summer at the Teaneck home of his parents, Jerry and Jane Neimand.

“It’s exciting to set a goal and accomplish it,” he said. “I also want to see parts of Europe and this is a great way to do it.”

His itinerary will take him down the coast of France, down Italy to a canal above Sicily to Greece, down the Greek coast to Turkey, and then to Cyprus. From there he’ll go to Haifa and down the Israeli coast.

Neimand’s trip is not for the faint-hearted or frail. He worked out steadily during his three-month summer stay in Teaneck, with many trips on the Hudson River, including one down the coast to Sandy Hook, and practicing the “Eskimo roll,” a technique of rolling the kayak upright without getting out after a capsize.

On a past visit to the states, he paddled the length of the Hudson from Albany to New Jersey, some 160 miles.

During his interview, he said he planned to paddle five days a week. He carries a list of shuls along the way, won’t paddle on Shabbat, and eats only kosher food. He hopes to spend many nights in youth hostels, but other times he will camp on the beach.

The trip will test his stamina, and the lean and tanned Neimand expects the current to be against him much of the way. Neimand said the currents are less strong this time of year, so that determined his timing. He will wear a wetsuit to keep warm, and he’ll have to bundle up at night, when temperatures may drop to the 30s.

“We’re concerned, but we’re supportive,” said Jerry Neimand on Wednesday. “Once he makes his mind up to do something, he does it.”

Dov Neimand, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County, left for Israel shortly after high school to attend a yeshiva for a year and a half. He then did a three-year stint in the army, followed by earning a bachelor’s degree at Hebrew University in mathematics. In February, he’ll start graduate school at Bar Ilan University with an interest in desertification.

The youngest of five children, Neimand has been interested in kayaking since he was 7 or 8, according to his father. When Dov Neimand told his parents of his plans to paddle to Israel, their first reaction was to try to discourage him, but now they accept his choice and support him, the elder Neimand said.

“We wish him well, and hopefully this will be a wonderful learning experience,” he said.

Charles Zusman contributed to this report.


Jewish charities do poorly in annual list

As the recession ends, will mega-donors like Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson re-up their Jewish giving? Courtesy Deborah Camiel

While economists say the recession ended more than a year ago, you wouldn’t know it to look at Jewish nonprofits.

In an annual list released earlier this month by The Chronicle of Philanthropy of the top 400 nonprofits in the United States, fund raising at the country’s largest Jewish charities had declined by an average of 18.5 percent in 2009 — nearly twice as much as the list as a whole, which showed a fund-raising decline of 10 percent.

Twenty-two Jewish organizations made the Philanthropy 400, which ranks the country’s 400 largest nonprofits by the size of their fund-raising totals.

Only two Jewish charities ranked among the top 100 earners in 2009, with the Jewish Federations of North America and its overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ranking 45 and 78, respectively.

Some of the country’s largest Jewish charities took significant hits. Hadassah was down 7.9 percent to $78 million; the JDC fell 8.5 percent to $224 million; Yeshiva University dropped nearly 40 percent to $111 million; and Brandeis University was down 12.6 percent to $78 million. On the other hand, the Birthright Israel Foundation rose 46.8 percent to just over $71 million.

It seems that 2009 was an especially hard year for the Jewish federation system.

The Chronicle’s accounting of the 147-federation system is always a bit tricky, as some of the largest federations are counted by themselves and not with the rest of the system.

According to the Chronicle’s survey, the JFNA brought in $320,252,000 in 2009, a 19.6 percent drop from the previous year (when it was known as the UJC, for United Jewish Communities).

All but one of the top federations on the list, which were counted separately, showed significant declines. The UJA-Federation of New York was down 10 percent to $159.7 million, JUF-Jewish Federation of Chicago was down 15 percent to $133.5 million, and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston was down 21 percent to about $85 million.

Only the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore saw an increase, gaining 10 percent to reach $62 million.

But the JFNA says the numbers for the federations are not as bad as the report may seem. Looking at the federation system’s campaign as a whole, and including the larger federations, the 2009 annual campaign stood at $938 million, a 10 percent drop from 2008’s $1.04 billion campaign and more in line with the national averages for declines.

In total, according to the JFNA, the federations took in $2 billion in 2009 when counting all of their assets, including endowments and foundations such as the Jewish Communal Fund of New York. This year, the federations are ahead of the 2009 pace, as they have taken in $747 million in 2010, a 3.4 percent increase over the same period of last year.

“There is a cautious optimism,” a JFNA spokesman said. “I don’t think anyone thinks we are out of the woods or that everything is great. But there is a feeling that people have really responded and stepped up to the plate, especially given that nonprofits and charities continue to be down. Our surveys have shown that there is a trust in the federation movement.”

On the positive side, two Jewish organizations were new to this year’s list of the top 400: American Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish National Fund. On the other side, two Jewish organizations dropped off the list: the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego and the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, N.J., both of which made the top 400 for 2008 thanks to significant one-time gifts.

This marks the 20th year that the Chronicle has conducted the survey. It provided an opportunity to see how top charities have evolved since 1991 and how donor interests may have changed.

In general, the largest charities have stayed relatively stable. Some 228 charities made the list in both 1991 and 2010, and they increased their mean fund-raising by 228 percent. When adjusted for inflation, they raised 81 percent more in real dollars last year than they did two decades ago. And the largest of the large have fared well, according to the Chronicle: Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Catholic Charities USA, the Salvation Army, and the Y (formerly YMCA) stayed in the list’s top 20, with each group at least tripling the amount raised over the two decades.

Still, the landscape has changed dramatically. Nearly half the list is new since 1991. Jewish charities have declined. In 1991, two Jewish organizations were in the top 10, but this year the top Jewish charity, the Jewish federation system, only made it as high as No. 45.

Paul Kane, who heads the JFNA’s development department and is the senior adviser to the CEO of JFNA, said federations expect better outcomes next year. So far, the JFNA has had three major campaign events, all of which are up on average 18 percent over last year.

“We’re going to do better in 2010 than in 2009,” Kane said, adding that 2011 should be another step toward recovery. “I think people are coming back financially and showing great commitment that could reach levels pre-2009 and higher.”



Army converts dragged into Israel’s conversion wars

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 12 November 2010
The army conversion case of Alina Sardikov, shown at her wedding to Maxim Sardikov earlier this year, at which ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber officiated, has gone to the Israeli Supreme Court. ITIM

TEL AVIV – For years, army conversions were seen by many as a convenient solution for resolving at least part of the “Who is a Jew?” question that hangs like a cloud over the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis.

In the Israel Defense Forces, under the guidance of army rabbis, some 5,000 young soldiers in the last decade have undergone a conversion process seen as rigorous but welcoming. That process stands in contrast to the experiences described by many of those seeking civilian conversions run by the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Now the issue has come to a head with a decision by the Chief Rabbinate not to continue to stand behind IDF conversions until a panel of its rabbis can scrutinize the process.

Furthermore, the Chief Rabbinate broadened the panel’s task to re-examine Israel’s conversion process across the board. That has left thousands of converts, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, wondering where they stand.

“I am all for high standards for conversion, and I’m also for clear standards for conversion once a person converts under the Chief Rabbinate, but it’s outrageous to throw into question their sincerity or their Jewishness,” said Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who is the director of Itim-The Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps Jews navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate did not answer requests for a comment on the issue.

It was a lawsuit filed by Farber’s organization that inadvertently prompted the latest crisis in Israel’s conversion wars. In the case, currently being heard by the Supreme Court, Itim is suing the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbis of four cities who have refused to recognize army conversions.

During a hearing in September, the state attorney said there was a procedural problem with recognizing the conversions — a snag that elements in the haredi Orthodox community have seized upon to turn the battle into an ideological one, Farber and other more liberal Orthodox rabbis argue.

They point to the full-page ads in two haredi newspapers taken out by the rabbinic leadership of the large Lithuanian haredi community as an example of the pressure being put on Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who oversees the issue of conversion, to withdraw his sanction of IDF conversions. The ads rail against what the rabbis call fictitious conversions and say that any conversions done without converts taking on the “yoke of mitzvahs” are to be considered invalid.

Israel Eichler, a former Knesset member from the haredi United Torah Judaism party and currently the editor of a religious newspaper, said he had no specific opinion on army conversions. But he suggested that if soldiers’ observance was in doubt, there could be a problem.

“A person who converts and does not fulfill the mitzvahs is not a Jew,” he said.

Meanwhile, a bill has been submitted to the Knesset that, if passed, would cement the IDF conversions as valid according to halacha, or Jewish law.

But Rabbi Yakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam and a member of the rabbinical council — the equivalent of the Chief Rabbinate’s high court — said those who have converted in the past through the IDF should not be concerned that their conversions could be revoked.

Ruza was appointed as one of the rabbis on the new investigative panel but has stepped down, citing technical reasons.

Taking aim at critics of the Chief Rabbinate, however, he suggested that the whole episode is being overplayed.

“There are certain sources that are battling the Rabbinate to try to make it look like an extremist institution,” he said. “They take certain incidents and make them appear to be questioning the status quo, which they are not.”

An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israeli citizens are not Jewish according to Jewish law — immigrants or children of Russian-speaking immigrants who were granted citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows those with a Jewish grandparent to become Israeli even if they are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Most of those who have converted through the army fit that category.

Among them is a young woman who preferred to be identified as Shira (not her real name). She immigrated to Israel alone 10 years ago as a teenager from a small town outside of Moscow. Her father is Jewish, her mother is not.

Shira always felt herself to be Jewish and knew one day she would formally convert, an opportunity she welcomed while serving in the air force.

“They do it so well in army. They focus on all the beautiful things in Judaism like human relations and values,” she said. “They know dealing with new immigrants. There’s no brainwashing but a focus on the important things, the right things.”

Shira is distraught at the idea that army conversions might be in peril.

“We are talking about young Zionists who have come to serve in the army,” she said. “It’s not easy, but they want to serve the country and feel connected to who they are.”

Rabbi Chaim Iram, who serves as director of conversion preparation for the Institute for Jewish Studies, the organization that coordinates IDF conversion courses, dismissed suspicions that army conversions are anything but legitimate.

“I invite anyone to come see our course, the materials we use, and the seriousness and devotion of our students, and then we can talk about criticism,” he said. “According to any and all parameters — both knowledge and practice — we are doing top-level work.

“We need to tell all of our converts that they are Jews, period, that this is a procedural problem that cannot be made into a problem of principle. But yes, welcome to Israel. There is politics, yes. That is a problem.”

Amar’s panel, which is in disarray with three of the five appointed rabbis quitting, has been given four months to make a recommendation on the conversions. Farber notes that is exactly when a freeze on discussion of a controversial conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem is set to expire.

Farber suggested that the Chief Rabbinate is preparing to use the panel as leverage to win approval for Rotem’s bill. The measure has many opponents, among them non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish organizations that fear it would give too much power to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate on conversion issues, formally shutting out the Conservative and Reform movements.

Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, said it had been naive to think army conversions could be isolated from the overall atmosphere regarding conversions in Israel.

“We claimed for years that the wall between the army and civil society was a fake wall,” he said. “In the end, unless something is done to address the irrational, immoral, and un-Jewish approach of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, it will have a serious and severe effect on the conversions in the army.”

JTA Wire Service


Leon Blankrot, Chief cook and bottle washer helps supply Israeli soldiers

Jon Bendavid, far right, of the men’s club of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, stands with sailors thanking the shul for a donation of 100 fleece jackets to a patrol boat division in charge of the northern waters, 100 thermal suits to a search and rescue unit, and 100 sweatshirts (the only allowable outerwear) for a submarine unit.

Winding his way up the hills of Samaria in the west bank, Leon Blankrot points toward a red sign warning Israeli drivers not to venture into the Palestinian territory beyond. Few Israelis can do so legally — among them, Israel Defense Forces personnel and Leon Blankrot.

A North Bergen native who moved to Israel from Passaic in 1995, Blankrot refers to himself as “chief cook and bottle washer” for Yashar L’Chayal (Straight to the Soldier). He’s been visiting Passaic and Teaneck as he kicks off the group’s annual warm winter-wear campaign, but will not be making any formal presentations.

Blankrot prefers to work behind the scenes. Each week, he drives to border army installations and in areas under the Palestinian Authority, delivering donated items that the IDF cannot or will not provide to its fighting forces. His trunk is filled with anything from blankets to toasters on any given day.

Blankrot, 49, doesn’t frequent the showcase IDF bases that other soldier-welfare organizations bring foreign visitors to see. These aren’t the ones whose commanders call him with desperate requests for, say, hydration backpacks or warm socks — even a pair of tefillin.

Beyond that red sign is one such base, set up in an abandoned factory. “There are rooms without windows, and it’s freezing cold at night,” says Blankrot, who enters the base periodically with an army escort.

On another base where Israeli civilians are prohibited, Blankrot spotted border patrol soldiers in full battle gear sleeping on the pavement at 9 a.m., with their heads on their helmets. “Turns out, these guys came from an overnight patrol and their rooms were too hot, so they slept on the cold sidewalk. We came back and gave out 13 air conditioners.” He pauses for emphasis. “I don’t give out fluff.”

Blankrot asked one supporter for a donation toward bathrobes for soldiers whom he’d seen running across the way from their barracks to the showers, in mid-winter, wearing only towels. “These soldiers, most of them Ethiopians, cannot afford such luxuries, and they cannot ask the army to provide them.”

Yashar L’Chayal was an outgrowth of Blankrot’s volunteering during the 2006 Lebanon war. A fellow congregant at his synagogue in Ma’aleh Adumim had received $250,000 from the Florida-based Cherna Moskowitz Foundation to help soldiers during that hot summer war. Blankrot took a month off from work, recruited additional volunteers, and began toting vanloads of supplies to the north.

“I went through $200,000 in a couple of weeks,” he recalls. “I’d make up to two trips a day to the Lebanese border. I’d speak to officers and quartermasters — the Radar O’Reillys of the base — to tell me what was needed. The list of things we gave out included drinking water and thousands of pairs of underwear.”

The connections he forged made Blankrot the logical choice to head a more permanent effort to assist Israeli combat soldiers. Despite the work of existing organizations, Blankrot uncovered supply gaps among lesser-known combat units, including infantry, tank, engineering, paratroop, and artillery brigades. He also aids “lone soldiers” — who have no family in Israel — and visits wounded fighters and their families.

“Yashar L’Chayal is built so every penny goes to soldiers’ individual needs, something nobody else is doing,” said Blankrot, who is now in his fourth year of a five-year contract.

Mostly, Blankrot supplies low-ticket items that parents with any sort of means could buy at the mall for their soldier children: neck warmers, fleece jackets, and gloves; $22 “shlooker” water backpacks; $19 thermal rain gear; toasters for members of a religious brigade living in hostels or boarding with families.

“We give out thousands of fleece jackets and a lot of long underwear,” says Blankrot. “I always do my due diligence to make sure these things are not being provided by the army or any other organization, and I make sure donors get recognition. I try to get the biggest bang for the buck.”

Just before Passover 2009, Blankrot learned that 24 Golani Brigade infantry troops’ families lacked refrigerators, and he supplied them.

“Everything I purchase is made in Israel,” he says. “Donors always ask me if they can send underwear on sale at Wal-Mart or Target, but the army has specific regulations regarding color and thread count. That’s hard for Americans to understand.”

It’s also hard for Americans to grasp the level of poverty in which many soldiers live despite the token pay they receive.

“At training bases, I set up closets where indigent soldiers can get shampoo, soap, towels, underwear,” says Blankrot. “Probably about a quarter of Israel’s combat soldiers are in this situation, including a lot of Ethiopians and Russians. If a kid doesn’t have money, he can’t even get a dog-tag cover.”

Blankrot brings visitors to a base in Kochav Yaakov, a Samarian town strategically overlooking Ramallah. Here, soldiers in a company of the Kfir brigade — established after the intifada to serve in the west bank — serve in six-month rotations.

“Conditions here are not horrible, but there is a lot to be done,” says Blankrot, speaking quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping soldiers who just returned from a 12-hour patrol.

There is a mobile synagogue, and a trailer-cum-clubhouse supplied by from Friends of the IDF. Blankrot has brought blankets in the winter and air-conditioners in the summer. He’s brought curtains to black out the windows so the young men can sleep better during the daytime.

Showing a thank-you letter from the IDF’s head of human resources, Blankrot says that Israel’s military leadership gives Yashar L’Chayal ample recognition for its work.

Some American synagogues, including Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, contribute to the organization. Blankrot also partners with the Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel on some projects. For more information, see


Gaza-Israel border heats up as Hamas acquires new weapons

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 31 December 2010

JERUSALEM – After two years of relative quiet since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Israel’s southern border with Gaza is again becoming volatile.

Last week, Gazans fired a rocket into Israel that landed close to a kindergarten in a kibbutz near Ashkelon just as parents were dropping off their children. Although no one was hurt, nothing like that had happened since the war.

News Analysis

Militants fired more than 200 Grad missiles, Kassam rockets, and mortar shells into Israeli territory in 2010, according to the Israel Defense Forces, compared to 160 in 2009. Both years pale in comparison to prewar levels in 2008, when militants in Gaza launched some 4,000 projectiles into Israel.

Nevertheless, despite the relative quiet for most of this year, the IDF is concerned that the recent escalation, if unchecked, could lead to a new round of serious fighting.

After last week’s attack in Ashkelon, the Israel Air Force bombed a staffed Hamas militia base, the first time it had taken such action in two years. Until then, the IDF had restricted its retaliatory and preemptive raids to targeting weapons caches, so-called workshops, smuggling tunnels and Hamas militants in the act of launching attacks. The IDF attacked the Hamas base to signal that Israel will hold the Hamas government responsible for what goes on in Gaza and that in allowing a bombing so close to a kindergarten, Hamas had crossed a dangerous red line.

But that didn’t quiet things down.

Last week, Gaza militants fired 24 mortar shells and three Kassam rockets at Israel, and Israel responded with air strikes that killed at least five militants.

Over the past few weeks, the militants also have stepped up ground attacks on Israeli border patrols. The most serious incident for Israel came in early December, when Gaza militants fired a state-of-the-art Kornet missile at an IDF Merkava tank. The Kornet, a lethally accurate and potentially game-changing anti-tank weapon that Hamas added to its arsenal only very recently, penetrated the Israeli tank’s armor but did not explode.

Hamas’ acquisition of Kornet weapons means that Israel will have to rethink its tactics if it launches another major ground incursion into Gaza. For now, tanks patrolling the border have been reinforced with the Israeli-developed “trophy” active protection system, which has the capacity to destroy incoming missiles.

The Hamas position on the escalation is ambivalent. The organization’s political wing says it has no interest in a major clash with Israel right now, but the military wing says it’s poised to resume large-scale rocket attacks.

At a rally in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis to mark the 23rd anniversary of the founding of Hamas — an event that coincided with the second anniversary of the Israel-Hamas war, called Operation Cast Lead — Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas’ political wing, insisted that Hamas was committed to the ceasefire reached in the wake of Cast Lead.

But a day later, at a news conference called by Hamas, masked men from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed to have new weapons that would surprise the IDF. They warned that they would respond harshly “to any acts of aggression by the occupying Zionist forces against its fighters or against the civilian population of Gaza.”

They also claimed responsibility for some past acts of terror, including the June 2008 attack on the Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav seminary in Jerusalem, in which eight yeshiva students were shot dead by a rampaging gunman. In a separate statement, Ahmed Ja’abari, deputy commander of Hamas’ military wing, declared that Israelis had two choices: death or expulsion.

Israeli analysts attribute the bellicose tone to competition between Hamas and other militias claiming to be doing more in the struggle against Israel. The tough talk is a way of saying that they, too, are fighting “the occupation.” On the other hand, the analysts say, Hamas’ political wing does not want to provoke another war, with all the hardship it would cause the population of Gaza and the threat it would pose to Hamas’ rearmament plans.

The upshot is that the Hamas government has been allowing its military and other smaller militias a slightly freer rein to test how much they can snipe at Israel without provoking a major military response.

Two years on, it seems that the record of the three-week war that began in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008 achieved mixed results. The main aims of the operation were to restore deterrence, destroy as much of the Hamas terrorist infrastructure as possible, and prevent a renewal of weapons shipments into Gaza.

To a large extent, the operation achieved the first two goals, but the flow of weapons and war materiel into Gaza has continued unabated, perhaps even at an accelerated pace. The failure to stop the arms flow has threatened to undermine the operation’s other achievements. With new weapons and war materiel at its disposal, Hamas has been able to rebuild its military infrastructure and, now, the deterrent effects of Cast Lead appear to be beginning to wear off.

Hamas’ rearmament since the war has been impressive. The IDF believes that aside from the Kornet anti-tank missiles the terrorist group now has, Hamas also has anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Hamas has more accurate and longer-range rockets — for example, the Iranian Fajr-5, which puts Tel Aviv in range.

Hamas fighters and other militiamen have received training in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and from Iranian and Syrian instructors in Gaza. They have also been building Hezbollah-style underground bunkers in Gaza.

The IDF sees two aspects to these developments: On the one hand, Hamas will not want to put all this at risk by provoking Israeli prematurely. The IDF assessment is that Hamas is still very much in the throes of the rearming and rebuilding process. But a future showdown, when Hamas feels it is strong enough, cannot be ruled out.

“Two years after Operation Cast Lead, the situation in the Gaza Strip is different and calmer,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday. But the situation is still potentially explosive, he said. He warned that Israel would not tolerate the continuation of the kind of rocket and mortar fire its civilians have witnessed over the last few weeks. But he gave no indication that the IDF would go beyond the limited, carefully controlled responses it has made so far.

Clearly, both sides are wary of sparking a major conflagration right now. But things could escalate very rapidly if a Gaza rocket inflicts Israeli casualties, or if an Israeli counterattack were to take a heavy Palestinian toll.

“The IDF,” Ashkenazi said, “is preparing for any scenario.” JTA Wire Service


Pushed by Goldstone, Israeli army embraces new ‘smart’ warfare

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 15 April 2011
Israeli reservists take part in an October 2010 urban warfare exercise at a base in southern Israel in which they can simulate training as if they were fighting in the Gaza Strip or west bank. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Despite Israel’s rejection of the Goldstone report on the Gaza war a year and a half ago, the international criticism it engendered has led the Israel Defense Forces to make a number of significant changes in policy and doctrine.

And they’ll stay even though Richard Goldstone has recanted one of the most significant findings of his committee’s report — that Israel intentionally targeted civilians and may have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza.

News Analysis

Among the changes made by the IDF were modifying the way soldiers fight in urban areas, teaching relatively low-level combat officers nuances in the laws of war, attaching humanitarian liaison officers to active forces, and making media relations a priority.

Last May, eight months after the Goldstone report was released, the IDF issued a new document defining rules of engagement in urban warfare. Although the ideas elaborated long had been standard practice, putting them down in writing was tantamount to introducing a new doctrine for fighting in built-up areas.

The document noted that during the Gaza operation, even after every effort had been made to induce civilians to evacuate areas where combat was expected — for example, by dropping fliers and making direct telephone calls to area residents — more often than not some non-combatants stayed behind.

The new doctrine requires that after efforts have been made to warn the civilian population to leave, the incoming troops first fire warning shots and give the remaining civilians a chance to leave safely. Then, to minimize casualties among civilians who nevertheless choose to stay, IDF fighters and commanders must use the most accurate weapons at their disposal and choose munitions of relatively low impact.

The IDF also has taken significant legal steps.

Officer training courses at company, battalion, and brigade levels now include a detailed study of international law, with special reference to the rules of war. The Military Advocate General’s Office and the Foreign Ministry consult regularly with foreign governments and international organizations to ensure that all IDF operations conform to accepted legal norms.

During the month-long Gaza war in the winter of 2008-09, legal advisers from the Military Advocate General’s Office served with combat forces, advising commanders in real time of what might constitute a breach of law. In January 2010, then Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi standardized this practice, instructing commanders to consult with legal advisers not only in the planning stages of military operations, but also during the actual fighting.

To prevent possible loss of military focus, however, Ashkenazi ordered that the legal advisers be sent to divisional headquarters rather than battalions or brigades, as is common in some other Western armies.

Another step the IDF has taken to help minimize civilian casualties and humanitarian distress on the other side is to attach humanitarian liaison officers to troops in the field. The officers come from a pool set up by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, and are in regular contact with the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and international aid organizations in Gaza.

Their task in the event of hostilities is to help coordinate humanitarian needs on the Palestinian side and to point out locations of sensitive facilities like hospitals, schools, and U.N. aid centers to ensure that they are not mistakenly targeted. Such officers were assigned during the Gaza war on an ad hoc basis and, according to the IDF, proved very effective.

As a result, Ashkenazi decided in February 2010 to refine and institutionalize the system.

The most radical change in IDF thinking since Goldstone has been in the realm of media relations. Now there is a firm consensus in the army that the way military actions are perceived is at least as important as their physical impact.

Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, the Israeli army’s outgoing spokesman, is fond of quoting the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s dictum that whereas public relations once was supplemental to battle, now battle is supplemental to PR.

More than ever, IDF generals agree, all operations must be planned with media, legal, and international legitimacy aspects in mind. To instill more media savvy, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office routinely sends its mobile communications’ school unit from one combat unit to the next teaching officers to get their messages across in 20-second sound bites. More important, trained media officers are now attached to combat units.

This means that in future combat situations, commanders will have legal, humanitarian, and media advice on tap.

Not everyone is happy with the changes. Some say it will make it difficult for the Israeli army to operate in combat situations and won’t prevent the next Goldstone report because, they say, war is always ugly, brutal, and destructive.

Nevertheless, it seems that in the post-Goldstone era, with Israel under severe international scrutiny, the IDF is determined to do all it can to uphold the strictest standards of international law.

Moreover, the IDF is collaborating with some of the human rights organizations critical of its actions to make sure that cases of alleged IDF misconduct are handled appropriately. Last July, the military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, singled out B’Tselem, which monitors Israeli actions against Palestinians, for thanks.

“Between the military and various human rights organizations, there is constant dialogue,” IDF spokesman Capt. Barak Raz told the Forward newspaper last year.

Another sugn of the IDF’s heightened legal sensitivity came earlier this month, when the Israeli army notified the Supreme Court that any Palestinian civilian deaths in the west bank caused by the IDF in non-combat situations will now automatically spark a criminal investigation.

Under the old policy, the army first conducted a fact-finding field inquiry to decide whether to open a criminal file, laying itself open to charges that the “fact-finding” often was simply a ruse to block criminal proceedings. Now such criminal investigations will be mandatory.

In what American military strategist Edward Luttwak has dubbed “the post-heroic era,” the IDF finds itself hampered by two major constraints: care not to conduct operations that might incur international censure or operations that could lead to heavy Israeli military casualties.

Sometimes the two principles are at odds, as when Israeli ground forces used heavy fire in the Gaza war to avoid casualties, and in so doing put Palestinian civilian lives at risk. But often they are complementary, as in the IDF’s reluctance to commit ground troops unless absolutely necessary.

Part of the solution to the post-Goldstone dilemma lies in technology: for example, using super-accurate munitions that can pinpoint terrorist targets, pilotless planes that can identify and attack would-be rocket launchers, and active defense systems like the Iron Dome — anti-missile batteries that last week downed several Grad rockets launched from Gaza. The system simultaneously located their launch points, enabling immediate attacks on the militiamen firing them.

These capabilities enabled Israel to cool the latest Gaza flare-up without incurring international opprobrium or risking soldiers’ lives.

In other words, the Goldstone report and its international ramifications have pushed the IDF into a process of self-examination resulting in a new doctrine of “fighting smart” from operational, legal, humanitarian, and media points of view.

JTA Wire Service

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