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entries tagged with: Rabbi Daniel Feldman


Etz Chaim zoning struggle continues in Teaneck

The Teaneck Zoning Board continued to hear testimony last week as part of a series of meetings to decide the fate of fledgling synagogue Etz Chaim on Queen Anne Road.

The hearings are the culmination of a two-year struggle for the self-identified “nonprofit organization that provides religious and community activities and counseling,” according to testimony last month by the organization’s president, Robert Erlich. The organization has applied for several variances from the zoning board, which would allow Etz Chaim to designate part of the Queen Anne Road property as a house of worship.

In addition, the organization has asked for variances that would excuse it from certain regulations, such as a required number of parking spaces. Under zoning regulations, a singe-family residence zone may be used on a conditional basis as a house of worship.

The board heard testimony from Etz Chaim’s architect and planning consultants last week. Questions focused on plans for the renovation to include six “stacked” parking spots, which would result in cars being blocked in the driveway. Regulations require 21 spots for a house of worship, and Etz Chaim has asked for a variance for the remaining 15. Erlich last month presented a list of neighbors, including the CVS at 375 Queen Anne Road, who had agreed to provide additional parking.

According to the planning and zoning analysis prepared by the Wyckoff firm Kauker & Kauker, Etz Chaim “would not have a negative impact on the surrounding area or Township.”

Michael Kauker, the principal planner, however, was unable to answer questions regarding the impact of traffic from weekday morning services, when members are permitted to drive. According to his testimony, he was aware only of Etz Chaim’s plans to meet Friday nights and Saturdays, when driving was more unlikely because of the group’s Orthodox affiliation.

Etz Chaim purchased the property at 554 Queen Anne Road in October 2007, shortly after incorporation as 554 Queen Anne Road Inc. Later that year, the group employed and rented the property to Rabbi Daniel Feldman. According to Erlich’s testimony, Feldman “provides pastoral counseling, religious law advice.” What has drawn the ire of neighbors is that soon after purchasing the property, Etz Chaim created a family-room addition to the house and “gave the rabbi permission to use that family room at his discretion for prayer services on the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish holidays,” Erlich said.

In November 2007, a group of neighbors submitted a petition with 78 signatures to the township, protesting the renovation and alleging that Etz Chaim had been using the addition as a house of worship, without filing the appropriate permit for the change in zoning.

Teaneck zoning official Steven M. Gluck issued a cease-and-desist order in August 2008, which Etz Chaim appealed. Gluck suggested the organization seek out the appropriate variances that would allow it to continue holding religious services.

“We filed the application for variances tonight in order to become a house of worship because of complexities that the town feels are present relating to our use … of the family room and the residence for private prayer services,” Erlich testified to the board last month.

The board tabled the hearing until next month.


Etz Chaim gets nod from Teaneck Board of Adjustment

Etz Chaim received approval from Teaneck to turn part of 554 Queen Anne Road into a house of worship. JosH LIPOWSKY

The Teaneck Board of Adjustment voted unanimously last week to grant a series of variances to Etz Chaim that would allow it to use portions of a Queen Anne Road home as a house of worship.

The vote ended more than seven months of hearings and debates with neighbors angry with what they said was the misuse of a residential property at 554 Queen Anne Road, owned by 554 Queen Anne Road Corp., which operates as Etz Chaim. Rabbi Daniel Feldman, who lives in the house with his wife, Leah, and their two children, has held weekly Shabbat services there for more than two years.

“The board, based upon testimony, came to the correct legal decision,” said Ed Trawinski, the lawyer who represented Etz Chaim through the proceedings. “And the board balanced the exercise of freedom of religion with the effort to minimize the impact on a residential neighborhood.”

Under the board’s stipulations, all of which Etz Chaim had agreed to in prior testimony, Etz Chaim is limited to holding only Shabbat and holiday services; no tents or other structures, except a sukkah, may be set up in the yard; no signs may be put up without municipal approval; a six-foot high fence and holly trees must separate Etz Chaim’s property from the western neighbor; no shul catering or cooking may be done in the kitchen; strollers must be kept in a specific area and limited to no more than six, lest they be folded up elsewhere; and a community liaison would be named.

If Etz Chaim sells the property, whether to an individual or another house of worship, the property would revert to a residential zone.

A property tax deduction may be in Etz Chaim’s future, but the organization will have to consult a tax attorney now that a portion of the property has been designated a house of worship, Trawinski said.

“That was an unintended consequence because we were always happy with our status as a prayer group,” said Robert Erlich, the group’s president. “Obviously if there’s a tax benefit, as a congregation we’d be foolish not to take it.”

The board has 45 days from the date of the vote, Aug. 11, to memorialize its decision.

“I am gratified by the decision,” Feldman wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. “I don’t know all the details of the stipulations, but we will abide by them as we have always complied with all instructions of the township.”

Etz Chaim typically attracts between 20 and 40 people for Shabbat services, said Erlich. The prayer group has no official membership but Etz Chaim has about 25 member-families.

“From an organizational standpoint, nothing has changed,” Erlich said. “Once we get out certificate of occupancy, instead of operating as a prayer group, we will operate as a house of worship.”

The Feldmans rent the property from Etz Chaim, which bought the house in October 2007. The corporation hired Feldman as rabbi that fall. In 2008, Griggs Avenue residents Raphael Campeas and Janet Abbot and some 70 neighbors filed a petition alleging a “change of use” of the property. Such a change requires a permit from the township.

That August, Teaneck’s construction official and zoning officer, Steven M. Gluck, wrote to Feldman, the group’s president, calling on the members to “cease and desist from using the premises as a house of worship/place of public assembly.”

Late last year, Etz Chaim applied to the board of adjustment for variances to allow it to operate as a house of worship inside the home.

From the beginning, Etz Chaim did not properly communicate with its neighbors about their intentions, which led to bad feelings, said board of adjustment chair Warren Hodges.

“If the congregation now starts communicating with the neighbors, the relationship can be fine,” Hodges said. “The resolution brought a balance for the neighborhood and the congregation. Both should be able to be good neighbors to each other.”

Campeas said an appeal of the decision remains an option, but he and the other neighbors will wait to see what happens.

“It entirely depends on how Etz Chaim behaves,” he said. “If they obey the restrictions, I think that there should not be any issues. If they don’t, obviously there will be.”

“My hope is Etz Chaim and the residents will move forward and put this behind them,” Trawinski said.


Rabbi Daniel Feldman co-edits new YU anthology on weekly

Teaneck native Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman cites two major reasons why many of the contributors to Yeshiva University’s new collection of original essays on the weekly Torah portions, “Mitokh Ha-Ohel,” are North Jerseyites.

“We have a thriving, growing, and intellectually committed Modern Orthodox community with tremendous resources, espousing the values of Yeshiva University,” he told The Jewish Standard. “And pragmatically speaking, North Jersey is located very close to YU [in Washington Heights]. So it’s a natural fit both philosophically and geographically.”

Feldman, co-editor of the 518-page volume along with Stuart W. Halpern, is the spiritual leader of Cong. Etz Chaim, one of Teaneck’s newer synagogues. In addition to teaching Talmud and Jewish studies at YU’s Stone Beit Midrash Program and directing rabbinic research at its Center for the Jewish Future, Feldman is an author in his own right. His latest book, “Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul” (Yeshiva University Press, 2009), was the prototype for the university’s foray into popular publications.

About two years ago, Feldman accepted the task of managing this project for YU, the flagship academic center of Modern — or centrist — Orthodoxy. “I feel great value in pursuing the goal of disseminating YU Torah to a wider reading public, an area in which the university has always had an interest,” he said.

More than a dozen North Jersey scholars and rabbis contributed to Yeshiva University’s new anthology.

A call for contributors to “Mitokh Ha-Ohel” (literally “within the tent”) brought so many worthy replies that Feldman and Halpern plan a second volume to accommodate those who had to be left out of the first. They have not yet decided if the sequel will cover the same material — the Five Books of Moses — or the weekly and holiday haftarot from the books of the Prophets.

“We wanted a balance between instructors in different departments and disciplines, as well as administrators,” Feldman explained. Released Oct. 1 by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, the anthology features essays written from a range of approaches, including textual analysis, homiletic exposition, halachic (Jewish law) analysis, and academic exploration. The essays were by scholars from each of the university’s undergraduate and graduate schools.

“At Yeshiva University, we aspire to emulate the dwellings and philosophies of our forefathers by creating our own tent through our ideology of Torah Umadda, the marriage of Torah and secular knowledge,” said YU President Richard Joel. “This truly unique volume showcases the breadth and depth of the ‘tent’ ... and serves as a physical embodiment of Yeshiva University’s passion for seeking nuanced wisdom through Torah from multiple sources, and sharing that wisdom with the world.”

Among the 56 contributors are more than a dozen from North Jersey aside from Feldman: Prof. Nechama Price and Rabbis Yaakov Neuburger and Zvi Sobolofsky of Bergenfield; Rabbis Shmuel Goldin and Menachem Genack of Englewood; Rabbis Elchanan Adler and Yonason Sacks of Passaic; and Rabbis Mark Gottlieb, Kenneth Brander, Michael Taubes, and Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck. Additional contributors have ties to North Jersey, such as Riverdale resident Shira Weiss, assistant principal at The Frisch School in Paramus.

Two of these local scholars were involved in the next YU Press publication due out at the end of the year, the first in a planned series on Jewish law. This inaugural volume, written by Sobolofsky with a section by Neuburger, examines the laws of family purity.

“All our books will have a primary author as well as sections from other YU authorities on the particular topic,” said Feldman, who has also overseen the publication of several Hebrew volumes and works closely with the recently inaugurated press of the Orthodox Union headed by Genack. “We have a wealth of talents, skills, and knowledge among our faculty in many fields.”


Etz Chaim lawsuit alleges Teaneck violated shul’s constitutional rights

The Teaneck Jewish organization that last year won approval from the township’s board of adjustment to partially turn a private home into a house of worship filed suit against the board last month, challenging the “offensive conditions” placed on the synagogue.

According to the lawsuit, filed in mid-December in New Jersey Superior Court, the modern Orthodox congregation Etz Chaim “is not able to proceed as a fully-operational Orthodox Jewish house of worship” and requests that the court overturn the BoA’s conditions on the variances, which the suit argues are ambiguous and restrictive.

The BoA imposed more than two dozen conditions on Etz Chaim when it granted the requested variances in August. While Etz Chaim accepts the stipulations related to maintaining good relations with its neighbors, according to the suit, the organization takes issue with limitations on how often the group may use the house and how much of it may be used.

The conditions violate Etz Chaim’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, according to the lawsuit, as they “impose a substantial burden” on Etz Chaim’s rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and due process.

“This can be resolved very quickly if the board realizes their errors in judgment and fixes them,” Robert Erlich, Etz Chaim’s president, told The Jewish Standard.

Approximately 40 families attend weekly services at 554 Queen Anne Road, while Etz Chaim has a membership of about 35 families.

Rabbi Daniel Feldman and his family rent the property from 554 Corp., which operates as Etz Chaim and bought the house in October 2007. The corporation hired Feldman as rabbi that fall. Feldman soon began holding Shabbat prayer services in the home. In May 2008, Etz Chaim finished a renovation of the house’s living room, which included conversion of a garage into a kitchenette. According to the complaint, Feldman and Etz Chaim’s leadership informed the township of the plans and received the necessary permits.

Shortly after, Griggs Avenue resident Raphael Campeas and some 70 neighbors filed a petition alleging a “change of use” of the property.

That summer, Teaneck’s construction official and zoning officer sent a notice to Etz Chaim to “cease and desist from using the premises as a house of worship/place of public assembly.”

After several often heated hearings, the board granted the variances in August with several conditions limiting use of the property, to which Etz Chaim at the time agreed.

“Those stipulations that were agreed to during testimony were done after intense pressure from the board,” said Akiva Shapiro, the attorney representing Etz Chaim.

Shapiro’s New York firm, Gibson Dunn, has taken on the case pro bono.

Etz Chaim would be open to an out-of-court settlement, added Shapiro, who is also a member of the synagogue.

The township insisted Etz Chaim seek out the variances to become a house of worship, and the synagogue has embarked on this path solely because of that insistence, according to Shapiro.

“Etz Chaim was and has always remained quite happy to have their prayer services be a private prayer group hosted by Rabbi Feldman in his house,” he said.

The synagogue is not asking to expand beyond the house’s living room and wants only fair treatment, according to Erlich.

“Since they made us go through the process of being a house of worship,” he said, “we expect to be treated as a house of worship is treated.”

Campeas, who led opposition during the adjustment hearings, told the Standard that he has seen “no evidence” that Etz Chaim is trying to cooperate with the township.

His own children are awakened Saturday mornings by noise from Etz Chaim children playing in the yard, he said, and the lawsuit is proof the synagogue’s leaders are not being open about their intentions.

“They wasted a lot of time and money on the part of Teaneck and any attempt of an out-of-court settlement on this ridiculous suit is just an encouragement for other people who don’t get what they want,” he said.

A call Tuesday to township attorney Harold Ritvo was not returned by press time.

Teaneck has 30 days to respond from the time the suit was served.

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


More than kashrut

OU convention in North Jersey spotlights programs, calls for action

More than 700 people came to the OU’s conference on Jewish life in Woodcliff Lake on Sunday. Courtesy the Orthodox Union

The Orthodox Union is more than just that little OU symbol on your can of baked beans, and that message was the focus on the OU’s biennial convention over the weekend in Woodcliff Lake.

More than 700 people from across the country came out to the Hilton in Woodcliff Lake, where more than 25 sessions during Sunday’s one-day conference on Jewish life focused on Torah, synagogue life, and communal life. The OU also installed its new president, Rabbi Simcha Katz of Teaneck, and passed a series of resolutions to guide the organization through the next two years.

The past three OU conventions were held in Israel, at the directive of outgoing President Stephen Savitsky, who wanted to boost the Israeli economy when it was suffering under the Palestinian intifada. When organizers decided to bring the conference stateside, Bergen County provided easy access for a large number of the OU’s members in the tri-state area, according to organizers.

One of the conference’s goals, according to Emanuel Adler, the Teaneck resident who chaired the convention, was to shine a light on the OU’s various programs and dispel the idea that the organization only provides kosher certification.

“The OU is really so much broader than OU kashrus,” Adler told The Jewish Standard after the convention. “We’re really a movement.”

Before the day’s plenary sessions, attendees watched videos highlighting such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and the OU Job Board, which showed the OU’s programmatic diversity.

“Community affairs, marriage seminars, publications … numerous services we provide to the community, our campus initiative, which is relatively new in the OU — all of these things we do really come together to make the OU that more powerful a movement,” Adler said.

The purpose of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, according to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, considered the father of modern Orthodoxy, was to create a sense of family among the Israelites, Katz said Sunday during his inaugural speech.

“The OU in its many activities is a communal manifestation of this sense of unity and caring,” Katz said. “Our mission is to preserve and enhance the quality of Jewish life. We are a great unifying tent encompassing hundreds of synagogues across North America, and as such we are the central address for those issues that can best be handled on a national basis.”

The sessions

Panels at the convention were divided among three tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Among the more than 25 sessions, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, religious leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Etz Chaim, led a discussion on “The Hidden Cost of Free Speech on the Internet,” focusing on what constitutes lashon harah in a public forum; Rabbi Menachem Genack, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood and CEO of the OU’s kashrut division, led a discussion on contemporary issues in kashrut; and Rookie Billet, former principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, led a discussion on “Dating and Mating: A Common Sense Approach for Singles, Parents, and Educators.”

“The idea is there are just so many issues and concerns that unite so many of us,” Adler said. “Being in America for the first time in eight years came as an opportunity to focus on the things we do here in the U.S.”

First-time attendee Carol Ginsberg of Monsey, N.Y., called the sessions “moving and inspiring,” while Esther-Malka Stroemer, another first-time attendee, from Teaneck, said the topics represented an “important beginning of dialogue for the Jewish community and the frum community.”

While Israeli issues played a larger role at past conventions, the Jewish state was still a major focus this year. Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington, moderated a panel discussion on U.S.-Israel relations, with Wall Street Journal editorial page deputy editor Bret Stephens and David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The “cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush administration alienated many in the Muslim world, while President Obama has made a large effort to reach out to that world, Stephens said, but that has gotten the president very little in reciprocation. Obama’s government, meanwhile, has been the most hostile to Israel since President George H.W. Bush’s, Stephens added.

“What the Netanyahu government seems to be trying to do is put on a good face and wait the Obama administration out,” he said.

“What Israel ought to be doing is pointing out it faces a Palestinian population that doesn’t want a Palestinian state confined to Gaza and the west bank, but to seize Gaza and the west bank as phase one.”

Israel faces a legitimate demographic challenge from the west bank, though. “At some point it is in Israel’s interest to have a Palestinian state alongside it,” Stephens said. The question then will be how that state’s character will be defined.

“Is that state going to be different in the way that Canada is different from the United States? If that state is going to be the tip of an Iranian spear then I have a problem with it,” he said.

Makovsky reminded the audience what the Middle East was like when the late Yasser Arafat headed the P.A. and created a “culture of victimization,” and the idea that Palestinians are victims responsible for nothing but entitled to everything.

“It was terrible for Israelis but no less terrible for Palestinians,” he said.

Since then, there has been a shift in the “culture of accountability” that has given Makovsky some hope because, he said, there is a spreading belief among the Palestinians that the Palestinian cause is “not just about whining about what the Israelis are doing to us but what are we doing for us.”

“We have more hope today than we have had in a very long time,” Makovsky said. “Israel has to stand fast in what it believes in and its security, but it has every interest in encouraging a non-Hamas approach to this problem.”

After the convention, Diament told the Standard that while Stephens and Makovsky differ on many issues, “the OU is a big tent and it’s very important that we bring in front of the community divergent points of view.”

He did regret, though, that Ehud Barak’s resignation from the Labor party and Labor’s resignation from Netanyahu’s coalition came too late in the day to be included in the discussion.

The past and the future

Two plenary sessions examined the role of Jewish tradition and the Jewish community of the future.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus, led the first session on the mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition, and its place in modern society.

“For me, Torah is a diamond but mesorah is the setting of the diamond. It brings out all the beauty of the diamond. It enhances it. You can remove a diamond from the setting and it remains sparkling and pure, but the beauty is in the [unity of the diamond and the] setting.”

Modernity is the opposite of mesorah, and “modern Orthodox” is actually an oxymoron, Weinreb said.

“Mesorah is the business of preserving the culture of one’s group,” he said. “We’ve suffered worse insults than being called old-fashioned and obsolete.”

The second session focused on “The Orthodox Role in the Jewish Community of Tomorrow” and included Jerry Silverman, president of Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group of the federation system; Marian Stoltz-Loike, dean of Lander College for Women/The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School of Touro College; Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future; Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.; and Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, and the OU’s managing director.

Rabbi Steven Weil, OU executive vice president and the panel’s moderator, asked, given the projected growth of the Orthodox community compared to other streams of Judaism in the coming decades, and if the commitment of future generations of non-Orthodox Jews weakens, what is the Orthodox responsibility to the entire Jewish community.

Silverman called on Jews and Jewish organizations to “collaborate and get in the game.”

Burg called for greater openness in the Orthodox community to welcoming the non-Orthodox.

“What we need to do as an Orthodox community is express our friendship,” he said. “And not just to people who might become Orthodox. Sometimes our shul doors are not as open as they should be.”

Insularity is the challenge of the Orthodox community, Stoltz-Loike said.

“We need to be much more open,” Goldberg said, “and say this is who we are and you may never be Orthodox at the end of the day, but there’s a friendship there and we value you as a human being.”

Too many Jews are focused on ritual instead of passion, he continued. He called for taking outreach out of the domain of the professionals and making it everybody’s concern.

“If we’re going to delegate outreach to the professionals, we’ll never make a dent,” he said. “If we’re going to make a dent [against assimilation], it won’t be with professionals. It’ll be when everybody gets involved.”

A community is different from a shul, he continued; it transcends shul.

“Let’s not be afraid to get involved,” Schacter said. “Our job is to take the world in which we live and try to elevate it; to take the Torah HaShamayim [from the heavens] and bring it down to earth and make it sing and make it meaningful and make us feel so excited about what we do so that we can transmit it via our own ambassadorship to others.”

The day was also one of transitions for the OU, which installed its new president and said goodbye to Savitsky, its president of six years, who assumed the chairmanship of the OU’s board of directors.

Many live their lives as if each day is just another day, Savitsky said during a ceremony marking the end of his three terms.

“When I came to the organization, I said I wanted every day to be yom harishon [the first day], every day is a day we can change the world,” he said, as he accepted a service award. “That’s what we’re about — looking up. If you keep looking up and keep thinking, you get closer and closer to the shechinah,” the presence of the divine.

Setting a political tone

OU members voted on a series of resolutions on Sunday to guide the organization through the next two years. Resolutions included a call for civility in public discourse; uniting with other Jewish organizations to combat the rise of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to exact economic damage on Israel; and recognizing the growing problem of childhood obesity and eating disorders.

The resolutions passed almost unanimously, said Diament, a member of the resolutions committee. While civility has become a hot-button issue in recent weeks because of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., the OU’s call for a change in how the community handles public discourse was drafted at least a month before the assault that left six people dead and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others hospitalized.

“It’s very much in the spirit of what’s going on in the past week,” Diament said. “We need to have more civil discourse in the United States and that’s something everybody ought to be able to agree to.”

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement represents a “clear and present danger to Israel,” Diament said, while health is a primary concern of everyone.

Next year in…

No location has been chosen yet for the next OU convention, which will take place either in late 2012 or early 2013. Adler expected that he and other organizers would spend this week reviewing evaluations, which, he said, have been largely positive.

“There was a real buzz,” he said. “I think people that attended did get a sense of being part of a movement.”


Teaneck shul’s suit to go to trial

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 29 June 2012

A long-running battle between a Teaneck synagogue and the town will run a little longer.

A New Jersey Superior Court judge has ruled that the suit against the town by Congregation Ohr Saadya — formerly known as Etz Chayim, and legally known as 554 Queen Anne Road, Inc. — should proceed to jury trial.

He rejected requests from both sides for summary judgment, ruling that the facts at issue must be decided by a jury.

The battle began in 2007, when Etz Chayim bought a house that it rented to its rabbi, Daniel Feldman. It sought and received approval to enlarge the building in what it termed a “family room addition,” and denied at the time that it was planning anything other than a private prayer group.

As neighbors who opposed the enlargement of the building and its use as a synagogue noted, however, one of the architect’s files for the addition was labeled “Teaneck Temple.”

The conflict seemed to have concluded in September 2010, when the synagogue received the zoning variances necessary to operate as a synagogue in exchange for stipulations including a restriction on weekday services and the length of Shabbat kiddushes.

But the synagogue turned around and filed suit against the town, saying that the restrictions were null because it agreed to them under duress, and because they violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which restricts local laws that place a “substantial burden” on religious practice.

Unless the case is settled before trial, a jury will be asked to decide questions set out by Judge Alexander H. Carver III in his ruling earlier this month. They include: What restrictions did the congregation agree to? Were the restrictions agreed to under duress and therefore invalid? Are the conditions more severe than those placed on other non-profit institutions operating in residential neighborhoods? And are those restrictions legal under the federal law?

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