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L’Taken Participant Reflects on Losses Due to Gun Violence

Tue, 12/30/2014 - 13:00

At the last L’Taken seminar, Connecticut students spoke to staff from the offices of Senator Chris Murphy, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Jim Himes to share why gun violence prevention is important to them as Jews, as Americans, and as young people. Lee Winters, who came to L’Taken along with his confirmation class at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut, shared a personal story about the rippling effects of gun violence in his community:

So, fun fact about me: I may be fifteen but I don’t work at a grocery store or a restaurant. I am a professional magician and have been for many years. I must admit though, the most moving experience for me in the entertainment world was December 9, 2012, when I did a show at Adath Israel in Newtown, Connecticut. It was a huge crowd, and one of my first gigs that I was paid for, so I was nervous. Luckily for me though, the show went spectacularly. Children were laughing, parents were smiling, I was happy…

Until five days later. It was December 14, two years ago yesterday, the day 26 people passed away at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the same town. My school, in the neighboring town of Redding, went in lock down, and none of us knew why. But it was terrifying. Texts, calls, emails, all poured in saying “are you okay?” “what happened?” “are you safe?”. I certainly got one from my parents, but none of us knew what was going on.

When I found out about what happened, I immediately thought about that temple, and soon learned about Noah Pozner, a six year old, and one of the twenty six people who passed away that horrific day. He was an Adath Israel member with his family, and he was there the day when I performed. That’s when I lost it.

Two months later, I came back to that temple to put on another show, and I was absolutely paralyzed with terror. I thought I would see gloom, sadness, depression. After a half hour of my show, I was shocked. Everyone was smiling, laughing, louder than before, and it made me happy that I could, at least for the day, give everyone life and hope. It was a truly unforgettable experience. The problem is, the Pozner family was not there, and I wish they were. If Adam Lanza didn’t have access to those firearms, then Noah and the Pozner family could’ve been there for this “joyous” day.

Lee’s story resonates to remind us of the importance of enacting measures to prevent gun violence, regardless of its impetus or source. He and his fellow students urged their Senators and Representative to support the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act (S.1290), which would make it illegal for convicted stalkers to own guns and would extend domestic violence protections against gun possession to include “dating partners” or others “similarly situated to a spouse.”

As we enter the new year, we must continue to take action to prevent gun violence in our communities and across the country. Take action and urge your Members of Congress to support the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act (S.1290).

Shas Leader Aryeh Deri Tries To Quit After Release of Ovadia 'Thief' Tape

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 18:40

The head of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party submitted a resignation letter the day after a video was released showing the party’s former spiritual leader criticizing him and praising his rival.

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Shas leader attempts to resign in aftermath of leaked video

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 17:48

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died in 2013, criticized Shas leader Aryeh Deri in a leaked video. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90.)

(JTA) — The head of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party submitted a resignation letter the day after a video was released showing the party’s former spiritual leader criticizing him and praising his rival.

Aryeh Deri said Monday that he was retiring from Shas and politics, the Times of Israel reported. However, the party’s council of rabbis rejected his resignation and ordered that he continue in his post.

Deri’s rival Eli Yishai, who headed the party for years, broke away from Shas earlier this month to start his own party, Ha’am Itanu.

In the video, which was filmed in 2008 and believed to be leaked by Yishai, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said he was concerned about the possibility of Deri, who served in prison for two years, returning to party leadership. Deri was convicted of graft in 1999 and stayed out of politics until 2012.

“Thirty, 40 percent will leave [Shas]. Why? Because he was convicted in court. Why take a thief or bribe taker?” the rabbi asked rhetorically in the video.

Yosef, who died in 2013, appointed Deri as sole party chairman that year.


Chicago Synagogue Hit With Graffiti

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 15:59

A Chicago synagogue and more than 10 nearby residential garages were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.

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Egyptian court cancels annual pilgrimage to rabbi’s grave

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 11:36

(JTA) — An Egyptian court canceled an annual Jewish pilgrimage to the grave of a 19th-century Moroccan rabbi.

The Administrative Court in the coastal city of Alexandria on Monday banned the annual celebration at the grave of Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hasira, whose tomb is in Damanhour, in the Nile Delta, on the anniversary of his death. The court was responding to a lawsuit that said the festival violates local traditions, the Gulf News reported.

Hundreds of Israeli pilgrims annually visit the grave of Abu Hasira, who was on his way to the Holy Land when his ship sank. He survived and made his way to Egypt, where he died in 1880.

The court reportedly also revoked a 2001 decision by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture listing the tomb and its surroundings as heritage sites. It also ruled that the remains of the rabbi should not be transferred to Israel, an unnamed court source told the Egyptian news website Ahram. Israel made the request two years ago via the United Nations cultural arm, UNESCO.

Visits to the site have not been permitted since the 2011 ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Restored Polish Synagogue Will Reopen as Museum

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 10:04

Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland plans to open a new Jewish museum in a preserved baroque synagogue built in the 17th century in eastern Poland.

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Moving Beyond Stones and Concrete to Worship of the Heart

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 10:00

by Beni Wajnberg

A story in Avot de’Rabbi Natan, a midrashic text, illustrates perhaps one of the most important events that determined the future of Judaism following the destruction of the Temple. In it, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is walking together with Rabbi Yehoshua. When they pass the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem, Yehoshua exclaims, “Oy to us, whose Temple is destroyed, where our sins were atoned through sacrifices!” Yochanan Ben Zakkai answers, “Don’t worry my son, because we have another way of atoning for our misdeeds: gemilut chassadim (acts of loving-kindness).”

With the loss of the Temple, would the connection between God and humans be gone forever? To ensure that this tragic event did not signal the end of the Jewish spiritual quest, the rabbis got creative, developing the concept of avodah shebalev (worship of the heart) – prayers. According to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, acts of loving-kindness are yet another way to substitute for the sacrifices and the role of the Temple.

Such thinking exemplifies a change in perspective. The Temple was programmatic, offering local services that could not be offered anywhere else. In its absence, the personal search for meaning became central. In their wisdom, the rabbis created rituals, including prayer services, to resemble Temple worship. Instead of merely bringing animals to sacrifice, worshippers became responsible for actively performing rituals and, therefore, had to feel personally compelled to do so. Worship morphed into being about people, not “programs” implemented by clergy; self-awareness, responsibility, and relationship-building, then, became additional ways to worship God.

The same is true today. In our modern communities – just as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Yehoshua, and all of the sages of their generation did in their day – we, too, ponder how to bring people to synagogue programming and keep our institutions running. We ask endless questions about how to get worshipers through our doors: How can we get twenty- and thirty-something Jews engaged in our congregations? How many happy hours do we need to offer? What does it take to ensure a strong Jewish identity in our children? How much Jewish summer camping is the right amount?

But wait! If the future of our communities depends on people, not on programs, then we are asking the wrong questions.

How different things might be if, instead of asking “how?” and “what?,” we instead focused on building relationships and asking “Why?” In such a scenario, we wouldn’t evaluate success based on how many congregants attend our programs. Instead, we’d judge our success by how deeply we engage with and relate to those whom we meet and serve, working to establish genuine, meaningful partnerships with them.

I believe that programs and buildings play an important role in any community, but we would be well-served to restructure the way we envision these spaces. Rather than creating programs in the hopes that we will establish some relationships along the way, we must begin by developing and nurturing meaningful and deep relationships.

The only way we can protect our institutions and ensure they remain relevant is to engage with others, building strong relationships and fostering sacred partnerships so that each of our temple buildings becomes a true beit ha’knesset (a house of assembly). Only when people come to us because of their connections with others – and stay for the programs – will we have succeeded in our task. Indeed, only through our actions and our relationships will our communities flourish and grow, and only in this way will we be able to engage with the Torah of Rabbi Yohanan be Zakkai – continually reinventing Judaism.

Beni Wajnberg is a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he has served congregations in CA, MT, OH, TN, and Argentina as a student rabbi. Beni enjoys cooking with his wife, Miriam, painting, and watching waves break in the ocean.

Photo by Flickr user @anuntrainedeye/CC.

Rebuilt Polish synagogue to become Jewish museum

Mon, 12/29/2014 - 09:41

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — A Polish Jewish foundation is planning to open a revamped Jewish museum in a reconstructed 17th century synagogue.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland is aiming to open the museum in the Great Synagogue in Leczna, in Lublin province, in 2016, with a focus on the town’s Jewish community.

The baroque synagogue was mostly destroyed during and after World War II. It was reconstructed in the 1950s and ’60s, retaining the most important architectural elements of the former synagogue, including its wooden ceilings, the bimah and the Torah ark.

Since 1966, the synagogue has housed a regional museum, which has in its collection some valuable Judaica.

In 2013, the synagogue was transferred to the Jewish community and placed under the foundation’s responsibility.

The revamped museum could become part of the Chasidic Route — the project implemented by the foundation tracing the Jewish communities of southeastern Poland. Twenty-eight communities have joined the project.

For Poker Maven Ari Engel, Yarmulke Is Ultimate Secret Weapon

Sun, 12/28/2014 - 13:58

Ari Engel has made $5 million as a professional poker player. And you’ll never guess why this rabbi’s son says wearing a yarmulke gives him an edge.

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For poker champ Ari Engel, kipah works to his advantage

Sun, 12/28/2014 - 13:50

Ari Engel on the European Poker Tour in Prague in 2013. (Tomas Stacha)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Ari Engel is homeless. It’s been a decade since he last held a regular job and two years since he gave up his apartment.

But don’t shed any tears for him.

Over the last 10 years or so, Engel has grossed about $5 million playing poker.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Engel, 31, has become one of the world’s best professional poker players — ranked No. 23 worldwide by the poker magazine Bluff — and probably the only top-tier player who wears a kipah.

When Engel decided to give up his Toronto apartment in early 2013, it was to go on the road to play the tournament circuit. In November alone, Engel competed in Peru, St. Maarten and the Dominican Republic, where he won $136,500.

“I travel all the time — I’m sort of homeless,” Engel told JTA in a recent phone interview from Atlantic City, N.J., where he was competing. “I’m never in the same place for more than a couple of weeks.”

[RELATED: 5 poker tips from Ari Engel]

Traditional Jewish law frowns upon gambling, but Engel, who keeps kosher and often wears his kipah during play, says poker isn’t gambling but a learned skill. He concedes there is an element of chance, but no more so than with stock picking.

“To me it’s very unfortunate that poker takes place in casinos. It doesn’t really belong there,” Engel said. “Poker definitely has a lot of things that are beyond one’s control, but it has plenty of things within your control. I don’t gamble at all. I’m trying to get an edge when I play poker, and I try to make a living out of it.”

Sometimes the kipah plays to Engel’s advantage, he says, as it prompts opponents to underestimate his abilities. More commonly, other players or passers-by will drop a little hint — perhaps a greeting in Yiddish or Hebrew — to indicate that they, too, are members of the tribe.

Engel, who bears some resemblance to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” says he’s never gotten any negative reactions to his Jewish identity.

At tournaments, Engel prepares like an athlete. He tries to get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and work out in the hotel gym. The card playing usually starts at about noon and often runs well past midnight, so stamina is important.

He usually plays Texas Hold’em, a game that starts with two cards dealt face down to each player and three common cards face up, known as the flop. Two additional common cards — the turn and the river — are then dealt sequentially as players check, bet, raise or fold. The players start with the same amount of chips — buy-ins typically range from $300 to $10,000 — and remain in the game until the chips are lost.

Competitors who finish in the top 10-15 percent usually take home some money, with the champion winning the grand prize of 15-25 percent of the total buy-in money.

“Maximizing those top spots can be the difference between having a profitable year and not having a profitable year, so it can definitely be stressful if things don’t go your way,” Engel said.

Engel declined to discuss the particulars of his income, but according to Bluff magazine his largest in-person career win came a year ago at the Heartland Poker Tour in St. Louis, where he finished first among 420 entrants and took home $142,125. According to the online poker forum Pocketfives, he also won $187,669 in an online tournament in May.

Being a card-playing itinerant was hardly the life Engel envisioned for himself growing up. Born in Toronto, Engel and his family moved to South Africa before his first birthday and then to Australia, Jerusalem and Annapolis, Md., before ending up in the Chicago area, where Engel attended a yeshiva high school in Skokie, Ill.

Engel was 17 and a high school senior when he played poker for the first time. He continued into his gap year at an Orthodox yeshiva in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion and then in college at New York University.

But it wasn’t until his second year at NYU that he started playing for real money. His roommate, Andrew Brown, was an avid online poker player and took Engel under his wing. Though Engel majored in finance, he found online poker much more compelling.

After graduation, Engel took a regular job, but the online poker he played nights and weekends turned out to be much more lucrative – and exciting. So he quit after a couple of months to try poker full time.

“Finance was not what I wanted to be doing,” Engel said. “I figured I was 21, single and had no real responsibilities, so why not give it a real shot for a few months and see how I did?”

To his surprise, his parents gave their blessing. Soon Engel was making enough money to chip away at the college debt he had accumulated. He started offering online courses in poker strategy. He loved the independence and the freedom from job responsibilities.

Then came April 15, 2011 — Black Friday in the poker world. The U.S. Justice Department issued indictments against the nation’s leading online poker firms and shut down their websites, charging that they had broken Internet gambling laws and engaged in bank fraud and money laundering. Authorities eventually settled with two of the leading poker companies, PokerStars and Full Tilt, but stipulated that they no longer could serve U.S. customers.

That meant Engel, who was living in Las Vegas at the time and primarily playing online, would either have to stop or leave the country.

“Overnight,” he said, “my profession was radically changed.”

Having had the fortune of being born in Canada, Engel obtained a Canadian passport and moved to Toronto. But he hated the winters. By his second January he was ready to give up online poker to play exclusively in live tournaments. Engel packed up his Toronto rental and has been living in hotels ever since, chasing tournaments.

Though he sometimes plays into Shabbat, he always takes off the Jewish holidays, when he usually goes to visit his parents in South Florida. He also has a sister in New York and a brother in Israel.

“I don’t know if I’ll be playing poker forever, but for the time being I will,” Engel said. “I’ve built a little bit of a nest egg and I have the freedom to follow different opportunities. I just need to keep my eyes and ears open and just be smart about it.”

Leader of Israel's Black Hebrews Dies at 75

Sun, 12/28/2014 - 09:10

The spiritual leader of an influential group of African-American Jews who moved to Israel died Saturday.

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