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Jared Kushner speaks with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Dec. 10, 2018. (Screenshot from YouTube)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law and adviser, rarely speaks in public. No surprise, then, that a rare appearance on cable news TV was with a friendly network, Fox News, with a friendly interviewer, Sean Hannity.

Kushner seemingly said little about the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal he hopes to strike, but in reading between the lines, some nuggets emerge: The release of the proposal is not absolutely certain, and statehood for the Palestinians seems for now to be a nonstarter. But Kushner also recognizes that he can’t get much else done in the region without an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

On Hannity’s show Monday night, the host and Kushner ran through three issues. The first two were President Donald Trump’s efforts to replace his chief of staff after nearly two fraught years with John Kelly (Trump is looking for someone with “great chemistry,” Kushner said) and a rare impending legislative win for Trump, passing prison reform.

Then Hannity asked whether tensions over the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi were overwhelming Kushner’s quest for what his dad-in-law calls the “deal of the century” between Palestinians and Israelis.

Saudi officials murdered Khashoggi in Turkey, and U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, ultimately was responsible for the operation. Kushner reportedly has led the effort within the administration to let the crown prince off the hook; the two men have struck a close friendship and political alliance.

Kushner quickly got Khashoggi out of the way.

“I think our intelligence agencies are making their assessments and we’re hoping to make sure that there’s justice brought where that should be,” he said.

The intelligence agencies have already made their assessment, holding the crown prince, known by his nickname, MbS, responsible.

Pivoting to Middle East peace, Kushner said, “We’re focused now on the broader region, which is figuring out how to hopefully bring a deal together between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Kushner and his team – top negotiator Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – have been focused for two years on a deal, so this isn’t exactly new. Trump said in September that he wants to see a deal by January.

Here are three takeaways:

There’s a not unsubstantial chance we may never see this thing. “And we’re hopeful in the next couple of months we’ll put out our plan, which again not every side is going to love, but there’s enough in it, and enough reasons why people should take it and move forward,” said Kushner, whose second “hopeful” in 30 seconds sounded to many as less than hopeful.

Trump may want this deal, but insiders say its prospects of success are virtually nil given the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to participate since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a year ago, and the continued preeminence of the rejectionist Hamas, a terrorist group, in the Gaza Strip.

The Trump administration, reportedly at Kushner’s behest, has severed all assistance to the Palestinians as an incentive to get them back to the table. It hasn’t worked. Kushner also hoped the Saudi crown prince would get the Palestinians on board, but even before his Khashoggi troubles, the Palestinian leadership was disinclined to heed MbS.

So a dead-on-arrival peace process may be the last thing Trump needs as he heads into a Congress in which the Democrats control the U.S. House of Representatives and are pledging many investigations, including into Trump’s alleged Russian ties.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been close to Kushner’s family for years, may also be less than enthused for electoral reasons of his own. Netanyahu must call a vote by next fall, and is feeling more pressure – at least for now – from his right flank than his left. Giving in to the slightest of Trump-demanded concessions could harm his prospects.

Don’t mention statehood. “I’ve been saying a lot that you shouldn’t be hijacking your children’s’ future because of your grandparents’ conflict,” Kushner said. “This is a conflict that has been going on for way too long, and the way that people are living in Gaza and in the West Bank right now is not acceptable and there’s a lot that we can be doing to improve their quality of life, but it comes with resolving some of these core issues.”

Palestinians for decades have said that statehood was a baseline for any deal. Trump has retreated from years of U.S. policy that calls Palestinian statehood a necessary outcome. Under Trump, alleviating Palestinian suffering takes priority over political outcomes.

Adamant about linkage. Kushner persists in the interview in his one substantive difference with Netanyahu, suggesting that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue first is the key to regional diplomacy. Netanyahu has said that resolving the Palestinian issue may not be critical to advancing Israel’s other interests and rejects linking a peace deal to other regional issues. Kushner made clear a year ago that he is hewing to the more conventional wisdom that the Palestinian issue comes first, and it appears he has not changed his mind.

“And it’s not just the Israelis that want it, it’s not just the Palestinian people who want it, it’s all the people I speak to throughout the entire Middle East who would like to see this issue resolved so that they can start focusing on a brighter future,” he said.

The post 3 takeaways from Jared Kushner’s interview with Sean Hannity on Middle East peace appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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NEW YORK (JTA) — The largest baking company in the United States will be removing kosher certification from nearly all of its bread and rolls.

Bimbo Bakeries USA confirmed to JTA that it will be removing the certification. The company produces brands including Arnold, Sara Lee, Stroehmann, Freihofer’s and others.

Two of its major brands, Entenmann’s and Thomas, will remain certified kosher. So, kosher eaters, your crumb doughnuts and English muffins are still safe. A couple of rye breads also will retain their certifications.

“Removing the kosher certification from some of our products was strictly a business-process decision to enable more efficient operations, and it was one we did not make lightly,” Bimbo said in a statement. “Thomas’ and Entenmann’s products as well as Arnold’s and Levy’s Rye Breads will remain kosher-certified. It is important to note that we have heard our consumers’ concerns and are working with kosher certification organizations and discussing alternative solutions.”

The company did not say when the decision will take effect, and the kosher certification agencies do not know, though they assume it will be sometime next year.

The decision will make it much harder for those outside major Jewish population centers to buy kosher bread, say executives at the Orthodox Union and Kof-K, the kosher agencies that certify the vast majority of Bimbo’s kosher products in the U.S. Rabbi Ari Senter, Kof-K’s kosher administrator, said the agency has received hundreds of concerned calls since the decision was first reported earlier this month.

“We’ve been hearing from a lot of consumers that they’re concerned about this,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the rabbinic administrator of the O.U.’s kosher division, the largest in the country. “If you live throughout the United States, it’s not always so easy to get kosher bread. In terms of kosher bread, Bimbo plays a critical role.”

Genack explained that the decision stems from a mix of corporate efficiency and obscure kosher laws: Bimbo wants the flexibility to produce its breads on the same factory lines as breads that contain dairy products. Because traditional Jewish law says meat and dairy products cannot be consumed at the same meal, breads for the kosher market must be strictly nondairy unless they appear and are marketed as obviously dairy — like cheese bread, says Senter.

“Their primary concern is one of flexibility within their plants, that they can produce it on other lines that are not necessarily designated for kosher,” Genack said.

Both agencies are in ongoing conversation with Bimbo hoping to salvage some more kosher brands and clarify when the changes will take effect. Until then, most breads remain kosher certified.

Bimbo Bakeries USA is the U.S. division of Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican company that is the world’s largest bakery. The company, whose name is pronounced “Beem-bo” and is derived from the Italian word “bambino,” capped an aggressive move into the U.S. market with its 2011 acquisition of the Sara Lee Corp.

According to KosherFest, a large trade show of kosher foods, there are 1.3 million year-round Jewish consumers of kosher foods in the United States and 35 million non-Jewish consumers of kosher products. According to the Mintel market research firm, more than 40 percent of new foods launched in 2014 claimed to be kosher.

The post A lot of the bread in the US will no longer be kosher appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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NEW YORK (JTA) — In the span of just a couple days, Chaim Raice went from never having been on a bobsled to being a contender to represent Israel in the 2022 Winter Olympics. And it all started with a Facebook post.

Raice, a house builder based in Pomona, New York, was browsing the social media site in November when he saw a post saying that the Israeli bobsled team was in need of another athlete to compete in the North American Cup beginning that month.

He thought it was a joke, but he still reached out. Though Raice, 46, had little knowledge of bobsled, he had participated in several other sports as an amateur, and his Israeli citizenship meant he qualified to compete for the country.

It turned out to be a perfect match, and just two days after having reached out, Raice was driving up to Lake Placid to compete.

“I was kind of shocked that it actually worked out,” he told JTA last week.

Raice had been told that he would be teaming with an athlete whose partner had dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. The other competitor would be serving as the pilot, sitting at the front of the racing sled and steering, while Raice would serve as the brakeman, pulling a lever to get the go-kart-like sleigh to slow down after crossing the finish line.

What he didn’t know was that his partner, Dave Nicholls, uses a wheelchair to get around. Though Nicholls had been participating in the sport for 14 years, this was the first time the disabled athlete was taking part in a competition for able-bodied people (rather than a para-athlete competition).

“I was a little shocked,” Raice said about finding out about Nicholl’s status.

The rules of bobsled, which has two- and four-person teams, actually make competing in a wheelchair less of a challenge than in most other sports. Team members typically push the sled and then jump in before going down the track, but the rules allow an athlete to start seated and the other team members to push — less of a disadvantage in the four-person sled than in pairs.

Nicholls, who sustained spinal damage in a skiing accident 15 years ago, says it is the first time in the history of the sport that a disabled person is competing against able-bodied athletes. JTA reached out to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation to confirm the claim, but the organization did not respond by publication time.

Raice arrived in Lake Placid on Nov. 29, just a day before the two-day competition. He and Nicholls, who is in his 50s and based in Park City, Utah, were able to practice on the racetrack twice before the big day.

Prior to the first day’s race, Nicholls made what he calls “a rookie mistake”: He loosened his helmet strap, causing it to slide down over his eyes and block his line of vision on the track. With Nicholls not able to steer properly, the sled flipped on its side. He broke several fingers, and the team could not complete the race.

However, it didn’t stop the pair from competing the following day. They finished in 11th place, ahead of two teams that were unable to complete the race. But Nicholls will still participate in additional races as he tries to qualify for the World Cup, a prerequisite for the Olympics.

With seven athletes, the Israeli bobsled and skeleton team has a record number of members. Though the team is based in the United States, all the athletes have Israeli citizenship — some from birth, others from making aliyah to compete for the country.

Earlier this year, an Israeli sledder competed for the first time in the Olympics, with American-Israeli A.J. Edelman representing the country in one-person men’s skeleton. David Greaves, who leads the team as head of the Israeli Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, hopes that in 2022, the team will not only compete in men’s skeleton but in the women’s race and bobsled.

“There are a lot of small countries that are involved in these sports who struggle every year to find athletes to compete,” said Greaves, who is based in Winnipeg, Canada. “And we have done something in terms of growing our program that most small nations have not been able to do successfully.”

Raice said that competing for the first time was “way more bone jarring and exhausting than I ever imagined.”

“You think you’re getting into a sled and slide down,” he said, “but it’s a really fast track and the G-forces are unreal. You feel like you almost get blackout on some of the curves.”

Still, he said he has become “slightly addicted” to the sport and hopes to continue with the goal of participating in the Olympics together with Nicholls. For his part, Nicholls says that representing the Jewish state holds a special significance.

“I’m wearing the Star of David when I compete,” he said. “I’m wearing on my left hand a blue and white glove, and on my right hand a USA red, white and blue glove. People know now that I’m Team Israel, and it’s great to hear that over the loudspeaker when they’re announcing the different drivers and the different countries.”

The post Israel has a bobsled team, and it wants to compete in the Olympics appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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(JTA) — “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the new film from “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, is at heart a film about African-American love during a time of rampant racism. It’s an adaption of James Baldwin’s heartbreaking 1974 novel of the same name, which depicts a young African-American couple in 1970s New York whose love story is unjustly derailed.

But one of the film’s most powerful — and most talked about — scenes begins with a close-up of the back of the head of a yarmulke-wearing man as he walks up the stairs of a Manhattan apartment.

The narrative of “Beale Street,” which opens Friday and is considered an award season contender, alternates between the present and various stages of the couple’s life together. The scene in question takes place almost two-thirds of the way through, and the kippah wearer is named Levy.

Levy, played by Dave Franco, is a prospective landlord for Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne). It has been established in an earlier scene that Fonny and Tish, who are looking for an apartment together after learning they are expecting a child, have been rejected repeatedly by other landlords because they are black.

“Sometimes Tish and I go together, sometimes I go alone, but it’s always the same story, man,” Fonny tells a friend (Brian Tyree Henry) in the earlier scene.

Levy is different — not only does he not reject them, he plays along with Fonny as he mimes moving a refrigerator into the unfurnished space. Later, in a discussion on the roof, Fonny asks what the catch is, why he is willing to rent the apartment to them when no one else would.

“We’ve been looking for a long time, and there’s no reason for you to treat two Negroes so nicely,” Fonny says.

Levy responds with an impassioned speech about love.

“Look, man, with me it’s pretty simple — I dig people who love each other,” he says. “Black, white, green, purple, it doesn’t matter to me. Just spread the love.”

When Fonny asks if he’s a hippie, Levy replies, “I don’t know, I’m just my mother’s son. Sometimes that’s all that makes the difference between us and them.”

A version of the scene exists in Baldwin’s novel, although it’s a bit different. Levy is described on the page as an “an olive-skinned, curly-haired, merry-forced” 33-year-old from the Bronx. Franco (the younger brother of James) happens to be 33 and Jewish in real life, but the speech is an invention of the movie, and an older version of the screenplay floating around online did not include it.

The novel puts the “he dug people who loved each other” line in the mouth of narrator Tish rather than Levy himself.

Barry Jenkins, right, directing Stephan James, center, and Dave Franco on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” (Annapurna Pictures)

Jenkins — the film’s writer and director, whose debut “Moonlight” won three Oscars, including for best picture, in 2017 — has described the scene as one of the most pivotal in the movie.

“There’s this very simple scene where his character walks into the film and is appointed this very important task,” Jenkins said of Franco in an interview with Vulture at the Toronto Film Festival. “I was really careful about writing into the source material too much, but it just felt like there was something that this character needed to say to our main characters.

“You would assume black people are one of us and white people are one them. But it’s like no, there are us [sic], people raised right by our mothers, and there are them, who maybe haven’t been. We can’t even blame them for that because maybe their mothers didn’t have the capability to raise them the way that we were raised.”

Despite his good intentions, some on the festival circuit found the scene a little corny and even jarring — mostly, as Vulture also pointed out, because of the casting of Franco, who has come to be associated with the numerous wacky comedies in which he has starred in recent years, like “Neighbors” and “The Little Hours.”

“Is this scene a poignant moment underlining the necessity of human connection to cut through oppressive power structures, as Jenkins clearly intends?” Nate Jones wrote. “Or, as some viewers who found it pretty corny argued at the movie’s premiere party, is it a disruption of the movie’s carefully considered tone to hand one of the most pivotal emotional beats to the guy from ‘Neighbors’?”

The scene also paints a rosy portrait of the black-Jewish relationship at the time, when in reality it was far more complicated. In the 20th century, and especially in New York City, tensions between blacks and Jews often manifested through landlord-tenant relations — a topic addressed elsewhere by James Baldwin himself.

“When we were growing up in Harlem, our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them,” Baldwin wrote in The New York Times in 1967 in an essay titled “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”

“We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building. A coat of paint, a broken window, a stopped sink, a stopped toilet, a sagging floor, a broken ceiling, a dangerous stairwell, the question of garbage disposal, the question of heat and cold, of roaches and rats — all questions of life and death for the poor, and especially for those with children — we had to cope with all of these as best we could.”

But Baldwin goes on to note in the same essay that most of the white people who had treated him poorly probably weren’t Jewish and, after all, “it is not the Jew who controls the American drama. It is the Christian … The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom’s most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews.”

So in the end, the Franco scene is just a touching moment meant to remind us of the kindness of people of all races. And it adheres not only to Jenkins’ vision, but also to Baldwin’s.

The post One of the most powerful moments in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ features a yarmulke-clad Dave Franco appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — In an extraordinarily tense exchange Tuesday with Democratic leaders, President Donald Trump threatened to shut down the government unless his proposed wall between the United States and Mexico is funded, and invoked an Israeli wall to defend his position.

“I am proud to shut down the government over border security,” Trump said in the White House Oval Office meeting with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the speaker-designate, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, according to a pool report. “If you really want to find out how effective a wall is, just ask Israel.”

It’s not clear which wall Trump is referring to; Israel credits a wall and fence running through the West Bank with stopping terrorist attacks from Palestinian areas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cited another wall, along Israel’s southern border with Egypt, as a model for the United States in its bid to stop migrants from crossing without approval. The Israel-Egypt wall is a fraction of the size of Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico.

Democrats won the U.S. House of Representatives in last month’s elections, and this was the first meeting since then between the Democratic leaders and the president. The acrimony and raised voices were unusual for such a meeting. Pelosi told Trump repeatedly that he did not have the votes in either chamber to get approval for funding of his proposed wall. She said she would call a government shutdown a “Trump shutdown.”

“Elections have consequences, Mr. President,” said Schumer. “We shouldn’t shut down the government over a dispute, and you want to shut it down.”

Trump says a wall would keep criminals and terrorists among others from entering. Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups say Trump has massively exaggerated the risk posed by migrants.

The post Trump invokes Israel’s wall in tense budget negotiation with Pelosi and Schumer appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Canadian authorities, acting on a U.S. request, arrested a major Chinese tech mogul in Vancouver between flights on Dec. 1.

The arrest of Meng Wanzhou has already rattled U.S.-China, China-Canada and U.S.-Canada relations. China has demanded from the United States and Canada the release of Meng, the CFO of tech giant Huawei, saying her arrest constitutes a human rights violation. Canada’s government, already locked in trade tensions with the Trump administration, does not want to upend ties with China, another major trading partner.

Simmering beneath the barbs traded on all sides is another issue fraught with disagreement across the globe: confronting Iran. The crux of the U.S. warrant for Meng’s arrest is that she lied about whether her company was doing business with that country.

What are the charges?

According to the Vancouver Star, Meng is alleged to have committed fraud in 2013 by telling HSBC, the multinational banking giant, that her company was not doing business with Iran. In fact, there is evidence that SkyCom, a tech company doing business with Iran, was then a subsidy of Huawei. HSBC would have sought the assurance in order to be in compliance with multiple U.S. laws sanctioning parties that do business with Iran.

Is this about Trump’s Iran policy?

In the particulars, no; Meng is charged with fraud, not with sanctions busting.

“It’s not a sanctions case, it’s a bank fraud case and bank fraud has nothing to do with trade,” said Jeff Moon, who was assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs in the Obama administration and is now a consultant on China.

There is also evidence that Meng, whose father founded Huawei, knew this was coming: Huawei executives reportedly have avoided traveling through the United States to avoid arrest.

The overarching geopolitical tension governing this case is about China and spying, and predates the Trump administration. U.S. officials for years have suspected Huawei of allowing China to use technology it sells to other states to spy. The United States will not allow Huawei to join in bids to set up next-generation 5G mobile networks on its territory, and is pressuring Canada to do the same.

Additionally, criminal cases pursued by the Justice Department are mostly free of other policy considerations.

Does this case tell us anything about Iran policy?

Likely yes: The Justice Department pursues cases according to its own priorities, but nonetheless checks in with other agencies through the National Security Council. John Bolton, the national security adviser who is known for his hyper-hawkish Iran stance, gave the arrest a green light (Bolton has acknowledged having advance knowledge). That means he would not have been displeased with the message the arrest sent to China or Iran.

“People look at it through different lenses,” Moon said. “Justice is looking at it through enforcement; Bolton is looking at it through a hawkish lens.”

One message it is sending is that Trump is serious about dealing with Iran. Richard Nephew, who was principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy during the Obama administration, said the high-level arrest was almost without precedent. Pundits have likened it to China arresting a relative of Microsoft’s Bill Gates or Apple’s Tim Cook.

“This is a fairly significant change and escalation in how we enforce our primary sanctions,” said Nephew, who supports the Iran sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal he helped negotiate and that Trump scrapped just months ago.

Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of tech giant Huawei, was arrested earlier this month in Canada. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Mark Dubowitz, the director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposed the Iran deal, agreed.

“It’s no surprise to me we’re seeing actions not only against a behemoth, but particularly one from China,” said Dubowitz, who has advised the administration on Iran policy. “The administration has said repeatedly in enforcing Iran sanctions against both allies and adversaries that no company will be immune, no matter how big or influential. Think of the Chinese role in massive sanctions busting over the years.”

Nephew, now a scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, likened the approach to “broken windows” policing: Hit sanctions busters for every transgression. Obama, he said, would have been more cautious, preferring to talk China down from major oil purchases from Iran instead of going after every violation.

Wait, isn’t Trump playing nice with China?

The very day Meng was arrested, Trump struck a deal with China, meeting in Buenos Aires with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. Trumped walked back a pledge to increase tariffs on Chinese products; Xi said China would buy more from the United States.

Nephew said that may be typical of an administration that two years in still can’t shoot straight, with competing interests one-upping one another.

“What I find surprising is why Bolton would allow the president to be in a room with his Chinese counterpart” and not let him know  the arrest was pending.

Dubowitz said the arrest and the deal in Argentina were complementary: Trump opened the door to a deal with tough talk on tariffs, and he was taking the same tough line on sanctions busting.

“What Trump has signaled is that he will use all instruments of American international power against the Islamic Republic,” he said.

What is Israel’s role in this?

To watch, warily, said Assaf Orion, an Israeli defense strategist, and retired general who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Netanyahu government fully backs Trump’s tough Iran policy, but is also negotiating friendly trade ties with China. (Israel appears to be aware of Huawei’s global reputation as a security and espionage risk, yet the company has a 4 percent share in Israel’s cellular phone market.)

“On Iran, Israel certainly has a direct interest,” Orion said. “China is a trade partner, but the U.S. is a strategic ally.”

The post Here’s why the arrest of a Chinese tech mogul matters for Iran — and Israel appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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(JTA) — Just like any other Santa Claus, Santa Rick will spend much of the next couple of weeks sitting children on his knee, asking whether they’ve been good and listening to their Christmas wishes.

If it’s a Saturday, he may have slept overnight in the building. And he’ll only accept payment after nightfall.

For Santa Rick’s last name is Rosenthal, and he’s an Orthodox Jew who does not drive or handle money on Shabbat. But that doesn’t stop him from doing his job.

“I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t help a child,” said Rosenthal, 66, who lives in Atlanta and attends Young Israel of Toco Hills. “If you look at the world as children do, that’s a better feeling. I’m a better person and a better Jew because I’m Santa.”

Rosenthal — a full-time, professional Santa — sees no contradiction between serving as the symbol of Christmas and living as an observant Jew. To him, Santa is a nonreligious spiritual figure who provides trust, reassurance and comfort to the young and old.

He says that anyone who is inclined to criticize him for working as a Santa should consider ways they help non-Jews observe holidays — like working a shift on Christmas when Christians take the day off.

“As a Jew, we are to be a light unto the world,” Rosenthal said, paraphrasing a famous Jewish aphorism from the Bible. “That’s one of our jobs. If we can help make people’s lives better, we should do that. It’s a mitzvah. If we can ease tensions between Jews and non-Jews, we can do that.”

Rosenthal began playing Santa at age 16 as a gag. He would dress up and hang mini bagels on his non-Jewish friends’ Christmas trees. He occasionally played the part in subsequent decades.

But he became a full-time Santa seven years ago when two things happened: First, his parents passed away within two weeks of each other, which led him to grow out his beard, a custom of the traditional Jewish 30-day mourning period after a parent’s death. Soon after he was shopping at Home Depot when he noticed that a little boy was staring at him transfixed, sure that he was Santa Claus.

“I knew what he was thinking and I said, ‘Don’t tell anyone you saw Santa buying tools for the elves at Home Depot,’” he said. “He was frozen dead over. I walked into the store, I looked back at the first row and he’s still staring at me.”

Since then, Rosenthal has become Santa year-round. He and his wife, Tracy, run a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, that hosts three-day weekend seminars on how to be Santa. The school covers everything from fashioning a good costume to making sure you have legal and insurance protection in place. But the seminars also promise fun times, like a Christmas movie screening and a photo op with a live reindeer.

The couple also runs the National Santa Agency, which books a network of 100 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves for private parties and events. Rosenthal is a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.

While his busy season obviously is Christmastime, Rosenthal says there’s business all 12 months. He’ll go to schools, birthday parties, senior homes and trade shows. He did a gig this year in Hong Kong. He’s even taken part in marriage proposals — he gives the woman an engagement ring that she had already selected with her partner.

“I say, ‘If I asked you to marry me, would you marry me?’ and then I pull out the ring,” he said. “They say, ‘Where is Bob?’ or ‘Where is Jeff?’”

Rosenthal looks the part. He has a bushy beard, oblong glasses and several Santa suits — including a golf suit (he says his game is unbeatable) and a red-and-white, full-body Santa swimsuit. He curls his mustache every day and uses three kinds of conditioner on his hair and beard. And his demeanor, for lack of a better word, is jolly. Speaking to this reporter, he casually uses the phrase “butcher, baker or candlestick maker.”

Part of what he loves about being Santa, Rosenthal says, is that the Jolly Old Elf has been called the second-most recognizable figure in the world — after Jesus. He said that patients with Alzheimer’s at seniors residences will recognize him even when they can’t recognize their own spouses.

“It is incredibly humbling because people are in awe of you,” he said. “They’re intimate with you, they tell you really funny stuff, they tell you horrible stuff, and they do that because you’ve known them since they were born. You’ve known their parents since they were born.”

His wife says that even when he’s not in the suit, Rosenthal will wear a red shirt — and frequently be mobbed by kids. Because she doesn’t dress the part of Santa’s wife, Tracy says she will usually keep her distance so kids don’t “think Santa’s stepping out on Mrs. Claus.”

“From a personal perspective, we never are able to go out anywhere in public where he is not recognized as Santa,” she said. “Usually if we go to the store, I know it’s going to take a little bit longer because he’ll be stopped and I’ll usually be waiting for him to be done talking to children.”

Rosenthal says the job can be taxing sometimes because he must be open to the array of human emotions. He says he cries often after talking with people, and recalls an especially painful time when a little boy sat on his lap and asked for a small trampoline for Christmas for his dead brother.

“I have to be jolly; I have to get rid of it,” he said of the job’s emotional burdens. “We have open wounds as Santas. We got shot at all the time in good ways and bad ways.”

But one thing that has not been a challenge, he says, is a Jew playing Santa. He makes clear that he’s not a Christian minister or even St. Nicholas. To his mind, he’s an American Santa who wants to help people.

“Santa is an American cultural thing,” he said. “When I’m Santa, I’m Santa. I’m a spiritual guy who believes in the world being a better place.”

The post This Santa Claus is an Orthodox Jew appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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AMSTERDAM (JTA) — The last time that a stranger directed an anti-Semitic insult at me, I was carrying supplies for my son’s birthday party.

It was on a Sunday afternoon on Dam Square. Carrying Star of David party decorations in a see-through bag, I paused to snap some pictures on my cellphone of an anti-Israel rally.

I was busy sending them to a friend who had inquired about such events in the Netherlands when a bearded man sporting a Moroccan accent said loudly in my direction: “Cancer Jew. You’re all made up, you’re fake. You’re fake dogs.”

The incident was far from extraordinary — I have experienced much worse abuse during my years of covering European Jewry and its problems — but I found myself recalling it Monday following the publication of the unsurprisingly grim results from Europe’s largest survey of Jews on anti-Semitism.

About a third of the 16,395 Jews polled this year in 12 countries by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights said they avoid Jewish events or places out of fear for their safety. A similar number said they have considered emigrating in the past five years because they did not feel safe as Jews.

More than 80 percent of respondents said anti-Semitism was “the most pressing problem” facing them. Nearly 40 percent said they had experienced an anti-Semitic incident over the past five years, and of those, 79 percent said they didn’t report it because they thought doing so would be a waste of time.

Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, called some of the poll’s data “shocking” in an address she delivered Monday in Brussels during the presentation of the report.

She vowed tougher action on anti-Semitic crimes, especially online, and called on all EU member states to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, which includes some forms of anti-Israel rhetoric, because “you cannot fight it if you can’t define it,” she said.

The respondents appeared more affiliated than the average European Jew, with 45 percent saying they eat kosher at home and 84 percent declaring they fast on Yom Kippur. A sample with more respondents for whom Judaism is a less central element of life may yield different results.

But even for a secular Jew like me, the report was no more shocking than the presence of the armed special forces officers at our children’s Jewish kindergarten, where they block off the entire road twice a day, during pickup and drop-off hours.

My reporting has made me so used to such sights – the result of several terrorist attacks by Islamists on Jewish institutions, including the 2012 bloodbath at a Toulouse school — that I was genuinely surprised by how disturbing this is to my wife, who is Jewish but rarely attends Jewish community events.

Certainly the head of the European Jewish Association wasn’t surprised by the EU report.

Anyone who is shocked, Rabbi Menachem Margolin said in a statement, is ”disconnected from the reality on the ground.”

Like so many of the poll’s respondents, I also brushed off the anti-Semitic incident I had experienced without reporting it to police.

After all, I do not believe Dutch police would have identified the man who accosted me. But if they did, he could have accused me of assaulting him and back his claim with false witnesses from his rally — who would land me in trouble.

The refusal by Dutch police to even investigate a Jewish community leader’s complaint for assault did little to assure me that they have my back.

The Dutch government’s resistance to adopting an internationally accepted definition of anti-Semitism was also of little assurance. Nor was a Dutch court’s failure in July to charge a Syrian man with a hate crime for smashing up a kosher restaurant while waving a Palestinian flag.

European Union officials Frans Timmermans, left, and Vera Jourova at a news conference on the EU’s response to a new survey about anti-Semitism at the body’s headquarters in Brussels, Dec. 10, 2018. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

These problems are not exclusive to the Netherlands.

In France, where half a million Jews live and the volume of anti-Semitic incidents increased by 69 percent in 2018, such occurrences have become a “daily occurrence,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said last month.

In the United Kingdom, the country’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said that many people in his community feel they are facing ”an existential threat” in the supporters of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Sacks, one of contemporary Judaism’s most eminent representatives, called the far-left politician an anti-Semite. Corbyn, who has called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends” and who had suggested that British “Zionists” are incapable of irony, has rejected the allegation vociferously.

In Sweden, anti-Semitic harassment by far-right activists led for the first time since World War II to the shuttering of a Jewish community anywhere in the European Union out of security concerns. The dissolution of Umea’s Jewish community was a sad precedent in a country where Jews are regularly assaulted by Muslim extremists, often with Israel as a pretext.

Still, the news out of Brussels isn’t all bad when it comes to the fight against anti-Semitism.

Last week, the European Council — the EU’s executive branch — made a declaration against anti-Semitism, calling on EU member states to shoulder Jewish communities’ security costs and urging coordinated action against anti-Semitism.

And whereas some European governments 20 years ago took pains to deny the resurgence of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust and the reasons driving it forward, mainstream politicians in Europe today seem to be more conscious of the problem’s nature and more interested in confronting it.

Significantly, Jourova mentioned in her address not only anti-Semitism, but also anti-Zionism – a reference that many believe would have been unthinkable only several years ago coming from a high-ranking EU official. She also mentioned “Islamist anti-Semitism.”

Such rhetoric reflects a reluctant acceptance in Europe of the effect of the arrival to the continent of millions of immigrants from anti-Semitic societies in the Muslim world. Whereas many integrated seamlessly into European societies and adopted their values, others have rejected them and reintroduced into the mainstream anti-Semitic sentiments that have been suppressed in Europe as part of the lessons of the Holocaust.

Labeled “new anti-Semitism,” this mutation of Jew hatred has baffled European progressives, who struggled to come to terms with the systemic targeting of one minority group by members of another.

Watchdog groups say that the vast majority of violent attacks on Jews in Western Europe today come from people with Muslim background. But accepting or admitting this has proven difficult for some advocates of Europe’s immigration policies.

Yet last year, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France will “not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.” It was the first time that a French president made such an equation.

Following France’s lead, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and several other countries mounted formidable efforts to protect Jewish community institutions, in some cases leading to a reduction in incidents.

Yet even under Macron, French authorities, who in the early 2000s downplayed the scale of anti-Semitic crimes, showed signs of relapsing. Last year, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights asserted that it “had no evidence” to support what it called “the new anti-Semitism hypothesis.”

In May, a study published by a German federal entity said that anti-Semitism in Europe is unaffected by recent Muslim immigration, prompting a prominent critic to call the report selective and flawed.

As the debate rages on, many Jews like me are increasingly contemplating their futures in Europe – despite major steps designed to ensure our ability to live freely and safely here.

Because amid polls, reports, discussions and declarations about the need to balance freedoms, for too many European Jews “freedom of belief and the freedom to live without fear remain distant aspirations,” as Michael O’Flaherty, the director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, put it Monday during his address in Brussels.

The post The latest poll on anti-Semitism in Europe looks bad. Trust me: It’s true. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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(JTA) — A 21-year-old Ohio man was arrested for planning an attack on a Toledo-area synagogue.

Damon Joseph of Holland was charged Monday in U.S. District Court in Toledo with attempting to provide material support to ISIS. He told an undercover FBI agent that he was inspired by the gunman who shot up a synagogue building in Pittsburgh, killing 11.

“I admire what the guy did with the shooting actually,” Joseph told the agent, according to the Department of Justice. “I can see myself carrying out this type of operation.”

Joseph told the agent that he wanted to kill a rabbi, the Toledo Blade reported, citing an FBI affidavit. He also said, according to the FBI, that  “Jewish people were evil and deserved what was coming to them.”

He sent a plan for his attack on one of two Toledo-area synagogues to the agent earlier this month with a request for weapons and ammunition. He took possession of the weapons, two AR-15 rifles, on Friday from the agent and was then arrested, according to the newspaper.

The FBI said that law enforcement became aware of Joseph earlier this year though his activities on social media. He pledged his allegiance to ISIS and made videos to encourage others to join the jihadist group. He expressed hatred for Americans – singling out gays, Christians, Catholics and Jews, according to the FBI.

If convicted, Joseph faces up to 20 years in prison.

The Secure Community Network, a national Jewish community initiative, praised the FBI “for their ongoing and thorough work on behalf of the safety and security of the Jewish community,” noting that Joseph had been under surveillance for nearly a year before his arrest.

Michael Masters, SCN’s national director, said in a statement that there is “no known ongoing threat against the Jewish community” related to Joseph’s actions. He called Joseph’s plans “highly calculated and inspired by hatred.”

Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said Monday in a statement: “We cannot tolerate hate directed toward people of Jewish faith, or of any other religion, and last month’s mass-killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue is a reminder of just how real this threat is. As Hanukkah concludes this evening, all Toledoans should reflect on the holiday’s themes of liberation, identity, and most importantly, freedom from religious persecution.”

The post Ohio man arrested for planning deadly attack on synagogue appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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MUNICH (JTA) — Weeks after they emigrated from Russia and moved to Germany, the Nedlin family sought to join the local Jewish community.

Registering for membership in a Jewish community — a practice common in European countries — was a significant step for the Nedlins, who before emigrating in 1992 had grown up in the repressive Soviet Union. There they were forced to hide or downplay their Jewish identity due to state anti-Semitism and discrimination against religion.

But the local community didn’t reciprocate the family’s desire for contact.

“At first they told us we can’t join,” Anna Nedlin, who was 5 at the time, recalled in an interview with JTA. “They didn’t want anything to do with us.”  But at her parents’ insistence, “they sent our documents to Frankfurt to check if we’re really Jewish.”

The experience of the Nedlins, who eventually were allowed to join the synagogue, was a typical account of many of the 170,000 Russian speakers who immigrated to Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The newcomers faced a rift with the 30,000 “postwar” Jews whom many expected to welcome them to Germany.

The split has had a deep, lasting and polarizing effect on a community re-established by Holocaust survivors, distracting at times from the mission of revival. It flares up in local communal politics but, 30 years on, has mostly healed. More often, the Russian-speaking immigrants and their children are credited with energizing and strengthening a minority group whose viability used to be uncertain.

When the post-Soviet immigration began, Jews in Germany suddenly found themselves struggling to cater to large numbers of people with little more than the shirts on their backs. It didn’t help that the newcomers had little knowledge of Judaism and attitudes shaped by decades of living under repressive governments.

Famously, many German Jews were shocked at how some newcomers would take away food that was set out as refreshments for the kiddush ceremony at synagogue.

The postwar community, which was largely descended from recent Eastern European immigrants, would “look upon the Soviet Jews as maybe not even being Jews and being uneducated [yet] taking over their communities,” said Esther Knochenhauer, 34, who was born in East Germany one year after her parents immigrated there from Russia.

Even before the reunification of Germany in 1990, the East German leader Lothar de Maiziere began welcoming Soviet Jews. Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor, adopted the same policy after unification to make amends for and reverse the Nazis’ annihilation of Jewish presence in Germany. Following reunification, immigration requests by Jews were expedited and given equal status to those by ethnic Germans.

The Berlin Jewish community, under its president until 1992, Heinz Galinski, hired dozens of Russian-speaking Jews to help with the absorption of others. And many Jewish communities tried to assist penniless newcomers however they could — including charity.

But these well-intended steps sometimes stoked tensions.

It made some “wrongly frame” communal politics as “a struggle between Russian speakers in power who do shady things and German-speaking opposition,” according to Sergey Lagodinsky, a Russia-born jurist who has run for leadership roles in the Berlin Jewish community’s elections.

And some dismissed the desire of Russian-speaking Jews for contact with Jewish life as utilitarian, he added. In the European context, joining the community allows a member access to facilities as well as free or subsidized services for weddings, circumcision and b’nai mitzvah.

Sergey Lagodinsky and Dana Golan attend a discussion in Berlin about Israel, April 30, 2015. (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Frank Roehl)

That suggestion was especially insulting to families like Knochenhauer’s. Her mother’s family was so attached to their Jewish identity that they continued holding Passover seder dinners in communist Russia (though, out of caution, they neither read the Haggadah nor told the children what the bizarre dishes and customs were all about, she said).

Yet Nedlin and Knochenhauer’s own life stories reflect their divided community’s ability to transcend the challenges of this culture clash, which ended up becoming the community’s lifeline.

This year, both women married Jewish men descended from postwar families.

Anna Nedlin was married at a Cologne synagogue to Roni Lehrer, whom she met 10 years ago at the Mahane Jewish camp. The couple, both historians, are expecting their first child.

Lehrer, 30, credits the Russian-speaking influx with more than just continuing his own Jewish family.

“We wouldn’t be around if not for their arrival,” he said. “We would’ve been doomed as a community.”

Lehrer’s mother, he said, joined the Jewish community of Cologne in the early 1980s, when it was “a dwindling group of 1,000 people.” She did not expect Jewish life to survive in Cologne, planning to move to Israel at some point so that her children would grow up with Judaism, her son said. But a decade later, “we’re a community of 5,500 people.”

This resulted in the 2002 re-establishment of a Jewish school in Cologne, the Lauder Morijah School, and the opening of other Jewish institutions. Two-thirds of the 60 counselors trained annually by the community for youth work in Cologne, Lehrer said, come from Jewish homes with at least one Russian-speaking parent.

Language and food differences are some of the minor issues younger mixed couples can expect, according to Knochenhauer’s Berlin-born husband, who asked not to be identified by name in the article. (Knochenhauer said his preference for keeping a low profile was typical of postwar Jews, and one of the things that sets them apart from Russian speakers who “won’t stay silent.”)

Her family “makes enough food for an army, which always makes me wonder just how many people they plan on hosting,” Knochenhauer’s husband said. But these minor differences are not comparable to the challenges of interfaith marriages with partners from very different cultures, Knochenhauer said.

Still, the arrival of many thousands of Russian speakers has had a lasting and often divisive effect on communal politics, shaping the processes of some communities to this day, everyone interviewed for this article agreed.

One of the first parties representing Russian speakers in the internal elections of the Berlin Jewish Community was called “Silent Majority.” Its main platform was the members’ identify as Russian speakers.

From the mid-1990s onward, the Russian-German divide became a permanent issue in internal elections campaigns, according to Lagodinsky, the jurist.

“There was a lot of disappointment” among Russian speakers over how they were received by German-speaking Jews, he said.

Some politicians “played up” this sentiment, he said, naming the current president of the Berlin Jewish Community, Gideon Joffe. Born to Soviet immigrant Jews in Israel, he moved as a child to Germany. According to Lagodinsky, Joffe has “in Trumpian style played up the Russian-speaking identity card” in elections.

Lagodinsky and others accused Joffe of rigging the internal elections of 2015 and clinging to power with “tricks right out of the Soviet period,” as Lagodinsky put it.

Joffe, who has denied the allegations, did not reply to multiple requests for an interview by JTA.

But the fact that Joffe’s main challenger, Lagodinsky, also speaks Russian as a mother tongue “shows we’ve moved as a community passed the language divide and are focusing on the main issues,” Lagodinsky said.

To Lehrer, the historian, the internal divide “is a generational issue.”

“People aged 20-40 don’t care about this anymore,” he said. And whereas some aspects of the problem are “alive, it is quite literally dying out.”

The post Soviet immigration, once a bane of Germany’s Jews, has become their salvation appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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