Grapevine: Integration, not segregation...

Two eminent scholars talk at the Great Synagogue, a storm brews at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and the Charles Bronfman Prize is awarded to a woman who provides a ray of hope to Darfur refugees.

grape vine 88 (photo credit: )
grape vine 88
(photo credit: )
ALTHOUGH MEN and women mingled in the lobby of Jerusalem's Great Synagogue while standing and waiting to go inside to listen to a discussion between Yeshiva University President Richard Joel and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion, when they were eventually seated in the synagogue proper, the seating was separate. One rabbi seated in the women's section, when told he was in the wrong place, replied that he was always in the wrong place. His confusion was understandable. Women usually sit in the gallery at the Great Synagogue, and this event was held in the men's section. Due to an oversight, the premises had been double-booked, as a result of which people who had come for the YU event had to wait in the lobby for the conclusion of a wedding ceremony, but everyone took it in good spirits, because the wedding guests trooped out to the sound of violins and drums, and a good time was had by all. Members of the public who wanted to submit questions to Lichtenstein had been asked to do so in writing in advance. Joel, who asked the questions, quipped: "If you think your question wasn't included, of course it was included, but you didn't understand it." Lichtenstein, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest minds in the Jewish world, is sufficiently modest to know that no one is invested with boundless knowledge and that all of us suffer from varying degrees of ignorance. "There's a danger in sitting in front of an audience and pontificating," he said. "The last thing I want to present in terms of self-image is someone who has all the answers. We have to be humble in front of the Divine Creator and we have to be humble in front of people as well." While a strong advocate of Torah study, Lichtenstein does not exclude the benefits of secular studies, and an integrated world in which the two can interface. "My principle is to think of integration and not to focus on segregation," he said, while noting that "we are mandated by the Creator to put a spiritual imprint on the reality around us." Joel was troubled by the pervasive cynicism ("an overwillingness to play the game of gotcha") that is taking over Jewish communities. "We don't speak to each other any more, we snarl," he said. "A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Describing cynicism as a moral and social disease, Lichtenstein said: "What lies behind cynicism is envy - not just envy but enjoying finding something bad in others. It's a poison, a spiritual cancer. We are suspicious by nature and we ought to recognize it for what it is and transcend it." n THERE'S BEEN much cause for celebration in the famed Ifergen family, noted for its gift of seeing into the depths of a person's soul and then advising on any number of personal, career or business issues. Rabbanit Bruria Ifergen-Zvuluni and her husband, Rabbi Binyamin Zvuluni, recently married off their son, Yosef, to the lovely Sarit Kashani in the Mondial Banquet Halls, Jerusalem in the presence of major rabbinical figures, politicians, lawyers and business people as well as many relatives from all sides. The groom was as handsome as the bride was beautiful; in fact, they looked as if they had been cast for a movie. The Zvulunis, the Ifergens and the Kashanis have all been blessed by nature in the good looks department, aside from which they exude a certain radiance. Because of her special gift, "Hatzadika Rabbanit Bruria," as she is generally known, is permitted to stand among the menfolk, something quite rare in haredi circles. She has nearly as great a following as one of her brothers, Rabbi Ya'acov Ifergen, better known as "Harentgen" (the X-Ray), for his amazing powers of healing and parapsychology. Many of the who's who in Israel beat a path to her door in Jerusalem and his door in Netivot. But most of the 3,000 people who made their way to Netivot last week did so not to seek his advice, but to congratulate him on the bar mitzva of his son, Shalom, the eldest of his five children. Many of the guests who had been at the wedding in Jerusalem were also at the bar mitzva in Netivot. n WHILE MEN and women mingled fairly freely at the Zvuluni wedding, there was a strict separation between men and women in Netivot. And in Jerusalem's Teddy Hall on Saturday, April 12, women won't even get a look-in at the "Jerusalem from Generation to Generation" cantorial concert featuring child prodigy Shayele Reinhartz, Abrahami Roth, Haim Eliezer Hershtik and Mendy Werdiger plus a 30-member orchestra. Inside a large red circle in the full-page advertisement are the words: "For Men Only!" n THERE'S AN old Yiddish saying that a herring reeks from its head. Given the number of Israel Broadcasting Authority executives who are at odds with director-general Moti Sklar, it would seem that this adage may be applicable to the IBA. Sklar has made enemies both at Israel Radio and Israel Television, so much so that Yoni Ben-Menachem, the director of Israel Radio, felt compelled to write letters of complaint to Attorney General Menny Mazuz and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. To paraphrase Shakespeare: Something is rotten in the State of Kol Israel. The story is going around that even before taking up office, Sklar was allegedly heard to say that one of the first things he was going to do was to get rid of Yoni Ben-Menachem. Since then, he's allegedly been heard to say that he has a political mandate to get rid of Ben-Menachem. To be truthful, Ben-Menachem's appointment as successor to Amnon Nadav was not without controversy. There were media reports that in the course of his work, Ben-Menachem had forged strong ties with then prime minister Ariel Sharon, which enabled him to win the tender for the top job at Israel Radio. Of course, that would have meant that Sharon had been able to influence every member of the tenders' committee - something that sounds a little far-fetched even for a practiced bulldozer like Sharon. Be that as it may, Sklar and Ben-Menachem did not hit it off, and there's also trouble brewing between Sklar and Ben-Menachem's opposite number at Israel Television, Uri Levy. People close to Ben-Menachem say that Sklar has consistently ignored him or harassed him. He has left him out of the decision-making process and has gone over his head with appointments. One example is Arye Shaked, whom Sklar appointed head of the Israel Radio news division against Ben-Menachem's wishes. The word is out that Sklar is grooming Shaked to take over Ben-Menachem's role. Sklar has also nixed a number of programs that Ben-Menachem would have left on air. The atmosphere between Sklar and Ben-Menachem became so ugly that IBA chairman Moshe Gavish made them sit down and sign an agreement of cooperation, but the ink barely had time to dry before the agreement was breached. Shaked, prior to his promotion, was head of the Union of Israel Journalists, and complained bitterly about being mistreated by Sklar's predecessor, Yosef Barel. He also fought tooth and nail on behalf of other downtrodden journalists. But once he got into the pilot's seat, critics say, he became a different person, and there are a number of people at Israel Radio who don't want to wait to see if they're on the hit list within the framework of the about-to-be implemented reforms within the IBA. If Shaked remains in charge, they're willing to walk before they're pushed. It doesn't augur well for the future of the IBA. Sklar, for his part, denies the allegations against him and says through spokeswoman Linda Bar that it is not his job to decide who will fill certain posts. That's the role of the tenders' committee. But he does acknowledge that the proposed reforms will bring about major changes, which he knows that some people will not be able to accept. Meanwhile, Ben-Menachem is filing a civil suit against Sklar, so even if the IBA does not always deliver what we want to see on the screen or hear on the radio, the story behind the screen and the microphone is sufficiently interesting to keep us on the edge of our seats. n THE PRESIDENCY is becoming a family affair. When President Shimon Peres was in Paris last week, his entourage included his personal physician, Prof. Rafi Walden, who happens to be his French-born son-in-law. This week, when Peres was in Sde Boker hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the grave and in the hut of David Ben-Gurion (who together with Konrad Adenauer wove the beginnings of the intricate relationship that exists between Israel and Germany), the guide was Peres's grand-daughter, Noa Walden, who works in the Ben- Gurion Museum as a tour guide. Merkel was interested in learning about the differences between kibbutz life in the early years of the state, when the kibbutzniks conquered the desert, and kibbutz life today. n AFTER PAYING a condolence call on the family of Doron Mehereta, one of the eight students murdered in the Mercaz Harav massacre, Rabbi Lazer Brody felt that he had to share the experience with the world. This is a somewhat edited version of what he posted on the web. "I paid a shiva [condolence] call to Doron's family. Every single type of Jew was sitting together, from Ethiopians to Polish hassidim, from knitted kippot to Yerushalmi white kippot, from jeans and sandals to long black frocks. Too bad that it takes a martyr of Doron's magnitude to unite everyone. "One of the rabbis from Mercaz Harav told me the most amazing story you'll ever hear about Doron's dedication to learning Torah, a story that competes with the Gemara's account of Hillel's near freezing on the roof of Shmaya and Avtalion's yeshiva. Doron wanted to learn Torah in Mercaz Harav, but, since his early schooling was in Ethiopia, he lacked a strong background in Gemara. The yeshiva rejected him. He wasn't discouraged. He asked, 'If you won't let me learn Torah, will you let me wash the dishes in the mess hall?' "For a year and a half, Doron washed dishes. But he spent every spare minute in the study hall. He inquired what the yeshiva boys were learning, and spent most of the nights and all of his Shabbatot with his head in the Gemara learning what they learned. One day, the 'dish washer' asked the rosh yeshiva to test him. The rosh yeshiva politely smiled and tried to gently dismiss Doron, but Doron wouldn't budge. He forced the rosh yeshiva into a Torah discussion. The next day, he was no longer a dish washer but a full-fledged yeshiva student. "On weekends, when Doron would come home to visit his family in Ashdod, he'd spend the entire Shabbat either in the Melitzer Shul or the neighboring Gerrer shtiebel learning Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. Three weeks ago, he finished the entire Shulchan Aruch and principle commentaries. Doron achieved in his tender 26 years what others don't attain in 88 years." n SDEROT HAS in recent months become the symbol of national unity. People on different sides of the political fence, of different ethnic backgrounds, of different faiths and of different streams of the same faith have all united to show solidarity with Sderot. Papouche Teperson of Kfar Shmaryahu was with the first huge convoy that brought people from all over the country to shop in Sderot for Shabbat. It was such a moving experience for her that when she returned to the quiet luxury of Kfar Shmaryahu, she rounded up a bunch of friends to contribute to pay for some of the basic needs in Sderot. She made contact with a young Chabadnik by the name of Ze'ev who lives in Sderot and asked him to suggest a project. Most children, he said, come from families too poor to be able to afford Purim costumes. He suggested that's what they should buy. He furnished them with ages and sizes of recipients and they duly purchased 500 costumes which they distributed in 14 kindergartens, arriving unannounced at each one to keep up the momentum of the surprise. After the first trip, they all wanted to go back, and this time they brought cosmetics and toiletries including baby wipes for young mothers. They also brought a lot of cash with them and went shopping in neighborhood stores rather than the mall. Teperson was extremely moved when she entered the green grocer's store and asked him for a short list of the poorest of the poor, so as to pay for a week's supplies for them. He produced a notebook with some 50 names of which he gave her only a handful. "He could have easily taken advantage of us, but he didn't," said Teperson, who has been back several times and intends to keep doing so. In the local supermarket, the owner told the group from Kfar Shmaryahu that he tries as much as possible to maintain the dignity of his clientele. Every week he distributes coupons worth NIS 200 each, for which he receives no recompense. The recipients then come with the coupons to make their purchases. Teperson has fallen in love with Sderot, partly because the people are not waiting for handouts and are busy helping each other. Another admirable relationship with Sderot has been forged by a family from Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, who wish to remain anonymous. When the parents were making preparations for the bar mitzva of their son, they thought he should share it not only with his family and school friends, but also with children who were in a less fortunate position. It was obvious that such children would be coming from Sderot. A wise woman, the mother took her son to Sderot to meet the 20 youngsters invited. On the way home, he asked her how these children from the Amit School would get along with the children in his class. There was only one Ashkenazi in the group. The mother had a talk to her son's teacher and asked him to take time out to explain to his students what they needed to know about Ethiopian and Sephardi children. Hardly any of the young visitors to Jerusalem had been to the Western Wall, so that was one of the first places to which they were taken. When the tour guide heard they were from Sderot, he refused to take any money and took them through the underground tunnels as well. After lunch, they were introduced to a bongo drummer who brought some 50 drums with him and taught adults and kids to play them. They had a wild time, and the two groups integrated completely. Before leaving Jerusalem, each child from Sderot was given a goodies bag and a gift. In addition, each of the bar mitzva boy's school friends wrote a letter to one of their new found friends in Sderot. They'll get to see them again soon. They're coming back for Purim. In addition to all this, former MK and government minister Uzi Landau operates a not-for-profit company called Eretz Nehederet (wonderful country) which shuttles people into Sderot every Friday to bring cheer to the residents and revenue to the shopkeepers. Synagogue groups from all over the country regularly visit Sderot. Jewish organizations from abroad, now make a point of putting Sderot on their itineraries and they bring a lot of money into the town for individual and community needs. The Jewish Agency allocated $1.7 million in scholarships to 1,700 students from Sapir College in Sderot; leading entertainers visit all the time to give free concerts; sporting personalities come to play basketball and football with the youngsters or to teach them judo and karate; Tel Aviv fashion designer Golan Sivan designed an "I Love Sderot" T-shirt in which Cupid's arrow in the heart has been replaced by a Kassam rocket; thousands of people turned up at the Tel Aviv port last week for the Sderot Market Fair; a senior citizens' club in Hadera invited senior citizens from Sderot for a day of fun, laughter and dance, and the list goes on. The only thing that the people of Sderot actually asked for was the reinforcement of their buildings. But let's give it credit where it's due. In the days when hardly anyone was doing anything for the residents of Sderot, Arkadi Gaydamak responded to the need and bused large numbers of people out of the town to the center of the country. After that, people from all over got on the bandwagon. n IMITATION IS the highest form of flattery, but it's doubtful that Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who founded Birthright Israel, would be overjoyed by a new Palestinian initiative called Birthright Palestine which will be conducted along similar lines for local and diaspora Palestinian youth. Birthright Palestine, which is the brainchild of George S. Rishmawi, Coordinator of Siraj Center for Holy Land studies in Beit Sahour, is made up of four components: education, tourism, hospitality and volunteering. It was created to maintain Palestinian unity on an international level, and to make foreign-born Palestinians feel at home in the ancestral homeland. Sounds pretty much like Birthright Israel. The first annual Birthright Palestine program will be launched this summer to mark the 60th anniversary of what the Palestinians call Al- Nakba (meaning the catastrophe). What for Israel will be the 60th anniversary of Independence, will for Palestinians be the 60th anniversary of loss. n THE SIMPLEST innovations sometimes lead to the greatest rewards, JTA reports. Rachel Andres learned this recently when she was named the 2008 recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize. In her work, Andres provides succor to some of the most helpless and brutalized people in the world - 10,000 refugee families, mostly fatherless, who have escaped the massacres in Darfur. The genocide in the Sudanese province, now in its fifth year, has claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 civilians. Some 2.5 million refugees, predominantly women and children, have been displaced. For the past two years Andres, 45, has directed the Solar Cooker Project of Jewish World Watch, which has expanded from a small Los Angeles base to synagogues, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, civic organizations and individual contributors across the United States, as well as parts of Canada and Australia. The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing the women and young girls in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border. While foraging for scarce firewood outside the camps for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls were in constant danger of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab militiamen. If the women could somehow find an alternative source of heating within the camps, they could largely eliminate the assaults, reasoned Andres and her colleagues. Her answer was a sun-powered cooker, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, at a cost of $15 each. Andres discovered a small Dutch company to furnish the material, which is shipped to the refugee camps. Doubling the mitzva, the cookers are assembled in small camp plants by the women and girls older than 14, who get paid for the work and become income earners for their families. Some 15,000 cookers have been distributed, which have also proven an environmental boon, slowing the deforestation of the region and cutting down the time women have to spend over open brick fireplaces. Since each family needs two of the $15 cookers, Jewish World Watch has pitched its donation appeal at $30. More than $1 million has been received to date from some 20,000 contributors, mainly in $30 donations, though there have been larger gifts. In the Los Angeles area, nearly 60 synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, have joined up with Jewish World Watch. JTA contributed to this report.