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Ever since Michael Kagan, 60, was a boy growing up in the U.K., each detail of his father’s escape from a Nazi labor camp has ricocheted through his mind and heart. Now, in his new documentary “Tunnel of Hope,” the son is sharing his father’s story with the world. It’s a story that Jack Kagan had fought to keep alive, recording not only the escape, but the murders of the vast majority of the Jews of Novogrudok—a city in Belarus—who were dead long before that fateful night. “He was driven, determined to get it out there,” says Michael Kagan.
Beyond the scent of potent cannabis drifting about the venue, there was an extra buzz in the air this year at Israel’s third annual CannaTech medical marijuana innovation conference. Earlier in March, the Israeli Knesset passed a new law essentially decriminalizing recreational marijuana use nationwide. Given that development, it was high time for this week’s CannaTech conference. But amid the attention-grabbing legislation on recreational marijuana, CannaTech continued its traditional focus on showcasing the ingenuity of Israel’s medical marijuana practitioners. This year’s conference was “double the size” of last year’s summit, said Saul Kaye, CEO of the iCAN: Israel-Cannabis organization, which runs the annual gathering.
If you have eaten at a high-end kosher restaurant sometime during the last decade, chances are that someone working for that restaurant was a student, or a student’s student, of Chef Avram Wiseman. The chef instructor welcomes the first cohort of students May 1 for the Brooklyn-based Kosher Culinary Center, which calls itself “the only kosher culinary school outside of Israel to offer professional training in the culinary and pastry arts.” But until now, Wiseman’s far-reaching industry footprint has flown under the radar. “Avram Wiseman is like a walking iPhone 7—fully charged, on steroids, with every app already downloaded, full of knowledge and fun,” said David Kolotkin, the former executive chef at New York’s Prime Grill kosher steakhouse.
When shooting the movie Exodus, Paul Newman was a frequent visitor in Achzivland, and Rina Avivi seems to be proud of it. Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Bar Refaeli also apparently got their summer tans in this remote and idyllic bay situated only a stone’s throw away from the Lebanese border and Nahariya, Israel’s northernmost city. “I met Sophia when I just moved to Achzivland. She taught me how to make real good spaghetti,” recalls the 70-year-old Avivi, who starts laughing. It comes as no surprise that the rich and famous gathered on this little stretch of beach to get a glimpse of this controversial place and its inhabitants. Nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the green hills of the Galilee, about 9 miles north of Acre, lies the empire called Achzivland. It has been more than 60 years since fisherman Eli Avivi founded this micro-state spanning 3.5 acres, limited by the country road on the right and the ocean waves on the left.
Part of the widely admired strength of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) comes from the military’s many “lone soldiers,” who leave their homes and families abroad in order to help protect the Jewish homeland. Significant media attention has focused on Israeli lone soldiers in recent years, particularly after two American-born soldiers were killed in the 2014 Gaza war. There are currently three “homes” that provide lone soldiers with communal living quarters, camaraderie and support. Until now, female lone soldiers—who fill key behind-the-scenes roles in the IDF, and are increasingly joining combat units—have not enjoyed the same group residential facilities as their male counterparts. But that is likely about to change.
In an ever-polarizing age in America, nonprofits often need to decide how to make their organization’s voice or constituency’s voice heard on policy issues without making overtly political statements. Such was the delicate balancing act navigated by the BBYO Jewish teen movement and the thousands of attendees at its recent International Convention. President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on the entry of non-citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations continues to dominate the national discourse, and BBYO’s convention was no exception, with the travel ban and the refugee issue frequently finding their way into speeches and discussions. “We’re very sensitive to this concept of everyone being at odds about how they feel we should be handling the global refugee situation,” said Aaron Cooper, the top youth leader in BBYO’s men’s order, AZA. “With that in consideration, we found success in not framing it as a conversation on whether we are we letting refugees into one country or another. Rather, it’s about, ‘What are we going to do so that we are helping them in some capacity?’”
An interview with Aaron Mantell and Danielle Wadler, two teens from New York, is drowned out by chanting students passing by. Welcome to the BBYO International Convention. “It’s a little overwhelming, but it always ends up being really really fun. Like you get past the overwhelming, and you get used to a thousand people screaming at you all day,” says Wadler, 17. The enthused BBYO delegates who interrupt the interview, en route to the convention’s opening ceremony Feb. 16, are just the tip of the iceberg. The energetic opening ceremony is nothing short of the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games. The pluralistic Jewish youth movement’s convention drew 5,000 people from 48 U.S. states and 30 countries. “The global nature of what we offer is a differentiator in their lives. There’s nowhere else, or very few places, where a teen from Dallas, Texas, can find a best friend from Slovakia,” says Matt Grossman, BBYO’s CEO.
It’s hard to believe that 27 female recent high school graduates living in a few modest buildings on a hilltop northeast of Jerusalem are the cause of an intense debate within Israel’s national-religious population. The young women are students at Mechinat Lapidot, one of only two pre-army preparatory programs in Israel for girls who come from Torah-observant homes. The community where their preparatory academy has been located for two years, Ma’ale Michmas, recently voted to ask the program to leave. The decision reflects a split in Israel’s national-religious sector, with some families preferring that their daughters pursue the traditional national service option after high school, rather than sign up for army service. But a growing number of Torah-observant girls are opting to take on more challenging roles in the Israel Defense Forces.
“Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it,” God says in a Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah. For more than a century, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), which calls itself “Israel’s largest environmental organization,” has followed that tenet by preserving nature in the Jewish state. The organization, which marked its 115th anniversary last month, launched a nationwide campaign for the Tu B’Shvat holiday in which more than half a million people are expected to participate in planting events through Feb. 17. JNS.org recounts the history behind how both the Tu B’Shvat holiday and the KKL-JNF organization have become synonymous with planting trees in Israel.
The Orthodox Union (OU) this week issued an unprecedented statement announcing the establishment of a far-reaching policy regarding women and leadership positions in synagogue life. Citing extensive research by a rabbinic commission, the OU concluded that its member synagogues may not employ women as rabbis, but strongly encouraged other types of leadership positions for women. In addition to stating outright that women can and should teach Torah, including on advanced and sophisticated levels, the OU statement also encourages women to lecture on Torah topics and share Torah insights; to assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikur cholim (visiting the sick), in community outreach to the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated, and in youth programming; and to advise on issues of family purity, in conjunction with local rabbinic authorities.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Jan. 31 at Cybertech 2017, the world's second-largest cybertechnology exhibition, said it is “no coincidence that you are here in Israel” and “not an accident” that the Jewish state is a world leader in cybersecurity. “I think we're truly on the cutting edge of this new technology and we've had many successes in ensuring our security,” he said. “It’s not an accident, as one would say. It's not an accident that in the froth and gushing of this entire Middle East and beyond, Israel is a secure and safe environment. We have invested in our security in creative ways, successful ways.”
You could say that Yishai Fleisher was destined to be a Jewish activist. Born in Haifa on the day of the 1976 Entebbe hijacking to refusenik parents who struggled to escape from the Soviet Union, his brit milah took place just as the hostages were being freed in Israel’s most daring rescue operation. Today, Fleisher serves as international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, representing a city that is a lightning rod for controversy. Elie Pieprz, director of international affairs for the YESHA Council, is another U.S.-trained activist playing a leading role in one of Israel’s most controversial issues. Pieprz, a native of Silver Spring, Md., is a member of the team responsible for presenting the face of Israel’s settlement movement to the world. Makor Rishon, a leading Hebrew-language newspaper, just described Pieprz as “the Israeli who seems to have the best contacts with the new [Trump] administration, apart from [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, of course.” Today, Fleisher and Pieprz no longer describe themselves as “activists,” but prefer to say they’re involved in “public diplomacy.”
While the annual marking of International Holocaust Remembrance Day Jan. 27 gives voice to the stories of victims of the Nazis’ atrocities, what can Germans know about perpetrators from their own family? That was precisely Maya Levy’s question when she contacted the German government agency Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt) to investigative the Nazi past of her paternal grandfather. The WASt eventually informed her of her grandfather’s army ID and tank unit, named after Gestapo founder Hermann Goering. “He never spoke about the war when he came back, like everyone else, and nobody asked,” Levy said. The WASt helps descendants of Nazi soldiers learn more about the sensitive subject of their father or grandfather’s service. “For a long period of time, it was like a taboo,” said Hans-Hermann Söchtig, the WASt’s director. “The [wartime] generation didn’t talk about this era. It was a gray zone.”
For Shani Tauber, it all came together when her group left the house of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the religious Zionism pioneer. “We were coming back through the streets of Jerusalem when all of a sudden it hit me: We are walking the land where everything we’ve been learning happened,” says Tauber. “And I realized it’s not theoretical here. You can feel how real it is.” Tauber, who hails from New Jersey, is one of 15 women spending the year in Jerusalem in a new program that immerses educators in Jewish texts and history in the very land where the events transpired. The seeds of the Eshkolot program were planted several years ago when Malke Bina, founder of the Jewish education organization Matan, was visiting the U.S. to meet with day school leaders for what she calls “brainstorming how to revolutionize Jewish education in the diaspora.” Jonathan Sarna, the renowned professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explains that “Jewish education in the diaspora suffers from a remoteness from our story, so this program exports some of its excitement to help transform Jewish education there.”
Some 2.9 million people visited Israel last year, a 3.6-percent rise over 2015. Earlier this week, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism released a report summarizing international travel to Israel in 2016, with the largest influx of visitors coming in the last quarter of the year. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin attributed the increased travel to the government’s significant investment in targeted marketing initiatives and outreach to “new markets.” JNS.org presents 10 noteworthy facts contained in Israel’s tourism report.
On an unseasonably warm Friday, the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” drew more than a hundred baseball fans to an empty lot in Beit Shemesh, a small town nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. In a country where Little League Baseball is unheard of and Cracker Jack snacks are nonexistent, this was no typical weekend in the Jewish state. Jan. 6 marked the groundbreaking for the new Beit Shemesh Baseball Complex, which will be Israel’s fourth major baseball field. The excitement was palpable for an event attended by 10 current and former American-Jewish Major League Baseball players who will represent Team Israel at the March 2017 World Baseball Classic. Many in the crowd recently immigrated to Israel. Jewish National Fund (JNF) spreads awareness for the sport in Israel through its Project Baseball initiative, a relevant endeavor for American immigrants. “This initiative gives children who have made aliyah a taste of home and an opportunity to get close to their Israeli peers,” said Eric Michaelson, JNF’s chief Israel officer.
The 1948-1949 War of Independence was Israel’s longest, costliest and most fateful war, says one veteran, who at age 97 still speaks to audiences about his experiences. Harold (Smoky) Simon, a South African-born accountant who became chief of air operations of the nascent Israeli Air Force in May 1948, is just one example of the kind of person whose story led an American immigrant to create an organization dedicated to preserving and publicizing the testimonies of those who founded the state. On a recent evening at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot Museum, Aryeh Halivni, founder of the Toldot Yisrael organization, introduced the dapper and articulate Simon to a large group of English-speaking immigrants brought together by the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency. Toldot Yisrael's goal is to inspire an understanding of the need for a Jewish state and to supplement the work of historians who have written about the state’s early history. “Without oral testimony you can’t understand history,” asserts Toldot Yisrael videographer Peleg Levy.
Before there was the U.S. Olympic team’s “miracle on ice” against the Russians, there was Maccabi Tel Aviv “miracle on hardwood” against CSKA Moscow at the 1977 European basketball championships, a feat that resonated across the free world. Dani Menkin’s new documentary, “On The Map,” recounts the achievements of an Israeli team nobody thought could win, and captures the unique charisma of the players who inspired a nation that was still making its initial foray onto the world stage. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s story proves that regardless of the current international mood, Israel remains a country that matters, writes film reviewer Jeffrey Barken.
As chair of The Judy Fund, film producer Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns channels Jewish values and personal experience in her work to motivate action in support of people dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. The Judy Fund is the fastest-growing private fund in the history of the Alzheimer’s Association, raising more than $6 million to support Alzheimer’s research and public policy initiatives. “Both my mother and father made giving a priority, thus my siblings and I had great role models exemplifying the core concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” Stearns told JNS.org. “The Judy Fund is a fine example of the impact that one family can have on millions to help repair the world.” Stearns was the co-producer of “Still Alice,” which earned Julianne Moore the Academy Award for Best Actress and has been an important conversation starter for Stearns’s organization and for the Alzheimer’s community in general.
It’s not every day that a renowned American pollster and political adviser comes to Israel to discuss some highly sensitive subject matters with high school students. “Part of the struggle for those who advocate for Israel is that we need to respond to simple questions and accusations with really complicated answers, because the truth itself is so complicated,” public opinion guru Dr. Frank Luntz recently told a group of Jewish American, Australian and Colombian students at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Luntz presented the students with a rapid-fire series of hard-hitting and politically charged questions, with the purpose to better prepare them for the unpleasant questions they may encounter when they arrive on college campuses.