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Polish City Marks First Rabbinical Ordination Since World War II

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 16:36

In the city’s first rabbinic ordination since before World War II, four rabbis and three cantors were ordained at a ceremony in the White Stork synagogue in Wroclaw, Poland.

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Eric Cantor Joining Wall Street Investment Bank

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 08:27

Former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is joining a Wall Street investment bank as vice-chairman and managing director.

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Eric Cantor joins Wall Street investment bank

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 07:19

(JTA) — Former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is joining a Wall Street investment bank as vice-chairman and managing director.

Cantor, 51, who served as the Republican congressman for Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, also will be elected to the board of directors of the global investment bank, Moelis & Company, the bank announced Tuesday.

Cantor will be based in the bank’s New York office and is scheduled to open an office in Washington.

“Eric has proven himself to be a pro-business advocate and one who will enhance our boardroom discussions with CEOs and senior management as we help them navigate their most important strategic decisions,” Ken Moelis, chairman and CEO of Moelis & Company, said in a statement.

After a career in the Virginia legislature, Cantor was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 and was made chief deputy whip just two years later, before his 40th birthday.

Cantor, who was the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, was as majority leader the most senior Jewish lawmaker in U.S. history and had ambitions of becoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Little-known college professor, David Brat Cantor, who had the national backing of the insurgent Tea Party movement, defeated Cantor in the primary in June.  Brat accused Cantor of betraying conservative principles on spending, debt and immigration.

Cantor stepped down from his position as House majority leader and from his congressional seat on Aug. 18.

A Force to be Reckoned With

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 05:00

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute…

Debbie and I spent the entire weekend together, beginning our friendship of 35 years. We sang together at early CAJE (Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education) conferences, where I experienced my first all-night kumsitz (song session). Debbie sang at my wedding, and I was honored to be on stage with her at Carnegie Hall – not once, but twice. In 1998, she was responsible for bringing me onto the faculty of Hava Nashira, and I was delighted to teach with her and learn from her every time we were together.

I believe that Debbie’s unique influence on NFTY and camp had as much to do with function as with form. Debbie, whose music was deeply influenced by the Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as by the religious leanings of Shlomo Carlebach, was among the first to insist (and she did insist) that worship is of no use without worshipers’ very personal connection to the act of prayer. She wanted to know what camp songleaders thought they were doing up there at the front of the room, particularly as it related to worship and creating community. It was not only her compositions, but also her command of the room or the friendship circle or the bimah that drew people in. Both her music and her presence served as a model for all who came after her. To Debbie, singing itself was a means to an end. Community, inclusion, relevance, spirit – these were her goals, and the very same ones that have always been consistent with the vision of NFTY the URJ’s summer camps.

In addition to being a terrific friend, Debbie was a tough mentor along the way. Fluent in Hebrew, she frequently engaged young composers in conversation, making sure they had thought long and hard about the words they were setting to music. She had little tolerance for young songleaders whose egos were evident when they were in front of a group. I think that young people flocked to her because of her rebellious spirit and her strength of character. Even if one was occasionally bruised by her frank evaluation or her honest critique, one could never argue with her ability to make a person reflect on, and refine, compositions and skills. Although Debbie did not need you to live up to her expectations, she did want you to live up to the expectations of the liturgy – and the task at hand. I believe that teenagers and campers were attracted to her high level of integrity, and sought to model it in their own teaching and performances.

Debbie’s strength of character, her genuine concern for the well-being of each individual, and her faith in the ability of Jewish liturgy and ritual to change the world, all made her a force to be reckoned with. Her influence was so much more than her compositions. Her very being changed the face of Judaism forever. To have known her, and to have worked, studied, and prayed together with her always will be a blessing to me and to so many others.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin is the coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York.

Muslim Girls Arrested for Plotting To Blow Up Synagogue in France

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 11:57

Two teenage Muslim girls were arrested for planning a suicide bomb attack on the Great Synagogue of Lyon in France.

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Investing in Colorado's Youth and Beyond

Sun, 08/31/2014 - 06:00

Five years ago, Colorado native Kendall Weistroffer rarely stepped foot in a synagogue. Now she is involved in her campus Hillel and is minoring in Hebrew.

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Probation for Profit

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 12:04

Many jurisdictions in the United States have turned over their probation procedures to for-profit companies collecting fines and monitoring individuals accused of minor infractions. As small fees and interest charges begin to build, people who already cannot afford their fines can end up in jail owing exorbitant amounts.

The post Probation for Profit appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The Rebbe’s Legacy

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 12:03

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known simply as the Rebbe, was the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement when he died 20 years ago. Today, the movement has tripled in size and the Rebbe’s many followers continue to remember him with visits to his gravesite. The Rebbe’s personality and teachings were well-received by Jews and non-Jews alike, and his followers have established Chabad centers for teaching in over 80 countries around the world.

The post The Rebbe’s Legacy appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Drug Charges Dropped in Philip Seymour Hoffman Case

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 07:44

The Manhattan district attorney has dropped drug-selling charges against a jazz musician and friend of late film star Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an accidental drug overdose in February, the New York Times newspaper reported.

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Yiddish Tango Is Irresistible Musical Hybrid

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 15:56

Yiddish tango, the musical genre that packs crowds into the stately courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is a musical hybrid spanning continents.

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Yiddish tango links time, space and musical styles

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 14:36

From left, Gustavo Bulgach, Divina Gloria and Cantor Marcelo Gindlin performing at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Aug. 21, 2014. (Courtesy of Skirball)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The music that packs the Skirball Cultural Center’s stately courtyard – Yiddish tango – is a hybrid twice over.

On the tango side, it is a blend of African-born rhythms and a potpourri of European music styles. On the Yiddish side, it combines mournful liturgical melodies with folk songs.

Tango, too, is famous for its sensual dance, while Yiddish music is rooted in the festive freylekhs of traditional wedding bands.

In combination, the two prove irresistible, as the concert crowd stands and sways to the tangled rhythms.

For Gustavo Bulgach, 47, band leader of Yiddish Tango Club — the star attraction at the Skirball on Aug. 21 — the music is also a reminder of his childhood in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and ’80s. Born to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bulgach grew up in Argentina learning Jewish folk music at the feet of his grandfather, a passionate music lover, and in the synagogue founded by his grandfather.

At the same time, he says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”

Bulgach is far from the first to combine Jewish music and tango in a heady combination. Tango music was born in late 19th-century Argentina in communities of newly arrived European immigrants, many of them Jews.

As Jewish musicians learned to play in the increasingly popular style, they added their own musical and linguistic flourishes — not only joining major tango orchestras, but also composing new tangos in Yiddish. Max Zalkind , for one, composed both in Yiddish (“Odesa Mama”) and Spanish (“Mi Quinta in Castelar”).

Gustavo Bulgach (Courtesy of Skirball)

At the same time, as tango music became an international sensation, the genre swept across Eastern Europe. Records and music journals filtered into cities and shtetls and created a new tango style even in places never visited by touring Argentine orchestras.

For example, as Lloica Czackis, a musician who has researched the history of Yiddish tango, noted in an article written for the website of World ORT, Poland “quickly became one of the capitals of European tango at a time when most of its musicians, both in the classical and popular scenes, were Jewish.”

The result was a pre-World War II profusion of Yiddish tango in Argentina, Eastern Europe and even America, as Yiddish-speaking Jews joined in the tango craze and made it their own.

The Holocaust also created its own grim chapter in the history of Yiddish tango, as the Nazis encouraged concentration camp orchestras, or lagernkapellen, to play tangos, which they considered less encouraging of rebellion than American jazz. Indeed, as Czackis notes, Paul Celan’s famous poem on the concentration camps, “Death Fugue,” was originally titled “Death Tango.”

Bulgach’s own renditions of Yiddish tango draw on these traditions and, at the same time, offer a fresh take on the genre. In some cases, Yiddish Tango Club plays traditional klezmer songs but with elements of tango, such as using the Argentine bandoneon rather than an accordion.

In other instances, Bulgach combines tunes and rhythms from both genres more freely, as in his self-composed “Librescu Tango.” And in other pieces still, the combination is already inherent in the music — for example, Bulgach notes that legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla often said his favorite 3-3-2 rhythm was influenced by the Jewish music Piazzolla heard as a child in Brooklyn.

Jewish tango music also has experienced something of a revival. Bulgach says it has become common practice at Jewish concerts in Argentina for the musicians to perform an old Yiddish tango as part of the repertoire. At the same time, documentaries and concerts of Jewish tango music have sprung up across the United States, and Jewish tango music has even reappeared in Eastern Europe, repeating the patterns of nearly a century ago.

Above all, though, Bulgach says tango is more about a feeling than a specific harmony or rhythm.

“To me, the tango is like the blues,” he says. “It’s an attitude. It’s darkly lit. It’s ecstatic. It’s out of control.”

Likewise, in both tango and klezmer, Bulgach says the test of success is whether people are inspired to get up and dance.

By the end of the Yiddish Tango Club concert, the Skirball courtyard is crowded with dancers joyously swept up by the spirit of Yiddish tango. A few dance expert tangos in pairs, while most bop and bounce informally to the music.

As the evening comes to a close, Bulgach leads the band and his audience in a tango-ized version of “Hatikvah,” turning the anthem of hope into a lilting, dance-like melody.

Rabbinic Court Tells Lesbian Mother To Keep Children Away From Partner

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 07:51

A government rabbinic court in Jerusalem has issued an order prohibiting a woman from bringing her children to meet her female romantic partner.

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Jewish Emphasis on Life Makes Death Rituals a Gift to World

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 06:00

Perhaps because of Judaism’s emphasis on life, Jewish death rituals are often beautiful, stark, and wise. They are a gift we can give to the world — and offer mourning without myth.

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Prague Chief Rabbi Quits Amid Literary Sensation — and Whiff of Scandal

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 16:13

When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

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Prague’s longtime chief rabbi leaves colorful and controversial legacy

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 14:57

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague’s chief rabbi amid reports about his love life. (Petr Balajka/Prague Jewish Community)

PRAGUE (JTA) — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. 

The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, told JTA that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, told JTA in an email.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. 

By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek told JTA.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. 

But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, told JTA that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur, a machzor and others. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”

Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 09:00

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics.

In those first four years, we made several positive changes. I felt more assured of where I was leading the school, but I worried incessantly about enrollment and how to maintain staff. I still lacked the opportunity for connections with the broader community of Jewish educators, and I wondered what others were doing. Did they face similar challenges? Did anyone have innovative solutions?

When a colleague encouraged me to join the URJ’s Pursuing Excellence in Early Childhood Education Community of Practice, I jumped at the chance to learn with a select group of colleagues working in Reform congregations all around North America, all of whom were keen about undergoing a change process with their Early Childhood Centers. This would allow me to accurately assess our situation, uncover options, and find the best people to share in problem-solving.

In order to participate, our congregation was required create a leadership team, which was made up of a few volunteers. None of us was sure what we were getting into, but off we went. At the inaugural gathering, URJ Faculty Member Cathy Rolland and her cadre of change experts convinced us that we had to consider using new tools to face threats to Jewish early childhood education and to carefully and creatively tackle an experiment that could lead to effective change. To use a term coined by Rabbi Benay Lappe, could we practice “disruptive innovation”?

Our leadership team was both inspired and overwhelmed, and we stayed up nights contemplating the options. One colleague, who initially didn’t understand any of the issues, gained a sincere appreciation for the role that early childhood plays in the larger question of Jewish engagement. Another, who hadn’t been exposed to the national Jewish early childhood scene, was awed by the depth and breadth of talent.

We came home from our time with the Community of Practice committed to carrying out an experiment that we had previously contemplated but hesitated to conduct: offering families full-day programming. Our congregation had more dual-income families than ever, and they couldn’t participate in a part-day program. We knew full-day programming was a vital option.

The most powerful step our team took was choosing to meet monthly. These regular meetings, which were never cancelled and fully attended, made our experience successful. At each meeting, we reviewed logistical tasks and pondered the bigger picture – our mission and vision, culture, staff and parent needs and priorities, financial and political limitations, etc. We watched URJ webinars together and learned from other participants in the Community of Practice, while our board members met with teachers and parents to hear their perspectives. Every team meeting was invaluable and led to new ideas.

Ultimately, we partnered with an outside agency to provide an aftercare program in our building. We still operate a part-day program (though our hours are still longer than they ever were before), maintaining the culture and the staff that we cultivated over 25 years, but we can now accommodate our busy families by providing full-time child care. We use the tag line, “Your child’s best school experience, and your best childcare solution.”

We often said our experiment had “tentacles.” Not only did we implement full-day child care in a unique way, but we created inter-generational programming, further engaged the clergy in our school, re-educated the board, planned our second experiment, and so much more.

The URJ’s Community of Practice structure gave us tools to enthusiastically tackle change. It also offered the support of the URJ faculty and the opportunity to share the experience with colleagues in other cities who were experimenting at the same time. Our school and our team benefited so much from this experience that our board members have agreed to continue meeting monthly to see where our newfound skills and understanding can lead.

Eighteen months after beginning this journey, we are more knowledgeable and less scared of change. Our school is thriving, with more students and greater vibrancy than we have had since 2009. Our team, following intense discussion, titled our experiment “Accommodating Busy Families” because it’s about much more than full-day programming or enrollment statistics. Every aspect of our program is now evaluated through the lens of our families’ realities and facilitating their relationships within the Jewish community.

My favorite take-away from this experience? “Excellence is the pursuit of excellence.” We can’t stop improving.

Dr. Paula Sayag is the early childhood director at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD. Prior to this, she served as an early childhood Consultant at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

Sim Shalom Online Synagogue Hosts Live Jazzed Up High Holiday Services...

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 01:42

The Sim Shalom Online Synagogue continues to layer deep tradition with musical virtuosity, and this year will hold its Jazz High Holiday Services at Zeb’s Sound and Light in Chelsea.

(PRWeb July 24, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/06/prweb11926117.htm

200 Hollywood Elite Condemn Hamas in Statement

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 11:45

Nearly 200 Hollywood elite from actors to directors to studio heads has signed a statement condemning Hamas, as its conflict with Israel continues.

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