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A boat trip aimed at saving the Dead Sea also explores the marvels revealed by its evaporation



DEAD SEA, Israel (JTA) — As the owner of the second boat to sail the Dead Sea in the past 75 years, Noam Bedein knows its salty waters better than almost anyone. But lately, his excursions have led him to discover sites neither he nor anyone else has ever seen. 

A few days before World Water Day in late March, Bedein came upon a bubbling brook feeding into the sea, which he named the Jerusalem River. The stream, the animals surrounding it and the beach it flows through were submerged underwater as recently as the mid-2000s. Bedein and his partner, Ari Fruchter, believe they are the first people ever to set foot there. 

It’s an experience Bedein keeps having, and for him, it’s a paradoxical one: His mission is to save the Dead Sea. But as it dries up, it reveals new wonders to him. 

“Out of the devastation, life finds a way,” Bedein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during one of his boat’s first excursions.

Bedein is the latest activist to confront a problem that has bedeviled Israel — how to save this ecological marvel and tourist attraction that is being depleted by water scarcity, industry and climate change. Bedein’s approach with his and Fruchter’s nonprofit, the Dead Sea Revival Project, is to raise awareness about the disappearing Dead Sea by bringing people to see it for themselves.

Bedein’s immersive boat tours provide visitors “with an intimate encounter that fosters deep connection and understanding” about the Dead Sea, he told JTA. 

The odds of saving the Dead Sea are steep. Bordered by Israel and the West Bank on the west and Jordan on the east, it is the deepest point on earth, has almost 10 times as much salinity as the ocean and is renowned for its therapeutic mud. In 2019, according to records from the Israeli Tourism Ministry, it was the country’s third-most visited site, after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, drawing a million tourists per year, reported Israeli business publication The Marker.

The Dead Sea is also an economic engine for Israel — something that, ironically, is a threat to the sea’s continued existence. A market research report published last year found that the Dead Sea mud cosmetics market is slated to be worth $2.6 billion by 2031. The chemical factories producing the cosmetics, which extract potash and bromine from the area, are found in both Israel and Jordan, and pump some 61.3 billion gallons of seawater per year in total as of 2018, according to NBC.

That extraction, plus a reduction in the inflow of water from the Jordan River, has led the Dead Sea to dry up in recent decades. A 2022 Israeli government report said that since 1980, the sea has lost some 40% of its volume and is retreating by more than three feet per year. According to Bedein, the Dead Sea’s water loss amounts to as much as 600 Olympic pools every day. 

The southern basin of the Dead Sea, which is called Ein Bokek and is lined with hotels, has been disconnected from the northern part. Today, the “sea” at Ein Bokek is actually comprised of 12 foot-deep evaporation pools that are entirely artificial. According to Bedein, most tourists at the hotels are entirely unaware that they are not actually at the Dead Sea. 

“However you look at it, there isn’t a magic pill to fix this, and that’s the reason nothing’s been done so far,” Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel, told JTA. “Every solution that is put forward comes with problems of its own.” 

The Dead Sea has lost 40% of its volume in recent decades. (Noam Bedein)

Hailing from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, Bedein, 41, worked in Israel advocacy in the Gaza border town of Sderot before shifting his focus to the Dead Sea. He is an environmental photojournalist by training who has now trained his lens on this body of water, hoping to show people what it actually looks like — and the ecological damage that is caused — when a large saltwater lake disappears.

To do that, he convinced the Israeli government to allow him to sail a boat on the Dead Sea, a quest that involved more than a year of overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. It is only the second boat to take to the water since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The boat, which holds up to 13 passengers, makes up to three trips a day, three times a week, but as of September, its operations will be expanded to five days a week. In total, Bedein says he has hosted between 400 and 500 people on private excursions. 

Bedein is acutely aware that the end goal of saving the Dead Sea is “way above my personal shoulders,” but, he said, that knowledge does not detract from his mission.

“The journey is fascinating and motivating for me,” he said. 

The boat’s two-hour journey is filled with wonders. On a recent outing, the blinding white salt formations look like glaciers or penitentes, and clash with the backdrop of the Judean Desert’s brutal reddish rock. Graduated terraces hewn out of the cliff look manmade, but each three foot-high step represents another summer in which the waters of the Dead Sea have evaporated. 

A salt cavern perched on a rock several meters above sea level elicits a gasp from Bedein. He has not been to the area in at least three years. Rifling through a wad of photographs, Bedein shows the passengers on the boat a photo of the same cavern from 2016, its mouth at sea level. He snaps a shot of the newly elevated cavern. The side-by-side images went on display as part of a timelapse photo exhibition marking this year’s Earth Day at the Cultural Center in Arad, a city 17 miles west of the Dead Sea.

“You can feel the density of the water lugging at the boat and the bitter, sticky spray on your face and lips,” said Naomi Verber, who was on board with her baby. “The salt rock formations are otherworldly, like seeing the transition between sea and land in suspended animation.”

(Bedein claimed that Verber’s child was “the first infant to sail the Dead Sea in at least 100 years.” Whether that is true is unclear. Orit Engelberg-Baram, an environmental historian who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea, told JTA that a baby may well have sailed its waters during the evacuation of Kibbutz Beit HaArava, located in what is now the West Bank, during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.)

The receding waters of the Dead Sea have revealed new rock formations. (Noam Bedein)

Fruchter, meanwhile, is spearheading an effort to promote awareness about the ecological crisis of the Dead Sea  by raising money to build the Dead Sea Museum of Art on a five-and-a-half-acre parcel of land in Arad. The museum, which hopes to attract half a million tourists a year once it is constructed, will combine exhibits on climate tech innovation and multimedia art installations in a carbon neutral building to both educate people about the sea and, in a grim but possible future, memorialize it.

While the industrial activity surrounding the sea often gets blamed for its depletion, Bedein says it isn’t the main culprit. He estimates that the chemical plants contribute to 30% of the problem, while the other 70% is due to the reduction of the source of the water in the Jordan River. 

According to Lensky, 60 years ago, a billion cubic meters of water flowed from the Jordan River into the Dead Sea. Today, less than 10% of that amount reaches it, partly because of the construction of dams around the Yarmouk River — which flows between Israel, Jordan and Syria — and partly because Jordan, one of the driest countries in the world, cannot afford to both provide water to its population and regenerate the Dead Sea. Jordan, Syria and Israel all draw water from the Sea of Galilee basin that would otherwise be flowing into the Dead Sea. 

The chemical plants, Bedein said, also draw attention to the Dead Sea, which he sees as a positive.

“It’s not about how much water is being pumped out of the Dead Sea, it’s about how much water is coming in,” he said. “It’s very reductive to blame the factories. If you close down all the factories tomorrow, there goes the entire industry in Ein Bokek, and you will have reduced awareness even more.”

The key to saving the Dead Sea, researchers say, is to bring freshwater back into it, or what Bedein terms as “restoring its historical flow.” According to Lensky, bringing freshwater back into the Dead Sea is easier said than done. 

“We have no freshwater in the region and if we wanted to create some, it would come at a high price, environmentally and economically speaking,” he said.

Several projects – planned within the Israeli government and between countries – to mitigate the Dead Sea’s evaporation have been launched, including a proposed plan to construct a canal to replenish the Dead Sea with desalinated water from the Red Sea — called the Red-Dead Canal. That plan, like others, has attracted its fair share of controversy, in part because of the environmental risks it poses both to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea itself.

Bedein is not optimistic about those initiatives. The last meeting of the Knesset committee on saving the Dead Sea, which Bedein attended, took place in 2017. The five rounds of elections Israel has held since 2019, he said, haven’t helped. “The government changes every year or two, this isn’t a priority and there’s simply no one to speak to,” he said. 

In the meantime, Bedein will keep taking passengers out on his boat, and will keep marveling at the new features that come to light as the sea level dips lower.

 “We have the opportunity to explore uncovered landscapes for the first time,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”

The post A boat trip aimed at saving the Dead Sea also explores the marvels revealed by its evaporation appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner




(New York Jewish Week) — For many generations of New Yorkers, eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their Coney Island flagship location is a staple of summer. The iconic hot dog stand just celebrated its 107th season at the city’s iconic beachside destination. 

Nathan’s Famous — which started as a nickel hot dog stand and grew to a franchised business that today has over 350 locations in 12 countries — may be most famous today for its annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It is named for its founder, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jewish immigrant who, along with his wife, Ida, opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916, when he was 19.

“It was his life,” Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who made a 2014 documentary and wrote an accompanying book about his family history, both titled “Famous Nathan,” told the New York Jewish Week

“He had brilliant instincts about running a business — basic ideas which seem simple, but they work well,” Lloyd said. “Which is keeping the price low, having the quality be great, being a stickler, paying people well and caring about the customer.”

On Sept. 24, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous, New York City co-named the corner of the Surf and Stillwell Avenues Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way. 

“Nathan and Ida Handwerker worked together for over 50 years and were part of the few generations who formed the rich Coney Island culture that is now renowned throughout the nation and all over the world,” Lloyd Handwerker’s cousin, William, said at the unveiling event. “It is an honor to celebrate their legacy by memorializing their names on the street corner that houses the original Nathan’s.”

(Lloyd was supposed to give a speech alongside his family, but his father, Sol, died just days before the ceremony.) 

Also present that day was Eric Adams, who at the time was Brooklyn Borough President, and Mark Treyger, the Jewish city council member for District 47, which includes Coney Island. “The corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island is now known as Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way, after the husband and wife team who grew a hot dog food cart into a brand that is known worldwide,” Treyger said at the ceremony. 

“The inspiring story of these two immigrants, who came to this country facing an uncertain future, working hard to create a product that means so much to so many, is what the American Dream is all about,” he added.

Handwerker arrived in the United States from Poland in 1912 and took a job as a delivery boy during the week. On the weekends, he sliced rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island — where he met a waitress who would become his wife. 

By 1916, the couple had saved $300, enough to open their own, competing hot dog restaurant. They used Ida’s secret spice recipe to make their hot dogs, for which they charged 5 cents — half the price of a dog at Feltman’s. 

Considering the low price of the product, customers were skeptical at first, so Handwerker allegedly hired men to wear white coats while eating his hot dogs. The image would lend his business credibility, as customers figured that if doctors were eating the hot dogs, they could, too. 

The business grew steadily over the next half century, with Handwerker working 18-20 hours a day cooking food, selling it and running the business. When the company went public in 1968, Handwerker was elected chairman of the board.

“As a grandfather, he was a very sweet, soft guy. I had no idea what kind of boss he was,” said Lloyd. “It’s different for different people, but I found out he was pretty tough. He was a stickler, and he was clearly a perfectionist about everything — about the quality, about the workers.”

As for Ida Handwerker, in addition to creating the recipe for the hot dogs, she was often in the back kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, garlic and potatoes, Lloyd said. “My grandmother, too, my dad said, was also pretty tough in her own way,” he said. “She worked in the business for many, many years alongside [Nathan], especially in the early days. She was a great grandmother, warm and wonderful. But I guess they both came up hard and tough.”

By the time Nathan Handwerker died in 1974 at 81, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was a household name. Over the years, the hot dog stand became a favorite for celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Regis Philbin. In 1936, the hot dogs were served at a lawn party hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

The Coney Island location was also an essential stop for politicians from City Council members to the president of the United States. “No one can hope to be elected to public office in New York without having his picture taken eating a hot dog at Nathan’s,” former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller once told Handwerker during a campaign visit to Coney Island, according to the New York Times. 

Handwerker retired to Florida in 1972, with his son Murray taking over and expanding the business. Nathan’s first hot dog eating contest was that same year.

Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of ‘Nathan’s’, standing in front of ‘Nathan’s’ restaurant in Coney Island, New York, NY, June 29, 2016. (Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lloyd Handwerker, who was 17 when his grandfather died, began working on his film in the 1980s, and over the course of 30 years he interviewed some 75 friends, family members and associates of Nathan’s Famous. “My grandfather was always telling stories around the dining room table at the holidays and dinners,” he said. “By the time I took a video class and had access to a camera, my grandfather and my grandmother had passed away, but I still thought ‘we should be preserving this history.’”

Though he never worked at Nathan’s Famous, Lloyd, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Long Island, said that he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ office in Coney Island, as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at their house in Florida. “My grandmother cooked amazingly, so I have a lot of great memories of Passover in particular,” he recalled. Lloyd said that though his grandfather grew up traditionally religious in Poland, he didn’t keep many traditional customs by the time he came to the United States. 

And yet, some tenets of Judaism were deeply ingrained in the entrepreneur: Though he didn’t hire a rabbi to certify the kitchen, Handwerker coined the term “kosher-style” for his restaurant, because his hot dogs were made with 100% beef and therefore could be kosher. 

Plus, “the one day that the restaurant was closed out of the whole year was Yom Kippur, so it still obviously meant something to him,” Lloyd said of his grandfather. 

Nathan’s Famous is now owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group. However, the family still owns the original Coney Island building and is the landlord for Nathan’s Famous there.  

“As far as his legacy, he was obviously very proud of what he created,” Lloyd said of Nathan. “He was a pretty humble guy, but look at what he did: He came from starvation in Poland, without an education. He didn’t know how to read or write, he was basically illiterate and he built this institution that  everyone has a story about. It’s amazing.”

The post A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader




(JTA) – The Biden Administration’s new point person for combating book bans at school districts and public libraries across the country is a gay, Jewish progressive activist who has served as a government liaison to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

The appointment of Matt Nosanchuk comes as the thousands of book challenges nationwide have focused on books with LGBTQ as well as Jewish themes, in addition to works about race. Nosanchuk was named a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s civil rights office earlier this month. In that role, he will lead training sessions for schools and libraries on how to deal with book bans — and warn districts that the department believes book bans can violate civil rights laws.

An Education Department official recently told the 74, an education news site, that the bans “are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

“I am excited to return to public service to work on behalf of the American people,” Nosanchuk posted to LinkedIn earlier this month. “There is a lot of important work to do!”

The Education Department declined to make Nosanchuk available for an interview. He has already taken heat from conservative outlets, which have pushed the narrative that the books being removed from schools and libraries are too sexually explicit for children. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News host who served as Donald Trump’s press secretary, called him a “porn enforcer” on-air.

But his appointment has been celebrated by librarians and book access activists. “This is a step forward for the Biden Administration, who has heard the concerns of parents and taken action, but it is just the beginning,” the National Parents Union, a progressive parental education activist group, said in a statement.

Nosanchuk’s career has largely focused on working with the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. In 2009, after serving in a number of roles in Washington, D.C., Nosanchuk was appointed as the Department of Justice’s liaison to the LGBTQ community — a position he held while Obama was still publicly opposed to same-sex marriage. He later worked on the Obama administration’s opposition to a law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

He subsequently served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during Obama’s second term, and in 2020 was the Democratic National Committee’s political organizer for Jewish outreach and LGBTQ engagement. That same year, he cofounded the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive policy group that he led until earlier this year.

Nosanchuk’s first webinar in his new role was held Tuesday in partnership with the American Library Association, an organization with which a number of Republican-led states have recently cut ties. He begins his work after a year that has seen several school districts take aim at books focused on Jewish experiences or the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, a Texas school district fired a middle school teacher reportedly for reading a passage from an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to eighth-grade students. Other schools’ removals of “The Fixer,” a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust and other texts have been likened to Nazi and Stalinist book burnings —  comparisons that proponents of the book restrictions reject.

Democratic politicians, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have accused Republicans of wanting “to ban books on the Holocaust.” A recent Senate hearing on book bans included testimony from Cameron Samuels, a Jewish advocate for access to books, along with numerous references to “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust that was pulled from a Tennessee middle school curriculum last year.

PEN America, a literary free-speech advocacy group, welcomed Nosanchuk’s appointment.

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” the group said in a statement. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”

The post ​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Ohio high school football coach resigns after players use ‘Nazi’ in play calls




(JTA) — A high school football coach in suburban Cleveland has resigned after his team used the word “Nazi” in addition to racial slurs in its play calling during a game on Friday against a team in a heavily Jewish town.

Tim McFarland, the coach of Brooklyn High School in Brooklyn, Ohio, submitted his resignation Monday and apologized via a statement written by the district, the Cleveland Jewish News reported. Local Jewish groups have also reached out to district officials, who have indicated a willingness to work with them.

Brooklyn was playing the team from Beachwood, a suburb with the second-highest rate of Jewish residents in the country.

The offensive play calls were first flagged by Beachwood’s head coach, Scott Fischer, at halftime, the school’s athletic director told parents in an email after the game.

“During my discussion with Coach Fischer at halftime, we agreed that if these actions continued we would pull our team off the field,” wrote the school’s athletic director, Ryan Peters, as reported by the Cleveland Jewish News. Peters said that McFarland admitted to using the “Nazi” play and agreed to change the name of the play for the game’s second half. The mother of a Beachwood cheerleader told the Cleveland Jewish News they couldn’t hear the offensive language in the stands.

The language was also condemned by the mayor and city council of Beachwood.

It was not the first time in recent memory a high school football team employed antisemitic language in its play calling. In 2021 a Boston-area school was found to have used terms including “Auschwitz,” “yarmulke” and “rabbi” in its own plays for at least a decade, part of what an investigation revealed was a long history of antisemitic and homophobic behavior. That school’s football coach was also fired, and the state of Massachusetts soon passed new laws to require genocide education in high schools in response to that and other antisemitic school sports incidents in the state.

In recent months, Jewish high school sporting events in Miami and Los Angeles were home to alleged antisemitic taunts. Both were alleged to have come in response to antagonistic or even racist behavior by Jewish students, according to local reports. Another high school in the Sacramento area is investigating reports that four students made Nazi salutes on social media earlier this month.

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