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US rabbinical students, in Israel for the year, weigh whether to stay and how to help

(JTA) — Wade Melnick understood that something was truly amiss when he saw a car driving through the haredi Orthodox Israeli town where he was spending Shabbat.

A rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a Conservative rabbinical school, Melnick and his wife had traveled from Jerusalem to Elad, an Orthodox town about 45 minutes northwest, to celebrate the Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret holiday. Their host returned from synagogue alarmed that some of the Orthodox men there were carrying phones and checking their messages — an act prohibited on the holiday except when needed to save a life.

Then the car drove down the town’s streets — another practice prohibited on Shabbat and Jewish festivals. It carried a local leader who broadcast a message instructing everyone to stay indoors. Soon afterward, sirens started blaring. At one point, the ground shook when a rocket landed a few kilometers away.

It wasn’t until after the sun set that Melnick, his wife and their host understood the scope of the crisis: Hamas had invaded Israel, killing hundreds, wounding thousands and taking a then-unknown number of people hostage, including women and children. A massive military mobilization was underway.

“We were scared,” Melnick recalled on Sunday. “It was scary — and we’re thinking about making plans to come home.”

Melnick is one of dozens of American rabbinical students in Israel for the school year, which is only just getting underway. Some, like Melnick, are looking to leave, or to send their family members home to safety. Others are stranded abroad, unsure of where they will learn this semester. And still others say they are undeterred and intend to carry on with their classes — pledging to volunteer to support the Israeli crisis response and war effort in addition to their study.

Noa Rubin, another student at JTS, which is located in New York City, spent the summer in a chaplaincy training program at a Bronx hospital. So when she heard that Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem was looking for people with mental health care training to work with people traumatized by the attack, she offered herself up.

“I’m not a professional professional,” she said. “But I thought I had some of the skills, and I’m trying to do whatever I can. It keeps me productive to feel as helpful as I can be.”

So far, Rubin hasn’t gotten any requests for counseling. Instead, with the start of classes delayed until Oct. 22, she’s turned her attention to raising funds to buy supplies and protective gear for soldiers who are heading into what could be a long and brutal war. She said she doesn’t plan to leave Israel.

“Unless my classes are exclusively online or Israel told me it was a good idea to leave, my intention is to stick around here,” she said. “I think it’s an important show of solidarity.”

Shayna Dollinger, a second-year student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, a Reform seminary, is not able to decide whether or not to attend classes in Jerusalem. She was on vacation in Vienna when Hamas attacked, and her flight back to Israel was canceled.

So she flew to Munich and then to Porto, Portugal, where she spent the night before boarding a bus to Vigo, Spain, a coastal city where she had friends. She’s currently booked to return to California on Thursday but said she would finalize her plans on Wednesday when HUC updates students about planning for classes.

Two other students are stranded abroad, Dollinger said, while 20 are still in Israel — though messages on a class WhatsApp group suggested that not all would remain there. “A third would like to leave and are actively trying to leave,” she said. “The rest either think it’s safer to shelter in place or they want to stay to be part of the effort.”

Dollinger said she had been impressed by HUC’s planning for emergencies. The school had created a group chat for use in emergencies only — it had been used once before, after a shooting attack in Tel Aviv in August — and quickly asked the students to check in there.

“The communication has been amazing from the minute it started,” she said, adding that she thought the school was being “very accommodating” of students like her who expected to attend courses via Zoom instead of in person.

Jacob Kaplan-Lipkin, a student at JTS, said he had been surprised by how unprepared he felt for the crisis. When the sirens went off on Saturday morning, his first thought was that there was a fire alarm, or that Israel was testing an alert system the way the U.S. government did last week. And when he realized that it wasn’t a drill, he wasn’t sure what to do.

“Our building had a shelter, but no one had really taken seriously the possibility that we would need to use it anytime soon,” he said of his Jerusalem apartment building. “We didn’t really know where it was. We ran down the stairs, and we saw that there was a shelter but it was locked and no one could get in. … So we huddled in the corridor. It was my first time meeting many of my neighbors.”

Some residents of the building in the Baka neighborhood used their phones on Shabbat and holidays, and revealed the grim details of the attack as they became available. One resident was an older woman who said she was having flashbacks to the start of the Yom Kippur War, exactly 50 years earlier, Kaplan-Lipkin recalled. Then, as now, Israel was struck by surprise during a holiday.

“Everyone was absolutely stunned and said they didn’t think this was possible,” he said. “We were hearing from all these residents that this was brand new to them. It was an extraordinary contrast from the night before when we had been dancing in the streets with the Torah.”

On Sunday, Kaplan-Lipkin said, he joined classmates in dropping off toiletries and other supplies for soldiers and people displaced from the border towns that had been attacked.

“I felt viscerally the discomfort of sitting around while I was watching people leave in uniform,” he said. “I wish I had the ability to do much more, but there is an overwhelming feeling of doing what we can and of wanting to stick together.”

As a Hebrew College student who is also pursuing a Jewish day school teaching certificate through Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute, Willemina Davidson is in the unusual position of being in their second year in Israel. They said they had opened their apartment to classmates who didn’t have safe rooms in their own homes and was looking for other ways to be helpful — all while their friends and family in the Midwest keep a watchful eye on them.

“My family and friends in the U.S. are just concerned for me and for other people they know,” Davidson said. “They also know that I am less likely to stay still, so they’re hoping I will be smart about this.”

Like many U.S. rabbinical students, Davidson has become involved in efforts to build bridges with Palestinians in the West Bank. They said they expected that even though the attack represented a major challenge, they would still seek to protect Palestinian farmers whose land and harvests sometimes come under attack from Jewish settlers.

“Many of us still plan on helping with the olive harvest. I think an extra level of precaution will need to be taken,” Davidson said. “It’s a volatile time, but people will continue to do their solidarity work and help each other.”

For Melnick and his wife, Devorah Mehlman, it’s hard to contemplate adding to the aid effort given the uncertainty about their own futures. They’d like to leave the country, but flights are hard to come by. And even if they can get on one, it’s not clear where they could go — they rented out their New York City apartment for the school year. They could stay with parents in Georgia, but it wasn’t clear on Sunday whether they could attend classes on Zoom moving forward.

“I’m not someone who was very afraid to come. I was really looking forward to coming and staying here,” Melnick said. “But no year in Israel is worth this much heartache.”

He added, “It sounds like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And we just don’t want to be here for it.”

The post US rabbinical students, in Israel for the year, weigh whether to stay and how to help appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities

An American flag waves outside the US Department of Justice Building in Washington, US, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

US federal authorities have charged, and a grand jury has indicted, a foreign national with planning a mass casualty attack against Jews and other minorities in New York on New Year’s Eve.

The United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York reported that a grand jury indicted Georgian national Michail Chkhikvishvili with soliciting hate crimes and acts of mass violence.

Chkhikvishvili is reportedly the leader of a group called the “Maniac Murder Cult,” a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group.

Specifically, he was recruiting people to carry out arson and bombing attacks — as well as attacks aimed at Jewish and other minority children, according to US officials.

The US Attorney’s Office explained that the “planned New Year’s Eve attack involved Santa Claus handing out poisoned candy to racial minorities as well as distributing poisoned candy to Jewish children in Brooklyn.”

There were more than 450,000 Jews who lived in Brooklyn as of May 2024. Many neighborhoods are known to be predominantly Hasidic.

Authorities found out about the plot when Chkhikvishvili solicited an undercover law enforcement official to be involved in the attack.

He “sought to recruit others to commit violent attacks and killings in furtherance of his Neo-Nazi ideologies,” US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace said in a statement. “We will not hesitate to find and prosecute those who threaten the safety and freedoms of all members of our community, including members of minority communities, no matter where in the world these criminals might be hiding.”

FBI New York Acting Assistant Director Christie Curtis lauded law enforcement for stopping the attack before it could ever take place.

“The swift disruption of this individual, accused of allegedly plotting violent attacks in New York, sends a clear message: we will use every resource in our power to ensure the safety of the American people,” she said. “The men and women who work on this task force day in and day out exemplify true service to our community, demonstrating unwavering commitment in thwarting those who seek to harm our citizens and our way of life.”

The plot comes amid a wave of antisemitic attacks that ramped up in America and around the world after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, amid the ensuing war in Gaza.

Earlier this month, an observant Jew was sucker punched and beaten in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. The alleged attacker subsequently expressed his motive, saying “They’re [the Jews] the cause of all our wars,” and “We know who you are! We know the lies that you’ve told, that you have stolen the place of the true children of Israel.”

He was charged with assault and a hate crime.

In December, the FBI said there had been a 60 percent spike in antisemitic hate crime investigations since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Then, in April, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the probes into antisemitic crimes tripled in the months following Oct. 7.

“Between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30 of this year, we opened over three times more anti-Jewish hate crime investigations than in the four months before Oct. 7,” he explained.

Last year, the FBI found that 63 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were directed against Jews.

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RNC Spotlights Campus Antisemitism as Elise Stefanik Teases ‘Bombshell’ Findings From US Congressional Probe

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled ‘Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

US lawmakers are preparing to release later this year a trove of new “bombshell” information revealing the extent to which antisemitism has been allowed to flourish on university campuses across the country, according to a high-ranking Republican.

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) spoke with political pundit and podcast host Megyn Kelly about the efforts of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to investigate surging antisemitism, including anti-Jewish bias, on college campuses. While reminiscing over last December’s congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in which each campus leader proclaimed that calls for a genocide of Jews may not violate school rules depending on “the context” — Stefanik revealed that the committee has obtained new documents shedding light on anti-Jewish hate at elite universities.

“This is pervasive in higher-ed. We have worked on this investigation, and if you think the hearing was bad, Megyn, we’re going to have to talk about all the documents that have been turned over because of our subpoena,” Stefanik said. “We’ll put out a report later this year. That’s even more bombshell material in there. It’s a disgrace what’s happening at these universities.”

Antisemitism has exploded at universities since the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, amid the ensuing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Over the past several months, the committee has rigorously investigated antisemitism at America’s most prestigious universities. The panel recently unearthed and exposed text message exchanges between Columbia University deans which revealed the campus leaders mocking Jewish students as “privileged.” The lawmakers also alleged, based on their investigation, that Harvard University has engaged in a “pattern of inaction” in response to campus antisemitism.

Stefanik spoke to Kelly at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Republicans are gathering this week to nominate their 2024 presidential candidate. The issue of campus antisemitism has been a key issue highlighted at the RNC.

On Wednesday night, Shabbos Kestenbaum, a recent Harvard graduate suing his alma mater over its alleged failure to protect Jewish students, took the RNC main stage and delivered an impassioned speech on campus antisemitism. Kestenbaum said that the surge of unchecked antisemitism on Harvard’s campus in the months following Oct. 7 left him disillusioned with progressives, prompting his move to the political right. 

“After Oct. 7, the world finally saw what I and so many Jewish students across this country experienced almost every day,” he told the RNC crowd. 

“My problem with Harvard is not its liberalism, but its illiberalism. Too often, students at Harvard are taught not how to think, but what to think. I found myself immersed in a culture that is anti-Western, that is anti American, and that is antisemitic,” Kestenbaum said. 

Kestenbaum implored the crowd to support the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

“Sadly the far-left wing tide of antisemitism is rising,” Kestenbaum said. “But tonight, tonight we fight back. I am proud to support President Trump’s policies to expel foreign students who violate our laws, harass our Jewish classmates, and desecrate our freedoms … let’s elect a president who recognizes that although Harvard and the Ivy Leagues have long abandoned the United States of America, the Jewish people never will.”

Anti-Israel protests have ravaged college campuses across the United States in the months following Oct. 7. Students at prominent universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT have participated in demonstrations chanting slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!” Progressive student organizations have also openly banned “Zionists,” forcing Jewish students to choose between supporting Israel and maintaining their social network. Campus demonstrators have also openly cheered Hamas and in some cases threatened or committed violence against Jewish students.

Jewish donors and alumni have condemned university administrators over their unwillingness to shut down demonstrations. As a result, many of them have pulled funding and vowed not to allow their children to enroll at their alma maters.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots NFL team, has ceased donating to Columbia University, citing “virulent hate” against Jews on campus.  Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania. The MIT Jewish Alumni Alliance urged Jewish graduates and allies to protest campus antisemitism by lowering their annual donation amount to $1.

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Pro-Israel Group Calls on US Justice Department to Apply ‘KKK Laws’ to Pro-Hamas Demonstrations

Pro-Hamas demonstrators at Columbia University in New York City, US, April 29, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

StandWithUs (SWU), a Jewish civil rights group based in California, is imploring the US Justice Department to crack down on masked protests at Columbia University by enforcing legal statues which are widely referred to as the “KKK Laws,” citing a hostile environment at the school in which pro-Hamas demonstrators who have harassed and assaulted Jewish students continuously evade justice by concealing their identities.

Dating back to the administration of former US President Ulysses S. Grant, the so-called “KKK Laws” empower the federal government to prosecute those who engage in activities which violate the civil rights of protected groups, as the Ku Klux Klan did across the US South during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting and living as free citizens. StandWithUs alleges that five anti-Zionist groups — most notably Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — currently operating on Columbia University’s campus have perpetrated similar abuses in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which guarantees all students, regardless of race or ethnic background, has the right to a safe learning environment.

The most obvious parallel between their conduct and the KKK’s, StandWithUs noted, is an inveterate shrouding of their members’ faces with masks and keffiyehs, the traditional headscarf worn by Palestinians that has become known as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Images and footage of the practice have been widely circulated online, and it has rendered identifying the protesters — many of whom have chanted antisemitic slogans, vandalized school property, and threatened to harm Jewish students and faculty during a weeks-long demonstration between April and May — virtually impossible.

Additionally, the groups — which also include Within Our Lifetime (WOL), Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Columbia University Apartheid, Columbia School of Social Work 4 Palestine (CSSW4P), and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FJP) — have proclaimed their intention to purge Columbia’s campus of Zionists, a category which includes an overwhelming majority of Jews in the US and around the world. Their rhetoric, StandWithUs added, is unlike any uttered in the US since demonstrations against school integration in the 1950s.

“We hope the Department of Justice (DOJ) will take this opportunity to restore justice on Columbia University’s campuses and hold bad actors responsible for violating federal laws,” Yael Lerman, director of the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, said on Wednesday. “Columbia President Shafik’s concession that Columbia is a hostile environment for Jewish students in violation of Title VI reflects a critical need for the current administration to take decisive action at Columbia.”

Lerman added, “We urge the DOJ to investigate the school’s failure to prevent groups and individuals on its campus from joining forces and depriving Jewish students of their civil rights, a failure that runs afoul of the KKK laws.”

SWU’s letter — sent to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department on Wednesday — comes amid an ongoing lawsuit the organization’s Legal Center for Justice (SCLJ) filed against Columbia University in February over its alleged failure to prevent and respond to an explosion of anti-Jewish hate incidents which have occurred on the campus since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, an event the protesters cheered and defended as an act of decolonization inspired by the ideas of far-left political philosophers such as Frantz Fanon.

SWU amended its complaint against Columbia in June, adding 45 students as plaintiffs and over “230 pages of allegations.” Meanwhile, the accusations which surfaced following the group’s first filing have already stained Columbia’s reputation.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews,” “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” Columbia protesters chanted on campus grounds after Oct. 7, violating the school’s code of conduct but never facing consequences for doing so, the complaint alleges. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

The protesters later reinforced their rhetoric with violence, the complaint adds. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another allegedly attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen. Following the incidents, pleas for help went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held its demonstrations.

The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were purportedly forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events while no one explained the inconsistency.

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, who took office in July 2023, recently attempted to assuage concerns that Columbia has become a sanctuary for antisemites after it was revealed that five high-level administrators participated in a group-chat in which ideas that “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes” were exchanged. She fired none of the administrators, however, which has led to calls for her to resign from office.

“We will launch a vigorous program of antisemitism and antidiscrimination [sic] training for faculty and staff this fall, with related training for students under the auspices of university life,” Shafik said in statement. “Columbia’s leadership team recognizes this as an important moment to implement changes that will build a stronger institution as a result. I know that you all share this commitment.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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