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Israel at 75: How Israel’s political crisis took center stage at a major American Jewish conference



KIBBUTZ MAAGAN MICHAEL, Israel (JTA) — About a dozen Jewish leaders from North America and beyond clustered at the edges of a courtyard on this kibbutz by Israel’s northern coastline, standing silent as a two-minute siren rang out in memory of the country’s fallen. 

Afterward, young Jews from around the world, some of whom will soon enter the Israeli military, read memorial passages and led the crowd in the singing of Israel’s national anthem. The scene, emblematic of Diaspora support for Israel, delivered the kind of feeling that the Jewish Federations of North America hoped to evoke when it held its marquee conference in Israel this week, and timed it for the country’s Memorial Day and 75th birthday. 

It was also a stark contrast from the atmosphere at the conference a day earlier where — even as Jewish leaders emphasized unity in the face of adversity — it was hard to avoid the political strife over the Israeli government’s effort to significantly limit the Supreme Court’s power. A raucous session in the morning was filled with screaming, and other panels touched on hot-button issues such as Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews as well as human rights groups. 

“We’re also living at a time of so many crises and so much painful brokenness,” Rabbi Marc Baker, CEO of the Boston area’s Jewish federation, said in a short address on Monday afternoon to the conference’s 2,000 attendees, while discussing the importance of Jewish learning. “It can feel like things are falling apart, like at best, as leaders, we’re just trying to hold things together.”

The drama did not exactly surprise organizers of the gathering, called the General Assembly, or GA, who had expected protesters to show up and even encouraged their cause. But it pointed to the challenge facing the Jewish Federations, which had hoped to put on a traditionally exuberant celebration of Israel despite the conflict rocking its streets. 

Those traditional commemorations and festivities did happen, and sessions covered a range of issues, from racial diversity to philanthropy in Israel. But they were mixed in with anguish over the state of Israeli society, which some attendees and panelists portrayed in urgent terms. 

“For the first time, at Israel’s 75th birthday, a government is trying to fundamentally alter the definition of a Jewish state,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said at the tumultuous Monday morning panel, referring to efforts to restrict immigration to Israel and other proposals. 

He added, “If this cluster of changes, the coalition agreements, would be implemented, I’m not sure that in the 80th year of our national birthday, the GA will decide again to conduct its event here.”

The departure from business-as-usual was evident from the get-go, when hundreds of protesters came to the gates of the conference to protest a planned speech on Sunday night by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who canceled in the face of the demonstrations. Israeli President Isaac Herzog did speak that night.

Julie Platt, the Jewish Federations’ board president, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she found out about the cancellation earlier on Sunday. Netanyahu’s office told the staff of the Jewish Federations that day of the cancellation, and the news became public shortly afterward. Netanyahu did not reach out personally to Platt or to Eric Fingerhut, the Jewish Federations’ CEO, to let them know he would not be coming. 

“We were preparing for weeks and months for the opportunity to have here the duly elected prime minister,” Platt said on Monday. “We were disappointed that he wasn’t part of our celebration.”

Tensions peaked on Monday morning during a session where anti-government protesters repeatedly interrupted far-right lawmaker Simcha Rothman with shouts and chants, and in which Rothman and Plesner verbally sparred onstage. Multiple protesters were removed by security personnel, and the panel took an unplanned five-minute break to cool tempers. 

“They’re our brothers, they support us,” said Erez Elach, who protested Rothman at the event, regarding Diaspora Jews. Elach is a member of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a group made up of military reservists opposed to the judicial overhaul.

Elach said he was protesting in order to honor Diaspora Jews who were killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. “We lost friends who served with us, who came from those same places,” he said.

Fingerhut told JTA that the protests of Rothman were “a taste of what’s happening in Israel today,” though he added, “I don’t think anyone benefits from that kind of disruption.”

“As the GA grew closer, we knew that the judicial reform issues and the divisions it’s creating in Israel would necessarily be a significant topic,” he said. “By time we were finalizing our plans, we expected it to be a major issue, and it was.”

But he said that he still felt the conference conveyed the importance of celebrating Israel and its ties to global Jewry. “On Sunday night and Monday, we focused on Israel’s history and our contribution to that history. That was not overshadowed,” he said. The battle over the judicial overhaul, he said, “added an agenda item, but it didn’t detract in any way.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv on April 24, 2023. (Courtesy of JFNA/Amnon Gutman)

Yizhar Hess, the vice chair of the World Zionist Organization, also said on Monday that things were going well — because of the arguments, not despite them. Hess pointed to the three large gatherings of establishment Jewish groups — the General Assembly, the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors’ meeting and the World Zionist Congress — each of which saw fierce debates or disruption stemming from the judicial overhaul fight. 

“This week has been dramatically successful particularly because it’s been so turbulent,” Hess said directly after the session with Rothman. “Zionism and the state of Israel are a subject that stirs up the Jewish people and is at the heart of the argument. That’s a good thing. … Zionism is more relevant than ever, particularly because Jews are fighting over its character.” 

Bucking its usual practice of not commenting on internal Israeli politics, the Jewish Federations has made its position on the overhaul relatively clear. The group issued a statement objecting to one of the overhaul’s provisions, praised a decision to pause the legislation, said it was “awed” by the anti-overhaul protesters and organized a “fly-in” earlier this year, in which federation leaders traveled to Israel to share their concerns about the effort with Israeli officials. 

Deborah Minkoff, an executive board member at the Madison, Wisconsin, Jewish federation, participated in the fly-in and said she had lobbied to exclude all politicians from the General Assembly stage. She attended sessions where anti-overhaul activists spoke and felt that being in Israel for the conference gave her an opportunity to stand with the protesters. 

“I think it’s going to be easier to sell Israel to our community because of this fight for democracy,” she said. “As we articulate what it means to be a free, equitable, democratic society, I think it resonates with the community who has been critical of Israel in the past.”

Attendees gave a warm reception to Yair Lapid, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, whose easy manner suggested that he felt the crowd would be receptive to his words. “I’m happy to be here, unlike some others,” he said to laughter from the audience. 

“Don’t give up on us,” Lapid told the crowd. “I know how many people here feel about this current government. I know it doesn’t represent your values. It doesn’t represent mine either. But this government isn’t all of Israel… Today, maybe more than ever, we need you to rally around us.”

But not everyone at the conference was keen to protest. Beto Guzman, a Jewish professional who came to the conference from Helsinki, said the Finnish Jewish community tends not to protest Israeli policies because, given its small size, its involved members value having a positive relationship with Israeli emissaries in the country and do not want to blame them for the government’s policies. He also objected to protesters disrupting conferences, though he said the issues at the heart of the debate should be discussed.

“In Helsinki we don’t really have any protests or anything like this, because the community is very small and everybody has their own relationship with Israel,” he said. “For us that connection is very different. We really like the people from the Jewish Agency, their emissaries, and the embassy, they are very nice to us. So for us to put what is going on in the government on them would be unfair.”

Sandi Seigel, the president of Naamat Canada, a branch of a global Jewish women’s rights organization, said she was troubled by raucous debate she saw at the World Zionist Congress, which had taken place at the end of the previous week. She particularly worries that young delegates to the congress, one of whom she recalled seeing crying, would leave disheartened by the fighting. 

“It’s almost like people feel it’s an existential threat for Israel, and so you’re passionate,” she said. “But there used to be an ability to have healthy debate and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to agree on this, OK, but I respect your right to have your opinion. And I think some of that is gone.”

At the same time, Seigel does not feel that the General Assembly was too focused on the debate over the judicial overhaul, which she framed in existential terms. 

“If you have something, and you don’t know, if this doesn’t get resolved, [whether] Israel will be Israel anymore, or it won’t be the Israel that I can live in — there are a lot of things to talk about, but if you don’t deal with that, you can’t talk about anything else,” she said. “Because there’s nothing left to talk about.”

The post Israel at 75: How Israel’s political crisis took center stage at a major American Jewish conference appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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