Michele Chabin writes for Religion News Service.
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Israeli Soldier’s Ham Sandwich Nearly Lands Him in Military Prison
A U.S.-born Israeli soldier who brought a ham sandwich to his army base was initially sentenced to 11 days in a military prison before a media frenzy prompted the Israel Defense Forces to drop all disciplinary measures.
In a rare apology, IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz wrote on Facebook: “We were wrong. The IDF will continue to keep kosher on the one hand, but will not probe a soldier’s sandwich on the other. There are tensions in Israeli society and there are different stances and opinions. There is room for everyone in the IDF.”
Why Vatican's Recognition of Palestine Upsets Israeli Government
The Vatican’s decision to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state on May 13 angered Israeli officials.
The move comes four days before the first-ever canonization of two Palestinian nuns and it solidifies the standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Saturday.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel that the government is “disappointed by the decision. We believe that such a decision is not conducive to bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”
Women of the Wall Pluck Torah Scroll Across Partition to Women’s Section
For the first time in its 26-year history, the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall managed to read from a full-sized Torah scroll April 20 after one of its members surreptitiously borrowed one from the Western Wall’s men’s section.
The scroll’s procurement, which was facilitated by the group’s male supporters standing on the other side of a partition, was a bold move by a group that has continuously challenged the ultra-Orthodox establishment’s sole authority over the holy site.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, has long prohibited women from wearing prayer shawls and reading from a Torah. He based his prohibition on a regulation that forbids any religious ceremony “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site and which offends the sensitivities of the worshippers at the place.”
Although a 2013 court ruling confirmed Women of the Wall’s right to pray at the Wall, Rabinowitz has continued to ban anyone from bringing a Torah into either the men’s or women’s section and has placed all 100 of the holy site’s Torahs in the men’s section alone.
Although the group recently smuggled a tiny Torah into the women’s section, “you needed a magnifying glass to read it and we had to return it to its owners in London,” said Anat Hoffman, WOW’s chairwoman.
But on Monday morning, the group’s male supporters held a Torah reading service at the Wall, next to the gender partition. Once their service finished, the men opened an unlocked gate leading to the women’s section and a female WOW activist stepped into the men’s section and picked up the Torah.
Children of Holocaust Survivors More Anxious About Iran Nuclear Threat
As Israelis mark Holocaust Memorial Day on April 15, a study by researchers at Bar-Ilan University has found that the adult children of Holocaust survivors are more fearful than their mainstream peers about the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Given that many studies over the decades have found that children of Holocaust survivors are deeply affected by their parents’ traumatic experiences, Amit Shrira, the study’s author, set out to discover whether these second-generation survivors were more anxious over a potential Iranian bomb than others of their generation. His study was published in Psychological Trauma, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
Shrira compared the feelings of 63 children of Holocaust survivors whose parents lived under a Nazi or pro-Nazi regime to those of 43 children whose parents either fled to unoccupied countries or immigrated to Israel.
The study found that second-generation survivors “exhibit greater preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear threat” than the comparison group.
Four Killed in Jerusalem Synagogue Terror Attack
At least four worshipers, three of them U.S.-born, were killed in an attack on a west Jerusalem synagogue Nov. 18 by two Palestinians wielding a gun, an ax, and a meat cleaver, police said.
The incident was the latest violent event in the tense city where relations between Arabs and Jews have been deteriorating for months over a contested shrine holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said eight people were wounded in the assault, including police officers. Samri said the attackers were Palestinians from east Jerusalem.
One of the victims was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, 59, a native of Massachusetts, according to Haaretz. Aryeh Kupinsky and Kalman Zeev Levine, 43 and 55, respectively, were also U.S.-born. Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, 68, was born in England.
The attack took place in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Nof in the western part of the city. The attackers were shot and killed by police following a shootout. Police were searching the area for other suspects.
The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the BBC.
Yosef Posternak, who was at the synagogue at the time of the attack, told Israel Radio that about 25 worshipers were inside when the attackers entered.
“I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere. People were trying to fight with (the attackers) but they didn’t have much of a chance,” he said.
Petition Requests El Air Airlines Create a Special Seating Section for Ultra-Orthodox Jews
A Chicago woman has launched an online petition asking El Al Airlines to allot a section of its planes to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who do not want to sit next to women.
Sharon Shapiro initiated the petition on Sept. 28, after two instances when several ultra-Orthodox men flying on Israel’s national carrier refused to sit in their assigned seats, which adjoined a seat occupied by a woman. The flights were delayed after female passengers refused to relinquish their assigned seats and the ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit down.
Incidents like these have been going on for years, according to women’s rights advocates.
Gender segregation is a core precept in ultra-Orthodox society, which believes that contact between unrelated men and women is strictly forbidden by Jewish law.
In Israel, attempts by some ultra-Orthodox men to impose gender segregation in public spaces such as offices, public buses and even streets in certain neighborhoods have prompted legal action by groups opposed to what they view as religious coercion.
In Israel, Biblical Land-Use Laws Call for Creative Workarounds
On Oct. 3, when Israeli Jews sit down for their pre-Yom Kippur meal, prior to the Day of Atonement fast, many will be discussing where to buy their produce during this agricultural sabbatical year.
That’s because this Jewish New Year, 5775, is a sabbatical year, when, according to the Bible, the land of Israel is supposed to lie fallow. Called a “shmita” year in Hebrew, the sabbatical is intended to allow the poor to reap whatever may still be growing on the land “so that the poor of your people may eat,” Exodus 23:11.
The start of the sabbatical-year prohibitions, which include sowing, planting, pruning, reaping, harvesting and improving the land, coincided with the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that began this year on Sept. 24. Produce planted before the shmita can be harvested this year.
But people have to eat, so a century ago rabbis found a way to bypass the law so no one goes hungry.
At Christmas, Rare Collaboration to Restore an Ancient Church
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Two weeks before Christmas, one of the most powerful storms to hit the Middle East in a century dumped several inches of snow on the hills of Bethlehem.
In addition to shuttering schools and businesses, the storm caused runoff to trickle down the walls of the Church of the Nativity, built above the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Fortunately, the water damage was relatively minor, church officials say, thanks to a rare cooperative venture already underway to repair the basilica’s roof, leaky windows and old wooden beams, some 1,500 years old.
“There were still leaks, but thanks to the scaffolding that was erected for the restoration work, the damage was controlled,” said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custodian of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic Church.
In what some are calling the biggest miracle in Bethlehem since the birth of Jesus, the three churches that share responsibility for the Nativity church put aside centuries of tense relations this past year to ensure the job gets done.
'Lost Faces of the Bible' Reconstructs Four Skeletal Remains Using Science, Forensics
Many artistic renderings of biblical figures hang in churches and museums, but no one really knows what they and their contemporaries looked like.
Now, an international team of archeologists, forensic anthropologists, and facial reconstruction experts has tried to answer this question by recreating the faces of three adults and a newborn whose skeletal remains date back to biblical times.
A new four-part TV series, Lost Faces of the Bible (airing on the National Geographic Channel beginning Monday), follows the experts as they recreate long-gone faces utilizing the same state-of-the art technology used by police investigators.
Jewish Feminists Say They’d Accept Western Wall Prayer Compromise
JERUSALEM — In a stunning reversal, a feminist Jewish prayer group said it will consider a government proposal to allow a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall — but only after the government agrees to their conditions.
For 25 years, Women of the Wall has demanded access to pray at the sacred site that is home to the remnants of the Jewish Temple and is overseen by the Orthodox religious establishment. The group objects to the restrictions placed on them when they pray in the women’s section. They want to continue to pray in that section but will consider a compromise.
After a “comprehensive and emotionally trying decision-making process,” the group’s executive board on Monday overwhelmingly decided “to create a future in which, under the right conditions,” its members will pray “in an equal and fully integrated third section of the Kotel,” the Hebrew word for the Western Wall.
Women of the Wall has demanded the right to pray directly from a Torah scroll, wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries — practices and rituals that strict Orthodox Judaism reserves for men.
Feminists Call Temporary Western Wall Prayer Platform a ‘Sundeck'
One week after unveiling an expanded prayer platform near the Western Wall, Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs reached out to Reform and Conservative Jews in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday evening.
But while the non-Orthodox leaders welcomed the new platform that can accommodate up to 450 worshippers, a group of Jewish feminists called it nothing more than “a sun deck” designed to marginalize anyone who is not Ultra-Orthodox from praying at the Wall.
In Israel, Orthodox Men Demand Beard-Friendly Gas Masks
Fearful that Syria might retaliate against Israel if the U.S. launches a military strike, Orthodox Jews and others are demanding the Israeli government distribute gas masks that will fit over their beards.
In recent days, as Orthodox Jews and other bearded men have gone to distribution centers to retrieve their protective hood-like gas masks, they learned the government has only a limited supply, earmarked solely for the elderly and people with breathing problems.
Demand for protective hoods — as well as standard-issue gas masks — has soared since the U.S. administration confirmed that Syrian civilians were killed last week by chemical weapons.
Beauty and Pain Take Center Stage in Holocaust Pageant
The 18 beauty pageant finalists on stage at Haifa’s basketball stadium wear lovely gowns, their jewelry glitters, and their hair is thick with hairspray.
Unlike typical beauty contestants, the Israeli women standing before a crowd of 2,000 are ages 70 to 94. And all of them experienced the Holocaust.
Prominent American Jews Embrace Kerry Peace Talks
More than 100 prominent Jewish Americans with varying religious and political viewpoints have thrown their support behind the Israeli government’s decision to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the 140 signatories — including former Sen. Joseph Lieberman; professor Alan Dershowitz; philanthropist Charles Bronfman; and Republican Jewish Coalition board member Morris W. Offit — said they appreciated the risks the government is taking to achieve peace.
While not everyone in the American Jewish community supports territorial compromise with the Palestinians, the letter represents a fairly broad consensus that Israel must take some risks to reach a peace deal.
Thousands of Athletes to Compete in “Jewish Olympics”
More than 1,100 American Jewish athletes will be competing in the Maccabiah Games, known as the “Jewish Olympics” and held in Israel once every four years.
This year’s event, which begins July 18, brings together more than 9,000 athletes from 77 countries to compete in 38 sporting events. The American contingent is the largest visiting delegation.
The Maccabiah attracts well-known and lesser-known athletes. This year’s participants include swimmers Garrett Weber-Gale, who won gold medals in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and Mirjam de Koning-Peper, one of three medal winners in the London 2012 Paralympics.
Jewish Federations Support Egalitarian Space at Western Wall
The Jewish Federations of North America announced Monday that its trustees had passed a resolution in favor of a nonsegregated place where men and women can pray and read from the Torah at the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site.
Worshippers at the Western Wall now have two options: separate men’s and women’s sections, both under the auspices of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, an Orthodox institution.
The egalitarian plan will allow the Western Wall to “become a spiritual center for all Jews and a symbol of unity for the entire Jewish community world-wide,” the federation statement said.
Religious Leaders Push for Kidnapped Bishops’ Release
JERUSALEM — Religious leaders from around the world have stepped up their pleas for the safe return of two Syrian bishops who were kidnapped April 22 by armed men as they were driving near the war-torn city of Aleppo.
The kidnappers, who have not been identified, abducted Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Youhanna Ibrahim, both of Aleppo, while they were undertaking a “humanitarian mission” to help Syria’s Christian minority, according to Syrian Christian expatriates in the U.S.
The bishops’ Syrian Orthodox driver was killed in the attack.
Since 2011, more than 70,000 Syrians have died in fighting in the bloody civil war between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking to oust Assad’s strong-arm regime.
Jerusalem Court Upholds Women’s Prayer Rights at Western Wall
JERUSALEM — Women who want to wear prayer shawls while praying in the women’s section of the Western Wall are not breaking the law, according to a landmark decision handed down Thursday by the Jerusalem District Court.
Israeli police arrested five women on April 11 who were dressed in prayer shawls while praying with Women of the Wall, an activist group that prays at Judaism’s most sacred site once a month.
Immediately following those arrests, a lower court judge ruled that the women had not violated “local custom,” a legal concept intended to keep the fragile peace at holy sites. The Western Wall is a remnant of the Second Temple that was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.
Tensions Flare Over Women’s Prayers at Sacred Western Wall
JERUSALEM — The ultra-Orthodox rabbi in charge of the sacred Western Wall assured a government emissary on Thursday that Jewish women will not be arrested if they try to recite the mourner’s prayer at the holy site, despite a warning from Israeli police.
Tensions have grown between traditional Jews and reform-minded women over prayers at the Western Wall, which contains the remains of the Temple that was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tapped Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, with defusing the conflict and ensuring “that every Jew in the world can pray in the manner that they are accustomed to at Judaism’s most important national and religious site,” according to a statement issued by the Jewish Agency.
New York City Sues Orthodox Shops Over Dress Codes
The New York City Commissionon Human Rights is suing ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners in Brooklyn because they posted signs calling on customers to dress modestly in their stores.
The commission said the owners, whose businesses are located in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, violated human rights law with signs that read: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews practice a strict form of Judaism; men, women and older children are expected to wear clothes that cover their arms, legs and necklines.