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Jewish groups remember Sharon as a warrior and peacemaker

(JTA)—Jewish organizations in the United States and around the world remembered the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a military leader and a fighter for peace.

“His legacy is a more secure State of Israel, safe on its borders and resolved to put an end to the campaign of Palestinian terrorism once and for all,” Barry Curtiss-Lusher and Abraham Foxman, the national chair and the national director, respectively, of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “It is not only Israel, but the Jewish people, the U.S., and the international community who have lost a towering figure who offered hope to his people and the region.”

Sharon died Saturday at 85 after eight years in a coma following a massive stroke.

Josh Block, president of The Israel Project, called Sharon an “embodiment of the Jewish state and a heroic protector of her people who will be remembered not only for his strength, but for his courage in pursuit of peace. Sharon’s contributions to bolstering the U.S.-Israel relationship made both nations safer, and kindled the bonds of democracy, liberty, and shared values that we care so much about.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council in a statement called Sharon “a true defender of Israel.”

J Street, the left-wing pro-Israel advocacy organization, said in a statement that “Sharon deserves credit for the intellectual journey he took during his life and for having the courage to lead. His incapacitation, when at the height of his powers, leaves the challenge of making peace to be fulfilled by his successors, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now, said, “Israelis today are saying farewell to a bold leader who toward the end of his political career was transformed from a staunch hawk who initiated war and provocative belligerent actions to a leader who recognized that Israel’s strategic interests lie in an agreement with the Palestinians.”

She added: “As the sister organization of Israel’s peace movement, Peace Now, we can only hope that Sharon’s pledge would serve as inspiration for the current and future leaders of Israel.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement that Sharon “will be remembered as a true friend of The Jewish Agency, as a military man, a leader of Israel, a statesman, and a genuine partner of world Jewry.” He said Sharon “invested tremendous effort in strengthening Jewish identity, increasing aliyah (immigration to Israel), and combating anti-Semitism around the world.”

Sharon was a “fighter for his country in times of war and a fighter for peace,” said Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in a statement.

The Jewish Federations of North America in its statement from Chairman Michael Siegal and President Jerry Silverman said, “Ariel Sharon was a highly regarded military leader, but he was also a peacemaker. One of the country’s most daring and celebrated generals, he was also a man who was able to take bold steps in the hopes of achieving peace.”

Biden-led U.S. delegation to Sharon funeral leaves for Israel

(JTA)—The U.S. delegation to the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, led by Vice President Joe Biden, left for Israel.

The delegation that left Sunday from Andrews Air Force Base also includes U.S. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), along with Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel.

Daniel Shapiro, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, also part of the delegation, already is in Israel.

The funeral service, which will be open to the public, is set for Monday morning. The burial at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev will be held at 2 p.m., and will include only family members and close friends.

Engel goes to bat for Rabbi Avi Weiss in letter to Netanyahu

(JTA)—The New York congressman who represents Rabbi Avi Weiss expressed his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Jewish status letters written by the rabbi.

Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to Netanyahu dated Jan. 10, “This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbi Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel, and I fear may ultimately lead to the wholesale prohibition on community rabbis in the Diaspora from participating in the religious life of Jewish people in Israel.”

Weiss not only lives in Engel’s congressional district but the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale that Weiss led for nearly 40 years and the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school he founded are located there.

Late last year, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel rejected a letter vouching for the Jewishness of an American couple marrying in Israel written by Weiss, as well as the letters of at least 10 rabbis in other cases.

A letter vouching for a couple’s Jewishness and singlehood has been required for decades from couples wishing to marry in Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate decided several years ago that it would no longer automatically recognize conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, and agreed to accept those of a limited number of approved rabbinical courts, or batei din.

Engel said he is concerned that the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to reject Weiss’ letter “is simply the latest instance of the broader marginalization of the many diverse streams of Judaism in Israel.  If Rabbi Weiss’ credentials are rejected—an Orthodox leader with decades of experience—what does that portend for other strands of American Judaism?”

Engel left for Israel Sunday as part of Vice President Joe Biden’s delegation to the funeral for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Iran signs on to pact implementing nuclear freeze

(JTA)—Iran and six world powers signed the agreement implementing a plan that temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear production.

The Joint Plan of Action, which was finalized and approved on Sunday, will go into effect on Jan. 20.

Under the agreement, which was completed in November, Iran will freeze most of its nuclear enrichment capability, including not installing or starting up additional centrifuges or using next-generation centrifuges.

In return, the United States and five other world powers—Germany, Russia, England, France and China—will provide Iran with economic sanctions relief. Iran also will allow new and more frequent inspections of its nuclear sites.

“Taken together, these and other steps will advance our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said in a statement released Sunday by the White House.

The statement said the focus will turn to what Obama called “the critical work of pursuing a comprehensive resolution that addresses our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.”

“I have no illusions about how hard it will be to achieve this objective, but for the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said.

Obama reaffirms commitment to Israel in Sharon message

WASHINGTON (JTA)—President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s security in his condolence message on the death of Ariel Sharon.

“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel,” Obama said Saturday morning within hours of the announcement of the death of Sharon at 85.

“We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples,” the statement said. “We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country.”

Recent months have seen tensions flare between the governments of Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and how to advance peace talks with the Palestinians.

Sharon left office in 2006 after a stroke, months after he orchestrated Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a policy that led Netanyahu to leave the government at the time.

Ancient water tunnel discovered in eastern Jerusalem

(JTA)—Jerusalem tour guides discovered what they believe is a water tunnel from biblical times.

Running 740 feet, the tunnel was discovered several weeks ago during an excursion organized by the Etzion Field School, according to a report last Friday in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.

Yaron Rosenthal, who runs the school for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, said instructors chanced upon the tunnel just east of the security barrier which separates Israel from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. Rosenthal estimated the structure predated 586 B.C. He said the tunnel is one of the longest tunnels in the Holy Land used to transport spring water.

He said that markings, stairs and aesthetic relief carved into the stone suggested that the tunnel belonged to a Judaean king.

“We entered a 15-foot shaft through a very narrow entrance and headed eastward underground,” Rosenthal recalled. “We were amazed at the beauty of the structure we were in, whose corridor is built from huge slabs of more than a cubic yard. At the end of this construction, a simpler path begins and a neat staircase leads to that part.”

The tunnel’s ceiling varies between 5 and 9 feet and it is 2 to 3 feet wide, he said. The tunnel is within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, according to Ma’ariv.

The Israel Antiquities Authority conducted preliminary checks in the region three years ago but decided not to excavate, according to Ma’ariv.

Israel publishes new tenders for settlement construction

(JTA)—Israel published tenders for 600 new homes in eastern Jerusalem and 801 in West Bank settlements.

Government officials delayed the announcement until U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had ended his latest peace-brokering tour in the region, Army Radio reported.

European leaders and the United States had urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to move forward at all with new building, saying it would impede the peace process.

Some 600 units will be in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo near Ramot, Har HaHotzvim and Shuafat neighborhoods, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The announcement in March 2010 of of plans for the Ramat Shlomo homes during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden led to a period of tension between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid said his party “will do everything to make sure these plans stay a bad and unrealized idea,” according to Army Radio. He added, “These are not building tenders but empty building statements.”

The Ministry of Construction and Housing also published tenders for 801 new homes in West Bank settlements, including 227 units in Efrat, 78 in Alfei Menashe, 86 in Karnei Shomron, 40 in Ariel, 75 in Geva Binyamin (Adam), 24 in Beitar Illit, 102 in Emmanuel and 169 in Eliana.

The ministry also republished tenders for 532 homes in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev (182), Ramot (294) and Neveh Yaakov (56).

Sam Berns, a public face of rare aging disease, dies at 17

BOSTON (JTA)—A Boston-area Jewish teen whose fight against a rare genetic disease that causes accelerated aging was chronicled in an Academy Award-contending documentary has died.

Sam Berns of Foxborough, Mass., died Friday after a lifelong battle with progeria. He was 17, three years older than the typical life expectancy for children with the disease.

Sam came into the public eye through the documentary film “Life According to Sam,” which was broadcast last October on HBO. The film is on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination. It was voted best documentary at the 2013 Boston Jewish Film Festival and has been screened at Jewish film festivals across the country.

Robert Kraft, a philanthropist who supports numerous Jewish causes and is owner of the New England Patriots, took a personal interest in Sam, an avid sports fan who was scheduled to serve as honorary captain at Saturday night’s New England Patriots playoff game. Instead, a moment of silence was held in his memory.

“I loved Sam Berns and am richer for having known him,” Kraft said in a statement. “He was a special young man whose inspirational story and positive outlook on life touched my heart.”

In October, prior to the HBO broadcast, Kraft made a $500,000 matching donation to the Progeria Research Foundation to further its hunt for treatment and a cure. The foundation was started in 1999 by Sam’s parents, Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns, both doctors, after Sam, then a toddler, was diagnosed with the condition.

The foundation’s research team made quick progress in isolating the gene that causes the condition and has since developed a drug treatment that has prolonged the lives of children such as Sam.

Last month, Sam was featured at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk—a global set of conferences owned by the private nonprofit Sapling Foundation—speaking on “My Philosophy for a Happy Life.”

“Even though there are many obstacles in my life, I don’t want people to feel bad for me,” he said there.

It was a sentiment that ran through his life, according to those who knew him.

Rabbi Harold Kushner lost his son Aaron to progenia, prompting him to write the bestselling book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

In a statement confirming Sam’s death last Friday, the Progeria Foundation wrote, “The entire PRF community mourns the loss of this remarkable young man who not only inspired PRF’s creation, but also touched millions of people worldwide.”

Condolence messages and words of admiration for Sam are filling social media sites.

Resolution critical of Israel passes preliminary Modern Language Association vote

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Delegates to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention upheld a resolution accusing Israel of keeping Palestinian academics from entering the West Bank, but rejected another expressing solidarity with academics that boycott Israel.

After an hour or so of acrimonious debate in Chicago on Saturday, the MLA’s delegate assembly in a 60-53 vote approved a resolution calling on the U.S. State Department to “contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

The resolution goes to the MLA’s executive committee for consideration next month. If approved by the executive committee, the measure goes to the full membership.

Another resolution referred to a vote last month by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities and its aftermath in which more than 180 American universities have rejected any such boycott.

The resolution, which was defeated, 59-41, “condemns the attacks on the ASA and supports the right of academic organizations and individuals, free from intimidation, to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.”

The resolution did not specify what intimidation the ASA had suffered as a result of its vote.

“Academic freedom guarantees the right of academics to debate issues with passion,” said Geri Palast, the director of the Israel Action Network, which helped lead pro-Israel activities around the conference. “Statements made in the public sphere attracting public debate and controversy is not the equivalent of attacks and intimidation.”

The MLA convention this year featured, among about 800 events, a panel of scholars who favor the boycott. Another panel opposing the boycott, convened too late to be included in the official program, was held in a nearby hotel.

The Israel Action Network and the Israel on Campus Coalition organized the pro-Israel panel.

 

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