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Weekly roundup of world briefs


March 27, 2020

Work to secure Western Wall stones in egalitarian area completed

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Work to secure stones in the egalitarian section of the Western Wall has been completed.

The work came after a 400-pound stone dislodged from Robinson’s Arch in July 2018 and crashed down on one of the platforms designated for mixed prayer.

A lone worshipper was praying at the site, at the southern end of the wall, when the stone fell. Daniella Goldberg, 79, was shaken up but not injured.

Israeli archaeologist Zachi Dvira said at the time that the 2,000-year-old wall was badly in need of restoration, and that its massive limestone blocks had to be reinforced.

The platform, the only area of the egalitarian section with direct access to the wall, has been closed ever since. It’s not clear when the platform will reopen, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Engineers from the Israel Antiquities Authority surveyed the site and found many loose stones at risk of falling that needed securing, according to the newspaper, citing the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

‘Big Brother’ Israel contestants are just being told about the extent of the coronavirus pandemic

By Gabe Friedman

(JTA)—Imagine being trapped inside a luxurious house, blissfully unaware of any news happening in the world outside, during this moment of international crisis.

Well, that’s part of the premise of the long-running reality show “Big Brother,” in which a group of contestants are surveilled with an array of cameras and are only allowed to communicate with each other.

Most of the contestants on the Israeli edition, one of four international versions of the show currently being filmed, have been housed in a villa “somewhere in the mountains of Jerusalem,” according to Ynet, since the start of this season on Jan. 1. Another batch joined the show a month and a half in, still well before the coronavirus pandemic hit its stride and put the entire world in a historic panic.

So in other words, the show’s cast members haven’t been aware of the frenzy taking place outside their doors. Israel has ordered citizens to stay inside, except in cases of emergency or for essential needs, like groceries.

That just changed, though, as the show informed the house members about the situation and gave them encouraging messages from their families earlier Tuesday. The episode showing the reveal will air this week.

One contestant named Paul Chagyan talked with Ynet over the weekend about the experience of leaving the show only to enter a quarantine in his real house.

“When I came down the stairs from the ‘Big Brother’ house, I had the feeling that something bad was happening in the country, but I didn’t realize how much,” Chagyan said. “I was disappointed because I wanted to go out, drink beer, meet friends, relax a bit outside. Now I feel like I left the ‘Big Brother’ seclusion for my house.”

Swarms of locusts expected to plague Africa and Middle East, UN group says

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A plague of locusts considered “extremely alarming” is headed toward Africa and the Middle East but is likely to bypass Israel.

The locusts are breeding and forming new swarms in the Horn of Africa, The Times of Israel reported, citing Locust Watch, part of the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations.

The swarms represent “an unprecedented threat to food security,” according to the Locust Watch website.

Among the countries expected to be the hardest hit are Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, according to the report.

Coronavirus restrictions on travel may prevent proper, timely treatment against the pests.

The last such serious infestation in the region was a plague in 1987 to 1989.

Linda Grant wins British literary prize for coming-of-age novel about Jews in London

By Marcy Oster

(JTA)—Linda Grant won a Jewish literary prize in Britain for her novel “A Stranger City,” about Jews coming of age in London.

The book is “a superb piece of writing about London life and its complexity,” the chair of judges for the Wingate Literary Prize said in a statement from the prize committee. “’A Stranger City’ very much felt like a work for the 21st Century and a coming of age for Jews in Britain.”

Grant said in the statement that she wanted to write about “the unease about the times we are living in, of those with an historic memory of always having to move on, of displacement and a complex sense of what exactly a home is.”

“It goes I think for all Jews, but Jews are not the whole story—other immigrants have arrived and they have their own reality,” she said.

Now in its 43rd year, the Wingate Literary Prize, worth nearly $5,000 and run in association with JW3, the Jewish Community Centre London, is awarded to the best book, fiction or nonfiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader.

Previous winners include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Otto Dov Kulka and David Grossman.

Former leader of Milan Jewish community dies of coronavirus

By Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA)—Michele Sciama, a former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan—the city’s local Jewish communal life organization—has died of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Sciama, known to his friends and family as Micky, was 79 when he died Monday morning. He is survived by his wife, Viviane, and two daughters, Dalia and Stefania, the Italian-Jewish Moked news site wrote in an obituary.

Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, the director of the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, an organization that documents Nazi war crimes, wrote in Moked that before he became ill with the virus, Sciama was working on organizing a fundraising concert for the center.

“We will perform the concert in his name and in his memory, to honor his memory and to fight that virus that not only produces statistics, but deprives us of the presence of people, friends and brethren,” Luzzatto Voghera wrote after Sciama’s death.

Sciama had been heavily involved in Jewish education and his passing is a “great loss for the community,” Claudia Bagnarelli, a former principal at the Jewish school of Milan, which has about 500 students, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Italy on Monday had about 28,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 400 new ones discovered that day. Italy has more confirmed cases than any other country outside China, where the pandemic started. Lombardy, the region whose capital is Milan, is the epicenter of the outbreak, which has overwhelmed health services and morgues.

About 2,500 people have died from the virus in Italy.

Reports about Sciama’s death did not mention burial arrangements. Members of Sciama’s family could not be immediately reached.

Attorney at center of New Rochelle coronavirus outbreak wakes from coma

By Marcy Oster

(JTA)—The attorney at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle, New York, has emerged from his coma.

Lawrence Garbuz “is awake and alert and seems to be on the road to full recovery,” his wife, Adina, said in a post on Facebook. She has not seen him in person, but communicated through FaceTime.

Adina Garbuz said her husband had no idea what was wrong with him when he awoke, and asked her to make sure that others were aware of his illness so they would not get it, unaware of the community’s lockdown.

A one-mile containment zone has been set up around New Rochelle with the hope of slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

“Realizing now that it is widespread, he is trying to comprehend a world where no one goes out, no social gatherings, no religious services, no Purim!! But he seems to be quickly adding it all up,” she wrote.

Originally diagnosed with pneumonia, Garbuz had been on a ventilator since March 1, The New York Times reported.

Adina Garbuz and two of her children, as well as a neighbor who drove her husband to the hospital, all contracted COVID-19.

White House holds conference call with Orthodox rabbis to urge coronavirus compliance

By Marcy Oster

(JTA)—Take the coronavirus seriously and follow Trump administration guidelines on limiting gatherings of people.

That was the message from the White House in a conference call with New York Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders on Tuesday afternoon. Among those on the call were haredi rabbis. The haredi community in some cases has been slow to tamp down on large gatherings and close synagogues.

The White House asked the rabbis to close yeshivas and schools that are still open.

Avi Berkowitz, an assistant to President Donald Trump and an Orthodox Jew, led the call. Berkowitz went over the guidelines with the leaders, The Jerusalem Post reported, citing an unnamed source with knowledge of the details of the conversation.

“He explained to the rabbis how critical the situation is,” an administration official told the Post.

Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the administration’s coronavirus task force, was not on the call, the Vos Iz Neias news website reported.

Berkowitz told the rabbis that not adhering to the guidelines, including not holding prayer services, would see the situation “turn into a serious issue of pikuach nefesh,” or saving a life, according to VIN.

Pope Francis really likes the Jewish custom of Shabbat

By JTA Staff

(JTA)—From his frequent denunciations of anti-Semitism to his close friendship with an Argentine rabbi, Pope Francis has long been a friend of the Jews.

As some of his fans were reminded this week, he also admires the way Jews observe Shabbat, the weekly day of rest.

Footage of him praising the tradition in a 2018 “60 Minutes” interview went newly viral this week, thanks to a YouTube video shared by a Spanish Seventh Day Adventist channel.

“What the Jews followed, and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy,” he says. “On Saturday you rest. One day of the week. That’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all of these things. We are not machines.”

The clip caught the eye of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a leading Israeli rabbi.

“You probably won’t believe it, but the Pope called on the inhabitants of the world to keep the Sabbath like the Jews,” he said, according to the Jewish Press. “It is unbelievable. Those who have decreed that we will not keep Shabbat now understand what the value of Shabbat is.”

Joe Biden crushes Bernie Sanders in Florida primary

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA)—Joe Biden won the Democratic presidential primary in Florida, a state where Jewish turnout can make the difference in the general election, by a large margin on Tuesday.

Major media outlets called the election as soon as polls closed at 8 p.m. With most of the vote counted, the former vice president was leading Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 61.7 percent to 22.9 percent.

A Fox News and Associated Press analysis of exit polling showed Biden won among Jewish voters 67-15 percent.

Florida’s substantial Jewish population can make the difference in a state where statewide elections over the last 20 years have been decided by differences of just thousands or even hundreds of votes.

Biden also won the primaries in Illinois and Arizona, increasing his large delegate lead over Sanders, who did not comment on the results on Tuesday.

Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir posts photo of Tel Aviv taken from space

By Marcy Oster

(JTA)—Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir posted on Twitter a photo of Tel Aviv that she took from space.

The usually bustling Israeli city is seen looking desolate amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“Gazing down at the city in which my father was raised, I take to heart one of his most uttered expressions, ‘This too shall pass’. Wise words to remember, in both good times and bad. Goodnight #TelAviv #Israel! #GoodnightFromSpace #TheJourney #EarthStrong,” she tweeted Tuesday.

Meir frequently posts photos of Earth taken from the International Space Station, where she has been since late September. In November, she posted a photo of Israel, a tribute to her father.

Meir has participated in the first all-female spacewalk.

1,000 Israelis stranded in Peru with closure of border due to coronavirus

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA)—About 1,000 Israelis stranded in Peru after the South American nation announced that it would close its borders will return home on a special El Al flight.

The first plane will take off for Peru on Wednesday evening, the Kan public broadcaster reported. The flights will be free for the travelers, according to Kan.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz announced Tuesday that his ministry would “coordinate details with the company and with the Peruvian authorities.”

Peruvians are confined to their homes, leaving only for groceries or medicines, and the city streets are patrolled by the military and police to ensure compliance. Travelers had only 24 hours from the announcement to the closure to try to leave the country, and planes to get to the capital, Lima, and then out of the country filled up quickly.

Katz praised El Al, which has laid off about 90 percent of its workforce as a consequence of the coronavirus on travel.

“El Al’s long-standing tradition as a national airline stepping up during a national emergency continues even now,” he tweeted.

Most of the Israelis are stranded in Lima and in the southern city of Cusco, according to Haaretz. They are mostly young people on their traditional post-army trek.

Gal Gadot gets celebrity friends to sing ‘Imagine’ with her to lift spirits dampened by coronavirus

By Marcy Oster

(JTA)—Gal Gadot has a lot of famous friends, and she’s tapping them to spread some cheer during the coronavirus crisis.

The Israeli movie star posted a video of her and a bunch of celebrities—23 others, to be exact—singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” to her Instagram page on Wednesday.

The three-minute video includes celebrities including Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Zoe Kravitz, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, Sarah Silverman and Kristen Wiig. Each sings a line of the song—some more in tune than others.

“These past few days got me feeling a bit philosophical,” she says at the start of the video. “You know this virus has affected the entire world, everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from. We’re all in this together.”

Twitter was not kind to Gadot and many of the singing stars.

Israel tightens emergency lockdown regulations—and Netanyahu vows they’ll be enforced

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israel is tightening its guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus—and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that law enforcement will make sure the new Health Ministry rules are taken seriously.

The emergency lockdown regulations will be in effect for the next seven days, Netanyahu said in a televised address Thursday night announcing the guidelines. He said not enough Israelis were adhering to the original regulations.

“You are ordered to stay at home,” he said. “This isn’t a request, this isn’t a recommendation, but a binding requirement that will be enforced.”

Israelis will be able to leave home for groceries, medical treatment and other essential services. They may drive to work if their place of work is still open.

The number of coronavirus cases in Israel climbed to 573 cases on Thursday evening.

Netanyahu, who has been accused of using the crisis for political gain, stressed that he is announcing the restrictions due to the pandemic and not because of politics. He called on Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party to form a national unity government in order to safeguard the country during the crisis.

Blue and White earlier in the day announced that it had cut off negotiations over a unity government, calling them “political spin.”


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