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May 10, 2013

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PAGE 2A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 10, 2013 Can a moderate chief rabbi transform the Israeli Rabbinate? By Ben Sales TEL AVIV (JTA)--To get married in Israel, Dima Motel had to bring his family photo album and two of his ances- tors' birth certificates to a rabbinical court. Then an investigator quizzed his mother in Yiddish. Israel's Chief Rabbinate often asks Russian immigrants like Motel to prove that they're Jewish, sometimes requiring docu- mentary evidence that can be hard to obtain. Those who won't submit to the process or who can't firmly establish their Jew- ish bona tides can't get legally married in the country. "I felt like itwas an invasion of my privacy," said Motel, 27, who was declared Jewish after three hours of questioning. "It's called an investigation By Maxine Dovere NEW YORK--More than three years after the discov- ery of fraudulent activity at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany ("Claims Confer- ence") that continued for about a decade-and-a-half and allegedly deprived Holocaust survivors of more than $57 million, the trial of 31 accused of participating in the fraud is under way. During the course of a prolonged investigation that began in 2009, 31 people--including 11 em- ployees of the Claims Con- ference--were criminally Courtesy Tzohar David Stay, a moderate, Modern Orthodox rabbi run- ning to be Israel's next Ash- kenazi Chief Rabbi, hopes to reform the Chief Rabbinate. of Judaism. It seemed like I was accused, but I didn't do anything wrong." Not really Israelis who chafe at proce- dures like these have rallied around a new source of hope: David Stav, a Modern Ortho- dox rabbi in the running to be Israel's next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Stav has cultivated an image as the liberals' solution to a Rabbinate dominated by the haredi Orthodox, and he is waging a public campaign in advance of the chief rabbi elections that has won him a strong base of popular support. "The Chief Rabbinate has arrived at a point where we have to decide whether it will have completed its historical duty or will change itself to the point where it will become a kind of institution that can confront the current chal- lenges of Israeli society," Stav told JTA. But even if Stav prevails in the June elections, in which some 150 rabbis and public representatives vote for a chief rabbi, he will have little power to institute reforms--let alone instigate the sweeping changes many Israelis want. The Rabbinate controls marriage, divorce and conver- sion for all Israeli Jews, secular or religious. Changes to the way the Rabbinate handles these matters cannot be made unilaterally, even by a trailblazing, reform-minded chief rabbi. Such a chief would be hemmed in by a sprawling bureaucracy, a potentially resistant Sephardic counter- part and conservative-minded haredi opponents who can be expected to stridently oppose any perceived liberalization in religious standards. Perhaps mindful of these limitations, Stav has called for a set of changes that focus more on streamlining the Rabbinate's services rather than reforming them. He proposes eliminating a rule that requires couples to be married by their home- town rabbi, which would allow Israeli couples to go shopping around for the rabbi who best suits their needs even as it maintains the Rabbinate's Orthodox mo- nopoly over marriage. Stav also says he would cut down on the number of women refused a writ of divorce, or get, from their husbands by encouraging the signing of a prenuptial agreement that includes severe financial pen- alties if the husband demurs. And he wants to transform Inside the Claims Conference fraud trial charged and arrested in the conspiracy. Twenty-eight defendants pied guilty. U.S.v. Domnitser et al., the trial of the three who pled innocent--Luba Kramish, Semen Domnit- ser, and Oksanna Roma- lis--began April 8 at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse in New York City. If convicted, they face decades of prison time, fines, and demands for restitution and forfeiture of property. According to Preet Bha- rara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the defendants allegedly participated "in a scheme that defrauded programs established to aid the survivors of Nazi per- secution out of more than $57 million." The Claims Conference, the designated administrator of repara- tions paid by the German government to Holocaust survivors, oversaw the funds in question. The indictment in this case said the defendants are alleged to have "know- ingly approved nearly 5,000 fraudulent applications," thereby diverting more than $57 million in funds that were intended for Holocaust survivors. The original criminal com- plaint in 2009 said that in exchange for kickbacks, the insiders "are alleged to have knowingly approved nearly 5,000 fraudulent ap- plications," and "systemati- cally defrauded the Article 2 Fund and Hardship Fund programs for over a decade." "Outrageous," Julius Berman, chairman of the board of the Claims Confer- ence, told "A fraud, no question... The arrange- ment with the German government is that they will pay [Holocaust reparations to] every individual who can prove presence in a qualifying situation... The qualifications were clear. Qualifications had to be met; the fraud was that there was phony evidence for the claims of eligibility." But that fraud--which U.S. Attorney Bharara said had been going on since the German government began paying pensions to Holo- caust survivors in 1994- was not revealed until 2009, following the Claims Conference's appointment of Greg Schneider, a new executive vice president who replaced the departed Gideon Taylor. Schneider had been a high-level Claims Confer- ence employee since 1995, generally responsible for overseeing the claims pro- cess. Upon discovering the fraud--which allegedly involved doctoring birth certificates, passports and other documents needed to provide acceptable docu- mentation for reparations the Rabbinate into an aid for people like Motel, rather than an inquisitor, by hiring investigators to help establish Jewishness. Yet chief rabbis--whose role includes a demand- ing schedule of ceremonial functions--cannot institute such changes on their own. Altering the hometown rabbi rule and hiring investigators both require the assent of the deputy minister of religious services, Eli Ben Dahan, a Moroccan-born rabbi and member of the Jewish Home party. Ben Dahan has person- ally expressed support for a Modern Orthodox and Zionist candidate for chief rabbi, but his party has not endorsed Stav and it's unclear whether Moderate on page 18A claims--during a Novem- ber 2009 internal investi- gation, Schneider and the Claims Conference brought the situation to the atten- tion of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Among those now on trial is Domnitser--the former Claims Conference Director of Hardship and Article 2 Funds--who worked for the organization from 1993-2009, until he was terminated following the discovery of the fraud. Schneider's investigation revealed 4,957 fraudulent claims for one-time hard- ship payments of about Trial on page 18A American labor unions raising millions for Rabin Center Debbie Zimelman The dedication of the Amnon Lipkin-Shahak Conference Room at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv in honor of the American Federation of Government Employees and J. David Cox, its national president, April 18. Joining Cox, second from left, are Lynne Cox, left; Barbara Easterling, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans; and Rabin's daughter Dalia. Courtesy Rabin Center They Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, a museum dedicated to the memory and lifework of the slain lsraeli prime minister. By Ben Sales TEL AVIV (JTA)--The museum dedicated to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin raises nearly half its money from labor leaders. It's just not the labor you think. Members of U.S. labor unions raised $1.4 million for the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv last year, 45 percent of the center's total 2012 fund- raising. Since 2005, American unions have raised $12 million for the center. Labor leaders say programs at the center, which celebrates the slain Labor Party prime minister who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords and promotes dialogue among Israel's cul- tural groups, meshes with their core values. Rabin's "commitment to peace in not just Israel but the world is amazing," said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "He was criticized for his willing- ness to make compromises, but life is full of compromises. That's how you arrive at a solution." American unions have sup- ported Jewish statehood since before Israel's establishment in 1948. At the time, Jews were heavily represented in the American labor movement, and Israel, with its socialist roots and collectivist spirit, was seen as a natural ally. Today, organized labor, particularly in Europe, has overwhelmingly shifted its sympathies to the Palestin- ians, routinely voting in favor of boycotting Israeli goods or divesting from Israeli com- panies. But American union leaders say they remain corn- mitted to Israel, supportive of what they see as a perseverant Western country with an ethic of social justice. "There wasn't a nation here," said John Coli, head of Chicago's Teamsters Local 727, who was in Israel in April as part of a delegation hosted by the Rabin Center. "Now it's totally different. [Tel Aviv] is a modern city. People have access to health care, to edu- cation. That's what we want to build everywhere." Union support for the Rabin Center began in 2005 when Jeannie Gerzon, a former State of Israel Bonds employee who dealt with unions, began fundraising for the Rabin Center. American unions had long been buyers of Israel Bonds, the govern- ment securities that help fund Israeli infrastructure development. Gerzon told JTA that the center has raised millions from unions by honoring national labor leaders in the United States. The lead- ers then call in favors from politicians and encourage businesses to open their checkbooks. The vast majority of contributions may come from these outside businesses. A dinner last year honor- ing Coli raised $700,000 for the center, only $25,000 of which came from the union itself. In a typical year, Local 727 donates about $2,000 to the center out of $100,000 the local gives annually to a range of charitable causes. Coli and Cox say that for them, part of Israel's appeal stems from its strong labor union culture. According to Cox, Israel's general union, the Histadrut, has more power than his AFGE. Will Petty/Victor Politis A delegation from the Teamsters'union visiting the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, April 18. "They get to bargain wages and benefits," he said. "They have the ability to strike. We've got to get some worldwide solidarity with the union movement." TwoAmerican labor delega- tions were in Israel in April for meetings with Israeli union leaders and legislators from the Labor Party, in addition to visits to cultural and re- ligious sites. Cox called Stav Shaffir, the 27-year-old fresh- man Labor parliamentarian, "dynamite and just fantastic." Shaffir led Israel's 2011 social justice protests. Stuart Davidson, the chair- man of the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, said the visiting delegations hear from "the left and the right," but movement leaders met with no members of the current center-right govern- ment. And despite Rabin's legacy as a peacemaker, neither delegation spent sig- nificant time learning about the conflict or speaking with Palestinians. Cox's group met with Arab- Israeli union members, but did not meetwith Palestinians despite visiting religious sites in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Coli's delegation did not have any meetings with Palestinians or Arab-Israelis. Davidson said he wants to expand contacts with Pales- tinian workers. The ongoing conflict, he said, could endan- ger future U.S. union support for Israel. "The failure to make prog- ress toward a peaceful reso- lution is problematic to all of us," Davidson said. "It's troubling to us. The inability to address those issues will make it harder."