Making sense of the Claims Conference brouhaha


Hank Katzen University of Central Florida Hillel in Orlando
Orlando real estate developer and Jewish philanthropist Hank Katzen is aiming to create a perpetual funding source for the new Hillel at the University of Central Florida. (Uriel Heilman)

ORLANDO, Fla. (JTA) – Real estate developer Hank Katzen has a dream: If you build it, they will come.

Except this is no baseball field in an Iowa cornfield. It’s a $60 million, 600,000-square-foot luxury dormitory at the nation’s second-largest college campus, the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

When it opens in August, the new dorm will push the bounds of cushiness. Every room has en-suite bathrooms and flat-screen TVs. Suites have island kitchens with stone countertops, washer-dryers and walk-in closets.  Duplex units feature spiral staircases and two-story atriums.

There is a resort-style swimming pool, 24-hour fitness center, sauna and game room. The parking garage is seven stories, ensuring that no student will have to take an elevator or brave the Florida elements on the way from their cars to their dorm rooms.

But what makes Katzen’s new facility noteworthy isn’t so much the lavishness as the idea behind it: to create America’s first self-sustaining Hillel. The ground floor of the seven-story building will include a 20,000-square-foot Hillel center with operations to be be funded in large part by rental income from the 600-bed dormitory.

The Jewish philanthropists behind this unique arrangement aren’t simply giving the 15-year-old Hillel at UCF a building; they’re giving it a permanent income stream.

“This is a remarkable gesture of philanthropy — the university desperately needs the beds, and Hillel could use this funding,” said Sidney Pertnoy, a Miami businessman and philanthropist who is chairman-elect of Hillel International. “There are some Hillels connected to some housing, but nothing even remotely resembling this model. It’s a unique cash-flow model and we’re super excited about it. We’re hoping this is a prototype for other communities.”

The unusual project is an attempt to address a perennial problem faced not just by Hillel chapters but by Jewish institutions around the world: How to create a perpetual funding source.

“There are communities around the country where a powerful donor provided an agency with a building free and clear only to find shortly thereafter that the agency was crushed by the operating costs,” said Katzen, who is the board president of UCF’s Hillel and spearheading the project.

“The capital crunch and the Bernie Madoff double whammy has emaciated the endowment model for many organizations,” Katzen said. “We were looking for an economic machine that would take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a large university to connect a student housing project and our Hillel.”

What makes the project viable, its backers say, is the university’s massive student body and limited housing supply. Over the last seven years, UCF enrollment has ballooned by 50 percent, to 60,000 — second only to Arizona State University. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 UCF students are Jewish.

The new venture represents a collaboration between local Jewish philanthropists, Hillel and UCF. Alan Ginsburg, a real estate developer and Orlando philanthropist, donated about $7 million to the project, including the land, which was purchased six years ago and is now valued at $12 million.

Katzen, who was a Taco Bell franchise owner before turning to real estate full time 20 years ago, is donating his time and construction expertise.

The university’s nonprofit foundation is handling logistics, including collecting dorm rental fees. A Catholic student center similar in size to Hillel will be housed on the site rent-free for at least three years.

After debt servicing on the 35-year loan and operations costs, leftover rental income will be divided between Hillel and the university foundation along a 60-40 split. All of which should deliver about $350,000 annually to Hillel — that is, if the dorm, called NorthView, is ready and fully occupied by the fall semester. Rent starts at $800 per student per month.

“Social media got word around campus that we are the place to live, and the students are really knocking at our door,” said Zan Reynolds, the executive director of real estate for the UCF Foundation.

Hank Katzen University of Central Florida Hillel in Orlando
The new mixed-use building at the University of Central Florida includes 600 luxury dorm rooms and a 20,000 sq.-ft. Hillel facility. (Uriel Heilman)

Initial financing for the project came from Ginsburg, who wanted to do something to memorialize his son, Jeffrey, an active Hillel member at Stetson University in Florida who died in a plane crash about 10 years ago.

“If it works, there could be a demand for this type of structure on most large campuses,” Ginsburg said. “It’s a very nice way for Hillel or any faith-based organization to have a steady income and not have to rely on donors. Most donors are a pain in the ass even if you can find them today.”

Some other mixed-use Jewish dorms exist in America, but nothing on this scale. The Chabad house at Rutgers University in New Jersey has a dorm attached, but its 107-bed facility is exclusively Jewish, governed by Orthodox rules and is a money loser. The Orlando project is expected to be cash-flow positive and is open to Jewish and non-Jewish students; its backers said they did not want to create a Jewish ghetto.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the venture will hinge not just on its financial viability but on what it does for Jewish life at the fast-growing Orlando campus.

UCF has just a handful of Jewish student groups, there are no real kosher dining options and Hillel’s Friday-night meals typically draw no more than 50 students.

That’s a lot fewer than the local Chabad house, which regularly has 100 to 200 students on Fridays, according to its executive director, Rabbi Chaim Lipskier. But the Chabad is more than three miles from UCF and also draws from two other area schools, Valencia and Rollins colleges.

UCF’s Hillel, which also serves the two other colleges, had a one-room office on the UCF campus that it had to give it up last October. Since then, the organization has been run from the dining room of its interim executive director, Sam Kauffman.

“Hillel student leaders spend a lot of time now just trying to get room reservations on campus,” Kauffman said. “Next year they’ll have dedicated space for their events and can spend more time building their relationships and Jewish campus community.”

To anchor the project, a new Hillel director has been hired: Aaron Weil, a 10-year veteran of the University of Pittsburgh Hillel. Weil says he’s excited to move from a job where he must raise 80 percent of his $1.1 million budget to one where 50 percent will be generated automatically.

As dorm rental rates rise and the building’s debt is paid off, Hillel’s income should go up, too.

“Most Hillel directors have to deal with the daily struggle to raise funds to run the programs to sustain a vibrant Jewish campus life,” Weil said. “What’s unique about the UCF Hillel model is that it removes what I call the treadmill of soft money and replaces it with predictable income. Rather than consuming your time and your energy with existential fundraising, you’re able to focus on strategic fundraising.”

Hank Katzen University of Central Florida Hillel in Orlando
Hank Katzen and other backers of the new Hillel at the University of Central Florida are launching a capital campaign to cover the $2.5 million cost of building the interior of the new space. (Uriel Heilman)

Having a gleaming new Hillel center won’t hurt, either. The new facility will include a theater, a kosher cafe, an auditorium for 300, a game room, offices, and plenty of conference rooms and hang-out space. The philanthropists are planning a $2.5 million capital campaign to complete the interior of the Hillel space by the fall.

During a recent hard-hat tour of the construction site, Katzen told JTA that having a new facility and a top-tier executive will enable Hillel to tap the Jewish potential at UCF: If you build it, they will come. It’s a conviction based not on hope, he says, but on years of research, five years of planning and then a year of breakneck-pace construction.

“It’s more than a ‘Field of Dreams’ voices in our heads sort of thing,” Katzen said. “We’re changing social architecture on a broad scale.”


Pascale Bercovitch, an Israeli hand-cyclist who competed in the 2012 London Paralympics, is shooting for a medal in 2016. (Pascale Bercovitch)
Pascale Bercovitch, an Israeli hand-cyclist who competed in the 2012 London Paralympics, is shooting for a medal in 2016. (Pascale Bercovitch)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – Pascale Bercovitch has a firm handshake and a ready smile. She’s hard to keep up with as she takes an elevator to a cafe on the ground floor of her gym in northern Tel Aviv and talks about her hopes to compete in 2016 in Rio De Janeiro.

It’s easy to forget that she’s 45 years old and has no legs.

“I love to find my limit and push it, to succeed more than I did yesterday,” Bercovitch told JTA. “What interests me is the journey.”

For Bercovitch, who has represented Israel as a rower and handcyclist in the Summer Paralympics, the journey has been long, spanning three decades, three sports and two countries. But she has never stopped competing, even after a gruesome accident left her without her legs at age 17.

Born and raised in a suburb of Paris, Bercovitch started training as a gymnast at age 10. In high school, she began training for competitions and also became a dancer.

Those plans came to an abrupt end one morning in 1985 when Bercovitch, late for school and rushing to catch a departing train, got caught under its wheels. Both of her legs had to be amputated.

“What hurt the most was that I couldn’t dance and I couldn’t do floor gymnastics, couldn’t jump, couldn’t run,” she said. “It was inconceivable. I couldn’t live like that.”

The injury, though, didn’t stop her from fulfilling another dream — moving to Israel, where she felt she could “build a small state” and “do something new and good.” She went on to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, where she became one of the first volunteers in a wheelchair.

“I understood that there was no other choice than to fulfill your dreams,” she said. “Life can end in an instant. What’s important is to savor every moment. It didn’t matter how.”

Once in Israel, Bercovitch started swimming as part of her rehabilitation and was invited to join the Israeli national team leading up to the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. It took her until 2008, though, to make it to the Games.

Without a full-time salary, she had to quit the 1992 team. For nearly the next two decades she worked as a journalist and documentarian, producing “Three-Hundredths of a Second,” an award-winning film on the 2000 Israeli Paralympic delegation to Athens.

Eight years later, in Beijing, she joined the delegation for a different sport — rowing — which allowed her to take advantage of her arm strength. Her passion for athletics, she said, made it possible to overcome the 16-year gap between Games.

“It’s a virus that I have inside me,” said Bercovitch, who placed eighth in 2008. “Sometimes it’s dormant and sometimes it wakes up. When there’s the opportunity, you don’t have to tell me twice.”

Israeli Paralympian handcyclist Pascale Bercovitch
Pascale Bercovitch, an Israeli handcyclist who competed in the 2012 London Paralympics, is both an athlete and a motivational speaker. (Inbal Marmari)

Since 2008, Bercovitch has split her time between training, writing and motivational speaking, which she’s done since she was a 19-year-old soldier. On May 8, she spoke at the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Advance Conference in New York, which focused on how the Jewish community approaches disabilities.

“I come from my own small corner,” Bercovitch said. “I don’t come as an expert. I come to shine a light on things people know. I can give people strength.”

Amid competitions and conferences, Bercovitch finds time for two daughters, 3 and 11. Though she wakes up at 5 a.m. daily to work and train for as long as five hours at a stretch, she makes sure to be home by 4 p.m., when her children return from school.

“She’s a very moral person,” said her coach, Oz Dudai, who began training with her last year. “She has a lot of courage and fearlessness. She does things full strength. No one can stop her.”

For the 2012 London Games, Bercovitch tried a new sport, handcycling, and placed fifth. In a recent international competition, she had improved to second and hopes to be on the podium in Rio de Janeiro three years from now.

Dudai said that even qualifying for the team would be difficult for a 45-year-old. “A woman like Pascale can make the Olympics,” he said.

After surviving her accident and returning to competition after a 16-year break, age is no obstacle for Bercovitch.

“I feel that everyone is with me when I represent Israel,” she said. “Whenever I go to the Olympics, I get letters in the mail. People bring me flowers.”

Win or lose, though, Bercovitch says as long as she’s in the game, she’s happy.

“I understood from a young age that I have an athletic spirit,” she said. “You don’t have to do dance or gymnastics. It doesn’t matter what the sport is.”


Moroccan diplomat Abdellah Boutadghart
Abdellah Boutadghart, right, of the Moroccan embassy in Senegal, and Rabbi Eliezer Di Martino from Lisbon on May 2 at Praia’s main cemetery. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

PRAIA, Cape Verde (JTA) — A Portuguese rabbi and a Moroccan diplomat stood shoulder to shoulder in a Catholic cemetery here while 200 mourners howled in grief as they buried a resident of this island off the western coast of Africa.

The foreigners had come to Cape Verde’s main cemetery earlier this month not to bury a local, but for the rededication of 10 gravestones of Moroccan Jews — members of an extinct community whose roots trace to the 1860s.

With virtually no practicing Jews on Cape Verde today, the cemeteries had fallen into neglect. Now a Washington-based nonprofit is spearheading their restoration.

The Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project has a board stuffed with prominent Jewish Washingtonians, but its funding comes largely from one man — King Mohammed VI of Morocco. According to the group’s U.S. tax filings, the king was the organization’s sole listed donor in 2011, giving $100,000. Smaller donors make up about a quarter of the project’s funding, the CVJHP said.

Andre Azoulay, a senior Jewish adviser to the king and a member of the project’s advisory board, told JTA that the effort is reflective of the king’s “deep commitment” to preserving Jewish heritage in Morocco and elsewhere. But even if, as some speculate, it is motivated by a desire to attract tourists and curry favor with American Jews, the king’s drive clearly sets Morocco apart from other Middle Eastern countries where Jewish sites have faced increasing threats under new Islamist governments.

“This is all part of a strong push from His Majesty the King that started three, four years ago, when we saw cemeteries have become vulnerable because of lacking care by all of us,” Azoulay told JTA.

Approximately 3,000 Jews are living in Morocco, a North African monarchy about the size of Texas that had been home to a large and thriving Jewish community for centuries. In the 19th century, a number of Moroccan-Jewish families resettled in Cape Verde, attracted by the financial potential of this transatlantic hub.

Over time the families totally assimilated, though their Creole-speaking, Christian descendants include some of Cape Verde’s most prominent businessmen and politicians, including the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga.

Unlike many Arab countries with once sizable Jewish communities, Morocco has taken wide-ranging steps to preserve its Jewish history. The Casablanca Jewish museum was restored, the small but colorful 17th century synagogue in Fez was renovated, and dozens of former Jewish schools and more than 100 synagogues were rehabilitated with funding from the crown.

In 2011, in a move that Azoulay calls unprecedented in the modern Middle East, the Moroccan constitution was changed to note that the country has been “nourished and enriched … [by] Hebraic influences,” among others. The Moroccan parliament adopted the new language along with amendments that transferred some powers from the king to elected parties.

“I am not trying to paint a one-sided rosy picture. There are some difficult and maybe black pages in the book of Moroccan Jewry,” Azoulay told JTA. “But there are many, many more beautiful chapters.”

The king’s restoration activity already has brought benefits in the form of increased Jewish tourism. More than 19,000 Israelis entered Morocco in 2010, a 42 percent leap from the previous year, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry. The World Federation of Moroccan Jewry says the kingdom receives another 30,000 non-Israeli Jews annually.

Among them was Joel Rubinfeld, the Brussels-based co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament, who spent 12 days in Morocco in March meeting with government officials and visiting his mother’s hometown. Rubinfeld believes the government’s intention to honor the country’s Jewish past is sincere, but he said other considerations are at work as well.

“There may certainly be pragmatic incentives: attracting tourism and investments down the line,” Rubinfeld said. “For some, it is a political calculation to improve Morocco’s international standing.”

A Moroccan diplomat, who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said the restoration project could bring political dividends for Morocco, which has been accused of human rights abuses in Western Sahara, a disputed territory to which the kingdom lays partial claim.

“To Morocco’s great consternation, the U.S. last month proposed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara help monitor human rights,” the diplomat said. “It’s very useful for us to have someone — a strong lobby group, perhaps — to help talk the State Department out of this idea. The Jewish lobby is a very strong one.”

The board of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project includes Howard Berman, a former California congressman who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee until his defeat last year; Daniel Mariaschin, the executive director of B’nai B’rith International; Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state; and Toby Dershowitz, who heads a Washington public affairs consultancy.

But Azoulay grows indignant at any suggestion the king has his eye on the economic or political benefits of his largesse.

“This effort is the concrete manifestation of a consensus in Moroccan society, that our society is partly built on Jewish culture, a culture deeply rooted in three millennia of history,” he said.

“You have to understand the purity of it,” Azoulay added. “Those who think it is to attract tourists are just out of order.”

As popular revolutions have swept the Arab world since late 2010, Jewish heritage has suffered under newly empowered Islamist governments. Two Jewish cemeteries were desecrated earlier this year in Tunisia, prompting Israel to express concerns for the safety of the country’s Jews, the daily Maariv reported.

In Egypt, the government prevented several dozen Israelis from making the annual Passover pilgrimage to Alexandria’s main synagogue, one of the few properly maintained and functioning Jewish sites in the country. Egypt also briefly censored a film about the flight of its Jews following Israel’s establishment.

But in Morocco, a similar film, titled “Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah,” won a prize last month at the Tangier Film Festival. It also triggered protests from a few hundred Islamists and left-wing activists saying the film promoted “normalization” of ties with Israel, The Associated Press reported.

Still, many Jewish visitors speak of Morocco as a friendly place. Nuno Wahnon Martins, the director of European Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, said he felt safe enough to abandon all caution when asking for directions to synagogues during a recent visit. And Rubinfeld said he was surprised to hear a Hebrew song blasting from the stereo of a shop in Casablanca’s main market.

“Being a Jew in Morocco is safer today than on some streets in Brussels,” said Rubinfeld.


Tal Blumstein wooed women with a fake story about his Israeli army service, then found success with the truth about his musicianship. (Courtesy Tal Blumstein)
Tal Blumstein wooed women with a fake story about his Israeli army service, then found success with the truth about his musicianship. (Courtesy Tal Blumstein)

NEW YORK (JTA) — “You have night blindness,” the Israeli army doctor announced unsympathetically at my pre-service medical examination.

“You’re dismissed from your IDF mandatory army service by law,” he said and called the next soldier-to-be.

I was frightened by the diagnosis. I had worn glasses since I was 3, but I never thought I would lose my vision at 18.

It turned out not to be as serious as it sounded: My eyes just didn’t get used to darkness as quickly as they should.

It took me time to digest the enormity of the news: I didn’t need to serve in the army.

As a slim, 5-foot-8 musician, I never wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who served in the artillery force and fought in the first Lebanon War in 1982, so I was relieved to be released from combat. But I still wanted to serve my country. Army service was always an inseparable part of being Israeli. I grew up knowing this was something all good citizens should and want to do. And I did.

Having played the piano from age 6, I auditioned with hundreds of others for two spots as pianist in the IDF Orchestra. I was accepted.

The 60-member orchestra represents the Israel Defense Forces for important ceremonies and events, including welcoming foreign presidents and politicians. I performed for dignitaries, heads of state, played with famous artists and even traveled the world three times to raise money for the army.

Performing for hundreds of people in a foreign country made me proud to be Israeli. People paid to see us, and we made them feel more connected to my country.

Unfortunately, none of this helped me find a girlfriend – or even a date.

One night at a bar in Tel Aviv, I spotted a pretty brunette. She seemed a little older than me, in her early 20s.

“Hey, how are you? Is this seat taken?” I asked.

“Are you in the army?” she replied without answering my question.

“I’m a pianist in the IDF Orchestra,” I said proudly.

Silence. Her face showed nothing. I couldn’t read what was going on in her mind.

“Oh, sorry, I have to go meet my friends,” she said, and left me there, standing by the bar stool, surprised, trying to figure out why she left so fast. After all, I said only two sentences.

Did I look bad? Was I not confident enough? Maybe it was something I said?

After the scenario was repeated at parties and bars in Eilat, Jerusalem and Raanana, I came to realize that my prestigious job in the army wasn’t so prestigious with local females. It seemed they were more excited by military men than music men.

I never understood why women were so attracted to combat soldiers with guns. I guessed it made the soldiers manlier, tougher. But was I less a man because I didn’t fight? Why did being an army musician make me less attractive?

Some nights I wondered what I could have achieved with the fairer sex if I only carried a weapon. I felt left out, and it was frustrating.

After my service, I decided to continue my music career in the United States. I was 22 when I moved into an apartment in Jersey City, N.J.

One night at the bar around the block from my apartment, I flirted with a cute American Jew named Danielle. I told her I’d been a soldier in the Israeli army. Since being a soldier was more unusual in the U.S. than in Israel, where everyone must serve in the army right after high school, I had hoped the young Jewish women here would appreciate my military service more than Israelis.

“Have you ever shot a weapon?” she asked.

“Yes, but only in training,” I said. I could see the answer ruined my shot at dating her. I’d moved countries, but was my fate with women going to be the same?

One day on a ski trip to Austria with three other jobniks – the Hebrew term for army geeks, or soldiers who didn’t fight – we decided we had to come up with a new story for our military service. We went to a local bar and the act began:

“Hey there. What’s up? Is this seat taken?” I asked a pretty blonde French tourist.

“No, go ahead,” she replied in a heavy accent.

A few minutes later came the million-dollar question: “So what do you do?”

This time I had a good answer: “I’m a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.”

She liked my story and, finally, success. But I felt weird. It was the first lie I had told about my army years. My friends always said that I was too nice and that I care too much. Maybe they were right.

On the ski trip, I tried the story a few more times — and felt guiltier for every woman that believed it. When the week was over, I realized I didn’t want to lie anymore. I wanted to be myself.

Although the lies got me a few great nights with beautiful women, I wanted to find a real girlfriend – and I couldn’t with a lie.

Just a few weeks ago in New York’s Greenwich Village, I introduced myself to  a beautiful, tall, blue-eyed woman sitting at a bar.

“What are you doing in the city?” she asked. “You don’t sound like you’re from here,” she added before taking a sip of her apple martini.

“I just finished my service in the army orchestra in Israel.” She took another sip. “I’m a jazz pianist now,” I added.

“Wow, that sounds amazing,” she answered enthusiastically. We ended up talking for hours and she gave me her phone number.

Turns out in artsy downtown Manhattan, I had the big guns after all.

(Tal Blumstein is an Israeli musician now studying jazz piano performance and living in New York City.)


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Threatening graffiti was spray-painted on the Jerusalem home of a longtime board member of Women of the Wall.

Some of the graffiti sprayed late Sunday or early Monday on the door and stairwell of Peggy Cidor’s apartment read in Hebrew “Women of the Wall are wicked,” “Peggy, your time is up,” “Peggy, we know where you live,” and “Jerusalem is holy,” according to the Women of the Wall.

The words “Torah tag” also were spray-painted on the apartment door in an apparent reference to the phrase “price tag” used by extremist settlers and their supporters. The phrase describes retribution in the form of vandalism for settlement freezes and demolitions or Palestinian attacks on Jews.

It was the first incident of its kind targeting Cidor, who has served on the Women of the Wall board for 15 years. Police are investigating.

The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned the graffiti in a statement released to the media. He called on “all fanatic groups to remove their hands from this holy place.”

“I have warned against the conflagration and gratuitous hatred,” Rabinowitz said. “I pray and hope we can check the escalation and that a solution will be found that allows the Western Wall to remain not as a disputed area but as holy ground that unites and unifies.”

The Women of the Wall in a statement called on haredi Orthodox rabbis to condemn the attack.

“This was likely the actions of bored youth, acting in response to the incitement of their leaders,” the group said. “The real problem facing Israeli society is not what they did but what the leadership of the Haredi public will do now.

“The writing is on the wall. We call on the rabbis to staunchly condemn the vandalism and to end all incitement against Women of the Wall, without regard to the legitimate public discourse.”

Haredi Orthodox women and men mobbed Women of the Wall’s May 10 prayer service for the Hebrew month of Iyar. Despite police protection, the female worshipers were attacked by men throwing chairs, stink bombs and garbage.

It was the group’s first monthly service at the wall following the ruling of a Jerusalem District Court judge that said its services do not violate the law and merit police protection rather than arrests.

In previous months, the women had been arrested for wearing prayer shawls during the service because police said the practice contravened the site’s “local custom.”

Women of the Wall has held a prayer service at the holy site almost every month for the past two decades, according to the group. The service is held on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month, at the back of the women’s section.


NEW YORK (JTA) — Amid calls that the Claims Conference bungled a warning in 2001 about fraud within the organization, conference leaders appointed a committee to “formulate an appropriate course of action.”

The move, announced by board chairman Julius Berman in an email to board members on Sunday, followed an announcement by the World Jewish Congress that it was setting up its own task force to look into allegations of a cover-up by the Claims Conference.

The allegations concern an anonymous letter sent to the Claims Conference’s Frankfurt office in 2001 that identified five cases in which restitution was approved for ineligible claimants.

The letter reached the organization’s then-director in Germany, Karl Brozik, who queried Semen Domnitser, the official in New York who approved the cases. Domnister was found guilty two weeks ago of spearheading the $57 million fraud scheme that ran unimpeded at the Claims Conference from 1993 to 2009.

In his 2001 response to Brozik, Domnitser acknowledged that the cases had been wrongfully approved but led officials to believe that any errors were inadvertent. The scheme continued to run for nearly another decade.

Among those who were CC’d on Domnitser’s response to Brozik was former Claims Conference head Saul Kagan; its chief at the time, Gideon Taylor; and its current head, Greg Schneider, whose formal title is executive vice president.

While a Claims Conference staffer who conducted an internal review for the organization in 2001 expressed serious concerns about Domnitser and other Claims Conference employees who reviewed and approved the fraudulent applications, the organization failed to take action against Domnitser.

In recent days, critics have accused the Claims Conference of orchestrating a cover-up of the episode. But Schneider’s office denies the accusations, noting that it was the Claims Conference itself — by way of Schneider — that shared the letter with the FBI and called attention to it during Domnitser’s trial to demonstrate how Domnitser systematically lied to his superiors.

Though Schneider was CC’d on Domnitser’s response to Brozik, a Claims Conference spokeswoman said Schneider did not see the original anonymous 2001 letter and at the time was not the person who would have handled the matter because several people senior to him were involved. Ultimately it was Brozik who elected not to inquire further into the irregularities, the Claims Conference said. Brozik has since died.

“I have asked our Chairman of the Executive, Amb. Reuven  Merhav, to head a Select Leadership Committee of the board to formulate an  appropriate course of action for the Conference with respect to the issues surrounding the 2001 letter,” Berman wrote in his email Sunday. “I look forward to its deliberations and recommendation.”

The $57 million fraud scheme discovered in 2009 involved falsifying applications to the Hardship Fund, an account established by the German government to provide one-time payments of approximately $3,360 to those who fled the Nazis as they moved east through Germany, and the Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of approximately $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto in hiding or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis.

In all, 31 people were arrested in connection with the scheme. Twenty-eight pleaded guilty; the three who went to trial were found guilty this month in federal court in Manhattan.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said he opposes a settlement freeze, but that thousands of settlers would have to leave their homes in a peace deal.

Lapid made the remarks in an interview with The New York Times published Monday — his first with the foreign media since taking office in February.

Israel should not change its policy on West Bank settlements in order to revive the peace process, Lapid told the newspaper’s Jerusalem Bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren. He also said Jerusalem should not serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Lapid called for the creation of an interim Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank where no Jews live, with final borders drawn in up to five years. He also suggested it would be difficult to sign a peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who he called “one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.”

The Times reported that Lapid said he “would not stop the so-called ‘natural expansion’ of settlements in the West Bank, nor curtail the financial incentives offered Israelis to move there.”

He called “heartbreaking” the eventual need to remove tens of thousands of Jews from what he called “remote settlements.”

Lapid said he hopes to be Israel’s next prime minister, but “I’m in no hurry.” The current government can serve for up to five years.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Four people were shot dead at a Bank Hapoalim branch in Beersheva when a gunman opened fire hours after reportedly being denied a loan.

Three men and a woman were killed in Monday’s attack, and several others were injured. The shooter, who according to reports was a former captain in the Israel Border Police, killed himself during a standoff with police.

A woman he had held hostage was released unharmed after an hour.

The shooter, identified as a 40-year-old Jewish resident of Beersheva, reportedly shouted “robbery” before the attack. He also may have been denied money from the ATM before entering the bank, according to reports.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The father of Mohammed al-Dura said an Israeli report that claims the Palestinian boy was not killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen is false and called for an international investigation.

Jamal al-Dura told Reuters on Monday that the report by an Israeli government committee report released the day before is a “new fabrication” and said he would submit to an international investigation that would include Arab participation.

Al-Dura told the Ynet news website that he and his son both were hit by Israeli fire in the Sept. 30, 2000 incident.

The 36-page report was Israel’s most comprehensive official response to a disputed video shot by a French television station in 2000 that  sparked anti-Israel riots and attacks on Israelis and Jews across the world.

According to the report, “there are many signs” that the boy was not even shot.

Narrated by France 2 reporter Charles Enderlin, the 55-second video shows a boy and a man, later identified as al-Dura and his son, Mohammed, crouching behind a barrel, supposedly under gunfire near Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. Enderlin said in his narration that the fire “came from the Israeli position” and that the boy was shot dead.

But the Israeli committee’s report said “there are many signs” that the man and the boy “were not hit by bullets at all.” Unaired raw footage showed “the boy was alive” when the France 2 camera stopped recording, according to the report, which also cited the lack of blood stains at the scene, among other findings.

France 2 said in a statement it that it was willing to participate in “any official independent investigation carried out according to international standards,” and that it would help exhume Mohammed al-Dura “to help clarify the circumstances” of his death.

Israel initially assumed responsibility for the incident, but a later military probe found any bullets likely came from Palestinian gunmen who exchanged fire with Israeli soldiers on the day al-Dura was allegedly shot.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Barbra Streisand will receive an honorary doctorate from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Streisand, the iconic Jewish-American singer and actress, will be presented with the degree at a ceremony on June 17 during the Hebrew University International Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem.

In a statement, the university said Streisand was being recognized for “her professional achievements, outstanding humanitarianism, leadership in the realm of human and civil rights, and dedication to Israel and the Jewish people.”

Streisand established the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies on the university’s Mount Scopus campus in 1984 in memory of her father.

“Barbra Streisand’s transcendent talent is matched by her passionate concern for equality and opportunity for people of every gender and background,” Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson said. “Equally important, her love of Israel and her Jewish heritage are reflected in so many aspects of her life and career.”

On June 18, Streisand will perform at the opening ceremony of the Israeli Presidential Conference, which is marking President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday. She also will perform concerts on June 15 and 16 at Tel Aviv’s Bloomfield Stadium.

Streisand, one of the best-selling musicians of all time,  has never performed in Israel. She has visited the Jewish state many times and reportedly is a strong supporter.


(JTA) – Hundreds attended an event that an association with allegedly close ties to Hamas organized at a prestigious venue in Brussels.

Some 300 people showed up on Saturday at the College Saint-Michel for an event organized by the Palestinian Return Centre, a British nongovernmental organization that has denied allegations by the Israeli government and other bodies that it is “a front” for Hamas.

An appeal by the European Jewish Parliament to the mayor of Etterbeek — one of the municipalities that make up the Belgian capital — failed to prevent the event, which was advertised as the 11th Palestinians in Europe Conference.

“The circumstances do not permit me to legally ban this event,” Deputy Mayor Vincent De Wolf wrote to European Jewish Parliament co-chair Joel Rubinfeld on May 17.

Rubinfeld told JTA, “The fact that a facade for an organization like Hamas is allowed to speak at all in Belgium, a country where Hamas is considered a terrorist organization, is deplorable. That one of Brussels’ most distinguished venues has rented out its space for this encounter adds insult to injury and shows that when it comes to Israel, some feel the rules simply don’t apply.”

One of the speakers at Saturday’s event was Michel Collon, a journalist who has called Israel “the most racist country in the world.”

According to a 2011 report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel, “senior PRC figures send flotillas and convoys to the Gaza Strip and transfer funds to Hamas.” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spoke via satellite uplink at the seventh PRC annual conference held in Milan in 2009.

One article on the PRC website reads: “It is a lie to speak of ‘democracy’ when fair elections in 2006 had Israel and the world denying Hamas the right to govern. It is a charade to accept ‘internal security’ when arming and training Palestinians to police their own people covers for Israel’s and America’s divide and conquer scheme.”


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel is ready for “any scenario” in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, amid reports that Syria will hit Tel Aviv if Israel launches another raid on Syrian soil.

“We are following developments [in Syria] closely and are readying for any scenario,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu’s comments followed a report in The Sunday Times of Britain that Syria has put its most advanced missiles, the Syrian-made Tishreen, or M-600 rockets, on stand-by with orders to hit Tel Aviv if Israel strikes again on Syrian soil.

Earlier this month, two alleged Israeli airstrikes on Syrian military sites reportedly targeted long-range missiles in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.

“The Israeli government is working responsibly and with determination and sagacity in order to ensure the supreme interest of the State of Israel – the security of Israeli citizens in keeping with the policy that we have set to – as much as possible – prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and to other terrorist elements, ” Netanyahu said Sunday.

Meanwhile, an unnamed senior Israeli official told the New York Times last week that Israel was considering additional military strikes to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and that Israel would retaliate against attacks by Syria or its proxies.

On Friday, Amos Gilad, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s director of policy and political-military affairs, said Syrian President Bashar Assad is “acting responsibly” when it comes to Israel.

“Assad controls the weapons systems in his country, acts responsibly in everything related to Israel and understands the power facing him,” Gilad said during an interview with Israel Radio.

Gilad also said that Israel is deliberately not acting against Assad’s regime and that any actions it may take in Syria are in self defense.

“Syria has had some of its parts torn off it” but it is “a violent entity with many weapons,” he said.

On Friday, Lebanese media reported that several Israel Air Force warplanes were cruising Lebanese airspace at a low altitude. The planes were spotted over Hezbollah strongholds including Bint Jbel, Marj Ayoun and Nabatiya in the country’s South.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Residents of the haredi Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim rioted after two haredi soldiers walked through the area.

Dozens of neighborhood residents threw stones at the soldiers and set garbage bins on fire late Sunday night, Ynet reported.

The soldiers were not harmed and have not filed a police report, according to Ynet.

The riot came days after thousands of haredi Orthodox Israelis protested in Jerusalem against plans to enlist haredi men in the Israel Defense Forces.


(JTA) — Alan Gross, the American-Jewish contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, settled a lawsuit with a contractor for the U.S. government.

Gross and his wife, Judy, settled with Development Alternatives Inc., a Maryland-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to a notice issued at the end of last week. The notice did not disclose the settlement amount.

The Grosses in November filed a $60 million lawsuit charging that Alan Gross should have been better trained and informed of the risks before going to Cuba  to set up Internet access for the Jewish community there.

Gross, 64, was arrested in December 2009 as he was leaving Cuba for “crimes against the state.” He spoke virtually no Spanish and traveled to Cuba five times under his own name before his arrest.

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in Cuba on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet.

The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.


(JTA) — One of 16 Palestinians arrested in a cigarette-smuggling ring was linked to the 1994 murder of yeshiva student Ari Halberstam in a terror attack on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Muaffaq Askar, who was arrested late last week in New York in a plot that is believed to have cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue, has long been suspected of supplying Rashid Baz with the guns he used to attack a minivan full of yeshiva students. Baz reportedly called Askar his “Palestinian uncle. “

Halberstam, 16, was killed in the bridge attack.

“I was very well aware of Askar since my son was murdered and the role he played in my son’s case,” Halberstam’s mother, Devorah, told the Forward. “I know he’s been traveling to Jordan back and forth like a free man with my son’s blood on his hands.”

Baz, an immigrant from Lebanon, shot at the minivan on March 1, 1994, reportedly in retaliation for the murder earlier that year of 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron by a Brooklyn immigrant to Israel, Baruch Goldstein.

According to reports, the proceeds from the smuggling scheme are believed to have gone to support Hamas and Hezbollah.


SYDNEY (JTA) – The brother of Manny Waks, who has been at loggerheads with Chabad over sexual abuse charges, acknowledged ripping the glasses from a Chabad rabbi’s face in Melbourne.

Chaim Waks, 24, had the altercation at the end of the Shavuot service on May 14 with Rabbi Zvi Telsner, the spiritual leader of the Yeshivah Center, which houses the city’s Chabad headquarters.

Telsner offered holiday greetings to Waks, whereupon Waks acknowledged asking the rabbi, “How dare you f***ing wish me a good yom tov?” Manny Waks confirmed that his brother also admitted throwing Telsner’s glasses on the floor.

Manny Waks went public in 2011 with claims that he was sexually abused when he was at the Yeshivah Center school in the 1980s.

Telsner, a New York native, declined to comment but confirmed to JTA that the incident happened.

Manny Waks said in a statement: “I have informed Chaim that this type of behavior is completely unacceptable. It makes no difference what an individual has done – in this case the ongoing attacks by Rabbi Telsner and some within his community against my family. The use of violence is never an option and needs to be unequivocally condemned.”

Manny Waks also has accused senior Chabad rabbis of covering up complaints by parents of alleged sexual abuse victims and helping the alleged perpetrators flee the country, sparking a feud between the family and Chabad officials. He also claims his complaints to Chabad’s then-chief rabbi were ignored.

Meanwhile, the Waks’ father, Zephaniah, said he was harassed by another congregant inside the sanctuary the day after the incident between his son and Telsner. He has reported the matter to police.

Zephaniah Waks claims he has been shunned by his community and denied rites at Chabad’s main synagogue since the furor erupted in 2011. Chabad officials deny the claims.